Serving New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands and Eight Tribal Nations.
Summer Water Quality Monitoring
Standing on the deck of EPA's Clean Waters boat, a 65-foot-long floating laboratory used by the agency to evaluate water quality, two scientists pulled a long metal tube out of New York Bay near Jersey City, N.J., and filled sampling test tubes with water. Minutes later, a simple test of the water revealed that the sample's dissolved oxygen level, an important indicator of water quality, was close to six milligrams per liter. (Anything over five milligrams per liter is considered healthy.) But that was only in one spot and only on one day.
Because New Jersey's and New York's waters face threats from floating debris and pollution from urban, industrial and agricultural sources, EPA samples coastal waters six days a week throughout the summer. Ensuring the health of coastal waters not only helps protect diverse, thriving ecosystems; it also means clean, safe beaches for people to enjoy during the summertime.
Creatures Big and Small
When determining the health of ocean life, the crew of the Clean Waters looks for small creatures that live in the harbor sediments. Macroinvertebrates â€“ organisms big enough to see with the naked eye, but so small that they don't have a backbone â€“ can provide a wealth of knowledge about the health of local waters.
To collect macroinvertebrates, the crew lowers a claw-like scooper into the water until it reaches the sediments below. The dredge shuts and brings a scoopful of sludge-like muck to the surface. The muck may look unimpressive, but it's teeming with life. Rinsing away sediments, the crew unearths macroinvertebrates like worms, hermit crabs and snails. Certain macroinvertebrates are tolerant of pollution, while others can only survive in clean, pristine waters.
The Clean Waters crew also collects microscopic plants and animals called plankton. Like macroinvertebrates, plankton can reveal important information about pollutants because certain species are more sensitive to pollution than others. But plankton goes beyond indicating pollution; it can actually play a role in causing poor water quality.
An Algae Explosion
Nutrients in fertilizers that are spread on farms and lawns can dramatically impact oceans. Fertilizers can wash off the land into streams and spill into the oceans, where they spur the growth of plant plankton, or algae. When algae populations explode, oxygen levels can drop so low that they practically suffocate aquatic life. In 1976, low levels of dissolved oxygen caused a major fish die-off along the New Jersey and New York coasts. New Jersey's coastal waters are still considered impaired because of low dissolved oxygen, which is why EPA monitors those waters so closely.
While out sampling, the crew of the Clean Waters have come across a few surprises â€“ a cell phone pulled up from sediments, for example. But thankfully, the crew is seeing fewer surprises today regarding the health of the water.
"The water quality of this region has improved dramatically since I started working for the agency in 1973," says Randy Braun, chief of EPA Region 2's monitoring operation section, who helps captain the Clean Waters. And with vessels like the Clean Waters, EPA is well-equipped to help monitor and protect water quality far into the future.