Friday, April 8, 2016
Water Pollution: A Local Issue
As you know, we live in an area blessed by beautiful topography, great biodiversity, and immense fresh water resources. With so much relatively clean fresh water just outside our door, it is easy for us to start to take it for granted. However, we must remember to appreciate the Finger Lakes and all great benefits they provide to us, because there are millions of people in the world who lack the bare necessities. While we may feel as though fresh water security is a given in our area, that does not mean that we don't have to be conscious of what we put in our water and the measures we are taking to protect it, because everything ends up in the lake.
Cayuga Lake alone provides drinking water to thousands of people in Ithaca and throughout the region, not to mention the thousands more that make a living off the lake from tourism, recreation, fishing, and other activities. These industries heavily rely on the health and water quality of Cayuga Lake, so it is imperative that we ensure it is adequately maintained.
There are several issues that must be monitored and controlled in terms of water quality in our area. The first is agriculture. Agriculture, as you may know, plays a huge role in the lives of many in our area, but can also pose a serious threat to the lake. Most conventional agriculture use large amounts of chemical inputs that go into fertilizing and protecting plants from pests and weeds. These chemicals are largely unmonitored or regulated and are applied in large amounts to fields. With heavy rains, immense runoff is created, washing much of these chemicals into nearby gullies and streams and eventually into the lake. These chemicals, which are often high in nutrients such as Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus, can cause algae blooms in the lake and deplete the water of oxygen. Chemicals are not the only issue to worry about in terms of agricultural runoff. Dairy and other livestock raising farms produce large amounts of animal feces, which have similar effects on the lake. Lastly, soil erosion is another problem and one that can easily be seen after heavy rains when the lake becomes brown and murky. Though some of this is natural, tilling of fields and other farm practices that disrupt soil and create runoff can lead to erosion that is slowly filling the lake with sediments.
One lake over at Seneca Lake, a historical battle is being fought to protect the largest of the Finger Lakes. Like Cayuga, Seneca Lake provides water and jobs for thousands of local people, which may be in jeopardy due to the approval of a natural gas storage facility owned and run by a Texas-based company called Crestwood. The company plans to store natural gas in the abandoned salt mines under the lake, which can have detrimental effects on water quality and local ecosystems. Fortunately there is a group called We Are Seneca Lake, headed by Dr. Sandra Steingraber, that is dedicated to preserving the lake and making sure the project does not go through. Dr. Steingraber and several other scientists from many disciplines have conducted research showing possibilities of what could happen if natural gas is stored in the lake. Besides being against the use of fossil fuels, the group cites similar projects that have been done throughout the country that have had adverse consequences, including salinization of lakes, caving in of mines, and explosions when the pressurized natural gas leaks up through the ground. The group has been peacefully protesting for over a year and will not relent until the battle is won.
The last major pollution threat to the Finger Lakes, and many bodies of water throughout the country and world, is caused by citizens like you and me. This type of pollution, though not intentional, can have varying effects, many of which we do not even know yet. Two of the main pollutants are micro-plastics and various kinds of chemicals found in consumer products and drugs. Micro-plastics, such as the now banned Micro-beads, are being found inside of fish, birds, and other aquatic life. These plastics, derived from petroleum, can affect the internal systems of organisms and can compromise whole populations. The chemicals from consumer products come from things such as cosmetics, shampoos, aspirin, and birth control medications. Trace amounts are released in human urine and accumulate in the lake and can effect the edocrine and reproductive systems of fish and other species.
While we are personally not in control of many of the problems facing our lake today, we can make small changes to our lives, such as using natural alternatives to conventional drugs, washing with biodegradable and naturally derived soaps and shampoos, or even joining a powerful movement such as We Are Seneca Lake. Whatever you do, make sure to appreciate the vast resources we have at our fingertips and take steps to preserve and protect them the best you can.