West Coast water quality standards not strong enough to fight ocean acidification

OAKLAND, Calif.  — A new scientific paper published today in the journal Ocean & Coastal Management concludes that current water quality criteria are inadequate to address ocean acidification on the West Coast. This paper and a related report published last week call for major changes in how California, Oregon and Washington deal with ocean acidification triggered by the high carbon emissions that are also causing climate change.

Water quality standards are the management foundation of the Clean Water Act, and give water quality managers the tools to maintain a water body in an ecologically functional condition. Every two years, each state water quality regulatory agency must analyze and list water bodies that are impaired by pollution and failing to meet their water quality standards..However, these determinations are challenging when addressing acidified waters because harmful biological damage is known to occur well within current pH standards.

“The West Coast is on the front line in the fight against climate change and ocean acidification. We need water quality standards that match the magnitude and urgency of the problem, not outdated versions designed more than 40 years ago,” said Dr. Abel Valdivia, a marine scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity who was not involved in the study. “Ocean acidification caused by increasing human carbon dioxide emissions is a major issue, and we see substantial negative effects on marine calcifying species even within pH criteria that are currently considered normal. The bottom line is we need new, better and stronger standards and we need them now.”

The new study describes scientific difficulties in assessing water impairment associated with ocean acidification using existing data. Current coastal and even estuarine pH fluctuations fall well within an allowable criteria range that is considered “normal,” even though they are known to cause substantial biological negative effects.

There is strong scientific evidence that many biological communities are declining due to ocean acidification. Today’s study identifies two marine species, oysters and pelagic sea snails called pteropods, that can be used to design new criteria because of their vulnerability to corrosive waters. Over the past decade, both groups have already shown negative effects due to ocean acidification.

Last week the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Panel, a bi-national team of 20 leading scientists in ocean acidification from California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, published a report providing recommendations and actions that West Coast states can take now to address ocean acidification locally. Among the main recommendations was to revise and adopt water quality criteria relevant to ocean acidification.

Recently California Assembly member Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara) proposed a bill that would require the Ocean Protection Council to conduct research and make recommendations for further legislative and executive action on ocean acidification. However, in light of the conclusions of the paper released today, and the recommendations of the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Panel, the Center and other organizations are advocating that the bill be strengthened to require adoption of water quality standards more relevant to ocean acidification. The bill has a hearing before the Natural Resources Committee on Monday, April 18 at 1:30 p.m.

“If we want to preserve California’s amazing coast, we need to take action now. Fortunately, we can do it with the tools we have and within the current legal framework but only if we adopt standards sufficient to protect marine communities from the devastating effects of ocean acidification. The cost of inaction will be tremendous and will only increase over time,” Valdivia said. “West Coast states can take the lead in fighting ocean acidification now, we just need political will.”

Contact: Abel Valdivia, (510) 844-7103, avaldivia(at)biologicaldiversity.org

Center for Biological Diversity, 13 April 2016. Press release.


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