The Condition of the Waters

In the natural life cycle of the water bodies (Figure 1), the sun provides the energy source for plant life (algae), which produces oxygen while converting the inorganic molecules into larger organic ones. The animal life obtains its muscle energy (heat) by consuming these molecules and by also consuming the dissolved oxygen content of the water.

When a town or industry discharges additional organic material into the waters (which nature intended to be disposed of as fertilizer on land), the natural balance is upset. The organic effluent acts as a fertilizer, therefore the algae overpopulates and eventually blocks the transparency of the water. When the water becomes opaque, the ultraviolet rays of the sun can no longer penetrate it. This cuts off the algae from its energy source and it dies. The bacteria try to protect the life cycle in the water by attempting to break down the excess organic material (including the dead body cells of the algae), but the bacteria require oxygen for the digestion process. As the algae is no longer producing fresh oxygen, the dissolved oxygen content of the water drops, and when it reaches zero, all animals suffocate. At that point the living water body has been converted into an open sewer.

In the United States, the setting of water quality standards and the regulation of discharges have been based on the "assimilative capacity" of the receiving waters (a kind of pollution dilution approach), which allows discharges into as yet unpolluted waterways. The Water Pollution Act of 1972 would have temporarily required industry to apply the "best practicable" and "best available" treatments of waste emissions and aimed for zero discharge by 1985. While this last goal has not been reached, the condition of American waterways generally improved during the last decades, while on the global scale water quality has deteriorated.

Water availability has worsened since the first edition of this handbook. In the United States the daily withdrawal rate is about 2,000 gallons per person, which represents roughly one-third of the total daily runoff. The bulk of this water is used by agriculture and industry. The average daily water consumption per household is about 1000 gallons and, on the East Coast, the daily cost of that water is $2-$3. As some 60% of the discharged pollutants (sewage, industrial waste, fertilizers, pesticides, leachings from landfills and mines) reenter the water supplies, there is a direct relationship between the quality and cost of supply water and the degree of waste treatment in the upstream regions.

There seems to be some evidence that the residual chlorine from an upstream wastewater treatment plant can combine in the receiving waters with industrial wastes to form carcinogenic chlorinated hydrocarbons, which can enter the drinking water supplies downstream. Toxic chemicals from the water can be further concentrated through the food chain. Some believe that the gradual poisoning of the environment is responsible for cancer, AIDS, and other forms of immune deficiency and self-destructive diseases.

FIG. 1 The natural life cycle.

While the overall quality of the waterways has improved in the United States, worldwide the opposite occurred. This is caused not only by overpopulation, but also by ocean dumping of sludge, toxins, and nuclear waste, as well as by oil leaks from off-shore oil platforms. We do not yet fully understand the likely consequences, but we can be certain that the ability of the oceans to withstand and absorb pollutants is not unlimited and, therefore, international regulation of these discharges is essential. In terms of international regulations, we are just beginning to develop the required new body of law. The very first case before the International Court of Justice (IJC) wherein it was argued that rivers are not the property of nation states, and that the interests of nations must be balanced against the interests of mankind, was heard by IJC in 1997 in connection with the Danube.

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