Few people in modern America have as much direct contact with river water as paddlers do. River water enters our bodies every time we go paddling through our mouths, noses, ears, eyes, and any cuts or scrapes we may have. Few of us would scoop up a glass of water from the rivers we paddle and drink it, but in many ways that is exactly what we do every time we go paddling. While little to no data actually exist on the health impacts associated with paddling, we all know that rivers can and do make us sick. We get ear infections, sinus infections, skin infections, digestive parasites and disorders and a variety of other nasty physical impacts–all because we love paddling. Because paddlers are one of the communities most impacted by pollution we should also be among the strongest advocates for clean and healthy rivers.
The causes and types of human generated pollution are almost unlimited. In this chapter we will address four basic types of pollution: point source pollution, non point source pollution, dumping/dredging, and litter/trash dumping. Each of these basic types of river impacts has different causes and solutions, and is governed by different environmental laws and regulations. Likewise, the control of each has a role for paddlers and other river users to play.
Point source pollution generally refers to material coming from a specific location such as discharge coming from a factory or municipal wastewater treatment plant. These discharges generally enter the river from a pipe or ditch that is often underwater and essentially invisible. Many industrial processes, such as paper milling, produce liquid or slurry wastes. This pollution can be legally released into rivers in specific amounts as deemed appropriate by the state agency that regulates water quality which is in charge of enforcing the Clean Water Act. These state agencies issue permits for these discharges and must monitor the industries for compliance. You can locate permitted dischargers through searching the EPA website by area code, river name, company name or other means and produce maps of the discharge site.
Paddlers experiencing unusual or unacceptable water quality conditions are urged to contact their state water quality agency and file a report. American Whitewater developed a specific Water Pollution Reporting Form for paddlers to fill out prior to contacting an agency. In addition to filling out a report, visual documentation of the suspected source is always a good idea. Examples of potential point source water quality violations include unusual water color or odor, evidence of a fish kill, films on the water, or anything that seems out of the ordinary.
You may want to do some research on your own about what pollution is being legally discharged into the rivers you paddle. The EPA has several excellent web resources that allow you to map and query pollution discharges Where You Live. You may be surprised at what is going into your river! You can research individual chemicals through the EPA website on Pollutants and Toxins or through a website called ChemFinder. Water quality permits are granted through a public process. Ask your state water quality agency how you can get involved in the permitting process as a member of the public.
Nonpoint Source Pollution originates from broader areas than point source and typically includes agricultural drainage, urban runoff, road and building construction runoff, some mining discharges, runoff from timber management, septic tank discharges and land application of waste. Most surface runoff occurs during and after periods of heavy rain - when paddlers are likely to be the only ones on or near the river. We are therefore in the best position to notice and report excessive runoff. If you witness excessively muddy tributaries or direct runoff from an impacted site you should call your state water quality agency and report what you witnessed. Consider filling out American Whitewater's Water Pollution Reporting Form prior to making this contact, and also try to visually document the pollution with a camera or video camera.
Mining has unique chemical impacts that differ from normal sedimentation and is addressed in greater detail in Chapter 3.7.4 of this Toolkit.
Sedimentation - which is just a term for soil getting washed into the river - is more damaging to river ecosystems and human health that one might think. Specifically increased sedimentation has the following effects:
- Increases the nutrients available in river ecosystems which can change the dynamics of the entire ecosystem, and increase levels of bacteria and other pathogens that can impact public health.
- Decreases the amount of light reaching the organisms on the bottom of the river
- Alters stream channel shape by filling in pools and eroding banks more quickly
- Reduces habitat for some native species such as mussels and macroinvertebrates by coating stream bottom in fine sediment
- Impacts the health of fish by altering visibility, impacting gill function, and changing feeding patterns and prey
- Decreases aesthetic qualities of the river.
- Increased cost and difficulty of water treatment
In addition, a large amount of non point source pollution is not just soil. It often contains oil from street runoff, fertilizer and animal waste from farms, and other nutrients and chemicals that further impact the river ecosystem.
There are many easy ways to vastly reduce the amount of non point source pollution entering our rivers. These range from catchment ponds, to protecting and restoring streamside buffers, to silt fences. If you see excessive sedimentation entering a stream, it is likely an easy problem to fix. By reporting such impacts you are helping the state agencies do their jobs - jobs for which because of tight funding and limited personnel are difficult to do. You may also want to get involved with a Volunteer Stream Monitoring Program.
This category of river impacts includes the dumping of dredge or fill material such as soil, rock, wood, low bridges or other materials into wetlands or waters, as well as the construction of devices that inhibit navigability of waterways. Examples of such actions may include creating an earthen dam, dredging of a river channel, filling of waterway to create home site or agricultural land, road construction, navigation obstruction by low bridge or fence, etc. While some of these actions are legal, most require a permit from the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). If you witness any of the aforementioned impacts you are encouraged to call your regional office of the USACE. Before doing so consider filling out the American Whitewater Reporting Form
for the dumping of dredge or fill material
Litter is a senseless and all too common river impact that paddlers can easily do something about. We encourage paddlers to pick up and properly dispose of any trash they find at river access areas and along the river. When litter is a significant issue on a run, we strongly recommend you participate in, or organize, a River Cleanup. This is one of the most tangible and simple ways for paddlers to act as strong river stewards and show communities and other users that we have a strong environmental and social ethic.
For other more large scale littering impacts beyond the scope of a river cleanup such as the dumping of automobiles and large amounts of appliances you should contact your State Division of Waste Management or your City Government. Should you need to do so consider filling out our Reporting Form for large scale litter and dumping.
In the near future we hope to build a comprehensive online water quality reporting tool and database for AW members and other river recreationists to use. American Whitewater Intern James Wood developed a pilot program for the state of North Carolina that we hope to soon implement as an online tool, and a model for volunteers in other states. Check out the pilot project at the following link, and if you are interested in helping with any part of this project contact Kevin@amwhitewater.org.
We would like to thank James Wood for his assistance with the development of this Pilot Program and also in the preparation for this Toolkit chapter.
- USDA: Water Resource Data Base: Information and links to a wide range of aquatic based websites: Agricultural, Ecology, Chemical Information, etc.
- USDA: National Agricultural Library Water Quality Information Center: Electronic access to information about water and agriculture: Contains many links to agricultural runoff and related water quality resources
- USGS: Additional sources of Water information: Country Wide Information. Links to Federal, Regional, State, International, Institutes and Universities, and Organizations involved in Climatologic, Hydrology and related fields. Water Watch precipitation Map.