water quality

Reducing the Impact of Stormwater Challenges

Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA Office of Water

Stormwater pollution is a dilemma all across the country – even in beautiful mountain towns like Aspen, Colorado. Pollutants such as oils, fertilizer, and sediment from the steep mountains that tower over the town, can be carried via stormwater and snowmelt and deposited into waterways like the Roaring Fork River. This has a huge impact on the ecosystem.

Last month, I toured the Jennie Adair wetlands, a bio-engineered detention area designed to passively treat stormwater runoff in Aspen. I saw firsthand how the city is working to deal with its stormwater challenges. Before this project, stormwater did not drain to a water treatment facility. It used to flow directly into the Roaring Fork River and other water bodies within the city limits, having significant impacts on the water quality.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Synthetic female hormones in sewage are toxic to male fish over generations

By Kristen Keteles

I’m a toxicologist at EPA in Denver, Colorado, and I study how pollutants can affect ecological and human health. I work with a team of scientists from academia (Colorado State University, University of Colorado Denver) and U.S. Geological Society to understand the potential effects of hormones and medications that are discharged into the environment. Did you know a very potent synthetic female hormone used in prescription drugs can be found in water and could be harming fish? We’re finding in our study that it can wipe out fish populations over several generations, and it’s the male fish that are most affected. Some studies have found that male fish below waste water treatment plants, and exposed to female hormones, can lose their masculine characteristics and become indistinguishable from females. Our new study found that a potent form of the female hormone estrogen used in prescription drugs not only causes the males to look female, it also appears to be toxic to male fish and these effects may impact future generations of fish.

Where do these hormones and medications come from? All of us. Humans excrete hormones and medications, which often end up in our rivers and streams from sewage. Disposing of medications by flushing can also contribute to pharmaceuticals in the environment. A growing human population, combined with effects of climate change like decreasing precipitation, has resulted in many streams containing higher concentrations of waste water. In fact, some streams in the west are 90% waste water. Not a nice thought if you like to kayak and fish, like I do. The water IS treated, but many hormones and pharmaceuticals are not completely removed by the waste water treatment plants. So, more people and less water equals more hormones and drugs in the water. My team is trying to determine what this means for fish, and ultimately for people, too. Although, currently, EPA does not have water quality standards for these types of chemicals, our study may help determine if such water quality standards are needed.

We looked at effects of exposure to a synthetic estrogen used in prescription drugs to fathead minnows over multiple generations by conducting experiments, both in the laboratory and in outdoor water tanks that mimic natural conditions.

Chemical exposure to female hormones in prescription drugs was found to increase the chances of death in male fish, but not females. And, fish exposed when they were young, but not as adults, were not able to reproduce later on in life. In addition, fish that weren’t even exposed to the prescription drugs, but were born to parents who were exposed, were less likely to reproduce. It could be that synthetic estrogen in prescription drugs, combined with other natural and synthetic hormones in the water, are reducing male fish fertility and could affect fish populations.

This is why it’s important to do what we can to protect fish breeding habitats in unpolluted areas. What are some things that your community can do to protect fish habitat? Read our information on how to dispose of unused medications to reduce the amount of pharmaceuticals that end up in water.

About the author: Kristen Keteles is a toxicologist in the Support Program of the Office of Ecosystems Protection and Remediation in EPA Region 8 in Denver. She has been with EPA for six years.

Fish A is a normal male fathead minnow. Fish C is a normal female fathead minnow. Fish B is a male that was exposed to female hormones in prescription drugs and looks more like a female than a male.

Fish A is a normal male fathead minnow. Fish C is a normal female fathead minnow. Fish B is a male that was exposed to female hormones in prescription drugs and looks more like a female than a male.

 

EPA Fish Team scientists: Al Garcia, Kristen Keteles, Elaine Lai, and Adrian Krawczeniuk.

EPA Fish Team scientists: Al Garcia, Kristen Keteles, Elaine Lai, and Adrian Krawczeniuk.

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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Seeing EPA funds helping the Mississippi River

Last month, as part of the Hypoxia Task Force Meeting in Little Rock, Arkansas, I visited a farm in the Mississippi River Delta area, and more specifically in the Critical Groundwater Area of the Bayou Meto Watershed.  I am honored to co-chair the Hypoxia Task Force and meet with my fellow members throughout the Basin, and these personal visits with the people managing the land in the Basin are always a highlight.

Acting Assistant Administrator Nancy Stoner meets with farmers in Arkansas.

Acting Assistant Administrator Nancy Stoner meets with farmers in Arkansas.

We know that nonpoint source nutrient pollution from fertilizers in the Mississippi River Basin is the most significant threat to water quality in the region and to the Gulf of Mexico. The Arkansas Discovery Farms Program helps many stakeholders make informed decisions about the sustainable future of their farms.  I am delighted to note that the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission has provided EPA Nonpoint Source Program Section 319 funds to the Arkansas Discovery Farm Program – this is just one example of these funds supporting local watershed work across the country.  During my visit, Drs. Mike Daniels and Andrew Sharpley of the University of Arkansas described the Arkansas Discovery Farms Program and how they work with eight participating farms in Arkansas. More

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EPA: Making a Visible Difference in Communities Across the Country

Marian Wright Edelman, President and Founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, once said “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.”

Making a visible difference in communities is at the heart of EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment. It is what drives our workforce to go above and beyond to find that “difference” that improves the lives of individuals, families, and communities across the country. Last month, I invited EPA employees to share stories of the creative and innovative approaches that they have used to educate, engage and empower American families and communities in environmental protection. I’d like to share some of their stories with you with the hope that you too will be inspired to make a difference in your community. More

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Earth Month Tip: Wash your clothes in cold water

Washing your clothes in cold water is an easy way to save energy and prevent carbon pollution. Hot water heating accounts for about 90 percent of the energy your machine uses to wash clothes — only 10 percent goes to electricity used by the washer motor.

Depending on the clothes and local water quality (hardness), many homeowners can effectively do laundry exclusively with cold water, using cold water laundry detergents. Switching to cold water can save the average household as much as $40 annually.

Much like running the dishwasher with only a full load [link to dishwasher post], washing clothing in full loads can save more than 3,400 gallons of water each year!

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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In Defense of our Waters

By Tom Damm

Assunpink Creek near site of Second Battle of Trenton

Assunpink Creek near site of Second Battle of Trenton

As we approach Earth Day on Tuesday, we’re reminded of the reasons we value our rivers and streams.

They serve as sources of drinking water, provide recreational fun, support fish and wildlife, and play a critical role in our economy.

And some offer a touch of history – like the Assunpink Creek in Trenton, New Jersey.

My neighborhood stream connects with the Assunpink before emptying in the Delaware River.  The Delaware is a focus of cleanup efforts in two EPA regions and is influenced by hundreds of small streams and creeks in states on both sides of the river.

If you Google Assunpink Creek, you’ll find it has a connection to an important battle in the American Revolutionary War.

General Washington’s troops repelled three attempts by British soldiers to cross a bridge over the Assunpink in the Second Battle of Trenton – one of a series of events over 10 days that historians say changed the course of the war.

These days, Assunpink Creek itself is under siege.

I entered the battle site’s zip code in EPA’s How’s My Waterway? app this week to get a sense for the water quality in the Assunpink.  The app is a relatively new way of learning the condition of your local stream, creek or river – whether you’re standing on the water’s edge with a mobile device or sitting at home with a computer.  I found that the creek is impacted by arsenic, E coli, lead, phosphorus and low dissolved oxygen levels, among other ailments.

The Assunpink is not alone.

According to an EPA survey released last year, more than half of the nation’s rivers and stream miles are in poor condition for aquatic life.

The EPA report – the 2008-2009 National Rivers and Stream Assessment – shows that our waterways are under big-time pressure: not enough vegetation along stream banks and too much nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria and mercury.

The health of our rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters depends on the vast network of streams where they begin, including stream miles that only flow seasonally or after rain.  These streams feed downstream waters, trap floodwaters, recharge groundwater supplies, remove pollution and provide fish and wildlife habitat.

EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have released a proposed rule to clarify protections under the Clean Water Act for these types of streams and wetlands.  The rule will be open for a 90-day public comment period beginning Monday, April 21.  You can find information on the rule and a link to comment at www2.epa.gov/uswaters.

We can all enlist in the effort to help reverse poor water quality conditions.  Among other activities, you can control polluted runoff from your property, adopt your watershed and do volunteer water monitoring.  For more information on what you can do, click here.  Make it an Earth Day commitment.

About the Author: Tom Damm has been with EPA since 2002 and now serves as the region’s acting senior communications advisor.

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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A New Beginning: Headwater Research

By Marguerite Huber

I like beginnings. They are a fresh start and influence our lives further down the road. Just like how we have new beginnings, all rivers have influential beginnings too. In a network of rivers up in the mountains, headwater streams are the uppermost streams furthest from the river’s endpoint or merger with another stream. They are the very beginning of miles and miles of rivers and have a great impact on what flows downstream.headwaterstream

Headwater streams and their catchments, or drainage basins, are necessary for the maintenance of healthy and productive streams and rivers. Headwater catchments also provide numerous ecosystem services to humans and the surrounding environment. These benefits include biodiversity, climate regulation, recreation, timber and crop production, and water supply and purification.

EPA researchers studied the importance of headwater catchments by focusing on the quantity and value of a few ecosystem services, and then projected that importance from a regional to national scale. They focused on three ecosystem services (water supply, climate regulation, and water purification) for 568 headwater streams and their catchments.

To assess the potential economic value of headwater catchments’ ecosystem services, researchers used published economic value estimates based on commodity price (water supply), market value (climate regulation), and damage cost avoidance (water purification).

They found the economic value of each ecosystem service as follows:

  • $470,000 – The average yearly value of water supplied through each headwater catchment.
  • $553, 000 – The average yearly value of climate regulation (through carbon sequestration) of each headwater catchment.
  • $29,759,000 – The average yearly value of improving water quality by reducing nutrient pollution.

Overall, the weighted average economic value for headwater catchments in the United States was $31 million per year per catchment. It is essential to note that the national importance of headwater catchments is even higher since the 568 catchments studied are only a statistical representation of the more than 2 million headwater catchments in the continental United States. I think it’s safe to say these beginnings provide some serious benefits!

About the authorMarguerite 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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Take Cover! (With Vegetation)

By Marguerite Huberbuffer

Take cover!

It’s a phrase you yell to protect against something headed your way. But did you ever think that phrase could be applied to pollutants? Well, it can – vegetative cover acts as a defense against non-point source (NPS) pollutants, protecting our lakes, streams, and water bodies.

Vegetative filter strips and riparian buffers  are conservation practices that help control the amount of sediment and chemicals that are transported from agricultural fields into water bodies. They slow down the speed of runoff and capture nutrients, keep more nutrient-rich topsoil on farmers’ fields, and reduces impacts on downstream ecosystems.

To improve water quality in large watersheds, conservation managers need to know what the problems are, where the pollutants originate, and what conservation practices work best.  However, investigating all of these factors at the watershed-wide level is a very difficult and complex task. This is why EPA is working with partners to supplement an existing watershed simulation model to estimate the efficiency of riparian buffers.

USDA’s watershed simulation model, Annualized Agricultural Non-Point Source Pollution (AnnAGNPS), is used to evaluate the effect of farming and conservation practices on pollutants and help decide where to put these practices.  AnnAGNPS also predicts the origin and tracks the movement of water, sediment, and chemicals to any location in the watershed.

To supplement this model, researchers from EPA, USDA, and Middle Tennessee State University developed a Geographic Information Systems–based technology that estimates the efficiency of buffers in reducing sediment loads at a watershed scale.

With the addition of this AGNPS Buffer Utility Feature  technology to the USDA model, researchers and watershed conservation managers can evaluate the placement of riparian buffers, track pollution loads to their source, and assess water quality and ecosystem services improvements across their watersheds.

Riparian buffers and other vegetative cover, such as filter strips, are considered an important, effective, and efficient conservation practice that has been shown to protect ecosystem services at a local level. However, their full impact on a watershed-scale is still subject to ongoing research.

 

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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The L.A. River: A Winding, Twisting Tale of Survival

By Jessica Werber

I spent most of my formative years in Los Angeles, taking walks down a concrete pathway that I didn’t even realize was part of the LA River. I would jump from side to side, run back and forth, and slide along the warm sun-baked cement. I wasn’t splashing in puddles because there was no water that I could see, feel, or hear. It was all concrete.

The story of the LA River began long before I was born. In 1913, the city increased in density and the LA Aqueduct was built. The river’s historic flow pattern led to winter flooding, which resulted in millions of dollars in property damage and dozens of deaths. By the mid-1930s, local municipalities started flood control efforts to abate winter flood flows, and the Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with designing a flood risk management system. The end result was the river that I would later come to know as my concrete playground.

More than 70 years later, in 2007, LA took steps to restore the river to a more natural state. The city drafted the LA River Revitalization Master Plan, with a long-term vision benefiting water quality, flood protection, and community revitalization. Congress directed the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a feasibility study covering different restoration options, which was released for public comment in September 2013. Non-government organizations engaged in local activism and you, the American public, sent in your opinions and ideas.

In 2010, right before I started my fellowship at EPA, the agency took an active role in protecting the LA River by designating all 51 miles a “traditional navigable water” under the Clean Water Act.  In 2013, EPA commented on the Corps’ feasibility study and explained that the principles guiding the effort are part of the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, which promotes clean urban waters, water conservation, connecting people and their waterways, encouraging community involvement, and promoting economic prosperity. I believe the restoration of the LA River will help to fulfill these goals for the communities in LA, and I hope people in LA recognize how much effort it takes to restore a river as large as this one.

Look at the two pictures below:

Existing view of Taylor Yard in Los Angeles, CA

Existing view of Taylor Yard in Los Angeles, CA

 

Proposed restoration of Taylor Yard in Los Angeles, CA

Proposed restoration of Taylor Yard in Los Angeles, CA

They are of Taylor Yard, a 247 acre former railroad site near downtown LA. They show the difference between the existing site and a proposed alternative, which replaces the old railroad yard with lush vegetation.

Viewing these contrasting images, I’m transported back to my former life in LA. Adjacent to my bedroom window was a concrete channel that echoed the voices of directors screaming “ACTION!” at the studio across the way. It seems as if action will indeed be taken. By the time my future children visit the LA River, I hope they can appreciate it for what it really is: a river full of life and spirit…and, of, course rushing water.

About the author: Jessica Werber is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Participant in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. She is also a licensed attorney.

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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Dorothy, I Don’t Think We’re in D.C. Anymore

By Joseph Ziobro

When thinking about a typical work day at EPA, butter sculptures don’t generally come to mind. However, a visit to the 2014 Pennsylvania Farm Show forever changed my expectations.

Hosted annually in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania Farm Show is the largest indoor farm show in the nation, boasting approximately 1,300 exhibits and 6,000 live animals.

Members of several EPA water programs—both from EPA headquarters in Washington and our regional office in Philadelphia—were invited to Harrisburg by PennAg Industries Association, which advocates for Pennsylvania agricultural producers. Our visit was part of EPA’s ongoing efforts to learn about agriculture and to work with rural communities and agricultural stakeholders.  We want to both help agricultural businesses and promote healthier waters.

Entering the complex, we made our way through the dense crowds. My senses were awakened immediately by the contrasting smells of cooked bacon and fresh manure. PennAg staff gave us a tour of their “Today’s Agriculture” exhibit.

A makeshift barn had been erected where cows, pigs, chickens and ducks were held in conditions that simulate livestock operation conditions. Outside of the barn, a stream, complete with live fish, had been built to demonstrate the connection between agriculture and water quality.

As we took in the exhibits, we were able to introduce ourselves to agriculture producers and business owners. Each took time to answer our questions, and ask us questions of their own. Producers discussed best practices for manure storage and application, and the importance of clean water. We asked farmers for insights into technologies or practices that would help their productivity while ensuring water quality. EPA hopes to engage and empower rural stakeholders by connecting directly with industry members to learn what producers need to thrive in an environmentally-beneficial manner.  To do that, we have to understand the conditions that producers face in the proverbial “trenches.”

Our visit left us with some important takeaways. First, our agricultural partners often go unnoticed. How many of us buy eggs without ever visiting an egg-laying operation? Second, agricultural stakeholders and EPA both want thriving businesses, healthy communities and clean water. Third, there are many more insights that EPA can glean from agribusiness, and much that we can share. Finally, every day at work without a butter sculpture is a minor letdown.

For more information about EPA’s work on animal feeding operations, visit

About the Author: Joseph Ziobro is an ORISE participant in the Rural Branch of the Water Permits Division at EPA. Joseph supports the National Permit Discharge Elimination System permit program for concentrated animal feeding operations.

 

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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