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Water Pollution Solutions - Cleaning It Up

Updated on August 17, 2015
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Susette has a Masters degree in Sustainable Development. She leads her local Green Council and writes for The Sustainable Business Review.

Discarded Plastic Bottles & Other Trash
Discarded Plastic Bottles & Other Trash | Source

Human-caused water pollution has become a major, life-threatening problem for humans and other living species all over the earth. We need to be cleaning it up.

Although we have a tendency to blame major polluters for being callous and greedy, until citizens started taking notice and talking about it, most of our polluting was actually unconscious. Indeed, we have gone in the last several years from dumping unthinkingly, to a growing awareness and a degree of alarm, to recently making changes as soon as we see how.

"When making a fire, people often like to join you. When cleaning the ashes you are often alone." ~ African proverb.

Pollution Solution Key: Change in Attitude

Any problem caused by humans can be cleared up by humans and that includes water pollution. Instead of being discouraged at the amount of trash and/or contamination there is to clean up, we can use the promise of legal and voluntary prevention (including fines) as motivation to clean up now, knowing that others are working on the prevention side.

In the process, keeping each other and the public well informed is key. Just as Wikileaks is causing a scramble in governments worldwide to clean up their acts, so publicizing information about polluters has caused many of them to start scrambling. This will increase as the public begins more and more to link pollution together with irresponsibility. Here is an analogy that all parents can identify with.

You want to encourage your children to grow up responsibly. You teach them to treat each other and you with respect. You teach them the value of hard work and love for the environment. And you teach them to clean up their rooms. They can play and get as messy as they want to, but they still have to clean up their rooms.

Water Pollution Facts

This is what results when children who grow up irresponsibly become adults:

  • Even after passage of the US Clean Water Act in 1977, 40% of U.S. lakes, rivers, and streams are classified unsafe for fishing or swimming, per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • Cleaning up the 300,000 existing contaminated groundwater sites could cost $1 trillion and take over 30 years, per the US National Research Council . . . that is, if pollution stops meantime.

  • Per the EPA, eliminating pollution from agriculture could save over $15 billion in construction of advanced water treatment facilities.

  • Rather than clean up after agribusiness, German water utilities are saving money by paying farmers to switch to organic farming.

Groundwater Polluting Landfill
Groundwater Polluting Landfill | Source
Ocean Scientists Testing Pollution Detection Tools in the Arctic
Ocean Scientists Testing Pollution Detection Tools in the Arctic | Source

Pollution Problems to Clean Up

Here are some of the pollution problems people are attempting to deal with - by trying different solutions to see what works, developing new technologies, or pressing for action on problems with polluters:

  • Trash gyres filled with plastics growing in all four major oceans

  • Landfills overflowing all over the country

  • City and county groundwater too contaminated to drink

  • Drinking wells in Native American reservations poisoned by runaway mining

  • City drinking water tainted with throwaway pharmaceuticals

Note that there is a difference between creating programs to clean up existing pollution (solutions) vs. taking measures to stop pollution henceforth (prevention). Both are important.

Ocean Pollution

All five oceans now contain slowly rotating piles of garbage where their currents meet (gyres). The largest, most infamous gyre has been nicknamed the "North Pacific Garbage Patch." It spreads out to cover an area the size of Texas, consisting mostly of column after column of tiny pieces of plastic. The area, once a central feeding ground for ocean life, now collects trash that fish are filling their stomachs with, only to then starve.

Environmentalists are agonizing about the problem, sailors are talking about it, journalists are writing about it, and a few organizations are finally starting to do something about it. Here are three planned cleanup projects, plus a dissenting voice:

Freshwater Pollution - Lakes, Rivers, Streams
Freshwater Pollution - Lakes, Rivers, Streams | Source

Freshwater Pollution

Much of the pollution in the oceans is dumped into them via freshwater rivers. Just as seafaring ships too often unload bilge water illegally into the oceans, so do freshwater boats into lakes. Major dumpers, though, are factories, agri-business, mining and logging operations, and abbatoirs, all of which also use waterways as toilet flushes. This results in toxic chemicals, scrap metals and plastics, animal blood and guts, and innumerable other undesirable elements that enter our water supply every day.

All this pollution carries to the ocean and also goes into our groundwater. Until water suppliers started building big, expensive treatment plants to take them out again, so we could drink safely, populations near polluted lakes and rivers were acquiring unexpected cancers and strange, reproductive anomalies in ever increasing amounts.

The public recognized the danger of this kind of pollution much faster than they did ocean pollution, and in 1977 insisted on the passage and enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Here are two restoration projects supported by that act and one that is locally sponsored.

Groundwater Pollution

Groundwater pollution is an inevitable result of land pollution. When a military facility or plastics manufacturer buries wastes in the ground, rainwater will wash those wastes down into the aquafir. All over the country, neighbors of these types of facilities have sickened from such pollution, and many have died. Erin Brockovitch made a movie out of it and many towns have sued. Here are several groundwater cleanup projects taking place this year:

JPL Groundwater Treatment Facility
JPL Groundwater Treatment Facility | Source

Environmental Solutions to Pollution

Scientists and agriculturalists are discovering some interesting ways that nature has of cleaning up toxins in the environment. Blue and green algaes are now being cultivated, both for cleanup and to produce biofuel. Mycelium, or the underground portion of mushrooms - in fact, its plant (mushrooms are the fruit) - are another.

Among many other things, mycelium convert toxins derived from oil into nutrients usable by other microbes, who break it down further for plants. If landfill owners were to landscape the tops of old landfills with trees and mushrooms (they like shade), there is a probability that toxins currently leaking down into the groundwater would decompose before they reach it. The same could be done with brownfield (lightly contaminated) and even SuperFund sites (heavily contaminated with chemicals and fuels).

Water Pollution Prevention

The most frustrating thing about cleaning up pollution is the awareness that it will probably happen again. Why should people and organizations spend so much time and money to clean up waterways, if polluters will just keep polluting?

For this reason, cleanup and prevention must go hand in hand. Those who clean up can link with those who would focus on prevention, giving them tips and data (what they're finding out there), taking photographs, and feeding them all the raw materials they need for advocacy or public relations work. Between cleanup solutions, pollution prevention, and nature's own cleanup processes the pollution problem can be conquered.

CalRecycle - Delta Cleanup


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    • La Moana profile image

      La Moana 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Great article, useful links! Voted up

    • CWanamaker profile image

      CWanamaker 5 years ago from Arizona

      Attitude & Education: You hit the nail on the head right there. When people's attitudes change, so will their voting and purchasing decisions. Great article WaterGeek!