For Detroit Students, Water Fountains are Health Hazards
By Sierra Searcy
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has created an office for clean water, housed within the newly formed Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, to investigate complaints about water quality. "Right now, communities across our state don't trust the water coming out of their taps, and there is a real lack of trust in state government," Whitmer said. Her executive order comes at a time when many Michiganders lack access to clean water—and the resources to fix the problem.
Just ask students in Detroit. For the last six months, the nearly 50,000 students enrolled in Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have not been able to use the drinking fountains.
In August, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti tested the water quality at 86 DPS schools. There is no law requiring schools to test their water, but Vitti had good cause for concern. At 57 of the schools tested, results showed elevated levels of lead and copper. Vitti ordered all drinking water to be shut off at every school in the district.
A sign in the women's restroom at Southeastern High School. Sierra Searcy
Lead is rarely found naturally in lakes, rivers or wells. It tends to enter drinking water through the corrosion of aging pipes, solder and faucets. Copper may enter into drinking water either by directly contaminating well water or through the corrosion of copper pipes. The presence of both lead and copper in drinking water at DPS schools is the result of corrosion.
"It's all about the infrastructure. In DPS schools, they didn't take care of the infrastructure. They didn't do what they were supposed to do," said a Detroit Water and Sewer company employee who wished to remain anonymous. "They have not put money into keeping up the pipes."
The tests results have left students worried. "When they told us the water was being shut off because it had lead and copper in it, they didn't give us any information on how the contaminated water affects us, so I looked it up on my own," said Southeastern High School freshman Isiah Pearl. "I found out drinking water with lead and copper in it makes you dumber."
In children, exposure to even low levels of lead has been linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ, hyperactivity, stunted growth, impaired hearing and anemia. For this reason, the federal government banned lead-based paint in 1978 and began to phase out the use of lead gasoline in 1974. Although water with lead is considered safe for washing hands, some students remain concerned. "They say we can wash our hands, but if we can't drink it, I don't understand how it doesn't affect our outside body," said Joi Morgan, a senior at Southeastern High School.
Southeastern math teacher Kiarra Ambrose quenches her thirst at a water cooler. Sierra Searcy
To address the fountain shutoff, schools have provided portable water coolers, one for every 100 students. Southeastern has only three water cooler across three floors to serve its 300 students and staff, many of whom don't have time to reach a water cooler between classes.
"Getting to class on time is already hard, so stopping to get water most of the time means going out of my way and being late," said Southeastern freshman Christopher Robbins. "The building's old. It's always so hot, so we get thirsty easily. But they are so strict here. We can't be late to class, or we will get in trouble."
Pearl shared Robbins' frustration. "In middle school, kids would get sick [with dehydration] because we didn't have any water fountains," he said. "The school was basically falling apart."
A cafeteria staff member who wished to remain anonymous said that water contamination has also made it more difficult to make lunch. Instead of going to the faucet, the kitchen staff must use bottled water. "It has made my job harder, but we have to do what we have to do to feed these babies," the staff member said of the students. "We don't want them to get sick."
The lack of water is another setback for a district that has been beset by financial problems for more than a decade. Already facing shortages of books, supplies and teachers, many students in the largely black, working-class school district are disappointed about the water contamination, but not surprised. "We just saw it as another problem. I was just like, 'Oh, now the water doesn't work.'" said Southeastern senior Steffon Horton. "I haven't thought too much about it."
Southeastern math teacher Kiarra Ambrose uses a water cooler. Sierra Searcy
Lead contamination is no stranger to black communities. Studies show that black children are more likely to be exposed to lead than white children, a fact affirmed by the experience of teachers and students in Detroit. "I haven't heard about schools in Farmington or Southfield [wealthier and whiter communities near Detroit] with this problem," said Southeastern English and Language Arts teacher Jacqueline Robinson.
"I feel like we would have more resources if we were in a suburban community," Morgan said. "They feel like they can give us this little water station and we will be okay because they think we don't want to come to school anyway, but that's not the case."
Lacking funding to address the water crisis, Superintendent Vitti raised $2.4 million in donations from philanthropies to pay for filters that will remove lead and copper from water from drinking fountains. The district is in the processing of installing the filters at every DPS school, though the filters will need to be replaced regularly. The only permanent fix is to replace the aging pipes.
Water contamination in Detroit schools is indicative of larger infrastructure issues across the state. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave Michigan's schools a D+ on its most recent infrastructure report card, as many districts are "utilizing facilities built in the 1950s and 1960s following the Baby Boom, in the condition they were originally constructed." Michigan's drinking water infrastructure received a D in the same report, which noted the state would need to spend nearly $14 billion to bring its drinking water into compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In his state of the union address this week, President Trump called for an infrastructure overhaul. Democrats in Congress are willing to work with Trump on an infrastructure package this year. As part of that effort, there are steps that federal lawmakers could take to improve drinking water as part of a larger push on infrastructure, such as establishing a federal Water Infrastructure Trust Fund to help finance local improvements and repairs in cities like Detroit.
For now, students and staff will continue pushing for a solution. "We won't stop talking and using our voices until we are heard," Robbins said. "We need a change. We demand a change, and I won't give up until that change happens."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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