Nutrient pollution

A Summit to Remember

By Dr. Ellen Gilinsky

Put together innovation and incentive, mix with brain power and competitive drive, and you get creative solutions to a major water quality challenge while creating economic benefits at the same time.

I’ve spent much of my career tackling nutrient pollution. During that time, the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus entering our waterways has increased dramatically, making nutrient pollution one of the most urgent and costly environmental problems facing the U.S. today. Technological innovation has the potential to play a major role in mitigating nutrient pollution while also creating economic benefits for livestock producers.

In November 2015, EPA partnered with pork and dairy producers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and environmental and scientific experts to launch the Nutrient Recycling Challenge—a competition to find affordable technologies that can help farmers manage nutrients, create valuable products, and protect the environment. EPA received 75 concept papers from around the world, and selected 34 submissions to proceed to Phase II of the challenge.

The entrepreneurial spirit was alive and well at a March 30th summit held at the White House Eisenhower Executive Office Building to honor innovators selected to move to Phase II, and provide a forum for them to network with each other. At this summit, I had the pleasure of recognizing 10 cash prize winners in the challenge. Many of the industries potentially interested in using the technologies that emerge in the Nutrient Recycling Challenge were also present. There was much chatter between innovators and end users, looking to capitalize on synergies and develop even better prototypes that could work for real-world producers. Innovators walked away from the summit with fresh ideas to refine their concepts and new allies who can help bring their ideas to fruition, and ultimately to the market.

As exciting as the innovators and their ideas were, I was also struck by the excitement and energy of the EPA professional staff who organized this competition. This group of talented, young EPA engineers, scientists, and environmental specialists are the future of our Agency, as well as the environmental movement in general. They are using new and modern tools that harness the power of rapid, global communication with computer modeling and forecasting to come up with new solutions for age old environmental challenges. Our young EPA professionals have been the driving force behind this exciting initiative. Their drive and dedication, coupled with the talent of innovators, is a surefire recipe for success.

About the author: Dr. Ellen Gilinsky is the Senior Policy Advisor in EPA’s Office of Water. Dr. Gilinsky addresses policy and technical issues related to all EPA Water programs, with an emphasis on science, water quality and state programs.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Recognizing Winners of EPA’s Visualize Your Water Challenge

Washington-Lee Students Meet the Challenge

By Ryan Miller

Winning students Nicholas Oliveira and Anna Lujan with their teacher, Ryan Miller

Winning students Nicholas Oliveira (left) and Anna Lujan (right) with their teacher Ryan Miller (center)

I teach a class at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia called Geospatial Tools and Techniques. It is a course designed to introduce high school students to geographic information systems (GIS) and is part of the James Madison University Geospatial Semester Program. All of my students are “dual-enrolled” and will be earning both high school and college credit.

GIS can be done using a variety of tools and methods, and as one of the assignments of my course this year, I decided to make the EPA Visualize Your Water Challenge a class project.

The Challenge asked contestants “to use open government data sources to create compelling, innovative, and comprehensible visualizations that inform individuals and communities about nutrient pollution and inspire them to reduce nutrient levels that cause algal blooms and hypoxia in local watersheds.

Preparing my students to work on this class project and to take on the challenge took several steps and involved several weeks of work in the classroom. Each student was to use their newly acquired GIS skills to submit entries into this government sponsored contest.

I first prepped the students by reviewing the causes, processes and impacts of nutrient pollution in waterways, something some of them were already familiar with from my environmental science class. We then transitioned into an examination of potential data needs and data sources to complete their work. Finally, we worked together to review the software skills needed.

The students aptly dove into this assignment, were able to identify fantastic open sources of government data (primarily relying upon U. S. Census and U.S. Agricultural Census data), and through minimal issues, acquired the needed software skills and set to work. The students all used an online GIS platform to complete their entries, ultimately generating “storymaps,” interactive web-based mapping applications. We were all pleased with the outcomes of this assignment, final products and grades included.

The efforts and storymaps of two of my students, Nicholas Oliveira and Anna Lujan, were fortunate to be recognized and were awarded the grand prize (Nicholas) and National Geographic Award (Anna)! Both students created well-designed functional projects that delve into nutrient pollution/eutrophication issues. I’m very proud of their efforts!

On Thursday April 21, officials from EPA, the GIS software company Esri, and other various sponsors and supporters of the Visualize Your Water Challenge visited Washington-Lee High School to celebrate and award Nicholas and Anna, and the other contestants. It was a fantastic way to bring students and experts in the field together to discuss and highlight the problems and issues of nutrient pollution/eutrophication. I’m grateful for this experience and I can state that my students are too.

About the Author: Ryan Miller teachers environmental studies and geospatial tools and techniques at Washington-Lee High School.

 

Dreams of a Teacher

By Ted Gardiner

Winning students and their teacher (left to right):

Winning students and their teacher (left to right): Clara Benadon, Alex Jin, Sam Hull, and Ted Gardiner

As a teacher within the Global Ecology Magnet Program at Poolesville High School, I was excited when the head of our program emailed me EPA’s Visualize Your Water Challenge.  Here at Poolesville High School our goal is to raise the environmental awareness of our students, so the Challenge resonated with our philosophy. It’s turned out to have a tremendous positive impact on our students.

The students really liked how the Challenge utilized StoryMaps to tackle the topic of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, where we live.  The use of StoryMaps made the challenge fun and interactive.  This was the first time that our students used StoryMaps.  I was amazed at the interactivity and ease with which they were able to create meaningful artifacts.  Each day in our classroom students were able to have discussions with each other about how to present the information through StoryMaps, consistently pushing each other to go deeper into the issue.  As the days went on, they became more excited about how their work evolved.

All of the resources made available to the students were fantastic.  Students were able to use the websites provided through the EPA to learn more about nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and begin telling their interpretation of the story.  The Challenge engaged our students in critical thinking about the impact of nutrient pollution and how they could help in their own daily lives.

The Challenge gave students the opportunity to work with real data in an authentic process examining an issue within our own watershed.  As we neared the submission deadline, the class was so proud of what they had created that they did not discuss prizes, etc.  They were working as hard as they could to submit their StoryMaps and saw submission and the knowledge they had gained as the real prize for the project.  But they were in for a very pleasant surprise.

When we heard that we had two honorable mentions and the Chesapeake Bay winner, our students erupted into applause.  This was truly a moment that every teacher dreams of.

For the awards ceremony, EPA was very generous sending out a member of their science communication team to Poolesville High School as we remotely participated.  The students and their parents were so proud, another moment that every teacher dreams of.

Giving students this opportunity and recognition is priceless in our ever changing technological world.  Overall, this project gave our students an opportunity to be excited about learning and utilizing technology to tell a story that more people need to hear.  In the end, the Visualize Your Water Challenge delivered so many educational positives for our students. I want to thank the EPA and Challenge.gov for making this project so accessible and fantastic.

About the Author: Ted Gardiner is a teacher in the Global Ecology Magnet Program at Poolesville High School in Montgomery County, MD.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Become a Civic Hacker

By Dustin Renwick

Blue circle with "Hack for Change" in the middleHacking has become a buzzword with negative connotations, but people across the country can use the same computer savvy often associated with security breaches for good. Civic hacking allows people to connect with every level of government, improve their communities, and test their talents for coding and problem solving.

This kind of hacking brings together people with different interests and skills who can tap open data sets and build technology-based solutions.

The National Day of Civic Hacking includes anyone interested in collaboration and community – from die-hard hackers to people with no technology background. This year’s event takes place on June 6.

EPA will take part via the Visualizing Nutrients Challenge – hosted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), EPA, and Blue Legacy International. But that’s just one of a collection of opportunities from more than 30 federal agencies who have shared social and civic problems that will benefit from public participation.

The civic hacking day brings together virtual and real-world communities. Last year’s event boasted meet-ups in more than 100 cities in 40 U.S. states and 13 countries across the world.

Look for an event in a city near you, or check out the challenge listings. Some of the themes for this year are climate and health. Nutrient pollution – excess nitrogen and phosphorus in our waters – remains a costly, complex environmental problem that affects communities and their local watersheds.

USGS, EPA, and Blue Legacy released the Visualizing Nutrients Challenge to seek compelling, innovative visual representations of open government data sources. These visualizations should inform individuals and communities on nutrient pollution and inspire them to take actions that might prevent excess algal production and hypoxia in local watersheds.

First place will receive $10,000, and the Blue Legacy Award will receive $5,000. Register for the competition and submit your entry by June 8.

Be sure to see if any other challenges fit your skillset for the national event on June 6, and join people across the world in hacking for change.

About the Author: Dustin Renwick works in conjunction with the Innovation Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Visualizing Our Waters

By Dustin Renwick

“Data mining” conjures images of someone clanking away with a pick-axe at a mountain of 1s and 0s. But the sentiment isn’t far off. Heaps of data are useless without understanding the relevance and context within the larger picture.

Graphic showing swirling water with  words "Visualizing Nutrients" belowNutrient pollution is one the most expensive problems associated with aquatic environments. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in water affects human health and the sustainability of ecosystems. Green water means increased risks for harmful algal blooms, hypoxia, and other nutrient-related water quality issues.

To help provide a clearer picture of this problem, 29 teams are now developing and testing affordable, real-time technologies for measuring nitrogen and phosphorus in water as part of our Nutrient Sensor Challenge. Yet those sensors will produce more data, ever increasing our need to make the numbers understandable to a larger audience beyond the scientists who study the measurements.

Today, with the U.S. Geological Survey and Blue Legacy International (a nonprofit focused on water), EPA launched Visualizing Nutrients. This innovation competition includes $15,000 in cash prizes.

We want talented designers, coders, data scientists, sensor experts, and anyone interested in complex problems to analyze and organize existing nitrogen and phosphorus water pollution data.

The best submissions will transform publicly available, open government data sets into dynamic visual representations that reveal insights, trends, and relationships. First Place will take home $10,000 and a People’s Choice Award will win $5,000.

Visit the competition website to submit a solution. The deadline is 11:59 p.m. on June 8, 2015.

This is one of many efforts by the broader Challenging Nutrients Coalition to bring innovative ideas and solutions to bear on the problem of nutrient pollution. The group consists of federal agencies, universities, and nonprofits.

About the Author: Dustin Renwick works in conjunction with the Innovation Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Farmers Using Special Crops in Holtwood, PA to Protect Soil & Help Their Farms Thrive

By Kate Pinkerton and Erika Larsen

It is hard to imagine anything growing in fields during winter, but last fall, we visited a farm in Pennsylvania that was covered in thriving, green crops. This farm showcases crop research and water quality conservation practices on agricultural lands. One of its practices is planting “cover crops” – or crops planted specifically to help replenish the soil and protect our waters outside of the typical farming season.

We are two coworkers in the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education (ORISE) program in the EPA Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. We come from two different backgrounds – agriculture and water quality – to help farmers ensure that nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen stay on the farm where they help crops grow, rather than getting washed into our rivers and streams where they can build up and become nutrient pollution, or the excess of the vital nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen.

Farmers plant cover crops to improve and protect their soil and keep these nutrients from washing away in runoff, especially when they’re not growing crops they can sell. A variety of plants can be used as cover crops, including grasses, grains, legumes or broadleaf plants. By planting cover crops, farmers help the environment and themselves by increasing their soil’s health and water retention, potentially increasing crop yields and creating more habitat for wildlife.

The 200-acre farm we visited in Holtwood, PA – owned by Steve and Cheri Groff – produces corn, alfalfa, soybeans, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers and pumpkins. Annual cover crops help the farm be productive by maintaining a permanent cover on the soil surface at all times. During the tour, we talked with the Groffs about how cover crops store nutrients for the next crop and impact yields, what cover crop mixtures to use and the benefits of having multiple species. We also watched demonstrations on cover crop rooting depths, and how cover crops help soil health and water/nutrient cycling.

We were joined by other local farmers, agricultural conservation NGO staff, and representatives from other government agencies, including USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Risk Management Agency. Rob Myers, Regional Director of the North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, said, “When you compare fields that are normally bare in the fall with a cover crop field capturing sunlight and protecting soil and water, it’s a pretty striking comparison.”

We enjoyed checking out the Groffs’ farm and seeing the wonderful progress that has been made on cover crop use and research, and we’re excited by the opportunities to collaborate to improve soil health and water quality. We hope to see this field continue to grow!
To learn more about cover crops please visit our website: http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/nps/agriculture/covercrops.cfm.

 

ORISE program participant Kate Pinkerton, Chief of the Rural Branch in EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management Allison Wiedeman, and ORISE program participant Erika Larsen stand in front of a cover crop research plot at Steve and Cheri Groff’s farm in Holtwood, PA.

ORISE program participant Kate Pinkerton, Chief of the Rural Branch in EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management Allison Wiedeman, and ORISE program participant Erika Larsen stand in front of a cover crop research plot at Steve and Cheri Groff’s farm in Holtwood, PA.

 

About the authors:

Erika Larsen is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) research participant in the Nonpoint Source Control Branch in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. Erika is a soil scientist from Florida and currently works on agriculture and water quality issues.

Kate Pinkerton is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) program participant on the Hypoxia Team in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. Kate is originally from Kentucky and studied environmental science at American University. She currently works on nutrient pollution and hypoxia issues in the Mississippi River Basin and the Gulf of Mexico.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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When Green Goes Bad

Flyer banner for "When Green Goes Bad" webinar

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

When you think about the environment, what color comes to mind? Green, right? Because in everything we know in the environment “Green is Good.”

And while that is very often true, in the case of lakes and ponds that suddenly go green, it is most likely the result of an algae bloom, which, increasingly, contain many harmful cyanobacteria.  Also known as “blue-green algae,” some species of these tiny, photosynthetic aquatic organisms produce toxins. The impacts of these harmful algal blooms are widespread and often not good. Not good at all.

From acute adverse human health impacts such as respiratory and gastrointestinal problems (yuck) to known deaths of animals (keep the family dog out of green water, please!!), blooms like these are becoming a more frequent occurrence and are having greater impacts.

To better understand how algal blooms impact human health, identify the toxicity of cyanobacteria, predict the probability of bloom occurrences, and share this information broadly, our researchers have been working on a research project focused this topic since 2012.

The researchers involved in the project will be sharing what they have learned during a webinar on Wednesday, June 25 from 12:00 to 1:00pm as part of EPA’s Water Research Webinar Series.

We hope you will join them to hear an overview of the breadth of their algae bloom research, and learn details about ecological modeling they conducted on cyanobacterial blooms in U.S. lakes. They will explain how they embraced the concept of “Open Science”—the movement to make scientific research and data accessible to the public.

And if that’s not enough, they will also be available for a twitter chat on June 26 from 2:00pm to 3:00pm. You can submit questions now by using #greenwater or you can wait until the day of the chat. Please follow us @EPAresearch.

To register for the webinar, please send an email to sswr@epa.org with your name, title, organization and contact information.

Meet our Scientists

Jeff Hollister, Ph.D.
EPA research ecologist Jeff Hollister received his Ph.D. in Environmental Science from the University of Rhode Island. His past experience is in applications of geospatial technologies to environmental research and broad-scale environmental monitoring, modeling, and assessment. His current research focuses on how nutrients drive the risk of cyanobacterial blooms in lakes and ponds.

Betty Kreakie, Ph.D.
EPA research ecologist Betty Kreakie earned her Ph.D. in integrative biology from the University of Texas. Her work focuses on the development of spatially-explicit landscape level models that predict how biological populations and communities will respond to human-caused influences, such as nutrient and contaminant pollution, climate change, and habitat conversion.

Bryan Milstead, Ph.D.
EPA post-doctoral research ecologist Bryan Milstead received his Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University for work on small mammal population dynamics in Chile. Before coming to EPA, he worked for the U.S. National Park Service and for the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands. His current work focuses on understanding how nutrient over-enrichment affects the aesthetic quality and risk of cyanobacteria blooms in lakes.

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry communicates the many cool things happening in water science for EPA and hates #greenwater. She urges everyone to think twice about what fertilizers they use on their lawn and encourages pet owners to “pick up the poop” to reduce nutrient pollution.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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SPARROWs, Lakes, and Nutrients?

By Jeff Hollister

Dock extending into a lake with forested background.Based on the title above, you probably think I don’t know what I am talking about. I mean really, what do sparrows, lakes, and nutrients have in common? In this case, a lot. So much so, an inter-agency team of EPA researchers in Narragansett RI, and a colleague from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in New Hampshire have been working together to better understand how these three seemingly disparate concepts can be linked together. Some of the results of this work are outlined in a recent publication in the Open Access journal, PLos One

The sparrow I am referring to isn’t small and feathered, it is a model developed and refined by the USGS. Since the late 1990’s, USGS has been developing SPARROW models which have been widely used to understand and predict the total amount of nutrients (among other materials) that streams are exposed to over the long-term. This is known as “nutrient load.” The models are important because they provide a picture over a very large extent of where nutrients might be relatively high.

However, when it comes to lakes, SPARROW doesn’t directly provide the information we need. For our research on lakes, we need reasonable estimates of the quantity of nutrients in a given volume of water (i.e., nitrogen and phosphorus concentration), not long term nutrient load for the year. This is important, because the higher the nutrient concentrations at any given time, the greater the chance of triggering algal blooms—and more blooms mean a greater probability of toxins released by algae reaching unhealthy levels.

In order to better estimate the nutrient concentrations, we needed to use the SPARROW model for total load, but also account for the differences between load and concentration. Our solution: combining field data, data on lake volume and the SPARROW Model.

In our paper “Estimating Summer Nutrient Concentrations in Northeastern Lakes from SPARROW Load Predictions and Modeled Lake Depth and Volume,” recently published in PLoS One, we describe how we combined modeling information from SPARROW, summertime nutrient concentrations collected during EPA’s 2007 National Lakes Assessment, and estimated lake volume (see this and this for more).

The end result of this effort is better predictions, by an average of 18.7% and 19.0% for nitrogen and phosphorus, respectively.

What is the meaning of this in terms of our environment, and importantly, the potential human health impacts? If we are able to better predict concentrations of nutrients it will hopefully also improve our ability to know where and when we might expect to see harmful algal blooms, specifically harmful cyanobacterial algal blooms. Cyanobacteria have been associated with many human health issues, from gastro-intestinal problems, to skin rash, and even a hypothesized association with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (for example, see this). So, in short, better predictions of nutrients, will, in the long run, improve our understanding of cyanobacteria and hopefully reduce the public’s exposure to a potential threat to health.

About the author: Jeff Hollister, a co-author on the study outlined in this blog post, is a research ecologist with an interest in landscape ecology, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the statistical language R, and open science. The focus of Jeff’s work is to develop computational and statistics tools to help with the cyanobacteria groups research efforts. Jeff is also an outspoken advocate for open science and open access among his colleagues.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Challenging Nutrients: EPA and Partners Launch New Ideation Prize

Effects from excess nutrients in American waterways cost the country more than $2 billion each year.

Activities of daily modern life add small amounts of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus to our lakes, rivers and estuaries, either directly or indirectly.

We all contribute to the widespread problem. Runoff from our suburban lawns, city streets and rural fields is just one of many ways we introduce more nutrients into the environment.

The partnership for this challenge currently includes: - White House Office of Science and Technology Policy - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - U.S. Department of Agriculture - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  - U.S. Geological Survey - Tulane University - Everglades Foundation

The partnership for this challenge currently includes:
– White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
– U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
– U.S. Department of Agriculture
– National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
– U.S. Geological Survey
– Tulane University
– Everglades Foundation

These excess nutrients end up in our waterways and fuel algae growth that exceeds healthy ecosystem limits. In turn, algal blooms can contaminate drinking water, kill aquatic species and negatively affect water-based recreation and tourism.

A partnership of federal agencies and stakeholders has announced a new prize competition to collect innovative ideas for addressing nutrient overloads.

The challenge aims to identify next-generation solutions from across the world that can help with excess nutrient reduction, mediation and elimination. The total payout will be $15,000, with no award smaller than $5,000. Proposals can range from completely developed ideas to exploratory research projects.

Ideas will be judged on a range of criteria, including technical feasibility and strategic plans for user adoption. Additionally, the challenge entries will inform the partnership members’ broader commitment and vision to find new ways to approach this decades-long problem.

Submit your idea today!

About the Author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Join us for a nutrient Twitter chat today at 2:00 pm (ET)!

Questions and AnswersReminder: Join us for a Twitter chat today at 2:00 pm (ET)!
Got questions about how nutrient pollution affects our water? Join EPA scientist Anne Rea and other Agency experts today at 2:00 pm (ET).

Use #waterchat to ask a question or participate.

To get you started and introduce you to Anne, we’ve asked her to answer a few questions.

What is your educational background?
I have a Ph.D. in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Michigan. I studied the biogeochemical cycling of mercury and trace elements in forested ecosystems. Since little work existed in the mercury realm, most of the literature and experts I worked with focused on nitrogen pollution.

How did you become interested in nutrient pollution?
After joining EPA, I wanted to work on the ecological side of things (versus human health) and spent several years doing ecological risk assessments. I then led a joint review of two air pollutants, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, for the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. This was the first time two pollutants were reviewed together, and the first time a “secondary” (public welfare) standard was separated from the “primary” standard (human health effects). I’ve always worked on multi-pollutant, multi-media problems, so was uniquely suited to lead the risk assessment for that review.

What’s the most interesting thing you have learned trying to solve this problem?
The dedication and commitment of staff across EPA is amazing. This is one problem the Agency is uniquely suited to solving from a scientific and regulatory perspective—but we can only do it together—across offices, regions and research programs in the Agency, and in collaboration with the states and other federal partners.

How can technology and innovation help solve the problem?
We’ve struggled to solve this problem for more than 40 years, and I think as an Agency we’ve made some progress. As the world’s population increases, there is a demand for increased food production and increased energy use—all of which releases nitrogen (and sometimes phosphorus, sulfur, and carbon) into the environment.

We are working across the Federal government to develop a ‘nutrients challenge’ which will challenge teams globally to come up with innovative ideas to reduce nutrients—either from the emissions source or from the waste stream.

We know we can’t solve nutrient pollution alone. What other federal agencies are we partnering with?
We are working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Park Service (NPS), and others, through jointly funded research, collaborations, cooperative agreements, etc. We work hard to share and use each others data and models as we work collectively to make an impact on nutrient pollution for the country.

Join us at 2:00 pm (ET) to Learn More!
Got more questions? Want to learn more? Don’t forget to join us for a Twitter chat today at 2 pm (ET). Use #waterchat to ask a question or participate. Not on Twitter but have a question? Please add it to the comments section below.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Diving into Nutrients: How much is too much?

By Sean Sheldrake

An EPA diver kept isolated from contaminants.

An EPA diver kept isolated from contaminants.

There’s a nutrient “problem”?

Did you know nutrient pollution, primarily in the form of too much nitrogen and phosphorus, is one of the nation’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems?  Some 16,000 waterways are impaired, and 78 percent of assessed coastal waters suffer from nutrient pollution, affecting water used for drinking, fishing, swimming and other recreational purposes.  These impacts also threaten tourism, home and property values and public health.

Nitrogen and phosphorous are food for some plants, like algae, and too much can spark a large algal bloom that can end up consuming all the dissolved oxygen in a waterway, causing fish to be starved for that critical gasp of O2.  Fish die-offs are common with extreme nutrient problems.

Where does it come from?

Excessive nitrogen and phosphorus are often the result of human activities. Primary sources include agriculture (manure, excess fertilizer and soil erosion), inadequately treated wastewater, stormwater runoff, air pollution from burning fossil fuels and—us! Huh? Whenever we do things around the house that add nitrogen and phosphorus to the local watershed we are part of the problem. That can include not cleaning up after your dog, using too much fertilizer on the lawn or garden, or washing your car on the driveway (most soaps contain nutrients).

How can I help?

Washington Department of Ecology Image.

Washington Department of Ecology Image.

The good news is that since we are all part of the problem, we can all be part of the solution.

Bag the dog waste, apply fertilizer according to the label (or better yet, switch to using some backyard compost!) and park your car on the lawn instead of the driveway when you wash it, or go to a carwash. We can really make a dent in the problem.

How about a little science to help out?

But it’s not all up to individuals alone. EPA scientists are working on solutions, too.

EPA divers help deploy and retrieve scientific instruments, such as Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers (ADCPs), to help study nutrient pollution.  For example, in one project in Puget Sound we deployed ADCPs to collect information on water flow, a critical first step that EPA computer modelers use to calculate the level of nutrients a water body can tolerate.  Ensuring the proper placement for data collection is paramount for data quality.

EPA diver deploys an ADCP.

EPA diver deploys an ADCP.

Getting into the water can be a challenge though!  Divers may have to upgrade to protective equipment and do a decontamination wash after the dive to ensure the safety of each diver getting in the water to collect data.

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers.

 

About the AuthorSean Sheldrake is part of the Seattle EPA Dive unit and is also a project manager working on the Portland Harbor cleanup in Oregon.  He serves on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements.  

Join us for a Twitter Chat to Learn More!
Got questions? Want to learn more? Join us for a Twitter chat this Thursday (July 18, 2013) at 2 pm ET on nutrient pollution and harmful algal blooms. Use #waterchat to ask a question or participate. Not on Twitter but have a question? Please add it to the comments section below. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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