Watersheds

The Potomac Watershed – From All Sides

By Ellen Schmitt and Susan Spielberger

More often than not, watersheds cross political boundaries.  Take the Potomac River for example.  It drains an area of 14,670 square miles in four states: Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.  As part of the larger Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the Potomac River delivers a significant amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment to the Chesapeake Bay.

Morning fog over the Potomac River. Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer jm6553 from EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project

Morning fog over the Potomac River. Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer jm6553 from EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project

Besides its contribution to downstream nutrient pollution, the Potomac basin itself faces a number of threats to its source water quality. One of these threats is a rapid growth in urban population which accounts for 81% of the basin’s 6.11 million residents, and is expected to grow by more than 1 million people over the next 20 years.

The environmental challenges presented by the Potomac River, as well as other mid-Atlantic waters often require the attention of different EPA programs.   Here’s what two of us do to protect “the Nation’s River” here in EPA, Region 3.

Ellen:

I work in the Drinking Water Branch and we’re working with the Potomac River Basin Drinking Water Source Protection Partnership to protect the river and its tributaries as sources of drinking water.  Protecting the source water in the first place is the best preventative step to providing safe drinking water.   Hand and glove with this are the other usual steps including treatment at water plants, a safe drinking water distribution system, and increasing the awareness of consumers of protecting drinking water sources. This approach makes sense because some substances can’t be removed at water treatment facilities and it’s often much less expensive to treat the water if contaminants are kept out in the first place.  Examples of source water protection activities are: keeping manure from farms out of streams to reduce the potential for pathogens entering the water; having a response plan in the event of a spill of hazardous materials; and working with transportation agencies to reduce the amount of salt spread on the region’s roads during the winter.

The Potomac Partnership is a unique collaboration, comprised of nearly 20 drinking water utilities and government agencies from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and DC focusing on source water protection activities addressing agriculture, urban run-off and emerging contaminants.

Susan:

I work in the Environmental Assessment and Innovation Division.  In 2010, Congress provided EPA with two million dollars in funding to restore and protect the Potomac Highlands (a part of Appalachia), and EPA selected American Rivers to administer this grant program.  My role in this program is serve as the technical contact for the projects that have been funded – eight of them –  ranging from $150,000 to $300,000, that focus on improving natural resources and socio-economic conditions.

Projects include stream bank restoration in Staunton and Waynesboro, Virginia; land conservation projects in West Virginia and Pennsylvania where parcels with high ecological value are being protected through conservation easements; reclaiming mine land in the Monongahela National Forest by planting  native spruce trees; and constructing a green house/ shade house project in Frostburg, Maryland, on reclaimed mine land.

In selecting projects that will protect and restore the Potomac (as well as other mid-Atlantic waters), we emphasize a strategic approach to conservation – also known as the Green Infrastructure approach.   We emphasize the connectivity of forest “hubs” of high ecological value and their ability to either expand those hubs or connect the hubs together.  This is a more effective way to protect and restore natural systems because it strives to keep important areas intact and to restore ones that are degraded.

 

For more information about the Potomac watershed, check out this State of the Nation’s River Report from the Potomac Conservancy (PDF).  What kinds of activities are happening in the watershed where you live?  How else could it be approached, from all sides?

 

About the Authors: Susan Spielberger and Ellen Schmitt both work out of EPA’s Mid-Atlantic office in Philadelphia, PA.  Susan works in the Environment and Innovation Division in the Office of Environmental Information and Assessment, and Ellen works in the Water Protection Division’s Drinking Water Branch.

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 Chance to Walk the Walk When it Comes to Green Infrastructure

By Tom Damm

What happens in my hometown doesn’t stay in my hometown.

Actions on the land and in the waters of Hamilton Township, N.J. have an effect on the Delaware River, which is a major focus of our cleanup work in EPA’s Mid-Atlantic region.

As a possible blog idea, I wanted to look into the pollution impacts of stormwater that enters the sewer drain across from my house.  When I accessed my township website for a contact number, I found something even more interesting.

Class is in session with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program.

Class is in session with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program. Photo courtesy of Jess Brown, Rutgers.

I learned that Hamilton is Ground Zero for a new initiative by Rutgers University to promote green infrastructure techniques that soak up stormwater before it reaches the sewer system and creates nasty problems in our streams and streets.

Better yet, Rutgers was recruiting volunteers to be part of the action in Hamilton and elsewhere.

Green infrastructure is one of the hottest topics I write about at EPA.  We’ve helped communities in our region become national leaders in using green strategies to slow the flow of stormwater.

Now I had the chance to get directly involved.  So I signed up for the training offered by the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program.

The course was designed to develop a corps of paraprofessionals to help Rutgers engineers and scientists identify sites ripe for rain gardens and other green techniques to “keep the rain from the drain.”  The classroom training took place at Duke Farms, a model of environmental stewardship, and at Rutgers, where we also stepped outside to examine how a parking lot could be fitted with green features.

Instructor Chris Obropta described the problems posed by stormwater, the solutions offered by green infrastructure, and the role we would play initially in scouting out potential locations through aerial maps, photos, site visits and other analysis, and then writing up our findings.

I have a head start in Hamilton.  Our town officials are supportive of the initiative and the program already has found 72 candidate sites in our six sub-watersheds, including hard surfaces at my local Little League field and firehouse.  Large rain gardens have been installed at two of our high schools, providing real life lessons for students.

With certificate in hand, I’m looking forward to taking the next steps with the folks from Rutgers.

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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Celebrating Mushrooms, Farmers, and Watersheds in Kennett Square

By Christina Catanese

“What’s that smell?” I asked, as we got out of the car in front of my friend’s house in Kennett Square, PA.

“Oh, the mushroom compost?” Jaclyn said. “I don’t even smell that anymore.”

It wasn’t an unpleasant smell, but an earthy aroma that permeated the air the same way the culture of mushroom farming pervades this small Pennsylvania town.

Mushrooms are a way of life in Kennett Square.  Often called the Mushroom Capital of the World, mushroom farms in this area of Southeastern Pennsylvania produce the vast majority of mushrooms produced in the United States, outdone only by China in mushroom farming worldwide.  I heard some figures that mushroom farms in Chester County produce over a million pounds of mushrooms a week!

Enjoying a beautiful day in the Kennett Square community

Enjoying a beautiful day in the Kennett Square community

Every year, this proud tradition of mushroom farming is celebrated at the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival.  I attended this year’s festival a few weeks ago, where I expected to and did eat many types and forms of mushrooms (including but not limited to the classic deep fried mushroom balls, the higher brow mushroom gorgonzola hummus, and even cream of mushroom ice cream).

What I didn’t expect was to learn so much about mushroom farming itself, and its role in the health of the watershed of the Delaware River, Red and White Clay Creek, and other local streams.  Part of the festival was an exhibition that walked through the process of growing mushrooms.  It really gave me an appreciation of the amount of work these farmers have to do to grow their crops.

A mushroom farmer harvests white button mushrooms from his exhibition at the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival

A mushroom farmer harvests white button mushrooms from his exhibition at the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival

It all starts with the substrate (the material the mushrooms are grown in), which generally consists of the waste products from other agriculture industries.  This mix of manure, hay, straw, wood chips, cottonseed meal, cocoa shells, and gypsum has to be kept at just the right temperature, pH, and light conditions in indoor mushroom farms, so the right fungi thrive and the wrong ones that could spoil the crop do not.  Once the mushrooms sprouted, I couldn’t believe how fast they grew, sometimes doubling in size in a single day!

After mushrooms are harvested, the substrate material can’t be used for mushroom farming anymore.  As at any farm, this compost can be a source of runoff and enter streams if not managed properly.  Source water protection efforts in the Delaware River Basin identified mushroom farms in the watershed as a partnership opportunity to help reduce nutrient pollution and potential sources of Cryptosporidium, a pathogen often found in manure that may cause disease.  These efforts work with farmers and conservation districts to set up ways to manage this runoff and protect sources of drinking water.

Phase 2 Compost: what the spent mushroom substrate looks like after mushrooms have been harvested and before it comes to your lawn or garden

Phase 2 Compost: what the spent mushroom substrate looks like after mushrooms have been harvested and before it comes to your lawn or garden

With its high capacity to hold water and nutrients, mushroom compost can be used as compost in many applications, like crop and garden fertilization, erosion control, and stormwater management.  Fall is the best time to seed new lawns and fertilize, so if you’re embarking on this process, consider mushroom or other organic soil amendments for your plants.  Like any fertilizer, mushroom compost must be applied appropriately to avoid nutrient pollution.

 

By the end of the day at the festival, I didn’t notice the smell of the mushroom compost much anymore, either.  When I did catch a whiff, it reminded me that this compost (like the mushroom ice cream I ate) was just one stage of a much larger process of mushroom farming.  It wasn’t the beginning or end, but part of a continuing cycle of growing, harvesting, consuming, and composting…all while boosting local economies and protecting local waters along the way.

 

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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We’re Still in the Bay Watershed?

By Tom Damm

We’re getting ready to take our daughter back to college in Pittsburgh next week.  I remember last year when we took the trip, we were heading west along the Pennsylvania Turnpike – one driver switch and nearly three quarters of the way across the state – when we saw this sign: “Leaving the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.”

Really?  Way out here?

It reminded us of how vast the Bay’s drainage area is (large parts of six states and all of the District of Columbia) and how actions – good or bad – affecting local waters in Steelers country can impact the Bay itself where the Ravens and Redskins rule.

If you’ve been on the road this summer, you may have seen the Entering/Leaving the Bay watershed signs along major highways in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. They were put up in the late 1990s by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative advisory panel, to mark boundaries of the watershed and to help people understand more about Bay restoration.

Bay Watershed Sign

Bay Watershed Sign

For everyone but the driver, take a close look at the signs as you ride by.  They’re original works of art reflecting symbols of the Bay watershed’s bounty – fish, wildlife, recreational opportunities, and clean water.  Each one is designed a little differently, depicting iconic species and activities recommended by the local areas.  The western Maryland sign on I-68 between Frostburg and Grantsville, for instance, features brook trout, river rafters and a black bear.

You’ll see the signs as far east as I-76 in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and as far south as I-81 north of Roanoke, Virginia.

In only a few words, these signs convey some big messages, namely that efforts to restore the Bay are also benefitting local waters and local economies, and that the activities of everyone, everywhere in the 64,000-square-mile watershed make a difference in water quality – for the Bay and for the 100,000 or so creeks, streams and rivers that feed it.

Have you seen watershed signs for the Bay (or other watersheds) in your travels this summer?

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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Program Helps Give Cheat a Second Chance

By Tom Damm

Just down the hall from me, the “319 Program” is quietly doing its part to revive damaged rivers and streams.

Yes, you can find a roster of success stories listed on its national website, but the program, which funds projects to reduce water pollution from non-pipe sources, operates largely behind the scenes.

The 319 Program, named for a section of the Clean Water Act that addresses polluted runoff, didn’t get a mention in last week’s NPR piece on the comeback of the Cheat River in West Virginia.

But without 319 funds in the mix, the Cheat today wouldn’t be teeming with smallmouth bass and coursing with whitewater rafters.

Rafting on the Cheat River

Rafting on the Cheat River
Courtesy: Friends of the Cheat

Fred Suffian, the 319 point person for EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Water Protection Division, says it wasn’t long ago that 20 miles of the Cheat River watershed near the Pennsylvania border were so badly degraded by acid drainage from long-abandoned mines that they were essentially dead.

But restoration projects to help neutralize acidity and reduce metals have sparked a turn-around and led to a resurgence of the bass population.

More than $4.1 million in 319 grants have helped fund nine projects in the Cheat watershed and leveraged an additional $1.7 million in matching funds from the state – contributing to the work of a host of state and federal agencies, academia, industry, and citizens groups like Friends of the Cheat in cleaning up this once-moribund river.

Do you have a success story about a river near you?  Let us know.

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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Strong Farms, Clean Waters. Can Do

By Kelly Shenk

The back of my car sports two bumper stickers. One says “Save the Bay,” the other “No Farms No Food.”  When mentioning this to people, I often encounter a certain skepticism.  While I think most folks want to believe these objectives are compatible, they aren’t convinced it’s possible to have both profitable agriculture and clean waters at the same time.

A recent tour I took with the Schuylkill Action Network, or SAN, in Berks County, Pennsylvania, highlighted the SAN’s decade of work helping to keep farmers farming and the creeks that flow into Schuylkill River running clean.

Berks County farm

Berks County farm

We met two local dairy farmers who proudly showed us the extensive improvements they’ve made on their farms thanks to technical and financial assistance from the SAN and its partners like Berks Conservancy, the Berks County Conservation District, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, EPA, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the water suppliers.

The farmers put in manure storage tanks, erected fencing, created vegetative buffers, and used no-till cropping.  They raved about how these practices help them run their farms more efficiently and economically.

For example, with a manure storage tank, they don’t have to haul the manure onto the fields daily, and they can make sure they only apply the fertilizer when the crops need it.  The fencing prevents trampled stream banks and cow manure in the creek.  No-till farming means they don’t have the labor and fuel costs associated with tilling a field. During the tour, the SAN representatives emphasized to farmers that implementing these practices helps them stay competitive for the long-haul.

The SAN firmly believes thriving agriculture provides an important part of a thriving watershed, and is achieving success by involving all stakeholders in the process. Through best management practices, farms are achieving profitable, competitive agricultural operations, and clean water.

Thanks in large part to the SAN’s efforts, Berks County residents have clean water to drink and clean streams to fish, great local food to eat, a thriving agricultural economy, and even a good local beer that relies on Schuylkill River water for brewing.

I think I’ll stop talking about my bumper stickers and start pointing out the great work groups like the SAN are doing to show people what’s possible.

About the Author: 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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Photo Essay: Old and New Environments Coming Together in Pittsburgh

Blog and Photos by Christina Catanese

A few months ago, home in my native Pittsburgh, I paid a visit with my family to a place I went to many times growing up – Phipps Conservatory.  My childhood recollections of the place mainly revolve around the stunning plant displays, and the plethora of colors and types of flowers that seemed to grow out of every possible surface.  I was enchanted by the re-creation of various ecosystems, like the tropical plant room that thrived even in the bleak Pittsburgh winter.  But during this visit, I encountered a new aspect of the Conservatory that changed how I saw the place, and indeed, my hometown itself.

The Center for Sustainable Landscapes was opened last year as Phipps’ hub for education, research, and administration.  Striving to be “one of the greenest buildings on earth,” the Center utilizes innovative technologies to generate all its own energy, as well as treat and reuse all water captured on site.

Taking a stroll through the Center for Sustainable Landscapes’ grounds. The center building’s exterior incorporates repurposed wood salvaged from barns in Western Pennsylvania.

Taking a stroll through the Center for Sustainable Landscapes’ grounds. The center building’s exterior incorporates repurposed wood salvaged from barns in Western Pennsylvania.

While a beautiful architectural construction, I was most impressed with the stormwater management measures the Center took, from the green roof, to rain gardens, to the pervious pavement used on the walkways.

Click “read more…” below to read the rest of this photo essay!

More

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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School’s Not Out

By Tom Damm

It’s the first day of summer and school may be the last thing on your mind.

But here’s an opportunity to participate in an Academy – and you don’t need test scores, extracurricular activities or recommendations to get in – just a healthy interest in learning how to protect your local waters.

EPA’s Watershed Academy is a free, online source of information about the many issues that affect your rivers, streams and wetlands.Watershed Academy trifold photo

You can check it out on Tuesday, June 25, at 1 p.m. (Eastern) when the Academy is offering the first in a summer series of live webcasts on harmful algal blooms and nutrient pollution that pose environmental and public health threats.  Here’s a link to register.

Speakers will include experts from EPA, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

And that’s just a taste of what the Watershed Academy has to offer.

Tuesday’s session will be the 74th monthly webcast sponsored by the Academy.  Topics have ranged from key national issues to actions you can take around the home to prevent pollution.  Streaming audio versions of past webcasts are available on the website.

The Academy also offers training courses and publications on water issues.

So don’t put those pencils and paper away just yet.  The learning may be just beginning.

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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Answering the Call of the Water

By Christina Catanese

This time of year seems to bring people out of the woodwork after being cooped up all winter, to enjoy the sun and green of spring.  For me, this means I must answer the Call of the Water and take some time in nature and out on the water.

Last week, I spent a few days kayaking the Clarion River near the Allegheny National Forest.  It didn’t take long before the stress of normal life that had built up in my shoulders melted away, as my energy and perspective became focused on reconnecting with the land and waters in my native Western Pennsylvania.

Looking downstream from the banks of the Clarion

Looking upstream from the banks of the Clarion

As the blades of my paddle dipped through the water, I pictured those same, splashing water molecules making their way down the Clarion, into the Allegheny River, and all the way to my hometown of Pittsburgh. There, they would meet other molecules from the Monongahela, become the Ohio River, then the Mississippi, and finally flow into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

Thinking about the journey these little H2Os would go through illuminated the concept of a watershed for me.  I realized that anything I did to the water way up in Northwestern Pennsylvania would have an impact on the water quality for millions of people that live downstream… so I’d better hold on to that granola bar wrapper if I didn’t want it to show up late for Mardi Gras. Imagining the long path this water would take made the measly 4 miles I kayaked seem like cake – what an epic journey it would be to follow that water all that way!

A heron I encountered during my kayaking trip

A heron I encountered during my kayaking trip

Spending time on rivers  can give us perspective and helps us get to know our rivers, and ourselves, in a totally new way.  Whether they flow through forested or urban areas (or a combination), we see their many uses as well as their beauty, and come to appreciate them as part of a whole network of rivers and streams that connect and support us.

That’s why many environmental and watershed groups around the country sponsor sojourns every year to help people reconnect with their rivers.  Some sojourns are just a few miles, while others paddle the entire length of a river over the course of a few days.  A quick survey reveals tons of sojourning opportunities in the Mid Atlantic region:

Is there a sojourn happening on a river near you not on this list?  Let us know!  Don’t see a sojourn happening on your river?  Start your own.

This spring and summer, I hope you too will answer the Call of the Water and get to know a river near you just a little bit better.

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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A Celebration Ten Years in the Making

By Alysa Suero

A large gazebo on the grounds of the Audubon Center in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, was buzzing last week, and not just from the sound of bees pollinating the flora.  It was also the site of the Schuylkill Action Network’s 10th anniversary celebration.

The SAN is a partnership between EPA, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the Philadelphia Water Department, the Delaware River Basin Commission, the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, conservation districts, local officials, watershed and non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders who share a common goal for the watershed.  Since its inception in March 2003, this group has successfully worked together to improve and maintain Schuylkill River water quality.  Its 10th anniversary ceremony was an opportunity to reflect upon the history of the organization and congratulate its on-the-ground partners who are actively working to keep the water clean.

An unexpected highlight of the ceremony was the appearance of a rescued owl, coolly perched on the arm of an Audubon Society volunteer.  With a spin of his head and a hoot of thanks, even the owl seemed to recognize the hard work of all who strive to keep his watershed clean.

SAN owl

Photo Courtesy of the Schuylkill Action Network

The SAN’s “vision for collaboration” emerged as the prominent theme during the ceremony, where awards were presented to individuals and local watershed groups who implemented outstanding projects to meet this goal.  Tackling varied and difficult issues from acid mine drainage to storm sewer overflows to excess nutrients, the award recipients were met with thunderous applause and even a standing ovation.  Presenters and winners alike, including a middle school, an ecologist, and a water supplier, all highlighted the uniqueness of the SAN and its approach.  Credited for uniting a “crosscut of society and the environment,” SAN itself was cheered for bringing together a diverse population who found common ground in their appreciation for the watershed and their shared desire to see it thrive for generations to come.

With a successful ten years already in the history books, several of the day’s speakers posited the future of the organization.  We learned that our nation’s population growth is expected to increase by 50 percent by the year 2050, and most of the growth will be seen within 100 miles of the coasts.  The Schuylkill watershed is firmly within that boundary. Undaunted, the SAN partners pledged to build upon their successful joint ventures and continue to work together to ensure that the Schuylkill watershed is a high quality water resource in the year 2050 and beyond, for humans, owls, and all who call this watershed home.

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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