I was checking out the USGS website for News Releases today and found yet another interesting article titled Elevated Nitrogen and Phosphorus Still Widespread in much of the Nation’s Streams and Groundwater. It seems that Neil Dubrovsky and Kara Capelli are reporting on a new national study conducted by USGS of the Nation’s rivers, streams and groundwater. The study took samples from 1992 through 2001 and have issued their report to Congress on September 24, 2010.
The survey revealed that there are dangerously high levels of nitrates in the Nation’s water supply. Not only will this affect aquatic life but levels are now high enough to affect the drinking water for humans and animals. Colorado State University reports that most of the contaminants found are from “fertilizer and manure, animal feedlots, municipal wastewater and sludge, septic systems, and N-fixation from atmosphere by legumes, bacteria and lightning.” (Self & Waskom)
Marcia McNutt, USGS Director states that this study is “the most comprehensive national-scale assessment to date of nitrogen and phosphorus in our streams and groundwater.” The report also shows that the nitrates are as much as ten times the recommended levels set by EPA to protect aquatic life. The report goes on to say that the highest levels of nitrates in the water supply are in the Northeast, Midwest and the Northwest because of these are major agricultural centers.
So, what are the harms for humans? J.R. Self and R. M. Waskom from Colorado State University reported that high nitrates in water are especially harmful for infants under six months of age. Hi gh nitrates cause a disease known as methemoglobinemia where hemoglobin becomes toxic and young infants do not have the necessary enzymes to combat this toxicity. This could result in brain damage and death in an infant. Pregnant women and adults that lack the enzymes can be dangerously affected as well. Some symptoms to watch for are dizziness, headaches and difficulty breathing as well as a blue tint of the skin. (Self & Waskom)
So what about the Charlotte region and our drinking water? Charlotte’s drinking water is drawn from Mountain Island Lake on the west side of town. We do not have nutrient issues in our water from agricultural runoff largely because of our soil. Instead we may have issues with toxic metal runoff because upstream from the Mecklenburg County and Gaston County’s Water Utility plants are two Duke Energy Steam Plants that create a large amount of coal ash, which is a waste by-product. Although Duke Energy has ponds to collect the coal ash, some of the water from these ponds end up in groundwater and deposited into the Catawba River. On June 29, 2009, the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation issued a report titled EPA Report Shows Catawba River Threatened by Coal Ash Waste. The following is an except from that report:
“The EPA’s list of 44 High Hazard Ash Ponds also includes ash ponds on Lake Wylie and Lake Norman. Lake Wylie is a source of drinking water for Belmont, Rock Hill, and Ft. Mill. Lake Norman is a source of drinking water for Huntersville, eastern Lincoln County, Mooresville, Davidson, Cornelius, and the northern portion Charlotte. Many other towns withdraw water downstream from these locations. In total, approximately 1.5 million people depend upon the Catawba River for some portion of their drinking water.” The NC Cooperative Extension Service wrote a water quality report years ago that stated that long-term exposure to toxic metals, like that found in coal ash ponds, can cause cancer.
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