Polluted runoff has far-reaching consequences

Over the past few months, we’ve written about buffer zones and source water protection in an attempt to outline the importance of keeping our water supply clean. A recent study by the University of Georgia, however, drives home the fact that the effects of polluted water reach far beyond local watersheds. Researchers there found that a combination of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide and fertilizer runoff carried by the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico is increasing the acidity of Gulf waters.

The study shows that the mix is proving deadly for marine life. The fertilizer causes algal blooms that soon die, sink, and decompose, releasing carbon dioxide that reacts with the seawater and creates an acid. Compounding the problem is carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels, which is absorbed at the ocean’s surface and also forms an acid. The increased acidity is too much for the ocean to neutralize, and marine life such as oysters, clams and corals have a much harder time forming and maintaining their exoskeletons and shells. Scientists say that at this rate, by the end of the century these sea creatures won’t be able to create shells or structures at all.

UGA Distinguished Research Professor of marine sciences James T. Hollibaugh says the effects of the deadly duo will be widespread:  “Many of our fisheries resources, especially shellfish, are concentrated in areas where rivers discharge onto the coast, like the northern Gulf and the East China Sea, and thus are at risk. And of course there are likely ramifications for fish and animals further up the food chain that depend on these same shellfish for food.”

If the problem is cropping up in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s a sure bet it’s also happening here.  Locally, the Lehigh River flows into the Delaware River in Easton. The Delaware then spills into the Delaware Bay, known in part for its blue crabs, oysters, clams, and shrimp.

So what can you do to help? If you haven’t already, establish a buffer zone to protect waterways from polluted runoff. Prevent waste from pets and livestock from being washed into streams and rivers. Eliminate or reduce the use of chemical fertilizers. And take a look at the Delaware River Basin Commission’s Web site to see what else can be done to protect the bay.  If everyone does their part, we can preserve our rivers, streams, oceans and drinking water for future generations.