[Wildlife & Habitats]

Want Clean Drinking Water? It Starts With Healthy Rivers, Streams—and Fish

By: Lori Hoffman

Do you know where your drinking water comes from? Private wells are the answer for 15 million Americans, while the rest of us must rely on water flowing from a vast network of rivers and streams, which are also home to numerous varieties of trout and salmon across the country. The water makes its way to our local treatment facility, where sediment and bacteria are removed before the water continues its journey to the kitchen tap. Although not every contaminant is detected during the treatment process, the native fish populations can tell us a lot about the health of our water.

“Trout and salmon are huge indicators of healthy, cold, clean water and a healthy ecosystem,” says Helen Neville, lead scientist for Trout Unlimited (TU), a national organization grounded in science and dedicated to conserving, protecting, and restoring North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds.  “When we are helping them survive, they are indicators that the water upstream is healthy.” Since our drinking water comes to us from upstream, healthy, thriving fish are a sign that the water downstream is safe and clean.

Climate change, not surprisingly, is having a major impact on the health of our 3.5 million miles of rivers and streams. Warmer water temperature, debilitating droughts and unprecedented flooding are becoming more frequent and pose a threat to wildlife, fish, and to us all. But the challenges go beyond climate. The 60 million anglers across the United States and the 300,000 members and supporters of TU who organize in grassroots chapters throughout the country already understand that it’s not just a problem for conservationists—it’s now crucial for all of us to grasp the full scope of the problem. Below are three important focus areas that TU and its thousands of partners are working on, and ways that you can help them reach their goals.

Cleaning Up Abandoned Mines

According to TU, more than 27,000 stream miles, primarily in western mountain states, are polluted from abandoned hardrock and coal mines. Drainage from these mines contains heavy metals that leach into the water, sometimes even oxidizing it and turning it orange. As a result, fish populations have been destroyed and community drinking water is poisoned. TU and its partners have cleaned up abandoned mine pollution at over 40 sites in seven states to restore critical streams and fish populations.

But there is so much more to do. Groups like TU are eager to tackle these problems, but face liability risks because they have no official connection to the mines. Good Samaritan laws can give organizations like them protection to clean up the mines within the guidelines of their permit without facing liability.

How can you help? Even if you don’t live in a western mountain state, you’ve likely benefited from the energy extracted through mining. Click here for guidance on how to reach out to your Congressperson and urge them to pass Good Samaritan legislation.

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Conserving Public Land

The nearly 59 million acres of roadless National Forests are a pristine place for camping, hiking and fishing, as well as a pristine place for plants, fish, and wildlife to thrive. They have been protected from commercial logging and the construction of new roads by the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, but some lawmakers are trying to open up these areas to commercial interests, putting that fragile backcountry ecosystem in danger.

How can you help? Let your legislators know that protecting these public lands is a priority—for recreational use and the protection of our fish and wildlife. Click here for help in sending that message.

Advocating For Responsible Energy Development

There are bipartisan efforts underway to enact legislation that would accelerate the country’s move toward eliminating additional emissions of carbon, but the reality is that we are still reliant on oil and gas. Domestic drilling for these fossil fuels can be incredibly damaging to fish and wildlife habitats if not done in a thoughtful way. TU and its partners are working to help communities find balance in areas where oil and gas drilling can coexist with a healthy fish and wildlife ecosystem.

The Greater Little Mountain area in Wyoming is an example of this practice in action. It is a lush area that is home to native species of trout and big game animals—but it’s also a desirable location for energy extraction. A group of citizens, businesses, and organizations like TU came together to form the Greater Little Mountain Coalition. The coalition advocates for conservation, but recognizes certain areas for energy development.

How can you help? We are all experiencing the effects of a warming planet and must remain vigilant about how most of our energy is still being developed. Representatives in Congress need to know that we demand a balanced, safe approach. Click here for help in sending that message.

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Photo: Trout Unlimited