watershed management

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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Wetlands: Earth’s Kidneys

By Marguerite Huber

Stream restoration research

Stream restoration research

Our organs are vital to our health, with each one playing a significant part. Kidneys, for instance, filter our blood to remove waste and fluid. Wetlands are often referred to as “Earth’s kidneys” because they provide the same functions, absorbing wastes such as nitrogen and phosphorous. When excess amounts of these substances—nutrient loading—flow into waterways it can mean harmful algal blooms, hypoxia, and summer fish kills.

Recognizing the importance of wetlands, many communities are taking steps to protect, restore, and even create wetlands.

For example, many stream restoration projects include constructing wetlands to absorb stormwater runoff and absorb excess nutrients and other pollutants that flow in from a host of sources across the watershed (known collectively as nonpoint source pollutants).

These constructed wetlands can provide key elements to urban stormwater management because they help reduce the impacts of runoff after a rainstorm or big snowmelt event. Such runoff typically transports high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous and suspended solids from road surfaces into waterways.

One such type of wetland that may provide these kinds of benefits is the oxbow lake, so named because of their curved shape. These form naturally when a wide bend in a stream gets cut off from the main channel, but EPA researchers are taking advantage of a couple of oxbow wetlands created during stream restoration activities at Minebank Run, an urban stream in Baltimore County, MD.

The researchers are studying the oxbow wetlands to quantify how effective such artificially created wetlands are at absorbing nitrogen and phosphorous in an urban setting. If these types of wetlands are effective, then deliberately constructing oxbow wetlands could be an important nutrient management strategy in such landscapes.

From May 2008 through June 2009, the researchers analyzed water, nitrate (a form of nitrogen pollution), and phosphate flow during four storms to better understand the impacts of hydrology on the potential for the two oxbow wetlands and the adjacent restored streambed to absorb or release nutrients.

The results suggest that oxbow wetlands in urban watersheds have the potential to be “sinks” that absorb and store nitrogen. They also reinforced information pointing to the dynamic hydrologic connection linking water and nutrient flow between streams and nearby oxbow wetlands, findings that if confirmed through further investigation can be used to improve restoration efforts that improve water quality across entire watersheds.

When it comes to phosphorus, the researchers found that oxbows don’t function as “sinks,” but “sources,” that contribute a net increase of the nutrient. They hypothesize that this is because the nutrient is released from wetland sediments during storms or other similar events. Future studies are needed to investigate the magnitude of phosphorous release, and how important that contribution is across the watershed.

Just like how our kidneys are an essential aspect of the human body, wetlands are an important aspect of nature. Retaining additional nutrients and treating non-point source pollutants help give natural and constructed wetlands the affectionate nickname of “Earth’s Kidneys.”

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

A High-Tech Approach to Watershed Management

By Marguerite Huber

Close-up-of-waterfallTechnology amazes me.  It seems like every day new technologies are being developed, and we are suddenly able to do things faster and easier.  And I am not just talking about the latest smartphone or app, but a new tool created by EPA scientists, too!

EPA researchers studying green infrastructure (using vegetation, soil, and other naturalistic techniques to reduce stormwater runoff) collaborated with colleagues in the Agency’s New England office (EPA Region 1) to develop a new public-domain software app called the Watershed Management Optimization Support Tool (WMOST).

The goal of the tool is to help water resource managers and planners identify cost effective, sustainable green infrastructure options for their local jurisdictions. After users enter information about their watershed, water utility infrastructure and constraints related to management objectives, the tool will identify the optimal (lowest cost) long-term solution.

EPA scientist Naomi Detenbeck, who has been working on the tool for the past two years, describes WMOST as “a user-friendly tool that allows communities to meet their water use needs in the most cost effective manner.” It can even be used to evaluate land use and climate change scenarios!

WMOST can easily evaluate more than twenty potential management practices and goals related to water supply, such as surface water storage and non-potable water reuse. The tool requires some specific community inputs such as watershed characteristics and management goals. With this information, WMOST can simply calculate the optimal solution.

Local water resources managers, such as municipal water works managers and consultants, can use WMOST to evaluate projects related to stormwater, water supply, wastewater and more.  At this time, it is designed for small watersheds, single communities, or multiple communities within a small watershed.

Detenbeck explains that WMOST will help communities complete a more comprehensive evaluation of watershed management issues. It will also allow communities to look holistically across their stormwater, wastewater, and drinking water programs.

Some of our favorite technologies, such as our smartphone or tablet, provide us with instant gratification and updates. On the other hand, technologies like WMOST are more focused on the long run. Results may not be instantaneous, but in time they will provide a meaningful environmental impact that all of us will get to benefit from.

The WMOST download can be found here.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.