American Waters: A Resource in Peril

Pure, abundant agua is getting harder to find. Feeling thirsty?

Aug 1, 2003
Outside Magazine
All About H2O

The wet stuff is always there for us—it grows our food, puts splash and spirit in our adventure, and (by the way) keeps us alive. CLICK HERE for a special report on the health of America's most vital resource.

CLICK HERE for a complete list of Outside's articles on American water, from William T. Vollmann's filthy Salton Sea journey to the new hero of the Mississippi.

Indirect, Invisible, and Insidious
Water pollution is more complicated than ever. That leak in your oil tank, the bug juice you spray on your garden, the soap you use to scrub your boat—all this and more pollute aquatic ecosystems, and ultimately the drinking water pouring from your faucet. Storm-water runoff from lawns, streets, piers, and parking lots washes into approximately 5,000 square miles of estuaries, 2,200 square miles of lakes, and 30,000 miles of rivers in the United States, lacing them with pesticides, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals. Then there's auto exhaust: American car and truck drivers produce 8.2 million tons of nitrogen oxide per year, all of which returns to the earth—along with the 1.9 billion pounds of pollutants that spew out of industrial smokestacks annually—as precipitation, through a process called atmospheric deposition. This means that little is left untainted, from the mercury-poisoned Great Lakes basin to the Appalachian Mountains, whose slopes are being denuded by acid rain.

Wetlands Get Whacked
Wetlands support a huge, interdependent network of plant and animal life, clean and recharge groundwater, and moderate the climate by returning H2O to the atmosphere. Still, since the 1700s, we've managed to eliminate more than half of all wetlands in the lower 48; only 100 million acres remain. The stats are grim: California has lost more than 90 percent of its original wetlands, Florida more than 50 percent. The greatest loss has occurred in the Louisiana bayou, which once stretched nearly 300 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Due to erosion, urban development, oil and gas drilling, and silt diversion from levees and canals on the Mississippi River, as many as 35 square miles of bayou disappear underwater annually. Without healthy marshes to protect it from hurricanes—a storm surge is diminished by a foot for every 1.5 miles of wetlands it crosses—New Orleans could experience 25,000 to 100,000 casualties if hit by a Category 5 hurricane.

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