Watersheds

From Farmers to Kayakers, Clean Water the Topic of the Day

by Tom Damm

 

June 12, 2014 16th Annual River Sojourn,  Valley Forge National Historical Park, PA

June 12, 2014
16th Annual River Sojourn,
Valley Forge National Historical Park, PA

It was a busy day for the nation’s highest ranking water official and our EPA Regional Administrator on June 12 as they participated in a series of activities to bring attention to and clear up misconceptions about an important clean water proposal.

The day for EPA Acting Assistant Administrator for Water Nancy Stoner began with a radio show broadcast live on two NPR stations in central Pennsylvania. Nancy fielded questions from Smart Talk host Scott Lamar for a half hour on a rule designed to clarify protections under the Clean Water Act for streams and wetlands that form the foundation of our nation’s waters.

You can hear it here.

The proposed Waters of the U.S. rule was also the topic as Nancy was joined by Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin at the Berks County Agricultural Center in Leesport, PA for a two-hour roundtable discussion with farmers and other members of the agriculture industry.

As part of a productive dialogue, Nancy and Shawn explained that the proposed rule preserves existing Clean Water Act exemptions and exclusions for agricultural activities and has additional benefits for the farming community.

Then it was on to Valley Forge National Historical Park for a rendezvous with dozens of kayakers, anglers and others participating in the 16th Annual Schuylkill River Sojourn.

The sojourners had arrived for lunch at the park on Day 6 of their trip down the Schuylkill – named the 2014 River of the Year in Pennsylvania.

There was some intermittent light rain as the river enthusiasts gathered on benches under rows of overhangs to eat some food and gain some unexpected attention from the Philadelphia media gathered to hear the EPA officials. Nancy told the assembled group that, “The question today is what can we do to make sure that we are leaving behind waters that are useable, waters that are safe to drink, waters that are safe to swim in, to kayak in, to eat fish from.”

By clarifying the scope of the Clean Water Act, Nancy said, “We can make the system work a lot better, more efficiently, more cost effectively, and ensure that those stream systems are protected for the future.”

After the talk, the kayakers headed back to the river’s edge, ready to begin their next leg on the sojourn and hoping to beat the heavier rain expected later in the day.  Nancy and Shawn stayed a while longer to talk to others interested in the clean water rule.

The public comment period for the rule has been extended to October 20, 2014.

 

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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Bringing Back Broad Branch

 

Daylighting streams to restore them to a more natural condition can improve removal of nutrient and sediment pollution

Daylighting streams to restore them to a more natural condition can improve removal of nutrient and sediment pollution

by Fred Suffian

As you drive around your community, have you noticed people cleaning up roadside litter, groups planting trees, or even working construction equipment near a stream?  These folks may be your neighbors or township staff; working to reduce stormwater runoff or stabilize stream banks to restore water quality.

Why do they need to do this? Any activity that disturbs the natural land cover of trees and fields increases the amount of runoff that flows into a stream. This rapidly moving runoff causes stream banks to erode.  Litter and chemicals get carried in runoff from the land, adding fertilizers, pesticides, heavy metals and sediment that can clog our streams, kill aquatic organisms, and increase the cost of treating drinking water.

There’s one project underway in the Broad Branch Watershed in the District of Columbia, which reminded me of another reason for stream restoration. In the past, buried pipes were used to disguise unwanted or inconvenient streams.  Years ago, a stream of the Broad Branch was buried in a pipe and is now being daylighted (uncovered) by the District Department of the Environment in conjunction with the National Park Service.  This article has a great description of the project and the benefits that this daylighted stream will bring to the community.

Researchers are finding that daylighting streams improves nutrient and sediment removal, and can even help with flooding and community revitalization, restoring a healthy and beautiful urban waterway to be enjoyed by all. Do you know of streams in your community that were buried in the past, or were recently daylighted and restored? Let us know in the comments.

About the author: Fred Suffian is the regional Nonpoint Source Program Manager of Section 319 of the Clean Water Act, which provides funding to states to develop and implement watershed based plans to restore local water quality.  He is also involved in his community’s environmental advisory council. 

 

 

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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Farm Conservation Practices are Working in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Farmers are implementing conservation practices that are both good for their business and improving water quality

Farmers are implementing conservation practices that are both good for their business and improving water quality

by Kelly Shenk

As the agricultural advisor for EPA’s mid-Atlantic region, I’ve had the opportunity to accompany the EPA mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator in talks with farmers throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed through roundtable discussions and tours of their farms. We’ve observed their successes, challenges, and opportunities.  It’s encouraging to see how engaged farmers are in implementing conservation practices that are both good for their business and improving water quality.

Last month the Chesapeake Bay Program reported that pollution controls put in place over the last four years have resulted in an estimated 7% reduction of nitrogen, 11% reduction of phosphorus, and 6% reduction of sediment in the Bay Watershed.

Agriculture is responsible for about one-third of these reductions because producers have stepped up their conservation practices such as cover crops that take up residual nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil after crops are harvested. Other effective conservation practices include tillage that prevents nutrients and sediment from running off of cropland; and fencing to keep cows out of streams.

While this progress is encouraging, there’s still much that needs doing to restore the Bay.  Using 2009 as a baseline, the Chesapeake Bay TMDL or pollution diet calls for having measures in place by 2017 to achieve at least 60 percent of the pollution reductions necessary for restoring the Bay to water quality standards.  The Bay jurisdictions are in the process of achieving this objective through upgrading of wastewater treatment plants and septic systems, increased implementation of agricultural conservation practices, improving urban stormwater management, and addressing air pollution sources. All sources are tackling their share of the challenge

The pace of the Bay jurisdictions’ pollution reduction efforts will get quicker moving forward.  For agriculture, I think the keys to success are strong state programs, targeted federal and state financial and technical assistance, incentives that engage more producers, and continued innovation.

We’re encouraged by some of the progress that’s already being made.  We are seeing increased financing for high priority practices promoted by the States such as stream exclusion and cover crops.  States are strengthening their programs for addressing water quality concerns from small animal operations.  We’re also seeing incentives such as Ag Certainty programs to engage more producers in conservation practices.

In my time out in the field, I am always inspired at the creativity and innovation of farmers.  With a good knowledge of the States’ pollution reduction goals, targeted financial and technical assistance, and the flexibility to reach water quality goals in a way that works for their business, I’m confident they can get the job done.  But it will take all of us working together in all sectors, building on the progress that we’ve made thus far, and staying on track to reaching our goals of restoring our local waters and the magnificence of the Chesapeake Bay.

Kelly Shenk is EPA Region III’s Agricultural Advisor

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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Reposted: How EPA Research Supports Taking Action on Climate Change

Reposted from EPA’s Connect blog, the official blog of EPA’s leadership.

By Lek Kadeli

As my EPA colleagues and I prepare to join millions of people from across the nation and around the globe to celebrate the environment on April 22, it’s a good time to remember how much we’ve accomplished together since the first Earth Day in 1970.

Forty-four years ago, it wasn’t hard to find direct evidence that our environment was in trouble. Examples of air pollution could be seen at the end of every tailpipe, and in the thick, soot-laden plumes of black smoke flowing from industrial smokestacks and local incinerators. Litter and pollution-choked streams were the norm, and disposing of raw sewage and effluent directly into waterways was standard practice. A major mid-western river famously ignited, sparking both awareness and action. The central theme of EPA’s Earth Day activities this year is Taking Action on Climate Change, echoing our commitment to meeting today’s greatest environmental challenge. And just like our predecessors did decades ago, we are supporting those actions with the best available science.

Dr. Chris Weaver, an EPA scientist currently on leave to serve as the Deputy Executive Director of U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program, explains: “EPA has a major role to play in preparing the nation for change, through its critical responsibilities for ensuring clean air, clean water, and healthy communities and ecosystems. And EPA researchers, working in partnership with their colleagues in other Federal agencies and in the broader scientific community, are at the forefront of advancing understanding of the impacts of—and responses to—climate and related global change.”

Examples of that work include:

I invite you to read more about these and other examples in the 2014 Earth Day edition of our EPA Science Matters newsletter. It features stories on how EPA researchers and their partners are supporting Agency strategies and President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

Our amazing scientists and engineers are providing the science that decision makers, communities, and individuals need for developing strategies to protect public human health and the environment in the face of a changing climate. Thanks to them, I am confident that future Earth Day events will celebrate how we were able to take action and meet the challenges of a changing climate.

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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In Defense of our Waters

By Tom Damm

Assunpink Creek near site of Second Battle of Trenton

Assunpink Creek near site of Second Battle of Trenton

As we approach Earth Day on Tuesday, we’re reminded of the reasons we value our rivers and streams.

They serve as sources of drinking water, provide recreational fun, support fish and wildlife, and play a critical role in our economy.

And some offer a touch of history – like the Assunpink Creek in Trenton, New Jersey.

My neighborhood stream connects with the Assunpink before emptying in the Delaware River.  The Delaware is a focus of cleanup efforts in two EPA regions and is influenced by hundreds of small streams and creeks in states on both sides of the river.

If you Google Assunpink Creek, you’ll find it has a connection to an important battle in the American Revolutionary War.

General Washington’s troops repelled three attempts by British soldiers to cross a bridge over the Assunpink in the Second Battle of Trenton – one of a series of events over 10 days that historians say changed the course of the war.

These days, Assunpink Creek itself is under siege.

I entered the battle site’s zip code in EPA’s How’s My Waterway? app this week to get a sense for the water quality in the Assunpink.  The app is a relatively new way of learning 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 found that the creek is impacted by arsenic, E coli, lead, phosphorus and low dissolved oxygen levels, among other ailments.

The Assunpink is not alone.

According to an EPA survey released last year, more than half of the nation’s rivers and stream miles are in poor condition for aquatic life.

The EPA report – the 2008-2009 National Rivers and Stream Assessment – shows that our waterways are under big-time pressure: not enough vegetation along stream banks and too much nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria and mercury.

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.

EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have released a proposed rule to clarify protections under the Clean Water Act for these types of streams and wetlands.  The rule will be open for a 90-day public comment period beginning Monday, April 21.  You can find information on the rule and a link to comment at www2.epa.gov/uswaters.

We can all enlist in the effort to help reverse poor water quality conditions.  Among other activities, you can control polluted runoff from your property, adopt your watershed and do volunteer water monitoring.  For more information on what you can do, click here.  Make it an Earth Day commitment.

About the Author: Tom Damm has been with EPA since 2002 and now serves as the region’s acting senior communications advisor.

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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Urban Waters: Connecting Communities to their Water Resources

By Catherine King

Through the Urban Waters program, EPA is seeking to help communities — especially underserved communities as they work to access, improve, and benefit from their urban waters and the surrounding land. If you are interested in caring for an urban stream or river or lake or would like to get your neighbors involved in caring for a local urban water resource, then welcome to the Urban Waters Movement!

Urban Rivers

The Urban Waters effort is anchored in a simple theory: if we better engage communities and all work together in efforts to improve and protect water quality, those efforts will be more successful.

The first step is a recognition that people need to be connected to the potential of their water bodies to get them engaged. If people are better engaged, they will be more committed to improving local water quality, which in turn can help revitalize communities. That revitalization reinforces people’s connections to their water bodies, completing a positive cycle for improving the environment and communities as a whole.  Communities across the country are taking this approach and seeing the benefits. In the mid-Atlantic region alone, there are several organizations that have received Urban Waters Small Grants and even a few Urban Waters Federal Partner Pilots.

Water quality touches all of us every day: through the water we drink from the tap, to the waters we swim in, and the water we use to water our plants and crops. Your local water utility serves a key role – treating wastewater and drinking water – but ensuring access to clean waters and protecting the surrounding land starts with you, your neighbors and local community organizations.

Working hand-in-hand, community groups and local residents can initiate activities to help revitalize urban waters, such as setting up a water quality monitoring program, organizing volunteer cleanup efforts, and forming coalitions to speak out about water quality concerns to community leaders.  By pooling efforts, your voice and hard work make the difference to your local waterways and to the community that depends on them.

You can become better informed about urban water issues affecting your community by visiting EPA’s Urban Waters Resources websiteEPA’s Urban Waters Learning Network is another resource for you to learn about actions that other communities are taking to protect their urban water resources and lets you participate in the dialog.  Tell us what activities you are involved with in your community to protect your local urban waters!

About the author:  Catherine King is the EPA Region 3 Urban Waters Program Coordinator in the Office of State and Watershed Partnerships in the Water Protection Division in Philadelphia, PA.

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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Recovering from a heavy dose of winter

By Jennie Saxe

Mounds of salt ready to be spread on roads

Mounds of salt ready to be spread on roads

Is this winter over yet? Fortunately, we’ve had a few days in the mid-Atlantic that make me think spring could be just around the corner. Even as we prepare to turn the page weather-wise, some remnants of winter will stick around. This year, one of those remnants is salt…lots of salt.

A couple of years ago, we brought you some information on smart ways to apply salt to keep the roads safe in winter weather and protect water resources at the same time. While that winter was relatively mild, winter 2014 has been another story. Municipal salt supplies are running low, and recently it’s been tough to find “snow melt” of any kind in neighborhood hardware stores.

With the snow now melting, the leftover salt is headed right toward our water supplies. Here are some of the impacts that increased salt can have:

  • Road salt runoff can increase levels of conductivity (a substitute measure of “saltiness”) in streams and cause stress to aquatic life like fish and macroinvertebrates – in high enough concentrations, salt runoff can be toxic to sensitive organisms
  • Salt increases the density of water which impacts the normal turnover processes in waterbodies – this can also affect aquatic life through depleting oxygen levels in deeper water and nutrient supplies in the upper part of the water column
  • Salt has more of an impact on freshwater systems than on those that are brackish or saline already
  • Salty runoff that enters drinking water supplies could cause elevated sodium levels that can have health consequences

If you’d like to see how one of our local waters, the Schuylkill River, responds to road salt runoff, the US Geological Survey (USGS) has some interesting data. Salt runoff from roadways or salt blown by the wind could be responsible for that conductivity spike in mid-February.  Since the chloride from road salt (sodium chloride) is not removed or transformed by natural processes, the only way to bring levels down is through dilution, usually by way of rainfall. Toward the end of February, you can see the conductivity levels decrease.

I’ve used some of our recent spring-like weather to sweep up the salt around our house. This will prevent even more salt from washing down the drain and into the creek near my house. Cities and towns can use street sweeping as a mechanism to remove excess salt from their streets at the end of the winter season.

Did you have any low-salt methods for handling the snow this winter? How are you keeping the left-over salt from getting into our waterways?

Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA in 2003 and is currently a Water Policy Analyst in the Water Protection Division of EPA Region 3 in Philadelphia. When not in the office, Jennie enjoys spending time with her husband and 2 children and cheering for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.

 

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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The Art of the Natural Garden”

example of a native plant

example of a native plant

 

by Todd Lutte

  It’s once again time to experience that first “breath of spring” at the Philadelphia Flower Show.  A local tradition with international recognition, the Philadelphia Flower Show has been a prelude to spring for more than 150 years with EPA’s mid-Atlantic Region being a part of that tradition for more than two decades.  As one of the city’s most anticipated annual events, the Flower Show brings thousands of garden enthusiasts to the floors of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in early March.

The theme for the 2014 Philadelphia Flower Show is “ARTiculture…where art meets horticulture”.   The EPA exhibit is titled “L’Art du Jardin Natural” which translated is “The Art of the Natural Garden”.  The display showcases native plants, wetlands and sustainable landscaping techniques in a passive setting

Art and the natural world have forever been intertwined in the human imagination but our scientific understanding of the complexity of these beautiful places has only become its own field of study in more modern times. Through this study, we have learned that our rivers, streams, and wetlands are not just pretty pictures—they are dynamic ecosystems that continually respond to cues from climate patterns, local hydrology, invasive species, human disturbances, and many other factors.

The beauty of these wild places is founded upon resilience as an amazing number of plant and animal species have evolved to fill special ecological niches across very different habitat types. While these native species benefit from clean waters, they also enrich the whole ecosystem through functions that control and abet plant cover, sediment supply, water quality, flood control, and biodiversity.

The use  of native plants has many benefits, including relatively low maintenance, which saves both time and money.  Pollinators, beneficial insects, and other wildlife rely on native plants for food and habitat, and invasive species are less likely to colonize an area with an established native plant community.

If you’re in the area, stop by and experience “L’Art du Jardin Natural”.  The 2014 Philadelphia Flower Show runs from Saturday, March 1st   through Sunday, March 9th at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia.

 

Todd Lutte is an EPA environmental scientist who works to enforce laws and regulations for the protection of wetlands. Todd is a key partner in creating EPA’s exhibit at the Philadelphia Flower Show

 

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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Rain Gardens in the Winter

My rain garden in February

My rain garden in February

By Sue McDowell

Back in April, 2013, I wrote a blog about the benefits of rain gardens.  Now with almost half the country engulfed in winter and freezing temperatures, should we just forget about our gardens for now?

In a way, yes. Your rain garden should take care of itself throughout the winter months and be refreshed for the spring.

If you recall from the previous post, a rain garden is a garden designed as a shallow depression to collect water that runs off from your roof, driveway and other paved areas. The gardens are filled with varieties of native plants and shrubs that are both water and drought tolerant.  It’s a sustainable and economic way of dealing with rainfall as nature intended – all year round. It might not look like it, but your garden still works hard throughout the winter months.  In the winter, rain gardens continue to manage rain water (or snow melt) by holding the water briefly to allow slower infiltration.

Winter rain gardens are similar to any garden – the flowers die back, waiting for spring to re-emerge.  Most rain garden designs plan with winter in mind, such as using native grasses, dry seed pods from native coneflowers (Echinacea) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) .

By not cutting back last year’s growth, the rain garden can provide food and cover for winter birds such as sparrows and juncos.   Adding a fresh layer of mulch and raking out any leaves will keep the rain garden functioning during the cold months and ready it for the spring growth.

Here’s a bonus tip: when you do ready your rain garden for the spring, you can put the leaves and cuttings you remove from your rain garden in your home composter. If you’re not composting, but plan to start when the weather warms up, the brown leaves and cuttings will be a perfect starter food for your compost pile.

What are some of your observations of your rain garden through these winter months?

About the author: Susan McDowell joined the EPA family in 1990.  Her work on community-based sustainability throughout her career includes the award-winning Green Communities program which has traveled across the United States and internationally.  She brings her ‘ecological’ perspective to her work including Pennsylvania’s nonpoint source pollution program the mid-Atlantic National Estuaries, and the G3 Academy (Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns).

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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Coastal Wetlands Getting Swamped

By Charlie Rhodes

While wetlands may conjure up images of “swamp things,” in reality these unique ecosystems have many vital and fascinating characteristics.

For example, wetlands provide crucial food and habitat for wildlife.  Did you know that more than half of the fish caught for recreational or commercial purposes depend on wetlands at some point in their life cycles, as do 75 percent of our nation’s migratory birds?

Both saltwater (along the coastal shorelines) and freshwater (extending inland) wetlands occur in the coastal watersheds of the United States.

Wetland systems improve water quality and buffer coastal communities from erosion and flooding, while also providing recreational opportunities. A recent report Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Coastal Watershed of the Continuous United States 2004-2009 summarized the status and trends of coastal watersheds. Frankly, much of the report compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wasn’t good news.

During the study period, wetlands suffered a net national decline of 360,720 acres (an area about the size of Los Angeles), and an average of 25 percent increased loss compared to the previous five years.  Our Atlantic Coasts saw a decline of 111,960 acres (larger than the city of Philadelphia).  Losses and degradation of wetlands in coastal watersheds can be directly traced to population growth, changes in water flow, and increased pollution.

Some of the reported impacts include:

  • The loss of an estimated that 7,360 acres of estuarine saltmarsh in the Atlantic coastal watersheds  – mainly due to erosion and inundation from rising sea levels along shorelines near Delaware Bay.
  • Forested freshwater wetlands declined by an estimated 405,740 acres.  Of these losses, 69,700 acres (44%) were attributed to silviculture, the practice of harvesting trees in many swamps.
  • Natural ponds declined by 16,400 acres (-3.9 percent), while detention or ornamental ponds increased by 55,700 acres (+19 percent).  While this would appear to indicate a net gain, the tradeoff is that natural ponds, which often interact with other natural environments and provide additional benefits, were being lost while isolated decorative ponds or sumps of limited ecological value were being created.

While reestablishing and creating wetlands can offset losses, this study also found that these strategies have not been as effective in coastal wetlands as in other types.  Challenges include costs, competing land use interests, and oversight limitations.

Wetland losses coupled with increasing frequency of extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy make the mid-Atlantic coasts increasingly vulnerable to coastal flooding and inundation.

But not all of the news is bad. Many great opportunities still exist for citizens, industry, government agencies, and others to work together to slow the rate of wetland loss and improve the quality of our remaining wetlands.  Learn more about what you can do to protect wetlands and about EPA’s wetland activities in the mid-Atlantic at the following:  http://water.epa.gov/type/wetlands/protection.cfm; and http://www.epa.gov/reg3esd1/wetlands/ .

 

About the Author:  Charlie Rhodes is a wetland ecologist who has been with EPA since 1979.  He has worked nationally on wetlands in many capacities including impact assessment, delineation, and enforcement; and in many roles, including expert witness, instructor, and grant reviewer. 

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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