Prevention of water quality deterioration is more effective and less costly than trying to restore the damage to land and waterways after the problems occur. Water quality deterioration may be caused by any natural, physical, biological, or chemical change but most frequently is caused by contaminants made by people. The waters of the United States are supposed to support fish, shellfish, wildlife protection and propagation, recreational activities, agricultural activities, harvesting of animals and/or plants from bodies of water for personal use or sale, public water supply, and industrial purposes. When bodies of water are either threatened (that is, are exhibiting a deteriorating trend to support the above uses) or impaired (that is, are unable to support one of the aforementioned uses), the United States has lost a valuable resource. Impairment may be caused by the presence of pathogens (most coming from fecal contamination from people, animals, and birds), alteration of the habitat, organic enrichment, oxygen depletion, impaired plant and animal life from unknown causes in a given location, nutrients, metals, sediment, mercury, alteration of flow patterns, and the turbidity of the water.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its National Water Quality Inventory Report to Congress in 2004, stated that 44% of all streams and rivers in the United States were impaired while 3% were threatened, 64% of all lakes, ponds, and reservoirs were impaired while 1% were threatened, 30% of all estuaries and bays were impaired and about 1% were threatened, and 93% of the shorelines of the Great Lakes were impaired because of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxic organics, pesticides, and dioxins, with the impairment primarily from contaminated sediment. There was inadequate information about wetlands, which are critically important to all forms of life and the environment, and there was inadequate information about the beaches and shorelines of the oceans and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Great Lakes are and have been at risk for many years. Every form of contamination mentioned in this chapter has occurred in the Great Lakes. Despite numerous programs, the level of contamination remains unacceptable in various portions of this huge waterway. The chemical integrity of the Great Lakes is threatened and 29 areas are impacted by toxic contaminants and degraded habitats, and definitely are still in need of cleanup in the United States. Nonpoint source pollution, including runoff of material contributing to the production of sediment and excess nutrients, has impaired water quality. Invasive species have contributed to the water problems. There has been crucial habitat loss due to degradation from development, competition from invasive species, and alteration of the natural lake levels. The loss of wetlands not only affects various ecosystems but also removes a natural source of the removal of harmful substances from water. Harmful algae blooms have seriously affected the potential health and economic well-being of a variety of communities, and this problem has worsened over the past 10 years.

The Grand Calumet River is a perfect example of 100 years of neglect of the waterway as the river has been used as an open sewer for industrial and municipal waste disposal. This waterway is one of the contributors to the Great Lakes dilemma. The river flows for 13 miles through Gary, East Chicago, and Hammond, Indiana, into the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal and then drains about 1 billion gallons of water each day into Lake Michigan. Typically, 90% of the flow of the river is municipal and/or industrial effluent, cooling and process water, and stormwater overflows. Most of the impairment affects everything from drinking water consumption to fish consumption to degradation of local ecosystems and is due to the huge number of contaminants dumped into this waterway over many decades. The contaminants include PCBs; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); and heavy metals, such as mercury, cadmium, chromium, and lead. In addition, there are high levels of fecal coliform, high biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), suspended solids, oil, grease, phosphorus, nitrogen, iron, magnesium, and volatile solids. This area contains from 5 million to 10 million yd.3 (3.9 million to 7.7 million m3) of contaminated sediment up to 20 feet deep (approximately 6 m) from point source and non-point source contributors. In addition, contaminants come from:

  • 1. Industrial waste site runoff of stormwater and leachate from 11 of 38 different waste disposal and storage sites
  • 2. A total of 52 sites on the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability System list with five of these designated as Superfund sites
  • 3. A total of 423 hazardous waste sites regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
  • 4. More than 460 underground storage tanks with 150 leaking tank reports made
  • 5. Atmospheric deposition of toxic substances from burning of fossil fuel, waste incineration, evaporation and direct contact with water, surface water runoff, and leaching of materials from land
  • 6. Urban runoff from rainwater going across paved areas that contain grease, oil, toxic organics, etc.
  • 7. Groundwater contamination by organic compounds, heavy metals, and at least 16.8 million gallons (63.6 million liters) of oil floating on top of the groundwater
  • 8. Three steel manufacturers contributing 90% of the industrial point source discharges
  • 9. Combined sewer overflows from 15 overflows with untreated municipal waste, while conventional and toxic pollutants account for many millions of gallons of waste material being dumped into the harbor and river, and this is still occurring

Measures of Water Quality

The most common measures of water quality are:

  • 1. pH which measures the water's acidity
  • 2. Water temperature which affects fish and plants as well as humans
  • 3. Turbidity which is the amount of cloudiness of the water due to suspended particles
  • 4. Dissolved oxygen which is necessary for fish life
  • 5. Amount of nutrients in the water, including nitrates, phosphorus, nitrogen, and ammonia
  • 6. Enteric bacteria which can indicate contamination of the water and potentially cause disease
  • 7. Toxic substances which may be found in the water, fish, or sediment
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