As we enjoy the last of summer, I find myself reflecting on the last few months with bittersweet memories. While swimming in the Pacific Ocean and sailing on Lake Champlain, Vermont, I have enjoyed the best our water resources have to offer. News reports across the U.S., however, have been a reminder that our water systems are increasingly at risk of nutrient pollution.
North Carolina's Chowan River, the Great Lakes and the entire Pacific coast have experienced hazardous algal blooms this year that have prevented recreational activity, threatened the health of aquatic species and even endangered the health of communities living along these waterways.
I cannot imagine, and do not want, a future where our water is too polluted to enjoy the gifts it brings our lives.
Changing the course of our water future requires a collaborative approach that informs and empowers everyone—from national leaders and scientists to community groups and individual citizens. While efforts like the U.S. Open Water Data Initiative are championing unprecedented transparency of water information, there is a need to translate the complex science behind water data into tangible and accessible opportunities to increase the general public's understanding of the state of water in the U.S.
With today's innovative technology achievements, we know its possible to bring the power of storytelling and the science of water data together to inform communities and disturb the water management status quo.
The U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Blue Legacy International hosted the 2015 Visualizing Nutrients Challenge where solvers produced creative and compelling interpretations of nutrient water data demonstrating the possibilities for communicating risks, impacts and solutions related to nutrient pollution.
The visualization created by Matthew Seibert, Benjamin Wellington and Eric Roy of Landscape Metrics won the first price in the challenge for its interactive tutorial about algal blooms on Lake Erie, a water body that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts will see algae growth this year that could rival the record-setting 2011 bloom.
Between government policy and engagement like the Visualizing Nutrients Challenge, momentum is building and public awareness of water issues is improving. Now is the time to come together around kitchen counters, in city halls and across conference tables to take collective action toward a more sustainable water future that is championed by each and every one of us.
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Since arriving in Canada on Sept. 11 to film three documentaries about the Ottawa river as part of River Mission, a joint initiative between Ottawa Riverkeeper, Blue Legacy International and the de Gaspe Beaubien Foundation, I have kayaked, whitewater rafted and canoed on the river. As the source of the region's tap water, I have drunk from the river and seen first hand the watershed's sewage plants as they clean and return water to the river.
As closely as I've gotten to know the Ottawa River during this expedition, I have gotten to know the people that are its champions even better—people like Ottawa Riverkeeper Meredith Brown, Ambroise Lycke, director of the Temiscamingue watershed and Algonquin elder Skip Ross, all of whom fight to give this river a voice.
While we've borne witness to stories of empowered and impassioned individuals advocating for the river, we have also discovered there is a dramatic lack of accessible information and technology tools to support public action and understanding of the state of our water.
All that I have seen and heard here truly underscores the importance of knowing the state of our water—is it safe to swim in, can we fish in it, can we drink it. Information about water quality is the most critical tool we have to empower people to reclaim and restore their water. And yet, time after time, I see how hard it is for people to obtain and make sense of that information.
Ultimately this is a river that belongs to the communities of people that enjoy and rely upon it every day. Hearing about their concerns for the river and their visions of a better future has truly reinforced my belief that we are all stewards of the quality of our own water. But to bring about the change we seek, we need the right tools, technology, innovation, access to water quality information, public accountability and openness.
Water advocacy on every level starts with one question: how well do you know the state of your water?
I was awoken today by the sound of raindrops on my windowsill. Sitting down at my desk, with the peaceful patter of water helping me to collect my thoughts and prepare for the day, I was stunned to read a report that enumerates a truth I already knew all too well.
Tuesday, American Rivers released its annual America's Most Endangered Rivers report. On the list, there are rivers under threat from natural gas development, the construction of new dams and reservoirs, mountaintop removal for coal mining and excessive water withdrawals. Looking over these threats, it is clear that what is fundamentally at risk is the quality and quantity of our freshwater—water that we can swim in, drink, and fish from—water that is there when and where we need it.
And at the top of the list this year is a river that continues to be in serious danger from pollution—a threat that is only heightened as members of Congress zealously crusade to dismantle and rollback key provisions of the Clean Water Act, the single most important piece of environmental legislation designed to protect our freshwater. The Potomac River, which flows through our nation's capital from the storied depths of our country's past, is number 1 on the list of America's Most Endangered Rivers of 2012.
In some ways, I am not surprised. In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson called the Potomac "a national disgrace" because the river was a cesspool of sewage and industrial chemicals. Yet, despite how disheartening this observation may have been, it served as a much-needed wake-up call for our country. In fact, his remark was a major catalyst—among other observations like it concerning rivers across the U.S.—for the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972. And with the passage of this groundbreaking legislation, we witnessed an unprecedented resurgence of the Potomac and rivers across the country over the last few decades.
But the fight to restore our rivers clearly wasn't over. In 2010, rounding out our 17,100 mile journey across North America, I brought my Blue Legacy crew to the Potomac River to reconnect with the watershed many of us call home. Yet, the message we took back from our final expedition stop was not one of hope and optimism—but rather, a message of uncertainty and ongoing threat.
While advancements have been made to partially restore its health and preserve the integrity of its rich natural habitat, the Potomac River is still threatened on a number of fronts. In our film, Our Nation's River: A System on the Edge, we investigate the ongoing challenges the river faces, with experts including: Potomac Riverkeeper, Ed Merrifield; Sandra Postel, founder of the Global Water Policy Project and National Geographic Freshwater Fellow; Chuck Fox, from the EPA; and The Nature Conservancy's Stephanie Flack. From these interviews, it is clear that the river and its tributaries—and the people and communities that depend on them—are still in jeopardy, because, today, the Potomac River barely sits on the edge of recovery.
The worst part about the situation is that, in spite of what scientists and water conservationists are telling us about the delicate state of the Potomac, Congress is actively pursuing legislation that will reduce federal environmental oversight of our lakes, rivers, and streams. Outside magazine reported on some specific bills that are meant to undermine the Clean Water Act that has protected our waters for so long:
- H.R. 2018: Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011—This bill would amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to preserve the authority of each State to make determinations relating to the State's water quality standards, and for other purposes. The bill, which has already passed through the House, also calls for a number of limits to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in terms of its ability to revise or introduce water quality standards for a pollutant (unless the state concurs with the EPA administrator's opinion), and also would shorten the window during which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could comment on dredge and fill permits.
- H.R. 872: The Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act—This bill would amend the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to clarify Congressional intent regarding the regulation of the use of pesticides in or near navigable waters, and for other purposes. The bill, which has also passed the House, would make it so parties are no longer required to seek a permit before using a pesticide, even if that pesticide could enter a waterway, as long as the pesticide is authorized for sale, distribution, or use under FIFRA.
- H.R. 4153: Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization and Improvement Act—This bill, spearheaded by Congressman Bob Goodlatte, aims to support efforts to reduce pollution of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. But, in reality, the bill would limit what Congressman Goodlatte considers the EPA's overreaching authority by giving states, rather than the federal government, the ability to set acceptable levels of pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
So, what is there left to do? Should we throw-up our hands in the air in defeat, and let the devastation to our "nation's river" continue unabated—not to mention the hundreds of lakes, rivers and tributaries across the country which are still under threat? I am writing today to emphatically say NO! We all have a voice, and together we can make a positive difference.
Help protect America's most endangered river and rivers nationwide—tell your local government official why you care about the Potomac River, and why it is so important that the Clean Water Act is protected. But why stop there? Rivers across America need our support. All of the rivers on this list—and the hundreds that did not make it this year—represent a front line in the struggle against environmental de-regulation. Make no mistake, this water belongs to the people and the communities we live in, and we will not give up our right to protect our water without a fight. We need strong federal oversight to make sure these laws are followed.
Listening to the sound of raindrops outside my window, I am reminded of a simple, yet powerful truth. Each one of those drops has begun an incredible journey. Sliding off a leaf, it lands in a puddle on the street, and flows into the storm drain. And at the end of the pipe, it will become one with the Potomac River and eventually, as it re-enters the water cycle once again, part of each one of us. The waters of our rivers course through our veins. So, for the sake of our health, and the health of our children, it's time we did something to stop the degradation of our rivers—of the Potomac—because we never want to see our nation's river—or any of the rivers that run through our communities—on the most endangered list ever again.
What happens when a river no longer runs to the sea?
In August 2010, my documentary film crew and I explored the Colorado River's dry riverbed from the Mexican border to its mouth in the Gulf of California as a part of our Expedition Blue Planet: North America project. What we witnessed was the eerie ghost of a mighty river that once carried water, rich silts and prosperity on its way to connect with the sea my grandfather Jacques-Yves Cousteau called “the world's aquarium" and the “Galapagos of North America." Sadly, with the exception of a few extraordinarily wet seasons, the nutrient-rich waters of the Colorado have not completed their journey to the sea in decades.
Along the way, we worked with leading scientists and met locals who told us about the birds, wildlife and trees that disappeared; about the once-abundant fish that no longer thrive; and a way of life that is vanishing with the fisheries. A land of forests and emerald lagoons just 80 years ago has become a salted mud flat and desert.
The explanation for this collapse is no mystery. Before it ever reaches the border with Mexico, 90 percent of the water in the Colorado is diverted for use by seven Colorado River basin states. At the border, Mexico's Morelos Dam diverts what's left to agriculture and cities like Tijuana and Mexicali. And after that, there is hardly a trickle left to keep critical natural systems operating across the once-rich riverbed. From the border to the sea, the Colorado is a river no more.
After the April 2010 Mexicali earthquake, which damaged local infrastructure and irrigation canals in northwest Mexico, the U.S. agreed to temporary storage of a small percentage of Mexico's allocation—water that Mexico could not use due to the earthquake damage—for the first time allowing our river partners to take advantage of storage behind U.S. dams.
Additionally, during a trial run of the Yuma Desalting Plant in Arizona, the two countries collaborated to protect critical wetlands at the internationally recognized 40,000-acre Ciénega de Santa Clara in Mexico. The Ciénega relies entirely on Colorado River water from agricultural drainage to form the last remaining wetland in the Delta and a critical habitat for millions of water birds and shorebirds. Deprived of life-giving flows during the pilot run, the Ciénega would have suffered irreparable damage.
The U.S. and Mexico are now negotiating a new cooperative agreement to improve Colorado River management. To accomplish a final U.S.-Mexico agreement, it is critical that both nations agree to provide basic flows to the disappearing Colorado River Delta. The conservation community urges Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Obama administration to see this pivotal agreement to completion as quickly as possible. Salazar has repeatedly demonstrated his mastery of collaborative alliance and we look forward to a successful outcome here.
At stake is water security for both nations. Most importantly it would establish more equitable management of water during droughts, reducing the impact of shortages on water users in both countries.
With a modest water supply, life will continue to flourish in the Delta and increasingly return along the river below the last dam. But our leaders must act together to bring back life-giving flows to the Colorado River Delta.
The time is now. Desert river deltas are famous for their diversity, and critical for all life along their pathways. The Colorado River Delta is the critical “waistline in the hourglass" of the Pacific Flyway, a major continental migratory route for birds. Its mud flats and estuary zone create an irreplaceable food stock for the fisheries that are an important source of income for communities throughout the region.
As a completed system, the Colorado River represents one of the most impressive and important mountains-to-canyons-to-sea natural corridors on our continent—one we'd be foolish and selfish to not preserve for our children. Without a thriving Delta, we trade away a natural system that supplies life and resiliency to both nations. In this election season of political rancor, it's important to keep pushing forward with this historic collaboration—to seal in water our promise to work together for a prosperous and vibrant future.