Today’s factismal: Not all drains lead to the ocean.
If you’ve looked at a storm drain cover lately (or watched Finding Nemo), then you’ve probably seen the warning on it: “This drain leads to the sea”. And, in 82% of the spots on land, that warning would be correct; those storm drains do lead to the ocean, eventually. They lead to creeks that drain into rivers that drain into other rivers that drain into the sea. But in about 18% of the cases, the creek leads to a river that leads to a lake that leads nowhere; it is an endorheic (“flows inside”) basin. When water and other stuff is dumped into that storm sewer, it flows downhill until it gets trapped in a lake. At the lake, the water evaporates away, leaving behind an increasingly salty (and, in some cases, polluted) body of water.
This happens in the Dead Sea, the Caspian Sea, Laguna del Carbon, and the Great Salt Lake. These “terminal lakes” receive the water from everywhere within their drainage basin (also called a catchment or watershed), just as rivers in other watersheds eventually lead to the oceans. But in both cases, the quality of the water has a strong influence on what can live in the watershed. The abundance of fertilizers and silt provided to the Gulf of Mexico by the Mississippi River watershed creates an annual dead zone where fish cannot live; this then reduces the number of fish available for fishing and recreation. Similarly, the continuing shortage of water in the Colorado River has created hypersaline conditions in the Gulf of California that threaten the safety of gray, blue, and finback whales that spend the winter there.
Though it may seem like the problem of cleaning up watersheds is too big to be tackled, the opposite is true. That’s because each big watershed is made up of smaller watersheds. The Gulf of Mexico gets water from the Mississippi River watershed, and the Mississippi River watershed gets water from the Arkansas River, Ohio River, and Missouri River water sheds. And the Ohio River watershed gets its water from the Allegheny and Monongahela River watersheds. And the Monongahela River watershed in turn gets its water from the Youghiogheny, Cheat, and Tygart River watersheds. And each of those watersheds can be further sub-divided into smaller rivers and creeks until you finally arrive at something small enough to clean up.
If you’d like to take part in cleaning up a watershed near you, then there’s no time like the present. Use one of the links below (or google for your own watershed) and get cleaning!
Great Swamp Watershed Association http://www.greatswamp.org/
Hudson River Estuary Program and Scenic Hudson http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/4920.html
Kentucky River Watershed Watch http://www.uky.edu/OtherOrgs/KRWW/
Klamath Riverkeeper http://www.klamathriver.org/
Loudoun Stream Monitoring http://www.loudounwildlife.org/Stream_Monitoring.htm
Master Watershed Steward program (Arizona) http://cals.arizona.edu/watershedsteward/
Missouri Stream Team Program http://www.mostreamteam.org/
OPAL Water Survey http://www.opalexplorenature.org/WaterSurvey
RiverSweep (Ohio River) http://www.orsanco.org/sweep
Shermans Creek Watershed Monitoring Program http://www.shermanscreek.org/monitoringprogram.htm
Watershed Watch http://www.mywatershedwatch.org/
Willamette Riverkeeper Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring http://www.willamette-riverkeeper.org/WRK/waterquality.html
Wisconsin Stream Monitoring http://watermonitoring.uwex.edu/wav/monitoring/
WV Save Our Streams Program http://www.dep.wv.gov/WWE/getinvolved/sos/Pages/default.aspx
Yuba River Water Quality Monitoring http://yubariver.org/river-monitoring/