OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

environment and natural resources

Hypoxia in 2009 about average, researchers say

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Pacific Ocean off Oregon again experienced low-oxygen waters near the seafloor in summer of 2009, but the winds that fuel annual upwelling abated sufficiently in August and September to avoid severe hypoxia and the threat of biological “dead zones,” according to scientists.

Oregon State University researchers, who have been monitoring the near-shore waters with help from colleagues ranging from NOAA fish surveyors to Oregon crabbers, say this season’s hypoxia area was “about average” in size and duration in comparison with recent years.

“We did experience hypoxic conditions for the eighth consecutive year, but unlike 2006 when strong, steady winds led to near zero-oxygen, or anoxic, conditions, we got a break,” said Jack Barth, a professor of oceanography at OSU. “A series of wind reversals late in the summer helped dissipate the low oxygen, in essence allowing the system to ‘flush itself.’”

The oxygen level got as low as 0.5 milliliters per liter in early August off Newport and Cape Perpetua, which is at the cusp of being classified as “severe,” when the winds eased.

OSU scientists run regular transects off Newport using undersea gliders equipped with oxygen sensors, and similar instruments aboard four moorings from water 15 meters deep out to about 80 meters. They also had sensors aboard a NOAA hake survey cruise that sampled waters from northern California to the Strait of Juan de Fuca this summer.

Barth said the ability of oceanographers to monitor and measure hypoxic conditions is improving every year and should become even greater when OSU deploys a new network of undersea gliders and cabled moorings off the coast as part of the national Ocean Observatories Initiative, a $386.4 million effort funded by the National Science Foundation to gauge the effects of climate change on the world’s oceans.

Oregon scientists now have 10 times the sensors in the water as they did when hypoxia was first discovered off the central Oregon coast early this decade, Barth pointed out. The expanded instrumentation is allowing them not only to measure low oxygen, but to understand the underlying mechanisms behind it and how hypoxia manifests itself along the coast.

Unlike hypoxic areas in the Gulf of Mexico, which are caused by agricultural runoff and pollution, the low-oxygen waters of the Pacific Ocean off Oregon are triggered by seasonal upwelling, or the wind-driven mixing of cold, nutrient-rich deep water with surface waters. This fertilization of the upper water column generates large phytoplankton blooms, and as the plant material dies, it sinks to the bottom and decomposes, lowering the oxygen level of the water just off the seafloor.

This seasonal upwelling is normal, scientists say, yet hypoxia hadn’t been observed in near-shore waters prior to 2002. What changed, Barth said, was the pattern of Northwest winds and decreasing oxygen levels in the deep, offshore waters that are upwelled toward the coast.

“Historically, winds would blow at the coast for a week or so, then settle down for several days,” he pointed out. “As the winds eased, so did upwelling, and low-oxygen water was washed away – likely off the continental shelf. But in some years, those traditional wind patterns have shifted and now may last 20 to 30 days instead of a week. The system doesn’t have time to cleanse itself.”

Barth says the change in wind patterns and decrease in the oxygen levels in deep offshore waters are consistent with impacts suggested by many climate change models.

Previous research by Barth and colleagues found that changes in the wind patterns are triggered by slight variations in the Jet Stream. When the Jet Stream veers slightly to the south, as in 2005, it can cause a delay in upwelling that led to a devastating lack of biological production in the spring – a condition that may have been the cause of depressed salmon runs two and three years later.

When it shifts northward, the Jet Stream can cause strong, steady winds that “super-charge” the upwelling system, as happened in 2006, said Francis Chan, a senior research professor in OSU’s Department of Zoology. Chan and Barth are investigators for the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans program based at OSU.

“The 2006 situation was not only the strongest, most widespread hypoxia event yet seen off the Pacific Coast,” Chan said, “it also was the most long-lasting. The oxygen levels were off the charts and they continued through October of 2006, which is unheard of. For the first time we’ve ever observed, some parts of the near-shore ocean actually ran out of oxygen altogether.”

Photos and video of dead fish and crabs taken by a remotely operated vehicle in 2006 made national news and though hypoxia has been an issue every summer since, it hasn’t been nearly as severe. The researchers had hoped to use the ROV, operated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, to observe hypoxic areas this summer, but it has been out for upgrades.

“We didn’t have any visual evidence from the rocky reefs we’ve been monitoring year after year,” Barth said, “but neither did we get any reports of significant die-offs, as happened with crabbers in 2006.”

Oregon’s crab industry, in fact, is partnering with OSU scientists in the monitoring of low-oxygen waters. OSU oceanographer Kipp Shearman is working with 10 Oregon crabbers, who have agreed to have oxygen sensors attached to 60 crab pots from Port Orford to Astoria, providing scientists with additional data.

“Because of the cooperation of crabbers, NOAA, ODFW and others, we now have a better understanding of how hypoxia works,” Barth said, “and that understanding will improve greatly as we expand our fleet of undersea gliders and ocean moorings.”

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Jack Barth, 541-737-1607

WATERSHED EDUCATION PROGRAM CONTINUES EXPANSION

CORVALLIS - A statewide training program offered through Oregon State University for people interested in protecting or restoring streams and watersheds has now helped more than 500 people gain expertise on these issues.

It also is gaining national attention for its efforts and will begin more statewide training sessions this fall.

This initiative, called the Watershed Stewardship Education Program, provides instruction on watershed principles and management and offers examples in a variety of land-use types. It's mainly for people who volunteer with Oregon's watershed councils, but is also geared toward individuals and other groups interested in these topics. Its success has attracted inquiries from at least four other states that hope to establish similar programs.

"This program touches on just about everything," said Jim Castle of Marion County. "My new confidence and understanding of watershed processes has prepared me for a leadership role in my watershed council."

This program delivers eight basic training sessions, ranging from water quality monitoring to restoring fish habitat and working together to create successful groups. The programs are offered regionally, to such audiences as watershed council members, staff members of soil and water conservation districts, foresters, agricultural producers, teachers and other groups or individuals.

Participants who choose to attend all eight training sessions and complete a 30-40 hour project become "master watershed stewards," who can then serve as points of contact for local residents, communities and watershed councils.

This program began in Oregon's coastal areas and has since expanded to Marion, Lincoln, Jackson, Josephine, Linn, Benton, Lane, Union, Curry, Clackamas, and Columbia counties. Regional programs are hosted by OSU Extension agents in cooperation with watershed councils and other groups.

The program is operated by OSU Extension and Oregon Sea Grant, in partnership with the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and Oregon Forest Resources Institute. A 17-chapter publication titled "Watershed Stewardship: A Learning Guide" is offered at a reduced price of $10 at trainings, and available to the public for $32 through OSU Extension and Experiment Station Communications, 422 Kerr Administration, OSU, Corvallis, Ore., 97331-2119; or at 541-737-2513.

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Tara Nierenberg, 541-737-8715

Chinese scientists visit Oregon to confer about invasive species

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Representatives from China's Fujian Academy of Science are visiting Oregon this week to confer with American research and outreach experts on methods of fighting the spread of an invasive grass species.

The grass, Spartina alterniflora (also known as cordgrass), is native to the east coast of North America.

Introduced into a Fujian estuary in 1982, Spartina has spread rapidly, threatening the survival of native mangrove forests and Spartina invasions have also occurred on the west coast of the United States.

In 2007, Oregon State University’s Sam Chan, an Extension agent with Oregon Sea Grant, led  a team of researchers, educators and resource managers from Oregon, Washington and Florida to Fujian, a province about half the size of Oregon, on the southeastern coast of China. The team studied the impact of Spartina on coastal ecosystems, and signed a memorandum of understanding to work with the Fujian Academy on the problem.

The visit by Fujian officials to OSU and Oregon began this week with a reception attended by OSU faculty and students and representatives from Oregon Public Broadcasting, which documented the 2007 China visit as part of its award-winning Oregon Field Guide feature, "The Silent Invasion."

Most Fujian residents live on the coast and depend on clean waterways for commercially important shellfish and other species. Mangrove forests in healthy estuaries serve as buffers from coastal storms and typhoons. When Spartina creeps in, it can form dense, floating mats of vegetation that crowd out the mangroves, increasing the region's vulnerability to coastal storm surges and threatening the livelihood of Fujian residents.

Since the 2007 visit, the Chinese have initiated a number of coastal wetlands restoration projects, said Fanglin Tan of the Fujian Academy, who reported on cooperative methods the Chinese are using to combat Spartina and reduce its effects on native ecosystems.

“First we control Spartina, then we eradicate it and then we plant mangroves,” said Tan. 

Among those along for the trip is Luo Meijuan, senior engineer of the Fujian Academy, who has received funding for a one-year research-abroad program and is considering studying at OSU in what could be the first of many such exchanges.

“Students can easily be supported and we can develop collaborations and research opportunities with the Fujian Academy,” said Joe Hendricks, associate provost of International Programs at OSU.

During a tour Monday of OSU’s Wave Research Laboratory, the group was briefed on wave energy, tsunami preparedness and estuarine restoration projects using bulrush plantings. Tan has built a similar wave facility in China to study the impacts of inundation on Spartina and estuarine species.

“We face similar issues on the opposite sides of the Pacific,” said Chan, who organized the China exchange. He added that Oregon's coastal estuaries showcase global problems of habitat alteration and resulting invasion by non-native species such as Spartina.

The Fujian team is spending the rest of the week visiting the Oregon coast to tour Spartina control and restoration sites, a number of commercial shellfish operations, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the Whiskey Creek hatchery near Tillamook, and Tillamook estuary “bayscapes” (restored landscapes being put to multiple uses, including recreation and bird habitats).

 

Source: 

Sam Chan, 503-679-4828

Samoa tsunami caused by geologic features similar to Pacific Northwest

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The powerful earthquake and deadly tsunami that yesterday struck the Samoan Islands occurred, once again, on a volatile “subduction zone” such as the one that caused the 2004 Indonesian earthquake and another that poses risks to the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

Researchers at Oregon State University who have studied and mapped in detail the subsea terrain near Samoa and Tonga in the South Pacific Ocean say this event – which appears to have killed 100 or more people in the resulting tsunami – happened deep beneath the sea in a complex geological site where two of the Earth’s great plates collide.

“To my knowledge, there haven’t been many destructive tsunamis in this region in recorded history, but it’s not surprising that this happened,” said Dawn Wright, a professor of geosciences at OSU who has done extensive bathymetric mapping of this part of the world.

“In this area, the Pacific plate and the Australian plate are colliding, and it’s further complicated by a transition from a subduction zone to strike-slip fault such as the San Andreas fault in California,” Wright said. “In the process the Pacific plate is also tearing at this transition zone, and such forces make it especially vulnerable to large earthquakes.”

The earthquake happened near the Tonga Trench, Wright said, which forms where one of the tectonic plates dives under the other and in the process creates a vast undersea canyon that dwarfs the Grand Canyon in the U.S. – it includes the Horizon Deep, the second deepest spot on the planet, at more than 35,000 feet beneath the sea. In this event, two giant parts of the Earth surged in different directions and violently heaved the ocean water above them, resulting in a tsunami. Some of these high speed waves can reach the speed of a jet airliner and travel across entire oceans – but in this case it appears that Samoa and American Samoa received the brunt of the damage.

“There’s a real similarity here to both the subduction zones that caused the Indonesia earthquake and pose risks on the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Pacific Northwest,” Wright said. “Like many places on what’s called the ‘ring of fire,’ these deep, high magnitude earthquakes hold the potential for dangerous tsunamis. That’s what we need to be preparing for here in the Pacific Northwest.”

Wright noted that engineers at OSU are working at this time with community leaders from Cannon Beach, Ore., to design and build what could become the nation’s first tsunami resistant structure, envisioned as a building that people could run to when an earthquake hits and there may be only a matter of minutes before a deadly tsunami strikes.

The Samoan tsunami occurred only 20 minutes after the earthquake hit, reports indicate, leaving coastal residents very little time to seek safety on higher ground. Successive waves caused significant damage and loss of life.

Shortly after that, in an unrelated geologic event, yet another earthquake struck the Indonesia island of Sumatra and killed many people, not far from where the deadly 2004 earthquake and tsunami occurred.

At OSU, other work is also under way to study subsea terrain, wave behavior and the specific forces of tsunamis, using the world’s most sophisticated tsunami wave basin at the Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory.

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Dawn Wright, 541-737-1229

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Undersea image of Tonga Trench

Researchers at Oregon State University have done extensive undersea mapping of the seafloor that was the site of the deadly earthquake and tsunami near Samoa. The epicenter in this image is about 20,000 feet of water in the blue region at the lower right corner of this map.

OSU TABBED AS A "SUN GRANT" UNIVERSITY IN NATIONAL PROPOSAL

CORVALLIS - A national plan to better utilize agricultural products and technologies for energy and other non-traditional uses would turn Oregon State University into a "Sun Grant" institution and regional center for the initiative.

Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the U.S. Senate majority leader, announced the plan, calling for a national consortium of centers within the nation's Land Grant system that would be led by South Dakota State University. This Sun Grant Initiative would create regional centers at OSU, the University of Tennessee, and Oklahoma State University. Two other regional partners would be added later.

These regional centers are aimed at developing research, teaching and Extension efforts in the use of agricultural products for energy and bio-based products, including plastics, lubricants, textiles, solvents and adhesives.

"This certainly is an area that is growing rapidly, yet we've only scratched the surface," said Thayne R. Dutson, dean of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the university's Agricultural Experiment Station. "There are ties to forestry, engineering and pharmacy, which dovetail nicely with Oregon State University's strengths."

A planning grant would allow the partnering institutions to develop the new Sun Grant system during the next year. Federal authorization and funding would be sought in October of 2002.

The Sun Grant Initiative, proposed by Daschle and leaders at South Dakota State University, is aimed at revitalizing rural communities and helping the U.S. address some of its energy needs. One goal is to help the country reduce its dependency on petroleum-based products by shifting to products that have an agricultural base.

OSU already is involved in some of those efforts, Dutson said, including fiber production and utilization, and development of new oilseed crops.

Steve Strauss, a professor of forest science, has become nationally known for his work with hybrid poplar trees - fast-growing hardwoods that can be used for paper and other products. These poplars are providing alternative crops for a growing number of farmers, and lessen the reliance on comparatively slow-growing Douglas-fir forests.

Steve Knapp, the Paul C. Berger Professor of Crop and Soil Science at OSU, is leading a national effort to use genetic engineering to control the types of oil produced by meadowfoam, cuphea, and other oilseed crops. The ability to alter the plants to affect the type of oil they produce is a key to making them viable for industrial use.

Oregon State has long been involved in the management of straw and other grass seed crop residue, the utilization of biomass, and other bioscience research. OSU also is emerging as a national leader in the study of natural plant products, with researchers from the colleges of Agricultural Sciences, Pharmacy, Forestry and Science involved in discovering important chemical compounds found in plants and working to purify, extract or synthesize those compounds in laboratories.

Among the reasons OSU was selected as a regional center, Dutson said, is the university's strength in collaborating with other states and agencies in the region, its close relationship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Agricultural Research Service, its experience with business partners, and a series of strong accountability measures, including Oregon Invests - a program that tracks the benefits of money invested in agricultural research.

The university already is a Land Grant, Sea Grant and Space Grant institution.

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Thayne Dutson, 541-737-2331

REPORT SUGGESTS FORESTRY, WATER QUALITY ARE COMPATIBLE

CORVALLIS - An Oregon State University research review and survey of water systems in many Oregon cities suggests that modern forest management can be compatible with a high quality and quantity of water, and challenges common assumptions about the impact of logging and other forest practices.

The report looked at both research studies and 30 major municipal water systems in the state that are served largely by forested watersheds, including those of Portland, Eugene and Salem. Sponsored by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, it will be presented on Aug. 23 in a public forum at Ashland, Ore.

"When people raise concerns about impacts of forest practices, one of the first things they mention is water quality," said Paul Adams, an Extension watershed specialist in the OSU Department of Forest Engineering. "In this report we tried to separate the facts from the myths to better understand how we get clean water."

One myth, Adams said, is the notion of pure water emerging from pristine forests.

"There is no such thing as pure H2O unless you buy distilled water at the grocery store," Adams said. "And while it's true that forested watersheds usually do deliver a very high quality of water, there's a wide variation even in nature. The Flynn Creek watershed in the Coast Range has been used as a control in research because it's a relatively pristine forest, but even there the suspended sediments have ranged from near zero to about 2,000 parts per million, when the water looks about like a chocolate milkshake."

Another myth, he said, is that trees store and release water to streams. Actually, a heavy forest canopy in most cases causes a net water loss of 15-20 inches a year in water volume. Trees consume water like any plant - it's actually the forest soils that store and filter the water, releasing it slowly like a sponge.

Adams said that protecting forest soils is the key to water retention, filtering and quality, and that from a water perspective the importance of forest cover is largely in protecting and nurturing the soils. Occasional timber harvest should not interfere with this process if done carefully with modern methods and good stream buffers.

Because much of the research on the effects of forest practices was done years ago, it can give an incomplete picture of the benefits of management tools and techniques now commonly used or required by law, Adams said. But this earlier research did help guide us toward these improved methods, he noted.

"Keeping forest lands intact is vital, but in general we've found that advanced harvesting practices with proper reforestation has little impact on water quality and quantity for municipal supplies," Adams said. "If you want to protect watersheds, the key is to protect the soils."

Among the other findings of the research review and survey:

  • The quality of water from forest lands in Oregon is generally very high, although some dissolved, particulate and biological constituents are often present.

     

  • Natural erosion can be an important sediment source and difficult to distinguish from management sources.

     

  • Changes in forest cover may increase or decrease stream flows, but only if this occurs on a large portion of a watershed within a short period.

     

  • Stream buffers during logging and other activities, as now required by law, can prevent many water quality problems.

     

  • Forest roads can increase landslide and other erosion in steep terrain, but improved design, location and maintenance can greatly reduce problems.

     

  • Logging and road construction between 1980-91 on 13 municipal watersheds in western Oregon did not result in sustained increases in turbidity at the water treatment facilities.

     

  • Agricultural, urban and suburban areas in the Eugene and Salem watersheds have become major sources of sediments.

     

  • High quality and safety of municipal water supplies are required by law, including careful treatment and frequent monitoring for contaminants.

     

  • City personnel who manage major water systems in Oregon have significant concerns about wildfire risk in their watersheds, as well as water quality, sedimentation and the effect of agriculture, forestry and urban use.

Among the most serious concerns at the moment, Adams said, is the potential impact of major wildfires, especially on watersheds like Portland's Bull Run or Bend's Bridge Creek - in each case, these water sources have no filtration systems to remove sediment. Some of the highest erosion and sedimentation levels ever recorded on forest watersheds have occurred after major wildfires.

And despite Oregon's reputation for perpetual rain, Adams said, maintaining an adequate water supply is becoming an increasing concern in many areas. The Ashland forum to outline the findings of this report will be open to the public. It costs $15, which includes lunch. Information about registration and the agenda can be obtained by calling 541-737-4966 or on the web. Among the topics are the survey results; social issues in drinking water, forests and watersheds; fire ecology and hazard reduction in forested watersheds; and a tour of the Ashland watershed.

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Paul Adams, 541-737-2946

UNIVERSITY TEAM STUDYING KLAMATH BASIN ISSUES

CORVALLIS - A multidisciplinary team of scientists and extension educators from Oregon State University and the University of California has launched a baseline assessment of environmental, economic and social issues in the Klamath Basin, where farmers, conservationists, commercial fishers, Native Americans and others are struggling over water allocation.

The basin, which straddles southern Oregon and northern California, is home to a national wildlife refuge, an abundance and variety of migratory waterfowl, bald eagles and the Lost River sucker and shortnose sucker, endangered fish. The basin also is home to the Klamath Tribes, and home to more than a thousand farm families.

The commercial fishing industry in nearby coastal communities also has a keen interest in water usage in the basin because of its dependence on salmon that spend part of their lives in rivers that run through the basin.

During part of the current growing season many farmers were cut off from irrigation water from the Klamath Irrigation Project, managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Partially because of a drought in the basin, the federal agency decided there was not enough water for multiple needs including irrigation, wildlife protection and power production.

The overall goal of the university team's assessment is to assemble information about the effects of the Bureau of Reclamation's water usage decisions on the basin's people and society, natural environment and economy, said Tom Gallagher, an OSU extension specialist facilitating the work of the team.

The assessment team hopes to help identify impacts that will assist local, state, and federal officials who may make decisions about the area's future, according to Gallagher.

Additional goals of the project include generating a "case study" that will be of value to communities elsewhere in the western United States. Examples of specific topics to be studied include soils, water, wildlife, fish, vegetation, air, social services and institutions, public policy, community histories and recent changes, and the local and regional economy.

The primary focus of the study is on the Klamath Irrigation Project, which was built by the Bureau of Reclamation. The project covers about 220,000 acres surrounding the communities of Klamath Falls, Merrill and Malin, Ore., and Tulelake, Calif. However, certain parts of the assessment effort will look at the entire Klamath River watershed, according to the researchers.

The assessment team includes economists, wildlife and fish ecologists, and agricultural and social scientists. The team, which will collaborate with residents and institutions in the Klamath Basin, hopes to generate a preliminary report in December 2001 and a final report in February 2002, according to Gallagher.

Source: 

Tom Gallagher, 541-737-1573

NEW INSTITUTE TO TACKLE ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

CORVALLIS - Oregon State University has formed a new Institute for Natural Resources that will give the state an opportunity that's never before existed to effectively analyze, research and resolve some of Oregon's most difficult and controversial environmental issues.

The institute is one outcome of the Oregon Sustainability Act of 2001 recently signed into law.

For the first time ever, officials say, anyone wrestling with a natural resource issue - from a federal agency to a concerned citizen - will have an ally that can coordinate research, organize data, and propose policy options. Solutions will be based on the latest science and take the multiple needs of the environment, economy and local communities into consideration.

Clients of the institute will be able - at a single site - to ask questions, request information, propose studies, learn about natural resources and environmental conditions across the state, and gain help in developing opinions or policy proposals. Those same citizens will be deeply involved in the work and participate in development of the solutions.

"The institute will bridge a big gap in Oregon's ability to make sound natural resource policy decisions," said Oregon State Rep. Susan Morgan. "Presently, it is an impossible task to look down through all the available data layers and see what is known, or not known, about a specific region or subject. The legislative vision for the institute is to be a trustworthy and technologically capable repository for all of our natural resource related data."

Under the umbrella of the new legislation, the new institute will become a focal place for answering the tough questions and providing data, research, policy options and public communication on issues ranging from salmon recovery to forest management, agriculture, endangered species, the use of biotechnology, rangeland, coastal and marine issues.

"We believe this institute will become the turning point in Oregon's pursuit of a sustainable environment and natural resource base," said Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry at OSU and one of the leaders in organizing the new initiative. "The time has come to address all of the needs facing the state, look at the big picture and find solutions that help both our environment and our people."

OSU President Paul Risser, a strong advocate of the new center, said that only OSU has the range of international experts and reputation of scientific credibility to successfully tackle these issues.

"OSU has an incredibly diverse research faculty with expertise on everything from forestry to oceanography, agriculture, habitat protection, fisheries, soils and climate change," Risser said. "Oregonians will now have someone they trust and somewhere to turn for credible, scientific options to deal with the challenging issues we face. We'll find the answers this state so badly needs."

OSU is already heavily involved in many areas that will be a key to success of the new center. Extensive databases and sophisticated data management systems for natural resource and other issues have been set up by its ecological researchers and computer scientists.

The university leads the state in research on forestry, agriculture, marine resource management, fisheries, soil and habitat protection, and many other key areas. And OSU's Extension Service stands ready to contribute expertise from across the state and communicate findings.

Right now, officials say, about two dozen state and federal agencies - not to mention numerous local and tribal jurisdictions - carry some responsibility for research, regulation and policy making on environmental and natural resource issues. Many of these agencies have staffing or expertise to consider part of every problem - virtually none of them can address the whole picture.

"The challenge is to meet people's needs and expectations for a healthy environment, vital economies and livable communities," Salwasser said. "And we have to do this while dealing with rapid population growth, the forces of a global economy and increasing public concerns about environmental quality and protection. No institution in the state other than OSU can tap into the expertise necessary to consider all of those important, and sometimes competing objectives."

The new institute will be based and housed at OSU, and a national search is already under way for a permanent director. It will collaborate as necessary with other institutions and agencies around Oregon. At first it will operate on a very basic staffing level and later expand to include permanent scientists with expertise in appropriate areas.

Most of the work, Salwasser said, will be done on a project and contractual basis that could eventually entail millions of dollars of projects per year. Start-up funding of $145,000 for the first fiscal year will be provided by the OSU Research Office and 12 collaborating OSU colleges or programs, and the institute's goal is to become self-supporting within five years.

As designed, the new institute will include a research office, policy office and information office to accomplish such tasks as data acquisition, original studies, development of policy options, linking of databases, synthesis of information and communication of findings. Citizen participation in development of policy options will be encouraged. Customers could be anyone from a state agency to tribal government, natural resource industry, environmental group or involved citizen. The institute will also have an executive board of directors, an interdisciplinary scientific and scholarly advisory board, a stakeholder advisory board, and, as needed, ad hoc working groups.

Various state agencies have already inquired about projects, Salwasser said, affecting recreation, forestry, salmon research plans and other topics. The institute should be operational by this fall.

Media Contact: 
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Hal Salwasser, 541-737-1585

VEGETABLE GROWERS PLANT SEEDS OF CHANGE

CORVALLIS - Willamette Valley vegetable growers are experimenting with new ways to grow vegetables while protecting soil and water quality. Their methods combine new ideas of conservation tillage with old ideas of cover crops.

The process begins right after harvest in the fall. Instead of leaving the soil bare and vulnerable to erosion over the winter, these farmers will plant a crop of vetch or low-growing oats to keep their fields covered through the winter.

"Cover crops capture residual fertilizers in the fall, and keep chemicals from leaching into groundwater," explained Richard Dick, professor of soil science at Oregon State University. Cover crops add organic matter that creates air pockets in the soil for water to penetrate and be stored. Erosion is reduced, protecting both streams and soil.

Come spring, the fields will be prepared for planting. But instead of plowing the entire field to bury all of the crop residue, farmers will till only narrow eight-inch strips for seeding and leave the ground in between undisturbed.

Sam Sweeney, a Dayton-area vegetable producer, has seen marked improvement in soil conservation in the two years he has been using this "strip-till" method. Planting on a slope with conventional methods, Sweeney had previously lost soil, water, and nutrients into the creek.

"Strip tilling on that slope creates a barrier of undisturbed soil at each row. These small terraces catch water so it can soak into the soil and not drain off," he said.

Strip-tilling has many advantages, according to John Luna, of OSU's Integrated Farming Systems Program. It minimizes the disruption of desirable organisms such as earthworms in the soil that keep plants healthy. Cover crop residue can help smother weeds. And it limits the impact of tractors and other heavy equipment.

"Soil compaction limits the yield in many Oregon soils," Luna said. "Compacted soil prevents water from moving through the soil and restricts root growth. With conventional tilling methods, farmers traditionally make four to 10 passes through a field. With strip-tillage, growers make one or two passes over a field, and they are ready to plant."

With fewer passes, and more plant material in place, strip-tilling should improve soil structure so it will retain moisture and require less irrigation. Increased organic matter from cover crops can improve soil fertility and may reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.

Strip-till methods were used to plant more than 3,000 acres of vegetable crops in the Willamette Valley this year, yet Luna and others have some reservations.

"Strip-till isn't best for every situation," Luna said. "There are some situations where conventional tillage outperforms strip-tillage, and visa-versa. We don't understand the whole picture yet."

Sweeney concurs. "With all new practices, there is an awful lot to learn," he said.

Strip-till requires growers to invest in new equipment and monitor performance against conventional methods. Sweeney has seen economic savings in labor and fuel from reduced tillage. But speaking for the handful of pioneering vegetable growers in the Willamette Valley, Sweeney said, "Our main motivation is conservation."

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Richard Dick, 541-737-5718

Fertilizers may be linked to amphibian deaths

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Researchers have discovered that a level of nitrogen-based compounds which the EPA says is safe for human drinking water - a level often found in agricultural areas as a result of using crop fertilizers - is enough to kill some species of amphibians.

A new study at Oregon State University, just published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, has shown that several frog, toad and other amphibian species, especially at their more vulnerable larval stages, can be highly susceptible to fa irly low levels of nitrate and nitrite exposure.

When exposed to moderate amounts of nitrates and nitrites, some tadpoles and young frogs reduced their feeding activity, swam less vigorously, experienced disequilibrium, developed physical abnormalities, suffered paralysis and eventually died. In contro l tanks with normal water, none died.

"I think this is clearly a significant problem," said Andrew Blaustein, a professor of zoology at OSU and expert on global amphibian declines. "Right here in the Pacific Northwest we're having localized extinctions of some amphibians and widespread decli nes in others. We now have clear evidence that nitrate and nitrite exposure at levels considered safe for humans or fish is enough to kill amphibians."

Blaustein has done pioneering research on the potential impact of UV-B radiation in sunlight as one possible cause of amphibian problems. He now says that exposure to nitrogen fertilizers - along with habitat destruction, climate change, pollution, patho gens and introduced predators - is probably another part of the answer to an international mystery that has alarmed ecologists around the world.

But this latest part of the puzzle goes to the heart of crop agricultural practices, he said, which depend heavily on the use of artificial fertilizers rich in nitrogen to produce the world's food supply.

In their study, the OSU scientists worked with five species of amphibians, including the Oregon spotted frog, red-legged frog, western toad, Pacific treefrog and northwestern salamander. In the past 40 years, the Oregon spotted frog has largely disappear ed from most of its known historical range - an area of lowlands with intensive agricultural use.

The scientists tested the sensitivity of the amphibians to environmental levels of nitrates and nitrites. The Oregon spotted frog was the most sensitive - three to four times more vulnerable to nitrates and nitrites than red-legged frogs and Pacific tree frogs. Not by coincidence, the scientists believe, the more-sensitive spotted frog is the species that has almost totally disappeared from these areas.

Levels of nitrites considered safe for human drinking water killed over half of the Oregon spotted frog tadpoles after 15 days of exposure. All five species showed a similar level of mortality at levels of nitrites that were higher, but still well below t hose that the EPA considers safe for warm water fishes.

Nitrates themselves are of low toxicity, the study pointed out, but they cause health problems when reduced to nitrites. Nitrite levels can become higher in specific areas such as shore sites with high contents of organic matter, and also be concentrated by ranch animal manures. And nitrate can be reduced to nitrite in the gastrointestinal tract - especially in younger animals.

The study results indicate that water quality criteria set up by the EPA does not guarantee the survival of some protected and endangered amphibians, the authors said in their report.

According to Blaustein, health effects such as those caused by nitrates and nitrites may also work in concert with other environmental insults, such as acid rain or UV-B exposure, to compound problems.

"Many people are looking for the one single thing that is causing all these amphibian declines, but in reality it's almost certainly a combination of causes," Blaustein said. "It's clear there can be a synergistic effect that causes higher mortality when you have different problems all occurring at once."

For instance, Blaustein said the furor that has arisen over frog deformities such as extra legs has been linked to a trematode parasite known as a fluke.

"But it's probably not that simple," he said. "These flukes have been around forever and we never observed the level of problem we're now seeing with deformed frogs. It's quite possible this fertilizer issue relates to that, along with killing tadpoles di rectly."

The flukes that can cause amphibian deformities live part of their life cycle in a snail, Blaustein said. Snails eat algae. And higher levels of nitrogen-based fertilizers can cause increased algal growth, increasing the snail populations.

"At one pond near Corvallis, we found 67 percent of the frogs had multiple legs," Blaustein said. "And this was in a wildlife management area, which was not intensively farmed but was only surrounded by agricultural lands."

Measurements of water there showed highly elevated levels of nitrate - up to 11 milligrams per liter - which is just above the EPA legal level for drinking water.

The researchers stated in their report that chemicals used for various purposes, including crop agriculture, may permeate lakes, ponds and streams, making them unsuitable for many amphibians.

One of the amphibian species that appears to be the least vulnerable to nitrates, they said, is bullfrogs - an introduced and voracious predator that in turn preys on other amphibian species and is tending to displace them in many agricultural areas.

"As we look for the cause of declining amphibians, we're going to find a lot of these types of interactions," Blaustein said. "But the fact remains that nitrogen fertilizers by themselves, used at levels considered safe in drinking water, are enough to ki ll some amphibians. So clearly that's part of the answer and a fairly serious concern in its own right. And it's pretty good evidence that we need to think again about the level of these nitrate compounds that we say is safe."

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