Commentary: Water Has Greenhouse Gas Problems

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In our zeal to quickly switch from gas-powered to battery-operated vehicles and to convert our power grid to wind and solar generated electricity, the impacts of CO2 released from rivers, lakes and streams has been ignored.

President Joe Biden wants to transition America to renewable electricity by 2035 and have every car CO2 emission-free by 2050. In the world of nature, the focus is carbon gases released from forest and rangeland fires. 

In California last year, wildfires released about half the typical annual emissions from that of the transportation sector, and forest fire pollution topped annual emissions from all of the state’s power plants, according to climate reporter Tim McDonnell.

While managing our wildlands to offset CO2 releases is drawing increasing attention and lots of money, the impact of water pollution remains on the backburner without heat. In our country, water quality is measured differently.

In an article titled “20 Water Pollution Facts for the U.S. and the World,” author Merlin Hearn does not mention greenhouse gas released from rivers as a pollution problem. The focus is on untreated sewage, leaking septic systems and pesticides. 

However, studies have shown that many of the world’s rivers and streams are oversaturated with carbon dioxide, according to freelance writer Sara Witman.

“In 2013, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists discovered that freshwater rivers and streams release about five times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than all the world’s lakes and reservoirs combined, a much higher amount than previously believed.” 

USGS studied over 100 streams from Florida to Lake Quinault on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Recently, BBC Global News filmed a documentary on the impacts of water pollution in Hong Kong on greenhouse gas buildups. It is a real eye-opener. 

“At first glance you would assume the New Territories were one of Hong Kong's greenest areas — the region that borders the Chinese mainland and makes up the bulk of Hong Kong's territory,” BBC reported last month. “The rivers that snake through this lush landscape are in fact breathing out large quantities of greenhouse gases.”

Discharge from livestock farms, misconnections in old buildings and premises without sewers were the main causes of the pollution.

“It's estimated that rivers and streams release up to 3.9 billion tons of carbon each year (around four times the amount of carbon emitted annually by the global aviation industry),” says Sophie Comer-Warner, a biogeochemist and research fellow at University of Birmingham, England.

“When you take into account the relatively small area taken up by rivers on the planet, that figure is remarkably large. In addition, it's estimated that aquatic systems such as rivers and lakes contribute more than 50% to atmospheric methane, and global river nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions have come to exceed 10% of human emissions,” Comer-Warner reported.

In rivers flowing through large cities, higher emissions are becoming a growing problem. In some cases, urban rivers have been found to emit four times more greenhouse gases than rivers in natural sites.

"When the river water quality deteriorated from acceptable to polluted, the concentration of CO2 and methane (CH4) in the rivers increased tenfold while N2O  (nitrous oxide) concentrations were boosted by 15 times," Long Tuan Ho, postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University, Belgium, found.

Pollution of surface water is a problem for over half of our planet’s population and over 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated sewage, groundwater, and industrial waste are discharged into U.S. waters annually.

Along with removing contaminants, as Hong Kong officials have identified, we need to focus on reducing greenhouse gases emissions from rivers, lakes and streams. They are too large to ignore.

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Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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