Covid Clues from Wastewater

Covid Clues from Wastewater

As COVID-19 continues its unrelenting rampage, wastewater plant managers and university researchers are ramping up their efforts to monitor wastewater for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. Their goal is to give public health departments a powerful tool: an early warning system for new outbreaks in communities. In Yosemite Valley, for instance, wastewater testing revealed the presence of the virus in the community before swab testing of individuals showed a problem. “There’s a time delay before cases appear in...
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A Fragile Fleet

The naming of boats and ships is a serious matter. Each larger vessel’s name starts with a code that tells what it carries, what propels it, or what purpose it serves. If it were your hobby to keep tabs on traffic on San Francisco Bay, you’d see a lot of big UCCs (container ships) and TCHs and TCRs (tankers). You’d see ferries emblazoned with MV, standing for “motor vessel.” Before COVID-19, you would have spotted the occasional SS, standing for...
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The Delta’s Blooming Problem

Bright-green blotches of algae have been popping up all over the Delta since early summer, from Discovery Bay to the Stockton waterfront, befouling the air and poisoning the water with toxins that can sicken or even kill humans and animals. Veteran Delta watchers believe that this year’s harmful algal blooms may be the worst ever, and worry that some features of Governor Gavin Newsom’s recently released Water Resilience Portfolio for California will aggravate the problem. “We don’t have enough data...
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Match Points in Stormwater Soup

Scientists studying environmental pollutants tend to divide them into two distinct groups. One includes “legacy” contaminants that drew attention during the early stages of the environmental movement, like mercury, PCBs, and some pesticides. The other is a much larger class of “emerging” contaminants whose production or monitoring began more recently and about whom less is known; think pharmaceuticals, plastic additives, and flame retardants. Effluent from wastewater treatment plants is often seen as the primary source of emerging contaminants in San...
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A team of scientists is close to chasing down every last thing that happens to nitrogen in wastewater as it passes through the soils and plants of a horizontal levee.

Not only is 97% of the nitrogen removed, but also trace pharmaceuticals. “You just have to focus on where the water is going,” says environmental engineer Aidan Cecchetti, referring to the UC Berkeley-Stanford-ReNUWIt team’s experimentation with three components of flow through the levee system—under the surface, over the surface, or into the air (through evapotranspiration). “In the wastewater pumped to the subsurface, you see full removal of every contaminant except phosphorous.” What’s most astonishing is how much of the work...
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Microtrash Tiresome for Watersheds

By Jacoba Charles As many as 30 particles of microplastic smaller than five millimeters in diameter are discharged with every liter of stormwater, according to a report published by the San Francisco Estuary Institute and 5Gyres last October. “A big proportion of what we saw were black rubbery fragments,” says SFEI’s Diana Lin, a lead author of the report. Apart from these likely biproducts of tire wear and tear, hair-like threads of fiber were the other main type of microplastics...
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Kinky Fish Spines Linked to Selenium

By Joe Eaton Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are using new tools to track selenium, with the Sacramento splittail, a California-endemic fish, as an indicator species. Robin Stewart, lead author of a new paper on splittail and selenium, is one of the region’s most seasoned current experts on bioaccumulation of metals in estuarine species. In some sampled splittail, selenium levels exceeded the proposed EPA protective criteria for fish ovaries. Liver levels, not...
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Toxins Flock to Beads in a Scientific Tea Bag

By Ashleigh Papp When a New Zealand scientist shared a novel method to test water quality in the early 2000s that didn’t involve harvesting shellfish, UC Santa Cruz’ Raphael Kudela and his team of researchers quickly adopted the idea. After some fine-tuning, they named their new technique Solid Phase Adsorption Toxin Testing (SPATT, for short). The technique takes advantage of custom-built plastic, or resin, beads that are designed to absorb specific things. “It looks a lot like a tea bag,”...
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“The Bay is a jewel ― can you imagine if it stunk like it did in the ’50s or if it was green with algae?” asks retiring Executive Director of the Bay Area Clean Water Agencies (BACWA) David Williams, reflecting on his work over much of the last decade to address nutrient pollution.

Working with the 37 wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the Bay, as well as with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, Williams helped establish a science-based regional permit for nutrients from the plants. The forward-thinking permit includes nature-based solutions like using wastewater to nurture horizontal levees or create wetlands, buffering the Bay shore from crashing waves as the sea rises. “We have a very enlightened Water Board,” Williams says, “because of that, instead of fighting, the...
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An emergency barrier installed to protect the state’s water supply from saltwater intrusion during the recent record-setting drought had little effect on the ecosystem.

In spring 2015 the California Department of Water Resources dropped 150,000 tons of rock into False River in the Central Delta to halt encroaching tides that had little freshwater to hold them back. A few months later, it was clear the barrier worked, as salinity rose on one side and fell on the other. But what were the effects on local plants and animals? Through six overlapping yet distinct projects funded by the state Delta Science Program and NASA, and...
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A recent test found more than 250 chemicals in the Delta’s Cache Slough, but “Dr Doom” says figuring out what they all are, and their concentrations, is beside the point in our efforts to understand stressors on native fish resilience.

“Knowing the effect on the fish is more informative than knowing which chemicals may be causing it,” says UC Davis’ Richard Connon (whose colleagues gave him his sinister title), referring to taking an ecological rather than regulatory perspective on fish health, and also to the less obvious sublethal effects of contaminants on fish behavior and reproduction. Connon is the lead author of a wide-ranging journal article in the December 2019 issue of SFEWS on how to better focus contaminants research...
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Speakers talk about emerging water quality issues such as stormwater management, contaminants in effluent, wastewater in Suisun Marsh, and nutrients discharged into the Bay.

Green Diet for Roads City of San Pablo project manager Amanda Booth went deep into the nitty gritty on green stormwater infrastructure at a State of the Estuary Conference session. “Talk to the utility agencies before you even start,” she said. “Read PG&E’s Greenbook guidelines. Know your city’s franchise agreements with gas, electrical, sewer, and water companies, figure out who pays to relocate facilities, for example, if that becomes necessary.” Changing the flow lines of runoff at the street, parcel...
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Bay Not BPA-Free

By Ariel Rubissow Okamoto “BPA is globally detected in human urine,” says scientist Ila Shimabuku of the San Francisco Estuary Institute. BPA, one of a chemical group called bisphenols, is a clear, stable, durable ingredient in plastic bottles, can liners, cash register receipts and many other things we use and touch every day. In 2017, the RMP collected and analyzed 16 bisphenols (including bisphenol A, or BPA) in 22 water samples from around San Francisco Bay. Concentrations of BPA found...
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Next Day Delivery: PCBs, Plastics, and Mercury All in One Package

By Alastair Bland The slow, downstream chemical migration of legacy contaminants like mercury and PCBs into the Bay is something that Lester McKee and his colleagues at the San Francisco Estuary Institute hope to cut short. Using funding from the Regional Monitoring Program, they’ve been sampling creeks that enter the central and southern San Francisco Bay for years, identifying the most contaminated waterways. “We want to short-circuit the conveyor belt that delivers the pollutants we’re concerned about into the food...
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Needed Now: A Big Blue-Green Push

Edited by Lisa Owens Viani From rain gardens to green streets to permeable parking lots and pebble dunes, landscape architects and resource managers are working to soften up shorelines and sidewalks, all to sponge up and filter stormwater runoff before it reaches the Estuary, and to buffer against sea level rise and heavy storms. Plus they’re giving a younger generation the skills and hands-on experience to carry this work forward in the future. This special centerfold details projects in the...
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Oakland green infrastructure vision.

Clock Ticking for Cities to Commit to Greening

Managing stormwater is a physics problem, and not a very glamorous one. In decades past, the main objective of managing stormwater was figuring out how fast it could be directed through the Bay Area’s built landscape via storm drains, culverts, and channels, and into the Bay. In decades future, however, the object will be to slow down the runoff, and sink it into greener, spongier surfaces sprinkled throughout our cities and counties, or to run it through more meandering, more...
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Melissa Foley’s list of concerns as the new head of San Francisco Bay’s premier water-quality program is long: microplastics, pharmaceuticals, PFASs, and other chemicals and contaminants entering the Bay through runoff and treated sewage.

An interdisciplinary scientist trained in marine ecology, with experience in policy, management, and public outreach, Foley assumed leadership late last year of the Regional Monitoring Program for Water Quality in San Francisco Bay (RMP). Along with overseeing the RMP’s rigorous efforts to study and manage Bay pollutants, Foley who comes to the RMP from New Zealand’s Auckland Council, where she used long-term environmental monitoring data to inform both regional and national management and policy strategies, says she’ll draw on her...
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Getting a Bead on Table Salt

By Joe Eaton Microplastics are present in the San Francisco Bay, and at higher concentrations than Chesapeake Bay or the Great Lakes, according to a San Francisco Estuary Institute study led by Rebecca Sutton. There’s “a lot of uncertainty about potential impacts to people and wildlife,” she says.“[Miicroplastics are] a variable contaminant and challenging to interpret.” What we know is sufficient cause for concern: apart from their physical impacts, plastics can absorb other pollutants and some plastic ingredients are known...
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A marriage of robotics and artificial intelligence promises to automate the detection of harmful algal blooms, which can trigger shellfish harvesting bans and fill wildlife rescue centers with sickened animals.

The Imaging FlowCytobot (IFCB) takes water samples around the clock and photographs phytoplankton cells floating within. “It’s got a huge amount of potential for figuring out what plankton is in the water column and monitoring for HABs,” says Alexis Fischer, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz with Raphael Kudela. Fischer and colleagues are building a phytoplankton image classifier already capable of identifying more than 90 percent of cells photographed by IFCB at the Santa Cruz Wharf. The...
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Saltwater Revival

“Swimming sustains me,” says Fran Hegeler of the South End Rowing Club. That’s the kind of enthusiastic language some Bay swimmers express, but sharing the water means sharing it in sickness and in health. Right now, Sausalito’s Marine Mammal Center is dealing with a large outbreak of leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that can cause fatal kidney damage in California sea lions. But it isn’t likely to affect swimmers, as the bacteria is not known to survive long in saltwater.
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