ecosystem

Great Lakes Successes Take Front & Center – Part 1

It’s official. The first five years of the precedent-setting Great Lakes Restoration Initiative are history. And the Initiative has made history.

The Initiative is the largest Great Lakes-only investment in restoring and protecting the ecosystem in U.S. history. Recently, the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force chaired by U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy sent its progress report covering the first five years of the program to Congress and President Obama. Not all such reports inspire you to stand up and cheer, but this one should.

When President Obama proposed the Initiative and a bi-partisan Congress stepped up to fund it, the reason was clear. After more than a century of abuse, the integrity of the ecosystem that comprises some 95 percent of the nation’s fresh surface water—the supply for tens of millions of Americans—was unravelling fast. Decades of projects needed to bring back the health of the ecosystem and fulfill our international obligations with Canada had remained unfunded.

The Initiative changed all that. In the 25 years before the Initiative, only one of the then 31 Areas of Concern—waterfront communities with ecological or health impairments—had been taken off the cleanup list. In the first five years of the Initiative, the Presque Isle Area of Concern (AOC) in Pennsylvania has been taken off the list and cleanup has been completed in five more for ultimate delisting. Waukegan Harbor, once called the “world’s worst Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCB) mess,” is now a case study in persistent restoration action prevailing over persistent toxic pollution. In other AOCs, people who once thought cleanup would never be completed are now finding hope that it will be completed, and in their lifetime.

Asian carp. Asian carp, which can eat many times their body weight in plankton—one base of the food chain—could further undermine the Great Lakes ecosystem if they ever get in and become established. Within months after my appointment in the summer of 2009, a newer monitoring technique called “environmental DNA” was turning up genetic material from two kinds of Asian carp—silver and bighead—further upstream toward Lake Michigan than previously expected. We used the Initiative, whose first funding came through only months before, to provide emergency funding to plug holes in the permeable Chicago Area Waterway System. That, and tenacious work by representatives from agencies in the United States and Canada, has meant that in the past five years, these equally tenacious fish have not made it to Lake Michigan to become established.

With the shutdown of the Toledo metro area’s water supply from toxic cyanobacteria having taken place a year ago, the thick, almost florescent green growth is a reminder along too many coastlines that phosphorus doesn’t just fertilize crops on land. Too much of it washing downstream fertilizes dangerous algal growth in the water. Under the first five years of the Initiative, the amount of farmland acreage under conservation program management in three priority watersheds—the Maumee and Western Lake Erie Basin, Saginaw Bay and Green Bay watersheds—has increased by more than two thirds from previous levels.

That’s the official report. Check it out at http://glri.us.

But if you want to know some of the unofficial successes under the first five years of the Initiative, check out the next post for Part 2.

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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Changing Times: EPA’s Report on National Trends

By Gaelle Gourmelon

Some things in my childhood memories look different when I revisit them as an adult. That tall slide in the playground? It’s really only four feet high. The endless summer bike rides to the beach? They now take ten minutes. Sometimes, however, things seem different because they’ve actually changed. I recently went to a favorite childhood beach and saw that the dock was now stranded in the water, no longer reachable from the beach. Undeniable evidence of the changing coast.

But what evidence do we have to observe real changes over time when it comes to our national environment? What data can we use to determine if our environment has meaningfully changed?

To help answer these questions, EPA released the draft Report on the Environment 2014 (ROE 2014) for public comment in March, and it will undergo external peer review on July 30-31, 2014.

The ROE 2014 is not an intimidating, technical tome; it is an interactive website, full of national-level environmental and health indicators and is designed to make it easier to find information on national environmental trends. It’s not a giant, unwieldy database. Rather, it’s a summary of important indicators that paints a picture of how our environment is changing.

Why use indicators?

Just like having a high temperature indicates you are sick, environmental indicators help us understand the health of the environment. ROE indicators are simple measures that track the state of the environment and human health over time.

For example, if we want to understand the nation’s air quality, we can measure indicators such as lead emissions, acid deposition, and particulate matter concentrations to give us clues about overall changes. These indicators can help us make informed decisions about conditions that may otherwise be difficult to measure.

Report on the Environment

An exhibit for the acid deposition indicator gives us a clue about the changes in the quality of outdoor air in the US.

 

What’s included in the Report on the Environment?

Data for the ROE indicators come from many sources, including federal and state agencies as well as non-governmental organizations. EPA brought together scientists and other experts to determine what data are accurate, representative, and reliable enough to be included. With feedback from the public and our partners, we selected 86 indicators that help to answer questions about air, water, land, human health and exposure, and ecological condition. The ROE 2014 also includes new indicators on aspects of sustainability.

Why do we need the Report on the Environment?

EPA designed the ROE to help answer mission-relevant questions and help us track how we’re doing in meeting environmental goals. But because the ROE 2014 is an easy-to-use, interactive website, scientists, decision-makers, educators, and anyone who is curious about the environment and health can view the most up-to-date national (and sometimes regional) data, too. The ROE shows trends and sets up baselines where trend data do not yet exist. It also highlights gaps where we don’t have reliable indicators.

How can I participate in the external peer review meeting?

EPA is committed to proactively engaging stakeholders, increasing transparency, and using the best available science. By releasing the draft ROE 2014 for public comment and peer review, we benefit from stakeholder and scientific engagement to support the best conclusions possible. The draft ROE 2014 website will be reviewed by EPA’s Science Advisory Board in a public meeting on July 30-31, 2014. For additional meeting details, visit the July 11, 2014 Federal Register Notice and the SAB meeting website.

How can I stay connected with the ROE?

Everyone can use the ROE to inform their discussions of environmental conditions and related policies in the U.S. The information it provides helps you understand your environment, and encourages you to ask more questions about your environment and health. Now, it’s time to investigate. Things might have changed more than you think.

Sign up to be notified about the upcoming release of the final Report on the Environment 2014; you can also receive periodic updates and highlights.

About the author: Gaelle Gourmelon was an Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health Fellow working on EPA’s Report on the Environment project from September 2012 through May 2014. Her background in biology and environmental health has fueled her passion for reconnecting people with their natural and built environment.

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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Reducing the Impact of Stormwater Challenges

Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA Office of Water

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

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

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Service to America

By Bob Perciasepe

The mission of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—to safeguard the natural environment and protect human health—is one that I find easy to embrace. And as you might expect in a workplace like EPA, I’m not alone.

Everyday (and sometimes late into the evenings), I’m surrounded by colleagues who have devoted themselves to public service in pursuit of clean air, safe and sustainable water, vibrant ecosystems, and healthy communities.

And even in that atmosphere, there are still a handful of individuals who manage to inspire us all: true leaders who blaze career paths marked by sustained achievement and tireless advocacy on behalf of the American people.

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

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Protecting Our Natural Resources – Here and Abroad

OITA PDAA Jane Nishida talks to key local and national stakeholders working to preserve and protect Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay

OITA PDAA Jane Nishida talks to key local and national stakeholders working to preserve and protect Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay

 

By Jane Nishida, Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of International and Tribal Affairs

The Chesapeake Bay is one of the nation’s most vital resources, providing important habitat for fish and wildlife, and recreational and tourism opportunities for millions of people each year. While increased tourism and development has supported the area’s economic growth, it has brought with it a suite of environmental challenges, including nutrient pollution, loss of forests and wetlands, and air pollution stemming from increased development in the area. In my previous roles as Secretary of Maryland’s Department of the Environment and Maryland Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, I saw first-hand the impacts of this damage, and worked closely with local residents, stakeholders, elected officials and the federal government to begin on a major restoration and protection effort. Not only can we protect the bay and surrounding wildlife, we can ensure the continued economic benefits of tourism for the future.

Nearly 8,000 miles away from the Chesapeake Bay lies an area with similar opportunities and challenges. Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is known around the world for its striking beauty and diverse ecosystem. However, as with the Chesapeake Bay, concerned citizens and government officials are seeing increased degradation and pollution as more and more people access the Bay for tourism, recreation and shipping development. More

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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A New Beginning: Headwater Research

By Marguerite Huber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the authorMarguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Take Cover! (With Vegetation)

By Marguerite Huberbuffer

Take cover!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Mussels in the Blue III – Water Quality and Threats

By Craig Thompson

Over the past two weeks I’ve told you about  one of my favorite rivers (the Blue River) and favorite aquatic species (Mussels).  Although the Blue River currently supports nearly 17 mussel species, habitat alteration, pollution, and the introduction and spread of non-native clams (Corbicula) have led to the extinction of some species from the river.  More than half the surviving native mussel species at 159th exhibit declining populations.  Mussels as a group are considered one of the most imperiled freshwater organisms in North America.  Mussels are in serious danger and many of the declines in mussel populations at 159th and other sites on the river can be attributed to flood-control and urbanization projects.

Many of the lower reaches of the Blue River have been channelized.  In fact, when we arrived last summer (2012) to sample the Byram’s Ford site, we found the river had been altered and straightened.  Flood-control projects like the one at Byram’s Ford result in the loss of habitat for mussels and other aquatic life.  The original habitat at this site was riffles, runs, and some backwaters with a medium bend in the river.  Now, the river is deep and straightened, and it is hard to get in to sample.  Riffles aerate the river and provide essential dissolved oxygen for many aquatic organisms.  Bass, sunfish, madtoms, darters, and many minnow species use riffles for food, reproduction and shelter.  Riffles are important for mussels as well.  In 2009, this site had a productive mussel community including one SINC species, the Yellow sandshell (See the Table below).

159table

The original riffles, gravel bars, and adjacent backwaters also were important feeding areas for waterfowl and herons.  Ultimately, with the loss of riffle habitat and the increase in water depth, we may see a decline in the diversity and abundance of some mussel species at this site.  The following picture of the Blue River at Coalmine Road (not far from the Stadiums) gives you an idea of what the river looks like lower in the watershed.

blueatcoalmine

Since coming on board with EPA, I have observed a number of changes to the upper Blue River basin.  When I was enrolled in classes in the 1970s at Johnson County Community College, Antioch Road was just two lanes and the land south of the college was mostly farmland and pastureland.  Over the years, construction crews have widened many of these roads to accommodate the accelerated growth moving into south Johnson County.  On my field trips to stream monitoring sites in the county, I have observed many water quality problems associated with all this new growth.  I am usually disgusted by the way construction crews build silt fences and how these fences never do their intended job of preventing exposed dirt from running off into waterways.  These types of activities contribute to the runoff of sediments into streams which can bury mussels.  Also, mussels are very sensitive to many other types of pollution as a result of stormwater runoff from parking lots and residential lawns.  Heavy metals, pesticides and herbicides are some of the constant water quality problems mussels must face in the Blue.  In the future, the conservation of native mussels will depend upon how well we protect the land from soil erosion and stormwater runoff.  Basically, we need to take care of our watersheds.

Blueriver

Over the years I have been collecting and observing freshwater mussels from streams throughout Kansas and Missouri.  The Blue River at 159th (shown above during high water) is a gem of a site.  At this time, I believe that the physical, chemical and biological attributes are very good at this site.  Every time I have sampled this urban stream site, there is good flowing, permanent water, which most mussel species require.  It will be interesting to discover in the coming years what aquatic species are able to live and tolerate the rapid environmental changes that are occurring in the Blue River basin.  And, this is especially true for the mussels in the Blue at 159th.

Craig Thompson lives near the mussel-less (except for Asian clams) Brush Creek, a tributary of the Blue River.  He is a Life Scientist with the Environmental Assessment and Monitoring Branch (EAMB).  Craig joined EPA in 2009 after spending thirteen years with Kansas Department of Health and Environment.  He assists EAMB staff with water quality and biological sampling surveys throughout the Region 7 area.

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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Protecting the Chesapeake Bay

By Lina Younes

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to visit several sites in Maryland and Virginia along the Chesapeake Bay. I marveled at the beauty of this important watershed. Did you know that the Chesapeake Bay watershed covers six states and Washington, DC? In fact, it’s the largest estuary on the U.S. mainland.

Even if you don’t live along the coast, did you know that what you do at home, at school, at work or in your community affects the water quality and well-being of this important ecosystem? So, what can you do to protect the bay or your local watershed? Here are some tips:

  •  Use water wisely. Start by turning off the faucet when brushing your teeth or shaving. Also, take shorter showers instead of baths. Make sure that you have a full load of laundry or dishes before using the washer and/or dishwasher. Repair leaking faucets and toilets.
  • If you like gardening, plant native plants. They require less water and nutrients and are more resistant to pests.
  • As part of your next landscaping project, consider planting a rain garden. It’s a great way to reduce water runoff.
  • Keep your car in shape to avoid oil leaks, which contaminate water. If you change your car’s oil yourself, take the used oil to a service station for recycling. Did you know that used oil from one oil change can contaminate one million gallons of fresh water?
  • Use greener cleaning products with the Design for the Environment (DfE) label. They’re safer, they protect our water and they’re better for the environment as a whole.
  • Get involved in your community to increase awareness of water quality. Participate in a stream or park cleanup activity.
  • Pick up after your dog. Don’t let his waste pollute our water.

If you’re still doubtful of the link between your activities and water conservation, I recommend you watch this video so you can be part of the solution.

What did you think? Do you have any suggestions? We would love to hear from you.

About the author:  Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves the Multilingual Communications Liaison for EPA. She manages EPA’s social media efforts in Spanish. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

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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Ozark Gems

By Tegan Vaughn

Are you still deciding whether or not to take a trip before the summer is over? There is no need to spend a lot or travel far to have a fabulous weekend getaway. I highly recommend exploring the Ozarks.

I grew up in the heart of the Ozarks, on a tributary to the Jacks Fork River.  To some folks, when I say I grew up in the Ozarks, their minds automatically go to party boats and Branson. Well, the places my mind wanders to when I think of home are the lush, green hills; the cool, clear streams; and the shade of towering Oaks. To me, an adventure in the Ozarks is worth 10 visits to any amusement park. Let me tell you about a few gems.

 

Photo Courtesy of Missouri State Parks

Photo Courtesy of Missouri State Parks

Speaking of adventure parks, the Ozarks has one carved by nature.  Johnson’s Shut-ins State Park is located in Reynolds County on the East Fork of the Black River. Water rushes over igneous rock that’s been smoothed by tumbling pebbles over the eons.  The Missouri State Park websites tempts potential travelers to come “shoot through Mother Nature’s hydraulics.” But not to worry, I can tell you from experience that it’s relatively safe.

 

Photo Courtesy of Missouri State Parks

Photo Courtesy of Missouri State Parks

Next on the list, and nearby to Johnson’s Shut-ins, is Elephant Rocks State Park. Here you’ll find large, reddish-pink granite boulders that resemble Dumbo. This park has a main trail that includes Braille for the visually impaired and many other places to explore if you want to get off the beaten path.

 

grandgulf

Photo Courtesy of Missouri State Parks

Grand Gulf State Park–Sometimes referred to as a “little Grand Canyon,” Grand Gulf is a mile long collapsed dolomite cave near Thayer, Missouri. The “walls” are more than 130 feet tall. Visitors at the top have quite the dramatic view.  When it rains, water drains into a cave at one end of Grand Gulf and ends up in Mammoth Springs, headwaters of Arkansas’ Spring River. http://www.mostateparks.com/park/grand-gulf-state-park

alleyspring

Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service

 Alley Spring – This charming three story mill was built in 1894 to utilize the free water power of Alley spring to turn wheat to flour. The water is an incredible blue green and emerges from deep in the earth with an average daily flow of 81 million gallons. Water from the spring flows to the Jacks Fork River.

 

roundspring

Photo is courtesy of www.current-river.com

Round Spring – This beautiful spring reminds me of a cenote. It is a brilliant turquoise blue. Every day, about 26 million gallons of water comes up from the earth (55 feet down from the surface of the pool), then flows under a natural bridge and out to the current river. Near the spring is Round Spring cave.  This cave is home to a bat maternity colony and beautiful cave formations. The cave is gated, but in the past, cave tours have been available in the summer months.

 

 

Photo Courtesy of www.ruralmissouri.org

Photo Courtesy of www.ruralmissouri.org

Rocky Falls – This dramatic destination is located near Eminence and Winona, Missouri.  The 40 ft. falls are made up of rhyolite, a reddish-purple igneous rock. Rocky Creek cuts its way through the rock and creates a rippling, merry cascade that falls down to a great swimming hole.

There is nothing like visiting the breathtaking places right in our back yard. Their beauty reminds me of why we at the EPA and our Federal, State, and local partners work hard to protect and preserve these treasures. I live in Kansas City now, but my heart will always live in the Ozark hills.

Tegan Vaughn has worked at EPA Region 7 for three years in the Policy and Management Division. She graduated from UMKC with a BA in Environmental Studies and Minors in Geography and Sustainability. She currently resides in Olathe, KS.

 

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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