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.

 

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!

Stream Gages: Commitment yields benefits

In our last blog post, “Gauging the Value of Gages,” we discussed the importance of stream gages to The Miami Conservancy District’s (MCD) flood protection activities. Now let’s talk about the importance of stream gage information on riverfront development, infrastructure projects, public safety, and water quality.

Stream gage network benefits

Stream gages provide reliable estimates of peak river flows that must be incorporated into engineering designs for infrastructure in floodplains and river channels. The infrastructure includes everything from levees, bridges, bikeways, boat ramps and docks, riverfront parks, kayak runs, and water and wastewater treatment plants. Imagine the implications of building riverfront projects and bridges without knowing how high the river will rise.

Stream gage information allows recreational paddlers and boating clubs to determine whether or not it’s safe to go out on the river. It is also used to determine when river corridor bikeways are dry and safe or whether portions are under water.

FEMA uses river studies to develop more accurate FEMA floodplain maps. Those river studies rely on data from stream gages.

Wastewater treatment plant permits regarding discharging pollutants into waterways are often based on certain river flows. Stream gages can be used to determine these river flows.

How a stream gage works

A stream gage measures the elevation of the water surface at a particular point in the river channel (not the entire river channel). We call the elevation of the water surface the stream or river stage.

Stream gages do not directly measure flow. To measure flow, MCD staff goes into the river with instruments that measure discharge – usually measured as cubic feet per second.

Discharge measurement on Holes Creek near Kettering

An MCD staff member takes a discharge measurement on Holes Creek near Kettering.

If we measure the discharge in the river channel over a wide range of river stages, we can develop a mathematical relationship between stream stage and discharge that estimates the amount of discharge for any given stage.

This relationship is called a rating curve. Once the rating curve is developed for a stream gage, we can determine reliable estimates of river flows.

This is important because it is not cost-effective, practical, or safe to send staff into the river every time that information is needed. Steam gages measure stage on a real-time basis, so with the rating curve, stream flow can be estimated on a real-time basis. Historic records of actual stream flow conditions allow us to predict future conditions, including peak flows.

The Great Miami River Watershed Stream Gage Network

The stream gage network in the Great Miami River Watershed consists of 25 stream gages. These gages are also part of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) national stream gaging network. MCD purchases most of the equipment and provides most of the field labor to maintain the gages. USGS manages the data, providing the ability to transmit data through GOES satellites, and allowing users to access the data through the National Water Information System (NWIS).

This stream gage network is funded by a combination of federal and local funding sources. Federal funds are provided by USGS and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Local funding is provided by MCD.

Protect the value of stream gages

Everyone needs stream gaging information to support good engineering design and flood forecasting. A reliable stream gage network is integral for regional efforts to improve flood preparedness, develop new riverfront corridors in our cities, improve water quality, and support recreation on our rivers and streams. Without the network, we would be flying blind.

Most people think information that comes from stream gages is just a matter of installing a sensor somewhere and letting it do its thing. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. It takes time – lots of time, if you do it right. And that costs money, from equipment to staff time.

Each year, funding for the national stream gage network is threatened with cuts to the federal budget. Please let your local congressman know it’s important to protect and support our system of stream gages and data transmission satellites so it continues to provide our region with valuable water information.

Gauging the value of stream gages

For almost 100 years, communities along the Great Miami River have been protected by a system of dams and levees built by MCD. The system is an engineering masterpiece.

Since their completion in 1922, the dams and levees have protected riverfront communities from Piqua to Hamilton with a 100 percent success rate! To maintain and properly operate this system, MCD needs accurate and up-to-date information about river levels and how weather will impact the Great Miami River and its tributaries.

Stream gage at Franklin – The gage is mounted to the side of a bridge over the Great Miami River. The gage uses a radar sensor to measure the distance to the water surface below.

Stream gage at Franklin – The gage is mounted to the side of a bridge over the Great Miami River. The gage uses a radar sensor to measure the distance to the water surface below.

MCD and United States Geological Survey (USGS) collect information at 25 locations along the river. Each location features a stream gage that collects river flow information. These stream gages are part of a national network of stream gages maintained by USGS. Stream gages are located along the Great Miami River in most of the cities MCD protects.

The gages transmit hourly information on the amount of water in the river channel (elevation or height of water surface in the river). MCD staff uses information from the stream gages during high water events to determine when to close flood gates, measure groundwater levels beneath levees, and inspect levees for signs of erosion or underseepage caused by high river levels. MCD’s stream gage information also is used by the National Weather Service, recreationalists, and businesses and contractors working near or in the river channel.

MCD floodgate in Miamisburg - The wheel at the top of the concrete box closes the floodgate below to prevent river water from flowing into the landward side of the levee.

MCD floodgate in Miamisburg – The wheel at the top of the concrete box closes the floodgate below to prevent river water from flowing into the landward side of the levee.

Closing flood gates is one of the most important tasks MCD staff does during a high water event. Floodgates are normally left open so that runoff from city streets and parking lots can flow through the levee and into the river. When the river rises high enough, however, water can flow backwards through the floodgate and into city streets, threatening to flood areas protected by the levee. MCD staff close floodgates to prevent this from happening, and timing is critical.

The National Weather Service’s Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service (AHPS) uses MCD’s stream gage information – along with other vital data – for its daily river forecasts, which are available online. AHPS incorporates information from stream gages and weather forecasts into models that predict future river flows. River forecasts wouldn’t be possible without stream gages.

Timely river forecasts allow MCD to plan ahead and take actions necessary to prevent communities from flooding. Knowing current and predicted river levels is integral to operating MCD’s flood protection system.

Our region is fortunate to have a stream gage network that provides this critical information. In a future blog I’ll talk more about how stream gages work.

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.

 

Potential changes to the region’s drinking water protection plan

Most of us trust our local elected officials with many of the more routine decisions that make our cities hum, without feeling the need to be in attendance. But occasionally, big decisions are made and you want to be there – or at least be aware. On July 29, the City of Dayton will consider important changes to its source water protection program, which is designed to protect the city’s groundwater/drinking water.

The water stored underground in the Buried Valley Aquifer represents the region’s sole and irreplaceable source of drinking water. The Miami Conservancy District’s Aquifer Preservation Subdistrict supports comprehensive protection and management of the region’s water and helps communities develop and implement source water protection plans.

Since 1987, communities that use groundwater for drinking have been required to create plans to protect their water. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) oversees the source water protection requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The City of Dayton was the first community in Ohio to develop and implement a source water protection program. Currently, the City of Dayton supplies drinking water to approximately 400,000 customers.

The program is multi-jurisdictional and partners with the cities of Huber Heights, Riverside, Vandalia, and Wright Patterson Air Force Base. The source water protection area encompasses more than 6,200 acres.

The City of Dayton has received national attention for its strategy to protect source water while allowing businesses to stay in the source water area. For example, the Risk Point Buy Down Program encourages businesses to permanently reduce chemical inventory through financial incentives. Since its establishment in 1988, more than 25 million pounds of chemicals have been reduced in the source water protection area.

The City of Dayton’s source water protection program has been an exemplary model for communities and is proof that sensible groundwater protection strategies and economic growth can co-exist. Last year, the City of Dayton announced plans to revise the program and asked for comments.

The current proposal:

  • Increases incentive funds for businesses to eliminate hazardous materials.
  • Adds more monitoring wells.
  • Reduces the one-year source water protection area (the area in which contaminants can reach production wells within one year).
  • Allows variances that would increase the inventory of hazardous materials in the source water protection area.
  • Outlines a five-year time-of-travel zone (the area in which contaminants can reach production wells within five years) but doesn’t include any protection regulations.
  • Expands the list of prohibited uses within the source water protection area.
  • Requires more frequent inspections.
  • Increases maximum fines for rule violations.

The Dayton City Commission will meet on July 29th to discuss the proposed changes and consider their adoption. Visit the City of Dayton’s website to better understand what’s at stake and make your voice heard. Email a comment about the proposal to the City of Dayton.

Our abundant source of clean groundwater is one of the region’s greatest assets that sets it apart from other areas of the U.S. Having clean drinking water is paramount to community health and safety.

With water being called everything from “liquid gold” to the “oil of the 21st century,” and because we can’t possibly know the future or foresee all potential contamination sources, protecting source water with as many tools as possible is the wisest choice.

 

Good news/bad news: Water use declining in our region

By Mike Ekberg, Water Resources Manager

Water use declined in the Great Miami River Watershed by 50 percent between 2005 and 2013, which mirrors a national trend.* With the dire predictions for water shortages in other parts of the world, this may seem like good news for our region, but there are consequences.

Great Miami River Watershed map

Great Miami River Watershed: All of the land in green drains to the Great Miami River.

The good news is that we are wasting less water and using it more efficiently in industrial, commercial and agriculture processes. Having plenty of water means this region is better prepared for future unpredictable weather patterns.

Declines in water use, however, also happen when industries or businesses close or move out of the region. Decreased water use could mean there is less demand for water. Less demand means fewer water customers.

Most water utilities have rate structures that charge customers based upon the amount of water used. As customers use more water, revenues increase. But fewer customers don’t translate into fewer expenses because the same amount of infrastructure is required to deliver the water to users.

Some water industry experts refer to this trend as the ‘conservation conundrum’ where declining water demand creates significant financial challenges for water utilities that are faced with rising costs to maintain and repair aging infrastructure. These costs must be recovered from a shrinking customer base.

Water Use in the Great Miami River Watershed

In 2005, total water use in the region was 580 million gallons of water per day. By 2013, water use declined to just over 290 million gallons per day.

Water uses in Ohio are grouped into seven categories: public drinking water, golf course irrigation, power generation, agricultural use, industry, mineral extraction, and miscellaneous uses. From 2005 to 2013, use of water in our region declined in most categories.

Water use statistics from ODNR Water Withdrawal Facilities Registration database

Water use statistics from ODNR Water Withdrawal Facilities Registration database

According to a recent report by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), public drinking water use declined by 5 percent nationally from 2005 to 2010. In our region, it declined by 15 percent, from 2005 to 2013.

Locally, power generation saw the greatest decrease in water use. Water used for power generation declined by 90 percent over the eight-year time period. Most of this reduction came from the decommissioning of Dayton Power & Light’s Hutchins Power Station.  Water used for mineral extraction and for industrial production declined by 69 percent and 55 percent, respectively. The only significant increase in water use occurred in agriculture (15 percent).

Water Use Nationally

Water use statistics in the Great Miami River Watershed mirror a national trend of declining water use. Water use in the United States was at 355 billion gallons of water per day in 2010. This was the lowest water use in the United States has been since the 1960s.

The reduction likely is due to several reasons, including industry’s efforts to conserve water to reduce expenses, a shift from coal (which uses a lot of water) to more energy-efficient fuels, and the increase of energy efficient appliances in homes.

Looking Ahead

Given the statistics, our region isn’t expected to face water shortages anytime soon. This is an opportunity to attract additional responsible water users to our region. The challenge for water utility managers in this area will be to figure out how to generate sufficient revenue to maintain and improve existing infrastructure in a world that will continue to become more water efficient. This may require rethinking traditional business models and rate structures.

*Even California, which is in a serious drought, has seen reduced water usage. The challenge in California is that despite conservation efforts, the state still uses more water than it receives from rain and snow.

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