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EPA Study: Many Watersheds Polluted

By H. Josef Hebert
Associated Press Writer
Thursday, October 2, 1997; 11:21 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) -- More than half of the nation's watersheds examined by the Environmental Protection Agency have water pollution problems due primarily to runoff from farms, factories and sewer systems, the agency said today.

The EPA, in its first national assessment of regional water quality, said that one of every 14 watersheds is vulnerable to further harm from agricultural and urban pollution running into rivers and streams.

For the first time, the EPA will put its detailed watershed assessments on the Internet, including 15 different indicators used to determine water quality. There are more than 2,000 watersheds, river and stream drainage areas, in the country.

The EPA study covered all states except Alaska and Hawaii.

Agricultural runoff has been a longstanding unresolved water pollution problem. Federal environmental laws do not cover farm runoff, leaving regulation to the states.

The issue has gained renewed attention in recent weeks with the outbreak of pfiesteria, a fish-killing microbe, in rivers in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Although the source of pfiesteria is not certain, it is widely believed to be linked to poultry wastes.

"We believe the best way to achieve cleaner water is to protect the more than 2,000 watersheds in this country," EPA Administrator Carol Browner said. She said the EPA hoped that providing the public with detailed information of water quality in each watershed is a key step in protecting the rivers and streams.

The EPA said its data "indicate that polluted runoff from urban and rural areas is a major contributor of water quality problems and threatens water quality in health watersheds."

The federal Clean Water Act controls discharges from factories and sewage treatment plants as well as other urban runoff but does not cover pollution -- such as large amounts of nutrients and pesticides -- from farms.

The American Water Works Association praised the EPA national assessment as a "milestone in public access" to water quality data. While many watersheds have pollution problems, the group said "the vast majority of Americans have clean, fresh tap water that meets strict federal standards for health and safety.

The EPA found that 16 percent of the 2,000 watersheds have good water quality, 36 percent moderate water quality and 21 percent "serious problems." For 27 percent there wasn't enough information available to characterize water quality.

© Copyright 1997 The Associated Press

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