Watersheds

Taking Stock of EPA’s Work Helping the Mystic River

By Curt Spalding, Regional Administrator, US EPA New England

Today’s blog post celebrates the great work done by EPA and many partners to improve water quality in Boston’s urban waters. EPA has focused for more than two decades on improving the water quality here. It’s hard to overstate the turnaround in Boston Harbor, and the improvements to urban river watersheds like the Mystic and Charles are nothing short of remarkable.

The Mystic River offers a view of Boston.

The Mystic River offers a view of Boston.

While water quality improvements to the Charles River and Boston Harbor may get more attention, the work and the resulting advances in urban waters like the Mystic, have been equally impressive. A huge amount of progress has been made improving water quality in the Mystic River and the differences can be seen in communities throughout the watershed.

The Mystic suffered from high bacteria levels just like other urban waters such as the Charles and the Neponset. And in all three rivers, we used the same tools to tackle sources of bacterial contamination by aggressively enforcing the law to halt industrial pollution and the discharge of sewage mixed in with storm overflow. In each case, we eliminated illicit connections to storm drains, and found ways to limit stormwater pollution.

Our results speak volumes. This past summer, the water quality in the main stems of both the Mystic and Charles rivers were graded roughly equal. In the main stem of the Mystic (including Chelsea Creek, the fresh water and salt water portions of the river and the upper lakes), the water quality met Massachusetts water standards for boating and swimming over 86 percent of the time, and in the areas closer to Boston Harbor, the grade rises to nearly 90 percent of the time. These results are on par with the Charles River’s water quality grade of B+ this year for the main stem of the Charles. Some of the tributaries of the Mystic still need to see further improvement, and those areas are our focus.

EPA Regional Administrator announces 2016 Mystic River Report Card results.

EPA Regional Administrator announces 2016 Mystic River Report Card results.

Of course, the Mystic and the Charles each have different geography, development history, and vastly different population density. For example, the Mystic River is part of a large watershed, but contains a much smaller river stem. The challenges that exist in this river are heavily concentrated in the smaller tributaries that feed the river. The Mystic Watershed is far more densely populated, with about 6,600 people per square mile compared to 2,900 people per square mile in the Charles Watershed.

The differences among these rivers means EPA must tailor its work to respond to the unique characteristics of each river’s area and pollution sources. Our concerted work on the Charles began in the 1990s, and the lessons we learned there provided knowledge and experience that has brought faster improvements in other urban waters like the Mystic.

The power of the 44-year-old Clean Water Act has provided many of the tools EPA needed to achieve the superb results we have seen in Boston’s urban waterways. In 2007, EPA gave the Mystic a D for its first water quality grade. That year we also ordered the City of Revere to stop discharging pollutants into the Mystic watershed. Additional enforcement with several other Mystic municipalities, as well as the Suffolk Downs racetrack and a criminal prosecution of Exxon Mobil for a diesel spill followed. All of the municipal enforcement required the entities to identify and eliminate illicit discharges of pollutants to storm drains discharging to the Mystic River and its tributaries. And our enforcement cases have resulted in other valuable investments in the watershed. Resolution of the Exxon Mobil case provided over $2.6 million for environmental projects in the Mystic River and Chelsea Creek.  Another settlement provided over $1 million toward the 4.5 acre Condor Street Urban Wild along the heavily industrialized Chelsea Creek, providing an urban oasis for the citizens of East Boston.  And thanks to a settlement requiring installation of a boardwalk in Belle Isle Marsh, citizens will soon be able to explore the largest surviving salt marsh in Boston in greater detail.

Sun shines on the shores of the Mystic.

Sun shines on the shores of the Mystic.

If the Mystic River was going to get healthier, we knew it would need many champions. So, in 2009 EPA led the formation of a Mystic River Watershed Steering Committee. The Steering Committee, including community groups, nonprofit organizations, local, state and federal partners, since then has guided the improvements of the Mystic River Watershed, establishing strategy, priorities and key projects and actions needed to improve the Mystic. The focus of this group has certainly helped us realize the tremendous improvements we have seen on the Mystic, and they continue to work diligently on water quality improvement. For example, the Mystic River Watershed Association just received a national EPA Urban Waters grant to help create a multi-media stormwater education collaborative to increase awareness of stormwater pollution throughout the watershed.

EPA's Water Quality Monitoring Buoy collects and streams live water quality data on EPA’s Website (LINK: https://www.epa.gov/mysticriver).

EPA’s Water Quality Monitoring Buoy collects and streams live water quality data on EPA’s Website (LINK: https://www.epa.gov/mysticriver).

Another exciting development we are proud of is that in 2015, we launched a Mystic River water quality monitoring buoy in front of the Blessing of the Bay Boathouse in Somerville. The buoy measures water quality parameters including temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, turbidity, specific conductance, and chlorophyll. The buoy is also used to monitor for and track cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms. The data can be viewed by the public in near real time on our Mystic River website.

The data collected over the years, from a number of different partners, has informed the work done to improve water quality on the River. It contributes to our understanding of the River, which is especially important when tracking toxic algae blooms, a current EPA priority.  Algae blooms are often the result of excess nutrients entering the river, and this fall, we awarded an extensive technical assistance contract to help assess and reduce phosphorus entering the Mystic watershed.   This information will help guide future water quality projects in the area.

To improve water quality we also need better, flexible yet protective permits. Last April, we updated the Clean Water Act permit for small “Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems” (MS4s) in Massachusetts, including for the 21 communities within the Mystic Watershed. Better management of stormwater will protect rivers, streams, ponds, lakes and wetlands from pollutants, including elevated levels of nutrients.

Our work to improve conditions in the Mystic Watershed has extended beyond water quality. We’ve invested nearly $16 million in cleaning and developing formerly contaminated and abandoned sites known as brownfields. This work throughout greater Boston has brought life back to long abandoned sites with industrial pollution. We’ve also been cleaning Superfund sites along the Mystic River Watershed for decades. Two of the most famous sites we’ve cleaned – the Wells G&H and Industri-plex sites in Woburn – are in the Mystic River Watershed. Both have been and continue to be cleaned up and returned to productive use.

The Boston Harbor Cleanup was just the first step in EPA’s focus on cleaning waterways in the Greater Boston Area. We’ve all made tremendous strides to reduce direct bacterial pollution harming our urban rivers, even as these rivers are still in recovery from legacy pollution. The Mystic, Neponset and Charles River watersheds have robust watershed organizations employing citizen science and leveraging public/private partnerships. Still, more work lays ahead. The tributaries that feed all three rivers continue to be investigated for sources of pollution. We now understand that stormwater runoff is a major source of pollution to our waterbodies. EPA will continue its work towards healthier and cleaner watersheds that are a valued resource for the communities.

 

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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Giving Back to Girl Scouts: Water Drop Patch Inspires Young Stewardship

By Michele Drennen

Some of the happiest times I experienced during my childhood in St. Joseph, Mo., were spent as a Girl Scout in St. Francis Xavier Troop #1385. As I look back, memories of going to campouts and field trips, making crafts, earning merit badges and patches, and volunteering to help others provided a positive influence in my life.

EPA team members Jessica Hing, Michele Drennen, and Margarete Heber

EPA team members Jessica Hing, Michele Drennen, and Margarete Heber

When I saw a posting on the One EPA Skills Marketplace website seeking employees who could assist the Girl Scouts organization, I jumped on it!

The Skills Marketplace is a voluntary program that expands professional development opportunities by allowing EPA employees, with supervisor permission, to spend up to 20 percent of their time working on a project in any part of the agency, without leaving their home office.

Before leaving work late one evening in July 2015, I checked the Skills Marketplace website to see if there were any projects related to the field of graphic design. I was excited to see a position for individuals to work with EPA’s Office of Water and the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian wanted to offer a “Waterway” link on their website, which would include free lesson plans for K-12 teachers on water topics, and they recruited EPA as a partner in this endeavor.

The Waterway program is a six-year education and awareness initiative to promote and encourage good stewardship of water. For the program to be successful, it is essential to connect with the public and educate them on the importance of protecting our waterways.

Water Drop Patch with five “rockers”

Water Drop Patch with five “rockers”

The anticipated outcome of this Skills Marketplace project was a completed revision and posting of an updated Girl Scouts Water Drop Patch on the Girl Scouts Council of the Nation’s Capital (GSCNC) website, along with requirement guides to engage Girl Scouts in grades K-12.

I applied for the position right away because I knew I could make a tremendous contribution to this project. In addition, I wanted to learn more about the Waterway program and reconnect with the Girl Scouts program that I had remembered so fondly as a child.

I was contacted the next morning by EPA’s Water Data Project Lead, Margarete Heber. After a phone interview, Margarete said she wanted to partner with another EPA applicant, Jessica Hing, whose outreach experience would combine perfectly with my graphic art background to work on the GSCNC Water Drop Patch. Margarete also added a NASA Communication Specialist, Dorian Janney, to the Skills Marketplace team. Dorian brought a vast amount of children’s education outreach experience.

Over the next several months, our team assembled content for requirement guides for each of the Girl Scout levels, containing hands-on projects that were age-appropriate for each level. Once we determined the content for each guide, I designed a draft guide for the GSCNC to approve.

Hands-on learning about Water Drop Patch at Girl Scouts 2016 Maker Day

Hands-on learning about Water Drop Patch at Girl Scouts 2016 Maker Day

I also had the privilege of designing the Water Drop Patch along with five “rocker” patches that fit under the main patch, which could be earned at each Girl Scout level. The rocker patches encourage Girl Scouts to continue to expand their knowledge of their water environment at each program level. Daisies learn about the water cycle; Brownies learn about groundwater; Juniors learn about watersheds; Cadettes learn about careers in the field of water; and Seniors/Ambassadors learn about water laws and water ethics.

On May 7, 2016, I flew to Washington, D.C., to join Margarete and Jessica at the rollout of the Water Drop Patch at Girl Scouts 2016 Maker Day. This event promotes hands-on learning across all levels and provides a place to explain, demonstrate, and share their projects with each other. The One EPA Skills Marketplace team, joined by two Senior Girl Scouts, generated enthusiasm and interest in the Water Drop Patch among the Girl Scouts and their leaders by offering demonstrations of the requirements for each level.

Water Drop Patch information, along with other patches Girl Scouts can earn, is available on the National Girl Scouts website.

About the Author: Michele Drennen serves as an Environmental Protection Specialist at EPA Region 7. She is also on the Process Excellence Team and serves as Skills Marketplace Coordinator for EPA Region 7. Michele has a degree in english with an emphasis in technical communication and a minor in business from Missouri Western 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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Learn, Explore and Take Action During American Wetlands Month!

By Cynthia Cassel

May marks the 26th anniversary of American Wetlands Month, a time when EPA and our wetland partners across the country celebrate the vital importance of wetlands to our ecological, economic, and social health. EPA and a host of other public and private partners planned a number of events as part of this year’s celebration. Here are a few highlights:

Migratory Bird Day

water and birdsOn May 14, International Migratory Bird Day celebrated its 24th anniversary with events hosted at hundreds of sites throughout the Western Hemisphere, reaching hundreds of thousands of youth and adults.

As part of the 24th anniversary celebrations, the theme “Spread Your Wings for Bird Conservation” highlighted the importance of international efforts to conserve birds through the RAMSAR Convention, which protects wetlands on a global level and the many ways we, as citizens, can take action to ensure that these protections remain in place. Wetlands serve as important bird habitats for breeding, nesting, feeding and other needs.

One of these lovely spring weekends here in the Heartland, pack up the kids and take a short driving trip to Cheyenne Bottoms in Stafford County, Kan., or Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Reno County, Kan., to actually view, enjoy and learn about these winged wonders in our very own Wetlands of National Importance.

Wetlands Trivia

Hardwood SwampsTo celebrate American Wetlands Month, the Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM) is posting Wetland Trivia to its Facebook page Monday-Friday throughout May. Fun little tidbits include trivia quizzes, interesting and unusual facts about wetlands, wetland photo quizzes, and great ideas for ways you can celebrate American Wetlands Month at work and at home. To join the fun, visit the ASWM Facebook page.

And for a real adventure in wonderment, please explore these very special wetlands:

Nebraska Sandhills Wetlands

The Sandhills of Nebraska are contiguous sand dunes that cover just over one quarter of the state. The area lies above the Ogallala Aquifer which stretches from South Dakota to Texas. The freshwater wetlands of the Sandhills are vital for collecting rainwater, snowmelt and runoff that recharges the aquifer, and they also provide vital habitat for countless waterfowl and shorebirds, including endangered Whooping Cranes.

Flowering plants in Iowa wetlandThis wetland system ranges from small shallow marshes to large deep lakes, and from forests to prairie to aquatic vegetation.

Alkaline (or saline) lakes form in basins where there is little rain. Flowing water dissolves minerals (salts) from the rocks and soil, and this salt-laden runoff collects low in the basin, forming a lake. Water in the lake evaporates, but the salts stay behind. Over time, the salts build up and create an alkaline lake. Salt flats and lakes are unique in that little vegetation grows there, yet these wetlands are a popular stopover for many migratory birds.

For More Information

About the Author: Cynthia Cassel has worked as a Senior Environmental Employment (SEE) Program grantee with EPA Region 7’s Wetlands and Streams Protection Team for 6½ years. She received her Bachelor of Science from Park University. Cynthia lives in Overland Park, Kan.

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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Citizen Science, Environmental Outreach and Water Quality

By Ibrahim Goodwin

Spring is here, the eaglets in the Anacostia River Basin have hatched and so has another opportunity to make a visible difference in our nation’s watersheds.

Earth Conservation Corps prepare and discuss their next event where they work with EPA and a group of youth scientist on testing water quality parameters like pH, temperature, phosphates, salinity etc..Here in DC’s Anacostia watershed, EPA and the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) are working together as part of the Anacostia Watershed Outreach and Education Initiative. We’re encouraging citizen science field research with ECC members, students and others. We test for water quality parameters like pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, phosphates, nitrates, salinity, and we’re analyzing samples for aquatic macroinvertebrates (water bugs you can see with the naked eye that are important indicators of water quality).

At the ECC Pumphouse, EPA is helping to make this urbanEarth Conservation Corps (ECC) are working together as part of the Anacostia Watershed Outreach and Education Initiative to educate students . river a classroom. We recently sponsored “Protecting the Anacostia Watershed – A Workshop on Water Quality Standards.” This activity, held on World Water Monitoring Day, also highlighted the Urban Waters Federal Partnership between EPA, ECC, the U.S. Forest Service, National Geographic and DC Water.

The interactive water quality workshop and hands-on water sample collection and analysis program offered over 75 students and citizen scientists an intimate look at how everyday pollution affects our local environment. We also discussed simple solutions to curbing complicated pollution problems. The young citizen scientists from St. Augustine Catholic School in Northwest Washington, DC were captivated by activities like the owl encounter, water quality monitoring, macroinvertebrate identification and National Geographic’s FieldScope GIS and data system.

This workshop can be modified to fit any watershed.  Our workshop, ‘’Watersheds and Water Monitoring,” is being held on the largest free-flowing river in the contiguous United States. The river is home to all sorts of wildlife, including over 300 species of birds.

The author tests water samples.Working with young citizen scientists in a hands-on setting reminds me how important my daily work at the EPA is in protecting the environment and educating the next generation of environmental stewards.

About the Author: Bryan “Ibrahim” Goodwin has worked in the Office of Water as an Environmental Scientist since 1987.   Mr. Goodwin has helped to train thousands of environmental professionals in the Water Quality Standards Academy and is currently working on initiatives to engage citizen scientists.   He received a B. S. in Geology from Howard University and is an avid gardener.

 

 

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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Mapping the Path to Protection

by Megan Keegan and Catherine Magliocchetti

DWMAPS screen shot of Philadelphia area, depicting crude oil, hydrocarbon gas liquids, natural gas, and petroleum product pipelines; overlayed against a backdrop of drinking water sources.

DWMAPS screen shot of Philadelphia area, depicting crude oil, hydrocarbon gas liquids, natural gas, and petroleum product pipelines; overlaid against a backdrop of drinking water sources.

In our work, we use geographic information systems (more commonly known as GIS) to create maps that help us make timely decisions and efficiently target resources for protecting the Region’s waterways.

However, GIS technologies can be time-consuming and cumbersome to learn, and for many environmental organizations GIS mapping has become a language all its own. And as with a language, if you don’t use it, you lose it because it’s difficult to remain fluent without using it on a regular basis.

Now there is an alternative that doesn’t require special software or on-going training. EPA’s new tool, the Drinking Water Mapping Application to Protect Source Waters (DWMAPS) harnesses the mapping power of GIS programs in a user-friendly interface, right in your internet browser!  DWMAPs equips local watershed groups, water utilities, state and federal regulators, and others with a wider variety of water resource datasets. For a better understanding of drinking water resources, users can easily navigate their way to answering all kinds of questions about public water systems, potential sources of contamination, or how to get involved in local drinking water protection efforts.

EPA will use this tool to better protect sources of drinking water by working with states, basin commissions, and collaborative partnerships, such as the River Alert Information Network (RAIN). The Network has high hopes for use of DWMAPS in the future.  RAIN’s program coordinator, Bryce Aaronson, recently told us that “ the ability to shift through the diverse layers detailing watersheds, water sources, and the great litany of possible points of contamination complements the growing early warning spill detection system that RAIN and our water utility partners use to protect the region’s source water.”

Find more information, including a complete user’s guide, on the DWMAPS website. And keep an eye out for instructional videos, webinars, and more from EPA. In the meantime, give DWMAPS a try to learn more about the source of your drinking water and to find water protection groups in your area.

About the authors: Meg Keegan and Cathy Magliocchetti work with diverse drinking water partnerships in the Source Water Protection program. Outside of work, Meg loves to scuba dive tropical locales and Cathy enjoys skiing.

 

 

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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A Summer Send-off at the Coast

by Megan Keegan

Enviroscape

EnviroScape – the ultimate tool for watershed education

How do you interest an audience of children, from toddlers to teens, in watershed protection? It’s easy: bring the subject down to their level – literally! That’s exactly what I did when I arrived to set up an exhibit at Pennsylvania Coast Day. By moving the timeless EnviroScape® – the ultimate tool for watershed education – from the tabletop to the ground, the children got a bird’s-eye view of a watershed comprised of several different land uses.  Parents looked on, amused, as the children helped “make it rain!” to demonstrate how common environmental pollutants make their way into our region’s waterways.

Along with EPA’s exhibition, Coast Day boasted a wide range of exhibitors with kid-engaging activities, like the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary’s demonstration of bivalve water filtration.  Bivalves include clams, oysters, and mussels. In our region, freshwater mussels are critically important because they provide valuable “ecosystem services” like stabilizing stream beds and filtering water. As we mentioned in a blog last year, an adult mussel can filter an astonishing 15 gallons of water per day. The Coast Day exhibit let passers-by see this filtration in action, with water in the aquarium tank going from cloudy to clear in a matter of hours.

The best part about the day?  It was totally free!  Although it was a cloudy day threatening to rain, Coast Day attracted a great crowd reflective of the diverse communities and family-friendly character of Philadelphia. If you missed this celebration of the Pennsylvania coast, head down to Lewes, Delaware, this Sunday for Delaware’s Coast Day – another free, fun, family event.

Find out more about your watershed – and even get involved with local watershed protection activities – by using EPA’s Surf Your Watershed website. If you’re an educator or parent looking for water education resources for children there are many fun, educational activities EPA’s water website.

 

About the Author: Megan Keegan is a new member of the Source Water Protection Team in EPA Region 3.  Her favorite state is Maine, where she enjoys fishing, kayaking, and picking blueberries. She considers Acadia to be the best National Park on the East Coast.

 

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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Talking Clean Water With My Kids … on Vacation (Yeah, They Loved It)

By Jeffery Robichaud

A couple of years ago, I wrote that we took a staycation and probably would not be able to get away with that again. I was right. We visited my folks in North Carolina this year, but at least we got a place within walking distance from the beach. So even though we flew, I was able to cut down on all the car rides from the usual condo where we stay, reducing our carbon footprint. Since the weather was perfect the entire time, we also took no extra trips down to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to kill a day.

While I was gone those few weeks, there were quite a few blog articles about the Clean Water Rule, both in our region and across the nation. Honestly, I felt bad leaving work with so much going on, but I couldn’t get away from water even if I wanted to.


We spent a week at the beach, where my kids romped in the surf, collected shells, and dug holes in the sand. Sunset Beach, N.C., is located partly on Bird Island. Its pristine shoreline, dunes, and marshland provide important habitat and nesting for species that are threatened and endangered, including two types of turtles (Loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley).

It was easy to explain to my kiddos why protecting the backwaters and marshes of the island was so important. I think I lost them to the allure of the ocean, when I started saying that one of the things we’re working on back at EPA is a rule that more clearly explains which waters were protected by the Clean Water Act. (Some kids don’t like to hear their dad talk about work at the beach.)

When our beach time ended, we headed back up the coastline to Wilmington, N.C. The city is near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, which circuitously winds its way west, then north, then west again and finally past my folk’s house south of Raleigh.

I tried to break up the long drive by pointing out how each of the different rivers and creeks we crossed connected to each other and the ocean (Burgaw Creek to the Northeast Cape Fear River to the Cape Fear River to the Atlantic Ocean). Basically, I made a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game out of the system of tributaries. I’m pretty sure I only amused myself, since both boys’ heads never seemed to rise from their devices.

We rounded out our trip by heading up into the mountains just as the temperature was climbing into the triple digits. My dad took great pleasure in showing the boys that we were coming up upon the Eastern Continental Divide, quizzing them on what that meant. When they gave him the right answer, he looked a little sad that he wasn’t able to impart that bit of wisdom on them. I realized I was more like my father than I thought.


We had a great time in the Appalachians wading through some streams, skipping rocks, and enjoying the cooler weather. This was on the spur of the moment, so we weren’t able to take advantage of the rafting excursions that dotted the valleys between the peaks. However, it was pretty clear that these thriving businesses relied on the cool, clean and clear water that sprang from the mountains. I tried to point this out, but by that time, my boys were rolling their eyes and saying, “We get it, Dad. Protecting water is important!”

So even though I left for vacation as EPA announced the Clean Water Rule, I actually spent my entire summer vacation talking about it anyway – if only to an 11- and 13-year-old. From my home in the Heartland to the mountains and beyond to the ocean, clean water is a blessing we have here in the United States. It is something I am proud to be working to protect, and something that we need to be sure to safeguard for our children – if only so I can ask my grandkids someday, “Hey guys, do you know what the Eastern Continental Divide is?”

About the Author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second-generation EPA scientist who has worked for the Agency since 1998. He currently serves as Deputy Director of EPA Region 7′s Water, Wetlands, and Pesticides Division. His summer trips to the beach as a youth were at the decidedly colder Long Sands Beach in York, Maine.

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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A “Bridge” to Clean Water

The Natural Bridge and surrounding land in Rockbridge County will be preserved as part of Virginia’s state park system with help from EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

The Natural Bridge and surrounding land in Rockbridge County will be preserved as part of Virginia’s state park system with help from EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

by Bob Chominski

How can a bridge clean water?  Don’t bridges span over the water?  Well, this is no average bridge we are talking about, but a “Natural Bridge” located in Rockbridge County, Virginia, north of Roanoke.

The Natural Bridge, a 215 foot limestone arch, and surrounding property was bought by Thomas Jefferson just before the American Revolution and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson purchased the property from King George III of England for 20 schillings. Today, that would be about $3.00!  Legend has it that a young George Washington surveyed the site for Lord Fairfax.

So how does this relate to clean water?  The Natural Bridge and the surrounding property are located in the James River Watershed, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.  The bridge and property were up for sale with the possibility of “developing” the property with homes.  Using EPA funding, a $9.1 million loan was made through the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Clean Water Revolving Loan fund.  It was part of a complex purchase by a newly formed conservation non-profit, the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, Inc.  The conservation effort will prevent nutrient pollution that could be associated with land development from reaching the Bay.

The Natural Bridge and surrounding land will be preserved as part of Virginia’s state park system.  I recently visited the Natural Bridge and if you enjoy the outdoors and history, which I do, this place is spectacular!  I can see why the bridge has been included in several listings of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.  If you’re in the Roanoke area, don’t miss out on experiencing this natural wonder, the history, and of course, the clean water.

 

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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Water Wednesday: “Mommy, Where Does It Go When I Flush?”

By Chrislyn Johnson

Last spring, when I was potty training my 3-year-old, he asked me where it goes after we flush the toilet. I thought about this before I answered him, because I have often overwhelmed the poor child with my answers. He once asked me “What is water?” and I told him it was two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

For most people, it is enough to be told that when you flush the toilet, it goes to the sewage treatment plant. Since I worked in wastewater regulation for a little while, I know it goes far beyond that, and I have trouble answering this seemingly simple question with a simple answer.

Once it goes down the drain, the water travels through a sometimes aging, sometimes modern, infrastructure of pipes to a wastewater treatment plant. Treatment options vary, from open lagoons to all-inclusive mechanical plants, all with the same goal: to treat sewage so it can be released into the environment. Many modern facilities do this with an “activated sludge” process that uses bacteria to naturally break down the waste.

As it enters the plant, the solids are separated out by a grit screen and settling basins. Heavier solids like plastics, eggshells, and intact items are settled out and removed; then taken to the landfill. The next step is the primary clarifier, where the sewage moves slowly along so heavier particles and sludge can settle out. At the same time, grease and oils dumped down the drain float to the top and are skimmed off the surface.

After the clarifier, the water is moved to the main part of the treatment: the aeration basin. Bacteria feast on the nutrients to break down the sewage and remove chemicals in the wastewater as it bubbles and roils with oxygen. Depending on the plant, an additional tank is sometimes added to help remove nitrogen. Since the treated water goes back into rivers and streams, this additional step is helpful in removing nitrogen before it can cause problems. Nitrogen can cause algal blooms that not only can be toxic, but also consume a lot of oxygen during decomposition, which kills the fish.

Following the aeration and nitrogen removal processes, the water then flows into a secondary clarifier. Water trickles out from weirs at the top of the large, circular tanks of the clarifier. The water is disinfected, either by chemical means (such as chlorination, similar to bleach), or through newer alternatives like ultraviolet (UV) lights. Once disinfected, the treated water is released into a nearby river or stream.

Whereas the water treatment is nearly finished in the secondary clarifier, the sludge often has a few more steps to completion. The bacteria slowly settle to the bottom of the clarifier into what is called the sludge blanket. Some of the sludge blanket from the clarifier is recycled and added back into the incoming wastewater to begin the treatment reaction in the aeration basin. Depending on the type of plant, the remainder of the sludge travels to the digesters for either aerobic or anaerobic digestion (where the bacteria eat each other).

Aerobic digestion uses oxygen to further break down the sludge. It is nearly odorless, but also costly since the process has to be manually oxygenated. The other common alternative is anaerobic digestion, which is not so odorless since it produces methane. However, the methane can be captured and used to generate electricity to operate the plant. The waste heat from the generators even can be used to keep the anaerobic digesters at the correct operating temperature. After leaving the digesters, water is removed from the sludge, which can then be disposed of or used as a soil conditioner. With clean water going back to the stream or river, and sludge going back to the earth, the cycle is complete.

I thought about this intricate series of steps that mimics the breakdown processes wastes would undergo in nature, given sufficient time and space. I thought about how fortunate we are to live in a country where water quality is a high priority, and we can make a daily difference to protect our local waterways (see graphic below).

I also thought about my son’s level of understanding, as he impatiently asked me again, “Where it go?” With all of this in mind, I looked down at my innocent little boy and told him, “It goes to the sewage treatment plant, honey.”

Click image to see larger version.

Click image to see larger version.

About the Author: Chrislyn Johnson is a Life Scientist with EPA Region 7’s Water, Wetlands, and Pesticides Division. She holds degrees in biology and photography from the University of Central Missouri and loves all things nature. She also enjoys access to flush toilets.

Sources:
Scientific American
U.S. Census Bureau
World Health Organization

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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And the Best Supporting Role Goes To…

by Bonnie Turner-Lomax

 

Waterways with “celebrity” status rely on the supporting roles of countless unnamed waterways and wetlands.

Waterways with “celebrity” status rely on the supporting roles of countless unnamed waterways and wetlands.

Waterways with “celebrity” status rely on the supporting roles of countless unnamed waterways and wetlands.

No trip to Los Angeles is complete without a visit to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hundreds of stars are embedded into the sidewalk along Hollywood Boulevard, honoring countless celebrities, past and present. These well-known Hollywood stars have kept us on the edge of our seats; made us laugh, cry, and sometimes scared the wits out of us.

Yet it takes a cast of hundreds–sometimes thousands–to make these celebrities shine. Their names may not be readily recognized, but these professionals working in supporting roles and behind the scenes are essential to our movie-going experience.

There are many “celebrity” waterways in the Mid-Atlantic Region like the Chesapeake Bay, the Delaware, and the Potomac, which are well known for their beauty, recreational opportunities, and the economic benefits they provide to surrounding communities. But like Hollywood celebrities, their stardom is dependent on the supporting roles of countless unknown and unnamed streams, wetlands, and headwaters.

When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it didn’t just defend the “big star“ waters. It also protected the smaller streams and wetlands that flow into rivers and lakes. The law recognized that to have healthy communities downstream, we need healthy headwaters upstream.

This March, EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released the proposed Waters of the U.S. Rule that clarifies Clean Water Act protection for waters that are vital to our health and our economy. Science shows what kinds of streams and wetlands impact water downstream, so our proposal insures that these waters will be protected.

One in 3 Americans – 117 million of us – get our drinking water from streams, creeks, and wetlands currently lacking clear protection. Safeguarding smaller streams is also crucial for our economy in areas like tourism, manufacturing, energy, recreation and agriculture.

If you’ve ever viewed the credits at the end of a movie, you are taking time to recognize the many behind-the-scenes people for the roles they played in a production. Your comments on the proposed Waters of the U.S. Rule help us give “credit” to important roles these waterways play in our lives. EPA is accepting comments on the proposed Waters of the U.S. rule until October 20.

 

About the author: Bonnie Turner-Lomax is the communications coordinator for the Region’s Environmental Assessment and Innovation Division. She enjoys theater, traveling, and taking in a good movie.

 

 

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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