From the desk of Gene Merriam

Freshwater Society President Gene Merriam writes about nonpoint pollution, the diffuse, hard-to-regulate contamination that flows into lakes and rivers from city streets and farm fields.

President, Freshwater Society

In April, I viewed a powerful television documentary: “Poisoned Waters.” The PBS documentary examined the serious pollution degrading two major bodies of water a continent apart – Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast and Puget Sound on the West Coast.

Reporter Hedrick Smith described agricultural runoff from poultry farms that is feeding algae growth and depleting oxygen in a huge “dead zone” in Chesapeake Bay. In Seattle, Smith looked at stormwater washing into Puget Sound from urban and suburban roofs, streets and parking lots.

Jay Manning, director of Washington State’s Department of Ecology, estimated that every two years the oil carried into Puget Sound by stormwater equals the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The Clean Water Act, enacted in the 1970s, called for all of America’s lakes and streams to be fishable and swimmable by 1983. We spent billions to clean up sewage and industrial discharges. And we have done a pretty good job of addressing that “point source” pollution.

But the Clean Water Act never had regulatory teeth to end the widespread nonpoint source pollution we all produce. While stormwater runoff and the conversion of farmland to suburban developments are big problems, it is agriculture practices that cause most of our nonpoint source pollution

In “Poisoned Waters,” J. Charles Fox, a former assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says: “Agriculture is by far the largest source of pollution to all the waters in the country.”

I believe we all eventually will have to demand our food be produced in a way that is less damaging to our waters. We cannot keep growing what we grow, where we grow it in the way we now grow it.

The documentary, as grim a picture as it paints, gives me hope that we can make the life-style choices – about what we eat and how we live – that we must make to reduce nonpoint source pollution. I am hopeful that a better understanding of the causes and effects of pollution will bring about the cultural shift we must have to address the problem.

The first step in solving any problem is understanding the problem and its causes. Too often, nonpoint source pollution seems too big, too diffuse, for us to do anything about it.

“Poisoned Waters” makes the point that the Freshwater Society made in its report on water quality and sustainability last fall: Everything we do on the land affects the water bodies draining the land. That is a point the Freshwater Society must keep making. If people understand what they face, I believe they eventually will make the right choices.