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OP-ED: THE CLEAN WATER ACT AND OUR CORAL REEFS

This week government officials and scientists gather in American Samoa as part of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force.  We meet at a challenging time. In addition to historical threats, such as over fishing and pollution, climate change is pushing coral reefs toward a state of collapse.

Warmer oceans have led to coral bleaching. Increased carbon dioxide emissions are predicted to make ocean waters more acidic, reducing the ability of corals to maintain their structure.  Scientists tell us that ocean acidification will likely threaten all corals within 40 years.  Our grandchildren may inherit a world without coral, as we know them.

But we can act to strengthen coral reefs, making them more resilient to climate change by reducing pollution and restoring the clear, clean water they need for healthy growth.  One powerful tool to help us accomplish this is the Clean Water Act, among the strongest environmental laws in U.S. history. When Congress passed it 40 years ago, industries were able to discharge their pollution directly into harbors and the ocean.  There has been tremendous progress across the states and territories as a result of the Act. San Francisco Bay, where I live, is safer for people and marine life now than it was 40 years ago. So is Pago Pago Harbor here in American Samoa. 

But more can be done to help coral reefs.  Much of the early success in implementing the Clean Water Act came through reducing pollution from “point sources,” such as sewage treatment facilities and industrial plants.  EPA created a permit system to regulate these sources, and by requiring permit limits in tropical waters, corals would receive more protection. 

EPA has also worked to reduce “non-point sources” of pollution, such as storm runoff or sedimentation. For example, with our support, the American Samoa government has successfully reduced bacterial contamination from pig waste from entering streams and the ocean.  And AS-EPA has demonstrated leadership by designing its new building with a green, planted roof and landscaping to minimize runoff into the harbor.  The Coral Reef Task Force is recommending that more can be done in this area, especially with federal and local organizations working side by side.  Funds authorized under the Clean Water Act are already helping the territories and states embark on watershed planning efforts to reduce this type of pollution from reaching their corals reefs.

Finally, the Clean Water Act authorizes the setting of local water quality standards. While all states and territories have established physical or chemical water quality standards (such as for toxicity) to protect their waters, none have set biological standards specific to coral. The Clean Water Act would allow the creation of such standards, and we encourage the states and territories to do so.

EPA applauds the work of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, and the partnership approach taken by its federal, state, and territorial members. We support its focus this week on climate change and watershed protection.  By looking back at the positive changes that started 40 years ago under the Clean Water Act, we can take heart, and look for ways to prevent the loss of coral reefs 40 years in the future.



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