Water research initiatives at UW-Madison

04/18/05

Reporters looking for fresh environmental research angles for Earth Day (April 22) - or for environmental coverage throughout the year - can find scores of newsworthy projects at UW-Madison related to water resources, from groundwater to the Great Lakes. The following tipsheet describes ten current water research projects that may be of interest to media, including:

  • The Wisconsin Buffer Initiative
  • 'Rain gardens' as a way to restore urban ground water
  • Erosion monitoring on the shores of Lake Superior
  • Conflicts over drinking water in the Middle East
  • The health of Wisconsin River flood plains
  • Outreach efforts for local water improvement projects
  • Tracing mercury, antibiotics and endocrine disruptors in water
  • An online library for state water resources

WISCONSIN BUFFER INITIATIVE TO TARGET KEY WATERSHEDS

The coalition of farmers, environmental groups, state regulators and scientists that comprise the "Wisconsin Buffer Initiative" is closing in on solutions to the contentious issue of riparian buffer zones on state waterways. Buffers are strips of vegetation near rivers and streams that help remove sediment and pollutants from runoff before it enters the stream. The initiative's key question: Amid thousands of miles of state waterways, how does Wisconsin use limited resources to place buffers where they are most needed? UW-Madison limnologist Jake Vander Zanden and others made a significant contribution this year with the completion of a statewide matrix of 1,600 hydrological zones that can be used to prioritize watersheds most suited for riparian controls. According to UW-Madison rural sociologist and WBI coordinator Pete Nowak, the zones will be used to identify two types of waterways: Degraded water that will respond positively to buffer improvements, and exceptional water that cannot remain exceptional without buffer technology. Those will get top priority in the final report to the Legislature expected by year's end. For more, see the group's Web site at: http://www.cals.wisc.edu/wbi/

CONTACT: Pete Nowak, (608) 265-3581, pnowak@wisc.edu

'RAIN GARDENS' GROW PROMISE FOR GROUND WATER RENEWAL

UW-Madison Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Kenneth Potter's rain gardens may not contain many plants, but they can be an aesthetically pleasing, viable way to mitigate polluted storm-water runoff and ground-water loss that often occur as a result of urban development and impervious surfaces such as rooftops, roads and parking lots. Rain gardens typically consist of a top soil layer for growing plants and a lower, permeable layer of sand and gravel. When it rains, water pools in the plant zone, then percolates quickly into the permeable layer, which stores the water until it seeps into the subsoil. In addition, such gardens can help improve water quality, capturing common contaminants such as excess nitrogen and phosphorous.

CONTACT: Kenneth Potter, (608) 262-0040; kwpotter@wisc.edu

MONITORING EROSION ON THE LAKE SUPERIOR SHORELINE

To help local governments plan and manage shoreline development, a UW-Madison group of geological engineers is characterizing the state of erosion along the Wisconsin shoreline of Lake Superior. Hoping to estimate how much bluff recession will occur within the next half century, the group surveyed the entire shoreline, measured how high waves rush up beaches during large storms, and studied historical air photos to learn how much erosion has occurred within the past 30 years. The research, which could apply to other large water-body erosion situations, will enable governments to establish shoreline zoning ordinances and help builders determine safe setback distances for future development.

CONTACT: Tuncer Edil, (608) 262-3225; edil@engr.wisc.edu

WATER FOR PEACE? SHIFTING SCALES ON WATER AND CONFLICT

UW-Madison geographer Leila Harris explores sobering assessments of world water shortages and their potential contributions to conflict in an essay in "Geographies of War and Peace" (2005, Oxford University Press). Noting estimates that as many as 10 million people die annually from the preventable effects of unsafe drinking water, Harris argues for broader understanding of how water relates to socio-political conflict, well-being and security. In her essay, Harris advocates for reframing treatments of water and conflict away from solely state-focused understandings of "war" and "peace." While notable political figures have predicted "the next war in the Middle East will be fought over water," water is already critical in places like Iraq, where the diminished quantity and quality of Tigris and Euphrates waters is a major threat. Harris builds arguments for adopting multi-country, "integrated basin" approaches to water management, and for fully considering the role water will play in the goal of building lasting peace, well-being, and security in the region.

CONTACT: Leila Harris, (608) 265-0531, lharris@geography.wisc.edu

FLOOD PLAINS MAY HOLD KEY FOR NUTRIENT REMOVAL FROM RIVERS

Exploring novel ways to stem the steady flow of harmful farm-derived nutrients into the Wisconsin River, a UW-Madison ecologist is studying the potential of river flood plains to act as natural, nutrient-extracting filter systems. Relatively flat strips of vegetated land, flood plains adjoin rivers, lakes and streams, and remain dry or submerged depending on surrounding water levels. Nutrients such as nitrogen accumulate in river waters as they move downstream and pass flood plain areas along the way. In the lower reaches of the Wisconsin River, Stanley is studying two submerged flood plain sites to measure how effectively the areas absorb nitrogen from river waters. Nutrient management strategies have long focused on interventions in small streams, says Stanley. But flood plain restoration - through the selective removal of small dams and levees - could potentially become a large-scale nutrient-removing strategy. The work is also important because flood plains represent the last chance for nutrient removal before rivers flow on to meet other rivers, lakes and oceans.

CONTACT: Emily Stanley, (608) 263 2567, ehstanley@factaff.wisc.edu

'WATER FOR EVERYONE' EMPOWERS LOCAL CONSERVATION EFFORTS

Armed with fresh ecological expertise, ordinary citizens will move to the forefront of the campaign to better understand and protect Wisconsin's vast network of rivers and streams. A statewide partnership between the UW-Madison and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, "Water for Everyone: Resources to Study, Manage and Protect Wisconsin's Water" aims this year to empower environmental volunteers by expanding existing training protocols around the state. Volunteers at local conservation groups currently receive only basic instruction in collecting water-related data. The "Water for Everyone" initiative plans to go a step further, holding regional training workshops starting this month to disseminate educational information on water quality, aquatic insects, stream biology and basic data analysis. By helping volunteers understand the science behind gathered data, project leaders hope citizen scientists will be better positioned to contribute to the development of local and state water resource policies. The first of four regional training workshops will take place on May 12 at the Beaver Creek Reserve, near Eau Claire.

CONTACT: Robert Bohanan, (608) 265 2125, rbohanan@wisc.edu

TRACING ANTIBIOTICS IN WATER AND SOILS

Antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals are being found increasingly in surface water, groundwater and soils. Compared to contaminants like PCBs, however, little is known about the environmental behavior of antibiotics. With funding from the UW-Madison Water Resources Institute, biological systems engineer K.G. Karthikeyan is helping determine what happens to antibiotics when they get into the environment - where they go and how they interact with water and soil chemistry. His current work looks specifically at tetracycline and ciprofloxacin, two of the most widely used antibiotics worldwide.

CONTACT: K.G. Karthikeyan, (608) 262-9367, kkarthikeyan@wisc.edu

TRACKING ENDOCRINE DISRUPTORS IN GROUNDWATER

Seven in 10 Wisconsinites depend on groundwater for their water supply, and increasing demands for the resource may be causing serious environmental and health problems. Supported by the UW-Madison Water Resources Institute, toxicologists are testing groundwater samples for evidence of endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs). While the effects of EDCs on humans are unclear, studies have shown that exposure to the compounds may be linked to many negative effects on wildlife, such as the presence of both male and female tissue in the gonads of fish. EDCs enter rivers and streams through domestic and industrial wastewater and agricultural runoff. When high demand for groundwater lowers the water table, surface water can leach in, bringing contaminants like EDCs with it. Small septic systems used in rural areas could be another source of EDCs entering groundwater. The researchers are testing and monitoring these two types of sites at locations around the state. Their data will be used to make future decisions affecting groundwater issues, such as land use planning, water treatment options, well placement and water use.

CONTACT: William Sonzogni, (608) 224-6200, sonzongni@facstaff.wisc.edu

UNDERSTANDING MERCURY IN THE ENVIRONMENT

Scientists at UW-Madison are participating in a landmark international study to determine how quickly mercury in rainfall shows up in fish that people eat. There is an intense debate over requirements for expensive emissions controls, yet scientific understanding is lacking about how effective such controls would be. Information is needed on how "new" mercury added to a watershed reacts relative to "old' mercury stored in soils and lake sediments. With funds from the Water Resources Institute, UW-Madison water chemist James Hurley is working with an international team of scientists who are experimentally adding small amounts of mercury to a lake in Ontario, Canada, to trace mercury through the lake and into fish. The study is also assessing the relative importance of different pathways mercury follows when it enters ecosystems via watersheds, wetlands, and lake surfaces. Initial findings suggest new mercury moves into the sediments of a lake within several weeks and into fish within a year. The results of this study could have direct, major impacts on the development of mercury emission standards.

CONTACT: James Hurley, (608) 262-1136, hurley@aqua.wisc.edu

WATER BOOKS FLOW THROUGHOUT WISCONSIN

A UW-Madison library specializing in water-related information has opened doors to all Wisconsin residents. Wisconsin's Water Library is an online resource for Wisconsinites who want to know more about their state's lakes, rivers, groundwater, and wetlands. Topics also include ice fishing, building a pond, water gardening, and environmentally friendly lawn and garden care. Housed at the UW-Madison Aquatic Sciences Center, the library holds almost 30,000 volumes of books, videos, journals, recommended reading lists and links to reliable online information. The Water Library Web site enables any Wisconsin resident to check out the library's materials, which are sent free of charge to the user's local public library for pickup and return. Wisconsin's Water Library is the first UW System Library to make its collection directly accessible to the public. Water library staff have also teamed with Madison School and Community Recreation to initiate story hours in the Allied Drive neighborhood. Several other campus libraries are now participating in the reading programs, which have become monthly events.

Visit the site at: http://www.aqua.wisc.edu/waterlibrary

CONTACT: JoAnn Savoy, (608) 262-3069, josavoy@aqua.wisc.edu

Source: Eurekalert & others

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