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Sensitivity of Freshwater Habitats

Oil spills occurring in freshwater bodies are less publicized than spills into the ocean even though freshwater oil spills are more frequent and often more destructive to the environment. Freshwater bodies are highly sensitive to oil spills and are important to human health and the environment. They are often used for drinking water and frequently serve as nesting grounds and food sources for various freshwater organisms. All types of freshwater organisms are susceptible to the deadly effects of spilled oil, including mammals, aquatic birds, fish, insects, microorganisms, and vegetation. In addition, the effects of spilled oil on freshwater microorganisms, invertebrates, and algae tend to move up the food chain and affect other species.

Freshwater is divided into two types: standing water (lakes, marshes, and swamps) and flowing water (rivers and streams). The effects of an oil spill on freshwater habitats varies according to the rate of water flow and the habitat's specific characteristics.

Standing water such as marshes or swamps with little water movement are likely to incur more severe impacts than flowing water because spilled oil tends to "pool" in the water and can remain there for long periods of time. In calm water conditions, the affected habitat may take years to restore. The variety of life in and around lakes has different sensitivities to oil spills.

Oil spills impact flowing water less severely than standing water because the currents provide a natural cleaning mechanism. Although the effects of oil spills on river habitats may be less severe or last for a shorter amount of time than standing waters, the sensitivity of river and stream habitats is similar to that of standing water, with a few special features:

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