Evolution of the Clean Water Act

By Isabelle Bienen, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)
All photos © Alison M. Jones

Isabelle Bienen is at Northwestern University studying Social and Environmental Policy and Legal Studies. As a NWNL summer intern, she wrote 5 blogs on the 1972 US Clean Water Act [CWA] and its role in NWNL’s 3 US watersheds. This – her 4th blog – explains the Clean Water Act and subsequent rulings. Her earlier CWA blogs: CWA in Mississippi River Basin, CWA in Columbia & Raritan River Basins & CWA and Health IssuesAll rivers shown below (excluding the ditch) are Waters of the US [WOTUS] covered by the CWA.


Jones_140516_ID_7351.jpgA Hells Canyon reach of the Snake River, a Columbia River Basin tributary

Clean Water Act (1972)

A 1960’s growing concern over the need to control water pollution led to the 1972 Clean Water Act [CWA], as noted in the first NWNL blog of this series. The 1972 CWA (originally, Federal Water Pollution Control Act) established a structure for Federal regulation of pollutants discharge into US surface waters. [It does not apply to well water or aquifers].  The CWA prohibits any individual, unless permitted, to discharge pollutants from point sources (versus broader nonpoint sources) into Waters of the United States [WOTUS].

Point pollution sources are specific, identifiable entry points of pollution, i.e., ditches or pipes that dump pollutants from one specific spot directly into a navigable waterway. Notably, the 1972 Act did not address or allow for control of nonpoint pollution sources, i.e. runoff from rural farmland, urban storm/sewage, construction sites or forests .1 (Nonpoint pollution would be addressed in 1977, and again in 1987.)

Jones_150726_NJ_3553.jpgConfluence of North and South Branches of the Upper Raritan River Basin

Changes and Amendments to the Clean Water Act of 1972

  • WOTUS Rule-1977 (nonpoint pollution regulations & WOTUS definition)
  • Municipal Wastewater Treatment Construction Grants-1981
  • CWA Amendment-1987 (transfer of control to states and tribes)
  • Clean Water Rule-2015 (definition of  1972 CWA & WOTUS-1977 coverage)
  • Steps One & Two-2017 (repeal & revision of Clean Water Rule-2015)
  • Applicability Date Ruling-2017 (setting pre-2015 rules until new 2020 rule)

Both the WOTUS-1977 and -2015 rulings were outlined to clarify the original CWA. Basically, they addressed existing confusion over the term “navigable waters.”9

The CWA defines ‘navigable waters” as “waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” But “waters of the United States” is not specifically defined in the CWA. Court decisions, regulations and agency policies have established that “waters of the United States” applies only to surface waters, not groundwater, including rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters, and some wetlands. In inland areas, those waters include:

  • All interstate waters;
  • Intrastate waters used in interstate and/or foreign commerce;
  • Tributaries of the above; and
  • Wetlands adjacent to all the above.

The law is less clear in regard to smaller streams, ephemeral water bodies, and wetlands not adjacent to other waters of the United States. While groundwater is not included as a navigable water, discharges to groundwater, directly connected to a surface water, are sometimes included in NPDES permits. [NPDES: EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.]

Jones_070625_WA_4649.jpgThe Columbia River in Washington State, across from Hanford Nuclear Site

Waters of the US Rule [WOTUS]-1977

The term WOTUS and its regulatory scope were first developed in 1977, five years after the Clean Water Act addressed the need for protection and inclusion of all “navigable water.” WOTUS-1977 attempted to define “navigable waters” so as to establish the Act’s jurisdictional scope. It addressed tribal and state certification programs, polluting permits, and waste-spill prevention.6

Water Quality Act-1987 gave control to the States

In 1987, CWA changed responsibility for water-quality regulation, implementation and monitoring from federal to individual state control. This switch was built on the EPA’s established state partnerships and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.1 CWA regulations were set up state-by-state; yet the EPA kept the authority to step in if water-quality standards were not being met.

Jones_111027_LA_0832.jpgLake Martin in Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana

Clean Water Rule-2015 re-defined “Waters of the US” 

Congressional debates had underlined the vagueness of the term “navigable waters,” in WOTUS 1977.  The Supreme Court decisions of 2001 and 2006 attempts to clarify WOTUS (1977) were insufficient; and the definition regarding the nation’s authority over streams and wetlands remained vague

Thus, the purpose of Clean Water Rule-2015 was to reframe the existing ambiguity.  It stated that any waterway that has a “significant nexus with navigable water” falls under CWA regulations. Monitoring and controls would apply “when any single function or combination of functions performed by the water, alone or together with similarly situated waters in the region, contributes significantly to the chemical, physical or biological integrity of the nearest traditional navigable water, interstate water or the territorial seas.”

Jones_170610_NE_3515.jpgThis Missouri River Basin farm ditch is “non-navigable waterway” excluded by the CWA

“Navigable waters,” according to an American Rivers summary of  Clean Water Rule-2015, include “traditional navigable waters, interstate waters, and all other waters that could affect interstate or foreign commerce, impoundments of waters of the United States, tributaries, the territorial seas, and adjacent wetlands.”2 Clean Water Rule-2015 limits pollution in 60% of the nation’s waterways.3

There are, however, limits to what the 2015 Clean Water Rule regulates. It didn’t regulate  smaller water systems surrounding river basins, nor smaller bodies of water that eventually run into oceans or protected basins, despite their endpoints. For instance, a cloud of confusion remained over whether or not wetlands adjacent to non-navigable tributaries to navigable waters were protected.

In May 2015, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers released Clean Water Rule-2015 as a 297-page modification to  CWA (1972) and its follow-up Waters of the US Rule/ WOTUS-1977. The 2015 rule upheld much of WOTUS-1977, but only after extensive consideration of previous Supreme Court rulings, intensified public concern and countless meetings with farmers and others in the agricultural industry.

This lengthy examination period, prior to finalizing Clean Water Rule-2015, included a study of a January 2015 EPA publication titled “The Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of Scientific Evidence.” This report studied 1,200 peer-reviewed publications on the connectivity and isolation of US waters. It was compiled to inform the 2015 rule-making process by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers as it further defined WOTUS. A significant conclusion of their Connectivity Study was: “Streams, regardless of their size or how frequently they flow, are connected to and have important effects on downstream waters.”2

Jones_110729_NJ_0133.jpgSouth Branch of the Upper Raritan River Basin, New Jersey

The EPA spent over a decade examining studies and holding debates to provide strong clarification of the 2015 Rule. While still applying pollution controls to large lakes and rivers, the 2015 Rule also gave the EPA control over ponds, intermittent and ephemeral streams, and other small waterways that impact and connect to larger navigable water systems. Smaller waterways were now to be protected.3 After the EPA released its final version of this rule, President Obama stated, “This rule will provide the clarity and certainty [that] businesses and industry need about which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act; and it will ensure that polluters who knowingly threaten our waters can be held accountable.”4

Clean Water Rule-2015 regulations protected waterways that supply drinking water to 1 out of 3 Americans3 by setting measurable boundaries for coverage by the original CWA-1972.  This 2015 rule actually reduces the scope EPA had the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, and doesn’t regulate most ditches – a controversial issue during the hearings. It excludes farms and stock ponds, grassed waterways, groundwater, shallow subsurface flows, tile trains for drainage. It does not interfere with private property rights.3 Ken Kopocis, former chairman of EPA’s water office, stated the goal of Clean Water Rule-2015 wasn’t “an expansion in jurisdiction, but instead more predictability and consistency.”5

The confusion from the non-stipulated aspects of this rule lies in whether or not the CWA protects channels through which water flows intermittently or ephemerally, or which periodically provide drainage for rainfall. The legality of this question had previously resulted in a split decision in the Supreme Court in 2006.  Thus, no direction or clarification was provided by CWR-2015 on how to implement this decision.6

Jones_070708_OR_6995.jpgColumbia River Estuary at Astoria, Oregon

Ongoing WOTUS Rulings: EPA’s Steps One & Two

In 2016, just 40 days into the Trump Administration, the EPA and USACE began withdrawing from CWR (2015) in order to create more “industrially-friendly” standards.4 The Clean Water Rule-2015 had justified broader jurisdiction based on its Connectivity Study that concluded headwater systems are connected to, and thus definitely affect, downstream waters. If EPA and USACE repealed Clean Water Rule-2015, it would seem to also refute its own extensive “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters Report – Jan. 2015.” 3

Over a year later, in July 2017, the EPA filed several proposed changes. “Step One-Repeal of the 2015 Rule” would permanently undo the Clean Water Rule-2015. “Step Two-Revised Definition of WOTUS” would re-codify and revise pre-2015 regulatory definitions of Waters of the US [WOTUS]. The EPA intent with these proposed rules and replacement of the 2015 Rule was to loosen regulations on farmers, rangers and real estate developers on how to interact with streams and tributaries flowing across their properties.3

Jones_170612_NE_3783.jpgThe confluence of the braided Missouri and Niobrara Rivers in South Dakota

The EPA claimed this 2017 One-Step repeal would “reduce confusion and provide certainty to America’s farmers and ranchers.”7 In support, the Trump Administration stated that the 2015 Rule and WOTUS definition relied too heavily on the “Connectivity Report,”8 and science in answering policy questions. It also argued against language in Clean Water Rule-2015 and WOTUS that used the Connectivity Report’s terms such as “similarly situated.”8 The Administration’s 2017 repeal reflects opinions that said the 2015 Rule’s language for smaller bodies or connected waters was too vague.8

Jones_130518_WI_8311.jpgStoddard Pool 8 of The Mississippi River in Wisconsin

2018 Updates & NWNL Comments

Following a Supreme Court decision, the EPA announced in February 2018 that Clean Water Rule-2015 would not take effect until Feb. 6, 2020. That gave the EPA and USACE two years to redefine terms in the 2015 Rule before it would take effect. Public comment periods on three updates – the applicability date, EPA’s Step One-Repeal, and EPA’s Step Two-Revise – ended August 13, 2018.  Thus, until 2020, pollution controls will apply only to waters specified before the 2015 Rule.

In January 2018, NWNL studied the EPA’s “Consideration of Potential Economic Impacts for the Final Rule: Definition of Waters of the US [WOTUS].” This memo notes that certainty in interpretation and implementation creates greater efficiency and investment and reduces costs for “operational flexibility.”  Yet this paper acknowledges that uncertainty may persist.  EPA claims its 2-year revision period will minimize significant economic impacts “on a substantial number of small entities” and it will undertake “a fulsome treatment” of potential economic impacts.

While there may be economic benefits, NWNL notes that environmental guarantees provided by CWA-1972 and Clean Water Rule-2015 are vital to the health of Americans, US flora and fauna, oceans and thus the planet. Do economic benefits outweigh environmental safety?

The US Government is responsible for safeguarding our drinking water. Pollution controls are especially critical today, as technology and growing populations produce more toxic sewage, chemical and plastic waste than ever before. US citizens must also take individual responsibility for their health and their watersheds. We should simultaneously be conscientious stewards, responsible consumers and aware citizens actively protecting our waters. Ensuring clean water requires both bottom-up and top-down vigilance.


  1. US Environmental Protection Agency, accessed 6/19/18, published 2017, IKB, link.
  2. American Rivers: The Clean Water Rule, accessed 6/26/18, published 2017, IKB, link.
  3. New York Times, 6/26/18, published 2018, IKB, link
  4. Politico, accessed 6/26/18, published 2015, IKB, link.
  5. Environmental Protection Agency, 6/27/18, published 2015, IKB, link.
  6. American Bar, accessed 6/26/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  7. Independent, 6/27/18, published 2018, IKB, link
  8. E&E News, accessed 7/5/18, published 2018, IKB, link
  9. Red Lodge Clearinghouse, accessed 8/10/18, published 2010, AMJ, link

The Clean Water Act Addresses Health Issues

By Isabelle Bienen, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)
All photos © Alison M. Jones unless otherwise noted

Isabelle Bienen is Northwestern University junior studying Social & Environmental Policy and Culture & Legal Studies. This is the 3rd of 5 blogs Isabelle wrote as a NWNL Summer Intern on the U.S. Clean Water Act [CWA]. Her 1st two CWA blogs: CWA Beginnings -Mississippi River Basin and CWA Beginnings – Columbia and Raritan River Basins.

Jones_170617_NE_5169.jpgSign in Missouri River Basin, Nebraska

This blog in our series on the Clean Water Act [CWA] focuses on health threats of water pollution on urban, rural, indigenous, marine, flora and fauna communities. Beyond toxicity issues mentioned in the series’ earlier blogs, prevalent and serious health threats described below go further in underlining the need for the CWA.

Urban Health Threatened

Human health is threatened by polluted drinking water and dirty sanitation facilities, of which there are many more in urban than in rural environments. Unfortunately, urban environments can also include overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, unsafe drinking water and more health-related issues. In the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, the spread of disease through water was especially prevalent in urban environments, notably in cholera breakouts. During this time, scientists realized that just because water might look and smell clean, that did not mean that it was safe to drink.

Author Robert D. Morris states in his book, The Blue Death (2009), that water spreads infectious diseases through contact with contaminated fecal matter and other bacteria. Regarding urban cholera breakouts, Morris claims, “The health department staff had initially believed that the outbreak had attacked a few hundred people. As the outbreak wore on, they began to think that it might have hit as many as a thousand. No one fully grasped the power of water to spread disease” (Morris 214)1. This highlights the extent to which disease can spread via water in an urban environment, especially in major cities such as New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland which do not filter their drinking water. These cities rely on protection by their watersheds natural resources and some chemical disinfectants to ensure that their drinking water remains purified.

Jones_140907_LA_0752-2.jpgMississippi River plant between New Orleans & Gulf of Mexico

An example of health threats in an urban area, discussed in the first blog of this series, is found in the stretch of Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans with a high number of petrochemical plants. Known as “Cancer Alley,” this region is seen as responsible for numerous reported cases of cancer. In 2002, the State of Louisiana reported the second most cancer-caused deaths in the United States.

At the opposite end of the Mississippi River from  “Cancer Alley,” a 2-year Minnesota study begun in 2015 by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency discovered urban development was causing increased levels of nitrate in the Upper Mississippi River. This study added 274 miles of the river to Minnesota’s list of  “impaired waters” that fail to meet even one water-quality standard.3  However, further upstream near the Lake Itasca headwaters of the Mississippi River, water quality was far less polluted and thus this landscape has remained far less changed.3 These studies support the need for adequate regulation of urban development and waters to protect city residents.

Rural Health Threatened

In rural environments, the causes of water pollution and extent of illness from contaminated drinking water differ from those in urban environments. Water quality in rural environments actually tends to be worse than in urban areas where drinking water is treated. It appears that rural mortality rates due to cancer are higher in rural areas.3

Jones_070627_WA_4800.jpgIrrigation water polluted by farm chemicals goes to Washington’s Columbia River

As well, water contamination from pesticides is more prevalent in rural environments. In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson addresses, “…the never-ending stream of chemicals of which pesticides are a part….”  She warned that, “Their presence casts a shadow that is no less ominous because it is formless and obscure, no less frightening because it is simply impossible to predict the effects of lifetime exposure to chemical and physical agents that are not part of the biological experience of man.4 Monitoring the amount of pesticides and other harmful toxins that enter water systems is critical due to the extent of unknown effects of toxic chemicals in water supplies have on human health.

Carson also states that if a human liver is affected by pesticides, “it is not only incapable of protecting us from poisons, but the whole wide range of its activities may also be interfered with.”4  This highlights the wide-ranging and uncertain consequences of pesticides on the human health system. It is clear that in rural communities, without treated water systems and with a high quantity of farm pesticides, unmonitored water pollution is detrimental to human health.

Health of Indigenous People Threatened

The health of North American native communities is especially at risk from polluted water since these cultures heavily rely on local water and natural foods gathered by hunting and fishing. Insufficient and low-quality water supplies are common in these communities. This causes fish and other aquatic life to die off or move to other locations, which decreases food supplies for indigenous people. Many tribes lack access to safe drinking water or water filtration systems due to their geographic location and their lower economic status. For instance, within Arizona’s Fort Apache Reservation, there is an increase in children experiencing diarrhea or stomach issues.7

Jones_121021_TX_5758.jpgSign warning of water contamination in Red River Basin, Texas

Increased effects of climate change also cause more intense rain patterns and flooding, with waste overflows bringing bacteria, viruses and algae into US water systems. This spread of toxins can deplete aquatic life, as well as infect those who drink from or swim in these waters.7 Adequate resources are needed to monitor the prevalent “nonpoint sources” of pollution in water systems of indigenous communities to ensure that their health does not continue to suffer.

Health of Marine Life Threatened

NWNL documentation of its US watersheds includes each one’s terminus – often a delta or estuary – which in most cases combine fresh and saline water. Frequently, the health of these terminal bodies of water is worsened by their river’s downstream flow of pollution. Thus, toxins delivered in fresh water impacts the health of marine life that flushes in and out of river estuaries, as well as the upstream riverine life.

Jones_090621_NJ_0979.jpgShore of a polluted area of the  Lower Raritan River, New Jersey

One of the main causes of death and relocation of marine life when toxic rivers meet an ocean, gulf or sea is hypoxic dead zones where oxygen levels are reduced. While there are various physical, chemical and biological factors that help create dead zones, a high amount of toxic nutrients is one of the main factors. When agricultural pollutants, especially nitrogen, phosphorus, and wastewater, enter bodies of water, algae grows to the point that it sinks and decomposes. That process of decomposition consumes the oxygen needed for other marine life in these bodies of water.  

Most typically, dead zones occur in bodies of water near heavy amounts of agriculture and industrial activity. The second largest dead zone in the United States is in the northern Gulf of Mexico, below the Mississippi Basin’s extensive “Grain Belt”.8 There are also dead zones in the Columbia River Basin Estuary in the Pacific Ocean, also downstream from large swaths of farm country.

A 2008 study revealed over 400 dead zones worldwide.8 However, dead zones can disappear if water pollution is heavily reduced or eliminated. This happened in 1990, following the fall of the Soviet Union when the cost of chemical fertilizers increased. Although it was an unintended consequence, a decrease in fertilizer applications shrank a large dead zone in the Black Sea.9

Aquatic Flora and Fauna Threatened

The health of native flora and fauna – terrestrial and aquatic – is at risk where there is increased water pollution. Relocations of fish populations are indicative of water quality. Lower populations of fish species provide evidence of higher levels of pollutant bacteria or decreased levels of oxygen in the area. One instance of aquatic life eliminated by water pollution has been the disappearance of oysters in the Hudson River and Raritan Bay.

By the 1920’s oysters and many other species had disappeared from the Hudson River due to environmental deterioration from 1890 on. Before that, water-filtering oysters were found in Ossining, New York, Newark Bay, Arthur Kill, Kill Van Kull, Jamaica Bay, Raritan Bay, and New Jersey shores of the Hudson.  By 1920 however, oyster populations had largely disappeared, overwhelmed by sewage pollution, harbor dredging and industrial activity that even oysters couldn’t filter or cleanse.

Jones_090515_NJ_4550.jpgSpillway for waste water runoff into the Raritan River, New Jersey

These factors created pockets of dead zones in the NY waters where Dissolved Oxygen levels had declined to a critical point of 0-2% saturation in the summer.10 In 1909 dissolved oxygen in the Hudson River was at 72%, but by 1935 it dropped to 40, and was often at zero in summer months.10 These drops clearly correspond to historical periods of increased sewage pollution.10 Although oysters are filter feeders, they too are finally affected by extreme levels of toxins and pollutants.

Indicators of Successful Water Clean-up

Typically, species like oysters that “filter feed” eventually leave areas of low-water quality.  Low amounts of filter-feeding species indicate low water quality.10 Recently, stewards for the Hudson River and Raritan Bay initiated the Billion Oyster Project to reintroduce the oysters.  (See earlier NWNL blog on Oysters Creating a Living Shoreline.) The success of their reintroduction of colonies of oyster spats is a clear indication that the quality of those urban waterways has significantly recovered from earlier extreme lows that hurt native flora, fish, and fauna populations.  The NY-NJ oyster story is a great example of the rewards of clean water recovery efforts.


  1. Morris, Robert D.  The Blue Death: The Intriguing Past and Present Danger of the Water you Drink, Harper, 2009.
  2. Pollution Issues, accessed 7/11/18, published 2006, IKB, link.
  3. Star Tribune, accessed 7/11/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  4. Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
  5. Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act, accessed 7/11/18, published 2015, IKB, link.
  6. US Environmental Protection Agency, accessed 6/20/18, published 2016, IKB, link
  7. National Ocean Service, accessed 6/20/18, published 2013, IKB link
  8. LaFasto,  Drew.  “Water Quality’s Effect on Flora and Fauna,” Atavist, accessed Summer 2018, link
  9. Biology Department of Brooklyn College, accessed 6/20/18, published 1982, IKB, link.
  10.  The Times Picayune, accessed 7/26/18, IKB, published 2018, link

Desalination Explained

By Paddy Padmanathan
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)
Pictures and graphics provided by Paddy Padmanathan

Mr. Padmanathan, a professional civil engineer for over 35 years, is President and CEO of ACWA Power, a company that delivers desalinated water in 11 countries. His goal today is to promote localization of technology and industrialization of emerging economies.

NWNL:  While we can’t squeeze water out of thin air, we can squeeze potable water out of salt water. The high cost of desalination and ecosystem degradation by its brine waste are now being studied and corrected.  Thus, as our planet seeks more freshwater, NWNL asked this author, whom we recently met, to share his assessment of desalination and to describe recent adjustments to former desalination processes in this blog.

Picture5.pngShuqaiq 2 IWPP, RO desalination plant

Desalination’s Recent Global Development

Desalination is the process by which unpotable water such as seawater, brackish water and wastewater is purified into freshwater for human consumption and use. Desalination is no longer some far-fetched technology we will eventually need in a distant future to secure global water supply.

Desalination technology has been used for centuries, if not longer, largely as a means to convert seawater to drinking water aboard ships and carriers. Advances in the technology’s development in the last 40 years has allowed desalination to provide potable fresh water at large scale.


Desalination Capacity (Source: Pacific Institute, The World’s Water, 2009)

In the Arabian Gulf, desalination plays a particularly crucial role in sustaining life and economy. Some countries in the Gulf rely on desalination to produce 90%, or more, of their drinking water.  The overall capacity in this region amounts to about 40% of the world’s desalinated water capacity. Much of this is in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain. The remaining global capacity is mainly in North America, Europe, Asia and North Africa. Australia‘s capacity is also increasing substantially.

Global desalination capacity has increased dramatically since 1990 to a 2018 value of producing 105 million cubic meters of water daily (m3/day). Of this cumulative capacity, approximately 95 million m3/day is in use.

Picture2.pngQuadrupling of worldwide desalination capacity (1998-2018) continues.

Proponents and Critics of Desalination

Estimates indicate that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in regions with absolute water scarcity; and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions. Desalinated water is possibly one of the only water resources not dependant on climate patterns. Desalination appears especially promising and suitable for dry coastal regions.

Proponents of desalination claim it creates jobs; stops dependence on long-distance water sources; and prevents local traditional water sources from being over-exploited.  It even supports development of energy industries, such as the oil and gas industries in the Middle East. As well, research and development are making desalination plants increasingly energy efficient and cost-effective.

It is valid that the environmental impacts of desalination plants include emission of large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, because even with all the advances in technology to reduce energy intensity, desalination is still an energy-intensive process. While the industry continues to work on reducing energy intensity, the solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to link desalination with renewable energy.

Energy is also the most expensive component of cost of produced water, contributing up to one-third to more than half of the cost. Renewable energy costs are now becoming competitive with fossil-fuel-generated energy in many locations where desalination is the only option available for providing potable water. As a result, more attention is turning towards de-carbonization of desalination.

Desalination also degrades marine environments through both its intake and discharge processes. After separating impurities from the water, the plant discharges the waste, known as brine, back into the sea. Because brine contains much higher concentrations of salt, it causes harm to surrounding marine habitats. Considerable attention and investment are going towards minimizing the damage with more appropriate design of intake and discharge facilities. In the case of discharge, temperature and salt concentrations are reduced though blending prior to discharge. Ensuring this discharge only at sufficient depths of sea water and spreading discharge across a very wide mixing zone will ensure sufficient and quick dilution.

Desalination Technologies

Main water sources for desalination are seawater and brackish water. Key elements of a desalination system are largely the same for both sources:

  1. Intake — getting water from its source to the processing facility;
  2. Pretreatment — removing suspended solids to prepare the water for further processing;
  3. Desalination — removing dissolved solids, primarily salts and other inorganic matter from a water source;
  4. Post-treatment — adding chemicals to desalinated water to prevent corrosion of downstream infrastructure pipes; and
  5. Concentrate management and freshwater storage — handling and disposing or reusing the waste from the desalination; and storing this new freshwater before it’s provided to consumers.

The majority of advancements in technology has happened at Stage 3, the desalination process itself.


The 5 Stages of Desalination (with Stage 3 details in the blue circle) .

There are two main categories of desalination methods: thermal (or distillation) and membrane. Until 1998, most desalination plants used the thermal process. Thereafter, the reverse osmosis (RO) desalination process via a membrane-based filtration method took hold.  As more and more technological advancements were developed, the number of plants using membrane technology surpassed that of thermal. As of 2008, membrane processes accounted for 55% of desalination capacity worldwide, while thermal processes accounted for only 45%.

Thermal Methods

There are three thermal processes; multistage flash (MSF), multiple effect distillation (MED), and mechanical vapor compression (MVC), which all use the same basic principle of applying heat to create water vapor. The vapor then condenses into pure water, while separating it from most of the salts and impurities.  All three thermal processes use and reuse the energy required to evaporate water.

Thermal distillation was the earliest method used in the Middle East to commercially desalinate seawater for several reasons:

  1. The very saline and hot Arabian Gulf and Red Sea periodically have high concentrations of organics. Until recent advances in pre-treatment technologies, these organics presented challenging conditions for RO desalination technology.
  2. Only in recent times, with advances in membrane science, have RO plants been reliably utilized for the large production capacities required in this region.
  3. Dual-purpose, co-generation facilities in the Middle East combine water production with electric power to take advantage of shared intake and discharge structures.This usually improves energy efficiencies by 10% to 15% as thermal desalination processes utilize low-temperature waste steam from power-generation turbines.

In the past, these three reasons, combined with highly-subsidized costs of energy available in the Middle East, made thermal processes the dominant desalination technology in this region.  Amongst the three thermal processes, MSF is the most robust and is capable of very large production capacities. The number of stages used in the MSF process directly relate to how efficiently the system will use and reuse the heat that it is provided.

Picture4.pngShuaibah 3 IWPP:  An MSF [thermal] desalination plant.

Membrane Methods

Commercially-available membrane processes include Reverse Osmosis (RO), nanofiltration (NF), electrodialysis (ED) and electrodialysis reversal (EDR). Typically, 35-45% of seawater fed into a membrane process is recovered as product water. For brackish water desalination, water recovery can range from 50% to 90%.

Reverse Osmosis (RO), as the name implies, is the opposite of what happens in osmosis. A pressure greater than osmotic pressure is applied to saline water.  This causes freshwater to flow through the membrane while holding back the solutes, or salts. The water that comes out of this process is so pure that they add back salts and minerals to make it taste like drinking water.

Today, the Reverse Osmosis (RO) process uses significantly less energy than thermal distillation processes due to advances in membranes and energy-recovery devices. Thus, RO is the more environmentally-sustainable solution; and it has reduced overall desalination costs over the past decade.

Picture6.pngShuaibah Expansion IWP, RO membrane racks & energy recovery, RO desalination plant

Desalination Technology Today: Comparisons and Areas for Improvements

While all the desalination technologies in use today are generally more efficient and reliable than before, the cost and energy requirements are still high. Ongoing research efforts are aimed at reducing cost (by powering plants with less-expensive energy sources, such as low-grade heat) and overcoming operational limits of a process (by increasing energy efficiency).

Since the current technologies are relatively mature, improvements will be incremental. Emerging technologies such as Forward Osmosis or Membrane Distillation will further reduce electric power consumption and will use solar heat. To approach the maximum benefit of desalination, it will take disruptive technologies such Graphene membranes. They are in very early stage of development.  Ultimately, no desalination process can overcome its thermodynamic limits. However, desalination is a valuable contribution to today’s increasing needs for fresh water supplies.

The Clean Water Act: Its Beginnings in the Mississippi River

By Isabelle Bienen, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

Isabelle Bienen is a junior at Northwestern University studying Social Policy with minors in Environmental Policy & Culture and Legal Studies. The focus of her NWNL research and blog series this summer is on the U.S. Clean Water Act: its history, purpose and status today. The subject of this first blog in her series is on its creation and potential to solve issues in our Mississippi River Basin case study watershed.

Jones_111029_LA_1225.jpgCypress Island Preserve swamp, Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana 


The Clean Water Act was created by the U. S. Congress to ensure that those in the U.S. have access to safe drinking water. This blog series will highlight the threats that spurred the creation of this act (citing specific issues in NWNL case-study watersheds); a definition of its regulations; and an analysis of its implementation and implications. Below is the first post in this series which outlines how this Act came to be. It continues to specifically depict existing threats in the Mississippi River Basin (a NWNL case study watershed) that helped shape the Act and those that are addressed in the Act. The second blog in this series will detail existing threats and those addressed by the Act that are in the other 2 NWNL North American case study watersheds: the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River Basin, and New Jersey’s Raritan River Basin.  The third blog will discuss general health threats across the U.S. that also clearly highlighted the need for the Clean Water Act.

Jones_121021_TX_5758.jpgSign at The National Ranching Heritage Center, Red River Basin, Texas 

The Birth of the CWA

The Clean Water Act was adopted in 1972 due to an overwhelming response from local governments, state officials and the general public over their growing dismay for poor water quality. The alarm prompted by photographs of a 1969 Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland, Ohio, is often considered the tipping point for the creation of this Act. An investigation conducted that year by Cleveland’s Bureau of Industrial Wastes stated that the fire was caused from “highly volatile petroleum”1 with a “low flash point at the end of the railroad trestle bridges.”1 The flames were recounted to have climbed as high as five stories. The previous year, Cleveland residents passed a $100 million bond issue to finance river protection and cleanup efforts, yet there was no success due to a lack of any government controls to protect the environment. This grave situation indicated the need for federally-implemented water protection, as the Clean Water Act eventually would provide.

Jones_111021_LA_7703.jpgDredge water samples collected from Mississippi River, National Audubon, Louisiana

The Mississippi River Basin’s Clean Water Issues

The Mississippi River Basin drains into 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces, supporting 60% of North American birds and 25% of North American fish.2 Nonpoint sources of pollution from the basin’s manufacturing, urbanization, timber harvests and hydrologic modifications have contributed to water contamination by PCB’s, DDT and fecal bacteria. A buildup of excess nutrients spurring algae growth and producing dead zones comes from nitrogen and phosphorus used in crop fertilization. The many locks and dams along the length of the Mississippi River have caused the loss of natural filtration of pollutants by coastal wetlands.3 This body of water was completely unregulated for pollutants, causing a wide range of problems that greatly impacted marine life and the surrounding environment.

Jones_140907_LA_0752-2.jpgIndustrial site on coastal wetlands south of New Orleans, Louisiana

One of the biggest problems in the Mississippi River Basin is the nonpoint source runoff of agricultural chemicals that feed algae blooms which creates large hypoxic dead zones. These dead zones emerge from the Mississippi River Delta and flow into the Gulf of Mexico, reportedly covering around 6,000 to 7,000 square miles from the inner and mid-continental shelf and westward into the upper Texas coast.4 This hypoxia has killed and displaced a variety of marine species, and the freshwater species depend on these displaced resources.5 Still, today, agricultural runoff from midwestern farms flows into the Gulf. Due to steadily increasing levels of flooding since the 1930’s, as well as an increase in the amount of paved surfaces in these areas, greater amounts of synthetic fertilizers, animal waste and other nutrient pollution are running off into these waters at an accelerated rate.5 According to Mother Nature Network, “The biggest overall contributor to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone is the entire Mississippi River Basin, which pumps an estimated 1.7 billion tons of excess nutrients into Gulf waters each year, causing an annual algal feeding frenzy.”5

Jones_130522_IA_3270.jpgLock & dam system, Port of Dubuque, Iowa

Additionally, point-source pollution from a high number of petrochemical plants between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has negatively impacted the Lower Mississippi River and Delta. This stretch of the Mississippi River is known as “Cancer Alley” due to numerous reported cases of cancer occurring in small rural communities along the river.6 In 2002, the State of Louisiana reported the second highest numbers of deaths caused by cancer in the United States. The national average death-from-cancer rate is about 206 per 100,000; while Louisiana’s rate is ten times that at  237.3 deaths per 100,000.6

The Mississippi River Basin, prior to the CWA, is clearly in need of regulation as highlighted through the condition of this water system. The following blog post will further discuss the status of NWNL River Basins prior to the CWA – specifically in the Columbia River Basin and the Raritan River Basin.

Jones_111024_LA_8716.jpgBridge over Henderson Swamp, Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana 


  1. John H. Hartig, “Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers that Caught on Fire.” Burlington: Ecovision World Monograph Series, Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management Society, 2010.
  2. No Water No Life, accessed 6/19/18, published 2017, IKB.
  3. The National Academy of Sciences, accessed 6/19/18, published 2007, IKB.
  4. Microbial Life; Educational Resources, accessed 7/10/18, published 2018, IKB.
  5. Mother Nature Network, accessed 7/11/18, published 2011, IKB.
  6. Pollution Issues, accessed 7/11/18, published 2006, IKB.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Surprisingly Similar: Deer and Elephant

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a Syracuse University  senior studying Biology and Economics. Her summer research was on the nexus of biodiversity and water resources. She already has 3 NWNL blogs on African and N American watershed species:  Wild v Hatchery Salmon; Buffalo & Bison; & Papyrus & Pragmites.

Jones_180225_K_6049.jpgAfrican Elephant, Mara Conservancy, Kenya 


This blog compares Africa’s savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) to the N. America’s white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in North America’s eastern United States. They present unlikely, but strikingly interesting comparative behaviors and impacts within their watersheds.  

In the Pliocene Era, elephants roamed and trumpeted their presence across the planet. Today they are a keystone species in African watersheds, including the Nile, Mara and Omo River Basins. Yet these giants are increasingly vulnerable to human poaching, hunting and destruction of habitat and migratory corridors. As a result, African savannah elephants are categorized as a “vulnerable” species.

In North America, white-tailed deer (also called Virginia deer) are present across the continent from the Atlantic Coast’s Raritan River Basin to the Pacific Coast’s Columbia River Basin. These nimble jumpers probably came to N America in the  Miocene Era as browsers competing for their niche with American rhinos. As they wheeze, grunt and bleat their presence today, they have few natural predators remaining, other than car collisions. Deer in the eastern US are a “Least Threatened” species – while Columbian white-tailed deer in Oregon’s Lower Columbia River Basin are “Near Threatened”.  

Jones_090629_NJ_1137.jpgWhite-Tailed Deer , Upper Raritan River Basin, New Jersey

North American male deer stand at 6-7 feet and weigh 100-275 pounds (¼ of a ton, the weight of a baby elephant).  In contrast, full-grown elephants stand at 11 feet (twice as tall as deer) and weigh up to 13,000 lbs (6.5 tons). Yet despite these huge size differences, these 2 species impacts on watershed forests are quite similar. As herbivores, both threaten and alter their habitats’ vegetative diversity, growth and regeneration.


Elephants alter their watersheds by converting woodland to shrubland. Elephants consume large amounts of vegetation allowing growth of plants previously blocked from the sun. However the benefit of increasing plant diversity is countered by the destruction elephants cause while browsing their way through watersheds. They remove trees, trample grasses and compact the soil. This limits forest regeneration since seedlings cannot grow and their trails cause soil erosion.

Similarly, deer today are increasingly damaging forest vegetation due to their soaring populations. In the Raritan River Basin, impacts of high deer populations have resulted in habitat loss for birds and other animals that rely on vegetation for protection. Thus, native species are decreasing and could eventually disappear locally.


Another similarity both species face is that of negative interactions with humans. Elephant and deer both damage farmers’ crops.  Elephant contact with humans continues to increase as they lose their traditional habitats due to human infringement and development. Increased development has also led farmers to further transgress into what was elephant rangeland or migratory corridors. In following and browsing along their ancient pathways and territories today, elephants can trample crops and even kill people. Those elephants are often killed in retaliation. In Tanzania’s Serengeti District, the effect of elephants raiding crops means a bag of maize can be locally more valuable than the cost of building a classroom or tarmac road.

In America, deer find an ideal environment in urban and suburban areas with their mix of ornamental shrubs, lawns and trees.  Since deep forest vegetation is too high for them, deer browse along the “edge habitat” which also provides easy access to suburban yards.

deer crossing road.jpgWhite-tailed deer crossing a road (Creative Commons)

With the loss of wolves, bears and cougars, deer have had a lack of predators, causing their populations to soar. Now their biggest predators are human hunters and car accidents which cause deer and human fatalities. As well, human health impacted by deer that browse in the woods, meadows or dunes with ticks carrying Lyme disease (Lyme borreliosis). Lyme disease can be lethal, or at the least debilitating, for humans, livestock and pets.

For elephant and deer, interaction with humans is not beneficial for either species. Sadly, given less space for the exploding human race, these fateful interactions will only increase.


The spread of human settlements, agriculture and livestock farming have replaced elephants’ natural habitats. Clearing of those traditional lands disturbs and decreases water volume in their rivers and lakes. Yet, when elephants were there, they created water holes which increased water availability for themselves and other species. Simultaneously, humans are increasing their consumption of today’s decreasing water and other natural resources.  

This scenario is dramatically playing out in Kenya’s Mara River Basin. In the Mau Forest highlands, human deforestation has depleted flows of source tributaries of the Mara River, a lifeline to the Maasai Mara National Reserve and Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. In turn, lowered water levels downstream have increased temperatures and disrupted local rainfall patterns. Thus the human takeover of the Mau Forest has chased out the elephant and disturbed downstream ecosystems, which in turn will contributed to decreases in wildlife populations and thus park revenues from tourism.

Elephants have direct impacts on water sources and availability since they are a “water-dependent species.” When water is scarce, they dig in dry river beds to provide water for themselves, other animals, and humans. Additionally, elephants migrate to find water – even if only via artificial, supplementary water points. More research is needed, but water availability may become a useful tool for regulating elephant distribution and managing ecological heterogeneity.  Yet an abundance of artificial water should be avoided in conservation areas where the presence of elephant would cause vegetation degradation.

Jones_090930_K_0584.jpgAfrican Elephants crossing the Mara River, Mara Conservancy, Kenya

Deer, unlike elephants, have a more indirect impact to water resources. Their impacts are more about quality of water than its availability. The nutrients and pathogens excreted by white-tailed deer become water pollutants in nearby streams and groundwater, especially during in storm runoffs.  Deer waste dropped in and along streams in the Raritan River Basin produces greater pathogenic contamination than cattle manure deposited away from streams.


Hunting is a controversial solution to controlling these species’ threats of ecosystem degradation and human conflict. Hunting elephant to counter their negative impacts has much greater negative consequences than hunting deer. Elephant poaching for  lucrative ivory profits became such a serious threat that elephants became listed as an Endangered Species. While a 1989 ban on international ivory trade allowed some populations to recover, illegal ivory trade still occurs and threatens elephant populations. Thus, shooting elephants marauding crops and killing farmers is not an option – thus the search for other means to controlling elephant degradation.

After elephants devour all vegetation in an area or during droughts, they migrate. However, that puts them face to face with today’s man-made fences and trenches built to stop elephants, as well as with new communities and farms. Thus Kenyan conservancies, International Fund for Animal Welfare,  Addo Elephant NP, Sangare Conservancy and other groups began creating “protected elephant corridors.” Such corridors provide elephants safe migratory paths where they don’t disturb humans.

Jones_180129_K_7661.jpgRanger at the entrance gate to Sangare Conservancy, Kenya

Deer hunting however is viewed  by many as a positive means to control over-abundant deer populations destroying gardens and forests. In rural regions, deer are still hunted for food and sport which helps save forest saplings from deer browse. But that removes only a limited number, and there have been traditional limits on deer hunting. Along Mississippi’s Big Black River, the state still restricts  killing year-old bucks and any deer hunting during floods. Many such restrictions are being loosened today to help counter the rapid growth of deer populations. As well, to reduce deer browse and car collisions, some suburbs hold carefully-organized, targeted hunts by licensed “sharp-shooters,” and the venison is harvested for homeless shelters. Suburban methods to combat deer intrusions also often include installing 8-foot tall fences to protect gardens, landscaping and critical ecosystems.

Jones_180129_K_7681.jpgFence of the Sangare Conservancy, Kenya 


Elephants’ foraging creates open habitats for other species. However, browsing of resulting mid-successional species by elephants and other species can stop regrowth of trees and forest. “As go the elephants, so go the trees.” This issue is similar to deer browsing on soft-leaved saplings in N. American forests that preventing the growth of future forests.

Yet elephants compensate for their heavy vegetative consumption.  More than a dozen tree species depend on forest elephants for to spread their seeds. This type of seed dispersal occurs via each elephant’s daily  200-lb. dung droppings, thus ensuring survival of vegetation. Another benefit of creating open spaces by altering and removing trees is the opportunity for greater faunal diversity. Elephants uproot and fell trees and strip bark; but in this process, they break down branches which provides access to food for smaller wildlife.

TZ-ELE-215.jpgHerd of African elephants with newborn, Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania

All this change created by elephants creates “a cyclical vegetational seesaw of woodland to grassland and back to woodland.” As debris of trees felled by elephants shields pioneer grasses and shrubs from trampling, deep-rooted perennial grasses can grow. These grasses attract grazers to the area, while the browsers leave. When the woodlands regenerate, elephant number will return, followed by browsers.  

Deer, unlike elephants, are non-migratory however, and thus they don’t spur cycles of regeneration. Therefore, watersheds with deer-infested forests face ongoing degradation. Today’s soaring numbers of deer prevent any chance of forest recovery from their constant browsing. Deer also displace native wildlife, which furthers the cascade of ecosystem degradation. When a forest loses trees, there is less water recycling  since trees produce and move rain downwind to other terrestrial surfaces.  Water retention in a forest is also related to presence of ground cover – also eaten by deer – which decreases stormwater runoff and downstream erosion in floodplains or wetlands. A lack of ground cover causes inland forests and downstream areas to become arid and potentially a waste land. The deer do not produce compensatory benefits that elephant produce.

Jones_090629_NJ_1120.jpgWhite-tailed deer Upper Raritan River Basin, New Jersey


Elephant and deer each have increasingly negative impacts on watershed vegetation and human communities. However a big difference exists in effective stewardship for controlling these species. In Africa, elephant numbers (2007-2014) have dropped by nearly a third, representing a loss of 144,000 elephants.  Begun in 2014, the Great Elephant Census (GEC) accounted for over 350,000 savannah elephant across 18 African countries and states the current yearly loss at 8 per cent. Tanzania, having one of the highest declines, and Mozambique have lost 73,000 elephants due to poaching in just five years.

However deer populations have exploded.  In 2014, US deer populations across the United States were estimated at over 15 million. In New Jersey, there are approximately 76-100 deer per square mile; yet a healthy ecosystem can support only 10 deer per square mile.  These high densities of deer are decimating US forests.

Making elephant poaching illegal and banning ivory trade has saved elephant populations in Africa. But in N America further controls of the growing population of deer is badly needed. The most obvious step towards this goal would be to remove deer hunting restrictions – the very opposite of Africa’s stopping the hunting and poaching of elephants.

On both continents, immediate solutions are critical if we are to protect our forests and water supplies – critical natural resources of our watersheds – from degradation being increasingly incurred by both species. Elephants consume vegetation and degrade areas of abundant water; while tick-carrying deer contaminate water with their excrement and threaten the future of our forests. One could summarize the consequence of too many deer as “No Forests – No Water” – and the consequence of losing elephant as “No Elephants – No Water.”

All photos © Alison M. Jones unless otherwise noted.


World Wildlife Fund for Nature, accessed on June 28, 2018
Gereta, Emmanuel Joshua. Department of Biology Norwegian University of Science and Technology, accessed on June 18, 2018
African Forest Policy Forum – Proceedings, accessed on June 28, 2018
Chamaille-Jammes, Simon. Journal of Applied Ecology, accessed on June 28, 2018
Mutugi, Marion. European Scientific Journal, accessed June 28, 18 by BE
Kideghesho, Jafari R. The International Journal of Biodiversity Science and Management, accessed on July 2, 2018
Landman, Marietjie. Understanding Long-Term Variations in an Elephant Piosphere Effect to Manage Impacts, accessed on July 2, 2018
New Jersey Institute of Technology, The Neshanic River Watershed Restoration Plan, accessed on July 2, 2018
Opar, Alisa. Audubon, accessed on July 2, 2018
Woods, John J. Bucks On The Big Black, accessed on July 2, 2018
Ohio Wesleyan University. The Waning of the Elephants, accessed on July 16, 2018
Ohio Wesleyan University. The Waning of the Elephants, accessed on July 16, 2018
Gomez, Monserrat. Nikela, accessed on July 16, 2018
Marshall, Jessica. Discovery Channel, accessed on July 16, 2018
Thorman, Cartin. Minnesota Economy, Environment, accessed on July 16, 2018
Meyer, Amelia. Elephants Forever, accessed on July 17, 2018
Louisiana Sportsman, accessed on July 24, 2018
Steyn, Paul. National Geographic, accessed on August 7, 2018
Hersher, Rebecca. National Public Radio, accessed on August 7, 18 by BE
Pennsylvania State University New Kensington. The Virtual Nature Trail, accessed on August 7, 2018
Franklin Reporter & Advocate, accessed on August 7, 2018
Hurley, Amanda. CityLab, accessed on August 7, 2018
World Wildlife Foundation, accessed on August 7, 2018
Elephant-World, accessed on August 7, 2018
Chafota, Jonas. Effects of Changes In Elephant Densities On the Environment and Other Species—How Much Do We Know? Accessed on August 8, 2018
Howard, Meghan. Animal Diversity Web, accessed on August 8, 2018
Sheldrick, Daphne. Elephant Conservation, accessed on August 8, 2018
Sjogren, Kristian. ScienceNordic, accessed on August 8, 2018
Platt, John. Scientific American, accessed on August 8, 2018
Swit, Nadia. The Downtown Review, accessed on August 8, 2018
Hilderman, Richard. The Effect of Deforestation on the Climate and Environment, accessed on August 8, 2018
National Park Service. Draft White-Tailed Deer Management Plan/ EIS, accessed on August 8, 2018

Small but Critical / Our Invertebrates

This blog contains several references to invertebrates in northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana Basin, the arid terminus of Ethiopia’s Omo River and world’s largest desert lake.  Within this “Cradle of Humankind,” species continually adapt, as explained in our NWNL Interview with Dino Martins, entomologist at Turkana Basin Institute.

Animal species in our watersheds quietly enhance and protect the health of our water resources.  Yet, rarely do we give our fauna – from wolves to woodpeckers – enough credit. This is especially true of our smaller invertebrate species, which include butterflies, bees, beetles, spiders, worms, starfish, crabs and mollusks.  Invertebrates span the globe in habitats ranging from streams, forests, prairies, and deserts to lakes, gardens and even glaciers. Sadly, these unsung heroes are often called “pests.”

Jones_031026_ARG_0471.jpgInvertebrate atop Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

Invertebrates are defined by their lack of backbone, yet ironically, they are “the backbone” of our land- and water-based ecosystems.  Comprising 95-97% of animal species, they keep our ecosystems healthy; and although spineless, they are a critical base of the food chains for many species, from fish to humans.  Fly fishermen carefully study the macro-invertebrates in their streams and rivers before choosing lures of mayflies, worms and caddisflies that appear in different stages, in different seasons, on different streams.

Invertebrates benefit our world in numerous ways:

  • pollination – of fruit, grain, and native plants
  • seed dispersal – a job shared with birds  
  • recycling of waste, nutrients and food for other species, including humans
  • production of nectar and honey as a healing resource and immunity booster
  • purification of water and the environment
  • creation of reefs by mollusks, especially oysters
  • being useful research specimens (Think of fruit flies in biology class…)

One of the most valuable contributions of invertebrates is the pollination of our orchards and fields by bees and bumblebees.  Without this, human food sources would be quickly and greatly diminished. Bees also pollinate riverine vegetation needed to retain water and prevent erosion. It is as simple as “No bees – No vegetation – No water!”  

Jones_090615_NJ_0817.jpgHoney bee pollinating spring blooms in Raritan River Basin, NJ

Ancient and contemporary Mayans have known that invertebrates are the foundation of the living world. Thus mosaics of mosquitoes, still today in Guatemala, are the symbolic woven foundations of women’s huipiles (blouses).  Worldwide, mosquitoes and macro invertebrates provide food for other invertebrates, notably juvenile fish – locally called “cradle fish” – in northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana gulfs and bays.

However, Lake Turkana fish populations have been greatly reduced recently due to overfishing and upstream Ethiopian dams.  Fortunately, the Lake Turkana invertebrate bee population’s honey production has provided a needed alternative source of calories.  Fewer fish, combined with drought-afflicted livestock and maize, have led the Turkana people to turn to bee-keeping as their new livelihood.  

Jones_130114_K_9644.jpg     Jones_130115_K_0027.jpg
Honey production by CABESI a nonprofit in Kapenguria Kenya

Author Sue Stolberger describes another oft-overlooked role of  invertebrates in her Tanzanian guidebook. She explains that many invertebrates are “expert at natural waste disposal. Beetle larvae dispose of leaf litter. Maggots, blowflies and others play a role in the disposal of carrion; and dung beetles dispose of excrement, which cleans up the excreta and fertilizes the soil.”  [Stolberger, p 197.]

In tidal estuaries, purification of water by mollusks is much cheaper route to addressing pollution than governmental SuperFund Site cleanups.  Oysters very effectively filter our rivers and bays. Today the New York-New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program is reintroducing oysters into the Hudson and Raritan Bays to clean those waters and stabilize their shorelines and riverbanks.  [See NWNL Blog on Oyster Restoration in Raritan Bay by NY-NJ Baykeeper]

A “living wall” of oyster shells in the South Atlantic

Few people are aware of the endurance and numbers of invertebrates.  The dragonfly story is amazing. Known for accomplished gliding and crossing oceans, dragonflies form one of the world’s largest migrations.  Due to their large numbers, they’re among the most ecologically important insects and are voracious consumers of mosquitoes, worms, crustaceans and even small fish.  Kenyan entomologist Dino Martins explained to NWNL that dragonflies are also great bio-indicators of ecosystems’ health. The presence or absence of “different types of dragonflies and/or macroinvertebrates [that] tolerate different stream conditions and levels of pollution… indicates clean or polluted water.” [Utah State University]  


Shimmering dragonflies and damselflies, butterflies and even snails have inspired beautiful art, poetry and other creative expressions.  In Japan, generations of haiku authors have compressed the unique qualities of these special creatures into 17 concise syllables, as in this by Issa:

The night was hot… stripped to the waist the snail enjoyed the moonlight

                             —The Four Seasons:  Japanese Haiku.  NY: The Peter Pauper Press, 1958.

Even the descriptive names given to our butterflies evoke a sense of poetry: Pearl Crescent, Red Admiral, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, Silver Spotted Skipper….  Seeing the opalescent Mother of Pearl Butterfly (Protogoniomorpha parhassus) and the electric Blue Pansy Butterfly (Junonia oenone oenone) in Kenyan forests could turn anyone into a lepidopterist and an artist.

Mother-of-pearl_Butterfly_(Protogoniomorpha_parhassus)_(8368125628).jpgMother of Pearl Butterfly (Creative Commons)

Despite these valuable attributes, invertebrates are slapped at; often seen as bothersome and unwanted; and most dangerously, ignored in environmental policies and land use practices.  Sadly, we now have many at-risk species: from bumble bees to tiger beetles and butterflies. Caddisflies that live solely in one stream are becoming extinct. To understand their role in stream ecosystems, talk to a fly-fisherman or visit a riverside tackle shop.  

On land, herbicides are sprayed in fields and along our roadsides through the summer, killing large swaths of milkweed, the sole food of monarch butterflies.  In Michoacan Mexico, the winter retreat for all monarchs east of the Mississippi, illegal deforestation now leaves tens of thousands of monarchs frozen to death annually.  Their small pale carcasses silently pile up on the ground where there used to be dense oyamel pine forests protecting them from freezing temperatures.

When frozen, monarchs fall to the ground, folding their wings as they die 

The biggest threat to invertebrates is the loss of native habitat to development and agriculture.  Native bugs, butterflies, beetles and bees need native wildflowers. Flying insects in the US Midwest now lack the succession of wildflowers since midwestern prairies have been reduced to mere fragments, called “remnant prairies.” In 2013, entomologist Dino Martins told NWNL, “Farmers need to understand why leaving a little space for nature isn’t a luxury, but a necessity for productive, sustainable agriculture.”  

The importance of wildflower habitat for invertebrates was publicized in the 1970’s by Lady Bird Johnson, wife of former President Lyndon Johnson, and actress Helen Hayes..  Now many municipalities, organizations and gardening groups are publicizing the importance of replanting native wildflowers (milkweed for monarchs!) and eliminating invasive species.  Farmers, land managers, environmental regulatory agencies, park managers and home gardeners need to become more aware. They can help protect the soil and water quality of our rivers, streams, ponds, wetlands in many ways.  Funding for that research is critical, as is promoting citizen-science training programs. We can all pitch in to weed out invasive species if we learn what to look for.

Jones_080810_BC_6882.jpgSignage identifying invasive species in British Columbia

Small critter stewardship is growing.  There is good news.  The use of “Integrated Pest Management” and reduction of pesticides and herbicides is spreading; awareness of the consequences of killing our invertebrates grows.  Commercial and small farmers are learning to supply water in their fields for bees so they don’t waste energy looking for rivers. The Endangered Species Act supports the many organizations resisting the overuse of chemicals and unregulated land development.  

  • NYC Butterfly Group uses citizen scientist to map NYC’s butterfly distribution.
  • Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation [www.xerces.org), begun in 1971 trains farmers and land managers to save forest, prairie, desert and river habitat for these invertebrates via newsletters, books, guidelines, fact sheets and identification guides.  
  • National Wildflower Research Center,founded by Lady Bird Johnson in Texas, preserves N. American native plants and natural landscape
  • BuzzAboutBees.Net  www.buzzaboutbees.net/why-are-invertebrates-important.html website offers in-depth facts and advice on bees and bumblebees, as well as books, advice on stings and best garden practices.

It is time for us all to identify and weed out invasive species; help monitor monarch migrations; support local land trusts preserving open space; and advocate for more wildflower preserves.  Baba Dioum, a Senegalese ecologist wrote, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will only love what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

Jones_100522_NJ_1065.jpgA caddisfly in the hand of a New Jersey fisherman 


The Four Seasons: Japanese Haiku.  NY: The Peter Pauper Press, 1958.
Stolberger, Sue. Ruaha National Park:  An Intimate View: A field guide to the common trees, flowers and small creatures of central Tanzania.  Iringa TZ: Jacana Media, 2012.
“What Are Aquatic Macroinvertebrates?” Utah State University Extension. www.extension.usu.edu/waterquality/learnaboutsurfacewater/propertiesofwater/aquaticmacros, accessed 4/30/18

All photos © Alison M. Jones.


Happy Earth Day 2018!

Every year, Earth Day is celebrated internationally on April 22.  In 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated across thousands of college campuses, primary & secondary schools and communities in the United States. Millions of people participated in demonstrations in favor of environmental reform. In 1990 Earth Day became an international event, that is now celebrated in 192 countries and organized by the nonprofit Earth Day Network.

No Water No Life wishes everyone a Happy Earth Day. While we celebrate the beautiful and diverse Great Outdoors, never forget to preserve and protect all forms of nature, including rivers! For more information about Earth Day visit, https://www.earthday.org.


All photos © Alison M. Jones.