This year marks the 40th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). Thanks to the CWA, the quality of water across our nation has improved dramatically since the 1960s, when rivers caught fire and the Houston Ship Channel was virtually devoid of sea life. The next decades under the CWA will be just as critical as global climate change contributes to regional water quantity and quality issues.
There is no doubt that the CWA has reduced pollution from industrial pipes and wastewater treatment plants through nationwide permitting programs. There have also been major improvements in dealing with nonpoint source pollution from stormwater runoff in cities and agricultural communities.
However, there is still much work to be done. Full implementation of the CWA can protect our headwater streams, which are often critical drinking water sources. The CWA can protect our disappearing wetlands, which act like kidneys to clean surface waters of pollutants and sediment. These wetlands also store water, slow flooding and provide critical wildlife habitat. The CWA can help protect our Midwest groundwater resources, so critical for agricultural production, where confined animal feeding operations and hydraulic fracturing for fossil fuels pose contamination threats.
Unfortunately, what happens in the Heartland does not stay in the Heartland. We send polluted surface runoff to the sea via the Missouri and Mississippi watersheds, contributing to the oxygen-depleted “dead zones” and toxic “red tides” that exist along the coast. Pharmaceuticals, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, even our precious prairie soil, travel thousands of river miles from farm fields, animal feed lots, waste water treatment plants, industrial outfalls, and urban storm drains to the Gulf of Mexico, impacting local economies and marine habitats. There, the Loop Current carries pollutants to the Gulf Stream and the Atlantic, our links to the great World Ocean.
The hydrologic cycle ties us to the ocean, which controls weather patterns on the planet. The sun evaporates pure water from the oceans; precipitation provides clean rain and snow for our re-use. The pollution we send downstream stays in the ocean – great for us; bad for marine organisms.
As rising greenhouse gas levels continue to warm Earth, the water cycle churns harder. Recent research estimates that every extra degree increases the amount of water moving around by 8 percent. More water moved into and out of the atmosphere in 2000 than in 1950, making saltier parts of the world’s oceans saltier and fresher waters less salty. (“Oceans’ salinity changed over last half-century: Warmer atmosphere may be to blame for changes in water cycle,” Science News, Web edition: Thursday, April 26th, 2012)
Ocean salinities, critical in determining healthy marine habitats, are not the only things impacted. The cycle that occurs over water extends over land as well. Dry lands across the globe are likely to get drier in the future, as wet places get even wetter.
Coal-fired plants emit mercury to the atmosphere. Precipitation returns the mercury to watersheds where it is biomagnified in aquatic food chains. Many water bodies in the Midwest are already posted with fish consumption advisories due to mercury content in the flesh of native fish. In the oceans, the large predatory fish at the top of the food chain, like tuna and mackerel, prompt similar consumption advisories.
Carbon dioxide emissions, from Midwest coal-fired electrical generating plants and from fossil fuels burned for transportation, are causing the level of green house gases to rise. The ocean has already absorbed huge amounts of carbon dioxide and heat energy, buffering the rate of climate change.
But, it has done so at a price. Ocean temperatures are increasing, sea levels are rising, global weather patterns are changing, and seawater is becoming more acidic. Coral reefs and marine fisheries are threatened. Human societies living near sea level are already facing more floods.
Although we live far from the coast, we benefit tremendously from the ocean’s “free” ecological services. In addition to the water we receive from ocean-driven weather systems, much of the oxygen we breathe comes from photosynthesis of marine plants. We use the seas for food, recreation, and transport of Midwest products worldwide by barge and ship. The benefits to our U.S. economy are enormous.
As a marine ecologist and educator, I am excited that the public marine aquaria planned for the KC metro area will help connect people in the Heartland to the oceans. My concern is that too much emphasis will be placed on marketing and entertainment, and not enough on education. Will visitors learn, for example, how mercury from Midwest coal plants returns as a neurotoxin in our children’s tuna sandwiches?
The 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act is an opportunity to celebrate our national success in reducing water pollution, to identify ways to further improve water quality protection, and to explore our Heartland relationships to the World Ocean. It’s time to make the global connection.
Want to get involved? Go to http://connect.sierraclub.org/Team/Marine_Action_Team and click Heartland-Ocean Connections under “Our Projects.” If you know a group interested in a presentation on this topic, contact Elaine Giessel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By C.Elaine Giessel, Kansas Chapter Marine Chair