Water Award

Water For Our Future Award

Monterey County Science and Engineering Fair, 2014

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 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.


Water For Our Future Award_2012This 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.

Elevated levels of copper are toxic.  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 the greatest amount of pollutants.  McKenna analyzed copper levels in McDougall and Mal Paso Creeks and compared those 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.  Data from “First Flush” monitoring is publically available online.

McKenna cites a study from 2011 which found 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.  The study’s Discussion section explains  that the easiest way to control copper is 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.


This year’s 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. 

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.

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