Join us for a nutrient Twitter chat today at 2:00 pm (ET)!

Questions and AnswersReminder: Join us for a Twitter chat today at 2:00 pm (ET)!
Got questions about how nutrient pollution affects our water? Join EPA scientist Anne Rea and other Agency experts today at 2:00 pm (ET).

Use #waterchat to ask a question or participate.

To get you started and introduce you to Anne, we’ve asked her to answer a few questions.

What is your educational background?
I have a Ph.D. in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Michigan. I studied the biogeochemical cycling of mercury and trace elements in forested ecosystems. Since little work existed in the mercury realm, most of the literature and experts I worked with focused on nitrogen pollution.

How did you become interested in nutrient pollution?
After joining EPA, I wanted to work on the ecological side of things (versus human health) and spent several years doing ecological risk assessments. I then led a joint review of two air pollutants, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, for the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. This was the first time two pollutants were reviewed together, and the first time a “secondary” (public welfare) standard was separated from the “primary” standard (human health effects). I’ve always worked on multi-pollutant, multi-media problems, so was uniquely suited to lead the risk assessment for that review.

What’s the most interesting thing you have learned trying to solve this problem?
The dedication and commitment of staff across EPA is amazing. This is one problem the Agency is uniquely suited to solving from a scientific and regulatory perspective—but we can only do it together—across offices, regions and research programs in the Agency, and in collaboration with the states and other federal partners.

How can technology and innovation help solve the problem?
We’ve struggled to solve this problem for more than 40 years, and I think as an Agency we’ve made some progress. As the world’s population increases, there is a demand for increased food production and increased energy use—all of which releases nitrogen (and sometimes phosphorus, sulfur, and carbon) into the environment.

We are working across the Federal government to develop a ‘nutrients challenge’ which will challenge teams globally to come up with innovative ideas to reduce nutrients—either from the emissions source or from the waste stream.

We know we can’t solve nutrient pollution alone. What other federal agencies are we partnering with?
We are working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Park Service (NPS), and others, through jointly funded research, collaborations, cooperative agreements, etc. We work hard to share and use each others data and models as we work collectively to make an impact on nutrient pollution for the country.

Join us at 2:00 pm (ET) to Learn More!
Got more questions? Want to learn more? Don’t forget to join us for a Twitter chat today at 2 pm (ET). Use #waterchat to ask a question or participate. Not on Twitter but have a question? Please add it to the comments section below.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Diving into Nutrients: How much is too much?

By Sean Sheldrake

An EPA diver kept isolated from contaminants.

An EPA diver kept isolated from contaminants.

There’s a nutrient “problem”?

Did you know nutrient pollution, primarily in the form of too much nitrogen and phosphorus, is one of the nation’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems?  Some 16,000 waterways are impaired, and 78 percent of assessed coastal waters suffer from nutrient pollution, affecting water used for drinking, fishing, swimming and other recreational purposes.  These impacts also threaten tourism, home and property values and public health.

Nitrogen and phosphorous are food for some plants, like algae, and too much can spark a large algal bloom that can end up consuming all the dissolved oxygen in a waterway, causing fish to be starved for that critical gasp of O2.  Fish die-offs are common with extreme nutrient problems.

Where does it come from?

Excessive nitrogen and phosphorus are often the result of human activities. Primary sources include agriculture (manure, excess fertilizer and soil erosion), inadequately treated wastewater, stormwater runoff, air pollution from burning fossil fuels and—us! Huh? Whenever we do things around the house that add nitrogen and phosphorus to the local watershed we are part of the problem. That can include not cleaning up after your dog, using too much fertilizer on the lawn or garden, or washing your car on the driveway (most soaps contain nutrients).

How can I help?

Washington Department of Ecology Image.

Washington Department of Ecology Image.

The good news is that since we are all part of the problem, we can all be part of the solution.

Bag the dog waste, apply fertilizer according to the label (or better yet, switch to using some backyard compost!) and park your car on the lawn instead of the driveway when you wash it, or go to a carwash. We can really make a dent in the problem.

How about a little science to help out?

But it’s not all up to individuals alone. EPA scientists are working on solutions, too.

EPA divers help deploy and retrieve scientific instruments, such as Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers (ADCPs), to help study nutrient pollution.  For example, in one project in Puget Sound we deployed ADCPs to collect information on water flow, a critical first step that EPA computer modelers use to calculate the level of nutrients a water body can tolerate.  Ensuring the proper placement for data collection is paramount for data quality.

EPA diver deploys an ADCP.

EPA diver deploys an ADCP.

Getting into the water can be a challenge though!  Divers may have to upgrade to protective equipment and do a decontamination wash after the dive to ensure the safety of each diver getting in the water to collect data.

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers.

 

About the AuthorSean Sheldrake is part of the Seattle EPA Dive unit and is also a project manager working on the Portland Harbor cleanup in Oregon.  He serves on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements.  

Join us for a Twitter Chat to Learn More!
Got questions? Want to learn more? Join us for a Twitter chat this Thursday (July 18, 2013) at 2 pm ET on nutrient pollution and harmful algal blooms. Use #waterchat to ask a question or participate. Not on Twitter but have a question? Please add it to the comments section below. 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Around the Water Cooler: American Wetlands Month—and Your Dinner

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

ShrimpboatBayou country, located along the Gulf of Mexico, specifically Louisiana, has historically shaped the culture and the economy of the region. The Bayou—otherwise known as wetlands, swamps, or bogs—is an economic resource supporting commercial and sport fishing, hunting, recreation and agriculture.

Remember the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company? The shrimping business the fictional Forrest Gump started (and since inspired a real restaurant chain). Without clean and healthy wetlands, there’s no shrimping business, not in the movies and not in real life.

This month is American Wetlands Month and EPA is acknowledging the extensive benefits—or “ecosystem services”—that wetlands provide. From trapping floodwaters and recharging groundwater supplies to removing pollution and providing fish and wildlife habitat, wetlands improve water quality in nearby rivers, streams and lakes and even serve as a natural filter for our drinking water. They are the “kidneys” of our hydrologic cycle.

In Bayou Country, wetlands provide nearly all of the commercial catch and half the recreational harvest of fish and shellfish. They are extremely valuable to the region’s economy. Wetlands in the region provide the habitat for birds, alligators and crocodiles, muskrat, beaver, mink and a whole bunch of other important critters.

EPA researchers all over the country are looking at different ways to keep our wetlands clean and healthy. From nutrient pollution research and water quality research to buffers around rivers and stream habitat (“riparian zones”) and other green infrastructure efforts, scientists are ensuring that our wetlands can continue to do their work – providing a habitat, filtering out pollution, and supporting our economy.

This month, wherever you sit down to enjoy all the shrimp and seafood you can eat, remember that without healthy and clean wetlands, none of that would be possible.

For more information on how EPA scientists monitor and assess our wetlands, read here.

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry loves clean water, healthy beaches and great seafood. A regular contributor to EPA’s It All Starts with Science blog, she helps communicate the great science in the Agency’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources Program.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Around the Water Cooler: Watersheds and Climate Change

To celebrate Earth Day, all this week and into next we will be highlighting EPA climate change research with Science Matters feature articles. Today’s “Around the Water Cooler” addition illustrates the connection between climate change and water.

Climate Change and Watersheds: Exploring the Links
EPA researchers are using climate models and watershed simulations to better understand how climate change will affect streams and rivers.

A warming climate threatens hotter summers and more extreme storms. We know we may need to upgrade our air conditioning systems and make emergency preparedness kits, but aside from temperatures and storms, what are other ways we will be affected by climate change?

Map showing the 20 watersheds EPA researchers studied. Click on the image for a large version.

EPA water scientists and their partners are studying how climate change may affect watersheds—the network of rivers and streams that feed into larger water bodies such as big rivers, lakes, and oceans. A recent EPA report, referred to as the 20 Watersheds Report, combines climate change models and watershed simulations to develop a better understanding of what changes to streams and rivers we might expect over the next several decades.

“A key thing that’s unique about this work is the scope; we applied a consistent set of methods and models to 20 large watersheds throughout the nation,” says lead scientist Tom Johnson.

Johnson’s team of researchers used different climate change scenarios to model changes in streamflow volume and water quality in the 20 chosen watersheds.

“Climate can be defined loosely as average weather,” Johnson explains. “Climate change scenarios describe potential future changes in climate, like temperature or precipitation.”

For a given climate change scenario, watershed simulations were used to determine changes in streamflow (the actual volume of water running through the streams) and in nutrient and sediment pollution levels.

In addition to climate change scenarios, researchers also took into account urban and residential land development scenarios in their watershed simulations. The ways people use and alter the land (such as building roadways, parking lots, etc) will also have an impact on water resources. The land development scenarios used were based on projected changes in population and housing density in the study watersheds.

Research results show a great variety in watershed responses to climate and urban development scenarios in different parts of the country. Generally, simulations suggest certain trends for streamflow: that flow amount decreases in the Rockies and interior southwest, but increases in the northeast. Results also show higher peaks in streamflow that can increase stream bank erosion and sediment transport, as well as potentially increase nutrient pollutants. Overall, the research shows that the potential changes in streamflow and water quality response in many areas could be very large.

“This information can be used by water managers to better understand if and how things like water quality and aquatic ecosystems might be vulnerable, and to help guide the development of response strategies for managing any potential risk,” says Johnson.

For example, where water is suggested to be scarce, managers can plan alternative water supply methods; where water is expected to become highly polluted from nutrients and sediment, managers can take action now to limit the actual impact of these pollutants on the water resource.

The findings of EPA’s 20 Watersheds Report will help water and resource managers recognize the changing conditions of streams and rivers and identify any future conditions that may need addressing.

Learn More

 

 

EPA Climate Change Research

EPA Water and Climate Research

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Discovering Silica Cycling

By Joanna Carey

Rivers draining more forested watersheds contain significantly less silica than those draining more developed watersheds.

I am standing, engrossed in quiet, on a wooden bridge in Northern Massachusetts, with a perfect view of the Ipswich River.  I can see it meander once before it eventually opens up to form a babbling riffle. This river is alive, performing complicated metabolic processes as the water moves downstream.

Thanks to my EPA Science To Achieve Results (STAR) Graduate Research Fellowship, I went to this bridge (among others) weekly for a year, sampling the river for nutrients. While filtering my water samples here, people walking by would often ask, ‘how is the river doing?’

Before answering, I would hesitate; it turns out this is a complicated question!

From a human health perspective, most of the rivers I studied were in fine shape (thanks to the Clean Water Act and EPA), meaning that people could swim in the river without getting sick. However, other aspects of the river condition could use improvement.

Human activities, such as wastewater discharge, use of fertilizers, and fossil fuel combustion, are increasing the amount of nutrients flowing into rivers, which can spark excess algal growth and other negative repercussions on the entire ecosystem.

As an EPA STAR Fellow, I had the opportunity to be one of the first in the world to examine how watershed land use impacts the amount of silica in the rivers. Silica, or SiO2, is a required nutrient for diatoms, a common type of phytoplankton (tiny photosynthetic organisms) in temperate waters.

Why is the amount of silica in the rivers important?

Well, it all goes back to the fact that rivers supply over 80% of the silica that’s found in marine waters. And the amount of silica directly controls the amount and type of phytoplankton that grow in the ocean. Because phytoplankton makes up the base of the marine food chain, their type and abundance directly impacts organisms higher up on the food chain, such as commercial fisheries.

My research resulted in the discovery that land use type is indeed an important driver of the amount of silica in rivers.

I found that rivers draining more forested watersheds contain significantly less silica than those draining more developed watershed, which may be because of the large amount of silica taken up by land plants. It appears that lack of vegetation in urbanized landscapes results in more silica entering river systems. While more silica in rivers is not a bad thing, the research highlights a previously unrecognized way in which human actions are altering the environment.

For the last three years, I have been honored to be an EPA STAR Fellow. The award not only allowed me to perform the research of my dreams, but highlighted for me the importance of these fellowships for training the next generation of scientists. Thanks to the EPA, I can now count myself among the experts in aquatic biogeochemistry!

About the Author: Joanna Carey, a former STAR Fellow, is currently an ORISE post-doctoral fellow with the EPA Atlantic Ecology Division in Narragansett, RI studying the impact of oysters on nitrogen cycling in Southern New England.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Around the Water Cooler: Steps to Protect Waterways

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

It’s cold and dreary around my area, but what better time to think about a warm beach vacation? Think about your favorite beach—warm clear water to swim in, pristine sand to lay on and great seafood to fill our bellies. But what if those didn’t exist?

Nutrient pollution pollution caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus can cause major “dead zones,” essentially making all those things we love about the beach nonexistent. The state of Florida has been working to protect its important commodities – beaches, water and seafood—and recently set limits on allowable nutrient levels.

EPA scientists and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are exploring using “numeric nutrient criteria” to protect Florida’s estuaries. For example, EPA research on seagrasses is being used to develop water clarity targets. EPA scientist Jim Hagy says, “the steady decline of aquatic life caused by too much nutrient pollution will give way to limits on pollution, eventually improving water quality.

Image Credit: Hans W. Paerl 2006

Nutrient pollution found in our water comes from a variety of sources including agriculture, aquaculture, septic tanks, urban wastewater, urban stormwater runoff, and industry. Nutrient pollution can even come from burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil. These excess nutrients can enter water from the air, surface water, or groundwater. In other words, the problem is everywhere.

Of course, it’s not just what’s happening in Florida that affects Florida’s water quality. Anything upstream has impact on those waterways and the same for all waterways around the country. Such development of allowable limits on nutrient levels should provide information for other places around the country looking to protect their water, too. While it’s challenging work, this example shows that it’s possible to make an impact in keeping our waterways clean and safe.

For more information on our nutrient research, please visit: http://epa.gov/research/waterscience/water-nutrients.htm

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry loves the beach and seafood and clean water. (Who doesn’t?) She is a frequent contributor to Around the Water Cooler and works with the Safe and Sustainable Water Resources research team to communicate their work.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Personal Watersheds: Small, but Mighty

Several links below exit EPA Exit EPA Disclaimer

By Jessica Werber

In law school, I was told I would one day become either a big-picture or a detail-oriented lawyer. I took the big-picture approach, but I now realize that the truth is in the small details, for it is often the cumulative small details that have the largest impact on the environment.

Waterbodies can be large or small, and you may be surprised that some of the smallest streams actually have the largest impact on your life and wellbeing. On a country drive in the Mid-Atlantic, you may see signs letting you know that you’re entering the Chesapeake Bay Watershed at any number of places along the highway. Did you know that there are five major rivers and over 100,000 water bodies that connect to this larger watershed?

Now, imagine your personal watershed: the land that collects water running downhill, the area surrounding where you live and work, next to your schools, religious institutions and supermarkets. Let’s say you are out walking your dog in the local park and realize you forgot to bring a baggie. So you decide to return and pick up the poop later. But it starts to rain and you figure the rain will take care of things. Turns out, it only makes things worse. The poop is washed into a nearby small stream, which feeds into other streams and rivers, adding to increased nutrient pollution downstream and causing a variety of impacts.

You might not even know it, but your small action has triggered a bunch of reactions in your personal watershed. Think about the other people who go about their daily business. Your neighbor may use too much fertilizer on his lawn or may not be aware that the soap he uses to wash his car contains high amounts of phosphates, both of which also contribute to nutrient pollution. And what happens to all of the water that sloshes down the street in the rain? Or the household water from the shower and water that is flushed down the toilet? The answer: the water ends up in streams that connect your personal watershed to a larger one.

You can make a difference to protect your personal watershed, especially to prevent nutrient pollution. Pick up after your pet and give your neighbors some pointers about how to help minimize pollution. And, think about how even the littlest streams—which seem of tiny importance—are mighty in the end.

About the author: Jessica Werber is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Participant in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. She is also a licensed attorney. This post does not represent the views of the EPA or Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Keeping Pets—and People—Safe from Toxic Algae

Visible green slime in Lake Needwood during harmful algal bloom outbreak in September 2012.

By Patty Scott

Two years ago, our family planned to take our Yellow Labrador puppy Fiona to Lake Needwood near our home in Rockville, Maryland for a swim. Our puppy needed somewhere to exercise and the scenic lake near Rock Creek Park seemed like the perfect place. My husband, however, mentioned something about a warning for a harmful algal bloom. At the time, I had just started working on EPA’s National Lakes Assessment, the agency’s report card on the condition of the nation’s lakes, and thankfully knew about the dangers of harmful algal blooms. Blue-green algae can produce harmful toxins that can be fatal if ingested. Since people are not allowed to swim in Lake Needwood, the dangers are not as great for humans. However, dogs are especially at risk if they swim in or drink the water. We decided against taking Fiona anywhere near the lake.

While Montgomery County did not know the cause of the outbreaks in Lake Needwood, harmful algal blooms are often triggered by excessive levels of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus. Many of our lakes, rivers, streams and bays are becoming overloaded with nutrients from a wide range of sources. Excess nutrients spur the growth of algae to the point where they can explode into vast — and sometimes toxic — colonies of slime. Algal blooms often peak during the summer months, but in some parts of the country they occur year round.

Nutrient pollution is a growing concern because it threatens public health, recreation and our economy. National data is not easy to find on impacts to our four-legged friends, but sadly dog deaths have been reported due to harmful algae.

Warning sign advising residents and their pets to avoid direct contact with the water at Lake Needwood in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Like many pet owners, we treat Fiona and Jake, our other lab, like part of our family, and we’d be devastated to lose them. It’s best to keep pets away from the water anytime there is visible surface scum, if the water is discolored or if there is a strong musty smell. Also, keep in mind that not all waters are monitored. You can check EPA’s new How’s My Waterway app to find out about the condition of your local waterway and whether it’s been tested.

Everyone can help make a difference. One easy way to combat algae is to take care not to over-fertilize. And always remember to pick up pet waste. To learn more about how you can prevent nutrient pollution, visit

About the author: Patty Scott works in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds on communications and outreach.  She loves fishing, kayaking, cycling and other outdoor pursuits.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Around the Water Cooler: Seagrasses are the nurseries of our coastal waters

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Coatal SeagrassesDo you like seafood? I love it. I live in Maryland, home of the best crabcakes in America. You know what helps make those crabcakes delicious? Seagrass.

Well, maybe not directly, but seagrass provides shelter and a nursery area where many economically important (and tasty!) fish and shellfish start life.

Seagrasses also provide us with other important benefits such as stabilizing sediment along the shoreline and providing protection from storms and hurricanes. They are found primarily in shallow and sheltered waters on our coastlines.

But nutrient pollution, one of the most challenging environmental problems of our time, is smothering seagrass beds. When there are too many nutrients in our water – nitrogen and phosphorus to be specific – we get blooms of tiny marine organisms called phytoplankton in the water, reducing clarity.  Algae growing on the seagrasses can also reduce the amount of light reaching seagrass leaves.  

Where seagrasses are stressed by nutrient pollution, they can eventually disappear. Since so many people love to eat fish and crabs, the decrease in production of seafood will make it more expensive and harder to find.  That’s a tough pill to swallow.

EPA marine ecologist Jim Hagy is using historical and recent maps of seagrass along the Florida coast to figure out how deep they once grew and how deep they are growing today.  This will help us figure out how clear the water should be in order to protect this important aspect of our coastal ecosystems.

A map of seagrass depth colonization may not sound too exciting, but the research is important because it is the basis “to develop biological endpoints to support nutrient criteria in Florida estuaries,” says Hagy. “Florida estuaries will soon enter a new chapter in their history, one that we hope will include reliable protection for the State’s high quality waters and a credible path to restoration for impaired waters.”

And for the rest of us, healthy seagrasses will help ensure that we can still get a really good crabcake or seafood dinner!

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry works with  EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources team, drinks a lot of water and  communicates water research to anyone who will listen.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Communication Challenges 1: Harmful Algal Blooms

By Jessica Werber

At EPA, there is a lot of discussion about connecting the dots. How do you help people go from A to B to a desired conclusion? When it comes to communicating the importance of harmful algal blooms, helping the public make connections between the health of their water bodies and their own health is a formidable challenge.

Algal blooms are confusing because they are simply the result of “too much of a good thing.” A little bit of algae is actually good for a water body, but too much becomes harmful.

Let’s say a landowner applies excess fertilizer on his or her land, or applies it at the wrong time. Then it rains and nitrogen in the fertilizer trickles into a nearby stream. That stream also receives nitrogen from stormwater, wastewater, and other sources like pet waste, and it becomes saturated. Algae feeding on the nitrogen proliferate, blocking the sunlight, depleting oxygen in the water, causing bacteria and…Well, the visual result is green goop, or surface scum on the water, which is pretty common in many states around America:

After the algal bloom subsides, the waterbody may still be overloaded with nitrogen. Certain types of algae, such as blue-green algae, create toxins that can make people and animals sick. When popular lakes and ponds are covered with scum, the local economy loses out because tourists will be unable to play or fish in the water.

The reality is that most people don’t think about water pollution in their everyday lives. Do I think that people care about their water? Yes, but they do so in different ways. Some care because they place an inherent value in the natural world. Others care because they have a vested interest; their child or pet is getting sick or their business is affected by the pollution. To successfully explain why harmful algal blooms are so detrimental, it is increasingly important for EPA to investigate the motivations behind why certain people care, to adapt our messaging and outreach efforts accordingly, and to clearly connect the dots in our own minds before we reach out to the public.

EPA’s new nutrient pollution website contains local stories about nutrient pollution and suggested actions you can take. So tell me…why do you care about harmful algal blooms and what can you do to make a difference?

About the author: Jessica Werber is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Participant in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. She is also a licensed attorney. This post does not represent the views of the EPA or Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

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