Water is the lifeblood of our nation. Our rivers, streams and lakes are the obvious manifestation of this.
Did you know that in our 50 states there are over 250,000 rivers and streams? To me, that’s mind boggling. It’s even more mind boggling when you consider the total length of the rivers and streams in the United States. If they were placed front to back, they would be some 3,500,000 miles in length! That is a long river.
Each river or stream falls into one of two categories, perennial or ephemeral. Perennial streams flow the year around. Small perennial streams are often “gaining” streams. This usually means that at least part of their flow is derived from groundwater. Conversely, ephemeral streams flow only during certain times of the year and are dry the rest of the year. An example is a stream that carries snowmelt in the spring but is dry the rest of the year unless it happens to carry storm runoff. Both perennial and ephemeral streams may be “losing” streams, meaning that some of their discharge may actually infiltrate to underlying aquifers.
What do our rivers and streams mean to us? Here are a few things. When the early colonists came from Europe in 1607, they settled by rivers. The rivers provided potential sources of drinking water. Their abundant fish provided a major food source. They provided a means of transportation. Unfortunately, they also provided a means for waste disposal.
Rivers still provide these things plus many more. I’ll mention a few.
They provide water for irrigation of crops. A significant amount of the electrical power in the United States (US) is generated by rivers. They provide recreational opportunities in the form of boating, fishing and other water sports. Larger rivers support barge traffic that is responsible for delivery of goods to many parts of the country.
When the colonists arrived, rivers in what is now the U.S. were free flowing. Presently there are few rivers that still are free flowing. Thousands of dams have been constructed to provide water storage for a variety of purposes. River channels have been straightened and flood control levees have been constructed in many locations to protect life and property. Rivers have been dredged to provide access for larger ships and barges. All these constructions have altered the natural hydrology in many parts of the country..
As the population grew and the country was settled coast-to-coast, rivers have become receptors for municipal and industrial waste and agricultural runoff. By the 1960’s, many U.S. rivers and streams were seriously contaminated. In 1952 and again in 1969, industrial waste in the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland actually caught on fire. At about the same time, it was observed that a dead zone was beginning to form in the Gulf of Mexico below the mouth of the Mississippi River. It’s been attributed to pesticides and nutrients from upstream agricultural fields transported to the gulf by the Mississippi.
Significant progress has been made to clean up rivers since the 1960’s. At the same time, technology advances that allow measurement in parts per TRILLION has identified a whole new set of contaminants that may impact both human and animal health. These include household chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
Federal, state and local authorities and concerned citizens have worked diligently to clean up our rivers and streams but as new contaminants are identified, their jobs remain difficult. The public can assist in this effort by more careful disposal of household products and pharmaceuticals.
Lest we forget, water is our lifeblood!