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Saving Some For The Fishes And Rethinking The Future of Our Water Supply

2009 July 10

When I first moved to Colorado, I spent my summers hiking streams and collecting aquatic insects. I visited many high mountain streams that were dammed and diverted to provide water to cities along Colorado’s Front Range. In their natural state, these rivers flowed raucously over boulders, watering streamside plants, flooding wetlands, and creating fabulous habitat for fish and other aquatic critters. Downstream of the dams, the streambeds were sometimes completely dry – other times with only a thin trickle of water.

At this very moment, there are thousands of dams in Colorado that are withdrawing water from Rocky Mountain streams. Once diverted, the water moves through networks of ditches and aqueducts, sometimes tunneling through mountains and across the Continental Divide, to distant farms and cities. But the water taken from these streams is not enough to meet growing demands. In the future, water demand will far exceed supply. In response to this need and recent drought conditions, water developers in Colorado are proposing to exercise some of the last remaining water rights – for spring snowmelt peak flows in the wettest of years.

Diverting snowmelt flows from our rivers is a controversial and complex issue, both politically and environmentally. On one hand, cities want this water to support economic growth, including new commercial and residential development. However, these flows are critical to aquatic ecosystems, rearranging sediments for fish habitat, assisting Cottonwood regeneration, recharging groundwater and flooding backwater wetland habitats. Countless plants and animals rely on these flows for their long-term survival. Many of these rivers are already anemic from water withdrawals and we are approaching a tipping point beyond which the resiliency of these ecosystems will be tested.

What are our options?

As scientists, we must apply our knowledge to better balance human needs and the needs of our rivers’ inhabitants. Various water supply and smart growth solutions are available that could maintain natural ecosystems while meeting the needs of communities. Water conservation will play an increasingly critical role in allowing for a sustainable water future. Moving forward, researching and implementing state of the art water conservation technologies is key.

Your perspective on water differs whether you live near the Great Lakes, in the arid west, or by the coast. We must all begin thinking about the sustainability of our water supplies and how we can meet our needs while also protecting our rivers, lakes and wetlands.

What do you think?

About the author: Julia McCarthy is an Environmental Scientist with the EPA Regional Office in Denver, CO. She works in the Clean Water Act regulatory program on rivers and wetlands. Her background is in aquatic ecology and freshwater conservation. She recently worked on a video titled ‘Wetlands and Wonder: Reconnecting Children With Nearby Nature.’ Check it out at

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    July 10, 2009

    This product also has properties to precipitate and detoxify heavy metals so that these elements do not affect the aquarium’s fish or plants.

  2. Diana Charteris permalink
    July 14, 2009

    A perspective from the other side of the world, Sydney, Australia:

    With limited and highly variable rainfall in Sydney’s catchments, the community can no longer rely on water from the dams. To increase the water supply, Sydney’s water authorities are implementing a range of projects. These include:

    – Building plants to recycle 70 billion litres of wastewater a year by 2015. Water recycling will provide up to 12% of Sydney’s water needs.
    – Building a desalination plant to provide up to 15% of Sydney’s water supply in the summer of 2009-10 helping the community and business to use water wisely.
    – Water efficiency initiatives will save up to 145 billion litres a year by 2015. That’s about 24% of the water supply.

    One of Sydney’s largest water recycling projects is The Replacement Flows Project. It is a key part of the NSW Government’s Metropolitan Water Plan. It will play a critical role in increasing water recycling in the Sydney region to 70 billion litres a year by 2015.

    The Replacement Flows Project is designed to save drinking water and maintain river health. It will provide up to 18 billion litres of highly treated recycled water each year to the Hawkesbury-Nepean River system, replacing water currently released from Warragamba Dam to maintain environmental flows.

    For more information, refer to:

  3. Jack Rackham permalink
    October 6, 2010

    I am a fish keeper, and aquarist involved with the retail of marine fish tanks and supplies. I collect all kinds of fish, and keep them in captivity. En many occasions I traveled and obtain rare and exotic species from all over the world, and arriving here, I try to get them to reproduce but even in the best conditions many types of fish cannot reproduce in captivity, there are several species that have perished because of the misuse and bad treatment of the waters near the coastal lines all over the world. There are even areas where systematically the sewers are released in the sea with extreme harmful toxins and hazardous materials. It is done currently in the coasts of Lima Peru in South America. I don’t know if I am the first person mentioning this problem, but it is currently happening and has been happening for at least 25 years. I would like to urge any authorities in the world to fight to stop that mass murder of unique marine species. I know that we might feel that here in the US it can’t possibly affect us, but, I don’t think so. We should protect the species all over the world because sooner or later that contamination will reach our coasts and we will not know where it came from. It is currently happening in Lima Peru in an area called “Malecon de la Marina”, where huge sewer escapes go in the sea and destroy all the marine life and contaminate the precious water. I know It is very unlikely that you didn’t know about this issue, and that this is a surprise for many. It is because the authorities keep the issue in the down low and hide their practices which are currently contributing to global contamination. For those of you interested in helping and adopting sea life as pets and you are looking for good quality small fish tanks and other products you

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