Tuesday, December 25, 2012

12th Day of Christmas: Potable Water

Chagrin River after heavy rains.
Americans should be worried about water. The rest of the world is. Water is the single most important ingredient in any kitchen, and life on Earth would be impossible without it. Our fresh water supply is constantly being threatened, and in many parts of the world potable water is simply unavailable.

Water security is national security. DDT was decimating bird populations to near extinction, toxins caused birth defects in infants, and the Cuyahoga River caught fire due to industrial pollutants. President Nixon and Congress realized something had to be done and signed into law the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Still, there are things each of us have in our power to make an impact in the quality of our drinking water.

We sought expert advise on the state of water in the world today from our good friend, the lovely and whip-smart Christina Znidarsic (twitter: @cleverinclevo), a geologist specializing in municipal watershed management, cyclist and wine enthusiast.

We asked her to discuss threats to our water supply and some ways we could help to protect it.

After all, it's not only hard to cook without water, it's hard to live. Happy holidays from Chowbacca!, and may there be Peace on Earth.

Marshall Lake, Shaker Heights, Ohio.
We're running her response in full, because what I want for Christmas is not to do a lot of editing.

Here's Christina:
As far as training, I have a BS in Geology from the College of William and Mary and a MS in Environmental Science from Cleveland State University.  Regarding background: remember that kid at the beach who filled their bucket with rocks instead of sand and ate 6 boxes of Rice Krispies even though they didn't like Rice Krispies just so they could send off the UPCs and get a certificate stating that 10 square feet of Amazon rainforest has been preserved in their name?  Yeah, I was that kid.  I loved Fern Gully too.  I may have reconsidered the Rice Krispies had I known the actual dimensions of 10 square feet. 
Maybe. 
My current vocation is Watershed Coordinator. I'll pause for a moment while you all wonder what that is. Go ahead. 
Okay.  I work for Chagrin River Watershed Partners, Inc., a non-profit organization who works with its Member communities to improve water quality within the Chagrin River watershed and Northeast Ohio in general.  We're pretty lucky to be sitting on one of the world's largest freshwater resources and my organization is committed to preserving and restoring our waterways.  We do a lot, ranging from landowner site visits to assess streambank erosion and flooding in someone's backyard to applying and securing grant funding for massive region-wide projects.  We were just awarded a $770,250 grant through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to implement green infrastructure at Great Lakes Mall, a site that contributes to nearly 11% of the impervious surface in the Ward/Newell Creek subwatershed, which drains to the Chagrin River.  The project will also involve restoring significant linear footage of stream at Lost Nation Golf Course and providing cost-share installation of rain gardens, rain barrels, and shade trees to residents within the Ward/Newell Creek subwatershed.  I'm particularly excited about the resident outreach program, not just because I'm in charge of that part of the grant. Stormwater runoff from residential areas is a big problem still and a tough nut to crack. This is one of the first times we'll really be able to incentivize homeowners to install these practices on their properties.  That's just one of our many projects, though. If you're really curious about what we do, you can visit our website at http://www.crwp.org.  I can honestly say my job is awesome and I'm never bored.  On any given day I could be in a powersuit giving a presentation to our Board of Trustees, then a few hours later I could be in mud up to my thighs because I stepped somewhere I shouldn't have on a dam removal and stream restoration site we're overseeing.  This has actually happened, by the way.  Took two people to pull me out, one being my boss.  I did not lose my boots. 
Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (USAF) was right!
The biggest threat to our supply of fresh water: ourselves. No, really.  We're aces at messing our water up.  We mess up our water in ways you've probably never even thought about.  What's the biggest pollutant to our waterways? The answer may surprise you: it's dirt.  One of the biggest culprits is land use change. What?  Imagine an area that used to be forest and field, with streams running through it. When it rained, water flowed into the streams, to be sure, but the trees soaked up some of the water, the ground soaked up some of the water, and everything was generally in equilibrium. When the stream got too high, it could rise up and spread out over its floodplain, dissipate some of that energy settle out some dirt, and have the floodplain act as extra water storage.  Ten years later, most of the trees are gone and now it's covered in subdivisions, strip malls, roads, office buildings, parking lots, and other forms of development.  All that development constitutes what we call impervious surface: stuff that doesn't let water soak into the ground like it used to.  In addition to all this impervious surface keeping water from soaking into the ground, the streams have had their floodplains eliminated because there's a giant big-box chain store with a huge parking lot there now.  Water hits this stuff and just runs right off it, picking up all the road yuck and roof ick and dirt and crap that lies on those surfaces day in and day out, and flushes it straight into our unprotected waterways. Gross, right? RIGHT.  It's not just Wal-Mart parking lots that are the problem, though.  Every time Joe or Jane Homeowner washes their car in their driveway, all that soap and chemical-laden water flows right down the driveway into a storm drain.  What a lot of people don't realize is that  storm drains are very different from the sanitary drains that are inside their homes; when you flush the toilet that water goes to a wastewater treatment plant and gets cleaned before it's discharged to a stream. When water flows down a storm drain, which is basically every single drain opening you see outside, it does not get sent to a wastewater treatment plant. It goes into a pipe and straight to an unprotected waterway, without getting cleaned.  Those drains are designed to take rain and only rain.  Not rain, your used motor oils, fertilizers from your lawn, car soap, et cetera.  We have enough trouble with the rain itself, so it's very important that residents pay attention to what they're washing down those drains. 
Why should we even care? Several reasons. One, it saves you money to care, particularly if you pull your drinking water from a lake or some other surface water.  That crap being flushed straight into your streams is going straight to your drinking water supply.  In order to make that water safe for you to drink, it costs money to clean it first.  The more crap in the water, the more expensive it is to clean it, and the higher your water bill becomes.  Two, we can't live without clean water, period. I don't think I really need to explain that.  Three: you need clean, good water to brew really great beer. 
Mallard ducks taking flight.
So this all comes back to my vocation: we work very hard to spread the word about stormwater and what people can do in their own backyards to manage it.  We've come a long way since the passage of the Clean Water Act; most of the really big polluting culprits have been identified and are being taken care of.  We call these offenders "point source pollution."  Stuff like a big pipe at a factory, spewing chemicals into a river.  An easily-identifiable "point" of pollution.  What it's coming down to now, and what is a lot more difficult to manage, is the "non-point source pollution."  That's the stormwater runoff, the junk from rooftops and driveways and parking lots, the sediment and dirt from exposed slopes.  It's the soap from your washed car, the fertilizer from your lawn, the pesticides from your landscaping.  It's up to you to do what you can to help manage these sources of pollution to our fresh water supply.  Look at your yard, do you have wet spots that just always stay wet and you can't really mow it?  Consider planting a rain garden there instead.  Rain gardens are functional landscaping; they're cupped instead of mounded and are designed to hold water temporarily so it can infiltrate into the ground, where it gets cleaned and re-enters the water supply at no cost to the community or to you.  If you have a very small yard (I live in a condo so mine's about the size of a postage stamp), consider installing a rain barrel on your downspout to capture runoff from your roof and gutter system.  Capturing that "first flush" of stormwater is the most important thing.  Some rain barrels have diverter kits installed so if the barrel gets filled after the first flush, the water gets diverted into the storm system and doesn't back up in the pipe.  You can use water from your barrel to water your plants, wash your car, all sorts of things, for free. I wouldn't recommend drinking it. Or brewing beer with it.  Even something as simple as planting native, deep-rooted plants in your yard as your landscaping instead of turfgrass can go a long way towards helping to manage and clean stormwater.  Standard turfgrass is high-maintenance, especially in drier climates, and the roots only go to about 4 inches deep.  That's terrible for helping to keep soils un-compacted and letting water infiltrate.  Without deep roots digging into the dirt and keeping pathways through the soil, the soil gets compacted and it's very difficult for water to soak in.  Then you get wet spots in your lawn because the water just sits there and can't go anywhere.  Planting deep-rooted native vegetation in your yard creates those critical spaces and helps break up and enrich the soil so over time, your plants actually get healthier and do better because you have higher-quality soils.  How much of your yard do you actually use? How much of it would you rather not be mowing?  Native plants can have root structures 10-15 feet deep.  That's a lot of awesome infiltrative capacity right there. 
Doan Brook, University Heights, OH.
The point I'm making here is that this stuff isn't hard to do.  It can be something as basic as saying hey, I've got a corner of my yard that's got standing water and it's not doing anything for me, I'm gonna stick some water-friendly plants there and have pretty flowers and butterflies and improved stormwater infiltration instead of standing water and mud. Put your yard to work for you, instead of working against you.  It's our future, now that we know the Mayan Apocalypse was a wash, and we have to take care of our own.  The way we've been doing things isn't working; our city sewer infrastructure is overtaxed, our waterways are being damaged, and the costs of dealing with the effects of all this land development are skyrocketing.  The best and most cost-effective way to help solve or at least mitigate the problems is to try to restore the natural hydrology as much as possible, by allowing the water to stay on-site and soak back into the ground like it was meant to do.   
Thanks to Doc Gus for giving me the opportunity to pontificate on clean water.  There's so much to talk about here; I could have easily gone on for five or six more paragraphs.  If anyone ever reads this and has any specific questions, I'm happy to follow up with you on anything related to residential stormwater solutions.  It's my job, after all. 
My work email: cznidarsic@crwp.org
Our website: http://www.crwp.org
Thanks Christina. Let's hear what Yasiin Bey has to say about water security!




And what the hell? Merry Christmas: