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American Rivers

By Katie Rousseau

Since 2004, studies have shown that the algae problem in Lake Erie has been slowly getting worse with last year being the worst year on record. The algae, which usually stayed in Maumee Bay and the Western Basin of Lake Erie had now spread into the Central Basin and past Cleveland.

People who live and work along the shores of Lake Erie see this as a serious threat to their livelihood. We are seeing a major decline in tourism and charter boat rentals because of this green mess on the Lake—it’s hard to miss.

Last month, I participated in a workshop addressing the issues causing the harmful algal blooms and what solutions are best to combat them. My focus was on urban stormwater and how best management practices can help reduce phosphorus and other pollutants entering rivers and streams, which add to the algae problem.

Polluted runoff was the primary source of pollution for 13 percent of rivers, 18 percent of lakes, 32 percent of estuaries, and 55 percent of ocean shorelines across the country under the U.S. Environmental Protectin Agency’s (EPA) list of impaired waters.

Every year, up to 3.5 million people become sick from contact with water contaminated by sewage. For two beaches in California alone, illness associated with swimming in water contaminated by polluted runoff at those beaches cost the public more than $3 million every year.

Polluted runoff not only has a significant public health impact, but can have an economic one as well when beaches are forced to close and fisheries are shut down due to pollution.

Green infrastructure practices can offer a cost-effective alternative to managing polluted runoff by capturing and treating rainwater where it falls. Reducing the polluted runoff that goes into our rivers, lakes and streams protects clean water and public health, and can even save money in avoided healthcare and economic costs—going green to save green.

Reducing pollutants like excess nutrients that enter the Great Lakes and other waters by capturing rainwater where it falls to reduce polluted runoff is a critical tool to protect public health. Green infrastructure practices also have the added benefit of creating more green space and providing air quality benefits.

Green roofs can help to reduce urban heat islands, keeping temperatures cooler and improving air quality. A 2006 study of Philadelphia found that 196 heat-related fatalities could be avoided over a 40-year period using green infrastructure, which could save the city over $1.45 billion. One 40,000 square foot roof in Portland removes 1,600 pounds of particulate matter from the air every year, yielding $3,024 annually in avoided healthcare costs.

Not only can green infrastructure practices protect public health, they can also help communities save on energy costs and reduce flooding. Check out our recent report, Banking On Green where we examine the cost-effectiveness of green infrastructure practices and the benefits they can provide to communities beyond clean water.

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