Across the country, local governments face challenges keeping local bodies of water safe for humans and the ecosystem. From chemical pollutants to algal blooms, many issues affect the health of local groundwater, creeks, rivers, and lakes. Government institutions must be proactive in addressing these concerns to ensure the long-term viability of this vital resource.
This article will explain why local governments face increasing water quality issues and the root causes of the problems. We’ll also provide tips on how to promote better local government water quality management, including how residents can take action to protect water systems.
Why are water quality issues increasing nationally and beyond?
While you may live in a small town or city, the water you drink is anything but local. Earth’s water system is constantly cycling water in the form of evaporation and precipitation. This water moves from community to community via complex relationships in the ecosystem. Because of this interconnectedness, polluted water across the country – or world – may eventually influence your local water supply and water quality.
This water pollution takes many forms, from agricultural run-off to synthetic chemicals and plastics. Each of these pollutants creates unique challenges to local communities and the broader world, which we’ll discuss in more detail soon.
And while the Clean Water Act has improved water quality in the United States, some pollutants, like PFAS (commonly known as “forever chemicals”), are still largely unregulated. This means that unregulated contaminants might enter ecosystems from run-off or industrial waste, then cycle through creeks, rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans. Ultimately, these harmful pollutants end up in our local communities regardless of their origin.
Human water needs continue to increase as our world’s population grows, so local governments must ensure high water quality standards for the .3% of earth’s water available for human use. Without direct action, our water systems will continue to become more polluted and less safe for humans and ecosystems alike.
Issues impacting local bodies of water
Below we discuss some of the critical issues impacting local bodies of water today and why these issues are vital to local government organizations.
“Killware” and Critical Infrastructure
“Killware” is simply defined as malware or a cyberattack designed to impact the safe operation of physical infrastructure such as dams, water treatment facilities, pipelines, or electric grids. A successful killware attack can pose a significant threat to public health and safety if water becomes contaminated or uncontrolled flooding occurs.
State-affiliated or sponsored actors often have objectives aligned with either the political, commercial, or military interests of their country of origin
You might remember a cyber attack on a water treatment plant in Oldsmar, Florida where an unidentified hacker increased the levels of Sodium Hydroxide (lye) and Caustic Soda in an attempt to poison the water supply. Sodium Hydroxide controls water supply acidity and removes heavy metals from water. In very small doses there is no cause for concern, but in high doses, the effects can range from skin irritation to potential death from severe burns.
In 2013, Iranian hackers infiltrated the control system of a small dam less than 20 miles from New York City, illustrating that critical infrastructure including national power grids, factories, pipelines, bridges, and dams have always been prime targets for digital armies. In both cases, the primary objective of the attacker was to cause harm to humans.
As a local official it is your responsibility to understand threats to all critical infrastructure within your jurisdiction - whether publicly or privately operated - and work with operators to secure infrastructure in both cyberspace and the physical environment.
You may have heard of a “red tide” before while visiting the beach. If so, you’ve encountered an algal bloom. Algal blooms occur when a freshwater body of water experiences a rapid increase in the presence of algae. This phenomenon is commonly caused by nutrient overload, such as excess phosphorus and nitrogen run-off from agricultural fertilizers.
Unfortunately, algal blooms are becoming increasingly common and can be devastating to the ecosystem and a community’s water supply. That’s because this rapid algal growth, and its subsequent decay, deplete oxygen in a water system. This lack of oxygen can kill fish, crustaceans, and other marine life.
Additionally, some algal blooms are highly toxic. Humans and animals that drink water that have experienced an overgrowth in certain types of algae might become severely sick or even die. While the algal bloom continues, a community’s water supply may be rendered temporarily unusable. As a result, local governments must test and treat their water supply regularly to ensure its safety.
Learn more about why algal bloom management is essential to a Water Utilities Management Strategy.
It’s no surprise that pollution is bad for local water systems. Pollutants make our drinking water less safe because they cause many health problems, from short-term (immediate) illnesses like giardia to longer-developing sicknesses like cancer.
Some of the most common pollutants affecting local government water quality management are nitrogen and phosphorus. These nutrients are fundamental to the health of plants, so individuals rely on their use in synthetic fertilizers for crops and lawns. Unfortunately, excess fertilizer runs into rivers, streams, and lakes and contributes to algal blooms.
Other common pollutants are listed below:
Fecal waste from improperly-disposed of pet waste and industrial feedlots
Motor oil from cars
Unfortunately, we are still learning about additional pollutants that impact our water supply and contribute to the loss of native plants and animals. For example, scientists only recently identified the chemical (6PPD-Q) that causes pre-spawn mortality in the Pacific Northwestern Coho Salmon.
Point-source vs. nonpoint source water pollution
Ecologists and environmental regulations classify pollutants as point-source or non-point source. Point-source pollution occurs at a specific location, such as manufacturing by-products being dumped from a factory into a river. In contrast, non-point source pollution cannot be pinned down to one particular location (for example, fertilizer run-off from farmland across a county).
The EPA has provided strict regulations around point-source water pollution, such as the amount of waste a manufacturer can pump into a body of water. Unfortunately, few laws exist around non-point source pollution given their nebulous nature.
As a result, non-point source pollution is particularly detrimental to today’s water supply and ecosystems. These pollutants can seep into groundwater and local streams, then travel throughout waterways and negatively impact the ecosystem. While water quality regulations are primarily established at the federal level, local governments can take action to reduce water pollution.
How Your Local Government Can Protect Local Waterways
You can take steps to protect your regional lakes, ponds, wetlands, and more. Below we discuss resident actions and local government actions to promote healthier bodies of water.
General actions for residents
A resident’s daily actions play an essential role in protecting local waterways. At its most apparent, residents should prevent litter from entering their waterways by securing all waste and practicing “leave no trace” principles (including picking up after your dog!). By preventing trash and pet waste from entering waterways, you help reduce microplastic contamination and the spread of harmful diseases like E. coli.
You can also reduce pollution by minimizing your use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Believe it or not, most lawns do not require regular applications of fertilizer to thrive and can benefit from top-dressing with organic compost. Relying on more organic nutrients means fewer harmful algal blooms that can compromise your drinking water.
To take things a step further, consider planting native vegetation on your property, especially if you live near a waterway. Planting buffer plants around waterways located on your property (known as the riparian zone”) can help filter chemicals and reduce the likelihood they end up in local waterways.
Governments must also take action when it comes to local government water quality management. Whereas a resident might voluntarily build up a riparian zone on her property, local governments can enact zoning laws and educate constituents to regulate riparian buffer zones.
Additionally, zoning laws establish what and where people can build. In doing so, local governments can prevent buildings from being put up around vulnerable ecosystems, such as wetlands. As a result, surrounding habitats experience less pollution. Government organizations can also partner with non-profit organizations to protect these vulnerable areas from development. This includes placing land into conservation easements or land trusts.
Local governments can also refer to ecological principles when developing buildings and land for public use. For example, a local government building a park might install a native plant garden. As part of this project, government agencies can educate the public about their significance.
Finally, local governments can benefit from using GovPilot’s automated workflow software to assign tasks to employees involved in water quality management. For example, water treatment staff might use this software to notify others about an algal bloom and associated mitigation measures.
Likewise, GovPilot’s complaint management software enables residents to submit claims to local government organizations when they see something contributing to poor water quality in their community. For example, a citizen might submit a concern to the code enforcement department around a large pile of litter bordering a local body of water. Learn more about How to Leverage Complaint Management Software for Improving Local Civic Engagement.
How to Educate Citizens About Protecting Local Bodies of Water
A successful local government water quality management plan requires the buy-in of residents to be successful. There are a few steps your agency can take to help educate citizens on how to protect water systems.
Your agency should plan educational campaigns that inform residents about the critical role they plan in local water quality. Place signs at public parks explaining why picking up after pets is vital to water quality. You can also educate residents about native plant gardens and riparian zones with informational placards.
Use social media to inform residents about ways to protect local bodies of water. Encourage the regular maintenance of septic tanks and discuss alternative ways to keep their lawns happy and healthy without synthetic fertilizers.
Above all else, recognize that educating citizens about water protection is an ongoing, long-term process. Regular reminders inform residents about how critical it is to maintain healthy waters for current and future generations.
Learn more about the key aspects of a Modern Government Communications Strategy with citizens, across government departments, and beyond.
Use GovPilot to Improve Water Quality
Every local government is responsible for improving water quality for current and future generations. GovPilot’s government management software provides automated workflow tools and citizen concern software to make this possible.
Are you excited to learn more? Don’t hesitate to book a free consultation today to identify how our software can help your organization with local government water quality management.
Government Water Protection FAQs
1. What is a Local Government Water Quality Strategy?
A local government water quality strategy is the process of preventing potentially damaging pollutants from destroying local bodies of water and drinking water. The process involves identifying potential threats, enacting mitigation techniques, and educating your citizens about legal requirements and best practices for keeping local lakes, ponds, wetlands, and the ocean protected.
2. How Can Government Technology Help with Managing Local Bodies of Water?
GovTech can be used to protect local water systems. Informative infographics, e-books, etc. can be uploaded to your government website and social media to educate citizens about best practices for protecting water. Issues like algal bloom can be reported from citizens to your local government via complaint management systems. GIS mapping technology can be used to mark polluted areas (or at risk areas) in an intuitive 3D map.