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The effects of a changing climate on water quality

Communities around the globe are experiencing firsthand the impacts of a changing climate. Sea level rise, unpredictable and extreme weather patterns, strong coastal storms and flooding are those most commonly associated with climate change along the coast – but did you know that climate change is also adding pollution pressures to our communities and waterways?  In many instances, these pressures cause our wastewater infrastructure to fail and can lead to sewage pollution in the waters that we love to surf, swim and play in.  But how does the interplay between climate change and water quality work exactly? 

Warming air and water temperatures cause two major contributing factors that influence coastal water quality.  

  1. Sea level rise - Warming temperatures are causing sea level to rise as our polar ice caps melt and warming water molecules expand and take up more room, and 
  2. Larger, more severe coastal storms - Warming ocean water feeds more moisture into the atmosphere fueling large, wet and powerful hurricanes and coastal storms.

The wastewater infrastructure in many communities is already stressed due to a lack of maintenance and the growing burden of increasing populations.  This already failing infrastructure is further stressed by flooding in coastal areas caused by sea level rise, high tides (king tides) and stormwater from increasingly large, strong, wet and slow-moving coastal storms.  All this water inundates sewers, septics and other wastewater systems causing sewage spills and overflows that release pathogens and nutrient pollution (nitrogen & phosphorous) into coastal waterways and the ocean. In fact, over 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage spills into US waterways every year!  

Visit Surfrider's Stop Sewage Pollution page to learn more about America's failing wastewater infrastructure.

Sewage contaminated waters are not safe for recreation because of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens associated with untreated sewage can make people sick with the stomach flu, sinus and ear infections, rashes and worse. The high levels of nutrient pollution found in sewage discharges also puts public health at risk and can devastate coastal ecosystems by causing further pathogen outbreaks in floodwaters (like vibrio), and fueling harmful algal blooms like red tides and blue-green algae outbreaks that are toxic to humans and animals alike.  Algae blooms can also smother sea grass beds and coral reefs.  

Above photo by Lucia Baskerville shows the devastatign impacts of a red tide event in SW Florida after Hurricane Ian slammed into the coast durign the fall of 2022.

Further exacerbating the impacts of sewage pollution and climate change on water quality is the fact that warming air and water temperatures are causing the geographical range of Harmful Algae Blooms to expand. Blooms are showing up in northerly locations that never experienced these toxic events before and affecting community and ecosystem health.  

While the impacts of climate change on coastal water quality can seem overwhelming, there are solutions that we can all rally behind.  Together with your support, we can advocate for solutions to stop the flow of sewage pollution into our ocean and local waterways. 

Raise Your Voice:  Join Surfrider in advocating for clean water and resilient coastlines through federal investments in wastewater infrastructure improvement projects and nature-based solutions.  Just click here to send an email to your elected members of Congress.

Soak it up:  Surfrider’s Ocean Friendly Gardens program offers opportunities to reduce flooding pressures and polluted runoff at home right in your own yard.  Learn more here.

Prevent Sewage Pollution: There are steps we can all take at home to reduce the pressures on our wastewater infrastructure to reduce sewage pollution in our own communities.