Thursday, June 16, 2011

Polluted waters listings will not fix the problem of declining pH on marine waters

By Sandy Howard, Communication Manager, Water Quality program

You might be hearing about the problem of declining pH in our ocean’s waters, also called “ocean acidification.” The Center for Biological Diversity is bringing this topic up once again today.

What is the cause?

What causes declining pH and why is it a problem?

It’s a fact that our earth’s oceans are becoming more and more acidic as they absorb greenhouse gas emissions produced all over the planet. When our ocean water becomes more acidic — or in other words, it declines in pH — marine animals suffer and lose their ability to build the protective shells they need to thrive. In short, declining pH threatens the health of a very important natural resource — our shellfish — and the health of many other marine organisms. The Department of Ecology’s just-out draft 2010 Marine Water Quality Assessment includes the list of the state’s polluted marine waters. Ecology currently has the draft list ready for the public to review. However, the list does not include marine waters that may be affected by declining pH.

The Center for Biological Diversity thinks Washington should include listings for pH in its polluted marine waters list.

Ecology agrees that declining pH in marine waters is a very real problem.

However we think placing these waters on the state’s polluted waters list is the wrong tool to fix the problem.

What is the remedy?

The true remedy for reducing the amount of carbon dioxide getting into the oceans is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Washington uses its list of polluted waters to develop water cleanup plans — Total Maximum Daily Load studies. The heart of a cleanup plan is that it identifies sources of pollution within our state over which it has authority. The cleanup plan then outlines actions to reduce or eliminate the pollution sources to improve water quality.

While Washington undoubtedly produces its own set of greenhouse gas emissions, ocean acidification is a global problem. Sources of greenhouse gas emissions come from distant locations where our state has no authority.

So listing for ocean pH on our polluted waters list would not lead to effective cleanup strategies and could cause unnecessary requirements for industries in Washington that are not causing the pollution problem.

Furthermore, Ecology’s marine monitoring program has measured pH in marine waters for years. Ocean experts have recently determined that traditional measurements of pH in marine environments are not precise enough because of the complicated chemistry in saltwater. The technology needs to improve so we can get more accurate methods of measuring subtle changes in pH. We are currently working with federal agencies to improve the methods we use to measure pH.

Climate change is real. Ecology is very much involved in finding regional and global solutions to reducing greenhouse gases and we care about solving declining pH in marine waters.

Read more about how Washington is responding to climate change.

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