Acid rain may not be top of mind these days for many Americans, but that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away.
Referring to any form of precipitation with high levels of nitric and sulfuric acids, some acid rain can develop naturally from decay of living things. But the primary cause is emissions from burning of fossil fuels.
Acid rain often decreases the pH of surface water and causes it to absorb more aluminum; the resulting combination can be toxic to fish, crayfish, and other aquatic organisms. It can also weaken plants.
In March, fisheries officials in West Virginia took action against the effects of acid rain by dumping 24 tons of limestone sand into Laurel Creek, near Fenwick in Nicholas County.
According to the AP, the officials “have discovered that a few inexpensive truckloads of sand a year neutralize as much acid rain and snow as liming stations that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sand treatments have turned more than 50 formerly fishless streams into thriving brook-trout fisheries.”
In The Charleston Gazette, John McCoy wrote, “The swift waters of Laurel Creek ate quickly into the Volkswagen-sized mound of gray sand. Within minutes, most of the pile had disappeared, carried downstream to fertilize an otherwise infertile watershed.”
McCoy quoted John Rebinski of the state Division of Natural Resources, who said West Virginia’s streams pick up the most acid in the spring, thanks to snow melt and high rainfall.
McCoy added that the state has been using limestone treatments for decades, although in the 1990s the strategy shifted from setting up water wheels that release limestone slowly to simply dumping piles of the stuff into streams. The water wheels were more expensive and prone to mechanical problems, and studies indicated that truckloads seemed to get the job done just as well.
Now, the state spends about $350,000 a year to dump limestone sand in more than 70 places in more than 50 streams. Most of those water bodies get more than one treatment a year.
The scheme shows how simple technology can be used to help restore ecosystems damaged by human activity. It is also one more reminder of how fragile our freshwater ecosystems are, and how just because acid rain may have slipped from the headlines, the problem hasn’t gone away.
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Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting, Build Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.