Water Quality

Celebrate Those Hidden Pipes and Forgotten Facilities

By Gina Snyder

I’ve never met a group of more hard-working, humble, dedicated professionals than the people I meet from water and wastewater treatment facilities. “Infrastructure Week,” the third week in May, provides an opportunity to celebrate the work they do and the critical services they provide. We make use of our roads, faucets, bridges and bathrooms every day of our life, but how often do we think about infrastructure, this vast array of assets that constantly need our attention.Infrastructure2

Well, a group of dozens of businesses, utilities and other organizations who got together to create Infrastructure Week hope to change that. They hope all of us will start paying attention to these assets and giving them the credit, funding and care they are due. This year’s theme for the week is “Infrastructure Matters.”

And it does! Infrastructure matters, in big ways and small — to our country, our economy, our quality of life, our safety, and our communities. Roads, bridges, rails, ports, pipes, the power grid, all of it matters immensely. As the infrastructure week website point out, it matters “to the goods we ship and the companies that make and sell them; it matters to our daily commutes and our summer vacations; to drinking water from our faucets, to the lights in our homes, and ultimately to every aspect of our daily lives.”

Important as infrastructure is, much of it is hidden. All the underground pipes have been working for us for decades, under cover. These pipes bring water and gas to our homes, and take waste away.

Unfortunately, these important assets get low scores for the poor condition much of them are in.

When construction season begins it may seem we are tackling the problem. Several years ago, my street was dug up and my home was hooked up to a plastic pipe running up my driveway as my town replaced the water line. Now, this spring, the gas company is replacing the gas line in the street.

But all the disruption you see goes only a small way toward closing what’s reported to be a $1 trillion infrastructure investment gap in the U.S.

Perhaps because rain falls freely from the sky, we think water is “free”. But, treating and delivering water is far from free. The same is true for the pipes that carry away wastewater.

Since our water infrastructure is out of sight and out of mind, it is easy to underestimate costs. As one of the largest assets of our cities and towns, water infrastructure deserves more attention than it typically gets.

Our local communities pay most of the cost of water infrastructure, mainly through revenues generated by water rates. These fees will continue to be the primary source of revenue for most community water systems. It is important that we pay the rates that recover the costs to make this service sustainable.

You can help bring this important topic the attention it deserves. For Infrastructure Week, talk about these challenges – and increase awareness of just how valuable our water infrastructure is.

Infrastructrure1Ask your public officials to consider alternative solutions – particularly with the heavy rain storms we can expect with climate change, ask them to use green infrastructure approaches when it’s time to fix the storm drains.

Encourage public officials also to consider smart growth when development comes to town. This means building in places and ways that minimize demands on our water and wastewater systems. Sprawl and poorly planned growth can result in more pipes and plants that are harder and more expensive to maintain. Growing “smartly” can put your community’s infrastructure on a more sustainable footing.

You can also help by protecting your water source, which will also protect public health and reduce treatment needs. The quality of the water that provides your drinking water source can be threatened by everyday activities and land uses. Make sure your cars do not leak oil and avoid using chemicals on your lawn.

During Infrastructure Week, remember to appreciate the clean water we all enjoy.

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More information from EPA about Sustainable Water Infrastructure https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-water-infrastructure

About the author:  Gina Snyder works in the Office of Environmental Stewardship, Compliance Assistance at EPA New England and serves on her town’s climate committee.

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 Rock Creek?

By Mary Schollhamer

A hidden gem in Washington, DC is Rock Creek Park. Less than a mile from my home, Rock Creek Park is a 1,754-acre oasis, whose meadows and forest are home to coyotes, deer, foxes, raccoons, beavers, hawks, and – our newest residents – bald eagles.

Rock Creek Park is also home to the Rock Creek waterway, a tributary of the Potomac River. This is my dog’s favorite part of DC, as we rarely miss a weekend to play fetch in the creek. With the amount of time spent in the water, I often wonder: How safe is Rock Creek?

EPA’s tool, “How’s My Waterway?,” answers my question in just a few clicks, but the answer appears to be more cause for concern. Rock Creek was assessed in 2012 and failed water quality standards. It has flow issues, populated with bacteria and other microbes, degraded aquatic life, excess sediment, mercury, metals, PCBs, and toxic organic chemicals. For each of these pollution categories, “How’s My Waterway?”, offers links to technical reports – as well as plain language – and information about what I can do to help.

While Rock Creek’s current prognosis isn’t very good, EPA is taking steps to change that. You can use the How’s My Waterway? tool to find out many of the activities EPA takes to improve water quality in Rock Creek, like cleanup plans for mercury, metals, and bacteria and other microbes. Polluted runoff control projects, fish habitat partnerships, and community grants are also listed. The tool also gives a who/what/where/when for discharged pollutants, along with information on how to contact your state water quality program. Through transparent information about pollution and water quality, every citizen is empowered to get involved in the health of their waterway.

So, how’s Rock Creek? Not great, but it’s getting better. How’s your waterway?

About the author:  Mary Schollhamer is the Acting Deputy Director of Communications in the Office of Water. She holds a Master’s Degree in English with a focus on ecofeminism from Stony Brook University and loves dogs.

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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To the Tide Pool, Following Literary Footsteps

By Phil Colarusso

I recently had the good fortune of visiting Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Before the sun was fully up, I journeyed from my hotel to look through some tide pools.Tidepool

Tide pools in the Pacific Ocean are very different from our pools in the Northeast. The western pools are dominated by colorful sea anemones and large sea stars. These are the tide pools that inspired Ed Ricketts, the real life marine biologist who became the Doc Ricketts character in John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row. Ricketts wrote the definitive book on West Coast intertidal organisms, called Between Pacific Tides.

For many budding marine biologists, Doc Ricketts was the quintessential marine biologist. His office was a laboratory with a multitude of fish tanks hosting all manners of creatures. His schedule was dictated by the tides, not by the clock. He was a man, who felt most comfortable in hip boots with a net in one hand and collecting jars in the other. He had an unusually keen sense of environmental issues for his time – the 1940s – railing against overfishing in the book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, which he and John Steinbeck co-wrote.tidepool2

Like Ricketts, I have spent many happy hours flipping rocks in tide pools. I don’t know if Ricketts believed that the answers to many of life’s mysteries could be found in a tide pool, but I suspect that he did. My favorite passage from The Log of the Sea of Cortez reflects Ricketts understanding of the interconnectedness of all things:

And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance. We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away the … shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region.  That isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.

As I look into tide pools today, the reflection back is no longer a young marine biologist, but a kindred spirit of Ed Ricketts, who understands and appreciates the interconnectedness of life.

 

About the author: Phil Colarusso is a marine biologist in the Coastal and Ocean Protection Section of EPA’s New England office, and is an avid diver.

 

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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Scoring Big in Reducing Pollution

by Bob Chominski

Photo credit: Virginia Department of Environmental Quality

Photo credit: Virginia Department of Environmental Quality

Think of a ball, and you’ll probably think of sports. When I think of sports, I think of golf, with its frustrating little ball that you have to hit down the middle of the fairway to a flag far off in the distance.  When it comes to hitting a golf ball over a water hazard, usually the water hazard wins, with the ball making a sickening plop in the water.

But there is one type of ball being used in the Mid-Atlantic Region that floats…which is a good thing. The Craig-New Castle Public Service Authority in Roanoke, Virginia has 200,000 floating black plastic balls (not golf balls) in their waste water treatment plant lagoon that are scoring big in reducing pollution.

The Authority has had a problem with algae and duckweed growing in their lagoon. When the algae died, they settled to the bottom of the lagoon, causing an increase in the amount of  Total Suspended Solids (TSS) that were discharged to nearby creeks .

Too much TSS can adversely impact water quality and harm aquatic vegetation and aquatic life, so discharge permits usually have strict TSS limits. So by installing the light-shielding balls into the lagoon to prevent algae and duckweed growth, the Authority dramatically reduced TSS, and maintained compliance with its permit limits.

The UV-stabilized high-density polyethylene balls have an estimated life span of 20 years, and cost 28 cents each.  This was significantly cheaper than other alternatives considered by the Authority. As a bonus, there are no operation and maintenance costs (other than kicking an errant ball back in the lagoon from time to time) and the balls don’t require any power to operate.

So a big “high five” to the Authority for its innovative strategy to control pollution and to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Clean Water Financing and Assistance Program for using EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving funds to pay for the balls.  Now only if they could only help my golf game!

 

 About the author: Bob Chominski is the Deputy Associate Director of the Water Protection Division’s Office of Infrastructure and Assistance in EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region. Away from work, he enjoys snow skiing and working around his house and yard.

 

 

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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Lungs of the Sea

As a diver and marine biologist for EPA, I spend a fair amount of time underwater. My area of expertise is in the study and conservation of seagrass. These underwater meadows can cover vast swaths of the seafloor and they serve as important nurseries for many fish and shellfish species.

Recently, I had the great fortune of taking a family trip to France and spending some time along the southern coast. It was my first visit to the Mediterranean Sea and I was looking forward to exploring the underwater realm. We stopped in the small town of Cassis, which reminded us of Gloucester, Mass. Cassis has its own fisherman’s statue. It does not have a greasy pole to climb like Gloucester, but it does have its own unique tradition. Local fishermen mount planks on the back of two dories. Boys of about 10 years old are lifted up onto the planks wearing pads on their chests and are given lances. The boats then drive directly at each other and the boys joust until one or both fall into the water.

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The local culture was interesting, but Cassis is also known for “les calanques.” Calanques are inlets surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs; they also are known as mini-fjords. Within these inlets, seagrass flourishes in the clean, calm protected waters. The French refer to seagrass as “les poumons de la mer,” which translates to the lungs of the sea. Like all plants, seagrasses produce oxygen through photosynthesis. On sunny days, it is common to see bubbles of oxygen being released from the leaves of seagrass into the water.

In Cassis, protecting seagrass is taken very seriously with a variety of rules. Boaters are not allowed to anchor or place a mooring in seagrass meadows. Boaters are required to stay in the marked navigation channels and when in shallow water reduce their speed so no wakes are produced. In our three days in Cassis, we watched many boats come and go, and not one of them broke the rules.

I approached one of the local fishermen and with my limited French asked him about the local seagrass meadows. He spoke little English. I spied a shoot of seagrass floating near his boat. He scooped it up and held it close to his heart and said “les poumons de la mer.” Posidonia

We didn’t speak the same language, but our common love of the ocean easily transcended the language barrier.

More information on EPA Seagrass research: http://www2.epa.gov/sciencematters/epa-science-matters-newsletter-how-deep-are-seagrasses

Connect with EPA New England on Facebook: facebook.com/EPARegion1

Connect with EPA Divers on Facebook: facebook.com/EPADivers

About the author: Phil Colarusso is a marine biologist in the Coastal and Ocean Protection Section of EPA’s New England office, and is an avid diver.

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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Providing Clean Water to an African Village: Not a Simple Turn of the Tap

By Emily Nusz

EPA brings in students every summer to work, learn practical environmental skills, and enhance their educational experience through our Pathways Intern Program. The Big Blue Thread is proud to feature several blogs written by these interns, focusing on what motivates them to work in the environmental sector and what attracted them to EPA. We’ve already posted blogs by Andrew Speckin, Sara Lamprise and Kelly Overstreet. Our fourth blog is by Emily Nusz, who continues to intern with our Environmental Data and Assessment staff.

How far away is the nearest water source from where you are sitting now? An arm’s length across your desk? A few feet? Right outside the window?

Villagers carry water jug and food basket

Villagers carry water jug and food basket

Next time you get the urge to take a drink of fresh, ice cold water, take a moment to think about places that may not have the same laws and regulations.

Perhaps you’ve heard about the global water crisis. Many communities in developing countries don’t have easy access to clean drinking water. They must walk miles each day with heavy jugs on their heads, just to collect muddy water from puddles or rivers. This water is then used to drink, wash dishes, and sanitize their bodies. The water is filled with bacteria, parasites, and waste that can cause a variety of debilitating diseases including malaria and cholera. As a result, thousands of people die every day from avoidable diseases caused by contaminated water.

Little do they know, the water they so desperately need is often right beneath their feet.

Emily Nusz (center) with group of Kenyan children

Emily Nusz (center) with group of Kenyan children

A few hot summers ago, members of my church and I traveled to Nairobi, Kenya. Our mission was not only to provide care for children in orphanages, but to provide a village with clean water. We decided the best way to accomplish this task was to build the community a water well in the heart of the village for easy accessibility. Our team raised money for the well, and then we were ready to make a large time and energy commitment to a long-term solution for the people. The excitement of our arrival was very powerful. I remember every face in the village beaming with joy.

Water wells can provide clean water for hundreds of villagers. A pump or a tap built in the center of the community can save an entire day of walking to the nearest muddy puddle, and save hundreds of lives by preventing exposure to harmful or even deadly diseases.

Water can be found in underground, permeable rock layers called aquifers, from which the water can be pumped. An aquifer fills with water from rain or melted snow that drains into the ground. Aquifers are natural filters that trap bacteria and provide natural purification of the groundwater flowing through them. Wells can be dug or drilled, depending on the time and cost of the project. They can be dug using a low-cost, hand-dug method, or built using either a high-cost, deep well method or a shallow well, low-cost method. Safe drinking water can usually be found within 100 feet of the surface.

Kenyan countryside in summer

Kenyan countryside in summer

Although I was not physically involved in building the village well, we all contributed to the mission we set out to accomplish. A well was built by drilling a hole that reached down far enough to reach an aquifer, and even lined with steel to keep out pollutants. Our team put together pipes and hand pumps that enabled the villagers to pull the water out of the well and use it safely. Our team was very gratified to know that the well we built will provide clean water for a community of up to 500 people for many years to come!

Learn more about water wells. The best way to keep our water clean is to stay informed of ways to help reduce the risks and protect the source. Learn how you can help. To learn more about global water statistics, visit Global WASH Fast Facts.

About the Author: Emily Nusz is a Student Intern at EPA Region 7, who worked full-time this summer and will continue part-time during the school year. She is a graduate student at the University of Kansas, studying environmental assessment. Emily is SCUBA certified, and one of her life goals is to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reefs off the coast of Australia.

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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Triathletes get an assist from the Clean Water Act

 

by Elizabeth Gaige

Ohio River IRONMAN swimmers

Ohio River IRONMAN swimmers

My husband’s passion for the sport of triathlon began in the Schuylkill River, when we both competed – swimming, biking, and running – in the 2012 Philly Triathlon. Part of the draw of triathlon is the opportunity to swim in lakes and rivers – like the Schuylkill – that aren’t usually open to recreational swimmers for safety reasons.

Although our family and friends didn’t understand why we enjoyed our Schuylkill swim, it was simple – this part of the race was calm and beautiful, with a small current providing some free speed. And, we had peace of mind even in the middle of a grueling race, because the Philadelphia Water Department RiverCast website gave us vital information about river conditions.

The author and her husband, an IRONMAN

The author and her husband, an IRONMAN

After the Philly Tri, my husband chose to make IRONMAN Louisville his first full distance IRONMAN race – 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and a 26.2 mile marathon run. But, as we packed the car for his race, advisories from the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection appeared on social media and we realized the race that might only include two of three parts that the athletes had trained for.

A harmful algal bloom had formed on the Ohio River between Ohio and West Virginia weeks earlier and the effects of elevated toxins produced by the algae were being evaluated hundreds of miles downstream. Elevated nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, warm sunny days and slower-moving water fuel algal growth.  Fortunately, October’s cooler temperatures and precipitation began to flush algae and toxins from the Ohio River. To the relief of many hopeful triathletes, the recreational advisory for the swim course was lifted days before the race as multiple water quality test results showed toxins falling below Kentucky’s threshold.

On race day, 2,300 triathletes experienced first-hand the “swimmable” part of the Clean Water Act’s goals. I welcomed my Ironman at the finish line 13 hours and 52 minutes after he jumped into the Ohio River, thankful that the Clean Water Act is there to protect the nearly half-million triathletes that count on safe water for swimming at thousands of events each year.

 

About the Author: Elizabeth Gaige works in EPA’s Air Protection Division in Philadelphia.  She has completed 88 races since 2003, 16 of which involved open water swimming!

 

 

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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Safety First!

by Virginia Thompson

Stay safe in your local pool.

Stay safe at your local pool.

Swimming at our local pool is one of my favorite summer activities.  As I recently reflected on the accomplishment of logging 1,000 laps annually for nearly a decade, it dawned on me we often don’t give a second thought to the water we’re swimming in.

Ironically, many of us have read the book Safety First to our preschoolers, but we may not think about safety when it comes to ourselves as adults.  This year, my fellow swimmers and I got an unexpected refresher lesson in pool safety.  After a horrific storm in June, our pool was closed for four days because there was no electricity to power the pumps that mix the chemicals to  keep our pool in compliance with our state’s safety standards for swimming pools.

Local social media was abuzz about the pool’s status. Once the electricity came back, pool staff continued pumping the water, and adding appropriate levels of chlorine and other chemicals to ensure the safety of swimmers. When the staff was certain the water could maintain the health standards for a full day and beyond, they allowed us back in the pool.

It was an unfortunate break for those of us trying to earn that recreational swimmer’s badge of honor – the 1,000 lap t-shirt – but no one objected to putting safety first.

Swimming pool staff add chlorine and other chemicals like algicides, to the water to kill bacteria, control algae, and clean the walls and bottom of the pool.  These antimicrobial pesticides, need to be added in Goldilocks quantities  that are “just right” –  with too little chlorine tankstreatment, swimmers can get sick; too much can cause harmful reactions to our skin or lungs from touching, breathing, or drinking the water.

Ever wonder about those chemicals? And, where and how pools keep them?  Because storing chlorine and other potentially dangerous chemicals is a serious concern for communities, EPA has resources to help people in our communities such as Local Emergency Planning Committees to make sure that the chemicals are handled, used, and stored safely, and that local responders are well prepared if an emergency occurs.

As I make it a point to get to the pool as often as possible as summer winds down, I know I’ll be thinking about everything that goes into keeping our water safe.

 

About the author:  Virginia Thompson works for EPA’s mid-Atlantic Region and is an avid swimmer.

 

 

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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Net Zero Heroes

by Jennie Saxe

Net Zero_GFXAt your local wastewater treatment plant,  professional  operators not only use precisely-dosed treatment chemicals, but they also utilize mother nature – a diverse community of microorganisms – to successfully treat the wastewater that’s collected.  While wastewater treatment plants have always been on the front lines of protecting public health and the environment,  some treatment plants, like the one we blogged about in York, Pennsylvania, are now also investigating technologies to become resource recovery facilities, pulling phosphorus out of wastewater for fertilizer and capturing natural gas to produce energy.

EPA’s recent progress report on Promoting Innovation for a Sustainable Water Future highlights many examples of innovation in the wastewater sector, including three wastewater treatment plants in the mid-Atlantic:

  • The Philadelphia Water Department is using the heat from wastewater to warm its facilities and save money on energy bills.
  • In our nation’s capitol, DC Water is using a Cambi process to create biogas and generate energy.
  • The town of Crisfield, Maryland, is planning to use the coastal location of its wastewater treatment plant to generate wind energy, a project that is anticipated to power the treatment plant and save the town up to $200,000 each year in energy costs.

And just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) is taking steps to produce enough energy to “get off the grid” entirely.

Still not sold on the wonder of wastewater treatment? Check out this new video featuring CCMUA’s “net zero” energy approach. It just may open your eyes to some innovative things that wastewater treatment plants can do for the communities they serve – leading the way to a more sustainable future by becoming “net zero heroes.”

About the author: Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region in 2003 and works in the Water Protection Division on sustainability programs.

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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Right on track

by Jennie Saxe

Take a drink on Amtrak!

Take a drink on Amtrak!

I love traveling by train. Here in the Northeast, I’m a little spoiled by the many rail transit systems that spider-web across the region. But with family in New England, my office in Philadelphia, and friends in Washington, DC, one of my favorite modes of transportation is Amtrak.

Here’s a fun water-related fact about traveling on Amtrak: every passenger rail car that has a café, restroom, or drinking fountain is considered its own public water system. Amtrak has about 1,500 of these mobile water systems, each of which must be monitored for water quality. Detailed maintenance procedures and monitoring plans are key to protecting public health, as trains roll from coast to coast.

Amtrak has been randomly sampling drinking water for over 20 years, and has been following a more detailed schedule and reporting results to EPA since 2012. Recently, EPA and Amtrak amended the 2012 agreement to extend the monitoring requirements and modify sampling schedules based on the results from all 1,500 cars to date: very few samples from 2013 and 2014 were positive for coliform bacteria (an indicator that something could potentially be wrong with the water) and no samples were positive for E. coli (a bacteria that signals contamination, and could make passengers sick).

Some additional protections are part of the agreement between EPA and Amtrak. Trains do not fill at stations that have a problem with their water supply, and passengers and crew would be notified if water testing showed a problem.

Riding the rails this summer? Grab your reusable water bottle and fill up! When it comes to protecting the health of rail passengers, Amtrak is right on track.

 

About the author: Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region in 2003 and works in the Water Protection Division on sustainability programs.

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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