water

Talking Clean Water With My Kids … on Vacation (Yeah, They Loved It)

By Jeffery Robichaud

A couple of years ago, I wrote that we took a staycation and probably would not be able to get away with that again. I was right. We visited my folks in North Carolina this year, but at least we got a place within walking distance from the beach. So even though we flew, I was able to cut down on all the car rides from the usual condo where we stay, reducing our carbon footprint. Since the weather was perfect the entire time, we also took no extra trips down to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to kill a day.

While I was gone those few weeks, there were quite a few blog articles about the Clean Water Rule, both in our region and across the nation. Honestly, I felt bad leaving work with so much going on, but I couldn’t get away from water even if I wanted to.


We spent a week at the beach, where my kids romped in the surf, collected shells, and dug holes in the sand. Sunset Beach, N.C., is located partly on Bird Island. Its pristine shoreline, dunes, and marshland provide important habitat and nesting for species that are threatened and endangered, including two types of turtles (Loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley).

It was easy to explain to my kiddos why protecting the backwaters and marshes of the island was so important. I think I lost them to the allure of the ocean, when I started saying that one of the things we’re working on back at EPA is a rule that more clearly explains which waters were protected by the Clean Water Act. (Some kids don’t like to hear their dad talk about work at the beach.)

When our beach time ended, we headed back up the coastline to Wilmington, N.C. The city is near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, which circuitously winds its way west, then north, then west again and finally past my folk’s house south of Raleigh.

I tried to break up the long drive by pointing out how each of the different rivers and creeks we crossed connected to each other and the ocean (Burgaw Creek to the Northeast Cape Fear River to the Cape Fear River to the Atlantic Ocean). Basically, I made a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game out of the system of tributaries. I’m pretty sure I only amused myself, since both boys’ heads never seemed to rise from their devices.

We rounded out our trip by heading up into the mountains just as the temperature was climbing into the triple digits. My dad took great pleasure in showing the boys that we were coming up upon the Eastern Continental Divide, quizzing them on what that meant. When they gave him the right answer, he looked a little sad that he wasn’t able to impart that bit of wisdom on them. I realized I was more like my father than I thought.


We had a great time in the Appalachians wading through some streams, skipping rocks, and enjoying the cooler weather. This was on the spur of the moment, so we weren’t able to take advantage of the rafting excursions that dotted the valleys between the peaks. However, it was pretty clear that these thriving businesses relied on the cool, clean and clear water that sprang from the mountains. I tried to point this out, but by that time, my boys were rolling their eyes and saying, “We get it, Dad. Protecting water is important!”

So even though I left for vacation as EPA announced the Clean Water Rule, I actually spent my entire summer vacation talking about it anyway – if only to an 11- and 13-year-old. From my home in the Heartland to the mountains and beyond to the ocean, clean water is a blessing we have here in the United States. It is something I am proud to be working to protect, and something that we need to be sure to safeguard for our children – if only so I can ask my grandkids someday, “Hey guys, do you know what the Eastern Continental Divide is?”

About the Author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second-generation EPA scientist who has worked for the Agency since 1998. He currently serves as Deputy Director of EPA Region 7′s Water, Wetlands, and Pesticides Division. His summer trips to the beach as a youth were at the decidedly colder Long Sands Beach in York, Maine.

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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CEC Meeting a Win for Public Health in North America

Administrator Gina McCarthy closes the 2015 CEC Council Session in Boston.

Administrator Gina McCarthy closes the 2015 CEC Council Session in Boston.

Last week, I was thrilled to host the Canadian Environment Minister and Mexican Environment Deputy Secretary at the 22nd Regular Session of the Council for the Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC) in my hometown of Boston.

The CEC is an organization created by the United States, Canada and Mexico to address environmental concerns in North America—because pollution doesn’t carry a passport. As Chair, I represented the U.S. Government on the Council and took the lead in discussing our future as neighbors and allies in protecting public health and the environment.

Impacts from climate change like more extreme droughts, floods, fires, and storms threaten vulnerable communities in North America and beyond. And along the way, those who have the least suffer the most. That’s why our three nations are committed to working together to tackle climate challenges. I’m looking forward to continuing our cooperation this fall in Paris as we work to bring about concrete international action on climate.

At this year’s session, the Council endorsed a new 5-year blueprint to help us tackle environmental challenges our nations face together. We’ll focus on climate change: from adaptation to mitigation; from green energy to green growth; from sustainable communities to healthy ecosystems. The plan presents our shared priorities to make the most of each other’s efforts to address environmental challenges.

Looking toward the future, we discussed the possibility of using the CEC as a way to address climate impacts on other important environmental challenges like water quantity and quality, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and oceans.

During our conversations, EPA’s Trash Free Waters program caught the interest of the other ministers on the Council. Through community outreach and education, EPA is working to reduce the amount of litter that goes into our lakes, streams and oceans. We discussed ways we could build on its success and expand it to other cities in North America.

Administrator Gina McCarthy with Leona Aglukkaq, Canada's Minister for the Environment, and Rodolfo Lacy Tamayo, Mexico's Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources, at the 22nd Annual Council Session of the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

Administrator Gina McCarthy with Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s Minister for the Environment, and Rodolfo Lacy Tamayo, Mexico’s Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources, at the 22nd Annual Council Session of the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

The Council also reaffirmed the CEC’s Operational Plan for 2015–2016, which is focused on producing tangible outcomes and measurable results. The plan proposes 16 new projects that bring together our experts on work like reducing maritime shipping emissions to protect our health from air pollution, and strengthening protections for monarch butterflies and pollinators.

We named a new roster of experts on traditional ecological knowledge from Canada, Mexico and the United States. Alongside science, traditional knowledge helps us understand our environment, helping us better protect it. The experts will work with the CEC’s Joint Public Advisory Committee (JPAC) to advise the Council on ways to apply traditional ecological knowledge to the CEC’s operations and policy recommendations.

We also announced the third cycle of the North American Partnership for Environmental Community Action grants, a program that supports hands-on projects for low-income, underserved and indigenous communities across North America. The program supports communities’ climate-related activities and encourages the transition to a low-carbon economy.

We ended the meeting with Mexico assuming chairmanship for the upcoming year. It’s an honor to work with our neighbors to address environmental challenges head-on, and to make sure North America leads on global climate action. When we do, we protect our citizens’ health, our economy, and our way of life. Learn more here.

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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Technology Innovation for a Sustainable Water Future

Alan Johnston from the City of Gresham Wastewater Services Division gives a tour of the energy positive Gresham Wastewater Treatment Plant in Oregon. In the background is the receiving station for fats, oils, and grease from local food establishments that increase biogas production for conversion to electricity Photo credit: Jim Swenson, New Media Magic LLC

Alan Johnston from the City of Gresham Wastewater Services Division gives a tour of the energy positive Gresham Wastewater Treatment Plant in Oregon. In the background is the receiving station for fats, oils, and grease from local food establishments that increase biogas production for conversion to electricity
Photo credit: Jim Swenson, New Media Magic LLC

By  Jeff Lape

This week, I visited the City of Gresham, Oregon’s wastewater treatment plant. This year the plant became the second facility in the country this year and the first in the Pacific Northwest to generate more energy than it needs to treat its water. Gresham has joined the growing number of facilities across the country and the world to value all of the inputs to the plant not as waste, but as a resource, and to capitalize on those resources, in the form of clean water, renewable energy, and nutrients that can be used to grow our food.

It’s vital that we continue to support innovative efforts like Gresham’s. The challenges that increasingly face our water resources will require new ways of doing things, holistic ways of managing water, and valuing water in all forms for the resources contained within in order to maintain a clean source of water for this generation and the ones to come.

Alan Johnston shows me the treatment plant is generating 112% of their total energy demand at that moment. Photo credit: Jim Swenson, New Media Magic LLC

Alan Johnston shows me the treatment plant is generating 112% of their total energy demand at that moment.
Photo credit: Jim Swenson, New Media Magic LLC

In April 2014, Administrator Gina McCarthy issued Promoting Technology Innovation for Clean and Safe Water: Water Technology Innovation Blueprint – Version 2, to demonstrate the extent of risks to water sustainability, the market opportunities for innovation, examples of innovation pioneers and actions to promote technology innovation. These actions included ways that we will be a positive contributor to the effort along with utilities, industry, investors, academics, technology developers and entrepreneurs.

This week, we released “Promoting Innovation for a Sustainable Future – A Progress Report.” This document highlights even more examples of innovative pioneers and their efforts towards water sustainability over the past 12 months. You can find the Progress Report on our website, where we continue to showcase utilities and cities across the country who are getting creative in the ways they manage water.

If you have examples from your community, we’d love to hear from you! We’ll be at WEFTEC 2015 this year collecting stories from communities across the country on ways folks are working towards water sustainability. Come see us in September to tell us yours.

About the Author: Jeff Lape serves as Deputy Director of the Office of Science and Technology, Office of Water (EPA) where he helps lead water quality criteria development, water quality standards implementation and development of technology based standards. Jeff also leads efforts to promote technology innovation for clean and safe water. 

Previously with EPA, Jeff served as Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program. He has supported water resource protection efforts with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and three private sector firms. Jeff has a Bachelor’s in Environmental Science (SUNY Plattsburgh) and Master’s in Environmental Science and Engineering (Virginia Tech). Jeff grew up in the Adirondacks of New York, on Lake George and Lake Champlain, where he gained an early and keen appreciation for the natural environment.

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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Planes, Trains And Automobiles — And Safely Storing The Fuel That Moves Them  

This blog is not about a remake of the 1987 movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  But, it’s about safely storing the vitally important fuel that moves planes, trains, and automobiles – as well as trucks, boats, and other vehicles.

Underground tanks are in every community: at gas stations and other non-retail facilities, such as school district bus fuel stations, police and fire stations, marinas, taxi fleet facilities, postal and delivery service facilities, and federal facilities such as military bases.

Did you know that even a small amount of petroleum released from underground storage tanks can contaminate land as well as groundwater?  And, groundwater is a source of drinking water for approximately 50 percent of United States’ citizens.

Because underground storage tanks are in every community, it’s important to ensure tanks don’t leak.  That’s why on Monday we issued revised regulations that will better prevent and detect underground storage tank releases. These revised underground storage tank regulations will ensure all tanks in the United States meet the same release protection standards.

The revised underground storage tank regulations improve EPA’s original 1988 tank regulation by closing some regulatory gaps, accommodating new technologies, and focusing on properly operating and maintaining existing underground storage tank systems. Many state tank programs already have some of these revised requirements in place.

For more about how we’re protecting our environment from underground storage tank leaks and the revised tank regulations, see our underground storage tank website www.epa.gov/oust

About the author:  Mathy Stanislaus is the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

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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REC @ 25: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

I was recently a part of the official U.S. Delegation at a ministerial event celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Regional Environmental Center (REC) for Central and Eastern Europe in Budapest, Hungary. I also had the honor to represent President George H.W. Bush at the REC’s opening ceremony in Budapest on a beautiful warm and sunny day in September 1990.

Hungarian President Janos Ader meets with EPA Acting Assistant Administrator Lek Kadeli, former EPA Administrator William Reilly, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Colleen Bell, and others.

Hungarian President Janos Ader meets with EPA Acting Assistant Administrator Lek Kadeli, former EPA Administrator William Reilly, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Colleen Bell, and others.

The importance of engaging environmental problems on a regional scale was underscored by the issues that Central and Eastern Europe confronted in the early 1990s. Enacting new laws, setting new standards for air and water pollution, beginning to listen to non-governmental groups, creating forums for consulting citizens—all of these were novel in the immediate post-Soviet era, and every democratically elected government had to learn how to implement them.

There was nothing simple or inevitable about the environmental commitments made and implemented among these countries trying to find their footing economically and politically. Leaders had to believe the environment was important and that environmental standards and laws would not impede economic growth. And while none of the problems faced in the early 1990s have disappeared, they have been managed and the environment is indisputably superior by all metrics.

Still, each generation must commit anew and reaffirm the rationale for environmental protection, including setting priorities together with neighboring countries. The political and environmental landscape of the region today does not display the same euphoria that we felt in 1990 after the Berlin Wall fell, but the transition has been remarkably successful. And just as the experience of engaging with similarly challenged officials from neighboring countries was a REC objective, so today it remains important.

When I spoke as head of the U.S. Delegation to the Earth Summit in Rio in June 1992, I chose to make the environmental commitments and achievements of the countries of Eastern Europe my principal theme. It was frankly the most significant and promising environmental success story of the decade. And the REC played an important unifying part in that story.

The REC has realized the hopes and aspirations of its founders and benefactors who are justly proud of its achievements and now celebrate its 25th Anniversary.

William K. Reilly worked under President George H. W. Bush (1989–1993) as the sixth administrator of EPA. While leading EPA, he initiated a program of environmental assistance to the countries of Eastern Europe as they established new environmental laws and institutions after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and he persuaded then-President George H.W. Bush to propose and fund the REC.

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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On this Campus, the Rain Works

By Madeleine Raley

As the intern for the EPA’s Office of Water, I sit in on weekly communications meetings with the rest of the staff. One week in March we were discussing our communication strategy for Earth Day. It was decided that we would announce the winners of the third annual Campus Rainworks Challenge, a design competition to engage college and university students in reinventing water infrastructure. The winning designs proposed innovative additions to their respective campuses that would reduce storm water impacts while providing educational and recreational opportunities.

When the winners of the competition were announced in the meeting, you can imagine the feeling of pride I felt when I heard that my very own school, the University of Maryland, was a first place winner for the demonstration project category! So, on Earth Day, April 22, I got to stand on the steps of Memorial Chapel and listen to Ken Kopocis, Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water, award my fellow students and teachers with this prestigious award.

The project, titled “Historic Chapel Site: Meadows, Meanders and Meditation” includes a 7-acre re-design of the area next to the campus chapel that captures and treats storm water from the adjacent parking lots and rooftops. Replacing storm pipes and traditional lawn cover, they would implement meadow landscapes that include bio retention, bios wales and rain gardens to treat storm water in a more natural, on-site way.

NewUMD

Photos from the student report

Photos from the student report

As a student, I walk the pathway to class on the field just below the proposed site. The erosion from storm water flowing from uphill parking lots and sidewalks cuts a clear and visible pathway, descending through the athletic fields. It leaves behind a brown trail through what should be green grass. When I learned of the project’s location, I knew exactly where and why they proposed to build it. The erosion is not a sight you can miss.

The plan provides a habitat for pollinators such as bees and butterflies, and beneficial insect species such as ladybugs. It also includes an outdoor classroom and contemplative landscape for visitors and the university community. The faculty and students of University of Maryland, including me, are thankful this is an award that recognizes and also helps to enhance campus’s green infrastructure.

About the author: Madeleine Raley was an intern for the Office of Water communications team. She is a senior Government and Politics Major and Sustainability Minor at the University of Maryland and is expecting to graduate in May.

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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Fun on the Urban Waterfronts

by Virginia Thompson

Spruce Street Harbor Park. Photo credit: Matt Stanley/Delaware River Waterfront Corporation

Spruce Street Harbor Park, Philadelphia,  PA                                 Photo credit: Matt Stanley/Delaware River Waterfront Corporation

Just in time for summer fun and relaxation, the Delaware River in Philadelphia is again the setting for a unique riverside attraction.  Spruce Street Harbor Park, a pop-up park near the city’s historic area, reflects the attraction that rivers and water—even in an urban setting—hold for us.  The paradise-like park, in its second summer, boasts a somewhat tropical theme with hammocks, large board games, gourmet food, floating gardens with native plants, a planted meadow, and a boardwalk with even more attractions.  Visitors can hang over the river in suspended nets, dip toes in the fountains, rent kayaks and swan boats, or sail remote-controlled sailboats.  There will even be a giant “rubber” duck, weighing 11 tons and standing 6 stories high, as part of the Tall Ships Philadelphia Camden festival, scheduled for late June.

That the park is such a popular attraction and respite for residents and visitors alike serves as a testament to the success of the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA).  The CWA established pollution control programs and water quality standards, and requires permits to discharge pollutants into rivers and streams.  Prior to the CWA, the Delaware River, like many urban rivers, failed to meet the Act’s goals of “fishable and swimmable.”  Fortunately, there are encouraging signs that the river is on the rebound.

Another popular urban park experience in Philadelphia is offered on the banks of the Schuylkill River, which now boasts a trail for thousands of walkers, bikers, and skaters.  The trail includes a segment leading from Center City to the Philadelphia Art Museum and Fairmount Water Works, even extending to Valley Forge National Historical Park and beyond.

The enthusiasm for these urban water-related recreational experiences demonstrates the value we all place on clean water.  Look for me hanging out in one of the Spruce Street Harbor Park hammocks!

 

About the Author:  Virginia Thompson has worked at EPA for nearly 29 years and enjoys gardening, swimming, and biking in her spare time.

 

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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Water Wednesday: Plenty of Great Catches at KC Area Rivers and Lakes

By Angela Sena

Bass (courtesy MDC)

Bass (courtesy MDC)

Along with catching a great Chiefs or Royals game, you can also get a great catch with the many fishing opportunities in the Kansas City area. I’ve always enjoyed fishing, and have been my husband’s fishing buddy for many years (even before tying the knot – I think that’s how I snagged him). Now, with our little fisherman, we are passing along the fever.

During the summer, you can find us at one of the local boat docks launching at sunrise and fishing till 10 or so, or until hunger pains are too great. However, if the fishing is really good, my best bet is to take a snack. (I can’t seem to tear my husband away at that point!) Later we pull into the driveway as our neighbors are just getting up – and we still have the rest of the day!

MDC boat ramps in KC area

MDC boat ramps in KC area
(click to access interactive map)

In Missouri, where I live, there are many Department of Conservation (MDC) rivers and lakes to fish. These lakes are not as widely known as the larger lakes, but they hold good potential for some great fishing and summer fun and even food. Four Missouri counties in the Kansas City metropolitan area – Platte, Clay, Jackson, and Cass – offer fishing opportunities including shore, boat, lake, pond, and river fishing.

Larger rivers generally are abundant in catfish and carp. Smaller streams usually contain lots of channel catfish, but you can also catch largemouth bass, bluegill, green sunfish, carp, and crappie. Almost all area streams have public access areas. Check the Missouri weekly fishing report for the type of fish in the area and types of lures that work best for the season. I sometimes think lures are for anglers, since the fish pay no attention on some days.

River Fishing
County River Name of Area
Cass S. Grand Amarugia Highlands Conservation Area
Clay Missouri Cooley Lake Conservation Area
Clay/Jackson Missouri LaBenite Park/Liberty Bend Conservation Area
Jackson Missouri Fort Osage
  Missouri Riverfront Park
  Blue Brown Athletic Area
Platte Platte Humphrey Access
  Platte Platte Falls Conservation Area
  Platte Kendzora Conservation Area
  Platte Marshall Conservation Area
  Platte Ringold Access
  Platte Schimmel City Access
  Platte Union Mill Access

 

For those who like a larger fishing hole, area conservation lakes and ponds may be better for you. These waters hold potential for largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, channel catfish, redear sunfish, and hybrid striped bass. I always find it funny that even with a boat, I still seem to fish the edges of the lake like those on shore.

Lake and Pond Fishing
County Area Name Acres Boat Access
Cass Amarugia Highlands CA1 55 Yes
  Harrisonville North Lake 34 Yes
Clay Chaumiere Lake 1 No
  Englewood Lake 1 No
  Lakewood Lake 1 No
  Smithville Lake 7,200 Yes
Jackson Alex George Lake 8 No
  Bergan Lake 3 No
  Blue Springs Lake 720 Yes
  Blue Valley Lake 1 No
  Bowlin Road Pond 4 No
  James A. Reed Memorial WA2 252 N/A
  Lake Jacomo 970 Yes
  Lake of the Woods 1 No
  Lone Jack CA1 35 Yes
  Longview Lake 930 Yes
  North Terrace Lake 1 No
  Penn Valley Lake 1 No
  Prairie Lee Lake 150 Yes
  Scherer Lake 15 No
  Tarsney and Wood Lakes 17 & 8 Yes
  Troost Lake 3 No
  Wyatt Lake 3 No
Platte Guy B. Park CA1 17 Yes
1 Conservation Area
2 Wildlife Area

 

My favorite conservation area for fishing is Tobacco Lake at the Guy B. Park CA. It’s a hop, skip and a jump from home and always a nice place to fish. I remember taking our son when he was small enough to use an infant life jacket (except he didn’t like it because he couldn’t reach his hands to his mouth). Since it’s a “no wake” lake, it is always quiet (except for the occasional angler on his cell phone). If you fish a place often enough, you get to know the regulars who get to fish all the time – unlike us working stiffs! They’re always happy to see you and share their tips for the day.

For those of you who have not tried fishing yet, there are free fishing days or daily fishing passes, and even rod-and-reel loaners for those that don’t want to commit to the sport. If you have a particular species you would like to catch, you can find information on the species and more. If anything, it will be a good outing for the kids and you’ll soak up some vitamin D!

Before heading out, remember to check regulations for that area and take your fishing license, drinking water, sunscreen, polarized sunglasses, and life jackets. As my 5-year-old found out a year ago, life jackets are a good thing and leaning too far over the edge of the boat is bad – but that’s for another blog.

About the Author: Angela Sena serves as an Environmental Protection Specialist with the Water, Wetlands, and Pesticides Division at EPA Region 7. She has a degree in environmental science and management. Angela is a native of New Mexico and avid outdoorswoman.

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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The Importance of Snowpack

by Mike Kolian

In the United States, changes in snowpack currently represent one of the best documented hydrological signs of climate change. Snowpack is a key indicator and plays a vitally important role both in the environment and to society.

Snowpack accounts for a majority of water supply in many parts of the West as it stores vast amounts of water that is slowly released as temperatures rise in the spring and summer. Snowpack keeps the ground and soil moist by covering it longer into spring and summer which influences the onset of the fire season as well as the prevalence and severity of wildfires. In addition, hydro-electric power generation in the West is heavily reliant on water supplied by melting snowpack.

A very serious story is unfolding out West. This year, snowpack in the western U.S. is at record lows in the Sierra Nevada and Cascades of California, Oregon, and Washington, confirmed by the recent April 1st snowpack measurements. In fact, some snowpack sites in California and Washington were observed to be snow-free this spring for the first time since observations began.

Snowpack is measured in snow-water equivalent, which reflects the amount of water contained in the snowpack at a location (if the entire snowpack were to melt). This indicator is based on data from over 700 measurements sites across 11 western states and shows long-term rates of change for the month of April, which could reflect changes in winter snowfall as well as the timing of spring snowmelt.

map chart titled "Trends in April Snowpack in the Western United States 1955-2015." Charts shows mostly percentage reductions of snowpack over all mountains areas, ranging from 0 to -80 percent. Very few areas show small increases.

Over the last 60 years, there have been widespread temperature-related reductions in snowpack in the West, with the largest reductions occurring in lower elevation mountains in the Northwest and California. From 1955 to 2015, April snowpack declined at over 90 percent of the sites measured (see map). The average change across all sites amounts to about a 14 percent decline. Observations also indicate a decrease in total snowfall and a transition to more rain and less snow in both the West and Northeast in the last 50 years.

photo of a resevoir with water levels dropped way below usual level

Long-term trends in snowpack provide important evidence that climate-related shifts are underway, and highlight the seriousness of water-resource and drought issues that Western states such as California currently face.

Less snowpack means less water and less water means more serious impacts.

Explore more:

See this and other Snow and Ice indicators

Open the map in Google Earth (KMZ) (100K, Download Google Earth): http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/images/indicator_downloads/snowpack_april1.kmz

About the author: Mike Kolian is an environmental scientist with EPA’s Office of Atmospheric Programs, Climate Change Division. His deep roots managing long-term environmental monitoring programs form the basis of his appreciation for the important role they and their data play in scientifically based decision making.

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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Water Wednesday: “Mommy, Where Does It Go When I Flush?”

By Chrislyn Johnson

Last spring, when I was potty training my 3-year-old, he asked me where it goes after we flush the toilet. I thought about this before I answered him, because I have often overwhelmed the poor child with my answers. He once asked me “What is water?” and I told him it was two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

For most people, it is enough to be told that when you flush the toilet, it goes to the sewage treatment plant. Since I worked in wastewater regulation for a little while, I know it goes far beyond that, and I have trouble answering this seemingly simple question with a simple answer.

Once it goes down the drain, the water travels through a sometimes aging, sometimes modern, infrastructure of pipes to a wastewater treatment plant. Treatment options vary, from open lagoons to all-inclusive mechanical plants, all with the same goal: to treat sewage so it can be released into the environment. Many modern facilities do this with an “activated sludge” process that uses bacteria to naturally break down the waste.

As it enters the plant, the solids are separated out by a grit screen and settling basins. Heavier solids like plastics, eggshells, and intact items are settled out and removed; then taken to the landfill. The next step is the primary clarifier, where the sewage moves slowly along so heavier particles and sludge can settle out. At the same time, grease and oils dumped down the drain float to the top and are skimmed off the surface.

After the clarifier, the water is moved to the main part of the treatment: the aeration basin. Bacteria feast on the nutrients to break down the sewage and remove chemicals in the wastewater as it bubbles and roils with oxygen. Depending on the plant, an additional tank is sometimes added to help remove nitrogen. Since the treated water goes back into rivers and streams, this additional step is helpful in removing nitrogen before it can cause problems. Nitrogen can cause algal blooms that not only can be toxic, but also consume a lot of oxygen during decomposition, which kills the fish.

Following the aeration and nitrogen removal processes, the water then flows into a secondary clarifier. Water trickles out from weirs at the top of the large, circular tanks of the clarifier. The water is disinfected, either by chemical means (such as chlorination, similar to bleach), or through newer alternatives like ultraviolet (UV) lights. Once disinfected, the treated water is released into a nearby river or stream.

Whereas the water treatment is nearly finished in the secondary clarifier, the sludge often has a few more steps to completion. The bacteria slowly settle to the bottom of the clarifier into what is called the sludge blanket. Some of the sludge blanket from the clarifier is recycled and added back into the incoming wastewater to begin the treatment reaction in the aeration basin. Depending on the type of plant, the remainder of the sludge travels to the digesters for either aerobic or anaerobic digestion (where the bacteria eat each other).

Aerobic digestion uses oxygen to further break down the sludge. It is nearly odorless, but also costly since the process has to be manually oxygenated. The other common alternative is anaerobic digestion, which is not so odorless since it produces methane. However, the methane can be captured and used to generate electricity to operate the plant. The waste heat from the generators even can be used to keep the anaerobic digesters at the correct operating temperature. After leaving the digesters, water is removed from the sludge, which can then be disposed of or used as a soil conditioner. With clean water going back to the stream or river, and sludge going back to the earth, the cycle is complete.

I thought about this intricate series of steps that mimics the breakdown processes wastes would undergo in nature, given sufficient time and space. I thought about how fortunate we are to live in a country where water quality is a high priority, and we can make a daily difference to protect our local waterways (see graphic below).

I also thought about my son’s level of understanding, as he impatiently asked me again, “Where it go?” With all of this in mind, I looked down at my innocent little boy and told him, “It goes to the sewage treatment plant, honey.”

Click image to see larger version.

Click image to see larger version.

About the Author: Chrislyn Johnson is a Life Scientist with EPA Region 7’s Water, Wetlands, and Pesticides Division. She holds degrees in biology and photography from the University of Central Missouri and loves all things nature. She also enjoys access to flush toilets.

Sources:
Scientific American
U.S. Census Bureau
World Health Organization

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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