Most Endangered Rivers of 2005 Announced

Some 860 billion gallons of untreated sewage foul America's rivers with pollution and make millions of Americans sick each year, but the federal government has turned its back on the problem, warned American Rivers with the release of its 2005 America's Most Endangered Rivers report.

These problems are particularly apparent -- and poised to get worse -- along the Susquehanna River, which tops this year's list of rivers facing uncertain futures and crucial turning points.

The group called on federal lawmakers to reject the cuts in clean water investment proposed by the Bush administration and step up their oversight of how EPA carries out its water protection responsibilities.

"All across America, rivers link one town's toilets to the next town's faucets," said Rebecca R. Wodder, president of American Rivers. "And when it rains, sewage pours into those rivers, billions of gallons of it every year."

Sewer spills, poor treatment, and other symptoms of a failing system can be found all across the country, including four of the rivers on this year's list:

  • Hundreds of outfall pipes dump raw sewage directly into the Susquehanna River (No. 1), fouling the river and Chesapeake Bay downstream, but Washington is cutting the assistance needed to remedy the problem.
  • If Denver succeeds in withdrawing more water from the Fraser River (No. 3) in Colorado, there won't be enough flow left over to dilute treated sewage to safe levels for swimming and fishing.
  • The sewage treatment plant in Mountain City, Tenn., is so outdated that treatment plant operators have been caught spreading sludge along Roan Creek (No. 5) in the middle of the night.
  • Sewage treatment plants along Ohio's Little Miami River (No. 7), can't handle their current volumes but new roads and development threaten to make the problem worse.
  • Sewer spills and overflows pose a significant public health risk. Untreated human sewage teems with salmonella, hepatitis, dysentery, cryptosporidium, and many other infectious diseases. Scientists believe as many as 3.5 million Americans get sick each year after swimming, boating, fishing, or otherwise touching water they thought was safe. Between 1985 and 2000, the Centers for Disease Control documented 251 separate disease outbreaks and nearly half a million cases of waterborne illness from polluted drinking water in the United States.

"Kids in America should be able to enjoy their neighborhood creeks and rivers without playmates like salmonella, hepatitis, and dysentery," Wodder said.

Many American cities have sewage pipe networks and plants that date to the early 1970s or earlier, and this aging infrastructure is wearing out even as treatment needs grow. There are 600,000 miles of sewer pipes across the country. More than 30 percent of them will be in poor or very poor condition by the year 2020. In 2001, The American Society of Civil Engineers gave America's wastewater infrastructure a "D" grade overall. Overdevelopment contributes to the problem. As urban areas sprawl into the countryside, more stormwater surges into sewers -- and more pollution spews out.

The federal government only spends about a penny per day per U.S. resident to address this problem, but the Bush administration has asked Congress to slash clean water measures by more than $500 million in the coming year. This would take federal assistance to an all time low. The EPA has also proposed a "dumping policy," allowing sewage treatment plants to skip certain treatment steps when it was raining -- discharging wastewater with high concentrations of germs.

"It wasn't long ago, the deadly waterborne illness Cryptosporidium was found near Milwaukee and was traced back to a sewage dumping occurrence that would be allowed under this proposal. This contamination killed over 100 people and sickened over 400,000," Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.-1st) said in March when introducing the Save Our Waters from Sewage Act. "Billions of gallons of human waste are dumped into our Great Lakes and other water resources each year. This sort of outbreak can happen again if we don't act now to prevent the EPA from rolling back our clean water standards."

As a first step toward rectifying this situation, American Rivers called on Congress to reject further cuts and invest more in the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to $3.2 billion in 2006 and beyond. Increasing investment to $10.85 per citizen per year would be a good start, but it's not enough. According to American Rivers, lawmakers should also establish a dedicated federal trust fund to disperse aid to water utilities on a consistent basis -- something Congress has already done for airports, barges, and federal highways.

As a second step, Congress should invest federal dollars smarter -- encouraging reforestation and wetlands restoration, and reforming road construction practices to effectively expand the capacity and extend the life of existing systems by reducing the volume of stormwater they have to handle, the group said.

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This news item originally appeared in the May/June 2005 issue Water and Wastewater Products, Vol. 5, No. 3.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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