From the Director This newsletter is a bit word-heavy, even for us --but I think the content will be well worth your time and effort. We’ll try to make the next issue a bit lighter. The overriding theme of this issue is the relationship between science and society.
Some time ago, Peter Maille (CI’s Outreach Coordinator) suggested writing an introductory article for our Science and Society essays that explore the interface of science and public policy. It sounded at the time like a reasonable, if not terrifically exciting, thing to do. The result of his efforts is, however, anything but pedantic. I’ve found it provides a fascinating lens for looking at the way science is used and misused in the political process--particularly the section on arguments. I hope you enjoy Peter’s essay—“Understanding Science”— as much as I have. I would love to hear your comments.
It would be hard to pick a topic that more perfectly illustrates the issues highlighted in Peter’s essay than David Malakoff’s title piece: Can the Poop Detectives Solve a Pollution Mystery? I’ve been talking with David, long-time Board member and one-time Director of CI, about the bacteria source tracking issue for several years. The article you read here is based on an article David wrote for the March 29, 2002 issue of the prestigious journal Science. Work on the identification of bacteria sources is being conducted in WV by the U.S. Geological Survey in Berkeley County and the WV Department of Agriculture throughout the Potomac region, making knowledge of this subject highly relevant for people who care about water quality in our rivers and groundwater. Many thanks to James Eychaner and Donald Stoeckel of the USGS for their constructive comments.
In this issue, we introduce a new interview series entitled “Our Rivers in 20 Years” with a sampling of comments from two people in the business of protecting our environment — Jeremy Muller of the WV Rivers Coalition and Grant County Sanitarian Robert Livingston. To read these and other interviews in their entirety, or to join the debate by answering the questions yourself, please click here. WNG
by David Malakoff
Who done it?
That’s the question mystery writers have posed for decades. Now, clean water specialists are asking it too. Which animals—from chickens and cows to deer and people—produce the fecal matter that is washing into and polluting the Cacapon and thousands of other rivers around the world? And just as in a novel, the water specialists are calling in some savvy detectives to track down the culprits: an emerging breed of scientific sleuths armed with the latest tools for tracking riverborne fecal pollution back to its source.
Solving this mystery, however, will have major real-world economic impacts. Judges have ordered government officials to develop realistic plans for cleaning up fecal pollution problems in many waterways. But without accurate information on the sources of the problem, money might be wasted attacking the wrong problems. Along the Cacapon, for instance, it isn’t always clear if cows, chickens, people, or wildlife produce the problematic poop that sometimes enters the river—meaning it sometimes isn’t clear if cleanup efforts should focus on fencing livestock from the river, repairing faulty septic systems, or other activities.
To reduce that uncertainty, some microbiologists—let’s call them the Poop Detectives—are developing new methods for tracking down the sources of the potentially harmful bacteria carried in fecal matter. But while many of the methods show promise, the infant science of microbial source tracking (MST) is beset by growing pains. Researchers have yet to agree on standard methods, and there is plenty of debate over the soundness of certain approaches and the interpretation of findings—including data from rivers right here in the Appalachians.
Luckily, help may be on the way. Earlier this year, scientists backed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report that calls for a sustained nationwide study to test, compare, and improve tracking methods. And some of the earliest studies include rivers and wells in West Virginia and Virginia, and could produce findings that will help eventually help the Cacapon Institute solve the Cacapon’s fecal pollution problem, which can occasionally cause its waters to become unsafe for water contact recreation such as swimming and boating.
Stopping the fingerpointing.
For decades, public health officials have measured water quality by monitoring levels of fecal coliforms, bacteria that live in animal guts and survive in the environment when expelled along with feces. Although the coliforms may not cause disease, they can be accompanied by a rogue's gallery of pathogens -- including microbes that cause hepatitis, cholera, and gastrointestinal illnesses. As a result, state officials routinely close swimming areas, wells, and shellfish beds when fecal coliform counts rise above certain levels. In West Virginia, for instance, surface waters are considered unsafe for recreation when fecal coliform counts rise above 400 cells per 100 ml, as sometimes happens along the Cacapon during rainy periods that wash fecal matter into the river.
Unfortunately, rules that regulate fecal counts don’t always keep waterways clean. Although modern sewage treatment has eradicated many of the worst problems, EPA estimates that at least 20,000 miles of streams and coastal waters still carry bacterial loads that exceed health standards. Due to these violations, environmentalists have won a string of court victories in the last decade that require states to set goals for reducing bacteria counts. But efforts to set these targets--called Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs)--often have become exercises in finger-pointing, as farmers, homeowners and wildlife biologists have argued that someone else is to blame.
Desperate to calm such conflicts, TMDL specialists have asked microbiologists to come up with objective ways to pinpoint bacteria sources. Despite sparse funding, a handful of researchers have developed methods that range from fingerprinting the DNA of different species of bacteria to techniques that use viruses that are unique to specific animals to track poop sources.
To date, the most prominent techniques are so-called "library-dependent" methods, which require researchers to match a bacterium found in a waterway to one included in a previously created library of bacteria from known sources. On Page Brook in Clarke County, Virginia, one of the pioneers of source tracking—Charles Hagedorn of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg--used a library-dependent technique called antibiotic resistance analysis (ARA) to track down the sources of pollution in that stream. After the 1997 study, he concluded that cows—not septic systems--were the primary source of the stream's bacteria, prompting county officials to raise funds for fencing projects that have lowered bacterial counts by up to 98%.
The ARA method, developed by Bruce Wiggins of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, assumes that the strains of bacteria in people, farm animals, and wildlife have been exposed to specific antibiotics (or none) and therefore show resistance to different kinds. To catalog these signatures, Hagedorn's team first combed the small watershed, collecting poop from major potential sources, such as people, cows, and deer. The researchers then cultured Enterococcus bacteria from the samples, exposed the microbes to a battery of antibiotics, and recorded the results. Later, they found that Enterococcus taken from the stream had signatures that--statistically, at least--matched cataloged signatures produced by cattle-borne bacteria.
Many genetic approaches also require libraries, with researchers seeking to match the unique DNA or RNA profiles of bacteria from waterways with those from bacteria associated with different sources. For example, over the past 5 years, another Virginia Tech scientist, George Simmons, used a genetic technique called pulsed-field gel electrophoresis to fingerprint bacteria sources in Four Mile Run, an urbanized stream near Washington, D.C. Simmons, now retired, found that it carried bacteria that matched those from several hosts, including significant contributions from hard-to-control wild sources such as raccoons and geese.
The new EPA report, however, cautions that such findings are typically based on small studies and use methods not yet widely replicated. Various source-tracking methods have been applied to fewer than 125 waterways, and reports in peer-reviewed journals are scarce. The report calls for a four-phase national study to find out what really works, starting with basic experiments to see if single laboratories can replicate their own results. The study would end with a real-world test designed to compare different methods in a single, complex watershed.
The report is silent on how much such studies might cost and where funding might come from. The U.S. Geological Survey and Orange County, California, are funding small comparison studies—including one involving streams in West Virginia--and California is considering a multimillion-dollar effort. Virginia, meanwhile, is the first state to require that MST be used in the development of TMDLs, giving researchers a chance to refine their techniques.
New studies could help settle some simmering technical debates over the validity and practicality of several methods. One of the most pressing questions facing MST researchers is whether a library constructed for one study can be used for others (see Box page 3). Intestinal bacteria can vary widely by place, season, and time of day, and even diet can shift the dominant strains found within an individual. Given this variability, some MST researchers expect that they will have to construct new libraries for every new watershed, driving up expenses dramatically.
To avoid that problem, some researchers are exploring techniques that wouldn't require expensive libraries. Microbiologist Katharine Field of Oregon State University in Corvallis, for instance, is looking at using certain Bacteroides bacteria, which may carry host-specific genetic markers that vary little from place to place. Other techniques seek to detect widespread, species-specific antibodies that adhere to shed bacteria.
Fully developing and testing such methods, however, will require researchers to adopt standard methods and share data. And so far, that’s proved to be a stumbling block. But it’s one that is critical to surmount if MST results are to become trusted by the public and policymakers, who must decide how to spend billions of taxpayers dollars on improving water quality.
Here in West Virginia, for instance, the Cacapon Institute has challenged the way some MST data collected in Potomac River tributaries was interpreted by state agriculture officials. They claimed the preliminary data showed that farms along the river weren’t a major player in the waterway’s pollution – but we noted that there really wasn’t yet enough information to support that—or any other—conclusion.
With patience and careful work, however, the new breed of poop detectives could be producing some firm conclusions in the future. And while solving a poop mystery may never be a bestseller, it may prove to be an invaluable tool in cleaning up our nation’s waters.
This article is based on one that originally appeared in Science magazine, March 29, 2002, pp. 2352-2353.
For more information on BST, see the February 5, 2002 U.S. EPA Workshop on Microbial Source Tracking at http://www.sccwrp.org/tools/workshops/source_tracking_agenda.html
and Charles Hagedorn's Bacterial Source Tracking website at Virginia Tech: http://soils1.cses.vt.edu/ch/biol_4684/bst/BST.html.
Pick up the morning newspaper these days and you are likely to come across phrases like these:
Such language might sound like it was lifted directly from a scientific journal. Increasingly, however, technical jargon is becoming routine. But, while the topics touch us all, we do not always understand ideas like "degree of scientific certainty," or the difference between "cause-and-effect relationship" and "association." Luckily, one need not be a scientist. Below are a few tips you can use to make sense of science-based discussions.
Science tries to answer questions
Scientific study starts with a research question or "hypothesis," and then develops a study to answer the question. For example, a research team could hypothesize that runoff caused by a midsummer rainstorm would significantly increase phosphorus concentration in a stream, and then design a study that measures phosphorous in a specific stream before, during and after rainstorms. The team may well get good information about phosphorus in the stream. However, the study would also require a number of assumptions. Researchers may have to assume that wind conditions, air temperature, preceding weather or leaf-consuming insect infestations have no effect on the outcome of the study. They need to make assumptions like these because even scientists can’t control or measure every variable. Ben Franklin may have been thinking of this when he said, "We don't know one millionth of one percent about anything."
Because assumptions in science are inescapable, our hypothetical study can only say that phosphorus concentrations seem to behave a certain way. Thus, a central tenet of the scientific method--science cannot prove anything with 100% certainty. Rather, scientists use statistical methods to say that, with a specific degree of confidence -- for example with 95% certainty -- our study results "are not due to chance." The research team is then left to describe what the results "are due to" through a credible and logical discussion of their methods and reasoning.
So, when scrutinizing scientific statements, it is always wise to ask: "How certain are you of the results? Is there a large margin of possible error? Have other scientists replicated the results? Did the study have adequate controls that ruled out other factors that might be responsible for your result?"
But we never know for sure
Fortunately, science is explicit. A study's methodology is explained and key assumptions are spelled out. In the face of uncertainty, this permits objective review of a study's conclusions. A case in point--arsenic standards for drinking water. The Bush Administration delayed implementation of Clinton Administration guidelines on allowable concentrations of arsenic in drinking water. However, following a comprehensive review of the scientific literature by the USEPA and independently contracted experts in public health, it became clear that the science behind the Clinton-era recommendations was sound and the conclusions justified. In fact, the review concluded that arsenic’s health risks were even greater than earlier reviews had suggested. Consequently, the Bush administration has now accepted the proposed guidelines for implementation.
Conversely, in 1999 the WV Commissioner of Agriculture concluded that the Department's study of non-point source pollution showed that this type of pollution--in which pollutants wash off the landscape into rivers, lakes, and streams--was under control. However, measuring non-point source pollution requires sampling during periods of heavy, or at least normal, rainfall. Because 1999 was a severe drought year, a Cacapon Institute review found that the Commissioner's conclusion was premature. We responded with a press release explaining our position, and the debate took a step forward. In this case, officials interpreting the study results had not asked if another factor-the drought--might be responsible for the results--the drop in non-point source pollution.
Uncertainty becomes especially important when science indicates that difficult or costly change may be called for. In these cases, society may seize on the uncertainty as a reason to maintain the status quo. Here we often look for a consensus to form in the scientific community. This is not to say that scientists are free of bias or that their consensus is never wrong. What it does say is that the scientific community is more objective and informed on a given issue than society-at-large. For example, few issues are as complicated or as potentially important as global climate change. Society recently passed this debate back to the scientific community. In this case, The National Academy of Sciences was able to say that the information supporting claims of human-generated climate change met their threshold of certainty. There was less of a consensus on what the environmental and health effects of that change may be. And there was still less consensus on what we should do—or how much we should spend—to prevent potential problems. We are left to weigh the possible costs of action and non-action, but with greater scientific certainty that human induced climate change is, indeed, taking place. Again, Society takes a small step forward.
Further complicating matters, the status quo often benefits those most able to influence the debate, and costs those least able--the under-served and less informed in Society. For decades powerful tobacco companies were able to refute studies linking cigarettes with lung cancer by exploiting scientific uncertainty. Over time however, the scientific community came to a consensus and responded that the remaining uncertainty was absurdly small in relation to the evidence linking the two. Society was then able to act with more confidence.
And the discussion continues
Oftentimes the public discussion of scientific results becomes adversarial. When this happens, a characteristic set of objections may be raised and an objective review of the facts overwhelmed. Recognizing these objections, and knowing how to respond, can make all the difference when trying to sift through the information. Some common objections are:
As far as we can tell, industry and anti-industry folks, pro-business and anti-business people, liberals and conservatives all employ these strategies. But despite the chaos, or maybe because of it, science has brought us a long way. As the role of science in society increases, it will be up to informed and engaged people to sift through the noise and make the most of what science can offer.
To our readers: Please feel free to contact us with other examples of obfuscating arguments used to obscure scientific results, or case studies from the news that demonstrate these arguments in action.
How will our rivers fare over the next 20 years? Below are brief excerpts from two of our first three web-hosted interviews on this topic. We think that what actually happens depends partly on what we think will happen, partly on what we know, and will be affected by issues such as economic development, environmental conservation, personal values and, of course, politics.
With this in mind, the first interviews present the opinions of knowledgeable stakeholders from the environmental protection community—Grant County Sanitarian Bob Livingston and WV Rivers Coalition Executive Director Jeremy Muller. To follow will be interviews with representatives from the political community, developers, farmers, business, and others.
By approaching the subject from diverse perspectives, the series is designed to increase what we know, and consequently how thoughtfully we can act. To see the complete interviews click here. You will also find a web-based interview form there—we urge you to complete the form so we can add your thoughts to the series.
Bob Livingston. Mr. Livingston started coming to this area in the 60’s for rock climbing and caving. Eventually he moved here from Colorado and became a partner in the rock climbing school at Seneca Rocks and worked for DNR in aquaculture. In the mid-1970’s he became County Sanitarian for Grant County, where he remains to this day. He holds a BS from WVU in wildlife resources. He is also a Cacapon Institute board member.
Jeremy Muller. For the last two years, Mr. Muller has served as the Executive Director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition (www.wvrivers.org). Before that, he worked in the Pittsburgh area in heritage tourism based on the steel mills and coal mines, and helped to develop river access, hiking and biking trails and conservation easements within that framework. Mr. Muller grew up in the Pittsburgh area and he is an English major from the University of New Hampshire. His affinity for the outdoors comes from the time he spent at his parents summer home on Lake Huron.
Relative to some of the other areas you’ve been in how would you describe this area’s water resources and their importance?
MULLER Phenomenal. Again, having grown up very close to this area, two hours away but never been there, when I moved here I was astonished at a number of things about the water resources. … One being the quality of it. … The other thing is the variety….
How important is water, specifically in this area of the Potomac Highlands?
LIVINGSTON Water is certainly important for personal use, agriculture, and tourism. Which leads to economic benefits.
Could you say something about its importance?
MULLER Yes, I think unfortunately the importance is underestimated. Its really not understood how important water is to a rural state like this. Particularly when communities are separated by such vast mountains and topography. You aren’t going to be able to pipe water from one watershed to the other necessarily. You have to look at the local resource and how that is going to sustain the life that’s there. Both human and other. And I think that because the resources are so good here they’ve been taken for granted…
So over the next 20 years what do you see as the biggest changes in the landscape of Grant County, the Potomac Headwaters?
LIVINGSTON There is a lot of growth to the east of us, and it is travelling this way currently maybe approaching Hampshire County. There is also the Corridor H which people expect to be finished. I’d expect to see more demands upon the land for residences and establishments…More concentrated growth in areas that haven’t had it before ….
That gets at the next question which is "In light of those changes what do you think should be done?"
MULLER …There are States, I think Vermont is probably the best template for West Virginia. It is mostly rural. They have a high standard of living. And there is a fair amount of telecommuting going on. I think there are a lot of similarities there. It’s got pretty nasty terrain, which West Virginia also has. So I think that that is important. That is part of the problem that most folks feel "we’ve got to do this, we’re the only ones who have faced this, what the hell are we going to do?" And that is really not true. There are plenty of examples around…
So, would you call yourself an optimist?
MULLER By nature I am a cynical pessimist. But I’ll be honest with you. I think that West Virginia is in a really good position….
Click here to read the interviews in their entirety, or add your responses to the discussion.
Guide to Living Beside a River.
Director’s Note: The Friends of the Cacapon River is a 501(c)(3) organization formed in 1992 by a group of Cacapon River landowners. Their mission is to preserve, protect and promote the Cacapon River in Morgan and Hampshire Counties, WV. You can learn more about them at www.cacaponriver.org.
The Friends of the Cacapon River (FCR) have developed the "Homeowner’s Packet: A Guide for Families Living Along a Waterway." Described by long-time FCR member Barbara Tufty as "a collection of helpful hints on caring for your river property," it’s really a good deal more than that. Written with clarity and pleasingly comprehensive, the Homeowner’s Packet covers the following subjects:
Also included in the folder are two brochures, one about the FCR, the other on "Becoming a River Guardian."
While the mission of FCR is to protect the Cacapon River, the advice offered in this packet should be required reading for anyone who cares about the creeks, streams and rivers that enrich our lives. Best of all, you can get your copy, for FREE, by writing the Friends of the Cacapon River, P.O. Box 321, Great Cacapon, WV 25422.
On June 26, 2002, key partners in the Headwater Farms Project, including Cacapon Institute, were honored in Washington, DC by Colien Hefferan -- Administrator of the USDA-Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service -- "for innovative collaboration and good stewardship in developing the Headwater Farms Petite Beef Program."
Neil gave two talks at River Network’s national River Rally 2002 in May, one on partnering with farmers, the other on using biocriteria to assess stream health. This year’s River Rally brought together over 400 river conservationists including Alaskan natives, Navajo Indians, State Regulators from the west, and teachers from Maine.
CI is serving on the WV Environmental Quality Board's Nutrient Criteria Committee, which is charged with developing science-based water quality criteria to reduce problems associated with excess nutrients in lakes, reservoirs, rivers, streams, and wetlands by 2004. For details and a CI slide slow on the nutrient criteria issue click here.
We have received a $5000 grant from the USEPA Environmental Education Program to develop and conduct non-residential summer camps for 8th grade students from four counties of the Potomac Headwaters. The content of the Stream Scholars Summer Camp will be stream ecology, stream health and watershed conservation with an eye towards catalyzing environment-related career development. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have potential candidates for this summer 2003 program
Our final report to the US Fish and Wildlife Service on water quality studies in the Lost and North rivers is now available on this website (130 KB, PDF).