From Puget Sound to Everest: water quality studies may aid climbers

Lake at Gorak Shep. This is the current water source as other sources are frozen at the moment. Buildings of Gorak Shep, Tawoche, Cholatse, and Lobuche in the background.

Lake at Gorak Shep. This is the current water source as other sources are frozen at the moment. Buildings of Gorak Shep, Tawoche, Cholatse, and Lobuche in the background. Photo courtesy

Scientists at PSI and the Center for Urban Waters have taken their research to the highest place on earth. The same techniques used to analyze water quality in Puget Sound are being applied at Everest base camp.

Water samples were collected on the mountain and sent back to PSI researchers Andy James and Justin Miller-Schulze as part of a study on potential human impacts on drinking water. New techniques can identify chemical tracers known as CECs that indicate human sources.

CEC stands for “contaminants of emerging concern,” and the area’s more than 4 million residents inadvertently flush them into Puget Sound every day. They include hundreds—if not thousands—of food additives, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals that pass through leaky septic tanks and wastewater treatment plants. Their impacts on the environment are unknown, but scientists have started using these compounds to trace and identify human sources of pollution.

Miller-Schulze and James were studying the occurrence of CECs like caffeine and ibuprofen that can serve as markers for bacterial pollution from human waste—the equivalent of a human fingerprint at the scene of a crime (or broken sewer main). New techniques can effectively trace these compounds in concentrations as small as the parts per trillion, and far exceed the accuracy of standard tests for E. coli and other bacteria.

Last summer, a team of Seattle-based engineers heard about this work and contacted PSI with an unusual request. Could some of these same analytical techniques be applied to other parts of the globe, in particular to one of the world’s most famous climbing destinations?

Just a bit of the rubbish collected from basecamp and Gorak Shep being burned and processed for transport to lower altitude.

Just a bit of the rubbish collected from basecamp and Gorak Shep being burned and processed for transport to lower altitude. Photo courtesy

The engineers were led by climbers Gary Porter and Dan Mazur who had become alarmed by increasing pollution in the Everest region and were working to improve environmental conditions at the local villages. Once a pristine outpost, Everest base camp now draws thousands of climbers and trekkers, along with mounting garbage and human waste.

Each year, Sherpas haul more than 12 metric tons of human feces from staging areas around Everest to the village of Gorak Shep. Without a modern sanitation system, much of this waste is simply tossed into open pits and may now be finding its way into local drinking water. Tests sponsored by the National Science Foundation in 2012 showed high levels of fecal contamination in one of the village’s major water sources.

Mila Rai and Tenji Sherpa sampling water at the reservoir in Lobuche Village, below Gorak Shep. Photo courtesy

Mila Rai and Tenji Sherpa sampling water at the reservoir in Lobuche Village, below Gorak Shep. Photo courtesy

The water was clearly tainted, but it was difficult to prove how it got that way. Was the contamination from the many human visitors, or some other source? Perhaps a preponderance of yaks and other livestock in the nearby villages? Standard tests weren’t definitive, and that’s where PSI came in.

Miller-Schulze and James had been doing the same type of research to identify leaky septic tanks in Puget Sound, and the techniques they used for Everest were similar. Last November, a group of climbers and Sherpas gathered samples and shipped them back to the PSI labs at the Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma. The water was full of chemicals that could only have come from achy humans.

“One of the sample sites had levels of Tylenol and ibuprofen comparable to measurements we have made right at the outlets of septic tanks in Kitsap County,” says Miller-Schulze, who did the chemical analysis. “The fact that we are seeing these high levels of anthropogenic drugs reinforces that the source is human.”

For James, an environmental engineer working on new ways to identify pollution sources, the Everest project was a chance to come full circle. A climber himself, he had visited the region years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer and had seen first hand the concentrated levels of tourism there. “Hopefully, climbers and tourists will start taking more responsibility for sanitary conditions on the mountain,” he said. “These studies are a clear demonstration that they are having an impact.”

Gorak Shep on a snowy sunny day in November. In background are Cholatse, West Ridge of Everest, Everest Summit, and Nuptse.

Gorak Shep on a snowy sunny day in November. In background are Cholatse, West Ridge of Everest, Everest Summit, and Nuptse. Photo courtesy

The project presented some unique challenges. The great distance from the sampling source to the lab meant longer storage times. To minimize degradation, the researchers opted to freeze the samples. That wasn’t difficult on a mountain of ice, but other logistical challenges were harder to overcome. Mailing the samples would have been extremely expensive and impractical, so they were carried by hand, and eventually by plane from base camp all the way to Seattle.

Miller-Schulze cautioned that the initial sample size was small, coming from only four sources, and that the length of time that the samples had to be stored makes them less accurate. However, he said degradation would only lead to fainter readings, not false positives. Concentrations of contaminants would likely be higher at sample sites. The team expects to receive more samples from climbers in March.

The volunteer engineers who approached PSI hope to use the findings to bolster the case for the installation of a biogas waste digester system near Everest base camp. The system would convert the waste into methane gas for cooking fuel for local villagers. The PSI scientists for their part hope to take what they learned and apply it to their work at Sound Citizen, a citizen science program that identifies human-originated compounds such as caffeine and cooking spices in the waters of Puget Sound. The two researchers are also working to identify emerging contaminants that might be harmful to Puget Sound wildlife.

View more photos of some of the sampling work, and read a draft report of the findings.

Read an article in National Geographic about pollution on Mount Everest.


Reducing the risk of PCBs in sediments

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) were banned in the 1970s, but continue to persist in sediments at the bottom of Puget Sound. A vestige of earlier use and improper disposal, they remain among the most toxic pollutants in local waters, are implicated in the decline of the region’s endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population, and are at the heart of the current debate about fish consumption rates in the Pacific Northwest.  Cleaning up PCB-contaminated sediments such as those found in the Duwamish Waterway in Seattle is an expensive and often contentious issue.  Traditional dredging and capping operation may not reduce the risk from PCBs to levels required by law or acceptable to the local communities.

Southern Resident Killer Whales in Puget Sound. Credit: NOAA

PCBs are leading culprits in the decline of Southern Resident Killer Whales in Puget Sound. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

A paper in the journal Water Research sheds new light on a novel ‘in place’ treatment option that effectively lowers risk by reducing the activity of PCBs in the sediment.  The paper, co-authored by PSI director Joel Baker shows how adding granulated activated carbon (GAC) affects bacterial dechlorination of PCBs in Baltimore Harbor, which “has the potential to promote greater degradation [of PCBs] in situ.”

Read the full paper:

B.V. Kjellerup, C. Naff, S.J. Edwards, U. Ghosh, J.E. Baker, K.R. Sowers. 2014. Effects of activated carbon on reductive dechlorination of PCBs by organohalide respiring
bacteria indigenous to sediments. Water Research.

Read more about the effects of PCBs in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.


New approaches to ecosystem synthesis

SSECLogoIs technology changing the way we think about ecosystem information? PSI’s Encyclopedia of Puget Sound will host a two-part session on new approaches to ecosystem synthesis at this spring’s Salish Sea conference.

Presentations will run the gamut from demonstrations of visualization software to wiki-based conceptual models. The session will conclude with a 30-minute panel discussion featuring Joel Baker, University of Washington Puget Sound Institute, Rob Fatland of Microsoft Research, Amy Merten of NOAA’s Office of response and Restoration, Ian Perry of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Charles Simenstad, University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

The conference will be held April 30 – May 2, 2014 at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle. Read more.


Updated habitat classifications for Puget Sound

The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound will feature updates to A marine and Estuarine Habitat Classification System for Washington State.

The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound will feature updates to A Marine and Estuarine Habitat Classification System for Washington State.

Species and their habitats are a foundation of the ecosystem framework, but there is currently no generally agreed upon habitat classification system for Puget Sound. The closest thing for its marine and nearshore environments may be Dr. Megan Dethier’s 1990 resource A Marine and Estuarine Habitat Classification System for Washington State.

Much of the work for that document was done in the general vicinity of Puget Sound, and it has been an influential resource for major habitat mapping efforts in the region, such as Shorezone.

Last year, PSI’s Encyclopedia of Puget Sound  commissioned Dr. Dethier to update some of the diagnostic species and “common associates”—the species you are likely to find in a given habitat—from this resource. Encyclopedia of Puget Sound topic editor Si Simenstad also contributed new information for area fish distributions. 

These species and their descriptions will be linked to habitat maps, and we have started adding Dethier’s individual habitat descriptions to pages within the Encyclopedia. As far as we know, it’s the first time these classifications have been placed into a relational database. Stay tuned as we develop these sections. [Editor’s note: Habitat descriptions are now available.]


The importance of synthesis to disaster planning and response

Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 2010. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 2010. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

The U.S. government spends billions on disaster relief every year—$136 billion between 2011 and 2013 alone—but one crucial area tends to be overlooked. There are often major gaps in the scientific understanding of the environments in question.

When disasters hit, responders must often play catch up, using valuable time assessing prior ecological conditions or pulling together scattered sources of information.

In a recent paper in the Washington Journal of Environmental Law & Policy, Center for Urban Waters Distinguished Scientist in Residence Usha Varanasi proposes a new model for disaster-planning and response, in which baseline ecosystem data and syntheses are collected in advance of possible incidents. She calls it “frontloading the science,” and you can download the paper at the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.


Varanasi, Usha (2013), Making Science Useful in Complex Political and Legal Arenas: A Case for Frontloading Science in Anticipation of Environmental Changes to Support Natural Resource Laws and Policies, Washington Journal of Environmental Law & Policy, Vol. 3, Number 2.


PSI report examines selection of near-term actions in Island County

Local communities play an important role in the development of the state’s Action Agenda for Puget Sound recovery. The Puget Sound Partnership has established a series of Local Integrating Organizations (LIOs) in nine geographic regions to help establish conservation priorities. A 2014 report from the Puget Sound Institute looks at this process as it occurred in the Island County region. Continue reading


Social Science and Monitoring Needs for Puget Sound Recovery

Social scientists will monitor several of the Puget Sound Partership's "Vital Signs" including Healthy Human Population and Human Quality of Life.

Social scientists will monitor several of the Puget Sound Partership’s “Vital Signs” including Healthy Human Population and Human Quality of Life.

A PSI report released in January describes a recent workshop to integrate the social sciences into Puget Sound ecosystem monitoring. Future work will focus in part on several of the Puget Sound Partnership’s designated ecosystem indicators, including categories such as Healthy Human Population and Human Quality of Life.

Read the full report on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. 


New Puget Sound Science Panel members announced

The Puget Sound Leadership Council has appointed four new members to the Puget Sound Science Panel, including two Canadian scientists. Ian Perry of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Terre Satterfield of the University of British Columbia join Nives Dolsak and Tim Essington of the University of Washington. Bill Labiosa was re-appointed. Their terms extend to November 2017.

medium_nives_delo_velikaNives Dolšak is Associate Professor at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs (University of Washington Seattle campus) and School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences (Bothell campus). She is also a Visiting Associate Professor at the Faculty of Economics, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Her research examines institutional challenges in governing common pool resources at multiple levels of aggregation. She has co-edited two volumes:  “The Drama of the Commons”(National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council’s Committee on Human Dimensions of Global Change); and  “The Commons in the New Millennium: Challenges and Adaptation”, co-edited with Professor Elinor Ostrom (the MIT Press)

Her other published work examines national level global climate change mitigation; media coverage and its impact on climate change legislative agenda in the U.S. states; the impact of civil society in environmental policy in transitional economies; the link between donors’ commercial interests and the location of environmental aid projects; the impact of voting in international environmental regimes on bilateral aid allocations; applicability and political feasibility of tradable permits in common-pool resource management.

Nives holds a BA in Economics from the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and a Joint Ph.D. from the School of Public & Environmental Affairs and Department of Political Science Indiana University, Bloomington.

medium_essingtonTim Essington in a professor and Associate Director at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, and the Director of the Quantitative Ecology and Resource Management Interdisciplinary Research Program. His research is directed at better understanding human effects on marine food webs and ecosystems and evaluating effectiveness of alternative regulatory and policy actions.

He works in diverse ecosystems, ranging from estuaries to coastal and open oceans, and uses a wide range of quantitative tools to evaluate how ecological systems respond to fishing and other disturbances.

medium_billLaBill Labiosa has worked as a Research Physical Scientist with USGS since 2001, specializing in watershed/ecosystems management decision analysis and decision support. He has extensive ecological experience and knowledge of Puget Sound serving as the project manager and PI for the Puget Sound Ecosystem Portfolio Model project – a model-based evaluation of ecosystem services and metrics of human well-being as influenced by land use change and regional-scale coastal anthropogenic modifications.

Prior to working for USGS, he worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water in Washington, D.C.

medium_Ian_Perry-photo-241x300Ian Perry is a research scientist with Fisheries & Oceans Canada, at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, BC, Canada. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., and has taught courses on fisheries oceanography at universities in Canada, Chile, and Portugal. Dr. Perry currently heads the Ecosystem Approaches Program at the Pacific Biological Station, and was one of two co-leads for the DFO Strait of Georgia Ecosystem Research Initiative. His research expertise includes the effects of the environment on finfish and invertebrates; the structure and function of marine ecosystems; ecosystem-based approaches to the management of marine resources; the human dimensions of marine ecosystem changes; and scientific leadership of international and inter-governmental programs on marine ecosystems and global change. In addition, he is a former Chair of the international Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics (GLOBEC) program, whose goal was to understand how global changes affect the abundance, diversity and productivity of marine populations, and is a former Chief Scientist and Chair of the Science Board for the North Pacific Marine Science Organization (PICES). He is a past Editor for the scientific journal Fisheries Oceanography, is presently a Subject Editor for the journal Ecology and Society, and is a member of the Editorial Boards for Fisheries OceanographyCurrent Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, and Journal of Marine Systems. In 2008, Dr. Perry received the Fisheries and Oceans Canada Assistant Deputy Minister’s Distinction Award, as well as the Fisheries and Oceans Canada Prix d’Excellence.

medium_Terre-300x227Terre Satterfield is an interdisciplinary social scientist; professor of culture, risk and the environment; and director of the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

Her research concerns sustainable thinking and action in the context of environmental assessment and decision making. She studies natural resource controversies; culture and cultural ecosystem services; and the perceived risk of new technologies. She has worked primarily on tensions between indigenous communities and the state and/or regulatory dilemmas regarding new technologies.

Her work has been published in journals such as: Nature; Global Environmental Change; Ecological Applications, Ecology and Society; Journal of Environmental Management; Biosciences; Society and Natural Resources; Land Economics; Science and Public Policy; Ecological Economics; Environmental Values; and Risk Analysis. Her books include: The Anatomy of a Conflict: Emotion, Knowledge and Identity in Old Growth Forests; What’s Nature Worth? (with Scott Slovic); and The Earthscan Reader in Environmental Values (with Linda Kalof).