Water fights happen over both salt and fresh water. On the ocean side, debates in DC happen over the potential economic and environmental impact of over-fishing, the destruction of natural ocean habitats, in particular coral reefs, and the impact of oil drilling. On the freshwater front, US policy debates spring up around conservation in the face of limited water supply, pollution, and preservation of wetlands.

For now, all CJ has to offer are some basics on fresh water use and mercury pollution, a topic of concern for salmon fans.

Fresh water supply and use

The sources of fresh water (USGS)

  • 76% is surface water - from rivers, lakes and reservoirs,
  • 24% is ground water.

What fresh water is used for (USGS):

  • 40% for thermoelectric power,
  • 40% for irrigation,
  • 12% for public supply,
  • 5% for industrial use.

Areas that are facing a possible water shortage by 2025: See map from the Department of the Interior

For how our water supply compares to the rest of the world, see a map from American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences. The Washington Post gives a quick glance at some of the water wars stirring up around the country.


The issue: The EPA released new rules on mercury emissions from power plants on March 15, 2005. EPA's plan would bring mercury emissions down 70% by 2018 (WP), but the new rules came amidst a flood of criticism from states (nine of which sued the EPA (LAT)), the Senate and even the GAO. The gist of the criticism was that the new rules don't comply with the "Clean Air Act" - by exempting plants from using "maximum available control technology" (MACT) - and saying the new rules' cap-and-trade system will allow pollution "hotspots" to exist. In '07 a federal court knocked the EPA down, with the odd consequence of leaving the country with no mercury guidelines (WP).

Why people don't like mercury:

Although there's concern about mercury emissions, mercury in the air isn't a real health problem; it's only after it filters out of the air through rain into our rivers, lakes and fish that mercury poses health risks. High levels of mercury can, in particular, harm the developing nervous system of young children and unborn babies. (EPA)

How much health damage has mercury in fish caused Americans:

Not clear, but EPA says about 5% of women have enough mercury in their blood to put a fetus at risk. (CDC - pdf)

Number of rivers and lakes under advisory:

750,000 miles of rivers (21% of all river miles) and 13 million lake acres (32% of all lake acres) are under advisory for high levels of mercury in their fish. (EPA)

Where the mercury comes from:

About 40% (48 tons) comes from utility coal boilers (1999);

The rest comes from gold mines, hazardous waste incineration, chlorine production, institutional boilers, medical waste incinerators and municipal waste combustors.

How much mercury was emitted (EPA):

  • In 1999: 120 tons
  • In 1990: 220 tons

By far the biggest drops in mercury emissions in the 90's came from medical waste incinerators and municipal waste combustors. Emissions from utility coal boilers dropped just a bit.

How much mercury coal plants currently filter out:

1/3 gets filtered out. (EPA)

What levels of mercury emissions were allowed before:

Before, there were no caps on mercury emissions for power plants. The current move to regulate emissions comes as a result of a decade's long law suit from environmental groups. The current regulations would create the first set of limits. (EPA)

The new EPA rules:

Set up a "cap and trade" system that combines reductions in mercury with reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Mercury emissions would be reduced to 38 tons a year by 2008 (EPA);

A second phase of "cap and trade" that would reduce emissions down to 15 tons, or 70%, by 2018 (EPA).

Costs and benefits: (WP)

The EPA says that the new rules would cost industry $750 million a year, but save $50 million in health costs.

A Harvard study says the health savings would be more on the lines of $5 billion a year.

Where the facts are from:


  • Oceans/Over-fishing - See the US Commission on Ocean Policy's 2004 report. Oceana's report on catch thrown back.

Did we miss something, let some slant slip in, lose a link - or do you just have something to say? Drop a line below! In the spirit of open dialogue, cJ asks you keep it civil, keep it real and keep it focused on the message, not the messenger. See our policy page for more on what that all means.

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