How to Stop Mud Pollution in Rivers & Lakes

How do you stop mud pollution in rivers and lakes?

Well, first of all, in most places it’s not natural for a river or lake to become muddy after each rain.  The mud pollution causing the greatest harm to the environment, the value of water front homes, fishing, boating, and swimming is due to poorly controlled runoff from farms, construction sites, mining operations, logging, and other sources. 

CEDS has had considerable success in halting mud pollution from these sources.  Our muddy river and lake solutions bring improvements far more quickly and at a fraction of the cost of alternatives.  To learn more about how CEDS solutions can keep the mud out of your river or lake contact us at 410-654-3021 or Help@ceds.org.

How a muddy river or lake can affect property value?

If a formerly clean river or lake turns muddy, then the resale value of homes within view of the waterway can decline by 20% or more.  The loss is due to prospective buyers perceiving the waters as less desirable for boating, fishing, swimming, or just enjoying a pleasant view.  Fortunately, resale value rebounds quickly once muddy water sources have been eliminated.  And a CEDS watershed audit is the quickest option for achieving this goal.

How muddy water affects fish and other aquatic life?

Excessive muddiness in a lake or river blocks the sunlight essential to the rooted aquatic plants that provide much of the food and habitat essential to a healthy population of fish and other aquatic communities.  Excessive sediment inputs can blanket the coarse sand, gravel and other bottom materials essential to oysters, mussels, and other fin and shell fish.  Suspended sediment can suffocate fish eggs and abrade larval gills.  A headwater stream with a natural bottom of gravel and cobbles can support 400 times more aquatic insects and crustaceans compared to a silty stream bed.  Muddy water also absorbs more heat which can threaten trout and other cold or cool water fish.

How muddy water affects human health?

A large portion of the nutrients and pollutants entering a river or lake come attached to sediment particles.  Furthermore, practices that minimize runoff from cropfields and construction sites not only reduce erosion but also the amount of dissolved pollution.  And the same practices that reduce runoff also curtail mud pollution.  Disease causing organisms also increase as runoff and sediment inflow volumes increase.  As nutient levels increase a river or lake may become more prone to Harmful Algae Blooms like red tide.

How muddy water affects river and lake recreation?

As water clarity declines and the bottom grows increasingly muddy, a river or lake becomes less attractive for swimming, boating and other forms of water contact recreation.  This is why one frequently sees the irony of a swimming pool next to a lake or river.  And, as noted above, increasing mud pollution lowers recreational fishing, crabbing, etc.

Causes of a muddy river or lake?

It’s not natural for a river or lake to become muddy after a storm.  In most cases the inflowing mud is due to activities in the land area draining to the river or lake – the watershed.  These activities include farming, construction, mining, logging, or others that expose soil to the erosive forces of rain and runoff.

While in some places, like deserts, muddy water can occur without recent soil-exposing activities this is not the case in most areas.  And though strong winds can muddy a lake by resuspending bottom sediments, it’s the inflow of silt after a storm that has the greatest impact on recreation, ecosystems, and property value.

Muddy river and lake solutions

In most cases, the solution to a muddy river or lake is to get exposed watershed soils under a protective blanket of grass or other vegetation.  To accomplish this goal one must provide those responsible for the exposed soil with the right incentives to resolve the problem.  The first step though is to identify the source(s) of the muddy inflow – exposed soils throughout the watershed.

Identifying sources of muddy water

Following is the approach CEDS uses to identify the exposed soil sources of muddy inflow throughout a watershed.  Our methods are described in sufficient detail so you can identify sources on your own or CEDS can do this for you and correct the sources for a fee.

Aerial Imagery

Exposed soil is readily apparent on online aerial photos, especially when taken during the growing season as seen below.  Each area of exposed soil is noted for further investigation since most photos are a year or more old and the soils may have since been protected.  For an example of how to use aerial photos to pin-point exposed watershed soils see the CEDS presentation posted at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWAVjRlTvJg

Drive Watershed Roads

You’ll find that some areas noted on aerial photos are not exposed soil.  The first step in verifying that exposed soil still exists is to attempt to view it from a road open to the public.  A road survey should not end there.  Instead all roads ramifying a watershed should be driven.  During the road survey note areas where soil is either completely or partially exposed to erosive forces.  As explained in the following CEDS factsheet, in watersheds with extensive farming the survey should take place in the winter and again in the summer: Crop Residue & Cover Crops.

Creek Crossing Survey

When enough rain has fallen to cause runoff from your lawn drive to each road crossing the streams and other tribuaries to a river or lake.  Begin at the most downstream crossing, note the relative degree of muddiness, take a photo, then drive to the next crossing upstream.  If muddiness is noticeably less at the next upstream crossing then a muddy water source likely lies in between.  Further guidance on this survey method can be found in the CEDS factsheet Tracing Muddy Water to Pollution Sources.

Correcting muddy water sources

At first it may seem very challenging to get those responsible for muddy water sources to take corrective action.  Our decades of winning pollution battles has allowed CEDS to develope a combination of carrots and sticks that have proven highly successful.  Because CEDS is not dependent upon government agencies or foundations for funding, we have a freedom to aggressively pursue corrective action that watershed groups, consulting firms, and other do not.  And since most correction comes from political action – not legal – the cost to our clients is a fraction of the litigation usually pursued to halt pollution.  Our approach is not only less expensive but correction usually occurs far more swiftly.  Following are a few examples.

Croplands, Pastures & Rangeland

With farming the effort to curb muddy runoff is mostly carrots.  CEDS is based in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  A few decades ago vast quantities of muddy water would flow from cropfields left barren following fall harvest.  Today, all but a few cropfields over winter with a protective blanket of crop residue and many even have cover crops (as pictured below)

The result is that agricultural watershed rivers that once ran brown after each winter storm are far less muddy today.  This dramatic improvement is a result of increased public awareness which then allowed better funding of programs that provide farm owners with the technical and financial resources needed to protect soil from erosive forces.

The CEDS approach for achieving this same miracle elswhere begins with the guidance presented in our factsheetfactsheet: Crop Residue & Cover Crops.  But this is not enough.  We build on the initial approach by educating other watershed residents about the many benefits local farms provide.  The goal of the education is to convince voters to urge their elected officials to provide agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service with the resources needed to accelerate the use of soil and water conservation practices on the farm.

Construction Sites

The rivers and lakes most severely impacted by muddy inflow are invaribly those draining watersheds where construction is occurring.  In fact a single construction site can account for much of the muddiness in even a large river or lake.

Fortunately, federal law requires the use of the most effective practice for curbing muddy construction site runoff.  That practice is getting exposed soil under a protective blanket of straw mulch then grass when most earth-moving ends two- to four-weeks after site clearance and grading begins.

Unfortunately, this law is poorly enforced in most places in the U.S.  To see if this is true in your area use the procedures in the following CEDS presentation: Exposed Soil = Pollution Aerial Survey.

Typically, the CEDS strategy to arrest construction site mud pollution in a watershed begins by urging contractors, development companies and others to make greater use of mulch, grass and other erosion control practices.  CEDS has actually had a fair degree of success by sending thank you letters to those responsible for well protected sites and letters of encouragement to others.  Examples of these letters can be found near the end of the CEDS presentation: Preventing Construction Site Sediment Pollution.

To win widespread reductions in mud pollution control throughout a watershed with many construction sites, a more aggressive strategy is needed.  Like most of our clean water laws, enforcement of mud pollution control is far below what it should be.  This is because few watershed groups and other clean water advocates provide enforcement agencies with the support needed to be effective.

CEDS came up with a simple solution to this problem – a citizens watershed audit of construction site mud pollution control.  Perhaps the most successful example was our Greater Baltimore Survey where more than a hundred volunteers assessed mud pollution control quality on construction sites active in Baltimore City and the five surrounding counties.

The first survey showed that only a forth of Greater Baltimore construction sites fully complied with mud pollution control laws.  The publicity resulting from this first survey allowed increases in inspection personel who were then allowed to more aggressivly enforce the laws.  Within a few months control quality improves by 61%.  Repeating the one-day survey every two years or so would result in continuing improvements.  This very easy approach achieved far more reduction in mud pollution at far less cost and much more quickly when comparede to litigation.

CEDS Watershed Audits to identify mud and other pollution sources

Mud pollution is but one of a number of factors that can degrade a river or lake.  While clean water laws require each factor to be managed to protect river and lake quality, enforcement of most is far from what’s needed to protect public health, recreation and property value.

CEDS uses a comprehensive approach to identify and correct all factors affecting a river or lake.  We call this approach a Watershed Audit.  Following are links to two examples of the audit CEDS can conduct in your watershed:

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