Curbing Air Pollution Benefits Waterways, Study Finds

The Clean Air Act translated into improved water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed

When the Environmental Protection Agency in the US passed the Clean Air Act, the goal was to limit air pollution by putting a leash on the amounts of contaminants power plants and various industries released in the environment. It turns out the Clean Air Act of 1990 did much more than was expected of it.

A new paper shows that, courtesy of the Clean Air Act, water quality in the Chesapeake Bay has improved to a considerable extent.

More precisely, researchers with the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science say that, once power plants in the mid-Atlantic started emitting less nitrogen oxide, nitrogen pollution recorded in waterways in forested areas in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia also dropped.

Since nitrogen pollution threatens not just natural ecosystems but also human health, this can only come as good news.

“When we set out to reduce nitrogen pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, deposition of nitrogen resulting from air pollution on the watershed was considered uncontrollable. This study shows that improvements in air quality provided benefits to water quality that we were not counting on,” says researcher Donald Boesch, as cited by Science News.

“It worked for something nobody anticipated. The original idea was to reduce nitrogen oxide concentrations in the atmosphere because that would reduce acidity of precipitation and decrease ozone in the atmosphere. The other result was that water quality has improved, a side benefit that was unanticipated,” adds specialist Keith Eshleman.

The University of Maryland explains that water quality in the Chesapeake Bay improved greatly after the Clean Air Act was passed due to the fact that fewer nitrogen oxide particles found themselves floating over forests in the area, just waiting for a chance to make a swift landing and work their way into the local watershed.

The researchers base their claim that the Clean Air Act led to improvements in water quality in Chesapeake Bay on data collected while monitoring a total of nine forested mountain watersheds from Pennsylvania to southern Virginia over a period of up to 23 years.

A detailed account of this investigation and its findings was published in the Environment Science and Technology this November 5.

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