“What’s in the Water?” More Than You Might Expect

The pure glacial waters of Wrangell St. Elias National Park & Preserve ©NPS Photo

The pure glacial waters of Wrangell St. Elias National Park & Preserve ©NPS Photo

For many of us, national parks provide the clean water necessary for that unforgettable fishing trip or that swimming hole to cool off during a family camping trip.

NPCA’s Katherine McKinney helps students test national park waters.

NPCA’s Katherine McKinney helps students test national park waters. Photo © NPCA.

However, more than half of our 401 national parks have waterways that are considered “impaired” under Clean Water Act standards. These waters that sustain life and provide countless recreational opportunities within national parks are threatened by urban, agricultural, and industrial development outside of park boundaries.

How do we know if the river, stream, or lake we love is safe for us to swim, fish, or play in?

In early May, I helped NPCA feature an exhibit at the U.S. Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., which enabled thousands of young citizen-scientists and their families to test water samples from national parks across the country. From the pristine streams of Olympic National Park to the brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay, students were able to test for nutrients, total dissolved solids (a general term for all of the organic and inorganic matter contained in liquids, including natural materials as well as pollutants), pH, and metals.

Yes, some national parks provide fresh, drinkable water.

The fresh mountain streams of Alaska’s Lake Clark and Wrangell-St. Elias provided the purest water samples we tested. The largely urban crowd had looks of horror and disbelief, asking, “You can drink water straight from the stream?” The answer in this case is yes. With a perfect pH and very few total dissolved solids, these national parks may be home to some of our purest water. (Of course, I don’t recommend that you drink untreated water from any national park. I was surprised I even had to make signs for this event asking people not to drink the water samples we were testing!)

Urban park waters are at risk.

While the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and other urban national park waters have been improving, our tests showed that there is certainly work to do. The total dissolved solids and metals we found in these waters showed contamination levels that make these parks unsafe for recreational activities such as fishing or swimming.

NPCA staff at the U.S. Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C.

NPCA staff at the U.S. Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. Left to right: Katherine McKinney, Ryan Valdez, Pam Goddard, and Ed Stierli. Photo © NPCA.

You can protect clean water.

Explore nature in your own backyard or visit a national park and become a citizen-scientist. With a few collection jars and chemical testing strips available at pet stores, you can learn how to collect and test samples from water sources near your home.

Here are a few simple steps you can follow to protect clean water:

  1. Help keep pollution out of storm drains. These drains lead to our rivers and streams, so any debris, oil, or trash can get washed into them after rain storms. Be sure to keep leaves, grass clippings, soapy water, or other waste away from these drains.
  2. Clean up after your pet. Pet waste contains bacteria which is harmful to us and aquatic wildlife—leaving it on the sidewalk or lawn means this harmful bacteria can end up in storm drains.
  3. Avoid using pesticides or chemical fertilizers. They can be a serious threat to your health as well as to wildlife, and can pollute both ground and surface water.
  4. Don’t flush garbage or unwanted medicines down the toilet. These pollutants can end up in our waterways and hurt fish and wildlife. Throw out or recycle items appropriately, research community take-back programs for medications, or learn about precautionary steps to dispose of medications properly.
  5. Be a clean water advocate. Share information about how to protect clean water with your neighbors and colleagues. Get involved by volunteering with NPCA or local water restoration organizations.

Your actions can help improve community awareness of the importance of clean water and protect national park rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans for all to enjoy.

About the Author

NPCA Cheapeake Field Representative Ed Stierli

Ed is the Chesapeake field representative for the Mid-Atlantic region and does grassroots outreach to connect communities with national parks. Passionate about connecting youth with the outdoors and conservation, he also leads the “Freedom to Float” campaign and is an active hiker and paddler. Find him on Twitter at @edstierli.