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Clean Water

July 2015

Cold water from the kitchen faucet on a hot summer day; the captivating sound of a babbling brook; an early morning spent standing in a pure mountain stream, trying to convince a fish that the fly on the end of your line is real–all of these depend on the availability of clean water.  But clean water cannot be taken for granted.  Vegetation management, road construction, agricultural practices, and urban storm water management are among the many factors that can significantly affect water quality.  This month we feature a scientist, research, a product and partnership related to clean water. 

Environmental Education Link

FreshWaterLIVE: A Distance Learning Adventure will bring an appreciation and understanding of fresh water to classrooms and the interested public through a FREE webcast, webinars, and online resources.

Featured Scientist

Ken Belt

Ken Belt uses auto-samplers to measure runoff quality.Hydrologist/Aquatic Ecologist Ken Belt’s interests span a continuum from the smallest waterborne microorganisms to the largest engineered water systems.  His research in urban hydrology and aquatic ecology with the Baltimore Ecosystem Study enables him to satisfy his curiosity at both scales and advance our understanding of the ecological principles that govern urban water ecosystems. 

Belt employs an ecohydrology approach in his research that takes into account the interactions between water and organisms.  “The streams and gutters we see in the landscape are only part of urban watersheds,” Belt explains. “Water flows permeate every bit of a three dimensional watershed system, from the unseen groundwater habitats to the leaves at the tops of the tallest trees.”  He finds this approach useful in conducting research, and in communicating with urban residents about the importance of managing and engineering urban landscapes to optimize ecohydrologic functions. 

Belt’s passion for all things hydrological was fostered when he was a child growing up in Baltimore, where he was only a short bike ride away from the local urban stream, Herring Run, and its associated trails and myriad of aquatic environments. 

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Featured Product

Best Management Practices for Clean Water

Forest Managers survey health of stream.The Forest Service takes its role in caring for the land and serving people very seriously.  As a tool for controlling nonpoint source pollutants, Best Management Practices (BMPs) help ensure that activities taking place in our forests, such as vegetation management, grazing, recreation, and mining, have limited negative impacts on forest health and sustainability. Sediment is a nonpoint source pollutant of particularly great concern because it is the most common stream and river pollutant nationwide as well as worldwide.

While having BMPs in place is a critical step in minimizing negative impacts, it is also important to know that they are making a difference.  Over the past several years, Forest Service scientist Pamela Edwards led the team that developed the Agency’s National BMP Monitoring Program, which provides a consistent approach for monitoring implementation and effectiveness of BMPs employed on lands managed by the National Forest System.  The program will allow the Forest Service to monitor implementation and effectiveness trends through time and provide information that will enhance adaptive management, for forests individually as well as on a national basis. Edwards also spearheaded in-person “Train the Trainer” workshops that have been conducted across the country and have involved personnel representing more than half the Agency’s National Forests and Grasslands. 

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Featured Research

Brook Trout

Wild native brook trout grow larger in connected riverine habitats.  Photo used with permission by Mark Hudy.When it comes to the watery environment they call home, brook trout like their water clear, cold and well oxygenated and their liquid highways easily passable.  These criteria can be hard to meet as forests are managed, human infrastructure (particularly roads and dams) encroaches, and streams are increasingly affected by extreme weather (drought and floods) and atmospheric pollution. 

Forest Service researchers are studying the movement of brook trout in their native streams in eastern North America to determine how these trout use the main channel (mainstem) and smaller tributary streams through their various life phases.  Scientists do this by individually identifying the trout using two new techniques.  First, every trout captured is fitted with a passive integrated transponder (‘PIT’) tag – the equivalent of an EZ-PASS.  Every time the fish is either recaptured or swims by a fixed antenna, its status is recorded.  Second, scientists gather genetic information from the trout using a small, non-lethal tissue sample.  This technique enables scientists to connect each individual fish with its parents, siblings, and if successful, its offspring.

Study results have shown that about one-third of brook trout regularly move between the main stream and smaller tributaries over their life cycle, a number which would have been substantially underestimated without the combined use of PIT tags and genotypes.  Use of tributaries is especially important in breeding success, with trout that grow large in the main channel and spawn in the tributaries more likely to hit the reproductive ‘jackpot’ and have a large number of surviving offspring.  In addition to reproductive advantage, the large size obtained by individuals using this strategy may help provide sustainable fishing opportunities for anglers. 

These results underscore the importance of movement between larger and smaller stream sections during a trout’s life cycle, and provide science support and direction for efforts to maintain and restore habitat for continued brook trout viability.

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Featured Partnership

Prairie STRIPS

Prairie strips integrated into row crops in Iowa for protection of water quality and improving soil health, increases in plant and animal biodiversity, and enhancing populations of beneficial insects (US Fish and Wildlife Service Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Prairie City, Iowa).

STRIPS, or Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips, is a vibrant partnership in the Midwest focused on demonstrating how transforming strategic portions of the agricultural landscape to perennial plant communities can enhance environmental quality and socioeconomic vitality.

STRIPS is a collaboration of the Northern Research Station, Iowa State University, the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, the Agriculture Research Service’s National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and the University of Michigan.  Scientists, educators, farmers and extension specialists comprise a team implementing and researching the prairie strips agricultural conservation practice.

Research over the past 10 years shows that prairie strips are an affordable option for farmers and farm landowners seeking to garner multiple conservation benefits. By converting just 10 percent of a crop-field to diverse, native perennials, farmers and landowners can reduce the amount of soil leaving their fields by 90 percent and the amount of nitrogen leaving their fields through surface runoff by up to 85 percent.  Prairie strips also provide habitat for birds, pollinators and other beneficial insects, reducing the need for pesticides.  

Participants of the STRIPS partnership have made many presentations to farmers, stakeholders, farm-related agencies and agri-businesses, and have produced 12 publications and a handbook on the benefits of integrating prairie strips into row crops and methods for achieving desired outcomes.  Once STRIPS is widely accepted as an agricultural practice, scientists predict that nutrient inputs to the Gulf of Mexico from agricultural runoff will decrease and the hypoxia zone (an area of low oxygen caused by algal blooms from excess nutrients) will be eliminated. The partnership recently implemented a second phase of the project, STRIPS 2, which is expanding the research to the landscape level by placing prairie strips in actively managed row crop systems across Iowa.

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