Supply Side Synthesis

Supply Side Synthesis

“Small sensors are the foundation of big science,” says Phil Trowbridge, director of the Bay’s Regional Monitoring Program which has just released a new synthesis report on sediment science. The report, combining the results of eight bodies of work, yielded some surprises concerning how much sediment moves from the Sierra and Bay watersheds to the Golden Gate. “The system is calming down after two huge disruptions,” says David Schoellhammer of the U.S. Geological Survey, referring to hydraulic gold mining and...
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Scrutinizing the Margins

Cold water, essential for the life cycle of Chinook salmon, is all too often in short supply along the Sacramento River. A primary cause: California’s massive water conveyance system, using reservoirs, dams, and hydroelectric plants to divert water and deliver power to farms and cities. “When we started releasing water in spring, we let cold water out too early. None was left by fall, when salmon really needed it,” says USBR hydraulic engineer Tracy Vermeyen. Two clever innovations have been...
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Non-Sticks Stick Around

According to data from the Regional Monitoring Program, common coatings and repellants used in textiles for clothing and furniture are sticking around in San Francisco Bay water, sediment, and wildlife. “The reason for the lack of declines is not clear,” says researcher Meg Sedlak of the San Francisco Estuary Institute. Some early environmental offenders in this line of fluorinated chemicals (PFASs) have been banned, including one used in the cookware coated with Teflon. “In 2006 and 2009, the levels of...
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Sturgeon Surgeons

“White sturgeon are a popular species, so we want to keep a close eye on contaminants in their tissues.” Recent RMP studies have unearthed a few new interesting things about sturgeon - first that selenium keeps turning up in specimens from certain areas, and second that testing may not have to be deadly. Growing up to 20 feet long and living up to 100 years, today’s living fish have become valuable for the stories that they tell.
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Beacon not Burden

What some might call a regulatory burden on industry, commerce, and American greatness, others might call the road to success. Jay Davis, a serious guy, doesn’t crack a smile when he describes the Bay Area’s Regional Monitoring Program as “a beacon of environmental protection.” It may sound a little over the top, for a PhD who ran the program for more than a decade, but all you have to do is fact check. Ask some of the oil refineries, power...
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The Second Signal: Guadalupe River Flood Monitoring

It was past midnight when Lester McKee pulled the plug. He’d been watching the weather for days on screen, looking for the perfect storm of conditions he needed to send his team out to sample the Guadalupe River in Santa Clara County. He knew there’d been enough rain already to saturate the soil and surpass annual averages. Zooming in on real-time sensors aimed at Santa Clara Valley Water District reservoirs, he could see they were full enough to spill downstream....
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Sport Fish Still Not Squeaky Clean

Toxic flame retardants quickly declined in Bay-caught fish, once banned, but legacy mercury persists, according to the most recent year of sampling. As the region’s collaborative monitoring program for Bay contaminants — the RMP — arrives at its 25th birthday, its long-term commitment to consistent data collection for the purposes of targeted environmental management is showing its mettle. The RMP has been catching and testing a wide array of species of popular sport fish, ranging from giant sturgeon to tiny...
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The Dirt on Flea Control

It’s hard to go to the big box pet store and not stumble over the flea control displays. Most pet owners have dabbed or squirted Frontline or Advantage between their cat’s shoulder bones or onto the back of their dog’s neck, but who would guess this same chemical would make its way off our pet’s fur, down the drain, through wastewater treatment, and into the Bay? Apparently all the petting and shedding and subsequent washing of hands, doggies, and floors...
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Nutrient Nuances Modeled

San Francisco Bay is becoming less opaque as the sediments power-washed into the Estuary by miners so long ago gradually disperse. This lets sunlight penetrate deeper into the water, creating more favorable conditions for the kind of problematic algal blooms that can shut down crab fisheries and keep people and their pooches out of the water. Scientists have collaborated on some new computer models, however, that may help them predict where and when nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphate from discharges...
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An Eggfull of Estuary

Birds’ eggs don’t lie. Just as thinning eggshells once revealed how DDT was affecting peregrines and pelicans, the eggs themselves are now telling scientists how long-lived some contaminants are in the Estuary and where they are the most problematic. A report just published by the Regional Monitoring Program for Water Quality in San Francisco Bay (RMP) summarizes contaminant concentrations in eggs collected between 2002 and 2012 from two fish-eating species high in the Estuary food chain, double-crested cormorants and Foster’s...
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Waiting for the Big One

If and when El Niño decides to dump a big storm on the Bay Area — even at 2:00 am on a Saturday night — SFEI’s Lester McKee and Alicia Gilbreath and their team are ready to pull on their parkas and dash out to take water samples. Last September, stakeholders in the Regional Monitoring Program decided they would be remiss if they did not try to measure some high priority pollutants during an El Niño year. “With plenty of...
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Unhealthy Fiber in Bay Diet

Millions of tiny pieces of plastic, each less than five millimeters wide, are flowing into San Francisco Bay each day. This minute debris—known as microplastic—is a growing environmental concern for water bodies worldwide as it evades filtration and mimics food consumed by wildlife. Now, a recent study found that San Francisco Bay has higher concentration of microplastic pollution than the handful of other major U.S. water bodies that have been studied, including the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. Now, a...
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Tracking Tiny Toxins

San Francisco Bay and the region’s other water bodies have an unfortunate legacy of human pollution. But we’re not the only culprits: beyond the mercury and PCBs, the Bay contains toxins produced by phytoplankton—photosynthesizing microorganisms classified as blue-green algae (also known as cyanobacteria), dinoflagellates, and diatoms. Under conditions still not well understood, these tiny organisms secrete chemicals that can enter aquatic food webs and impact human health. Funded by the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s Regional Monitoring Program for Water Quality...
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Beyond the Blubber

When John Kucklick talks about interrogation techniques, his subjects aren’t tight-lipped terrorists, they’re bits of blubber. Harbor seal fat is a well-known repository of legacy contaminants from the Bay like PCBs, flame retardants and DDT, but the Regional Monitoring Program for Water Quality in San Francisco Bay (RMP) wanted to know what they might be missing. In 2010, they asked Kucklick, a scientist with access to a national database of 330,000 chemicals and some pretty cutting edge software, to check...
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Copper Effects on Salmon Influenced by Salinity

A decade of research by David Baldwin of NOAA’s North
west Fisheries Science Center 
and other biologists has shown
 that in some situations, very 
low levels of dissolved copper interfere with a salmon’s ability to detect smells. This can 
be a matter of life or death: 
salmon rely on their olfac
tory sense to avoid predators,
 locate prey, and home in on
 their natal streams when they 
return from the ocean to spawn. Earlier studies involved juvenile fish in freshwater settings. Baldwin’s...
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Beyond the Bag Ban

The other day I found myself turning out the closets for one last plastic bag. Dreaming of those white Safeway sacks as I searched for something to sequester what may well be the most toxic contaminant in the homes and cars of many a modern family: freshly used soccer cleats. But a year into San Francisco’s bag ban, there just aren’t that many plastic shopping bags around our house anymore. All told, 60 percent of municipalities in the four most...
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Small Fish Test Helps Target PCB Clean Up

Jay Davis didn’t expect much from a pilot test for PCBs in silversides and topsmelt that live on the edges of the San Francisco Bay. The monitoring program he heads only ran the test on these small fish, which rarely grow more than 3-4 inches long, because it was simple to piggyback on an existing study of mercury in the same fish samples. “I thought it wouldn’t really be a big deal,” says Davis, who is lead scientist for the...
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Freeing Fish While Locking Up Mercury

The restoration of the South Bay salt ponds to tidal wetland has, from the very beginning, been an exercise in adaptive management: take an action; monitor the results; make any indicated fixes; repeat. There’s no better example than Pond A8, where the Guadalupe River enters San Francisco Bay via Alviso Slough. Restoration planners were worried that connecting the former salt evaporation pond with the Bay could introduce long-dormant mercury to the wider ecosystem, and initial studies of levels in water...
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Bay Primed for Pea Soup?

Nutrients could be the next big problem for San Francisco Bay — or make that in the Bay, because they’re already here at levels high enough to have caused trouble elsewhere. But despite its excess nitrogen and phosphorus, the Bay has been free of harmful algal blooms and oxygen-depleted dead zones for decades. Indeed, we’ve been so sure of this immunity to nutrients that most wastewater treatment plants don’t even have to remove them before discharging into the Bay. Recent...
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