In the past decade, water quality and pollution control has become a hot topic with ecologists and policy makers alike. On Sept. 22, a lecture that is part of the Libby Lecture Series at the University of Maine and sponsored by the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry and Agriculture and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, took place at the Buchanan Alumni House. Dr. Cathy Kling discussed the results from an ongoing study exploring the social and economic impacts of improving water quality nationwide, in the hopes of educating future policy makers.
Kling, the faculty director at the Atkinson Center and a professor at Cornell University, began her discussion by giving an overview of the EPA National Aquatic Resource Survey, which gives a snapshot of the water quality of all bodies of water over the span of five year periods. The results showed that in all states, most of these bodies of water are suffering from large amounts of nutrient pollution, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus. Kling explained that the two outcomes of this pollution that she feels are the most pressing are harmful algal blooms and the Dead Zone.
Algal blooms are caused when naturally occurring algae in bodies of water are fed an abundant amount of nutrients, causing rapid growth that can affect not only the ecosystem, but also our ability to use that water for drinking, fishing, or recreation. The Dead Zone is a section of the Gulf of Mexico, spanning about 5,800 square miles, that is annually occurring and ever growing. This area has a low concentration of dissolved oxygen, caused by runoff from sediments containing high levels of nutrients from rivers in the Midwest, and is uninhabitable for all animals. Kling explained that both of these results of nutrient pollution are unintentional, but dangerous consequences of The Clean Water Act of 1972.
The Clean Water Act, while minimizing a large portion of the water pollution in the United States by managing certain areas of production, doesn’t affect agriculture at all, which is the largest producer of the nutrients that are affecting our waters today. According to the 2017 Agriculture Census, 44% of the United States is agricultural land, and Kling believes that these lands are the main cause of nutrient pollution in the nation today.
Kling discussed a potential cost of this pollution, which is how our drinking water will be affected, leading to costs of cleaning public water and the residual health problems among those who unknowingly drink polluted water from private wells. Recreation will decrease, as things like fishing, boating, swimming, and wildlife viewing are less likely to occur in polluted water, meaning recreational income and quality of life will go down as well. Even local amenity value will decrease, as property values near a polluted lake are much lower than those near clean water.
Kling hopes that her team’s study can help point out these areas of potential economic and social loss, as well as educate policy makers on the benefits of improving them and specifically who would benefit from those improvements, as low income communities are less likely to benefit as much as wealthier individuals. The goal is to give an overview of the ecological and economic benefits and the environmental justice aspects as well, in order to allow for future policy makers to ensure that any further developments can benefit all members of the United States.