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Ecological Health of U.S. Streams

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Bill Wilber:  Good morning. My name's Bill Wilber. I'm the chief of the US Geological Survey's National Water Quality Assessment Program. It's indeed my pleasure to welcome to you to this briefing that we'll present findings on the ecological health of the nation's streams. This is actually the 31st briefing on Capitol Hill that the NAWQA program has given with many of our cosponsors, who I'll introduce in a few moments. In the way of some background, in 1986 the Congress asked the USGS to develop a national water quality assessment program that would really do three things, provide nationally consistent descriptions on current conditions for the nation's current water quality conditions, for the nation's streams and major aquifers. It would be determine how those conditions are changing over the course of time.
Perhaps, most importantly, it would provide information on the major factors that affect water quality conditions and an understanding of why the conditions are changing with time. One of the things that Congress required or specified was that we direct our information to policymakers and resources managers, provide them with the information that will assist them in making sound decisions to protect the nation's water resources. This 31st briefing is really important to us, it's one of the ways that we get our information out to our stakeholders and particularly to many of you who are involved in resource management and policy decision making.
We typically give one or two of these briefings. We've actually been doing these since the early 1990s. Previous briefings have focused on water quality conditions and their impacts on water quality, a number of the contaminant groups that we focused on included pesticides, nutrients, volatile organic compounds. Last fall we had a briefing on the affect of urbanization on the nation's streams.
Then, about a year or so ago, we had a briefing that basically released information on an online interactive decision support tool that provided information and capability for water resource managers to link information on sources, both natural and manmade, for nutrients and how they're transported downstream to the large estuaries such as the Chesapeake Bay or the Great Lakes or even the Gulf of Mexico.
Today's briefing is about the importance and influence of changes in stream flow, selected contaminants and the health of aquatic life in the nation's streams. I'm going to go ahead and introduce, or thank, a lot of our cosponsors for this briefing. We expect to see, very shortly, Congresswoman Donna Edwards from Maryland. We want to, of course, thank Benjamin Cardin, Senator Cardin from Maryland, Congressman Jim Moran from Virginia.
Then, some of our cosponsors that have been with us for quite a while, the Water Environment Federation has actually been cosponsoring these briefings since 1999. More recently, the Northeast Midwest Institute...thank them all for their support and again for making these briefings possible. I'm going to go ahead and introduce our first speaker, Daren Carlisle. Actually, before I do that, let me give you a few words on the format and arrangement for today's briefing.
We've got three speakers this morning. Our main speaker is Dr. Daren Carlisle. Daren's going to give a summary of the major findings from the NAWQA ecological studies and provide the broad conclusions and implications we can draw from these findings. Following Daren, we're going to have speakers from Tennessee and California, two states who have similar goals and needs but very, very different climatic and hydrologic settings.
They'll tell you about the science and understanding provided by NAWQA, that NAWQA contributes to their activities and responsibilities and how they're building on this work to protect water and aquaticlife resources. Now I noticed we've got Congresswoman Donna Edwards from Maryland, who's very graciously taken her time this morning to spend a few moments with us and say a few remarks. Congresswoman Edwards.
Congresswoman Donna Edwards:  Thank you.
Bill:  Thank you.
Congresswoman Edwards:  I'll let you get right on with the panel. I just stepped up here and said, I want a copy of the report. I would love to stay for the findings, but I want the report. I'm Congresswoman Donna Edwards. I represent the fourth Congressional district of Maryland, which is just outside of the city here in Prince Georges and Anne Arundel County. My district actually stretches from the Potomac River, all the way to the border of the Chesapeake Bay. I get this part of our Chesapeake Bay watershed. Of course, we care and think about water quality all the time. Also just happen to be from Prince Georges County, where we've had our own little water experiences over the last couple of days, and that's actually really important to the way that you think about what we're learning about water quality and whether we're developing the kinds of water infrastructure that actually protects our groundwater supplies.
Thank you very much for what you do and for the information that you provide. Welcome to the Congress. I know Senator Cardin was so gracious to be able to make sure that you could meet here. You know in Maryland, we have this one great phrase called, "Team Maryland." It's because all of us care particularly about water and water quality because we care so much about our bay, which provides so much tremendous resource to our economy in this fivestate watershed.
What it has meant to make sure that we understand what's going on with our water quality and the things that we're doing in our metropolitan areas that impact our water systems, like the Chesapeake Bay. That is true across the country. I've had the privilege of being on our Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and one of our subcommittees of course is our Subcommittee on Water Resources, where we're looking at these questions of water quality, and to a larger extent the way it is that as humans we have an impact on that quality.
I think that our metropolitan area, the Washington region...I live right on the Potomac, and when I'm walking along sometimes, when somebody frees up a moment, walking along the edges and I see the water bottles. You can see the film from the cars that are driving across our Wilson Bridge here. I know that every time that happens, it has a tremendous impact not just on our groundwater systems here in the metropolitan region but all through the Chesapeake Bay watershed and has a tremendous impact on the ecosystems of that watershed.
In addition to being concerned about water quality because all of us want to know that when we turn on the faucet and put that glass under there and we drink it that it's not going to do bad stuff to us. But we also know that a large part of our economy in the United States depends on us being able to protect the quality of our water systems. Thank you very much for your research. I'm actually really looking forward to the report.
I would hope, and I don't know that it's always true, but I think as a member of Congress what we want is for agencies like the USGS and all of your partners to do the kind of research that informs smart public policy. You can't do the public policy work. You can make recommendations to us, but we have to have the data that's really important, the information that we need, the knowledge base over a period of time, over decades so that we really understand what's going on in our larger environment so that we can make smart public policy choices.
That is true on our water resources committee. Are we going to make decisions about things that are important to me like using green infrastructure techniques to protect our water supply? Are we going to make decisions about investments in maintenance of that infrastructure to protect our water supply? Are we going to make the kinds of investments in energy technologies that ultimately have a tremendous impact on not just the quality of our water but the quality of our life?
Thank you very much for what you do. I'm not going to keep you longer because you have the experts here who are way smarter than practically any member of Congress and good for you. Welcome to the capitol. Enjoy your morning in the briefing this morning. I'm looking forward to seeing the results. Thank you.
[applause]
Bill:  [indecipherable 12:03] with Congressman Edwards. Thank you very much for your time and for your remarks. Again, in the way of just background to set the stage for this briefing. We've got three panelists this morning. We're going to start out in a moment with our primary speaker, Daren Carlisle and be followed by David McKinney and Dr. Peter Ode. The format of the briefing, each of the speakers will deliver some short presentation. That will be followed by an opportunity for one or two clarifying questions, if there are any. But then at the end of the briefing we'll provide an open time for any questions or discussion. The whole idea is that we can keep the presentations moving so those people that may have to leave early can do so.
Again, I want to introduce Daren Carlisle. Daren is the lead ecologist for the US Geological Survey's NAWQA program. For the past five years, Daren has directed the national synthesis of information for NAWQA on hydrology, water, and sediment chemistry and stream ecology.
It's culminated in the report that is the basis for this briefing this morning. Daren received his master's degree from Utah State in aquatic ecology and his PhD in ecotoxicology from Colorado State University. It's my great pleasure to introduce my colleague, Daren Carlisle.
Daren Carlisle:  Thank you, Bill. It's a pleasure to be here this morning to tell you a little bit about our work. We don't often realize it, but streams and rivers, in some way, are a part of all of our lives. They provide a bounty of natural and cultural resources, socioeconomic business services like drinking water and recreational opportunities. For example, in the United States the sports fishing industry is a $120 billion a year business employing upwards of a million people. Streams and rivers also provide homes, of course, for countless aquatic and terrestrial species that depend on the rivers. Now, these ecosystems provide these services only if they remain healthy and resilient.
Unfortunately, the health of our nation's streams and rivers is increasingly at risk. In fact, a recent survey by the Environmental Protection Agency reported that more than half of the nation's streams and river miles are in some way in impaired ecological health. Now what that means is that poor water quality is limiting the potential of these streams and rivers to provide the benefits to society that we can get from them.
If we're going to solve this problem, if we're going to work on this problem what we really need to understand is what are the factors that cause poor stream health and how are those factors related to the things we do, to our actions and activities? What I'd like to tell you a little bit today is how we can better understand what factors cause poor health and really how to diagnose what might be the problem, and also, how those factors actually influence the quality of life.
We do know that water quality and stream health is influenced by land and water management practices of the local scale, at the watershed scale, but even regional, national, and global scales. Indeed, the change in land and water use in the United States over the last century has been dramatic. Large areas have been urbanized or put into suburban lands as people move into cities to seek opportunities. Currently 80 percent of our population in this country resides in major metropolitan areas, so watch how these urban areas, they're in red and pink, have expanded over the last 100 years.
Now, the 20th century was an impressive era of water resource management and development. We captured the flows of our streams and rivers to provide flood control, hydropower, water supplies, and recreational opportunities for our population. This is measure of reservoir storage in watersheds from 1900 to 2000. You can see how that's increased dramatically.
Currently there's somewhere around 80,000 dams on our nation's waterways. These dams are of all shapes and sizes. They impact hydrologically about an estimated 20 percent of the nation's river miles. Now this development in water resources and the distribution of water really helped increase the productivity of our farms and agricultural systems.
Along with that, we see a very large increase in the chemicals we apply to our farms through time. In this case, this example is nitrogen fertilizer application. In the wake of these drastic changes in land and water just in the last century, it's tempting to ask, "Is it even possible to have healthy streams and rivers, but also use our land and our water for other needs, like agricultural production or development of suburban and urban places for population?"
Well, NAWQA findings suggest that we can, using aquatic species as indicators of ecological health. We found that in primarily agricultural and urban watersheds, nearly one in five, or seventeen percent of the streams that we assessed, have relatively good ecological health. Now, this finding is important because it does show that we can develop the land and the water resources, but also reap the benefits from healthy rivers and streams at the same time.
Now, of course, there's the other part of that pie there. In these same agricultural and urban settings, more than 80 percent of the streams that we assessed had at least some level of decline or impaired ecological health, sorry. This implies that the human influence on stream health and water quality is pervasive in these agricultural and urban settings.
What is it about land use that influences stream health in negative ways? If we understand what those factors are, how do we use that to make local policy decisions and smart policy management decisions? Well, it turns out that making this connection between what we do on the land and what we see in the stream is complicated by the fact that many of these factors that cause poor stream health are highly changing, rapidly changing through time, they're very hard, sometimes, to measure.
For example, the chemical concentrations you see in a stream today may be very different if you sampled the same stream six months from now. To show you an example with real data, here's two graphs of daily stream flow in the Des Moines river in Iowa in two different years. This is the entire year of 2009 and 2012 and yes, they are drawn to the same scale. You can see there's very dramatic differences just in the stream flow through time and the hydrology of those different years.
Well, on top of that, here's the concentration of Atrazine, which is a pesticide applied for weed control. You can see that the concentrations of Atrazine vary dramatically through the year. They're typically higher in the summer months, which are these green, the green rectangles there. But the concentrations vary, dramatically, from one year to the next.
What this variability means is that some of the stressors, some of the factors that harm stream health really can only be understood with intensive monitoring, intensive chemical monitoring and physical monitoring. It also shows that if we're going to deal with and understand the nation's water quality issues, we really need to use a variety of scientific tools and a variety of monitoring approaches and designs. The one size fits all approach is not going to be adequate.
For our assessment, an NAWQA chose what we might say is a multifaceted design where we selected sites to sample based on knowing that they had some influence from specific land uses. That's a targeted design. We focused on agricultural and urban areas because most of the nation's streams and rivers have at least some agricultural or urban land use in their watersheds. These land uses are pervasive across the country.
We collected data in over 200,000 streams and rivers across the country in 50 different river basins. Many of these streams, we sampled very intensively for many chemical measurements. This is just a small flavor we hear on the left. In many of these streams we also monitored, continuously, things like stream flow. Stream flow was actually measured every 15 minutes in many of these systems.
How, then, do we measure stream health? Well, an important part of a healthy ecosystem is really its ability to support life, in particular, native species. Well, biological communities are groups of organisms that can be easily collected and identified and they give us a clue, an important clue, about the ability of that ecosystem to support life.
Well, in streams, the dominant biological communities are algae, macroinvertebrates, which is just a big name for bugs and snails and worms, and then fish communities. What we do is we go to these streams and we make collections of the organisms. We look at the species that we find there and if the kinds of species that we see there are substantially less than that stream's nature potential, we conclude that there's been some human alteration of that community.
We often say it's in poor condition. Well, how do we know what is this natural potential. Well, the natural potential is really the kinds of species we would expect to find in a stream under minimal human influences. Well, how do we know what that is? How we get that information is by monitoring streams and rivers in watersheds with the least amount of human influence in all different regions of the country.
That gives us a basis for making these statements. That requires a lot of collaboration with our partners over at EPA Office of Water, other federal and many state agencies who also spend resources monitoring these less disturbed watersheds. To sum up, then, the presence of an altered biological community indicates that the stream has received some insult from human activities and, therefore, the stream health has declined.
Well, there's a lot of different factors that contribute to reduce stream health across the country. I showed you a list of things we measured just a moment ago. Those are all potential factors and there's many more. In the interest of time this morning, what I'd like to do is just focus on three that are widely important and I think have a high relevance to a lot of people. Those three factors are modified flows or the modification of natural stream flows, excessive nutrients, and pesticides.
Let's talk about flow. Of course, flowing water is the very essence of a stream, so the natural patterns of flow really are crucial to maintaining the health of a stream. Well, in nearly 90 percent of the streams where we assess flow, we found some human cause modification to these natural patterns of flow.
Now, there's many ways to measure or to characterize what the natural flow of the stream is. You can think about measuring the magnitude of the flow or the seasonality of the flow, or the duration of different flows. But they're all really impacted by, modified by humans in a couple of basic ways. I'll show you one example.
Every stream has a period every year where the flows are at their lowest. We call that the base flow period. These flows will fluctuate from year to year because there are differences in precipitation from year to year. Well, many aquatic species rely on this period of low flow to complete their life cycles.
For example, this is a period when many small fish are just hatching out of their eggs and beginning their lives. Now, we can make flows higher than natural by doing things like releasing the water from a reservoir down the river in a normally dry period. Or by discharging into a river effluent from a treatment facility, to just name a couple of examples.
We can also create more than natural base flows by doing things like excessive pumping of groundwater or diverting water from the stream. We found different patterns of flow modification across the country. To continue this example with base flow, I'll show you what that looked like. 44 percent of the streams that we assessed had higher than natural base flows.
These were especially common in the Midwest and in the Eastern United States where we have a lot of streams that are influenced by flood control structures and intensive agriculture and urbanization. On the other hand, about a third of the streams that we assess had lower than natural base flows and these occurred throughout the country, but were especially prominent out west where we have a lot of groundwater pumping and a lot of diversions for a variety of purposes.
Now, in addition to base flow, which I just showed you, we found that high flows in streams were less than natural at about half the streams that we assessed and the variability of stream flow was less than natural at about 40 percent of the streams we assessed. What we mean by this is basically we've taken the natural ebbs and flows and pretty much made the field constant. That's the kind of phenomenon we often observe here.
Well, what does this matter to the biological community? I'd like to show you how that actually looks. In a stream that has relatively natural flows that's not disturbed too much by human activities, if we look at the biological communities, what we see are many, many native species, many of which rely on cooler, cold water temperatures.
Many macroinvertebrate species have very specific requirements for high oxygen in the water. Many fish species reproduce in a very narrow, very specific season of the year. Oftentimes that reproductive period is synchronized with the natural flow. They know when these flows are changing for their own benefit.
Now, they lay their eggs in shallow ground on the bottom of the stream. For those eggs to survive, they need a relatively constant and predictable flow of water over them. That's where what a natural system might look like.
Now, in a system where we have modified flows...In this example, lower than natural [indecipherable 28:52] flows, one of the big things we noticed is a major loss of native species. Those native species are often replaced by nonnative species or sometimes even invasive species, which have all kinds of other problems associated with it. Few of the species, the species that survive also often thrive in warm water temperatures and also with low dissolved oxygen, they can get by without a lot of oxygen in the water.
Interestingly, a lot of the fish that thrive in these systems reproduce any time of the year and they do so by scattering their eggs just throughout the stream in hopes that some of them find a good place to live. It's really the life strategy of a dandelion, for lack of a better word. Then, interestingly, the algae communities don't always have a consistent response to flow modification. One reason might be because their lifecycles are more tightly synchronized with the chemistry of the water than they are with the flow, with the quantity of the water.
This little example, I think, illustrates a couple of important points. One of them is that these biological communities respond differently to this human cause of stressors [indecipherable 30:10] modification. The second thing we've learned from this is that streams that have modified flows are also especially vulnerable to additional human stressors that might change the water or air temperature, which we might expect under various scenarios and climate change.
That's the story on flow. I'd like to now talk about excess nutrients. Nutrients are applied as fertilizers to our lawns and crops and gardens, some of which enter our waterways. As Bill mentioned, NAWQA did a national assessment of stream flow, I'm sorry, national assessment of nutrients in streams and rivers.
The main point from that report was that in agricultural and urban settings, nutrient levels were many, many times higher than background levels. Background levels would be the nutrients we would expect in the absence of fertilizer applications to the landscape. In this report, what we've done now is taken that information and linked it with the biological communities. What we find is that algae communities are extremely highly associated with nutrients in the stream.
In fact, what we see is that the occurrence of algae communities and core conditions, so remember these are communities that have less than their natural potential, or that are impacted. The occurrence of these communities increased nearly 40 percent as nutrient levels increased. This is a very broad analysis across all the different land uses and across the country as a whole.
Algae grow by absorbing these nutrients directly out of the water column. These organisms are very sensitive to changes in the chemistry of their environment. They're therefore very good earlywarning indicators of the ecological consequences of excess nutrients in our waterways.
Moving on to pesticides, these compounds are also applied to our lawns and crops and gardens, some of which enter into our waterways. Several years ago, NAWQA did a national assessment of pesticides in streams and groundwater. The main finding from that report was that pesticides were detected in nearly every stream that we assessed that was in agricultural or urban watersheds, nearly every stream.
Even though those concentrations varied through time, like I showed you on the Des Moines River, many times, those concentrations reached levels that are potentially harmful to aquatic life. That was the finding from the previous report, and now what we've done is again bringing it in with the biological data. What we find is that macroinvertebrate communities are highly associated with pesticide levels.
Specifically, the communities in poor condition increased over 40 percent as pesticide levels increased. Again, this is across different land uses and across the country as a whole. The most potentially toxic pesticides that we found were insecticides, which of course were designed to kill insects. Well, macroinvertebrate communities in streams are pretty much dominated by aquatic versions of insects.
This community is especially sensitive to insecticides that get into our waterways. In recent years, the EPA has stepped up some of the regulations on some of these insecticides that we observed, especially in urban areas. NAWQA monitoring did confirm that those concentrations of pesticides declined in the environment after the EPA took those actions.
Now importantly, when these pesticides were taken off the market, they were replaced by other compounds, other pesticides that have different chemical properties. It will be important for us to continue to monitor how those compounds, chemicals, behave in the environment...potentially affect ecosystems. I just told you about three important factors that influence stream health across the country, modification of natural flows, excess nutrients, and pesticides.
I want to emphasize that this does not mean that these factors are equally important everywhere, nor are these the only factors that impair stream health across the country. In fact, in any given stream, it's very likely that many factors are at play in harming the stream health. To get this point across, I want to tell you a story about a stream, Shingle Creek. It's an urban watershed in Minnesota.
Shingle Creek...samples of biological communities by NAWQA and our partners all revealed that the aquatic communities were all in poor condition. In other words, all of these communities were less than their potential. At this point, resource managers and scientists really have to become like detectives and figure out, "OK, where can we get information that provides evidence for or against alternative causes of this poor health?"
A good place to look for clues is the biological communities themselves, because these critters are living in the water for weeks to years. They can really tell us a lot about the kinds of conditions they've been exposed to. What do the communities in Shingle Creek tell us about what might be causing poor health in this stream? If we look at the algae communities, what we find is that the most abundant species are the ones who really like highly saline environments.
This is a freshwater stream, right. The implication there is we may have a salinity problem. In fact, when we look at the intensive monitoring data that took place, with NAWQA and our partners, what we found is very high levels of salinity in Shingle Creek during the winter. This led to the conclusion that road salts, applied to deice the streets and sidewalks and such, were washing into the streams and groundwater.
It's tempting to stop here and say, "Aha, we've figured out what the problem is. Let's roll up our sleeves and see what we can do to fix it." Well, it's very important in this process of diagnosing the causes of poor stream health that we examine all parts of the ecosystem. We can't ignore other biological communities.
We looked at macroinvertebrates. What do they tell us about poor health in Shingle Creek? Well, what we see in the macroinvertebrate communities is a lot of species that have evolved in different ways to breathe outside of water. In other words, they don't need a whole lot of oxygen in the water to get by.
That tells us well, we might have a problem with dissolved oxygen in the stream. In fact, when we looked at the intensive chemical monitoring that occurred at Shingle Creek, what we see is that during the summer, many times, that dissolved oxygen dips below levels that are known to be harmful to aquatic life. What do the fish tell us about what's wrong with Shingle Creek? Here it's what we don't see that's striking.
What we don't see in this community are several species that have very specific habitat requirements. We know they should be there because we looked at streams that are undisturbed in that area. We know that these species ought to be in Shingle Creek but they're not.
That suggests you may have a problem with habitat quality. Now, there's a USGS stream gauging station at Shingle Creek that's been measuring stream flow every 15 minutes, automated, there's not a person out there dipping water every 15 minutes, measuring flow for over 10 years. If we look at those data, what we see is there's been changes in the flow that are probably the cause in this habitat degradation.
What we've seen is the stream flows become much more fluctuating and flashy, which is pretty common in urban streams because the rainwater rushes off the roads and the pavement and into the stream channels. Those big pulses of water can cause erosion to the stream banks and the stream bottom, which harms the habitat. To recap, the algae community, in harmony with the intensive monitoring data, revealed we have a problem with salinity in the winter.
The macroinvertebrate community, again used with the intensive chemicalmonitoring data, revealed we have a dissolvedoxygen problem in the summer. The fish community, along with the streamflowmonitoring information, revealed that we have a problem with habitat that has occurred and is probably continuing to occur over the last several years. This story in Shingle Creek is not unique. We see this in agricultural and urban streams across the country.
It teaches us a very important lesson. That is...if we're going to understand what is causing poor stream health, we really need to assess multiple biological communities, not just one but many. We need to measure the chemical and physical parts of the ecosystem that can cause those communities harm at different times of year and at different time scales.
I'd like to close with just the takehome messages I hope you guys remember. The first is...in our attempts to understand stream health and to understand what harms stream health, it's vitally important that we assess multiple biological communities, because each community has its own vulnerabilities, unique vulnerabilities, to humancaused stressors. I think I've shown you that throughout the talk today.
Also, these communities have different and vital parts of the ecosystem. They have vital roles in the ecosystem itself. What that means is that when we do assessments and when we limit those assessments to a single biological community, those assessments are important. They give us good information, but they're probably overlooking some factors that are causing poor health and probably underestimating the scope of the problem.
Point number two, again a quick review. The natural stream flows in the country's streams are widely modified and are an important reason why a lot of streams have impaired health. Stream flow is such an overarching, important part of streams, however, that remediation of chemical pollutants, like nutrients and pesticides, may not get us all the way where we want to healthy streams if we don't also consider that these streams need some semblance of natural patterns of flow as well.
Truly, water quality and water quantity are inextricably linked. Finally, in any given stream that's in poor stream health, it's very rare that we can point our finger at one thing. There's often many factors at play, and to understand those factors, we have to monitor them at the scales that matter to the biology, to the ecosystem. We have to monitor these factors at the times of the year when they are important to the communities.
The reports from which this talk was given are in the package you received. On this website, you can find the data that went into this report. We're working on a really cool podcast. It will be up in a couple days. You can find also links to other reports that the NAWQA program has put out in the last couple years. With that, I will stop and thank you for your attention.
[applause]
Bill:  Thank you.
Bill:  Thank you, Daren. Our second speaker today is Mr. David McKinney. David is Chief of Environmental Services and Habitat Protection for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. He's a former manager of the East Tennessee office of Division of Water Pollution and Control for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. He holds a Master of Science in Aquatic Ecology from the University of Tennessee and a law degree from the Nashville School of Law. With that, I'd like to introduce Dave.
David McKinney:  Thank you and good morning. We are here today to discuss how to bring good science to protection of the nation's aquatic resources. I'd like to tell you a little bit about why that is important to the state of Tennessee. We have some 60,000 miles of streams and rivers spread across the state. It's a network that provides for commercial navigation, for recreational activities, it provides water for agriculture and industry. We have a worldclass sport fishery. Importantly, it provides drinking water and public water supply from one end of the state to the other.
We withdraw something in the neighborhood of 10 billion gallons of water a day to support all of these uses. What makes Tennessee's aquatic ecological resources unique is that this 60,000 miles of streams and rivers are spread over such a distinctly different ecological and physiographic region. Starting in the east, you have the forested Appalachian Mountains, which rise to 6,000 feet.
You come across the Tennessee Ridge and Valley System, where the headwaters of the Tennessee River are gathered. Up over the Cumberland Plateau, which The Nature Conservancy refers to as a biodiversity hotspot for North America, and then down across the interior low plateau, or highland rim, that surrounds the central basin. As you go up over the western highland rim, you come out into the alluvial plain of the Mississippi and coastal plains.
This diversity of habitats and the diversity of streams and water sources has led what David Eden, our Professor Emeritus of Fisheries at the University of Tennessee, refers to as a "theater of evolution for fish and aquatic life unlike any other." The challenges we face in Tennessee are similar to what other states are facing. They come from population growth, land use change that is [indecipherable 48:31] , and increasing pressure on water supplies, all with a backdrop of changing climate.
One of the issues that all states are dealing with has to do with the influence of the hydronic behavior in streams from water withdrawal. In those six, the US Fish and Wildlife Service in conjunction with other state and federal agencies and conservation organizations began a project where they looked at the fish community records from over a thousand sites in Tennessee. Many of these sites had records that go back multiple years. This information was integrated with hydrologic behavior information of historic and present from over 300 sites.
The results of this study confirmed what the GS is finding nationwide, that as you change the natural hydrologic behavior of streams, you can adversely impact the fish communities and set up a situation where compounding factors like nutrients can have an additional adverse effect. In Tennessee, our normal lowflow period is in the fall of the year. If withdrawal of water stretches that lowflow period well into the early summer and well into late fall, then the fish community, the aquatic community, and the insects are faced with the cumulative impact of reduced habitat and higher water temperatures and lower dissolved oxygen, and the complicating impacts of things like live nutrients.
How do we take this information and apply it to the decisionmaking process at the state level? Tennessee recently completed two model regional water supply plans in conjunction with the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Geological Survey, and some conservation organizations. Keep in mind that the communities affected in these two model plans, one for the north central part of the state, the other for the southern part of the Cumberland Plateau, these communities are located where they are because of reliable water supply.
Many of them date back to the late 1700s or the 1800s. In the intervening years, these aquatic resources can no longer support the community. The problems are twofold. One is the community no longer has a safe, reliable water supply. The other is as you take more and more water out of the stream, it affects the ecological health in the stream.
These two plans seem to tie together these communities through infrastructure that will allow them, in times of water flow and drought, to withdraw from larger sources, like the Tennessee River, the Cumberland River, or existing larger reservoirs. This brings us an opportunity to apply another tool that was developed by the USGS and the NAWQA program. That is that cluster of models that are referred to as SPARROW. Particularly those that allow us to project the influence of nutrients on streams.
As streams slow down in [indecipherable 52:13] situations they heat up and expose the water to sunlight, nutrients can cause algae blooms which result in taste and odor problems for public water supply, can also result in toxicity problems for fish and aquatic life, and on very rare occasions, can result in problems with the public health. I want to close with some remarks about the biological diversity that is found in Tennessee. For fresh water ecological systems, it is the most biologically diverse stream system in North America.
We have over 325 species of fish, many of which are as colorful as anything you'll find in the tropics and over 400 species of freshwater mussels. Keep in mind that these two are linked, mussel requires a fish in its lifecycle and not just any fish, a specific species of fish. If that species disappears from the system, then in short order the mussel [indecipherable 53:25] that particular mussel group will also disappear.
The state's name comes from a Native American word "taniski," which the Spanish encountered in the 1500 and interpreted to mean something like "river country." But more importantly, it embraced the benefits of living in river country. We have no illusion about how difficult it's going to be in the coming years to protect this diversity of aquatic resource.
But good science, cooperative partnerships with our neighboring states, good partnership collaborative projects with the federal agencies, conservation groups, and our citizens are our best chance of success. I want to thank the sponsors of this event and particularly my colleagues. We've come through all this together. We'll be around to answer any questions you may have left. Thank you.
[applause]
Bill:  Our final speaker this morning is Dr. Peter Ode. Peter is the director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's water control laboratory. He received his PhD in Entomology from Cornell University, with a specialization in Stream Insect Ecology. Since 2005, Peter has served as the lead scientist for the state Water Resources Control Board bioassessment program. He currently coleads the state's technical team, charged with developing the technical foundation for California's statewide biological waterquality standards. I'd like to introduce Dr. Ode.
Dr. Peter Ode:  Thank you Bill. Good morning, everybody, and greetings from sunny California. I have to say that I thought Central Valley was hot, but you guys have that beat. [laughter]
Dr. Ode:  Thanks for the opportunity to speak in support of this really valuable work. My goal today is to give you a little sense of what these federal water resource programs mean in states like California. Let me see here. If you think about water resource monitoring in the country, much of the work that's done derives the authorities and mandates in the Clean Water Act. California has its own version of this, called the PorterCologne Act, which was actually enacted a few years before the Clean Water Act and in fact served as the model for much of the language in the Clean Water Act. Both of these forms of legislation were tremendous successes in the early years in dealing with pointsource pollution, especially, and a lot of the initial problems were cleaned up, but as we've gone along in time we've realized that much more difficult nonpoint sources have stymied progress in water resource management for decades now.
Despite hundreds of billions of dollars, now, spent on these kinds of issues, our streams and our rivers are still in trouble. In California, just to give you a sense, we estimate about 50 percent of our stream length is impaired biologically or ecologically, similar to what's seen nationally. It's now widely accepted that if we're going to resolve some of these sources of problems, we need to recognize that they're complex and in multiple sources.
The solutions to them, we need to have a pretty complex understanding as well. This is one of the main roles, USGS, and NAWQA in particular, play in our state. The contributions of these programs help us in a couple key ways. One is that most states can rarely afford to do the type of these complex environmental investigations on their own. They simply don't have the resources to support that type of work.
The federal work supplements that. It's very important. The second, though, is that investigating problems at larger spatial scales gives states a perspective that they can't get on their own. In this map here, the colored regions represent different eco regions in the western United States. Just as the eco regions go beyond California's borders, so too, analyses or research that spans those borders at the current larger scales give us a much better perspective on what's happening in our state and this is compared to what's happening outside of that region.
The next couple slides, I have prepared just a short overview, give you the 30,000 foot view of California. California has a very diverse natural environment. It has continental scale diversity, we like to say. We start with temperate rainforest, redwoods in the northwest, snowy mountains ringing much of the state. These are pretty wet areas, but much of the state, probably most of the state, is dry.
We have a classic Mediterranean climate throughout the majority of the region. Mediterranean climates are characterized by having precipitation all fall within a few months and in our case in the winter. Then it's dry for almost the rest of the year. Most of these systems have a boom/bust cycle for water. Then, of course, we have deserts in the southeastern portion of the state, so quite a lot of natural diversity.
Laid on top of this natural diversity is a complex land base pattern as well. These are maps of the urban land use in California and the agricultural. Like most states, California has lots of different types of land uses and, of course, streams are faced with things like dams and mines, lots of other things.
The two biggest, most dramatic ones are...I'm going to echo what Darren presented in his presentation, agricultural and urban land uses are the dominant land group. Just to give you a flavor of what that looks like, southern coastal California. This is flying into Los Angeles Airport, LAX, up to the mountains there it is pretty much blanket, cover to cover, perfect carpet of concrete.
These are dramatically transformed landscapes. The same is true in the agricultural regions. The Central Valley of the state is nearly completely transformed to produce agriculture. It's irrigated ag. It's almost 100 percent irrigated ag. The whole region in the center of the state is about one percent of the agricultural land in the country.
But it produces nearly 10 percent of the agricultural output. That water that irrigates that is critical to doing that. You recall, Darren started his presentation by talking about how the change in population in our country over time has resulted in moving to increasing pressures on our aquatic resources.
The same is certainly true in California. California's population is now 38 million. That's one in eight people in the United States living in California, which is a lot. That's growing at a pretty steady clip. We're expecting another 20 percent increase in the next 15 or so years. That will continue beyond that, probably.
You notice in this map the darker colors represent more intense population growth projections. You may recall from the map that these areas in dark blue correspond nicely with the really dry areas of the state, not the wet areas. What all this does, of course, all these slides taken together, is there's intense competition for water and will be increasingly intense competition for water for domestic, agricultural use, and for environmental flows.
The source of all this water, there's several different sources, but the big one, probably the most important, is the snowpack. Remember, we have the rains, most of the precipitation falls in the winter. What we get in that period lands in the Sierra. That's a big...the white areas in the map here are snowed areas. This is a typical year.
That water melts in the summer and serves as the water supply for most of the state, supplies 25 million people with drinking water and industrial water. A million acres of agriculture are irrigated by that water. To give you a sense and flavor for how tenuous this is, this year, 2013, we have currently about 17 percent of normal snowpack. That's very dry.
As a result of this, only 35 percent of the requests for water were able to be met by the state water agencies. That's a pretty big impact. Think about projections of climate change going forward. What it's looking like is that what we're experiencing now may be something like the new normal, in 50 years from now, this may be an average water year, not a extremelevel water year.
The upshot of this is that if we're going to make good decisions about how we manage our water resources and our streams and our rivers, we need tools to help us prioritize protection and remediation.
We're approaching this in two ways. One is by making sure that we have the capacity to monitor ecological health. This again, echoes the work that the NAWQA program has done. We want the capacity to directly monitor ecological condition. We do this with multiple indicators, benthic invertebrates, benthic algae, and also riparian condition indicators is what we're emphasizing.
The other big area that we're working on is collaboration with EPA's Healthy Watersheds Initiative. The idea here is to build a framework that will allow us to combine different types of information about watershed health and stream health together into a coherent picture. Just to give you a quick example of what some of the output looks like, here, darker colors in this map represent watersheds that are in relatively better condition than the lighter colors.
The value of this is that it gives us an objective framework for making or asking management questions. We can put all kinds of different data types into this and generate these types of maps, then put them together. By doing so, that allows us to ask questions like, "Where are our best streams? Where are our most vulnerable streams, and where are the best opportunities for protection and restoration?"
If we want to do a good job with that, then the quality of those outputs depends on the data that go into them. How good is our understanding of the relationships between stream health and the chemical, physical, biological factors that we're measuring? That's another place where the USGS NAWQA work fits in.
Just to give you an example, the NAWQA program's work on flows is really critical for us to understanding this. This is of course an area where the USGS and NAWQA have a long history of really important research. This has given us a sound understanding now of how to assess altered flow conditions. What we're doing in California is we're working with NAWQA to help clarify the relationships between flow alteration and stream health, the ecological health of our streams.
That linkage is what we're working on. The kinds of questions we're asking in this work are, "What are the best kinds of indicators of hydrologic alteration?" A key one here is how much alteration can be tolerated by biological communities before you start to see impact?
Finally, "What are the best indicators of environmental flow requirements?" If we want to protect aquatic life, what should we be making sure that we're looking at? It's this ability to predict flow and flow alteration that we are getting from our partners in the USGS and NAWQA are...these are key to managing resources with these increasing pressures on water.
It gives us better information for resource prioritizations, Healthy Watersheds concept. It gives better ability to predict impacts of climate change. I just want to end by making the point that it's these federal contributions of expertise and the ability to integrate information across broad regional and national patterns that really strengthen our ability to do this kind of work.
With that, I will say thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak [indecipherable 68:42] .
[applause]
Bill:
Most of you, hopefully all of you, received copies of this folder when you walked into the room here. There are two different versions of that folder. One includes a hardcopy of the report and another has a thumb drive that contains the report on it, as well as a fact sheet or a briefing sheet that gives you a condensed version as well as a small, one page, summary of the salient points, major points from the document.
As well as a document that we put together that looks forward on the long term plans for the National Water Quality Assessment Program. Hopefully, if you haven't received one of those or you didn't pick one up and if there are any copies out there, please feel free to pick one up. If there aren't any available, please leave your business card with your name on it. We'd be happy to send you one.
Our intention is this afternoon or within the next day or so to get the presentations up online on our web page. Within two weeks there'll be a video of both this presentation as well as a video presentation that was made of the findings from the ecological synthesis that Daren described. Hopefully there'll be multiple forums for people to get information but, of course, if there's something there that is missing or that you still have questions Dr. Carlisle's email address is available, of course, on our website.
Please, we would encourage and be very happy if you would call us and ask questions if you have them out there.
p.

Details

Title: Ecological Health of U.S. Streams

Description:

Congressional Brefing on Health of U.S. Streams Reduced by Streamflow Modifications and Contaminants. USGS will explain the importance of assessing all of these factors, and the implications the findings have for priorities in protection and restoration actions. Note: David McKinney from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency describes in presentation how to bring good the science to protection of the nation's aquatic resources. Peter Ode from California Department of Fish and Wildlife presents the importance of federal water resource programs and what they mean to states like California.

Location: Washington, D.C., USA

Date Taken: 7/19/2013

Length: 1:04:51

Video Producer: Carise Barbour , U.S. Geological Survey


Note: This video has been released into the public domain by the U.S. Geological Survey for use in its entirety. Some videos may contain pieces of copyrighted material. If you wish to use a portion of the video for any purpose, other than for resharing/reposting the video in its entirety, please contact the Video Producer/Videographer listed with this video. Please refer to the USGS Copyright section for how to credit this video.

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