EPA Water Research

Open Science and Cyanobacterial Research at EPA

By: Jeff Hollister, Betty Kreakie, and Bryan Milstead

Green, algal-filled pond

Algal bloom containing cyanobacteria.

It wasn’t long ago that science always occurred along a well-worn path. Observations led to hypotheses; hypotheses led to data collection; data led to analyses; and analyses led to publications. And along this path, data, hypotheses, and analyses were held close and, more often than not, the only public-facing view of the research was the final publication.

Science has come a long way with this model.  However, it was conceived when print was the main media and most scientific questions could be investigated by few scientists over a short period of time.

Then came computers. Then came the internet.

Just like in every other aspect of modern life, these advances are greatly impacting science. It has changed who conducts our science, how we share it, and how others interact with scientific information. All of these changes are playing out through the increasing openness of all parts of the scientific process.

This broad area has been defined as having several components. These components suggest that “open science”:

  • is transparent (and, of course, open)
  • includes all parts of research (data, code, etc.)
  • allows others to repeat the work
  • should be posted on an open and accessible website (while protecting Personally Identifiable Information, etc.)
  • occurs along a gradient (i.e. not just a binary open vs. not open)

At EPA, we are learning how to make our research on cyanobacteria and human health (for more info join our webinar) meet those criteria.  We are implementing open science in three ways: (1) making our work available via open access publishing; (2) providing access to the code used in our analysis; and (3) making our data openly available.

Several members of our research group have embraced open access options for publishing their research. For instance, our colleague Elizabeth Hilborn and her co-authors published results of their study—examining a group of dialysis patients following exposure to the cyanobacteria toxin microcystin—in one of the pioneering open access journals, PLoS ONE. Also in PLoS ONE, EPA scientist Bryan Milstead and his collaborators published a modeling method to combine the U.S. Geological Survey’s SPARROW model (a modeling tool for interpreting regional water-quality monitoring data), lake depth, lake volume, and EPA National Lakes Assessment data to estimate nutrient concentrations.

As our work progresses, we will continue to choose open access journals. In our experience, this has allowed our research to reach a larger audience and we can more easily track the impact through readership levels using available tools such as PLoS Article Level Metrics.

We are also sharing our data. Currently, this is accomplished through supplements added to publications and through sites such as the EPA’s Environmental Dataset Gateway. We plan to expand these efforts via data publications, version-controlled repositories, and through the development of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that provide access to data for developers and other scientists.

The goal of these efforts, and more (stay tuned for a future post on how coding fits in to open science), is to increase the reproducibility of our work (but challenges remain), reach broader audiences, and eventually have a greater impact on our understanding and management of harmful algal blooms.

About the Authors: EPA ecologists Jeff Hollister, Betty Kreakie and Bryan Milstead study greenwater for a living. If you have questions for them, join the webinar on June 25th or follow the twitter chat on June 26th using #greenwater.

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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Winning Solutions for Nutrient Pollution

By Dustin Renwick

The partnership for the challenge includes: - White House Office of Science and Technology Policy - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - U.S. Department of Agriculture - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  - U.S. Geological Survey - Tulane University - Everglades Foundation

The partnership for this challenge currently includes:
– White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
– U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
– U.S. Department of Agriculture
– National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
– U.S. Geological Survey
– Tulane University
– Everglades Foundation

Nutrient pollution, an excess of nitrogen or phosphorous, costs the country at least $2.2 billion annually. Excess nutrients reaching our waterways spark algae blooms that overpower otherwise healthy ecosystems. In turn, those blooms can contaminate drinking water, kill aquatic species, and create negative impacts for water-based recreation and tourism.

Members of a public-private partnership announced a prize competition in fall 2013 to collect innovative ideas for addressing nutrient overloads. The competition asked innovators to identify next-generation solutions from across the world that could help with reduction, mediation, and elimination of excess nitrogen and phosphorus in water.

Criteria for judging included technical feasibility and accompanying strategic plans for making solutions available and useful. Innovators who met the challenge requirements were each awarded $5,000. They and their winning ideas are:

  • Aaron Ruesch and Theresa Nelson, with the Bureau of Water Quality in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, proposed combining several data sources into a decision support tool for rapid watershed planning – in some cases, within a day. He used equations to estimate runoff, erosion and soil loss on farms. “All these things together help give us an index of vulnerability,” Ruesch says. The software means local watershed groups can “get the plans out the door quicker to get boots on the ground to implement actual practices.” Ruesch says the money will allow for more outreach and training across the state in the coming year.
  • David White, president of Ecosystem Services Exchange, proposed a real-time management system that would control water flow and nutrient loading in a field’s tile-drained water. This system would provide quantified evidence of nutrient reductions. “We believe we can reduce nitrogen by 25 to 50 percent,” White says. He is currently discussing a potential test project with officials in Charles City, Iowa. Phase two of White’s solution would pilot a nutrient trading program based on the reductions. “If we can create an asset class for farmers through water quality markets, we can reduce nutrients entering the waterways at a much lower cost.”
  • Jon Winsten, an agricultural economist and program officer at Winrock International, proposed a pay-for-performance incentive approach, called “model at the farm, measure at the watershed.” Science-based models quantify nutrient losses on individual fields. “Farmers have unique knowledge of their lands,” Winsten says. “By offering a performance-based incentive, then farmers are motivated to find the most appropriate and most cost-effective actions for their specific farms and fields. That’s the most efficient way to get conservation on the ground.” Farmers would receive secondary incentive payments when their entire watershed met reduction goals.

Winners may be part of ongoing discussions by federal and private partners to continue to bring innovative solutions to bear on the problem of excess nutrients in waterways.

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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Willingness to Pay for Green Space

By Marguerite Huber

Bike trail through residential green space

How much are you willing to pay for the benefits of low impact development?

Have you ever taken an economics course? If so, you probably studied the concept of “willingness to pay,” or WTP. A person’s willingness to pay for something is the dollar value they have attached to it. For most of us, it’s easy to decide how much we are willing to pay for a car or new home. But what about environmental benefits? EPA researchers are exploring that exact question for green spaces and land development options.

Low impact development (LID) and green infrastructure practices reduce the amount of stormwater running off a particular site. So in places where stormwater runoff has become a significant source of water pollution, the use of these practices has become more necessary. Low impact development benefits and characteristics can include:

  • improvement in air quality
  • increased natural areas and  wildlife habitat
  • improved water quality
  • aesthetic benefits
  • minimized parking lots and other impervious surfaces
  • increased access to transit, shared parking, and bicycle facilities

EPA researchers have identified an additional benefit of such practices: increased property values. They and Abt Associates contractors found that property values increase for both new developments and existing properties when located near green spaces associated with low impact development.

The researchers analyzed 35 studies and focused on predicting how much people were willing to pay for small changes in open space. The investigation evaluated the differences in value between open spaces with and without recreational uses.

Results showed that the design and characteristics of a low impact development affects the level of benefits property owners could expect, and that effects on property values declined the farther they are from open spaces. For example, consider a plan that includes a 10% increase in park space or other green space. Property values are projected to increase by 1.23% to 1.95% when located within 250 meters of such a green space, but by 0.56% to 1.2% when located 250-500 meters away. For a homeowner, that could mean a lot of money.

Overall, researchers found that the proximity to and the percent change in open space determined a household’s willingness to pay for low impact open spaces, but it may be site-specific for type of vegetation and recreational use.

Additionally, many states are encouraging developers to use these practices through regulations, incentives, and educational campaigns, so knowing which low impact characteristics maximize the benefits can be useful for policymakers and developers.

You don’t need to have taken an economics course to understand the concept of willingness to pay. It can be applied to the value you place on increased green space and improved water quality. So just how much are you willing to pay for the benefits of low impact development?

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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Invaders in the Great Lakes

By Marguerite Huber

Smaller zebra mussels cover a larger native mussel

Zebra mussels cover a native mussel. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

I grew up in Chicago, where Lake Michigan, or simply “the lake” as we locals refer to it, is a part of everyday life. I swam in it. I ran next to it. I drank the water from it. I even paddle boarded on it.

As fond as I am of Lake Michigan, it and all the other Great Lakes are facing a big challenge. They have been invaded by more than 190 species of aquatic plants and animals not native to the area, and at least 22 fishes and 16 aquatic invertebrates pose a high risk of invading the Great Lakes in the near future.

These invasive species can be introduced deliberately or accidentally through ballast water discharge from commercial vessels, recreational boating and fishing, and pet aquarium releases. These species cause significant ecological and economic impacts in the Great Lakes. For instance the cost to the Great Lakes region from invasive species is over $200 million dollars annually!

EPA researchers have been studying how to monitor and detect aquatic invasive species through two different studies in the Duluth-Superior Harbor area, the largest Great Lakes commercial port and one under intense invasive species pressure. A Great Lakes-wide early detection program is required by 2015 under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

The goal of the research was to evaluate sampling designs that would help develop an efficient early-detection monitoring program for invasive species. To do so, researchers conducted intensive sampling to create a data set that could be used to explore different monitoring strategies.

One study concluded that species detection can be enhanced based on sampling equipment and habitat, making it an important step towards improving early detection monitoring. They found the most efficient strategy was to sample the mix of habitats or gear that produce the most species, but to also sample across all habitats.

In this study, researchers found high occurrences of certain invasive species such as zebra mussel and Eurasian ruffe.

In another study, researchers focused on determining the effort required for early detection of non-native zooplankton, benthic invertebrates, and fish in the Harbor. To do so, the research team tallied and identified roughly 40,000 zooplankton, 52,000 benthic invertebrates, and 70,000 fish during sampling.

In the early detection study, the researchers detected 10 non-native fish species and 21 non-native aquatic invertebrate, some of which were new detections for the Great Lakes. The central finding was that detecting 100% of species is unrealistic given resource limitations, but monitoring at a level that can detect greater than 95% of the species pool is possible. At this level of effort, there is better than a 50% chance of finding a very rare species, such as one that was recently introduced.

Overall, EPA’s invasive species research is yielding a substantial advance in the ability to design monitoring and early warning systems for aquatic invasive species. Together with prevention methods, that should go a long way in maintaining the biological integrity and sustainability of the Great Lakes. That would be welcome news for anyone who relies on “the lake” for their livelihood, their drinking water, or for a place to paddleboard.

 

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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EPA Releases Resource to Help Guide Green Infrastructure

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Rain barrel captures roof runoff in Santa Monica, CA. (Copyright Abby Hall, US EPA)

Rain barrel captures roof runoff in Santa Monica, CA. (Copyright Abby Hall, US EPA)

Imagine you are a municipal sewer system operator in an urban area. You probably would be well aware of the millions of gallons of untreated water that enter your combined sewer systems creating a big old mess in your local water bodies. But what if there was a cost effective solution available? And even better than low-cost, what if the solution made your community pretty and created a great community for people to live, work and play? You would jump on it, right?

Well, many communities with combined sewer overflows have been using green infrastructure – rain barrels, rain gardens, greenways, green roofs etc. – as an attractive way to reduce the stormwater runoff that goes into a sewer system. (We have blogged about it many times before.)  Green infrastructure helps reduce capital costs – traditional grey infrastructure made of pipes and other systems is often cost prohibitive – and has been shown to also reduce operational costs at publicly owned treatment works.

EPA scientists helped develop a resource guide to help more communities manage stormwater and wastewater with green infrastructure. The resource, released Greening CSO Plans: Planning and Modeling Green Infrastructure for Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Control (pdf),” will help communities make cost-effective decisions to maximize water quality benefits. The resource explains how to use modeling tools such as EPA’s Stormwater Management Model to optimize different combinations of green and grey infrastructure to reduce both sewer overflow volume and total number of overflow events.  The guide also has relevant case studies to showcase how different communities are using green infrastructure.

Hopefully using this resource can help you plan green infrastructure solutions and provide a variety of tools that can help you measure and reduce stormwater runoff.

For more information about green infrastructure at EPA, please visit: http://water.epa.gov/infrastructure/greeninfrastructure/index.cfm

You can also learn more about green infrastructure research and science here:

http://www2.epa.gov/water-research/green-infrastructure-research

 

About the author: Lahne Mattas-Curry works with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources team, drinks a lot of water and  communicates water research to anyone who will listen.

 

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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Researching and Restoring the Gulf

By Marguerite Huber

Hypoxia sounds like some sort of deadly disease. While it is not a disease, it is in fact deadly. Also referred to as dead zones, hypoxic water kills bottom-dwelling marine life such as crabs and mussels. (To learn more, see the video at the end of this blog.)

Dead zones lack dissolved oxygen and are caused primarily by excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous. Too many nutrients cause algae and plankton to grow in large numbers, and as the algae die and decompose, oxygen is consumed.

Excess nutrients are especially a problem in the Gulf of Mexico. Every summer, nutrient-rich freshwater from the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf, resulting in a dead zone of about 7,772 sq. mi. that causes massive fish kills and chases other creatures further out to sea.

In an effort to understand this annual occurrence, EPA researchers have developed a modeling framework for predicting how nutrient management decisions and future climate change scenarios will impact the size, frequency, and duration of hypoxic conditions that form in the Gulf of Mexico every summer.

Providing 17% of the Nation’s gross domestic product, the natural resources of the Gulf’s coastal and marine habitats and their ecosystem services are critical to both the regional and national economy. That’s a major reason why EPA researchers are exploring ways to improve and restore Gulf water quality and aquatic habitats.

Since the 1990’s, the Agency and its partners from coastal states have been monitoring estuaries and most recently, wetlands. This baseline came in handy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, and it will continue to help researchers track the degree of recovery resulting from ongoing and future restoration actions in the Gulf.

Monitoring in the future will also help inform environmental management decisions by addressing linkages between ecosystem condition and the goods and services provided. Agency researchers have several methodologies in development for examining these linkages, including spatial analysis tools, and human well-being indices.

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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Braving the Weather to Promote Green Infrastructure in Philadelphia

Reposted from “EPA Connect, the official blog of EPA’s leadership

 

CEQ Chair and EPA Deputy Administrator brave the snow.

Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley and EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe brave the snow in Philadelphia.

 

By Bob Perciasepe 

Yesterday, I was up in Philadelphia joined by CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley and Mayor Nutter to announce nearly $5 million in EPA grants made possible through the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program. These investments are going to five universities, and aim to fill gaps in research evaluating the costs and benefits of certain green infrastructure practices.

The projects to be invested in, led by Temple University, Villanova University, Swarthmore College, University of Pennsylvania and University of New Hampshire, will explore the financial and social costs and benefits associated with green infrastructure as a stormwater and wet weather pollution management tool.

read more…

 

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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Street Trees: More than Meets the Eye

By Marguerite Huber

Tree-lined street

There is more to street trees than meets the eye.

Ever since I took an urban forestry course in graduate school, I can’t help but always look at trees. I look at their bark, their roots, and their leaves. But when I look at trees, I am not just seeing their physical attributes. I also see all the conceptual benefits they provide to our communities.

Trees are not just a pretty fixture in your backyard. They provide many ecosystem services to our cities and towns, including: improving air quality, absorbing and storing carbon, supplying privacy, reducing noise, increasing property value, and decreasing building energy use. Trees are an important aspect of the green infrastructure that helps reduce storm water flow.

Amazingly, you don’t have to be an arborist to calculate tree benefits; you can use i-Tree, a USDA Forest Service model that uses sampling data to estimate street tree benefits.

In the fall of 2013, EPA scientists began research on “street trees” (trees growing in the public right-of-way, usually in between the street and the sidewalk) in nine communities in the Cincinnati, Ohio metropolitan area. The randomly selected communities all differ in geographic setting, socioeconomic characteristics, and street tree management practices.

Their research aims to answer such questions as: Can street tree structure and benefits be explained by management practices, socioeconomic conditions, or historical or geographic factors? How might invasive pests affect street trees and their benefits? How will existing street tree structure and benefits change in the future under various scenarios of tree growth and mortality, management practices, and pest outbreaks?

Researchers sampled more than 53 miles of street right-of-way along more than 600 street segments and inventoried nearly 3,000 trees. The street tree benefits were estimated using i-Tree Streets.

At this time researchers are still analyzing street tree benefits and their relation to community characteristics such as management practices, socioeconomics, and geographic setting. So far they have found management practices to be particularly important, with Tree City USA participants gaining greater benefits than communities that do not participate. Since analyses are still continuing, the findings on the other community characteristics will be released in the coming months.

When the project is completed, the researchers will have deliverables such as street tree inventory data that can be shared with community officials and an understanding of which community characteristics influence street tree structure and ecosystem services.

I invite you to check out i-Tree for yourself; I suspect as you’ll realize there are more to street trees than meets the eye.

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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One Career (of many) Built by the EPA STAR Program

By: David Cwiertny

I wouldn’t be the environmental engineer that I am today without the EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, which funds research grants and graduate fellowships in environmental science and engineering disciplines. The research funded through this program complements EPA’s own, and that of other federal agencies, to help protect human health and the environment.

In 2004, I was entering the fourth year of my doctoral research at Johns Hopkins University.  As often happens near the end of a doctorate, my funding had dried up.  Finding new support was stressful and diverted my attention from research.  The EPA STAR graduate fellowship allowed me the financial and intellectual freedom to pursue my priority: development of new technologies to treat contaminated groundwater.

In addition to funding my research, the EPA STAR program let me interact with other Fellows at the STAR conference, integrating me into a peer network of excellence.  And because the fellowship is very competitive, it helped me secure a tenure-track faculty position at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).  That job ultimately led to my current position at the University of Iowa, where the EPA STAR program remains a vital source of support as I continue to grow my research program.

Environmental Engineer David Cwiertny by the Iowa River.

Environmental Engineer David Cwiertny by the Iowa River.

In December 2011, I was awarded an EPA STAR grant to improve small drinking water systems.  Through this particular grant, my research program is trying to develop more efficient and cost-effect treatment technologies to improve the quantity and quality of drinking water in small, rural communities, many of which often lack adequate resources for a safe and reliable water supply.  The end result will be in-home treatment units that could be of tremendous value to the number of communities, in Iowa and beyond, that rely on private groundwater wells, many of which are compromised by pollutants such as arsenic and nitrate. During my tenure as a STAR grantee, I had the privilege of mentoring an EPA STAR Fellow, Rebekah Oulton, who received the award while working in my laboratory on related work trying to improve water and wastewater treatment technologies.

At all stages of my career, the EPA STAR program has been instrumental to my development as an environmental scientist and engineer.  EPA’s support has afforded me the flexibility and continuity to pursue my research, directly addressing current environmental challenges to our nation. I’ll forever be grateful to the investment EPA has made in me, as it has allowed me to fulfill my professional dreams and aspirations, and help protect our nation’s water resources and the health of the general public that rely on them.

About the Author:

David Cwiertny is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa. He is a former EPA STAR Graduate Fellowship recipient and conducts research currently funded by the EPA STAR program. At the University of Iowa, he is a member of the campus-wide Water Sustainability Initiative, developing interdisciplinary research, outreach and education programs intended to increase water awareness at the university, within Iowa, and across the United States.

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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EPA Science: Supporting the Waters of the U.S.

Reposted from EPA Connect, the Official Blog of EPA’s Leadership

By Nancy Stoner and Lek Kadeli

One of the great environmental success stories of our time is the Clean Water Act. Forty years ago, the condition of U.S. rivers, streams, lakes, coastal areas and other water resources was a national concern.

Things started to improve after the newly-established U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was given direction “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” through major revisions to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (now the Clean Water Act).

But over the past decade, court decisions have created uncertainty about the Clean Water Act’s protection of certain streams and wetlands from pollution and development. In particular, the confusion centers on questions surrounding small streams and wetlands—some of which only flow after precipitation or dry up during parts of the year—and what role they play in the health of larger water bodies nearby or downstream.

This week, EPA’s Science Advisory Board released for public comment a draft scientific report, “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence.” This draft report synthesizes more than 1,000 peer-reviewed pieces of scientific literature about how smaller, isolated water bodies are connected to larger ones and represents the state-of-the-science on the connectivity and isolation of waters in the United States.

Read more…

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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