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Water: Liquid Assets

Liquid Assets 2000: Americans Pay for Dirty Water

Newspapers with water headlines

Although our lakes, rivers, estuaries, and wetlands are much cleaner than they were in 1970, headlines like these are all too common.

The cost of polluted water is significant. Americans pay for dirty water every year:

  • A 1993 outbreak of Cryptosporidium<broken link>, a disease-causing microbe, in Milwaukee's drinking water sickened more than 400,000 people and killed more than 50.

  • The toxic microbe Pfiesteria piscicida<broken link> has killed millions of fish in North Carolina since 1995 and tens of thousands of fish in Maryland in 1997. Losses to the U.S. seafood and tourism industries from Pfiesteria are estimated at $1 billion. Maryland alone suffered $43 million in canning and fishing losses in a single year. North Carolina is now spending millions of dollars for watershed restoration in an effort to control potential outbreaks in the future.

  • Unsafe for swimming sign
  • Harmful algae blooms<broken link>, which flourish in nutrient-rich waters, have devastated the scallop industry on Long Island, killed millions of fish in Texas coastal bays, and sickened many who have eaten contaminated shellfish or visited stricken seashores.

  • A 1995 study by the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project<broken link> of 15,000 bathers at three Santa Monica Bay beaches found that approximately 1 in every 25 beachgoers who swam near a flowing storm drain contracted gastroentestinal illness or cold- and flu-like symptoms.

  • Mining in the western United States has contaminated stream reaches in the headwaters of more than 40 percent of the watersheds in the West. EPA is spending $30,000 per day to treat contaminated mine drainage at the Summitville Mine in Colorado, which will cost an estimated $170 million to clean up. Remediation of the half-million abandoned mines in 32 states may cost up to $35 billion or more.

Photo of fish with lesions

Contamination from coal-fired power plants, motor vehicles, or other air pollution can also cause signifcant water quality problems. Lakes in the Midwest and the Northeast are contaminated by mercury from distant utilities' combustion sources. Streams in Appalachia run red with dissolved iron from acid mine drainage. Salmon populations in the Northwest are being depleted by sediment runoff and dam impacts.

With clean water, an ounce of prevention is worth much more than a pound of cure. Every day we must make choices to protect groundwater, control polluted runoff, improve sewage treatment, and restore the nation's watersheds, or the costs will continue to mount.

Total Number of Fish Advisories in Effect in Each State in 1998
(change from 1997)

Number of fish advisaries in effect 1998 per state.

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