Posts Tagged ‘Water quality’

Tougher water enforcement; bow fishing for invasives

October 19, 2009

EPA chief Lisa P. Jackson announces a tougher effort to enforce water quality rules. An Illinois man, confronted with a river full of jumping Asian carp, develops a new sport: extreme aerial bow fishing. And cleaner air sometimes means dirtier water, the New York Times reports in the latest installment in its Toxic Waters series. Follow the links to read those articles and more.

EPA chief pledges stepped-up water enforcement
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa P. Jackson announced at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing that the agency is stepping up its efforts on Clean Water Act enforcement.

 The Clean Water Action Enforcement Plan is a first step in revamping the compliance and enforcement program. It seeks to improve the protection of our nation’s water quality, raise the bar in federal and state performance and enhance public transparency.

“The safety of the water that we use in our homes — the water we drink and give to our children — is of paramount importance to our health and our environment. Having clean and safe water in our communities is a right that should be guaranteed for all Americans,” said Administrator Jackson. “Updating our efforts under the Clean Water Act will promote innovative solutions for 21st century water challenges, build stronger ties between EPA, state, and local actions, and provide the transparency the public rightfully expects.”

The plan announced outlines how the agency will strengthen the way it addresses the water pollution challenges of this century. These challenges include pollution caused by numerous, dispersed sources, such as concentrated animal feeding operations, sewer overflows, contaminated water that flows from industrial facilities, construction sites, and runoff from urban streets.
–EPA news release

Extreme aerial bow fishing for invasive carp
The sound and vibration of a boat engine make the fish fly.

The Illinois River and other waterways flowing into the Mississippi have become infested with invasive Asian fish species commonly called silver carp, which can turn a leisurely ride on a johnboat into the aquatic version of the running of the bulls. The carp can jump out of the water by the hundreds, sometimes soaring 10 feet in the air and often landing in the boat. They have loosened fishermen’s teeth, broken their jaws and left them scarred.

This unlikely and often violent meeting of quaint pastime and airborne fish is a problem for wildlife officials. For Chris Brackett, a guide on the Illinois River, it is a business opportunity.
–The N.Y. Times

Cleaner air yields dirtier water
MASONTOWN, Pa. — For years, residents here complained about the yellow smoke pouring from the tall chimneys of the nearby coal-fired power plant, which left a film on their cars and pebbles of coal waste in their yards. Five states — including New York and New Jersey — sued the plant’s owner, Allegheny Energy, claiming the air pollution was causing respiratory diseases and acid rain.

So three years ago, when Allegheny Energy decided to install scrubbers to clean the plant’s air emissions, environmentalists were overjoyed. The technology would spray water and chemicals through the plant’s chimneys, trapping more than 150,000 tons of pollutants each year before they escaped into the sky.

 But the cleaner air has come at a cost. Each day since the equipment was switched on in June, the company has dumped tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater containing chemicals from the scrubbing process into the Monongahela River, which provides drinking water to 350,000 people and flows into Pittsburgh, 40 miles to the north. (From the New York Times Toxic Waters series.)
–The New York Times

 Canada’s rivers in trouble, environmental group says
Serious action is required to keep Canada’s rivers flowing and to prevent them from being drained by expanding cities, soaring energy demands and climate change, says a new report.

“Flow regimes in some of Canada’s most important rivers, such as the South Saskatchewan and the St. Lawrence, have been modified to the extent that ecosystems are in serious trouble,” said the report, Canada’s Rivers at Risk, produced by WWF-Canada, an environmental organization. “Soon, many others — including some of the planet’s increasingly scarce, large, free-flowing rivers like the Skeena, the Athabasca, and the Mackenzie — could be in trouble, as well, as demands on the waters grow and climate change intensifies.” 

Overall, the study assessed the flow of 10 Canadian rivers that drain into the Pacific, the Arctic, the Hudson Bay and the Atlantic, and the impact of economic development, infrastructure and hydroelectric dams in the water basins.
–CanWest News Service

 EPA told to limit endocrine testing
The Office of Management and Budget has instructed U.S. EPA to use existing toxicity data rather than require companies to conduct new tests to determine whether chemicals can damage the human endocrine system.

At issue in the White House directive is the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program created by the 1998 Food Quality Protection Act to identify chemicals that can disrupt reproductive systems. 

EPA started the program in April with the announcement of the first 67 pesticides for screening with a “Tier 1” goal of identifying possible endocrine disruptors and requiring that they be tested by their manufacturers. The program’s second tier is aimed at determining safe exposure levels for such chemicals.
–The New York Times 

Carver County septic system gets pricier
For several years, Carver County officials have been trying to force Lowell and Janet Carlson to replace the septic system at their Norwood-Young America farm, eventually threatening them with a jail sentence earlier this month if they did not comply.

 It turns out, however, that the septic system the county approved and wanted the Carlsons to install in 2006 apparently would have been illegal, according to people the Carlsons brought in to help them replace the system.

As a result, the couple will have to install an even more costly mound system to keep themselves out of the Carver County jail.
–The Star Tribune

Lake Vermillion park negotiations dormant
Back in 2008, funding for Lake Vermilion State Park was one of the signature accomplishments of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s legislative maneuvering, a prize for which he had twisted arms and played hardball in last-minute negotiation with legislators. 

When the session was over, the governor had agreed not to veto funding for the Central Corridor Light Rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul. In exchange, DFL leaders approved $20 million in bonding authority for the “acquisition and development” of nearly 3,000 acres of land, including five miles of pristine shoreline, along Lake Vermilion. 

It was to be Minnesota’s first new state park since 1979. Today, however, the chances that Lake Vermilion State Park will ever happen are remote, and steadily diminishing. Negotiations between the Minnesota DNR and property owner U.S. Steel over the purchase of the land are, according to both sides, lying dormant.
–St. Paul Legal Ledger

Faucet snails found in Twin lakes
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is in the process of designating Upper and Lower Twin lakes in Hubbard and Wadena counties as “infested waters” because the faucet snail (Bithynia tentaculata) has been found there. The snail has been linked to waterfowl deaths at Lake Winnibigoshish and the Upper Mississippi pool system in southeastern Minnesota. 

A local resident of Lower Twin Lake first noticed the snails attached to his boat and brought them to the attention of local DNR staff. Trained DNR and U.S. Geological Survey staff later verified them as faucet snails.

 New regulations will take effect at the lake to help stop the movement of the faucet snail to other waters. Once designated as “infested waters,” state law prohibits the transport of water from Upper and Lower Twin without a permit. It also prohibits anglers or commercial bait harvesters from harvesting bait from these waters.
–Minnesota DNR news release

 USGS assesses risk of giant invasive snakes
Five giant non-native snake species would pose high risks to the health of ecosystems in the United States should they become established here, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report.

 The USGS report details the risks of nine non-native boa, anaconda and python species that are invasive or potentially invasive in the United States. Because all nine species share characteristics associated with greater risks, none was found to be a low ecological risk. Two of these species are documented as reproducing in the wild in South Florida, with population estimates for Burmese pythons in the tens of thousands.

Based on the biology and known natural history of the giant constrictors, individuals of some species may also pose a small risk to people, although most snakes would not be large enough to consider a person as suitable prey. Mature individuals of the largest species—Burmese, reticulated, and northern and southern African pythons—have been documented as attacking and killing people in the wild in their native range, though such unprovoked attacks appear to be quite rare, the report authors wrote.
–Science Daily

Midwestern governors want CO2 pipeline
Midwestern states are working with energy companies to overcome one of the biggest obstacles to carbon capture and storage: finding ways to transport the gas from its industrial source to its final resting place.

The Midwestern Governors Association announced a goal to site and permit by 2012 at least one interstate pipeline to ferry global warming pollution from the region’s power plants to suitable underground storage sites.

The goal was among several laid out in the Midwestern Energy Infrastructure Accord aiming to transform the region’s coal-rich states into hubs for CCS technology (Greenwire, Oct. 7).

 An early step in the accord involves the development of a pipeline that would move carbon dioxide from capture-ready coal plants in Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky to the Gulf Coast for use in enhanced oil recovery.
–The New York Times

Sensors speed water quality research

May 26, 2009

Each week, the Freshwater Society publishes a digest of some of the best regional, national and international articles on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to the original sources.

UM studies remote sensors for water quality
Measuring water quality in lakes and streams traditionally starts with a time-consuming trip with a bucket to get a water sample for the laboratory.

Now University of Minnesota water researchers have found a way to skip that step.

In an ongoing study of urban creeks and watersheds that is focusing this summer on Lake Pamela in Edina, the university is taking thousands of water-quality readings a day using underwater sensors that relay the data by cell phone to the U’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory.

The study promises to “move environmental monitoring to the next level and improve our understanding and management of water resources,” said Deb Swackhamer, co-director of the university’s Water Resources Center.
–The Star Tribune

N. Mankato says ‘no’ to paying for aquifer study
North Mankato is the lone holdout in a Department of Natural Resources plan to have the seven largest users of an area aquifer split the costs of a study to see if it’s being depleted.

The study’s cost was about $20,000 in 2008, and it may rise.

“The costs are a little unpredictable,” said Shannon Fisher, who is a mediator for the project on behalf of the Minnesota River Board and the aquifer’s users.

The open-ended price of the study is one of the reasons North Mankato chose not to sign the agreement, City Administrator Wendell Sande said.
–The Mankato Free Press

Wireless sensors save water on golf courses
In seven years of overseeing every root and blade of grass on the grounds at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., Matt Shaffer has built a reputation on innovation and conservation. An early advocate of course playability over aesthetics, he long lived by the maxim “the drier, the better.”

But when a stifling heat wave threatened the club’s greens before the 2005 United States Amateur Championship — a record 17th U.S.G.A. championship at Merion — Shaffer turned to his old boss, Paul R. Latshaw Sr., for advice. Latshaw told him there was one way he could continue to cut down water use while keeping his turf dry and as fast as a microwave: sensors.
–The New York Times

Wisconsin utilities question water fee
A municipal water utilities lobbying group is raising concerns about new fees the governor is proposing to fund staff to oversee the implementation of the Great Lakes water compact.

A provision in Gov. Jim Doyle’s proposed budget calls for the Department of Natural Resources to design new fees to impose on power companies, public water utilities and other major water users in the Great Lakes basin.

The intent is to create a fee structure that would raise the estimated $1 million needed annually to run the compact oversight and implementation program, said Eric Ebersberger, water section chief in the DNR’s Bureau of Drinking Water and Ground Water.

But a lobbying group for public utilities is urging the state Legislature to set the fees by statute so any increase would have to be subsequently approved by lawmakers.
–Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Stimulus funds to rebuild Red Wing dam
The lock and dam on the Mississippi River near Red Wing, Minn., the site of more than 100 barge accidents because of the hazardous current, will undergo $70 million in safety improvements over the next two years under the nation’s economic stimulus program, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

It is one of the Corps’ largest projects under the program, although a long-standing conflict with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) over the lack of a fish passage threatens to block some of the work.

Critics led by the Wisconsin DNR also object to the Corps’ plans to cut down trees used by perching bald eagles and to embed concrete blocks along vast stretches of shore and bottom land on the Wisconsin side of the river.
–The Star Tribune

Chemical companies win groundwater case
After five months of trial in San Francisco Superior Court, a jury cleared a handful of chemical companies of nearly all the claims brought against them by the city of Modesto, Calif., in the latest phase of a decade-old groundwater pollution case.

The jury did award Modesto about $18.3 million in damages to cover cleanup costs, but that amount could be nullified by settlements the city has already reached with other defendants.

The jury also decided that the remaining defendants, including the Dow Chemical Co., did not act with malice when they manufactured and distributed chemicals, such as perchloroethylene, to dry cleaners in Modesto. That rules out punitive damages, which could have been much larger.

Bottled water deposit bill challenged
A coalition of bottled water companies filed suit to block an expanded bottle deposit law scheduled to take effect next month, arguing that the law, which imposes a deposit fee on bottled water sold in New York State, is unconstitutional.

The coalition includes Nestle Waters North America, the International Bottled Water Association, and industry trade group, and Keeper Springs, a small bottler owned by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and environmental advocate.

The new law requires distributors to collect a 5-cent deposit per bottle of water, which can in turn be redeemed by consumers, provisions designed to encourage New Yorkers to recycle the billions of water bottles now thrown away each year. But companies that bottle water must affix a new universal product code label to bottles sold in New York.
–The New York Times

DNR begins campaign against invasives
Memorial Day weekend, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officers joined forces with other law enforcement agencies to prevent the transportation of aquatic invasive species from the Brainerd, Lake Mille Lacs and Prior Lake areas.

The increasing zebra mussel populations at Lake Mille Lacs and Rice Lake near Brainerd, and the new zebra mussel infestation at Prior Lake in Scott County are a particular concern.

Minnesota’s water resources are threatened by numerous aquatic invasive species such as the zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil and purple loosestrife. These species could be easily spread within the state if citizens, businesses and visitors don’t take the necessary steps to contain them.

The DNR offered these suggestions:

Drain bait buckets, bilges and live wells before leaving any water access.

  • Remove aquatic plants from boats and trailers to prevent the spread of invasive species. The law requires it.
  • Drain all water from your boat when leaving waters that have been designated as infested with spiny water flea or zebra mussels.

The coordinated enforcement effort will include an increased presence at public water accesses, where officers will look closely for violators who could face fines of up to $500.
–Minnesota DNR news release

Volunteers monitor Minnesota’s waters

March 26, 2009

(This  article was published in the March, 2009, Facets of Freshwater, the Freshwater Society’s newsletter. The newsletter is available at

Last year, on about 1,500 lakes across Minnesota, volunteers leaned over the side of their boats and lowered a white metal disk into the water, carefully measuring how deep the disk descended until it vanished from view.

In addition, the volunteers filled out a checklist of subjective judgments about the lake water: Was it crystal clear? Was there floating scum or dead fish in the water? Did the water look inviting for swimming or boating? Or was there such heavy algae growth that any enjoyment of the lake was impossible?

Other volunteers in other places lowered buckets into rivers to collect water samples, filled their home refrigerators or freezers with small bottles of river and lake water that would later be analyzed to determine its nitrogen and phosphorus content and waded into wetlands to collect dragonflies, leeches and beetles.

Thirty-five years ago, Minnesota began one of the first volunteer water quality monitoring program in the country. That effort, the Citizen Lake Monitoring Program, remains one of the largest such programs in the country. And it has now been joined by dozens of other lake, river and wetland monitoring efforts that encourage volunteers to get their feet and hands wet in the pursuit of clean, healthy water.

The programs have two major goals.

First, there is the science. The thousands of volunteers take far more water clarity readings and collect far more water samples than the full-time scientists and technicians employed by governmental bodies, such as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and local soil and water boards, ever could handle.

A recent surge in the use of volunteers to collect water samples has helped the PCA speed up a slow process aimed at assessing the water quality in more than 12,000 lakes and about 105,000 miles of streams and rivers every 10 years. Big increases in water quality spending approved by the Legislature in recent years paid for lab analysis of the samples.

The low-tech Secchi Disk readings made by those volunteers leaning over the sides of their canoes and pontoon boats also help make possible a much higher-tech monitoring system. The clarity readings logged by the volunteers are used to calibrate images sent to Earth by satellites that pass over Minnesota.

As important as the scientific data, is the direct interest in water quality and the commitment to preserving it that the volunteer activity fosters in the volunteers.

“There’s value beyond the value of the data that’s collected in the Citizen Lake Monitoring Program, said Johanna Schussler, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s coordinator of the program. “These are the people who support water quality initiatives. These are the people who volunteer, who write letters.”

And what do the volunteers get out of participating in the various programs?

For Gordon Prickett, a former mining engineer who joined the Citizen Lake Monitoring Program in 1997, soon after he bought his retirement home on the north side of Nord Lake in Aitkin County, the question is an easy one.

“I see myself as a steward here,” Prickett. “The longer we live here, the more I’m interested in conservation and preservation. I’m interested in preserving the quality of the lake for future generations, as well as my own.”

Minnesota’s first volunteer water-quality program was begun in 1973 by a University of Minnesota professor, Joe Shapiro. The MPCA assumed responsibility for the program in 1978.

That is the Citizen Lake Monitoring Project that Schussler coordinates. Last year, it had 1,260 volunteers who tested water quality at 1,700 sites on about 1,200 lakes. From the beginning, the program has relied on a simple device, the Secchi Disk, to measure clarity, a basic indicator of water quality, especially the level of algae present in a lake.

The Secchi disk – named after Pietro Angelo Secchi, a 19 th Century Jesuit astronomer who developed the device to measure the transparency of oceans and lakes — is a white, or sometimes black-and-white, metal disk, about the size of a salad plate that is attached to a cord marked off in feet or meters.

Volunteers are instructed to lower the Secchi disk into the lake and note when it disappears from view. They then raise the disk a bit until it is again just visible, note that depth and then average the two readings. The volunteers also fill out a questionnaire rating the lake’s general appearance on a scale that ranges from “crystal clear” to “massive floating scums…foul odor or fish kill.”

The volunteers are asked to take their readings on their appointed lakes eight to 10 times a summer, preferably weekly from June through September.

Typically, the clarity readings the volunteers record with the Secchi disks are lowest in mid-summer, when algae growth is the greatest. The Secchi readings are posted each year in the MPCA’s Environmental Data Access data base.

In addition to the basic Secchi disk monitoring, the MPCA funds four other citizen monitoring programs:

  • A sub-set of the basic Secchi disk monitoring program that is specifically tailored for canoeists visiting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness. Canoeists receive a light-weight Secchi disk with a little mesh bag on the bottom of it that they weight down with rocks.
  • A Citizen Stream Monitoring Program, begun in 1988, that last year sent about 500 volunteers to about 800 locations on rivers and streams throughout Minnesota. The volunteers generally use a bucket to take a sample of water and then measure its clarity. But, instead of a Secchi disk, they use a transparency tube. That’s a clear tube with a centimeter scale printed on it that the volunteers fill with river or stream water. Then they let water run out of valve on the bottom until they can see a symbol printed on the base of the tube.

The river and stream monitors are asked to visit their sampling stations once a week, from April through September, and after heavy rains. The clarity readings they make with their transparency tubes are used by the MPCA to estimate the level of turbidity caused by suspended solids – sediment, organic material and algae –in the water.

  • A relatively new lake monitoring effort, called the Advanced Citizen Lake Monitoring Program, in which volunteers who have demonstrated a commitment to monitoring by taking Secchi readings for two years, receive additional training and more-sophisticated equipment and are asked to undertake expanded testing on selected lakes.

In that program, the volunteers take Secchi readings and note their observations of water conditions. In addition, they use a probe and a hand-held meter to measure the temperature of the water and the level of oxygen dissolved in it. Then they take a 2-liter sample of lake water and pour off some of the sample into a small bottle whose contents later will be analyzed at a state laboratory to determine how much phosphorus and nitrogen it contains.

Later, onshore, the volunteers pump more of the lake water through a filter and then place the filter in a petri dish, which they are asked to store in their home refrigerators until the samples are delivered to a lab. Analysis of the filter tells how much chlorophyll was in the water, a measure of algae.

  • An extensive series of partnerships in which the MPCA provides up to $2 million a year to about 40 public and private organizations – soil and water conservation districts, watershed districts, counties, college and universities and associations of lakeshore owners — to recruit volunteers, and in some cases assign paid staff members, to collect data on lakes and rivers and to contract with private labs to analyze samples.

That testing yields data on clarity, E-coli bacteria, chloride, ammonia, suspended solids, phosphorus, nitrogen and chlorophyll. The PCA contracts with Minnesota Waters, a nonprofit group, to train participants in that program.

In addition to the MPCA’s water monitoring program, the Metropolitan Council has had an extensive lake monitoring program for more than 25 years. That program now tests water quality in about 200 lakes across the seven-county metro area. The council works with about 35 local partners – cities, counties and watershed districts — to recruit, train and supervise volunteers.

The local partners provide the equipment and pay for laboratory analysis. The volunteers conduct Secchi readings and collect samples in a monitoring procedure that is similar to the Pollution Control Agency’s advanced monitoring.

The Met Council posts the test results in its electronic Environmental Management System, and the lakes are graded each year – A through F – based on their average readings for clarity and phosphorus and chlorophyll content.

Volunteers also do extensive environmental monitoring in wetlands in two metro counties: Dakota and Hennepin. Participating cities in the two counties pay the cost of the monitoring, and the MPCA provides training.

That project, called the Wetland Health Evaluation Program, sends volunteers into wetlands in June and July.

In June, the volunteers, working in teams of five to 20 people, set bottle traps and use dip nets to capture macro-invertebrate organisms such as dragonflies, mayflies, leeches, snails and beetles. They classify, inventory and record the populations they find.

In July, the volunteers re-visit the wetlands, mark off 100-square-meter plots and inventory the plant species there.

All the data on the invertebrates and the plants are converted into two indices of biological integrity. Each wetland that is monitored is rated on a three-point scale – poor, moderate, excellent – for both macro-invertebrates and vegetation.

In Dakota County, about 120 volunteers monitored 32 wetlands last year. In Hennepin, about 80 volunteers monitored 32 wetlands.

Helen Goeden of Apple Valley and her husband, Colin Brownlow, and their children have been volunteering in the program since about 2000. Goeden estimated she spent about 25 hours, spread across seven or eight evenings, working in the program last summer.

Goeden, a Minnesota Health Department research scientist who spends her working hours developing standards for ground water purity, said she chooses to devote part of her free time to the wetlands monitoring because it allows her to share her passion for the environment with her kids and because she thinks all types of water are under-appreciated.

“People treat water like it’s free, but it’s probably the most precious resource we have,” she said.

  • The MPCA’s Citizen Lake Monitoring Program has volunteers testing clarity on about one-tenth of Minnesota’s lakes. The program particularly needs volunteers who live in northern Minnesota or regularly visit cabins there. The program also seeks canoeists heading to the Boundary Waters. The MPCA has information and an application on its web site  Email the program coordinator at or call 800-657-3864.
  • You may be able to join one of the organizations, such as watershed districts and lake associations, receiving grants from the MPCA to monitor lakes and streams. Email Ron Schwartz at or call 651-757-2708. Or you can contact Courtney Kowalczak at Minnesota Waters. Email or call 218-343-2180.
  • If you live in the Twin Cities, you may be able to join one of the monitoring programs run by cities and watershed districts in partnership with the Metropolitan Council. Participation is limited by the budgets of the partners. Contact Brian Johnson at or call 651-602-8743.
  • There are many other water monitoring programs that use student and adult volunteers. A partial list, with links to some of the programs, is part of an MPCA report to the Legislature. The report, available on the MPCA web site, is titled “Citizen Monitoring of Surface Water Quality.”

MPCA proposes water-quality standards

March 25, 2009

Every three years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires states to review, update and — in many cases — strengthen their water-quality standards. Minnesota is in the middle of one of those reviews, and, for the first time, regulators are proposing setting a standard for phosphorus – a common pollutant that feeds algae growth – in rivers and streams.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency also is considering toughening its standard for nitrate in rivers and lakes by weighing, not just the pollutant’s impact on human health, but also its effect on fish and other organisms in the water. The agency is considering measuring turbidity in a new way and establishing a new standard for a chemical compound — nonylphenol – that is formed from chemicals once widely used in industrial detergents and pesticides and in the production of paper. The compound is banned in Europe, and the EPA is working to phase out its use in the U.S.

The MPCA has announced its intent to set or upgrade the standards for phosphorus, nitrate and nonylphenol, but numerical limits have not been made public. Once the limits are proposed, probably by late spring, citizens will have until fall to informally comment on them. The changes will be subject to a hearing before an administrative law judge next year.

The Freshwater Society interviewed Mark Tomasek, a supervisor in the agency’s water quality standards unit, about the rule changes. To read the question-and-answer interview from the Facets newsletter, go to the Freshwater Society web site or click here.