Waiting for the Big One

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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