Conservation & Science

A new water source for the Monterey Peninsula that safeguards the sea

Gazing out over the ocean from the deck of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, with an expansive view of harbor seals, shorebirds and the occasional humpback whale, you could easily overlook this simple, almost banal truth: water is life.

Monterey Peninsula communities are under a state order to take less water from the Carmel River.

It’s a point underscored in recent years for residents of the Monterey Peninsula, who have long depended on water drawn from the Carmel River. They’re now facing a cease-and-desist order from the State Water Resources Control Board that aims to leave more water in the river, which is home to federally threatened steelhead trout.

This means the area needs a new daily source of millions of gallons of potable water—an exacting demand. Some proposed solutions have centered on turning seawater into drinking water, much as the Aquarium does with its own tiny desal plant.

But to supply thousands of homes and businesses around the Peninsula, another idea is surfacing. And it could relieve some of the demand for large-scale desalination, and the energy it will take to pull salt from seawater, by proving more practical and economical.

The new source: recycled wastewater.

Putting aside the mental hurdles of  turning sewage into tap water, such an approach stands to benefit not just thirsty humans on the Monterey Peninsula, but also marine life in Monterey Bay. Could this project be the “Future of Water”?

A collaborative approach

The water recycling effort, known as Pure Water Monterey, is a project of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District and Monterey One Water (formerly Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency), where Paul Sciuto is general manager.

Construction on the Pure Water Monterey project has begun, and the first water could flow to customers in 2019. Photo courtesy Monterey One Water

The $100 million project, which broke ground in May, initially aims to produce 3,500 acre-feet of drinking water each year—roughly enough to serve 15,000 to 20,000 households on the water-short Monterey Peninsula. If it stays on schedule, it will deliver its first drinking water to customers of California-American Water Co. sometime in 2019.

Paul takes a big-picture approach when people cringe at the thought of drinking recycled wastewater. He points out that, to some extent, all water is recycled. Indeed, water presently coursing through your veins may have journeyed over the eons through dinosaurs, glaciers and inexorable processions of clouds.

“It’s all just water out there,” he says.”

Wells in aquifers, like this one in Seaside, will deliver the new water to municipal supply systems.

There’s potable water, stormwater, farm irrigation water. It’s a fixed amount, he notes.

“In the water industry, there’s this concept of ‘One Water’,” Paul says. “There’s only one water out there, it’s just what you do with it. We’re taking that to heart. We have the technology to treat the water.”

With that in mind, he invokes another industry saying: “We’re going to judge the water not by its history, but by its quality.”

Cognitive cleansing

California’s drought spurred state officials to craft new rules to encourage various levels of wastewater recycling, including direct potable reuse, where wastewater enters a plant through sewer lines on one side, and emerges ready to drink on the other.

Pure Water Monterey, by contrast, plans an intermediate step—pumping highly treated water into a groundwater aquifer and letting it sit underground for a few months before anyone uses it. Paul says this “environmental buffer” is similar to the large-scale—and very successful—groundwater replenishment project in Orange County. (By “large scale”, we’re talking 100 million gallons of water a day.)

One advantage of the added step, Paul says, to do with public perception: “People are like ‘Hold it, this is sewage, what are you doing?’ But if you put it in the ground for six months, they’re like ‘Oh, that’s groundwater.’”

Environmental benefits

In a unique twist, the Pure Water Monterey project will also capture and use water in and around  Salinas Valley farms. The fertile Salinas Valley—”The Salad Bowl of the World”—is where billions of dollars worth of lettuce and other produce is grown, harvested, processed and packaged every year. Millions of gallons of water are used each day in those processes—water that is currently not being recycled, but ultimately could be reused.

Irrigation runoff from the Salinas Valley will contribute to the project, keeping potential contaminants from flowing to Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy USDA

“To my knowledge, we’re the first to use agricultural runoff as well as agricultural-industrial washwater” to supplement drinking water supplies, Paul says.

Capturing, treating and ultimately utilizing such water makes for a win-win because it removes agricultural contaminants that would otherwise flow untreated into Monterey Bay.

“If we can take some—not all, but some—of those contaminants out, then we’re all better for it, and we’ll have a new water source,” Paul says.

And there’s the matter of energy—a key consideration when the impacts of climate change are being felt more each day. Desalination requires lots of power to pump seawater from an intake line and then through a series of fine filters at extremely high pressure to remove salts so it’s drinking-water quality. Paul argues that the planned wastewater recycling plant will require a fraction of the energy and—kilowatt per kilowatt—will produce more drinkable water.

“If we’re able to recycle more water, then maybe the desal plant will operate less , making the carbon footprint of our community smaller,” Paul explains.

Inspiring conservation

That vision aligns with the spirit of Monterey Bay Aquarium, says Public Affairs Director Barbara Meister: “At its core, the whole project is about water conservation and reuse. That’s central to our values as a conservation organization.”

Tourism is an economic pillar in Monterey County, one that relies on a stable water supply.

Barbara also notes that water is the lifeblood for the Peninsula’s hospitality industry—a critical piece of the regional economy.

“About half of our visitors stay overnight, either at hotels or friends’ houses,” she says. “They’re users of water as well.”

Ensuring a sustainable water supply is just as essential to the health of the tourism economy as keeping roads open and the lights on.

As Pure Water Monterey begins to purify contaminated agricultural runoff and municipal wastewater, replenish aquifers and deliver potable water to thousands of households, it can demonstrate a new approach that other water-short communities could emulate.

“What’s going on here can definitely be a model for other parts of the state,” Barbara says, “and maybe other parts of the country.”

Perhaps we’ll find the “Future of Water” in our own backyard.

—Daniel Potter

‘Historic moment’: Nations act to save Pacific bluefin tuna

Today in Busan, South Korea, Pacific nations came together and agreed, for the first time, to recover the population of Pacific bluefin tuna to a sustainable level.

Bluefin tuna at auction in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market. Japan consumes 90 percent of the world;s catch of bluefin tuna. Photo courtesy Associated Press.

“This is a historic moment for this remarkable species, which is so important to the ocean ecosystem and to coastal communities around the Pacific Rim,” said Margaret Spring, Chief Conservation Officer for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

At the annual meeting of the Northern Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission—the body responsible for managing tunas and other highly migratory species across the western Pacific Ocean—international delegates discussed ways to recover the population of Pacific bluefin tuna after years of decline. Ultimately, they took a major step forward by agreeing to recover the population to a sustainable level and establishing a long-term management plan.

Read more…

John Kerry: It’s time to act for Pacific bluefin tuna

For John Kerry, saving the ocean is a “life or death” issue. As an ocean champion in Congress, and as Secretary of State, securing a healthy future for the ocean was central to his public service. Now he has joined with conservation leaders and with some of the world’s top chefs in a call for immediate action to recover one of the most valuable—and depleted—fish in the ocean, Pacific bluefin tuna:

John Kerry has been an ocean advocate, in Congress and as Secretary of State.

“Of all the environmental progress achieved in recent years, it is particularly important that the one direct line that so many, from a wide variety of different backgrounds and ideologies, have drawn is between the fate of our oceans and our existence, our economic well-being, and the diversity of human cultures around the world. Whether it’s through the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals or the Our Ocean Conferences, which I founded as Secretary of State, or through groundbreaking work in corporations and philanthropies, together the international community has elevated the centrality of the oceans to our global responsibilities.

Read more…

Chefs worldwide speak out to save Pacific bluefin tuna

Leading chefs on five continents have pledged to keep Pacific bluefin tuna off their menus until there’s effective international action to manage the fishery and reverse a precipitous decline in the population.

Chef Alex Atala of Brazil: “We are not living within our means when it comes to Pacific bluefin tuna.”

Nearly 200 prominent chefs and culinary leaders from around the world—including Alex Atala of Brazil, James Beard Award nominee Michael Cimarusti of the United States and Annabel Langbein of New Zealand—say Pacific Rim nations must act immediately to recover Pacific bluefin tuna.

Bluefin tunas are among the planet’s most iconic and prized fish. In recent decades, global demand for Pacific bluefin tuna has driven the population down to a critical level—just 2.6 percent of its historic abundance, significantly lower than those of the two other bluefin tuna species, Atlantic and Southern bluefin tunas, and lower than all other assessed tuna species.

The chef pledge comes as fishing nations charged with securing the future of Pacific bluefin tuna prepare to meet in Busan, South Korea from August 28 to September 1, to craft a new recovery plan in the face of growing international criticism that the current plan falls far short of what’s needed.

Read more…

Pulling plastic off the shelf

Cheers to a clean ocean! At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we’re working to reduce plastic pollution by making changes right here at home.

PMNM - Laysan Albatross 2016 Cleanup
An albatross investigates a plastic toothbrush that washed up on its island—and might look like food. Photo by NOAA / David Slater

Single-use plastic may be convenient for a few minutes. But once it’s out of our hands, it adds to a growing global problem that threatens the health of marine wildlife like fish, turtles and seabirds. These animals can become entangled in plastic trash like six-pack rings, plastic bags and abandoned fishing nets. As the plastic pollution breaks apart into smaller pieces called microplastics, many animals mistakenly ingest it—filling their stomachs with toxic trash instead of needed nutrition.

At the Aquarium, we’re tackling ocean plastic pollution through education, business initiatives and science-based policies. We also took a look around and identified the parts of our own operations where we could cut back on single-use plastics. These changes take creative thinking and ongoing conversations with our suppliers, staff and guests. But through trial and error, we’re making progress.

One year ago, we reported on how we’ve reduced single-use plastic in our cafe, restaurant and gift shops. Since then, we’ve challenged ourselves to go further. Next time you visit, you might spot a few upgrades.

Read more…

Pinpointing plastic’s path to the deep sea

Until now, little has been known about how microplastics move in the ocean. A new paper by our colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), just published in the journal Science Advances, shows that filter-feeding animals called giant larvaceans collect and consume microplastic particles in the deep sea.

Larvaceans are transparent tunicates that live in the open sea and capture food in sticky mucus filters. Plastic particles accumulate in the cast-off mucus feeding filters and are passed into the animals’ fecal pellets, which sink rapidly through the water, potentially carrying microplastics to the deep seafloor.

Researchers at MBARI documented that tadpole-like giant larvaceans consume microplastic beaads. Photo courtesy MBARI.

The new findings contribute to an emerging picture about the ubiquitous nature of ocean plastic pollution. Over the last decade, scientists have discovered tiny pieces of plastic in all parts of the ocean—including deep-sea mud. One recent study documented microplastic fibers in deep-sea sediments at levels four times greater than an earlier study had found in surface waters. Plastic has also been discovered in the tissues of animals at the base of the ocean food web. Another just-published study found that fish confuse plastic particles with real food items because it smells just like organic matter in the ocean.

Despite their name, giant larvaceans are less than 10 millimeters (4 inches) long, and look somewhat like transparent tadpoles. Their mucus filters—called “houses” because the larvaceans live inside them—can be more than 1 meter (3 feet) across. These filters trap tiny particles of drifting debris, which the larvacean eats. When a larvacean’s house becomes clogged with debris, the animal abandons the structure and it sinks toward the seafloor.

Principal Engineer Kakani Katija studies giant larvaceans during field expeditions in Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy MBARI.

In early 2016, MBARI Principal Engineer Kakani Katija was planning an experiment using the DeepPIV system to figure out how quickly giant larvaceans could filter seawater, and what size particles they could capture in their filters. Other researchers have tried to answer these questions in the laboratory by placing tiny plastic beads into tanks with smaller larvaceans. Because giant larvacean houses are too big to study in the lab, Kakani decided to perform similar experiments in the open ocean, using MBARI’s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

When she discussed this experiment with Postdoctoral Fellow Anela Choy—who studies the movement of plastic through the ocean—they realized that in-situ feeding experiments using plastic beads could also shine light on the fate of microplastics in the deep sea. Read more…

How do you tag a jellyfish?  

They’re so soft—so squishy! Where to put a tag—and why bother? Questions like these moved scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), Hopkins Marine Station and other institutions around the world to publish the first comprehensive how-to tagging paper for jellyfish researchers everywhere. This missing manual was long in the making

A wild sea nettle swims off Point Lobos near Carmel. Photo ©Bill Morgan

Tommy Knowles, a senior aquarist at Monterey Bay Aquarium, explains why.  Historically, ocean researchers demonized jellies as “blobs of goo that hurt you,” and that interfered with scientific gear. That changed in the  latter part of the 20th century as scientists grew keen to understand entire ecosystems, not just individual plants and animals. Knowing who eats what, how, where and when, they learned, is critical for conservation.

Jellyfish, however, remained a very under-appreciated member of the ecosystem for years, largely because so little was known about them.

Senior Aquarist Tommy Knowles and his colleagues work in the lab and in the filed to advance jellyfish science. Photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium/Tyson Rininger

“People didn’t know how to keep them alive in the lab or even on the boat,” says Knowles. Today, the field is coming into its own at a time when climate change has added urgency to the need to understand ecosystems in order to preserve ocean health.

A growing subject of interest

Understanding jellies is a concern for fisheries managers, too, since some jellyfish species prey upon the young and compete for food with the adults of commercially important fish. Other jellies impact tourism when blooms of stinging species foul beaches.

It’s not all negatives. We know that jellyfish play important roles in healthy marine ecosystems, by sheltering juvenile fish and crabs under their swimming bells, and nourishing hundreds of ocean predators. Jellies are a significant food source for ocean sunfish (the largest bony fish on the planet) and the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle, California’s state marine reptile.

A barrel jellyfish (Rhizostoma octopus) is tagged by a diver with an accelerometer using the “cable tie” method. Courtesy Sabrina Fossette/NOAA

As with other marine species that live and travel underwater—out of sight of human researchers—electronic data tags are useful tools for tracking jellies’ movements. Which gets back to the question: Just how do you tag a jellyfish? Read more…

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