Top 5 Regional Water Challenges for the 21st Century

By Mike Ekberg, MCD manager for water resources monitoring and analysis

You may have heard me say this before—southwest Ohio is water rich. We have abundant, high-quality, water when compared with other parts of our country and the world.

Yet, our region is not without challenges in managing water. Here are five water trends that may pose challenges to our community leaders for the foreseeable future.

Precipitation and runoff are trending up

Our region is getting wetter. Mean annual precipitation and runoff (the amount of water that drains off land) in the region are trending up. In the 1960s, mean annual precipitation was around 37 inches per year. Today, mean annual precipitation is a little over 41 inches. That‘s an increase of about 4 inches per year. Not surprisingly, mean annual runoff shows a similar trend.Precipitation trending up chart

These trends are good news and bad news at the same time. The good news from a water quantity perspective is our region isn’t likely to experience any long-term water shortages given current water uses. The bad news is our region could experience more frequent flooding outside of areas protected by The Miami Conservancy District (MCD). One thing that’s clear is communities will likely deal with more frequent and intense rain events in the future.

Water use is trending down

According to data compiled by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, water use for things such as drinking water, manufacturing, and irrigation are declining. Total ground and surface water used in the area that drains to the Great Miami River peaked in the early 2000s at slightly fewer than 600 million gallons of water per day. Water use is currently at about 300 million gallons per day

Water trend usage chartThe decline in water use is a result of several factors, including more water-efficient plumbing fixtures, increased efficiencies in industrial water use, a regional decline in manufacturing, and the closure of the DP&L Hutchings Station power plant.

Declining water use poses a challenge for many local water utilities struggling to maintain sufficient revenues to deal with rising infrastructure costs. In the past, water systems often made their financial projections based upon an assumption of rising water demand. This assumption is no longer valid. And yet, public water system infrastructure must be maintained if we want to have safe drinking water. Some water utilities may need to restructure rates to ensure sufficient revenues.

Nutrient levels in rivers and streams remain too high

Algal bloom on Great Miami River

2012 algal bloom on the Great Miami River in downtown Dayton

Nitrogen and phosphorus levels in many area rivers and streams are too high and affect aquatic life. The most common sources of nitrogen and phosphorus are agricultural fertilizers and human sewage. When nitrogen and phosphorus are present in water at high levels, they fuel excessive algal growth in the rivers where we like to recreate. Recent algal blooms in other parts of the US have been toxic. Agricultural leaders and communities that manage water-reclamation facilities are working to find a solution that cost-effectively reduces nutrients in our rivers and streams.

Road salt and fertilizers impact aquifers

top-water-challenges-blog-road-salt

Deicing agents such as road salt and brine can increase chloride in streams and rivers.

Applications of road salt and nitrogen fertilizers are perhaps the two most prolific sources of man-made contaminants to aquifers. Elevated levels of chloride from road salt—and elevated levels of nitrate from fertilizers or failing septic systems—are present in regional aquifers. That’s what  groundwater data collected by the United States Geological Survey, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA), and MCD show.

The take-home message is better methods for applying road deicing agents and agricultural fertilizers are needed in areas where regional aquifers are vulnerable to contaminants.

Do we know where these vulnerable aquifer areas are? We have a good start. Every public water system in Ohio that relies on groundwater has a defined source water protection area. A source water protection area is a map of all the aquifer areas which provide drinking water to a particular public water system. Those maps can be shared with farmers and road maintenance departments. It may be possible to reduce use or find better methods to apply fertilizers and road salt in these sensitive areas.

Widespread destruction of natural stream habitats continue

top-water-challenges-blog-concrete-channel

Modified stream channels have poor habitat and water quality.

It used to be that most people’s image of a polluted stream involved a factory with a big discharge pipe pouring toxic chemicals into the stream. That’s no longer a top water quality threat to regional rivers and streams. According to Ohio EPA, human alterations to the stream channel are perhaps the most widespread cause of stream destruction. Human alterations can mean:

  • Channelizing or straightening a stream channel.
  • Removing the natural vegetation from a streambank.
  • Increasing the impervious surface area that drains into a stream.
  • Damming the stream channel.
  • Developing in a stream’s floodplain.

All of the activities listed above disrupt a stream’s natural habitat, which can affect water quality in the places many of us like to recreate. They also create other problems, such as soil erosion and flooding, which can lead to costly clean-up and restoration.

Solutions to the problem typically seek to preserve as much of the stream channel in its natural state as possible. Streamside setbacks, conservation easements, and low- impact development practices are tools that can minimize destruction of rivers and streams.

Moving Forward

All of these water challenges can be overcome. The know-how already exists. The key is you and me. Most of these water challenges are the direct or indirect result of how we live our lives—the neighborhoods we build, the services we demand, and the value we place on having clean water.

The solutions will require different ways of thinking and different approaches to the way in which our region develops land. Agricultural practices for fertilizers and stream conservation will have to improve. New investments in water reclamation technologies may be needed, and perhaps changes to water rates. Are we ready to embrace those changes?

What can you do to prepare? Here’s a short list of ideas:

  • Advocate for federal investment in water infrastructure upgrades.
  • Include water management in short- and long-range community planning.
  • Keep water protection at the top of your community’s priorities.
  • Write local policies that protect water.

 

Hoping for a mild, dry winter? You might be disappointed

El Niño gone/ La Niña here

Winter 2016-2017 is upon the Dayton region, and from the looks of things it’s likely to be very different winter than winter 2015-2016. A major reason for the change is the strong El Niño conditions which persisted throughout winter 2015-2016 are gone. La Niña conditions have taken their place. However, the current La Niña is weak, and its impact on local weather will probably not be as great as the 2015–2016 El Niño event.

La Niña winters tend to bring moisture to the Ohio Valley

La Niña conditions occur when equatorial sea surface temperatures are below average in the central and east-central Pacific Ocean. This is the exact opposite of what occurs during an El Niño. Like El Niño, La Niña impacts global weather patterns by influencing the position of the polar and Pacific jet streams. During La Niña winters, the polar jetstream tends to dive south over North America. The polar jet stream brings cold air and storm systems to northern portions of the United States.

la-nina-graphic

According to National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, we can expect La Niña conditions to persist through February 2017. After February, its likely La Niña will transition to neutral conditions sometime during spring 2017. Neutral conditions mean that neither El Niño nor La Niña conditions are present in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.

So what does this mean for our region in terms of winter weather?

Winter 2016 – 2017 is likely to be wetter and cooler

The odds favor a wetter and cooler winter 2016 – 2017 compared to winter 2015 – 2016. Is this a guarantee? No it’s not. There are a multitude of other climatic factors at play in determining winter weather outcomes in our region. El Niño and La Niña events are just one of those factors.

Simple septic system steps save money and mess

By Mike Ekberg, Manager for Water Resources Monitoring and Analysis

None of us wants to throw thousands of dollars down the drain or put our family’s health at risk. But if you have a septic system and don’t maintain it, you could be doing just that.

It costs only $250 to $300 every four years to maintain your septic system. But repairing or replacing a broken septic system can cost $3,000 to $7,000. And just as important, a poorly maintained septic system can contaminate groundwater/drinking water and spread disease.

What is a septic system?
Septic systems are highly efficient, self-contained, underground wastewater treatment systems. They are commonly found in rural areas and often consist of a septic tank and a drainfield.

septic-system-graphic

Do you have a septic system?

Twenty-five percent of U.S. homes have a septic system. How do you know if you do? Here are some signs:

  • You use well water.
  • The waterline coming into your home doesn’t have a meter.
  • Your neighbors have a septic system.

How to maintain your septic system

Inspect and pump regularly: Your septic system should be inspected and pumped every three to five years by a certified septic system professional.

Use water efficiently to avoid overloading the system: Consider using high-efficiency toilets and showerheads. When using the washing machine, be sure to select the proper load size to avoid using more water than needed.

Flush with care: Don’t flush anything besides human waste and toilet paper. Never flush:

  • Paintssepticsmart-week4
  • Chemicals
  • Medications
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Dental floss

Take care at the drain

  • Never pour cooking oil or grease down the drain.
  • Never pour oil-based paints or solvents down the drain.
  • Eliminate or limit the use of a garbage disposal.

Maintain your drainfield

  • Never park or drive on your drainfield.
  • Plant trees an appropriate distance away from your drainfield. A septic service professional can advise you on the proper distance.
  • Keep roof drains, sump pumps and other rainwater drainage systems away from your drainfield area. Excess water can slow or stop the wastewater treatment process.

Information for this blogpost was taken directly from EPA’s “A Homeowner’s Guide to Septic Systems” and Groundwater Foundation materials.

Water needs you because you need water

By Sarah Hippensteel Hall, watershed partnerships manager
Manager for Watershed Partnerships

Have you ever tried to live a day or even a half day without water? No morning shower, no morning coffee, no washing your clothes. Those are the simple inconveniences. But it’s more than that. No water for the doctor to wash her hands before treating you. No water for firefighters to save a burning house. No water for farmers to grow your food.

imagine-a-day-without-water-no-date

We take water for granted, but it’s the one thing you can’t live without for more than a few days.

You think water isn’t a big deal? Consider this:

  • 46 percent of US lakes and 43 percent of U.S. rivers are polluted and unsafe for swimming or fishing.
  • 43 percent of the US is experiencing drought conditions.
  • Around the world, 1 of 5 children that dies under the age of 5 does so from exposure to polluted water.
  • By 2025, 3.5 billion people will be facing water shortages.

We can live without a lot, but we can’t live more than a few days without water.

Safe drinking water crises across the country

Cities across the country are facing major water issues:

  • The City of Toledo had no access to safe drinking water when toxins were sucked out of Lake Erie and sent into the drinking water supply chain.
  • California communities are experiencing epic drought. Some residents have relocated because wells have run dry.
  • The City of Flint, Michigan, knows how what life is like without safe, reliable water when lead was found at unhealthy levels in its water system.
  • Residents from South Carolina to West Virginia have lost water and wastewater service because of terrible flooding.

A water main breaks every two minutes

And it’s not just a water quality or quantity issue that’s a threat. The infrastructure that brings water to our homes and takes it back for treatment after we use it is also at risk.

Many water and wastewater systems in the big cities in the U.S. were built more than 100 years ago. These systems run 24/7/365, and they are breaking down rapidly. There’s a water main break in this country every two minutes.

But this hidden infrastructure doesn’t capture the public’s interest like roads and highways. You can see when highways and streets begin to decay. You can feel a pothole. But underground water infrastructure is invisible – until a water main break leaves you without water.

Water is not just an environmental issue. It’s an economic issue, it’s a jobs issue, and it’s a health issue. And someday, it may be a national security issue.

Don’t let it get that far.

Be part of the solution – be a water advocate

value-of-water

Become a water advocate. Support stronger laws to protect your water.

We all need to take action — now. Become a water advocate:

  • Support spending to fix the problems.
  • Support stronger laws to protect your water.
  • Vote for people who care about your life and your health and will do anything to protect the one thing you can’t live without – water .

MCD is taking action and raising awareness by partnering with hundreds of organizations across the country  in the Value of Water campaign.

What’s ahead for our region’s weather?

By Mike Ekberg, Manager for Water Resources Monitoring and Analysis

In my August 1, blogpost, “Climate Change: Is It Real?” we noted that our climate is always changing. Some people want to debate the cause, but that’s not nearly as important as planning for the changes that are expected.

A warming trend will amplify the extremes in our region’s climate, according to the Third National Climate Assessment. We can expect more intense summer heat waves, more droughts, and more floods.

More rain when we don’t need it and less rain when we do
The Third National Climate Assessment says here’s what we can expect over the next 35 years:

  • Annual average temperature in our region is expected to increase as much as 4.9 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Winter and spring precipitation is expected to increase 10-20 percent.
    • We’ll see less snow and more rain.
    • Storms are likely to be stronger, increasing the chance of flooding.
  • Summer rainfall is expected to drop 8 percent, increasing the chance of droughts.
    • Summer droughts can increase water demands on utilities for lawn irrigation.
    • More frequent summer droughts can increase water demand for crop irrigation.

The Miami Valley will need to cope with intense winter and spring rain events when human water demand is low. Likewise, we’ll need to cope with hotter – and sometimes drier – summers when human water demand is high.

Making changes now key to coping in the future
How can our region successfully cope with these challenges?

Planning and wise infrastructure investment is the key. Here are some steps communities in our region can take to prepare for a warmer future.

  • Minimize paved surfaces to reduce flash flooding and streambank erosion.
  • Encourage infiltration areas such as pervious pavement, rain gardens, and drainage swales to reduce urban runoff.
  • Install flood warning systems in areas prone to flash flooding.

    rain garden

    Rain gardens reduce storm water runoff by using the rain water on your property, allowing it to soak into the ground and recharge the aquifer.

  • Invest in more water storage to meet summer demands.
  • Manage summer water demand through regulations, rate structures, or consumer incentives.
  • Use the most efficient irrigation technologies to reduce summer water demand.
  • Provide cooling shelters for people who do not have access to air conditioning during summer heat waves.

The time to act is now
Taking steps now is the key to preparing for a changing world. Our region is fortunate to have sufficient water resources and should be able to weather the forecasted changes if we manage those resources well. If we don’t prepare now, we’ll be playing catch up later, and that could prove to be costly.

 

Climate Change: Is It Real?

By Mike Ekberg, Manager for Water Resources Monitoring and Analysis

Is climate change for real? Is the world getting warmer, or is all this talk about a warming climate just a bunch of hooey?

Let’s consider some recent findings. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), June 2016 was the warmest June ever recorded in terms of average worldwide temperatures. In fact, June 2016 was the 14th consecutive month to set a new monthly global temperature record.

NOAA has been keeping track of monthly global temperatures for 137 years. It compares current monthly global temperatures with the 20th century. The average global temperature for June was 0.92°C (1.62°F) above the 20th century average.

Do you know when the last time June global temperatures were actually below average? In 1976 – 40 years ago!

NOAA also tracks key indicators worldwide of a changing climate. According to NOAA’s latest State of the Climate Report:

  • Land, air, and sea surface temperatures are rising.
  • Glaciers and ice sheets are melting and decreasing in size.
  • Sea level is rising.
  • Snow cover and the extent of sea ice are decreasing.
  • Ocean heat content is increasing.

All of these indicators point convincingly to a warming world.

Is it global warming? Is it climate change? Is it simply changing weather patterns? Call it what you want, but the fact is earth’s climate is dynamic and always redefining normal. A continental-sized glacier once covered the Dayton region. So there’s always been and likely always will be “climate change.”

The debate, if there is one, is over how much we humans are impacting the current warming trend. And the bigger questions we should all be asking are, “What challenges does a changing climate pose for us?” and “How are we going to meet those challenges?”

NOAA Climate change graphic 10 Indicators of a Warming World

Great Miami River: Is the water safe for recreation?

By Mike Ekberg, Manager for Water Resources Monitoring and Analysis

Do you like to canoe, kayak, or row on the Great Miami River? Have you ever flipped your boat and ended up soaked with a mouthful of river water? Did you worry about getting sick?

River users frequently ask me,  “Is the water safe?”

The answer is yes, in most cases.

e. coli

E. coli bacteria

Bacteria levels can be a problem
Just like in most lakes and rivers, bacteria can be a problem. Bacteria levels from fecal contamination in the Great Miami River are a bad news/good news situation. The bad news is the levels tend to spike after it rains. The good news is the bacteria tend to die off quickly.

Keep in mind that even after a good rain, the risk of exposure to bacteria is likely to be low unless you swim in or drink the river water. For most people, paddling or rowing is a relatively low-risk activity.

Bacteria can get into the river from a variety of sources including poorly functioning septic systems, pet waste, streets, sidewalks, storm sewers, and farm fields. In the Great Miami River and its tributaries, Ohio EPA sets water-quality standards and measures recreation water quality based on a group of bacteria known as Escherichia coli (E. coli).

Ohio EPA evaluated bacteria levels in the Great Miami River in 2009 and 2010. The results showed average bacteria concentrations exceeded state standards at more than half of the sampling sites. MCD evaluated E. coli levels in the Great Miami River in 2012 and also found frequent occurrences of the bacteria.

Elevated E. coli levels and rainfall are related
As little as 0.30 inches of rain can raise E. coli levels in the Great Miami River, according to MCD’s study. But bacteria levels can return to safe levels in as little as 48 to 72 hours after a rainfall. Water samples collected 72 or more hours after rain often showed very low levels of E. coli and met state standards.

Dry weather minimizes risk
The best way to minimize your exposure to bacteria in the Great Miami River is to enjoy it during days of dry weather. If, however, you have open wounds, skin infections, or have a compromised immune system, consult your physician before taking part in any river recreation, and use caution.    

Forecasting safety
Using the relationship among rainfall, river flow, turbidity and E. coli, it’s possible to predict safe or unsafe river recreation conditions. Technology now allows for water-quality forecasting. Check out Ohio Nowcast, a web forecasting service for beaches on Lake Erie.

Preliminary planning is under way for MCD to develop a forecasting app for the Great Miami River. Two years of sampling will be needed before the app can be up and running.

Changes in groundwater levels?

By Mike Ekberg, Manager for Water Resources Monitoring and Analysis

Groundwater levels in the aquifer beneath downtown Dayton fluctuate throughout the year. Locally, groundwater levels often peak in winter or spring and decline to their annual low in the fall. However, we’re seeing changes to the normal up-and-down cycle of groundwater in the aquifer in a couple of downtown wells.

Graphic of depth to groundwater

Groundwater levels fluctuate throughout the year. But the annual low groundwater level at the Apple Street and South Main Street observation well shows a decline over the past 25 years.

The annual low groundwater levels in two downtown observation wells are showing a distinct downward trend, declining as much as 25 feet over the past 10 years. In fact, recent groundwater levels at both wells tend to be below monthly normals for much of the year. What’s causing the drop?

Geothermal systems may be the reason
An increase in geothermal heating and cooling systems in Dayton may be the cause. In the last 15 years or so, several buildings in downtown Dayton installed open loop geothermal systems. Open loop systems pull groundwater from high-capacity wells —tied to the aquifer beneath Dayton—to create heat and air conditioning.

If too many geothermal systems draw water from the same area, that could cause a significant drop in average groundwater levels. That’s happening now in these two wells in downtown Dayton. And yet, these wells—and the Dayton area–still have plenty of groundwater

Water supply safe
Is the aquifer going to go dry? Not likely. The buried valley aquifer, which stores this region’s groundwater, holds 1.5 trillion gallons of water. That said, in areas where a lot of groundwater is pulled from the aquifer, it’s possible for one well to cause another well to go dry. This situation is most likely to occur during summer months when water demand for cooling systems peak.

MCD tracks groundwater levels at more than 100 monitoring wells in the region. The City of Dayton tracks groundwater levels at more than 300 monitoring wells throughout its well fields and within the aquifer. City officials say their well field areas are not impacted by the pumping of groundwater downtown.

Can geothermal systems continue to be a workable option for Dayton buildings? Yes, provided there’s a plan to balance the number of systems and well locations.

Better water planning prevents problems
Steps to ensure this balance include:

  1. Inventory high-capacity geothermal wells in the downtown area.
  2. Fully understand current groundwater levels throughout the area.
  3. Assess the potential impact of new geothermal wells on existing wells and storm sewers.
  4. Site wells strategically.

With these steps, Dayton—and other cities—can ensure existing geothermal systems will not be harmed by adding new systems, and all the systems will be sustainable.

 

El Niño 2015/16: A recap

El Niño contributed to a mild winter in the Miami Valley

By Mike Ekberg, water resources monitoring and analysis manager

If you thought the region got off easy this winter, you’d be right.  And you can thank El Niño.

El Niños  produce drier and warmer than normal winters
El Niño affects weather worldwide by changing the way air circulates in the atmosphere.

El Niño is a weakening of eastward blowing winds over the Pacific Ocean creating warmer than normal water in the eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator.El Nino graphic

El Niño tends to keep the polar jet stream—and cold arctic air—farther north and out of the Miami Valley. It also tends to shift the Pacific jet stream—and winter storm systems—to our south. Together these patterns tend to produce warmer and drier winters locally.

Above average temps and precip
Average monthly temperatures for January through March were well above normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Dayton saw above-normal daily average temperatures all three months. This is exactly what we expect during an El Niño winter. The 2016 winter was the 10th warmest recorded for this region, dating back to 1895.

Precipitation was near normal, with an average of 8.94 inches in the Miami Valley. That’s 0.87 inches above normal. January and February precipitation were below normal, but March was above normal. So winter 2016 brought more precipitation than expected for an El Niño winter.

It’s anyone’s guess as to why precipitation was greater than expected. Other factors besides El Niño influence local weather. Sometimes the random nature of weather is beyond our ability to predict.


La Niña on the way?
While El Niño 2015/16 was one of the strongest ever recorded, it’s weakening. Most climate forecasts predict it will end during late spring or early summer and will eventually change over to a La Niña phase. Some forecasters expect that shift this summer.

It’s too early to tell how La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean will shape our next winter. Stay tuned.

 

Well Owners – Is your drinking water safe?

Contamination is more common than you think

By Mike Ekberg, MCD manager for water resources monitoring and analysis

Hey well owners, when’s the last time you had your drinking water tested? If you’re like many well owners in the United States, you probably have never tested your water. Why should you bother? You have plenty of water and it tastes good, right?

If you want to be sure your drinking water is safe, you need to get it tested.

Test at least annually
The National Ground Water Association (NGWA) recommends well owners test their water at least annually for bacteria, nitrates, and contaminants specific to your area. Consider more frequent testing if:

  • There is a change in taste, odor, or appearance of well water.
  • The well has a history of contamination.
  • The well is near a failing septic system.
  • There have been recurring incidents of gastrointestinal illness.
  • An infant is living in the home.
  • Home water treatment equipment has been installed.

In our area, I recommend the following tests:

E. coliE. coli bacteria is a specific indication of fecal contamination in the well. Its presence is a warning that disease-causing bacteria may have entered the well.

Nitrate – Nitrate gets into drinking water from fertilizers, manure, and septic systems. It also occurs naturally. High nitrate levels present a health concern for infants if the water is mixed with formula. High nitrate levels can also suggest other toxins such as bacteria and pesticides.

Arsenic – Arsenic is naturally occurring in groundwater. It’s linked to various cancers and other health issues.

Manganese – Manganese also occurs in nature and can be present in groundwater. At high enough levels, it may cause brain damage.

Lead – Lead typically gets into drinking water from corroded pipes and plumbing fixtures. If your home was built prior to 1986, it’s more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures, and solder.

 

Get help with testing
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has a website with contact information about state-certified labs that can help with testing. Contact a lab and have the staff help you collect water samples and explain the results.

Ohio State University (OSU) also offers an on-line tool to help you understand the results. The OSU site offers a lot of information for well owners.

Bigger problem than you think
Recent studies show that private well contamination is not rare. A 2009 United States Geological Survey study of more than 2,000 private wells found about 23 percent of the wells had problems. More recently, MCD surveyed 107 private wells. Twenty percent of those wells had unsafe levels of arsenic in the water.

The need for testing is real. Now go out and get your water tested!