As we start a new year, let us resolve to finally take actions that will protect our most precious natural resource, water. It will take a unity of effort on a global scale, but we can make it happen. Here are 7 concrete actions that will help us get there.
- Preserve and restore aquatic ecosystems
If the world is to achieve its imperative of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, blue carbon cannot be overlooked. Blue carbon is atmospheric carbon captured and stored in oceans and coastal ecosystems. Oceans absorb 30 percent of CO2 produced by human activities, while mangroves and salt marshes remove carbon from the atmosphere at a rate 10 times greater than tropical forests. These are the most powerful natural carbon sinks on the planet and we must resolve to protect them!
We can start by integrating blue carbon into climate mitigation strategies and implementing the Global Biodiversity Framework agreed upon at COP15.
- Close the blue carbon funding gap
High-quality nature-based carbon credits must be maximized if we are to incentivize action to address our climate crisis. Marine and coastal ecosystems have only recently emerged as a source of carbon credits. The demand for these blue carbon credits is tremendous and far outweighs supply. We must close the gap. The voluntary carbon market is expected to reach $50 billion by 2030.
To increase the viability and success of blue carbon projects, we need to overcome barriers to project delivery. We need additional private and public sector buy-in. New revenue streams can be generated by expanding “green finance” – increasing investment opportunities in bonds and low-interest loans for projects that benefit nature and impact the environment.
Those developing and investing in blue carbon projects and credits should adopt the standards laid out in the High-Quality Blue Carbon Principles and Guidance unveiled at COP27.
By investing in blue carbon credits, stakeholders will help ensure sequestered carbon remains locked away underwater for thousands, if not millions of years.
- Develop a uniform nationwide monitoring program for harmful algal blooms
The U.S. needs a single federal agency to coordinate and oversee harmful algal blooms to better forecast and manage risks across the country. What exists now is a state-by-state patchwork of uneven, mostly voluntary reporting. NOAA’s harmful algal bloom tracking program is excellent, but it only covers certain problem areas, such as marine waters and some coastal regions.
A June 2022 GAO review of federal efforts to manage harmful algal blooms concluded a national program to guide these efforts is needed. Congress also concluded the same way back in 1998 and requested that NOAA and EPA create an interagency task force to develop a plan for a comprehensive and coordinated response to harmful algal blooms. Yet after more than two decades of work, the nation still does not have the national program Congress mandated.
- Reform federal crop insurance
The 2023 Farm Bill must include reforms to the federal crop insurance program that will encourage sustainable farming and provide incentives to increase regenerative agriculture practices. The current crop insurance program has no built-in incentives for conservation and sustainability and, in effect, discourages farmers from adopting new practices to mitigate climate change.
Let’s reward farmers who plant cover crops, improve fertilizer management, optimize water usage, and reduce nutrient pollution. These climate-friendly farming practices can prevent toxic algal blooms and lessen their toll on aquatic ecosystems, human health, and local economies.
Congress could take it a step further by requiring the adoption of pollution-control measures and more rigorous soil testing in order to qualify for crop insurance.
- Ramp up planning for toxic algal blooms
Federal, regional, state, and local water managers must begin planning now for the arrival of warmer weather and the inevitable explosion of toxic algae. Harmful algal blooms tend to return to the same water bodies year after year. No one will be surprised, for example, when western Lake Erie or parts of Lake Champlain or Clear Lake turn green in July.
Remediation strategies must be weighed and decided upon now in order to ensure timely implementation. Too often water management officials wait until there’s a problem before acting. Treatment and prevention go hand in hand – and time is of the essence..
- Invest in green infrastructure
Every year an estimated 10 trillion gallons of untreated stormwater runoff flows from roads, parking lots, and other paved surfaces into sewer systems and ultimately into streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. This runoff can be contaminated with bacteria, raw sewage, oil, and other pollutants that can trigger toxic algal blooms. Planting trees and gardens and adding vegetation along roadsides and on rooftops will help soak up runoff before it ends up in waterways. Using porous pavement materials for sidewalks, driveways, and parking lots can help as well.
In 2021, the mayors of 31 major cities around the globe signed the C40 Urban Nature Declaration, pledging to transform up to 40 percent of urban surfaces to green or blue (water-related) infrastructure by 2030. We need these kinds of commitments – and additional investments in green infrastructure – to help insulate us from the impacts of climate change.
- Widespread adoption of best practices
Everyone has a role to play in protecting and conserving our water resources. Let us resolve to adopt the following best practices in our communities and in our personal lives:
- Limit use of fertilizers and pesticides and use organic fertilizers containing no or low levels of phosphorus.
- Never apply fertilizer when the forecast calls for rain.
- Ensure that home septic systems are inspected and pumped regularly.
- Pick up pet poop, which is high in phosphorus and nitrogen and can wash into nearby storm drains.
- Properly dispose of yard waste. Create a compost pile and use it for mulch. Don’t sweep clippings into storm sewers.
2022 was a terrible year for water quality. Let us resolve to change the dynamic in 2023. It is not too late to turn the tide and make a difference. The very fate of our planet’s most precious natural resource hangs in the balance.