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Around the Water Cooler: Steps to Protect Waterways

2013 January 31

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

It’s cold and dreary around my area, but what better time to think about a warm beach vacation? Think about your favorite beach—warm clear water to swim in, pristine sand to lay on and great seafood to fill our bellies. But what if those didn’t exist?

Nutrient pollution pollution caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus can cause major “dead zones,” essentially making all those things we love about the beach nonexistent. The state of Florida has been working to protect its important commodities – beaches, water and seafood—and recently set limits on allowable nutrient levels.

EPA scientists and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are exploring using “numeric nutrient criteria” to protect Florida’s estuaries. For example, EPA research on seagrasses is being used to develop water clarity targets. EPA scientist Jim Hagy says, “the steady decline of aquatic life caused by too much nutrient pollution will give way to limits on pollution, eventually improving water quality.

Image Credit: Hans W. Paerl 2006

Nutrient pollution found in our water comes from a variety of sources including agriculture, aquaculture, septic tanks, urban wastewater, urban stormwater runoff, and industry. Nutrient pollution can even come from burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil. These excess nutrients can enter water from the air, surface water, or groundwater. In other words, the problem is everywhere.

Of course, it’s not just what’s happening in Florida that affects Florida’s water quality. Anything upstream has impact on those waterways and the same for all waterways around the country. Such development of allowable limits on nutrient levels should provide information for other places around the country looking to protect their water, too. While it’s challenging work, this example shows that it’s possible to make an impact in keeping our waterways clean and safe.

For more information on our nutrient research, please visit: http://epa.gov/research/waterscience/water-nutrients.htm

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry loves the beach and seafood and clean water. (Who doesn’t?) She is a frequent contributor to Around the Water Cooler and works with the Safe and Sustainable Water Resources research team to communicate their work.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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