Elwha River

On Vacation with EPA Science

By Elizabeth Blackburn

Rafting (lge)My family is always giving me a hard time about the difficulty I seem to have completely disconnecting from work. Not only does my ever-present, e-mail-spewing smartphone mean I can keep in touch with my colleagues from virtually any location and at any time, but my job can be really interesting!

As the director of science communications for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, I get a firsthand look at just about every science story that flows from the Agency’s world class scientists and engineers, as well as from a partnership community uniting EPA researchers and other innovators from across the government, academia, business, and beyond. I get a “sneak peak” at an incredible breadth of stories covering everything from tiny nanoparticles, to children’s environmental health, ecosystems assessment, and global climate change adaptation.

With all that going on, you can understand why I find it hard to unplug. Even so, I made a commitment to do my best on a recent family trip. I traveled clear across the country with my husband to visit our son, who lives in the “other” Washington (Washington State).

There, thousands of miles from the office, surrounded by some of the best rafting opportunities anywhere in the world, I came across something that brought my mind right back to work: dam removal. That’s something that our scientific divers have been blogging about right here on It All Starts with Science.

Dam removal has a special place in my heart as there was a dam removed on the river my son—a rafting guide—works on. In fact, we rafted a portion of the White Salmon that had been previously underwater. The canyon was magnificent and it was awesome to see steelhead trout swimming upstream and jumping up waterfalls that they had previously been unable to reach because of the dam.

So, not only did I get to enjoy a somewhat harrowing raft trip with my family, but I got to share what I do and why I like it with a captive audience. For those of you who didn’t have the opportunity to join us on the raft, check out this morning’s blog from our scientific divers about their latest observations and findings. It answers some of the same questions I had about dam removal and what they are learning.

While I’d love to share more about my family vacation and the glorious Pacific Northwest, I’ve got to get back to work. (Oh goodie!)

About the Author: Elizabeth Blackburn is the Director of Communications for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and an avid fan of wild and scenic rivers anywhere.

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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The Algae “Strike Back”: Post Dam Removal Benthic Surveys at the Elwha River Mouth

By Sean Sheldrake, Steve Rubin, and Rob Pedersen

EPA science diver photographs kelp samples on board boat.

EPA diver Rob Pedersen photographs samples.

Some of you may have followed our previous blog posts about EPA’s scientific diving program, including 2011 and 2012 reports from the Elwha River mouth in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The field site is downstream from the largest dam removal and restoration project to date, a large scale effort to restore wild salmon habitat and other aspects of the natural ecosystem. (For a great overview of the project, check out the webinar series posted by Olympic National Park.)

In this 2013 installment, we share some interesting findings about our benthic survey on how the dam removal is affecting things at the mouth of the river.

This survey involves counting 72 species of invertebrates and 13 species of algae—all of which are experiencing changes, some dramatic, as a result of the largest dam removal and restoration project to date: an experiment of grand scale for Elwha River mouth seafloor residents!  The survey is led by the U.S. Geologic Survey, and the team includes Washington Sea Grant, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and EPA divers.

Stationary light sensor placed near the Elwha River mouth.

Stationary light sensor placed near the Elwha River mouth.

Although divers reported seeing fewer algae, the scientists are still crunching the numbers. Early indications suggest a decrease in algae abundance, including the famed, forest-forming “bull kelp” since the removal of the dam. These changes may be due to decreased light levels, a loss of suitable substrate (a growing surface like a rock of some size, or even as small as gravel), or a combination of the two.  The team of divers used light sensors at many stations to help to document whether changes in light penetration were occurring at the dive sites to supplement quantitative data about the changes in the seafloor substrate.

In addition, it seems that tubeworms are on the increase in some areas.

This year, early reports indicate a late growing season for algae, perhaps due to the “silt cloud” hanging over areas near the river mouth. A few surprises may be in the works, too, such as the appearance of the rare kelp species pictured below, a sample the team of scientific divers could not immediately identify underwater—a discovery suggesting that as algae are faced with reduced light levels, a species or two not found during previous surveys might be trying to join the party.

Diver holds kelp sample underwater.

Mystery kelp.

Early suspicions from USGS and other experts narrowed down the mystery alga to either Laminaria ephemera or Laminaria yezoensis, and follow up examination confirmed it to be Laminaria ephemera. The unfolding story was covered in the local Peninsula Daily News.

To answer a few questions you might be wondering about all this:

  • Why does algae matter?
    Answer: Well it’s quite a nursery for young marine life and a grocery store for young and old that live in the sea.  It’s not unusual to see gray whales and their young grazing in the ‘kelp forest.’ Changes for shellfish are also of great importance to local fisheries.  The river is connected to the ocean in so many ways—and the silt keeps coming!
  • What other changes are there?
    Answer: The ongoing study will show changes for nearly 100 species of algae and invertebrates, in addition to fish, for the largest dam removal effort in North America to date.

For more information on the USGS-led study, see: http://www.usgs.gov/elwha, http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2011/5120/seaLife/.  For a full set of 2013 photographs, see: Elwha 2013.

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers.

About the AuthorsSean Sheldrake is part of the Seattle EPA Dive unit and is also a project manager working on the Portland Harbor cleanup in Oregon.  Sean Sheldrake serves on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements, where Rob Pedersen has served for many years.  In addition, they both work to share contaminated water diving expertise with first responders and others.  Steve Rubin is an aquatic biologist specializing in algal species with the USGS and a lead scientist on the survey.

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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Diving Green for Science

By Sean Sheldrake

EPA’s Seattle dive van loaded up with a full ton of dive gear—plus a bicycle.

In previous blog posts, we’ve shared how EPA diving scientists support cleanups in the nation’s waterways.  In this post, I’ll talk about how we are working to “dive green” while undertaking EPA’s mission.

Getting On Site

Getting on site to conduct a scientific survey usually involves using some kind of vehicle.  So, we do it as “greenly” as possible:

  • Our gear and our divers like to travel together! The dive van gets virtually the same mileage whether it carries one diver or four – travelling together saves tax dollars.
  • Van pooling this way lowers our environmental footprint – fewer emissions of air pollutants protect the air we breathe and there’s less pollution to wash into our waterways and ocean ecosystem when it rains.
  • Did you know most brake pads contain metals that hurt fish?  Fewer vehicles on the road also lowers the amount of pollution from brake pads getting into the environment and washing into the ocean ecosystem.
  • And we try to be creative – one of our divers bicycled to and from the boat launch to a friend’s house! You can see the bike tucked into the van in the photo above.

No American Idle

EPA vessel at anchor with divers below.

Whether it’s our van or our vessel, we cut the engine whenever possible. After all, what’s good for kids riding on school buses is good for diving scientists carrying out EPA’s mission.  Many of our van drivers are surprised to learn that it’s more efficient to turn the engine off than let it idle for even 30 seconds!

Reducing engine use is important for our vessel, too, since it’s mainly powered by diesel engines, which can generate large amounts of particulates as well as sulfur and nitrous oxides. Anchoring and turning off the engine helps keep the air and our waterways cleaner.

Diving Scientists Need to Eat

EPA diver with a wireless communication unit.

Once out on the vessel divers are a hungry bunch! We pack meals and plenty of snacks, and carefully separate out all compostable material and recyclables to bring back to the lab for proper disposal. On one recent trip on the Elwha, our crew kept some 60 pounds of trash out of the landfill!

“Scotty, I Need More Power!”

Our underwater lights, communications systems, and scientific equipment run on a lot of ‘juice,’ so to cut waste we use rechargeables.   Just one diver using a wireless communications unit to talk to their buddy diving and to their “tenders” topside can go through up to forty AA type batteries per week! Rechargeable batteries that conk out after a few hundred charges get added to the recyclables we take back to the lab rather than sent to a landfill where they might leach heavy metals.

EPA divers make a positive impact on the ocean environment in the work that we do, and the green way we do it.  It’s also a positive example that we hope inspires divers and diving scientists elsewhere!  What else can you think of to reduce our footprint?

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers.

About the author: Sean Sheldrake is part of the Seattle EPA Dive unit and is also a project manager working on the Portland Harbor cleanup in Oregon.  He serves on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements.

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

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.

Diving the wilds of the Strait of Juan de Fuca; should we stay or should we go?

By Sean Sheldrake, Steve Rubin, and Alan Humphrey 

EPA Survey Crew: from left, Rob Pedersen, Alan Humphrey, Scott Grossman, and Sean Sheldrake.

Survey crew, from the left: Rob Pedersen, Alan Humphrey, Scott Grossman, Sean Sheldrake.

Some of you may have followed our previous blog posts about EPA’s scientific diving program, including part two of the Elwha River story.   

In this third and final part of our story, we return to the Elwha River to talk more about the challenges involved with the survey of invertebrates and algae. 

Between the divers and the boat operator aboard the EPA Monitor (our 30-foot research vessel), we’ve got over a century of boating experience, but making safe boating decisions is by no means easy.  We’ve got a big job to do in collecting data on this first survey after the largest dam removal in North American history.  The total amount of sediment behind the dam is 19 million cubic meters, enough to fill the stadium of the Seattle Sounders Football Club, eight times.   USGS estimates indicate ¼ to ½ of this material could be transported from the former reservoir areas, eventually finding its way to the coast.  The survey will evaluate the impact on the ocean seafloor. 

However, while conducting the survey at the meeting place of the Olympic peninsula and the wild waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we’ve got to stay safe. 

While doing our work, small craft advisories were issued alerting vessels in our class that danger may be approaching.  Would rough seas really hit our boat, or our area, making it treacherous to retrieve divers from the water? 

EPA Boat Captain Doc Thompson. (Photo by Alan Humphrey)

Doc Thompson, a veteran boat operator for EPA, tells our crew, “That’s it boys: it’s blowing too hard out here.”  Doc is an understated fellow—we all know that when he’s concerned, WE’RE concerned.  Out of the clear blue, gale force winds popped up.  We recall the divers and secure our gear to get back to port as soon as possible! 

When over 40 years of boating experience tells Doc it’s time to go, it’s time to get back to port.  But we were back to finishing our survey the next day.  As budgets allow, we’ll be back in 2013 to evaluate the next phase of sediment release from the mighty Elwha River into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. 

For more information on the USGS led study, see: http://www.usgs.gov/elwha

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers [http://www.facebook.com/EPADivers]. 

About the authors:  Sean Sheldrake is part of the Seattle EPA Dive unit and is also a project manager working on the Portland Harbor cleanup in Oregon.  Sean Sheldrake and Alan Humphrey both serve on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements.  In addition, they both work to share contaminated water diving expertise with first responders and others.  Steve Rubin is an aquatic biologist specializing in algal species with the USGS and a lead scientist on the survey.

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

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.

What’s changed? Post dam removal benthic surveys start at the mouth of the Elwha River

By Sean Sheldrake, Steve Rubin, and Alan Humphrey

Tube worms

Schizobranchia insignis tubeworms, Photo by Sean Sheldrake, USEPA.

In this second part of our story (see our earlier blog post), we return to the Elwha to talk more about the techniques involved with the survey.

This USGS-led survey involves counting over 65 species of invertebrates and 23 species of algae—all of which we had to memorize before the survey began.  As if that wasn’t enough homework for the dive crews, you have to “sneak” up on your critters to actually count them!

Species like Mya truncata clams can “see” you coming and will retract if they can feel the pressure wave of the diver approaching.  Likewise, tubeworms are also underwater detectives with their own early warning sensors for approaching divers.  Once Schizobranchia insignis or Eudistylia polymorpha tubeworms retract they look remarkably similar!

In buddy teams, divers go down and count algae (kelp, for example) on one side of the transect, and invertebrates (such as clams) on the other.  Our divers must adjust for this “shy” behavior when they reach the bottom and “change things up.”   Since each diver must count critters and algae on one side of the transect only, the invertebrate scientist tries to count on the downcurrent side of the transect line.  After all, the algae-counting scientist has the benefit of their “prey” not running away from them!

Diver along a transect

EPA diver Scott Grossman conducts a uniform point count along a straight line "transect" placed on the ocean floor. Photo by Alan Humphrey, USEPA.

In addition to counting all the species within one meter of the transect tape for 30 meters for algae and invertebrates respectively, a separate survey is done called a “uniform point count.”  Every ½ meter, the diver puts their finger down along the transect tape and counts only what is beneath it. (Even if the most amazing anemone is an inch away, it doesn’t count!) Statistically, the point count and overall tally of species will give a representative assessment of life in the ocean ecosystem near the Elwha River mouth.

Early survey results included a decrease in algae abundance compared to levels seen before the start of dam removal.  The decrease may have been due to light deprivation rather than loss of suitable substrate as there was little obvious accumulation of sand or mud on the seafloor.  The divers deployed light sensors at many stations to help to document what sort of change in light penetration was occurring at each site.  In addition, it seems that tubeworms are on the increase.

What other changes are there?  The study will show the changes for the nearly 100 species of algae and invertebrates, in addition to fish, for the largest dam removal effort in North America to date.

Find out more about the wild survey conditions next week in part three of our story.

For more information on the study, see: http://www.usgs.gov/elwha.

For more information about the EPA dive program, check out their Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/EPADivers.

About the authors: Sean Sheldrake is part of the Seattle EPA Dive unit and is also a project manager working on the Portland Harbor cleanup in Oregon.  He and Alan Humphrey both serve on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements.  In addition, they both work to share contaminated water diving expertise with first responders and others.  Steve Rubin is an aquatic biologist specializing in algal species with the USGS and a lead scientist on the survey.

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

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.

Diving in the Silt Plume of the Elwha River

By Chad Schulze, Steve Rubin, and Sean Sheldrake

Mouth of the Elwha River

Overlooking the mouth of the Elwha River.

Some of you may have followed our previous blog posts about EPA’s scientific diving program in It’s Our Environment, but we also wanted to share some recent work led by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and supported by EPA divers near the mouth of Washington State’s Elwha River here in It All Starts with Science.

Now that removal of the Elwha River dams is well under way, USGS scientists, assisted by divers with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, EPA, and Washington Sea Grant, will continue studying the impacts of removal-related sediment to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

As the first EPA crew to visit the site this year, we didn’t know what to expect.

What we did know—the removal of the Elwha River dams will affect marine habitats in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, primarily from the flow and deposition of released sediment that had accumulated behind the dams for nearly 100 years. That sediment can affect marine life in many ways, including: burial, reduced aquatic reproduction, shading and light reduction, damage to animal gills and filter feeding structures, and changing how different species behave individually and together with their different tolerances and responses to the sediment.

EPA Scientific Diver

Diver Steve Rubin, USGS shooting video of a transect to compare to baseline conditions.

Diving in on the first day, we found the conditions to be very different from before the dams were in place—last year visibility might be up to 50 feet!  Not so this year, with some freshwater layers discharging from the Elwha with maybe 6 inches of visibility.

As we descended through this floating “halocline” of different salinity layers (less dense freshwater will sometimes float over the ocean saltwater until it mixes), it was like a “cloud” over the saltwater below.  Visibility improved when we made it through, but it was DARK.  Where last year the sun was sometimes visible on the seafloor, this year, we needed lights to see the bottom.

Things have changed. For starters, where there had been algal forests, we found much less growth compared to last year. We and our partners will continue to survey Elwha nearshore undersea communities during and after dam removal.  Measuring responses to short and long term changes in deposited and suspended sediments offers an unprecedented opportunity to gain insight relevant to managing these important marine resources, and will help to inform how future dam removal projects can be conducted to minimize impact to downstream plants, insects, fish and animals.

For more information on the study, please see this story on the USGS web site: http://walrus.wr.usgs.gov/elwha/

We’ll follow up with another post as we continue to work. Stay tuned!

About the authors:  Sean Sheldrake and Chad Schulze are part of the Seattle EPA Dive unit.  Chad is the lead pesticide enforcement in the Northwest, and Sean is also a project manager working on the Portland Harbor cleanup in Oregon.  Steve Rubin is an aquatic biologist specializing in algal species with the USGS and a lead scientist on the survey.

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

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.