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An Earth Day Meditation: Inconvenient Truths About Environmental Improvements

By Amy Kaleita

It's Earth Day again, and some groups will use the occasion to incite fear in our hearts. Less loudly proclaimed are all the ways in which our environment is getting better.

First, data from the Environmental Protection Agency indicates that air quality in the U.S. has improved dramatically.

Ozone emissions, for the third year in a row, are at their lowest on record. Since monitoring programs began, there have been significant reductions in carbon monoxide emissions, nitrogen dioxide, coarse particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and lead. Between 1999 and 2005 alone, there was a 38-percent reduction in nitrogen dioxide in the eastern states, according to recent satellite observations.

According to Gallup polls, water pollution tends to top the list of environmental issues that Americans care about. In this area, too, there are reasons for optimism. New monitoring programs offer the opportunity for better tracking of water-quality trends. The newest EPA assessment of small streams and rivers will allow policy makers to better tailor conservation measures to local conditions.

Nearly-completed analysis of groundwater quality in the Ogallala aquifer, which underlies eight states from South Dakota through Texas, indicates that the vast majority of wells that tap this source are meeting drinking-water standards. And there are several more examples of good news.

The "toxic soup" predicted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina never materialized, and returning residents of New Orleans are not expected to experience any adverse health effects from the sediments the storm left behind. Water quality in the Long Island Sound, whose watershed is home to nine million people, is maintaining or improving, despite the pressures exerted by development.

Soil erosion is another area where we've seen great strides, thanks to the adoption of soil conserving agricultural practices.

According to the latest edition of the Natural Resources Inventory from the U.S. Department of Agriculture soil erosion dropped by 43 percent between 1982 and 2003 -- a remarkable improvement. In 2003, 72 percent of land was eroding at rates below the tolerable level for that area, compared to only 60 percent in 1982. Decreasing erosion rates generally mean improved soil quality and lower water pollution due to sediments.

Perhaps the most publicized environmental story of the last year was climate change, exemplified by former Vice President Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth. This movie presented a wide array of bleak data, but even this information was not as bleak as it seemed.

For example, Gore presents data on monetary damage in the United States from hurricanes, and the trend shows dramatic increases in such damages in the last decade. However, these values are presented in nominal dollars. Once adjusted for inflation, population growth in coastal areas, and increasing wealth (and thus more expensive coastal buildings), the trend is quite different. Recent years are not distinguishable from earlier years in the record, and in fact, the 1926 hurricane season was the most costly.

On this Earth Day, instead of feeling gloomy and pessimistic, let's look to the future with an understanding of the great strides we've already made, and use these successes as models for future action.

Amy Kaleita, an environmental studies fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, is an assistant professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University.

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