Water needs you because you need water

By Sarah Hippensteel Hall, watershed partnerships manager
Guest contributor

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.


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


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!


Could a drinking water crisis be headed our way?

Water quality crises are becoming more common, from algal toxins in Toledo to lead in Flint, Michigan; Sebring, Ohio and other communities. Could those crises happen here?

It’s possible—but not likely—because this region pulls almost all of its drinking water from groundwater stored in the buried valley aquifer, not from rivers and streams as these highlighted cities do. Why is groundwater better?

Groundwater offers several benefits over surface water (rivers and streams) for drinking.

  • Treating groundwater so it can be used for drinking water can be simpler than treating surface water. Groundwater may only need to be disinfected to kill bacteria and viruses, while surface water must be disinfected and filtered for other pollutants.
  • Groundwater in our region tends to be alkaline and not as corrosive to pipes as natural waters from other parts of the state.
  • Groundwater is commonly ‘softened’ during treatment which tends to reduce the buildup of scale on pipes and plumbing fixtures.
  • Surface water can be affected by polluted runoff from many different land uses including rural and urban land activities. This runoff can include bacteria and chemicals that are difficult or costly to treat.
  • Algal blooms, which are fed by polluted runoff flowing into rivers and streams, do not occur in groundwater because algae cannot live underground.
  • Spills of toxins or other contaminants into rivers and streams can flow downstream quickly for hundreds of miles, potentially reaching the intakes to water supply. Groundwater typically moves slowly, so there is time to prepare or to clean up contamination before it reaches water supply wells.

Protecting groundwater is key

The key is protecting groundwater and preventing contamination. Contaminated groundwater tends to stay contaminated for a long time. Once groundwater becomes contaminated, it’s often very difficult and costly to cleanup.

Advances in groundwater cleanup technologies have been made over the last several decades, but groundwater quality often can’t be restored to previous conditions.

Fortunately, for those of us who live, work and play in the Miami Valley, we can rely on the buried valley aquifer system to provide us with a reliable source of drinking water. Provided, that is, we are willing to do the things necessary to be good stewards of this resource and protect it for our future.

Communities can help

Every community in the Miami Valley has an important role in keeping our water clean and safe.

Make sure that your community has an up-to-date and thorough source water protection plan that is implemented. A source water protection plan protects your community’s water supply.

Communities can protect water by updating their development policies including zoning, codes, ordinances, and subdivision regulations. There are easy and economical ways to do a better job of developing land while protecting water.

Municipalities can also take steps to help residents learn how to ensure the quality of our groundwater. Educate your residents:

  • About the dangers of pouring household cleaners, paint and other chemicals onto the ground, and share information about proper disposal.
  • How to report spills.
  • How to use pesticides and fertilizers sparingly.
  • How to carefully change the oil in their cars, avoiding spills that could make their way to the storm drain. Ensure your community has an oil drop off program.
  • How to responsibly dispose of unwanted medication, and provide prescription drop-off events.

2015 in Review: A Wet Year

The year 2015 has come to a close and before we get too far into 2016, I thought it might be interesting to review the year from a hydrologic perspective given all the recent attention to El Niño and the December 27-30 high water event on the Great Miami River and its tributaries.

The Great Miami River Watershed received an average of 45.26 inches of precipitation in 2015. The 30- year average annual precipitation is 41.18 inches, so 2015 was well above average.

Precipitation was significantly above average during the months of April, June, July, and December. February, May, and September were significantly drier than normal. No record highs or lows were set in 2015.

Above-average precipitation in 2015 led to above average runoff. Runoff is the amount of water carried out of a drainage area by streams. Runoff for the Great Miami River was measured at 18.37 inches for the year, which is 5.34 inches above average.

At least one Miami Conservancy District dam stored water on 12 different occasions in 2015. The average number of annual storage events for the MCD flood protection system is eight. The largest storage event was the December 27–30 event when all five of MCD’s dams were storing floodwaters. Together the dams stored 14.2 billion gallons of water behind the dams. This event ranked as the 32nd largest storage event in MCD history.

All in all, 2015 was a continuation of a rising trend in precipitation for our region. The chart below shows how the 30-year average annual precipitation for the Great Miami River has changed since 1985, and has been rising sharply since the 1990s. What can we expect if this trend continues? The answer is more rain, more runoff, and more high-water events.

30-year precip chart

Floodplains: The utility player of flood protection

When you think of flood protection, you likely think of dams and levees. But there’s another element of flood protection that provides many additional benefits – floodplains.

Floodplains are a bit like the utility player in baseball – called on to play a number of positions and always getting the job done. Here are several roles that floodplains play in our communities.

Floodplains reduce flooding
Floodplains are the land along rivers that take on and store excess water during storms and flooding. The water can then be slowly released over time. They help prevent floodwaters from reaching homes and businesses.  Floodplains are essential protection, working in tandem with dams and levees.floodplain

Floodplains protect our groundwater
Water stored on floodplains slowly seeps into the ground and helps replenish our aquifer which holds the region’s drinking water. The Great Miami River and the Buried Valley Aquifer interact with one another. Water from the river seeps into the aquifer during heavy rains/high flows, while groundwater provides flow to the river during our driest months when river flows are low.

Floodplains prevent river pollution
When rivers are running fast during high-water events, so are sediment, nutrients and other pollutants. Floodplains help to slow the river flows and are a place where the water can spread out. When water slows down, it can have the time to drain down through the soil, which filters out pollutants. The plants and trees that grow on floodplains take up excess nutrients; provide shade; and regulate water temperature for aquatic life, which prefers cooler water temperatures.

Floodplains provide for habitat
When land along rivers is not developed, it can provide habitat for many types of wildlife. The plants and trees that grow in floodplains provide places for animals to live. The roots of trees that extend into the water provide habitat for fish and stream insects.

Floodplains provide land for agriculture
With floodwaters come nutrient rich soils, making the floodplain especially good for agriculture, the strongest industry in Ohio’s economy. Many floodplains in our region are valued as prime agriculture lands.

Floodplains provide land for recreation
Floodplains along the river provide land for bike trails. The majority of the year, floodplains along the river remain dry, making the land perfect for bike trails and recreational use. About 60 of the 80 miles of Great Miami River Bike Trail are on MCD-owned land acquired for the flood protection system.  Without these flood protection lands, it would be difficult to have such a long, uninterrupted scenic bike trail through historic and charming riverfront communities. The Great Miami River Bike Trail is part of the nation’s largest paved trail network.floodplain recreation

Floodplains also provide areas where people can reach the river and enjoy recreation and wildlife-watching activities. Places where people can fish, launch a boat, play in a park, or just walk along the river provide the opportunities a community needs to stay healthy and active.

Just like a utility player for a baseball team will likely never be the MVP, floodplains will likely never get the credit that dams and levees do when it comes to flood protection. But they get the job done effectively, efficiently and unassumingly.

Good land-use planning protects floodplains and, in turn, floodplains protect us from flooding and clearly provide many other benefits. Encourage good land-use planning in your community.