Provide Abundant Clean Water
More than half of America’s freshwater flows from public and private forest land, and about 60 million Americans rely on drinking water that originates on the national forests and grasslands. USDA Forest Service scientists are helping ensure that the Nation’s drinking water remains clean and abundant. This month’s scientist, partnership, research and product stories feature a scientist who explores how water (and the chemicals it carries) move through the landscape, how research is helping land managers improve the health of the Great Lakes, how the flow of personal care products affects aquatic ecosystems, and a resource that helps land managers adapt forests for changing habitat conditions.
Our Freshwater Snorkeling Curriculum and Toolkit helps students understand the connections between healthy forests and healthy watersheds.
Stephen Sebestyen studies where water moves, when it moves, and what it carries with it.
A research hydrologist with the Northern Research Station in Grand Rapids, Minn., Sebestyen’s research focuses on how hydrological and biogeochemical processes interact in ecosystems. His research has taken him from the bogs of Northern Minnesota to New England and mid-Atlantic states to explore the geographic scope of nitrogen pollution effects on nearly 100 streams from Minnesota and southern Ontario to the East Coast.
One of the most significant studies of Sebestyen’s career is under way in his own back yard, the Marcell Experimental Forest. Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Changing Environments (SPRUCE) is a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Lab that is testing the effects of increased soil and air temperature and elevated carbon dioxide levels on northern peatland ecosystems. The study was installed on the Forest Service’s Marcell Experimental Forest because of its rich history of research on peatlands and long-term hydrological, climatological and chemistry data bases.
For Sebestyen, SPRUCE and other long-term research involving the USDA Forest Service’s network of experimental forests is a unique opportunity to collaborate with others, from students to internationally renowned scientists. “Being part of these studies, which are constantly revealing new things that can be applied to new questions, is an amazing opportunity,” Sebestyen said. “There are not many of these studies on the planet.”
A native of Pennsylvania, Sebestyen grew up with forests and the Susquehanna River and an aptitude for science. An environmental science program in college fueled his interest in figuring out how ecosystems work and developing science that could inform environmental policy. Over many projects and scientific papers, Sebestyen has gained an appreciation for the power of collaboration in research.
“When you get enough good people together, you are really going to nail the science,” Sebestyen said.
Forest Adaptation Resources: climate change tools and approaches for land managers, 2nd edition
Nearly 300,000 residents of Providence, R.I., depend on Providence Water to ensure that the city’s tap water is clean and abundant, and the city’s water department relies on forests to help keep that water flowing.
In 2013, Providence Water asked the Forest Service’s Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS), a collaboration of the USDA Forest Service, universities, non-government organizations and industry, for assistance planning for future forest health. The result is a tree-planting demonstration project at two sites that will help Providence Water determine which tree species will be best suited to habitat conditions in the future. Additional sites are being considered.
Sixty percent of Providence’s water comes from the Scituate Reservoir, the state’s largest body of fresh water. The Scituate Reservoir and five smaller tributary reservoirs are surrounded by 13,000 acres of mostly forested public land, every acre of which plays a significant role in maintaining water quality. Forests remove excess nutrients and pollutants (such as fertilizers and some pesticides) and sediments from surface runoff and shallow groundwater, and they also shade streams to optimize light and temperature conditions.
Using a NIACS workbook titled Forest Adaptation Resources, climate change specialists with NIACS helped identify strategies that Providence Water can implement today to ensure the water supply for tomorrow. The adaptation workbook, now in its second edition, is designed to be tailored to the user’s location and follows a structured process for thinking about climate change as part of forest management.
“Peer-reviewed science and the user’s own management goals are integral to climate change adaptation,” said Maria Janowiak, deputy director of NIACS. “Whether you manage commercial forests or a family woodlot, the Workbook can help you decide on management steps to keep your forests healthy, productive and beautiful.”
Contaminants in Water
When soap, sunscreen and other products people use to stay clean and healthy go down the drain, they don’t just go away. Recent studies have documented the widespread occurrence of UV-filters from sunscreens, estrogens, and other pharmaceuticals in aquatic ecosystems throughout the United States. A researcher at the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station and her collaborators at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County have developed a “quick, easy, cheap, effective, rugged and safe” method, or QuEChERS, to investigate bioaccumulation of these contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) in stream and coastal ecosystems.
Hormones and other estrogenic chemicals in the environment can bind to hormone receptors in cells and interfere with biological processes that are regulated by the presence of natural hormones. Known effects of endocrine disruption on vertebrates include intersex fish that have both male and female reproductive tissue and weakening of bird egg shells. Both of these conditions result in reproductive failure and negative impacts to local populations.
“QuEChERS is the first method to simultaneously detect multiple hormones and UV-filters from sunscreens in aquatic and marine invertebrates,” said Anne Timm, Research Aquatic Ecologist with the Northern Research Station in Baltimore, MD. “The method allows us to measure dozens of CECs to nanograms per liter levels in 15-minutes.”
“Currently, very little is known about how hormones and UV-filters may affect human health, but endocrine disruptors have caused reproductive failure in other mammals and we know that these chemicals accumulate in food webs,” said Timm. “There is also growing concern about human health risks from pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics in aquatic and marine environments, which can result in antibiotic resistant bacteria.”
Findings from this research may ultimately enable scientists to identify potential sources of CECs according to land use type and link them to aquatic ecosystem health. For example, presence of UV-filters in water samples may point to urban land use sources such as wastewater treatment plants, leaky sewer pipes, and recreational activity. The presence of animal-labeled antibiotics can indicate agricultural land use sources such as animal feeding operations.
QuEChERS has been used to assess the presence of CECs in crayfish of urban streams. Application of the method to mussels and oysters in the Chesapeake Bay will enable managers to prioritize oyster restoration activities and assess ecosystem health to maintain significant coastal resources.
Great Lakes Restoration Intiative
The Great Lakes are scattered across portions of eight U.S. states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) and the Canadian province of Ontario and together have a surface area of approximately 94,250 square miles. The Lakes, Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario, contain 21 percent of the world's surface fresh water by volume. Since 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency has been leading a partnership called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that is accelerating efforts to protect and restore the largest system of fresh water on the planet. The USDA Forest Service joined the partnership in 2013.
Today, three of the Forest Service’s four branches – Research and Development, the National Forest System and State and Private Forestry – are active partners in 22 different Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects. Northern Research Station projects include assessing the influence of wildfire on mercury levels in the lakes, working with landowners on adapting forests for changed habitat suitability conditions, anticipating how an invasive insect called the emerald ash borer might affect Northern Minnesota’s black ash wetlands, prioritizing trout and salmon habitat for restoration, and examining the role of trees in the health of Great Lakes water from urban areas to landfills, among others.
“Forests constitute an estimated 40 percent of the land cover surrounding the Great Lakes, making Forest Service research particularly relevant to Great Lakes restoration issues,” said Charles (Hobie) Perry, the Analytical Science lead with the Northern Research Station’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program. “Along with our colleagues at the Environmental Protection Agency and other Federal agencies, scientists are working with land managers and communities to improve water quality in watersheds and ultimately the Great Lakes.”
One of the Northern Research Station’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects is led by Ron Zalesny, a research plant geneticist based in Wisconsin, who is working with several communities and landfill managers in Wisconsin and Michigan to deploy thousands of trees to control runoff around landfills. His objective is to demonstrate how fast-growing trees reduce runoff and potentially remove contaminants through effective green infrastructure. “Work by Dr. Zalesny is providing valuable water balance, forensic data, and a phytoremediation buffer tree plot to reduce untreated runoff from our site,” said David Henderson, a Senior Project Manager with AECOM. “This collaboration between the USDA Forest Service, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the City of Manitowoc, and AECOM is proving to be a benefit for all parties involved.”