aquatic life

Around the Water Cooler: Spotlight on Small Streams

By Sarah Blau

That small trickle of water you routinely step over as you walk your dog every morning is probably one of many local streams that feed the lake down the street where neighborhood children splash around on hot summer days. Most lakes and rivers are fed by networks of smaller rivers or streams, which, in turn, are fed by smaller and smaller streams.

Small streams, like the hypothetical one I just had you walking your hypothetical dog over, are often unnamed and rarely appear on maps, and yet the health of small streams is critical to the health of the entire river network and downstream communities. Small stream ecosystems include more than 72% of U.S. river miles, and it makes sense that the quality of this vast amount of inconspicuous water may impact the condition of local and downstream ecosystems.

For these reasons, EPA researchers run the Experimental Stream Facility (ESF), one of only a handful of research facilities in the country designed to conduct small stream research.

Located near Milford, OH, the ESF has experimental small-scale streams, or “mesocosms” for studying the effects of various environmental stressors on stream ecosystems. Each study is designed to provide information on small stream ecosystem structure and function that can be used for the development and testing of identifiers for stream health, water quality monitoring tools, or watershed monitoring and modeling strategies.

EPA's Experimental Stream Facility

The research at this facility is particularly meaningful in light of a recently released EPA report on streams. The National Rivers and Streams Assessment was released for public comment last week and reflects the first comprehensive survey looking at the health of thousands of stream and river miles across the country. Unfortunately, the assessment reveals that more than half are in poor condition for aquatic life, among other findings.

The findings of this assessment will inform decisions to address critical needs around the country for rivers, streams, and other water bodies. Sampling for a second nation-wide assessment of rivers and streams will being in May, 2013.

The first step for us, I believe, is simply to notice these streams. The dog may be hypothetical, but the streams are all around us and need protecting just as much as the lake down the street.

About the Author: Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She often walks her real-life dog down to the lake at the end of her street by way of numerous small stream crossings.

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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Giving New Life To The Dead Zone

By John Senn

Dead zone. It sounds like something out of a zombie movie, and I wish it was. But dead zones, areas of a water body where aquatic life cannot survive because of low oxygen levels, are very real. Dead zones are generally caused by significant nutrient pollution, and are primarily a problem for bays, lakes and coastal waters since they receive excess nutrients, usually nitrogen and phosphorous, from upstream sources. The largest dead zone in the United States – about 6,500 square miles, or roughly the size of Massachusetts – is in the Gulf of Mexico and occurs every summer because of nutrient pollution from the Mississippi River Basin.

Because the dead zone in the Gulf is such a complex problem, addressing it requires a comprehensive strategy on the part of five federal agencies, the states that comprise the Mississippi River basin, farmers, university scientists and many others. Last week, the group charged with giving new life to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone – the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force – met in Memphis, Tennessee.

This meeting wasn’t your ordinary government get together. Jane Hardisty, who works on agricultural issues for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Indiana, gave a great demonstration – think back to high school earth science classes — about the benefits of leaving soil untilled. Davis Minton, who’s been farming his family’s land in Missouri since he was a boy, talked about how wetlands mitigation can help restore the environment and increase profits. And Suzy Friedman from Environmental Defense Fund discussed how evaluating and adapting land management practices can reduce nutrient pollution.

But my favorite part of the meeting was a trip to Stovall Farms in Clarksdale, Mississippi to see a host of nutrient pollution reduction strategies in action. Stovall Farms, which is also the birthplace of the blues musician Muddy Waters, is a roughly 6,000-acre farm that produces corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat. A number of innovative, cost-effective projects across Stovall Farms, which were partially-funded through EPA’s Section 319 Nonpoint Source Program, are designed to more efficiently use water and prevent nutrient-laden soil from leaving the farm.

Addressing nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River Basin is a tremendous task, but I was heartened by all the hard work that I heard about and saw last week. I’m hopeful that all this great work will someday mean that you’ll only hear the term “dead zone” in zombie movies.

About the author: John Senn is the deputy communications director in EPA’s Office of Water in Washington, D.C. Previously, John was a press officer in EPA’s New York City regional office handling issues related to water and Superfund cleanups. He has also worked in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation and is a member of 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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