toward rivers reflect disdain for their value and arrogance about our ability to replace or repair them. Despite the mandate in the Clean Water Act for protecting the integrity of the nation's waters, for example, it took nearly two decades to begin to incorporate that concept into water resource protection, largely because appropriate benchmarks were not defined for evaluating success in attaining those goals. That failure leads to six "realities" about the condition of water resources (Karr, 1995b).

1.  

Water resources, especially their biological components, are in steep decline. The proportion of aquatic organisms at risk of extinction is considerably higher than that of terrestrial organisms (Angermeier and Karr, 1994; Masters, 1990). The spread of exotics and the decline of native species are common to waters throughout the United States. Fish consumption advisories are issued each year in more than 40 states, and riparian corridors along U.S. streams have been destroyed in most areas. Despite strong mandates and massive expenditures to protect "the physical, chemical, and biological integrity" of the nation's waters, signs of continuing degradation are pervasive within individual rivers, the continent, and the globe.

2.  

Degradation stems from more than chemical contamination, the primary focus of conventional water-quality programs. The assumption that monitoring for chemical contaminants ensures chemical, physical, and biological integrity is flawed. Society wastes money and degrades resources because decisions based on chemical criteria do not adequately protect water quality. Priority lists of chemicals do not accurately reflect ecological risks; point-source approaches do not effectively control the influence of nonpoint sources or the cumulative effects of numerous contaminants; and the chemical-contaminant approach fails to diagnose and correct water resource problems caused by other human influences, such as degradation of physical habitat or alteration in flow (Karr, 1991).

3.  

Long-term success in protecting water resources requires careful thought about goals, or benchmarks, Including development and uses of criteria for protecting ecological Integrity. Water resources are not simply water; their quality and value to society depend on more than water quality and quantity alone. We must begin to track the condition of our waters as we track the status of local and national economies. Biological monitoring and biological criteria provide the most robust approach. Waterways that cannot support healthy biological communities are unlikely to support human society for long.

4.  

The legal and regulatory framework in place today does not respond soon enough to continued degradation. Government agencies have been weak, inappropriately focused, and therefore largely ineffective at reversing resource declines, especially those not associated with point sources of chemical contamination. This observation is Consistent with the observation that major environmental legislation derives from the effectiveness of grassroots organizations, not



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement