stream restoration

Got an Environmental Science Question? Ask an EPA Scientist!

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

 

Front loader loads road salt into a large dump truck.

What happens to all that salt? Image courtesy of Maryland State Highway Administration

Have you ever had a question about something you saw and wished you had an expert you could ask? This happens to me all the time, so I decided to take advantage of working at EPA and start a new blog series called ‘Ask an EPA Scientist.’

I’m kicking off the series with a question that’s been on my mind recently.

Walking in a winter wonderland can be magical – but what about driving in one? Not so great. As I was driving (very slowly) through a snowstorm last week, I started wondering: What happens to all that road salt after the snow melts? Is it bad for the environment?

To find out, I asked EPA ecologist Paul Mayer, Ph.D. who conducts research on riparian zones and stream restoration. He and two Agency colleagues recently published a paper (Cooper et al. 2014) looking at the effects of road salt on a local stream.

Below is what he told me.

EPA Ecologist Paul Mayer, Ph.D. at a stream restoration research site.

EPA Ecologist Paul Mayer, Ph.D. at a stream restoration research site.

Paul Mayer: Road salts are an important tool for making roads safer during ice and snowstorms. Every winter about 22 million tons of road salt and other de-icers are used nationwide. Some washes from roadways into nearby bodies of water. This is a growing concern for the health of our urban watersheds because it can affect water quality and aquatic organisms.

I’ve been part of a study collecting surface and ground water data in Minebank Run, an urban stream in Maryland, since November 2001. We found that salt levels (chloride and sodium) there are chronically elevated throughout the year.

Road salts can accumulate and persist in our waterways, often even into the summer months. We found that the levels are significantly higher downstream of a major nearby road (I-695 beltway), suggesting that this roadway is a significant source of salts in the watershed.

This is a concern for Minebank Run because such salinization may reduce the benefits of restoration work that has been done, limiting the benefits the stream provides the local community and across the watershed. Increased salinity in freshwater systems can also damage or kill vegetation. Other research has indicated that road salts represent a risk to the safety of drinking water sources in the Baltimore area and elsewhere (Kaushal et al. 2005).

The implication of our research and others’ is that stream ecosystems in areas where road salts are routinely applied are at risk of environmental damage and that human health may also be at risk if water supplies are affected.

Kacey: I’m glad I asked! I also found some additional information that includes what we can do to reduce the impact of road salt:

 

Ask an EPA Scientist!
Do you have your own environmental science questions you’d like to see featured on our blog? Please email them to Fitzpatrick.kacey@epa.gov, post them in the comments section below, or tweet them to @EPAresearch using #EnvSciQ. We’ll pick as many as we can to pass along to our scientists, get them answered, and share the Q&A here on this blog. Stay tuned!
About the Author: Curious science writer Kacey Fitzpatrick is a student contractor working with EPA’s Science Communication team, and a frequent contributor to It All Starts with Science.

References Cited

Cooper, CA, PM Mayer, BR Faulkner. 2014. Effects of road salts on groundwater and surface water dynamics of sodium and chloride in an urban restored stream. Biogeochemistry 121:149-166. DOI: 10.1007/s10533-014-9968-z (Accessed at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10533-014-9968-z)

Kaushal, et al. 2005. Increased salinization of fresh water in the northeastern United States. PNAS 102:13517-13520. (Accessed at http://www.pnas.org/content/102/38/13517.abstract.)

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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The Best Gifts Do Great Things

By: Una Song

Are you like me and struggle with coming up with great gift ideas during the holidays? Of course, everyone wants electronics these days. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, 63 percent of U.S. adults plan to give the gift of technology this year. Tablets, laptops and TVs are popular gift items – I know my niece and nephew would love any one of these!

The great news is that you can give your friends and family the high-tech gifts they want AND help fight climate change by making one simple choice—ENERGY STAR. You can find ENERGY STAR certified options for the hottest products — smart or Ultra HD TVs, tablets, laptops, sound bars and more. Choosing products that have earned EPA’s ENERGY STAR label means your gift will continue giving through energy savings. In fact, a home equipped with TVs, set-top boxes, a Blu Ray player and a home theatre in a box that have earned the ENERGY STAR, can save more than $280 over the life of the products.

best gifts

With an average of 24 electronics products in every home, there are lots of opportunities to save energy in every room of the house.

  • ENERGY STAR certified TVs are 25% more energy efficient than standard ones.
  • A certified sound bar is 78% more efficient.
  • A Blu-ray player that has earned the ENERGY STAR is up to 45% more efficient.

The next time you are looking for the perfect present, look for the ENERGY STAR. Show your loved ones that the best gifts can do great things.

Una Song works for EPA’s ENERGY STAR program and focuses on consumer electronics marketing. When she’s not surfing the internet, she’s playing with her two cats.

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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Research Recap: This Week in EPA Science

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

Research recap graphic identifier, a microscope with the words "research recap" around it in a circleA good amount of my college career was spent on the top floor of the library, cramming for exams the next day. Even after graduating, I have yet to drop the habit. The night before my first day at EPA, I was frantically trying to catch up on all the research that the Agency had been doing so that I could follow along the next day.

A month later, I’m still a little lost during meetings – there is just that much going on here!

To help keep up—and break a bad habit—I’ve decided to do a quick, weekly review. And as part of the science communication team, I figured it would be a good thing to share what I’ve learned. Starting today, I’ll be posting a quick rundown most Fridays of some of the research that’s been reported by EPA and others over the week.

This is the first post in a new, weekly segment we are calling “Research Recap.”

And if you have any comments or questions about what I share or about the week’s events, please submit them below in the comments section. My colleagues and I will contact our scientists and get back to you as soon as we can with answers. And don’t worry, I promise there won’t be any pop quizzes!

 

This week’s Research Recap:

 

  • Careers in Environmental Health Science

Oregon State University’s superfund research program created the video “Careers in Environmental Health” to introduce students to various careers in science. Scientists from both the university and EPA were interviewed about their job, as well as how they ended up becoming a scientist.

Watch the videos.
Meet more EPA researchers at work.

 

  • Colorado State University Hosts Cookstove Testing Marathon

Colorado State University hosted a laboratory testing campaign as part of a $1.5 million study on the air quality, climate and health effects of cookstove smoke to help determine to what extent the stoves used by 3 billion people worldwide for heating, lighting and cooking are contributing to climate change and global air quality.

Read more.

 

  • Studying Stream Restoration

EPA scientists set out to evaluate how well “out-of-stream” restoration actions (those actions that take place in the watershed as opposed to within streams) work. These approaches are important because efforts that have focused solely on habitat restoration within streams have had limited success.

Read more.

 

  • EPA Report Shows Progress in Reducing Urban Air Toxics Across the United States

Based largely on Agency clean air research, EPA released the Second Integrated Urban Air Toxics Report to Congress—the final of two reports required under the Clean Air Act to inform Congress of progress in reducing public health risks from urban air toxics. The report shows the substantial progress that has been made to reduce air toxics across the country since the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

Read more.

 

  • From Lake to Classroom: EPA workshop on Lake Erie Provides Tools for Science Teacher

A seventh-grade science teacher spent a portion of his summer on an EPA research vessel as part of a workshop sponsored jointly by the Center for Great Lakes Literacy and EPA. “Having the opportunity to research alongside EPA and university scientists aboard a floating science lab was truly a one-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.

Read more.

 

  • Local Water Woes, No More? Advancing Safe Drinking Water Technology

In 2007, a student team from the University of California, Berkeley won an EPA People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) award for their research project aiming to test a cost-effective, self-cleaning, and sustainable arsenic-removal technology. The same group of former Berkeley students who formed the P3 team now own a company called SimpleWater, which aims to commercialize their product in the US.

Read more.

 

  • Microbe-Free Beaches, Thanks to Dogs

Seagull droppings can carry disease-causing microbes which can contaminate beaches and water. In a new study, researchers show that unleashing dogs keeps the seagulls away—and the water at the beach free of microbes.

Read more.

 

About the Author: Writer Kacey Fitzpatrick recently joined the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development as a student contractor.

 

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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Studying Stream Restoration

By Marguerite Huber

Stream running through a lush, forested landscape

Forested stream

When I was younger, there was a prairie and stream behind my house. I ran and played there all the time with my friends until a house was built in its place. The lot was transformed from a wild, overgrown landscape to a manicured lawn. With the prairie gone and stream no longer enticing our adventures, we stopped playing there.

When homes and roads are built, they affect the habitat, quantity, and quality of water in downstream ecosystems (as well as natural places for kids to play!). Additionally, it causes an increase in nutrients like the fertilizer from that manicured lawn, and sediments, metals, and other pollutants making development a leading factor in stream impairment.

Local communities are increasingly turning to engineered techniques intended to reduce or eliminate the impacts of development on streams and other aquatic ecosystems. But do such efforts work?

Stream running through an urban area

Urban stream

EPA scientists Naomi Detenbeck and Nathan Smucker set out to evaluate how well “out-of-stream” restoration actions (those actions that take place in the watershed as opposed to within streams) work and to identify any general trends found in the scientific literature. They examined the response of water quality, habitat and hydrology, and ecological structure and function to development and restoration.

The scientists used statistical analysis to identify more than 40-years’ worth of published scientific literature on effective ways to protect streams from the unintended impacts of activities that harm streams. Starting with more than 1,400 papers, they pared it down to thirty-eight that covered forty-four restoration projects.

Smucker and Detenbeck found that the projects covered a number of stream restoration actions such as riparian buffers, human-made wetlands, and stormwater ponds. The projects looked at the bigger picture of managing streams by focusing on their watersheds. These “out-of-stream” approaches are important because efforts that have focused solely on habitat restoration within streams have had limited success.

Pooling together data from all the papers, the researchers found that biodiversity was reduced by more than half in unrestored urban streams and measures of things such as reducing erosion, nitrogen fixation, and other ecosystems services were significantly greater in restored streams than unrestored.

Even if it is impossible to fully restore streams, preventative actions can still be taken to protect downstream ecosystems in watersheds that are facing future development. In addition, tracking restoration projects (like the ones used in the studies) and ongoing monitoring would benefit future efforts to protect, restore, and manage streams.

Knowing what works and what doesn’t can help government agencies, policymakers, and citizens recognize and evaluate potential environmental outcomes resulting from their actions and decisions. It can also aid in setting restoration goals, prioritizing sites to monitor, and guiding future decisions and development as populations continue to grow.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a student contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

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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Scientists at Work: Paul Mayer, Ph.D.

Dr Paul MayerEPA ecologist Paul Mayer, Ph.D. works in EPA’s Groundwater and Ecosystem Restoration division where he studies riparian zones (the area along rivers and streams where the habitats are influenced by both the land and water) and stream restoration. Dr. Mayer has also worked as a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

How does your science matter?

My research examines ecosystem restoration projects—looking at how such efforts also restore various kinds of “ecosystem functions,” such as absorbing nutrients and preventing erosion. More specifically, my colleagues and I have been looking at stream restoration in urban and agricultural ecosystems. Stream restoration uses various approaches to reconstruct or redesign streams that have been heavily impacted by urbanization, agricultural practices, or past land use.

With stream restoration, we’re looking at nutrient uptake (2 pp, 276K), especially nitrogen. Excess nitrogen is one of the ecological stressors that EPA is most interested in because it can cause human health and ecological problems. High levels of nitrate nitrogen in drinking water prevent your body from taking in oxygen efficiently. My work is helping us learn how to “supercharge ecosystems” and enhance their ability to process excess nitrogen.

When did you first know you wanted to pursue science?

I knew I wanted to be a scientist when I was five years-old. My earliest memory is standing in the front yard of my house with my mom and being fascinated by all the birds flying around us. I asked her what kind of birds they were. I knew then, even though I didn’t yet know what a scientist was, that I wanted to know more about the world around me.

Keep reading the interview with Dr. Paul Mayer by clicking here.

Read more Scientists at Work profiles.

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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Science Wednesday: Going with the Flow – Does Stream Restoration Work?

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

About the Author: Erich Hester recently finished his Ph.D. in the Ecology Curriculum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research was funded in part by an EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Graduate Fellowship.

Most Americans live in urban areas or their suburban fringes, and many more live near forests or agricultural lands. As kids, many of us enjoyed splashing in streams in our backyards or in the park down the street. Although we probably did not know it, major changes were occurring in those streams during our lifetimes because of human activities such as urbanization, agriculture, and even climate change.

Streams and rivers are important for humans, and not just for kids. They provide what are known as “ecosystem services,” such as supplying drinking water and rendering nutrients and toxins less harmful. But the capacity of aquatic resources to provide these services is being overwhelmed in many places.

To address these issues, billions of dollars are currently being spent on “stream restoration.” Nevertheless, the science connecting restoration practice to ecological recovery and ecosystem services is often weak, and many restoration projects fail to achieve their stated goals. I’m trying to fill scientific gaps between restoration design and ecological response so restoration projects can have a more positive impact on stream ecosystems, a goal shared by EPA scientists.

Through modeling and field studies, I evaluated how humans impact the exchange of water between streams and groundwater, which is critical to many stream ecosystems. I focused on how certain natural stream features, often used in stream restoration, can help restore surface to groundwater exchange. One key component of this exchange is heat, as temperature is the single most important condition affecting the lives of organisms, and humans can induce heat stress in aquatic organisms by warming the water. I determined how these features can help moderate peak temperatures in streams that are overheating due to deforestation or climate change.

This information will help improve design guidance for stream restoration currently being developed. I’m also participating in the Virginia Stream Alliance, a working group created by the Virginia legislature to foster knowledge transfer among academics, consultants, and government about the fast changing field of stream restoration.

I plan to continue research on this and related themes when I become an assistant professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech in January 2009.

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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