Plant forests, issue stormwater permits, install trash traps: the list of things we can do to improve water quality seems to grow each day. And as eager environmentalists, we would love to do all of them as soon as we can. But with worsening water and shrinking budgets, perhaps we should first find out which actions would make the biggest environmental difference.
In order to determine which pollution-reduction solution might work best for ourselves and our community, we must first pinpoint our water problems. Do our waterways contain too much sediment? Too much nitrogen? Once we know these answers, we can determine where to focus our efforts—whether on residential rain gardens that curb stormwater runoff, on upgrades to wastewater treatment plants or on something else entirely.
Finding out what is in our water—or monitoring water quality—provides us with a baseline. After we install a rain garden or restore a forest buffer or complete another restoration project, we can monitor water quality once again to determine whether or not the project has been effective.
How do we monitor water quality?
There are multiple ways to monitor water quality. We chose to highlight the method that involves going out on a boat during the summer!
There are two steps: first, biologists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) collect water samples from a number of selected sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay. Then, the samples are analyzed for nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES).
This analysis paints a vivid picture for scientists, allowing them to see where pollutants come from and how they might be mitigated.
What’s in the water right now?
Due to the lack of rain this year, monitoring teams found fewer nitrates, nutrients that run off into Bay tributaries from fertilizers and soil.
With fewer nitrates, algal blooms were less able to grow and resulting “dead zones” were less able to form. A dead zone is an area that does not contain any oxygen, leaving fish, shellfish and other critters struggling to breathe. This year’s dead zone was nearly half the size of last year’s.
“Nitrates and ammonias… If you have too much of these, it leads to algal blooms, which can lead to dead zones in the Bay,” explains Carl Zimmerman, Manager of the Nutrient Analytical Service Lab at UMCES.
The UMCES lab has multiple ways of analyzing nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon in water samples it receives from field crews.
“We’re looking for changes in the nutrient concentrations. If a best management practice has been implemented, will it improve water quality? Will upgrades in sewage treatment plants reduce the amount of nutrients that come into the Bay? These [answers] can only be accomplished by looking at our water tables,” says Zimmerman.
The DNR monitoring program Eyes on the Bay has a website on which the public can track water quality at each of the Bay’s monitoring sites.
“We want to let the public know how we’re doing as a government in cleaning up the Bay,” explains Mark Trice, Program Chief of DNR's Water Quality Informatics Program.
“We all want a clean Bay and the quality of life that comes with clean water,” says Trice.
Image courtesy Eric Vance/US EPA
More about water quality monitoring:
Learn what simple changes you can make to decrease your biggest pollutant (whether it’s nitrogen, phosphorous or sediment), all from your own backyard!
During the Atlantic Basin's six-month hurricane season, wetlands along the edges of rivers, streams and Chesapeake Bay shorelines play a critical role in maintaining healthy waters.
Storms and hurricanes like Lee and Irene in 2011 or Isabel in 2003 can have serious consequences for the Bay region, as rains wash nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous off of farms, lawns and gardens; push sediment-laden runoff into local waterways; and inundate grass and oyster beds with suffocating silt. But this sort of storm damage is often temporary, and can be mitigated by abundant, healthy wetlands and ongoing efforts to restore them.
Wetlands stabilize shorelines, protect properties from strong waves and surging floods, soak up stormwater runoff and absorb sediment and chemical contaminants. While wetlands alone will not stop excess nutrients and sediment from reaching our waters, strong, healthy wetlands are vital to reducing the impacts of polluted runoff and supporting the Bay's resilience.
Last year, Chesapeake Bay Program partners restored more than 3,700 acres of wetlands in the Bay watershed--an acreage equivalent to about 2,855 football fields. These efforts build on the 14,765 acres of wetlands established from 1998 to 2010 and represent a solid step by Bay jurisdictions toward meeting the goal to restore 30,000 acres and rejuvenate 150,000 acres of these landscapes by 2025.
The National Park Service (NPS) has given a financial boost to two dozen projects in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, putting $1.3 million toward education, employment and environmental access.
Image courtesy Accokeek Foundation/Flickr
The funding allowed 30 Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., teachers to spend one week learning about the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake region. It allowed high-school students in Baltimore to work for six weeks to remove invasive species, plant trees and improve parks along the Patapsco River. And it improved public access to rivers, streams and wetlands from the Chemung River in Elmira, New York, to the Potomac River in Accokeek, Maryland.
The 24 projects that span four Bay states and the District of Columbia will bolster three NPS trails: the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network, which connects more than 160 parks, museums, trails and more; the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail; and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. The routes that form these latter trails offer teachers, students and families on-the-ground opportunities to experience the region’s land, water and history.
"Each of these projects has a positive impact in local communities,” said NPS Superintendent John Maounis. “Whether teaching the history of these places, introducing young people to possible career paths or providing a new place to get to the water, these are investments in quality of life.”
By funding trail development, NPS is advancing public access goals set forth in the Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, which calls for the addition of 300 new public access sites where people might boat, swim, fish, observe wildlife, walk trails and strengthen their connection with the outdoors.
For a full list of grant recipients, visit the Chesapeake Bay Gateways website.
Now that school is back in session, your student may be spending more time indoors than outside exploring his local environment. Fortunately, there are several ways to keep your little adventurer’s sense of curiosity alive throughout the school year.
Image courtesy Children and Nature Network/Facebook
Here are some of our favorite ways for parents and teachers to introduce hands-on environmental learning to the watershed’s younger residents:
1. Conduct a field study
Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr
Look for an area where your students can observe the natural world. Whether their classroom curriculum outlines the life cycle of frogs or the benefits of pollinators, students are sure to appreciate experiencing their textbooks in action.
Field studies often take place in a park or at a nature center. But if you would rather stay close to home, consider creating a schoolyard habitat with your students to attract wildlife and serve as an outdoor classroom perfect for long-term plant, insect and animal monitoring.
2. "Green" your school
What better way to get your kids to care about the earth than to “go green” yourself! Does your school have a recycling or composting program? What about a habitat for local wildlife? Implement sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices where you can and your school could earn recognition as a “Green Ribbon School” from the U.S. Department of Education.
Wondering where to start? Get advice from the Center for Green Schools, a program dedicated to transforming schools into sustainable and healthy places. And be sure to get a tip or two from your state: Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, and West Virginia all have green school programs.
3. Get outside
Educators and parents know that outdoor recess can encourage students to expend some of that extra energy. But time spent outside can also foster an appreciation for and fascination with the environment—not to mention prevent childhood obesity and curb attention deficit disorder (or ADD). After all, weren’t today’s biologists once inspired by the gooey worms they used to collect or the bird’s nests found in their backyards?
Encourage your kids to get outside with structured activities, from tag and hide-and-go-seek to geocaching. This latter sport is gaining popularity across the country, as a GPS-powered treasure hunt. Read more about geocaching with students or take a look at our photo slideshow of a geocaching adventure at the Accokeek Foundation. And learn more about how time outside can help your child from the No Child Left Inside Coalition.
4. Get to work
Image courtesy of courosa/Flickr
From coloring a white wall with an orange crayon to planting green trees in a barren field, kids love to feel like they’ve made a lasting, physical change to the environment around them. So why not plan a day of outdoor service learning? A number of schools and community groups hold these events on their grounds. Look for one near you this fall!
If you are an educator in Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Stream Restoration Challenge is a great way for your middle or high school students to learn about the Bay while giving back to their community.
When a day outside just isn’t possible, a selection of nature writing or scenic websites, movies and other multimedia can still engage your students with the natural world. Use Bay Backpack to find curriculum guides and lesson ideas based on your location, grade level and state’s environmental education requirements.
6. Get money
If your big ideas for outdoor experiences stretch far beyond your budget, consider finding funding through an outside source. Some extra support through a grant, for instance, may be just what you need to get that edible vegetable garden started outside your classroom or in your neighborhood. Learn more about funding sources here.
Professional development courses can include kayaking down a river or stream, exploring island habitats or learning how to build a rain garden. These training opportunities give you a chance to connect with other educators and to hear fresh takes on how to connect your classroom with the world outside.
8. Get ideas
Connecting with other parents or educators about their teaching techniques can bring creative juice to your curriculum. Check out Bay Backpack, which features school spotlights and easy activities for kids. And to discuss the benefits of outdoor play with other parents and professionals, join the Children and Nature Network.