Saturday, February 17, 2018
Sweet or Salty, Quality Counts: Sea Grant Prioritizes Clean Water
/ Categories: Community Engagement

Sweet or Salty, Quality Counts: Sea Grant Prioritizes Clean Water

by Sharon Moen, Minnesota Sea Grant

Lake Superior

Lake Superior

As the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area and the third largest by volume (Lake Baikal in Siberia and Lake Tanganyika in East Africa contain more water) Lake Superior is remarkably clean and cold. (Credit: Chris J. Benson)

From the shores of South Carolina to the beaches of Southern California (and in the coastal and Great Lakes states in between), NOAA’s National Sea Grant College Program is working to improve water quality and to enhance peoples’ understanding of groundwater and surface water relationships. The journey begins with a trip to the Great Lakes, where Sea Grant programs are engaged in research and outreach efforts to ensure that these fresh, "sweet" water bodies are as safe and pristine as possible.

Superior Waters

“Lake Superior sets the bar for water quality in fresh surface waters,” said Jeff Gunderson, director of the University of Minnesota Sea Grant Program, which is located less than five miles from the westernmost edge of the Great Lake. “Sea Grant helps to ensure that Lake Superior’s reputation is not only warranted, but sustained. To do this we stay vigilant and proactive about educating community leaders and emerging scientists, funding aquatic research, working with industries and exchanging ideas with residents.”

Minnesota Sea Grant has conducted seminal research on bacteria that trigger beach closures, chemicals that disrupt the normal production of hormones in animals, and toxins such as PCBs and toxaphene. In fact, Time Magazine (2006) recognized that the work of Minnesota Sea Grant researcher Michael Sadowsky would redefine how E. coli, a bacteria used for indicating fecal contamination, is used in water quality monitoring. They wrote:

Sadowsky and his fellow researchers have found a way to tease out stretches of marker DNA that indicate whether the bacteria came from human or nonhuman sources. With cities and states across the country spending billions on new water-quality systems, the impact of Sadowsky's work could be huge.
Water sampling

Water sampling

East Carolina University biologists sample water quality for a river herring study. Credit: Dan Zapf

Partnering to Address Water Quality

The recent 2012 United States Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture Land Grant and Sea Grant National Water Quality Conference provided a forum for Sea Grant extension agents from freshwater and saltwater states to discuss ongoing partnerships among Sea Grant, Land Grant, the Environmental Protection Agency and others designed to improve water quality at local, state and regional levels. 

Among these partnerships are NEMO (Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials), a long-standing collaborative effort between USDA Cooperative Extension and Sea Grant designed to help local officials use technology such as GIS (Geographic Information System) and statistical analyses to link land use and water quality in planning decisions. Sea Gant supports NEMO activities in many coastal states, and numerous Sea Grant research projects form the basis for building science-based extension education programs.

Several years ago, Sea Grant also initiated a Sustainable Coastal Community Development (SCCD) network to develop vibrant, productive coastal communities in healthy coastal and marine ecosystems. This network focuses on a variety of watershed and water quality issues.

Medical waste brochure

Medical waste brochure

This brochure provides tips on how to properly use, store and dispose of expired or unwanted medications. It was developed by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, on behalf of the National Sea Grant College Program, in partnership with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Credit: Sea Grant/AVMA

A Prescription for Clean Water

In another unique approach to enhancing water quality and educating citizens, Sea Grant has gained recognition for organizing pharmaceutical collection events where unused medications for people and animals may be turned in so they do not cause problems when discharged into aquatic environments.

Sea Grant is also working to rid the nation’s coasts of non-biodegradable plastics by organizing the retrieval of derelict fishing gear and monofilament fishing line from beaches, and arranging shrink-wrap recycling at boating facilities. Millions of pounds of beach litter have been properly disposed or recycled through Sea Grant’s efforts.

Each year, Sea Grant’s dedicated researchers produce new insights into ways to improve, manage and protect water supplies while extension professionals work to make sure research results are accessible to those people who most need and want them. Whether sweet or salty, clean water is essential.

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