Aquatic Health/Habitat Use

Recovering from a heavy dose of winter

By Jennie Saxe

Mounds of salt ready to be spread on roads

Mounds of salt ready to be spread on roads

Is this winter over yet? Fortunately, we’ve had a few days in the mid-Atlantic that make me think spring could be just around the corner. Even as we prepare to turn the page weather-wise, some remnants of winter will stick around. This year, one of those remnants is salt…lots of salt.

A couple of years ago, we brought you some information on smart ways to apply salt to keep the roads safe in winter weather and protect water resources at the same time. While that winter was relatively mild, winter 2014 has been another story. Municipal salt supplies are running low, and recently it’s been tough to find “snow melt” of any kind in neighborhood hardware stores.

With the snow now melting, the leftover salt is headed right toward our water supplies. Here are some of the impacts that increased salt can have:

  • Road salt runoff can increase levels of conductivity (a substitute measure of “saltiness”) in streams and cause stress to aquatic life like fish and macroinvertebrates – in high enough concentrations, salt runoff can be toxic to sensitive organisms
  • Salt increases the density of water which impacts the normal turnover processes in waterbodies – this can also affect aquatic life through depleting oxygen levels in deeper water and nutrient supplies in the upper part of the water column
  • Salt has more of an impact on freshwater systems than on those that are brackish or saline already
  • Salty runoff that enters drinking water supplies could cause elevated sodium levels that can have health consequences

If you’d like to see how one of our local waters, the Schuylkill River, responds to road salt runoff, the US Geological Survey (USGS) has some interesting data. Salt runoff from roadways or salt blown by the wind could be responsible for that conductivity spike in mid-February.  Since the chloride from road salt (sodium chloride) is not removed or transformed by natural processes, the only way to bring levels down is through dilution, usually by way of rainfall. Toward the end of February, you can see the conductivity levels decrease.

I’ve used some of our recent spring-like weather to sweep up the salt around our house. This will prevent even more salt from washing down the drain and into the creek near my house. Cities and towns can use street sweeping as a mechanism to remove excess salt from their streets at the end of the winter season.

Did you have any low-salt methods for handling the snow this winter? How are you keeping the left-over salt from getting into our waterways?

Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA in 2003 and is currently a Water Policy Analyst in the Water Protection Division of EPA Region 3 in Philadelphia. When not in the office, Jennie enjoys spending time with her husband and 2 children and cheering for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.

 

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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Now featuring…water in the movies!

Brandywine River

Brandywine River

By Jennie Saxe

If you – like much of the mid-Atlantic region – have been cooped up during this relentless winter, you might find yourself looking for some movies to watch to pass the time until spring arrives. If you have an interest in water, there are some great water-related movies that you can snuggle up to on a snow day.

One of the classics is Chinatown (1974), billed primarily as a drama. Beyond the human drama of the film, there is a serious look at disputes over water in early 20th century southern California. A Civil Action (1998) focuses on the dangers of groundwater contamination. A more contemporary film, Quantum of Solace (2008), is an action movie that weaves in the theme of the increasing value of water.

If you’ve already seen all of these great films, why not pass the time by making your own movie? EPA is sponsoring a “Climate Change in Focus” video contest for middle school students. Since many of the effects of a changing climate will impact water resources, perhaps there’s a chance that these videos will be the next water-focused blockbuster film. Budding scientists and aspiring filmmakers can get more information on EPA’s A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change website. The mid-Atlantic region has no shortage of important waters that can serve as inspiration for a video masterpiece.

Are you inspired to submit a video for the contest? Do you have any other water-related movies to suggest?

Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA in 2003 and is currently a Water Policy Analyst in the Water Protection Division of EPA Region 3 in Philadelphia. When not in the office, Jennie enjoys spending time with her husband and 2 children and cheering for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.

 

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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Coastal Wetlands Getting Swamped

By Charlie Rhodes

While wetlands may conjure up images of “swamp things,” in reality these unique ecosystems have many vital and fascinating characteristics.

For example, wetlands provide crucial food and habitat for wildlife.  Did you know that more than half of the fish caught for recreational or commercial purposes depend on wetlands at some point in their life cycles, as do 75 percent of our nation’s migratory birds?

Both saltwater (along the coastal shorelines) and freshwater (extending inland) wetlands occur in the coastal watersheds of the United States.

Wetland systems improve water quality and buffer coastal communities from erosion and flooding, while also providing recreational opportunities. A recent report Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Coastal Watershed of the Continuous United States 2004-2009 summarized the status and trends of coastal watersheds. Frankly, much of the report compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wasn’t good news.

During the study period, wetlands suffered a net national decline of 360,720 acres (an area about the size of Los Angeles), and an average of 25 percent increased loss compared to the previous five years.  Our Atlantic Coasts saw a decline of 111,960 acres (larger than the city of Philadelphia).  Losses and degradation of wetlands in coastal watersheds can be directly traced to population growth, changes in water flow, and increased pollution.

Some of the reported impacts include:

  • The loss of an estimated that 7,360 acres of estuarine saltmarsh in the Atlantic coastal watersheds  – mainly due to erosion and inundation from rising sea levels along shorelines near Delaware Bay.
  • Forested freshwater wetlands declined by an estimated 405,740 acres.  Of these losses, 69,700 acres (44%) were attributed to silviculture, the practice of harvesting trees in many swamps.
  • Natural ponds declined by 16,400 acres (-3.9 percent), while detention or ornamental ponds increased by 55,700 acres (+19 percent).  While this would appear to indicate a net gain, the tradeoff is that natural ponds, which often interact with other natural environments and provide additional benefits, were being lost while isolated decorative ponds or sumps of limited ecological value were being created.

While reestablishing and creating wetlands can offset losses, this study also found that these strategies have not been as effective in coastal wetlands as in other types.  Challenges include costs, competing land use interests, and oversight limitations.

Wetland losses coupled with increasing frequency of extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy make the mid-Atlantic coasts increasingly vulnerable to coastal flooding and inundation.

But not all of the news is bad. Many great opportunities still exist for citizens, industry, government agencies, and others to work together to slow the rate of wetland loss and improve the quality of our remaining wetlands.  Learn more about what you can do to protect wetlands and about EPA’s wetland activities in the mid-Atlantic at the following:  http://water.epa.gov/type/wetlands/protection.cfm; and http://www.epa.gov/reg3esd1/wetlands/ .

 

About the Author:  Charlie Rhodes is a wetland ecologist who has been with EPA since 1979.  He has worked nationally on wetlands in many capacities including impact assessment, delineation, and enforcement; and in many roles, including expert witness, instructor, and grant reviewer. 

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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Celebrating EPA’s Wheeling Office, 50 years of Pioneering Environmental Protection

Cross posted on EPA Connect, EPA’s leadership blog

By Shawn M. Garvin

In the midst of a season of many celebrations, I’m reminded of the rich environmental history we have in Region III as we get ready to celebrate another important occasion:  The 50th anniversary of our Wheeling, W. Va. Field Office.  As a pioneer of many environmental controls and methods, the Wheeling Field Office is one of the places where environmental protection began in this country.

Before the EPA was established in 1970, environmental protection was taking hold in various pockets across the nation, including in the Ohio River area.  During the late 1950s, the U. S. Public Health Service (U.S. PHS) collected extensive data on declining fish populations in the Ohio River and its tributaries, and concluded that there was a serious human health threat from rivers full of untreated sewage and castoff industrial chemicals.

To address this threat, the U.S. PHS, supported in large measure by the efforts of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, formed the Ohio River Basin Project and in 1963, the Wheeling Field Office opened as part of this project.  The office’s original goal was to evaluate water quality across 72,000 square miles in six states in the upper Ohio River valley.

In 1966, the Wheeling Field Office was assigned added responsibility under the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Federal Water Pollution Control Administration to determine water usage and to oversee water storage needs in reservoirs in response to water quality and extensive acid mine drainage problems.  In the late 1960s, the Wheeling Field Office recorded the most acidic rain ever documented in the United States.

In 1970, the Wheeling Field Office was incorporated into the newly formed EPA under the Mid-Atlantic Region.  Emphasizing inspections and enforcement, the office was instrumental in EPA’s early charge to help local governments and industry comply with new laws governing air and water pollution.

Until 1986, the Wheeling Field Office operated a chemistry laboratory and continues to run a freshwater biology laboratory, and engineering, inspection and enforcement sections, to keep up with the latest environmental challenges, including among others acid rain, municipal water pollution, fish kills, air emissions, oil spills, hazardous materials, and mountaintop mining. Operations in the office and lab space have continued since its early days, likely making the Wheeling Field Office the oldest functioning environmental facility in the same location in the nation.

Currently, Wheeling houses staff from eight EPA Region III programs who maintain the focus on collaboration with state governments to advance science and environmental compliance in the Mid-Atlantic Region.   Scientists, hazardous cleanup managers, inspectors, and other staff continue the fifty year legacy of protecting human health and the environment. Learn more about the Wheeling Field Office here.

So, as we enjoy all this holiday season brings, let’s also celebrate the Wheeling Field Office by looking back on the past 50 years of environmental advances and looking forward to the opportunities to continue pioneering environmental protection.

About the Author: Shawn M. Garvin is EPA’s Regional Administrator for Region 3, overseeing the Agency’s operations in Delaware, D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. Shawn’s career in intergovernmental affairs spans more than 20 years at the federal and local levels.


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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Spectacular views of bald eagles over the Susquehanna River

By Roy Seneca

Anybody who has witnessed the beauty of a bald eagle soaring above knows that it can be quite exhilarating.  Not only is the bald eagle a proud national symbol, but it is also an incredible environmental success story.

It was not too long ago that bald eagles in our skies were on the verge of extinction due to the impact of pesticides like DDT.  But today, bald eagles can be sighted in the skies across the country thanks to environmental laws that protect them and have allowed their population to surge.

Well, if you get a kick out of seeing one or two bald eagles, you should take a trip to the Conowingo Dam in Darlington, Md. to witness an amazing sight of up to 100 or more bald eagles in one location.  During late fall and throughout most of the winter, the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River may be the best location east of the Mississippi to witness these incredible raptors.

A shot of a bald eagle in Conowingo, MD. Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer daisyj85 from EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project

A shot of a bald eagle fishing at the Conowingo. Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer daisyj85 from EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project

The bald eagles congregate at the dam because it provides them with some easy meals.  When the dam’s turbines are running, it provides a steady water flow filled with fish on the surface where the bald eagles and other birds swoop in to feast on.

The location also attracts large numbers of gulls, herons, black vultures and other birds, but the bald eagles are the stars of the show.  When they are not fishing, the bald eagles sometimes perch in nearby trees and perform acrobatic shows in the sky above the river.  Photographers, birdwatchers and families come out to see the birds throughout the season.

It’s peak viewing time if you’d like to see for yourself.   For more details, check out this blog.

About the Author: Roy Seneca works in the press office for EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region.

 

 

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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Please Recycle, Our Oceans Will Thank You

By John Senn

One of my favorite things about living in Washington, D.C. is Rock Creek Park, a 1700-acre space that’s one of country’s oldest federally-managed parks. I live less than a mile from the park’s winding and secluded trails, and run on the trails at least once a week. For me, it’s the ideal way to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Rock Creek Park is also home to a wide range of wildlife; it’s not uncommon to see a hawk or woodpecker among the park’s tall trees and, if you’re lucky, you can catch a glimpse of the muskrats that live along Rock Creek just upstream of Peirce Mill and gnaw on the trees that line the creek’s banks.

Rock Creek

Rock Creek

But sadly, I see a lot of trash floating in Rock Creek, most of which is plastic bags and bottles and aluminum cans. When trash isn’t properly disposed of, it often reaches our lakes, rivers and streams—and ultimately our oceans—where it can severely impact aquatic life. Marine animals can swallow marine debris causing suffocation or starvation. Sea birds have been known to ingest small pieces of plastic as they look like fish eggs, and sea turtles sometimes swallow clear plastic bags, which look like jellyfish.

Rock Creek flows into the Potomac River, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay, the country’s largest estuary and one of our most important coastal areas. The trash I see in Rock Creek has the potential to affect water quality in the Bay miles downstream.

Properly disposing of waste and recycling is one of the easiest things people can do to help protect our lakes, rivers, streams and oceans. Plastic recyclables can also be turned into new products like jackets, pens and brushes as this infographic from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows.

America Recycles Day is November 15 and this year’s theme is “a day of service.” Next time I head to the park, I’m going to collect the bottles and cans I see during my run and put them one of the park’s recycling bins. It’s not going to solve the water quality problems in the Chesapeake Bay, but it’s a way to help.

About the Author: John Senn is the deputy communications director in EPA’s Office of Water and also serves on the agency’s emergency response team.

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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Good Time to De-Clutter the Medicine Cabinet

Cross posted on It’s Our Environment

By Andrea Bennett

Click here to serach for a collection site near you.

For many of us, fall can be a good time to de-clutter things around the house, such as the garage, that closet in the guest room, and the medicine cabinet. While going through that medicine cabinet, it’s not uncommon to find expired and never-used medications sitting on a shelf, just taking up space. Flushing them down the toilet means they wind up in rivers, lakes, and streams, potentially hurting animals living in the water and people who drink it.

Fortunately, there are better and safer ways to get rid of these medicines. During National Drug Take-back Day on October 26th, you can drop off your unwanted drugs nearby, usually at a city or county building, police station, or senior center. Information on locations can be found online or by calling 1-800-882-9539.

You’ll also find that many communities have permanent drop-boxes. You can find information about the closest drug drop-box near you online.  Also, some pharmacies have drop-boxes or can provide mail-back containers for drug disposal.

One of my co-workers explains, “I read in our local paper that the police station had a drop-box, and then one got put up at the senior center, too. I had leftover drugs around the house, plus the doctor changed my prescriptions a few times, so it’s great to have safe places to drop off drugs whenever I want.”

There are even permanent drop-boxes for medication for pets and farm animals. For example, the Berks County Agricultural Center in Pennsylvania accepts veterinary medicines.

If you can’t participate in National Drug Take-back Day or you are unable to use a local drop-box, you still can safely dispose of your unwanted drugs at home by following the instructions on our fact sheet.

Remember, we all need to do our part in keeping drugs out of our water!

 

About the Author: Andrea Bennett works in the Water Protection Division’s Office of Drinking Water and Source Water Protection and also participates in hazardous waste recycling days.

 

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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Flexing Freshwater Mussels in the Delaware

By Matt Colip

It takes more than the brute strength of legislation to clean up America’s waterways.  The complex process of aquatic ecosystem cleanup requires many tools, including one of nature’s most powerful muscles: her freshwater mussels.

That’s what the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary (PDE) – assisted by the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Scientific Dive Unit – set out to assess during a late summer freshwater mussel survey in a tidal section of the Delaware River near Philadelphia.

Freshwater mussels are bivalves similar to oysters and clams.  But, unlike oysters and clams, freshwater mussels live in inland streams, and provide valuable benefits including strengthening streambeds by keeping soils in place and providing food and habitat needed by other animals and plants.  As filter-feeders, mussels also clean the water in which they live by sucking water in and trapping solids such as dirt, algae and other pollutants, then releasing the clean filtered water back into the environment.

Being in the tidal area of the Delaware River as a scientific diver was an interesting experience. The water was not clear and flow rates were very high due to tidal fluctuation.  In these conditions, I couldn’t help but think, “There’s no way there are mussels down here.”  Despite my suspicions, when I reached the river bottom, sure enough, there were mussels everywhere, thriving and filtering the ambient water!

Recording data during the freshwater mussel survey

Recording data during the freshwater mussel survey

Ultimately, the survey, in addition to confirming the existence of an abundant freshwater mussel population in a very urbanized section of the Delaware River and providing valuable scientific data, gave me a newfound appreciation for what I used to only consider a tasty added protein to a pasta dish at a restaurant.

For more information about freshwater mussels in the Delaware River, please visit the PDE’s website.  Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers.

 

About the Author: Matt Colip works in the region’s NPDES Enforcement Branch and focuses primarily on enforcing wastewater and stormwater regulations. Originally from Texas, Matt graduated from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., with an interdisciplinary BA in Public Health and has a MS from Saint Joseph’s University that focused on environmental protection policy and management. In addition to SCUBA diving, Matt is an avid bicyclist and enjoys riding with friends and colleagues.

*EPA is not endorsing the consumption of oysters, clams and mussels in the wild.   Please refer to the National Shellfish Sanitation Program guidelines associated with regulating the handling, processing and distribution of mussels prior to consumption.

 

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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Program Helps Give Cheat a Second Chance

By Tom Damm

Just down the hall from me, the “319 Program” is quietly doing its part to revive damaged rivers and streams.

Yes, you can find a roster of success stories listed on its national website, but the program, which funds projects to reduce water pollution from non-pipe sources, operates largely behind the scenes.

The 319 Program, named for a section of the Clean Water Act that addresses polluted runoff, didn’t get a mention in last week’s NPR piece on the comeback of the Cheat River in West Virginia.

But without 319 funds in the mix, the Cheat today wouldn’t be teeming with smallmouth bass and coursing with whitewater rafters.

Rafting on the Cheat River

Rafting on the Cheat River
Courtesy: Friends of the Cheat

Fred Suffian, the 319 point person for EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Water Protection Division, says it wasn’t long ago that 20 miles of the Cheat River watershed near the Pennsylvania border were so badly degraded by acid drainage from long-abandoned mines that they were essentially dead.

But restoration projects to help neutralize acidity and reduce metals have sparked a turn-around and led to a resurgence of the bass population.

More than $4.1 million in 319 grants have helped fund nine projects in the Cheat watershed and leveraged an additional $1.7 million in matching funds from the state – contributing to the work of a host of state and federal agencies, academia, industry, and citizens groups like Friends of the Cheat in cleaning up this once-moribund river.

Do you have a success story about a river near you?  Let us know.

About the Author: Tom Damm has been with EPA since 2002 and now serves as communications coordinator for the region’s Water Protection Division.

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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Think Before You Toss

By Tom Damm

Aside from the occasional crew mate whose stomach can’t handle the high waves, there’s one sight that’s particularly troubling to EPA researchers sampling our coastal waters – garbage and other man-made debris bobbing along in the current.

Marine debris

Credit: Ocean Conservancy

Renee Searfoss, the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Ocean and Dredge Disposal Team Lead, says marine debris – plastic bags, bottles, cans and other items – presents a real problem.  It can have impacts on health, the environment – even our economy, but it takes a special toll on marine life.

Marine life such as turtles and birds – and the fish we catch and eat – mistake this trash for food.  They ingest the debris and it impacts their digestive systems.

Renee says her teams have picked up very tiny pieces of debris, which can pose more of a threat to marine species than larger ones since they’re easier to ingest and cause a slow death or allow toxins to build in the animals’ systems.

Most of this harmful trash begins its journey on land and enters the ocean through our local streams and rivers.  You can help ease the problem by properly disposing of trash and by recycling plastic bottles, bags and cans.

In a new EPA video filmed on the water, Renee says, “There aren’t a lot of creatures out here that can really defend against anything we throw in the oceans at them.”

June is National Oceans Month – a time to be especially aware of how and where we toss our garbage.

About the Author: Tom Damm has been with EPA since 2002 and now serves as communications coordinator for the region’s Water Protection Division.

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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