When too much nitrogen enters the Chesapeake Bay, it can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen areas, or “dead zones,” that suffocate marine life. But some key successes in curbing the amount of nitrogen entering local waterways have a potentially surprising source—the Clean Air Act.
In a factsheet released last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlines how declines in air pollution have substantially reduced the amount of airborne nitrogen that ends up in the Bay, helping the agency and its partners stay on track to meet the water quality goals of the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or “pollution diet,” which representatives from across the Bay region recommitted to achieving as part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
Polluted air can have quite an impact on the health of local waters: scientists estimate that one third of the nitrogen in the Bay comes from the air through a process known as atmospheric deposition. When our cars, power plants or other sources emit air pollution, it can be carried by wind and weather over long distances until it falls onto land or into the water.
“Atmospheric deposition falls everywhere on the Chesapeake watershed, from forests, to fields, to parking lots,” said Lewis Linker, modeling coordinator with the Chesapeake Bay Program. “When this load of nitrogen is reduced, it improves water quality everywhere from stormwater runoff, to small headwater streams, …to the Chesapeake Bay.”
Even pollution emitted thousands of miles away can eventually end up in our waterways. While the area of land that drains into the Bay spans six states and 64,000 square miles, the Bay’s “airshed”—the area of land over which airborne pollutants travel to enter the estuary—is nine times that size. Nearly three-quarters of the airborne nitrogen that eventually ends up in the Bay is generated by sources within this airshed, and the remaining 25 percent is emitted from sources even farther away. Which is why, says Linker, national policies like the Clean Air Act are essential in reducing the amount of pollution that reaches the Bay.
“To restore the Chesapeake, the citizens of the Chesapeake watershed have done a lot of bootstrapped cleanup in their own backyards and watersheds,” said Linker. “But when it comes to atmospheric deposition of nitrogen, the reduction can’t be done by the Chesapeake state partners alone—it’s a job for the whole nation.”
For more on what you can do to curb air pollution, Take Action.
Learn more about the EPA’s efforts to curb nitrogen deposition in the Chesapeake.
The nation’s forests save more than 850 lives each year, according to a new report from the U.S. Forest Service.
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In a study that will be published in the October issue of Environmental Pollution, scientists with the U.S. Forest Service have determined the magnitude and economic value of the effects trees have on air quality and human health. While we have long known that trees remove pollutants from the air, this study shows that in 2010, trees in the conterminous United States removed 17.4 million tons of pollution, with a human health value of $6.8 billion.
In addition to saving more than 850 lives, these trees reduced more than 670,000 incidences of acute respiratory symptoms and 430,000 incidences of asthma exacerbation. Trees also saved 200,000 lost days of school.
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A forest’s pollution removal rates can be affected by pollution concentrations, tree cover, weather conditions, length of growing season and other environmental stressors. In general, scientists found that while trees’ pollution removal was greater in rural areas, the economic value of this pollution removal was greater in urban areas. In other words, because of their proximity to people, trees in urban areas have a greater impact on human health.
“More than 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas containing over 100 million acres of trees and forests,” said Michael T. Rains, director of the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in a media release. “This research clearly illustrates that America’s urban forests are critical capital investments [that are] helping produce clean air and water [and] reduce energy costs and making cities more livable. Simply put, our urban forests improve people’s lives.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program has set a goal to expand urban tree canopy by 2,400 acres by 2025. Indeed, trees can improve air quality, water quality and habitat in ways not discussed in this study. Trees near buildings, for instance, lower energy use. Trees along rivers and streams reduce the amount of nutrients entering local waterways. And trees provide food, shelter, nesting sites and safe migration paths for critters in the water and on land.
“Urban tree planting is part of the Watershed Improvement Plan for six Bay jurisdictions,” said U.S. Forest Service Chesapeake Liaison Sally Claggett. “To reach water quality goals, these jurisdictions are targeting nearly 20,000 acres of new tree canopy by 2025—so the goal of 2,400 acres may be reached early. Partners are planning an Urban Forestry Summit in fall 2014 to help make that happen.”
Solar energy is on the rise in the United States, and one jurisdiction in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has been named a leader in the solar energy revolution.
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According to a report released by Environment America, Delaware is one of the ten states that have installed the greatest amount of solar energy capacity per capita. At 82 watts per person, the state is in seventh place.
Since December 2008, Delaware has expanded its solar capacity from 2 to 59 megawatts. According to the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), the state has installed 1,600 solar energy systems on government buildings, businesses, schools and homes. What's driving this effort? Legislation, policies and financial incentives that support going solar.
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Solar energy uses the sun as fuel to create heat or electricity. It’s considered cleaner than coal- or natural gas-fired power plants because it doesn’t burn fossil fuels, which can release emissions that contribute to climate change.
Like other states in Environment America’s top ten, Delaware’s interconnection policies make it easier for individuals and companies to connect their solar energy systems to the power grid. Solar rebates and other financing options help lower the cost of installation, while "net metering" policies compensate consumers for the excess energy they return. The solar market is also moving forward in response to Delaware’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which calls for the state to draw 25 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025, with at least 3.5 percent coming from solar.
“Encouraging solar power is the right thing to do for the environment and our economy,” said Delaware Gov. Jack Markell in a media release. “We are aggressively working toward a clean energy future in Delaware, demonstrating we can have both a strong economy and a healthy environment. That means creating a robust market for solar and other clean energy systems, creating clean energy jobs, expanding our solar industry and improving air quality.”
Two additional watershed jurisdictions received special mention in Environment America’s report: New York, whose solar energy market is growing quickly, and the District of Columbia, where new clean energy policies are set to make solar more attractive and accessible to consumers.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its proposed Clean Power Plan this week, which EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called a “vital piece” of President Obama’s plan to cut carbon pollution and slow the effects of climate change.
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The Clean Power Plan aims to lower carbon emissions from the power sector to 30 percent below 2005 levels. According to the EPA, this would also cut emissions of particle pollution, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide more than 25 percent, lowering asthma attacks and medical bills and working toward justice for the low-income communities that are hardest hit by air pollution.
Fossil-fueled power plants are the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, accounting for one-third of our greenhouse gas emissions. Left unchecked, carbon pollution leads to rising temperatures and sea levels and changes in weather patterns, ecosystems and habitats. It also worsens smog, which affects the heart and lung health of children, older adults and people living in poverty.
“This is about protecting our health and our homes,” McCarthy said in a speech celebrating the plan’s release.
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The plan would give states the freedom to chart their own course toward their own goals. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” McCarthy said. Instead, states can “mix and match” methods of electricity production—whether it is a low-carbon or “no” carbon source like nuclear, wind or solar energy—and pollution control policies to ensure a “smooth transition to cleaner power.”
Comments on the proposal will be accepted for 120 days after its publication in the Federal Register. The EPA will host public hearings on the plan in Denver, Atlanta, the District of Columbia and Pittsburgh during the week of July 28, and will finalize the plan next June.
Pollution-reducing practices can improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and have already improved the health of local rivers and streams, according to new research from the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership.
In a report released today, several case studies from across the watershed show that so-called “best management practices”—including upgrading wastewater treatment technologies, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions, and reducing runoff from farmland—have lowered nutrients and sediment in local waterways. In other words, the environmental practices supported under the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Farm Bill are working.
Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired local water quality: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life, while sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and suffocate shellfish. Best management practices used in backyards, in cities and on farms can lower the flow of these pollutants into waterways.
Data collected and analyzed by the Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have traced a number of local improvements in air, land and water to best management practices: a drop in power plant emissions across the mid-Atlantic has led to improvements in nine Appalachian watersheds, upgrades to the District of Columbia's Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant have lowered the discharge of nutrients into the Potomac River and planting cover crops on Eastern Shore farms has lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into the earth and reduced nitrate concentrations in groundwater.
“In New Insights, we find the scientific evidence to support what we’ve said before: we are rebuilding nature’s resilience back into the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, and the watershed can and will recover when our communities support clean local waters,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release.
But scientists have also noted that while we have improved water quality, our progress can be overwhelmed by intensified agriculture and unsustainable development, and our patience can be tested by the “lag-times” that delay the full benefits of restoration work.
“This report shows that long-term efforts to reduce pollution are working, but we need to remain patient and diligent in making sure we are putting the right practices in place at the right locations in Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said UMCES President Donald Boesch in a media release. “Science has and will continue to play a critical role informing us about what is working and what still needs to be done.”
UMCES Vice President for Science Applications Bill Dennison echoed Boesch’s support for patience and persistence, but added a third P to the list: perspiration. “We’ve got to do more to maintain the health of this magnificent Chesapeake Bay,” he said.
“We’ve learned that we can fix the Bay,” Dennison continued. “We can see this progress… and it’s not going to be hopeless. In fact, it’s quite hopeful. This report makes a good case for optimism about the Chesapeake Bay.”
The reduction of power plant emissions in the mid-Atlantic has improved water quality in the Chesapeake region, according to new research from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES).
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Researchers at the university’s Appalachian Laboratory have traced improvements in the water quality trends of nine forested watersheds located along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains to the Clean Air Act’s Acid Rain Program. Passed in 1990, the Acid Rain Program led to a 32 percent drop in human-caused nitrogen-oxide emissions in 20 states. As these emissions have declined, so too has the amount of nitrogen found in some Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia waterways.
In other words, while the Acid Rain Program only intended to reduce the air pollution that causes acid rain, it had the unintended consequence of reducing the amount of nitrogen oxide particles landing on the region’s forests, thus improving local water quality.
“Improvements in air quality provided benefits to water quality that we were not counting on,” said UMCES President Donald Boesch in a media release.
Once nitrogen oxide particles are emitted into the air, wind and weather can carry them long distances. In time, these particles fall onto the land or into the water. Nitrogen that enters rivers and streams can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life. Scientists estimate that just over one-third of the nitrogen polluting the Bay comes from the air.