Oct 31 2011

Clean Water Act failing in new climate

BY RYAN P. KELLY & MARGARET R. CALDWELL

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently gave California some tough love in the form of a ghastly report card on water quality along our coasts and in our rivers and streams: The state’s water pollution seems to have gotten much worse, with the number of polluted water bodies skyrocketing between 2006 and 2010.

Some of this change is due to more aggressive testing; the blame for the rest is solely our own. And while this news is bad enough on its own, what’s often not discussed is that all of that polluted water ends up downstream in the coastal ocean, already hard hit by decades of abuse.

This is killing the goose that lays the golden state’s egg. Californians depend upon our coastal oceans more than you might realize. As of 2000, over three-quarters of Californians lived in coastal counties, and the state’s coastal economy accounted for $42.9 billion and 700,000 jobs. These numbers have surely risen since 2000, but we’ve failed to be the stewards of these waters that their value – economic, aesthetic and otherwise – deserve.

And the threats to ocean resources keep coming, from climate change to the collapse of so many fisheries stocks worldwide. One challenge we are just beginning to understand is ocean acidification, a consequence of the fact that the oceans absorb a large fraction of the carbon dioxide we continue to pump into the atmosphere. This has changed the chemistry of the entire world’s ocean, making it more acidic. Because this increased acidity dissolves the hard shells of many of the world’s marine creatures (e.g., oysters, mussels, and many forms of plankton), these creatures and the food webs of which they are a part face a difficult future.

The horrible air quality of the 1970s is an obvious analogy to the state of California’s waters today. While the state still has severe air quality problems in places – Bakersfield, the Central Valley, and the Los Angeles region stand out – three decades of concerted effort to clean up our air has led to significantly improved air quality for most of our state. And the benefits of such action are enormous: An EPA report earlier this year showed the direct benefits of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments dwarfed the costs of implementation by a 30-to-1 ratio. This month’s final EPA report on water quality only confirms what we already know, that California must do better when it comes to our coastal ocean.

Read the rest of the opinion from the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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