New Report Examines Low Impact Development Benefits & Costs

Creative rain garden downspout in SE Portland. Photo by Candace Stoughton, EMSWCD.

Clean water and vibrant communities go hand in hand. Urban areas are increasingly using green infrastructure to create multiple benefits for their communities. However, there have been questions whether strong stormwater standards could unintentionally deter urban redevelopment and shift development to environmentally damaging sprawl. Working together, Smart Growth America, American Rivers, River Network, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, and NRDC commissioned a report by ECONorthwest, Managing Stormwater in Redevelopment and Greenfield Development Projects Using Green Infrastructure. Highlighting several communities that are protecting clean water and fostering redevelopment, the findings show that clean water and urban redevelopment are compatible.

To read the report:
http://www.americanrivers.org/assets/pdfs/reports-and-publications/stormwater-green-report.pdf

To read the executive summary:
http://www.americanrivers.org/assets/pdfs/clean-water-/managing-stormwater-executive.pdf

To learn more, River Network will host a webinar on this work by ECONorthwest lead researchers on August 17th, 1:00 EST/10:00 PST – to reserve a spot: http://www.rivernetwork.org/forms/rsvp-river-network-webinars

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Catastrophic amphibian declines have multiple causes

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Amphibian declines around the world have forced many species to the brink of extinction, are much more complex than realized and have multiple causes that are still not fully understood, researchers conclude in a new report.

The search for a single causative factor is often missing the larger picture, they said, and approaches to address the crisis may fail if they don’t consider the totality of causes – or could even make things worse.

No one issue can explain all of the population declines that are occurring at an unprecedented rate, and much faster in amphibians than most other animals, the scientists conclude in a study just published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Continue reading

Secret Lives of Steelhead and Rainbow Trout

Steelhead trout swimming. Photo by Oregons State University

Steelhead trout. Photo by Oregon State University

When I was about 7 years old I had the thrill of catching my first fish. It wasn’t in a cold wild stream, nor a calm mountain lake.  Rather, it was after putting a rented fishing line into a stocked trout pond filled with rainbow trout. The fish probably weighed about 5 lbs. and was pretty tame by any standards.  Nonetheless, it was still thrilling to me to see the beautiful bright animal on the end of my line.  I’ll never forget it.

Pacific Northwest rainbow trout are even more special.  Like their larger cousins–the wild salmon–some of these beauties slip downstream and enter the Pacific Ocean, returning as massive, 30 lb. steelhead trout. And for many years, it was assumed that these ocean-running fish were their own species, separate from their more diminutive freshwater bound cousins.  But now we know better.

These cousins are actually a lot closer than we thought! Researchers at OSU have concluded that around 40% of a steelhead trout’s genes come from wild rainbow trout. This means that both populations are interbreeding. It also means that the populations are genetically fluid–or mixing at different points in their evolution. So a steelhead enters a stream, breeds with a local rainbow trout. Some of those offspring are returning to the sea as steelhead, while others may stay local. And the rainbow trout then act as a “fail-safe” for steelhead when the ocean conditions are poor (and hence the returning adults are fewer). This is not the same case with salmon, who must have success in fresh and saltwater environments throughout their life-cycles.

Furthermore, hatchery raised trout are only contributing a very small amount of genes to steelhead–its mostly a wild fish thing.

So consider that lowly rainbow trout as a contributor to its larger, perhaps more amazing  ocean-going cousins.  Evolution is in action in these fish.  Check out more on this topic at ScienceBlog.

Caring for those useful seasonal wetlands

Seasonal, sometimes isolated wetlands like this one in a pasture in the Miami River watershed of Tillamook County perform important functions that keep watersheds healthy, wildlife abundant, and water clean. Photo by Robert Emanuel, OSU.

Wetlands comprise a significant feature of the North Coast’s landscape. These include estuaries and freshwater ecosystems that are generally subject to inundation and wet soils all year. In some cases, a wetland can be seasonal too, though the definitions can become fuzzy. Tillamook and Clatsop counties are literally filled with indications of wetlands this time of year. You’ll see waterfowl, amphibians, and even some fish that manage to make it into them.  Insects, native mammals and a variety of terrestrial species depend upon seasonally flooded wetlands.

But more importantly from a watershed perspective, wetlands provide us an invaluable service. They are great at taking some of the “excess” runoff from intense storms and storing it temporarily, allowing it to either infiltrate into subsurface flow or aquifers, or by storing it as it evaporates. Furthermore, these temporary wetlands absorb nutrients and sediment before they can pollute our rivers or bays.

Unfortunately, wetlands have been replaced or filled in much of the United States.  In fact, most of the rivers that drain into our major estuaries were flooded forests or grasslands in which most vegetation was governed by seasonal floods.  The soils in much of the low elevation portions of Tillamook Bay basin, for example, would be classified as “hydric” or influenced by saturation were they not drained during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the hard work of pioneering farm families. In many places, you can still find the plants that prefer these soils. They are what wetland ecologists use as indicators of seasonal or permanent wetlands. An example is the small-fruited bullrush (Scirpus microcarpus) below.

Small fruited bullrush (Scirpus microcarpus) is a good indicator plant of wetland soils and conditions. Photo by Robert Emanuel, OSU.

After removal of riparian forests, the construction of dike and drainage systems have  permanently changed the soils and vegetation of former wetlands into the economically important working landscapes we recognize today.  But this doesn’t mean that the wetlands are gone. In fact, looking across pastures this time year, you can still see some seasonal wetlands where drainage is poor and water pools temporarily.  And practically speaking, most farmers would prefer to keep their livestock out of these wet soils.  In the meantime, wildlife use such as breeding amphibians or waterfowl will temporarily increase as the wet and warming spring continues.

What can you do to keep your temporary wetlands functioning as flood water storage and sinks for nutrients or sediment?

1. If your seasonal wetlands appear in active pastures, try to keep livestock use light once soils are dry enough to allow animals on to them.

2. If you are grazing in or near these seasonal wetlands, rotate your livestock on and off them depending on soil saturation. If soils are too wet–such as early in the spring–then keep animals out of them. Wet soils compact easily, leading to less infiltration during the wet season and more flooding for lands adjacent to the wetland.

3. Consider fencing some areas for exclusive wildlife and recreational use, particularly if the soils stay wet for most or all of the year.

4. Establishing or allowing woody vegetation such as willows to grow on the edges or within these more saturated areas will increase flood water retention and capture more nutrient or sediment-laden runoff.

5. Watch for weeds: several nasty invasive species prefer to live in wetlands, so watch for purple loosestrife, yellow flag iris, and common reed. Once found, eradicate them immediately by  an appropriate, aquatic registered herbicide or mechanical removal.  Keep up the eradication program until you don’t see the plants return. Remember that invasives can move quickly on muddy equipment, livestock, pets or clothing.  You can find out more about some of these invaders at the Oregon Invasive Species Hotline or visiting your local OSU Extension Service office.

6. Don’t try to drain your seasonal wetlands. These are important parts of the landscape and should be enjoyed as useful for healthy watersheds, abundant groundwater, and wildlife.

Even Water Has its Day: World Water Day 2010

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For almost a month, I’ve been out of my office on a combination of vacation and work travel, so I admit that this blog has seemed a neglected alleyway off of the information superhighway. Well, there is nothing like a highly publicized, United Nations sponsored “Day” (with a capital “D”) to bring H2ONCoast back on-line.

Since 1993, the UN and a host of government agencies (such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), non-governmental organizations (such as Water For Life), and corporate entities (such as PepsiCo) have been marking March 22nd as World Water Day. This year’s theme could not be more important: “Clean Water for a Healthy World.”  Today’s theme reminds us that water quantity is not the only issue–quality is another ever more vexing one. Every drop of pollution to the world’s freshwater supplies leads to less water available overall, and ultimately to greater water stress for the people of the planet.

This might seem pretty obvious, but consider this: of all of the world’s freshwater, less than 1% is immediately available for our use as fresh water. And that water is not distributed evenly; nearly 1 billion people worldwide live with constant scarcity.  For example, as much as 50% of China is now deep into three years of drought that has reduced drinking water supplies by as much as 75% in some communities.  For an excellent rundown of the last month’s news on water–and a fitting place to visit for World Water Day, I recommend Circle of Blue’s excellent water news roundup.  The sweep of politics, economics, science and technology behind the world of water that most of us take for granted is pretty stunning to me, at least.

Lastly, to commemorate World Water Day, I cannot recommend enough a look at the photos just published on-line by the National Geographic Society. To me, these truly symbolize the power, promise and peril of our watery–and changing–world. You can check them out at the Boston Globe’s on-line presence.  Their April 2010 edition will be devoted solely to water.

How-to guide can help gardeners restore natural water cycle

raingardensCORVALLIS, Ore. – A new guide on building sunken-bed rain gardens to collect and filter runoff water can help Northwest homeowners learn how to redesign home landscapes to help protect rivers and streams.

Rain gardens can help restore the natural water cycle, according to Rob Emanuel and Derek Godwin of Oregon State University Extension and Oregon Sea Grant Extension.

“As our landscapes became developed, rain falling on hard surfaces was directed to pipes, ditches and storm drains that route to streams or into stormwater sewer systems,” Emanuel said. “The result is too much water arriving in a short amount of time and carrying pollutants.”

Rain gardens work like a native forest, meadow or prairie.

“They capture and redirect stormwater from hard surfaces such as roof tops, driveways, parking lots and streets,” Godwin said. “Rain gardens help keep watersheds healthy by filtering out toxins before they pollute streams and lakes, and they can actually recharge aquifers by encouraging water to soak into the ground.”

The new 44-page illustrated guide, “Oregon Rain Garden Guide: Landscaping for Clean Water and Healthy Streams,” was written by Emanuel, Godwin and Candace Stoughton, who works for the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District. It can be found online at http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/sgpubs/onlinepubs.html or ordered by calling Sea Grant Communications at 541-737-4849. Copies are $4.95 each, plus shipping & handling.

This how-to publication provides information specific to Oregon’s conditions. No stormwater, garden or landscape expertise is necessary to use it. The step-by-step approach teaches how to determine where water flows across a homeowner’s property and the best place to put a rain garden to manage water flow across impervious areas.

The guide points out what local regulations need to be followed and how to determine slope, drainage rates and texture of the soil. Size of the rain garden and volume of water it can hold also are discussed, as are how to excavate, grade and build berms. The guide also recommends native perennials that can withstand both frequent wet and dry cycles.

The guidebook is a joint project of the OSU Extension Service and Oregon Sea Grant, East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Oregon Environmental Council. Partial funding for the guide was provided by a grant from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Note: Anyone who is local to the N. Coast and would like a courtesy copy can contact me at my office in Tillamook (see the contact page). Depending upon circumstances, I’ll either arrange a delivery or a pick up.

What color is your water?

colorofwaterIf anyone reading this remembers the seminal career book “What Color is Your Parachute”, you aren’t going to find that kind of advice here. But OSU colleague Todd Jarvis has certainly made an entertaining splash in the water-centric blogosphere with his new offering: Rainbow Water Coalition. It’s got lots of nifty information about gray water (that water which is used in the kitchen or bathroom and then reused in your landscape), along with posts on water harvesting, biosolids and a few other topics that he explores with lots of good humor. Check it out: rainbowwatercoalition.blogspot.com. I highly recommend reading his explanation for the different water colors on the left panel of the blog homepage! Congrats on an excellent color-coded contribution, Todd!

NOAA research highlights that pesticides and salmon don't mix

Wild chinook spawning in a N. Oregon coast river. Photo by Beth Lambert, OSU.

Wild chinook spawning in a N. Oregon coast river. Photo by Beth Lambert, OSU.

Water quality and salmon watchers have been following this research for a while but now it’s hot off the presses.  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Northwest Fisheries Science Center scientist David Baldwin just published his findings in the Ecological Society of America’s December issue of Ecological Applications.  The upshot: exposure to low levels of common pesticides used by farmers and city dwellers alike may hinder the growth and survival of wild salmon. Furthermore, toxicity increases when the chemicals are mixed together in the water.

Using existing data and a model for growth and reproduction, Baldwin and his colleagues found that  with only 4 days of exposure to pesticides such as diazinon and malathion can change the freshwater growth and, by extension, the subsequent survival of subyearling fish.

Improving water quality could improve recovery of salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act, the researchers said. What are the keys to success in this case?  Lowering pesticide use by implementing integrated pest management strategies (IPM), minimizing over application, and applying pesticides correctly to minimize drift into local waterways.

Check out these OSU Extension resources for:

Also, check out Jeff Jenkins’ narrated slide presentation on pesticides in water here.

U.S. Water Quality in the NYT: Toxic Waters

Water wonks are all atwitter (sorry–bad pun) about this relatively well-researched series on water quality just published in the New York Times (as of last week). Those of you who haven’t already seen it, check it out here: http://projects.nytimes.com/toxic-waters.

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My only small criticism of the accompanying interactive maps–especially the map focusing on discharge violations– is that the database from which it is drawn (the Environmental Protection Agency & Google) seems to have errors in it for locations on the N. Coast.  Despite that, one fun exercise is to look closely at the dense number of violations in NY state and then move over to Oregon–and then think about how good we have it here! On the other hand, we have our work cut out for ourselves to keep this state from looking like NY someday.

Kudos to the Gray Lady for their reporting on this relatively marginalized issue for mainstream media outlets, especially in a time when infrastructure and environmental quality are getting a second look in both the halls of power and on main streets nationwide.

Photo by R. Emanuel, OSU.

Photo by R. Emanuel, OSU.

Beach Bacteria Again in the News

Hug Point, OR. Photo by R. Emanuel

Hug Point, OR. Photo by R. Emanuel

Oregon beaches are known for their pristine beauty and open access. But as development increases along them, impacts are being felt. Oregon Live (the Oregonian) published the results of the annual Natural Resources Defense Council report “Testing the Waters 2009”.  Several Oregon beaches made the list of problematic areas because of beach bacteria counts that were deemed unhealthy by state and federal standards.  Below is a summary of the bad news.

Beach County Samples % above standard
Harris Curry 97 20
Nye Lincoln 97 7
Sunset Bay Coos 67 6
Rockaway Tillamook 55 5
Bandon Wayside Coos 38 5
Gold Curry 20 5
Cannon Clatsop 121 4
Mill Curry 78 4

The full Oregonian article can be found here. What can be done about beach bacteria? Here are some immediate steps:

1. Scoop the poop! Pet waste contributes to significant amounts of fecal coliform on public beaches.

2. Care for your beach-side septic system. Septic system leach fields should function properly and drain into the ground where soil microorganisms can process the waste products. Poorly functioning septics will often well up on the surface and can then flow into local streams or directly on to the beach. More information can found at the OSU Well Water Program site.

3. Manage stormwater to keep it from flowing into local streams and on to beaches.  As stormwater flows increase, beach bacteria counts tend to increase in porportion.  Consider reducing your home or business contribution to stormwater by installing a rain garden or other Low Impact Development technology.  More information can be found here.