Urbanization

Insects as Indicators

By Marguerite Huber

Twelve spotted skimmer dragonfly perched on a reed.

Twelve-spotted skimmer. Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Scientists have developed ways to use certain species as kinds of “living barometers” for monitoring the quality of the environment. By studying the abundance, presence, and overall health of such indicator species, they gain insight into the general condition of the environment. Now, EPA researchers are developing ways to use insects in this way to explore the effects of environmental contamination and how it might spread across a watershed.

The Superfund program, established by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, identifies sites that contain hazardous substances, such as pollutants and contaminants, that may pose a threat to human health or the environment.

Superfund sites include former landfills, industrial and military complexes, and abandoned mines.

In their study, EPA researchers sought to determine if insect communities could be used to measure the benefits of Superfund site clean-up and to monitor the effectiveness of site remediation and restoration. To be accurate, they also had to account for the differences between impacts from Superfund contaminants, and those related to urbanization.

The researchers compared a number of indicators related to urbanization, such as land development, housing unit density, and road density.

In the end, the researchers found that once they had accounted for the effects of urban development, they were able to use insects as indicators for detecting the effects of Superfund sites in the watershed. Using what they learned from that work, they also developed models that can discriminate the effects of Superfund activities from those of development upstream, and help identify those streams where impacts exceed what would be expected based solely on the amount of development across a watershed. Researchers and others can also use the models to assess the effectiveness of remediation efforts at contaminated sites.

Overall, developing methods to tap insects as indicators is helping EPA researchers understand how Superfund sites affect entire watersheds. It’s a big step toward cleaning them up and helping EPA fulfill its mission of protecting human health and the environment.

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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Cabin Branch: Let the Healing Begin

By Nick DiPasquale

Most of us who live in an urban or suburban setting really don’t know what a healthy stream looks like.  In some cases we can’t even see streams that run under our roads and shopping centers because they’ve been forced into pipes; out of sight, out of mind.

Cabin Branch pre cleanup

In 2005 a major volunteer cleanup removed 40 tons of tires and debris from Cabin Branch. (photo courtesy of Severn Riverkeeper Program)

The remnants of streams we can see have been filled with sediment and other pollution and the ecology of the stream has been altered significantly.  The plants and animals that used to live there have long since departed, their habitat having been destroyed.  This didn’t happen overnight.  The environment is suffering “a death by a thousand cuts.”

I recently got the chance to visit the Cabin Branch stream restoration project, not far from my neighborhood in Annapolis.  The project is being undertaken by the Severn Riverkeeper, and is one of many stream restoration projects taking place throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Keith Underwood outlines the progress of the Cabin Branch Regenerative Stream Conveyance restoration project for members of the Chesapeake Bay Program and Maryland Department of Natural Resources .  The project was initiated by the Severn Riverkeeper Program. (photo by Tom Wenz, EPA CBPO)

Keith Underwood outlines the progress of the Cabin Branch Regenerative Stream Conveyance restoration project for members of the Chesapeake Bay Program and Maryland Department of Natural Resources . The project was initiated by the Severn Riverkeeper Program. (photo by Tom Wenz, EPA CBPO)

Cabin Branch discharges to the streams and wetlands of Saltworks Creek and the Severn River, which carries the polluted runoff into the Bay.  Aerial photos taken after a modest rain are dramatic testament to a severely damaged ecosystem causing the Severn to run the color of chocolate milk. This same phenomenon is repeated in streams and rivers that run through thousands of communities throughout the watershed.

Polluted runoff is a major source of nutrient and sediment pollution in the Severn River and throughout the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Projects like the one at Cabin Branch restore the natural habitat , slows the sediment erosion and allows more nutrients to be absorbed into the soil and plants. (photo courtesy of Severn Riverkeeper Program)

Polluted runoff is a major source of nutrient and sediment pollution in the Severn River and throughout the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Projects like the one at Cabin Branch restore the natural habitat , slows the sediment erosion and allows more nutrients to be absorbed into the soil and plants. (photo courtesy of Severn Riverkeeper Program)

It was gratifying to see the Cabin Branch project first hand – one of many efforts to heal the damage done unknowingly over many decades of development.  Like many projects of this nature, the Severn Riverkeeper Program had to overcome some bureaucratic red tape to get the permits they needed, but their perseverance will be worth the impact in helping clean local waters and the Bay.

The structural features of these projects are designed to safely handle a 100-year storm, while at the same time maximizing baseflow in normal conditions.  The next step will include planting native plants and monitoring the post-restoration flow of nutrients and sediment.  (photo by Tom Wenz, EPA CBPO)

The structural features of these projects are designed to safely handle a 100-year storm, while at the same time maximizing baseflow in normal conditions. The next step will include planting native plants and monitoring the post-restoration flow of nutrients and sediment. (photo by Tom Wenz, EPA CBPO)

Fortunately, we are learning better ways to manage stormwater runoff through low impact development and use of green infrastructure which help to mimic the cleansing functions of nature.   It will take some time before this patient is restored to good health, but we are on the mend.

About the Author: Nick DiPasquale is Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program. Nick has nearly 30 years of public policy and environmental management experience in both the public and private sectors.  He previously served as Deputy Secretary in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Director of the Environmental Management Center for the Brandywine Conservancy in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and as Secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

You can also see this post and much more Chesapeake Bay content on the Chesapeake Bay Program 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.

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Contradictions of City Life

I have recently moved to Washington, D.C., a relatively larger and more urban setting than that of my little lake house back in the Midwest. I have never lived in such a metropolitan city before and I have become greatly overwhelmed at times by the large amounts of buildings and people and the small occurrences of green space. Although the city I am from is not fitted with gorgeous scenery or a picturesque background, I still miss the simplicity of life out on the lake.

It seems to be a contradiction to me: working for the EPA while surrounded by pavement, buildings, and almost all other signs of increasing urbanization. I like to think of myself as an environmentally conscious person, but the constant sound of cars, images of buildings, and working indoors make me think that I am a walking (or sitting) contradiction. However, I now realize that although I live in a city where being close to the natural environment is not something that can be achieved by simply walking outside; I can still make a positive, environmental difference.

Getting away from the city and moving into a rural community may seem like the logical way to reduce your carbon footprint and avoid contributing to global warming, but this is not the case. Cities allow for mass public transit such that less carbon emissions can be released per person. The close proximities of buildings to each other also encourage people to walk or ride bikes rather than driving. Living in a city also tolerates high-rise buildings that use less energy. Less energy is being used to heat and power a large building as opposed to a large number of small buildings or houses.

The actions that we can take everyday to be environmentally conscious can still be done no matter where we live. We can still recycle, turn off the lights and water when not being used, buy organic and locally grown food, take public transportation, reduce or eliminate meat from our diets, and advocate by saying something to those who are not always thinking about what is best for the environment. We may miss nature in its raw form, undisturbed by development, but this does not mean that we are unable to be environmentally aware people.

About the author: Nikki Reising is an intern at the Office of Children’s Health Protection. She is a sophomore studying non-profit management at Indiana University.

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.