Estuaries

Scientific Report Shows Strong Connection between Wetlands, Streams, Rivers and Estuaries

By Lek Kadeli

You may have noticed along a favorite hiking trail that some streams only appear after rainfall, or maybe you’ve seen wetlands far from the nearest river. You probably didn’t think about the importance of those smaller water bodies. But a new scientific report we’re releasing today shows that small streams and wetlands play an important role in the health of larger downstream waterways like rivers and lakes.

Our researchers conducted an extensive, thorough review of more than 1,200 peer-reviewed, published scientific studies to learn how small streams and wetlands connect to larger, downstream water bodies. The results of their work are being released today. The report, Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence, is a state-of-the-science report that presents findings on the connectivity of streams and wetlands to larger water bodies.

So, what did the researchers find?

  1. The scientific literature clearly demonstrates that streams, regardless of their size or frequency of flow, are connected to downstream waters in ways that strongly influence their function.
  2. The literature also shows that wetlands and open waters in riparian areas (transition areas or zones between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems) and floodplains are integrated with streams and rivers, and help protect downstream waters from pollution.
  3. There is ample evidence illustrating that many wetlands and open waters located outside of riparian areas and floodplains provide functions that could benefit rivers, lakes, and other downstream waters, even where they lack surface water connections. Some potential benefits of these wetlands, in fact, are due to their isolation, rather than their connectivity.
  4. Connectivity between waters occurs in gradients determined by the physical, chemical and biological environment.
  5. The incremental contributions of individual streams and wetlands are cumulative across entire watersheds.

Before finalizing these conclusions, our researchers subjected early drafts of the report to rigorous scientific review. Reviewers came from academia, consultation groups, and other federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Our Science Advisory Board reviewed the September 2013 draft of the report and comments were received from members of the public on that draft.

Based on both the extensive, state-of-the-science report and the rigorous peer review process it received, this report makes it clear: What happens in these streams and wetlands has a significant impact on downstream water bodies, including our nation’s largest waterways.

About the Author: Lek Kadeli is the Acting Assistant Administrator in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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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Organizing the Ocean

coastal scene

The Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard is the first such system for marine ecosystems.

By Marguerite Huber

Do you like things alphabetized? In chronological order? Color coded? If so, you probably love organization. You probably have a place and category for every aspect of your life.

Well researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NatureServe, the U.S. Geological Survey, and EPA have taken organization to the next level. For more than a decade they have been working to organize the first classification standard for describing coastal and marine ecosystems.

This classification standard, called the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), offers a simple framework and common terminology for describing ecosystems—from coastal estuaries all the way down to the depths of the ocean. It provides a consistent way to collect, organize, analyze, report, and share coastal marine ecological data, which is especially useful for coastal resource managers and planners, engineers, and researchers from government, academia, and industry. The Federal Geographic Data Committee has already adopted CMECS as the national standard.

Organization at its finest, CMECS is basically a structure of classification, with the helpful addition of an extensive dictionary of terms and definitions that describe ecological features for the geological, physical, biological, and chemical components of the environment.

Using CMECS, you first classify the ecosystem into two settings, which can be used together or separately. The Biogeographic Setting covers ecoregions defined by climate, geology, and evolutionary history. The second, Aquatic Setting, divides the watery territory into oceans, estuaries and lakes, deep and shallow waters, and submerged and intertidal environments.

For both of these settings, there are four components that describe different aspects of the ecosystem, which are outlined in CMECS’s Catalog of Units. The water column component describes characteristics of, you guessed it, the water column, including water temperature, salinity, and more. The geoform component includes characteristics of the coast or seafloor’s landscape. The substrate component characterizes the non-living materials that form the seafloor (like sand) or that provide a surface for biota (like a buoy that has mussels growing on it). And finally, the biotic component classifies the living organisms in the ecosystem.

A benefit of CMECS’s structure of settings and components is that users can apply CMECS to best suit their needs.  It can be used for detailed descriptions of small areas for experimental work, for mapping the characteristics of an entire regional ecosystem, and for everything in between.  People reading scientific papers, interpreting maps, or analyzing large data sets can have clear and easily available definitions to understand the work and to compare results.

Additionally, it will be much easier to share data because CMECS allows everyone to use the same units and the same terminology. It is much easier to share and compare data when you’re using the same definitions and the same units!

Overall, with the use and application of CMECS, we will be able to improve our knowledge of marine ecosystems, while satisfying organizers everywhere.

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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Helping Make Our Estuaries “Climate-Ready”

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By Mellissa Brosius EPA works with coastal managers to assess climate change vulnerabilities, develop and implement adaptation strategies, and engage and educate stakeholders

By Mellissa Brosius
EPA works with coastal managers to assess climate change vulnerabilities, develop and implement adaptation strategies, and engage and educate stakeholders

By Ashley Brosius

For as far back as I can remember, my family has vacationed at our beach house in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The house sits just one block from the beach and abuts the channel, so we have gorgeous views on all sides of the wraparound porch.

As I grew up, my personal interests in the natural environment led me to my professional pursuits in environmental protection. Working with the EPA Climate Ready Estuaries program continues to drive home the need to adapt to our changing climate, such as adjusting to rising water levels. Taking action is especially important in low lying coastal communities like the one that includes my family beach home. My mother often speaks of leaving the house to me some day, but I wonder if it will still be standing in 15-20 years.

Yet, my work with Climate Ready Estuaries has been encouraging. Our team works with the National Estuary Program and coastal managers to figure out where climate change could cause problems, create plans to handle them, and educate everyone affected. National Estuary Program staff are already out there working with coastal communities so they can better adapt and become more resilient to the myriad of potential impacts of climate change. For example, the work being done by the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program is helping to raise awareness of regional climate impacts. The San Juan Bay Estuary Program is working to limit climate impacts by estimating vulnerabilities. There are also many regional and city-specific adaptation efforts underway, like the Southeast Florida regional climate change compact and New York City’s adaptation plan.

But, most encouraging of all are the efforts underway to make progress on the White House Climate Action Plan. These local projects will receive guidance and resources from programs like the one I work on every day. I know the likelihood is slim that our family vacation home will still be standing 250 years from now. At least I know that our country is taking steps to preserve the broader community and make it more resilient for the tough road ahead.

This year, go make some memories of your own by celebrating the 25th anniversary of National Estuaries Day on September 28, 2013!

About the author: Ashley Brosius is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education participant working in EPA’s office of water in the Climate Ready Estuaries program.

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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Flexing Freshwater Mussels in the Delaware

Reposted from Healthy Waters for EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region

By Matt Colip

It takes more than the brute strength of legislation to clean up America’s waterways.  The complex process of aquatic ecosystem cleanup requires many tools, including one of nature’s most powerful muscles: her freshwater mussels.

That’s what the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary (PDE) – assisted by the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Scientific Dive Unit – set out to assess during a late summer freshwater mussel survey in a tidal section of the Delaware River near Philadelphia.

Freshwater mussels are bivalves similar to oysters and clams.  But, unlike oysters and clams, freshwater mussels live in inland streams, and provide valuable benefits including strengthening streambeds by keeping soils in place and providing food and habitat needed by other animals and plants.  As filter-feeders, mussels also clean the water in which they live by sucking water in and trapping solids such as dirt, algae and other pollutants, then releasing the clean filtered water back into the environment.

Being in the tidal area of the Delaware River as a scientific diver was an interesting experience. The water was not clear and flow rates were very high due to tidal fluctuation.  In these conditions, I couldn’t help but think, “There’s no way there are mussels down here.”  Despite my suspicions, when I reached the river bottom, sure enough, there were mussels everywhere, thriving and filtering the ambient water!

Freshwater mussel survey

Recording data during the freshwater mussel survey.

Ultimately, the survey, in addition to confirming the existence of an abundant freshwater mussel population in a very urbanized section of the Delaware River and providing valuable scientific data, gave me a newfound appreciation for what I used to only consider a tasty added protein to a pasta dish at a restaurant.*

For more information about freshwater mussels in the Delaware River, please visit the PDE’s website.  Read more about EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers.

About the Author: Matt Colip works in the region’s NPDES Enforcement Branch and focuses primarily on enforcing wastewater and stormwater regulations. Originally from Texas, Matt graduated from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., with an interdisciplinary BA in Public Health and has a MS from Saint Joseph’s University that focused on environmental protection policy and management. In addition to SCUBA diving, Matt is an avid bicyclist and enjoys riding with friends and colleagues.

*EPA is not endorsing the consumption of oysters, clams and mussels in the wild.   Please refer to the National Shellfish Sanitation Program guidelines associated with regulating the handling, processing and distribution of mussels prior to consumption.

 

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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Flexing Freshwater Mussels in the Delaware

By Matt Colip

It takes more than the brute strength of legislation to clean up America’s waterways.  The complex process of aquatic ecosystem cleanup requires many tools, including one of nature’s most powerful muscles: her freshwater mussels.

That’s what the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary (PDE) – assisted by the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Scientific Dive Unit – set out to assess during a late summer freshwater mussel survey in a tidal section of the Delaware River near Philadelphia.

Freshwater mussels are bivalves similar to oysters and clams.  But, unlike oysters and clams, freshwater mussels live in inland streams, and provide valuable benefits including strengthening streambeds by keeping soils in place and providing food and habitat needed by other animals and plants.  As filter-feeders, mussels also clean the water in which they live by sucking water in and trapping solids such as dirt, algae and other pollutants, then releasing the clean filtered water back into the environment.

Being in the tidal area of the Delaware River as a scientific diver was an interesting experience. The water was not clear and flow rates were very high due to tidal fluctuation.  In these conditions, I couldn’t help but think, “There’s no way there are mussels down here.”  Despite my suspicions, when I reached the river bottom, sure enough, there were mussels everywhere, thriving and filtering the ambient water!

Recording data during the freshwater mussel survey

Recording data during the freshwater mussel survey

Ultimately, the survey, in addition to confirming the existence of an abundant freshwater mussel population in a very urbanized section of the Delaware River and providing valuable scientific data, gave me a newfound appreciation for what I used to only consider a tasty added protein to a pasta dish at a restaurant.

For more information about freshwater mussels in the Delaware River, please visit the PDE’s website.  Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers.

 

About the Author: Matt Colip works in the region’s NPDES Enforcement Branch and focuses primarily on enforcing wastewater and stormwater regulations. Originally from Texas, Matt graduated from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., with an interdisciplinary BA in Public Health and has a MS from Saint Joseph’s University that focused on environmental protection policy and management. In addition to SCUBA diving, Matt is an avid bicyclist and enjoys riding with friends and colleagues.

*EPA is not endorsing the consumption of oysters, clams and mussels in the wild.   Please refer to the National Shellfish Sanitation Program guidelines associated with regulating the handling, processing and distribution of mussels prior to consumption.

 

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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King Tides and Sea Level Rise, Part 3

By Paul Cough

Growing up near the Kennebec River in Maine, I could see the tide rise and fall every day. Today, as Director of EPA’s Oceans and Coastal Protection Division, the oceans, coasts and coastal communities are always on my mind.

More and more, coastal communities are becoming aware of the effects of  climate changeExit EPA Disclaimer such as sea level rise and its impacts on beaches, estuaries and infrastructure.

When people go outside and see how the “king tide” – the highest tide of the year is flooding their favorite places, they are getting a glimpse of future sea levels.

Because the sea is rising, flood levels that are reached now just once a year will eventually become the high tide level on a typical day.

We also put out a call for photos of king tides on EPA’s State of the Environment Photography Project to help people in government and your neighbors and friends see and think about what sea level rise will mean. If coastal places are
flooding just from high tide now, then the rising sea levels expected in the coming years and decades present even greater challenges.

At EPA, we have been urging people to plan for climate change impacts. We all want safe and sustainable places where social, economic, and environmental conditions are in harmony – now and in the future.

The photographs of tides flowing out of storm drains, flooded streets, and cars sitting in salt water show us that in many places, harmony is slipping away. Earlier this summer, we talked about how Hurricane Sandy pushed a storm surge into a place that already floods from tides and how evidence of sea level rise can be seen well over 100 miles inland from the ocean.

Planning for the impacts of climate change and sea level rise is essential if we are to preserve the coastal places we all know and love. For more information about climate change adaptation, please visit the Climate Ready Estuaries program
website.

About the author: Paul Cough is the director of EPA’s Oceans and Coastal Protection Division in the Office of Water

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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King Tides and Sea Level Rise, Part 2

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By Nancy Stoner

Growing up in Virginia, I loved it when my family went to the beach each summer. The beach was a place where we could have fun together. Now, as the acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water, I am well aware how climate change may impact the seashore and our estuaries.

Coastal processes such as tides don’t just happen right at the seashore. Tides can extend far up into our estuaries and rivers; we have tides in the Washington D.C., which is 188 miles upstream from the Atlantic Ocean. Sea level rise is a concern here and all around the U.S. too. The relative rate of sea level rise measured at the Washington D.C. tide gauge from 1924 through 2012 is equivalent to 13 inches in 100 years. Sea level is projected to rise even faster in the coming decades. Higher sea levels are potential threats to water infrastructure, to homes, to our drinking water supply, and to wetlands and coastal environments.

This month, the Atlantic and Gulf coasts will be seeing their highest tides of the year in a couple of weeks. These “king tides” can cause tidal flooding in coastal communities. King tides provide a glimpse of the future, and provide us with a glimpse of potential future impacts from rising sea levels, and how things could look if sea levels do not recede. The Middle Atlantic Center for Geography & Environmental Studies website shows where and when king tides are expected to happen.

You can help record king tides through photography. The King Tides International Network recently launched a photo contest to help record king tides from all over the world. You can also submit photos of king tides to EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project. And, for more information about climate change adaptation please visit EPA’s Climate Ready Estuaries program on the web.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water.

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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Around the Water Cooler: Climate Ready Estuaries

To continue the Agency’s efforts to expand the conversation on climate change, we are highlighting EPA climate change research with Science Matters articles. This week’s “Around the Water Cooler” features research to support climate ready estuaries.

Climate Ready Estuaries Program
EPA researchers assess coastal habitats to identify vulnerabilities and help communities prepare.

Estuaries serve as the connections between the ocean and freshwater rivers and streams.

Estuaries are partially enclosed water bodies that serve as the connections between the ocean and freshwater rivers and streams. Both their water and surrounding soils are nutrient-rich, providing homes for some of the most biologically productive and diverse habitats in the world. These habitats are critical places for many species of fish to reproduce, for birds to find refuge and “refuel” during migration, and for people to swim and boat. Many also serve as sources of drinking water.

Estuaries are directly linked to environmental quality, human well-being, and national prosperity. Estuarine marshes help maintain water quality by filtering surface water runoff and retaining excess nutrients, pollutants and sediments. They decrease the impacts of coastal flooding by absorbing stormwater, preventing the inundation of surrounding communities. Estuarine habitats also serve as nurseries for commercially important fish and shellfish.

Estuaries are also highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

In the coming decades, estuaries will be threatened by rising sea levels, warming temperatures, and increasingly powerful storms. EPA researchers are working with the National Estuaries Programs (NEPs) and coastal managers to learn more about the risks estuaries face due to a changing climate, and are leading efforts to help coastal managers and others develop the capabilities (“adaptation strategies”) to protect them from the impacts of global climate change.

One vulnerable habitat that researchers have studied is the San Francisco Bay estuary, where EPA scientists collaborated with colleagues from the San Francisco Bay Estuary Partnership, and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission to assess the ecological vulnerability of coastal systems in the Bay area.

“We looked at key processes that are critical to maintaining salt marsh and mudflat ecosystems,” explains EPA scientist Jordan West. “We asked: how are different physical and biological variables involved in processes such as sediment retention being impacted by climate change, and how do we separate all of these pieces and identify the greatest sensitivities? After we had done that, we could then look at what options might be available to communities for managing these problems.”

San Francisco Bay

The project team convened a group of local experts to look at the different relationships between plants, animals, and physical processes in the San Francisco Bay estuary to determine which parts are currently the most sensitive and thus most likely to be impacted by climate change. Once they were able to identify sensitivities in the estuary, they developed adaptation strategies that the surrounding community could use to better manage risks and increase resiliency.

For example, salt marshes are sensitive to the effects that climate change will have on freshwater flows (the freshwater flowing into them from streams and rivers), as these flows affect salinity, which in turn, affects the growth of marsh plants. Thus one recommendation is to manage reservoirs for steady, low-volume releases during the growing season, to regulate salinity and favor marsh plant productivity. Since marshes are also sensitive to erosion during increasingly-intense storms, additional actions to consider are building berms or restoring oyster reefs as protective barriers against wave energy.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the severity and timing of the effects of climate change, communities must develop strategies that account for a variety of potential circumstances.

“It’s essentially planning for many potential outcomes and being prepared to act on each one,” says West. “You have to look at a range of plausible scenarios. We use many different climate models that make different assumptions, which provides us with a variety of possible future scenarios. This lets us look for options that work across a range of outcomes. Alternatively, communities can prepare an assortment of options so that they have flexibility in their response based on what occurs in the future.”

The strategies developed by EPA researchers and their partners are providing decision makers in San Francisco and elsewhere with the information they need to develop adaptation strategies and make decisions based on sound science. Their findings, while site-specific, show that early planning could help vulnerable communities escape, or at least mitigate, some of the devastating impacts of climate change on estuaries around the country.

Learn More

Estuaries and Coastal Wetlands

Climate Ready Estuaries (website)

Climate Ready Estuaries 2012 Progress Report (pdf)

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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Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the National Estuary Program, Up Close & Personal

Charlotte Harbor National Estuary program partners tour Matlacha and Pine Islands, just a few miles west of Fort Myers, Florida.

By Nancy Stoner

Last year not only marked the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, but also the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the National Estuary Program, an EPA place-based program to protect and restore the water quality and ecological integrity of estuaries of national significance. Although there have been challenges along the way, we have made significant progress in making our waters fishable and swimmable. The collaborative, partnership-driven—and non-regulatory—efforts at the 28 National Estuary Program sites across the country have had a special role in implementing the Clean Water Act.

For decades, even before the enactment of the Clean Water Act, Americans have made great strides in protecting the environment and clean water because of governments, groups and individuals working together.  The National Estuary Programs have been incredible models of this approach as they have established trust at the local level by promoting a close working relationship among a wide range of partners, and the programs are often recognized as an unbiased broker to achieve commonsense conservation goals.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of this remarkable work in person through my time here at EPA through a number of visits to National Estuary Program sites, and got a firsthand look at all the great things that are happening at the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary in Florida last December.

I accompanied state and local officials on a boat tour around the harbor’s Matlacha and Pine Islands, just a few miles west of Fort Myers. Charlotte Harbor is a popular destination for bird and wildlife watching, and now I understand why—we saw bald eagles, osprey, manatees, egrets, herons and several species of pelicans. I was equally impressed with the wide variety of programs our partners have underway, which include efforts to preserve and protect mangroves, aquatic preserves, sea grasses and wetlands.

Most of these programs are on track to achieve their goals, all while population and development in the watershed are on the rise, a sign that the protecting the environment and growing the economy can compliment one another. Some challenges still remain in the Charlotte Harbor area— like stormwater discharges, nutrient pollution and pathogens affecting water quality—but the strength of the partnerships I witnessed last month made me confident that these issues can be addressed collaboratively and with sustainable outcomes.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water.

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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How “green” Is Your Garden?

Rain GardenLike gardening?  Interested in attracting birds and butterflies?  Well, you can do all of this and help prevent stormwater from entering local streams.  By creating a rain garden, you can direct water from your downspouts to your garden and reduce your own water use as a bonus!
A rain garden is an attractive landscaped area with native plants that don’t mind a summer rain.  The rain garden is designed to naturally collect water that runs off your roof, driveway and other paved areas.  It is a sustainable and economic way of dealing with rainfall as nature intended.  Also, a rain garden slows down and reduces the volume of rainfall runoff before it enters the stormwater system. 
I’m inviting you to join the Mid-Atlantic National Estuary Program in their campaign, Rain Gardens for the Bays!  This unique campaign works closely with EPA Region 3, Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, Center for the Delaware Inland Bays, Maryland Coastal Bays, DE Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and other organizations, to green our neighborhoods and protect our streams and bays. 
By installing a rain garden, you are not only keeping rainwater on your property but you are saving time by lowering landscaping maintenance and doing your part to protect the environment at the same time.
Want double the water saving benefits? Connect a rain barrel to your downspout and use the collected water to keep your rain garden and other landscaping green and attractive to birds and bees.
For more information on how to create your very own rain garden visit Rain Gardens for the Bays

Have you installed a rain garden?  If so, tell us about your experience and register your rain garden here. Haven’t installed one yet?  Tell us why not, and if you would consider creating your very own rain garden.

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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