U.S. Water News Online
RESTON, Va. -- From urban growth to infectious diseases and
newly identified contaminants in water, greater demands are being
placed on our planet's natural resources. Scientists from the U.S.
Geological Survey are tackling these new scientific challenges as
"The United States and the world face significant challenges in
the years to come," said Charles Groat, director of the U.S.
Geological Survey. "Over the past century, humans have become agents
of significant change to our planet. We have reshaped rivers and
coastlines. We have brought new species of plants and animals to
places they could never have reached on their own. And, we have
increased our vulnerability to the extreme events that are part of
Earth's natural processes -- earthquakes, floods, volcanoes,
landslides, droughts, and hurricanes."
As the global population continues to grow, he added, people will
place greater and greater demands on the resources of our planet,
including mineral and energy resources, open space, water, and plant
and animal resources. As a result of these changing demands and
needs, said Groat, USGS scientists see many scientific challenges for
the next century.
Safe, clean water
Safe drinking water is vital to the health of citizens in every
community. Reliance on water treatment plants and chlorination is
important to safe drinking water but it is clear that strategies must
go beyond treatment to protection of water sources. Increasing
urbanization of land used as sources of drinking water, microbial
pathogens resistant to chlorination, and proliferation of new
synthetic chemical compounds that may have adverse health effects,
are challenging the effectiveness of treatment technology.
The 21st century will see increased awareness that drinking water
supplies are whole systems that include source-water areas,
groundwater wells and surface water intakes, treatment plants and
distribution systems. USGS scientists are helping communities protect
their drinking water sources by designing computer models and other
tools and conducting research to help communities identify, manage,
and protect source water areas.
Continual development and production of new chemical compounds has
dramatically improved food quality, human health, and our daily
lives. Increasing knowledge of the close relationship between human
activities and the environment has made it clear that the chemical
compounds we use can find their way into the nation's water
resources. Preliminary results from a USGS study indicate that many
compounds commonly used in everyday life are turning up at very low
concentrations in streams across the country.
Examples of some of the compounds found to date include
acetaminophen, caffeine, codeine, cotinine (a nicotine metabolite),
17b-estradiol (a hormone), and sulfamethoxazole (an antibiotic). For
many of these compounds, the USGS study will provide the earliest
data on their environmental occurrence in the nation. The impacts of
these chemicals on humans or aquatic life, at the low concentrations
they are found in the environment, are generally unknown, but the
USGS is working in partnership with health and environmental science
agencies as the study proceeds.
A major scientific issue in the early part of the 21st century
will be the eutrophication of water -- the presence of excess amounts
of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus that cause increased growth
of aquatic plants, which consume the dissolved oxygen in water needed
by other aquatic life. Growth of the human population will increase
the demand for food. This will in turn lead to further increases in
the use of fertilizers, which could put even more stress on coastal
areas, as well as freshwater bodies.
USGS scientists are measuring the transport of nitrogen and
phosphorus to coastal areas by major rivers to determine how much of
the nutrients that enter the streams actually move downstream and how
much is lost or transformed to harmless forms.
The nation's water infrastructure
The objectives for the nation's infrastructure of dams, levees,
navigation systems and diversions for water were developed between
1930 and 1970, with an emphasis on water for agriculture, electric
power, navigation, flood prevention, water for cities and industry
and dilution of wastes. These objectives are still valid, but the
values and laws under which these systems operate today have a number
of added objectives: enhancement of aquatic and streamside or
riparian habitat, recreational opportunities and a general desire for
preservation of natural environments for future generations.
These challenges will require scientists to collaborate with water
managers to predict how changes in the management of our water
infrastructure will affect its traditional goals and serve the newer
environmental goals. USGS scientists are looking at the physical and
biological results of modifying or removing these systems.
Coastal waters -- pristine or polluted?
The earth's seemingly boundless oceans and scenic coastlines have
limits. The oceans cannot provide unlimited fish to feed growing
populations, nor can they absorb unlimited wastes from human
activity. As population growth near and adjacent to the coasts
increases water quality and ecosystems are impacted and vulnerable
shorelines are eroded. Algal blooms, oxygen deficient zones and
Pfiesteria are some of the negative impacts resulting from excess
nutrients that end up in coastal waters.
Even after discharge waters are cleaned up, previously deposited
contaminated sediments on the sea floor can be "churned up" by storm
waves and continue to negatively impact the offshore ecosystems. USGS
scientists are locating, characterizing and quantifying how these
sediments and associated contaminants are distributed.
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