Water pollution continues to threaten parks

The greatest concern for environmental protection groups in South Florida, such as Friends of the Everglades, is the introduction of high levels of phosphorus in the waters of the Everglades National Park.

“It only takes a tiny amount of phosphorus to change a lot in the environment in the Everglades,” said Nicholas Aumen, an ecologist at the Everglades National Park.

Click on the video at the right to view an audio slideshow about water pollution in national parks narrated and prepared by writer Ivana Cruz.  

Excess phosphorus and sulfur is released into the Everglades from runoffs of farms to the north of the park.

This has become a concern because too much phosphorus creates chemical and biological changes that deteriorate the natural system and harm the native flora and fauna of the area.

“Sulfur and other nuclear electrical infringements are a big concern to us,” said Connie Washburn, current vice president of Friends of the Everglades.

Attempts to regulate phosphorus have been brought up to the Environmental Protection Agency with the phosphorus rule. This rule was proposed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and would identify provisions of Florida’s Water Quality Standards.
The EPA, however, disapproved many provisions of this rule because they were not considered new or revised water quality standards.

The Everglades of South Florida is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. Most of the area of Everglades National Park is only accessible by airboat as can be seen in the photo (Photos courtesy of the National Park Service).


This was challenged by a lawsuit filed by the Friends of the Everglades and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians that resulted in the court’s overturning of the EPA’s decision and the requirement of the EPA to take further action.

There are 30,000 acres of wetlands that serve as storm water treatment areas designed to absorb some of the phosphorus coming in from the farms. Phosphorus, however, still finds its way into Everglades’ water.

Concerns of excess chemicals and gasses in the waters of national parks are not unique to the Everglades.

At Shenandoah National Park, located in Virginia just west of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, stream acidification from acid deposition in the form of rain, snow, sleet or hail changes the environment for plants and animals in the park in ways that could turn destructive if levels become to high.

Acid rain occurring in the park is caused by pollutants carried through the air from the outside. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide are released when fossil fuels are burned at electrical power generating plants surrounding the park.

  The morning blue haze that covers the mountains is not to be confused with the white haze caused by pollution. This haze disappears in the daylight, while the white haze stays and obstruct views.

According to studies published by park researchers, this is especially a concern for Shenandoah since it has one of the highest acid deposition levels amongst national parks, 60 percent of bedrocks in watersheds in the park have low acid buffering capacity and native aquatic organisms in the streams are sensitive to high acidic conditions.

Park staff closely monitors acid deposition levels for these reasons.

“Usually these circumstances have been very episodic and the environment returns to normal after some time. We just monitor the water, we do not take action,” said Caren Beck-Herzog, public affairs officer at Shenandoah National Park.

These same high levels of acidic deposition are found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, where the pollutants do not only affect the wildlife of the park but have also grown to hinder the visibility within the park during certain times of the year.

At left, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina is rated second worst for smoggy days. On these days, the average visibility can be anywhere from 20 miles to 120 miles. Below, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota lies in the heart of the Williston Basin, which is a rich oil and gas development area.  

“Most of our streams originate within our boundary so we have few places where outside communities impact the park resources. We do however get acidic deposition, commonly referred to as acid rain, which does have an impact on soils, plants and some animals,” said Glenn Taylor, biologist at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Acid deposition reaches the park’s streams through the rain, snow and fog that carries the sulfates and nitrates into them. Dry particles and drops of moisture settle on tree leaves and end up in the stream as well when rain washes them into the water.

Acidic water flushes out necessary nutrients in the soil. Some metals that wash into the streams, like aluminum, are toxic to fish and park biologists predict increased die-offs because of it.

Researchers within the park collect water samples from 43 monitoring sites every month to observe the chemical levels in the water and prevent them from getting to damaging levels.

”It is the position of the National Park Service that new emission permits for industries and utilities in the region that will adversely impact the park should be granted only when ‘best available control technology’ is planned and when offset reductions are taken to prevent any net increase in pollutants and impacts. The park service also supports the strictest possible regulations on vehicle and other emissions which contribute to the problem,” says the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Management Folio #2 on Air Quality.

In Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, concerns over chemical pollution of water result from the numerous oil and gas wells that closely surround the park.

Pipelines from the oil and gas development facilities around the park cross the Little Missouri River and some are located in the river outside of park boundaries.

Produced water is the largest waste related to oil and gas drilling. This water is high in saline and causes chemical imbalances in the water.

Wells are situated within 100 yards or less of park boundaries. This puts park waters at high risk for chemical contamination through a leakage or spill.

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