March 12 – What A Drip!

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.

The Great Salt Lake is an endorheic watershed (My camera)

The Great Salt Lake is an endorheic watershed
(My camera)

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.

This is not how you clean up a river (My camera)

This is not how you clean up a river
(My camera)

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/

February 26 – A River Divided Cannot Stand

Today’s factismal: The Republican River is named for the Kithehaki Pawnee Indians who lived beside it.

The Republican River is a beautiful tributary that flows through the states of Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas before it joins the Kansas River and flows on down to the Gulf of Mexico. At a mere 453 miles long, it isn’t America’s longest river and with just 848 cubic feet of water per second moving through it, it certainly isn’t America’s biggest. But what the Republican River just might be is America’s most adjudicated river. That’s because the Republican River was the center of a lawsuit that went all the way from the local courts up to the US Supreme Court. More about that in a moment.

Long before it was the center of a lawsuit, the Republican River was the center of the lives of the Kithehaki Pawnee Indians who lived on its banks in what would become Kansas and Nebraska. This tribe would come to be known as the Republican Indians,  for reasons that are now obscure. This matrilineal group used the river for food, for water, and for transport for centuries before the Lewis and Clark expedition stopped by to say hello in 1804. Many of them continue to live there today, even though the river is somewhat less full than it was back when their grandfathers’ grandfathers lived there.

The change to intensive irrigation has drained the Republican River (among others) (Image courtesy NASA)

The change to intensive irrigation has drained the Republican River (among others)
(Image courtesy NASA)

The reason that it is less full is also the reason for the lawsuit. As is the case with other rivers in the US (and elsewhere), there are more people that want to use the water from the river than the river can support. And, as has been the case with other rivers in the US (and elsewhere), the folks downstream have sued the ones upstream to get their fair share of the water. What was unusual in this case is that the downstream folks won. Usually, the people upstream have a nearly unlimited right to use the water as they choose, but in this case the states of Nebraska and Kansas had signed a compact defining how much water each was entitled to. The Supreme Court agreed that the compact had been violated (though they disagreed on how much it had been violated) and found for Kansas, fining Nebraska $5.5 million dollars.

Now if you’d like to get involved in helping out the folks downstream from where you live, you have a couple of choices. You can wait for them to file a lawsuit or you can do what you can to conserve water where you live. And one part of that would be to join a “Stream Team” like the one in Texas. These folks go out and measure the amount of water flowing in their streams, so they can help scientists and farmers plan water usage; they also do stream clean-ups and bioblitzes to help improve the water quality and understand what wildlife their stream supports. To join them, flow over to their page:
http://www.meadowscenter.txstate.edu/Service/TexasStreamTeam.html

January 15 – Running On Empty

Today’s factismal: The Colorado River powers some $1,400,000,000,000 in economic activity.

There is no denying the power of a river. Rivers can sweep away towns and topsoil, carve mountains, and generate electricity. They water our fields and move our goods. And yet, rivers are running into problems. And no river is in more trouble right now than the Colorado. Born in the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado, the Colorado River drains seven different states and carries more than four and a half cubic miles of water along its 1,450 mile length. Along the way, the mighty Colorado River provides water to people living in Los Angeles and to farmers feeding the nation from their fields in the Imperial Valley. It makes dusty Las Vegas bloom and cools Flagstaff. All told, the Colorado River is responsible for some $1,400,000,000,000 in economic activity.

The Colorado River Basin includes seven states (Image courtesy Bureau of Reclamation)

The Colorado River Basin includes seven states (Image courtesy Bureau of Reclamation)

And the Colorado River is hardly the only river in the USA. All told, All told, there are more than 250,000 rivers in the USA and they stretch a total of 3,600,000 miles. They range from the the mighty Missouri (2,540 miles) to the tiny Roe River (201 ft), these riparian passages push 48,000,000 gallons of water and sediment into the ocean every second. If you were to catch the water flowing from America’s rivers with Olympic swimming pools, you’d fill up 72 of them every second. Yet, even though these rivers are essential to supporting both our life and our economy, nearly half of them are too polluted to fish from!

There are 3,600,000 miles of river in the USA (Image courtesy AAA)

There are 3,600,000 miles of river in the USA
(Image courtesy National Atlas)

Today, scientists, politicians, and ordinary citizens are working to develop plans to help save America’s rivers. If you’d like help, then consider joining a Riverwatch program (or starting your own!):
http://www.coloradowater.org/River%20Watch
http://cwriverkeepers.wikispaces.com/Home+Page
http://www.georgiaadoptastream.org/

November 6 – What A Drip!

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.

The Great Salt Lake is an endorheic watershed (My camera)

The Great Salt Lake is an endorheic watershed
(My camera)

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.

This is not how you clean up a river (My camera)

This is not how you clean up a river
(My camera)

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/

October 9 – A River Runs Through It

Today’s factismal: There are 3,600,000 miles of river in the USA.

If you look at the United States from space, one of the first things you’ll notice (apart from the purple mountains’ majesty and fruited plains) is the number of rivers that sprawl across its face. All told, there are more than 250,000 rivers in the USA and they stretch a total of 3,600,000 miles; that’s long enough to circle the Earth 144 times or to reach from here to the Moon fifteen times! (“Moon river…”) Ranging in length from the mighty Missouri (2,540 miles) to the tiny Roe River (201 ft), these riparian passages push 48,000,000 gallons of water and sediment into the ocean every second. If you were to catch the water with Olympic swimming pools, you’d fill up 72 of them every second!

There are mmm miles of river in the USA (Image courtesy AAA)

There are 3,600,000 miles of river in the USA
(Image courtesy National Atlas)

Those 250,000 rivers supply water for farming and industry (and drinking). They also serve as efficient transportation for bulk goods like coal, grain, and iron ore; a single 15-barge tow can carry as much cargo as 870 tractor trailer trucks or 225 railroad cars. Yet, even though these rivers are essential to supporting both our life and our economy, nearly half of them are too polluted to fish from!

And that’s why the good citizens of Sherman’s Creek have banded together to monitor their river. These citizen scientists track the amount of oxygen, nitrates, and pollutants in Sherman’s Creek and use the data to help keep their river in swimming hole condition. If you’d like to join them (or just see what a great citizen science project looks like), float on over to:
http://www.shermanscreek.org/monitoringprogram.htm

July 7 – What A Stench!

Today’s factismal: In 1855, Michael Faraday wrote a letter to the editor about pollution in the Thames River.

We often think of pollution as being a modern problem, but the truth is that the world is a lot cleaner now than it used to be. Though the Cuyahoga River did famously catch fire in 1969 (and at least a dozen times before that), it and other rivers in the USA have since been cleaned up and now support vibrant ecologies. Air pollution has decreased over the past three decades (with the notable exception of CO2), and ground water contamination is less common than ever.

But in the 1800s, things seemed to be headed the other way as the Thames River demonstrated. Thanks to a rapid increase in industrialization coupled with a laissez-faire approach to waste treatment (which at the time mostly meant “dump it in the river and hope it doesn’t float”), the amount of sewage in the Thames River had jumped sharply. In addition to the offal, blood, and manure being put into the river by meat packers, there was runoff of dyes containing lead and other heavy metals from the fabric makers, and (worst of all) the combined effluent from more than a million people who had toilets but no plumbing in their homes.

A political cartoon showing Faraday giving his card to the river Thames (Image courtesy Punch)

A political cartoon showing Faraday giving his card to the river Thames
(Image courtesy Punch)

In 1855, the well-respected researcher Michael Faraday wrote a letter to the Times about the state of the Thames. (It is almost a shame that he wrote only once; if he had written nine times more, then we could say that “Faraday wrote ten times to the Times about the Thames”.) And just three years later, a combination of a heat wave and drought would create what the British called with characteristic understatement “The Great Stink”. These events led to the development of a modern sewer system in London which then created a decrease in both the odor and (more importantly) the number of cholera deaths.

Of course, getting rid of pollution isn’t something that just happens. It takes a dedicated group willing to report on the water quality of their local stream, river, or wetland. If that sounds like something that you’d like to do, then why not join one of these programs?
Florida LAKEWATCH
Georgia Adopt-A-Stream
Klamath Riverkeeper
Loudoun Stream Monitoring
Missouri Stream Team Program
OPAL Water Survey (England)

March 4 – Mighty Dry

Today’s factismal: Even though the Colorado River drains seven states, it runs dry before it reaches the ocean!

Rivers are among the most interesting things on Earth. They transport sediment from the mountains to the valleys (and sometimes to the ocean), forming broad, fertile flatlands. They irrigate parched areas and drain wet ones. They can be strong enough to scour the ground all the way to the bedrock, or gentle enough to ride down in an inner tube. Rivers move more than 1.7 billion tons of goods every year in the US alone. Hydroelectric facilities on rivers generate more than 250 million megawatt hours of electricity each year, or about 175 times more than solar power. And yet, rivers are running into problems.

Rivers are used by many different groups for many different purposes. Sometimes, as with hydroelectric dams and recreation, those purposes work together to make a better whole. But more often, they work against each other. Farmers want to use the river water to irrigate their crops, but that takes away water from towns that want to use it to drink and industries that need the water to manufacture products.

The Colorado River Basin includes seven states (Image courtesy Bureau of Reclamation)

The Colorado River Basin includes seven states (Image courtesy Bureau of Reclamation)

The Colorado River is a notorious example of what happens when this problem gets too large. It starts on the western side of the Great Divide, up in the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado. There, the melting snow gathers in innumerable little rills, creeks, brooks, and rivulets. These follow the gravity and flow downhill. As they flow, they come together into ever-larger rivers that finally form the Colorado River. All told, more than four and a half cubic miles of water are gathered by the river to flow along its 1,450 mile length.

But more than five cubic miles of water are spoken for along the Colorado River basin. Some of that is only natural; water evaporates from the river as it flows through the Grand Canyon and on into the desert. But much more of that is demand from people. Farmers use water from the river to irrigate some 3.5 million acres of farmland that produces $3.5 billion worth of food every year. Cities, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, get the majority of their drinking water from the river; all told, more than six million people rely on the river for their drinking water. As a result, the Colorado River goes from being a roaring cascade of fresh white water in the highlands to an oozing trickle of brackish slime near the border of Mexico.

Not only does this leave people and crops thirsty, but it has an immeasurable effect on the local wildlife. Where the upper reaches of the Gulf of California used to be fresher water that allowed a wide variety of animals and plants to thrive, now it is an expanding marshland where little grows. And the lack of fresh, cool water has allowed the temperatures in the Gulf to rise, leading to plankton blooms which threaten the whales that come to the area to rest before heading up to their summer homes near Alaska.

Today, scientists, politicians, and ordinary citizens are working to develop plans to help save the Colorado and other rivers. If you’d like help, then consider joining a Riverwatch program (or starting your own!):
http://www.coloradowater.org/River%20Watch
http://cwriverkeepers.wikispaces.com/Home+Page
http://www.georgiaadoptastream.org/