Water Monitoring Workload Rises with Pesticides, Contaminants

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By Tiffany Stecker

A decade ago, the U.S. Geological Survey tested the nation’s streams and aquifers for 83 different pesticides. Today, that number has nearly tripled: 225 pesticides and their byproducts.

Twenty years ago, the environmental research arm of the U.S. government didn’t test for pharmaceuticals in water. Today it’s a relatively common practice. So is testing for cyanobacteria, a blue-green algae that forms as a result of excessive nitrogen and phosphorus in the water.

These “emerging contaminants” have stressed the workload of USGS’s National Water Quality Assessment Program (NAWQA), which collects trend data over decades on contaminants in the nation’s streams and wells, as resources remain stagnant.

NAWQA’s budget has wavered between $55 million and $65 million since 2008. USGS’s overall spending has hovered above the $1 billion mark since that year, and the recently passed appropriations bill in the House would keep funding relatively level, further challenging the service’s ability to track trends even as new analytical techniques sharpen monitoring efforts.

Program ‘Hasn’t Grown in Years’

On the ground, however, scientists said the program’s growing demands—and more sophisticated, expensive technology—are putting pressure on scientists and the USGS.

“The program [budget] hasn’t grown in years,” Jeffrey Fischer, a supervisory hydrologist with USGS’s New Jersey Water Science Center, told Bloomberg BNA about his region’s work. But NAWQA’s analytical needs have grown by leaps and bounds.

USGS is not a regulatory agency, but its science has guided major environmental decisions in the last decade. The agency was among the first to discover traces of methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE)—a gasoline additive to increase octane and a weak carcinogen—in groundwater nationwide. It also sounded the alarm in 2011 over coal tar-based sealcoat, a viscous liquid used in asphalt that contributes significantly to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) contamination.

Advanced tracking techniques, like methods that can differentiate the source of mercury deposits from a coal-fired power plant or metal mining, are being deployed. Optical sensors can correlate different wavelengths of light with the levels of dissolved nitrates or algal pigments. The cost is expected to come down eventually, but at this point the purchase and installation of these sensors can run close to $100,000 per site.

Today, USGS is detecting contaminants, or “constituents,” at tiny concentrations. Scientists are not looking for the presence of contaminants alone, but are looking at how those contaminants travel and how long they last in groundwater.

Identifying contaminants at smaller concentrations means scientists are finding more and more compounds in the water.

“We’re detecting all these compounds no one knew existed,” Fischer said. “Parts per million doesn’t mean anything to anyone anymore; it’s parts per billion, parts per trillion.”

As a result of more sensitive methods of detection, USGS is adding more contaminants to its “schedules,” the list of a type of pollutants the agency tests for in streams and wells that undergo the same type of testing.

With inflation, “flat funding translates to a cut,” Tim Williams, deputy executive director for the Water Environment Federation, told Bloomberg BNA. “If the program is not adequately funded, you run the risk of not having a true national monitoring program.”

Wells Closed

On a drizzly September afternoon, Fischer and three other USGS scientists set up a makeshift tent and rudimentary testing equipment to collect samples of groundwater from a 40-foot well near the college town of Glassboro, N.J. When the well was drilled more than 20 years ago, the brick homes and well-manicured lawns in the surrounding areas were rapidly replacing farmers’ fields.

The site is in a coastal plain geologic formation that covers the southern half of New Jersey. It’s part of a network of 30 wells to help USGS track how the rural-to-suburban revolution here affects the water underneath. Today, scientists still find traces of the pesticides sprayed on the vegetables from farmland in the groundwater.

The additional demands have led to the program cutting back on its sampling of wells. In New Jersey, the scientists stopped testing a network of five wells several years ago to accommodate the resource shortfall.

“It does limit your ability somewhat” to analyze trends over time, Fischer said.

Hot-Button Pesticides Hard to Test

Lisa Nowell, a Sacramento, Calif.-based USGS research chemist who studies pesticides in streams, said her field of study is constantly evolving.

“Pesticide use changes,” Nowell told Bloomberg BNA. New pesticides are registered every year, others are taken off the market, and economic and scientific advances dictate how much farmers will use.

The methods for analyzing them also are complicated. Scientists like broad-spectrum methods that can detect several different pesticides in one sample, but some of the most common and hot-button chemicals—like glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto Co.'s Roundup herbicide—are not easily detected in these broad-spectrum tests.

The process to decide which contaminants should be a priority starts with a USGS working group. The group decides which emerging chemicals of products should be of interest to the scientific agency. From there, the scientists whittle down the number based on substances that were previously included in USGS studies or have been identified by other agencies or organizations as being of concern to health or present in the environment.

Limited Resources

One of the issues with NAWQA, Williams added, is it was never authorized by Congress, meaning there’s never any guarantee that it will receive a set level of appropriations year after year until the authorization expires.

Williams spent years climbing the Capitol’s steps to convince lawmakers that USGS’s water programs needed more funding.

“Everybody in Congress…was very supportive of the program, but it was always a challenge to increase funding because of other priorities and what they would characterize as limited resources,” he said.

Partnerships With States

As a result, much of USGS’s work on the ground is partially funded by states and other organizations. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection funds a portion of the New Jersey work through USGS’s cooperative program. In exchange, the state uses USGS’s monitoring network for testing water and works with USGS on studies.

These cooperative agreements in state USGS offices have helped the agency survive. But as landscapes change and chemicals come and go, the scientists’ are acutely aware of the need to maintain the continuity of the program.

Fischer looks around at the community near Glassboro, where crop pesticides have been replaced by household fertilizers and weedkillers.

“If you see a nice green lawn,” he said. “There’s probably fertilizers and pesticides around.”

“That’s why we’re here,” his colleague, hydrologist Eric Jacobsen, added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington at tstecker@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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