Potomac River

Tri, Tri, Tri Again for Clean Water

By Marguerite Huber and Dustin Renwick

From the left, cyclist Marguerite Huber, runner Dustin Renwick, and would-be swimmer Sarah Edwards.

From the left, cyclist Marguerite Huber, runner Dustin Renwick, and would-be swimmer Sarah Edwards.

When athletes register for a race, they invest money, time, and energy. My fellow EPA blogger, Dustin Renwick, and I signed up to be a part of a relay team competing in the Nation’s Triathlon here in Washington, D.C.

Dustin ran the 10k, I biked the 40k, but our swimmer didn’t even get wet.

Our teammate, and all of the other athletes, did not get to participate in the swim portion of the race because it had been cancelled due to unsafe water quality.

The night before the event, the local area experienced storms and heavy rainfall that caused a combined sewer overflow that sent a mixture of sewage and stormwater into the Potomac River just north of the triathlon swim starting line.

The District Department of the Environment informed race officials of the unhealthy conditions late that evening and due to the high levels of bacteria such as E. coli, they agreed to cancel the swim.

Although boating, kayaking, and paddle boarding are allowed in the Potomac River, “primary contact recreation activities,” like swimming, have been banned in the river within the District of Columbia since 1971, when District health officials and EPA sought to protect people and publicize the health hazards of local water bodies.

Since then, clean-up efforts have resulted in a cleaner Potomac. Special swimming events, such as the Nation’s Tri, could apply for exceptions to the rule as of 2007. Event organizers are required to monitor and analyze water quality samples prior to the event and submit a contingency plan in the event the District Department of the Environment determines the river is unsafe for swimming.

Despite the progress, sewer overflows can still harm river quality. The Nation’s Triathlon had to cancel the swim in 2011 as well.

Judging by social media reactions, most athletes felt the Nation’s Tri race officials made the right choice in cancelling the swim. Safety is important, no matter how many hours of training you have put in.

But the disappointment of several thousand athletes is only a symptom. This situation really calls attention to the need for improvement in our stormwater infrastructure.

The 772 cities in the U.S. that have combined sewer systems can all be challenged by heavy rains that rush over urban impervious surfaces and into their sewers. This results in stormwater and untreated waste polluting our water bodies.

EPA has worked to promote green infrastructure practices to help minimize and prevent stormwater events that can threaten public health, all while protecting the quality of rivers, streams, and lakes. Green infrastructure techniques such as green roofs, permeable pavement, and rain gardens help slow down runoff and help water more naturally filter out excess nutrients and other pollutants on its way into the ground.

These kinds of activities help protect human health and the environment. Hopefully one day soon, as race contestants, we can count on completing the bike, run, and swim through our nation’s capital and in similar events across the country.

About the Authors: When student contractors Marguerite Huber and Dustin Renwick are not biking or running through the District, they can be found helping the science communication and innovation teams (respectively) 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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

The Potomac Watershed – From All Sides

By Ellen Schmitt and Susan Spielberger

More often than not, watersheds cross political boundaries.  Take the Potomac River for example.  It drains an area of 14,670 square miles in four states: Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.  As part of the larger Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the Potomac River delivers a significant amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment to the Chesapeake Bay.

Morning fog over the Potomac River. Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer jm6553 from EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project

Morning fog over the Potomac River. Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer jm6553 from EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project

Besides its contribution to downstream nutrient pollution, the Potomac basin itself faces a number of threats to its source water quality. One of these threats is a rapid growth in urban population which accounts for 81% of the basin’s 6.11 million residents, and is expected to grow by more than 1 million people over the next 20 years.

The environmental challenges presented by the Potomac River, as well as other mid-Atlantic waters often require the attention of different EPA programs.   Here’s what two of us do to protect “the Nation’s River” here in EPA, Region 3.

Ellen:

I work in the Drinking Water Branch and we’re working with the Potomac River Basin Drinking Water Source Protection Partnership to protect the river and its tributaries as sources of drinking water.  Protecting the source water in the first place is the best preventative step to providing safe drinking water.   Hand and glove with this are the other usual steps including treatment at water plants, a safe drinking water distribution system, and increasing the awareness of consumers of protecting drinking water sources. This approach makes sense because some substances can’t be removed at water treatment facilities and it’s often much less expensive to treat the water if contaminants are kept out in the first place.  Examples of source water protection activities are: keeping manure from farms out of streams to reduce the potential for pathogens entering the water; having a response plan in the event of a spill of hazardous materials; and working with transportation agencies to reduce the amount of salt spread on the region’s roads during the winter.

The Potomac Partnership is a unique collaboration, comprised of nearly 20 drinking water utilities and government agencies from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and DC focusing on source water protection activities addressing agriculture, urban run-off and emerging contaminants.

Susan:

I work in the Environmental Assessment and Innovation Division.  In 2010, Congress provided EPA with two million dollars in funding to restore and protect the Potomac Highlands (a part of Appalachia), and EPA selected American Rivers to administer this grant program.  My role in this program is serve as the technical contact for the projects that have been funded – eight of them –  ranging from $150,000 to $300,000, that focus on improving natural resources and socio-economic conditions.

Projects include stream bank restoration in Staunton and Waynesboro, Virginia; land conservation projects in West Virginia and Pennsylvania where parcels with high ecological value are being protected through conservation easements; reclaiming mine land in the Monongahela National Forest by planting  native spruce trees; and constructing a green house/ shade house project in Frostburg, Maryland, on reclaimed mine land.

In selecting projects that will protect and restore the Potomac (as well as other mid-Atlantic waters), we emphasize a strategic approach to conservation – also known as the Green Infrastructure approach.   We emphasize the connectivity of forest “hubs” of high ecological value and their ability to either expand those hubs or connect the hubs together.  This is a more effective way to protect and restore natural systems because it strives to keep important areas intact and to restore ones that are degraded.

 

For more information about the Potomac watershed, check out this State of the Nation’s River Report from the Potomac Conservancy (PDF).  What kinds of activities are happening in the watershed where you live?  How else could it be approached, from all sides?

 

About the Authors: Susan Spielberger and Ellen Schmitt both work out of EPA’s Mid-Atlantic office in Philadelphia, PA.  Susan works in the Environment and Innovation Division in the Office of Environmental Information and Assessment, and Ellen works in the Water Protection Division’s Drinking Water Branch.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Get Up Close and Personal With Your River – Sojourn!

By Nancy Grundahl

Merriam-Webster defines a sojourn as “a temporary stay,” like, “We enjoyed a week-long sojourn on the river.”

Never been?  Now is the right time of the year. River sojourns are usually May through September in the northeast. Many environmental and watershed groups around the country are sponsoring sojourns to help people connect with their rivers, to see them up close and personal, to appreciate their importance and  understand their challenges.

Go for a day. Go for a week. Start from the headwaters and kayak downstream. No experience necessary.

Participants pay a small fee.  Often meals and overnight camping are included. Here is a link to a list of sojourns for 2012 compiled by the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers.

If you can’t make it to any of this year’s sojourns, you can do your own!  Here’s a description of the sojourn-worthy Potomac River Trail, and here are some ideas for sojourns in the Mid-Atlantic region and around the country

There are countless ways to recreate on, in, or near our waters this summer.  Have a great time rolling on the river!

And if you do, please send us some photos. Go to our State of the Environment Photography Project on Flickr.  Share your fun! And we’ll be sharing some of your photos on the blog during the summer months.

About the author: Nancy Grundahl has worked for the Philadelphia office of EPA since the mid-80’s. Nancy believes in looking at environmental problems in a holistic, multi-media way and is a strong advocate of preventing pollution instead of dealing with it after it has been created. Nancy likes to garden and during the growing season brings flowers into the office. Nancy also writes for the EPA “It’s Our Environment” blog.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Concentrated Effort, Universal Need

Potomac River BasinNearly 6 million people live in the drainage area of the Potomac River which stretches 14,670 square miles across four states and the District of Columbia. 86% of these people get their drinking water from public water suppliers which use the Potomac River, its tributaries and surrounding ground water as their source water. And with an average flow before withdrawal of 7 billion gallons/day, it may be an understatement to say: it’s a big deal!

Luckily, this has not gone unnoticed. Organized in 2004, the Potomac River Basin Drinking Water Source Protection Partnership (DWSPP) has been working to better understand and address the risks that may negatively affect the quality of drinking water in the Potomac River basin. The Partnership is a voluntary association of 20 water suppliers and government agencies whose mission is the protection of their source water supplies in the basin. Some of the biggest interests of the Partnership are:

• Tracking research on low levels of emerging  contaminants to determine their persistence in the environment and their potential threats to human health and the environment

• Early warning/emergency response to events and conditions which may threaten the safety of the water supply

• Urban issues such as the impact of roadway salts on drinking water sources

• Agriculture issues such as the potential contribution of pathogens. One example of this is Cryptosporidium, which may cause water-borne disease

Broad source water programs like the Partnership’s are significant because they extend beyond the treatment element and provide an invaluable multi-barrier approach to drinking water protection. With concerns like those above (and more) in both urban and rural areas, this collaborative approach should open the eyes of residents in watersheds everywhere.

So what should you do? Educate yourself on the issues the Potomac DWSPP is working on by visiting their website and be sure to take a look at specific information about special topics or workgroup activities. You may also find information like how to properly dispose of pharmaceuticals, as well as other ways you too can ensure safe drinking water for your area.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Science Wednesday: Sensor Field Day-Humans Still Needed

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

On June 15, I joined about a dozen colleagues from state and federal environmental agencies, academic institutions, and private industry aboard the Research Vessel Rachel Carson .  We were joined by an AAAS Fellow working at EPA, along with her daughter, a middle school student, to learn about environmental sensor technologies used to monitor the Potomac River.

The field trip included a “show and tell” of high-tech equipment, such as automated, solar-powered, web-enabled, sensors moored to research buoys that collect a host of data on water quality and environmental conditions. There was even a demonstration of a radio-controlled mini-submarine fitted with water quality and bathymetry monitors and side-scan sonar.

As impressive as all the high-tech equipment was, I was reminded of some of the lessons I learned from one of my first jobs, working in the environmental health unit of the City Health Department in Madison, Wisconsin: the importance of cooperation and remembering to use our “human” sensors.

Cooperation
While on board the Rachel Carson, I was struck by the exemplary cooperation among VA and MD environmental agencies. They have collaborated across political boundaries to standardize water monitoring methods and capabilities on a huge aquatic ecosystem, feeding real-time monitoring data—collected, processed, quality-assured, and visually displayed—to a vast range of eager eyes. This cooperation is helping them tackle complex watershed problems in times of lean budgets and staff shortages.

Human Sensors
Everyone on board used their own human ‘sensors’ to appreciate the river and the importance of healthy aquatic ecosystems. The gathering also provided an opportunity to share data by one of the easiest ways I know: swapping stories.

When the team demonstrating how to use the mini-sub realized they needed to adjust the buoyancy to match the Potomac’s lower salinity, scientist Dr. Walter Boynton shared the story of a colleague who could test salinity by tasting a drop of water. His tongue was sometimes more accurate than the sensors.

Another story involved the sunken WW II submarine Black Panther. It was “misplaced” for decades until a team of divers searching for it suspected the coordinates for its location had been transposed. They switched the numbers and sure enough, they “rediscovered” the Black Panther submarine in 1989!

image of author looking out at water over the side of the shipA great day on the Potomac reinforced lessons I think we need to remember as we work to solve the enormously complex problem of managing water quality throughout the huge Chesapeake Bay watershed: all the new technologies and databases still need humans to make the connections and keep it all calibrated.

About the Author: Ed Washburn has covered “multimedia” topics in the Office of Research and Development since joining EPA in 1998.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.