I have a new book out this year – it’s about water law and aptly named “Water Law.” Water Law: Concepts and Insights (full title) is another collaboration with Robin Kundis Craig, the James I. Farr Presidential Endowed Chair of Law, and Robert Adler, the Jefferson B. and Rita E. Fordham Presidential Dean, both at the University of Utah College of Law. (The cover photo of the Detroit River was taken from Belle Isle State Park last fall.)

“Water Law” is intended for lawyers, students, and anyone interested in understanding what water law is all about and how it shapes freshwater use and protection in the United States. The book provides a general overview of basic water law doctrines and an exploration of how water law – the law and policies governing allocation of freshwater – fit into broader ecological and environmental issues. Presented in 14 chapters, it begins with an overview of water use and protection challenges (including climate change) and a ‘hydrology for lawyers’ crash course. The next several chapters cover private water use rights under state law – riparian reasonable use for lakes and rivers in the east, prior appropriation for water in the west, and a spectrum of groundwater rules across the 50 states. It then explores public rights to water, notably the public trust doctrine and water rights reserved for Native American tribes. Constitutional law melds with water law in chapters about interstate disputes and federal powers, focusing on compacts and treaties governing the Great Lakes and Colorado River. Final chapters put the laws governing water use into a broader context, exploring intersections with energy policy, water quality, endangered species protections, and broader watershed management. “Water Law” concludes by looking at conflicts between private rights to water (constitutionally protected as property) and public and governmental interests in water (commonly decried as “takings”).

The final chapter tees up the fundamental question of water law – is water a private good, a person’s property, to be bought and sold like books or stocks? Or is water something different, a public and common treasure for all, to be stewarded for the greater good as a human right? “Water Law” does not presume a single answer, but gives the reader an organized tour of the field so she can reach her own conclusions.

“Water Law: Concepts and Insights” (331 pages) is published by Foundation Press. Available on Amazon (and consider making Great Lakes Environmental Law Center your AmazonSmile charity), order through your favorite bookseller, check out on Google Books, and preview the table of contents.

Original Article

Great Lakes Law

Great Lakes Law


Noah Hall

The Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system ranks ninth in the nation as a source of groundwater for public supply, providing 631 million gallons per day for this use. The aquifer underlies an area with a population of about 26 million people in parts of seven states and includes the metropolitan areas of Chicago, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.

USGS scientists tested for hundreds of water-quality constituents and characteristics in samples of untreated groundwater from 60 public-supply wells throughout the aquifer. Results were compared to human-health benchmarks.

Results show one or more inorganic constituents present at high concentrations, meaning at levels exceeding human-health benchmarks, in groundwater in about 50 percent of the study area. Manmade organic constituents, which include pesticides and volatile organic compounds, were not detected at high concentrations.

Many inorganic constituents, including trace elements and radioactive constituents, occur naturally in groundwater, although concentrations can be affected by human activities. Radioactive constituents were present at high levels in groundwater in about 45 percent of the study area. Most of the radioactivity in groundwater comes from the decay of isotopes of uranium and thorium that are naturally present in minerals found in aquifers. Other inorganic constituents, notably strontium, arsenic and fluoride, were detected at high levels in groundwater in about 12 percent of the study area.

“Nuisance” constituents—those that can affect water’s taste, color or odor—were present at high levels, meaning they exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s non-mandatory benchmarks, in 63 percent of the study area. Total dissolved solids, a measure of the salinity of groundwater, occurred at high levels in groundwater in 40 percent of the study area.


Groundwater provides nearly half of the nation’s drinking water. To help protect this vital resource, the USGS National Water-Quality Assessment, or NAWQA, Project of the National Water Quality Program assesses groundwater quality in aquifers that are important sources of drinking water.

Over the last two decades, USGS scientists have assessed water quality in untreated water from 6,600 wells in extensive regional aquifers that supply most of the groundwater pumped for the nation’s drinking water, irrigation and other uses. This comprehensive sampling, along with detailed information on geology, hydrology, geochemistry and chemical and water use, can be used to explain how and why aquifer vulnerability to contamination varies across the nation.

Between 2013 and 2023, NAWQA will continue to assess the quality of the nation’s groundwater by sampling about 2,300 shallow wells and 1,400 deep public-supply wells for a broad range of water-quality constituents. USGS-led national- and regional-scale modeling will provide a three-dimensional perspective of the quality of the nation’s groundwater. In conjunction, the data and modeling can be used to inform management decisions. More information on USGS regional aquifer assessments can be found in a previous USGS Featured Story. 

To learn more, visit these websites:
USGS National Summary Circular, Quality of the Nation's Groundwater Quality, 1991-2010
Regional reports on principal aquifers of the U.S.
National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Project
USGS Groundwater Information

Original Article





U.S. Geological Survey scientists have shed new light on processes that happen deep underground.

These processes — which cause radium to leach from aquifer rocks into groundwater — are responsible for high concentrations of naturally occurring radium in groundwater from the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer. This aquifer provides more than 630 million gallons of water a day for public supply to parts of Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

A newly published USGS study helps explain how radium isotopes 224, 226, and 228 make their way into water in the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer and where concentrations are highest. Knowing where and how much radium is in groundwater is important because of the health risks associated with drinking water that’s high in radioactive isotopes. Known health risks include bone cancer and leukemia.  

“Millions of people rely on the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer for drinking water,” said Paul Stackelberg, USGS hydrologist and study lead. “By helping to identify the conditions that cause high levels of radium in water from the aquifer, we can help water utilities and resource managers understand where radium levels are likely to be high and thereby prioritize resources for monitoring activities, alternative water resource development, and public education programs.”

Radium can be removed from drinking water through treatment, thereby limiting the health risks it poses. The groundwater tested in this study came from public supply wells, before treatment and distribution. Private wells were not tested during this study, however, more than half a million people get their drinking water from private wells that tap the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer. These homeowners might consider having their water tested for radium.

Previous water-quality testing by federal, state, and local agencies has found that radium isotopes 226 and 228 occur in the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer at levels that exceed those in most other U.S. aquifers and that, in some locations, are higher than the EPA maximum contaminant level (MCL) for radium.

The USGS study also measured a third radium isotope, 224, that was not tested for in previous studies. Radium 224 adds radioactivity to groundwater but has no EPA MCL because its risks to human health are lower than isotopes 226 and 228. The levels of isotope 224 were found to be nearly equal to 228 but generally less than 226.

This study, part of the USGS National Water Quality Assessment Project, investigated the conditions that cause higher-than-typical amounts of radium in water from the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer. By looking at variables like groundwater age, dissolved minerals, and dissolved oxygen levels in 80 samples collected across six states, researchers were able to better understand the conditions that cause radium to leach into groundwater at higher levels. Water that was recharged into the aquifer long ago, that contains greater amounts of dissolved minerals, and that is low in dissolved oxygen is more likely to leach radium from its surrounding rock.

Map: Concentrations of radium in samples of untreated groundwater from the confined parts of the Cambrian-Ordovician groundwater system frequently exceeded the USEPA maximum contaminant level of 5 picocuries per liter in Illinois, Iowa, and eastern Wisconsin, where wells tap deeper, older groundwater. Click map to enlarge.

"Radium mobility and the age of groundwater in public-drinking-water supplies from the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system, north-central USA," is available online in the journal Applied Geochemistry.

Original Article





Guest post by Great Lakes Environmental Law Center staff attorney Nick Leonard.

On a summer day in July of 2013, a dangerous dark cloud of dust blew along the Detroit River between Windsor, Canada and Detroit. Video captured by an individual showed several people standing along the riverfront transfixed by the dust cloud as it completely obscured their view of the Ambassador Bridge, a normally omnipresent visual landmark for Detroit and Windsor residents alike. The dust cloud was coming from massive piles of petroleum coke that were being stored on the banks of the Detroit River. For many Detroiters, particularly those in Southwest Detroit, the event was an egregious incident, but not an unfamiliar one. After all, many had been claiming that dust from the same petroleum coke piles that caused the dust cloud, as well as a number of other bulk material facilities, routinely blanketed everything in their neighborhood, right down to the kitchen table. Residents had been raising the alarm and had been asking a lot of good questions about the health risks for their families and what was being done about the problem. They wanted answers and needed solutions. The images and video of the dust cloud blowing across the Detroit River had gotten the attention of other advocates, legislators, and government agencies. The moment to take action had arrived and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center got involved help residents frame their questions, search for answers, and push for solutions.

One of the first questions residents had was what were these materials that were being stored in huge, open piles in their neighborhood and along the Detroit River? One such material was petroleum coke, or “petcoke,” which is a solid waste byproduct created by the process of transforming dirty tar sands oil into useable gasoline. Petcoke piles began piling up in Southwest Detroit after the Marathon Petroleum oil refinery in the neighborhood had begun accepting large quantities of tar sands oil from Canada via pipelines that travel under the Great Lakes. While petcoke can be used as an industrial fuel, its use causes higher amounts of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide emissions compared to coal. As such, it’s too polluting and inefficient to be of much use in the United States. While competitive markets for petcoke as a cheaper version of coal have existed in the developing world, the Supreme Court of India’s recent order banning the use of petcoke in certain states due to air quality concerns suggests these markets may be drying up. The piles of petcoke in Detroit were part of the chain of pollution and degradation that follows tar sands oil from mining to piping to refining to burning. Every step impacts communities with little local benefit, and the dust pollution was Detroit’s burden to bear for the global oil industry. (For more background and analysis of the environmental justice issues surrounding petcoke, see this prior post and article by Erica Shell.) However, petcoke was not the only material creating dust that was impacting the health of Detroit residents. Facilities throughout Detroit were storing a wide variety of materials in huge, uncovered piles, including metallurgical coke, coal, limestone, steel slag, and asphalt millings. All of these materials were contributing the dust problem that had been identified by residents, and any solution had to address not just petcoke, but these other materials as well.

While residents knew that the dust that blanketed their neighborhoods was a nuisance, what they wanted to know was whether dust from these enormous, open piles was impacting their health. What we found was that numerous studies had concluded that these facilities can create localized hot spots of particulate matter concentrations above the national, health-based ambient air quality standard set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Particulate matter is very small, inhalable particles with a wide variety of chemical compositions that are 10 micrometers or less in diameter. It is commonly referred to as PM10. These particles present a serious public health risk because they are small enough to be inhaled, enter people’s lungs, and get into their bloodstream where it can cause serious health impacts. Studies have shown a significant association between short-term exposure to elevated concentrations of PM10 and respiratory-related emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and exacerbation of asthma symptoms, particularly amongst children. Another study conducted in Detroit found that increased concentrations of PM10 pollution is associated with an increased risk of hospitalization for congestive heart failure amongst seniors. Some materials presented greater dust hazards than others. Petcoke storage and handling in particular has been found to cause concentrations of PM10 up to 32 times the ambient air quality standard due to its high silt content. Other materials, such as metallurgical coke and coal, contain trace elements of lead and arsenic that concentrate in dust that is blown into surrounding environments. The potential for facilities that store large quantities of material such as petcoke, metallurgical coke, limestone, and asphalt millings in open piles to create a localized public health problem was clear.

It was also equally clear where these facilities were located and whose neighborhoods they were polluting. In Detroit alone there were over a dozen facilities, and many were located in a concentrated area in Southwest Detroit in a neighborhood that was already overburdened by air pollution. Collectively, about 20,000 residents lived within a half mile of these facilities, and all of them were low-income communities of color. For example, one facility that we identified has approximately 3,000 residents living within a half mile and 99% of those residents are people of color and 70% live below the federal poverty line. Based on our review, it was clear that bulk material facilities were disproportionately impacting the health of people in low-income communities of color, a classic case of environmental injustice.

And what was the law doing about this injustice and the threat to people’s health? Not much. Failing began at the local level, with a facility that stored metallurgical coke along the Detroit River that had not obtained the necessary zoning permits. At the state level, we identified numerous points of concern. The main requirement for bulk material facilities under state law is the development of a fugitive dust plan pursuant to MCL 324.5524. However, upon review it was determined that many these plans do not contain adequate details to provide assurance that facilities are sufficiently controlling dust emissions given that many of these facilities exist in close proximity to residents, schools, and parks. The fugitive dust plans for many Detroit facilities are one-page documents with vague language such as “[m]easures will be taken to minimize trackout of material from unpaved surfaces at the facility onto the paved roadways.” Many different facilities have fugitive dust plans that are nearly identical, suggesting that industry is not taking the practice of drafting their plans very seriously. To make matters worse, record reporting and dust monitoring requirements under MCL 324.5524 are very lax. Facilities are not required to regularly submit records regarding the implementation of the fugitive dust controls described in their plans to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and there is no requirement regular monitoring of emissions. In fact, state law provides that during high speeds, which are known to cause spikes in dust emissions, facilities are exempt from all opacity limits.

Fortunately, Detroit was not the first community to confront this issue. As this issue was bubbling up in Detroit, Chicago’s Department of Public Health was considering the creation of local regulations to control dust emissions from bulk material facilities. Chicago’s regulations became the model of Detroit’s ordinance. Over the course of 4 years, we worked with numerous community leaders and partners to develop a Detroit dust ordinance that was passed by the city council on Halloween 2017 by a 7-2 vote.

At their heart, both Chicago’s regulations and Detroit’s ordinance operate in similar fashions. Both require bulk material facilities to install the necessary dust control measures to prevent the release of fugitive dust. Under both, any facility that stores bulk solid material must submit a more detailed dust plan to a local regulatory agency that describes all control measures, devices, and technologies to be used to control dust emissions. For example, both Chicago and Detroit require facilities that have outdoor bulk solid material piles to describe how they will monitor wind speeds and what dust control strategies to be utilized during high wind conditions in their dust plan.

Additionally, both Chicago and Detroit specify what types of control measures must be used for specific types of materials. One of the most important components of both Chicago’s regulations and Detroit’s ordinance was that petcoke, metallurgical coke, and coal must be handled and stored in a completely enclosed structure. This requirement is significant and was meant to prevent the reoccurrence of the 2013 Detroit petcoke dust cloud and to make sure that metallurgical coke and coal dust are not carrying trace elements of lead and arsenic into neighborhoods. All other bulk solid materials must employ specified dust control measures for specific parts of their facility, including their outdoor storage piles, conveyors and transfer points, facility roadways, vehicle loading and unloading operation, and outgoing trucks.

Another key component of both Chicago’s and Detroit’s regulatory scheme was requiring facilities to continuously monitor their PM10 emissions. Both Chicago and Detroit generally require facilities that store bulk solid materials to purchase, install, and operate continuous PM10 monitors that are capable of delivering PM10 concentration data in real-time to the facility. This requirement enables facilities to take more aggressive action to control short term spikes in dust emissions when their PM10 monitors detect concentrations above a reportable action level. Chicago’s regulations do not set a uniform reportable action level for each facility, but instead requires that a reportable action level be established by each facility’s fugitive dust plan. Detroit’s ordinance establishes 150 micrograms per cubic meter as the reportable action level. Another key difference is that while Chicago required PM10 monitors to be Federal Equivalent Method monitors, Detroit does allow for facilities to utilize non-Federal Equivalent Method monitors that are deemed acceptable by local regulators.

Chicago and Detroit both regulate outdoor bulk material pile height storage and siting. Chicago limits outdoor pile height to 30 feet while Detroit limits outdoor pile height to 50 feet. Additionally, Detroit requires outdoor storage piles to be screened from the view from adjacent roadways and from adjacent properties. Chicago requires outdoor piles to be set back at least 50 feet from any waterway while Detroit requires outdoor piles to be set back at least 25 feet from any waterway.

Beyond the differences described above, Chicago’s regulations and Detroit’s ordinance does have one additional significant difference. In both Chicago and Detroit, the definition of “bulk solid material” is a threshold definition. It determines what types of materials will be subject to the requirements in Chicago’s regulations and Detroit’s ordinance. Chicago’s regulations expressly excludes construction and demolition materials such as crushed stone, sand, gravel, and hot mix asphalt plants and ready mixed concrete plants. Detroit’s ordinance contains a more expansive definition of bulk solid material, as it expressly includes construction materials as well materials such as asphalt millings, ores, iron and steel slag, gravel, sand, and limestone. As such, Detroit’s ordinance applies to more materials than Chicago’s regulations.

However, with Detroit’s more expansive definition of “bulk solid materials” came a compromise. As mentioned above, many bulk solid material facilities are regulated by the state, albeit by more relaxed standards than those posed in Detroit’s ordinance. To satisfy industry complaints that Detroit’s definition of “bulk solid materials” was overly broad, Detroit created a safe harbor for specific types of facilities. Facilities that store or handle construction materials, which is defined to include asphalt millings, ores, iron and steel slag, gravel, sand, and limestone, and that have already submitted a fugitive dust plan to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality pursuant to state law qualify for the safe harbor in Detroit’s ordinance and only needs to comply with the requirements in section 22-5-6. This section requires a facility to comply with the pile height limits and the waterway setback requirements described above, requires a facility to monitor wind speeds and to describe how it will limit dust emissions during high wind conditions, and requires the submission of additional information to supplement the existing fugitive dust plan requirements under state law. However, facilities that qualify for the safe harbor are not required to install the fugitive dust control measures described in Detroit’s ordinance, do not need to install PM10 monitors, and are not required to regularly submit their records to local regulators. Nonetheless, Detroit’s ordinance does grant local regulators the authority to ensure that qualified bulk solid material facilities are being good neighbors. BSEED has the authority to review all fugitive dust plans for qualified bulk solid material facilities to determine if it satisfies the requirements of section 22-5-6, is sufficient to protect the public health and environment, and is sufficient to prevent the emission of fugitive dust in a manner that would cause an unreasonable interference with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property. Local regulators are also required to conduct semi-annual inspections of qualified bulk solid material facilities. Lastly, if local regulators determine that a facility is not operating in compliance with its fugitive dust plan, is not in compliance with section 22-5-6, or if a facility is found to cause an unreasonable interference with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property, then it is disqualified from the safe harbor and must comply with all of the requirements contained in Detroit’s ordinance.

The takeaway is that while Detroit’s ordinance is broader in its scope, Chicago’s regulations are a bit stricter as to what it requires regulated facilities to do to control dust emissions. One key difference that’s important to note is that while Detroit addressed this issue by the city council enacting an ordinance, Chicago did so through administrative rulemaking. This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, the administrative process in Chicago appears to have been more amenable to technical comments than Detroit’s legislative process. Factors such as pile height and wind speeds have serious impacts on the amount of dust emissions that can be predicted to come from the facility and determining how those factors correspond to dust emissions requires reference to highly technical studies. However, while the Center repeatedly submitted verbal and written comments to city council members and city departments regarding technical studies relied upon in Chicago’s rulemaking process to determine limits for things such as pile height, these comments tended to get lost in the legislative wash. As a legislative action, the development of Detroit’s ordinance was largely driven by council members rather than technical experts. As a result, discussions tended to be focused on broader questions, such as who would be regulated by the ordinance, whether facilities should be required to install PM10 monitors, and what types of materials should be enclosed. Second, the city council sponsor of Detroit’s ordinance was subjected to political attack as a result of the ordinance. Regulated industries made large political contributions to her opponent who ran against her in an election that took place shortly after the ordinance was passed. Although the council woman prevailed, the general election results were much closer than the primary results had been just a few months earlier partially due to the influx in contributions from industry to her opponent.

The passage of Detroit’s dust ordinance after 4 years of consistent effort from numerous people in city government, community leaders, and residents over strong opposition from industry was a treasured and rare win for a community that often struggles to push back against the numerous environmental injustices that it is subjected to. Particularly in Southwest Detroit, existing air quality laws and regulatory systems simply are not adequate to protect the health of our country’s most vulnerable residents. Given this reality, it is easy for residents and advocates fighting for clean air to often feel overwhelmed and disillusioned in their attempts to work within existing systems. Increasingly, residents and advocates are trying to change existing systems by passing new laws that aim directly at the heart of environmental injustice. This ordinance is an example that shows impassioned residents, knowledgeable advocates, and dedicated decision-makers can create effective solutions to address environmental injustices, which will be important to keep in mind for the efforts ahead.

Original Article

Great Lakes Law

Great Lakes Law


Noah Hall

This paper is a book review of James Laxer’s Staking Claims to a Continent: John A. Macdonald, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and the Making of North America. It will summarize Laxer’s narrative on the course of North American nation-state projects. Laxer defines nation-state projects as ventures where leading elements in a nation, which exist within the framework of a larger state, launch a political campaign for secession and subsequent sovereignty. This paper will first examine the nation-state project in the Confederate States of America under Jefferson Davis. Second, it will examine the nation-state project in the United States of America under Abraham Lincoln. And lastly, it will examine the nation-state project in British North America under John A. Macdonald.

Original Article

The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History

The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History


Alexander J. Cramer

This paper contends that Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 “White Paper” on the status of Aboriginals in Canada was not a major turning point in improving the status of Aboriginals in Canada, but succeeded in inspiring activism and interest in the plight of Canada’s First Nations. The policy attempted to redefine the Canadian government’s relationship with its Aboriginal peoples, expressing the centrality of the government in Aboriginal affairs and reinforcing its obliviousness to the needs of Canada’s First Nations. The White Paper proposed to remove “Indian Status” for Aboriginals, and as a result was vehemently rejected. The effects of the proposed revocation of Status Indians persisted through the social activism and awareness that it inspired. This paper traces the development British-Aboriginal relations following the fall of New France. Diplomacy and treaty-making in the prelude to the White Paper will be considered, along with the changing conception of “Indian Status” throughout Canadian history. Thus, this paper argues that although the White Paper was a necessary step in the realization of the dire condition of Aboriginals in Canada, it did not provoke any lasting government policies that recognized absolute Aboriginal rights and liberties.

Original Article

The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History

The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History


Elisabetta A. Kerr

Gang violence in El Salvador has resulted in conditions that have perpetuated an environment of terror and culture of violence. This paper aims to understand the emergence of transnational gangs in El Salvador and the US involvement in this process. The article is divided into the following subtitles; 1980s civil war and the repercussions of US involvement, Salvadorans migration to the US and reverse migration (with a focus on Los Angeles and San Salvador), and US exportation of heavy-handed policies to El Salvador’s institutionalized use of political violence. The paper concludes that US involvement in El Salvador created a foundation for a culture of violence and through interlinked factors US influence and actions instigated circumstances for gang proliferated in El Salvador.

Original Article

The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History

The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History


Norma Roumie

Classical English language analysis of Italy's role in the Second World War has done poorly in its attempt to accurately the Italian military's contribution to the Axis cause. Basing their analysis on flawed sources, historians in the intermediate post war era got much incorrect. Many of the staples of the World War Two genre still base much of their writing on these writers. This paper concludes by exploring the two most important modern writers who specialize in this area of military history.

Original Article

The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History

The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History


Simon Gonsalves

The undergraduate experience is often marked by writing a paper, receiving a grade, and no subsequent reward or engagement with the topic. The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History was founded with the intent of changing this experience for those students who are both passionate and dedicated to their scholarship. In its fifth year of publication, our journal has continued its mission to highlight and recognize the research undergraduate students do throughout their studies and provide a platform through which they can join the broader academic discourse.

Original Article

The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History

The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History


Jonathan Mertz

TONY V'S (5756 Cass Ave Detroit, MI)

Our 4th Annual Blue Water Bash is coming up! At the Bash, we get to thank the communities we work with & our clients, our staff & board, the students & interns who devote their time to our cause, and our funders & collaborators.

We also recognize the value of journalism to our work and the work of other environmental professionals by presenting our Excellence in Environmental Journalism award. This year, we are celebrating the contributions of Anna Clark. Anna has written numerous articles about the Flint water crisis and is currently writing a book about the subject. She has written about the continuous evolution of Detroit and other Michigan cities. And she is a tireless advocate of journalism as an institution. You can find her work here.

Please join us. There will be food, refreshments, and great tunes. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased beforehand online with a credit card, or at the event with cash or check.

Original Article

News - Great Lakes Environmental Law Center

News - Great Lakes Environmental Law Center


Great Lakes Environmental Law Center

A federal appeals court has allowed two lawsuits by Flint residents against state officials for Constitutional violations arising from the Flint water crisis to go forward, giving victims a big legal win with even bigger implications. In Boler v. Earley and Mays v. Snyder, 865 F.3d 391 (6th Cir. 2017), cert. denied, 583 U.S. __ (2018), the court held that alleged violations of substantive due process and equal protection could be brought in federal court against the state-appointed emergency manager (defendant Darnell Earley), the governor (defendant Rick Snyder), and over a dozen other public officials. The district court below had dismissed the Constitutional claims on various jurisdictional and legal grounds, ruling that plaintiffs were limited to remedies under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. But a unanimous panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and rejected most of the state defendants’ arguments, most importantly holding that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act does not preempt Constitutional claims.

The plaintiffs in the two lawsuits (which were consolidated for appeal) brought suits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (which provides a federal cause of action for damages for violations of the Constitution) against the public officials for harm from lead poisoning, water contamination, and lack of access to safe water. The claims included: (1) violation of substantive due process through state-created danger; (2) violation of substantive due process through an invasion of the fundamental right to bodily integrity; (3) intentional race discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause; and (4) impermissible wealth-based discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

Before addressing the legal merits, the federal appeals court first summarized how state government, from the legislature and governor on down, created the Flint water crisis. The court especially focused on the passage (and re-passage) of the emergency manager law, the lack of democratic local government in Flint, and the decision to put Flint on untreated water from the Flint River while surrounding (wealthier) townships stayed with the treated Detroit water system.

The court then held that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act was not a substitute for protecting Constitutional rights that may have been violated in Flint. The SDWA directs the EPA to establish standards and compliance procedures and allows citizens to seek injunctions against violations. But the SDWA does not guard against unequal protection under those standards or deprivations of rights regardless of whether a system is deemed to be in compliance. The court first explained how an equal protection violation could arise under the SDWA:

“A government entity could provide some customers with water that meets the requirements of SDWA standards, but that is nonetheless dirtier, smellier, or of demonstrably poorer quality than water provided to other customers.… Even though not violating the SDWA, these situations could create an equal protection issue, particularly if such distinction were based on intentional discrimination or lacked a rational basis.”

The court then similarly laid out the basis for a substantive due process violation under the SDWA:

“Likewise, a state actor’s deliberately indifferent action concerning contaminants in public water systems, which created a special danger to a plaintiff that the state knew or should have known about, could violate the Due Process Clause without also violating the SDWA, if the hypothetical contaminants did not exceed the statutory maximums or were not regulated by it.”

The cases are now remanded back to district court (Eastern District of Michigan) where the plaintiffs can try their claims for Constitutional violations. Thanks to the many advocates for tireless work, from lead plaintiff Melissa Mays to the crew of dedicated Michigan civil rights lawyers and Michigan Law Professor Samuel Bagenstos. Looking beyond these two cases, the court’s decision may clear the way for more Constitutional litigation against environmental injustice at the hands of state actors. (See this recent article, After Flint: Environmental Justice as Equal Protection, by Northwestern University law professors David Dana and Deborah Tuerkheimer.) The Flint water crisis has shown the tremendous inequality and inequity within environmental law but this win could give citizens a new tool to protect their health and rights.

Special thanks to GLELC Fellow Erin Mette for research on this case.

Original Article

Great Lakes Law

Great Lakes Law


Noah Hall

This tadpole shows signs of severe Perkinsea infection, which causes organ failure. ​​​​​​​(Credit: William Barichivich, USGS)

Frogs and salamanders are currently among the most threatened groups of animals on the planet. The two most common frog diseases, chytridiomycosis and ranavirus infection, are linked to frog population declines worldwide. The new study suggests that that SPI is the third most common infectious disease of frogs.

Scientists with the USGS studied 247 frog die-offs in 43 states from 1999 through 2015. The researchers found that SPI caused 21 of the mass mortalities in 10 states spanning from Alaska to Florida, all involving tadpoles. Up to 95 percent of the tadpole populations died during the SPI mortality events.

“Amphibians such as frogs are valuable because they serve as pest control by eating insects like mosquitos, and they are food for larger predators,” said Marcos Isidoro Ayza, a USGS scientist, University of Wisconsin-Madison post-doctoral fellow and the lead author of the study. “They’re also exceptional indicators of ecosystem health. Like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, amphibians let us know when something in our environment is going awry.”

This photomicrograph shows a liver of a frog with a severe Perkinsea infection.​​​​​​​(USGS. Public domain.)

The SPI die-offs occurred in tadpoles of 11 frog species, including the critically endangered dusky gopher frog in its only remaining breeding locations in Mississippi. Most of the SPI events occurred in states bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. However, SPI was also detected in Alaska, Oregon and Minnesota. 

“Habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and disease are among the factors that contribute to amphibian declines,” said Jonathan Sleeman, director of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center. “This study indicates that SPI is an additional disease that can further threaten vulnerable frog populations.”

SPI is caused by a tiny one-celled parasitic organism called a protist. The SPI-causing protist, called Perkinsea, is highly resistant to disinfection agents such as common bleach. As a result, it is difficult to prevent the spread of Perkinsea, and SPI is able to reoccur at known locations.

“SPI in frogs may be under-diagnosed because it is not a disease for which they are typically screened,” Isidoro Ayza said. “Incorporating routine screening of critical habitats for infected frogs is crucial to help understand the distribution of this destructive disease.”

The disease kills tadpoles by causing multi-organ failure, and there is no cure or treatment for SPI at this time. SPI is not known to affect humans or pets.

This study was led by the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in collaboration with the USGS Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative. For more information about USGS wildlife disease research, please visit the USGS National Wildlife Health Center website.

Original Article





Low water levels in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.(Credit: Perry Jones, USGS. Public domain.)

Scientists with the USGS and partners studied groundwater and lake-water exchanges in White Bear Lake, Big Marine Lake, Lake Elmo and Snail Lake during 2003 through 2013, a period of increasing urbanization and declining water levels for some lakes in northeast Twin Cities metropolitan area. They found that long-term declines in lake-water levels can be caused by increasing groundwater withdrawals or decreases in precipitation, and that increases in groundwater withdrawals during dry periods exacerbate water-level declines.

“Our study helps explain changes in water levels in several lakes in the northeast metropolitan area that were recently below normal, such as White Bear Lake,” said Perry Jones, a USGS scientist and lead author of the report. “Results from the study also allow managers to assess the long-term effects of groundwater withdrawals on lake water levels, especially during drought.”

Previous USGS studies showed, and the new study confirms, that lake water seeps into underlying aquifers in the northeast metro area. For the new study, the scientists developed a groundwater-flow model to examine how significantly this seepage affects long-term water levels in the four lakes.

The model showed that closed-basin lakes, which are lakes not connected to other lakes and streams such as White Bear Lake, Big Marine Lake and Snail Lake, might be more vulnerable to changes in precipitation and groundwater withdrawals. Specific findings include:

The effect of groundwater withdrawals on closed-basin lakes depended on how permeable sediments are near and under the lakes, the number of wells and pumping rates near the lakes and the wells’ depths as compared to lake depths; and A 30 percent increase over current groundwater withdrawals would affect Snail Lake and White Bear Lake water levels more than Big Marine Lake levels, because current groundwater withdrawals near Big Marine Lake are relatively low.

The study also showed that evaporation from lake surfaces and flow of lake water to underlying aquifers are the largest losses of water from the four lakes. According to the model:

Evaporation and lake-water flow to underlying aquifers accounted for 97 to 100 percent of water losses in White Bear, Big Marine and Snail lakes; These factors accounted for 65 percent of lake-water losses for Lake Elmo; White Bear Lake and Lake Elmo, the deeper lakes, lost more water to underlying aquifers than to evaporation, whereas Big Marine Lake, a large lake, lost more water to evaporation; and Snail Lake is a small, shallow lake that lost more water to underlying aquifers than to evaporation.

“Based on our findings, many Twin Cities lakes should be considered water sources to aquifers, as well as to numerous wells withdrawing water from the aquifers,” Jones said.

The USGS partnered with the Metropolitan Council and the Minnesota Department of Health on the new study, which was directed by the Minnesota Legislature.

For more information about water research in Minnesota, please visit the USGS Minnesota Water Science Center website.

Original Article





Attendees will have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center scientists and learn about research conducted at the La Crosse, Wisconsin, facility. Fish and wildlife-oriented activities will be available for children, and refreshments, including popcorn and lemonade, will be provided.

The event is an opportunity to learn about science careers and see how learning in STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, builds the knowledge and problem solving skills needed to find creative solutions for society’s challenges.

The USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center has been a member of the La Crosse community since its founding in 1959, and periodically hosts public open house events.

“Our science center enjoys the opportunity to show members of the community what we do, how we partner with other federal and state agencies and how to use USGS information as a resource,” said Randy Hines, a USGS biologist at the center.

WHAT:          The La Crosse community is invited to an engaging and educational family event at the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, a renowned fish, wildlife and Upper Mississippi River ecology science facility. The event is free and open to the public.

WHO:            USGS scientists will answer questions, showcase cutting-edge technology and discuss their latest research on wildlife, biology and ecology, focusing especially on Wisconsin and the surrounding Midwest region.

WHEN:           Saturday, September 9, 2017, from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.

WHERE:         2630 Fanta Reed Road, La Crosse, Wisconsin (map)

                      Take the French Island exit (exit 2) off of I-90 and head one mile north, just northwest of La Crosse.

DETAILS:  For questions related to the event, please contact Randy Hines at 608-781-6398 or rkhines@usgs.gov.

(Public domain.)

Original Article





Fortunately, in an effort with needlepoint detail, the U.S. Geological Survey has stitched together geologic maps of the Lower 48 States, providing a seamless quilt of 48 State geologic maps that range from 1:50,000 to 1:1,000,000 scale.

The new product, called the USGS State Geologic Map Compilation, is a database compilation based on the Preliminary Integrated Geologic Map Databases for the United States. It provides a standardized Geographic Information System format that allows users to more readily conduct spatial analyses of lithology, age, and stratigraphy at a national-scale. As an example, a named rock unit (Dakota sandstone) might be called something different from State to State, on their respective State geologic maps. In the new database, rock units are characterized by their type (lithology) like "sandstone or granite" not by their formal name. This consistency across the single database now makes it easier for users to access information, rather than having to collect it from multiple databases.

One Database, Many Users

The shale oil boom: how much oil is really there? Critical minerals: does the United States have what it needs for your smartphone, air conditioner and car, let alone our military? Earthquakes and volcanoes: which hazards do we face? All these questions are addressed with geologic maps!

Geologic information forms the bedrock of much of the work USGS does. On the traditional geologic research side, these data will inform assessments of energy and mineral resources, quantifying volcano and earthquake hazards, and mitigation of potential environmental effects from mining.

However, high-quality geologic maps and their underlying databases extend beyond the obvious links. Tracking groundwater—an important source of drinking water and irrigation to millions in the United States—requires accurate data about rock formations and faults (the groundwater’s plumbing, as it were). In addition, understanding the nature of geologic formations can assist with infrastructure development, such as where to put dams and bridges, as well as agricultural planning.

Finally, a national digital geologic map database is vital to those who use other national-scale datasets, such as geochemistry, remote sensing, and geophysical data. Trying to match a national-scale dataset with a dataset of just Mississippi, for instance, would open the door to confusion, mistakes, and some serious Delta blues.

A screenshot of the State Geologic Map Compilation, showing the layer navigation menu. (Public domain.)

New Maps, New Data, and Easier to Use

The State Geologic Map Compilation includes the following seven new State geologic maps that have been released since the original Preliminary Integrated Geologic Map Databases were published: Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, and Vermont. The State Geologic Map Compilation also incorporates new supplemental data for the States of California, Indiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, and North Carolina. In addition, the surface geologic maps for North Dakota and South Dakota have been replaced with updated bedrock geologic maps.

We corrected numerous errors and added enhancements to the preliminary datasets using thorough quality assurance/quality control procedures. We ensured attributes adhered to data dictionaries created for the compilation process and corrected spatial and topological errors. Also, we have standardized the geologic data contained in each State geologic map to allow spatial analyses of lithology, age, and stratigraphy at a national scale.  

The changes make the data more consistent between the States as well as with the original State geologic maps. It also streamlines tasks that previously required combining multiple geographic information system datasets and tables.

Stitching the Pieces Together

This new product is like a quilt, with a top layer that is pieced together from many pieces of cloth and a single piece of cloth underneath that forms the backing. In our analogy, the top layer is a GIS map layer that stitches together individual state geologic maps to form a national map, and the bottom layer (or backing) is a single consistently formatted database that means each of the pieces on top have the same structure underpinning them. Now that a newly updated, single database (backing) is holding all the information, multiple individual pieces can be viewed and queried as a whole.

Prior to the State Geologic Map Compilation, we had standardized individual GIS databases for each state, but none of them were connected. Anytime someone wanted to do national or regional scale work, they had to go to multiple databases, then piece what they wanted together.  The improvements to this updated version create a single, conterminous State geologic map database.

Series of images that show how users of the State Geologic Map Compilation can zoom in from broad national scale to more a detailed local scale. The more detailed image is of the Bingham canyon mine area in Utah. (Public domain.)

Putting Geology on the Map

For the visual learners out there, map services of the State Geologic Map Compilation data have been created which can be used in numerous web mapping applications including the USGS National Map. This allows the data to be explored without specialized geographic information systems software.  To use it, go here, then use the “Add Data” button on most web mapping applications to access the data in web browsers.

The State Geologic Map Compilation map service has also been added to the National Map of Surficial Mineralogy web mapping application [Layers List - "Lithology (State Geologic Maps)" and "Geologic Structure (State Geologic Maps)"]. Users can explore the data along with the other layers including remote sensing (ASTER and Landsat7), various mineral deposits data, and numerous types of basemap data.

Out of Many, One...Database, That Is

Just as quilts are rarely the work of a single needle, this mosaic of geologic maps and data was sewn by many hands. The State Geologic Map Compilation of the Conterminous United States was developed by the USGS Mineral Resources Program. The project owes its success to numerous USGS Mineral Resources Program staff who originally compiled the Preliminary Integrated Geologic Map Databases for the United States as well as the foundational geologic mapping work completed by U.S. State Geologic Surveys and academia.  Special thanks to the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology for their tremendous work in preparing the Geologic Map of Montana to be included in the State Geologic Map Compilation.

A screenshot of the State Geologic Map Compilation. (Public domain.)

What’s Next?

As mentioned previously, one limitation of the State Geologic Map Compilation is that geologic units haven’t been integrated across state boundaries. That means that, in some locations, a geologic formation that spans the border of, say, Colorado and Kansas might be represented by polygons with different names in Colorado and Kansas. We preserve what the States named each rock unit, then we use a standardized rock coding to show what kind of rock the unit is, regardless of what it is named. So now, for instance, if you wanted, you could look for every shale formation in the Lower 48 that was the same age as the oil-rich Bakken Formation of North Dakota and Montana.

A long-term goal of the USGS is eventually to have a fully integrated geologic map at useful scales of the entire country. That map and its underlying databases would be invaluable to Federal, State, and local government, as well as private companies and academia. It would greatly enhance studies of mineral resources, groundwater resources, geologic natural hazards, and aspects of environmental health, as well as agricultural and infrastructure planning. It is no exaggeration to say it could serve as the foundation for a renaissance in Earth science in the United States.

Original Article





Managers have reduced Lake Michigan stocking levels of Chinook salmon at least three times over the past decades in response to declining prey fish and the natural reproduction of Chinook salmon.  (Credit: Michael Humling, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain.)

Reduced stocking of Chinook salmon, however, would still support a substantial population of this highly desirable recreational salmon species, which is a large contributor to the Great Lakes multi-billion-dollar recreational fishery.

“Findings from our study can help managers determine the most viable ways to enhance valuable recreational fisheries in Lake Michigan, especially when the open waters of the lake are declining in productivity,” said Yu-Chun Kao, an MSU post-doctoral scientist and the lead author of the report.

Managers have reduced Lake Michigan stocking levels of Chinook salmon at least three times over the past decades in response to declining prey fish and the natural reproduction of Chinook salmon. For the new study, scientists investigated the lake’s current and future abilities to support different fish stocking efforts. They found that recent decreases in critical lake nutrients, partly due to increases in invasive species such as quagga mussels, reduce the amount of Chinook salmon that the lake can support. 

“Our model showed that stocking Chinook salmon can still help maintain their populations in Lake Michigan,” said Mark Rogers, a USGS Tennessee Cooperative Fishery Research Unit scientist and co-author on the study. “When stocking was completely eliminated in the model, the long-term amount of salmon was predicted to decrease considerably. The key is to determine how much stocking is most effective. It’s a balancing act.”

The study also found that lake trout and steelhead may fare better because these two species can switch from eating alewife, which are in decline, to bottom-dwelling round goby, another newly established invasive prey fish that feeds on quagga mussels.

The scientists modeled Lake Michigan’s food web dynamics under 288 scenarios that accounted for various levels of stocking and nutrients, as well as the effects of invasive mussels. These scenarios were developed based on responses to a survey from fishery managers, water-quality managers and researchers.

“Interestingly, reducing stocking by 50 percent in the model resulted in long-term Chinook population numbers that were similar to the numbers when stocking was not reduced,” said David “Bo” Bunnell, a USGS co-author on the study.

Lake Michigan’s open-water food web has changed significantly since the 1970s, becoming less productive as a result of decreased nutrients such as phosphorus, a process called oligotrophication. Nutrients help sustain phytoplankton and zooplankton, the tiny aquatic plants and animals at the base of the food web that support other aquatic life, including prey fishes. In Lake Michigan, oligotrophication occurred partly as a result of invasive mussels, which filter phytoplankton from the water column.

Declines in prey fishes such as alewife were likely due, in part, to decreases in plankton. Because the Chinook salmon diet consists of over 90 percent alewife, the new study predicts a smaller Chinook salmon population if nutrients remain low and invasive mussels remain abundant.

For more information about USGS ecosystems research in the Great Lakes, please visit the USGS Great Lakes Science Center website.

Original Article





This hibernating little brown bat shows signs of white-nose syndrome. (Credit: Alan Hicks, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Public domain.)

USGS scientists tested samples collected from bats, the environment and equipment at eight bat hibernation sites in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia. They found that bats occupying such sites in summer can harbor the Pd fungus on their skin, and that Pd is more readily detectable in their guano, or feces.

The scientists also detected Pd on clothing and equipment taken inside and near caves and mines used by bats. These detections demonstrate that gear exposed to fungal-infected environments is a potential mechanism for Pd spread, even during summertime when the prevalence of WNS is low. WNS is not known to affect humans, pets, livestock or other wildlife.

“Our findings provide insights into additional means by which Pd may be dispersed and further contribute to the spread of this devastating disease that threatens agriculturally and environmentally valuable bat populations,” said Anne Ballmann, a USGS scientist and the lead author of the report. “This information will further help inform managers working to control the westward movement of WNS in North America.”

Between July 18 and August 22, 2012, Ballmann and her colleagues collected swabs from bat wings, cave walls and equipment used in and near the study sites. They also collected guano from individual bats and floor sediment in underground summer roost sites. Findings include:

Pd was detected on 40 bats and in environmental samples from seven of the eight study sites; Guano accounted for 93 percent of the bat-associated Pd detections; Equipment, including trapping equipment and a backpack, from three WNS-impacted sites in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio tested positive for Pd DNA; and Fungal DNA from Pd was more readily detected in sediment samples than on swab samples from cave walls.

No bats showed visible signs of WNS during the course of this study, even though the disease-causing fungus was found. Although exposure to Pd does not result in WNS during summertime, the study showed that the fungus that causes the disease can be transported by bats and people visiting contaminated sites in summer.

First detected in New York State in the winter of 2006-2007, WNS has spread to 31 states and five Canadian provinces. The disease is named for the white fungus that infects the muzzle, ears and wings of hibernating bats. Scientists at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center discovered, characterized and named the fungus that causes WNS, and pioneered laboratory techniques for studying effects of the fungus on hibernating bats.

Decontamination guidance for cave visitors to help reduce the risk of human-assisted movement of Pd can be found online.

The USGS is part of an international coordinated response to WNS, which is led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For more information about USGS wildlife disease research, please visit the USGS National Wildlife Health Center website.

Original Article





Intense rainfall over a period of multiple days has caused major flooding, resulting in multiple water rescues throughout the Newark area.

Five USGS crews are measuring high flows and verifying streamgage operations on the Licking, Blanchard, Big Walnut, Sandusky, Portage, Paint and Ottawa River basins. Preliminary data show the measurement made today on the Sandusky River near Fremont was the highest in 40 years. USGS crews are making special flood measurements on the South Fork Licking River near Buckeye Lake, as floodwaters have closed Interstate 70. This information is critical for emergency managers to make informed decisions on when to re-open roads to best keep the public safe.

Two USGS streamgages have been impacted by the floodwater and debris, and crews have already repaired one of the gages. The other will be repaired once it is safe to do so. All other streamgages are fully operational and have not been impacted by the flood at this time.

USGS crews will keep tracking the movement of the floodwaters as rains continue and the water moves downstream. This information is vital for resource managers and emergency responders to help protect life and property. The USGS has coordinated efforts with the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Weather Service, the Ohio Water Development Authority, Licking County, the Cities of Newark, Findlay, Ottawa and Kalida and several other local and state partners.

There are about 290 USGS-operated streamgages in Ohio that measure water levels, streamflow and rainfall. When flooding occurs, USGS crews make numerous discharge measurements to verify the data USGS provides to federal, state and local agencies, as well as to the public.

For more than 125 years, the USGS has monitored flow in selected streams and rivers across the United States. The information is routinely used for water supply and management, monitoring floods and droughts, bridge and road design, determination of flood risk, and for many recreational activities.

Access current flood and high flow conditions across the country by visiting the USGS WaterWatch website. Receive instant, customized updates about water conditions in your area via text message or email by signing up for USGS WaterAlert. See where floodwaters go by following a stream trace at Streamer. View water data on your mobile device. Learn how a USGS streamgage works

Original Article





The goal of the dye study is to understand how well water mixes within the lock chamber, to quantify the amount of leakage into and out of the lock through the gates, and to determine how quickly the dye becomes diluted downstream once released from the lock. Such information is used by federal, state, and local agencies for various engineering applications.

The red dye—known as Rhodamine WT—will be injected into the filling system of the auxiliary lock and may be visible for about a mile downstream along the Iowa shoreline. More dye will be added periodically throughout the day. Rhodamine WT, which has been used in hydrologic studies for decades, is approved for use as a water tracer by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is harmless to people, fish, and plants at the concentration being used for this study. No impact to boats in the river is expected during or after the dye injection. During the study, dye concentrations will be measured at several points in the lock chamber and downstream of the lock by bank and boat-mounted equipment.

Researchers will measure the distribution of the dye in the auxiliary lock and map the dyed water downstream after the dyed water in the lock is released. This study is not expected to impact the operation of the main lock at Locks and Dam 14 or cause any navigation delays in the area.


Image of a red dye study conducted in the Brandon Road Lock on the Des Plaines River near Joliet, Illinois, in 2015. The upcoming study near Pleasant Valley, Iowa is anticipated to look similar. (Credit: USGS. Public domain.)

Original Article





This southeastern bat from Alabama shows signs of infection from the Pseudogymnoascus destructans fungus that causes white-nose syndrome. The USGS National Wildlife Health Center later confirmed WNS in this animal. (Credit: Dottie Brown, Ecological Solutions, Inc.)

The diseased bat was found in Shelby County, Alabama, at Lake Purdy Corkscrew Cave, by surveyors from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) Nongame Program; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-Alabama Ecological Services Field Office; Ecological Solutions, Inc.; and the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc.

The cave is owned by the Birmingham Water Works and managed by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to cave acquisition, conservation and management.

WNS in the southeastern bat was confirmed in the laboratory by the U.S. Geological Survey.

A fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd, causes WNS, which affects many, but not all bat species that come into contact with it. Of those affected, bat populations have declined by more than 90 percent.

“We are disappointed to find white-nose syndrome in another species, but hopeful that the southeastern bat may fare better than many of its more northern cousins based on how long it took to be diagnosed with the disease,” said Jeremy Coleman, national WNS coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This discovery, along with the continued spread of Pd this year, reinforces the need for our continued vigilance in the face of white-nose syndrome.”

First detected in New York in 2007, WNS is now in 31 states and five Canadian provinces.

Other species confirmed with WNS include little brown, northern long-eared, Indiana, Eastern small-footed, gray, tricolored, big brown and Yuma myotis. All the affected species eat insects and hibernate during the winter. The northern long-eared bat was designated as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2015 primarily due to the threat of WNS.

Bats are an important part of our nation’s ecosystems, and provide significant pest control services to American farmers. Insectivorous bats likely save the United States agricultural industry at least $3 billion each year, or approximately $74 per acre for the average farmer. Alabama is home to 15 species of bats, including northern long-eared bats and federally endangered gray and Indiana bats.

Each winter the Alabama Bat Working Group (ABWG) surveys areas to inventory bat populations, discover important bat hibernation areas and document the advance of WNS. This year biologists from the ABWG surveyed 50 sites in 14 counties and found that numbers of tricolored bats and endangered Indiana bats had substantially declined.

Nick Sharp, a member of the ABWG and nongame biologist with the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, says the decline of tricolored bats has experts concerned. “Tricolored bats were once common in Alabama, but now seem to be disappearing due to WNS. We are troubled by the potential loss of the important ecosystem function this species provides in Alabama,” he said.

“Ongoing surveillance for the P. destructans fungus and white-nose syndrome provides critical information to resource managers about the occurrence of this disease in North American bats,” said David Blehert, a scientist with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center. “This information is essential to inform future response efforts.”

WNS was first documented in Alabama in 2012 in Jackson County, and since has been confirmed in bats in Jackson, Lawrence, Limestone, Marshall, Morgan and, now, Shelby counties. In addition to finding the diseased southeastern bat this season, the ABWG swabbed more than 100 bats statewide, adding Blount, Bibb and Madison to the list of counties where WNS fungus has been documented. Calhoun, Colbert and Lauderdale tested Pd-positive in previous years.

For additional information on WNS, please visit www.whitenosesyndrome.org.

This photo shows a colony of southeastern bats, or Myotis austroriparius. As of 2017, the species joins eight other hibernating bat species in North America that are afflicted with the deadly bat fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome.(Credit: Pete Pattavina, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain.)

Original Article





Water Monitoring Fact Sheets for Spring seasons in 2014, 2015, and 2016 are available at http://lakeerie.ohio.gov/

A map at http://arcg.is/21i9CUF shows the locations of sites and users can access daily mean loads and concentrations data by clicking on each site. 


(Public domain.)

Original Article





The United States Geological Survey (USGS) operates a network of real-time streamgages that continually record stage and streamflow every 15 to 60 minutes. Streamflow information from streamgages have a wide variety of uses, including flood prediction, water management and allocation, engineering design, scientific research, and recreation.  Streamgage data are available online through the National Water Information System (NWIS) and USGS WaterWatch Web sites. 

NWIS Michigan          NWIS Ohio          USGS WaterWatch

Our most recently added real-time sites in Michigan:

04044003 Dead River at Marquette, MI

04044755 Miners River near Munising, MI  

04097528 Prairie River at Orland Road near Bronson, MI

04122001 Muskegon River at Bridge Street at Newaygo, MI

04122025 Muskegon River at Bridgeton, MI

04127200 Boardman River at Beitner Road near Traverse City, MI

04166700 Johnson Creek at 7 Mile Road at Northville, MI 

Our most recently added real-time sites in Ohio:

03118050 East Branch Nimishillen Creek at Louisville, OH

03118131 East Branch Nimishillen Creek at Trump Ave near Canton, OH

03118209 West Branch Nimishillen Creek at North Canton, OH

03118258 Zimber Ditch at North Canton, OH

03118299 West Branch Nimishillen Creek at Tuscarawas Street at Canton, OH

405536081192600 Precipitation gage near Hartville, OH

03131898 Clear Fork Reservoir near Lexington, OH

03131982 Clear Fork Mohican River at Bellville, OH

03138791 Little Killbuck Creek near Burbank, OH

04201400 West Branch Rocky River at West View, OH

04201404 Baker Creek at Olmstead Falls, OH

04201409 Unnamed Tributary to West Branch Rocky River near Berea, OH

04201423 Plum Creek near Olmsted Falls, OH

04201429 Unnamed Tributary to West Branch Rocky River near Olmsted Falls, OH

04201484 East Branch Rocky River near Strongsville, OH

04201495 Baldwin Creek at Strongsville, OH

Original Article





This information is critical in helping resource managers mitigate effects of an Asian carp invasion. Great Lakes fisheries generate economic activity of approximately $7 billion annually in the United States alone. Due to the introduction or invasion of many non-native species, Lake Michigan’s ecosystem has already undergone broad and rapid change in fish and other aquatic life. If bighead and silver carp were to populate Lake Michigan, they have the potential to adversely affect the ecosystem and fishing industry.

Scientists used predictive models to simulate fish growth and food consumption to determine the suitability of the Great Lakes to Asian carp invasions. USGS scientists used satellite imagery of Lake Michigan showing near-surface algae to determine how much food would be available for Asian carp. Green algae and blue-green algae, specifically floating algal blooms that can be seen on the surface, are a preferred food source for Asian carp. The water temperatures and algal concentrations detected in Lake Michigan from 2009-2011 show that the bighead and silver carp populations could not only live in this environment, but continue to grow.

 “Most areas of the lake had insufficient algal food for bighead and silver carp, but the model indicates that nearshore areas and embayments had plenty of algal food to support survival and growth,” said Karl Anderson, USGS scientist and lead author of the study.

These findings imply that if bighead and silver carp were to invade Lake Michigan, they might not spread randomly across the lake; rather follow coastlines where sufficient algal food exists. Coastal areas are particularly important not only for fisheries and biological reasons, but also because human activity is more common near shore than in the vast open areas of Lake Michigan. Silver carp often react to boats by jumping; this activity is a nuisance because silver carp often jump into boats, harming people and property. Concentration of silver carp near the coastline would enhance the propensity of such nuisance interactions with boaters. 

Food availability and water temperature are the greatest sources of uncertainty for predicting fish growth potential. Water temperature is a key factor in determining how much bighead and silver carps need to eat. Models developed by USGS scientists helped determine how much algae carps need to eat to survive.

Silver carp are known for their leaping ability, especially when excited by boats. 

Original Article





This deer shows visible signs of chronic wasting disease. (Credit: Terry Kreeger, Wyoming Game and Fish and Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance.)

Scientists with the USGS and partners developed a novel scientific model to forecast the growth and spread of chronic wasting disease, or CWD, in white-tailed deer in southwestern Wisconsin. The model showed that CWD prevalence increased rapidly during the latter portion of the 2002-2014 study period, particularly among older male animals, and that the trend will likely continue throughout affected areas.

The scientists also found that the model outperformed traditional prediction methods, can be applied to many other diseases throughout the country and can help forecast the spread of invasive species.

This map shows the distribution of chronic wasting disease in North America as of March 2017. 

“This tool is valuable because, by predicting where threats might emerge and how areas are affected, it can help wildlife managers apply proactive strategies before the threats arrive and develop effective control programs if they establish,” said Daniel Walsh, a USGS scientist and an author of the study. “Such strategies can help protect critical resources and save money that would be needed for mitigation.”

CWD is a fatal nervous system disease affecting elk, moose, white-tailed deer and mule deer throughout the United States and Canada. It’s costly to manage, but is not known to affect humans or livestock.

Landscape features such as rivers, forests and human development influence deer movements and CWD expansion. Using the model, scientists found that CWD could spread nearly two times faster within the Wisconsin River corridor when compared to an area outside of the corridor, and will likely grow faster in highly forested areas than in areas of low forest cover.

The tool can help scientists and managers forecast the spread of other dangerous diseases, including human diseases. It can also be used to better understand and manage the dispersal of invasive species, which scientists estimate cost over $120 billion in damages annually to the U.S. economy.

The USGS partnered with Kansas State University, Colorado State University and Utah State University on the new study.

For more information about USGS wildlife disease research, please visit the USGS National Wildlife Health Center website.

Cervids, such as this healthy, male white-tailed deer, are susceptible to chronic wasting disease. (Scott Bauer, USDA)

Original Article





Potash is produced in only 13 countries, making it one of the most tightly controlled commodities in the world. 

The deposit is estimated to be worth $65 billion, which could make it a major source of revenue for the State of Michigan.
“If we didn’t have the data preservation program, no one would have known the deposits were here,” said John Yellich, a geologist and the director of the Michigan Geological Survey. 

The program Yellich references is the National Geological and Geophysical Data Preservation Program (NGGDPP). Enacted by Congress in 2005, the program was created to promote the archiving and cataloging of geological samples and data in the United States, most of which were acquired during oil, gas, and mineral exploration. Preservation of these materials and data promotes further research and the discovery of valuable resources. 

William Harrison of Western Michigan University holds a potash core sample. Photograph credit: Mike Lanka, Western Michigan University(Public domain.)

Run by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the program provides funds to State geological agencies to help them preserve and inventory their geological samples and data. This includes digitally cataloging and describing these data and materials into the National Digital Catalog, a centralized database managed by the NGGDPP that is accessible to the public. 

“Basically, the database reveals to geologists, researchers, and government agencies where natural resources such as minerals, oil, gas, and fossils could be located,” said Natalie Latysh, associate program coordinator for the USGS’s NGGDPP. 

“Not everyone has $4 million dollars to drill a well to determine what is in the ground,” she said. “Instead, the database can be used to inform users of previous work, including the existence and location of important resources.” 

In 2008, Dr. William Harrison, a professor and the director of Western Michigan University’s Michigan Geological Repository for Research and Education (MGRRE), received a call from a potash mining company in Hersey, Michigan, offering to donate rock cores of potash extracted during the 1980s. 

The company was preparing to shut-down and could no longer store the 4,000 boxes of core samples. MGRRE houses a comprehensive collection of Michigan’s rock cores and samples and maintains extensive online databases.

Funding from the USGS’s NGGDDP enabled MGRRE to acquire the potash cores and begin compiling the data and logging them into the National Digital Catalog. Annually, NGGDPP funds are awarded to States for proposed preservation projects, like this one, through a competitive grant process.

“USGS’s funding was the impetus for making [those] data available so that the industry could become aware of the potash deposit,” Yellich said.

Access to the national catalog alerted mining companies and investors about the collection of samples. 

One company in particular, Michigan Potash, teamed up with MGRRE in 2013 to analyze the cores and confirm, through chemical tests, the amount of potassium contained in the potash samples. Analysis revealed the richest grade of potash ever produced globally, even richer than deposits produced in Canada and Russia. 

“Because of the core samples, we were able to get a geological picture of what was down beneath the surface,” Yellich said. 

The mineral deposit composes the Borgen Bed, which lies under 14,500 acres in Mecosta and Osceola Counties in western Michigan. Michigan Potash is working on breaking ground in 2017 on a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility. 

“This discovery benefits agriculture, resource development, and the economy in Michigan and beyond, which would have been much more difficult to realize, if at all, were it not for the NGGDPP,” Yellich said.

Potash contains a key plant nutrient, which makes it an important resource for the production of agricultural fertilizer. Photograph credit: Pk Cascio, USGS(Public domain.)

For more information, contact Kevin Gallagher, USGS Associate Director for Core Science Systems, at kgallagher@usgs.gov.

Read more stories about USGS science in action.

Click here for the print version.

Original Article





The value of the nonfuel mineral industry in each of the 50 states for 2016. (Public domain.)

Every year, the USGS National Minerals Information Center releases its Mineral Commodity Summaries, a resource roundup of 90 different mineral commodities that includes a snapshot of the global industry, worldwide reserves and production, and information on how these minerals are used.

Also included is an analysis of the domestic mineral industry of the United States, along with summaries of state mineral production. So today, we thought we would share the top five mineral-producing states by value from 2016.

A banded iron formation in the Precambrian of Minnesota. Image by James St. John - Jaspilite banded iron formation (Soudan Iron-Formation, Neoarchean, ~2.69 Ga; Stuntz Bay Road outcrop, Soudan Underground State Park, Soudan, Minnesota, USA) 16, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41615999(Public domain.)

Number 5: Minnesota

First up is the Land of 10,000 Lakes at number five. Minnesota slipped a place this year, falling from fourth overall in 2015. Iron ore is the primary mineral commodity by value in Minnesota, which leads the country in iron ore production.

Mineral Industry Value: $3.27 billion Percent of U.S. Total Value: 4.38 Principal minerals in order of value: Iron ore, sand and gravel (construction), sand and gravel (industrial), stone (crushed), stone (dimension). The Rio Tinto Borax Mine pit in California, a significant source of the mineral form of boron. Image by Marcin Wichary - Flickr: [1], CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23193363
(Public domain.)

Number 4: California

California ranks number 4 overall, up two places from 2015. California’s unique contribution in the minerals world is boron, for which it is the only producing state in the United States. Considering that the United States and Turkey lead the world in boron production, California’s contribution is significant. Boron’s primary use, at least domestically, is in glass and ceramics, where it helps the glass or ceramic survive intense heat. For this reason it’s used a lot in glassware for baking and laboratory use.

Mineral Industry Value: $3.52 billion Percent of U.S. Total Value: 4.71 Principal minerals in order of value: Sand and gravel (construction), cement (portland), boron mineralsstone (crushed), soda ash. Granite is an igneous rock that is frequently used as a crushed stone building material. Credit: Alex Demas, USGS (Public domain.)

Number 3: Texas

Maintaining its place as the bronze medal winner of mineral production value is the Lone Star State. The vast majority of Texas’ mineral industry goes toward the construction of buildings, such as homes and offices. As one of the states with a high population growth over the past few years, Texas has kept pace by building new accommodations for its growing number of people.

Mineral Industry Value: $4.84 billion Percent of U.S. Total Value: 6.48 Principal minerals in order of value: Stone (crushed), cement (portland), sand and gravel (construction), sand and gravel (industrial), salt. A sample of native copper. Photograph credit: USGS (Public domain.)

Number 2: Arizona

Also holding its 2015 rank is Arizona, which takes the silver medal for mineral production value. Arizona leads the country in copper production and is one of the primary sources of molybdenum as well. In fact, Arizona’s molybdenum wealth is largely related to its copper wealth, as the molybdenum is recovered as a byproduct of the copper mining.

Mineral Industry Value: $5.56 billion Percent of U.S. Total Value: 7.45 Principal minerals in order of value: Copper, sand and gravel (construction), molybdenum concentrates, cement (portland), stone (crushed). A sample of native gold. Sample provided by Carlin Green, USGS. (Credit: Carlin Green, USGS. Public domain.)

Number 1: Nevada

And last, but certainly not least, the Silver State takes the gold medal for mineral production value in 2016, just as it did in 2015. Much of the value of Nevada’s mineral industry comes from its precious metal production, as it leads the Nation in gold mining. Much of the silver comes from the same mining operation as the gold, as does some of Nevada’s copper.

Mineral Industry Value: $7.65 billion Percent of U.S. Total Value: 10.26 Principal minerals in order of value: Gold, copper, sand and gravel (construction), stone (crushed), silver.

So there are the top five states for mineral production value for 2016! Check back next year to see who ranked in the top five for 2017. It’s likely that you’ll see familiar faces...but every now and again, there will be a surprise...

Original Article





Image of the VTEM Plus AEM system from Geotech Ltd. in flight. A similar system will be flown during the upcoming USGS AEM study.
(Public domain.)

Yes, 10,000 feet in the air might not be where you’d expect to find underground mineral research being done, but believe it or not, this is an important part of figuring out where mineral deposits might be found.

When we’re up there, we’re looking for all kinds of things that help us determine what kinds of minerals might exist in an area. One thing we often measure for is the magnetic properties of the rock layers we fly over.

You’ve probably heard that some metals are magnetic, like iron or nickel. But another, very valuable set of minerals can be found by looking for magnetism: rare-earth elements. Most of our modern electronics depend on rare-earth elements, and the United States imports 100% of the amount we use each year, so finding where they might be in the United States is an important goal of ours. We’ve conducted these flights over the Upper Midwest, Iowa, Missouri and even Upstate New York.

The airplane that will be doing overflights in Essex and Clinton Counties, flying a grid pattern at low altitude for a few weeks in December. 
(Public domain.)

Another tool we use to study the mineral potential of the country is hyperspectral imaging. Basically, we use lasers to create a map of different signatures, and then compare them to the signatures for certain rock types that contain valuable minerals. The primary places USGS has used hyperspectral imaging to study minerals are Alaska and Afghanistan.

So if you look up one day and see a small plane flying back and forth along a grid, or see a helicopter dragging a couple of hula hoops around, check your local paper to see if it’s us seeing what kind of minerals might be in your backyard!

Original Article





Both irrigation wells and municipal wells affect water levels in the Little Plover River, Wisconsin. (Credit: Ken Bradbury, Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey)

The Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey have released the results of a three-year project to develop a groundwater flow model for an area around the Little Plover River in Wisconsin’s Central Sands agricultural region. The model is a state-of-the-art scientific tool that can be used to help make informed decisions about high-capacity well placement and pumping, as well as land use in the region, which stretches from southern Adams County to north of Stevens Point.

The project was carried out jointly by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey and the USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center. In addition to the groundwater flow model, researchers developed a report (Bulletin 111) and a user’s guide to the model.

The groundwater flow model was commissioned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources with the goal of demonstrating the scientific relationships among groundwater, lakes and streams and high-capacity well withdrawals. The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association also contributed funding and information for the project.

“This model is a tool for testing and evaluating different ways to manage the groundwater in the Central Sands region,” said Ken Bradbury, state geologist and one of the authors of the report.

The model includes all high-capacity wells in the region installed before 2013, when modeling began, and simulates seasonal variations in groundwater recharge, irrigation needs and well pumping.

“The techniques and data combined in this project illustrate how groundwater modeling can be used for resource management in other similar areas of Wisconsin and the nation in the future,” said Michael Fienen, a USGS hydrologist and one of the report authors.

The Little Plover basin covers only a small portion of the Central Sands region, but was selected for the model because a great deal of background data was available there. The study concludes that the techniques used for the Little Plover area are readily transferrable to building a model for the rest of the Central Sands region.

The completed model serves as a powerful tool for testing and demonstrating alternative water-management scenarios. For example, it can simulate how the cumulative impacts of pumping and land-use changes have affected flow in the Little Plover River. It can also be used to predict which wells and well locations would have the greatest impact on nearby lakes and streams.

The new model is a sophisticated tool intended for use by environmental professionals such as DNR staff, consultants and academic groups. It provides a uniform, unbiased starting point for investigations of different water management alternatives.

The report and model are available on the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey website.

Original Article





This image shows sea lampreys in their larvae phase. Slower sea lamprey growth rates during the larval phase of development may increase the odds of sea lampreys becoming male, according to a USGS study. Sea lampreys are an invasive, parasitic species of fish damaging the Great Lakes. (Credit: R. McDaniels, Great Lakes Fishery Commission)

Scientists with the USGS and Michigan State University, funded by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, found that slower sea lamprey growth rates during the larval phase of development may increase the odds of sea lampreys becoming male. During the study, environments lacking plentiful food were male-skewed, with 78 percent of sea lampreys becoming male after three years, whereas environments more conducive to growth produced only 56 percent males.

This discovery could be a critical step in developing advanced technologies to control sea lamprey.

“Remarkably, we didn’t set out to study sex determination in sea lampreys – we were planning to study environmental effects on growth rates only,” said Nick Johnson, a USGS scientist and the lead author of the study. “We were startled when we discovered that these data may also reveal how sex is determined because mechanisms of sex determination in lamprey are considered a holy grail for researchers.”

Sea lampreys are imperiled in Europe and the Pacific Northwest, where they are native, but are invasive and destructive in the North American Great Lakes. With their blood-sucking capability and gaping round mouths, sea lampreys feed on the blood and fluids of native fish, causing population declines in commercially and recreationally important species that are essential to the Great Lakes’ multi-billion dollar per year fishery.

USGS sea lamprey expert Nick Johnson demonstrates the ridge of tissue, called a rope, along the back of a mature male sea lamprey. (Credit: Andrea Miehls, USGS.)

Between 2005 and 2007, the scientists tagged and released sea lamprey larvae into unproductive lakes and productive streams. These environments included tributaries of Lakes Huron and Michigan and areas of those lakes near stream mouths. The researchers then recaptured the tagged fish as adults during their spawning migrations.

The sex ratios in productive and unproductive environments were initially similar but quickly diverged, with unproductive lakes becoming increasingly male-dominated. Once the larvae changed into their parasitic adult stage, their sex did not shift, and their survival rates generally did not differ between productive versus unproductive environments.

“The results of this study could be a critical step toward developing advanced technologies to control sea lampreys in the Great Lakes, which have caused unparalleled damage to fisheries,” said David Ullrich, chair of the GLFC. “Although sea lamprey populations have been reduced by 90 percent, innovation will be key to maintaining strong control into the future. The results of this study could open paths forward to novel technologies that can disrupt or modify gender in sea lampreys, providing the commission with other means to control this noxious predator.”

Invasive sea lamprey prey on commercially important fish species, living off of the blood and body fluids of adult fish. (Credit: Marisa Lubeck, USGS.)

Some sea lamprey populations have skewed sex ratios, but the reasons why have remained a biological mystery for decades. The new study, with its unanticipated sex determination findings, begins to answer a scientific question that has previously eluded researchers.

This study, "Indication that sex determination in sea lamprey is influenced by larval growth rate," is published in the journal Royal Society Proceedings B.

For more information about sea lamprey research in the Great Lakes, please visit the USGS Great Lakes Science Center website and the GLFC website.


Original Article





Scientists with the USGS and U.S. Department of Agriculture tested 290 water samples from eight rivers in the Great Lakes Basin from February 2011 to June 2013. The two most frequently detected pathogens were human adenovirus C, D and F in nine percent of samples, which can cause minor respiratory illnesses in people, and bovine polyomavirus in 11 percent of samples.

“Fecal contamination by human pathogens is a potential human health hazard when present in recreational or drinking water, and bovine pathogens can be a health hazard for dairy operations,” said Peter Lenaker, a USGS scientist and the lead author of the study. “Results from our study can help managers develop effective water-quality management strategies to minimize pathogen exposure risks.”      

Human viruses were present in 16 percent of the total number of water samples. They occurred most often and at highest concentrations in the River Rouge in Michigan, followed by the Clinton River in Michigan and the Milwaukee River in Wisconsin. Samples from these three locations had greater than 25 percent urban influence and more than 2,900 people per square kilometer (km2).

Bovine viruses were most common in the Manitowoc and Milwaukee Rivers in Wisconsin. These two sampling locations had greater than 40 percent agricultural land influence and cattle densities greater than 50 cattle per km2. Overall, viruses from cattle occurred in 14 percent of the samples collected.

Human viruses can come from a variety of sources, including wastewater treatment run-off, failing wastewater infrastructure, malfunctioning sanitary sewers and septic systems. Bovine viruses can have sources that include direct cattle access to streams, and runoff flow from barnyards, pastures and manure application.

“Gastrointestinal viruses tend to be very specific to the animal they infect,” said Dr. Mark Borchardt, head of the USDA Agricultural Research Service laboratory that tested the samples. “When we find these viruses in the environment we know the exact source of the fecal pollution.”

The scientists also found that:

Human and bovine viruses occurred more frequently in spring and winter seasons than during the fall and summer; Precipitation, snowmelt and low-flow water conditions all contributed to the delivery of human and bovine viruses to streams; Other human viruses that were found in at least one water sample were adenovirus A, GI and GII norovirus and enterovirus; and Other cattle viruses detected were bovine rotavirus A, enterovirus and bovine viral diarrhea virus type 2.

For more information about water quality in the Great Lakes Basin, please visit the USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center website.

Human and bovine, or cattle, viruses were detected in a small percentage of some Great Lakes Basin streams, with human viruses more prevalent in urban streams and bovine viruses more common in streams in agricultural areas. (Credit: Ben Siebers, USGS. Public domain.)

Original Article





Driveways in a residential subdivision are coated with black coal-tar-based sealcoat, contrasting with the white cement sidewalk. (Public domain)

Runoff from pavement with coal-tar-based sealant is the primary source of toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, to streambed sediments in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, according to a U.S. Geological Survey and Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District study published today.

Pavement sealant is a black, shiny liquid sprayed or painted on asphalt parking lots, driveways and playgrounds to improve appearance and protect the underlying asphalt. Pavement sealants that contain coal tar, a known human carcinogen, have extremely high levels of PAHs. Some PAHs are toxic to fish and other aquatic life and several are probable human carcinogens.

Scientists with the USGS collected sediment samples from 40 streambed sites and dust samples from six parking lot sites in the Milwaukee area to determine the likely sources and toxicity of PAHs in streams. They found that dust from coal-tar-sealant contributed about 42 to 94 percent of the PAHs to the samples, with the remainder of PAHs coming from sources such as coal combustion and vehicle emissions.  

Seventy-eight percent of the sediment samples collected had PAH levels that could adversely affect aquatic organisms like aquatic insects. Among the most toxic samples collected were those from sections of Lincoln Creek, Underwood Creek and the West Milwaukee Ditch.

“This study shows that PAHs pose a very real threat to aquatic organisms at the base of the food chain,” said Austin Baldwin, a USGS scientist and the lead author of the study. “In terms of toxicity to these organisms, PAHs are probably the most important contaminants in Milwaukee-area streams.”

Potential adverse effects of these PAHs on aquatic organisms include fin erosion, liver abnormalities, cataracts and immune system impairments.

“Our study did not test the human health effects of coal-tar-sealant or PAHs in the Milwaukee area,” Baldwin said. “PAHs do not easily accumulate within the food chain, so possible human-health risks associated with consumption of fish are low.”

However, Baldwin noted that previous studies have demonstrated risks associated with tracking coal-tar-sealant dust from driveways into homes. Exposure to children playing on sealed pavement could be another route.

Coal-tar sealants have significantly higher levels of PAHs and related compounds compared to asphalt-based pavement sealants and other urban sources, including vehicle emissions, used motor oil and tire particles. Stormwater runoff, wind and tires can disseminate PAH particles throughout the urban landscape.

The new USGS study is published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

For more information about water-quality research in Wisconsin, please visit the USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center website. For more information about pavement sealants and PAHs, please visit the webpage about USGS research on PAHs and sealcoat.

Original Article





A tufted puffin, the species most affected by a recent seabird die-off in the Pribilof Islands, Alaska. (Credit: Sarah Schoen, USGS)

A beach littered with bird carcasses is a sobering sight. Since mid-October, hundreds of dead seabirds have washed ashore the north and east sides of St. Paul Island, Alaska, an otherwise serene volcanic island landscape in the Bering Sea.

Most of the carcasses being found are tufted puffins, a charismatic species of seabird with striking, silky tassels of feathers positioned like ponytails behind their white-masked eyes. However, horned puffins, murres and crested auklets have washed ashore as well, according to biologists from the Aleut Community of the St. Paul Island Tribal Government Ecosystem Conservation Office (ACSPI ECO).

“Seabirds, including puffins, are important to local residents for their cultural and subsistence uses, and are appreciated by bird watchers from around the world,” said John Pearce, a scientist with the USGS Alaska Science Center. “Seabirds can also provide important signals about local conditions in the marine environment, such as the abundance and availability of forage fish.”

The ACSPI ECO and Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that as of November 17, the encounter rate of puffin carcasses over a three-week period was hundreds of times greater than normal compared to past surveys at St. Paul. In total, nearly 300 carcasses of a variety of beached seabird species have been counted since mid-October.

Only a fraction of birds that die at sea become beached, and of those, only a small portion are observed by people before they are removed by scavengers. As a result, many more birds may be affected by the die-off than has been recorded.


A horned puffin, one of the species affected by a recent seabird die-off in the Pribilof Islands, Alaska.(Credit: Sarah Schoen, USGS)

USGS Die-Off Detectives

To determine cause of death, eight puffin carcasses – six tufted puffins and two horned puffins – were collected by ASCPI ECO biologists and sent to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, where scientists conducted necropsies, or animal autopsies, on the birds. The USGS found that these fish-eating puffins were severely emaciated and likely died of starvation. The animals showed no sign of disease.

Starvation of the birds could be related to a lack of prey or changes in prey distribution as a result of abnormal sea temperatures. Unusually high sea surface temperatures were recorded in October for the Bering, Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Coupled with record low levels of sea ice, these temperatures could affect populations of forage fish and squid upon which seabirds like puffins depend.

In 2015-2016, the USGS and USFWS investigated and documented a large-scale die-off of common murres in the Gulf of Alaska with similar findings of starvation.


A Continuous, Coordinated Effort

The USGS is working with the USFWS, COASST, ACSPI ECO, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to determine the full extent of the St. Paul seabird die-off. Together, these partners will continue to investigate the seabird mortality event.

The public can help, too. According to the USFWS, people can report sick or dead birds to 1-866-527-3358 or AK_MBM@fws.gov. Please include the following information:

Time & Date Exact location (latitude/longitude, length of beach) Type of bird (species name or group e.g., murre, puffin, etc.) Estimated number of birds Photos

The USFWS warns that people should not touch or collect any sick or dead birds. Please leave the birds where they are when documenting a mortality event.

For more information about wildlife die-offs, please visit the USGS National Wildlife Health Center website. To learn more about seabirds and wildlife disease in Alaska, visit the USGS Alaska Science Center website.

February 2019 update: More information about the effects of harmful algal blooms on Alaska's seabirds is available at a 2018 USGS Fact Sheet.

Original Article





The timely removal of leaf litter can reduce harmful phosphorus concentrations in stormwater by over 80 percent in Madison, Wisconsin. (USGS)

The timely removal of leaf litter can reduce harmful phosphorus concentrations in stormwater by over 80 percent in Madison, Wisconsin, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey study.

Autumn leaf litter contributes a significant amount of phosphorus to urban stormwater, which then runs off into waterways and lakes. Excessive amounts of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen can cause eutrophication, or the depletion of oxygen in water, resulting in death of aquatic animals like fish. The USGS-led study found that without removal, leaf litter and other organic debris in the fall contributed 56 percent of the annual total phosphorus load in urban stormwater compared to only 16 percent when streets were cleared of leaves prior to a rain event.

“Our study found that leaf removal is one of the few treatment options available to environmental managers for reducing the amount of dissolved nutrients in stormwater,” said Bill Selbig, a USGS scientist and the author of the report. “These findings are applicable to any city that is required to reduce phosphorus loads from urban areas.”

The city of Madison used municipal leaf collection, street cleaning and leaf blowers to remove leaf litter from residential areas, and asked residents to pile their leaves adjacent to the street to limit excess debris. (USGS)

During April through November of 2013 through 2015, scientists compared concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen in stormwater from two residential catchments in western Madison that had similar tree cover. The city applied a leaf litter removal program from late September through mid-November at one site but not the other. The researchers found significantly lower amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen at the site where leaves were removed.

The study also found that stormwater nutrient levels were highest during the fall months when the amount of organic debris on streets was at its peak. This finding suggests that leaf removal programs are most effective during fall in Madison, and that sources other than leaves, such as street dirt and grass clippings, were likely the primary contributors of phosphorus and other nutrients during spring and summer.

“The efficiency, frequency and timing of leaf removal and street cleaning are the primary factors to consider when developing a leaf management program,” Selbig said.

During the study period, the city of Madison used municipal leaf collection, street cleaning and leaf blowers to remove leaf litter from residential areas, and asked residents to pile their leaves adjacent to the street to limit excess debris. Leaf collection and street cleaning occurred about every seven days from late September through mid-November.

The USGS collaborated with the City of Madison, the Fund for Lake Michigan and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on the study.

For more information about Wisconsin water research, please visit the USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center website.

Original Article





The health of the environment is a research priority for the U.S. Geological Survey, and some of the recent highlights of that research will be on display at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry’s 2016 North American conference this Fall. For reporters interested in attending these presentations at the conference, or for following up with the scientists who did the research, please call or email Alex Demas at 703-648-4421 or apdemas@usgs.gov.

Maintaining the Aquatic Food Web

The largest subject area that USGS will have presentations and posters in is studies on the health of aquatic organisms, such as aquatic invertebrates. Although not as charismatic, aquatic invertebrates serve an essential function in the food web, and are often on the front lines of exposure to contaminants.

Some of those contaminants come from mine waste or drainage. Often these are metals, and they can have significant toxic effects on aquatic invertebrates. USGS is presenting studies that look at the effects of these metals on caged and wild crayfish, mussels, aquatic insects like caddisflies, and amphipods, which are tiny invertebrates that are an important food source for many other animals.

When one part of the food web is affected, it can ripple throughout the entire ecosystem. Thus, studies of the entire food web are important to show the true effects a contaminant can have. In one such example, USGS is presenting a study on how the insecticide bifenthrin can have significant impacts on aquatic food webs and even affect nearby land-based food webs.

Moving up the food web, USGS has studies on frog species’ exposure to the neonicotinoid insecticides clothianidin and thiamethoxam, as well as a study on the effects of the herbicide atrazine on fathead minnows. Although each of these species is not the target of the pesticide in question, they can still be affected, either through bioaccumulation in the food the species eat or exposure in the environment.

In the same vein of unintended consequences, natural disasters can have longer-reaching effects than the initial destruction they’re known for. USGS will be presenting studies on organic pollutants spread by Hurricane Sandy and their effects on bluefish and resident mussels.

And finally, USGS plays an important role in the methodologies that go into studying the health of aquatic organisms. Strategies to address endocrine disruption in Chesapeake Bay fish and wildlife; the chronic toxicity of various chemicals to freshwater mussels; and the role of mesocosms in studying aquatic life are three presentations that USGS has on environmental health methodology.

The Science of Spills in Streams

In addition to studying the organisms that live in aquatic environments, USGS studies the health of the aquatic environments themselves. For instance, in addition to studying the actual effects of pesticides on aquatic organisms, USGS scientists study how the pesticides can reach the aquatic organisms in the first place.

This year, USGS has presentations on how an additive to the popular pesticide glyphosate can spread in the environment; what the effects of various pesticide mixtures are in Midwestern streams; and what levels of neonicotinoid insecticides are in certain agricultural and urban streams throughout the United States.

In addition, USGS looks at unintended spills of various chemicals, with presentations on diluted bitumen spills in the Kalamazoo River and the residual toxicity of NaOH-based ballast water treatment system for freshwater bulk freighters. Also, USGS has a presentation on what can happen to sediment toxicity during a dam’s removal.

Finally, just as with the aquatic organisms, USGS has valuable studies on how to research the health of aquatic environments. In addition to the well-established EPA MDL procedure, USGS examines how to estimate detection levels for multi-analyte methods, which is important for determining contaminant levels in streams. Also, USGS has taken a look at the use of the tool ToxCast to evaluate organic contaminant effects in Great Lakes Tributaries and whether or not reducing the amount of sulfate can mitigate the production of methylmercury in the Great Lakes.

Taking to the Sky

Aquatic organisms aren’t the only ones USGS studies. This year, there are a number of papers and posters that look at the health of birds, namely what chemicals and contaminants they’re exposed to and the effects they may experience.

Tree swallows received the most attention, with USGS and EPA looking at the distribution and effects of legacy contaminants on egg and nestling survival in Great Lakes Areas of Concern, as well as whether the swallows are appropriate bioindicators for other toxicants. In addition, they were also used to assess how effective various remedies were in those Areas of Concern.

Birds of prey were also studied, because their position at the higher end of the foodweb means they can be exposed to significant bioaccumulation of various contaminants. However, USGS research on ospreys showed that, at least in the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, they largely have a clean bill of health.  Two other studies looked at American kestrels and what happens when they are exposed to persistent organic pollutants or priority flame retardants while developing in eggs.

The Science of Environmental Chemistry

Finally, USGS has several presentations about the science of environmental chemistry, including one on environmental chemistry perspectives from around the world. And, before the conference officially begins, USGS is giving a workshop on exploratory data analysis and plotting data with ggplot2 in R.

The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry’s 2016 North American conference runs from November 6-10 in Orlando, Fla.

Original Article





The physical setting of lakes, which includes underlying geology, elevation and surrounding land use, is the most significant driver of lake-level changes in the Twin Cities, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study published today

Scientists with the USGS analyzed 96 lakes in the northeast metropolitan area of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, to determine why water levels recently declined in some, including White Bear Lake, yet increased in others. They found that not all lakes in the area respond similarly to weather and groundwater pumping, and White Bear Lake is especially sensitive to lake-level changes because of its unique deep-water outlets.

"Water-level changes in White Bear Lake have been the largest of the northeast metro lakes monitored since 1925," said Perry Jones, a USGS scientist and lead author of the report. "Our study showed that water is flowing out of the lake at deeper depths, and this may be contributing to larger water-level changes."

The scientists studied lake levels during short-term (2002–2010) and long-term (1925–2014) periods, and compared them to landscape and geologic characteristics, climatic factors and local groundwater withdrawals. The study found that:

Closed-basin lakes, or those lacking an outlet like White Bear Lake, had more significant lake-level declines than flow-through lakes with an outlet; When closed-basin lake levels increased or decreased, groundwater levels reflected those changes; Water levels in flow-through lakes varied more when annual precipitation fluctuated; Lake-level declines were larger in higher-elevation areas; and The installation of water-flow control structures, such as culverts and weirs, helped moderate multiyear lake-level changes.

The study also showed that groundwater enters White Bear Lake from shallow sites near the shore, and leaves from deep-water sites at the bottom of the lake. When water flows out from these deep sites, it flows into aquifers beneath White Bear Lake. These deep-water outflows are uncommon in Minnesota lakes, and make the lake uniquely sensitive to water-level declines.

The USGS partnered with the Metropolitan Council and the Minnesota Department of Health on the new study.

For more information about water research in Minnesota, please visit the USGS Minnesota Water Science Center website.

Original Article





A common insecticide used in urban and agricultural areas, bifenthrin, is harmful to aquatic ecosystems at levels that were previously considered safe, according to a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey. The insecticide was measured in several streams in the Midwest at levels that caused harm to artificial aquatic ecosystems.

Bifenthrin is used to combat common household pests like ants and termites, to control mosquitos that could spread diseases like West Nile and Zika and on crops to kill aphids and other agricultural pests. About 1.2 million pounds of bifenthrin was used in the United States in 2013.

USGS scientists evaluated the effects of bifenthrin on natural communities of stream invertebrates, such as mayflies and midges, using artificial streams. Exposure to bifenthrin concentrations previously thought benign caused the insect populations to become less abundant and diverse, and caused an increase in algal growth as the larvae that feed on algae decreased. The insecticide also altered the timing of insect emergence from the larval state to become adults and complete their life cycle. The full study, reported in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology, is now available online.

There were obvious similarities between the data from the artificial stream test and data for 92 small streams in the Midwest studied by the USGS in 2013. The insect species that were most sensitive to bifenthrin in the artificial streams were less abundant or eliminated from Midwest streams with similar bifenthrin concentrations. About 40 percent of Midwest streams sampled had bifenthrin concentrations greater than levels that caused meaningful ecological change in the artificial stream study.

 “The results of this experiment demonstrate that not only do aquatic insects die at concentrations of bifenthrin previously thought nontoxic, but that bifenthrin changes the way that stream ecosystems function,” said Travis Schmidt, a USGS ecologist and the lead scientist on the study. “Bifenthrin disrupts the ability of insects to control algal blooms, and disrupts the emergence of flying aquatic insects that are a food source for bats, birds and other animals in and around rivers.”

Parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas were included in the study.

This study is the one of several regional stream-quality assessments by the USGS. Findings will provide the public and decision makers with information regarding which human and natural factors are the most critical in affecting stream quality. Regions studied include the Southeast (2014), the Pacific Northwest (2015)the Northeast (2016) and California (2017). 

Support for this work was provided by the USGS National Water Quality Assessment Project (NAWQA).

Companion USGS Data Release

Original Article





Tiny pieces of harmful plastic, called microplastics, are prevalent in many rivers that flow into the Great Lakes, according to a study published today in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Results are also illustrated on a new USGS microplastics website.

Microplastics fall off decomposing bottles and bags, wear off of synthetic clothing and are manufactured into some toothpastes and lotions. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and State University of New York at Fredonia studied 107 water samples collected from 29 Great Lakes tributaries in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and New York, and found microplastics in all samples. Together, these 29 tributaries account for approximately 22 percent of the total river water that flows into the Great Lakes.

Microplastics, organic material and other debris in a sample from the Milwaukee River, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Austin Baldwin, USGS, Public domain)

“These microplastics, which are harmful to animal and possibly human health, will continue to accumulate in the Great Lakes well into the future,” said Austin Baldwin, a USGS scientist and the lead author of the report. “Our findings can help water managers better understand the types and sources of microplastics in rivers, and which rivers are the most polluted with microplastics.”

Baldwin noted that the study underestimates the actual microplastic concentrations in the rivers because the scientists sampled large microplastics greater than 0.33 millimeters (mm). The majority of microplastics are smaller than 0.1 mm.

Key findings from the study include:

The highest concentration of microplastics was detected in the Huron River at Ann Arbor, Michigan, at 32 particles per cubic meter, or p/m3; High levels of microplastics were also detected in the Buffalo River at Buffalo, New York (31 p/m3), the Ashtabula River near Ashtabula, Ohio (23 p/m3), and the Clinton River near Mt. Clemens, Michigan (21 p/m3); The median concentration of microplastics in all samples was 1.9 p/m3; Urban watersheds had the highest concentrations of microplastics; and Microplastics were also present in streams in forested and agricultural areas.

The scientists found various forms of microplastics in the river samples: fibers, fragments, films, foams, and pellets or beads. Plastic fibers, which come from items such as synthetic clothes, diapers and cigarette butts, were the most common type detected, at 71 percent of the total particles. The least common form found in the river water was microbeads, which are the only form banned by the United States Congress. This ban has not yet taken effect.

“We were surprised by the small amount of plastic beads and high amount of fibers found in the samples,” Baldwin said. “These unexpected findings demonstrate how studies like ours are critical to better understanding the many forms and fates of microplastics in the environment.”

Ingested microplastics can cause digestive and reproductive problems, as well as death, in fish, birds and other animals. Unhealthy additives in the plastic, including flame retardants and antimicrobials, have been associated with cancer and endocrine disruption in humans. Also, pollutants such as pesticides, trace metals and even pathogens can accumulate at high concentrations on microplastic particles.

Scientists have found microplastics nearly everywhere. Aside from rivers, microplastics are also common in lakes and oceans, in freshwater and marine fish, oysters and mussels, and in sediment. They are deposited onto land and water surfaces from the atmosphere.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funded the new study. For more information on USGS microplastics research, please visit the USGS Great Lakes Restoration Initiative website.

USGS scientists Pete Lenaker and Nic Buer collect a microplastic sample at the Manitowoc River, Manitowoc, Wisconsin. (Austin Baldwin, USGS, Public domain) Collecting a microplastics sample using a neuston net, Milwaukee River, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.(Austin Baldwin, USGS, Public domain)


Original Article





An international team of scientists led by the U.S. Geological Survey, recently documented widespread mercury contamination in air, soil, sediment, plants, fish, and wildlife at various levels across western North America. They evaluated potential risk from mercury to human, fish, and wildlife health, and examined resource management activities that influence this risk.

Wetland habitats, such as the Great Salt Lake wetlands, provide critical feeding areas for many fish and wildlife species.Collin Eagles-Smith, USGSPublic domain

“Mercury is widespread in the environment, and under certain conditions poses a substantial threat to environmental health and natural resource conservation,” said Collin Eagles-Smith, USGS ecologist and team lead. “We gathered decades of mercury data and research from across the West to examine patterns of mercury and methylmercury in numerous components of the western landscape. This effort takes an integrated look at where mercury occurs in western North America, how it moves through the environment, and the processes that influence its movement and transfer to aquatic food chains.”

More than 80 percent of fish consumption advisories posted in the United States and Canada are wholly or partially because of mercury.  Fish consumption provides many health benefits to people, but the presence of mercury at high concentrations in fish can reduce some of those benefits. Balancing the protection of human health from mercury while also communicating health benefits associated with fish consumption requires detailed information about the distribution of mercury among fish species and across various aquatic systems.

Vegetation patterns affect both soil moisture and the amount of sunlight that reaches the soil, two factors associated with mercury release from soils. USFWS photo.

“The movement of mercury through the western landscape - traveling between the air, ground, and water to plants, animals, and ultimately humans, is extremely complex,” said Eagles-Smith. “This series of articles helps further our understanding of the processes associated with that complexity in western North America, highlights where knowledge gaps still exist, and provides information to resource managers that will help with making informed, science-based management and regulatory decisions.”

Effective management of environmental health risks associated with mercury goes beyond controlling the sources, and could be improved by development of tools to control the production of methylmercury and its bioaccumulation through the food web, ultimately affecting animals and humans.

”This effort provides critical information on mercury pathways to humans and wildlife that government regulators, lawmakers, and the public can use to make decisions,” adds David Evers, Executive Director of Biodiversity Research Institute and co-organizer of the effort. “It builds upon the Northeastern and Great Lakes regional efforts that collected and analyzed environmental mercury data that were often separated by sample type.”

Densely forested areas, such as those found along the Oregon Coastal Range, collect substantial amounts of mercury because they receive high amounts of precipitation.  Used with permission from Kelly J. James Photography.

Key findings of the report include:

Methylmercury contamination in fish and birds is common in many areas throughout the West, and climate and land cover are some important factors influencing mercury contamination and availability to animals Fish and birds in many areas were found to have mercury concentrations above levels that have been associated with toxic effects Patterns of methylmercury exposure in fish and wildlife across the West differed from patterns of inorganic mercury on the landscape Some ecosystems and species are more sensitive to mercury contamination, and local environmental conditions are important factors influencing the creation and transfer of methylmercury through the food web Forest soils typically contain more inorganic mercury than soils in semi-arid environments, yet the highest levels of methylmercury in fish and wildlife occurred in semi-arid areas Vegetation patterns strongly influence the amount of mercury emitted to the atmosphere from soils Forested areas retain mercury from the atmosphere, whereas less vegetated areas tend to release mercury to the atmosphere Land disturbances, such as urban development, agriculture, and wildfires, are important factors in releasing inorganic mercury from the landscape, potentially making it available for biological uptake Land and water management activities can strongly influence how methylmercury is created and transferred to fish, wildlife, and humans


Mercury and Methylmercury

Mercury, also known by its chemical symbol Hg, is a naturally-occurring metal that can pose a threat to humans, fish, and wildlife when exposed to high levels of its most toxic form, methylmercury. Methylmercury is created from inorganic mercury in aquatic ecosystems by bacteria. This is a complex process that only occurs under the right conditions for the bacteria to thrive. Therefore, the movement of inorganic mercury from the atmosphere or land to the water does not always result in equivalent levels of methylmercury in fish and wildlife unless the environmental condition is favorable for methylmercury production.

Methylmercury is easily accumulated by fish, wildlife, and humans from their diet; primarily affecting the nervous and reproductive systems, and is particularly harmful during the developmental stages of life. It increases in concentration up the food chain, reaching its highest levels in predators and long-lived species. Because methylmercury readily accumulates through the food chain, exposure patterns in fish and wildlife reflect where local conditions favor the creation of methylmercury.  


The western landscape is defined by extremes in climate, land cover, and habitat type. 

Sources, Storage, Transport, and Re-release

In the West, the distribution of mercury is a reflection of the diversity of sources combined with a landscape defined by extremes in climate, land cover, and habitat type. These characteristics of the western landscape influence mercury storage, chemical transformation, and buildup through the food chain.

Mercury enters the landscape from the atmosphere, natural geologic sources, historic mining activities, and re-released mercury stored in vegetation and soils. Atmospheric mercury sources are primarily direct natural emissions, such as volcanic eruptions; direct man-made emissions, such as fossil fuel emissions; and re-release from plants and soils. Mercury from the atmosphere makes its way back to earth through precipitation, dust particles, or direct uptake by plants through their leaves.

Densely forested areas, such as those found along the Pacific coastal mountain ranges, collect substantial amounts of mercury because they receive high amounts of precipitation. The deposited mercury easily binds to vegetation and rich forest soils. Soil mercury concentrations in these forests are on average 2.5 times higher than those in dry semi-arid environments. Similarly, waterbodies located in these forests have among the highest concentrations of inorganic mercury in their sediments.

Mercury Released from Soils

Soil-bound mercury can also move in the opposite direction, from land to the atmosphere. Much of the mercury emitted from the soil is re-release from previously deposited or “old” mercury. The amount of mercury released from soils varies across the region and is dependent upon vegetation patterns, which are important because these patterns affect both soil moisture and the amount of sunlight that reaches the soil – two factors associated with mercury release from soils.

In drier regions with less plant cover, the amount of mercury deposited from the atmosphere is similar to the amount released from soils, suggesting that these areas do not store mercury. In contrast, densely forested areas receive several times more mercury through atmospheric deposition than what is re-emitted to the atmosphere. As a result, western forests tend to provide long-term storage for inorganic mercury whereas much of the mercury deposited across the vast areas of sparsely vegetated semi-arid lands throughout the West either returns back into the atmosphere or becomes available for transport to aquatic ecosystems.

Mercury Released from Wildfires

Wildfire is one of the largest sources of re-released soil mercury to the atmosphere. The amount of mercury released during a wildfire depends on the size of the burned area, the amount of mercury stored in plants and soil, and the severity of burning. High severity fires, or  fires that cause greater physical change in an area, release greater amounts of mercury than low severity fires because they burn more fuel and make the soil hotter. Although high severity fires release more stored mercury into the atmosphere, lower severity fires may leave behind mercury in soils in a form that can more easily be moved to aquatic ecosystems and converted to methylmercury. With the increasing rate and severity of wildfires in the West associated with a changing climate, there could be an increase in movement of mercury that has been stored for centuries.

Historical mining and ore processing used mercury to extract precious metals such as gold and silver, releasing extensive amounts of mercury into the environment. Malakoff Diggins, Nevada County, California. Hearst Mining Collection of Views. Used with Permission of the Bancroft Library, The University of California - Berkeley.

Legacy Mining in the West

The West has rich geologic deposits of naturally occurring mercury, as well as gold and silver, where mercury was historically used to extract these valuable elements from rock formations. Historical mining and ore processing for these metals released extensive amounts of mercury into the environment, contaminating lake and river sediments downstream of mining operations. As a result, many of the highest levels of sediment mercury concentrations across the West are associated with legacy gold, silver, and mercury mines. However, the influence of mining on downstream mercury concentrations is most noticeable in small watersheds, because the amount of mercury from mining in larger watersheds is a fraction of what is contributed by other sources and processes such as atmospheric deposition, land disturbance, and erosion of less contaminated soils.

Land Use and Development

Agriculture and urban land development are more widespread across the West than mining, and those land uses have a large influence on the amount of mercury released from soils. As a result, lakes receiving runoff from agricultural or urbanized watersheds show higher rates of mercury accumulation in their sediments than lakes in undisturbed areas. The accumulation rate of mercury in lake sediments, calculated from sediment cores dated from to 1800-2010,  showed the highest rate during the last decade (2000-2010) than at any time since the industrial revolution, and approximately five times higher than during pre-industrial times (1800 to 1850).

Wildfire is one of the largest sources of re-released mercury to the atmosphere and a component to the widespread movement of inorganic mercury to aquatic sediments.Public domain

Landscape disturbance; such as wildfire, resource extraction, and land development, is a major component to the widespread movement of inorganic mercury to aquatic sediment throughout waterbodies of the West. However, mercury levels in fish and wildlife do not always match the levels of inorganic mercury because of the requirement for inorganic mercury to be converted to methylmercury before accumulating up the food chain.

“Methylmercury production is a complex microbial process that requires specific environmental conditions,” said Mark Marvin-DiPasquale, USGS microbiologist and co-organizer of the synthesis. “Only a small amount of the inorganic mercury is available to be made into methylmercury by bacteria, and under the right conditions even this small amount can result in methylmercury levels that pose a threat to fish, aquatic birds, and human health.”

As a result, sediment inorganic mercury concentrations alone often do not accurately indicate how much mercury makes its way into the animals living in the associated environment and ultimately, humans who may consume those animals.


Fish are indicators of methylmercury contamination because they are an important link in the food chain for both wildlife and humans.  USFS photo.

Managing Mercury Risk to Wildlife and Humans

Western North America supports many fish and wildlife communities, several of which are threatened by habitat loss or other factors, including exposure to methylmercury. Fish are indicators of methylmercury contamination because they are an important link in the food chain for both wildlife and humans. Fish and wildlife also are indicators of methylmercury availability over many months to years in the food chain. Mercury contamination of fish and birds is widespread across the West, but the patterns of exposure do not fully match patterns of inorganic mercury distribution in soils and sediments. Although the highest levels of inorganic mercury in soil are found in forested areas, the highest levels of methylmercury in fish and wildlife tend to occur in more arid regions of the West such as the Great Basin. Many existing guidelines and regulations around mercury focus on inorganic mercury in soils and sediments. The combination of inorganic mercury movement, methylmercury creation, and how long mercury stays in the food chain are some of the challenges to managing methylmercury risk to animals and humans.

More than half of the land, lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands in the West are publically owned or managed, much by the federal government. Natural resource management for both conservation and resource extraction can have a particularly strong influence on how mercury is transported over land, through water, and transferred to fish, wildlife, and humans.

Water and its management is a defining characteristic of the western landscape. It is among the continent’s most complex and widespread resource management challenges and has greatly influenced land use, development, and natural resource conservation. The need to store and transport water for shared ecological, agricultural, and human needs has resulted in complex networks of dams and man-made waterways that have transformed the western landscape and dramatically changed the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of river systems, and in some cases influenced the movement of mercury through these systems.

Wetlands, lakes, and rivers can all promote the creation of methylmercury, and seasonal flow and flood patterns of the West result in numerous locations where methylmercury can be created. These habitats are also often important environments that are critical feeding areas for many fish and wildlife species. Management of water flows and storage throughout the West can influence methylmercury creation in these aquatic habitats and can have a strong impact on the degree of mercury exposure throughout local food webs.

Management of water flows and storage through structures such as Foster Dam in Oregon can influence methylmercury creation in aquatic habitats. USACE image.

"We found mercury contamination of birds was common in many areas throughout western North America, some at levels above what is considered toxic to birds,” said Josh Ackerman, USGS wildlife biologist and lead author of one of the articles on bird mercury exposure. “Certain ecological characteristics, such as the type of habitat the birds live in, and their diet were important factors influencing bird mercury concentrations and their risk to mercury toxicity."

This body of work was conducted as part of the Western North America Mercury Synthesis Working Group and supported by the USGS John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis. The Working Group is comprised of partners from other U.S. and Canadian federal, state, and provincial agencies, as well as academic institutions and non-governmental organizations. Primary funding support was provided by the USGS, National Park Service, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with additional support from the individual authors’ organizations.

Findings are found in a 2016 special issue of Science of The Total Environment:  Mercury in Western North America—Spatiotemporal Patterns, Biogeochemistry, Bioaccumulation, and Risks


More Information:

Special Issue

USGS Environmental Health Science Feature

University of Michigan News Release

Biodiversity Research Institute News Release


Original Article





This essay examines the New Left’s impact on the Canadian labour movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Specifically, it argues that in large industrial unions such as the UAW, New Left ideas that were popular amongst the rank and file were stifled by the more conservative labour bureaucrats. However, in public sector unions and unions unaffiliated with the Canadian Labour Congress, New Left ideas were often able to flourish, and these more radical unions were sometimes able to obtain substantial gains for their members throughout the 1970s while also fostering a broader sense of class consciousness in Canadian society -- culminating most notably in the Common Front’s general strikes in Quebec. Furthermore, this essay suggests that New Left ideas were more popular in public sector and independent unions because these unions had a larger proportion of women in comparison to other unions, and women at this time had a greater incentive to embrace transformative ideologies than men.

Original Article

The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History

The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History


Sean P. Antaya