Do you Know if your Waterway is Polluted?

Doug Norton

Pollution in the Potomac River

“How’s My Waterway?” Can you answer this question about your favorite vacation lake, or the river where you walk with your dog?  Are streams in your community polluted, and what’s being done about it if they are?

Most people don’t know – and are surprised to learn – that the answers have been publicly available for years.  But publicly available doesn’t always mean easily accessible and understandable.

For decades, the Clean Water Act has required tracking of water pollution problems and restoration progress across the nation. EPA public databases include detailed information about the condition of local streams and lakes, pollutants, where they come from, and progress on fixing the problems.

As an Office of Water scientist, I regularly use these databases in national and state studies of water pollution trends and restoration strategies. But even I had trouble answering the simple question: “How’s My Waterway?”  These data systems weren’t designed to provide a quick look at local waters or to provide a simple explanation of what the data really mean. Chances are most people would be baffled by EPA’s complex databases and scientific information.  They might say, “But all I really want to know is:  How’s MY waterway?  And please tell me in words I can understand.”

Map View of How's My Waterway

My project team created an exciting solution to this dilemma as part of EPA’s Water Data Project, which makes important water information more widely known and available to the general public.  We developed How’s My Waterway as a simpler pathway through the same EPA database.  You can instantly get localized information about waterways in map and list format by simply entering a zip code or place name.  Anyone can check on local waters anywhere in the nation in seconds—even at the water’s edge, for those using smart phones.

Users can pan across the color-coded map that shows how common are the polluted, unpolluted, and unassessed waters.  Waterway-specific details include the local pollutants and progress on clean-up plans.  Plain-language descriptions about each pollutant explain where it comes from, whether it harms the environment and human health, and what people can do to help.  Related links go to the technical database if needed or to other popular sites about beaches, drinking water, fish advisories and other water topics.

How’s My Waterway may especially help those communities where there are less resources to access and decipher complicated information from EPA’s data systems.  Learning about locally polluted areas may help people avoid illnesses from swimming or eating contaminated fish, and reading the plain language descriptions can help anyone understand risks and causes.  With better information, people are safer and communities are more able to take action.

What’s the health of your waterway?  Now you can find out.

About the author: Doug Norton is a watershed scientist with EPA’s Office of Water who studies national pollution patterns, helps states restore polluted waters, and designs tools to help improve public understanding of water pollution issues.

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