Campus & Community

Eco update: Air quality improves but water quality worsens

3 min read

‘Annual Update 2003’ is available on the Web

The first update of the most comprehensive assessment ever developed on the state of the nation’s ecosystem has just been issued by the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment. “The State of the Nation’s Ecosystems: Annual Update 2003” features new data for 26 indicators of the condition of the country’s farmlands and forests, rangelands, fresh waters, coastal waters, and urban and suburban areas.

The update reports that areas with the nation’s worst air quality continue to improve although water contamination is widespread in the nation’s coastal sediments.

Annual Update 2003

State of the Nation’s Ecosystems

“Annual Update 2003,” available on the Web only, contains a summary of data derived from a variety of federal sources. Annual updates are issued every year, with the comprehensive “State of the Nation’s Ecosystems: Measuring the Lands, Waters, and Living Resources of the United States” issued in full revised form every five years, with the next full edition due in 2007. The report provides a comprehensive look at the status of the nation’s ecosystems.

The Kennedy School’s William Clark, the Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development, who chairs the project compiling the report, said the report’s environmental indicators are comparable to the national economic indicators that are widely accepted as a sign of the health of the nation’s economy.

“By focusing our efforts on synthesizing this information and presenting it to policy-makers and the public, we may well stimulate even greater efforts to monitor and safeguard our environment in the future,” said Clark.

Findings in ‘Annual Update 2003’ include:

  • Coastal water pollution is widespread. Almost all (98 percent) of estuary sediments in the continental United States had detectable levels of five or more contaminants during 1999-2000.
  • Food production continues to rise. The amount of food produced by American farmers – both on a per acre basis and overall – has increased dramatically over the past 50 years despite an aggregate reduction in the amount of farmland.
  • Overall forest area in the United States has been quite stable for the past 50 years.
  • Disease outbreaks from swimming and other recreational contact continue to increase, and now rival outbreaks from consuming dirty drinking water (which historically were much more common).
  • The nation’s dirtiest air is getting cleaner. The percentage of stations recording 25 or more days with high levels of ozone has decreased since 1990, a trend that has continued with the addition of recent data showing that there were about 5 percent of such stations in 2002. Areas with moderate levels of pollution show no trend upward or downward over the past decade or so.