Desalination Explained

By Paddy Padmanathan
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)
Pictures and graphics provided by Paddy Padmanathan

Mr. Padmanathan, a professional civil engineer for over 35 years, is President and CEO of ACWA Power, a company that delivers desalinated water in 11 countries. His goal today is to promote localization of technology and industrialization of emerging economies.

NWNL:  While we can’t squeeze water out of thin air, we can squeeze potable water out of salt water. The high cost of desalination and ecosystem degradation by its brine waste are now being studied and corrected.  Thus, as our planet seeks more freshwater, NWNL asked this author, whom we recently met, to share his assessment of desalination and to describe recent adjustments to former desalination processes in this blog.

Picture5.pngShuqaiq 2 IWPP, RO desalination plant

Desalination’s Recent Global Development

Desalination is the process by which unpotable water such as seawater, brackish water and wastewater is purified into freshwater for human consumption and use. Desalination is no longer some far-fetched technology we will eventually need in a distant future to secure global water supply.

Desalination technology has been used for centuries, if not longer, largely as a means to convert seawater to drinking water aboard ships and carriers. Advances in the technology’s development in the last 40 years has allowed desalination to provide potable fresh water at large scale.

Picture1.png

Desalination Capacity (Source: Pacific Institute, The World’s Water, 2009)

In the Arabian Gulf, desalination plays a particularly crucial role in sustaining life and economy. Some countries in the Gulf rely on desalination to produce 90%, or more, of their drinking water.  The overall capacity in this region amounts to about 40% of the world’s desalinated water capacity. Much of this is in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain. The remaining global capacity is mainly in North America, Europe, Asia and North Africa. Australia‘s capacity is also increasing substantially.

Global desalination capacity has increased dramatically since 1990 to a 2018 value of producing 105 million cubic meters of water daily (m3/day). Of this cumulative capacity, approximately 95 million m3/day is in use.

Picture2.pngQuadrupling of worldwide desalination capacity (1998-2018) continues.

Proponents and Critics of Desalination

Estimates indicate that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in regions with absolute water scarcity; and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions. Desalinated water is possibly one of the only water resources not dependant on climate patterns. Desalination appears especially promising and suitable for dry coastal regions.

Proponents of desalination claim it creates jobs; stops dependence on long-distance water sources; and prevents local traditional water sources from being over-exploited.  It even supports development of energy industries, such as the oil and gas industries in the Middle East. As well, research and development are making desalination plants increasingly energy efficient and cost-effective.

It is valid that the environmental impacts of desalination plants include emission of large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, because even with all the advances in technology to reduce energy intensity, desalination is still an energy-intensive process. While the industry continues to work on reducing energy intensity, the solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to link desalination with renewable energy.

Energy is also the most expensive component of cost of produced water, contributing up to one-third to more than half of the cost. Renewable energy costs are now becoming competitive with fossil-fuel-generated energy in many locations where desalination is the only option available for providing potable water. As a result, more attention is turning towards de-carbonization of desalination.

Desalination also degrades marine environments through both its intake and discharge processes. After separating impurities from the water, the plant discharges the waste, known as brine, back into the sea. Because brine contains much higher concentrations of salt, it causes harm to surrounding marine habitats. Considerable attention and investment are going towards minimizing the damage with more appropriate design of intake and discharge facilities. In the case of discharge, temperature and salt concentrations are reduced though blending prior to discharge. Ensuring this discharge only at sufficient depths of sea water and spreading discharge across a very wide mixing zone will ensure sufficient and quick dilution.

Desalination Technologies

Main water sources for desalination are seawater and brackish water. Key elements of a desalination system are largely the same for both sources:

  1. Intake — getting water from its source to the processing facility;
  2. Pretreatment — removing suspended solids to prepare the water for further processing;
  3. Desalination — removing dissolved solids, primarily salts and other inorganic matter from a water source;
  4. Post-treatment — adding chemicals to desalinated water to prevent corrosion of downstream infrastructure pipes; and
  5. Concentrate management and freshwater storage — handling and disposing or reusing the waste from the desalination; and storing this new freshwater before it’s provided to consumers.

The majority of advancements in technology has happened at Stage 3, the desalination process itself.

Picture3.png

The 5 Stages of Desalination (with Stage 3 details in the blue circle) .

There are two main categories of desalination methods: thermal (or distillation) and membrane. Until 1998, most desalination plants used the thermal process. Thereafter, the reverse osmosis (RO) desalination process via a membrane-based filtration method took hold.  As more and more technological advancements were developed, the number of plants using membrane technology surpassed that of thermal. As of 2008, membrane processes accounted for 55% of desalination capacity worldwide, while thermal processes accounted for only 45%.

Thermal Methods

There are three thermal processes; multistage flash (MSF), multiple effect distillation (MED), and mechanical vapor compression (MVC), which all use the same basic principle of applying heat to create water vapor. The vapor then condenses into pure water, while separating it from most of the salts and impurities.  All three thermal processes use and reuse the energy required to evaporate water.

Thermal distillation was the earliest method used in the Middle East to commercially desalinate seawater for several reasons:

  1. The very saline and hot Arabian Gulf and Red Sea periodically have high concentrations of organics. Until recent advances in pre-treatment technologies, these organics presented challenging conditions for RO desalination technology.
  2. Only in recent times, with advances in membrane science, have RO plants been reliably utilized for the large production capacities required in this region.
  3. Dual-purpose, co-generation facilities in the Middle East combine water production with electric power to take advantage of shared intake and discharge structures.This usually improves energy efficiencies by 10% to 15% as thermal desalination processes utilize low-temperature waste steam from power-generation turbines.

In the past, these three reasons, combined with highly-subsidized costs of energy available in the Middle East, made thermal processes the dominant desalination technology in this region.  Amongst the three thermal processes, MSF is the most robust and is capable of very large production capacities. The number of stages used in the MSF process directly relate to how efficiently the system will use and reuse the heat that it is provided.

Picture4.pngShuaibah 3 IWPP:  An MSF [thermal] desalination plant.

Membrane Methods

Commercially-available membrane processes include Reverse Osmosis (RO), nanofiltration (NF), electrodialysis (ED) and electrodialysis reversal (EDR). Typically, 35-45% of seawater fed into a membrane process is recovered as product water. For brackish water desalination, water recovery can range from 50% to 90%.

Reverse Osmosis (RO), as the name implies, is the opposite of what happens in osmosis. A pressure greater than osmotic pressure is applied to saline water.  This causes freshwater to flow through the membrane while holding back the solutes, or salts. The water that comes out of this process is so pure that they add back salts and minerals to make it taste like drinking water.

Today, the Reverse Osmosis (RO) process uses significantly less energy than thermal distillation processes due to advances in membranes and energy-recovery devices. Thus, RO is the more environmentally-sustainable solution; and it has reduced overall desalination costs over the past decade.

Picture6.pngShuaibah Expansion IWP, RO membrane racks & energy recovery, RO desalination plant

Desalination Technology Today: Comparisons and Areas for Improvements

While all the desalination technologies in use today are generally more efficient and reliable than before, the cost and energy requirements are still high. Ongoing research efforts are aimed at reducing cost (by powering plants with less-expensive energy sources, such as low-grade heat) and overcoming operational limits of a process (by increasing energy efficiency).

Since the current technologies are relatively mature, improvements will be incremental. Emerging technologies such as Forward Osmosis or Membrane Distillation will further reduce electric power consumption and will use solar heat. To approach the maximum benefit of desalination, it will take disruptive technologies such Graphene membranes. They are in very early stage of development.  Ultimately, no desalination process can overcome its thermodynamic limits. However, desalination is a valuable contribution to today’s increasing needs for fresh water supplies.

Wild and Scenic River: Niobrara River

All photos © Alison M. Jones

On May 24, 1991, sections of Nebraska’s Niobrara River were added to the Wild and Scenic River System. A total of 104 miles of the Niobrara River are designated under the Wild and Scenic River System. 76 miles are designated as Scenic, and 28 miles are Recreational. The designated sections include:

  • Borman Bridge to State Highway 137
  • Knox County’s western boundary to the Niobrara-Missouri River confluence, and
  • Verdigre Creek-Niobrara River confluence to the north boundary of Verdigre Town.

NWNL visited braided sections between Nebraska and S. Dakota of the Niobrara River during a 2017 Mississippi River Basin expedition documenting Nebraska’s Missouri River tributaries. Our Missouri River Basin/ Niobrara Expedition Statement of Purpose describes the values and vulnerabilities of these watersheds, as well as our Methodology for this expedition. For more information about the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act read the first part of this blog series. The following pictures of the Niobrara River were taken by NWNL Director Alison Jones during her 2017 expedition.

From The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System: “Perhaps the epitome of a prairie river, the Niobrara is known as a biological crossroads. Although passing primarily through private land, it also flows through the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge and the largest single holding of The Nature Conservancy where bison have been reintroduced. The upper portion provides excellent canoeing.”

Jones_170612_NE_3776The Niobrara River Bridge connecting South Dakota and Nebraska
Jones_170612_NE_4405-2Braided patterns at the Missouri-Niobrara Rivers Confluence
Jones_170612_NE_4406-2Nebraska’s Niobrara State Park view of the Niobrara River
Jones_170613_NE_3795-2Niobrara River before entering Nebraska’s Mormon Canal
Jones_170613_NE_4468-2A new Niobrara River channel flowing under Mormon Canal bridge
Jones_170613_NE_4536-2The Niobrara River cutting through sandy soils of Verdel, Nebraska

 

The Clean Water Act: Its Beginnings in the Columbia and Raritan Rivers

By Isabelle Bienen, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)
All photos © Alison M. Jones unless otherwise noted

Isabelle Bienen is Northwestern University junior studying Social and Environmental Policy & Culture and Legal Studies. As NWNL Summer Intern, she wrote a 5-blog series on the history, purpose and current status of the U.S. Clean Water Act [CWA] in NWNL’s three US case-study watersheds. Her 1st blog was CWA Beginnings in the Mississippi River Basin.

Jones_070708_OR_6995.jpgColumbia River, Astoria OR

Columbia River Basin

The Pacific North West’s Columbia River Basin empties more water into the Pacific Ocean than any other river in the Americas. Starting at its Canadian Rocky Mountains source, it runs for 1,243, collecting water from the U.S. states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah.1 The Columbia River is one of the most hydroelectric river systems in the world, with over 400 dams that provide power, irrigation and flood control.1 This river basin has positively impacted urban development, agriculture, transportation, fisheries and energy supplies across a significant swath of the western United States.

Jones_070628_OR_5171_M.jpgJuvenile fish bypass at the McNary Dam in Oregon

However large, unregulated industry in this watershed caused the Columbia River system to become severely polluted. Salmon populations were heavily affected by this pollution, especially when combined with the dams presenting migratory barriers to salmon going upstream from the ocean to cool, freshwater tributaries for spawning.  Before such the pollution and dam impacts Columbia Basin provided spawning habitat for one of the largest salmon runs in the world.1

The many indigenous Native Americans in this basin, including Colville, Wanapum, Yakama, Nez Perce, Chinook and other tribes, had relied on plentiful and healthy salmon populations as their primary source for food, trade, and general cultural use. The depletion of the salmon, below 10% of the population numbers before the hydro-dams, today severely impacts their cultural traditions and livelihoods.

Jones_110924_WA_6020-2.jpgMembers of the Chinook Nation at a Canoe Reparation Ceremony in Washington 

Additionally, pollutants in today’s remaining salmon are very dangerous to human health. It is estimated that members of Columbia Basin tribes eat about 2.2 pounds of fish daily. However, based on water quality issues, the Department of Health’s recommended limit for fish consumption is just one 7-ounce serving per month – ⅓ of their usual per day consumption .7

Jones_070627_WA_4800.jpgIrrigation wasteway carrying polluted water to Columbia River

Hanford Nuclear Site on the Columbia River in Eastern Washington poses another water quality concern for Columbia River Basin stakeholders. Hanford’s nine nuclear reactors “have produced 60% of the plutonium that fueled the US’s nuclear weapons arsenal, including plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.”2 These reactors are no longer operating; but their nuclear waste is stored here in leaking, single-cell tanks right on the Columbia River Basin.2 Groundwater containing remnants of radioactive waste from Hanford Nuclear Site still flows into the Columbia River, per an EPA project manager at a Hanford Advisory Board 2017 meeting.3

Jones_070625_WA_4429_M.jpgHanford Nuclear Site: Laboratory and Chemical Waste Storage Unit

Industrial pollution from the Portland Harbor Superfund Site was added to the EPA’s National Priorities List in December 2000, after years of contamination from industries in the Willamette River, a major tributary to the Lower Columbia River Basin and critical salmon and steelhead migratory corridor and nursery.4 The Portland Harbor Superfund Site is rife with PCB’s, PAH’s, dioxins, pesticides and heavy metals that are a health risk to humans and the environment. In January 2017 the EPA accepted a remedy for cleaning up Portland Harbor. By the end of the year, Dec. 2017, the EPA agreed to a Portland Harbor Baseline Sampling Plan.4

This 2017 cleanup is an example of usage of the Superfund Law, “a U. S. federally funded program used to clean up sites contaminated by hazardous pollutants.4  Cleanup of this harbor is beneficial to the international commerce on the Willamette River, which provides economic stability to many global communities. The river is also a migratory corridor and breeding habitat for salmon and steelhead trout, especially important for local tribes for natural and cultural purposes.4

Jones_070620_WA_0708.jpgMidnight Mine,WA: old uranium mine on Spokane River, now Superfund Site 

Being a transboundary river starting in Canada, the US reaches of the Columbia have been threatened by Canada’s Teck Cominco zinc smelting plant in Trail, Canada, right on the banks of the Columbia, just 12 miles upstream of the US-Canada border. Since 1896, Teck Cominco has dumped zinc slag and remnants of copper, gold, and other pollutants into the Columbia River and spewed toxins into the air that killed acres of upstream forests.

This Canadian Teck Cominco plant has polluted 12 miles of the Columbia River in Canada and many miles further downstream in the U.S.  Due to elevated lead counts in the blood of children eating salmon in Washington State, U.S. Native American tribes took Teck Cominco to the U.S. Supreme Court and won their case with a decision that demanded Teck Cominco reduce its large groundwater plume of toxins.5 Ultimately, a Washington state judge ruled that Teck Cominco is liable for contaminating the Columbia River and  responsible for funding its clean up.

Raritan River Basin

Jones_150511_NJ_0933.jpgColonial Era mill on South Fork of Raritan River, Clinton NJ

On the East Coast, the Raritan River Basin drains water from 6 New Jersey counties and 49 New Jersey municipalities, making it the largest watershed in the state, covering approximately 1,100 square miles.5 With approximately 1.5 million people living in the Raritan River Basin, New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation. This places intense pressure on the need to maintain both healthy and adequate supplies of fresh water.6  

In the mostly-rural Upper Raritan Basin, its North Branch and South Branch continue to provide a clean, fresh water habitat for endangered wild brook trout. However, this location now faces issues of nonpoint-source pollution from agricultural runoff via rainfall or snowmelt. The most common pollutants found in such runoffs include excess fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fecal matter, oil, grease and other toxic chemicals.8 Due to the many dairy farms in the Upper Raritan, runoff of pollutants – and especially fecal matter – flow downstream and impact the Lower Raritan River.  

Jones_090621_NJ_0979.jpgFish head washed onto bank of Raritan River in Perth Amboy NJ

Lower Raritan Basin polluting sources are different from Upper Raritan nonpoint sources. For centuries, high amounts of industrial waste have polluted the Raritan Bay and the Lower Raritan River, which forms at the confluence of the North Branch and South Branch of the Raritan. Since the Colonial Era, mills and factories lined this New York-Philadelphia water corridor, using the river for dumping their waste.

Additionally, today’s Lower Raritan River Basin is also heavily polluted by sewer discharge and more impermeable surfaces in increasingly-high densities of urban and suburban areas. In these highly built-up centers, sewn together with surfaces of concrete and cement, pollution is exacerbated by frequent flood-runoff and rainfall that is not absorbed into the soil. The increasing intensity of storms, attributed to climate change, worsens this problem.

Jones_090515_NJ_4550.jpgSpillway for runoff into Raritan River, New Brunswick, NJ

Lack of control in Combined Sewer Overflow points (CSO’s) is especially prevalent in Perth Amboy. Director of the Clean Water Division in EPA’s Region 2 states, “Combined sewer overflows are a very serious public health and environmental problem in a number of New Jersey’s communities….”9 CSO’s send diluted and untreated sewage water into the Raritan waterways.  Perth Amboy has over ten CSO locations. In 2012, the EPA took action against Perth Amboy in 2012 in regard to their lack of compliance with minimum controls of CSO’s causing pollution spikes in the Raritan River.9 In 2015, the Christie Administration announced a new permit system for NJ requiring CSO reduction plans and signage for residents at discharge points noting serious health effects of overflow fluids.  Of the 217 CFO’s in NJ addressed by the 25 new permits, 16 were Perth Amboy. This step has allowed much-needed infrastructure upgrades .9

15_0003b.jpgGraphics of a CSO (by NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection)

As of 2015, the Raritan River Basin had 20 federally registered Superfund sites and 200 state-registered toxic sites.9 Thus, marine life, recreation, commercial fishing businesses and much of New Jersey’s supply of clean fresh water were highly degraded by water pollution in the Raritan Basin. That year the EPA tracked about 137 pounds of toxic chemicals in the waters of the Raritan Basin’s Middlesex County alone.5 Overall, New Jersey releases about 4.7 million pounds of toxic chemicals into its waters. This represents the most toxins per square mile of water in the U.S.5

Jones_110522_NJ_9261.jpgFly-fishing for trout in the South Branch of the Upper Raritan River, Califon NJ

The threats outlined above taken together have impacted both the creation and implementation of the CWA in the Raritan River Basin. These Raritan River issues and those of the other 2 watersheds NWNL is documenting (See Blog 1 in this CWA Series), represent threats to waterways nationwide.  Pollution of all types still carries weight today in political and legislative decisions involving the Clean Water Act. Blog 3 in this series will focus on health threats addressed by the CWA that span the U.S. as a result of water pollution, thus further highlighting the need for water safety protection.

Sources:

  1. US Environmental Protection Agency, accessed 6/19/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  2. Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, accessed 7/11/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  3. Courthouse News, accessed 7/11/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  4. Environmental Protection Agency, accessed 7/11/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  5. The Sierra Club, accessed 7/19/18, published 2018, IKB, link. 
  6. Raritan Headwaters, accessed 7/3/18, published 2009, IKB, link
  7. The Spokesman-Review, accessed 7/26/18, published 2012, IKB, link
  8. State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection: Land Use Management, accessed 7/26/18, published 2018, IKB, link
  9. Rutgers University, accessed, 7/26/18, published 2018, IKB, link.

SPECIES INVASIONS: Water Hyacinth and Zebra Mussels

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

Bianca T. Esposito is a Syracuse University senior studying Biology and Economics. Her summer research for NWNL was on biodiversity and water resources. Her past NWNL blogs are:  Wild v Hatchery Salmon; Buffalo & Bison; Papyrus & Phragmites; & Deer & Elephants.

INTRODUCTION

Invasive species are those that threaten to overtake other species.  Whether flora or fauna, native or introduced, invasive species pose aggressive threats to the quality of lakes and ponds. “Introduced species” aren’t necessarily invasive; and “native species” can become invasive. Introduced species that are aggressive to the point of creating potential problems are termed “non-native invasives.” This blog discusses the impacts of two non-native invasive populations: water hyacinth (flora); and zebra mussels (fauna).  

TO WATER HYACINTH

Jones_110805_CAN_0498.jpgWater Hyacinth at the Montreal Botanical Garden, Canada. 

Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is a perennial, free-floating aquatic weed, native to South America’s Amazon River, but carried overseas for ornamental use. Today the water hyacinth is considered to be the “world’s worst aquatic weed.” This aggressive, invasive species spreads rapidly over entire surfaces of lakes and ponds and can double its coverage in just two weeks. Yet its ability to withstand drastic fluctuations in flow rates, acidity and low nutrient levels makes it a viable and popular water-garden plant.  

Since imported to North America in 1884, it has invaded the Columbia and Mississippi River Basins, two NWNL case-study watersheds. Also introduced into East Africa, it is present in three NWNL basins:  those of the Omo, Nile and Mara Rivers. Recorded in Egypt as early as the 1890’s, water hyacinth became a “plague” in the late 1900’s. River control schemes, such as dams, barrages and irrigation canals have encouraged its growth and spread. Furthermore, climate change, a combination of higher temperatures and CO₂ fertilization, is significantly increasing water hyacinth proliferation.

IMPACTS TO NATIVE RIVERINE SPECIES

On the positive side, water hyacinth cleans contaminated waters by absorbing large amounts of heavy metals into its tissue. However, once established, its degradation of waterways crowds out an ecosystem’s native species. Ergo, it becomes a “pest species.”

Jones_091002_TZ_1385Water Hyacinth with Papyrus in Masurua Swamp, Tanzania

On Mississippi River waterways, water hyacinth becomes a mesh of dense mats ─ some spanning hundreds of acres of water. These mats cluster and cause a chain reaction that block sunlight from reaching native submerged plants, deplete oxygen in the water and kill aquatic wildlife, including fish. Ultimately, these mats prevent the growth and abundance of phytoplankton and other rooted benthic, aquatic plants that rely on sunlight and release O2. This negatively impacts fisheries, since phytoplankton is the basis of many aquatic food webs.

Kenyan fishermen on Lake Victoria, source of the White Nile Basin, have seen a 45% decrease in fish-catch rates after water hyacinth mats blocked access to fishing grounds, and thus delay delivery to markets. These consequences have increased costs of fishing efforts and materials. This hurts all who rely on fishing, and decreases the quality of fish in local markets.

In sum, the presence of water hyacinth within water bodies means: No Sunlight – No Photosynthesis – No Oxygen – No Fish. Ultimately, through this chain reaction, water hyacinth destroys the native ecosystems it invades.

EXTENDED WATERSHED DAMAGE BY WATER HYACINTH

Jones_091003_TZ_2892.jpgWater Hyacinth with Papyrus in Masurua Swamp, Tanzania

─ Wind, water currents and boat traffic can break off pieces of water hyacinth mats that then  can drift or blow away into new territories.

─ In sub-freezing Mississippi River Basin winters, water hyacinth mats decompose and literally tons of dead plant matter sink at once to the bottom, creating shallower rivers after several years of this build-up.

─ Water hyacinth disrupts critical values and services by blocking boater access; impeding commercial and recreational boat navigation; reducing water flow; and interfering with hydroelectric power generation.

─ Water hyacinth also affects drainage and irrigation canals by clogging intake pumps and  reducing water flow. This causes floods and damage to canal banks. In recreational waters, water hyacinth invasion  negatively impacts anglers, water-skiers and swimmers.

WATER HYACINTH SOLUTIONS

Water hyacinth management costs are close to US$100 million/year in both the US and Africa. Thus, it is clear that prevention is the most effective and cheapest control.

Another approach is to control expansion. This is usually, but controversially, done with low-cost chemical herbicides labeled “For aquatic use,” such as Glyphosate 5,4. However,  application of this herbicide creates decomposition of dead plant material, thus fostering oxygen depletion which kills fish and other aquatic species.  

Other methods of control include mechanically raking and harvesting the plant ─ as well as hand removal, biocontrol insects (such as the Neochetina beetle) and summer drawdowns. When harvesting and removing the plant, it is crucial to not discard it into a natural water way, but rather contain it in protected compost.

INTRODUCTION TO ZEBRA MUSSELS

Zebra_mussels_line_shore_on_Green_Bay_at_Red_River_County_Park_in_Kewaunee_County_Wisconsin.jpgZebra mussels line Green Bay, Red River County Park, WI (Creative Commons)

Zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha), native to lakes in southeast Russia, are another non-native invasive species. In the 19th century, zebra mussels accidentally expanded into western Europe, the UK and N. America through trade. They entered N. America in the 1980’s when a trading boat came into the Great Lakes unaware of zebra mussels in its ballast water. Fortunately, invasive zebra mussels have yet to spread to Africa; but it could happen in the near future through trade.

Zebra mussels are the only freshwater bivalves able to attach to hard substrates in high densities. They reside in larger estuaries, inland rivers and lakes, adapting to hard- and soft-bottom habitats with surfaces suitable for attachment. Their entry into new ecosystems occurs through accidental transportation when attached to the bottom of boats. Once attached to a surface, zebra mussels are nearly impossible to remove. However, juvenile zebra mussels, with their ability to move freely in water, pose an additional threat to uncontaminated waters.

In some areas of the Mississippi River, there are as many as 20,000 zebra mussels per square yard. Since 1986, they have invaded 20 states east of the Mississippi River. There is no detection yet of zebra mussels in the NWNL case-study Raritan and Columbia River Basins. According to the State of NJ, “Zebra mussels have not yet been detected in New Jersey waters, but it is probable that invasion will occur in the near future.”  

The Columbia River Basin, as of Aug 6, 2018, is the only major western US watershed not yet invaded by zebra and quagga mussels. Montana’s Flathead Lake, which drains into the Clark and Pend Oreille River tributaries to the Columbia River, is the last barrier against zebra mussels slipping into the the Columbia River system. One means of protection at the lake, and throughout the Columbia watershed, is extensive warning via signage and implementation of inspection stations, such as one on US Highway 93, that pressure-washes contaminated boats if they are found with mussels.

ZEBRA MUSSELS: NATIVE SPECIES IMPACTS & LOSSES

Zebra_mussels_dreissena_polymorpha_on_native_mussel.jpgZebra Mussels growing up a native mussel (Creative Commons)

Since zebra mussels have no natural predators in new ecosystems, they easily and dramatically reduce native species in US and Canadian fishing communities, by consuming and decreasing the amounts of  food traditionally available for native species, such as algae. Zebra mussels also attach themselves to native species, such as crayfish, turtle shells and other mussels.  In limiting the ability of native species to move, feed, breath and breed, they prevent reproduction and threaten their survival, as happened with the native “Higgins eye pearlymussel.”  

EXTENDED WATERSHED DAMAGE BY ZEBRA MUSSELS

Jones_121030_TX_8719.jpgSign warning for invasive Zebra Mussels at Eisenhower State Park, Texas 

In aggregating on hard surfaces, zebra mussels cause economic impacts on municipal, industrial and private water systems. Since they grow in dense colonies, they can clog intake pipes and change the ecology of their new ecosystems. Zebra mussels also damage ecosystem services; change and alter habitat; decrease oxygen concentration when they respirate; modify natural benthic communities and modify nutrient regime. They  negatively impact human health, aquaculture/fisheries, tourism and disrupt transportation. Even outside of the water, this invasive species destroys beaches with its extremely foul smell upon decaying.

Economic costs to manage zebra mussels impacts the Midwest and eastern US annually at an estimated $1 billion dollars. The Great Lakes region alone spends an estimated $500 million/year scrubbing zebra mussels from docks, pipes and intake pumps. While zebra mussels have not yet spread to NJ waterways, management costs hypothetically would run approximately $336 million/ year. If zebra mussels reach the Columbia River Basin their damage could cost hydroelectric facilities alone anywhere from $250 million to $300 million/ year.

ZEBRA MUSSEL SOLUTIONS

Jones_150816_AZ_5638.jpgSign warning boaters of invasive Zebra Mussels in Goose Lake, Arizona

Currently, zebra mussels are routinely removed from raw water systems where they create a bio-fouling nuisance, and are then discarded in landfills. Mechanical removal of attached zebra mussels is done using high-pressure water cleaning and micro-encapsulated BioBullets. Rigorous boating equipment maintenance by all boat owners is critical in stopping the spread of zebra mussels. Signs in most harbors and ports now warn that boats be cleaned with warm soapy water when entering from another body of water. Additionally, boaters are told not to dump water from one body of water into another body of water, since juvenile mussels move freely. Two critical solutions are 1) every boat owner assuming responsibility and 2) signage that spreads awareness of this invasive species.

CONCLUSION:

Clearly invasive species pose major problems to the new habitats they invade, whether flora, such as hyacinth, or fauna, such as zebra mussels.  In N. America and Africa, water hyacinth has hindered the growth of native aquatic flora and phytoplankton, depleting the aquatic food chain. Adult zebra mussels degrade watersheds by clogging irrigation pipes, and crowding out of native species. Additionally, unattached juvenile mussels easily spread this species to uncontaminated waters. Although invasive species can have some beneficial traits to the watersheds they dominate, degradation by water hyacinth and zebra mussels outweighs their benefits. It is imperative to spread awareness on how to prevent the spread of these and other non-native invasive species in order to protect the health of all impacted watersheds.

All photos © Alison M. Jones unless otherwise noted.


Bibliography:

“African Plant may Help Fight Zebra Mussel Scourge.” Wire Reports, accessed on July 24, 2018, via link
Batanouny, K. H. “The Water Hyacinth in the Nile System, Egypt.” Aquatic Botany, accessed on July 23, 2018, via link
Benson, Amy J. “The Exotic Zebra Mussel.” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Endangered Species, accessed on July 24, 2018, via link.
“Case Study: Water Hyacinth.” U.S. Department of State Archive, accessed on July 25, 2018, via link
Diop, S. “Climate Change Vulnerability and Impacts in River Basins and Aquifers Basins in Africa: Analysis of Key Response Strategies.” Accessed on July 24, 2018, via link.
“Dreissena polymorpha (zebra mussel).” CABI, accessed on July 23, 2018, via link.
“Emerging Emvironmental Issues 2013.” United Nations Environment Programme, accessed on July 24, 2018, via link.
Hanson, Erik and Sytsma, Mark.  “Oregon Aquatic Nuisance Species Management Plan.” Center for Lakes and Reservoirs at Portland State University, accessed on July 24, 2018, via link.
“How to Control Water Hyacinth.” AquaPlant – Texas A & M AgriLife Extension, accessed on Sept 25, 2018 by AMJ, via link.
“Idaho Aquatic Nuisance Species Plan.” The Idaho Invasive Species Council Technical Committee, accessed on July 24, 2018, via link.
Jacewicz, Natalie. “Why A Really Big Fish Isn’t Always Good For Business.” National Public Radio, accessed on July 25, 2018, via link
Leposo, Lilian. “Flower Power Threatens Kenya’s Lake Victoria.” CNN, accessed on July 23, 2018, via link.
Madsen, John D and Robles, Wilfredo. “Water Hyacinth.” Mississippi State University, Geosystems Research Institute, accessed on July 23, 2018, via link.
McLaughlan, Claire. “Making the Best of a Pest: The Potential for Using invasive Zebra Mussel Biomass as a Supplement to Commercial Chicken Feed.” Environmental Management, accessed on July 24, 2018, via link.
Neal, Wes. “Beautiful Water Hyacinth yields long-term damage.” Mississippi State University Extension Service, accessed on July 23, 2018, via link.
Ouellet, Nicky.  “Flathead Lake Healthy, Biological Station Director Says” Montana Public Radio, Aug 6, 2018. Accessed Sept 25, 2018 by amj, via link.
Reilly, Patrick. “At Columbia River’s doorstep, an uneasy lookout for invasive mussels.” The Oregonian/OregonLive, accessed on July 24, 2018, via link
Scott, Tristan.  “Biological Station: No Invasive Mussels Detected in Flathead Lake.”  Flathead Beacon, Feb 17, 2017. Accessed Sept 25, 2018 by amj via link.
Waltham, N. J. “Aerial Herbicide Spray to Control Invasive Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes): Water Quality Concerns Fronting Fish Occupying a Tropical Floodplain Wetland.”Sage Journals, accessed on July 25, 2018, via link
“Water Hyacinth.” AquaPlant – Texas A & M AgriLife Extension, accessed on July 23, 2018, via link.
“Water Hyacinth.” Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council, accessed on July 23, 2018, via link.
“Water Hyacinth.” US Department of Agriculture, accessed on July 23, 2018, via link.
“Water Hyacinth Control.” Lake Restoration Incorporated, accessed on July 23, 2018, via link.
“Zebra Mussels.” Reduce Risks from Invasive Species Coalition, accessed on July 23, 2018, via link.
“Zebra Mussels.” New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, accessed Aug 9, 2018, via link
“Zebra Mussels are Taking Over our River!” 1 Mississippi, accessed on July 24, 2018, via link.
“Zebra Mussels Dying in Mississippi River.” United Press International, accessed on July 24, 2018, via link.

In Puerto Rico: Water Recovery Depends on Forest Recovery

by Marielena Alcaraz
Edited by Alison M. Jones, NWNL Director

Our guest blogger, Marielena Alcaraz, born and raised in Puerto Rico, experienced  2017’s Category 4 Hurricane Maria and its aftermath firsthand. Currently, she is obtaining a Master of Science degree at Columbia University in Sustainability Management. Her future plans are to work in environmental protection and social equality.

Picture1.jpgHidden Treasures of El Yunque National Forest (by Shirley Enid, Instagram: @paradojalogiica)

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is my home.  After the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. At that point, its set of Caribbean islands represent a United States Territory. By 1917, every Puerto Rican received U.S. citizenship.1 The US Census Bureau estimates that 3.3 million people populate the island, as of July 1, 2017.2

On September 20, 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane María. Its Category 4 winds caused the death of close to 3,000 people.3 The storm compromised Puerto Rico’s electrical and water systems to a great degree for months. The entire island was left without electricity.  Over half the population had no access to potable water.4 When I left the island in January 2018, only around 55% of customers of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) had their power restored;and only 86% had access to potable water.6 This summer I returned to the island to visit friends and family and see what progress had been made since the hurricane. Although most have access to water and electricity now, services were interrupted throughout the summer by blackouts and water services were halted.

Water Sources in Puerto Rico 

According to the USGS, Puerto Rico’s water systems receive 83% of their fresh water from surface water sources, such as rivers, streams, ravines, and lakes – all now damaged by Hurricane Maria. Only 17% of Puerto Rico’s water delivery comes from groundwater, pumped from wells.7 According to the NRDC, before the hurricane, Puerto Rico’s water system, managed by the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA), violated more EPA regulations than any other U.S. state or territory. PRASA served 99.5% of customers with water that did not measure up to Safe Water Drinking Act standards.8

Water conditions worsened after Hurricane María hit. Raw sewage and sediments flooded rivers and reservoirs as power outages kept sewer treatment plants and pumping stations out of service.9 Without treatment, water in Puerto Rico is considered undrinkable. Thus, residents were instructed to boil their water for 10 minutes before consumption, due to risks of E. coli and other bacteria.10 Without operational water utilities or access to safe drinking water, residents relied on ravines and streams. Many streams and ravines were infected with rat urine, causing spikes in gastrointestinal issues and leptospirosis cases.11 Although water is now restored and considered drinkable by authorities, most people in remote areas distrust the service and continue to boil water or strictly stick to bottled water.

El Yunque National Forest: A Critical Water Source 

Screen Shot 2018-09-18 at 11.47.13 AM.pngMean Annual Precipitation map (from USDA report)12

El Yunque National Forest covers 28,900 acres [11,695.415 ha.] in northeastern Puerto Rico. Resting in the mountains of Luquillo, it is a national treasure for Puerto Ricans and the only National Forest in the U.S. Tropical Forest System. The highest peak stands at 3,281 feet [1,000 m.] above sea level.13 El Yunque’s lush, forested land contains one of the greatest biodiverse plant ecosystems in the U.S. Forest Reserve.13

Have you ever looked at a Magnolia portoricensis? Doubtful, as it is one of 23 plant species found only in this tropical ecosystem. This magnolia is located in the Luquillo mountains near the Rio Grande Municipality.14

Picture3.jpgMagnolia Portoricensis (Creative Commons)

Eight rivers originate in the mountains of El Yunque National Forest.  When combined, these rivers are one of the major water providers of the island.  The structure of the forest creates a unique, natural water filtration system. Moss and plants around the tree trunks collect rainwater and filter it as it runs down mountain paths and rivers.

The El Yunque forest has served up to 780,000 citizens,12  providing 20% of drinking water to the island.12 There are over 34 water intakes on the island that collect water naturally filtered en route down through the forest. That water is then distributed through pipe systems to treatment systems. To find one of those intakes, located inside the forest, it took six days of debris removal.15

On September 21 after Maria moved on, the forest awoke barren, broken, and brown. The breaking and uprooting of trees caused over 300 landslides. It affected the water quality, eliminating El Yunque as an important source of drinking water.  As Hurricane María stripped the forest bare, it killed over one-fifth of the trees.16

Research updates on “disease spikes” due to Maria were released this summer while I was on the island.  In June, the U.S. Center for Disease Control released the numbers of leptospirosis deaths caused by contaminated stormwater carried by rats. Lab statistics show these cases doubled after Hurricane Maria. The Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) and CNN together stated that seven medical experts agreed that an unreported “epidemic” occurred after Hurricane Maria.20

Picture4.jpgEl Yunque Falls (Creative Commons)
Picture5.jpgThe Aftermath of Hurricane Maria in El Yunque (USDA)

Shrimp Filter Forest Waters?

The good news is El Yunque’s trees don’t work alone. There are other filtering factors in El Yunque’s water.  In upstream flows of its rivers, Caribbean dwarf shrimp (Micratya poeyi) feed off sediments and algae that float in the streaming water. Areas in the forest with higher counts of these shrimp show higher qualities of water.  This confirms the important impact these small critters have on the conservation of the forest and the water cycle.  If this species of shrimp disappeared because of a hurricane or other reasons, water quality would deteriorate even if the trees of El Yunque rebound and grow.

Although we can’t yet establish the long-term effects of Hurricane María on wildlife and flora, we can predict the presence of the dwarf shrimp, based on past hurricanes. In 2006 a study conducted in El Yunque’s Luquillo Mountains17 focused on the effects of Hurricane Hugo (1989 Category 4 landfall in Puerto Rico) and Hurricane Georges (1998 Category 3 landfall in Puerto Rico). The study shows little change after these storms on the abundance of shrimp and other microorganisms that migrate up rivers. Thus, we can infer that the shrimp population will not be affected by the devastation of Hurricane María.

Recovery efforts continue today to reestablish the water quality of the rivers in El Yunque. Such efforts include clearing debris from trees and landslides to diminish sediments in the water and open trail access to tourists and citizens. However, scientists estimate that it will take years before the forest completely recovers.18

Picture6.jpgForest Loss in El Yunque  (Via Instagram @carlalopezlloreda)

This month, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority reported that 99% of Puerto Ricans using their service (covering 97% of the island) have water restored to their homes. However, families not connected to that water utility company rely on local wells that were damaged before the hurricane.19 These families, in 230 rural neighborhoods, currently use bottled water for drinking and natural springs with high probable risk of contamination. Hopefully, restoration of El Yunque will proceed quickly, so that all families on the island will have clean fresh water on which they can rely – in good weather and bad – in the near future.

Note: Revised Oct 4, 2014. Three phrases reworded for more accuracy (in 3rd, 4th and 9th paragraphs). Feel free to contact us for more information.

Sources

1. Puerto Rico – History and Heritage. Smithsonian Magazine, Nov. 6, 2007. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.
2. United States Census Bureau. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.
3. Ascertainment of the Estimated Excess Mortality from Hurrican María in Puerto Rico. The George Washington University. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.
4. Hurricane Maria Update. FEMA, November 6, 2017. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.
5. Ellis, Ralph and Santiago, Leyla. Puerto Rico: Power restored to 55% of customers, governor’s office says. CNN, Dec 29, 2017. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.
6. Galarza, Milton Carrero and Simmons, Ann M. Four months after Hurricane Maria. Los Angeles Times, Jan 30, 2018. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.>
7. Source, Use, and Disposition of Freshwater in Puerto Rico, 2010. USGS, July 2015. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.
8. Threats on Tap: Drinking Water Violations in Puerto Rico. NRDC, May 2017. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.
9. Raw sewage contaminating water in Puerto Rico after Maria. CBS News, Oct 17, 2017. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.
10. Kamin, Jennie. Puerto Rico teenagers take post-Maria water safety into their own hands. Grist, March 26, 2018. Access August 2018 by MA. Link.
11. Bascomb, Bobby. With government sidelined, citizen scientists test water quality in Puerto Rico. PRI, Sep 16, 2018. Accessed September 2018 by MA. Link.
12. Quantifying the Role of Forested Lands in Providing Surface Drinking Water Supply for Puerto Rico. USDA, September 2017. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.
13. El Yunque National Forest. USDA Forest Service. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.
14. Global Tree Specialist Group. Magnolia portoricensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2014. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.
15. Public Update: Healing El Yunque, Serving Communities. USDA Forest Service. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.
16. Assessing The Damage To Puerto Rico’s Rain Forest. Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR, Oct 28, 2017. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.
17. Covich, Alan P.; Crowl, Todd A.; Heartsill-Scalley, Tamara. 2006. Effects of drought and hurricane disturbances on headwater distributions of palaemonid river shrimp (Macrobrachium spp.) in the Luquillo Mountains, Puerto Rico. J. N. Am. Benthol. Soc., 25(1):99–107
18. Hurricane Recovery. USDA Forest Service. Accessed August 2018 by MA. Link.
19. Schmidt, Samantha and Voisin Sarah L. Puerto Rico After Maria: ‘Water is Everything’. The Washington Post, Sept 12, 2018. Accessed September 2018 by MA. Link.
20. Pascual, Omaya Sosa and Sutter John D. Deaths from bacterial disease in Puerto Rico spiked after Maria. CNN, July 3, 2018. Accessed September 2018 by MA. Link.

 

The Clean Water Act: Its Beginnings in the Mississippi River

By Isabelle Bienen, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

Isabelle Bienen is a junior at Northwestern University studying Social Policy with minors in Environmental Policy & Culture and Legal Studies. The focus of her NWNL research and blog series this summer is on the U.S. Clean Water Act: its history, purpose and status today. The subject of this first blog in her series is on its creation and potential to solve issues in our Mississippi River Basin case study watershed.

Jones_111029_LA_1225.jpgCypress Island Preserve swamp, Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana 

Introduction

The Clean Water Act was created by the U. S. Congress to ensure that those in the U.S. have access to safe drinking water. This blog series will highlight the threats that spurred the creation of this act (citing specific issues in NWNL case-study watersheds); a definition of its regulations; and an analysis of its implementation and implications. Below is the first post in this series which outlines how this Act came to be. It continues to specifically depict existing threats in the Mississippi River Basin (a NWNL case study watershed) that helped shape the Act and those that are addressed in the Act. The second blog in this series will detail existing threats and those addressed by the Act that are in the other 2 NWNL North American case study watersheds: the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River Basin, and New Jersey’s Raritan River Basin.  The third blog will discuss general health threats across the U.S. that also clearly highlighted the need for the Clean Water Act.

Jones_121021_TX_5758.jpgSign at The National Ranching Heritage Center, Red River Basin, Texas 

The Birth of the CWA

The Clean Water Act was adopted in 1972 due to an overwhelming response from local governments, state officials and the general public over their growing dismay for poor water quality. The alarm prompted by photographs of a 1969 Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland, Ohio, is often considered the tipping point for the creation of this Act. An investigation conducted that year by Cleveland’s Bureau of Industrial Wastes stated that the fire was caused from “highly volatile petroleum”1 with a “low flash point at the end of the railroad trestle bridges.”1 The flames were recounted to have climbed as high as five stories. The previous year, Cleveland residents passed a $100 million bond issue to finance river protection and cleanup efforts, yet there was no success due to a lack of any government controls to protect the environment. This grave situation indicated the need for federally-implemented water protection, as the Clean Water Act eventually would provide.

Jones_111021_LA_7703.jpgDredge water samples collected from Mississippi River, National Audubon, Louisiana

The Mississippi River Basin’s Clean Water Issues

The Mississippi River Basin drains into 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces, supporting 60% of North American birds and 25% of North American fish.2 Nonpoint sources of pollution from the basin’s manufacturing, urbanization, timber harvests and hydrologic modifications have contributed to water contamination by PCB’s, DDT and fecal bacteria. A buildup of excess nutrients spurring algae growth and producing dead zones comes from nitrogen and phosphorus used in crop fertilization. The many locks and dams along the length of the Mississippi River have caused the loss of natural filtration of pollutants by coastal wetlands.3 This body of water was completely unregulated for pollutants, causing a wide range of problems that greatly impacted marine life and the surrounding environment.

Jones_140907_LA_0752-2.jpgIndustrial site on coastal wetlands south of New Orleans, Louisiana

One of the biggest problems in the Mississippi River Basin is the nonpoint source runoff of agricultural chemicals that feed algae blooms which creates large hypoxic dead zones. These dead zones emerge from the Mississippi River Delta and flow into the Gulf of Mexico, reportedly covering around 6,000 to 7,000 square miles from the inner and mid-continental shelf and westward into the upper Texas coast.4 This hypoxia has killed and displaced a variety of marine species, and the freshwater species depend on these displaced resources.5 Still, today, agricultural runoff from midwestern farms flows into the Gulf. Due to steadily increasing levels of flooding since the 1930’s, as well as an increase in the amount of paved surfaces in these areas, greater amounts of synthetic fertilizers, animal waste and other nutrient pollution are running off into these waters at an accelerated rate.5 According to Mother Nature Network, “The biggest overall contributor to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone is the entire Mississippi River Basin, which pumps an estimated 1.7 billion tons of excess nutrients into Gulf waters each year, causing an annual algal feeding frenzy.”5

Jones_130522_IA_3270.jpgLock & dam system, Port of Dubuque, Iowa

Additionally, point-source pollution from a high number of petrochemical plants between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has negatively impacted the Lower Mississippi River and Delta. This stretch of the Mississippi River is known as “Cancer Alley” due to numerous reported cases of cancer occurring in small rural communities along the river.6 In 2002, the State of Louisiana reported the second highest numbers of deaths caused by cancer in the United States. The national average death-from-cancer rate is about 206 per 100,000; while Louisiana’s rate is ten times that at  237.3 deaths per 100,000.6

The Mississippi River Basin, prior to the CWA, is clearly in need of regulation as highlighted through the condition of this water system. The following blog post will further discuss the status of NWNL River Basins prior to the CWA – specifically in the Columbia River Basin and the Raritan River Basin.

Jones_111024_LA_8716.jpgBridge over Henderson Swamp, Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana 

Citations:

  1. John H. Hartig, “Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers that Caught on Fire.” Burlington: Ecovision World Monograph Series, Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management Society, 2010.
  2. No Water No Life, accessed 6/19/18, published 2017, IKB.
  3. The National Academy of Sciences, accessed 6/19/18, published 2007, IKB.
  4. Microbial Life; Educational Resources, accessed 7/10/18, published 2018, IKB.
  5. Mother Nature Network, accessed 7/11/18, published 2011, IKB.
  6. Pollution Issues, accessed 7/11/18, published 2006, IKB.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

The Evolution of NWNL

by Alison M. Jones, Director of NWNL

My photographic career began in 1985 on my first visit to Africa. After years of photographing landscapes, wildlife and cultures for magazines, exhibits and stock photography, I had the honor of helping start Kenya’s Mara Conservancy.  From then on I focused on conservation photography, with NWNL as my signature project.

2-K-ELE-2009.jpgLone elephant before establishment of Mara Conservancy, Mara River Basin

Flying low in a Cessna over sub-Sahara Africa in 2005, I saw from my copilot’s right-hand window, what looked like green ribbons strewn on the ground. They were the lakeshores and river corridors dotted with homes and animals. The rest was empty, grey miombo woodland. I kept repeating, “In Africa, it’s obvious. Where there’s no water, there’s no life.” I had a title, but not yet a topic.

Jones_2005_TZ_0029.jpg
Aerial view of riverine forest in sub-Sahara Tanzania

I considered a “Waters of Ethiopia” photography project, because when most think of Ethiopia they imagine a dusty desert. Few know Ethiopia holds the largest water tower in the Horn of Africa. Monsoonal torrents supply 75% of the Nile River via Ethiopia’s Blue Nile and 90% of Kenya’s Lake Turkana via its Omo River. An environmental resource manager suggested I include watersheds on other continents as well, for more interest and issues. Thanks to this soon-to-be Founding Advisor, focus then centered on African, N. American and S. American watersheds, as I already had photographed these regions.

4-Jones_070630_WA_5501.jpgMount Adams behind Trout Lake, Columbia River Basin

A second Founding Advisor, now Director of African People and Wildlife, suggested NWNL cover only two continents. South America was dropped, and so were incoming queries asking, “Why not India or China?” Now we could zero in on differences and similarities of water issues in developed v. developing nations. While every watershed presents compelling scenarios of threats and solutions, we chose 3 case-study watersheds on each continent. Those 6 river basins would allow us to raise awareness of almost all of the world’s watershed values and vulnerabilities.

Jones_080201_ET_6715_M.jpg
Women washing clothes, Omo River Basin

We established our expedition-based Methodology, outlining a process we’ve followed step by step for 65 expeditions. Each expedition begins in the office as we study our in-house research outlines (many created by summer college interns) to determine our expedition’s focus. We conclude with a finalized itinerary of expedition contacts to interview and sites to visit.

1-MO-JOH-107.jpgRecreational swimmers and sunbathers, Mississippi River Basin

Having set our case-study watersheds, procedures and website, it seemed NWNL was set to launch. But that first Advisor said that I needed to go back to school before the launch.  Even though I was the photographer in our mission to combine photography and science – not the scientist – she worried I’d embarrass myself (and NWNL) in front of Ph.D. scientists. So, I took Columbia University courses in Watershed Management and Forest Ecology. On completion, the forestry professor asked to be a NWNL Advisor; and I thanked that young advisor with 2 Master’s degrees who sent me back to school for being so astute and such a wise daughter!

8-Jones_100331_UG_4184.jpgMunyaga Falls in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Nile River Basin

Credentials of today’s NWNL Team include expertise in still and video photography and training in environment, history and biology, forest and restoration ecology, and natural resource management. Our Advisors and Researchers set the focus and itinerary for our expeditions. Our Staff develops outputs from those expeditions. This structure has allowed me to lead 65 watershed expeditions, often joined by professional or passionate amateur photographers and conservationists.

6-Jones_080503_NJ_0198.jpg“Kids at Play” sign along tributary of Upper Raritan River

Since NWNL began, awareness of the degradation of our water resources has grown – from a bare mention in the news in 2007 to front-page coverage almost daily today. Working in tandem with that growing awareness, we’ve documented the drainage of water from 11 African countries into the Mara, Omo and Nile River Basins (about 10% of Africa’s land mass. With our focus on N. America’s Columbia, Mississippi and Raritan Basins, we’ve gone from coast to coast and covered 50% of the US. Our scope has included the US’s most rural and most densely-populated states (Mississippi and New Jersey).

9-IMG_9861.jpg2015 NWNL exhibition, “Following Rivers,” at Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries

The NWNL Team is proud of the process and products it has created. We hope that – as a result of the efforts of NWNL, the 900+ scientists and stewards we’ve met and many others- nature and all its species will have enough clean water.

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.