Air Apparent

Jan. 15, 2015
Exploring the links between air pollution & water quality

About the author: Benjamin H. Grumbles is president of the U.S. Water Alliance. Views expressed in this column may not necessarily reflect those of the Alliance or its members. Grumbles can be reached at [email protected].


A New Year’s note to water people:  Be sure to look up, around and underground from time to time,  as air and climate/energy people are making important choices that could help or hurt you. This air/water/energy interface certainly is not late-breaking news, but the frequency and scope of linkages and tradeoffs deserve increasing attention and respect. Informed and integrated decisions, based on coordination and collaboration, can make all the difference, particularly in a shrinking world where discrete zones of influence collide more often than not. 

One of my earliest experiences with the air/water collision (or synergy) was as a Congressional staffer working on Great Lakes water quality issues in the 1980s. Environmental advocates for toxic pollution control let pictures of twisted beaked cormorants do a lot of their talking. Scientists confirmed the strong linkages between persistent, bioaccumulative chemicals with insults to wildlife and watersheds. Coupled with discharges from point sources and legacy contaminated sediment sites, the growing evidence of atmospheric deposition of dangerous levels of metals and organic compounds led to Congressional action on Great Lakes toxics in 1987 and 1990 amendments to the Clean Water Act (CWA).  

The same can be said for Chesapeake Bay legislation responding to atmospheric deposition of toxics and nutrient pollution. Continued monitoring estimates that 25% to 30% of nitrogen loading comes from tailpipe emissions, smokestacks and other atmospheric sources within the Chesapeake airshed. One of the big legal and policy questions will continue to be: How should the CWA and total maximum daily load plans address atmospheric pollution?

One of the best examples of the interface between air pollution and water quality is the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments acid rain trading program. Acidified lakes in the Adirondacks and elsewhere prompted action. In this case, it was a landmark cap and trade program for SO2 and NOx that a bipartisan Congress and President George H.W. Bush pushed through the process. The resulting national program has helped achieve environmental progress through cost-effective partnerships.

Another example of the linkages between air and water, with a less optimal result, is the fuel additive MTBE, which was intended to have air quality benefits but led to many water contamination problems, particularly from leaking underground storage tanks. 

While at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water, I focused on several air pollution problems involving mercury, other coal-related emissions, carbon sequestration, and to some extent, the lifecycle analysis of water-related impacts from expanding ethanol and other biofuel markets. The Environmental Council of the States’ cutting-edge collaboration on mercury (also known as the Quick Silver Caucus) helped raise awareness about the growing national and international problems associated with methylmercury and fish consumption. The staff in the Office of Water also underscored for me the need for the CWA’s effluent guidelines program to reduce potential water quality threats from coal-fired steam electric facilities, such as storm water discharges and spills from coal ash waste ponds.

While at Arizona’s Department of Environmental Quality, I focused a lot on dust, particularly particulate matter. Particle pollution, especially the “finer” stuff of PM2.5, can cause serious public health, environmental and economic injuries, from asthma and cardiovascular problems to public safety emergencies (such as “black outs” on highways due to brown clouds and massive dust storms). Sometimes the priority action is simply to keep the dust from flying, but it can take a lot of water for dust suppression. Water availability and price factor into the mix, sometimes pitting, or potentially pitting, water conservation with air quality and public health policies. Arizonans also taught me a lot about the energy-water nexus, such as the amount of energy used to move water over mountains and across the desert (such as the 326-mile Central Arizona Project) and to pump water from increasingly deep wells.

Air & Water, Today & Tomorrow

While at U.S. Water Alliance, my current post, I am seeing the linkages even more clearly. Green infrastructure and other tools for urban water sustainability gain traction because they help mitigate  he urban heat island effect. “The Water Resources Utility of the Future” released by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the Water Environment Federation and the Water Environment Research Foundation in 2013 promotes the capture and beneficial reuse of biogas at wastewater utilities, allowing them to become green factories of energy and other valuables rather than simply “treat and discharge” stations.

There is a lot of talk, research and action on the energy-water nexus. The air-water nexus perplexes us just as much. It also is a key strategy to reducing some of the most vexing and diffuse problems facing America’s watersheds. 

Some of the air/energy/water items to follow in 2015 include implementation of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which relates to water far beyond just drought and energy/water efficiency; the Clean Power Rule (at EPA, in the courts and in Congress); the Clean Air Act Mercury Control Rule, which the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review during its 2015 term; the proposed Coal Ash rule and Congressional action responding to it; and hydraulic fracturing studies, policies and regulations.

What goes up must come down (eventually) and what goes down must come up (eventually too). That is why I am committed to writing in this column over the coming months on the dynamic interface of air-water-energy nexus, tracking some of the most important and impactful opportunities along the water front. The more you dig, the more you learn that the “legacy of the land is written on the water.” You also learn that yesterday’s atmospheric emission may be tomorrow’s surface water deposition. 

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