Water cleanup program will forego grants, reorganize for efficiency

After much success in cleaning up streams in Kitsap County, pollution investigators for the Kitsap Public Health District plan to turn their backs on most state and federal grants and reorganize their approach to local waterways.

I’m talking about the folks who literally wrote the book on pollution identification and correction, or PIC, a strategic approach to tracking down bacterial contamination and eliminating the sources. A 2012 “Protocol Manual” (PDF 10.6 mb) and a 2014 “guidance document” (PDF 4.3 mb) — both developed by Kitsap’s pollution investigators — are now being used by local health departments throughout the state.

Category 1 = meets water-quality standard; Cat. 2 =
Category 1 = meets water-quality standard;
Cat. 2 = reasons for concern; Cat. 3 = lacking data;
Cat. 4A = TMDL plan; Cat. 4B = local plan;
Cat. 5 = “impaired.”

That’s why I was surprised to hear that the health district plans to change course for its pollution-cleanup program this fall — especially the part about reducing reliance on state and federal grants. For many Puget Sound jurisdictions, these grants provide the major sources of funding, if not the only funding for their PIC projects.

Kitsap County is fortunate to have a stormwater fee collected from rural property owners. For single-family homeowners, the fee will be $82 this year. The money goes into the Clean Water Kitsap program, which funds a multitude of clean-water projects — including street-sweeping, improving stormwater systems and restoring natural drainage.

The fee also supports the health district’s ongoing monitoring program, a monthly sampling of more than 50 Kitsap County streams, along with lakes and marine waters. The program has successfully reported improvements in various streams while providing early-warning signs for water-quality problems. The program was started in 1996.

None of that will change, according to Stuart Whitford, supervisor for the health district’s PIC Program. While state and federal grants have been helpful in tracking down pollution problems, most of the major problems have been identified, he said.

“We know what we have, and the patient has been stabilized,” he noted.

The problem with grants is that they require specific performance measures, which must be carefully documented and reported quarterly and in final reports.

“The administrative burden is heavy, and the state grants don’t fully pay for the overhead,” Stuart said. “Looking out into the future, we think state and federal grants will be reduced. We are already seeing that in the Legislature. So we are going to wean ourselves off the grants.”

Future efforts need to focus on identifying failing septic systems and sources of animal waste before they become a serious problem, Stuart told me. The process of doing that is firmly established in local plans. Work will continue, however, on nagging pollution problems that have not been resolved in some streams. And he’s not ruling out applying for grants for specific projects, if the need returns.

To increase efficiency in the ongoing program, health district staff will be reorganized so that each investigator will focus on one or more of the 10 watersheds in the county. In the process, the staff has been cut by one person. The assignments are being made now and will be fully implemented in the fall.

Kitsap's watersheds: 2) Burley-Minter; 3) Colvos Passage/Yukon Harbor; 4) Coulter/Rock creeks; 5) Dyes Inlet; 6) Foulweather Bluff/Appletree Cove; 7) Liberty/Miller bays; 8) Port Orchard/Burke Bay; 9) Sinclair Inlet; 10) Tahuya/Union rivers; 11) Upper Hood Canal.
Kitsap’s watersheds: 2) Burley-Minter; 3) Colvos Passage/Yukon Harbor; 4) Coulter/Rock creeks; 5) Dyes Inlet; 6) Foulweather Bluff/Appletree Cove; 7) Liberty/Miller bays; 8) Port Orchard/Burke Bay; 9) Sinclair Inlet; 10) Tahuya/Union rivers; 11) Upper Hood Canal.

“The stream monitoring will remain the same,” Stuart said. “But each person will be able to do more intensive monitoring in their home watershed.”

Having one investigator responsible for each watershed will allow that person to become even more intimately acquainted with the landscape and the water-quality issues unique to that area. Because of the extensive problems in Sinclair Inlet, two people will be assigned to that drainage area, which includes a good portion of South Kitsap and West Bremerton.

Dave Garland, regional water-quality supervisor for the Department of Ecology, said he, too, was surprised that the Kitsap Public Health District wishes to avoid grants, but he is confident that Stuart Whitford knows what he is doing.

“They are definitely leaders in the state and have been very successful in their approach,” he said. “We wish more health districts and surface water departments would be more like Kitsap. They are improving as they go.”

Garland said Kitsap County officials have done more than anyone to remove streams and waterways from the “impaired waters” list that Ecology compiles. The list — also known as 303(d) under the federal Clean Water Act — is part of Ecology’s “Water Quality Assessment,” now being finalized for submission to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2008, Kitsap County had 69 stream segments listed as “impaired.” As a result of work over six years, now only 7 are proposed for the upcoming list. Many streams were removed when they came under state cleanup plans for Dyes and Sinclair inlets, between Port Orchard and Silverdale, or in Liberty Bay near Poulsbo. Those state plans identify cleanup efforts to reduce pollution loading and bring the waters into conformance with state water-quality standards. They are called TMDLs, short for total maximum daily loads.

Because the Kitsap County PIC Program has been so successful, Ecology has allowed the local program to substitute for TMDL studies for many streams where stormwater outfalls are not an issue. Under the Clean Water Act, the local program comes under Category 4B (for local planning), as opposed to 4A (the state’s TMDL approach).

“No one has done a more thorough job,” Dave said of Kitsap’s effort. “It is very impressive to see that they have gone to TMDLs or to 4B. That does not mean the waters are clean, but it means they are under a plan.”

Of the remaining seven “impaired” water bodies, some should be removed because of Kitsap’s cleanup plans, Stuart said. They include Anderson Creek and Boyce Creek, which flow into Hood Canal, and Murden Creek on Bainbridge Island, which is undergoing a special study. Phinney Creek in Dyes Inlet is already part of a TMDL, and an area in southern Hood Canal should not be on the list because it meets water-quality standards, he said. Stuart hopes to get those changes made before the list is submitted to EPA this summer.

Currently, nothing is being done with regard to Eagle Harbor or Ravine Creek, two “impaired” water bodies on Bainbridge Island. The health district’s program does not extend to cities, although Bainbridge could contract with the health district for monitoring and cleanup.

Eagle Harbor could become subject to a TMDL study by the Department of Ecology, but it is not currently on the state’s priority list. As a result, work is not likely to begin for at least two years.

EPA clarifies federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands of the U.S.

The Environmental Protection Agency has finally completed a new rule that defines which waterways across the country fall under federal jurisdiction for clean-water permits.

The new Clean Water Rule is designed to protect important tributaries. Kitsap Sun photo
The new Clean Water Rule is designed to protect important tributaries. // Kitsap Sun photo

Enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act has been stuck in a state of confusion since 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers was overreaching by requiring permits for all sorts of waterways beyond the agency’s jurisdiction. For background, check out my Water Ways post from March 25, 2014, in which I describe the court’s interpretation of “waters of the U.S.” — the key phrase in the law.

The EPA requisitioned a scientific report about hydraulic connectivity, concluding that even small streams can affect downstream waters. The final language in the rule, designed to reduce judgment calls by federal regulators, says tributaries would come under federal jurisdiction only if capable of delivering significant pollution downstream. Such tributaries would need to have flowing water or related features — such as a streambed, bank or high-water mark.

The rule has worried farmers, who want to make sure the federal government does not try to regulate ditches designed for irrigation and drainage. Language in the final rule says ditches will not be regulated unless they are shown to be a remnant of a natural stream that has been diverted or altered.

Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for the Army, said the rule represents a “new era” for the Clean Water Act. As she stated in a news release:

“This rule responds to the public’s demand for greater clarity, consistency, and predictability when making jurisdictional determinations. The result will be better public service nationwide.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule is grounded in science and law. For downstream waters to be clean, upstream waters also must be clean, she said.

McCarthy said the language was revised significantly since the first proposal, taking into account more than a million public comments and discussions in 400 meetings across the country. As she told reporters in a telephone conference call:

“I think you will see that we have made substantial changes that basically made this rule clearer, crisper and did the job we were supposed to do. And I’m very proud of the work we have done here.”

McCarthy also told the reporters that climate change increases the importance of protecting water resources:

“Impacts from climate change — like more intense droughts, storms, fires and floods, not to mention sea-level rise — affect our water supplies. But healthy streams and wetlands can help protect communities by trapping flood waters, retaining moisture during drought, recharging groundwater supplies, filtering pollution and providing habitat for fish and wildlife.”

The new rule was applauded by many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club. Michael Brune, executive director, issued a statement:

“No longer will the Supreme Court’s confusing decisions on the issue allow dirty fossil fuel companies to threaten people’s health by dumping toxins into our lakes, rivers, and streams.”

Still, plenty of people contend that the EPA and Army Corps have contrived this new rule to continue their over-reach into streams that should be beyond federal jurisdiction. House Speaker John Boehner, R- Ohio, issued this statement in response to the EPA’s release of the new rule, sometimes called “WOTUS” for “waters of the U.S.”

“The administration’s decree to unilaterally expand federal authority is a raw and tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs. House members of both parties have joined more than 30 governors and government leaders to reject EPA’s disastrous WOTUS rule. These leaders know firsthand that the rule is being shoved down the throats of hardworking people with no input and places landowners, small businesses, farmers and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell.”

The House has already passed a bill, HB 1732, that would put the brakes on implementation of the new rule and send the EPA back to the drawing board for new language. As you could expect, the vote was mostly along party lines. If the Senate approves the bill, it is likely to be vetoed by the president.

The new rule is scheduled to go into effect 60 days from its publication in the Federal Register. For more details, visit the EPA’s website “Clean Water Rule.”

Orca-tracking project ends for this year when satellite tag falls off

This year’s research project tracing the movements of Southern Resident killer whales has ended after 96 days of tracking L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. // NOAA map

It was the longest period of tracking among the Southern Residents since the satellite-tagging studies began in 2012. The transmitter carried by L-84 lasted three days longer than a similar deployment on K-25 in 2013. The satellite tags, which are attached to the dorsal fins of the whales with darts, often detach after about a month.

The nice thing about this year’s study is that it covered the entire month of April and much of May, according to Brad Hanson, project supervisor for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. That tells the researchers something about the movement of the whales later in the year than previous deployments have revealed.

A satellite tag on J-27 (Blackberry) in late December extended the total tracking period to more than four months.

Looking back through the tracking maps since February, it is clear that L-84 and his entourage have spent much of their time moving up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. They seem to favor hanging out near the mouth of the Columbia River. On a few occasions, they have ventured into Northern California.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
The whales quickly returned to the U.S., ending the tracking project when the satellite tag fell off near the Columbia River. // NOAA map

On May 6, they took their only jaunt north into Canadian waters, reaching Estavan Point (halfway up Vancouver Island) two days later. They continued north another day, nearly reaching Brooks Peninsula (about three-fourths up Vancouver Island) on May 9. Then they headed back south, ending this year’s tracking program near the Columbia River.

Just before the satellite tag fell off, biologists from Cascadia Research Collective caught up with the whales on May 21 south of the Columbia River. The researchers noticed that the tag was loosening, and no further satellite signals were picked up.

The tracking studies, combined with efforts to collect samples of feces and fish remains, are designed to identify where the whales are spending their time in winter months and what they are finding to eat when salmon are more scarce. All of this could lead to a major expansion of their designated “critical habitat” and increased protections in coastal waters. As of now, critical habitat for the whales does not extend into the ocean, and NOAA has concluded that more information is needed before changing the designated protection area.

Within the next month or so, all three Southern Resident pods should head into Puget Sound, congregating in the San Juan Islands, as chinook salmon return to Canada’s Fraser River and other streams in the Salish Sea.

Meanwhile, J pod seems to be hanging out in waters around the San Juans, possibly waiting for the other pods to show up. Plenty of observers have been filing some great reports and related photos with Orca Network.

That link also includes recent reports of seal-eating transient killer whales that have traveled as far south as the Bremerton-Seattle area, perhaps farther. A few humpback whales have been sighted in northern Puget Sound.

Bremerton takes third place in national water-conservation challenge

Bremerton came in third this year in the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, a contest that encourages people to take a pledge to save water.

Bremerton 3

Third place is a very good showing, but not as good as the past two years, when Bremerton took the first-place spot in the nation. In 2012 — the first year of the contest — Bremerton came in third as well. That makes Bremerton the only city to place among the top three for its size in all four years of the contest, noted Kathleen Cahall, Bremerton’s water resources manager.

The two cities that exceeded Bremerton’s efforts this year were Ponway, Calif., in first place, and Hot Springs, Ark., in second. Each had more people, by percentage, who took the pledge than those lower on the list. Olympia, which is in the same population category as Bremerton (30,000 to 100,000), came in ninth, not a bad showing at all.

Seattle came in eighth among cities with populations of 600,000 and more. No other cities in Washington state made the list of the top cities.

If Bremerton area residents carry through on their pledges, they will save enough water to fill 24 Olympic-size swimming pools each year, according to a news release from the Wyland Foundation (PDF 360 kb), which sponsors the competition. That’s 15.6 million gallons.

Beyond the water savings, Bremerton area residents agreed to reduce their use of disposable water bottles by 46,424 bottles, according to the report. Other proposed actions could save 495,000 pounds of trash going to the landfills, 138,000 gallons of oil and 75 million pounds of carbon dioxide.

In all, residents from more than 3,900 cities signed more than 391,000 online pledges to save water. As in last year’s contest, residents from the winning cities will be entered into a drawing for more than $50,000 in prizes.

Kathleen Cahall and city employees Lisa Campbell, Teresa Sjostrom and Kelsie Donleycott did a good job getting the word out about this year’s challenge, and many local businesses provided information to their customers. As always, Mayor Patty Lent’s personal involvement and interest in water resources helped generate support for Bremerton’s high standing in the contest.

On a somewhat related topic, state and local water-quality officials have been spreading the word this month about using commercial car washes to recycle washwater from vehicles. The goal is to save water and prevent pollution from going into storm drains that flush into streams and bays.

The 3 million cars in the Central Puget Sound region can contribute nearly 10,000 gallons of gasoline, diesel and motor oil to waterways each year, along with 19,000 pounds of phosphorus and nitrogen, 2,900 pounds of ammonia and 1.4 million pounds of solid waste, according to a news release from the Puget Sound Car Wash Association.

School and other nonprofit groups can sell tickets to car washes — an alternative to holding car washes in parking lots that lack adequate controls for pollution. In Kitsap County, check out the Fundraiser Car Wash Program. One can also contact local car wash operators directly, or view a list of operators in the Puget Sound region that have joined the PSCWA program.

Amusing Monday: Historical photos reveal lifestyles of long ago

Old photographs can help us grasp human ways of life, long ago supplanted by new ways of thinking, acting and living in the modern world.

Photographs don’t judge; they just depict a truth about how things were at one point in time. At least we can hope for a certain honesty from pictures that predate Photoshop.

Annette Kellerman in her scandalous one-piece bathing suit.
Annette Kellerman in her scandalous one-piece bathing suit.

As they say, a photograph is worth a thousand words, but it still takes a few words to capture a deeper meaning in the images we see, especially when they are far removed in time and place from our own experiences.

I’ve been looking through collections of “historical” photographs compiled in various galleries on the Internet. I especially like the one posted by writer Justina Bakutyte on the “Bored Panda” website. She calls the gallery “40 Must-See Photos from the Past.”

I learned from these photos that a woman’s one-piece bathing suit was once a scandal that could get you arrested, while a two-piece suit was the norm. The first photo on this page shows the scandalous one-piece worn by Annette Kellerman in 1907.

It didn’t take much digging to learn how Kellerman became a competitive swimmer as a child, after she had difficulty walking. Kellerman later became a Vaudeville performer, developing her aquatic artistry as a water spirit.

Annie Edson Taylor with the barrel that transported her over Niagara Falls.
Annie Edson Taylor with the barrel that transported her over Niagara Falls.

Kellerman gained world attention when she was arrested for indecent exposure after spurning the cumbersome bathing dress, which was the norm at the time. Instead, she appeared on Revere Beach in Massachusetts in a one-piece, form-fitting bathing suit. Her action sparked other women to redefine their gender, according to an article in “The Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in 20th Century Australia.”

Another water-related photo shows Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The feat took place on Oct. 24, 1901, as shown in the photo.

According to History.com, one man had survived a jump from the falls on the Canadian side in 1829. But Taylor wanted to follow 72 years later with something that would gain even more attention. She strapped herself into five-foot-long pickle barrel padded on the inside. After a wild 20-minute ride, she came to shore battered and bruised. She soon became famous, but she never earned the fortune she had hoped for.

I was also intrigued by a photo of a young girl wearing a breathing apparatus while lying in a hospital bed. She is smiling as she gazes at a small pool next to the bed, in which four baby ducks are swimming. The caption says “Animals being used as part of medical therapy, 1956.”

Animals being used as part of medical therapy, 1956.
“Animals being used as part of medical therapy, 1956.”

An article by registered nurse Lorraine Ernst in “Annals of Longterm Care” says Florence Nightingale was one of the first people to recognize the therapeutic benefits of animals in medical treatment.

While attending Washington State University in 1975, I had the honor of interviewing the late Dr. Leo Bustad, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine. We talked about the important role that animals can play in the recovery of patients and how pets can lead to a healthier physical and mental condition among the aging.

Two years later, Bustad co-founded the Delta Society, which studied and promoted the human-animal bond. In 1989, the society developed a certification program, which allows animals to visit hospitals and nursing homes to aid patients with their companionship.

As I noted earlier, every picture has a story. I may never find out the identity of the little girl or the benefits of her therapy, but it is interesting to uncover the connections. For me, Lorraine Ernst’s article added information about new discoveries in animal-assisted therapy and what Dr. Bustad helped to bring about.

Other galleries of historical photos can be found on the Flickr page of the U.S. National Archives. One gallery I found especially interesting was “History Through the Camera Lens,” featuring photos of renowned photographers Dorothea Lange, Lewis Hine and Edward Steichen.

Another worthwhile gallery, posted on the Buzzlamp website, is made up of 116 historical photos and documents, including a letter written to Adolph Hitler from Mahatma Gandhi in 1939. While this gallery is not especially focused on a war theme, many of the images are not for faint of heart.

Sea-floor mining brings deep concerns about environmental effects

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a a new deep-sea observatory being built off the West Coast. I noted that Washington and Oregon researchers are thrilled to monitor the eruption of an underwater volcano called Axial Seamount.

Smoker

Soon, new equipment and a fiber optics cable will allow these researchers to widely share discoveries involving the unique geology and unusual plants and animals living at the bottom of the ocean. People will be able to watch in real time via the Internet. See Water Ways, May 6.

Now, a new lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity has me thinking about the commercial value of the deep ocean. Can society safely mine the seafloor for valuable minerals used in a wide variety of consumer products? Can huge mining equipment operate in water two or three miles deep without destroying the unique ecosystem at the bottom of the ocean?

For decades, researchers have been aware of high concentrations of minerals lying on and beneath the sea floor. But nobody was worried about the environmental damage of mining, because the costs of commercial recovery were too great.

That has been changing, however, thanks to the combination of five factors, according to a 2013 study “Towards the Development of a Regulatory Framework for Polymetallic Nodule Exploitation” (PDF 1.1 mb). They are:

  1. A dramatic increase in demand for metal;
  2. An equally dramatic rise in metal prices;
  3. The high profitability of mining sector companies;
  4. A decline in the tonnage and grade of land-based nickel, copper and cobalt sulphide deposits; and
  5. Technological advances in deep seabed mining and processing.

The new technology involves giant robotic machines that either excavate the seafloor or scoop up clumps of polymetallic nodules. Over the past few years, 26 permits have been issued to mining corporations, mostly for operations in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and Mexico.

“Deep-sea mining is an emerging threat to our oceans that has the potential to irreparably harm underwater ecosystems before we even have a chance to fully study its impacts,” declares the Center for Biological Diversity, adding:

“Life on the deep ocean floor is still a mysterious realm that scientists have only just begun to fully understand and inventory… What mountaintop-removal coal mining has done in Appalachia, deep-sea mining has the potential to do in the Pacific Ocean, affecting the ecosystem and food web in ways that scientists say they don’t yet fully understand.”

Last week, the environmental group filed a lawsuit (PDF 162 kb) against the U.S. government for issuing exploratory permits without the requisite environmental studies. Said Emily Jeffers, the attorney who filed the case:

“Deep-sea mining should be stopped, and this lawsuit aims to compel the government to look at the environmental risks before it leaps into this new frontier. We need to protect the ocean wildlife and habitat, and the United States should provide leadership for other nations to follow before more projects get underway.”

The lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C., challenges two exploratory permits issued to OMCO Seabed Exploration, LLC, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor. The original permits for work in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone expired in 2004. Jeffers says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should have considered the environmental effects of the mining plan before renewing the permits in 2012.

Said Jeffers in a news release:

“If we aren’t careful, this new gold rush could do irreparable harm to the basic building blocks of life. The federal government has a moral duty, as well as a legal one, to understand the full environmental impacts before the mining industry scrapes away our deep-sea resources.”

Besides tearing up the sea floor, mining operations can stir up sediment, which can smother organisms living on the bottom, according to the lawsuit. Cloudy water can reduce productivity, and clouds of sediment may contain toxic metals that reduce reproductive success of sea life. Light and noise from ships and vessels can disrupt seabird behavior and affect whales and other marine mammals, the suit claims.

Other permits have been issued to various countries in Europe and Asia by the International Seabed Authority, which hopes to approve environmental standards by the end of next year. The U.S. is not subject to those rules and cannot demand compliance from other countries, because the U.S. has not ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty that establishes the International Seabed Authority.

Map

Amusing Monday: If you fish long enough, you are bound to get a little wet

Bill Dance, who learned how to fish from his grandfather on Mulberry Creek near Lynchburg, Tenn., is one of the most recognized sport fishermen in the country.

With 23 national bass titles to his name, Bill Dance retired from competitive fishing in 1980 at the age of 39. His television show “Bill Dance Outdoors” has been on the air since 1968, with more than 2000 programs to date. It’s an amazing career, and it appears this man is still out on the water with his fishing pole.

With all the fishing Bill has done through the years, it is inevitable that he has had a few misshaps along the way. Six years ago in this blog, I rounded up some of the amusing moments this fisherman has lived through. Since then, Bill has enhanced his YouTube channel and compiled five “blooper videos” that show the variety of ways that Bill, his friends and his camera operators have managed to get wet.

I’ve posted my favorite compilation video from the Bill Dance collection on this page. Four other humorous videos can be found under “Bloopers, Goof Ups & Funny Moments” on the “Bill Dance Fishing” channel on YouTube.

We know pollen helps seed the trees — but what about clouds?

It was the clever headline that caught my attention: “April flowers bring May showers?”

But it was the latest research about pollen from the University of Michigan and Texas A&M that got me digging a little deeper and eventually arriving at the subject of clouds and climate change.

The bottom line is a possibility that pollen from trees and flowers can break apart during a rainstorm. The broken pieces can then float up into the air and seed the clouds for the next rainstorm.

Allison Steiner, associate professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences at U-M, began exploring how pollen might seed the clouds after sweeping a layer of pollen off her front porch one morning and wondering what happens after the pollen drifts into the air.

Atmospheric scientists have never paid much attention to pollen. It is generally believed that pollen grains are too large to seed the clouds. Instead, most attention has been focused on man-made aerosols, such as particles from a coal-fired power plant. High in the atmosphere, the particles can encourage moisture in the air to condense, the initial step in the formation of rain.

But people with allergies may recognize that their symptoms grow worse after a rainstorm when the air begins to dry out. As Steiner explains in an M-I news release:

“When we were looking in the allergy literature we discovered that it’s pretty well known that pollen can break up into these tiny pieces and trigger an allergic response. What we found is when pollen gets wet, it can rupture very easily in seconds or minutes and make lots of smaller particles that can act as cloud condensation nuclei, or collectors for water.”

In a laboratory at Texas A&M, Sarah Brooks, a professor in atmospheric sciences, soaked six different kinds of pollen in water, then sprayed the moist fragments into a cloud-making chamber. Brooks and her colleagues found that three fragment sizes — 50, 100 and 200 nanometers — quickly collected water vapor to form cloud droplets, which are 10 times bigger than the particles. (It takes about 6 million nanometers to equal a quarter of an inch, so we’re talking about very small particles.) Brooks noted in a Texas A&M news release:

“Scientists are just beginning to identify the types of biological aerosols which are important for cloud formation. Our results identify pollen as a major contributor to cloud formation. Specifically, our results suggest that increased pollen could lead to the formation of thicker clouds and longer cloud lifetimes.”

The effect of cloud formation on global warming may be the most important mystery in climate science today, according to Jasper Kirby, a particle physicist who is leading a team of atmospheric scientists from 15 European and U.S. institutions. Consequently, the effect of aerosols on cloud formation must be equally important.

Clouds are known to cool the planet by reflecting sunlight back out to space, but they can also contain heat at night, so cloud formation plays a critical role in determining the rate of global warming. To better predict global warming, one has to better understand when and how clouds are formed at a “very fundamental level,” Kirby told reporter Rae Ellen Bichell in “Yale Environment 360.” Kirby added:

“By fundamental, I mean we have to understand what the gases are, the vapors, that are responsible for forming these little particles. And secondly, we have to understand exactly how quickly they react with each other and how they form the aerosol particles which … constitute the seeds for cloud droplets. And this process is responsible for half the cloud droplets in the atmosphere. It’s a very, very important process, but it’s very poorly understood.”

In the upper atmosphere, aerosols can directly reflect sunlight back into space. These include man-made aerosols from industrial pollution as well as natural aerosols, such as volcanic eruptions and desert dust and now possibly pollen. Check out NASA’s webpage on “Atmospheric Aerosols.”

Steiner, who is doing the pollen experiments, said understanding natural aerosols is critical to understanding climate change:

“What happens in clouds is one of the big uncertainties in climate models right now. One of the things we’re trying to understand is how do natural aerosols influence cloud cover and precipitation under present day and future climate.

“It’s possible that when trees emit pollen, that makes clouds, which in turn makes rain and that feeds back into the trees and can influence the whole growth cycle of the plant.”

For people more interested in the allergy aspects of this story, I found a website called pollen.com, which identifies a variety of ways that weather can affect pollen and thus allergies:

  1. A mild winter can lead to early plant growth and an early allergy season,
  2. A late freeze can delay pollen production in trees, reducing the risk of an allergic reaction,
  3. Dry, windy weather increases the spread of pollen and worsens allergy symptoms,
  4. Rain can wash pollen out of the air, reducing the risk of exposure to pollen, but
  5. Rain can also increase the growth of plants, especially grasses, increasing the pollen levels.

For a research report about how rain can break up pollen into smaller particles to trigger allergies, check out “Thunderstorm-associated asthma in Atlanta, Georgia” by Andrew Grundstein et al.

Amusing Monday: Tiny fish teaches researchers about attachment

An odd little fish that attaches tightly to rocks could play a role in developing underwater suction cups that won’t let go even under the harshest conditions. I found the video amusing, but there is a serious side to this discussion as well.

University of Washington scientists studying biological attachment say the northern clingfish can hold up to 150 times its own weight, thanks to a growth on its underside that works like a suction cup. Unlike a standard suction cup, however, the clingfish’s sucker works even better on rough surfaces. The researchers are just beginning to imagine the possible applications for humans.

One idea is to develop a super suction cup that could attach a satellite transmitter to a killer whale or other marine mammal. The current method for long-term attachment is to use a sharp barb to penetrate the skin. Standard suction cups are commonly used for short-term monitoring with small instruments, but they tend to fall off quickly.

Suction-cup attachments could be developed for laparoscopic surgery, allowing doctors to move organs around without risk of puncture. Other applications could be anywhere a temporary tight bond is needed under wet conditions, such as the wall of a shower or swimming pool.

“Northern clingfish’s attachment abilities are very desirable for technical applications, and this fish can provide an excellent model for strongly and reversibly attaching to rough, fouled surfaces in wet environments,” said Petra Ditsche, a postdoctoral researcher working with Adam Summers and his team at Friday Harbor Labs in the San Juan Islands. (See UW news release.)

In April, Ditsche found an interested audience at a meeting of the Adhesive and Sealant Council, which studies, promotes and markets various forms of attachment.

So how are clingfish able to hold on so tightly? The secret lies in the tiny hairlike structures called microvilli formed in layers around the suction-cup growth on their bellies. The microvilli help form a tight seal on rough surfaces, and they flex to maintain the seal even when wiggled back and forth. A standard rubber or plastic suction cup can rapidly lose its seal from distortion or movement, which allows air or water to seep underneath.

For a detailed discussion about biological attachment of all sorts, check out a paper by Ditsche and Summers called “Aquatic versus terrestrial attachment: Water makes a difference” in the Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology.

About 110 species of clingfish have been identified, and the northern clingfish is found from Mexico to Alaska.

Call it ‘nonpoint’ or ‘stormwater;’ this problem is serious

As far as I know, nobody has come up with a good name for the type of pollution that gets picked up by rainwater that flows across the ground, carrying contaminants into ditches, streams and eventually large waterways, such as Puget Sound.

Cleaning out storm drains is the last line of defense before pollution from the roads gets into public waterways. Kitsap Sun photo
Cleaning out storm drains is the last line of defense before pollution from the roads gets into public waterways. // Kitsap Sun photo

“Stormwater pollution” is a term I have frequently used. But Sheida Sahandy, executive director of Puget Sound Partnership, made a good point when I interviewed her last summer about the perils of stormwater.

“I don’t really like calling it ‘stormwater,’” Sheida told me. “It doesn’t have much to do with storms. It has to do with people. We’re talking about our dirt, our detritus, our filth. Everyone has it, and we all dump it into the sound to one degree or another.”

Stormwater is relatively pure when it falls from the sky as rain. It only gets dirty because the runoff picks up dirt, toxic chemicals, bacteria and other wastes, mostly left behind by people.

“Stormwater has gotten a bad wrap,” Sheida said. “It’s really what we’ve done to the poor thing that makes it evil.”

To read more about this discussion, check out my series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” and the story “Stormwater solutions key in fight for Puget Sound.”

Officially, the Environmental Protection Agency and Washington Department of Ecology tend to call it “nonpoint source pollution.” It’s a term that tells us what this kind of pollution is not. Specifically, it is not pollution coming from a point source, such as a pipe. But “nonpoint” does not describe what it really is.

Technically, nonpoint pollution is more than stormwater. It includes waterborne sources such as marinas and atmospheric deposition from air pollution. Taken together, this form of pollution remains the most serious threat facing those who would clean up and protect Puget Sound.

We need a new term like “mess-left-behind pollution,” because it generally results from someone leaving some kind of contamination on the ground — such as animal waste or leaking motor oil — or failing to anticipate future problems — such as those caused by toxic flame retardants in furniture or mercury from a multitude of coal-fired power plants.

A new plan by Ecology to deal with this type of pollution is now under review. It is called “Washington’s Water Quality Management Plan to Control Nonpoint Sources of Pollution” (PDF 10.6 mb).

The general categories described in the plan are:

  • Agriculture, including livestock wastes; fertilizers and pesticides; and erosion from grazing practices and over-cultivation of fields.
  • Atmospheric deposition, including emissions from automobile, industrial and agricultural sources and backyard burning of trash.
  • Forest practices, including turbidity from erosion caused by loss of vegetation and road-building, as well as pesticides and fertilizers from forest applications.
  • Habitat alteration/hydromodification, including increased temperature from loss of vegetation or water impoundment; turbidity from erosion caused by shoreline alteration; and increased bacteria and chemical concentrations from loss of streamside vegetation.
  • Recreation, including sewage, paint and solvents from boats.
  • Urban/suburban areas, including bacteria from failing septic systems, pet wastes and urban wildlife; erosion from construction and landscaping; lawn chemicals; road runoff; chemical spills; and increased stream temperature from loss of vegetation.

The plan lists a variety of objectives and strategies for reducing the impacts of nonpoint pollution. Among them are these ideas:

  • Complete 265 watershed cleanup plans by 2020, focusing on at least eight priority watersheds each year.
  • Respond to all complaints about water quality by confirming or resolving problems.
  • Provide grants and loans for projects designed to bring a waterway into compliance with state and federal water-quality standards.
  • Support local pollution identification and correction programs to track down pollution sources and eliminate the problems. (Kitsap County was identified as a model program.)
  • Support water-quality trading programs that allow water cleanup efforts in lieu of meeting increased requirements for industrial and sewage discharges.
  • Increase education efforts to help people understand how to reduce nonpoint pollution.
  • Coordinate with organized groups and government agencies, including tribes.
  • Continue existing monitoring programs and increase monitoring to measure the effectiveness of water-quality-improvement projects.
  • Develop a statewide tracking program for cleanup efforts with an annual goal of reducing nitrogen by 40,000 pounds, phosphorus by 14,000 pounds and sediment by 8,000 pounds.

Public comments will be taken on the plan until June 5. Three remaining public meetings are scheduled before then. For information, check out Ecology’s webpage, “Washington State’s Plan to Control Nonpoint Pollution.”