What Kind Of A Noise Annoys An Oyster?

By Carol Reeb,  23 July 2014

Signs posted around town in Point Reyes Station, CA.  Photo by C. Reeb, June 2014.

Signs posted around Point Reyes, CA. Photo by C. Reeb, June 2014.

In June, I was in Point Reyes National Seashore for a backpacking trip.  Renowned for its unique geology and diverse plant, bird, and marine life, this coastal wilderness is also flanked by a handful of small, peaceful towns built upon a history of ranching.  The day before heading out, I wandered through one of these towns, Point Reyes Station.  As I did, I couldn’t help but notice all the signs.  From homes, businesses, telephone poles, even the trunks of trees they proclaimed, “Save Our Drakes Bay Oyster Farm.”  Out of curiosity, I began asking locals about the signs.  I learned that the National Park Service was planning to close an oyster farm that had been operating for 82 years on land inside the Park.

“Next thing you know,” an innkeeper warned, “they’ll be shutting down the ranches too.”  By “ranches,” he meant the dozen or so”historic” cattle and dairy farms occupying the northern section of Point Reyes National Seashore.

I stopped by the town’s visitor center.  A woman opened a map to show me where the farm was located – right in the middle of the National Park.  It occupied about 1000 acres of the estuary, which is nearly half of Drakes Estero.  Closing the farm and its cannery, she told me, would put people out of work.

“I remember in the beginning, everyone thought the park was a good idea because it stopped developers from coming in and taking over.”  It sounded like now she was having second thoughts.

I parked my car alongside the road to take a picture of a sign.  A passerby asked if I was lost.  I asked her about the sign.

“Oh.  Well, I haven’t decided what I think yet,” she admitted, “but I can see both sides.”  She told me how the controversy had divided the town. Some people were no longer on speaking terms.

I grew up on the east coast about an hour’s drive from the Chesapeake Bay where oysters (Crassostera virginica) are big business.  In grad school I  did genetic research on these oysters, which are native to the region.  Suddenly, I was curious.  What was all this noise on oysters really all about?  I decided to take a trip to the farm and find out.

**********

Schon's Lagoon, part of Drakes Estero.

Schon’s Lagoon, part of Drakes Estero.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

Driving north on Sir Frances Drake Road, I came upon a sign for the oyster farm and followed a gravel road uphill.  The road was rippled with tractor-tread ridges that rattled the frame of my car loudly.  In the rearview mirror I realized my tires were kicking up quite a bit of dust, which formed a long wake trailing behind.  I slowed down.   Framed in the passenger side window was picturesque Schon’s lagoon, one of five fingers of Drake’s Estero.  Winding around the final turn, the road opened into a parking lot filled with cars.  Rundown buildings with chipped white paint and tattered tarpaper roofs rimmed the lot.  Although it was a sunny weekend in mid June, the wind was brisk.  I grabbed a jacket from the car and walked toward an overhead banner with the words, “Welcome to Drakes Bay Oyster Company.”

The Oyster Shack.  $12 for 6 on the half-shell.  Photo: C. Reeb June 2014.

The Oyster Shack. $12 for 6 on the half-shell. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

Groups of people were huddled together around picnic tables.  Kids waited with paper plates  while adults pried apart oysters with dull knives and small hammers.  An American flag posted to the side of one of the buildings flapped in the breeze.  A short line of patrons extended out the door.  This was the “Oyster Shack.”  Inside, was a chalkboard menu with prices: $2 per oyster; $12 for six on the half shell, $24 for a bag of two-dozen to be shucked yourself, tools provided.

Informational sign about oyster farming in Drakes Estero. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

I remembered an old saying from home: never eat oysters in a month without an “r”.  As it was June, this was one of those bad months when long days and warm temperatures can create the conditions for harmful algal blooms that are linked to cases of paralytic shellfish poisoning.  Reassured by an informational sign promoting the Estero as a “protected and undeveloped watershed” that provides the farm with “California’s finest shellfish water quality,” I made a decision.  Ignoring the warnings of tradition, I ordered six on the half-shell.  Tilting a shell to my mouth, I slurped the soft mollusk in.  First thought: salty, not so sweet.  These oysters were fairly small.  As such, they lacked much of the milky glycogen that would give them the sweetness I was expecting.

The worker who prepared my plate left me to hand my money over to a woman who was busy talking on the phone.  I easily overheard part of her conversation.

“Yes, we’re still open.  Seven days a week.  We’ve appealed the case.  They may shut us down anyway.  Thanks for the call.  We appreciate the support.”

When the conversation ended, she came to the counter.  As I handed her my money, I asked why the farm had to be closed.  In her answer, she identified herself as the farm manager.  Later, I realized I was talking to the owner’s sister.

“Scientists and the government are using bad science to put us out of business,” she said.  “Can you believe it?”  She went on, speaking passionately for the farm while expressing outrage at the situation the farm was in.

“Just wait,” she warned.  “One day the government will tell you what you can and cannot eat.”  She rattled off a list of injustices levied against the farm beginning with the National Park Service’s threat to close them down and rob the public of a sustainable seafood business.  She complained that the Coastal Commission unfairly denied them permits for site development, including permission to repair leaky roofs on many of the buildings.

“What’s going to happen when it rains?” she asked.

“Good thing we’re in a drought,” I joked, unsure what more I should say.

Her message was loud and clear to me: bad science, radical environmentalists, and a small number of out-of-touch government officials were conspiring with the National Park Service to force a hard-working family out of business.  As a result, jobs will be lost, the local economy will suffer, and a sustainable seafood product will be taken off the market.  She added that even U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein was trying to help save the farm.

“Listen, do you hear that?” she asked.

A motor-driven conveyor belt brings oysters from flat boat in the water to workers onshore.

A motor-driven conveyor belt brings oysters from flat boats in the water to cannery workers onshore.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

“Hear what?”  It took me a moment before I realized she was referring to the low hum of a diesel-powered engine.  It drove a conveyor belt bringing oysters from flat boats in the water to a group of workers onshore.

“That’s just it.  Bad science says that motor is bothering seal pups and disturbing people in homes two miles away.  But you can hardly hear it.” I had to agree, it was quiet enough.  However, sounds come in a variety of frequencies creating a “soundscape” that humans cannot always detect.  Meanwhile, these noises can sometimes disturb marine mammals.

“I have to tell you, I’m a marine biologist.” I say.  “I did research on oysters in grad school.”

“Oh.”  She paused.  “Then you should know bad science when you see it, right?” I should, of course.  But at the time, I had not read the environmental reviews or scientific reports about the farm to form an opinion.  I had come here with curiosity, driven by an interest in oyster biology and maybe a little hungry too.  But as she continued with accusations of “bad science”, I found myself wanting more details.  So I questioned statements found on the farm’s informational sign, which described practices as “environmentally friendly” and “sustainable.”  Unlike most oyster operations on the east coast, this one did not use artificial oyster beds.  Instead, they used “hanging culture” methods that do not disturb species living on the bottom of the Estero.  This was good.  But, I was bothered by one particular fact.

“You know,” I began, “Pacific oysters are an introduced species.  Farming them in a National Park just seems, well, not ideal.”  I tried to sound as diplomatic as possible.  “Why don’t you farm native oysters instead?”

I was referring to Olympia oysters. Oyster farming in California began with Olympia oysters.  By the mid 1800’s however, over-exploitation and increased urbanization had degraded the oyster’s habitat causing populations to dramatically decline.  About this time, shellfish species from Asia and the east coast were introduced to keep the valuable fishery alive.  Today, efforts are underway to restore the native species.

“Yes, our oysters are not native,” she admitted.  “But there’s no way they reproduce and survive outside the farm.  Here, let me show you.”  With that, I followed her into the oyster-rearing lab behind the Oyster Shack.  She told me the farm was the only one in the area capable of producing their own larval “seed.”  That piqued my interest.  She showed me a jar of finely ground oyster shells that looked like sand.  About two weeks after hatching, free-swimming oyster larvae metamorphose and attach or “seed” onto these shells and become sedentary for the rest of their lives.  Read About Pacific Oysters and Culture Methods HERE.

“There’s no way our larvae can survive in the Estero,” she assured me.  Water temperatures there were too cold.  Proper metamorphosis could only occur within their facility.  As she spoke, I wondered in silence about the potential this species had to evolve.  In a future of climate warming, would Pacific oysters make a biological leap and one day colonize Drakes Estero?  What would that look like, ecologically?

Sorting year-old oysters by size in the rearing facility.

Sorting year-old oysters by size in the rearing facility.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

She introduced me to the farm’s marine biologist who was sorting year-old oysters through various-sized screens then placing them in mesh bags.  They keep the shell sizes uniform in the bags before placing them out in the Estero.  Suspended above the bottom, these filter-feeding bivalves feast on plankton brought in on the tides.  Four or five years later, they are harvested.

“Except right now we are harvesting everything we can,” she said, “because we don’t know how long we will last.”  I realized this probably explained the lack of sweetness in the small oysters I purchased earlier.  We headed back outside and were approached by a jovial guy sporting a campaign hat.

“Here’s something to bring you luck,” he said handing the manager a four-leaf clover pressed between layers of plastic wrap.

“Oh,” she smiled with gratitude.  “I’m going to put this up in the office!”

I listened while they compared notes on the latest residents and businesses who had joined the farm’s cause.  I shrugged helplessly when they expressed disgust over big government’s bullying of a small family farm.  All of us wondered out loud on whether the U.S. Supreme Court would hear their case in two weeks.  I thought they would, given the growing controversy between those making a living off natural resources on public lands and the conflicts  arising over financial costs of complying with laws meant to protect vulnerable species teetering on the edge of extinction.  I, too, was starting to see the difficult choices that divided both sides.  But my mind kept returning to one simple fact: Point Reyes National Seashore and Drakes Estero were set aside by Congress for public use, not commercial businesses or farming.   It was a wilderness area, which is what brought me here for backpacking in the first place.

To that, the farm manager said this, “They call this a wilderness area.”  She took a deep breath.  “Do you know 2 to 3 million people drive their cars and motorcycles into Point Reyes each year.  Kayakers harass the seals.  Hikers disturb the birds.  Can you really call this place a wilderness anymore?”

I had to admit, she had a point.  On my way to the farm I was nearly run off the road by a speeding Audi passing slower traffic, despite a double yellow line.  Certainly, there are people in the public who don’t get it.

“Sorry to interrupt!”  A young woman ran up to us, shivering.   She was in shorts.  The hood of her recently purchased Drakes Bay Oyster Company sweatshirt was tied tightly under her chin.

“Can you tell me if there is a bar, even a dive, where we can toast my friend’s birthday?  We love the oysters, but it’s just too cold here.”

“Oh, you’ve got to go to the Western Saloon in town,” the manager suggested.  “Do you know where that is?”  The tourist shook her head.  “Here, let me talk to your driver.”

With that, my conversation was over. I left Point Reyes and drove back along Sir Frances Drake Road.  En route, I saw another sign.  It read:

“Let’s Protect Both Elk and Cow.  Let’s Build Elk Fences Now.”

Tule elk are endemic to California and once roamed the Central Valley and coastal areas in large herds.  By the mid 1800’s, these herds had been displaced by ranching and decimated by hunting to the point where they were considered extinct until a small group was “discovered” in 1874.  Today, the only free-ranging herd left is the one fenced off in a reserve on the northern tip of Point Reyes.  While at the visitor center, I was told the population of elk had recently grown.  Some were now escaping the reserve to bully the cows for grazing pastures.  It was becoming a problem.

Tule elk once roamed California in large herds.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

Tule elk once roamed California in large herds. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

**********

When I got home, I “googled” the oyster farm.  As with most controversial cases that make their way to the Supreme Court, there was a wealth of information online.  In particular, I discovered one key fact the farm manager failed to mention. In 1972, the oyster farm’s previous owner, Charlie Johnson, sold his land to the U.S. government for $79,200.  In return, the National Park Service gave him a one time, 40-year lease to continue farming oysters until 2012.  In 2004, he sold his oyster business to the Lunny family, who finalized the deal knowing the farm’s lease would soon end.  This made me stop and think.  Why would someone buy a business knowing it would be shut down within 8 years?

Arch rock, Pt. Reyes National Seashore.  Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

Arch rock, Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

When Mr. Johnson sold his land to the government and Congress subsequently listed Drakes Estero as a “potential” wilderness area, the oyster farm’s fate was sealed.  Despite a 2009 provision from Senator Feinstein enabling the Interior Secretary to grant a 10-year permit renewal, federal legislators never gave the oyster farm what it really needed; a permanent lease.  Instead, they granted the Interior Secretary discretion to transition Drakes Estero from a “potential” wilderness into a full-fledged wilderness area once the farm’s lease expired.  Read the Interior Secretary’s decision HERE.

What about the accusations of bad science?  I looked that up too.  In order for the Interior Secretary to make his decision, the National Park Service was required by law (i.e. National Environmental Policy Act of 1970), to produce an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).  However, the Park Service was not required to design experiments to test the farm’s environmental impacts.  To do this would have been costly and time consuming.  Rather, the report was required to use existing data.  Sadly, after 82 years of oyster farming in Drakes Estero, little scientific data had been collected for a rigorous assessment of farm practices.  When conflict erupted, implications that the oyster farm was anything other than “environmentally friendly”  were met with strong opposition.

Young harbor seal.  Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

Young harbor seal. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

The National Academy of Sciences was called in to review the Park Services’ report.  Read The Academy’s Review HERE.  They found no evidence of “bad science,” but did find high levels of uncertainty surrounding some conclusions. One of those conclusions involved noise generated by motors and other disturbances common to farm operations.  The Academy noted that Park Service scientists had not fully characterized all components of the Drakes Estero “soundscape,”, including traffic noise.  This does not mean the farm manager was justified in her casual dismissal of the diesel motor nor does it mean the motor is harmful to a nearby harbor seal rookery.  It simply means we do not have enough data to know for sure.  To change that, more research must be done.   Read the San Francisco Chronicle’s perspective HERE.

Interestingly, restating the question of noise in the case where all motors are turned off (i.e. the farm is shut down) was found to have a low level of  uncertainty by the Academy.  In other words, scientists could be certain there were benefits to seals if farm noise was eliminated.  Perhaps somewhere between these two extremes is a scientifically acceptable scenario for oyster farms and seals.  Unfortunately, no one made an effort to find it.

In the end, science played little role in the Secretary’s decision.  Citing Congress’s direction to “steadily continue to remove all obstacles to the eventual conversion of these lands and waters to wilderness status,” he  invoked discretion not to renew the farm’s lease (Scroll to page 7 and read the Secretary’s Conclusion HERE).  The Lunny family sued, claiming Senator Feinstein’s 2009 provision (Section 124) only allowed the Secretary to approve a lease extension, not deny it outright.  A federal court disagreed.  Since then, the farm has been allowed to stay open until all appeals were exhausted.

*******

On Monday, June 30th, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the farm’s case (read the KQED article HERE).  Hence, Drakes Bay Oyster Company will close and Drakes Estero will transition back to the wild.  The Lunny family plans more appeals.  Meanwhile, in nearby Tomales Bay, outside the boundaries of Point Reyes National Seashore and adjacent to the Tule elk Reserve, commercial oyster farming thrives.  I suspect those oysters never noticed the noise.

A Short List of Provocative Articles On The Wilderness Act:

Dairy operation in Point Reyes National Seashore.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

Dairy operation in Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

1.)  Of Mollusks and Men:  The Wilderness Act and Drakes Bay Oyster Company.  The Berkeley Blog.  J.F. Hein.  1 January 2013.

2.)  The Fall of the Wild?  Not Really.  The Wilderness Act Turns 50.  The Slate.  B. Minteer  20 July 2014.

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 

McKennaGibson_WaterAward2013b

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.

CarmelHighlandsMap

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.

photo2

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:  http://woods.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/focal.php?name=wastewater&focal_area=freshwater

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.