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Water Quality


"Man is a complex animal; he makes deserts bloom and lakes die."
Gil Stern

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Texas Environmental Almanac, Chapter 2, Water Quality, Page 1


The competing demands made on water have affected not only its supply and future availability, but also its quality. In some watersheds, diversion and damming of rivers has reduced streamflow, which has concentrated pollutants in a smaller volume of water and thereby degraded overall surface water quality. Some Texas rivers are prevented from drying up entirely only by the return flow of wastewater, which, even when optimally treated, is of lower quality than the river's original water.

Groundwater quality has likewise suffered the effects of high demand. Continual mining of aquifers has lowered the quality of groundwater by drawing up the salt water that lies deep in most aquifers into the formations from which water for human consumption is drawn.

Mitigating the effects of high demand on both surface water and groundwater quality will require a long-term commitment to conservation and limits on development. Representing a more acute risk to water quality, though, is contamination that results from such human activities as industry, agriculture and urban life. Water moves in a continuous hydrological cycle from earth to atmosphere and back. This means that all bodies of water - rivers, lakes, oceans and aquifers - are essentially connected to each other, allowing for many sources of contamination.

In Texas, human activity has affected water quality in all 15 river basins, in the eight coastal basins where rivers drain into the Gulf of Mexico and in all major aquifers, including some that are sources of drinking water. This section examines four aspects of water quality:

  1. Surface Water Quality,

  2. Groundwater Quality,

  3. Drinking Water Quality, and

  4. Water Quality in Coastal Areas.


For more than 100 years, the federal government has been passing laws to provide funding and oversight for the development of dams, reservoirs and canals. Not until the 1940s and 1950s, however, did Congress begin to address water pollution legislatively. And initial efforts in this area, like the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, did not address pollution prevention plans or the development of water quality standards. Instead they focused on funding water treatment plants, identifying polluted bodies of water and locating the polluters for legal action. Unfortunately, the strategy of determining which polluter caused which pollution was expensive and often unsuccessful.(1)

Comprehensive legislation to protect water quality didn't take off until the 1960s. Rachel Carson's 1962 bestseller, Silent Spring, bolstered by articles and scientific reports detailing pollution problems, provided the impetus for the nation's first water quality legislation.(2) During the early 1960s, the National Wildlife Federation, the Izaak Walton League and the National Audubon Society campaigned for strong federal water-quality bills.

One result was the 1965 Water Quality Act, which established within the Department of Interior the Water Pollution Control Administration. With the creation of this new federal agency, water quality was for the first time treated as an environmental concern, apart from the more traditional public health concern. The new agency also had precedence over states in setting water quality standards. The 1965 law was soon followed by the 1966 Clean Waters Act, which provided construction grants for wastewater treatment facilities.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, administered by the Department of the Interior, attempted to preserve waters with outstanding scenic, recreational or habitat value by placing them on a Secretary of Interior-approved list. To a limited degree, the law protects these listed "wild and scenic rivers" from water projects and from additional discharges. It prohibits the development of public or private hydroelectric power plants on these rivers and restrains certain other types of development. In Texas, only the Rio Grande has been designated as a wild and scenic river, and this designation has not protected the river from degradation. In fact, in 1993, American Rivers, a non-profit watchdog organization, named the Rio Grande the most endangered river in the U.S.(3)

The Clean Water Act of 1972 forms the basis today for water quality protection for surface water in streams, rivers and lakes as well as for groundwater. It was enacted as a series of amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, a law spurred by public concern over epidemics of disease caused by water-borne bacteria. The 1972 Act was prompted by the worsening condition of U.S. rivers and by several high-profile oil spills, including the Santa Barbara channel spill, in which 250 million gallons of crude oil escaped to damage miles of California coastline.(4)

The Clean Water Act required both municipal and industrial polluters to employ approved technologies in their operations. It also set water quality standards for major rivers and lakes and required discharge permits for both public and private facilities. The Act was strengthened in 1977 in an effort to address the most visible causes of water pollution. It explicitly prohibited the discharge of hazardous substances into waterways , including industrial waste, sewage, accidental spills, toxics and other point sources. The Clean Water Act of 1977 also further protected wetlands by requiring U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue permits for all dredging and filling projects. These permits are called
"404" permits.

Between 1972, when the first Clean Water Act was passed, and 1990, about $260 billion in private and public funds were spent on wastewater treatment facilities. Another $20 billion was spent to comply with federal requirements on drinking water quality, most of it from the public sector.(5)

The 1987 amendments to the Clean Water Act were the first concerted effort by the federal government to address pollution from non-point sources, including agricultural fields and feedlots, urban streets and run-off channeled through municipal stormwater systems. The law required states to develop a non-point-source management plan. As of 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency had approved these plans for 44 states, including Texas. (6) While the goal of these plans is to alleviate non-point-source pollution, states are not required to go beyond voluntary programs. The management plans develop abatement strategies for water degraded by non-point sources, but implementation of the plans is strictly voluntary. The 1987 Act also created and funded several special programs, including one to deal with toxic hot spots and one to protect estuaries.

In 1995, the U.S. Congress debated making major changes in the scope of the Clean Water Act, giving industries and cities much greater flexibility in meeting clean water standards. Texas and national environmental groups opposed these changes.

Early in the twentieth century, contamination of the water supply and outbreaks of disease led to questions about how we purify our water and how we protect our drinking water supplies from pollution. The Public Health Service Act of 1912 set guidelines for allowable levels of contaminants related to communicable diseases like typhoid. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 created national drinking water standards to limit a range of substances that can adversely affect human health. These maximum-contaminant levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency are based upon the health effects of a single contaminant. They do not consider the cumulative impact of a combination of contaminants on human health, because little is known about possible synergistic effects. Thus, the protective value of these standards may fall short of what is optimum for human health.(11)

The 1986 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act accelerated the EPA's schedule for bringing contaminants under regulation and expanded the number of contaminants covered. It also banned all future use of lead pipes and lead solder in public drinking water systems, increased fines and enforcement and mandated greater protection of drinking water obtained from groundwater through the establishment of a well-head protection program.(12)

Though these laws have enhanced the safety of the public water supply, they have been a major expense for public water systems, especially systems serving smaller populations. In 1993, for example, at the direction of the 1986 Drinking Water Act, EPA increased from six to 18 the number of regulated pesticides. EPA estimated that it would cost $24 billion per year for 200,000 systems across the country to monitor the regulated contaminants. Monitoring for 30 to 35 as-yet-unregulated contaminants in anticipation of future regulations would cost these public water systems an additional $89 billion.(13)

Other federal environmental laws related to water quality include:

In 1992 and again in 1994, the river authorities for all 15 inland rivers and eight coastal basins where the rivers flow into the Gulf of Mexico identified the lack of water-quality monitoring as the single biggest pollution issue facing their river basins.(7) In 1994, under the administration of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission and as required by the federal Clean Water Act, the state tested water quality at 695 sites in 1,700 different samples. This level of monitoring represents an increase over the 1991 to 1993 period, but is substantially less than during the 1980s, when most sites were sampled at least quarterly, rather than annually.(8) However, these sites included only about one in three of the miles of continually flowing, or "perennial," streams and rivers. Thus, almost nothing is known about the quality of 25,000 out of 40,000 miles of the state's permanent rivers and streams. Also unexamined is the water quality in some 145,000 miles of "intermittent" streams, which flow only during periods of high rainfall.

In 1994, the Commission monitored water quality in only 114 of an estimated 5,700 lakes and reservoirs.(9) Though these reservoirs contain more than 50 percent of total acres in the state's lakes and reservoirs, the sampling protocol nevertheless leaves almost 5,600 smaller bodies of water virtually unmonitored, including 90 reservoirs with more than 5,000 acre-feet of water.(10) And where the state does monitor water quality, little testing is done to detect the presence of toxic chemicals or to evaluate the overall state of aquatic life.

Instead, the Commission concentrates its limited resources for monitoring on physiochemical parameters such as dissolved oxygen content, pH, streamflow, temperature, fecal coliform levels, total dissolved solids, sulfate and chloride. Heavy metals and organics, including some toxics, are also tested in the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission's laboratory.(14)

Even less information is available on the quality of groundwater because the state has no systematic monitoring program for its aquifers. Limited monitoring is done around certain potential contamination sources, such as hazardous waste sites and uranium mines. Otherwise, periodic studies of water wells by the Texas Water Development Board, the Texas Department of Agriculture and some local groundwater conservation districts are the only source of information on groundwater quality. And the Texas Water Development Board is only able to inventory about 10 percent of the nearly 12,000 water wells drilled each year to assign them a state well number and put them on a topographic map. Since this inventory forms the basis for monitoring water quality and for assuring that abandoned wells are properly plugged, gaps in information are significant. In fact, in the absence of state oversight, local and regional governments have been assigning these wells their own numbers.(15)

Texas Environmental Almanac, Chapter 2, Water Quality, Page 1

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