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Surface Water: Rivers and Lakes - Do The Nation's Waters Meet The"fishable/swimmable" Goals?

advisories national recreational outbreaks


Meeting the "fishable" goal of the Clean Water Act means providing a level of water quality that protects and promotes successful populations of fish, shellfish, and wildlife. The "fish consumption" use—the ability for humans to safely eat the fish—is a higher use than most states assign to their waters. When fish or shellfish in particular locations contain harmful levels of pollutants, the state issues advisories against eating the fish to recreational fishermen. Commercial fishing is usually banned.

Figure 3.10 shows the number of advisories against eating fish or wildlife reported by the states to the EPA as of 2003. These advisories are specific as to location, species, and pollutant. Some advisories caution against eating any fish from a particular location; while others caution against eating a particular species of fish only because it is more likely to bioaccumulate the chemical of concern. Advisories from the EPA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2003 included warnings that women who are pregnant or nursing and young children avoid eating certain kinds of fish. Consuming mercury can damage the developing nervous systems of babies and children.

In 2003, forty-eight states, the District of Columbia, and American Samoa reported 3,094 fish and wildlife consumption advisories. The bioaccumulative chemicals—mercury, PCBs, chlordane, dioxins, and DDT—caused most of the advisories. (See Table 3.2 and Table 3.3.) Coal-fired utilities were the most common cause of air-borne mercury contamination in 2003. The use of PCBs, chlordane, and DDT has been banned for more than twenty years, yet these compounds persist in the sediments and are taken in through the food chain and biomagnified.

According to "Fish Warnings Up Due to Mercury Pollution—EPA," (Reuters News Service, August 26, 2004), U.S. coal-burning utility plants are the largest unregulated source of mercury in the United States, releasing about forty-eight tons of the toxin annually. In early 2004 the administration of President George W. Bush proposed a standard that would require these facilities to reduce their mercury emissions by 70% by 2018.


Meeting the "swimmable" goal is defined by the EPA as providing water quality that allows recreational activities both in and on the water. In the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory, four states reported that they had no record of recreation restrictions reported to them FIGURE 3.10
Total fish consumption advisories, by state, 2003
SOURCE: "Total Number of Fish Consumption Advisories—2003," in National Listing of Fish Advisories, National Maps and Graphics, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, August 2004, (accessed April 1, 2005)
by their respective health departments; thirteen states and tribes identified 233 sites where recreation was restricted at least once during the reporting cycle. Local health departments closed many of those sites more than once. Pathogens (bacteria) caused most of the restrictions. State reporting on recreational restrictions, such as beach closures, is often incomplete because agencies rely on local health departments to voluntarily monitor and report beach closures.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report "Surveillance for Waterborne-Disease Outbreaks—United States, 2001–2002" (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, October 22, 2004) listed the incidence of disease outbreaks caused by recreational water contact. During this two-year period, twenty-three states reported sixty-five outbreaks, affecting 2,536 persons. Of the sixty-five recreational waterborne disease outbreaks reported, thirty involved gastroenteritis. There were fifteen such outbreaks in 1999 and twenty-one in 2000. Figure 3.11 shows the number of waterborne disease outbreaks due to recreational water use annually from 1978 to 2002, with a breakdown by illness. The year 2000 saw the highest number of outbreaks for the entire period.

As part of the Beaches Act of 2000, the U.S. Congress has directed the EPA to develop a new set of guidelines for recreational water based on new water-quality indicators. Beginning in 2003 the EPA was required to conduct a series of epidemiologic studies at recreational freshwater and marine beaches. These studies will be used to help in the development of the new guidelines for recreational water.

National fish advisory trends, 1993–2003
SOURCE: "National Trends," in National Listing of Fish Advisories, National Maps and Graphics U.S. Environmental Protection Age August 2004, (accessed April 1, 2005)

Year Percent national river miles under Percent national lake acres under advisory National number of river under miles advisory National number of lake acres under advisory
1993 2% 8% 74,505 3,381,722
1994 5% 14% 160,091 5,905,421
1995 6% 16% 200,832 6,714,645
1996 7% 17% 258,139 7,059,659
1997 9% 20% 327,424 8,001,140
1998 8% 19% 281,163 7,780,275
1999 8% 24% 282,645 9,654,240
2000 10% 26% 371,766 10,628,888
2001 14% 28% 485,205 11,277,276
2002 15% 33% 544,036 13,413,763
2003 24% 35% 846,310 14,195,187

Pollutants causing consumption advisories, 2003
SOURCE: "Bioaccumulative Pollutants," in National Listing of Fish Advisories, National Maps and Graphics, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, August 2004, (accessed April 1, 2005)

Although current advisories in the United States have been issued for 40 different pollutants, most advisories involve five primary bioaccumulative contaminants:
• Mercury: 2,362 advisories active in 2003 (up 10% from 2002)
• PCBs: 884 advisories active in 2003 (up 9% from 2002)
• Chlordane: 89 advisories active in 2003 (down from 97 advisories in 2002)
• Dioxins: 90 advisories active in 2003 (up from 74 advisories in 2002)
• DDT and metabolites: 52 advisories active in 2003 (up from 48 in 2002)
The increase in advisories issued by the states generally reflects an increase in the number of assessments of contaminants in fish and wildlife tissues.

Number of waterborne-disease outbreaks associated with recreational water use, by illness, 1978–2002
SOURCE: "Figure 4. Number of Waterborne-Disease Outbreaks (n=445) Associated with Recreational Water by Year and Illness—United States, 1978–2002," in "Surveillance for Waterborne-Disease Outbreaks Associated with Recreational Water—United States, 2001–2002," Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, October 22, 2004, (accessed April 1, 2005)

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