river water quality

Triathletes get an assist from the Clean Water Act


by Elizabeth Gaige

Ohio River IRONMAN swimmers

Ohio River IRONMAN swimmers

My husband’s passion for the sport of triathlon began in the Schuylkill River, when we both competed – swimming, biking, and running – in the 2012 Philly Triathlon. Part of the draw of triathlon is the opportunity to swim in lakes and rivers – like the Schuylkill – that aren’t usually open to recreational swimmers for safety reasons.

Although our family and friends didn’t understand why we enjoyed our Schuylkill swim, it was simple – this part of the race was calm and beautiful, with a small current providing some free speed. And, we had peace of mind even in the middle of a grueling race, because the Philadelphia Water Department RiverCast website gave us vital information about river conditions.

The author and her husband, an IRONMAN

The author and her husband, an IRONMAN

After the Philly Tri, my husband chose to make IRONMAN Louisville his first full distance IRONMAN race – 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and a 26.2 mile marathon run. But, as we packed the car for his race, advisories from the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection appeared on social media and we realized the race that might only include two of three parts that the athletes had trained for.

A harmful algal bloom had formed on the Ohio River between Ohio and West Virginia weeks earlier and the effects of elevated toxins produced by the algae were being evaluated hundreds of miles downstream. Elevated nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, warm sunny days and slower-moving water fuel algal growth.  Fortunately, October’s cooler temperatures and precipitation began to flush algae and toxins from the Ohio River. To the relief of many hopeful triathletes, the recreational advisory for the swim course was lifted days before the race as multiple water quality test results showed toxins falling below Kentucky’s threshold.

On race day, 2,300 triathletes experienced first-hand the “swimmable” part of the Clean Water Act’s goals. I welcomed my Ironman at the finish line 13 hours and 52 minutes after he jumped into the Ohio River, thankful that the Clean Water Act is there to protect the nearly half-million triathletes that count on safe water for swimming at thousands of events each year.


About the Author: Elizabeth Gaige works in EPA’s Air Protection Division in Philadelphia.  She has completed 88 races since 2003, 16 of which involved open water swimming!



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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When It Comes to Water, We Are All Close Neighbors

By MJ Eggers, MJ Lefthand, SL Young, JT Doyle and A Plenty Hoops, with contributions from  other team members: UJ Bear Don’t Walk, A Bends, B Good Luck, L Kindness, AKHG McCormick, DL Felicia, E Dietrich, TE Ford, and AK Camper.

Little Big Horn river

Little Big Horn River, Montana. Photo by John Doyle.

Until the 1960s, many families on the Crow Reservation still hauled river water for home use, a practice most of us remember from our childhoods.  As agriculture expanded and river water quality visibly deteriorated, wells and indoor plumbing became available and rural families switched to home well water.

In many parts of the Reservation, this was a hardship, not a blessing: the groundwater tapped for home wells is high in total dissolved solids and often so rich in iron and manganese that it’s undrinkable. The hard water build-up or “scale” also ruins hot water heaters. We have learned that the majority of home wells (55%) have water that presents a health risk, due to mineral or microbial contamination or both.

As a country, we may imagine our citizens have universal access to safe drinking water—but for millions of rural residents with poor quality well water, and who can’t afford cisterns, treatment systems, or all the bottled water they might want—this simply is not the case.  In our communities, people are cooking with poor tasting, contaminated water, and living with the health consequences.

In 2004, Tribal members who were—and still are—passionate about and dedicated to addressing community-wide water quality issues and health disparities joined forces as the Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee. They recruited academic partners and Little Big Horn College science majors to help.

We have been working together to research what is contaminating local groundwater and surface waters, what the health risks are from domestic, cultural, and recreational uses of these water sources, and how best to educate the community about the risks.

Archival image of Crow women getting water from river

Crow women getting water for camp from the Little Big Horn River, close to present day Crow Agency, Crow Reservation, Montana. Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian (N13758). Photo by Fred E. Miller.

One challenge is that various traditional practices involve respectfully consuming (untreated) river and spring water right from the source. Maintaining these cultural practices “is part of what makes us Crow,” so, instead of expecting people to simply give them up, we are collaborating with the Tribe on pursuing additional funding opportunities to address the pollution sources affecting our rivers and a culturally-important spring.  We are also helping to make clear that traditional uses of river water, including drinking it untreated, need to be considered in planning, risk assessments, and policy decisions.

We are working to restore the health of our rivers and of our community.  We realize it takes passion, commitment, mutual support and a broad-based, grassroots effort.  We have learned that we are all close neighbors when it comes to water.  How we treat our water is the respect we show to our neighbors, and how we would want them to treat us.

About the Authors: MJ Lefthand, SL Young and JT Doyle are members of the Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee (CEHSC). The Committee is made up of Crow Tribal members with varied expertise in environmental science, water resources, health, law and culture. MJ Eggers is an academic partner from Little Big Horn College and Montana State University Bozeman.   A Plenty Hoops works for the Crow Tribal Environmental Protection Program.  Additional contributors are members of the CEHSC, academic partners or student interns.

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

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.