44% of US coastal water polluted

US coastal water quality is fair to poor, according to a new report card released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Forty-four percent of estuarine areas in the US are impaired for human or aquatic life use.

While the current condition is less than ideal, the findings provide the EPA with baseline estimates of coastal conditions for select coastal regions, says the organisation.

The environmental report card is the first comprehensive summary of the coastal conditions of the United States, primarily evaluating the quality of estuaries. Developed in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Geological Survey, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the report draws upon information from 1990 – 2000.

The EPA measured seven coastal condition indicators including water clarity, dissolved oxygen, sediments, benthos, fish contamination, coastal wetlands loss, and eutrophication. These indicators were rated in estuaries in each region of the country.

The data sets include samples taken from over 1000 randomly selected sites, representing nearly 88% of the estuarine resources of the United States. Overall confidence in the accuracy of these data in assessing the coastal condition is placed within 95-98%.

The report revealed that eutrophication in coastal waters is increasing throughout much of the United States, and poor eutrophic conditions exist in the Gulf of Mexico, west coast and northeastern estuaries. The EPA is now working with states, tribes and other federal agencies on an action plan to address the ‘dead zone’, a large oxygen-starved area in the Gulf of Mexico, which threatens one of the nation’s most productive and valuable fishing grounds (see related story).

Robert H Wayland III, Director of the EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds, said, “It took decades for the coasts to get this way and though progress has been made, there is much work still to do. Virtually the whole landscape of the United States drains into the coasts”.

Wayland continued, “This report emphasises the ecological and economical importance of these areas. We need to encourage efforts to protect the coasts by emphasising watershed protection, restoring habitats, and reducing non-point source and point source pollution”.

The results will allow the EPA to monitor the progress of ongoing coastal water quality protection programmes, analyse trends, and identify data gaps. The EPA is also issuing technical guidance to improve the design and operation of septic systems used in many coastal areas, to reduce the risk of bacterial contamination. Water quality improvements in coastal areas will be determined in future EPA studies.

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