What you can do

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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Clearer Protections for Headwater Streams

by Randy Pomponio

WOUS2Spring is finally here, and with it arrives new beginnings. Flowers and plants find new life, our avian friends fill the air, and the streams and creeks that run through our neighborhoods and parks are bubbling along.  This spring also brings a new day for determining Clean Water Act protection for streams and wetlands, which had become confusing and complex following several Supreme Court rulings.  After roughly a decade of confusion, the proposed Waters of the U.S. rule clarifies the jurisdictional status of seasonal and rain-dependent streams, wetlands, and isolated water bodies.

Under this clearer definition, the Clean Water Act will continue to protect our aquatic resources, including some of our most important waterways —headwater streams.  Headwater streams comprise over half of the total stream miles in the mid-Atlantic states, and play a fundamental role in reducing flooding, providing wildlife habitat, recharging groundwater, filtering pollution,  along with supporting hunting and fishing. Many of these benefits can be readily attributable to streams which only flow for part of the year. The vast majority of people in the mid-Atlantic rely, at least in part, on these types of streams for their drinking water supplies.

By clarifying the significance of these vital ecological functions – the proposed rule would provide for an estimated $388 million to $514 million annually of indirect benefits through the protection of  aquatic resources, just like your neighborhood creek.

If you are out for a hike this spring, and you notice that you need to leap over a stream that was dry back in the fall; that’s the type of water that will continue to be protected with this proposed rule.  Take a moment to consider the complexity of our aquatic resources, and how that seasonal creek contributes to the overall health of say, the mighty Delaware, Ohio, Potomac, and James River basins.  Under our watch and in our care are precious and life-sustaining tributaries.  This spring, we should celebrate their protection afforded by an illuminated Clean Water Act.

About the Author:  Randy Pomponio is the Director of the EPA Region 3 Environmental Assessment & Innovation Division.  He enjoys learning about our fascinating ecosystems and experiencing them through hiking, fishing, scuba diving, and best of all, sharing them with his children and grandchildren.

 

 

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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Getting Creative with Communications

By Christina Catanese

 During my time at EPA, I’ve learned so much about water protection, from permits to enforcement, from regulations to partnerships, from large national actions to things anyone can do to protect their waters.  Managing the Healthy Waters Blog, along with other digital communications, ­­I’ve also thought a lot about how best to communicate the work EPA does in water protection outside our agency’s boundaries.  I’ve found that, consistently, our most effective communications have been those that make visible the real impacts of our work, those that connect environmental actions to the things that are most important to all of us, and those that engage people on a deep emotional level, not necessarily a scientific one.  And often, it also takes a touch of creativity.

A view of Philadelphia from Camden

A view of Philadelphia from Camden

In a digital age, there are more ways than ever for us to reach out and connect with the many audiences interested in what EPA does, and more ways to have a presence in communities.  Social media and blogs are some of the newest tools in our communication toolboxes – we’re still honing our craft to figure out the best way to use these tools to build the most engagement with our work.

One of the best tools I know of to help make these meaningful connections is art.  How many times have you felt your spirit soar while watching a powerful performance, or your mind fill with awe gazing upon a work of art (or, for that matter, a work of nature)?   For many of us, just reading about science and large, sometimes overwhelming environmental problems doesn’t always inspire the same excitement.  But what if the complementary powers of art and science could be combined?  Can environmental science and art be integrated to educate and inspire people to change their perspective and behavior on environmental issues?  I think the answer is yes.  I think art has amazing potential to connect people with the natural world and their environments in a way that typical presentations of scientific information cannot.  From storm drain art to artfully managed stormwater and beyond, the possibilities are endless to use art as an avenue into environmental issues, and an inspiration to get involved.

With the challenges we face in water protection and other environmental issues, it’s more important than ever to communicate about these issues and engage everyone in the solutions.  What other creative ways can you think of to communicate about environmental challenges and the possibilities to address them?

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, managing the Healthy Waters Blog and other digital communications in the Mid Atlantic Region’s Water Protection Division.  She is parting ways from the agency this week to explore more deeply the connections of environmental science, art, and communication as the Director of Environmental Art at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.

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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Feed the Barrel: Fuel Your City

By Enid Chiu

With holiday season in full swing, people are busy buying gifts, seeing family, and cooking large meals to feed all those hungry bellies. When there’s cooking, there’s oil – and where does all that cooking oil go?

Cooking Oil Barrel RecepticlePouring used cooking oil down the drain might seem like the most convenient solution, but it can have detrimental impacts. When cooking oil/grease is thrown into kitchen drains and even toilets, it sticks to the sides of your home’s sewer pipes. It can build up and block entire pipes, which can mean:

  • Raw sewage can overflow into your house, yard, street, neighbor’s house, or waterway
  • You will pay for an expensive and messy cleanup
  • You and your family might have contact with disease-causing organisms from the sewage
  • Sewer departments must charge higher bills for operation and maintenance

To avoid this mess, water departments recommend collecting grease and greasy food scraps in a container to throw in the trash for disposal.

The Indonesian community in South Philadelphia, however, is piloting a different solution that recycles the oil for future use AND generates some revenue for the community. With the support of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, they plan on establishing cooking oil drop off barrels at central locations (like places of worship). On a regular basis, an oil recycling company will pick up the oil and pay for each gallon collected. The recycling company uses the oil to make electricity (bio-fuel) and great compost for soil. The money made from the oil collected goes toward improving the community!

The Indonesian community is the first in Philadelphia to pilot residential cooking oil recycling. They have demonstrated a lot of gotong royong – or the ability to come together and work for a common cause. The inaugural oil pouring event at the first established drop off location is occurring today, December 5, 5:30 pm at International Bethel Church, 1619 S Broad Street, Philadelphia (details here).  EPA supports this pilot, which is in line with the goals of EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge.

Do you live in Philadelphia, and have used cooking oil stocking up in your home? Feel free to feed the barrel at International Bethel Church – or consider developing a cooking oil recycling plan for your own community! Learn more about cooking oil recycling here.

About the Author: Enid Chiu is an environmental engineer in the Office of Drinking Water and Source Water Protection. She also serves as the Asian American / Pacific Islander program manager at EPA Region III. Outside of the office, Enid enjoys playing music, exploring new restaurants, and watching football.

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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Putting Your Rain Barrel Down for a Long Winter’s Nap

By Steve Donohue

In addition to raking all those leaves, another job I do every fall is put my rain barrel away for the winter.  If you have a rain barrel, you’ll want to do this before a hard freeze can damage your barrel, valve, or overflow piping.

Emptying my rain barrel on a Fall afternoon

Emptying my rain barrel on a Fall afternoon

I have had a rain barrel for many years and often leave it up until after Thanksgiving, and I have never had a problem with freezing where I live near Philadelphia.

But when it’s time to pack it up for the season, your first step should be to drain the barrel as much as possible by removing plugs and opening the valve.  Every inch of water represents 10 or more pounds, so save your back and be patient!  While it is draining, I disconnect the downspout, clean the screens and filters, and remove the overflow piping.

Next, I open and check the inside of the barrel for sediment.  You’ll want to remove this dirt and organic matter to prevent clogging your valve and to start off clean next spring.  I swish the remaining water in the barrel to loosen the sediment and quickly turn the barrel upside down over my mulched bed to keep it off the grass.  Even fully drained, you might want an extra pair of hands to wrestle your barrel off its platform.

I store my rain barrel inside my garden shed for the winter, but you can cover it in place or turn it upside down in the yard.  The key is to keep water out that could freeze and damage it or the fittings.

The last step is to reconnect the downspout to direct water away from your foundation and prevent erosion.  As with any roof drainage, if possible, direct it away from impervious surfaces like concrete and asphalt to slow it down, spread it out, and soak it in.

With your rain barrel safely tucked away for winter, you can relax, kick your feet up and watch some football…at least until it’s time to start shoveling snow.

To learn more about rain barrels, visit http://www.epa.gov/reg3esd1/garden/rainbarrel.html or watch this video about the benefits of rain barrels

About the author: Steve Donohue has been an environmental scientist at EPA for over 20 years. Currently, he works in the Office of Environmental Innovation in Philadelphia where he is focused on greening EPA and other government facilities.

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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Please Recycle, Our Oceans Will Thank You

By John Senn

One of my favorite things about living in Washington, D.C. is Rock Creek Park, a 1700-acre space that’s one of country’s oldest federally-managed parks. I live less than a mile from the park’s winding and secluded trails, and run on the trails at least once a week. For me, it’s the ideal way to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Rock Creek Park is also home to a wide range of wildlife; it’s not uncommon to see a hawk or woodpecker among the park’s tall trees and, if you’re lucky, you can catch a glimpse of the muskrats that live along Rock Creek just upstream of Peirce Mill and gnaw on the trees that line the creek’s banks.

Rock Creek

Rock Creek

But sadly, I see a lot of trash floating in Rock Creek, most of which is plastic bags and bottles and aluminum cans. When trash isn’t properly disposed of, it often reaches our lakes, rivers and streams—and ultimately our oceans—where it can severely impact aquatic life. Marine animals can swallow marine debris causing suffocation or starvation. Sea birds have been known to ingest small pieces of plastic as they look like fish eggs, and sea turtles sometimes swallow clear plastic bags, which look like jellyfish.

Rock Creek flows into the Potomac River, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay, the country’s largest estuary and one of our most important coastal areas. The trash I see in Rock Creek has the potential to affect water quality in the Bay miles downstream.

Properly disposing of waste and recycling is one of the easiest things people can do to help protect our lakes, rivers, streams and oceans. Plastic recyclables can also be turned into new products like jackets, pens and brushes as this infographic from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows.

America Recycles Day is November 15 and this year’s theme is “a day of service.” Next time I head to the park, I’m going to collect the bottles and cans I see during my run and put them one of the park’s recycling bins. It’s not going to solve the water quality problems in the Chesapeake Bay, but it’s a way to help.

About the Author: John Senn is the deputy communications director in EPA’s Office of Water and also serves on the agency’s emergency response team.

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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