The irony of our “blue planet” is that most water on Earth is unusable to humanity. Fresh water — which is essential for life and needed for agriculture, industry, and society — makes up less than 3 percent of the total water on Earth; and only 0.03 percent is easily accessible in lakes, rivers, and swamps. As the human population continues to grow, it puts an even greater strain on the amount of fresh water available per person.

You would think, given fresh water’s short supply and its importance to humanity, we would treat it like gold. However, it is now estimated that 45 percent of streams and 47 percent of lakes in the United States are polluted, with many too polluted for fishing, swimming, or aquatic life. Water pollution varies widely, from biological pathogens associated with sewage to chemical contaminants from industrial and agricultural runoff. Pollutants from our toiletries, medications, and household cleaning supplies are also common.

This is happening right in our backyard. Virginia’s largest river is the James. It is 340 miles long and fed by 15,000 miles of tributaries, making it one of the longest rivers in America that begins and ends in the same state. The James River watershed encompasses about 10,000 square miles and is home to one-third of all Virginians, who rely on the river for drinking water, commerce, and recreation.

The Appomattox River is one of the largest tributaries to the James. The Appomattox basin drains more than a million acres of agricultural, rural residential, and urban land in Virginia’s Piedmont, and several of the watersheds within the basin have been identified by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) as having water quality impairments.

Gross Creek, which runs through the center of downtown Farmville, is literally gross! It often exceeds acceptable levels of coliform bacteria, which are used as indicators of fecal pollution. Other tributaries to the Appomattox River often carry elevated nutrient loads (nitrogen and phosphorus) from agricultural runoff. A recent class project by Longwood University undergraduates found microplastics being carried downstream in the Appomattox.

One of the major contributing factors to this problem is a lack of knowledge. The work I do in my lab trains citizen and student volunteers through our Water Quality Monitoring Program, a partnership with Clean Virginia Waterways. Started almost two decades ago by my Longwood colleagues Dr. David Buckalew and Katie Register, this project offers students valuable research opportunities in aquatic microbiology, as well as community and citizen water monitoring programs. Our water monitoring data are shared with local planners as well as with the DEQ.

Every little bit of effort is helpful in reducing pollutants that end up in our waterways. There are many steps average citizens can take every day to help promote cleaner water in our commonwealth. Here are a few:

  • Clean up your dog’s poo. Pet waste is a major factor that contributes to water quality problems.
  • Pick up litter where ever you see it and don’t wash litter and trash into the gutter, since it will end up in a nearby stream.
  • Use fewer chemicals and less fertilizer in your lawn and gardens.
  • Hold on to your balloons. Balloons can be fun and festive, but as soon as they are released into the air they become a problem for wildlife.
  • If you smoke, always dispose of your butts correctly into trash cans. Cigarette filters may look harmless, but they are made of plastic and have toxins in them.
  • Educate others about storm drains. Our storm drains are meant to move rainwater to nearby streams — not litter, paint, or other chemicals.

Beyond incorporating these practices into your daily routine, there are other ways to take a more active role in helping to protect this increasingly sparse resource. Encourage your school or community to take part in International Coastal Cleanup Day or World Water Monitoring Day, events held annually in the fall, or plan your own cleanup effort at a local river or beach.

By exploring the extent of the impairment of our waterways, and better understanding the factors that affect their quality, we can take steps to restore them. On this Earth Day, let us strive to be better stewards of our watersheds and to be citizen leaders when it comes to caring for and protecting our most precious natural resource on Earth: fresh water.

About the Author

Dina Leech

Dina Leech, associate professor of biology at Longwood University in Farmville, has more than 20 years’ experience working in lakes, rivers, and estuaries.

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