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Steps to cool the climate will improve water quality, too

Steps to cool the climate will improve water quality, too
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While much of Washington remains mired in partisan gridlock, there is new cooperation in two areas critical to managing climate change: reducing carbon emissions from agriculture and shifting to electric vehicles. 

This is obviously good news for the climate, and it will help protect the quality of rivers, streams and coastal waters across the United States. It turns out that what’s good for the climate pays dividends in clean water. 

Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, our nation has made progress in restoring the health of rivers, lakes and coastal waters. The act spurred upgrades in sewage treatment, reduced industrial pollution and protected wetlands. Congress stepped up the fight with additional measures to reduce polluted runoff from non-industrial sources, manage municipal storm water discharges and protect critical ecosystems like the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.

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This work saved countless water bodies and protected sources of drinking water for tens of millions of Americans. But stubborn and serious water pollution problems persist. 

For example, research by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and states found that 46 percent of rivers and streams are in poor biological condition. Chemical stressors remain widespread: almost half of stream miles have high levels of phosphorus; 41 percent have high levels of nitrogen. 

Nutrient pollution from agriculture and other sources can cause algae blooms and “dead zones” from low oxygen levels. Research by the Office of Science and Technology Policy found low oxygen conditions in nearly half of coastal and estuarine ecosystems studied. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the biggest in U.S. waters, would likely exceed 6,000 square miles in 2020. 

Here’s the good news: steps to address climate change will reduce water pollution. 

For example, improved agricultural practices, such as crop rotation, cover crops and no-till farming have what the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) calls a “profound impact” on the climate by dramatically increasing carbon storage in soil. And, as an added bonus, they will also reduce water pollution by minimizing runoff from fields. 

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These same practices can also result in more efficient use of fertilizer. Less fertilizer reduces release of nitrous oxide, a highly potent greenhouse gas, at the same time that it reduces nutrient runoff in streams and rivers.

Prospects for wider application of these measures are looking up. The Biden climate plan calls for investing in “climate-friendly farming such as conservation programs for cover crops and other practices aimed at restoring the soil and building soil carbon, and in the process, preventing run-off....” The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis called on Congress to “increase climate stewardship practices and agricultural carbon sequestration.”

Then on Nov. 17 came the announcement of an unprecedented cooperative effort among farm and environmental groups on climate change. The new Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance calls on farmers to “maximize the sequestration of carbon and the reduction of other greenhouse gas emissions.” 

Also on the same day came the announcement of a new Zero Emission Transportation Association dedicated to advancing “national policies that will enable 100 percent electric vehicle sales throughout the light-, medium-, and heavy-duty sectors by 2030.” The association includes both companies like Tesla and Uber as well as electric power utilities including Southern Company, PG&E, Duke Energy and Con Edison.

Accelerating the shift to electric vehicles as power utilities reduce their emissions will significantly reduce greenhouse gases. This, too, will benefit water quality. The nitrogen oxides emitted by vehicles into the air eventually fall to the ground and are washed into streams, rivers and coastal waters. One-third of the nitrogen in Chesapeake Bay comes from the air, as does about 26 percent of the nitrogen in the Gulf of Mexico. Vehicles and power plants are the largest sources of this nitrogen pollution. 

Political gridlock notwithstanding, things are looking up when diverse interests hammer out agreements on tough environmental challenges. The future looks even brighter when efforts to manage one environmental problem advance progress on another. Now it is up to Congress to recognize the many benefits of these policies and adopt the same spirit of cooperation.

Jeff Peterson is a retired senior policy advisor at the Environmental Protection Agency and the author of “A New Coast: Strategies for Responding to Devastating Storms and Rising Seas.”