International School of Monterey Wins 2014 Water Award!

Rohan Bhushan and Christopher How stand before their winning project.  (Photo: C. Reeb)
Rohan Bhushan and Christopher How stand before their winning project. Photo: C. Reeb.

   Over the last 4 years that  the Water For Our Future Award has been presented at the Monterey County Science and Engineering Fair, I have been impressed with the quality and complexity of our winning projects. From the effects of saltwater intrusion on plant growth to the documentation and measurement of contaminants in rivers and storm drains, these students have brought awareness to problems facing water supplies and aquatic environments in our community.  This year, our winners took a step further.  They designed a solution.

CSUMB’s Watershed Institute and Hopkins Marine Station congratulate Rohan Bhushan and Christopher How from the International School of Monterey for their project titled:

Nitrosomonas europaea:  Accelerating Bioremediation of Ammonia Using Magnesium Sulfate

Nitrosomonas europaea is a common bacterium found worldwide.  This beneficial microbe plays an important role in the global nitrogen cycle.  It is needed for the first step of a pathway that converts toxic ammonia into a form of nitrogen that can be used by plants.   Nitrosomonas has been used in biological filters, like those found in fish aquariums, to maintain water quality.  It has also become very important in wastewater recycling facilities, such as the one in Marina, CA, where wastewater is turned it into “Safe Water” for irrigation (this is the water flowing through purple pipes in farm fields).   As these students write, Nitrosomonas europaea can be used for the “bioremediation” of water sources contaminated with nitrogen-containing compounds like ammonia.  One such water source is the Salinas River and its aquifer.  They cite a UC Davis study suggesting that 90% of the ammonia in this river can be traced to fertilizers.

What Christopher and Rohan did was to show how addition of magnesium sulfate (also found in Epson Salts) enabled Nitrosomonas to increase the rate of ammonia oxidation.  Next, they cleverly designed a filtration system containing this microbe (see photo at right) that successfully removed ammonia from contaminated water.  They then suggested that a scaled-up version of this filter might one day clean up excess ammonia in the Salinas River.  Science fair judges love it when students consider the bigger picture.  As a result, this junior-level project also won first prize in Microbiology.

Microbial filter designed by Bhushun and How.  Photo: C. Reeb.

Microbial filter designed by Bhushun and How. Photo: C. Reeb.

Solutions to some of humankind’s biggest dilemmas can begin early in the minds of young people. With most of California affected by drought, this year’s fair brought a number of water-related projects to the judges for consideration, each offering solutions for the future.

Here are a few examples:

  • Comparisons between solar and thermal desalination methods
  • Tests of water-saving shower heads
  • Experiments with irrigation schedules that maximize plant growth and minimize water need
  • Varying the amounts of fertilizer to maintain plant growth, but with less water.  

Certainly, water solutions are on the minds of young people in Monterey County.  So, if you ever wonder how scientists come up with eloquent solutions to modern problems, think about visiting the Monterey County Science and Engineering Fair next year and see where it all begins.  You will walk away knowing our future is in good hands.

York School Student Wins Water Award

Water For Our Future Award

Monterey County Science and Engineering Fair, 2013 


McKenna Gibson stands next to her winning poster (photo by C. Reeb).

  This year’s winner is ninth grade student, McKenna Gibson, of York School in Monterey, California.  The title of her project:  Copper Concentration in Stormwater Runoff South of Carmel.

 McKenna’s project measured copper in two creeks flowing into the ocean from the Carmel Highlands.  The locations of these creeks are shown on the map in Figure 1.  McDougall Creek is a small stream running through the middle of the Highlands community.  Mal Paso Creek begins in the mountains and flows along the community’s southern edge.  This watershed has few roads and homes compared to McDougall Creek.

Why would we be interested in copper found in stormwater?  First, copper is toxic to aquatic animals.  It impairs a fish’s ability to reproduce.  It creates a range of stress symptoms, including elevated cortisol levels.  In the case of rainbow/steelhead trout, excessive copper has been shown to lower their ability to smell or taste chemical cues in the water.  This could prevent fish from finding their way back to natal streams to spawn.

Another reason this project is interesting – stormwater is an alternative water source for California.  In some parts of the State, it is being recycled for irrigation.  Many believe stormwater will one day become part of our municipal supply.  Recently, Pacific Grove announced that the city was considering stormwater to irrigate the local golf course.  Because copper can be toxic to plants, we need to know if the water is safe before it is used.  There are ways to remove copper from stormwater.  But first, we must have the science that documents whether or not there is a copper problem before we spend the money to clean it up.  This is why monitoring studies, like McKenna’s, are so important.

As our communities turn to ocean desalination for a future water supply, documenting copper levels in stormwater flowing into the sea presents another point of concern.  Although reverse osmosis can remove this metal, it will be concentrated in the brine waste which, for now, is slated to be discharged back into the ocean.  This may cause an even bigger problem for marine life.


Figure 1. Location of the two study sites in the Carmel Highlands.

The primary sources of copper in urbanized areas come from rain gutters and roofing on our homes, as well as brake pads on our cars.  During storms, copper is washed into rivers, streams, and storm drains where it  eventually makes it’s way offshore.  Chronic exposure to copper is not only harmful to marine fish, but excess copper is now being linked to toxic algal blooms too, as suggested by another contending project for this year’s award.

Stormwater monitoring has been ongoing for nearly a decade.  Each year, citizen scientists volunteer with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to collect water samples during the first heavy rains (“First Flush”).  Typically, these storms contain high amounts of pollutants, which make the chemicals easier to detect with simple, inexpensive tests.

Data from “First Flush” monitoring is publically available online .  Thus, if you wanted to study pollutant levels from a location that has never been monitored before and compare it to areas already in the database, it would be easy to do.  This is exactly what McKenna did.

Water For Our Future Award_2012

Water For Our Future Award trophy.

In her study, McKenna hypothesized that less urbanized areas would have less copper in stormwater compared to more developed sites.   To show this, she analyzed levels in McDougall and Mal Paso Creeks on four separate occasions;  once before the rains began (September), next during the First Flush event (October), and again in November and January.  She then compared her results to sites in the First Flush database.  Her conclusion provided a humbling reality for our community: urban development is linked to higher copper levels in storm runoff.

Water quality objectives for stormwater are based on California’s Central Coast Basin Plan.  For copper, limits are set at 30 parts per billion (30 micrograms/liter).   To highlight the growing concern over copper, McKenna cites a study from 2011 in which half of all monitored sites around Monterey Bay exceeded copper limits, including four of five sites monitored in Carmel.  Her study on two new sites south of Carmel gives us a glimpse of what copper runoff in Carmel used to be and what Carmel Highlands could become as the area continues to grow.


Dr. Carol Reeb from Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station stands alongside this year’s winner (photo by D. Gibson).

After the first rains in October, McKenna’s data showed copper levels in McDougall Creek dropped dramatically to safe levels and stayed there.  The consistently low levels observed in Mal Paso Creek were best explained by less urbanization.  In the Discussion, she noted that the easiest way to control copper was to stop it at the source; that is, to simply make car brakes, gutters, and roofing materials without it.

What we, as judges, saw in McKenna’s well-referenced, statistically analyzed study was sound evidence for why stormwater cleanup is so important.  We were impressed.  Once again, Monterey County’s young scientists are exploring ways that can solve a water shortage.  For our future, I continue to be very hopeful.

The Water For Our Future Award was created by Dr. Carol Reeb at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station and is sponsored by CSUMB’s Watershed Institute.  It seeks to encourage young scientists to think now about future ways to solve a water shortage at home, at school (work), or on the farm.  Apologies for the late posting of this year’s winner.  I had a major project report to finish, myself.

Science Fair Students Win Water Award!

This year, the Water For Our Future award went to 8th graders Helena Guenther (All Saints Episcopal Day School) and Kaelene Jensen (The Monterey International School) for their outstanding projects on pollution and water quality in the Carmel and Salinas River watersheds.

Sponsored by CSUMB’s Watershed Institute and co-director Dr. Doug Smith, the award was created by Dr. Carol Reeb at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station.  It seeks to encourage young people to think now about future ways to solve a water shortage at home, at school (work), or on the farm.

As many of us know, the Monterey Peninsula is not the only place facing a looming water problem.    Helena Guenther recognized this by writing, “…each year, 1.5 million children die worldwide from a lack of clean water.”  With that, she set out to collect water samples from two sites along the Carmel River, using tap water as a control.  She measured bacterial levels for each sample, then compared the effectiveness of various water purification treatments to remove the bacteria.  Afterwards, each treatment was ranked by effectiveness and cost.  While iodine tablets completely removed bacteria, solar disinfection was found to be cheaper but, in this study, could not remove all the bacteria, which is important.  Hiking filters, which I rely on in the backcountry, were expensive and not so effective.

As a former Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Africa many years ago, I was struck by the motivation for this science fair project; that clean, potable water should not be taken for granted.  As Helena concludes,  water scarcity is threatening the environment and economic growth around the world, even in Monterey County.  This young scientist puts our own water issues in perspective.  The title of her project: Water for Life: Developing Water Purification Treatments for Use in Developing Countries. 

From left to right: Dr. Carol Reeb, Helena Guenther, Kaelene Jensen, and Dr. Doug Smith.  (Photo K. Jensen).

Our co-winner, Kaelene Jensen turned her attention to the Salinas River.  She writes, “Have you ever wondered about water pollution as you see the Salinas River flowing out towards the bay?”  In an ambitious sampling of 7 sites, before and after rainstorms, from King City to the Highway 1 Bridge, Kaelene documents the increasing accumulation of nitrates as the river flows to the sea.  As a control, she tested water from the Arroyo Seco River collected from an area with little agriculture.  As expected, this site showed low nitrate levels.

As a marine biologist reading this study, I was impressed by the awareness and courage this young scientist had to take on a water topic so important, relevant, and hotly debated.  Kaelene writes in her conclusion, “…high nitrates not only impact ocean health by providing nutrients for outbreaks of Red Tide, but they impact human health as well.”  She is absolutely correct.  Red Tide blooms sometimes contain algae species that produce toxins harmful to marine mammals, fish, and people.  Kaelene’s work reminds us that what we do on land has consequences downstream in the sea.  The title of her project:  How Do Nitrate Levels Along the Salinas River Compare to Non-farm Tributaries?

After reviewing all the projects at this year’s fair, Doug and I were thrilled to see so many students take on the topic of water.  We are proud of these young scientists, their teachers, and the sound scientific methods found in their presentations.  From fog catchers to salinity tolerance, to water quality and recycling, the students of Monterey County are preparing for the future.   Are we?

Financial support for the Water For Our Future award came from CSUMB’s Watershed Institute, staff at Hopkins Marine Station, and a generous trophy discount by Winners of Monterey.   It includes a $100 cash prize and recycled glass trophy which itself, is recyclable.

Check Out My New Talk on Seawater Desalination

Desal Talk, 2 Mar 2011Desalination of the Sea Around Us, v 2.0

This is a talk on seawater desalination I gave in Pacific Grove, CA on March 2nd, 2011.  It is an updated version of an earlier talk and includes a short section on two new desal technologies that may be coming in the future.  This talk does not include narration.  Instead, click on text bubbles in the upper left corner of each slide and you can read the narrative as you go.

Using Wastewater as a Resource

Turning wastewater into reusable water using reverse osmosis to further purify it is an idea quickly growing around the world. In some parts of California, namely Carmel and Orange County, it is already a reality. Wastewater is 99.9% water, yet we dispose of this valuable resource down drains, into rivers, and out to sea. Wastewater contains useful chemicals that can may also be recycled in the future.

The link below contains a video from Stanford professor, Craig Criddle describing how we can benefit from making our water a renewable natural resource.

Using Wastewater as a Resource:

Check Out My Talk on “Desalination of the Sea Around Us”

This is a talk on seawater desalination I gave in Seaside California on October 19th, 2010. It is divided in two parts. Part I contains information on seawater desalination and how the process can impact the marine environment. Part II provides specific examples of how brine discharged from these plants can affect species, especially eggs and developing young. It ends with an illustration of how water recycling could be a better long-term solution to our looming water crisis on the Monterey Peninsula and in the State of California.

How Doc On Monterey Bay Lands in the News

February 27, 2014

Invited to speak to the American Cetacean Society of Monterey, CA on the role seawater desalination may play in solving California’s growing water crisis and environmental concerns we must pay attention to now.  For more details from the Cetacean Society click here or for the Monterey County Weekly’s announcement click here .

January 25, 2014

Speaking at WhaleFest in Monterey, CA for the first time.  My talk title:  Solving California’s Water Crisis:  What We Can Learn From Whales.  Click here to see  the program.

August 10, 2013

My commentary on concerns over the discharge of brine waste from several proposed desalination facilities around Monterey Bay was published in the Monterey Herald and can be found here.

September 28, 2012

Interviewed by the Santa Cruz Sentinel about brine discharge and impacts it could have on the marine environment in Monterey Bay.  Check it out here.

February 13, 2012

My video, “March of the Steelhead Trout: Journey to Garzas Creek” was quite popular in fishery forums, according to the water blog, Aquafornia.  See it here.

January 27, 2012

Invited to speak at a water forum in Los Angeles on the environmental impacts of seawater desalination.  Click here  for the program:  The Future of Water in Southern California.

December 8, 2011

Spoke before the State’s Expert Panel on Brine Discharge to inform and educate the group over the concerns unmitigated brine discharge could have to California’s coastal fisheries.  Check out the webpage for this meeting here.  Slides for my talk are here.

March 31, 2011

Monterey County Weekly published a nice story about the winners of a new award I created for the Monterey County Science Fair called “Water For Our Future”.  My intent is to get our next generations thinking now about water issues we may face in the future.  I was inspired to do this in 2010 when I met a number of brilliant, multi-national high school students at the Intel Science Fair in San Jose where I was a judge.  Some had chosen water for their project’s focus.  They then educated me about life in a country without adequate water and gave me a glimpse of our own potential future.

October 8, 2010

It was brought to my attention last Friday morning, that my name was in our local newspaper.   The first time I made our town’s newspaper was when I participated in the Pacific Grove Triathlon. That was several years ago.  I did not come close to winning. It was strictly an acknowledgement that I was in the water, on the bike, and running along the coast for about 3.5 hours.  I’m not sure that counts.

This time, my name made our town’s local newspaper, buried deep inside, listed under the “Your Town” column. Kind of cool.

  Monterey Herald, 10/08/10