Aquatic Ecosystems

A Prescription for a Healthier Environment

By Dustin Renwick

Many different colored pillsNext time you’re waiting at the doctor’s office, consider how what is prescribed there could also contribute to the health of the environment.

Christian Daughton, an EPA research scientist, does just that by looking at the connection between the examination room and the expansive beauty of the outdoors in his research paper, Lower-dose prescribing: Minimizing “side effects” of pharmaceuticals on society and the environment.

The paper is a result of his Pathfinder Innovation Project that explores the idea of considering the environment and the patient as one entity.

When someone ingests a drug, not all of it is absorbed. The human body excretes parts of that medication, including active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) that often end up in the sewers and eventually disperse into the environment.

The most common methods for reducing APIs in nature is by treating wastewater (remediation) and organizing take-back programs, where people in a community drop off unused medications for proper disposal. For example, National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day occurred in late October.

“My interest has long been on solving the upstream problem – minimizing the generation of waste rather than its more costly remediation,” Daughton says. “That aspect has long been discounted.”

Daughton is now directing his attention to identifying and reducing inefficiencies of pharmaceuticals in health care: how they are prescribed, dispensed, and ultimately used by the patients.

His research points to two major changes that could positively affect the types and quantities of APIs that infiltrate aquatic ecosystems.

First, doctors can focus on doses. Based on patient needs, physicians can prescribe lower doses of pharmaceuticals to prevent leftover drugs as well as decrease the excreted amounts. The strategy could keep the environment cleaner, reduce costs for patients and improve therapeutic outcomes.

“The idea isn’t to benefit environment at the expense of possibly jeopardizing the patient,” Daughton says. ”It’s a win-win for environment and health care.”

A second aspect of Daughton’s research involves tracking reliable data about which APIs are extensively metabolized by the body and which are excreted unchanged.

Imagine two similar drugs. The one that the human body thoroughly processes has what’s called an “environmentally favorable excretion profile,” and that drug is likely to do less damage to the local creek.

Unfortunately, that information isn’t easy to find.

“Excretion data submitted for regulatory approval purposes isn’t sufficiently comprehensive for examining the potential for environmental impact,” Daughton says. In other words, drug companies don’t need to scrutinize an API beyond what is relevant for human safety.

“That becomes a major stumbling block” to discovering which APIs could have negative environmental impacts.

As the topic of health care moves to the forefront of national discussions, Daughton’s work points to the environment as one missing component in those conversations.

“That’s where I get this expression – treating the environment and the patient as an interconnected whole.”

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

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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May is National Wetlands Month

May is National Wetlands Month and three Wetlands of International Importance (designated by the RAMSAR Convention of 1971) are right here in Region 7.  They are Cheyenne Bottoms, Quivira National Wildlife Refuge (both in Kansas) and the Upper Mississippi River Floodplain Wetlands which stretches through Iowa.  These wetlands are three of the most important “flyways” for migratory birds in the country – right here in our backyards, folks!

The Ramsar Convention provides a framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.  The treaty was signed in the city of Ramsar, Iran, in 1971.  There were originally 21 delegates from countries around the world who signed the first treaty.  While it originally emphasized providing habitats for water birds, the Convention has subsequently broadened its scope to address all aspects of wetland conservation and wise use, thereby recognizing the importance of wetlands as ecosystems that contribute to both biodiversity conservation and human well-being. Wetlands cover an estimated 9% of the Earth’s land surface, and contribute significantly to the global economy in terms of water supply, fisheries, agriculture, forestry and tourism.    There are presently 165 Contracting Parties which have designated 2,118 wetland sites for the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.  Signatories are committed to the designation of wetlands of international importance, as defined by internationally agreed criteria.  That means that the designated wetlands are protected from development.

Let’s take a closer look at the three Wetlands of International Importance….

Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve and Wildlife Area is located in Barton County, Kansas.   With 11,500 acres of marsh land, it is the largest marsh in the interior of the United States.  There are 134 species of birds that breed

Harland Shuster (2012) Center for Great Plains Studies Photo Project

and nest in the area, 148 species that may winter there, and 63 species that are permanent residents.  At least 345 of the 472 species of birds known to occur in Kansas have been recorded at the Bottoms including threatened and endangered species such as Whooping Cranes and Piping Plovers.  Annually over 60,000 visitors come to Cheyenne Bottoms  for the purpose of hunting, bird watching, environmental study, fishing and trapping.  These visitors bring revenue to the nearby cities of St. John, Stafford, Great Bend and Hutchison by their use of hotels, restaurants and other facilities.  Here’s a link to a lot of interesting information and a calendar of migrations and events at Cheyenne Bottoms:

Kansas Wetlands Education Center

Quivira National Wildlife Refuge (QNWR) was established in 1955 to provide wintering and migration stopover habitat for migratory birds along the Central Flyway of North America. These marshes, together with a wide diversity of other habitats, provide food, cover, and protection for a wide assortment of wildlife. Wetlands, large and small, are present throughout the Refuge which has 22,135 acres of rare inland salt marsh and sand prairie.

Egrets. Photo from FWS

US Fish and Wildlife

 Thousands of Canada geese, ducks, and other migratory birds, such as Sandhill Cranes and shorebirds, use these wetlands as they pass through the Refuge on their annual migrations.  The grasslands surrounding QNWR also provide habitat for many mammals including beaver, porcupine, black-tailed prairie dog and armadillo as well as numerous species of grassland fowl.  This link will get you to a map of the driving route through the refuge as well as observation points and what kind of birds and wildlife to look for:

Quivira National Wildlife Refuge

Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is the newest RAMSAR site in Region 7.  Encompassing over 240,000 acres of diverse floodplain habitat, the refuge stretches alongside 260 miles of the Mississippi River through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa.  The refuge protects a significant portion of

U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Upper Mississippi River

the Mississippi Flyway, the migration corridor through the center of the country used by over 40% of the migratory waterfowl in the U.S.  Other wildlife includes over 300 species of birds, 31 species of reptiles, and 14 species of amphibians.  Humans also flock to this natural treasure; more than 3.7 million visitors explore these refuges annually and enjoy recreational offerings like hunting, fishing wildlife observation, boating and camping.  For more information click here:

Visiting a wetland full of beautiful, vibrant life will restore your appreciation of the goodness of the earth.  Enjoy the contrast of organized chaos as flocks land and take flight and the perfect calm as they float and rest.  The mixture of noisy vocalizations and quiet feeding are better than any roller coaster ride. May is National Wetlands Month.  Come experience the smells of wet earth and salty sand.  Let the beauty of our Region 7 wetlands refresh your soul.

Cynthia Cassel is a SEE Grantee where, for 3-1/2 years, she has worked with the Wetland and Streams team in the Water branch.  Cynthia received her BS from Park University and lives in Overland Park where she regularly carries a bag of rocks so as to remain safely earthbound.

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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Aquatic Conservation Focus areas for EPA Region 7 – Part III

By Holly Mehl

This is my third blog covering EPA’s development of Aquatic Conservation Focus Areas for Missouri, performed in partnership with the Missouri Resource Assessment Partnership (MoRAP) back in 2006.  Excitingly enough, these areas are now being used by the Missouri Department of Conservation and other organizations around the state to help them plan and implement strategies that best protect Missouri’s most vital aquatic ecosystems (see figure below).  The fact that this work isn’t just sitting on the shelf is something our assessment team is proud of and is the reason I wanted to write a series of blogs highlighting it.

In the previous two blogs I laid out what we were attempting to achieve with each component of the assessment’s conservation strategy and I described the planning and assessment units we used.  For this blog I will cover the methods we used to quantify human stressors at the different levels of the aquatic classification hierarchy.  Obviously, human activity affects the ecological integrity of freshwater ecosystems, so this was an important part of the analysis.  But this got me thinking about my own personal connection to streams and the vital riparian environments that surround them.

Urban Kansas City is where I grew up, but Missouri’s beautiful Ozark Highlands region is where my family camped in summer.  Since my parents were school teachers and had summers off, I probably spent more time exploring the wilds than the average city kid.  The cold clear waters of the Ozarks streams and the woods around them were my play places and where I learned to love nature.  Eventually this love and appreciation led to studies and career in environmental science and to my position as Ecologist at EPA.  It undoubtedly also influenced my decision to purchase land in Missouri with the specific desire of owning stream-front property.  I now own 30 acres of rolling grassland with a headwater stream.

Since something like 93% of all land in Missouri is privately owned, what people do with, or on, their land is of great concern in the conservation arena.  I ask myself all the time how I can help mitigate the stress continually brought to streams within this stream’s watershed, which has rolling hayfield hills and lots of grazing.  It stresses me to know that in the process of trying to help the situation (i.e., converting my fescue to native grass and therefore helping native wildlife), I probably have also compromised the health of the stream.  I had herbicide applied several times during dry periods and never close to my ponds or headwater – as spraying rules dictate – but I cannot be entirely sure there weren’t negative impacts in some shape or form.

Agricultural impacts, including the use of pesticides, were incorporated into our development of a Human Stressor Index (HSI), work predominantly performed by MoRAP.  Working in consultation with a team of aquatic resource professionals, MoRAP generated a list of the principal human activities (stressors) known to negatively affect streams, and from it assembled the highest resolution and most recent geospatial datasets for each.  Stressor statistics were developed for each of the 542 Aquatic Ecological System (AES) polygons in Missouri and correlation analysis was used to reduce this overall set of metrics into a final set of 11 relatively uncorrelated measures of human disturbance.  The table below lists these along with relativized rankings developed for each.  A rank of 1 means a relative low disturbance level while 4 is relatively high.

The HSI value derived for each AES is made up of three numbers:  The first number reflects the highest ranking across all 11 metrics and the last two numbers reflect the sum of the 11 metrics ranging from 11 to 44, so it allows us to evaluate both individual and cumulative effects of the various stressors at the same time.  For example, a value of 418 indicates relatively low cumulative impacts (i.e., last two digits = 18 out of a possible 44), however, the first number of 4 indicates that one of the stressors is relatively high and potentially acting as a major human disturbance within that AES.

Note: Taken from MORAP report (EPA definition of CAFOs uses concentrated not confined)

The map below shows the composite HSI values for each AES in Missouri.  As you can see, south central Missouri shows the least human impacts, which is where I grew up during the summer months – lucky me!

Much more went into the human stressor index development than what I’ve mentioned here, such as how exactly professional knowledge was used to assign weightings and rankings, but I’ve gotten at the main gist of it for now.  Most importantly, this information was incorporated into the larger analysis made up of several more components such as the percentage of public lands in an AES, or the amount of target species present.  All of this will be covered in my next blog.  Stay tuned for that one next month.  In the  mean time, let’s not get too stressed out people!

About the Author: Holly Mehl is an ecologist for EPA Region 7 who helps with water monitoring in the field and performs mapping for EPA Region 7’s program offices when in the office.

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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Aquatic Conservation Focus Areas for EPA Region 7 – Part II

By Holly Mehl

In November, I laid out the classification hierarchy – the planning regions and assessment units – used by MoRAP and our environmental assessment staff to identify areas on which to focus conservation efforts in aquatic ecosystems of Missouri (download here).  I explained how the Missouri analysis defined these areas at a more refined geographic scale (smaller areas) than for our other three states due to better data availability.  In the end, separate conservation plans were completed for Missouri’s 17 Ecological Drainage Units (EDUs) within which 158 Conservation Focus Areas were identified.  Our modeling showed these areas represent the broad diversity of stream ecosystems and riverine assemblages of species that exist within the state.  To give an exciting example, if each of the 158 areas were adequately protected, 95-100% of targeted species within the state would be protected as well.  Collectively, these areas represent occurrences of all native fish, mussel, and crayfish species in Missouri.  This is very important when you consider that Missouri is home to numerous species that live nowhere else (see pictures below). 

Without going into too much detail, for this blog I’ll talk specifically about what we were attempting to achieve with each component of our conservation strategy:

First, we wanted a separate conservation plan for each Ecological Drainage Unit (EDU).  Learn more about EDU’s from Missouri Department of Conservation here.  Endeavoring to conserve all EDUs is a holistic ecosystem approach to conservation since each one represents an interacting biophysical system and also because no single EDU contains the full range of species found within the state.   Second, we wanted to represent two separate occurrences or populations of each target species within each EDU.  Redundancy in the account of species that together determine each EDU’s distinct biological composition provides a safeguard for their long term persistence.  Our next objective was to conserve an individual example of each Aquatic Ecological System Type (AES-Type) within each EDU.  This helps ensure the wide spectrum of the diversity of distinct watershed types within each EDU are accounted for, including the varying successional patterns within ecosystems and dispersal capabilities of different species.

With each type of AES represented in our conservation strategy, and therefore hopefully protected, we next wanted at least one kilometer of the dominant Valley Segment Types (VSTs) for each size class (headwater, creek, small river, and large river) to be represented as an interconnected complex within each selected AES.  The assumption here is that environmental conditions will be represented to which species have evolved adaptations for maximizing growth, reproduction and survival.  It also represents a wide spectrum of the diversity of stream types within each EDU since the dominant stream types vary among AES-Types.  Further, it accounts for source-sink dynamics which is science of how variation in habitat quality may affect the population growth or decline of organisms.  Attempting to conserve an interconnected complex of dominant VSTs accounts for seasonal changes in habitat brought on by disturbances like droughts or floods.  For example, a headwater species during a prolonged drought may have to seek refuge in larger streams in order to find suitable habitat.

Darters, crayfish, and mussels have limited dispersal capabilities; they cannot move long distances.  We decided that three separate headwater VSTs should be represented within each Conservation Focus Area.  Including multiple headwater segments should account for multiple distinct spatial occurrences of headwater species as well as preserve several high-quality examples of key nursery habitats.

Lastly, many species require multiple habitats for foraging, reproducing, over-wintering, or for disturbance avoidance. We wanted to conserve at least a one kilometer of each priority VST and ensure connectivity of a wide spectrum of diverse habitats (riffles, pools, runs, and backwaters) so that critters could reach their choice habitat. 

My next blog entry in this series will cover the main steps we took to meet these objectives.  Stay tuned for that one.

About the Author: Holly Mehl is an ecologist for EPA Region 7 who helps with water monitoring in the field and performs mapping for EPA Region 7’s program offices when in the office.

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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Aquatic Conservation Focus areas for EPA Region 7

By Holly Mehl

Last month I introduced Big Blue Thread readers to EPA Region 7’s Conservation Focus Area analysis developed in cooperation with the Missouri Resource Assessment Partnership (MoRAP).  In three separate blog entries I summarized how we looked at ecological significance, threats and irreplaceability across terrestrially based ecological sections in order to arrive at conservation focus areas on land.  Since stressors operate on aquatic ecosystems differently than terrestrial, and because watershed boundaries need to be used as aquatic planning regions, an analysis for riverine ecosystems was done separately.

Aquatic Conservation Focus areas for EPA Region 7’s four states (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska) were defined at two resolutions based on data availability (a finer resolution assessment was possible for the state of Missouri because of robust aquatic species distribution modeling).  Today I’ll cover the more refined data analysis for Missouri and carry on with describing the courser methods we used for the other three states in a future blog entry.

Above is the final map showing freshwater Conservation Focus Areas in Missouri. The idea behind this analysis is that taking measures to conserve all of these locations represents an efficient approach to conserving the distinct species, stream types, and watershed types that exist within the state.  As both an ecologist and a Missourian, I find it comforting to know that our state resource managers now have this very exhaustive published research at their fingertips.

How did we do it?  Resource managers and biologists with detailed and extensive knowledge of the stream resources participated in conservation planning sessions in 2004.  Our goal for the aquatic assessment was to ensure the long-term persistence of native aquatic plant and animal communities, by conserving the conditions and processes that sustain them…” and then more specifically to “identify and map a set of aquatic conservation focus areas that holistically represent the full breadth of distinct riverine ecosystems and multiple populations of all native aquatic species.” Using data from the Missouri Aquatic GAP Project and other geospatial data, MoRAP identified and mapped riverine ecosystems that are relatively distinct with regard to ecosystem structure, function, and evolutionary history.  To accomplish this, a classification hierarchy was developed and used, shown below.

The Aquatic Subregions shown at the top are physiographic areas that account for differences in the ecological composition of riverine assemblages of organisms.  Each Subregion (i.e., Central Plains, Ozarks, and Mississippi Alluvial Basin) contains streams with relatively distinct structural features, functional processes, and aquatic assemblages in terms of both taxonomic and ecological composition. 

Embedded within Aquatic Subregions are Ecological Drainage Units (EDUs) which account for the geographic variations in taxonomic composition of fish, crayfish, mussels and snails.  MoRAP found that the EDUs have assemblages of organisms with relatively similar ecological composition within a given Aquatic Subregion, such as reproductive and foraging strategies and also physiological tolerances.  They also found that taxonomic composition of assemblages in any given EDU is relatively distinct due to evolutionary processes such as differences in colonization history.

MoRAP used multivariate cluster analysis of quantitative landscape data to group watersheds into distinct Aquatic Ecological System Types (AES-Types), the next level of the classification hierarchy.  The AES-Types represent finer resolution variations in climatic, geologic, soil, landform, and stream character.  Missouri’s AES-Types comprise 38 smaller subdrainages, which can be thought of as riverine “habitat types.”  Each individual AES is a spatially distinct macrohabitat, however all individual AESs that are structurally and functionally similar fall under the same AES-Type.

Finally, each individual segment of stream from the National Hydrography Dataset is a spatially distinct habitat, but valley segments of the same size, temperature, flow, gradient and geology (through which they flow) all fall under the same Valley Segment Types (VST), the final level shown above.  They account for the linear variation in ecosystem structure and function that is prevalent in riverine environments.  Each distinct combination of variable attributes represents a distinct VST and have been consistently shown to be associated with geographic variation in assemblage (of species) composition.

I know I threw a lot at you and in my next blog I’ll continue explaining the methods behind our development of the Aquatic Conservation Focus Areas.  Stay tuned next month, but in the meantime, visit MoRAP’s website for a more detailed description of everything that went into creating the classification hierarchy that was so inherent in doing the aquatic assessment.

About the Author: Holly Mehl is an ecologist for EPA Region 7 who helps with water monitoring in the field and performs mapping for EPA Region 7’s program offices when in the office.

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.