Environmental Conservation of Our Waterways is Key to Sustainability

Environmental Conservation of Our Waterways is Key to Sustainability

Environmental conservation of our waterways and land in the United States is key to sustainability. Conservation organizations, landowners, and volunteers spend hours working together to preserve and maintain our waterways’ natural beauty and health. These organizations and their volunteers work to remove a wide variety of inorganic items from waterways, including tires, household appliances, plastics, clothing, glass, and cement blocks. In addition, they work to restore and maintain riparian buffer zones, strips of grasslands, forested areas, wetlands, and farmlands that provide shade and protection along the waterways tract to help enhance water quality. Their actions restore many of our creeks and rivers to their natural beauty and bring them back to life.

One of these organizations is the French Creek Valley Conservancy.

Established in 1982 is the Conneaut Lake-French Creek Conservancy and now named the French Creek Valley Conservancy, concerned citizens formed it to address serious issues facing these important Pennsylvania waterways. French Creek feeds into Conneaut Lake, which is Pennsylvania’s largest lake. Conneaut Lake is an hour and a half north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and about the same distance when traveling east from Cleveland, Ohio.

Our waterways offer abundant outdoor recreation activities, including fishing, boating, swimming, and watching birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and invertebrates in their natural habitats.

Unfortunately, some of these waters are becoming unsuitable for recreation or wildlife habitat. Pollution from raw sewage, stormwater runoff, trash, mine drainage, and industrial chemicals such as herbicides for weed control make these bodies of water unfit for recreation and supporting wildlife species.

On a recent canoe paddling day trip along French Creek, we learned that this waterway is nationally recognized as one of the most biologically diverse waterways in the United States.

We were thrilled to see a bald eagle soaring above us when we slid our canoe into the water. We knew immediately that this nine-mile adventure would be unique and special. We didn’t think we would see more of these majestic eagles as we floated along the creek.

French Creek is alive with bird songs from migrating birds.

With the help of the Merlin Bird App, we identified over 40 birds. If you are a birder, you would be in awe of the 379 species of birds that make this great creek their home. For many birds, it is year-round.

The banks of the streams and rivers flourish with several hues of greenery from various ferns, maple, oak, walnut, spruce, wild flowering apple trees in full bloom, and several types of shrubs. Some of the trees appear to be hundreds of years old. With bank erosion from heavy rains and flooding, you can see how high the water once was. As we continued our paddle, we took note of the massive roots on many of the trees exposed on the eroded creek banks. We were amazed that the trees didn’t topple over from the excessive weight above the ground. Native and non-native spring ephemerals such as Dame’s Rocket, Philadelphia Fleabane, Wild Geraniums, Golden Alexander, Common Milkweed, Yellow Buttercups, Violets in purple, white, and yellow colors, Columbine, Sweet Cicely, Purple Crown Vetch, and invasive Japanese Knotweed are just some of the plants we identified along the way.

French Creek has abundant wildlife, as we witnessed firsthand.  We spotted freshwater mussels, amphibians, reptiles, fish, Tiger Swallow Butterflies, and Red-spotted Butterflies, among other species.

According to the French Creek Valley Conservancy, “the French Creek watershed contains over 80 species of fish and 27 of Pennsylvania’s approximately 65 species of native freshwater mussels, including threatened and endangered, the most diverse population of any stream in the state and any stream further north and east in the nation. Mussels require clean, oxygen-rich water to filter food and absorb dissolved oxygen. In the microscopic larval stage, they often attach to fish gills such as darters and are transported to different sites on the stream. As a result, their distribution and number are directly linked to the host fish’s survival.”

To learn more about waterways near you, visit your local water conservation organization and federal, state, and local parks.

These organizations support aquatic science, riparian plantings, aquatic connectivity and species passage, safety on the waterways, canoe/kayak access development, watershed grant programs, and additional resources to inspire you to get involved.

Let us take action to joyfully preserve and sustain our natural world and its inhabitants for future generations. Download our One Planet Life app to access other insightful posts, resources, and organizations that you can participate in and track your actions.

We Should Never Take Water for Granted. Especially Now.

We Should Never Take Water for Granted. Especially Now.

Two hydrogen and one oxygen molecules create the mercurial substance that sustains all life. It is the only natural substance found in all three physical states at temperatures that occur on earth. We experience water as a liquid in rivers, lakes, and oceans, a solid in snow and ice, and a gas in clouds and streams. We are from the water, and it brings us joy. And yet, we take water for granted. 

With a turn of a knob, water runs freely from the faucet. Clear water flows as if there is an endless amount. Unfortunately, this is an illusion. We have been lulled into a falsehood. Water is both a subtle presence in our daily lives and a powerful force causing harm. Water can harm when there is too much, too little, or when it is polluted. The increasingly intense weather patterns have brought damaging floods, droughts, and polar winter weather. Polluted waterways are harming wildlife around the world.

Water risks are a major humanitarian and environmental threat.

Let’s explore the threats in three dimensions: 1) water access, 2) water stress, and 3) water for wildlife. It is time to open our eyes, understand the water situation in our world, change our relationship with water, and take sustained action.  

Water Access – One-in-four people do not have access to safe water.  Our bodies are 50% water. We can only survive three days without drinkable water. In developed countries, clean water is transported to our homes, businesses, and farms at a minimal cost. Because of this seemingly easy accessibility, we get the sense that there is an abundant amount and that everyone has equal access. False. 

Only 74% of the world has access to safely managed water A shocking 26% — nearly 2 billion people do not have access to safely managed water.
    OPL App Images

    Of these 2 billion, over 1 billion have a 30-minute trip to collect drinking water. The remaining people do not have access to any safe drinking water. Depending on where you live, and your income, your access to water can be vastly different. 

    To better understand the inequity of water access, refer to CHART 1: Income Impact to Access to Clean Water and CHART 2: Water Accessibility by World Region

    Water Stress:  Freshwater is being used faster than it is being replaced.  

    About 70% of all people live within 3 miles of the closest water feature. Water is part of every aspect of our life, including our health, industry, agriculture, and energy production. Each person uses on average 1004 gallons of water a day. We use 70% of the world’s water annually for agriculture. The United States uses a large amount of water for industry (18.2 billion gallons per day) and energy production (58 trillion gallons of water per year). We are drawing down too much fresh water between individual, agricultural, and energy production use. There are ways to perform these activities with much less water, yet we continue to use unsustainable amounts of water year after year. 

    It takes hundreds of years to replenish groundwater.

    Climate change worsens the problem by intensifying floods and drought, shifting precipitation patterns, altering water supplies, and accelerating glacial melt and sea-level rise. Already 17 countries (refer to CHART 3) are facing extremely high water stress as their agriculture, industry, and communities use up to 80 percent of the available surface and groundwater each year. Even in countries such as the United States with overall low-medium water stress, some communities are still experiencing highly stressed conditions. The people of New Mexico have as much water stress as some of the most stressed countries. Another four states (Colorado, Arizona, California, and Nebraska) are at high risk and using 40-80% of the available water. When water demand overwhelms supply, there are dire consequences.  

    Over 50 million Americans live with some amount of water stress today.


    CHART 3

    Water for Wildlife – Nature needs water and is really good at taking carbon out of the atmosphere. 

    Wildlife needs water to survive. By letting the byproducts of our daily lives pollute waterways, we are participating in the alarming decline of wildlife globally. Unintentionally we destroy the network of life. 

    Peter Wohlleben beautifully explains this in his book, The Secret Network of Nature. (Read our review.) Did you know that trees and bears can rely on the nutrients of salmon? Along rivers with low nutrient soil, the salmon swim upriver to spawn while hungry bears and other hunters haul in a meal. When the salmon die, they deposit a wealth of nutrients. Up to 70% of the nitrogen in vegetation growing alongside these streams comes from salmon. In addition, the data shows that Sitka spruce in these areas grow up to three times faster than it would without this natural fertilizer. It is all connected, the water, the salmon, the bears, and the trees. When we block or pollute rivers, we disrupt the network of life. 

    The Secret Network of Nature

    Our waterways and oceans are dumping grounds. Since 1950, 8.3 million tonnes of plastic containers have been produced. Only 9% gets recycled, and the rest ends up in our landfills and litters our land and waterways. Plastic is problematic in many ways. It degrades slowly; lightweight bags are eaten by livestock and wildlife, and plastic bags are among the most common types of marine litter. At our current pace, oceans will have more plastic than fish by 2050. We need to protect and expand natural places.

    Some of the best solutions to our water problem are nature-based solutions. These include restoration of coastal seagrass, regenerative agriculture, and protecting and expanding forests and natural areas. Reducing pollution, protecting natural areas around waterways, and increasing natural habits benefits all life. 

    Read our blog, It is Time to Love, Care For, and Share our Water, to learn small joyful changes you can make to save water.

    It is time to Love, Care for, and Share Our Water

    It is time to Love, Care for, and Share Our Water

    We are utterly dependent on water. There wouldn’t be any life on earth without water.

    We experience water in many different ways, both positive and negative. It seems so plentiful and readily available to most of us (except for nearly 2 billion people without access to safely managed water) that we can neglect to treat water as a precious life-sustaining resource. To better understand our water’s risks, Read our blog, We Should Never Take Water for Granted. Especially Now.

    As each of us takes action to live more sustainably and in harmony with nature, how can we change our relationship with water? If each of us makes small changes to reduce, recycle, and reuse water together, they will add up in a big way!

    To help you get started, we share water-saving tips for four high water usage areas: Kitchen, Bathroom, Laundry, and Outdoors.

    Reduce water and chemicals while cleaning clothes

    • Wash only full loads of laundry or use the appropriate water level or load size selection on the washing machine
    • To save money on your energy bills, set your washing machine to use cold water rather than hot or warm water
    • Use eco-friendly laundry products
    • Reduce polyester and other synthetic clothing that release micro-plastics into the water system

    Reduce water usage where over 50% of in-home use happens

    • Turn off the tap while shaving or brushing teeth
    • Fix any leaking pipes or faucets
    • Take short showers which use less water than a bath
    • Use eco-friendly personal products (fewer chemicals in the water and on you)
    • Install a dual flush or low flow toilet or put a conversion kit on your existing toilet
    • If updating the bathroom, look for WaterSense products and save with every use

    Use less water while enjoying great meals

    • Eat vegetarian meals several times a week (less water is used growing veggies than meat)
    • Scrape your plate instead of rinsing it before loading it into the dishwasher
    • Use a dishwasher — and when you do, make sure it’s fully loaded!
    • Use eco-friendly cleaning products
    • Compost instead of using a garbage disposal. The less we put into our water system, the less we have to clean up
    • Add food waste to your compost pile instead of using the garbage disposal
    • Don’t use plastic water bottles and keep a bottle of drinking water in the fridge — no need to run the water until it is cold!

    Improve efficiency, reuse, and store water

    • Plant native plants and food gardens that are beautiful and efficient to bring nature closer
    • Don’t overwater your lawn or water during peak periods, and install rain sensors on irrigation systems
    • Capture rainwater and stormwater runoff from your roof, driveway, and other areas to use in watering your garden
    • Plant trees — as many as you can
    • Clean up and help restore areas around rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans
    Book Blue Mind

    We love water, but do you wonder why? We flock to the ocean and lakes to sit quietly, taking it all in. We need water daily to survive. We love to splash and float in water. “The Blue Mind story seeks to reconnect people to nature in ways that make them feel good and shows them how water can help them become better versions of themselves.” Read more.

    The Secret Network of Nature

    Nature is a connected network of life that we rarely notice. Peter Wohlleben shares many examples of this interconnectedness so we can begin to see nature in all its beautiful complexity.  Based on science, he leads us through life cycles where salmon, rivers, and trees support each other.  We learn how wolves, bears, and fish need each other in Yellowstone National Park.  To our surprise, trees take loving care of their young. In one chapter, he explores our role in nature.  Read more.

    The Water Protectors Book Cover

    This children’s book, We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom and beautifully illustrated by Michaela Goade, serves as a reminder of the importance of protecting our water. It is inspired by Indigenous-led movements to protect our natural resources. Soak up this story as it is read by Joanna Henry. Read more.

    Aquatic Macroinvertebrates are Signallers of Water Quality

    Aquatic Macroinvertebrates are Signallers of Water Quality

    Aquatic macroinvertebrates signal to us the quality of our waterways. From our local watershed to our rivers, these small animals and larval stages of insects can be seen without a microscope; they play a large part in our freshwater ecosystem, recycling nutrients and providing food to fish and other higher-level aquatic animals.

    There are many resources available when it comes to learning about how to conserve, preserve, and protect nature and how to share what we have learned.

    Recently, we participated in a program led by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) called “Canaries of the Stream.” In the same manner aquatic macroinvertebrates signal water quality, canaries are signallers of air quality and are often used to detect air quality in coal mines.

    Our tour leaders, comprised of university interns and DCNR educators, led us to a high-elevation tributary cold stream to learn about aquatic macroinvertebrates. We studied how they indicate the health of this particular area that makes its way to the Youghiogheny River. Tools supplied by the DCNR for our aquatic expedition included a large net to collect sediment from the top, middle, and bottom of the stream, tweezers, three trays to which stream water was added in each, an identification poster, and a marker to record what we found in the water. Once we filtered the stream water through the netting, organic matter and aquatic macro-invertebrates were taken to the shoreline to identify. Right away, the most noticeable was a good-sized crustacean resembling a miniature lobster, known to us as a crayfish. We quickly released it back into the shallow rocky water.

    Aquatic ecologists have categorized species of aquatic macroinvertebrates into four functional feeding groups (Cummins 1973). 
    • Shredders such as Caddisflies and Stoneflies process organic small decaying matter such as leaves, debris, and other vegetation in the water. 
    • Collectors that include Beetles and Dipteran (true flies) filter and accumulate even smaller pieces of organic matter found in the water column and bottom sediment. 
    • Grazers are found on rocks and woody debris.  Imagine Caddisflies and Beetles grazing on other aquatic insects, Periphyton, Detritus, and submerged aquatic plants.
    • Predators, like Dragonflies, prey on dead animal material in the water.
    Once our eyes adjusted to seeing the tiny animals moving in the sediment, we used tweezers to move the specimen into the trays. 

    We used the Key to Macroinvertebrate Life identification chart to identify and circle what we had seen.  We identified the following: Cranefly Larva, Lobster-like Crayfish, Water Penny, several Caddisfly Larva living on the bottom of a rock submerged in the stream bed, Caddisfly Larva, Dobsonfly or Fishfly Larva, Stonefly Nymph, and Mayfly Nymph.

    After releasing the aquatic macroinvertebrates back into the water,  we categorized and allocated a number for each specimen identified and their tolerance level. 

    Water quality is identified in three groups; tolerant, fresh, and sensitive to pollution tolerance/intolerance.  Based on the Aquatic macro-invertebrate water quality benchmark chart below, our total score was 24 indicating excellent water quality.

    • Excellent (score of >22 or at least 4 “S” taxa*)
    • Good (score of >17-22 or at least 2 “S” taxa)
    • Fair (score of 11-16 or at least 1 “S” * taxon)
    • Poor (score of <11 or at least no “S” taxa)

    We recommend participating in biodiverse nature and ecology programs led by DCNR in your national, state, and local conservation and protected areas. These interesting educational programs, often free, open eyes to a whole new world, the importance of biodiversity, friends, and maybe even a new opportunity.

    *Taxa:  plural noun of Taxon
    Taxon: used in the science of biological classification, a group of any rank, such as species, family, or class seen by taxonomists to form a unit.

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