Monday, August 22, 2016

My Summer Internship: Working with Purpose and Passion to Clean Our Air

By: Austin Pettey

Air Quality Modeling
It’s awesome when an incredible opportunity opens up, and it seems like all your hard work is beginning to pay off. I was recently selected as a summer intern with the Division of Air Quality (DAQ) at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. I am a third year student at the University of Utah studying chemical engineering. While taking an Air Pollution Control course last semester, I realized that I was very interested in air quality. I studied hard, got a high grade in the class, and ended up with a recommendation from my professor to DAQ when they were looking for an intern. Soon after, I was selected to interview and was thrilled to learn I landed the job for the summer. What a great feeling!

Now, things got real! I was actually going to work for DAQ. But, what would it be like to work with them? From the outside, I had always wondered how DAQ operated. I imagined it was a bunch of people running around taking air samples from different locations throughout the state, then trying to interpret what the readings meant. Of course, the inner workings of the DAQ are much more sophisticated and organized than that.

I learned a lot from working with air-quality scientist
Chris Pennell. He was a great mentor.

In the division, there are teams of people known as sections. There is a section for collecting emission estimations, one for collecting air monitor data, another to analyze the data, and a team for planning air quality regulations based on all the data and analyses. All of those sections belong to a single branch of the DAQ known as the Planning Branch.

That’s not all, though. There is another branch to design emission permits for industries. Also, another branch ensures that the permits and policies are enforced. With each of these branches having their own individual sections within them, DAQ is much larger than I expected.

Now, what was my role going to be as an intern in an organization such as this? The position that I was hired for was to work with the Technical Analysis section of the Planning branch. The Technical Analysis section is a team of people that perform cutting-edge research on air chemistry and air quality. Additionally, they have an arrangement to use supercomputers at the U of U’s Center for High Performance Computing to simulate Utah’s atmosphere and air pollutants. That’s right, supercomputers! They do this using the emissions data they get from other sections. These simulations are done to provide technical evidence for the Policy section when they suggest regulations that protect the well-being of Utah’s citizens while complying with the EPA’s air quality standards.

High performance computers at the University of Utah.
Photo credit:
Not only did I get the unique experience of using supercomputers, I was also able to help my home state remain a great place to live while aiming to protect and improve the health of everyone living there. As an added bonus, I was able to learn valuable skills, and gain experience to help me prepare for entering the work force after getting my degree. It ended up being a positive experience where both the state of Utah and I benefited simultaneously.

While working with the Technical Analysis team, I was able to do numerous things I had no previous experience with. I learned the Linux operating system to help run simulations on the supercomputers. I became proficient in a computer language called Python to help analyze and organize data. I was involved in many meetings, conference calls, vocal reports, and written reports. I took part in organizing an air quality conference and attended multiple seminars, lectures, and classes. I acquired valuable time management and organization skills.

I also enjoyed meeting many great people and learning more about interacting in a professional environment. Every time I met someone working for DAQ, it was apparent they were passionate about their job. All of my coworkers seemed to have a strong sense of community and were motivated to succeed in their work. Everyone seemed to really care about my success, and I greatly appreciated their guidance.

Overall, my experience as an intern with the Utah Division of Air Quality was top notch, and I hope that the State of Utah benefited as much as I did from my work as an intern. I started down a new path life that didn’t previously exist and found more passion for a subject I was already interested in. Best of all, I gained important knowledge and experience that I will continue to build upon for years to come. I am now a large step ahead towards a great future thanks to the State of Utah and the Division of Air Quality’s summer intern program.

DEQ salutes all its interns for their hard work, dedication, and commitment to helping protect Utah’s environment. Thanks, Austin! We are so glad you were here this summer and wish you all the best in your future endeavors.

I am a third-year chemical engineering student at the University of Utah. I have a passion for the outdoors and the environment. I love to work on my ‘79 Camaro and spend time with my dogs. My fiancĂ© and I are due to be married in July of 2017. We are loving life while working hard for the best future possible.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Walking (Biking) the Talk: DEQ Adds eBikes to Its Fleet

By: DEQ Communications Office

Electric bikes (eBikes)
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has consistently demonstrated its commitment to reducing air pollution by encouraging employee vanpools, issuing free Eco-Pass annual transit passes to all employees, and providing lockers and changing rooms for bike commuters. We brought hybrid cars, then electric vehicles, into our fleet. And now we’re ready to take that commitment to the next level: adding electric bikes (eBikes) to the environmentally friendly transportation options we offer our employees.

Chamonix Larsen
Why add eBikes to the fleet? Well, the beauty of an eBike is that it pairs the emission-reduction benefits of bike with the convenience of a motorized vehicle. Want to go to a meeting downtown but don’t want to arrive all sweaty? An eBike will get you there feeling crisp and polished even if you’re wearing a suit, skirt, or heels. The battery-powered electric motor can provide as much, or as little, assistance as you want. It’s like an electric scooter with pedals. Employees can use their own pedal-power on the flat stretches and get a little (or big) push when they head up State Street for a meeting at the Capitol.

Chamonix Larsen, Utah Resource Stewardship Coordinator, hosted an eBike event last week at DEQ so employees could take a spin on the super-charged bikes. Division of Fleet Operations Director Jeff Mottishaw was also on hand to provide instructions and tips for safe eBike riding.

Pat Sheehan takes an eBike for a spin.
We spoke with a few of the DEQ employees who came by to try out the newest addition to our fleet. Here’s what they had to say:
“What a great way to get to meetings!”
Pat Sheehan, Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control

“My husband and I used to have electric bikes. They are awesome! You can set them to a particular speed and use the power-assist when you get to the hills. We enjoyed passing the road bikes climbing the hill to our house.”
Kate Johnson, Division of Drinking Water

Lenora Sullivan
and Brad Johnson
“I’m excited to try one out. It will be nice to have the option to get around without driving my car. I’m looking forward to using the eBike to go to meetings at DNR and to our sampling warehouse.”
Lenora Sullivan, Division of Water Quality

Deputy Director Brad Johnson is sold!
“DEQ will really benefit from these eBikes. They’ll help us protect our air quality and provide our employees with a convenient way to get to meetings or go to lunch. It will be a great addition to our fleet. I plan to use it!”
Brad Johnson, Deputy Director, DEQ

Brock LeBaron, Division of Air Quality, summed it up best:

“I like to be out in the air and feel the breeze on a warm day, which is why I bike for fun and exercise. I really enjoyed trying the eBike out, and I plan to use it for meetings. Best of all, it puts you on a Tour de France level without the doping.”

Brock LeBaron, left: "I like to be out in the air and feel the breeze on a warm day, which is why I bike for fun and exercise. I really enjoyed trying the eBike out, and I plan to use it for meetings. Best of all, it puts you on a Tour de France level without the doping. 

So don’t be surprised if you see our deputy director or a scientist sporting a DEQ shirt whizzing past you on an eBike while you’re stuck in downtown traffic. We hope that seeing us on our eBikes will encourage you to try one for yourself!

Kate Johnson and Lenora Sullivan
Want to learn more about ways the State of Utah has incorporated eBikes into its fleet? Check out Chamonix Larsen’s guest blog about the State of Utah Division of Fleet Operations pilot program that brought eBikes to the State Capitol. These bikes, funded through a partnership grant with the Utah Clean Air Coalition (UCAIR), have been a big hit with Capitol Hill employees. Thinking about getting an electric bike yourself? Listen to what Peter Eland of Electric Bike magazine has to say about the benefits of electric bikes, in this BikeHub blog.

Ted Wilson, UCAIR executive director,
even brought his eBike in for folks to try.

Monday, August 8, 2016

New Technologies Hold Promise for Predicting Algal Blooms

By: Ben Holcomb

Harmful algal blooms have been in the news a lot lately, from the massive scums lining the Florida coast to the blue-green mats that covered Utah Lake and forced its closure. Predicting when these blooms will occur is one of the greatest challenges we face at the Division of Water Quality (DWQ). 
Utah Lake bloom

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) Utah Water Science Center and DWQ are hoping to change that. USGS field crews will be on the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake this week to test-drive a full suite of real-time monitoring equipment. DWQ is in the process of installing a network of high-frequency, water-quality sensors in Utah Lake and other high-risk waterbodies. Both of these efforts will improve our ability to track the water-quality conditions that lead to cyanobacteria growth and hopefully help us predict and respond more quickly to bloom events.

Characteristics of cyanobacteria

Cyanobacteria may be simple, single-celled critters, but their ability to adapt to a variety of water conditions gives them a huge ecological advantage when offered a plentiful, nutrient-rich food supply. They photosynthesize like algae, which is why they are often called blue-green algae. But they are actually bacteria, the only bacteria that use chlorophyll-a to collect sunlight to produce energy. They also contain a pigment called phycocyanin that helps them absorb light more efficiently and gives them their characteristic blue-green color.

Aphanizomenon flos-aquae
Photo credit
Summer and fall are the prime growing seasons for cyanobacteria. Heat speeds up photosynthesis, and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus fuel their growth. Cyanobacteria are particularly well-equipped to float and sink in the water to maximize their ability to convert sunlight into energy. Some species can even “fix” nitrogen by taking it out of the air. 

So when sunlight and heat levels are high, nutrients are abundant, and waters are calm, cyanobacteria populations can explode into massive blooms that can produce toxins harmful to people, animals, and aquatic life. The presence of cyanobacteria or cyanotoxins in waterbodies can create public-health concerns and economic impacts that can have far-reaching consequences, a lesson we learned during the recent Utah Lake bloom.

To make things even more complicated, the apparent absence of toxins in sample results doesn’t guarantee that a bloom won’t have negative health effects. For example, during the recent events in Utah Lake, cyanotoxin levels were generally low or not detected, and high concentrations were only detected in a couple of samples. But hundreds of people exposed to the bloom in Utah Lake reported symptoms consistent with cyanobacteria or cyanotoxin exposure, including gastrointestinal distress, headaches, and skin irritation. It is unclear whether these effects may have resulted from currently unknown toxins, known toxins that went undetected during sampling, or possibly due to exposure to cyanobacteria themselves, but clearly this issue can negatively impact the recreational uses of our lakes and reservoirs.

Current challenges

DWQ water scientists Calah Worthen and Suzan Tahir
collect samples on the Jordan River.
Photo credit: www.deseret news. com
Traditional monitoring methods collect water samples at monthly or weekly intervals but don’t always detect the subtle changes in water chemistry that can precipitate an algal bloom. The rapid changes in water conditions that fuel cyanobacteria growth aren’t always apparent from periodic sampling. In addition, sampling at discrete locations on larger waterbodies may not provide an accurate assessment of overall water conditions. Knowing when, where, and how to collect samples and identifying the relative importance of a host of complicating physical, chemical, and biological factors would help DWQ scientists predict and assess blooms with greater precision and timeliness.

Real-time data-gathering

Here's where the USGS project comes in. The pilot project will utilize real-time monitoring strategies that could serve as an early-warning system for water-quality managers. Real-time data would also help scientists develop models and assessment tools to predict blooms and identify areas for more intensive sampling. Advances in the capabilities of in-situ (in-water) sensors to take frequent measurements of nitrate and dissolved organic matter (DOM) — “food” that stimulates cyanobacteria growth — hold great promise for characterizing the chemical variations in waterbodies like the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake.

What kinds of monitoring systems will the USGS be using? Well, they will be deploying sondes (water probes) to collect real-time data and creating hyperspectral images and high-resolution spatial maps from the data collected to paint a more accurate picture of the distribution of cyanobacteria and nutrients in the water.

USGS will use fluorometer (light-measuring) sensors to measure the fluorescence produced by certain cyanobacteria indicators:
  • Chlorophyll-a: pigment concentration is a representative measure of the amount of algae, both green and blue-green, in the water
  • Phycocyanin: pigment concentration is a representative measure of cyanobacteria biomass (cell concentration)
  • Dissolved organic matter (DOM): composition can be used to characterize cyanobacteria growth potential in the water and help identify total organic carbon concentrations, another fundamental building block for cyanobacteria growth
Cyanobacteria fluorescence
Photo credit:
These fluorescence measurements help scientists detect, monitor, and evaluate cyanobacteria concentrations in waterbodies.
Sound complicated? It is! But the data provide us with a relatively simple, snapshot map of water chemistry throughout a waterbody.

Unique lake ecosystems, unique opportunities

Scientists need improved monitoring and data collection methodologies to understand how high-nutrient levels in the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake contribute to harmful algal blooms.

Some of the data the USGS plans to collect this week, and methods of analysis they will use to interpret the data include:
  • Multi-day, continuous records of the temperature, pH, and oxidation-reduction potential (a relative measure of decomposition)
  • Multi-day, continuous records of turbidity (murkiness), dissolved organic matter, chlorophyll-a, phycocyanin, and nitrate to estimate nutrient loadings
  • Hourly images to evaluate chlorophyll-a and BGA-PC (blue-green algae-phycocyanin) concentrations
  • Water samples to compare against the fluorescence measurements
  • High-resolution spatial maps of the data to evaluate the spatial extent of the parameters measured
  • Concurrent, high-resolution satellite imagery to compare remote observations with onsite spatial nitrate and algal data
Our experiences this summer with algal blooms across the state underscore the need to find and apply new data-collection methods for cyanobacteria. The kind of information collected through the USGS real-time monitoring, combined with DWQ’s deployment of several new, high-frequency sondes at high-risk waterbodies across the state, will not only help us predict algal blooms and be more timely in our response, it will help us develop site-specific standards that address the location, distribution, and load of the nutrient sources that lead to harmful algal blooms.

Want to learn more about harmful algal bloom (HABs)? Check out our HABs webpage. For more information about this summer’s algal blooms, visit our 2016 Algal Blooms webpage.  

The USGS Utah Water Science Center operates the most extensive satellite network of stream-gaging stations in the state and provides real-time streamflow, water-quality, and ground-water level data for over 130 sites in Utah. Visit the USGS Utah Water Science Center website to view the center's projects, studies, real-time water data, and historical water data.

I am the Division of Water Quality coordinator for the biological assessment and harmful algal bloom programs. I’ve worked at DWQ for seven years and my past work includes salmon, water quality, and tribal sovereignty in the Pacific Northwest.