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The Potomac: America’s most beleaguered river, new report

The Potomac is the nation’s most imperiled river, according to a report issued today by the nonprofit group, American Rivers.

Pescados by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo)
Creative Commons license

The river, which supplies drinking water to five million people in the Greater Washington region, suffers from a bad case of  runoff from laws and factory farms, alike. those woes have turned the Potomac into a spawning ground for so-called “intersex fish” – male fish born with ovaries. Yikes! Scientists have linked the chemicals in lawn fertilizer and “chicken litter” (manure produced in large quantities at the region’s poultry farms) that get washed into the waterways where they wreak havoc of fish reproduction and create habitat-crippling dead zones bereft of oxygen, among other things.

The Washington Post today notes that U.S. Congress has failed to act despite growing evidence that what’s happening to the fish may be a disturbing sign of the human health implications. In fact, sentiment on Capitol Hill is moving in the other direction with Republicans periodically launching attempts to roll back the Clean Air Act, reporter Darryl Fears notes, quoting environmentalists.

The landmark federal law, which turns 40-years-old this year, has led to major improvements in the health of the nation’s waterways, experts say. At the time of its passage in 1972, some U.S. rivers were such reeking open sewers that they sometimes caught fire. Nevertheless, the Potomac is one of ten that continue face the most serious ongoing problems.

Besides the Potomac, today’s top ten list, of sorts, includes the following:

  • Green River (which runs through Wyoming, Utah and Colorado)
  • Chattahoochee River (Georgia)
  • Missouri River (nine states in the central United States)
  • Hoback River (Wyoming)
  •  Grand River (Ohio)
  • Skykomish River (Washington)
  • Crystal River (Colorado)
  •  Coal River (West Virginia)
  •  Kansas River (Kansas)
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Water, Water Everywhere but Not a Drop to Drink!

While rising sea levels may get a lot more ink as a frightening impact of global warming, climate change is also fueling water shortages all over the place:

TomDispatch reproduces this article originally posted the winter 2009/10 issue of World Policy Journal about Iraq‘s increasingly dire water shortages, ultimately caused by climate change but exacerbated by power plays – in the form of reservoir construction – by two of Iraq’s parched upstream neighbors – Iran and Syria.

The New York Times reports from Bolivia on how once plentiful water is disappearing as the glaciers melt.

Nepal, as we’ve discussed before in this blog here and here, is another country facing water shortages as Himalayan glaciers melt.

Should We be Worried about the Potomac’s Inter-sex Fish?

In this morning’s sustainability news roundup, I noted that Washington Post coverage of a new report on Potomac River pollution left out discussion of the human health implications. Greater Washington gets its drinking water from the river, which makes the Potomac Conservancy‘s findings all the more alarming: The group concludes that chemical run off from farms, industrial operations and backyards is causing abnormal sexual development in fish. (The males grow eggs.) While the Post story only says the jury is still out on how these pollutants could impact humans, a reporter at The Washington Times dug a little deeper, interviewing John Peterson Myers, a biologist who founded the research group Environmental Health Sciences. Here’s a link to the story and here’s a quote that cuts to the crux:
“Water-treatment facilities are not yet required to screen for endocrine-disrupting contaminants, so they end up in our tap water,” he said. “We aren’t sure exactly what level of exposure causes harmful effects to human health, but if the intersex-fish phenomenon is any indication, there’s a critical need for regulatory agencies and decision makers to start addressing this issue,” he said.