USGS: Lessons Learned from a Legend: Luna Leopold’s View of the River

From the United States Geological Survey (Curt Meine):

Dr. Luna Leopold discusses the importance of bankfull discharge on the New Fork River near Boulder, Wyoming. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service
Dr. Luna Leopold discusses the importance of bankfull discharge on the New Fork River near Boulder, Wyoming. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

No time seems more fitting than now – with the epic drought in California and major flooding from a nor’easter and Hurricane Joaquin – to pay tribute to Luna B. Leopold, the first chief hydrologist at the USGS. More so than any other scientist, he set the course for the USGS approach to understanding river flows, groundwater and surface water interactions and the value of long-term data collection. Today, the USGS is the world’s largest provider of hydrologic information with a mission to collect and disseminate reliable, impartial, and timely information that is needed to understand the Nation’s water resources.

Born on Oct. 8, 1915 in Albuquerque, Luna Leopold lived a rich life. From his renowned father, the biologist and author Aldo Leopold, he inherited a passion for outdoor life, a respect of craftsmanship, a highly disciplined curiosity, and an appreciation of the complex interactions of human society and natural systems. From his mother Estella, he inherited a deep connection to the semi-arid landscapes and watersheds of the American Southwest, a rich Hispanic cultural tradition, and a keen aesthetic sense. These qualities would meld and develop over time, across an extraordinary career in the earth sciences.

Luna Leopold in the mid-1970s along the East Fork River in Wyoming. Photo courtesy of U.C. Berkeley
Luna Leopold via the USGS

According to the Virtual Luna Leopold Project, “He was trained as a civil engineer (B.S degree), meteorologist (M.S. degree) and geologist (Ph.D.) and his publications reflect that blending of fields. His first publication in 1937 was entitled Relation of Watershed Conditions to Flood Discharge: A Theoretical Analysis and his most recent publication in 2005 was Geomorphic Effects of Urbanization in Forty-one Years of Observations. Few have written papers spanning 68 years, and fewer still have had such an influence on a field or on society.”

Middle fork of the Salmon River near Shoup, Idaho
Middle fork of the Salmon River near Shoup, Idaho

Luna Leopold’s creative intellect compelled him to explore the territory where science, policy, ethics, and environmental stewardship come together. In discerning the complex physical processes of stream formation and development, climate, precipitation, erosion, sedimentation, and deposition, he made connections to our human capacity to alter, or adapt to, hydrological realities. He understood that water science could not be separated from the water management and stewardship, which could not be separated from water ethics. On this he has been widely quoted: “Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime. The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.”

“The stream has to have change”

What he was referring to, of course, was our dominant historic tendency to reduce the inherent flux in stream systems, to manage flowing waters by controlling their dynamic variability. It is a fundamental lesson that several generations now of river managers and stewards have taken to heart and employed in restoration practice.

I suspect I highlighted that line in my notes, in part, because of its rich metaphorical potential. Luna Leopold understood change. He saw the reality of change and the need for change. He was himself an agent of change. In his field work, in his policy work, in his teaching and writing and consulting, he came to a view of rivers, of water, and of our future, that called for change. Through Luna’s understanding of science, history, and aesthetics, he came to perceive a “harmony in natural systems,” and held that “the desire to preserve this harmony must… be incorporated into any philosophy of water management, and I will call this, as did Herodotus, a reverence for rivers. If this is environmental idealism, then let it be said that I am an idealist.”

In the midst of a research expedition in Cataract Canyon, Utah, former USGS Chief Hydrologist Luna Leopold and eminent physicist Ralph Bagnold take a moment to rest
In the midst of a research expedition in Cataract Canyon, Utah, former USGS Chief Hydrologist Luna Leopold and eminent physicist Ralph Bagnold take a moment to rest

Wisdom from the past shapes the USGS today

Leopold was best known for work on the geomorphology of rivers, the study of land features and the processes that create and change them. He initiated a new era in the study of rivers, one that involved quantitative approaches that spread to the broader field of geomorphology. His research related meteorology and climatology to landscape process, a concept that has become a central feature of geomorphology. One of his better known papers, The Hydraulic Geometry of Stream Channels, published in 1953, initiated a new era in the quantitative study of rivers and stimulated quantitative approaches in geomorphology generally. Revealing an orderly framework of river behavior, the paper provided a basis for observing rivers worldwide through objective measurements and data collection.

Luna Leopold (3rd from left) visiting the USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center in 2002.
Luna Leopold (3rd from left) visiting the USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center in 2002.

Leopold retired from the USGS in 1972, having had a distinguished 22-year career where his focus on research and interpretation of data made a profound impact on the earth sciences. His enthusiasm for rivers proved contagious, inspiring generations of colleagues and students to devote their talents to the pursuit of science and to its application for society. Following his USGS career, Leopold, became a professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics and the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. He passed away in 2006 at the age of 90.

Today, as our nation is faced with the challenge of balancing a finite freshwater supply among competing needs, including agriculture, drinking water, energy production, and ecosystem health, we can appreciate even more Luna Leopold’s combination of field knowledge, leadership, and wisdom. His reverence for rivers, his way of connecting head and heart, has continued to inform new generations of scientists, policy-makers, land stewards, and philosophers who are extending his insights, exploring new dimensions in water ethics, and putting that ethic into practice. The stream has to have change. The change that Leopold helped to initiate and inspire must come. It comes more predictably, perhaps, in natural systems than in human ones. But now, as we come to know how the human and natural inevitably flow together, we can perhaps allow reverence and knowledge to flow together as well—as they did through Luna’s life.

USGS: Mercury in the Nation’s Streams—Levels, Trends, and Implications

Mercury in Colorado graphic via The Denver Post
Mercury in Colorado graphic via The Denver Post

Click through to read the report. Here’s the release from the United States Geological Survey (Dennis A. Wentz, Mark E. Brigham, Lia C. Chasar, Michelle A. Lutz, and David P. Krabbenhoft):

Major Findings and Implications

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in fish to levels of concern for human health and the health of fish-eating wildlife. Mercury contamination of fish is the primary reason for issuing fish consumption advisories, which exist in every State in the Nation. Much of the mercury originates from combustion of coal and can travel long distances in the atmosphere before being deposited. This can result in mercury-contaminated fish in areas with no obvious source of mercury pollution.

Three key factors determine the level of mercury contamination in fish—the amount of inorganic mercury available to an ecosystem, the conversion of inorganic mercury to methylmercury, and the bioaccumulation of methylmercury through the food web. Inorganic mercury originates from both natural sources (such as volcanoes, geologic deposits of mercury, geothermal springs, and volatilization from the ocean) and anthropogenic sources (such as coal combustion, mining, and use of mercury in products and industrial processes). Humans have doubled the amount of inorganic mercury in the global atmosphere since pre-industrial times, with substantially greater increases occurring at locations closer to major urban areas.

In aquatic ecosystems, some inorganic mercury is converted to methylmercury, the form that ultimately accumulates in fish. The rate of mercury methylation, thus the amount of methylmercury produced, varies greatly in time and space, and depends on numerous environmental factors, including temperature and the amounts of oxygen, organic matter, and sulfate that are present.

Methylmercury enters aquatic food webs when it is taken up from water by algae and other microorganisms. Methylmercury concentrations increase with successively higher trophic levels in the food web—a process known as bioaccumulation. In general, fish at the top of the food web consume other fish and tend to accumulate the highest methylmercury concentrations.

This report summarizes selected stream studies conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) since the late 1990s, while also drawing on scientific literature and datasets from other sources. Previous national mercury assessments by other agencies have focused largely on lakes. Although numerous studies of mercury in streams have been conducted at local and regional scales, recent USGS studies provide the most comprehensive, multimedia assessment of streams across the United States, and yield insights about the importance of watershed characteristics relative to mercury inputs. Information from other environments (lakes, wetlands, soil, atmosphere, glacial ice) also is summarized to help understand how mercury varies in space and time.

More USGS coverage here

USGS: Browse/download 37,000+ historic photos online on our USGS Denver Photographic Library website

View down Clear Creek from the Empire Trail 1873 via the USGS
View down Clear Creek from the Empire Trail 1873 via the USGS

Click here to go to the USGS website. This site is not safe for history buffs at work — you may spend your entire day there.

USGS: Water Used for Hydraulic Fracturing Varies Widely Across United States

2011-2014 Hydraulic Fracturing Water Use (Meters Cubed per Well) via the USGS
2011-2014 Hydraulic Fracturing Water Use (Meters Cubed per Well) via the USGS

Here’s the release from the United States Geological Survey (Anne Berry Wade/Leigh Cooper/Tanya Gallegos). (Multiply meters cubed used by 264.172052 to get gallons used). Here’s an excerpt:

The amount of water required to hydraulically fracture oil and gas wells varies widely across the country, according to the first national-scale analysis and map of hydraulic fracturing water usage detailed in a new USGS study accepted for publication in Water Resources Research, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. The research found that water volumes for hydraulic fracturing averaged within watersheds across the United States range from as little as 2,600 gallons to as much as 9.7 million gallons per well.

More oil and gas coverage here.

USGS: Evaluation of Groundwater Levels in the South Platte River Alluvial Aquifer, Colorado, 1953–2012

South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia
South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia

Here’s the abstract from the United States Geological Survey (Tristan P. Wellman):

The South Platte River and underlying alluvial aquifer form an important hydrologic resource in northeastern Colorado that provides water to population centers along the Front Range and to agricultural communities across the rural plains. Water is regulated based on seniority of water rights and delivered using a network of administration structures that includes ditches, reservoirs, wells, impacted river sections, and engineered recharge areas. A recent addendum to Colorado water law enacted during 2002–2003 curtailed pumping from thousands of wells that lacked authorized augmentation plans. The restrictions in pumping were hypothesized to increase water storage in the aquifer, causing groundwater to rise near the land surface at some locations. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado Water Institute, completed an assessment of 60 years (yr) of historical groundwater-level records collected from 1953 to 2012 from 1,669 wells. Relations of “high” groundwater levels, defined as depth to water from 0 to 10 feet (ft) below land surface, were compared to precipitation, river discharge, and 36 geographic and administrative attributes to identify natural and human controls in areas with shallow groundwater.

Averaged per decade and over the entire aquifer, depths to groundwater varied between 24 and 32 ft over the 60-yr record. The shallowest average depth to water was identified during 1983–1992, which also recorded the highest levels of decadal precipitation. Average depth to water was greatest (32 ft) during 1953–1962 and intermediate (30 ft) in the recent decade (2003–2012) following curtailment of pumping. Between the decades 1993–2002 and 2003–2012, groundwater levels declined about 2 ft across the aquifer. In comparison, in areas where groundwater levels were within 20 ft of the land surface, observed groundwater levels rose about 0.6 ft, on average, during the same period, which demonstrated preferential rise in areas with shallow groundwater.

Approximately 29 percent of water-level observations were identified as high groundwater in the South Platte River alluvial aquifer over the 60-yr record. High groundwater levels were found in 17 to 33 percent of wells examined by decade, with the largest percentages occurring over three decades from 1963 to 1992. The recent decade (2003–2012) exhibited an intermediate percentage (25 percent) of wells with high groundwater levels but also had the highest percentage (30 percent) of high groundwater observations, although results by observations were similar (26–29 percent) over three decades prior, from 1963 to 1992. Major sections of the aquifer from north of Sterling to Julesburg and areas near Greeley, La Salle, and Gilcrest were identified with the highest frequencies of high groundwater levels.

Changes in groundwater levels were evaluated using Kendal line and least trimmed squares regression methods using a significance level of 0.01 and statistical power of 0.8. During 2003–2012, following curtailment of pumping, 88 percent of wells and 81 percent of subwatershed areas with significant trends in groundwater levels exhibited rising water levels. Over the complete 60-yr record, however, 66 percent of wells and 57 percent of subwatersheds with significant groundwater-level trends still showed declining water levels; rates of groundwater-level change were typically less than 0.125 ft/yr in areas near the South Platte River, with greater declines along the southern tributaries. In agreement, 58 percent of subwatersheds evaluated between 1963–1972 and 2003–2012 showed net declines in average decadal groundwater levels. More areas had groundwater decline in upgradient sections to the west and rise in downgradient sections to the east, implying a redistribution of water has occurred in some areas of the aquifer.

Precipitation was identified as having the strongest statistically significant correlations to river discharge over annual and decadal periods (Pearson correlation coefficients of 0.5 and 0.8, respectively, and statistical significance defined by p-values less than 0.05). Correlation coefficients between river discharge and frequency of high groundwater levels were statistically significant at 0.4 annually and 0.6 over decadal periods, indicating that periods of high river flow were often coincident with high groundwater conditions. Over seasonal periods in five of the six decades examined, peak high groundwater levels occurred after spring runoff from July to September when administrative structures were most active. Between 1993–2002 and 2003–2012, groundwater levels rose while river discharge decreased, in part from greater reliance on surface water and curtailed pumping from wells without augmentation plans.

Geographic attributes of elevation and proximity to streams and rivers showed moderate correlations to high groundwater levels in wells used for observing groundwater levels (correlation coefficients of 0.3 to 0.4). Local depressions and regional lows within the aquifer were identified as areas of potential shallow groundwater. Wells close to the river regularly indicated high groundwater levels, while those within depleted tributaries tended to have low frequencies of high groundwater levels. Some attributes of administrative structures were spatially correlated to high groundwater levels at moderate to high magnitudes (correlation coefficients of 0.3 to 0.7). The number of affected river reaches or recharge areas that surround a well where groundwater levels were observed and its distance from the nearest well field showed the strongest controls on high groundwater levels. Influences of administrative structures on groundwater levels were in some cases local over a mile or less but could extend to several miles, often manifesting as diffuse effects from multiple surrounding structures.

A network of candidate monitoring wells was proposed to initiate a regional monitoring program. Consistent monitoring and analysis of groundwater levels will be needed for informed decisions to optimize beneficial use of water and to limit high groundwater levels in susceptible areas. Finalization of the network will require future field reconnaissance to assess local site conditions and discussions with State authorities.

More South Platte River Basin coverage here.

USGS: This Public Service Recognition Week, thank you to all public servants for their dedicated service

A huge shout out to all of you government types that have a part if providing clean water to the masses!

@USGS: Dam Removal Study Reveals River Resiliency

Here’s the release from the USGS and USFS:

More than 1,000 dams have been removed across the United States because of safety concerns, sediment buildup, inefficiency or having otherwise outlived usefulness. A paper published today in Science finds that rivers are resilient and respond relatively quickly after a dam is removed.

“The apparent success of dam removal as a means of river restoration is reflected in the increasing number of dams coming down, more than 1,000 in the last 40 years,” said lead author of the study Jim O’Connor, geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Rivers quickly erode sediment accumulated in former reservoirs and redistribute it downstream, commonly returning the river to conditions similar to those prior to impoundment.”

Dam removal and the resulting river ecosystem restoration is being studied by scientists from several universities and government agencies, including the USGS and U.S. Forest Service, as part of a national effort to document the effects of removing dams. Studies show that most river channels stabilize within months or years, not decades, particularly when dams are removed rapidly.

“In many cases, fish and other biological aspects of river ecosystems also respond quickly to dam removal,” said co-author of the study Jeff Duda, an ecologist with USGS. “When given the chance, salmon and other migratory fish will move upstream and utilize newly opened habitat.”

The increase in the number of dam removals, both nationally and internationally, has spurred the effort to understand the consequences and help guide future dam removals.

“As existing dams age and outlive usefulness, dam removal is becoming more common, particularly where it can benefit riverine ecosystems,” said Gordon Grant, Forest Service hydrologist. “But it can be a complicated decision with significant economic and ecologic consequences. Better understanding of outcomes enables better decisions about which dams might be good candidates for removal and what the river might look like as a result.”

Sponsored by the USGS John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis, a working group of 22 scientists compiled a database of research and studies involving more than 125 dam removals. Researchers have determined common patterns and controls affecting how rivers and their ecosystems respond to dam removal. Important factors include the size of the dam, the volume and type of sediment accumulated in the reservoir, and overall watershed characteristics and history.