Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers are learning more about the microbial processes that convert elemental mercury into methylmercury. Credit: Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Science news and reports: New research on mercury, toxic algal blooms,steelhead trout, affordable water bills, climate change, building condos for fish and more!

Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers are learning more about the microbial processes that convert elemental mercury into methylmercury. Credit: Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Credit: Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory

More forms of mercury can be converted to methylmercury than previously thought:  New research building on discoveries made earlier this year have implications for cleaning up mercury in the environment:  ” … Most mercury researchers have believed that microbes could not convert elemental mercury—which is volatile and relatively inert—into methylmercury. Instead of becoming more toxic, they reasoned that elemental mercury would bubble out of water and dissipate. That offered a solution for oxidized mercury, which dissolves in water. By converting oxidized mercury into elemental mercury, they hoped to eliminate the threat of methylmercury contamination in water systems.  ORNL’s study and a parallel study reported by Rutgers University, however, suggest that elemental mercury is also susceptible to bacterial manipulation, a finding that makes environmental cleanup more challenging. … ”  Read more from PhysOrg here:  Research reveals new challenges for mercury cleanup

Challenges facing spring-run Chinook salmon detailed:  The Fishbio blog notes that spring-run Chinook salmon used to be one of the more abundant salmon runs in the Central Valley, but mining, water diversions, and dam construction have reduced their upstream spawning habitat, causing their population to drastically declined with the species becoming listed in 1999.  Besides loss of habitat, there are other challenges as well:  ” … In 1967, the Feather River Hatchery commenced spawning Chinook salmon to mitigate the loss of habitat resulting from the completion of Oroville Dam – only eight miles of usable spawning habitat remain on the river. Feather River is presently the only hatchery in the Central Valley with a spring-run program, and they currently spawn and tag more than 2 million of the fish annually (Buttars 2012). However, due to the overlap in spawn timing between spring-run and fall-run, the two runs have interbred and are now genetically indistinguishable (HGMP 2010). Genetic analysis indicates that “spring-run” Chinook on Feather River are in fact fall-run fish with “spring-running” behavioral traits. … ”  Read more from the Fishbio blog here:  Challenges of spring-run Chinook Salmon

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Microcystis blooms and the Delta:  In 1999, the first bloom of a form of Microcystis, a toxic cyanobacteria, appeared in the Delta and has occurred every year since between June and November.  DWR’s Peggy Lehman was the primary investigator for a study that sought to determine the impact of the toxic algae on the ecosystem and the health of humans and wildlife, and to make recommendation for monitoring and management strategies.  Her findings suggest that Microcystis blooms are a threat to fishery production, and that the blooms increase during low river flows or when ammonium concentrations are elevated.  More findings and details from the Delta Science Program here:  Biomass and Toxicity of a Newly Established Bloom of the Cyanobacteria Microcystis aeruginosa and its Potential Impact on Beneficial Use in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

Farmers fighting back against toxic algal blooms:  KQED’s Quest has a story that details new research being done in Ohio to fight the toxic algal blooms plaguing Lake Erie and other waterways:  ” …  “The premise and heart of it is we want to figure out how to keep nutrients on the field, and we want to figure out how to keep water on the field. We think that if we keep what needs to be on the field on the field it will reduce the transport off the field, and that will be a big help toward improving water quality.”    Dayton and colleagues have three years and two million dollars to determine a sort of “best practices” guide for keeping nutrients on the farm field. Specifically, they are looking to contain phosphorus, the key driver of freshwater algal blooms. … ”  Read more from Quest here:  Farmers Fight Back Against Toxic Algal Blooms

Life cycle variations in steelhead trout and the policy implications:  Research by primary investigator Marc Mangel sought to develop a conceptual framework for steelhead life history specific to the unique biogeography of California that would provide information to help shape effective policies for recovery of the species.  Read more about this study from the Delta Science Program here:  Life History Variation in Steelhead Trout and the Implications for Water Management

Acidic coastal waters, declining fall-run Chinook salmon, and upward-migrating conifers are just some of the ways climate change is affecting California’s natural resources, a new report by Cal EPA has found:  ” … “There’s certainly reason for concern,” said Dan Cayan, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who contributed to the report.  The findings are an update to a 2009 report that documented how a warming California is impacting the environment, wildlife and people.  Among the known impacts: Butterflies in the Central Valley are emerging from hiding earlier in the spring; glaciers in the Sierra Nevada have shrunk; and spring runoff from snowmelt has declined, affecting Central Valley farmers and hydroelectric plants that rely on snowmelt to produce power. … ”  Read more here:  Climate change is impacting California, report says

Estuaries already under stress from climate change:  An NOAA report says the nation’s estuaries are already seeing changes, with key estuarine stressors found to be toxic pollutants, storm impacts, invasive species, habitat fragmentation, sedimentation and shoreline erosion, usually contributed to by factors such as residential development, land use, population growth, wastewater treatment and sea level rise:  ” … “The National Estuarine Research Reserves are uniquely positioned across the U.S. to assess ongoing climate change in our nation’s estuaries which is the degree to which the natural resources and the local communities who depend on them are affected by changing climate conditions,” said Dwight Trueblood, Ph.D. a co-author and NOAA program manager for the study. “This information is important to helping coastal managers and local community leaders make informed decisions about the best ways for coastal communities to adapt to climate change.” … ”  Read more from NOAA here:  NOAA report highlights climate change threats to nation’s estuaries

Pacific Institute examines affordable water bills:  A pilot study by the Pacific Institute found that many households routinely spend over the affordability threshold of 2% of their household income on their water bill.  Researchers looked at both the the Sacramento metropolitan area and the Tulare Lake Basin and found:  ” … In the Sacramento metropolitan region, measuring on a water-system-wide scale vs. a household scale means the difference between recognizing zero water systems with unaffordable rates vs. 100,000 households with unaffordable water rates. In the rural Tulare Lake Basin, measuring on these different scales means finding only nine out of 51 water systems with unaffordable rates vs. nearly 4000 households with unaffordable water rates – some 40% of the households in the study group.  “Water rate affordability is a central element to water access, and cost makes water excludable and inaccessible to those who cannot afford it,” said Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith of the Pacific Institute. … ”  Read more from the Pacific Institute here:  California’s Water Affordability Challenges: Thousands Could Go Uncounted

More on water rates and water utility revenues:  Water utilities need to make significant investments in infrastructure over the next 25 years to upgrade aging drinking infrastructure, but these investments come at a time when water use habits are changing, creating considerable uncertainty:  ”  … At the heart of the issue is the inherent mismatch between the largely fixed cost structure of drinking water service providers and the highly variable revenues they receive, which depend largely on the amount of water their customers use. This volumetric pricing model worked well in the past, when per capita water usage in the United States was much higher and more predictable than it is today. But appliance standards, conservation programs and even the price of water have changed across the nation, precipitating declines in household use that have led to much more variable—and in many cases, unexpectedly reduced—revenue streams…. ”  This report provides an analysis of revenue risk using actual utility data in three states that are experiencing changing water use patterns: Colorado, North Carolina and Texas, and reinforces the need for a continued focus by market analysts on the pricing structures of utilities and the relationship of those practices to fiscal condition and public policy imperatives including conservation and affordability.  Read the report here:  Assessing_Water_System_Revenue_Risk_2013 (2)

Building condos for fish: A neat and tidy stream may look beautiful to the human eye, but it’s a dead end for fish, who need dead trees, debris, and some variety to provide places to rest, hide, and spawn.  ” … “Stream restoration has become a priority on Prince of Wales Island and the Tongass National Forest for the U.S Forest Service and conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, National Forest Foundation and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.  In addition to removing road culverts, the Forest Service and the Conservancy are putting logs back in the streams like Twelvemile Creek. (And similar efforts are underway in other states, including California, where logs are also being placed back in streams). “It’s like building a condominium for fish,” says Jacobson. “When you put logs in the stream, you immediately make the stream less homogeneous, and provide more diversity for fish. The stream banks are more stabilized. You are returning the stream to a more natural functioning condition.” … ”  Read more from the Cool Green Science blog here:  Dead Wood & Migrating Salmon: Restoring a Southeast Alaska Stream

Increasing water use efficiency can lead to increased water use:  In many locales, policymakers have implemented voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs for irrigated agriculture in an attempt to reduce groundwater extraction to sustainable levels:  ” … These policies are often billed as policies where everyone gains. They are politically feasible. Farmers can install or upgrade irrigation systems at a reduced cost. Less groundwater is nominally “wasted” through runoff and evaporation.  However, such conservation policies can have unintended, even perverse, consequences.  Economist Lisa Pfeiffer and I found this to be the case in a recent UC Davis study of government programs to reduce groundwater pumping in western Kansas. … ”  Read more from the California Water Blog here:  Paradox on the Plains: As water efficiency increases, so can water use

Vegetation Monitoring—It’s All About The Fish! : From the Army Corps on YouTube: “Environmental managers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District survey plantings, July 31, 2013, to make sure they’re taking hold along the lower American River in Sacramento, Calif. After repairing riverbank erosion, the Corps planted native grasses and shrubs in January 2012 to return the site to its natural condition and reestablish riverbank habitat function for endangered fish like salmon and steelhead trout. The work is part of the Sacramento River Bank Protection project, which encompasses work along the Sacramento River and its tributaries designed to enhance public safety and help protect property.”

 Honorable mentions:  The Cool Green Science blog looks at how wild pollinator habitat benefits agriculture and PhysOrg reports on a study that shows the ecosystems change long before species are lost.

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