Nutrients flowing from the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore make up a disproportionate amount of the excess nitrogen and phosphorus polluting the estuary, according to a recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
The land to the east of the Bay, known as the Delmarva Peninsula, includes parts of western Delaware and eastern Maryland and Virginia, and makes up just seven percent of the watershed’s total land area. But per square mile, Delmarva receives nearly twice as much nitrogen and phosphorus as other areas in the region, leading to degraded water quality in the rivers, streams and groundwater that flow to the Bay. These nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that block sunlight and create low-oxygen areas, or “dead zones,” that suffocate marine life.
“On the Eastern Shore, the concentrations of nitrogen in groundwater, and nitrogen and phosphorus in surface waters, are well above natural levels and are among the highest in the nation,” said Scott Ator, a USGS hydrologist and co-author of the study.
According to the report, agricultural production—including fertilizer and manure applied to cropland—accounts for more than 90 percent of the nutrients reaching the lands of the Eastern Shore. When more fertilizer and manure is applied to the land than is needed by crops, nitrogen builds up in the groundwater and phosphorus builds up in the soil, and these nutrients eventually move into streams that flow to the Chesapeake Bay.
Under the clean water goals in the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which encompasses the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), Chesapeake Bay Program partners are working to reduce the amount of nutrients entering local waterways—including working with farmers across the watershed to implement “best management practices” or “BMPs” that curb agricultural runoff. Findings from the USGS report will help improve the placement of these practices to reduce the nutrient pollution reaching groundwater, streams and the Bay.
Nine months after the signing of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Chesapeake Bay Program is seeking public input on our plans to achieve the goals and outcomes of that landmark accord. These twenty-five draft management strategies address the thirty-one outcomes of the Watershed Agreement and outline our plans for the implementation, monitoring and assessment of our work toward the protection and restoration of the Bay, its rivers and streams and the lands that surround them.
“These plans are the detailed outlines of what may be the most extensive collaboration in the nation,” said Molly Ward, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources and Chair of the Bay Program’s Principals’ Staff Committee. “Each one is connected to every other, just like our lands, river, streams and the Bay. As we move forward, we welcome people’s input so that we can strengthen those bonds, becoming even more focused, intentional and unified in our vision of a healthy Bay ecosystem.”
Our efforts toward achieving the Agreement’s thirty-one interconnected outcomes will benefit communities throughout the watershed—across Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.—as we work to maintain the health of local waters, sustain abundant fish and wildlife populations, restore critical habitats, foster engaged and diverse communities through increased public access and education, conserve farmland and forests, and improve the climate resiliency of the region.
“Resiliency in nature comes from diversity. Like the natural ecosystem, our work draws strength from increasing the diversity of our partnerships, increasing local actions for watershed-wide results,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale. “When people from distinct communities across the region – from citizens to communities to local governments – join in the overall effort, everyone benefits.”
In June 2014, representatives from the six watershed states, the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed the landmark Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. This agreement marks the first time representatives from every jurisdiction in the watershed committed to full partnership in the Bay Program and our collaborative restoration efforts.
Drafts of the management strategies are available online. The Bay Program welcomes comments on these drafts between March 16 and April 30, 2015. Interested parties can offer input by submitting an online comment or sending an email to the Bay Program.
It’s a false dilemma we’ve all heard before: “You’re either with me, or you’re against me.” In the case of the Chesapeake, we often run into a less pugnacious, but similarly false, contradiction when we talk about protecting or restoring the Bay, its rivers and streams and the lands that surround them. To be sure, there are pristine healthy watersheds that need a focus on protection, as well as severely degraded areas that need a lot of restoration. But in reality, the vast majority of waters and lands across the Bay region need efforts that both restore and protect, so that we’re bringing back clean water, healthy habitats, and opportunities to enjoy nature, while ensuring we don’t lose the ones we already have.
The January announcement of funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers a great opportunity to put this potent combination into practice. Through its new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) nine projects across the Bay’s watershed will receive nearly $25 million. This funding will deliver restoration and protection in key areas across the Bay’s watershed, bringing a renewed focus to critical areas of the region and new partnerships.
One funded project, the Delmarva Conservation Partnership—co-led by The Nature Conservancy and the Delaware-Maryland Agribusiness Association—offers a unique collaboration between conservation organizations, agribusinesses, government agencies and the scientific community. This partnership focuses on a holistic approach to target conservation practices—ones that both restore and protect—that will achieve the greatest outcomes. In the Choptank, Nanticoke, and Pocomoke river watersheds, partners will work together to connect improved management practices in agricultural fields, with over 1,500 acres of wetland restoration and protection.
The natural world is an interconnected system: the actions we take to build the health of our local lands and waterways go on to benefit the water, land, air and living resources throughout the watershed. When our efforts are similarly interconnected—by including both protection and restoration—we can better ensure our work benefits the health and resilience of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and all of us who depend upon it.
Sediment building up behind Conowingo Dam has almost reached the reservoir’s capacity for storage, according to a report released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The reservoir is considered at its limit for holding sediment when it is half full—at present, it is 92 percent of the way toward this maximum.
Since its construction in 1929, the Conowingo reservoir, along with the reservoirs behind the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams, has trapped sediment and nutrients as they flow down the Susquehanna River—which provides nearly half of the fresh water that flows into the Bay. According to the report, the ability of these reservoirs to trap pollutants has been steadily declining.
“Storage capacity in Conowingo reservoir continues to decrease, and ultimately that means more nutrients and sediment will flow into the Bay,” said Mike Langland, author of the study, in a release. “Understanding the sediments and nutrients flowing into the Bay from the Susquehanna River is critical to monitoring and managing the health of the Bay.”
Excess sediment can cloud the water and harm underwater grasses, fish and shellfish, while nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms and the creation of low-oxygen “dead zones,” which suffocate underwater life. Reducing the amount of pollutants in local waterways is integral to Bay restoration efforts, including the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or “pollution diet,” which Bay Program partners recommitted to achieving as part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. In anticipation of a decline in Conowingo reservoir’s ability to trap sediment, the TMDL includes a mechanism for addressing any increases in nutrient and sediment pollution caused by a full reservoir.
The report from USGS reiterates the findings of a study by the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment (LSRWA) team, released in November 2014, which found that the once-effective “pollution gate” is trapping smaller amounts of sediment and nutrients and, during large storms, sending more of these pollutants into the Susquehanna River more often. The team found that reducing pollution loads upstream of the dam would pose a more effective solution that dredging, bypassing or other operational changes, which would come with high costs and low or short-lived benefits.
The USGS report, Sediment Transport and Capacity Change in Three Reservoirs, Lower Susquehanna River Basin, Pennsylvania and Maryland 1900–2012, is available online.