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 This assumption is no longer valid.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.

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.

 

Winter 2016 and “The Mother of all El Niños”

El Niño is getting a lot of media attention these days being blamed for floods, famine, and the spread of diseases. This year’s El Niño is shaping up to be one of the stronger, if not the strongest, El Niño in history. In fact, it’s drawing comparisons to the 1997 El Niño event, which is the strongest El Niño on record and sometimes called “The Mother of all El Niños.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the current El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean is expected to peak in December, but the impacts of El Niño are expected to last well into the spring of 2016. These impacts are likely to influence weather in our region.

El Nino comparison

Comparison of 1997 El Niño (left) and 2015 El Niño

When it comes to Earth’s climate, weather phenomena happening in faraway places can sometimes have dramatic impacts locally. El Niño is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean. The image above shows areas of the Pacific Ocean with above-normal water temperatures colored in red in August of the 1997 El Niño event and August of 2015.

When El Niño occurs, very warm waters in the Pacific Ocean pump more moisture into the atmosphere. This impacts and changes the direction of major wind currents, steering weather systems across the United States. In other words, the typical storm paths in the United States are shifted. Typically, El Niño shifts storm tracks south during the winter months resulting in increased precipitation across the southern tier of the United States. At the same time, El Niño tends to bring warmer-than-normal temperatures to Alaska, Canada, and the northern tier of the United States. 

2016 3 month precipitation outlook

2016 3-month precipitation outlook

So what El Niño effects can our region expect
to see for the upcoming winter and spring?  According to NOAA’s climate prediction
center
, our region is likely to experience a mild winter temperature-wise with below-normal precipitation. The image on the right shows areas of the United States expected to have above-normal precipitation in green and
below-normal precipitation in brown over the next three months. Most of Ohio is colored in brown. The outlook for spring is similar, with near-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation.

Is this forecast a sure bet? It isn’t. The Earth’s climate systems are extremely complex, and El Niño is only one of many factors influencing our weather. The temperature and precipitation outcomes we experience this winter are a result of a multitude of complex interactions among the Earth’s weather systems. We can only wait and see!

Globally, a record warm June; locally, a very wet June

By Mike Ekberg
Water Resources Manager

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), June 2015 was the warmest June ever from a global perspective. The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces was the highest ever measured for the 136 years in which records have been kept. The combined average temperature across the world’s land and ocean surfaces was 0.88 °F above the 20th century average.

In fact, the first six months of 2015 comprised the warmest six-month period on record across global land and ocean surfaces at 1.53°F above the 20th century average. This might seem surprising to Miami Valley residents because we experienced cooler than normal temperatures. The first six months of 2015 were cooler than normal across most of eastern North America, probably due to several southern invasions of the polar vortex which brought cold arctic air into eastern portions of Canada and the United States during the winter of 2015.

In addition to tracking temperature, NOAA also tracks precipitation globally. Precipitation in June was highly variable, but much of eastern North America received precipitation in the normal to twice-the-normal range for the month. The Ohio River Valley, the eastern portion of the Lake Erie Basin, and the Mississippi River Valley in Illinois and Iowa were particularly wet. Much of this region received 5 to more than 10 inches of precipitation in June. Flooding occurred throughout portions of northwest Ohio, northern Indiana, and Illinois.

MCD tracks precipitation in the Great Miami River Watershed. MCD’s records show June was a very wet month in the Miami Valley as well.

  • Monthly precipitation at MCD observer stations ranged from 5.60 inches at West Milton to 11.61 inches at Fort Loramie.
  • Mean precipitation for the Great Miami River Watershed was a little more than 8 inches, twice as much as we would normally expect in June.
  • Runoff for the Great Miami River measured at Hamilton was a little over 3 inches, three times the normal amount of runoff in June.
  • MCD dams stored water on two occasions in June.

Despite these numbers, June was not a record-setter locally. The wettest June on record occurred in 1958, when an average of 10.30 inches of precipitation fell across the watershed.