Text Size: A  A  A

Chesapeake Bay News

Archives: February 2010


Question of the Week: Road Salt, Snow Melt and the Bay

Welcome to this week’s installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week. Each week we'll take a question submitted through the Chesapeake Bay Program website and answer it here for all to read.

This week’s question comes from Daniel, who came to our website seeking information about the effects of road salt on the Chesapeake Bay and its local waterways. He said, “With all the information that is out there about the pollution in our Bay…it seems like we have created another major source of pollution by throwing all the salt into the Bay.”

Much of the Chesapeake Bay watershed has experienced record-breaking snow storms this winter. With roads covered in snow and ice, road crews had to use the most effective deicer at their disposal: salt, and lots of it. Controversy struck when it was announced that plows in Baltimore would begin dumping snow from the roadways into the Inner Harbor. What would all of that salt do to the water? Isn’t there a better way to handle it?

While public safety was the most important factor during these major snowstorms, the decisions made by public officials also took environmental concerns into consideration.

Dumping snow into the Inner Harbor or the Chesapeake Bay, which are already brackish (a combination of salt and fresh water), is not necessarily bad because salt is already present in the water. However, dumping salt-treated snow into freshwater streams and creeks is dangerous because it can drastically change the amount of salt in the water, harming the freshwater species that call these waterways their home.

Of course, even without dumping snow directly into a body of water, salt will end up there as snow begins to melt and run off our streets, lawns and driveways. Since runoff is the fastest growing source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, scientists in the region will closely monitor the effects of snow melt and runoff.

The runoff caused by snow melt, however, is generally more gradual than that of a strong rain storm, giving road salt and other pollutants more time to absorb into the ground, where they can be filtered out by trees and vegetation. Heavy rainfalls, on the other hand, accelerate the speed at which polluted runoff flows into streams, rivers and the Bay.

To get back to the question from Daniel, yes, the salt used on roadways during snowstorms can become a pollutant in the Chesapeake Bay and local rivers, creeks and streams – but so can fertilizers, dirt, oil, trash and other substances carried by runoff into waterways. There are other deicing agents that could be used, but most are more expensive and some have not yet been tested for environmental effects.

Since this year was a rarity in terms of snowfall for most parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, hopefully the problem of too much road salt and snow melt won’t be something we’ll have to address very often in the future!

Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Submit it on our website and it could be our next Question of the Week!

Keywords: questions, weather, winter

Six ways African-American history helped shape the Chesapeake

Each February, we celebrate Black History Month, but we often don’t take the time to reflect on the important people and events in black history that occurred right in our backyards. In the Chesapeake Bay region, the African-Americans who lived and worked here helped define our history.

Keep reading to learn more about six key events, people and occupations that influenced the history of the Chesapeake and the entire nation.


Slavery in the Chesapeake Bay region began in 1619, when a Dutch ship carrying 20 African men arrived at Jamestown, Virginia. These men were indentured servants, rather than slaves. Many eventually earned their freedom and went on to own land, trade, raise crops and livestock, defend their rights, and eventually hire their own servants.

slave auction

(Image courtesy CORBIS/History.com)

Slaves were part of many great milestones in the Chesapeake region, such as rowing the Bay’s first ferry between the future sites of Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1636. By 1780, it is estimated that slaves made up approximately 40 percent of the population in the Chesapeake region.

In the 1800s, the Chesapeake region was on the brink of controversy over slavery. The northern Bay watershed states were considered “free states” that did not support slavery, while the southern states were “slave states.” This division foreshadowed the battles to be fought in the region during the Civil War.

Civil War

As the Civil War progressed, the Union Army was suffering from increasing numbers of casualties and needed reinforcements. Blacks were granted the right to serve in the Union Army and fought in battles throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

In Maryland, 8,700 men served in six black regiments that played major roles in Union battle plans. The 36th U.S. Colored Infantry guarded the Confederate prison at Point Lookout and disabled Confederate torpedoes in the lower Chesapeake Bay.

More than 180,000 black men served in the Union Army and 18,000 black men in the Union Navy. Twenty-one of these men were awarded the highest military honor in the United States, the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where she lived until she escaped in 1849. After escaping from slavery, she returned to the South 19 times to help other slaves along the Underground Railroad.

Harriet Tubman

As part of the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses was formed and slaves were transported with the help of ship captains in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, as well as other slaves working on boats. For many slaves, the Potomac River, the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay were vital links in the route to freedom along the Underground Railroad.

Frederick Douglass

Like Tubman, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In his first two attempts to escape slavery, Douglass and five other men planned to canoe up the Chesapeake Bay into Pennsylvania, but another slave turned them in. Eventually, Douglass was brought to freedom on a steamboat traveling from Delaware to Pennsylvania.

Tobacco plantations

In colonial times, tobacco was the mainstay of the economies of Maryland and Virginia. Many of the workers at tobacco plantations were slaves or indentured servants from Africa. Plantations were often located along the Chesapeake’s rivers, where soil quality was better and tobacco could be transported via local waterways.

slave on a tobacco plantation

(Image courtesy The Great South/Documenting the American South)

Oystering and seafood processing

Once the Chesapeake’s tobacco and agricultural industries began to decline at the end of the 18th century, blacks turned to the water to make a living, ultimately helping the region’s economy and cultural history flourish.

By the 1860s, the Chesapeake Bay was the United States’ primary source of oysters, which created plenty of opportunities for black watermen to make a living shucking oysters, processing seafood and even building boats for the industry. New African-American communities formed along the Bay’s shores, creating cultural and economic centers for blacks in the area. Their traditions became part of the local fishing industry, and many of them still exist today.

Alicia Pimental's avatar
About Alicia Pimental - Alicia is the Chesapeake Bay Program's online communications manager. She manages the Bay Program's web content and social media channels. Alicia discovered her love for nature and the environment while growing up along Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts. When she's not at work, Alicia enjoys cooking, traveling, photography and playing with her chocolate lab, Tess.

Keywords: history, fishing

Farewell to Two of My "Special Places"

As Aldo Leopold and many other environmental writers have stressed, attachment to "special places" promotes environmental stewardship.  For me, two of those special places were underwater.  They were submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) beds in two rivers near where I live and work, the Magothy and the Severn. Those beds were special to me because they were two of the first places that I saw SAV beds, starting in 1992. I use the past tense because as of last summer (2009), those two SAV beds are gone, part of a recent decline of SAV in both rivers. 

The special SAV bed on the Magothy was in the lower part of the river on the western shore of Gibson Island. I first visited it in the summer of 1992, before it was mapped in the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) SAV survey. I was doing volunteer water monitoring with a lifelong Magothy resident, Dan Zivi. Because he grew up here, Dan remembered when the grasses were abundant in the 1960s, and he knew there was a small remnant SAV bed.  We stopped there in his boat to see it.  It didn’t look like much; just a few spindly stalks of redhead grass in shallow, murky water. But it held great promise.

The following year, 1993, that bed was large and dense enough to be mapped in the VIMS SAV survey, along with a few nearby beds. 

The recovery of SAV in the Magothy had started.  That Magothy SAV area would peak in 2005 at 125 hectares (309 acres), which was 53 percent of the restoration goal. 

By 2009, the Magothy SAV area was down to only 5 hectares (12 acres), just 2 percent of the goal. The SAV bed I first saw on Gibson Island’s shore was gone.

The first SAV bed I saw on the Severn was also special because it was large and dense right from the start, and it was the first field trip I made with Bob Orth of VIMS, who has boundless energy when SAV is involved. This bed must have been growing for years on a wide shoal outside of Asquith Creek. In the summer of 1994, the plants were tall enough to be visible from the air, and thus they were mapped in the SAV survey. 

Bob Orth, a VIMS scientist who supervises the annual aerial SAV survey, wanted to see the “new” bed in the summer of 1994, so several of us went there with him in a small boat.  I wasn’t familiar with the Severn’s bottom features, but Bob knew the bed was on a large shoal. As soon as we saw the edge of the bed, he jumped in the water.  I was not prepared to jump in the water, so I stayed in the boat, but I leaned over to take a photo of a blue crab doubler that was caught in that bed as we explored it.

I had just started working at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office, mainly to study and protect SAV, so I was happy.

Hence my sadness in summer 2009 when I visited this bed to do SAV sampling and found that, just like the bed near Gibson Island, it was almost gone. This was confirmed by the VIMS SAV map that was just completed. There was still a bed north of Asquith Creek in 2009 (labeled J4), but it no longer extends onto the shoal at the mouth of the creek.

What does the loss of these two SAV beds in 2009 mean for the future of SAV in the Bay?  For me their loss is partly symbolic, and I know that almost all SAV beds come and go, sometimes returning after they disappear.  I’m not that worried about the Severn SAV bed because there were still some large and dense beds nearby, although SAV in the Severn may have declined overall in 2009. 

I am worried about the future of SAV in the Magothy, however, because of the large SAV area declines since 2005.  It’s also troubling that the river's water clarity got worse again last year; data collected by Magothy River Association volunteers (including myself) showed water clarity was down to the lowest status we’ve measured (14 percent of the goal). Details of these changes will be in the forthcoming Magothy River Index, which I will present at the annual State of the Magothy meeting at Anne Arundel Community College on Wednesday, February 17 at 7:00 p.m.

What can we do about these declines in aquatic health in the Magothy and in other rivers? See this brochure from the Department of Natural Resources for some ideas on what you can do in your yard to improve aquatic health in the rivers near where you live. I’ve done many of these in my yard.

However, I think it will take more than changes in our yards to reverse the declines in aquatic health in the Magothy and in other rivers.  The marked improvements in aquatic health that we saw in the Magothy and some nearby rivers in 2004 were caused by millions of tiny dark false mussels filtering the water.  We estimated there were 400 million of them in one creek, Cattail Creek, that year.  I live in the Cattail Creek watershed and I’ve done water monitoring there for 19 years, and 2004 had the best water clarity and dissolved oxygen status I ever recorded there.  To get the same improvements in aquatic health by reducing stormwater runoff, we’ll need more than a few rain gardens.  I think a good start would be stormwater retrofits in all of the waterfront communities, including mine, that lack any stormwater management facilities, because the communities were built before these were required.  Who would pay for these expensive retrofits, and where would we put them?  I’m not sure.  One option could be to set up a special taxing district in communities to pay for stormwater retrofits.  Crofton and other communities have done this for decades to pay for extra police protection. Taking actions like this directed at improving our environment would really demonstrate commitment to cleaning up the Bay.

About Peter Bergstrom - Peter Bergstrom is a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chesapeake Bay Office.


High School Students on the Upper Susquehanna Learn About Science and Environment

A group of high school students in New York is getting real-life experience monitoring environmental conditions on the upper Susquehanna River as part of a regional program for schools in the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s northernmost reaches.

The Upper Susquehanna Watershed Project is a collaborative effort among high schools from Cooperstown to Afton, New York. Students analyze water samples and monitor stream flows at seven satellite reporting stations along the Susquehanna River and its tributaries.

A casual observer of the students who gathered in early December at the sixth annual Upper Susquehanna Watershed Project Conference to explain the results of their research likely would have thought they were listening to advanced college students, rather than high schoolers.

“The Upper Susquehanna Watershed Project offers students real world experience and engages them in locally meaningful projects that benefit local organizations,” said Rich Townsend, a teacher at Sidney High School and co-founder of the project.

One of the local organizations benefiting from the students’ work is the Sidney Center Improvement Group, a local non-profit organization guiding watershed management efforts in Carr’s Creek, a Susquehanna River tributary. The students will analyze water samples from the creek, and the improvement group will use the data to complete a watershed plan and pursue reductions in harmful water pollutants.

The project “is truly a win-win for all,” said Joe Lally, president of the Sidney Center Improvement Group.

Jeff Lape, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, and Peter Freehafer, an official with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, attended the project conference and were impressed with the students’ work.

“Here is the next generation embracing the principles of watershed management,” Lape said, adding that it was very encouraging to see that the students “understood the science and how it affects their own backyard.”

Keywords: education
410 Severn Avenue / Suite 112
Annapolis, Maryland 21403
Tel: (800) YOUR-BAY / Fax: (410) 267-5777
Directions to the Bay Program Office
Terms of Use | Privacy Policy
©2012 Chesapeake Bay Program | All Rights Reserved