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 This assumption is no longer valid.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.

 

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.

 

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.

Using a market-based solution to improve water quality

By Sarah Hippensteel Hall, water resources manager
Guest contributor

Although water quality in our rivers and streams has seen great improvements over the past few decades, about 40 percent still fail to meet water quality standards. Excess nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus — are a main cause. This failure is triggering additional regulations focused on wastewater treatment plants that could lead to rising costs for consumers like you and me.

More than 70 percent of the land that drains to the Great Miami River is used for agriculture, so the majority of nutrient-related water quality challenges relate to farming practices. Agricultural producers have worked diligently to implement conservation practices but financial incentives at the federal, state and local levels don’t match the demand.

Collaborative Solution
So a partnership among MCD and federal, state and local partners began in 2004 to find a better way to improve water quality at a lower cost. The result was a market-based Trading Program that reduces nutrients in streams and rivers as an alternative to traditional regulatory strategies. Farmers are paid to plant cover crops, install streamside buffer zones, and manage fertilizer application and manure storage to keep nitrogen and phosphorus from running off land into rivers and streams.

partners listMore than $3 million in funding for this pilot program came from wastewater treatment plants, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Miami Conservancy District manages the Trading Program, conducts extensive monitoring and publishes reports on levels of nutrients in the Great Miami River to track program results over time.

The success of the program has drawn international attention.

photo of buffer strips

Cover crops help reduce nutrient runoff.

 Economic benefits
An extensive economic and market analysis was completed before the pilot began to understand the costs and benefits. The analysis estimated that wastewater treatment plant upgrades could cost $422.5 million for the communities in our region – costs that could be passed on to customers.

The costs for agricultural conservation practices to achieve a similar level of nutrient reduction were projected at only $37.8 million, a potential $384.7 million savings compared to wastewater treatment plant upgrades.

It was estimated that on average, wastewater plants would pay $23.37 to reduce one pound of phosphorus using technology upgrades at the plant compared to $1.08 using agriculture conservation practices. For nitrogen, wastewater costs were $4.72/pound compared to $0.45/pound for agriculture.

The analysis concluded that water quality trading in the Great Miami River Watershed has the potential to provide significant cost savings with increased environmental benefit when compared to traditional regulatory approaches.

Current Status
As of March 2015, 467 agricultural projects have been installed, with farmers receiving $1.76 million to implement them. These projects are expected to reduce 626 tons of nutrient discharges to rivers and streams and achieve other benefits, including more sustainable farming operations and additional environmental improvement.

Originally expected in 2005, the additional regulations on wastewater treatment plants are not yet in place but are anticipated. As the Trading Program moves from pilot to implementation, a group of 14 soil and water conservation districts in southwest Ohio recently formed a joint board and are taking steps to assume management of the program.

Pollution shut down Toledo’s drinking water system – could it happen here?

By Sarah Hippensteel Hall, manager for watershed partnerships
Guest contributor

Last year, pollution in Lake Erie halted Toledo’s delivery of its drinking water to 400,000 people for several days. It happened when water that Toledo pulls from the lake was found to have dangerously high levels of microcystin, a toxin that is produced by algae. Microcystin is highly toxic to the livers of humans and animals. When nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus – are overabundant in lakes and river, the levels of toxin-producing algae may increase. Nutrients that contribute to algae growth come from many sources, including agriculture, lawn fertilizers, wastewater treatment plants, sewer overflows, leaking septic systems, and precipitation.

Could algal toxins shut down our water, too?
A similar scenario is less likely here because this region draws nearly all of its drinking water from the aquifer rather than a river or lake. However, an overabundance of nutrients in our watershed (the land area that drains to the Great Miami River), can lead to the growth of algae in our rivers, streams, and lakes.

algae bloom at Island Park Dam summer 2012

An algae bloom at Island Park Dam in Dayton during the summer of 2012.

An algal bloom is an abundant or excessive growth of algae. Some algal blooms do not produce toxins, but can still cause problems for aquatic life such as changes in fish population including death, and nuisance problems such as thick mats of algae that reduce access to water for  recreation.

Algal blooms are not the only problem in our water. About 40 percent of the rivers and streams in our watershed fail to meet Ohio water quality standards. Excess nutrients are a main cause. And those same nutrients negatively impact water that flows downstream to the Ohio River all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

map of nutrient monitoring stations in the Great Miami River Watershed

Nutrient monitoring stations in the Great Miami River Watershed

How do we know what’s in our waterways?
The Miami Conservancy District has regularly collected data from our rivers on the levels of nutrients since 2004. The data tells us that the levels of both nitrogen and phosphorus are too high at certain times of the year. The levels change with rainfall and other seasonal conditions.

Because it is also possible that toxin-producing algae grow in our watershed, the Miami Conservancy District tested for toxins in algal blooms in the Great Miami River in 2012 and 2014. So far, no toxins were detected.

A common sense approach to reducing nutrients
Because more than 70 percent of the land in the Great Miami River Watershed is used for agriculture, the majority of nutrient-related water runoff relates to farmland use.

The Miami Conservancy District has partnered with federal, state, and local partners to create a program, called the Great Miami River Watershed Water Quality Credit Trading Program, that reduces polluted runoff from farmland. Farmers are paid to reduce nutrients from flowing into rivers and streams.

Next time: How the Great Miami River Watershed Water Quality Credit Trading Program works