Explore Utah Science - Explore Utah Science - Displaying items by tag: Environment http://exploreutahscience.org Tue, 23 Jan 2018 02:44:02 -0700 en-gb Beaver Dam Mapping App Now Available for Citizen Scientists http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/148-citizen-scientists-can-now-use-an-app-to-help-map-beaver-dams-in-utah http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/148-citizen-scientists-can-now-use-an-app-to-help-map-beaver-dams-in-utah Beaver Dam Mapping App Now Available for Citizen Scientists

Scientists are studying how beavers could be used as a tool for stream restoration and are looking to you for help.

Although western farmers and irrigators have long deemed beavers to be pests, scientists are studying how these dam building rodents could be used as a tool for stream restoration and mitigating impacts of climate change on Utah's water supply. Watershed scientists at Utah State University have created a smart phone app and are asking people out hiking in the wilderness to track these furry builders so they can better model which water ways would benefit the most from their help. This story is part of our "Follow the Flow" series that examines our relationship to watersheds in Utah.

Utah State University scientist Joe Wheaton studies forces that impact Utah's waterways – specifically beavers, those furry overgrown rodents with the buckteeth and the flat flapping tail.

"I doubt we'll see any today, unless we get lucky and sneak up on one," says Wheaton.

A few weeks ago he brought me up Logan Canyon to see what beavers are doing here. We've also come with some other researchers and a pair of eager black labs.

Though historically prized for their fur, in recent decades scientists have begun seeing beavers as ecological heroes. In 2010 the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources formulated a beaver management plan that sees beaver as a tool for restoring incised and degraded streams.

"Where we're standing now is on a little bridge across Spawn Creek, and... what this is, is an abandoned beaver dam," says Wheaton.

He points to what's left of a short wall woven with sediment and aspen branches – chewed like corn on the cob - about ten feet away. Here it once held back a shallow pool of stream water.

"What happened is they built a dam, roughly a meter high. And it's filled in with sediment."

This sediment, he says has raised the whole level of what was an incised and degraded stream in just a few years. Through the clear water you can see small round rocks – gravel. This stream is a stronghold for cutthroat trout, a protected native fish, and the sediment has created a safe place for the fish to lay their eggs, he says.

"It's like perfect spawning gravels, right. It's filled to the brim with sediment. And since that dam is breached and they've abandoned it, now what's left behind is really good spawning habitat," says Wheaton.

Currently most Utah streams struggle with sediment and nutrient overload. Only 30 percent of in-stream habitat for fish and other aquatic life in Utah's streams is considered "good", with most streams listed as "poor" or in "fair" condition, according to a preliminary Utah Division of Water Quality report this year. Here Wheaton and the other scientists are researching how beaver dams help sustain fish populations, and help trap sediment that recovers riparian habitat.

"Why do we want beaver dams? We don't one hundred percent care so much about the beavers," explains Greene, who is a researcher and educator at Utah State University Extension. "But what they're doing is they're taking the water and now connecting it to these other areas and they're pushing it out into the riparian zone. So now we have this really complex habitat that's good for the birds. It's good for the amphibians. It's good for the plants. So it makes really unique habitat."

Watershed scientists like Joe Wheaton are also assessing whether beavers - and the water-keeping dams that they build - could indeed help mitigate some impacts of a declining snowpack. Snowpacks in the Mountain West – including the Wasatch Range - provide millions of people with water, and recent studies suggest climate change is behind a withering trend over the last century.

"Certainly a number of people have speculated that if you have a bunch of beaver dams on the landscape, they're sort of providing a similar function to what a larger snowpack would, that provides this store of water that slowly releases it out over time," says Wheaton.

Hiking our way up along the stream, we cross over a cattle guard into a fenced area. About ten years ago the Forest Service, realizing this high elevation tributary was ideal habitat for cutthroat trout, set the area aside and fenced it off from cattle grazing and forbade beaver fur trapping, which still happens today, although with some regulations.

This recovering area now gives Wheaton and his team a chance to ground-truth a new mapping model called the Beaver Restoration Assessment Tool or BRAT, using an iPad. The BRAT predicts the capacity for beaver dams on every perennial stream in the state using nationally available satellite imagery of all the drainage networks. Wheaton's iPad is showing the stream we're walking along. It looks like a thread with different colored segments.

"Red means an area where you can't have any beaver dams. Orange is an area where it's not great, but where we might see up to one dam per kilometer. The yellow are occasional, we might see between one to four dams. Green we would see between five to 15. And blue is the best, is pervasive. Those are short reaches that could support up to 40 dams per kilometer. So that's like a dam every 40 or 50 meters," explains Wheaton.

We're now entering an area the BRAT model identifies as a blue segment, or "pervasive" along the stream. And sure enough, here we've entered into a complex chain of ponds and beaver dams. The shallow stream water is spread out everywhere, and fresh groves of aspen, willow and green grasses are all growing up around us. Wheaton points out the telltale signs of an active colony of beavers living here: a mound of sticks that's their lodge; a skid trail that marks where the beavers drag the aspen trees into the water; and a network of underground tunnels.

"You're standing right above the tunnel to their lodge. See there's an underwater entrance, and it goes to the great big mound of sticks, which the dogs have smelled that there's probably some beaver in there."

None of this beaver activity was here ten years ago, according to Wheaton. Given time, and a stream protected from overgrazing, he says beavers will move downstream, which could mean more water gets stored on the mountain for longer periods.

"What we have done with the model is try and predict where in the landscape could beavers be. Even in places they are not now. What's the capacity of these different streams to support what sort of densities of dams," says Wheaton.

For these scientists, checking every perennial stream in Utah for beaver dams will be a time consuming job. That's why they've also made a smart phone app to enlist help from volunteer citizen scientists – basically anyone out hiking or fishing in Utah who might encounter beaver activity.

"It allows them to very easily take a photo and send us the GPS coordinates of beaver activity," says Greene.

"If we're getting a lot of volunteers reporting back that we're seeing lots of beavers in this area and the model predicted that's a good area for beavers, then that means the model is working well. If they're finding lots of beavers in areas the model says there shouldn't be beavers, then maybe the model isn't as accurate as we'd like it to be," Greene adds.

Still, not everyone thinks beavers belong everywhere. Historically beavers have been reviled – and often killed – for being pests that cut down trees, stop up creeks and culverts, cause floods, or take water from farmers downstream. A few years ago Wheaton says he was asked to help water managers in Park City resolve a problem with beavers in their city.

"They just did what everyone did with beaver if there were any. You'd blow up their dams with dynamite and kill 'em, right. And this wasn't a policy. It was just what they did as routine maintenance. And roughly five years ago some local residents, there was some beaver ponds that were built. And the residents liked it, and all the wildlife that came around it. And then they complained to the city when the city went in to do what they normally do."

So the Park City workers left the beaver dams alone, and they didn't kill the beavers. Soon the number of beaver dams grew, and the beavers built their dams higher. This eventually caused flooding of roads and houses. And the beavers upset neighbors by harvesting ornamental yard trees. So in 2013 Park City officials asked Wheaton to help them draft an adaptive beaver management plan.

"For example, you could go in and put in a 'pond leveler', or a 'caster master', and that would lower the water level, and alleviate the flooding, and still allow the beaver to be there," says Wheaton. "Or fencing around ornamental trees, etc. And then the worst case scenario is, OK, we've tried these living with beaver strategies or we're in an area that's so sensitive, like a canal diversion, we absolutely cannot allow beaver. So that's when we'll live trap nuisance beaver and relocate them to areas, either within the city limits or beyond, where they want beaver for restoration or the ecosystem services they provide."

We're now approaching a dam that Wheaton says has been here since the 1940's. If this were near a road or housing, it surely would've have been destroyed by now. It's over a meter high, like a fortress wall of sun-baked sticks holding back an Olympic-sized pool of water. And nearby is a giant lodge.

That is the mother of all lodges. It looks like a damn two-story beaver lodge.

I'm just in the middle of asking Wheaton another question, when we see him.

"There he is! He's swimming around right by the lodge. You see his nose," asks Wheaton. "Oh yeah, that's a beaver! And the dogs are in pursuit."

The beaver swims at the surface just for a moment, before splashing down his tail and disappearing.

These beaver buffs hope interested citizens will help to document beaver dams - and beavers - when they find them all across Utah. They also hope this information will help people to better manage and appreciate what the beavers do for our fragile water systems... that is, even if they'd rather stay out of sight.

This story was made possible by iUTAH, a National Science Foundation Funded statewide effort to maintain and improve water sustainability.

rosschambless@hotmail.com (Ross Chambless) Environment Sun, 13 Jul 2014 20:05:02 -0600
Desert Dust Events Could Trigger Early Wasatch Snowmelt http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/144-desert-dust-events-could-trigger-early-wasatch-snowmelt http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/144-desert-dust-events-could-trigger-early-wasatch-snowmelt Desert Dust Events Could Trigger Early Wasatch Snowmelt

Dust events occur regularly each spring along the Wasatch Front, and they could be impacting how much water is ultimately available for Utah residents.

Dust events occur regularly each spring along the Wasatch Front, and they could be impacting how much water is ultimately available for Utah residents. This is the first story by Explore Utah Science in a series called "Follow the Flow", that examines ongoing research to maintain the sustainability of Utah's precious watersheds.

It is over 50 degrees, and it's mid February here in the winter backcountry of Millcreek Canyon, just east of Salt Lake City. The snowpack is soft and slushy. And it's melting. Whether this is climate change or not, skiers should be disappointed by this early melt-out. For millions of people living in the Wasatch Front valleys below, things might be ok, but only as long as the early snowmelt can still supply enough fresh water.

Some think that warming temperatures are not the whole story here.

"There's this popular misconception that snow melts faster because of increases in temperature," says Tom Painter, who spoke at a TED talk last year. "Now, it's true that that's the case. But that's not the primary driver. The primary driver is absorbed solar radiation."

Painter is a geophysicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and used to work at the University of Utah. He says the thing forcing snow to melt earlier is not just the temperature, but also darkly colored particles of dust.

"There are little particles in there. Little black carbon particles, dust particles, pollen, that are just slowly absorbing a little bit of radiation, and putting that into the snow."

When dust gets blown onto the snow's surface, Painter says it reduces the snow's albedo, or its ability to reflect back the sun's radiation, causing it to melt faster. About ten years ago he and other researchers in Colorado began studying how dust from the four corners area was affecting the alpine snowpack of the San Juan Mountains in western Colorado, a major source of water feeding the Colorado river.

"We recognized dust was having really significant impact on snowmelt processes here in our study area, let alone perhaps the rest of Colorado," said Chris Landry, executive director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Colorado.

Back in 2003, when Painter approached Landry about wanting to study how dust affects snowmelt, there was very little science on the subject.

"Very quickly we understood that water managers in the west were... most anxious to understand whether or not snow melt yields, or actual runoff quantities were being affected – especially if they were being reduced," says Landry.

Their research showed that dust loading on the snowpack caused the peak runoff to occur about 3 weeks earlier than it had historically. But most important for western water managers, was their finding that, as a result, mountain soil and plants were exposed earlier, and consuming snowmelt water sooner. This was reducing the Colorado River's annual runoff by more than one billion cubic meters, or 5 percent on average, each year.

Understandably, researchers back in Utah began to wonder if Wasatch Mountain snowpacks were meeting the same fate.

Olivia Miller, a geology graduate at the University of Utah, points to satellite images of dust events.

"This is from 2009, March 4th, and you can zoom in and see little plumes right here."

The dust originates from places in southwestern Utah and Nevada, with names like the Sevier Dry Lake Bed, Milford Valley, Black Rock Desert, and the Carson Sink. Although these dried remnants of the ancient Lake Bonneville are seen as one cause, lots of data show that agriculture and cattle grazing contribute greatly to soil surface disturbance, along with off-road vehicles and military training activities. Burned areas also produce dust, such as the site of the Milford Flat fire - Utah's largest wildfire ever – that's been a major source of dust since 2007.

"So this is down in the Sevier Desert. That is the Milford Fire scar," says Miller. "The sources get activated down here. And they just travel with the wind, get mixed in the atmosphere, and they encounter the Wasatch Mountains, so the dust can get deposited on the snow."

80 years of recorded observations at the Salt Lake airport show an average of 4.3 dust events occurring each year. Most of the events occur in the spring, when cold fronts blow in from the west. In recent years, Miller and other Utah graduate students have taken to studying the thin and brown horizontal lines of dust in the Wasatch's backcountry snowpack.

"You can dig down and see... it's like stratigraphy in geology. You can say, 'This event happened on January 2nd, and this event happened on February 16th.' So you can kind of map that out. Which is pretty neat. The snowpack is great for preserving these events," says Miller.

To verify the dust sources, Miller collected samples from the snow and examined it for traces of the chemical element strontium.

"It's kind of like a fingerprint. You can use it as a tracer. So the strontium in the dust, you can tell where that dust source was."

She then took core samples from older trees nearby in the Wasatch Front canyons.

"Most of the strontium that trees take up is from dust," says Miller. "Like, 90 percent in some cases. So the dust is really having a big impact on the ecosystems here."

Miller's findings indicate that dust has always been a part of the Wasatch Front ecosystem. Indeed, environmental scientists increasingly recognize dust as an important player for ecosystems around the world. But how a more quickly melting snowpack will affect the ecology of the Wasatch remains a question.

"This is preliminary, but what we're seeing is there's a longer growing period and longer flowering period," says Lafe Connor, a doctoral student at Brigham Young University.

Connor wanted to see how soil and plants would respond to a faster melting snowpack. He scattered dust over plots to force early melting at two different elevations in Fairview Canyon in Sanpete County. And he saw that after the snow melted early, plants flowered early, which meant sometimes they aborted their flowers when the soil water also went dry early. He says this leads to more questions about the impacts on pollinators, for example.

"There could be disconnect between when plants flowers, and when the pollinators arrive, like hummingbirds... is that going to affect the hummingbirds when they arrive? Are they going to have the same resources that they need," asks Connor. "It's an important thing to understand. Are these systems going to be disrupted?"

Rick Gill, a professor at BYU adds, "So what we see is we have these interacting processes. The timing of snowmelt isn't just what happens right after snowmelt, but how that sets up the entire growing season in terms of water availability."

Gill and others at BYU plan to work with other Utah researchers through a collaborative project to continue to study soils and plants, as well as the quality and quantity of snowpacks along the Wasatch front beginning this year.

"We are also measuring the dust, the albedo of the dust... modeling per se how that is potentially changing the water availability patterns in these three watersheds across the Wasatch front. We have real-time instruments measuring flow is one the big ones. So we can hopefully start linking dust to see how much water is in these different watersheds," says Zach Aanderud, a professor of plant and wildlife sciences at BYU.

Utah scientists seek to share with water managers the connections that link deserts and dust, with snowpacks and water.

There is a renewed sense of urgency since signs point to an even drier and dustier future, as scientists predict temperatures will increase by up to 7 degrees by the end of the century. Meanwhile, proposals like Nevada's Snake Valley water pipeline, threaten to parch another patch of desert by pumping groundwater near the Utah border, to Las Vegas.

With growing populations, and rising temperatures, the dust is not likely to settle when it comes to fighting for water in the west.

This is the first in a five part series by Explore Utah Science on research to maintain and protect Utah's water. The "Follow the Flow" series is made possible by iUtah, a National Science Foundation–funded statewide effort to maintain and improve water sustainability.

rosschambless@hotmail.com (Ross Chambless) Environment Tue, 04 Mar 2014 11:17:15 -0700
Biology Inspires Next Generation "Bio-batteries" http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/141-biology-inspires-next-generation-bio-batteries http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/141-biology-inspires-next-generation-bio-batteries Biology Inspires Next Generation

Batteries that power our electronic devices contain heavy metals and other materials that are toxic to the environment. A new battery technology inspired by biology, bio-batteries, overcomes many of these problems. The technology may one day lead to biodegradable batteries that store energy more efficiently than today's heavy duty lithium-ion batteries.

Batteries that power our electronic devices contain heavy metals and other materials that are toxic to the environment. A new battery technology inspired by biology, bio-batteries, overcomes many of these problems. The technology may one day lead to biodegradable batteries that store energy more efficiently than today's heavy duty lithium-ion batteries.

Most electronic devices we use today like cell phones and computers use lithium-ion batteries for their power. These batteries can store a lot of energy, leading to longer use times before recharging than other battery types. But the metals and chemicals used in lithium ion batteries can be dangerous, says Shelley Minteer.

"Interestingly enough, if something makes a very high energy density battery, it often times has a very energetic material and can have sort of safety issues associated with that," explains Menteer, a professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering at the University of Utah. "And we see that with lithium ion. So you've seen the reports of people's laptops catching on fire, you know issues with cars, etc."

To keep these batteries safe means they have to be packaged very carefully and other safety mechanisms such as a temperature sensor have to be included so they don't overheat.

"Because lithium is sort of dangerous chemistry, the protective container takes up a certain amount of space. We are basically hitting the limit taking into account that we have to have the protective cases," says Minteer.

As electronics continue to advance, they need higher battery capacities. Safety concerns and other technological considerations mean that it may not be long before lithium ion batteries can no longer keep up. This has lead to an explosion of research into the development of whole new types of batteries.

"It used to be that we were ok with a cell phone that we used sporadically and now we need our cell phone to take videos, to take pictures, to have a color screen and all of these things require energy," says Minteer. "We have had to sort of change how we think about designing batteries to be able to design them for the applications that people want to use them for today."

Minteer is on the forefront of battery technology. Her lab is developing biodegradable batteries that contain no toxic metals or chemicals.

"We are making batteries that are for all intents and purpose edible. Not that we eat them, but they are edible."

She says her batteries are inspired by biology since every day we consume food, and cells in our bodies convert that food into energy.

"The power house of the living cell, or the energy conversion component of the living cell happens in the mitochondria," says Minteer. "So we either remove the mitochondria intact [from yeast, spinach, or potatoes] and put it on an electrode surface. Or we remove the part of the mitochondria, the actual enzymes or catalysts in the mitochondria that do energy conversion from the cell and put them on the electrode surface," she explains.

The fuel for this type of battery is not a dangerous chemical, but instead can be the same kinds of things that we ingest, like sugar or alcohol. The mitochondria or enzymes convert the fuel into electrical energy.

"We have technology that we know is extremely efficient in the living cell, and if we can get that kind of efficiency we would have energy densities that are over an order of magnitude or roughly 20 times as energy dense as lithium ion batteries," says Minteer. "But we haven't yet got that complete efficiency you that see in the living cell, so we are working on how we can improve that."

Currently, bio-batteries are able to generate high enough current densities to power many portable electronic devices.

"You're typically talking about lifetimes that are on the days to weeks range for mitochondria, so relatively short," says Minteer. "On the other hand with enzymes it really depends on what we do to protect the enzymes. If we protect the enzymes from degradation we can get months to years worth of life out of the enzyme, similar lifetimes to what you would get out of a lot of your traditional battery technologies."

The benefits of bio-batteries are obvious in terms of disposal. It's estimated that Americans throw away 358 million pounds of batteries ever year, dispersing toxic materials into our air, water, and soil. But there are also specific applications that could be more suitable for a bio-battery. Imagine a pacemaker that runs on a battery that uses the sugar in a person's blood stream. Or since the batteries can be made flexible, they could be used in wearable electronics.

Minteer says some applications will take longer to develop than others, but expects to see simple applications come out within a couple of years.

"Some applications, like using biodegradable batteries in a greeting card, doesn't require a lot of engineering," says Minteer. "If instead you look at the battery that is in your cell phone, the battery in your cell phone is a smart device. Any type of smart battery that requires a great deal of power management is longer down the engineering scale than something that can just use the energy as it comes directly out of the battery."

So the next time you open a greeting card, it's just possible that you might be using a bio-battery.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Technology Thu, 09 Jan 2014 14:22:29 -0700
Sounds of the West http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/137-sounds-of-the-west http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/137-sounds-of-the-west Angels Landing, Zion National Park

Thousands of animal and ambient sounds from eleven western states have been recorded and archived in a digital library in Utah. While fascinating in their own right, sounds can also be used to track environmental change.

Thousands of animal and ambient sounds from eleven western states have been recorded and archived in a digital library in Utah. While fascinating in their own right, sounds can also be used to track environmental change.

Some people like to hunt animals, not to kill them, but to record the sounds they make.

Conservationists, scientists, volunteers, and state and federal agency employees have contributed over 2600 animal sounds that are now housed at the biggest library of its kind in the west, called the Western Soundscape Archive. The project was founded by recording engineer Jeff Rice and digital librarian Kenning Arlitsch in order to document the sounds of animals living in the west and to make people aware so they will want to protect the environments where these animals live.

The digital sound archive is kept at the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library. Anna Neatrour was a project manager for a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, awarded to Rice and Arlitsch, to develop the archive.

"The Western Soundscape Archive is a site that collects animal sounds centered on eleven states in the American West," says Neatrour. "And it provides a really good overview of all the species that live in our states as well as ambient sounds for National Parks. Quite a variety of sounds that people can listen to from their computers."

While the project no longer has funds to collect and annotate new sounds, Neatrour says archiving animal sounds is important because when people think about environmental issues and declining landscapes, they usually think about the visual aspects.

"The sounds associated with these natural landscapes change as well. So preserving that now for the future is very useful," she adds.

But recording the sounds is not always easy. Many animals are active early in the morning and can be in hard to reach locations. Different microphones are needed for different jobs. By using a parabolic microphone it's possible to pick up weak sounds from a few meters away, while a small remote microphone can be dropped into burrows in the ground, or holes in trees. Some sound enthusiasts go even further.

"If you search the archive for 'ant interview,' you can hear a story of a scientist describe how he recorded the vibrations that ants make by holding them between his teeth," says Neatrour. "It shows how devoted people are for capturing these sounds.

[Interview with Dr. Hayward Spangler]

The recordings include over 500 bird species, 300 mammals, dozens of snakes, turtles, lizards, and frogs, as well as multiple insects. Many of the recordings are paired with predicted species distribution maps and pictures of the animals, which can be found by common or scientific name.

"We have some sounds from animals that you think would not make sounds, like earth worms for example," explains Neatrour. "And in that case the sound for that sound clip, it's more like the dirt falling as the earthworm moves through the ground."

[Earthworm sounds]

The individual animal sounds are important, but so are collections of sounds from particular landscapes. These collections, or soundscapes, include sounds of animals, geophysical features such as wind and streams, and human-produced sounds collected over the course of a day from different locations in the natural world.

[Ironwood Forest National Monument at dawn]

Soundscapes are frequently represented visually as spectrograms. The images of daily acoustic patterns can be used to better understand the area's biodiversity and health. Donated by the National Park Service, there are over 10,000 spectral images from 24 National Parks in the Western Soundscape Archive.

[Spectrograms from Zion National Park]

"You can actually look at these sound wave graphs and pinpoint things like airplane flights going overhead and disrupting the landscape versus variations in the ambient noise you might get in the different season," says Neatrour. "So that is something that can appeal more if people are doing research in that area."

Scientists are realizing that the auditory environment is as important as the visual landscape in understanding the health of an ecosystem. And the National Park Service is actively searching for ways to better protect the natural environment from the impact of human sounds, since studies suggest the acoustical environment is important for animals to find mates, protect their young, and to communicate about territories.

So the next time you are out in nature, remember to listen as well as look.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Life Thu, 05 Dec 2013 14:31:01 -0700
Will Depleted Uranium Be Coming to Utah? http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/135-will-depleted-uranium-be-coming-to-utah http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/135-will-depleted-uranium-be-coming-to-utah Yellowcake uranium

The US has a lot of depleted uranium that needs to be stored and EnergySolutions wants to get in on the action. Over the next few months, the Division of Radiation Control will be looking at a study on the safety of storing the low level radioactive waste, which may ultimately determine if depleted uranium comes to Utah.

The US has a lot of depleted uranium that needs to be stored and EnergySolutions wants to get in on the action. Over the next few months, the Division of Radiation Control will be looking at a study on the safety of storing the low level radioactive waste, which may ultimately determine if depleted uranium comes to Utah.

The US has 700,000 metric tons of depleted uranium that needs to find a permanent resting place. The waste was generated as a byproduct during uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons and to produce the fuel used in nuclear power plants. EnergySolutions, the low-level radioactive storage facility in Clive, 65 miles west of Salt Lake City, may become one home for the waste, pending a decision from the state. But it's not an easy decision to make because depleted uranium is unlike other radioactive material stored in Clive, says Rusty Lundberg who is the Director of the Division of Radiation Control, which will oversee the decision making process.

"It has some unique characteristics that differs from other radioactive materials and wastes that they dispose of there," says Lundberg. "One of the most significant is that over a long period of time, depleted uranium and its decay products actually increase in radioactivity. Whereas the more normal process is that radioactive materials decay and continue to decay. So this makes this more unique and more important for our deliberate and more focused consideration and evaluation of this proposal."

Depleted uranium is only 60% as radioactive as natural uranium, but as it decays the byproducts are more radioactive and are also toxic in other ways. Thure Cerling is a professor of geology at the University of Utah.

"By itself, the depleted uranium is more dangerous as a toxin, than its radioactivity," says Cerling.

A large increase in radioactivity due to decay will not occur for a long time, peaking at 2.1 million years.

"Uranium, when it was taken out of the ground, may have been there for millions of years, so we know it can be in a configuration for millions of years," says Cerling. "And millions of years is the time scale that it will continue to be around."

To get a better handle on the health and safety risk that storage of the waste may pose to Utahns, the Utah Division of Radiation Control required EnergySolutions to complete a study, or performance assessment, that looks at many possible issues and scenarios that might threaten waste containment at their facility over the next 10,000 and more years. This includes the risk of ground water contamination, seismic activity, and the role plants, insects, and burrowing animals may have in compromising the waste containment structure. The embankment that EnergySolutions proposes to use to contain the waste is above ground. Current regulations only require that the embankment perform its function for a minimum of 500 years.

Utah is somewhat on it's own in figuring out how to regulate storage of depleted uranium since the federal Nuclear Regulatory Agency has not put forward clear rules. Director Lundberg says state and federal regulators are all coming to the conclusion that a site-specific evaluation, like the one EnergySolutions has undertaken, will be critical.

"The intent is that, to look at each individual site taking into consideration its unique physical and location characteristics, not only now, but in the long term, and make that judgment, based upon that input and that information is it acceptable for disposal," explains Lundberg.

None of this comforts Park City resident Travis Bray.

"Any person who studies any aspect of storage knows there is no such thing as 100,000 year concrete, it doesn't exist, at some point storage facilities will break down," says Bray.

Bray went to an open house last week hosted by the Division of Radiation Control, which is hoping to engage the public on the storage issue. Bray says he came to the open house because after just moving to the state in September, he recently found out there was a possibility that depleted uranium would be stored in his new home. He isn't just a concerned citizen, but one with a PhD in chemistry from Auburn University. He studied how radioactive heavy metals, called actinides, could affect the environment around the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada.

"I did four years of research modeling what's going to happen when Yucca broke down, what minerals will uptake actinides, the redox chemistry of these actinides in the environment, how are they going to move through," says Bray. "I mean, it's not a matter of if it's a matter of when," he adds.

Bray says he hopes people will still be living in the area thousands of years in the future and they will want to know what we did that might have compromised their environment.

Chris Sloan is a realtor in Tooele who also came to the open house. He supports EnergySolutions' plan and says the company is an important economic engine for the county.

"They support our youth, they support our business community. They employ a ton of our people, people that live and work in Toole County," says Sloan.

Sloan says he personally isn't worried about the long-term affects of storing depleted uranium near his community.

"If I'm going to live to be 61,050, then I may have some concerns," says Sloan. "Let me couch that by also saying that I'm also fairly certain that before it gets back to full strength, technology will also be evolving from the storage side. I have no problems sleeping at night knowing that the technology will advance over the time they are worried about the increased heat."

The Division of Radiation Control is expected to begin a technical analysis of the performance assessment soon, take public comments in July, and make a final decision at the end of next year.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Energy Thu, 21 Nov 2013 15:02:34 -0700
The West's Pika Plight Captivates Middle Schoolers' Scientific Minds http://exploreutahscience.org/education/item/134-the-west-s-pika-plight-captivates-middle-schoolers-scientific-minds http://exploreutahscience.org/education/item/134-the-west-s-pika-plight-captivates-middle-schoolers-scientific-minds The West's Pika Plight Captivates Middle Schoolers' Scientific Minds

Seventh graders gather data to document the plight of a small mammal that could be on the brink of becoming endangered, and interpret the experience through presentations, models, video, art, and poems.

Seventh graders gather data to document the plight of a small mammal that could be on the brink of becoming endangered, and interpret the experience through presentations, models, video, art, and poems.

Cute. Local. Threatened by climate change. The phrases that describe pikas, a rodent-like mammal that lives in Utah’s mountains, sounded like a winning combination to Niki Hack, a seventh grade science teacher at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE). She had been searching for ways to engage her students, who can find it hard to think beyond their immediate world. After listening to their conversations, Hack saw an opportunity to tap into something they care about.

pika survey

“One of the things I notice about kids this age is how much more aware they are of environmental things than I was growing up,” she says. “If you ask them what they are concerned about, it is global warming and things like that, even if they can’t articulate it.”

For the past two years, Hack has been teaming with Johanna Varner, a cheery University of Utah graduate student known as “Pika Jo”, to help the middle schoolers collect data on pikas, which could be on the brink of becoming endangered. One day each fall, sixty-plus seventh graders take a field trip to the Uintas or Wasatch, some visiting the mountains for the first time. At designated study sites, they perform vegetation surveys, observe the animals, and document where they live by using global positioning system (GPS) units to record positions of haypiles, each representing an individual pika’s food source for the winter.

“There isn't anybody else conducting this kind of monitoring every year in the state, so the kids are actually advancing our understanding of pika status and distribution in Utah,” says Varner.

Pika signs

Looking like a cuddly cross between a hamster and a rabbit, pikas have been steadily disappearing from mountains in the American West for the past forty years. The prevailing hypothesis is that rising temperatures caused by climate change are driving the animals to cooler, higher elevations. With a high resting body temperature of 104˚F, they can't tolerate environmental temperatures of over 75˚F for more than a handful of hours. Already living near the tops of this state’s mountains, it is a matter of time before pikas may simply have no place left to go.

In 2010, pikas were denied protection under the Endangered Species Act partly due to insufficient data documenting population declines across the mountain ranges in which they have historically lived. Hack says that one day, the students’ work may be incorporated into published research and could even be used to decide whether pikas deserve an endangered species listing. temperature data

Before the field trip, the pika story seems abstract and the students are disengaged, says Hack. “After they see the pikas, they have a million questions. They become super passionate and outraged that they didn’t make the Endangered Species list.“ She adds that the weekend after the field trip, a number of kids bring their families to the pika study site to share their experience.

Back in the classroom, the students perform additional research, some working with teachers in other subjects to explore their new interest in different ways by creating movies, art, or writing poems. Believing that the kids get more out of the experience if held accountable, Hack brings them to the University of Utah to present their work to scientists. “Each year I’m nervous that they won’t be ready,” says Hack. “But they always come through.”


Pika Villanelle* (Poem)
by Jeniya MeCullar, 7th grade, Salt Lake Center for Science Education
Pikas die because of us
Dirty nasty filthy air
This is why we lack their trust
Grass, flowers, moss collecting in such a bust
It seems to me that we don’t care
Pikas die because of us
We pollute the air with our city bus
Little innocents watch and stare
This is why we lack their trust
It’s not a choice, do this we must
Glaciers melting, but we don’t care
Pikas die because of us
Humans bustle sending toxic gust
Pikas scurry in despair
This is why we lack their trust
But some of us look on in disgust
Others prefer to judge and glare
Pikas die because of us
This is why we lack their trust

*A villanelle is an example of formal verse with a controlled rhyme scheme. It consists of 19 lines over six stanzas. Line one and three of the first stanza are repeated throughout the other stanzas. The final couplet use lines one and three again.

To see more information about Pika Jo's work with pika's in Oregon and how they survive at lower elevations by eating moss, go to this story by the Salt Lake Tribune
julie@exploreutahscience.org (Julie Kiefer) Education Mon, 11 Nov 2013 00:00:00 -0700
Our Water, Our Future http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/133-our-water-our-future http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/133-our-water-our-future Our Water, Our Future

A team of advisors is tasked with coming up with a 50-year water strategy for Utah that will include reducing consumption by 25% by 2025.

Utah is the second driest state in the country and we use about 40% more water per person than neighboring states such as Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. With the climate changing and the population growing, water will not stretch as far in the future as it has in the past. To tackle this issue, Governor Herbert has asked a team of advisors to come up with a 50-year water strategy for the state that will include reducing consumption by 25% by 2025.

870 billion gallons of water are consumed in Utah each year for watering crops and lawns, to drink, cook and bathe. For now, Utah has enough water to satiate consumers and maintain plants and animals that rely on streams, lakes, and watersheds. But with an expected increase in temperature and a population set to double by 2060, the future of the state's water is uncertain.

"I think we all recognize that water is going to be one of the key issues for us going forward," says Alan Matheson, State Planning Coordinator and Environmental Policy Advisor to Governor Herbert. "As our population grows and as projections of water availability change, those states that are prepared and thinking ahead about water are going to succeed and those that don't are going to fail."

Governor Herbert has taken steps to make sure that Utah is one of the states that will be prepared. He has tasked a group of 38 people to come up with a water strategy for the state. They come from different backgrounds including water management, politics, conservation, agriculture, industry, academia, and there's one representative for Native Americans.

"As we looked at putting that team together, we recognized that there are hundreds of people in the state that certainly could participate and contribute meaningfully," Matheson continues. "We just had to get to a number that would be workable, we could manage and actually get something done."

Matheson says the group will gather information, reach out to the public, and explore a range of policy options. At the end of the year they will develop a set of recommendations for what the state strategy should look like.

Getting there won't be easy. The Governor's team took a listening tour across the state over the Summer, visiting eight different locations and giving people a chance to voice their water concerns and priorities in person and on-line. They received 800 comments that illustrate the conflicting opinions around the state about how water should be managed in the future.

Here are a few from the Salt Lake City meeting:

"Conservation should be the primary solution to our growing water needs rather than resorting to major water projects."

"We need every drop of the Colorado River Basin water for drinking and for food production. There is no good reason to fund an oil shale development, where the world is already awash in oil."

"Conservation with reuse and recycling alone cannot meet the needs of our doubling population, substantial water supplies need to be developed."

"So why does Utah specifically use so much water? One of the reasons is that Utahns don't in fact pay for water directly. Instead water in Utah is subsidized or paid for in property taxes."

"Two things, I want to see water in our streams, sufficient water to support a healthy aquatic environment. And I want access to those streams wherever they are so ordinary citizens like me can enjoy recreation on them."

"Kentucky Bluegrass probably belongs in Kentucky."

"Utah farmers and ranchers are producing just over 1.3 billion dollars each year in farm sales, contributing 15 billion dollars in Utah economic activity."

Steve Erickson, a conservationist with the Great Basin Water Network and a member of the water advisory team, knows their job won't be easy. "It's going to be testy and contentious I'm sure. Hopefully we can all cooperate and try to arrive at some compromises that will be required," he says. "There likely will be some folks who want to draw lines in the sand and that remains to be seen how that will play out. The issues of water are always difficult, there's not going to be a simple answer to any of this."

Erickson says he personally is trying to set aside some of his biases in order to work towards a compromise. He sees his role as a liaison for others in the conservation community so their concerns get addressed and their suggestions get reviewed. "We're going to have to determine a means to protect the environment, to value water in place for the environment itself. Currently under the way the western water law is structured, the environment doesn't have a water right," Erickson says.

Water rights are allocated based on providing a beneficial use and under current law, leaving water in place to benefit the environment is not one of those uses. If the laws were changed to legally provide rights for the environment that could leave fewer rights for other applications, such as agriculture, which currently uses 80% of the water in Utah. This is just one of many contentious issues that the team will have to navigate.

Water conservation, the likely need for developing new water projects, and changing how water is priced, will all be part of the discussion, says Matheson. "We really have a stewardship duty to those that follow, to make sure we're not breaking the bank in committing ourselves to significant infrastructure projects, and we're not drying up our streams. And that's a tough balance, but it's something we simply have to do."

Water is just one of many issues facing the state. Others include air quality, transportation, energy, and jobs. Matheson says all of these issues are part of an umbrella process called 'Your Utah. Your Future.". Each issue will be studied individually and collectively with the difficult goal of maintaining Utah's economic health while also preserving a high quality of life for people in the state.

In the coming year, Explore Utah Science will be producing a five-part series on research efforts dedicated to maintaining and improving water sustainability in Utah. The series is made possible with support from iUTAH, a National Science Foundation-funded statewide research consortium.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Science and Society Thu, 07 Nov 2013 12:18:10 -0700
Objections to West Davis Corridor Highway - KCPW http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/118-objections-to-west-davis-corridor-highway http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/118-objections-to-west-davis-corridor-highway Objections to West Davis Corridor Highway - KCPW

(Audio) Community groups present alternatives to a proposed highway in Davis County that could threaten the fragile environment surrounding the Great Salt Lake.

(KCPW News) A coalition of environmental and community organizations are asking the Utah Department of Transportation to reevaluate their proposal for the West Davis Corridor – a 24-mile highway that would skirt the Great Salt Lake to the north of the Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area. KCPW’s Roger McDonough reports.

Listen to the story with our audio player.

scarpenter@kcpw.org (Roger McDonough) Science and Society Thu, 09 May 2013 12:30:14 -0600
Governor Herbert Says No to Snake Valley Agreement--KCPW http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/106-governor-to-make-snake-valley-decision-soon http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/106-governor-to-make-snake-valley-decision-soon Governor Herbert Says No to Snake Valley Agreement--KCPW

(Audio) Governor Gary Herbert announced that he will not sign a water sharing agreement with the state of Nevada.

Governor Gary Herbert announced that he will not sign a water sharing agreement with the state of Nevada. Among other things, the agreement would have authorized the construction of a pipeline from the Snake Valley in Utah's West Desert to Las Vegas. KCPW's Roger McDonough spoke with the Governor shortly after the decision was announced.


Listen to the story by KCPW's Roger McDonough.


scarpenter@kcpw.org (Roger McDonough) Environment Fri, 29 Mar 2013 08:41:37 -0600
Weathering Change: Las Vegas Pipeline May Threaten West Desert's Scarce Water http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/99-weathering-change-las-vegas-pipeline-may-threaten-west-desert-s-scarce-water http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/99-weathering-change-las-vegas-pipeline-may-threaten-west-desert-s-scarce-water Weathering Change: Las Vegas Pipeline May Threaten West Desert's Scarce Water

(Audio) The scarce water supply in Utah's West Desert is already impacted by agricultural use and fluctuations in weather. Some worry that adding a pipeline to Las Vegas will create an environmental disaster.

In the third part of our series, Weathering Change, we look at Utah's West Desert and the challenges people and the environment face with scare rainfall and snowmelt. 

Update (12/11/13): A Nevada judge ruled that 84,000 acre feet per year of water allocated for use by the Southern Nevada Water Authority will not be allowed to stand. Judge Robert Estes ruling requires the Nevada State Engineer to recalculate water rights taking into consideration groundwater discharge and recharge, as well as take into consideration the effect of groundwater drawdown on Millard and Juab Counties in Utah. 


In the arid high desert of western Utah, on the border between Utah and Nevada, water is a valuable commodity.

Seventh Judicial Court Water, in our language means healer of everything, says Rupert Steele. "For the American Indians, not only the Confederated Tribe of the Goshutes, but other Indians across the nation, water has always been worth more than gold and oil."

Steele is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshutes. He says streams, springs and groundwater in the area are critical for maintaining their ancestral lands, and the region's unique plants and animals.

"It is pretty and no matter where you go out there, you know we have close connections with the land out there. So, that's why you know it's a sacred area for us."

The Goshutes, along with ranchers and farmers who live in the West Desert, are concerned about developments that could upset the delicate balance that maintains their fragile lands. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has plans to build a pipeline to pump more than 27 billion gallons of groundwater out of Northern Nevada valleys, and ship it to Las Vegas. The Bureau of Land Management approved a right of way to build the pipeline last year.

For now, Snake Valley, which straddles Utah and Nevada, is spared from the project. Yet Steele worries that draining water from other nearby Nevada's valleys, could impact the entire region since there's some evidence the aquifers are connected.

"Transporting water from one place to another does not replenish or recharge the water system," says Steele. "You're taking water away from that place, and it's not going to come back. These are huge, seven foot diameter pipes. That takes a lot of water to fill a seven foot diameter pipe. And how many miles do you have? It's over three hundred miles, it's a long ways."

Agriculture and climate are already having an impact

Steve Erickson is a board member with the Great Basin Water Network that is fighting to keep Las Vegas from tapping northern Nevada groundwater. He says pumping water for agricultural use is already impacting the region's water.

"In fact we are seeing groundwater levels dropping," says Erickson. "It's a canary in the coalmine kind of a situation. When you see your seeps and springs declining, it's an indicator that you're drawing down the water table."

Because of concerns, in 2007 the Utah legislature funded a water monitoring project in the Snake Valley. Hugh Hurlow is with the Utah Geological Survey. He's tasked with measuring water levels in order to better understand the hydrology in the area. He says they found that some of the areas are very sensitive to climactic fluctuations.

"In the winter of 2010 and early 2011, there was a lot of snowfall," says Hurlow. "A very unusual amount for out there, and we saw groundwater levels the following spring rise by something like 8 to 10 feet. And now that we've had another dry year they've fallen back down almost to the levels where they were before that."

He adds that in other areas of Snake Valley, they have found that the water is old and there is very little recharge from winter runoff and rainfall. They calculate the age of the water using naturally occurring radioisotopes in the groundwater.

"Hydrogen has three different isotopes corresponding to different numbers of neutrons in the center of the atom," explains Hurlow. "And so the heaviest one with three is unstable over long amounts of time, so that there's less and less of that heavy isotope or large isotope. So we can measure the present concentration and back calculate the time that the atoms been in the groundwater."

Hurlow says they have found that water in different areas of the Snake Valley varies from younger than 50 years to over one thousand years old.

"You see very rare young water in the groundwater below the valley," says Hurlow. There's obviously young water in the mountains, in mountain springs and springs right on the edge of the mountains. But, in the deeper groundwater in the center of the basin, water younger than 50 years is very rare."

Hurlow says this suggests it takes a long time for the groundwater to be recharged in these areas.

Stopping the pipeline

According to Erickson, because the entire area is already sensitive to current use and fluctuations in weather, the added stress of a Las Vegas pipeline could create an environmental disaster.

"This one isn't going to be a permanent option. Once that water is depleted, it's ancient groundwater, it won't be replenished quickly," says Erickson. "It's a limited supply and it's a costly supply. There are better ways to go about solving their problems than this pipeline project."

It's not exactly clear what the impact would be in Snake Valley if Nevada decides to pump water from their northern valleys, but Erickson says they don't want to find out. They have filed legal action to challenge the pipeline.

"Legal action which we've taken against the Nevada state engineer against the allocation of water in four Nevada valleys," says Erickson. "We go to court this summer. And we'll also be filing suit against the Bureau of Land Management for their record of decision on the environmental analysis, the EIS [environmental impact statement] that was done. We think the BLM has made an improper decision and we'll challenge that."

The biggest short-term threat to Snake Valley is that there's no money to continue funding groundwater monitoring this year. $100,000 has been requested from the legislature to continue the project. The budget will be finalized next week.

Update: Governor Herbert says he will NOT sign a Snake Valley water agreement, which would allow Nevada to access Snake Valley aquifers. Listen to the story from KCPW.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Science and Society Thu, 07 Mar 2013 06:45:14 -0700