This month a Utah County city sued an industry for polluting its municipal water supply. The ooze is now leaching toward the two remaining wells that serve the city. When it reaches them — if it reaches them — residents will be without drinking water.
The problem is the city of Mapleton needs scientific tools to determine how much contamination is acceptable and how safe their water supply is.
And they’re not alone.
In the save-the-earth fervor of the 1970s, the U.S. Congress amended the Clean Water Act, which required the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to work with states to restore and protect the quality of the nation’s waters. Twenty-five years later, states and regulatory agencies are still trying to figure out exactly what "clean water" means.
They’re getting help in their quest from Chuck Hawkins, a biologist with Utah State University’s College of Natural Resources. Hawkins is trying to establish quantitative methods to measure whether a river, lake or watershed is healthy.
"We determine what biological organisms would occur in the absence of human disturbance, to establish a baseline reference for comparison purposes," said Hawkins. "In other words, a healthy ecosystem must be defined before one can determine what an unhealthy ecosystem looks like. We need to determine what lakes and rivers looked like historically, before people came on the scene."
"Ideally, the reference sites we look at would be pristine," he said. "Unfortunately, there are no pristine sites left. Anywhere. So we’ll have to settle for 'pretty good.'"
"Pretty good" is what several field crews have been looking for, exploring 13 Western states for more than five years. They’ve sampled over 1,100 streams and rivers so far, funded by four grants from the EPA and two from the Forest Service. That’s good news for Western cities and states, which are required by law to meet federal water standards. It’s good news for biological systems — home to fish, amphibians and insects. And it’s good news for anyone who drinks water in states ranging from Washington to North Dakota to New Mexico, including Utah.
"Hawkins is developing tools sophisticated enough to measure incredibly complex systems in the real world, while simultaneously generating data that water managers, politicians and the public can easily understand and put to use," said Chris Luecke, head of the new Aquatic, Watershed, and Earth Resources Department.
"The tools have to be somewhat intuitive so the interpretation and application don’t get buried in complex statistics," said Hawkins.
"The big challenge is to figure out ways to use the information we collect from reference sites to predict what conditions should exist in potentially polluted streams and rivers," he continued. "Because the biological systems of rivers and lakes are complex, we can’t easily predict what a healthy stream should look like at a specific location. We therefore have to develop statistical models that make specific predictions based on conditions that exist at particular locations."
"If a local river was severely polluted, we could walk along its banks and see algae blooms and smell odors," Hawkins said. "We would know it was sick because we would mentally compare it to healthy streams in similar locations. Using data from a large number of reference streams allows us to quantify the condition of a river relative to that expected at healthy ones."
"The limiting factor for municipalities and regulatory agencies is generally money," Hawkins said, "and because there is not enough money to measure everything that occurs in a stream, we need to determine the measurements that are most critical."
"When you go to the doctor, he or she doesn’t measure everything," he said. "During a routine physical examination, you don’t get an EKG or have lots of blood chemistry tests. It’s too expensive. Instead, the doctor looks at indicators of health such as your blood pressure, heart rate and temperature, and compares them to the range of normal variation in humans to determine whether there is evidence that you might be sick.
"We’re trying to identify the most useful indicators of ecosystem health."
Invertebrates — the insects, crustaceans, mollusks and worms that live in aquatic systems, are often good indicators, he said.
"They contain a lot of ecological information," he said "in that some species are sensitive to certain pollutants and some to other pollutants. These species only occur in clean water. Others are insensitive and tend to be the dominant species in highly polluted water. Because invertebrates are easy to sample, we can collect a lot of information quickly and cheaply.
"We can collect 100,000 bugs from the Logan River in an hour," Hawkins said. "Most states are now using invertebrate samples to determine the health of rivers and lakes."
One of the challenges Hawkins faces is the variability of Western ecosystems. Pointing to the bumps and ridges that form that backbone of Western mountain ranges on a U.S. map, he said, "I work in the wrinkled area. Eastern scientists have more homogenous systems. If you start walking east from Logan, through the Bear River wetlands and then on up to the mountain streams, you’ll see a great deal of variety.
"We deal with the variety by classifying reference sites into different types of streams, from which we can then extrapolate expectations about other sites."
In classifying those sites, Hawkins is developing benchmarks that will serve as tools to indicate healthy or unhealthy systems and ultimately, protect biological systems and watersheds throughout the West.
"Several Western states are now using or evaluating Hawkins’ techniques for implementing aspects of the Clean Water Act," said Luecke.
To facilitate progress across the West, Hawkins is hoping to see more collaboration between state and federal agencies, less duplication of effort and the development of more efficient tools for measuring and protecting water.
"If we have biologically healthy streams, we are protecting water quality for human consumption," Hawkins said. "Invertebrates that live in rivers are like the canaries in coal mines — they are indicators of potential problems. If the right ones occur in our rivers and lakes, the water is probably safe to drink and use for other human needs."
The work Hawkins has conducted in the West is also moving east. Hawkins is currently involved in a unique collaboration with scientists from Proctor & Gamble and the Dutch equivalent of our EPA to determine if the methods he is working on can be combined with classic measures of toxicity to provide industry and states more robust assessments of the biological health of aquatic ecosystems. Initial results of that work will be reported at this week’s meeting of the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, which is being held in Salt Lake City.