Insects inform water quality and the effects of coal mining, says Interfaces of Global Change Fellow
Along the Mississippi River there is one species many people who live there know well. Mayflies. These long, dragonfly-looking creatures live on the bottom of the river and burrow in the muck and sand. They grow and develop there before they come to the surface to fly away and mate.
When they fly away, they do it en masse.
“They come out in huge swarms so big they show up on Doppler radar,” said Tony Timpano, a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech and an Interfaces of Global Change Fellow studying how insect communities are affected by water quality. “The sky is blackened, and you need your windshield wipers to drive. Since they only live about 24 hours, they then die and have to be shoveled away like snow.”
Small invertebrates like the mayfly live in all kinds of freshwater bodies across the globe. In the U.S., many species prefer fast-flowing or slow-moving streams and lakes. But no matter which freshwater body these insects prefer, their sheer abundance and the communities they make up can teach scientists like Tony a lot about the water in which they live.
“Many insects, just like the mayfly, are major players in the aquatic community,” said Tony, who is also a doctoral scholar in the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science at Virginia Tech. “Since every freshwater body has some community of these insects in some combination, we can look at the diversity and abundance of species to give us an idea about the water quality.”
In states like Virginia and West Virginia, many freshwater insect communities reflect the water quality as it’s influenced by local industries, such as coal mining. Tony’s main goal as a scientist is to understand how freshwater insects are affected by water with high amounts of salt runoff from this mining.
One way in which coal mining affects water quality is through the process of mountaintop mining. At the top of the mountain, miners work to get to the coal under the surface. The rock covering the coal gets blasted off into rubble. When this happens, Tony explained, the rock material is typically placed in freshwater stream areas known as valley or hollow fills.
“This material sits for geologic time underground before it’s exposed to water and air,” he said. “So minerals start dissolving and flow right into the streams where they increase the salt concentrations of streams. They then start becoming saltier and saltier.”
This issue of salinization – when increased amounts of dissolved salts enter freshwater – is a significant portion of Tony’s dissertation research, and was the subject of his recent publication in the journal Science with stakeholders from regulatory agencies and other universities around the globe.
In particular, the paper recommended ways that people can address salt pollution to protect freshwater ecosystems, including the insect biodiversity that Tony studies. Essentially, he explained, the cleaner the water, the more diverse in number and abundance the species are in the water.
Beginning with trout fly-fishing, Tony’s interest in insects and aquatic biodiversity were further sparked as an undergraduate at Virginia Tech. He took an entomology course and learned even more about aquatic life, including how to identify the diversity in freshwater, how different organisms behave, and how they are affected by surrounding aquatic ecosystems. He also learned the application of using insects to examine stream health.
“This was my first exposure to applied entomology,” he recounted.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, he worked as an environmental consultant where he applied the bio-monitoring science he had learned, introducing him to how science can inform policy. In particular, this first hand experience taught him how water quality standards were measured by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But, after working in this field, Tony decided he wanted to further the scientific knowledge that could better inform the science behind how these standards are made.
So Tony went back to school. His interests in aquatic life and water quality continued for his master’s degree work at Virginia Tech, a joint program between civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering and crop and soil sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His research was then funded in part by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, which have jurisdiction over clean water in the coal mining regions. His data regarding salinity’s affect on aquatic life was incorporated into guidance used by these agencies for issuing mine permits in the state of Virginia.
Tony’s master’s work was noticed by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), which subsequently funded him as a research associate for the Virginia Water Resources Research Center at Virginia Tech. In that role, he expanded his study of salt pollution to streams in West Virginia. That work established the foundation for his doctoral research, also funded by OSMRE, which incorporates seasonal patterns of water quality to better understand the complex effects of salinization on aquatic life.
With his longtime interest in bugs (including a certification in taxonomy), Tony now works to share his doctoral research to inform sound policy decisions made by regulatory agencies, including the U.S. EPA. His dissertation specifically focuses on the salt content in freshwater streams as a result of coal mining. In addition, he’s developing models for water quality relative to these salt concentrations so they can be used as predictors of biological aquatic diversity.
He’s also more broadly interested in how these biological types of data can be used to address other issues in addition to the influences of coal mining. This includes improving the precision and quality of science surrounding bio-monitoring for salt, sediment, and nutrient pollution, and, ultimately, how aquatic insects are affected by any variety of human disturbances.
“I’m very focused on applying science,” he said. “I haven’t been so much into pure ecology or biology. While this is interesting, I get really jazzed about the applied stuff because to me what’s really interesting is when you know these organisms can reflect what’s going on in the water. If we want to manage these resources, then we need to know what’s causing changes so we can make [resource] management decisions to achieve the goals we want.”
Even though Tony works to do good science that will inform policy, he still likes to spend time with what drew him to this research in the first place: the insects.
“I still enjoy looking under the scope,” he said. “I love getting out in the streams, collecting them, bringing them back, getting on the scope, and doing the identification. I haven’t had to do much in a while since we have a talented team of undergraduates.”
There’s no question Tony truly is a ‘bug guy.’
Learn more about water quality research, featuring Tony, in this Virginia Tech video:
Tony is co-advised by Stephen Schoenholtz, a professor of forest hydrology and soils in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and director of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, and Carl Zipper, an associate professor of crop and soil environmental sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Read Tony's biography as an Interfaces of Global Change Fellow in the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech.
Tony holds an aquatic insect in a freshwater stream.
Story posted July 10, 2016 by Cassandra Hockman
Q&A: Meet Tony
Interdisciplinary science to understand and mitigate human impacts to stream ecosystems. Emphasis on applied ecology of aquatic benthic macroinvertebrate communities, aquatic ecotoxicology, biological monitoring & assessment, and the science behind development & implementation of water resources policy.
B.S. in Environmental Science, M.S. in Environmental Sciences and Engineering, Ph.D. in Forestry (Expected 2017)
What interests you the most about aquatic life?
Natural waters have been a large part of my life, having spent much of it fishing for everything from bluegill to blue marlin. In spending so much time on the water, I gained an appreciation of how complex and dynamic aquatic ecosystems are. I also came to learn how humans can affect those systems and the challenges to society in maintaining high-quality resources. I want to help society make science-based decisions toward that goal.
How did fly-fishing for trout spark your interest in aquatic life?
I grew up fly-fishing the rivers of Virginia for trout and smallmouth bass. Learning to use artificial ‘flies’ to fool wily trout introduced me to the diversity of insects in a stream. I always liked flipping over river rocks just to see what lived beneath.
What interests you most about your research?
I really enjoy understanding humans’ relationship to ecosystems through statistical data analysis. I also derive satisfaction knowing that my work can help make sound policy decisions.
What have been some of the most difficult aspects of your research?
I am in uncharted waters, so to speak. I am investigating a system at an unprecedented level of detail, measuring phenomena that have been largely overlooked by others studying these systems. There are no ‘cookie-cutter’ methods that I can reference for making sense of the data. I must be creative in distilling manageable variables from literally infinite options within my data. That’s the toughest part.
What are some of the main concerns you have as a scientist working in the policy realm?
My interests, and all of my work to date, have been related to the science behind Clean Water Act policy. Obviously, I believe that science can help tackle our societal challenges with regard to managing natural resources. My greatest concern is that the science will be ignored when it comes time for policy decisions to be made.
You’ve talked about how important you think sound science is to inform policy. What’s your take on whether or not scientists should also advocate for certain policy changes?
I believe that sound scientists should aspire to divorce themselves from any interest in a specific policy outcome. In practice, however, that can bereally challenging. But it is a challenge that all scientists should strive to meet. Only then can we maintain the public’s trust, which is critical if we wish for them to consider our science when making policy.
Have you spent much time talking with stakeholders, including coal miners?
Yes. When I first started studying coal mining effects as a master’s student, the entire study hinged on being able to get into streams that had been affected, because in order to understand how coal mining affects the streams, we need to measure the streams that have been most affected. So, in order to understand how the salt pollution affects the organisms, we need to measure streams that have a range of salt pollution, from very low to very high. And the only ones you’re going to find that are high are affected by mining. In most cases those are on mine property. So, I worked extensively with both state regulators as well as mine operators in Virginia and West Virginia to gain access to these sites, which is a time consuming process, so I had to work with miners in order to find the areas from firsthand, anecdotal knowledge of where the highest salt content might be found. Many of them drove me around and told me the history and general conditions of the area because they knew the area the best. They knew that it was in their best interests to have their policies informed by good science, so they were more than willing to cooperate. We are very grateful for their assistance.
We were also fortunate because our research was funded by the Powell River Project, which has a long history of good, unbiased science, and there have been really good collaborative relationships between stakeholders and Virginia Tech over the years, so we were able to leverage that to generate high quality data.
How did you identify locations for field research?
I looked at over 260 streams to find roughly 10 percent that would be sufficient or of appropriate condition to study since I was interested in water quality. This was difficult because it was hard to find streams that had changes to water quality without habitat degradation. I also had to avoid other land issues, like septic tanks on residential properties.
What are your field sites like?
People hear I study streams affected by coal mining and they often assume the streams are destroyed. But my study streams are actually quite nice. That is no accident, given that we wanted to study the effects of only water quality, which meant keeping all other aspects comparable to the least-disturbed streams in the region. My study sites are in small headwater streams – the streams that form the very beginning of rivers, high up in the mountains. They look like they belong in a National Forest – cold, clear water bubbles through riffles and cascades over sandstone boulders into glassy pools. The streams are surrounded by full vegetation from intact forest, with no houses or other structures that can degrade water quality. Habitat quality is good all around.