Impervious, Part II

An ideal fish stream

An ideal fish stream

The Ten Percent
Scientists and planners say: if ten percent of the surface area of a watershed is impermeable, its stream channels are destabilized and fish habitat degrades. The number of fish species as well as the abundance of their eggs and larvae declines sharply at this level. Plant and amphibian density also declines with higher streamflows.

Even without urban land cover—roofs, sidewalks, lawns, patios—roads within a watershed also have profound impacts on water quality downstream. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries agency uses the ratio of fewer than two miles of Oregon_ Washington_Cities_Population_Density_Per_Acre (3)road per square mile to define a “properly functioning watershed” for salmon, steelhead, and many other aquatic and marine species important in the Gorge reach of the Columbia (although this figure has been sharply criticized as far too high).

A Klickitat County watershed assessment found the road density in the Klickitat River watershed – a relatively sparsely populated area – to be 2.6 road miles per square mile. The assessment further notes that when the human population exceeds four people per acre, aquatic insect diversity in urban streams plummets, and when insects go, so do fish. Coho salmon are particularly sensitive.

Contaminant Ride-Along
The Columbia River drains 259,000 square miles and is 1,200 miles long. It receives a huge amount of material from human sources. Along with the sediment comes everything else that gets entrained in the flow: fertilizer, Roundup, cockroach killer, soap, paint, concrete sealant, grit from roof shingles. So it’s both the amount of water and what’s in the water that upsets the natural pattern.

Most agricultural input enters upstream in the Columbia Basin. A recent U.S. Geological Survey study reports an average of 182 chemicals–adding up to about 46,000 metric tons of active ingredients a year poured into the Columbia between 1999 and 2004.

PesticideThe amount contributed by urban areas is likely much smaller but significant, because people use chemicals in their houses and yards and cities release treated municipal sewage, which also contains numerous chemicals ranging from prescription drugs to hair dye.

The Gorge has a low population and relatively low levels of impervious surfaces, but within its urbanized areas there are zones of very high imperviousness.

For urban areas, an emerging contaminant issue is the chemicals used to seal concrete and road surfaces. The goal is to prevent staining, to control degradation from freeze-thaw cycles, and to preserve decorative colors. But the sealants enter stormwater through normal daily abrasion of the concrete surface, and in the process they release polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a class of compounds known for their persistence in the environment.

Human exposure to PAHs is associated with cancers and various developmental and cognitive deficits in children exposed prenatally
and there is evidence that PAHs have a range of harmful effects on downstream invertebrates. There are a few greener alternatives available, such as acrylic and soy-based concrete sealants, but the toxicity of the former and the long-term effectiveness of the latter are still largely unknown.

And then there are “domestic” pesticides. For example, pyrethroids insecticides are constituents in more than 3,500 products, many used in households, in pet products including fog “bombs” and flea collars, and in agriculture. A recent study of several pyrethroid pesticides’ behavior on concrete found that the chemicals washed off rapidly for about three days, after which runoff slowed, but because the pesticides were retained in the pores of the concrete, there continued to be measurable runoff for more than a month. Pyrethroids are extremely toxic to aquatic organisms.

Soil Survival
pull quote 3 ps copy
Covering soil with impervious materials basically destroys it, but much less attention is paid to this than to the consequences of stormwater runoff. Although the Oregon DEQ monitors and regulates runoff from roads, “We don’t have any regulations associated with road building that protects worms under the pavement,” says Mason.

This is regrettable, because soils harbor something like a third of all the life on the planet, and only about one percent of its organisms have even been identified. According to a European Commission brochure, “A single teaspoon of garden soil may contain thousands of species, millions of individuals and 100 metres of fungal networks.” The EC has also found that two and a half acres of “fully functioning soil” can store up to 4,134 metric tons of water, the equivalent of 16 inches of precipitation.

Next time: Impervious Part III What are the Rules? What can you do?

Posted in News | Leave a comment

We have a winner!

Thank you to everyone who participated in our Transportation Quiz. Our top scoring winner was Lisa Anderson who will receive a gift certificate to the Blue Elephant Food Cart in Hood River. We were impressed Lisa was able to get a perfect score on our tricky quiz. What surprised you the most?

Posted in News | Leave a comment

It’s Your Last Week to Win

You only have 5 more days to be our transportation quiz winner. This Friday we will hold a drawing of top scorers to win lunch for two at the Blue Elephant Food Truck in Hood River. Challenge yourself.


Posted in News | Leave a comment


This is Part 1 of Impervious, an Envirogorge series on transportation. Writer Valerie Brown explores what it takes to create ease of movement in the Columbia River Gorge. SEH & EKK

You’re on a home improvement kick. You pour a new concrete driveway, put on a new roof black asphalt shingles, clean your rain gutters making sure the downspouts feed into the stormwater drains, spray Roundup on the weeds in the seams, then seal the concrete.

Unfortunately this way of imposing order on the chaos of nature and human habitation has a downside for vital human and ecosystem resources: water and soils. By covering your property with hard surfaces you’re interrupting the natural water management system. In the Gorge this adds insult to injury because the beautiful landscape is underlain and shaped by the Columbia River Basalt.
Col  River Basalt graphicRain falling on the cliffs along Interstate 84 “will just run off into the Columbia without much resistance,” says Bill Mason, a hydrologist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, because basalt resists erosion. The few areas flat enough to be floodplains that could accumulate sediment and create topsoil are often overlain by gravel, sands and silt swept down the river in the massive post-glacial Missoula floods. Thus laying down impervious surfaces further obstructs a geological landscape that was already quick to release water into the river.
Stormwater graphicIn a landscape unaltered by humans, water percolating through rocks, sand and soil is cleaned and delivered downstream slowly. In general, only about ten percent of rain turns into immediate runoff. But an urban landscape that’s 75% impervious turns more than half of its precipitation into runoff immediately. The sheer volume of water moving faster than normal erodes streambeds and banks and moves vast quantities of sediment downstream.

Look for Part 2 of Impervious coming next week.

Posted in News | Leave a comment

Challenge yourself to win

Only 17 days for a chance to win lunch for two at Blue Elephant Indian food cart! Test your knowledge. What moves through the Gorge? Take the Transportation Quiz.

Posted in News | Leave a comment

Transportation Quiz

Lot’s of things pass through The Gorge every day.  See if you can guess how many.  We will hold a drawing of top scorers, the winner will receive a gift certificate for lunch for two from the Blue Elephant Indian food truck in Hood River.

Drawing will be held Friday February 20th.

How many trains run through the Gorge per day?

How many vehicles drive in the Gorge per day: cars, trucks, motorcycles?

How many barges go through Bonneville Dam locks per day?

How raptors migrated through Columbia Gorge last autumn?

How many fish swam up the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam in 2014?

How many lamprey suckered their way up the lamprey ladders at Bonneville Dam in 2014?



Posted in News | 1 Comment

Mary Lou Soscia and the Columbia River

The Columbia River is a highway for salmon, steelhead, lamprey. The quality of it’s water is critical for them. One of the key players working on just that is Mary Lou Soscia. SEH

Remember that kid who was always talking in class?  Maybe it was you or maybe a friend or classmate. Extroverted and driven to connect with others—they keep talking.

Mary Lou Soscia

Mary Lou Soscia

Mary Lou Soscia was one of those kids. Luckily, she never stopped.

These days, talking it out between, tribal, state, and federal governments is what she does best. “Its hard work,” Soscia says. “I’m the person that tries to put all the pieces together toward working for a common goal.”

After more than 30 years in watershed and river management, Soscia is more than qualified. Her goal: to create healthy rivers.

“I want to figure out a way to be near rivers and interact, but also do the right thing—undo the damage that has been done, and create a healthy, useable ecosystem.”

A champion with a cause, Soscia has positioned herself as a river guardian. She’s a woman of many titles: Region 10 Columbia River Coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency, leader of the Columbia River Toxics Reductions Strategy and Toxics Reduction Working Group.

She is a board member for WaterWatch of Oregon and the World Salmon Council. Fish aren’t the only ones with Soscia on their side: she was a leader in the past collaboration of the Oregon Water Quality standards human health criteria and is currently leading the collaboration with Idaho Tribal Governments to address human health criteria revisions. Whew!

But these titles have come with time and experience. Soscia believes it’s all about the connections you make. “You get to know people who are dedicated to this work,” she says. “You create a great network of people who care about rivers and that connection helps.” You also need to know what you are talking about. Be an expert. When people ask questions, have answers.

Mary Lou gave Lyndal Johnson of NOAA Science Center a Columbia River Hero Award

Mary Lou gave Lyndal Johnson of NOAA Science Center a Columbia River Hero Award

For Soscia, her network began at school.

After earning her B.A. in Sociology and B.S. in Geography, Soscia began grad school to pursue a Master’s Degree in Geography at the University of Maryland. While in grad school, she began work on environmental policy. She was interested in locally based watershed work rather than a future in the federal government. Specifically, Soscia wanted to work on watersheds within the Chesapeake Bay area.

Grad school started to fuel that spark; “I had wonderful mentors,” says Soscia. Working with individuals like Gilbert White—geographer, environmentalist, and pioneer in flood plain management—Soscia gained greater interest in water systems and floodplains, eventually landing a position with the State of Maryland working on floodplain management.

Past co-worker Lisa Jackson, former head of the EPA, also inspired her and later became a mentor. Soscia fondly remembers a speech Jackson gave to a group of teenage school girls in Portland, Oregon. Jackson stressed the importance of studying science, especially in a field dominated by men. Jackson passionately spoke about women contributing to the world through science. Soscia was moved to tears, “She was a beautiful speaker.”

Soscia agrees that there are not enough women in her work place. While feminist isn’t a title on her list, Soscia leads by example. “I’m egalitarian,” she says. “I want fairness for everyone.” Soscia now mentors others and tries to stay in touch. Keeping the network alive and well involves a commitment to reaching out.

It’s no surprise that Soscia was one of the first at EPA to get the community involved in social media. EPA Northwest regularly tweets on environmental news and eco-tips. While she was one of the first, EPA is now represented on multiple platforms.

A current project for Soscia—one that has taken much time the last four years—is working with Columbia Gorge tribal communities and making sure their issues are included in the Columbia River Basin Treaty negotiations. The agreement between Canada and the United States was created in the 1960’s to regulate the operation of dams for power, flood control, and economic benefits. A lot has changed since the treaty’s creation, and Columbia River tribes are now focusing on ecosystem restoration through rivers.

“It has been a real challenge,” say Soscia. “A lot of issues and money are at stake. International diplomacy is at stake. For the first time in many years the Columbia River tribes are coming together with the First Nations to move in a positive direction for the Columbia River basin’s environment.”

Another difficult task: protecting high consumers of fish, like the Native American population. Soscia is working with Idaho tribes to gather data, through surveys and interviews with tribal members about fish consumption. The process takes time and Soscia’s team has completed eight months of a 12 month interview process with tribal fish consumers. She hopes the surveys will more accurately reflect current consumption.

Oregon DEQ staff testing for toxics in the Columbia River

Oregon DEQ staff testing for toxics in the Columbia River

Work on Columbia River toxics has to be done on a tight budget, but Soscia keeps a bright perspective. “You have to work hard to communicate with people and look for opportunities to solve problems in a positive way.” It takes energy for this work, but passion is at the heart of Soscia’s motivation.

“I’ve always loved and grew up around rivers,” says Soscia. Growing up near the Chesapeake Bay inVirginia Beach, she recalls memories of a childhood in the water—a gift she wants to give back to future generations, like her daughter Molly.

Molly is as extroverted and as environmentally conscious as her mother. “Everyone says ‘she’s just like you’,” says Soscia. She feels that letting Molly learn and grow to love the environment is an important step. “I want to let her be free,” says Soscia. She adopted Molly in 2007 from China. She had a difficult early life, but today Molly is described as a happy and outspoken child. She claims, “Mama, I taught you everything you know about the Columbia River!”

“I’ve come to love the Columbia River,” says Soscia, “It has a fabulous ecosystem, and I love the tribal people and their culture.” A love for rivers, the environment, and the people who live in the Columbia River Basin keeps Soscia talking.

Posted in News | 2 Comments

The Walk-Instead Challenge. Are you in?

Transportation: trains, cars, boats, bikes and of course walking–the object of a challenge we have for you this month. Till the end of January 2015, we’re challenging you to walk instead of driving to one of your usual destinations. Who’s in?

Why do we care? Well it’s the environment. Think one person can make a difference? Here’s a chance to prove it. Share your stories or photos of where you walked instead.  Comment here or post to Facebook, tweet or Instagram @envirogorge #walkinstead

Posted in News | 2 Comments

Moving into the New Year

With the New Year we always think of change—what we’re going to do; where we’re going to go. Our theme this first quarter of 2015 is transportation. We’re going to focus on things that move through the Gorge. The Gorge is a corridor. Up and down this narrow passageway travel: fish, barges, vehicles, trains, goods, people, animals, birds, and energy. How are they moving and what is the result?

Posted in News | Leave a comment

Gifts, gifts, gifts

Langston Kriel and John Hart at Kayak Shed with gifts for water lovers.

Langston Kriel and John Hart at Kayak Shed with gifts for water lovers.

Check out our list of enviro-gift ideas. Last year we visited Gorge retailers for ideas. Those items from paper pads to cars are still sold. If you live outside the Gorge, see if the store ships or check out stores in your area.

Posted in News | Leave a comment