“Free the Rivers” – Benefits of Historical Dam Removal

Long before the Standing Rock Sioux reminded us that “Water is Life!”, pre-colonial Americans deeply understood this simple truth in a way none of us can now imagine.  Rivers were their lifeblood; something they respected and ultimately put to use to make their lives easier. What resulted from their early ingenuity were thousands of dams used to operate early industrial operations, such as grist mills or sawmills. Many of these historical dams are well over 100 years old, in disrepair and no longer serve their original intended purpose. They also continue to impede the natural processes of river ecosystems. What can be done about these unneeded remnants of American history?

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), American Rivers, and other river restoration organizations have some answers. These groups are working hard to “free the rivers” by supporting dam removal projects across the country. Working in partnership with individuals, communities and government agencies, they have made great strides in restoring river habitats, improving fish breeding grounds, all while supporting the cultural and historical significance of this early American phenomenon.

This is no easy task, to be sure. Especially when you consider the magnitude of the impacts imposed on rivers by dams. The Penobscot River in Maine is a great example of how rivers can be restored. The Penobscot is New England’s second largest river with a length of 109 miles and which drains an area of 8,570 miles. Until recently, this river system had 119 dams which, the TNC noted, restricted fish migrating from the ocean to about 30 miles of navigable river.

Penobscot
Destruction of Veazie Dam on Penobscot River. Photo: Penobscot Trust/Flickr

TNC worked with several other groups to negotiate the removal of two hydropower dams and to build a fish bypass on a third dam. The results have been impressive. TNC reported in the same article, that “past counts of just a few thousand river herring have blossomed to more than 1.8 million in 2016. Researchers also documented three short-nosed sturgeon swimming farther upriver than they’ve been seen in 200 years.”

The largest dam removal project in U.S. history began in 2011 on the Elwha River in Washington. Two dams, the Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam, were removed and the river’s comeback has been vigorously studied and supported since then.

(Watch a video of the Elwha Dam destruction here.)

River recovery studies on the Elwha River have come back overwhelmingly positive. High Country News reported that in 2016, “biologists spotted chinook, steelhead, coho, bull trout and sockeye spawning upstream of the Glines Canyon Dam site for the first time in nearly a century. Pacific lamprey have returned unaided.”

However, it’s not just fish that benefit from dam removal. Entire ecosystems are being stimulated and returning to a more natural state. Sediments once held back behind the dams, are now forming beaches and helping to reshape the rivers paths. Animals, such as otter and smaller rodents, are returning to areas along the river.

Even plants have made an impressive recovery. High Country News reported “Studies conducted prior to dam removal found that there were 90 percent fewer seeds in the water below Glines Canyon Dam than above, and 84 percent fewer species represented. After the dam came down, the numbers equalized all along the channel.”

Even more encouraging is that dam removal projects seem to be on an upswing. American Rivers notes that between 1912 through 2016, 1384 dams have been removed nationwide. In 2016 alone, 72 dams were removed to help restore rivers. Overall, the United States has roughly 90,000 dams.

(American Rivers website features a map of U.S. dam removal projects here.)

A quick website review of dam removal projects in the U.S. reveals, that in addition to national groups like The Nature Conservancy and American Rivers, there are a large number of local groups emerging across the country to advocate dam removal. Groups, such as, “Free VT Rivers”, “Connecticut River Conservancy”, “Idaho Rivers United”, “River Alliance of Wisconsin”, are just a few of the many groups working to help restore river ecosystems.

It’s obvious that dam construction has played a vital role in America’s economic development and will continue to do so for a long time. However, it is encouraging to know that more and more people are supporting the dismantling of historical dams that no longer support their original intention, so-called “deadbeat dams,” as well as advocating the removal of dams that have severely impacted river ecosystems.

To learn more about the overall benefits of dam removal, visit American Rivers, The Nature Conservancy or do a web search on river restoration organizations in your state.

There are many ways to help restore rivers. What will yours be?

The Highs and Lows of Growing Weed

Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia have legalized forms of marijuana and more states are likely to follow. Marijuana sales have been on fire. In 2017, sales were expected to reach $9.7 billion, and analysts are predicting sales of $24.5 billion by 2021, as new states enter the market. Yet, behind the “green gold rush”, an insidious story is unfolding. One fostered by the green and the greed which comes with it. Ultimately one that kills.

MJ
Image Source: Getty Images

It’s well known that Mexican drug cartels are growing weed in remote locations of U.S. national forests. California has been hit the hardest by this illegal activity. As reported by Reuter’s, there are an estimated 50,000 grow sites in California which is believed to comprise about 90% of all illegal pot farming in the United States.  Even with the state’s recent legalization of marijuana, officials expect only about 16,000 of these growers to seek commercial cultivation licenses.

Lack of law enforcement in these vast, remote areas is exploited by growers. The illegal operators are emboldened by limited oversight and will defend their turf if they feel threatened. The Atlantic online article noting that “Growers have followed, detained, threatened, pursued, and shot at officers and civilians, including scientists and field techs. One Forest Service biologist who stumbled upon a grow site in Sequoia National Forest was chased for close to an hour by armed growers.”

Not only are these areas unsafe for any unsuspecting soul rambling about, they are often havens for extremely toxic chemicals used as pesticides or rodenticides. Reuter’s published an online article which details how growers are using “fertilizers and pesticides long restricted or banned in the United States, including carbofuran and zinc phosphide.”  These chemicals are so toxic that enforcement officials have been hospitalized after touching plants treated with these chemicals or handling equipment used in their application. Now imagine smoking or ingesting some of that.

Other lethal chemicals found on remote grow sites include aluminum phosphide, for killing rodents and insects; bromadiolone, a restricted-use neurotoxic rodenticide; brodifacoum, an anticoagulant rodenticide; and malathion, an organophosphate insecticide that’s been compared to a watered-down version of the nerve agent sarin.

There is concern that some of these toxin-laden plants are infiltrating legalized medicinal marijuana markets, potentially impacting people with serious health conditions like AIDS or cancer. The Atlantic article noted that “studies and investigations in Colorado and Oregon have found pesticides on marijuana in legal dispensaries, including in products that were supposedly certified pesticide-free.”

Unsuspecting wildlife has taken the greatest hit. In addition to the rodents targeted by growers, the toxic materials have worked their way up the food chain. Researchers at the University of California – Davis revealed that tissue samples from spotted owls and barred owls tested positive for rat poison.  This is a significant concern because the northern spotted owls are listed as a threatened species under federal and state Endangered Species acts.

Other animals found dead at grow sites include Pacific fishers, bears, vultures, foxes, and deer; presumably from ingesting one or more of these chemicals. There are even concerns about cattle being poisoned by marijuana farms. These illicit activities also impact and kill aquatic organisms; including fish.

Another pressing concern for California is the impact on local water supplies. California just came out of a 15-year drought. Conditions got so bad in 2015 that Governor Jerry Brown imposed mandatory water reductions of 25% on residents, businesses, and farms. The restrictions continued until March of 2017.

Marijuana is known to be a high-water crop. State officials suggest that growers are watering each plant with about 6 gallons of water per day. Multiply that by 50,000 grow sites and thousands of plants per site and you have monumental water use. As reported in The Atlantic, “the 1.1 million illegal pot plants removed in California in 2016 would have used somewhere around 1.3 billion gallons of water—as much as 10,000 average California households do in a year.” This water use figure becomes even more daunting when you consider enforcement officials consider that 50,000 grow sites state-wide is likely to be a low estimate.

To help regulate excessive water use for cannabis growers, the California State Water Board has established specific “Cannabis Cultivation Water Rights” to help protect stream flows, wetlands, aquatic habitats and even groundwater from negative impacts of cannabis cultivation. These regulations will be applied to legal cultivators of weed but it is extremely unlikely any illegal grower will even acknowledge such regulations.

Illegal growers are only interested in a successful harvest and not in helping the environment. Several reports have verified the intentional destruction of wetland areas, extensive diversion of stream flows, excessive pumping of groundwater as well as toxic chemicals leaching into soils and waterways, potentially impacting downstream users.

Unfortunately, these destructive practices are likely to continue as long as there is a demand for illegal marijuana. Some advocates suggest that legalization in all states will stop or greatly reduce illegal cultivation since the industry will become highly regulated. Until that happens, conditions are likely to remain the same.

Right now, the best thing that legal marijuana users can do for themselves and the environment is to find out where and how their pot is grown. Any legitimate dispensary should be willing to provide that information. If they can’t, shop somewhere else. This issue is too important to go up in smoke.

“One Word…Plastics”

You may remember this iconic line offered as career advice to young Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 movie The Graduate. Its delivery seemed to foreshadow a revolution in convenience which has clearly come to pass. Everywhere we look we see plastics – in ours homes, in our cars, in our businesses and certainly in the environment. Unfortunately, this innovation in convenience has come at a high price.

Plastic Waste
Man canoeing in a sea of plastics. Photo source: unknown.

The impact of plastics on our environment is shocking. In 1997, racing boat Captain Charles Moore was the first to discover the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a collection of marine debris (mostly plastics) spanning from the west coast of America to Japan!

The size of the Garbage Patch is so large that Dianna Parker, of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program, stated NOAA “has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.” It’s an international pollution problem that is too big for any one country to address by itself, so it repeatedly gets placed on the back burner.

Plastics don’t biodegrade, they just break down into tinier and tinier particles, called microplastics, which impact global food webs. They collect near the surface of the oceans, blocking sunlight from reaching plankton and algae, the primary producers of the ocean. This means there’s less food for primary consumers, like turtles and fish which results in less food for larger consumers or predators, like sharks and tuna. This ultimately could mean less food for humans.

It’s not just small pieces of plastic that are a problem. National Geographic website reveals “loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellies, their favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs.” Larger marine life, like seals, get entangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets and drown.

Seal in plastic
Photo Credit: See Common Dreams. “A seal trapped in plastic pollution. Environmental advocates are concerned that a rise in plastics production will bring the world’s oceans to a state of “near-permanent” pollution.” (Photo: Nels Israelson/Flickr/cc)

Plastics are not just in the ocean. Research by Orb Media, with assistance from the State University of New York at Fredonia and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, has shown that every major water source in the world now has microplastics in it. They are also in our drinking water, including some of the top U.S. bottled water brands. Specifically, they found more than 80 percent of the samples they collected on five continents tested positive for the presence of plastic fibers. Notably, the “US had the highest levels of contamination at 94.4 percent”.

Orb Media - microparticles
Photo Credit: Orb Media. Dyed laboratory filter paper highlights plastic fibers.  See Orb Media online report.

Scarier still is some of these microparticles are small enough to move through our bodies and travel to our lymph nodes.  Forester Network reported some researchers acknowledge that “chemicals from plastics are a constant part of our daily diet.” Research professor, Scott Belcher, PhD, shared with Orb Media “…these plastics are breaking down and leaching chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting plasticizers like BPA or phthalates, flame retardants, and even toxic heavy metals that are all absorbed into our diets and bodies.”

Even more disconcerting is how pervasive plastic is. Chris Tyree, a journalist with Orb Media, contends “the shear amount (of plastic) we are consuming is mind boggling. We’ve practically created more plastic in the last decade than in the last century. If plastic were a country, it would have the world’s 20th largest economy.”

Regardless of all the issues with plastic, its market is growing at a rapid pace. Common Dreams recently reported that various fossil fuel companies, including Exxon and Shell, “have poured more than $180 billion into the creation of plastics facilities that are expected to create a 40 percent rise in production of the material over the next decade.”  That’s a massive increase in a very short amount of time.

The prognosis for our continued plastic dependence looks bleak. Yet, there’s always room for hope.  Major changes in the way society functions have resulted from a few brave souls stepping forward to become way-showers for others.  Could you be one of them?

Is Water Service a Privilege?

A disturbing trend involving access to water is emerging in the United States. People in communities around the country are struggling to stay connected to their local water services, primarily due to large price increases. Lower-income households are being hit the hardest and unlike with other utilities, financial assistance is usually not available. This begs the question of whether access to water should be considered a moral obligation or a privilege?faucet

Certainly, in our country’s early history, access to water was far from a God given right. Early pioneers had to walk to creeks, streams or rivers to get the water they needed for daily life. Over time, technology in the form of windmills and wells and then electric pumps and wells, made getting water from the ground easier and easier. Now our country has a vast system of dams, reservoirs, canals, wells and pipes to deliver water precisely where and when it is needed.

In this modern era of seemingly abundant water, should access be limited to only those who can pay for it? Our gut reaction may be ‘no’ but our wallets may be saying something else.

There are several reasons for the substantial increase in water service costs. In December 2017, Michigan State University (MSU) published research concluding the main reasons behind rising water rates include aging infrastructure, shrinking populations in urban areas and climate change.

Other factors contributing to burgeoning water prices are mentioned in a 2017 Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) study. This study discusses the need to recover costs due to declining demand (often a result of conservation programs) as well as rising operations and maintenance costs, all of which contribute to higher rates.

A loss of government funding hasn’t helped the situation. As noted in a University of Pennsylvania online article, Congress switched from offering grants which covered up to 75% of water infrastructure, to offering loans. This change means that local communities are now fully responsible for their water projects and are expected to repay the loans. Due to all these issues, cities and towns have raised rates to cover costs.

Exactly how to handle increasing service costs is a compelling conundrum. In 2016, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) highlighted the growing problem of water unaffordability in the United States. The UUSC report notes the “cost of household water services has risen 40% from 2010 to 2015” in some major U.S. cities.  Couple this with MSU research projections estimating  that “the number of U.S. households unable to afford water could triple in five years, to nearly 36 percent” and you can quickly see the significance of the problem.

Rising rates combined with inflation have crippled lower-income households. The UUSC report notes that in “some communities’ water and sanitation services command 4–19% of monthly household income, well beyond what could be considered affordable” for people in the lowest 20% income bracket. Internationally, its agreed that expenses for water and sewer services should not exceed between 2-5% of household income.

As troubling as all this data is, the crux of the problem may lie in the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the poor in this country. As reported in a March 22, 2016 Circle of Blue online article, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the U.S. Census Bureau has data showing the income of the top 5% of American households increased 60% between 1980 and 2014 while the bottom 10% had incomes that fell over the same period.

As the old saying goes, “the poor get poorer and the rich get richer” and now there’s data to prove it.

 

The Price of Comfort

It may surprise some Americans to know that within our thriving, capitalist culture there is a growing segment of people living in third world conditions, with limited access to water and proper sanitation. What is not surprising is most of these people live in or on the edge of poverty. In an era of large corporate tax cuts and the slashing of social welfare programs, what will become of people without access to services most of us consider essential?

The prognoses for their return to normalcy looks bleak. Researchers at Michigan State University are projecting “the number of U.S. households unable to afford water could triple in five years, to nearly 36 percent”. The study concluded there are three main factors behind rising water rates: aging infrastructure, shrinking populations in urban areas and climate change.

Population trends show wealthier citizens moving out of inner cities and into the suburbs, leaving lower income residents to fend off the costs of large, aging infrastructures. Detroit is a perfect example of this type of mass exodus of wealth out of large cities.

In a March 22, 2016 online article, Circle of Blue reporter Brett Walton describes how after World War II, Detroit was the wealthiest city in America with a population of 1.8 million people, 80% of whom were white. Now its population is 680,000 (less than half of its peak) and 80% black with 40% percent of them living below the poverty level. Walton states “Those remaining have inherited the legacy costs of a city built for an absent 1 million people.”

Detroit is not the only city facing an uphill water pricing battle. A December 13, 2017 Circle of Blue online report featured a similar story for Philadelphia. The piece notes how the Philadelphia Water Department has about 86,000 household accounts, but one in five accounts have had their water shut off at least once over the last 5 years largely because of overdue bills. The culprit here is not only lack of money but also local policy.

The problems of aging infrastructure are well known among the utilities sector. This issue has been highlighted over the past several years in various technical media. The 2012 American Water Works Association (AWWA) report “Buried No Longer – Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge” revealed that “restoring existing water systems and expanding them to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years.”

In a 2016 American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) report, every American household is projected to lose $3,400 annually between 2016 and 2025 because of deteriorating infrastructure. Furthermore, the 2016 ASCE report contends the economic impact of America’s infrastructure issues could cost 2.5 million jobs by 2025 and up to 5.8 million jobs by 2040 if appropriate investments are not made.  Clearly, the time to act is now.

In addition to aging infrastructure and shrinking urban populations, climate change has been implicated in future water pricing trends. Scientists are increasingly finding evidence directly linking extreme weather events to human-caused climate change, suggesting that observed trends are likely to continue.

This is startling when you consider The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released a compilation of “U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather & Climate Disasters 1980-2017”. In the report they detail 218 weather and climate disasters that have occurred since 1980 in which overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. As we have seen again this past year with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, these large weather events are becoming more common. If this trend continues, we have to ask how much more can our economy take?

If our overall economy is at risk, what chance do our poorest citizens have of maintaining basic services? There must be a better way.

Seeing Red over a Sea of Green

From California to the Great Lakes and down to the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. is being plagued by a rapidly growing and very toxic environmental hazard – Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs).  In 2016 alone, over 20 states have had serious outbreaks. What causes these blooms and how can we prevent future occurrences?

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Photo Source: New York State Department of Conservation – Harmful Algal Bloom Photo Gallery

HABs are commonly known as blue-green algae but they really aren’t algae at all. They are a primitive life form called cyanobacteria which are closely related to bacteria, but they photosynthesize like green algae. Cyanobacteria can occur as single cells, in colonies or in a filamentous state.

These cyanobacteria are very different than the more familiar green algae we often see in ponds, lakes and streams. Green algae are the “good guys” of the algal world. Being a primary producer, green algae is a food source for zooplankton, young frogs, fish and aquatic insects.

Cyanobacteria are the “bad boys” of the water world. They tend to grow in environments that are out of balance and are often associated with excessive nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizer run-off. They kill with impunity, destroying aquatic life, pets, livestock and sickening humans.

Researchers and citizens across the country are concerned by the dramatic increase in the intensity and toxicity of HAB incidents over the last few years.  Typical toxins in these blooms may include hepatotoxins (microcystins, cylindrospermopsins), neurotoxins (anatoxins, saxitoxins), dermatoxins (lipopolysaccharides, lyngbyatoxin) and others.

Recent events highlight the need for concern and more control. For example, in 2014 Toledo Ohio shut down water supplies for nearly half a million-people due to the most intense toxic algae bloom ever recorded in the Western Lake Erie Basin.

In a September 6, 2016 article on EcoWatch.com, algal blooms were reported in at least 30 California lakes and reservoirs. Bev Anderson, a scientist with the California Water Resources Control Board, expressed concern about the sheer number of outbreaks as well as the level of toxins they contained. She stated toxicity levels of “twenty micrograms per liter would cause concern, but these blooms are reporting readings as high as 15,000 micrograms per liter.”

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott declared local states of emergency in St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach and Lee counties in June 2016, shutting-down beaches in south Florida which had been covered by toxic algae for months.

One of the largest areas of concern is the Gulf of Mexico. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website reported on August 2, 2017 that the “Gulf of Mexico “dead zone,” an area of low oxygen that can kill fish and marine life, is 8,776 square miles, an area about the size of New Jersey” – the largest measured reported “dead zone” in that area since mapping began in 1985.

NOAA acknowledges the dead zone is the result of excessive nutrients, “primarily from agriculture and developed land runoff in the Mississippi River watershed” that stimulates “massive algal growth”. When the algal growth decomposes, it robs oxygen from Gulf waters and causes loss of fish habitat. It also decreases reproduction in various fish species and reduces the average size of shrimp caught for market.

So, what can be done? Well for now, not much. Researchers have been working with farmers to change tillage patterns to prevent excess fertilizers from leaving crop land and entering waterways. They have also endorsed creating a buffer zone between farm land to help control run-off.

If effective, such measures would be a win-win for everyone and especially the environment. Farmers would rather keep fertilizers on their crops as opposed to having them flushed down a stream. Unfortunately, the results suggest these measures aren’t really having the intended effect.

To further complicate the excess nutrient problem, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and other animal production facilities are not required to treat their animal waste before releasing it into the environment. Animal waste is high in nitrogen and often ends up in streams which eventually flow into larger waterways and initiate harmful blooms.

This is a significant problem when you consider 1 dairy cow produces the waste (total solids) equivalent of 50 humans every day and 1 feeder pig produces the waste (total solids) equivalent of almost 4 humans every day.

Currently, there are approximately 9.3 million dairy cows and almost 72 million hogs and pigs in the United States.  That’s roughly the waste equivalent of 753 million people every day – more than double the 2017 population of the United States at 324.4 million! AND this figure doesn’t include beef cattle, poultry and other livestock.

Certainly, this whole situation is food for thought…

***** 

References:

  • “Algal Blooms Can be Deadly to Your Dogs”, EcoWatch – Top News of the Day, Website Post, July 28, 2017, Accessed December 9, 2017.
  • D’Anglada, Lesley V., US EPA, “Editorial on the Special Issue – Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) and Public Health: Progress and Current Challenges”, in Toxins 2015, 7, 4437-4441; doi:10.3390/toxins7114437, Website article, Accessed December 9, 2017.
  • Fleming, Ron and Marcy Ford. “Human versus Animals – Comparison of Waste Properties”, Ridgetown College – University of Guelph, July 4, 2001. Website PDF article. Accessed December 11, 2017.
  • Flesher, John and Angeliki Kastanis, “As algae worsens, farmers are asked to join anti-runoff effort”, AZCentral.com, November 23, 2017, as reported in The Arizona Republic, p. 36A.
  • Gallagher, Shana. “Tyson Foods Linked to Largest Toxic Dead Zone in U.S. History”, AlterNet. Org, Reposted by Ecowatch, Web article, No date, Accessed October 31, 2017.
  • Jacobsen, Jax. “Toxic Algae Blooms Threaten People and Waterways in More Than 20 States”, EcoWatch, September 6, 2016 Website article. Accessed December 9, 2017.
  • Kaspersen, Janice, “Surprising Results in Ag Runoff”, Forester Network Featured Story, February 8, 2016, Website blog, Accessed December 9, 2017.
  • Kaspersen, Janice. “An Awful Lot of Money May Go Someplace Else”, Forester Network Featured Story, October 10, 2017, Website blog, Accessed October 17, 2017.
  • Kaspersen, Janice. “Nobody Wants to Swim in This”, Forester Network Featured Story, July 18, 2017, Website blog, Accessed July 28, 2017.
  • Neuhaus, Les., “Reeking, Oozing Algae Closes South Florida Beaches”, New York Times, Web article, July 2, 2016, Accessed December 9, 2017.
  • Peeples, Ernest B., University of South Florida, “Why toxic algae blooms like Florida’s are so dangerous to people and wildlife”, July 19, 2016, Website article, Accessed December 9, 2017.
  • “Quarterly Hogs and Pigs September 28, 2017 – Executive Report”, United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, September 28, 2017, Website PDF, Accessed December 11, 2017.
  • Scavia, Donald. “Nutrient pollution: Voluntary steps are failing to shrink algae blooms and dead zones”, University of Michigan, July 31, 2017. Website article. Accessed December 9, 2017.
  • Schlossberg, Tatiana. “Fertilizers, a Boon to Agriculture, Pose Growing Threat to U.S. Waterways”, New York Times, Web article, July 27, 2016, Accessed December 9, 2017.
  • Trevino-Garrison, Ingrid, et al.,Kansas Department of Health and Environment, “Human Illnesses and Animal Deaths Associated with Freshwater Harmful Algal Blooms—Kansas”, in Toxins 2015, 7, 353-366; doi:10.3390/toxins7020353, Website article, Accessed December 9, 2017.
  • Turner, Eugene R and Nancy N. Rabalais, “2017 Forecast: Summer Hypoxic Zone Size Northern Gulf of Mexico”, Louisiana State University, Website PDF article. Accessed December 11, 2017.
  • S. EPA Webinar. “An Overview of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) and Their Impacts in Freshwater and Marine Ecosystems – Part 1: Summer Webinar Series to Build Awareness About Harmful Algal Blooms and Nutrient Pollution”, Presented June 25, 2013, Various Speakers, Webinar PDF. Accessed December 11, 2017.
  • “U.S dairy cow numbers up, but replacement heifer numbers lower”, Dairy Herd Management, Website article, July 29, 2014, Accessed December 11, 2017.
  • “What are Blue-Green Algae (Cyanobacteria)? State of Washington, Department of Ecology. Website article. Accessed December 11, 2017.
  • Wynne, Timothy T., et al. “NOAA Forecasts and Monitors Blooms of Toxic Cyanobacteria in Lake Erie”, Clear Waters Summer 2015, pp. 21-23, Website PDF article, Accessed July 28, 2017.

Recent Water Worries

A good mystery always entails intriguing circumstances and a circuitous pathway to its solution.  Whether it’s a deceptive villain intent on causing mayhem for the masses or a calculating killer, focusing single mindedly on his next victim, the goal is always the same – stay undetected and strike again.  This same objective may be true for a new genre of mysteries involving water borne illnesses. The solution, however, may not be as “elementary” as Sherlock implied.

Getting sick from ingesting or being in contact with contaminated water is nothing new. Nasty illnesses such as dysentery, cholera, botulism, and many others, have probably been impacting people since they first began gathering around the communal watering hole.

Historical records reveal water contamination problems have been around for centuries and offer basic solutions for dealing with them. Sometimes it was boiling water and other times it was replacing water with other beverages. For example, European sailor’s in the 1700’s were known to brew a beer with a higher alcohol and hops content, which acted like a preservative, for their long journeys to India.  It was referred to as India Pale Ale and has recently made quite a come-back in the burgeoning micro-brewery market.

It wasn’t until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that water treatment practices starting to take hold in the United States. Water experts figured out a combination of filtration and disinfection, typically by chlorination, would keep water sources safe for consumption. While this simple, yet effective, treatment technology has prevented countless outbreaks of water-borne illnesses over the last century, it may have met its match.

Strains of bacteria and protozoa are being found that are resistant to chlorination, making them extremely difficult to kill. Worse yet, only a small number of these germs are required to cause an illness. One parasite of concern is cryptosporidium; a protozoan originating from human and animal feces as well as seasonal run-off. “Crypto” is known to stick on water filter membranes and even high doses of chlorine have difficulty terminating this culprit.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recently announced there were twice as many crypto outbreaks in 2016 as there were in 2014. States hardest hit on 2016 were Alabama, Arizona and Ohio.  Specifically, the CDC website reported “Arizona identified 352 people sick with Crypto for July–October 2016, compared with no more than 62 cases for any one year in 2011–2015. Ohio identified 1,940 people sick with Crypto in 2016, compared with no more than 571 cases for any one year in 2012–2015.”  The mystery here is whether the increase in outbreaks is due to increased reporting, better detection or simply more cases occurring.

Another perpetrator guilty of recidivism is the bacteria Legionella. Different species of this bug are responsible for Pontiac Fever and the more well-known Legionaries’ Disease.  According to a June 6, 2016 Washington Post web article, Legionnaire’s outbreaks have quadrupled over the last 15 years. Recent large outbreaks occurred in Flint, Michigan and New York City.

Unfortunately, the health impacts of Legionella are more serious than Cryptosporidium. Crypto can cause nausea, stomach cramps and diarrhea for up to three weeks but Legionella can kill.  Medical treatment costs are high. CDC Director Tom Frieden has stated “The annual cost of treating Legionnaires’ disease, based on hospital claims, is about $434 million…”

The mystery to be solved with Legionella is how to detect it before an outbreak occurs. Legionella can be eliminated with proper water treatment but often it goes undetected until it’s too late.  It can build up in older plumbing infrastructures and strike when people breathe in small droplets of water containing the bacteria.

Legionella is a more challenging culprit to arrest. It’s costly to replace antiquated water infrastructure and It’s not easy to check closed-systems for bacterial contamination. Still, the CDC recommends proper maintenance of building water systems as the key to prevention.

But for now, that key may have fallen into the wrong hands…