Cap-and-Trade Worked for Acid Rain. Why Not for Climate Change?

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, March 1, 2012

By Morgan Lyle

 

Brook trout once again live in Brook Trout Lake, and the brookies of nearby Honnedaga Lake can now safely leave their tributary streams and swim the lake itself.

The federal law enacted in 1990 to reduce the power plant emissions that cause acid rain has been a success. By 2009, emissions of both sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides were two-thirds lower than in the early 1990s, according to a report submitted to Congress in December by Douglas A. Burns of the U.S. Geological Survey office in Troy.

In fact, emissions were even lower than the targets set in the Clean Air Act Amendments. They were achieved through a cap-and-trade system and made possible by switching to lower-sulfur coal and using technology such as scrubbers on smokestacks.

This is not to say the trout ponds of the North Country all have their trout back. Many remain barren, and hundreds still receive too much acid precipitation, the report said.

But there is also substantial improvement.

“There has been a large reduction in sulfates in surface waters of the Adirondacks in lakes and ponds and precipitation,” said Daniel Josephson, a biologist at Cornell University’s field station on Honnedaga Lake in the southwestern Adirondacks. “As sulfates have gone down, pH has come up, and in a lot of instances, the toxic aluminum levels have reduced to the point where fish, mainly brook trout, can survive out in these waters again.”

As in hundreds of Adirondack lakes and ponds, brook trout had been eliminated from Brook Trout Lake by 1984. By 2005, 15 years after the pollution controls took effect, the water was found to be safe for fish again, and brookies were reintroduced. On Honnedaga, trap nets in the 1970s would capture pitifully few fish, but throughout the 2000s, the numbers increased eight-fold, according to Josephson’s research. Trout were observed spawning in the lake’s tributaries — or at least the ones not permanently damaged by acid deposition.

Streams, it seems, recover much more slowly than stillwaters.

“The downside in the southwestern Adirondacks, and I think in some of the Catskill streams too, we now have a condition where quite a few tributaries and streams are chronically acidified,” Josephson said. “They have been pretty much depleted of their positive ions from acid rainfall over all these decades. Fish can’t live in those streams, so they’re pretty much permanently impaired. It’ll take a long time for them to recover even in the absence of acid rain.”

A prominent Adirondacker once called acid rain “the AIDS of the forest,” but you don’t hear so much about it these days. The big ecolog­ical worry today is climate change. It has been shown to have steadily reduced the flows and raised the temperatures of the great trout rivers of the Rocky Mountains over the past 60 years, and here in the East, large tracts of trout habitat will simply disappear as the climate of New York becomes more and more like that of Georgia.

As with acid precipitation, cap-and-trade has been offered as a way of reducing greenhouse gases. With acid rain, it worked. In fact, it worked better than expected and cost less.

But identifying the sources of acid deposition and dialing them back was pretty straightforward. Climate change is more complex, and cap-and-trade is vehemently opposed by a substantial part of the electorate, or at least by their congressmen — even though it didn’t seem to cause any hardship when deployed against acid rain.

So protecting trout and their habitat from the warming of the world is going to require many small measures — anything that will keep streams cool and full and give trout mobility, like conserving their trees, restoring their channels, removing obstructions to migration and keeping warm run-off away.

It’s our only hope, until the leaders of this and other countries get around to meaningful action.

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at morganlyle@gmail.com.

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