November 30, 2001
Final Internship Report on Finding Pollution Sources for Palouse Falls
There are at least two important aspects of making the search for pollution sources for Palouse Falls a successful internship: research and method/skill. I think I have done well with the preparation for data collection and other skills, like keeping up professional contact, which are necessary to this internship, but my avenue of on-line research has not been successful at finding pollution sources for the Palouse River.
One of my contributions to the preparation for data collection has been to help set up and attend meetings with Sandra Cannon. Though she was out of town for most of our internship, she was very useful for determining our priorities. Another important contribution I’ve made towards successfully completing our internship is to maintain contact with Dr. Drabek in the Biology Department. Drabek has been very supportive of us, and offered great advice about the Palouse Falls area and offered some suggestions about maps to look at and routes to take to find water-testing sites. My main objective in working with Drabek was learning how to take water samples and use the Hach kit. During our Hach kit training session we ran through practice tests on tap water samples. Drabek also helped us develop a method for taking water samples. The original plan was to collect samples from public access points on the Palouse River, take the temperature and pH level on site, then transport the samples home and store them in my refrigerator until we could get into the lab to do more nutrient and turbidity tests with Drabek present. Ideally we would have taken the samples on a Sunday and been the lab to test them by Monday. I am glad I learned enough about water testing during this internship to develop such a plan even though we, unfortunately, it actually got to do it. Elizabeth and I, being a junior and senior respectively, ran into more weekend time commitments and scary volumes of homework than I think either of us anticipated for the semester. Working with Sandra and Drabek, I feel I have acquired new skills to work with, and learned a lot about how to plan for taking data.
My on-line and library research, on the other hand, left me rather frustrated for much of the semester. Elizabeth and I decided to play to our strengths when dividing up the work for this internship. She, being the chemistry person, looked at the data that has already been collected by the EPA and other water-quality organizations and web sites. I, being the Biology person, attempted to look at land use maps and web sites for the upper Palouse River and try to determine nonpoint source pollution sites based on their information. I discovered quickly, however, that this is a task better suited to a full time job, than a half-day/week internship. For several weeks I bounced around county, port authority, state, and private industry web sites. Mostly these web sites just wanted to sell things, so information about the environment, even information that could be peripherally related to environmental issues, was limited. Eventually Elizabeth’s research clued me in to look at city waste systems as contributors to water quality. I found a few interesting upper-Palouse city web sites that include information on the city’s effluent management systems, especially for the city of Colfax. Colfax has a sewer system which has parts that are over 70 years old and run underneath the Palouse River in three different locations. I feel that to accurately synthesize this information, though, I would have to know far more about hydrology or, perhaps, have a degree in engineering. I have learned a lot, so far, about how hard tracking down nonpoint source pollution sites is, and how elusive private companies and port authorities are about their impacts on the environment. I was frustrated by the fact that I have did little to further the research goals of our internship through my on-line research, even though I did learn something from the experience.
Something surprising I learned about the river, though, is that a majority of the water in its South Fork is effluent from water treatment plants, and that during the summer the effluent makes up nearly all of the water flow in the South Fork (Green, Munn, Ebbert 1). This is the main place on the river where nutrient levels tested higher than the government says they should. Nevertheless, the same study also noted that the water quality of this effluent is still sufficient quality for its purposes, such as agriculture and a place for fish to live.
The report on Benthic Algae and Nutrients by Green, Munn and Ebbert mentioned only cattle grazing as a specific source of local pollution (2) and fertilizers as accounting for 80% of total P inputs and 83% of total N inputs (8), though I think that fertilizer from timber-harvesting lands, should they exist in the forested area near Laird Park, may contribute to the problem as well. Unfortunately, though, I was not able to find any information about whether or not the Laird Park forest area has harvested timber, which would indicate it may be fertilized heavily to prompt growth of new trees. I found out about the problem of the Forest Service and commercial forests fertilizer, which is rarely pointed to as a culprit for nutrient water pollution but apparently is, according to both my cousin (who lives near very bitter dairy farmers who are tired of being blamed for everything) and from a book called “Eutrophication: Causes, Consequences, Corrections.” This book claims: “Aerial application of fertilizers to forests may inadvertently include direct fertilization of streams” (6). I have not heard of this specific source of nutrient pollution before, but it sounds pretty plausible since an area growing new trees that require fertilizer probably would be pretty bare and easily erodible into streams, which is a well-known avenue for nutrients and sediment to pollute water on the Palouse River. Eutrophication is generally a problem that plagues still waters; it easily could happen in the pool behind the waterfall. Also, I bet most of the Palouse, especially in the agricultural regions, is exposed to the sun, so in addition to possibly having excess levels of the normal limiting nutrients of N and P available, it has all the light that the common eutrophication-causing plants need.
I would definitely recommend that the next interns learn how to use the Hach kits, and that they be the ones to actually take a road trip or two to test the water. They should test the water above and below Colfax, above and below Palouse Falls, near any public-access points along the river in the agricultural land above Palouse Falls and around the forested land of Laird Park. They should also just follow the river as closely as they can and look for areas where cattle and other livestock have access to the river or other fields and pasture that have easy access to the river. This was something we were planning to do when we still though we could take the trip.
The interns next semester should visit the Falls during the spring run-off and spring melts, when there is most likely to be the greatest amount of pollutants in the river. This should happen in February and in late April. In the fall, the interns should go up as soon as possible in September to see what late-summer conditions on the river are, and then in November to see what fall conditions are. I do not think anything further can really be determined on this internship without a year-round data of the water quality at several specific areas. They should be tested, at the very least, for nitrates, nitrites, phosphates, water temperature, turbidity and pH during each visit.
One thing that struck me most in my readings of the documents from the USDA and USDS is that much of the testing indicates that the Palouse River does not have dangerous levels of anything, really. The same for the last internship report- there were are not “problematic” levels of anything that was tested at the Falls, yet both they and Sandra said “yuk! This place is gross!” Is the problem mainly seasonal? That’s not unusual for rivers. Though the official papers Elizabeth was sent by the government seemed pretty thorough, and looked very nice, a common theme running through them is that there are very few sites that have had continuous, long-term testing. For instance, the Benthic Algae and Nutrient paper mentions that there is “only one site on the river with long-term flow and water quality data available for the model input are available” (8). One testing site with a long-term history of water quality does not seem like enough to me. Also, though the government tests were conducted all through the river basin, none were taken at Palouse Falls. Perhaps because it has a pool above and below it where the water may be more stagnant than in the rest of the river, there are different conditions, like eutrophication, that affect the Falls and not the rest of the river. I think the lack of long-term or continuous testing on the river may account for the difference between what studies conclude and what the Palouse Falls Basin looks like, apparently.
I learned valuable lessons about strategies for tracking down non-point pollution sources. The main lesson is: look for papers and studies, don’t expect non-academic web sites to tell you anything unless you already have some very specific questions in mind. Of course I was frustrated about time commitments. I think the internship should be either mainly fieldwork or mainly reading-research. I think that if the next interns get into the field early for testing and observation, they will probably be inspired to do the other research anyway, and they may be more efficient at it because they will probably have a good idea of what they are looking for.
Ebbert and R. Dennis Roe. “Soil Erosion in the Palouse River Basin: Indications of Improvement” USGS, U.S. Department of the Interior, USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service. U.S. Government Printing Office. 1998.
Greene, Munn and James C. Ebbert. “Nutrients, Benthic Algae, and Stream Quality During Low Streamflow in the Palouse River Basin, Washington and Idaho”
National Academy of Sciences. Eutrophication: Causes, Consequences, Correctives. Washington D.C., Printing and Publishing Office the National Academy of Sciences: 1969.
Wagner, and Lonna M. Roberts. “Pesticides and Volatile Organic Compounds in Surface and Ground Water of the Palouse Subunit, Central Columbia Plateau, Washington and Idaho, 1993-1995”
Website for the City of Colfax sewer system: http://www.ci.colfax.wa.us/public%20works/SewerSystem.htm
Website for the City of Pullman: http://www.ci.pullman.wa.us
Website for Columbia County: http://www.palouse.org/columbia.htm
Website of the EPA: http://www.epa.gov
Website for industrial and commercial ports of the Palouse: http://www.palouse.org/whitman.htm
Website for maps of Washington State: http://www.wamaps.com
Website for the McGregor Chemical Company: http://www.mcgregoreq.com
Website for the Palouse Economic Council: http://www.palouse.org/edclist.htm
Website for pesticide-use Map: http://water.usgs.gov/pubs (look under pesticides)