NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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In Oregon, an Innovative Approach to Building Riverfront Property for Fish and Wildlife

This is a post by Robert Neely of NOAA’s Office of Response Restoration.

Something interesting is happening on the southern tip of Sauvie Island, located on Oregon’s Willamette River, a few miles downstream from the heart of Portland. Construction is once again underway along the river’s edge in an urban area where riverfront property typically is prized as a location for luxury housing, industrial activities, and maritime commerce. But this time, something is different.

This project will not produce a waterfront condominium complex, industrial facility, or marina. And as much as it may look like a typical construction project today, the results of all this activity will look quite different from much of what currently exists along the shores of the lower Willamette River from Portland to the Columbia River.

Indeed, when the dust settles, the site will be transformed into a home and resting place for non-human residents and visitors. Of course, I’m not referring to alien life forms, but rather to the fish, birds, mammals, and other organisms that have existed in and around the Willamette River since long before humans set up home and shop here. Yet in the last century, humans have substantially altered the river and surrounding lands, and high-quality habitat is now a scarce commodity for many stressed critters that require it for their survival.

On the site of a former lumber mill, the Alder Creek Restoration Project is the first habitat restoration project [PDF] that will be implemented specifically to benefit fish and wildlife affected by contamination in the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. The project, managed by a habitat development company called Wildlands, will provide habitat for salmon, lamprey, mink, bald eagle, osprey, and other native fish and wildlife living in Portland Harbor.

Mink at a river's edge.

The Alder Creek Restoration Project will benefit Chinook salmon, mink, and other fish and wildlife living in Portland Harbor. (Roy W. Lowe)

Habitat will be restored by removing buildings and fill from the floodplain, reshaping the riverbanks, and planting native trees and shrubs. The project will create shallow water habitat to provide resting and feeding areas for young salmon and lamprey and foraging for birds. In addition, the construction at Alder Creek will restore beaches and wetlands to provide access to water and food for mink and forests to provide shelter and nesting opportunities for native birds.

Driving this project is a Natural Resource Damage Assessment conducted by the Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustee Council to quantify natural resource losses resulting from industrial contamination of the river with the toxic compounds PCBs, the pesticide DDT, oil compounds known as PAHs, and other hazardous substances. The services, or benefits from nature, provided by the Alder Creek Restoration Project—such as healthy habitat, clean water, and cultural value—will help make up for the natural resources that were lost over time because of contamination.

Young Chinook salmon on river bottom.

Fish and wildlife species targeted for restoration include salmon (such as the juvenile Chinook salmon pictured here), lamprey, sturgeon, bald eagle, osprey, spotted sandpiper, and mink. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Wildlands purchased the land in order to create and implement an early restoration project. This “up-front” approach to restoration allows for earlier implementation of projects that provide restored habitat to injured species sooner, placing those species on a trajectory toward recovery. The service credits—ecological and otherwise—that will be generated by this new habitat will be available for purchase by parties that have liability for the environmental and cultural losses calculated in the damage assessment.

Thus when a party reaches an agreement with the Trustee Council regarding the amount of their liability, they can resolve it by purchasing restoration credits from Wildlands. And Wildlands, as the seller of restoration credits, recoups the financial investment it made to build the project. Finally, and most importantly, a substantial piece of land with tremendous potential value for the fish, birds, and other wildlife of the lower Willamette River has been locked in as high-quality habitat and thus protected from future development for other, less ecologically friendly purposes.

Robert NeelyRobert Neely is an environmental scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration. He has experience in ocean and coastal management, brownfields revitalization, Ecological Risk Assessment, and Natural Resource Damage Assessment. He started with NOAA in 1998 and has worked for the agency in Charleston, South Carolina; Washington, DC; New Bedford, Massachusetts; and Seattle, Washington, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He’s been working with his co-trustees at Portland Harbor since 2005.


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Watch Art Explain What Kind of Habitat Young Salmon Need to Thrive

Illustration from video of two salmon swimming by tree roots.What do young salmon need to grow into the kind of big, healthy adult salmon enjoyed by people as well as bears, seals, and other wildlife? A recent collaboration between NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Northwest College of Arts makes the answer come to life in a beautiful animation by artists Beryl Allee and John Summerson.

Watch the intersection of art and science as we follow young salmon happily swimming through the cool, shallow waters along a shore. We see the bits of wood, tangled tree roots, and scattered rocks that provide these fish with both insects to eat and protection from predators.

But what happens when a home or business shows up along the water’s edge? How do people remake the shoreline? What kind of environment does this create for those same little salmon?

NOAA partnered with the Pacific Northwest College of Arts to create this moving and educational tool to raise awareness among waterfront landowners and the general public about how the decisions we make affect endangered salmon. In particular, NOAA wanted to address the practice of “armoring,” or using physical structures such as rocks and concrete to protect shorelines from coastal erosion. As we can see in the animation, armored shorelines do not make for happy, healthy young salmon.

Illustration from animation of a sad fish and an armored shoreline.

However, alternatives to armoring shorelines with hard materials are emerging. They include using plants and organic materials to stabilize the shores while also preserving or creating the kind of habitat young salmon need.

Creating better habitat for fish is often the goal of NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP). When we determine that fish were harmed after an oil spill or hazardous chemical release, we, with the help of a range of partners and the public, identify and implement restoration projects to make up for this harm.

Take a look at a few examples in which we built better habitat for salmon:

Beaver Creek, Oregon

A tanker truck carrying gasoline overturned on scenic Highway 26 through central Oregon in 1999, spilling 5,000 gallons of gasoline into Beaver Butte Creek and impacting steelhead trout and Chinook salmon. Working with the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and other partners, we have helped implement five restoration projects. They range from adding large wood to stream banks to provide fish habitat to installing two beaver dam–mimicking structures to improve water quality.

White River, Washington

In 2006 a system failure sent 18,000 gallons of diesel into creeks and wetlands important to endangered Chinook salmon around Washington’s White River. To improve and expand habitat for these salmon, NOAA and our partners removed roadfill and added large pieces of wood (“logjams”) along the edges of the nearby Greenwater River. This restoration project will help slow and redirect the river’s straight, fast-moving currents, creating deep pools for salmon to feed and hide from predators and allowing some of the river water to overflow into slower, shallower tributaries perfect for spawning salmon.

Adak, Alaska

On the remote island of Adak in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, a tanker overfilled an underground storage tank in 2010. This resulted in up to 142,800 gallons of diesel eventually flowing into the nearby salmon stream, Helmet Creek. Pink salmon and Dolly Varden trout were particularly affected. In 2013 NOAA and our partners restored fish passage to the creek, improved habitat and water quality, made stream flow and channel improvements, and removed at least a dozen 55-gallon drums from the creek bed and banks.

You can also watch a video to learn how NOAA is restoring recreationally and commercially important fish through a variety of projects in the northeast United States.


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Transforming an Oregon Watershed, Once Marred by a Gasoline Spill, into Fish-Friendly Habitat

This is a post by the NOAA Restoration Center’s Lauren Senkyr.

The Warm Springs Reservation in central Oregon is a vast, solitary, and beautiful place. Stretching out from the southeastern flanks of Mt. Hood, the reservation is home to members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon. The reservation is bisected by one of Oregon’s most scenic roads, Highway 26. Driving down this road on a hot and dry summer day, you’ll see the rich, dark forest transition to sagebrush steppe and high desert. You’ll see hazy mountains in the distance, with creeks meandering across the foreground. Today, you’d never know a tanker truck ran off this idyllic road in 1999, spilling more than 5,000 gallons of gasoline into Beaver Butte Creek, just above where it meets Beaver Creek.

The spill impacted Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, and other fish and wildlife that lived in or downstream of Beaver Butte Creek. It killed the plants and contaminated the soil around the creek as well. Cleanup efforts began immediately. A trustee council was formed to assess the environmental damages and plan for restoration. The council included representatives of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Using funds from the settlement with the company responsible for the spill, the Trustees have chosen a range of restoration projects to improve conditions for steelhead trout and Chinook salmon throughout the Beaver Creek watershed. The restoration plan focuses on steelhead in particular because they are an endangered species, already on the brink of extinction.

In addition to the gasoline spill, there are a variety of other factors that have degraded the once-abundant natural resources on the Warm Springs Reservation. Logging and human-caused changes to the natural regime of wildfires have transformed the forests. Roads and development have relocated, and in some cases, blocked streams. Wild horses and cattle have packed down the soils and reduced vegetative cover, increasing erosion along the stream banks.

The first restoration project to offset impacts from the gasoline spill took shape in 2011. Since then, four more projects have been built, ranging from riparian fencing to road removal. There are more to come. With a creative and thoughtful approach, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and the other trustees are stretching the settlement dollars by leveraging them with other funding sources to provide the greatest benefit to injured fish and wildlife.  Here are some of the highlights:

Red Lake, Happy Valley, and Quartz Creek Riparian Fencing Projects

The problem: Wild horses and free-roaming cattle. These large animals eat plants along the creeks and stomp down the dirt on the stream banks and floodplains, increasing erosion and degrading water quality.

The solution: Fencing. So far we have installed four miles of fence along stream banks, protecting 150 acres of riparian (stream-side) habitat throughout the Beaver Creek Watershed while also helping ranchers manage their livestock. An added benefit of the fencing projects?  Providing employment to 15 tribal members. That’s what we call a win-win.

S512 Large Wood Project and S501 Road Removal Project

The problem: Simplified streams that don’t provide good habitat for fish. Logging, road building, and other types of development have removed trees from the areas near streams, where the trees normally would fall into the creeks and provide nooks and crannies for fish to hide in and eat bugs.

The solution: Adding large wood to the stream to give fish places to hide, rest, and eat. In some cases we have also decommissioned old, abandoned logging roads and planted them with native trees and shrubs so that, eventually, nature can take over the work.

Quartz Creek Stream Restoration

The problem: Streams that have eroded so badly they now have 20-foot-high banks that are completely disconnected from the floodplain. The eroding stream banks release small landslides of fine dirt into the stream, making the water cloudy and covering the gravel that salmon need to spawn.

The solution: Think like a beaver. This year the Tribe plans to install two beaver dam–mimicking structures on Quartz Creek to help dam up the water and catch eroding dirt as it is moving downstream. Hopefully, actual beavers eventually will move back into the creek and continue this work.

Lauren SenkyrLauren Senkyr is a Habitat Restoration Specialist with NOAA’s Restoration Center.  Based out of Portland, Ore., she works on restoration planning and community outreach for the Portland Harbor Superfund site as well as other habitat restoration efforts throughout the state of Oregon.


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Digging for Data at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium

This is a post by NOAA Environmental Scientist Dr. Amy Merten.

View of Kruzof Island, Sitka Sound, Alaska.

The ShoreZone project photographs, maps, and collects information about Pacific Northwest shorelines, like in this view of Kruzof Island, Sitka Sound, Alaska. (NOAA Fisheries)

As Chief of the Spatial Data Branch in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, my focus is all about data. In particular, that means figuring out how to access data related to oil spills: the type of information useful for planning before a spill and for the response, environmental injury assessment, and restoration after a spill. Once we get that data, which often comes from other science agencies, universities, and industry, we can then ingest it into Arctic ERMA®, NOAA’s online mapping tool for environmental disaster data. While at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium this week, I have spent much of my time working with experts who provide and manage that kind of data.

For example, the Alaska Ocean Observing System (AOOS) provides real-time and historical coastal data to multiple stakeholders, including NOAA for Arctic ERMA. AOOS is also the host for the newly signed data-sharing agreement [PDF] between NOAA and three oil companies (Shell, ConocoPhillips, and StatOil). These companies have agreed to share the physical oceanographic, geological, and biological data they have been collecting near areas of Arctic offshore oil and gas activities since 2009. This is an unprecedented amount of data that the industry now is sharing with the federal government and the public. The data are available at www.aoos.org.

A view of Anchorage from the Alaska Marine Science Symposium.

A view of Anchorage from the Alaska Marine Science Symposium. (NOAA)

My colleague and our Arctic ERMA geographic information system (GIS) expert, Zach Winters-Staszak, attended the Arctic Mapping Workshop sponsored by our partners at the University of Alaska Fairbanks GINA program. Their geographic information network gives us access to high-resolution base maps, imagery, high frequency radar, ice radar, webcams, and more.  Zach learned about new data sets and new ways for pulling high impact data into Arctic ERMA.

Another helpful information source I learned more about was NOAA’s ShoreZone project.  ShoreZone [PDF] is a popular Pacific Northwest dataset of high-resolution aerial videos and photographs of the shoreline in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon at extreme low tide. The photos and videos are augmented with habitat classifications of the different zones along the shoreline, such as salt marsh or kelp beds. We already pull in ShoreZone data layers into our Arctic and Pacific Northwest ERMA sites.

These data are valuable for preparedness and response to oil spills and for understanding places where oil and marine debris may accumulate naturally. It’s especially useful for understanding what the shoreline might look like before going out to survey for signs of oil or marine debris accumulation. It can help you decide how you’re going to access the shore (boat, helicopter, on foot) and what you might expect to find. ShoreZone surveyed the Kotzebue and North Slope regions of the Alaskan Arctic this past summer, which we’re excited to draw into Arctic ERMA when they are available.

Read more about Arctic ERMA and our plans for this environmental data tool.

Amy Merten with kids from Kivalina, Alaska.

Dr. Amy Merten is pictured here with children from the Alaskan village of Kivalina. She was in Alaska for an oil spill workshop in the village of Kotzebue.

Amy Merten is the Spatial Data Branch Chief in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Amy developed the concept for the online mapping tool ERMA (Environmental Response Mapping Application). ERMA was developed in collaboration with the University of New Hampshire. She expanded the ERMA team at NOAA to fill response and natural resource trustee responsibilities during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Amy oversees data management of the resulting oil spill damage assessment. She received her doctorate and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland.


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Government of Japan Gifts NOAA $5 Million to Address Tsunami Marine Debris

A 66-foot floating dock from Japan sits on Agate Beach, Oregon.

A 66-foot dock sits on Agate Beach, Oregon. Debris of all different sizes and types from the March 2011 tsunami in Japan has washed ashore in the United States. (Oregon Dept. of Parks and Recreation)

On November 30, 2012, the Government of Japan announced a gift of $5 million to the United States, through NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, to support efforts in response to marine debris washing ashore in the U.S. from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The funds will be used to support marine debris response efforts, such as removal of debris, disposal fees, cleanup supplies, detection and monitoring. NOAA anticipates distributing funds to affected regions as the funds are received from Japan and will work to determine immediate needs and plan for future applications.

Since the disaster, NOAA has been leading efforts with federal, state and local partners to coordinate a response, collect data, assess the debris, and reduce possible impacts to natural resources and coastal communities.

Debris from the disaster has drifted across the Pacific and reached shorelines in the U.S. and Canada. In July, NOAA provided $50,000 each to Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and California to support response efforts.

Items from the tsunami that have drifted to U.S. shores include sports balls, a floating dock, buoys, and vessels. Mariners and the public can help report debris by emailing DisasterDebris@noaa.gov with information on significant sightings.


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What to Do If You Find Marine Debris from the Japan Tsunami

Midway Atoll beach with fishing float.

During a recent trip to Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, NOAA Marine Debris Program staff, in partnership with the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, examined the beaches for significant or unusual marine debris items, which may be related to the Japan tsunami. None were found. (NOAA Marine Debris Program/Carey Morishige)

Ever since the first few items—an unmanned fishing boat, a childhood soccer ball—from the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami began turning up in North America, people have been asking what they should do if they find something themselves.

If you see small, disposable debris, such as bottles, aluminum, or Styrofoam, remove it from the beach and recycle or dispose of it properly.

If you suspect that the marine debris you found may be from the Japan tsunami (which is very difficult to tell), let us know! Email DisasterDebris@noaa.gov to report it to the NOAA Marine Debris Program, with as much information as possible.

You can view a NOAA map [PDF] (generated using our nifty ERMA® tool) of all of the debris possibly related to the tsunami reported to NOAA since December 2011. This includes both potential and confirmed tsunami marine debris sightings, and we provide close-up maps [PDF] for each of the Pacific coast states as well. However, out of hundreds of sightings, only 10 have confirmed connections to the Japan tsunami.

Some pieces of marine debris may be too big (for example, a 66 foot long concrete dock) or too hazardous to handle. In this case, leave the debris alone (it could be a safety risk) and report it to the local authorities, depending on where you live.

If you are in Oregon, you can find dozens of designated disposal stations along Oregon beaches where you can drop off bags of tsunami debris. And, the state of Oregon says, “If you see debris larger than what you can put in a bag—tires, refrigerators, and so on—don’t bring it to the disposal station. Report its location by calling 211 (1-800-SAFENET).”

For Washington residents, you can call 1-855-WACOAST (or 1-855-922-6278) to report oil, hazardous items, floating debris items that might pose a boating or navigation hazard to the National Response Center and Washington Department of Ecology. They will also give instructions for reporting debris that is not large or hazardous.

If an item you find appears to have sentimental value to its previous owner, we ask that you move the item to a safe place and email us details at DisasterDebris@noaa.gov. The NOAA Marine Debris Program website has a full set of guidelines for how to handle different types of debris. And the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has a similar handy pocket guide [PDF] for when you may be combing the beach for debris.

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