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Monitoring wells stand as silent sentinels on the grounds of a fire training site at Wurtsmith Air Force Base. Chemicals used at the site have contaminated nearby groundwater, rivers and lakes. Brett Walton / Circle of Blue

Fear and Fury in Michigan Town Where Air Force Contaminated Water

By Brett Walton

Anthony Spaniola knew something was off with his town's water. He read accounts in the Detroit Free Press and attended community meetings hosted by state health and environment agencies. Until last summer Spaniola was concerned but didn't think the situation was out of control.

Then he saw foam on Van Etten Lake.

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A truck hauling potable water arrives at the entrance to Al Azraq refugee camp. Randall Hackley

How Water Scarcity Shapes the World's Refugee Crisis

Behind barbed-wire fences at this camp in northern Jordan, about 33,000 Syrians—half of them children—exist uneasily, housed in rows of rudimentary shelters that barely protect them from the winter cold.

Drinking water must be brought in daily by dozens of tanker trucks or pumped from desert boreholes that overexploit Jordan's largest groundwater basin.

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Politics

Governors Weigh in on Water, Climate and the Environment: What We Know So Far

By Brett Walton

State of the State speeches are where governors sketch their legislative priorities and report on the overall health of their dominions. The state of the state is almost always "strong" and water issues are occasionally mentioned.

Below are summaries of the governors' references to water, climate and the environment.

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Llima Orosa / Flickr

EPA Delays Lead and Copper Rule Again, Promises ‘War on Lead’

By Brett Walton

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pledged that lead regulations will be a prominent feature of the agency's work in 2018—but that work will take longer than anticipated.

The agency expects that a revision to federal rules that are designed to reduce the risk of lead in drinking water will be published in draft form in August 2018, a seven-month delay from a timetable announced this summer.

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Officials test sediment samples at the San Jacinto Waste Pits Superfund site after Hurricane Harvey hit the region in Texas. EPA

EPA: Houston Superfund Site Leaked Toxic Chemicals After Harvey

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that Hurricane Harvey damaged a protective cap at a Superfund site along the San Jacinto River, near Houston, and caused a spike in chemical levels in the water.

Water samples from one of 14 monitoring sites at the San Jacinto waste pits indicated levels of dioxin above 70,000 parts per trillion, more than 2,000 times higher than the site's cleanup goal of 30 parts per trillion. Dioxin is a cancer-causing chemical that stays in the environment for hundreds of years before breaking down.

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Solving Lake Erie's Toxic Algae Bloom Crisis


By Codi Kozacek

A year after the most intense bloom of toxic algae on record engulfed Lake Erie, the lake is set to get a reprieve this summer. Federal forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict this year's bloom will register a 5.5 in severity, about half the level recorded last year and significantly less than the bloom in 2014 that shut down water supplies for nearly half a million people in Toledo, Ohio.

A satellite image captured on July 15, 2016 shows the beginning of an algal bloom. Forecasters predict this summer's bloom will be much smaller than the record-setting bloom last year.MODIS / NOAA CoastWatch

Still, work to rid the shallowest Great Lake from the annual blooms that contaminate drinking water, close beaches and create aquatic "dead zones" is far from over, warned researchers and water managers gathered at Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory last week. Hundreds of metric tons of phosphorus, a nutrient contained in fertilizer, manure and sewage, continue to wash down the Maumee River each year into Lake Erie's western basin, where the influx fuels the bloom of blue-green algae.

The small size predicted for this year's bloom is more a function of dry weather in the Maumee Basin rather than big reductions in phosphorus. Just as record rains in the basin last year triggered a massive bloom, dry conditions this spring meant less water to carry phosphorus off the land and into the lake. As a result, total "loads" of the type of phosphorus that can be used by algae are expected to be about one-third the amount washed into the lake last year.

"The reality is that rain is really driving our loads at this point in time," said Laura Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University, which tracks the nutrients flowing into Lake Erie.

That means one dry year with a small algal bloom does not indicate the problem is solved. It will take a 40 percent reduction in the amount of phosphorus flowing down the Maumee and other Lake Erie tributaries to control the blooms in the long-run, according to new targets adopted in February by the U.S. and Canada. Further, the blooms in Lake Erie are just one facet of the burgeoning nutrient pollution problem across the nation and the globe. Attention this year is focused on the noxious blooms along Florida's Treasure Coast, where the state's governor declared a state of emergency in June. But blooms also plague Green Bay in Lake Michigan, Lake Taihu in China and the Murray-Darling River in Australia. The oxygen-depleted aquatic dead zones created when blooms die regularly form in Lake Erie, the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea.

Spurred by the poisoning of Toledo's drinking water supply in 2014—and a history of algal blooms dating to the mid-20th century—the research and management efforts being implemented in the Lake Erie watershed to curb phosphorus runoff are an important guidepost for these other systems.

"This is a state, country and global issue," said Chris Winslow, interim director of Stone Laboratory. "We're at the cutting edge of many of these studies right now. A lot of this is going to inform what a lot of people do throughout the country."

A Plan for Lake Erie

Over the past year and following decades of study, the Great Lakes states and provinces took their first concrete steps toward curbing phosphorus pollution and algal blooms in Lake Erie. An agreement signed between the premier of Ontario and the governors of Ohio and Michigan last June set an ambitious goal to cut phosphorus flowing into western Lake Erie by 40 percent by 2025. It also set the interim goal of a 20 percent reduction by 2020. The state-level commitment was followed by the adoption in February of 40 percent reduction targets under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). While there is no timeline under the GLWQA, it does require the U.S. and Canada to develop domestic action plans by 2018 outlining how they will make the phosphorus cuts.

To meet those goals, land and water managers will need to focus on reducing runoff from farms in the Maumee River Basin, according to a study led by researchers at the University of Michigan. While stormwater runoff, discharges from municipal wastewater plants and septic systems can all contribute phosphorus, scientists estimate nearly 85 percent of the phosphorus flowing into Lake Erie from the Maumee comes from farm fertilizers and manure.

The study, released in April, analyzed a variety of agricultural management scenarios using watershed models to estimate how the practices would affect phosphorus discharges. In general, it found that agricultural practices meant to trap phosphorus on land will need to be widely adopted and that better results occur when those practices are targeted on land that currently releases high levels of phosphorus.

University of Michigan

Specifically, only two scenarios achieved the new targets outlined under the GLWQA. The first would require the conversion of 50 percent of cropland to uncultivated grassland and is considered highly unrealistic.

The second would require the subsurface application of phosphorus fertilizers on half of the cropland that currently loses the most phosphorus. That prevents the fertilizer from sitting on top of the soil, where it can be washed off by rain. The scenario also calls for the use of rye cover crops and the installation of "medium quality" buffer strips on 50 percent more cropland than implements these practices now. Cover crops store the phosphorus in their roots and leaves, keeping it out of the soil so it cannot wash away, while "buffer" strips of vegetation slow the rain running off of fields, filtering out phosphorus before it reaches streams. As of 2013, approximately 8 percent of farms in the Maumee watershed used a rye cover crop and 35 percent of farms used buffer strips.

In a demonstration of agriculture's important role in reducing phosphorus, the study also examined a scenario in which all point sources of phosphorus—those that come out of a pipe, such as from a municipal wastewater plant—were eliminated completely. In that scenario, total phosphorus was reduced by just 5 percent and dissolved reactive phosphorus—the kind most usable by algae—was reduced by 10 percent.

"The 40 percent [target] is doable, but it's going to be a heavy lift," said Gail Hesse, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Water Program, speaking at the Stone Laboratory event. "It's going to need a steep investment and a steep ramp-up in our efforts to reach that target."

Codi Kozacek is a news correspondent for Circle of Blue based out of Hawaii. She writes The Stream, Circle of Blue's daily digest of international water news trends. Her interests include food security, ecology and the Great Lakes.

This article was reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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