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Solutions to Water Pollution—Can We Clean It Up?

Susette has a Masters degree in Sustainable Development. She leads her local Green Council and writes for The Sustainable Business Review.

Discarded Plastic Bottles and Other Trash

Discarded Plastic Bottles and Other Trash

Human-caused water pollution has become a major, life-threatening problem for humans and other living species all over the earth. We need to work on cleaning it up fast.

Although we have a tendency to blame major polluters for being callous and greedy, until citizens started taking notice and talking about it, most of our polluting was actually unconscious. Because of public awareness, many polluters have progressed from dumping unthinkingly to slowly recognizing the problem and trying to change their production processes. Federal and state governments have also passed laws that restrict pollution (though many of those laws are later gutted by less environmentally minded administrations).

However, there are things you and I can do to encourage necessary changes. We can start by changing our attitudes and demonstrating how much we care through our actions.

"When making a fire, people often like to join you. When cleaning the ashes, you are often alone."

— African proverb

4 Pollution Solutions

Let's examine four of the ways certain people are already starting to address the water pollution problem. Remember—the more tactics we use to combat pollution, the more likely we are to make a significant dent in it.

Solution 1: Change Your Attitude

Any problem caused by humans can be cleared up by humans. That includes water pollution. Instead of being discouraged by the amount of trash and contamination there is to clean up, we can encourage companies to clean up their practices through legal incentives (including fines) to prevent additional pollution.

Keeping each other well informed about existing polluters is key. Just as Wikileaks has caused a scramble in governments worldwide to clean up their acts, so publicizing information about polluters has caused many of them to start scrambling to clean up theirs.

This will increase as the public begins to link pollution with irresponsibility—to talk about what they see, writing letters to government representatives and major polluters, and taking action themselves. Here is what the public is doing to clean up the American River in California.

Solution 2: Raise Your Kids Well

Children develop attitudes that then guide their entire lives. This includes those who grow up to be corporate leaders and polluters. Here is an analogy that all parents can identify with—you want to encourage your children to grow up responsibly, so you teach them . . .

  • to treat each other and you with respect,
  • the value of hard work and love for the environment, and
  • to clean up after themselves—they can play and get as messy as they want to, but they have to clean up after they've finished.

If corporate leaders were to grow up expecting to have to clean up after themselves, we would have far less pollution to deal with than we do now. Raising children with these values is a role that parents can play to help clean up our polluted environment.

Instead, people who did grow up responsibly are forming teams all across the world to manually clean up non-toxic pollution that washes up onto river banks. Here is a website that provides advice on how to set up a team.

Nonprofit organizations are setting up projects that dredge trash from the middle of rivers as well, like Project Aware—a multi-day boating project in Iowa.

Solution 3: Farm Organic

Here is the end result when children who grow up irresponsibly become adults:

  • 40% of U.S. lakes, rivers, and streams are unsafe for fishing or swimming, per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), even after passage of the US Clean Water Act in 1977. US President Trump later gutted that act.
  • There are more than 300,000 existing contaminated groundwater sites. Cleaning them up could cost the government $1 trillion and take over 30 years, per the US National Research Council—or more if companies keep polluting.
  • Per the EPA, eliminating pollution from agriculture alone could save over $15 billion in construction of advanced water treatment facilities—which have to keep upgrading to filter out the newest pollutants.

The best solution to pollutants coming from agriculture is what German water utilities are doing. They are saving money by paying farmers to switch to organic farming—which is cheaper for them than trying to clean up pollution caused by pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and other pollutants industrial farmers use.

Switching to organic farming can take care of pollution caused by agribusiness, which is major, especially of our waterways. However, there are lots of other types of polluters out there too.

Decomposing trash from this massive landfill is polluting the aquifer underneath. That means the drinking water for folks living nearby would be poisonous too, if it weren't for water utilities installing special equipment to clean it up.

Decomposing trash from this massive landfill is polluting the aquifer underneath. That means the drinking water for folks living nearby would be poisonous too, if it weren't for water utilities installing special equipment to clean it up.

Solution 4: New Cleanup Technologies

Here are some of the pollution problems people are attempting to deal with by developing new technologies or pressing for action on problems with polluters:

  • Trash gyres filled with plastics growing in all four major oceans
  • Landfills overflowing all over the world
  • City and county groundwater too contaminated to drink
  • Drinking wells all over the country poisoned by runaway mining and leaking oil pipes
  • City drinking water tainted with throwaway pharmaceuticals

Engineers and scientists worldwide are looking for and developing new technologies to help clean up existing pollution like this. So are students, and they are winning awards for doing so.

Scientists are working worldwide to develop new pollution detection devices. Here a team is testing new tools in the Arctic Ocean.

Scientists are working worldwide to develop new pollution detection devices. Here a team is testing new tools in the Arctic Ocean.

Ocean Pollution Cleanup Technologies

In addition to river outlets being filled with agricultural chemicals that kill fish, all five oceans now contain slowly rotating piles of garbage where their currents meet (gyres)—kind of like ocean landfills. The largest, most infamous gyre has been nicknamed the "North Pacific Garbage Patch." It spreads out to cover an area the size of Texas, consisting mostly of column after column of tiny pieces of plastic. The area, once a central feeding ground for ocean life, now collects trash that fish are filling their stomachs with, so they have no room for regular food and starve.

Environmentalists are agonizing about the problem, sailors are talking about it, journalists are writing about it, and a few organizations are finally starting to do something about it. There are several new ocean cleanup technologies, including the Plastic Fish Tower.

People have trashed lakes, rivers, and streams as well as the ocean. This water sinks down into the aquifer, taking the pollution down into our drinking water, leaving lighter trash by the shores, and moving the rest into the ocean.

People have trashed lakes, rivers, and streams as well as the ocean. This water sinks down into the aquifer, taking the pollution down into our drinking water, leaving lighter trash by the shores, and moving the rest into the ocean.

Freshwater Pollution Cleanup Technologies

Much of the pollution in the oceans gets there from freshwater rivers. Just as seafaring ships too often unload bilge water illegally into the oceans, so do freshwater boats into lakes and rivers.

Other major dumpers are factories, agri-businesses, mining and logging operations, and abbatoirs, all of which also use waterways as toilet flushes. This results in toxic chemicals, scrap metals and plastics, animal blood and guts, and innumerable other undesirable elements entering our water supply every day. All this pollution flows to the ocean and also goes into our groundwater, where cleanup is difficult.

As a result, populations near polluted lakes and rivers have started to acquire unexpected cancers and strange, reproductive anomalies in ever-increasing amounts. Eventually, household water suppliers started building big, expensive treatment plants to take the pollutants out again so the public could drink safely, and people started having to pay for the water they use.

Because the public recognized the danger of this kind of pollution much faster than they did ocean pollution, in 1977 we pushed the government to pass and enforce the Clean Water Act. This was intended to prevent additional pollution and also to enable the government to help clean up existing pollution.

The EPA then developed a cleanup project for the Great Lakes that has since been postponed until it can be "discussed" with the public. It also started a multi-year cleanup project for the New Bedford Harbor, which has been more productive.

Rivers are also polluted by old boats and mechanical trash that nonprofits in California are cleaning out of the San Francisco Delta waterways.

New Bedford Harbor is a leading fishing port in the U.S, mainly focusing on scallops. Local electronics manufacturers were major polluters during the 1940s to mid '70s. Ships dumping bilge water over the side also pollute.

New Bedford Harbor is a leading fishing port in the U.S, mainly focusing on scallops. Local electronics manufacturers were major polluters during the 1940s to mid '70s. Ships dumping bilge water over the side also pollute.

Many states in the U.S. are carrying out cleanup projects as well, including Washington, Oregon, California, and states on the East Coast, many of which are joint projects with the federal government. Most are using prevention techniques—filtering water dumped by manufacturers before it enters the rivers—but some are working with native tribes and local inventors to develop both new and existing methods of river cleanup.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the government of India established the Ganges Action Plan in 2015, which promotes and supports cleanup of the revered Ganges River through both technological and natural methods. Although many claim it is massively unfunded, compared to the amount of garbage in the river, the project seems to be working well.

Groundwater Pollution

Groundwater pollution is an inevitable result of land pollution. When a military facility or plastics manufacturer buries wastes in the ground, rainwater will wash those wastes down into the aquifer. All over the United States, neighbors of these types of facilities have sickened from such pollution, and many have died. The public was alerted to the danger when Erin Brockovich filed a contentious class-action lawsuit against an energy company in California and, in the year 2000, collaborated in producing a Hollywood movie starring Julia Roberts. Many towns sued.

The Jet Propulsion Lab in California has a cleanup project that is removing old jet fuels from the groundwater in Pasadena and surrounding areas.

The groundwater treatment facility set up by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Altadena, CA, to clean up groundwater pollution from former toxic aerospace activity.

The groundwater treatment facility set up by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Altadena, CA, to clean up groundwater pollution from former toxic aerospace activity.

Environmental Solutions to Pollution

Scientists and agriculturalists are discovering some interesting ways that nature has of cleaning up toxins in the environment. When blue-green algae invade a river or harbor, it's an indication that phosphorus is polluting the water. Using that indicator to locate and stop the pollution is a solution being used in China to clean its lakes.

Researchers have also discovered that mycelia—the underground portions of mushroom fruits—can convert toxins derived from oil into nutrients that soil microbes can break down further to feed plants. If landfill owners were to landscape the tops of old landfills with trees and mushrooms (they like shade), it's probable that toxins leaking into the groundwater would decompose before reaching it.

The same could be done with brownfield (lightly contaminated) and even SuperFund sites (heavily contaminated with chemicals and fuels). The Ocean Blue Project in Corvallis, Texas, is using mushrooms to clean up their local waterways.

Water-Pollution Prevention

The most frustrating thing about cleaning up pollution is the awareness that it will probably happen again. Why should people and organizations spend time and money to clean up waterways if polluters just keep polluting?

For this reason, cleanup and prevention must go hand in hand. Those who clean up can link with those focused on prevention, giving them tips and data, taking photographs, and feeding them all the raw materials they need for advocacy or public-relations work. Between cleanup solutions, pollution prevention, and nature's own cleanup processes, the pollution problem can be conquered.

Comments

La Moana from Hawaii on July 01, 2012:

Great article, useful links! Voted up

Christopher Wanamaker from Arizona on June 30, 2012:

Attitude & Education: You hit the nail on the head right there. When people's attitudes change, so will their voting and purchasing decisions. Great article WaterGeek!

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