Water On The Prairie

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Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

Tucked into folds of rippling grassland, thousands of small wetlands dot the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge in western North Dakota. The refuge preserves an 11,000-hectare (27,000-acre) remnant of North America’s Prairie Pothole Region, a vast nursery for the continent’s waterfowl that once stretched from northern Iowa to southern Alberta. The pothole wetlands were formed by melting ice blocks deposited when glaciers retreated across North America 10,000 years ago, but development over the past two centuries has destroyed nearly two-thirds of them. Wildlife managers in the Dakotas are racing to protect those that remain from a new wave of farm expansion and oil exploration. Their status under the federal Clean Water Act, however, is ambiguous, which leaves the fate of many potholes at the mercy of voluntary conservation by landowners.

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Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

When landowners decide to “break” prairie to make way for row crops, they first burn their fields then treat them with herbicides before planting a crop like no-till soybeans. “I remember during the first Gulf War seeing images when Saddam lit all of those oil wells,” said Neil Shook, refuge manager at Chase Lake. “That’s the image that happened here in 2012. There were plumes of smoke everywhere. It happened so quick. It was overnight. What had existed for decades on this landscape was just gone.” He recalls one stretch of prairie where sharp tailed grouse would gather each year in a lek to perform courtship displays. After the prairie was broken, “I saw the grouse dancing on soybeans,” Shook said. Native prairies are essential to the productivity of prairie potholes, providing cover for the nests of grassland birds and waterfowl, which can lay their eggs more than 3 kilometers (2 miles) away from a wetland.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue and was supported by a fellowship from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. View the full slideshow here.

US Water Industry Faces Tide of Scrutiny After Flint Scandal

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Photo: Michigan Municipal League via Flickr Creative Commons

In a Congressional hearing this week, US lawmakers began to untangle how drinking water laced with high levels of lead was supplied for more than a year to citizens in Flint, Michigan.

The crisis, one of the most acute threats to public health the US has faced in decades, is also the focus of a federal investigation involving the FBI, a state probe, and lawsuits brought by citizen and environmental groups. All are demanding answers to the same question: what went wrong in Flint, and could it happen in other cities across the country?
The answer is yes, according to water experts. Much of the nation’s water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. Landmark laws meant to protect the surface and groundwater reserves that supply US cities are outdated and insufficient to address new threats to water quality. In addition, climate change and population growth are putting pressure on traditional methods of water management.

In Flint, the story comes down to a potent mix of ageing water pipes and government incompetence. Up until the crisis, Flint’s narrative had followed the arc of the  once-mighty industrial towns in America’s northern Rust Belt. Its heyday was  in the mid-20th century as a bastion of Michigan’s auto industry, but its population has declined by half since 1960, and for much of the past decade the city’s public administration has been drowning in debt.

Problems with the city’s water began in April 2014, when Flint switched water sources from its longtime supplier, the Detroit water system, and began taking water from the local Flint River in an effort to save US$5 million. But a failure to implement proper corrosion control measures when treating the river water left ageing lead service lines vulnerable to deterioration, leaching lead into the system.

This story originally appeared on chinadialogue. Read the full article here.

Lake Ontario Water Level Plan Tests Attitudes Toward Environment

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Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

CLAYTON, N.Y.— All the force of the Great Lakes—the largest system of fresh surface water in the world—rushes into the St. Lawrence River and shatters the land into spangles of forest, mist, and water. This is the Thousand Islands region, a labyrinth of more than 1,800 islands where 226-meter-long (740-foot-long) freighters nose their way along the St. Lawrence Seaway into the heart of North America.

The river rolls past the castle homes of 19th-century millionaires and wends through leafy coves and expanses of shallow marshlands. But what appears as a thriving and verdant natural haven is in reality a landscape under assault.

Lee Willbanks pilots his boat along the shores of Grindstone Island, the fourth largest island in the St. Lawrence, and points to a wetland in Flynn Bay. It is a mass of waving cattails, as close together as bristles on a brush and as uniform as a field of corn. Absent are the sedges and grasses, the rushes and meandering water channels that provide food and shelter for birds, fish, and mammals.

“When somebody who doesn’t know the issue goes and stands and looks at a wetland area, and it’s a monoculture of green cattails, it still looks alive, it still looks vibrant, and it’s not,” said Willbanks, who serves as the executive director of Save the River, the Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper in Clayton, New York. “Where you once had channels that spawning fish could go up into, you have nothing but a lot of cattails. They bump their noses on it, they release their eggs in the deeper water or they spawn in inappropriate places. I mean it is a visual, immediate thing.”

Biologists trace the decline of the region’s wetlands to events more than half a century ago. In 1958, 165 kilometers (102 miles) northeast of Clayton, the United States and Canada opened the Moses Saunders power dam—at 2,000 megawatts, one of the world’s largest hydropower projects at the time. The dam, spanning the two countries across the vast watery tract of the St. Lawrence River, was built to fuel the adolescent but rapidly maturing economies of New York and Ontario and would also form a key control point for water levels along the newly constructed St. Lawrence Seaway. And regulators, still raw with the memory of Hurricane Hazel’s ruthless floods four years earlier, granted one other concession: a promise to try to keep water levels in Lake Ontario, as nearly as possible, within a 4-foot range and thereby ensure a measure of flood protection security for lakeside homeowners.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.

Field Notes: The Forgotten Great Lake

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Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

MONTREAL— Along the eastern shore of this island city, the water of the St. Lawrence River runs deep, clear, and fast. Montreal is more than 1,500 kilometers (1,000 miles) from the westernmost reaches of Lake Superior, but the river here feels undeniably of the Great Lakes, of the northlands, of a system so vast that it holds a fifth of the world’s fresh surface water.

I grew up a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan, drove many times across the green expanse of the Mackinac Bridge, passed the southern shore of Lake Erie every fall on my way to college, and ate my childhood breakfasts across from a large photograph of Niagara Falls. But, beyond a thin blue line on a map, I never imagined where much of that water eventually goes.

Certainly, I never pictured the St. Lawrence River as a waterway big enough to hold islands, cities, and strings of container ships so massive they make luxury yachts look like bathtub toys. In fact, 318 billion cubic meters of water (11.2 trillion cubic feet) flow down the St. Lawrence in an average year. Of the rivers in North America, only the Mississippi and the Mackenzie send more water to the sea.

I spent the last week traveling the river’s upper reaches and along the southern shore of Lake Ontario, where the system is on the edge of a dynamic change. Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River are the only portion of the Great Lakes where humans play a significant role in water-level regulation, but for the past 50 years those regulations have done little to take the upper river’s wetlands and fisheries into account. Last year, the international body that oversees waterways shared by Canada and the United States proposed a new regulation plan, Plan 2014, that would reintroduce the environment as a primary stakeholder—a move both supporters and critics say will create winners and losers.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.

Seven Ohio Drinking Water Sources Don’t Meet State Water Quality Standards for Toxic Algae

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Graphic © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

Seven lakes, reservoirs and rivers that supply drinking water to approximately 1 million people in Ohio have repeatedly exceeded safe levels of a toxin that can cause sickness and liver damage, according to a state water quality report. The toxin, produced by algae, rendered the water undrinkable earlier this month for more than 400,000 people in the Toledo area.

The drinking water sources found to contain the toxin serve seven cities including Toledo, Akron and Lima. Though these cities have largely been able to treat the water to make it safe, the water plants in Toledo and Carroll Township—a small community in Ottawa County—have both been forced to issue “Do Not Drink” advisories in the past year.

In Grand Lake St. Marys, Ohio’s largest inland lake, toxin levels have been so high that people are advised not to swim in the water. The drinking water and beach warnings represent a danger to public health that has reemerged in the past decade after state, federal and international efforts largely ridded Lake Erie of toxic algae blooms in the 1980s. Treating the toxins are costing cities millions of dollars, while water shutoffs and unsightly blooms can hurt businesses from restaurants to charter boats.

The findings about the growing threat to Ohio’s drinking water safety were contained in a biennial assessment of water quality conducted by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. The assessment was released in February but attracted little attention until August 2 when Toledo issued a “Do Not Drink” advisory due to high levels of algae toxins in its treated water. Circle of Blue reviewed the draft report this week.

The assessment included algae toxins for the first time this year and listed the following drinking water sources as “impaired”, meaning levels of toxins were higher than the state’s threshold for safe drinking water at least two separate times in five years. The toxins were found in the water supplies before they were treated and used for drinking water. After being treated, the water from these sources was within safety limits.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.

Field Notes: Scrubbing Rocks, and Other Things Scientists Do

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Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

TOOLIK, Alaska —Finding myself with a relatively open schedule yesterday, I spent my breakfast asking around the dining hall for any projects I could help with or observe. As luck would have it, the stream researches had a job for me: rock scrubbing. There are times when scientific research procedures require the use of advanced instruments and techniques. Then there are times when the procedures are mind-numbingly simple.

Rock scrubbing, which is exactly what it sounds like, belongs in the latter category. We arrived at the Kuparuk River armed with plastic tubs and wire grill brushes. Filling the tubs with a sampling of the dark, smooth stones that form the riverbed, we plunked ourselves down on the bank and proceeded to scrub the rocks clean with the grill brushes. The scrubbing roughs up a slimy brown film of what looks like mud, which we rinsed into a separate plastic tub. Then we scrubbed again, and rinsed again. Scrub. Rinse. Scrub. Rinse. Eventually, the scrubbing produced no layer of slime and the rock surface felt rough. At this point, we released the rock back into the river with a casual toss and the process began again with the next rock. After all the rocks had been scrubbed, we poured the resulting muddy water into carefully labeled bottles and stored them in a black garbage bag for later analysis in the lab.

This is how I happily whiled away the morning hours next to the idyllic Kuparuk, a clear sky bringing warmth, and a lively breeze keeping the mosquitoes at bay. From an outside perspective, it would have appeared ridiculous—three people scrubbing away at rocks and collecting the bathwater. There was, however, a purpose to our toil. The rock scrubbing releases diatoms, a type of algae that are at the very bottom of the food chain in aquatic environments. The stream researchers are trying to characterize the quantity of diatoms in the river, and how that quantity changes as a result of the nutrient levels in the water. In other words, if more fertilizer is added—either artificially as part of an experiment or naturally from thawing ground—how will that affect the food chain in a river?

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.

Field Notes: A Crash Course in Urban Watersheds

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Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

BALTIMORE — This past Tuesday, I arrived in Baltimore as part of the Logan Science Journalism program’s environmental course—a 2-week fellowship based at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. By Wednesday morning I found myself peering down not into the sunny blue waters of the Pacific, but into the foamy brown swirls of Gwynns Falls.

Not far from its confluence with the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay, the river is fast-flowing and trash-ridden. It rushes under a concrete overpass carrying not only bottles and potato chip bags, but also nitrogen and pharmaceuticals and bacteria like fecal coliform. By testing the water in rivers like these, scientists can perform the watershed equivalent of a urinalysis, says Peter Groffman, an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y. All that ails the greater watershed—sewer leaks, septic tank seepage, and fertilizer runoff, to name a few—ends up here in Gwynns Falls, and eventually in Chesapeake Bay. It is here that researchers hope to see improvements that will translate into a healthier bay.

Urban waterways have been channeled, diverted, buried and polluted for centuries, but they have only recently been studied as part of the larger urban ecosystem. Understanding urban ecosystems, and the rivers within them, is becoming increasingly important as climate change alters established patterns of rainfall, floods and temperature. Globally, more people now live in cities than in rural areas, and the United Nations predicts urban populations will reach 5 billion people by 2030. The Baltimore Ecosystem Study, part of the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) system, has been looking at how these changing social and biological processes interact since 1997.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.

Great Lakes Drinking Water Fouled By Toxic Algae

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Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

OAK HARBOR, Ohio — On September 4, 2013, Henry Biggert, the superintendent of the Carroll Water and Sewer District, near Toledo, Ohio, got the first clue that he could have a public health crisis on his hands. An analysis of water samples taken from Lake Erie, the district’s only water source, showed that levels of a toxin released by algal blooms had spiked.

In five years of voluntarily testing for the toxin, Biggert and his staff had never seen anything like it. So they followed protocol and retested the water early the next morning. Unable to process the sample at their own facility, they sent it to another plant nearby and waited.

At 3 p.m. Biggert received the second set of results. They were alarming. Toxin levels in Lake Erie were greater than 50 parts per billion. Levels of the toxin in Carroll Township’s treated drinking water were 3.8 parts per billion—nearly four times the safety limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

Within two hours, Biggert decided to act. He shut down the Carroll Township treatment plant and simultaneously alerted the community’s 2,000 residents not to drink the water. If they did, they might get very sick—become nauseous, vomit, and suffer liver damage.

“I had major concerns with [the decision], but I really didn’t feel I had a choice,” Biggert told Circle of Blue, describing how he and his staff rushed to get the word out to area residents, notifying TV stations in Toledo as well as local newspapers and radio stations. They activated Ottawa County’s reverse emergency system, calling all the households that signed up to be warned of public dangers.

Biggert also opened an emergency connection with the Ottawa County Regional Water Plant, which began pumping safe water to residents that evening. Biggert and his staff stayed at the Carroll water plant until midnight, flushing the system, and returned at 4 a.m. the next day to test for the toxin.

“We didn’t really know what we were dealing with,” Biggert said. “We wanted to be very safe and conservative.”

“It was a crazy day, it was a crazy week,” he added. “But no one got hurt, so I guess it was all worth it.”

The September incident put Carroll Township in the unenviable position of being the first Great Lakes community to directly contend with the health risks associated with algae. Algal blooms are now ubiquitous in lakes and oceans around the world, risking human health, and sucking up so much oxygen they suffocate fish and invertebrates. Dangerous blooms have been documented from the Gulf of Mexico to the Baltic Sea.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.

Florida Oyster Harvest Suffers As Drought Intensifies Water Battle with Georgia and Alabama

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Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

EASTPOINT, Fla. — The afternoon sun turns the sky white as the boat bobs on the bay’s blue waters. Shannon Hartsfield, a fourth-generation oysterman and president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, balances on the gunwale and scissors a four-meter (14-foot) pair of tongs along the oyster bar below. He heaves them up, depositing the catch onto a wide culling board across the bow. Only a handful of harvestable oysters can be separated from the pile of mostly empty white shells.

“We are having a lack of product, and we are not able to provide for our families like we should because of the drought,” says Hartsfield, who grew up on the Apalachicola Bay. “We’re the last on the totem pole when it comes to fresh water, and we get whatever we get — and there’s been a lack of it [this year].”

The bay is the last stop for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin, an expanse of estuary marshes, sea-grass beds, and oyster bars hemmed in by shifting barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico. The ecosystem in the bay relies heavily on freshwater flows from the Apalachicola River. Ten percent of the aquatic area of the estuary is covered in oyster bars that provide 90 percent of Florida’s annual oyster harvest. But this has been a particularly difficult year.

The combination of dry weather and scarce water, prompted by one of the basin’s worst droughts on record, is both a striking symptom of the endemic problem that more than half of the continental United States faces this year and a test of human resolve to solve penetrating rivalries that are putting the economy and ecology of this region in jeopardy. Indeed, say authorities and scholars, the drought facing this southeastern corner of the country highlights the need for thinking much differently about managing water supplies and sharing rivers — something a 22-year-old court battle between Alabama, Florida, and Georgia has failed to deliver.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.

Where Food Grows On Water: Environmental and Human Threats to Wisconsin’s Wild Rice

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Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

SANBORN, Wis. — In early June, green tendrils of wild rice rise from the Bad River’s soft bottom to take their first breaths of cool Wisconsin air. It is morning, just hours after a storm bent the big pines off the Lake Superior coast and beat the extensive beds of infant wild rice that grow here.

Lisa and Peter David, plant biologists who have dedicated a significant portion of their careers to understanding and protecting wild rice, stand in the wind with arms crossed, surveying this year’s new plants.

The Bad River’s rice beds, which later this summer will look like green prairies, perform much as they have for centuries. They provide a stable, supplemental food source for the Anishinaabe people, who hold wild rice as sacred. The rice is also a source of food for wildlife, as well as a habitat for many fish, making it a keystone species for this region’s water-rich landscape.

How much longer that will be the case is not clear, say the Davids. In recent years, climate change has produced stronger storms and more erratic weather. For a plant that grows best in water that is 30 to 90 centimeters (one to three feet) deep, the big changes in water depth caused by heavy rains and floods can drown young rice plants, or pull them out by their roots.

“If lake levels change — getting either higher or lower from where they are — we will probably see some rice beds that will cease to exist,” Peter David says.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.