estuary

Mapping Estuarine Environments

By Marguerite Huber

Aerial photograph of estuary at Newport, Oregon

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

As the spots that link freshwater from rivers and saltwater from the ocean, estuaries thrive as productive environments that support distinctive communities of plants and animals.

Current and historic data on estuary conditions are necessary for researchers to make informed decisions on protecting and preserving these unique environments. But with approximately 2,000 estuaries along the five US coastal regions (Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific, Alaska, and Hawaii), scientists have amassed a lot of data to keep track of, and it’s spread out among many different agencies and organizations. Traditionally, it has been a challenge to pull all that information together to see the big picture. EPA’s Estuary Data Mapper application changes that by providing a fast, easy way for researchers to zoom into a specific estuary of interest and find current, available data for that system.

The Estuary Data Mapper provides:

The mapper was designed as a one-stop-shop to support the work of environmental scientists (aquatic biologists and chemists), water ecosystem managers, non-governmental organizations and citizen groups focused on water ecosystems.

Screen shot from EPA's Estuary Data Mapper

EPA’s Estuary Mapper

The Estuary Data Mapper also includes information about coastal rivers, tributaries, and watersheds. On top of that, it gives users the ability to display background reference information, such as cities and roads, to help them explore areas of interest and learn more about the context of their inquiries. Having access to this data will help researchers gauge the status of estuary environments, and even possible threats—facilitating the use of decision-support tools to help them visualize the effects of potential management actions. For example, having access to nitrogen loading sources and predictive models of seagrass habitat can help communities and watershed organizations find ways to reduce nitrogen loads.

The Estuary Data Mapper has just released an updated version with expanded data sources on atmospheric deposition, nonpoint and point nitrogen sources and loads to estuaries and their associated watersheds. EPA researchers will continue to incorporate new data resources and update the mapper to help protect these vital, productive ecosystems well into the future.

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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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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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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Making a Difference – One Rain Garden at a Time

By Sue McDowell

The Rain Gardens for the Bays Campaign has gone local!

The Borough of Ambler, Pennsylvania, in collaboration with the Ambler Environmental Advisory Council, is helping to install rain gardens to improve local water quality in the Wissahickon Creek watershed, a tributary to the Schuylkill River, which leads to the Delaware Bay.

Through local volunteers and partnerships with state and local governments, Ambler is well on the way to its goal of 100 rain gardens over the next 10 years.

A rain garden is a garden designed as a shallow depression to collect water that runs off from your roof, driveway and other paved areas. It’s a sustainable and economic way of dealing with rainfall as nature intended.

Check out this video about Ambler’s ambitions!

The Rain Gardens for the Bays Campaign is greening our neighborhoods and protecting our streams by dotting the landscape with thousands of demonstration rain gardens in local watersheds. Town Halls, libraries, schools and other public institutions are showcasing this natural way to manage stormwater on the property that generates it.

The campaign is a partnership with EPA’s three mid-Atlantic National Estuary Programs (Delaware Bay, Delaware Inland Bays and Maryland Coastal Bays), the state of Delaware, the University of Delaware and other organizations.  One of our prime goals is encouraging residents and other property owners to install their own rain gardens.  You, too, can help your local watershed and our bays and rivers, one garden at a time.

For more information about Rain Gardens for the Bays Visit: http://www.raingardensforthebays.org/

About the author: Susan McDowell joined the EPA family in 1990.  Her work on community-based sustainability throughout her career includes the award-winning Green Communities program which has traveled across the United States and internationally.  She brings her ‘ecological’ perspective to her work including Pennsylvania’s nonpoint source pollution program the mid-Atlantic National Estuaries, and the G3 Academy (Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns).

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’s the Bay Doin’?

By Tom Damm

When the late New York City Mayor Ed Koch wanted to get a sense for, “How’m I doin’?” he’d ask people on the street.

Bay Barometer Cover ImageThe Chesapeake Bay Program takes a more scientific approach when it considers the state of the Bay and its watershed.

It crunches all sorts of statistics and produces an annual update on health and restoration efforts called Bay Barometer.  The latest one is now available.

So how’s the ecosystem doin’?

The science-based snapshot shows that while the Bay is impaired, signs of resilience abound.

A number of indicators of watershed health, like water clarity and dissolved oxygen levels, point to a stressed ecosystem.  But other factors, such as a smaller than normal summertime dead zone and an increase in juvenile crabs entering the fishery, provide a brighter picture.

Recent restoration work and pollution cuts also offer signs of progress for the nation’s largest estuary.

Learn more about Bay Barometer or read the full report.

About the Author: Tom Damm has been with EPA since 2002 and now serves as communications coordinator for the region’s Water Protection Division.

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: Steps to Protect Waterways

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

It’s cold and dreary around my area, but what better time to think about a warm beach vacation? Think about your favorite beach—warm clear water to swim in, pristine sand to lay on and great seafood to fill our bellies. But what if those didn’t exist?

Nutrient pollution pollution caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus can cause major “dead zones,” essentially making all those things we love about the beach nonexistent. The state of Florida has been working to protect its important commodities – beaches, water and seafood—and recently set limits on allowable nutrient levels.

EPA scientists and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are exploring using “numeric nutrient criteria” to protect Florida’s estuaries. For example, EPA research on seagrasses is being used to develop water clarity targets. EPA scientist Jim Hagy says, “the steady decline of aquatic life caused by too much nutrient pollution will give way to limits on pollution, eventually improving water quality.

Image Credit: Hans W. Paerl 2006

Nutrient pollution found in our water comes from a variety of sources including agriculture, aquaculture, septic tanks, urban wastewater, urban stormwater runoff, and industry. Nutrient pollution can even come from burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil. These excess nutrients can enter water from the air, surface water, or groundwater. In other words, the problem is everywhere.

Of course, it’s not just what’s happening in Florida that affects Florida’s water quality. Anything upstream has impact on those waterways and the same for all waterways around the country. Such development of allowable limits on nutrient levels should provide information for other places around the country looking to protect their water, too. While it’s challenging work, this example shows that it’s possible to make an impact in keeping our waterways clean and safe.

For more information on our nutrient research, please visit: http://epa.gov/research/waterscience/water-nutrients.htm

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry loves the beach and seafood and clean water. (Who doesn’t?) She is a frequent contributor to Around the Water Cooler and works with the Safe and Sustainable Water Resources research team to communicate their work.

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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Around the Water Cooler: Seagrasses are the nurseries of our coastal waters

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Coatal SeagrassesDo you like seafood? I love it. I live in Maryland, home of the best crabcakes in America. You know what helps make those crabcakes delicious? Seagrass.

Well, maybe not directly, but seagrass provides shelter and a nursery area where many economically important (and tasty!) fish and shellfish start life.

Seagrasses also provide us with other important benefits such as stabilizing sediment along the shoreline and providing protection from storms and hurricanes. They are found primarily in shallow and sheltered waters on our coastlines.

But nutrient pollution, one of the most challenging environmental problems of our time, is smothering seagrass beds. When there are too many nutrients in our water – nitrogen and phosphorus to be specific – we get blooms of tiny marine organisms called phytoplankton in the water, reducing clarity.  Algae growing on the seagrasses can also reduce the amount of light reaching seagrass leaves.  

Where seagrasses are stressed by nutrient pollution, they can eventually disappear. Since so many people love to eat fish and crabs, the decrease in production of seafood will make it more expensive and harder to find.  That’s a tough pill to swallow.

EPA marine ecologist Jim Hagy is using historical and recent maps of seagrass along the Florida coast to figure out how deep they once grew and how deep they are growing today.  This will help us figure out how clear the water should be in order to protect this important aspect of our coastal ecosystems.

A map of seagrass depth colonization may not sound too exciting, but the research is important because it is the basis “to develop biological endpoints to support nutrient criteria in Florida estuaries,” says Hagy. “Florida estuaries will soon enter a new chapter in their history, one that we hope will include reliable protection for the State’s high quality waters and a credible path to restoration for impaired waters.”

And for the rest of us, healthy seagrasses will help ensure that we can still get a really good crabcake or seafood dinner!

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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Estuary, What’s an Estuary?

I recently watched an estuary video and learned a lot. For example, did you know that an estuary is a body of water formed where freshwater from rivers and streams flows into the ocean, mixing with seawater? What I didn’t know was that estuaries are called nurseries of the sea because so many young fish, turtles, and other creatures are born and spend their developing years here.  A lot of people boat, swim and fish in estuaries and have no idea the importance of them. Is there an estuary where you live?

Watch at http://www.youtube.com/usepagov#p/u/5/XLumSN4G5P4 to learn more.

Megan Gavin is the Environmental Education Coordinator for EPA Region 5 in Chicago, Illinois.

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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Boast Your Coast!

Displays and Booths at Walnut PlazaJust because you don’t live anywhere close to beachfront property doesn’t mean you’re not a coastal resident! In fact, if you live near and/or between Philadelphia and the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, then most likely your everyday actions have a huge impact on the closest coastal region. Why? Because you are directly connected to the Delaware Estuary, which stretches from Trenton, New Jersey, south to Cape May, New Jersey and Cape Henlopen, Delaware.  Estuaries are areas partially surrounded by land where rivers meet the sea. The Delaware Estuary ecosystem is fed by the Delaware River and its tributaries which includes all of the Delaware Bay. Inhabitants of the area rely on the estuary for drinking water, industry and recreational activities. As do all estuaries, it posseses many habitats suitable for vast amounts of plants and animals and is the birthplace of many different kinds of wildlife.

There are millions of people who live in the Delaware River Basin which includes parts of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The activities of those millions have an effect on the quality of water in the estuary. For this reason, the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, Inc. held the 2010 Pennsylvania Coast Day on September 13th. This day of family fun boasted ferries, schooners, and other kinds of sea transportation. For those who were prone to sea-sickness, there were over 20 booths and displays at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, educating child and adult alike.

You can bet that representatives from EPA Region 3’s Water Protection Division were there to do just that. With many fun-filled activities, including a Water Wheel of Questions, Region 3 employees shared the importance of water conservation and keeping our streams clean. Responses from one question on the water wheel really surprised us. “How long is your normal shower?” While it is recommended that you try to keep it to 10 minutes or less, many participants said they take 15 to 30 minute showers! That got us to wonder how many other people take an extended time in the shower. How long do you take? Let us know or tell us how you make an effort to conserve water around your home. And if you were at the event and visited our display, do you have any suggestions for activities or issues we could incorporate at EPA’s booth for Coast Day 2011?

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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