Water Quality

The State of Our Rivers and Streams

By Tom Damm

A recent EPA survey shows that more than half of the nation’s rivers and stream miles are in poor condition for aquatic life.

Cover of Draft National Rivers and Streams Assessment 2008-2009 Report

Cover of Draft National Rivers and Streams Assessment 2008-2009 Report

The survey – the 2008-2009 National Rivers and Streams Assessment –indicates that among other concerns, our waterways don’t have enough vegetation along stream banks and have too much nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria and mercury.

That’s a concern for many reasons.  Our rivers and streams serve as sources of drinking water, provide recreational opportunities, support fish and wildlife, and play a critical role in our economy.

There’s a way to find out if your local waters are impaired by pollutants.

EPA’s new How’s My Waterway? app can show the condition of your local stream, creek or river – whether you’re standing on the water’s edge with a mobile device or sitting at home with a computer.  I tried it this week and found that my local creek is impacted by arsenic, E coli, lead, phosphorus and low dissolved oxygen levels.

The health of our rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters depends on the vast network of streams where they begin, including stream miles that only flow seasonally or after rain.

These streams feed downstream waters, trap floodwaters, recharge groundwater supplies, remove pollution and provide fish and wildlife habitat.

Want to do something to help improve water quality conditions?  You can control polluted runoff from your property, adopt your watershed, do volunteer water monitoring, and more.  For information, click here.

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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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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Good Beer? It’s in the Water

By Christina Catanese

If you’re a beer drinker, when you crack open a cold bottle or sip a freshly poured draft beer, the first thing you think about probably isn’t the quality of the water that was used to create your brew.  You probably notice the color, the aroma, the head, the flavor, the hops, the malt…but what of the water?

Photo Courtesy of the CDC

Photo Courtesy of the CDC

When I was in grad school, I worked at a microbrewery for some extra cash, and it changed what I thought I knew about beer.  I became familiar with the process of making beer: from malting, to mashing, to lautering, to boiling, to fermenting, to conditioning, and to filtering.  At each point in the process, water plays a key role, and it can make up over 95% of the finished product poured into your pint.

I had a lot of discussions with our brewer about how much the source water quality affects the brewing process and product.  There’s the obvious impact of the flavor of the water used in the brewing process, but the chemistry of the water can alter the process itself.

He described how yeast convert sugars into alcohol to ferment the beer, and how changes in water chemistry impact the activity of the yeast.  The chlorine that is added to most municipal drinking water to eliminate harmful bacteria can impact the flavor and aroma of beer, but the presence of bacteria can spoil a batch of beer.

I learned that the pH of the water also affects the sugar composition, which in turn affects how strong the beer will be.  Like hoppy beers?  Harder water brings out the hops’ flavor.  Softer water can result in milder flavored beers, so some brewers add water hardeners during the brewing process to amp up the hops and flavor.

Something as simple as a change in the treatment process at the local drinking water plant can have an impact.  So, too, can a new upstream pollution source or change in the health of the source water body.

You might wonder why breweries don’t just purify their water to start with some H2O that is as neutral as possible to start with.  But the thing is, what’s in the water is what makes the process work, and what makes gives each beer a unique regional character.  Overly purifying water through filtering or other methods takes everything out of the water, even the things a brewer wants to be there.

The brewery I worked at also strived to be a sustainable operation – the spent grains from the brewing process were picked up by a farmer to be used for livestock feed.  A few times, our brewer even asked me if he could borrow my hydrology and soils text books so he could have a better knowledge of how the health of the environment would affect the beer he made.

Throughout the history of beer making, brewers have been careful to site their breweries in the places with the highest quality water, and the health of a brewery’s home watershed is of prime importance to their brewers.

To recognize the connection of good beer with good water, the Schuylkill Action Network has partnered with brewers in the watershed to develop a special brew that pays tribute to its source water.

 

 

Have you ever thought about how water quality affects your happy hour?  What other unexpected ways does water impact our lives?

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, in the Water Protection Division’s Office of Program Support. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied Environmental Studies, Political Science, and Hydrogeology. When not in the office, Christina enjoys performing, choreographing and teaching modern dance.

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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In Philly, Plain Rain Barrels are SO Last Season

By Nancy Grundahl

If you were Michelangelo, what would your rain barrel look like? It certainly wouldn’t be plain. No, it would convey beauty, reflect creativity, stand out from the crowd, cause walkersby to catch their breath in amazement.

One of the designs (“Fish Flow”) that you can vote for in the Philadelphia Water Department's Rain Barrel Art Contest

One of the designs (“Fish Flow”) that you can vote for in the Philadelphia Water Department's Rain Barrel Art Contest

To raise awareness of the benefits of rain barrels, the City of Philadelphia is holding a rain barrel art contest, but instead of Michelangelo, the artists are local students. Students between the ages of 11 and 21 from the Laura W. Waring School and YESPHilly worked with artists from the Mural Arts Program and educators from Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center and the Philadelphia Water Department to create beautiful original artwork for decorating rain barrels. How will it work? The designs will be printed on shrink wrap that will then be wrapped around rain barrels distributed by the Water Department.

The contest has been narrowed down to 8 finalists and they’d like you to vote for your fav. The contest ends on February 13, so hurry!

Rain barrels are good ideas no matter where you live.  They help capture rain water that can be reused around the home. And they help prevent that water from rushing from your downspouts and into storm sewers, picking up pollution that winds up in your favorite streams and rivers.

Feel creative?  Tell us your ideas for beautifying rain barrels at your home!

About the author: Nancy Grundahl has worked for the Philadelphia office of EPA since the mid-80’s. Nancy believes in looking at environmental problems in a holistic, multi-media way and is a strong advocate of preventing pollution instead of dealing with it after it has been created. Nancy likes to garden and during the growing season brings flowers into the office. Nancy also writes for the EPA “It’s Our Environment” 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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Life’s Most Persistent and Urgent Question

By Jaclyn McIlwain and Tom Damm

Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s compassion and commitment to service, citizens across the country will be volunteering their time and talents to improving their communities this Monday.

Still haven’t decided how you’ll pitch in?

If you live in the Delaware Valley, join us for a trash cleanup at the Bristol Marsh Preserve, located in Bristol Borough, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Trash collected during 2012's Bristol Marsh Clean Up

Trash collected during 2012's Bristol Marsh Clean Up

For the second year in a row, a group of our EPA regional employees will mark the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service by participating in the Heritage Conservancy’s annual Bristol Marsh Cleanup.  It’s one of the initiatives of our employee-led EPA Region 3 Emerging Leaders Network (ELN).  ELN’s Community Service Crew organizes and participates in service events in the greater Philadelphia area.

In the spirit of EPA’s mission and Dr. King’s imploration for service, the ELN and its members are committed to improving our natural spaces, where we gather, recreate, and recharge.

The Bristol Marsh Preserve is one of those special areas.

This freshwater tidal marsh – a type of wetland rarely found in Pennsylvania – offers important feeding grounds for migratory birds, waterfowl and wading birds.  It also provides spawning and nursery areas for fish, improves water quality by removing pollutants and adding oxygen, and supports a variety of recreational activities, like bird watching, nature study and fishing.

The cleanup from 10 a.m. to noon is being organized by the Nature Conservancy, the Heritage Conservancy and Bristol Borough.

Can’t make it to Bristol?  Service projects are happening across the country during this long weekend.    Click here for information on a project near you.

This Monday, take time to answer through action one of Dr. King’s most famous questions, “What are you doing for others?”

About the Authors: Jaclyn McIlwain is a Life Scientist in the Office of NPDES Permits and Enforcement working on coal mine permitting.  She graduated from the University of Delaware with a BS in Environmental Science, and serves as the ELN’s Community Service Crew Lead for the Mid Atlantic Region.  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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Bay Rings Out 2012 with Wave of Good News

By Tom Damm

I didn’t hear Ryan Seacrest mention the Chesapeake Bay as the ball dropped in Times Square Monday night.  But he seemed to be the only one who didn’t have something to say about the Bay as 2012 wound to a close.

Construction Underway on the Moorefield Wastewater Treatment Plant in West Virginia

Construction Underway on the Moorefield Wastewater Treatment Plant in West Virginia. At its opening, it will reduce total nitrogen loading by 90,000 pounds per year and total phosphorus by 93,000 pounds per year to the Chesapeake Bay and local waters.

In December alone, there were Bay-friendly announcements from the District of Columbia and Lancaster and Scranton in Pennsylvania, along with news from West Virginia about a treatment plant that will account for a big chunk of the state’s pollution-cutting pledge.

And it isn’t just the Bay that will benefit from these cork-popping developments.  Local rivers and streams in these communities will also run cleaner as a result.

In Scranton, the U.S. and Pennsylvania announced a settlement with the Scranton Sewer Authority on a long-term solution that will reduce millions of gallons of contaminated stormwater overflows into the Lackawanna River and local streams, all part of the Bay watershed.

In Lancaster, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and EPA announced more than $1.8 million in grants for projects to reduce water pollution and improve habitats.

In the nation’s capital, EPA, the District and DC Water signed a major partnership agreement to include green infrastructure techniques in the city’s steps to control stormwater pollution.

And in West Virginia, it was reported that when the new $40 million Moorefield Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant opens later in 2013, it will gobble up huge amounts of pollutants that are now impacting local water quality and the Bay.

Check out our Chesapeake Bay TMDL web site for more announcements about actions by partners to make the new year a good one for the network of Chesapeake Bay waterways.

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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Up Close and Personal with Where Breakfast Comes From

By Kelly Shenk and Matt Johnston

Kelly:

PennAg Industries Association contacted me as soon as I became EPA Region 3’s Agricultural Advisor and offered me the chance to get out in the field to visit three farms.  I assembled a team predominantly comprised of Chesapeake Bay Watershed Modelers to learn first-hand from farmers about their success and challenges of growing food in a safe, humane, and environmentally sound manner.  PennAg provided an experience that I know we’ll all take with us in our careers and personal lives, as demonstrated by Matt Johnston in this blog.

Learning from farmers on the PennAg farm tour

Matt:
It is all too easy to forget where our food comes from.  Every Saturday as a young boy I awoke to the smells of bacon and eggs coming from the kitchen.  By the time I got to the table, my mother had already set my place with two eggs sunny side up, two pieces of extra crispy bacon, a piece of toast and a glass of milk.  It’s a menu familiar to many of us and served weekend after weekend in homes across America.

Never once did I stop to think about how my breakfast got there.  Never once did I consider the animal production side of the equation – the side that includes thousands of workers, millions of animals, and tons of feed and manure.  Last week while on a tour of farms with colleagues, I was reminded of the other side of that equation in very personal ways.

The first stop on our tour was an egg layer facility. Conveyer belts criss-crossed a three-story tall warehouse seamlessly transporting eggs to an adjacent packing facility from the millions of hens that were stacked in cages and spread out over an area larger than a football field.  All the while, another set of belts sent the byproduct of our food production in the opposite direction, depositing the poultry litter in two-to-three story high piles.  When confronted with mounds of litter taller than your house, you begin to realize the inevitable byproducts of our Saturday morning meals.

This lesson was repeated at a nursery pig raising facility, where I jumped at the opportunity to hold an adorable young pig when the tour leader offered.  Unfortunately, the pig did not share my excitement and promptly announced its disgust by soiling my clothing with manure.  All the while, under my feet was a concrete holding tank full of the same viscous substance ready to be pumped out and transported to a nearby field.

Visiting the pigs on the PennAg farm tour

Our last stop was a small dairy.  There were no large holding tanks or conveyor belts constructing piles.  Instead, there was a single farmer with a few small pieces of equipment, a small barnyard, and a few adjacent fields.  Without the resources to stack or store manure, the farmer can only do one thing with it – spread it.  This is the way farmers have farmed for hundreds of years.

Whether the manure is stacked, buried, or spread, it is real.  What is now clear to me is that it is not the devil.  It’s a necessary byproduct of our society’s growing consumption of animal products.  However, like all byproducts of production, it can be harmful in high doses.

Yet we have the tools to lessen its impact.  We can spread manure according to nutrient management plan recommendations.  We can plant grasses and trees along waterways to intercept nutrients.  And we can work with farmers to make proper storage and handling equipment available.

After all, the manure is not going away, and I’m not going to stop eating eggs and bacon with my glass of milk on Saturday morning.

Learning from Farmers on the PennAg farm tour

About the Authors: Kelly Shenk is EPA Region 3’s Agricultural Advisor.  Matt Johnston is a Nonpoint Source Data Analyst with the Chesapeake Bay 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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I Speak for the Trees…and the Stormwater

By Jenny Molloy

Most people have a vague recollection, perhaps from a brief fourth grade poetry unit, of the opening lines to Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees: “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” Less well remembered is Kilmer’s characterization of a tree as one “who intimately lives with rain.”

An often overlooked fact about trees is that they also do a great job of preventing and reducing stormwater runoff.  Depending on the type of tree and the intensity of rain events, trees can intercept as much as 30% of total annual rainfall before it even reaches the ground.

When precipitation does reach the ground, trees’ extensive root systems drink it up. The transpiration rates of trees (or how much water evaporates from the trees) vary notably, but some of the thirstier species can transpire dozens or even hundreds of gallons per day.

That adds up. A New York City study estimated that one tree reduces stormwater runoff by 13,000 gallons per year. That means the 500,000 existing trees in the city reduce runoff by 6.5 billion gallons per year, and 300,000 new trees could remove another 3.9 billion gallons from the overburdened NYC sewer systems.

In Washington, D.C. a similar study estimated that simply using larger tree boxes could reduce annual stormwater runoff by 23 million gallons, and that increasing the use of trees could provide reductions of 269 million gallons per year.

Trees also provide other benefits: shading and cooling that ultimately provide energy savings; carbon sequestration; wildlife habitat; enhanced property values; air quality improvements; community health and safety. And of course, as Kilmer noted, there are aesthetic advantages as well.

Example output from the National Tree Benefit Calculator

Example output from the National Tree Benefit Calculator

Communities who do the math now see trees as a win-win in wet weather management. While trees require capital investment and maintenance, compared to other stormwater controls (which are costly to build and maintain but don’t provide benefits beyond stormwater), trees are often an obvious component of the solution.

The U.S. Forest Service public domain i-Tree family of tools now provides now standard approaches to quantifying the benefits. So for municipal planners, utility managers, regulators and anyone else with a role in controlling the consequences of wet weather, trees no longer need be considered supplemental or boutique elements. They are on the A-list of options.

You too can estimate the value of that oak or poplar in your yard with the National Tree Benefit Calculator: Enter your zip code, choose from a drop-down list of over 200 species, enter the tree diameter and voila! The calculator provides an estimate of overall annual value in dollars, and also breaks that down into specific benefits: stormwater, property value, electricity, natural gas, air quality and carbon dioxide.

Which brings to mind another childhood standard: Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, an allegory illustrating not only the multiple benefits of trees, but also conveying that with a little care those benefits can be realized for a very long time.

Jenny Molloy has been working in Clean Water Act wet weather programs at the state and federal level for nearly 20 years, and has been at EPA for the last 9. She was EPA’s first Green Infrastructure coordinator, and just completed a 2-1/2 year detail to Region III and the Chesapeake Bay Program Office focusing on the stormwater permitting program. She’s an active member of her son’s high school band program just so she can fulfill a life-long dream of being able to say “I’m with the band”.

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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After Hurricane Sandy

By Christina Catanese

Today in Philadelphia, life is beginning to return to normal after Hurricane Sandy.  Our buses, subways, and trains are up and running, most of the fallen tree branches have been cleared away from the streets and sidewalks, and the sun has even peeked through the clouds to help us all start to dry out.  But our concerns remain with those in other parts of the northeast facing a more difficult recovery.  Natural disasters are a reminder to all of us of the power of nature and the importance of being prepared.

Hurricane Sandy's approach to the Northeast United States.  Photo courtesy of NASA.

Hurricane Sandy's approach to the Northeast United States. Photo courtesy of NASA.

After a storm like Sandy, there are a number of things you can do to stay safe when it comes to water.

  • If you have concerns that your drinking water has been contaminated, don’t drink it.  Drink bottled water if it is available and hasn’t been exposed to floodwaters.  Otherwise, boil your water for one minute at a rolling boil to get rid of pathogens.  Learn more about emergency disinfection here.
  • Avoid contact with flood water, as it may have high levels of raw sewage or other hazardous substances.
  • If you have a private well and it has been flooded, do not turn on the pump due to danger of electric shock.  Do not drink or wash with water from the flooded well until it has been tested and deemed safe.
  • If you have a septic system and it has been flooded, do not use the sewage system until water in the soil absorption field is lower than the water level around the house.
  • For water and wastewater facilities, check out these suggested post-hurricane activities to help facilities recover.

Get more information on what you can do to protect health and the environment after severe weather and flooding.

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, in the Water Protection Division’s Office of Program Support. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied Environmental Studies, Political Science, and Hydrogeology. When not in the office, Christina enjoys performing, choreographing and teaching modern dance.

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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Water Treatment Ahead of its Time

By: Trey Cody

Fairmount Water Works

Fairmount Water Works, Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service

As in intern in EPA Region III’s Water Protection Division, there are always ample opportunities to learn about environmental protection. One of my most recent adventures was a trip to the Fairmount Water Works Interpretative Center in Philadelphia with other interns in my program.

The original Fairmount Water Works was considered at the time of its opening in 1815 to be a wonder of the world.  After witnessing its magnificent architecture and design, I would argue that it still is today. During the trip we learned about how, with advanced technology for its time, the Water Works facility allowed Philadelphia to be the first municipality in the nation to take on the responsibility of distributing fresh drinking water to the public. This was done with the use of two steam engines which pumped water from the Schuylkill River to a 3-million-gallon reservoir to house it.  In 1822, a 1,600-foot dam was built across the Schuylkill in order to direct water to three water wheels, which had replaced the steam engines.  Another innovation for its time was the use of hydropower–the facility itself was powered by the river.  And I learned that Fairmount Park was created to preserve open space to protect our water supply.

It is clear that the availability for clean drinking water has been a priority for centuries.  I knew that Philadelphia gets its drinking water from both the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers, but it was nice to learn about the history behind this.  It gives me pride to know that the Mid-Atlantic Region was home to a facility ahead of its time that is still to this day a model for drinking water facilities across the U.S.

Do you know how your drinking water is treated and which source it comes from?  Do you have a similar story to a visit to a drinking water facility?  Leave us a comment and tell about it!

About the Author: Trey Cody has been an intern with EPA’s Water Protection Division since graduation from high school in 2010. He is currently attending the Pennsylvania State University.

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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