Water Treatment

EPA Science In Action: Keeping an Eye on Harmful Algal Blooms

By Cindy Sonich-Mullin

A half million people living in and around Toledo, Ohio recently experienced a weekend without tap water. A “harmful algal bloom” of cyanobacteria in Lake Erie, Toledo’s water source, produced unsafe levels of the toxin microcystin. The toxin is known to cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and at high exposure levels, liver damage.

A water advisory was issued alerting residents to avoid all contact with Toledo drinking water.

At the first sign of trouble, colleagues at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency contacted my laboratory to provide technical assistance and water sample analysis to support the City of Toledo’s drinking water utility.

We were a natural choice to help out. Not only is EPA’s Cincinnati-based laboratory facility relatively close geographically, but our scientific staff includes a team of leading experts with analytical capabilities in drinking water treatment and cyanobacterial toxins.

Throughout the weekend, we performed tests and conducted sensitive analyses to help identify the optimal approach for controlling the toxins in Toledo’s water plant and distribution system. We shared our test results with our partners from Ohio EPA, who interpreted them along with their own results and others from the City of Toledo.

We were all greatly relieved the morning of August 6th, when the City of Toledo determined that they could lift the water advisory.

At the time, Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler released the following statement: “After exhaustive testing, analysis and discussions between Toledo water officials, the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA, we support the city’s decision to lift its drinking water advisory. Throughout the difficulty of the past few days everyone involved has demonstrated the utmost professionalism and commitment to solving this problem. The mayor and his team, U.S. EPA and the other scientific and academic leaders who lent us their expertise worked in a constructive way to turn the water back on for the people of Toledo.”

While many weekend plans were cancelled due to the crisis in Toledo, we were honored to be called on to help our sister city to the north. As scientists, it is gratifying to use our expertise and the tools we develop to provide solutions to communities. Of course, what would be even better than lending our expertise and rapid response and analysis capabilities would be to help prevent harmful algal blooms from threatening drinking water supplies in the first place. And that is just what we are doing. In fact, we’ve shared some of our harmful algal bloom research recently here on our blog. Below are some recent posts with more information on that work.

As the above blogs exemplify, EPA researchers are working hard to better understand the dynamics of harmful algal blooms. EPA is also working with other agencies to accelerate the development and deployment of affordable sensors that will help predict future algal blooms. This means we will be even better poised to work with cities like Toledo and other local communities to better protect precious drinking water supplies. Keep an eye here on “It All Starts with Science” to see future posts about that work, and more.

About the Author: Cindy Sonich-Mullin is the Director of EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory in Cincinnati, Ohio. She has over 30 years of experience in EPA, leading research and response efforts on a wide variety of environmental issues.

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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Motivation Meets Innovation in the Name of Water Conservation

California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts the state has ever seen—so smart water use matters more than ever before. Earlier this month, I visited Southern California to get a firsthand look at some of the largest and most successful efforts to reuse and recycle water in the country.

Nancy_OC

From left to right: Jim Colson, Environmental Compliance Manager, Orange County Sanitation District; Nancy Stoner, Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water; Benita Best-Wong, Director of EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds; Mike Wehner, Assistant General Manager, Orange County Water District; and Dr. Robert Ghirelli, Assistant General Manager, Orange County Sanitation District. Photo credit: Jason Dadakis, Orange County Water District

 

One of the facilities I visited was the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System, which puts highly treated wastewater collected from the county’s sewer system—and that would otherwise be discharged into the Pacific Ocean—to beneficial use in the county’s water supply. Finding innovative ways for municipalities and businesses to use water is a priority for EPA. More

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

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Around the Water Cooler: Wastewater Treatment (nothing to scream about…)

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

I came across this little gem the other day while working to promote EPA’s water science research.  A sci-fi novel set in a wastewater treatment plant? Brilliant. And the tagline: Where no one cares when you scream? Clearly author Dodge Winston has a lot to think about while at work as a wastewater plant operator in the San Francisco Bay area. I’ll bet, though, that most of us haven’t given the wastewater treatment plant in our communities much thought, yet wastewater treatment is a key contributor to keeping us healthy and the environment clean.

Do you know what happens to the wastewater when you flush the toilet or run the disposal, or even finish a load of laundry? The wastewater collection system consists of a network of pipes, pumps, and tunnels that connect our household plumbing to sewer lines and pump stations.  Eventually the wastewater is sent to the treatment plant for cleaning and distribution.

There are approximately 800,000 miles of public sewer lines in the United States, most installed after World War II. There are also close to 20,000 wastewater treatment pipe systems and 15,000 wastewater treatment facilities in the United States, most of them aging and certainly many that can’t handle a large storm without sending overflows of untreated wastewater into our waterways.

With this in mind, EPA engineers and scientists are developing tools, rehabilitation technologies and methods to increase long-term effectiveness of wastewater treatment systems. They also help municipalities and wastewater treatment plant staff keep our water clean, contributing to healthier people and a cleaner environment. EPA researchers are working  to keep our water sources free from chemical, biological, and radiological contaminants, too.

Here are a few of the tools and models our researchers have developed:

While these technologies and tools are targeted to wastewater treatment plant operators, there are things you can do at home to help keep our water clean and reduce the cost of cleaning our water at the wastewater treatment plant. Learn more about what you can do in your community here.

And for fun, check out this innovative tool the city of Oberlin, Ohio is using. You can see real-time use of electricity and water.

As an aside, this tool was developed by Lucid Design Group, which was founded by members of Oberlin College’s P3 team that organized a two-week “Dorm Energy Competition” where dorm residents competed to reduce their energy and water use and used the dashboards to monitor success back in 2005. Today, Lucid has customers around the country, including towns, building owners, corporations – and even Google – who want to monitor and reduce energy and water consumption.

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry is a frequent contributor to Around the Water Cooler, and she also helps promote the great work of EPA researchers in the Safe and Sustainable Water Resources program. And at lunch today she will drink about a gallon of clean, treated tap water.

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: Sewage Science

By Sarah Blau

Cheddar Blog PhotoAs a pre-veterinary student and a dog owner, I probably pay more attention than most to what comes out the tail end of my pooch. And yes, I’m talking about poo. Though it sounds gross at first, excrement can actually tell us a lot about the health of the poo-producer.

As I dutifully scoop the offending pile into a biodegradable bag, a brief glance lets me know if my pup is dehydrated or has any GI upset I may need to address. And when we go for our annual checkup at the local vet’s office, microscope analysis of a fecal sample will find worms or other heath risks I need to know about to protect my little girl.

So, why am I going on and on about egesta (aka, poo)? Well, EPA scientist Christian Daughton is dabbling with the idea that knowledge of a community’s health can be gleaned from community waste—or, sewage—in much the same manner that bodily health knowledge can be gleaned from the waste of my pup!

This fascinating new research concept is referred to as “Sewage Chemical-Information Mining” (SCIM). It targets analysis of community sewage from waste-treatment plants for specific biological or chemical substances broadly associated with human health or disease. In this way, scientists might someday quickly screen for and locate community populations that are possibly exposed to health risks or susceptible to disease outbreaks. It could also be used to rank communities in terms of overall health.

Daughton published two papers last year describing the unique concept of SCIM and the results of his work to date. This research is intended as a catalyst for future work by federal agencies and others, presenting an innovative way to measure, monitor, and protect public health.

So, as off-putting as it seems, don’t pooh-pooh the importance of monitoring waste. This ground-breaking method of analyzing community sewage for chemicals that can reflect community health has the potential to turn into a whole new field of science!

And this is what I’ll be thinking about as I scoop up the steaming present my hound will undoubtedly “pooduce” for me this afternoon – how brilliant our world is that so much useful information can be found in a stinky pile of…

About the Author: Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She doesn’t often discuss poo around the water cooler – she finds it turns people off – but she does dispose of her dog, Cheddar’s, excrement on a daily basis.

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: Leaving the Outhouse Behind

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Stormwater flows from a large pipe.

Green infrastructure helps keep stormwater in place.

This week, and every Thursday that follows, I’ll introduce you to the EPA scientists and engineers who work to make sure our water stays clean and that we have enough for generations to come.

Today I’m kicking off a series on green infrastructure while we recognize the role of science and innovation in the Clean Water Act, which turns 40 this year.

What is green infrastructure? It’s actually just a fancy term for rain gardens, rain barrels and cisterns that keep excess water out of our storm drains.

But let’s start with some history. In the mid-1800s, flush toilets came to America. Everyone wanted one so that no one would have to make that nightly cold, dark trek to the outhouse. Soon, though, it became obvious that when you “flush” the toilet inside the nice warm house, the waste has to go somewhere. Initially that somewhere was our streets.

Thankfully, that did not last long.

Motivated by smelly city streets, municipalities added underground pipes to carry the wastewater from homes and businesses and deposit in waterways where it could be diluted and carried away in the current. The pipes, though, also carry stormwater that rushes off the streets during heavy rain.

Welcome to the combined sewer system.

There are approximately 800 cities and towns across America that still use combined sewer systems, including big ones such as New York and Chicago, and smaller ones like Omaha and Louisville.

Today, these systems don’t feed directly into our waterways. The water is first sent to a treatment plant where it is cleaned.

The problem with these combined sewer systems is that when it rains hard, the polluted wastewater doesn’t always make it to the treatment facility, and instead goes directly to our rivers, streams and other waterways. (A violation of the Clean Water Act. And also pretty gross.)

But changing out all these networks of pipes—called gray infrastructure—is costly. EPA scientists and engineers have been working with several municipalities around the country to find alternatives—innovative solutions to efficiently and inexpensively reduce runoff flowing into combined sewer systems.

Each Thursday over the next few weeks I’ll highlight green infrastructure research and best practices while sharing ways you can make a difference in your community.

In the meantime, check out this interactive tool from the Arbor Day Foundation to compare the difference between a community with increased green infrastructure in the form of more trees versus a community with less. Which would you rather live in?

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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Getting My Feet Wet

By Dena Vallano

In September 2011, I arrived at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) ready to learn. Trained as a plant ecologist, I had spent much of my prior time tackling scientific issues with my feet safely on the ground (and mostly away from water). But that all changed as I became aware of the increasing challenges that many communities are facing related to limited water resources and aging water infrastructure.

That is why the EPA’s partnership with the Army to achieve “Net Zero” is so important to solving our most critical economic and environmental challenges related to sustainability, not only on military installations but in communities across the nation.

The goal of the Net Zero Initiative is to ensure that Army installations only consume as much energy and water as they produce and minimize waste sent to landfills. EPA scientists and engineers are providing their skills and expertise to bring cutting-edge research assistance to the effort surrounding water at two installations, Fort Riley in Kansas and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington.

One of two waste water treatment facilities at Ft. Riley.

Since signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Army in November 2011, EPA staff  have been hard at work advancing the Net Zero Initiative. On July 10-11, 2012, EPA scientists and local representatives met with Army staff at Fort Riley, KS to identify and discuss their challenges with water infrastructure and specific technology needs.

The visit allowed the team to gain first-hand knowledge of the installation’s facilities and prioritize Fort Riley’s specific needs for innovative technologies and tools that can be collaboratively developed and demonstrated by the team. The team identified the following potential projects for collaborative development and demonstration:

  • Waste water reuse technologies and approaches
  • Behavioral/social campaign to focus on culture changes needed to reduce water consumption
  • Innovative technologies to reduce water loss on the installation and address aging water infrastructure

ORD will continue to refine and scope potential projects with installation personnel, EPA’s Office of Water, and Region 7.   A similar site visit to scope projects with Joint Base Lewis-McChord is expected in Fall 2012.

It has been a fantastic experience to work on achieving “Net Zero” with the EPA—I’m so glad that I had the chance to get my feet a little wet during my fellowship.

About the author: Dr. Dena Vallano is currently a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow in EPA’s Office for Research and Development. Prior to her fellowship, she was a postdoctoral scholar in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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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Responding to Water Impacts of Climate Change

By Christina Catanese

Comment on EPA's Draft Climate Change Strategy hereWhen we hear predictions such as temperature increases of 3 degrees Celsius, and 13 inches of sea level rise resulting from climate change, we wonder what that means for us and our communities. If the ocean is at your front door, the threat is pretty clear. But for the rest of us, the implications are not so apparent. For example, did you know that climate change could impact the systems that bring us our drinking water and prevent flooding and sewer overflows?

While the impacts will vary significantly from one region to another, climate change is almost certain to cause more extreme weather events, including changing precipitation patterns and increased severity of drought and flooding. Greater frequency and intensity of rain events could also overwhelm our systems that are designed to deal with them.

As temperatures increase and sea levels rise, salt water is likely to intrude in to surface and groundwater,  resulting in more water impairment.  This can make the already challenging job for our drinking water treatment operators even tougher, and cause treatment costs to rise, which would impact our pocketbooks. Learn more about the impacts of climate change on water resources here.

How should EPA’s water programs respond to climate change? In response to these challenges, EPA recently drafted the 2012 Strategy Response to Climate Change to address impacts to water and how they could affect EPA’s water programs.  And we’re looking for your input.

You have until May 17th to provide your comments on this draft strategy.  Find out how to comment here!

Making sure that EPA’s programs continue to protect human health and the environment even in changing climate conditions will require collaboration from all of us.  We hope you’ll join us in facing up to this challenge!

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, and her work focuses on data analysis and management, GIS mapping and tools, communications, and other tasks that support the work of Regional water programs. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Political Science and an M.S. in Applied Geosciences with a Hydrogeology concentration. Trained in dance (ballet, modern, and other styles) from a young age, Christina continues to perform, choreograph and teach in the Philadelphia area.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Waters of the US

By Nancy Stoner

Water has always been a powerful force in my life. I grew up in a floodplain outside Waynesboro, Virginia, near the South River. My house was right next to the river, and one time the floods were so bad that I ended up going out the front door on a boat. It was scary: I saw a neighbor clinging to a tree with one arm and his child with the other.

Perhaps influenced by growing up near the water, I’ve spent my career working to protect rivers, lakes, and coastal waters from pollution. Because I care about clean water so deeply, it is gratifying to be a part of recent Obama Administration actions that will protect our country’s clean water.

The Clean Water Act empowers states, EPA, and citizens to protect America’s waters, which we call “waters of the United States.”

Over the last 10 years, two Supreme Court decisions have caused confusion about what waters are protected by the Clean Water Act. And this confusion has meant that some waters that should be protected are not. Lakes, small streams, streams that run for only part of the year, and wetlands not directly connected to the tributary system are most at risk.

If these waters are not clearly protected, flooding may pose greater risks to our communities in the future—and I know how damaging such floods can be. Every year, flooding causes about $1.9 billion in property damage. More than 117 million Americans get some or all of their drinking water from waters that are not clearly protected right now. Every dollar spent on source water protection saves about $27 in water treatment costs. Clean water is an essential priority for hunters and fishers: About 40 million anglers spend about $45 billion a year, and about 2.3 million people spend $1.3 billion per year hunting migratory birds.

That’s why EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have proposed for public comment a guidance document that clarifies where the Clean Water Act applies. Our approach is based in science and makes common sense: protecting the smallest waters is the best and most cost-effective way to protect the bigger waters they flow into.

Our waters are a crucial part of our lives and our landscapes. The guidance and related information is on our web site.   I invite you to read this proposed guidance and let us know what you think.

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

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

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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