Long-lasting chemical contaminants may still be persisting in the Chesapeake Bay region, but the pollutants have had no significant effect on the world’s largest breeding population of ospreys, according to a report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
While the three-year study found some residue of pesticides and industrial chemicals in the Bay’s tidal waters, fish, osprey eggs and osprey chicks, researchers did not find a connection between the fish hawk’s exposure to the chemicals and its success in the Chesapeake region.
“Osprey populations are thriving almost everywhere in the Chesapeake,” Rebecca Lazarus, a researcher at the USGS’ Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the lead author of the report, said in a release. “We found them nesting in some of the most highly contaminated areas in the Bay and we did not find any relationship between contaminants and their nests' productivity.”
Widespread use of DDT in the mid-twentieth century caused the Bay’s osprey population to fall to fewer than 1,500 pairs before the pesticide was banned in the United States in 1972. Close to 10,000 pairs of osprey are expected to nest in the Chesapeake region this year.
To hear Lazarus describe osprey life history and her research, watch our Bay 101: Ospreys video:
The study, "Chesapeake Bay fish–osprey food chain: Evaluation of contaminant exposure and genetic damage," is available online from the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.
As home to the largest estuary in North America, the Chesapeake Bay watershed is vast and complex, covering 64,000 miles and including six states and the District of Columbia. The Bay has a land to water ratio of 14 to 1, five times greater than any other, and its airshed—the area of land over which airborne pollutants travel to enter the Bay—is nine times larger than the watershed, extending south to South Carolina, west to Indiana and north to Canada. The geography of the watershed is diverse, spanning the coastal plain and Piedmont plateau, marine and freshwater, urban and rural lands—and it's home to more than 1,600 local governments, all with different responsibilities for making land use decisions that can impact pollution in the watershed.
While the federal government and state agencies go about setting goals and establishing priorities, it is local governments that implement many of the measures to help reduce pollution. They operate wastewater treatment plants, manage urban stormwater, make zoning and land use decisions and enact ordinances. The 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement acknowledged the vital role local governments play in protecting and restoring the Chesapeake ecosystem, as well as the need to support their efforts by broadening their knowledge and building capacity to act on issues related to water resources.
Local governments are on the frontlines of efforts to achieve water quality standards under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). In addition to achieving water quality goals, local governments are central to the success of our efforts to achieve many of the other goals established by the Watershed Agreement regarding fisheries, habitats, stewardship, land conservation, public access, environmental literacy and climate resiliency.
For many of our goals, we have very specific outcomes we want to accomplish, as well as indicators that give us a way to measure our progress. We’re in the process of finalizing work plans that identify actions we’ll take over the next two years toward meeting our long-term outcomes. We’ll assess that progress to make sure we stay on track by using these indicators, which serve as tools for holding ourselves accountable, and allowing the public to hold us accountable as well.
We have built a number of other tools that will assist the partnership in meeting its goals. A tool called BayFAST is being used by federal agencies with facilities located in the watershed to establish pollution reduction targets for their installations. This tool allows installations to evaluate a range of practices and estimate project costs for planning and budgetary purposes. We’re working to include monetized benefits as well, so local officials can make well-informed choices taking into account a broader set of considerations.
The partnership is acquiring high-resolution land cover data for the entire watershed, and working with local officials to acquire the most recent land use data. With updates to this information expected every three years, we’ll be able to see how the landscape in the Chesapeake Bay watershed changes over time. And when coupled with Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data, we’re able to generate imagery that can be used to verify landscape features such as riparian forest buffers, which could significantly reduce the cost of BMP verification. Local governments, many of which have used scarce public funds to secure this information, will now have access to this high-resolution land cover and LiDAR data. Having this data available and updated on a regular basis could save local governments hundreds of thousands of dollars. Similarly, the general public and conservation organizations can use this information in developing and implementing a variety of conservation projects.
We are also working with states, local elected officials and government staff, and representatives from urban, suburban and agricultural sectors to develop recommendations on how to better engage local partners in the development of state Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) and make those plans understandable at the local level. A newly formed task force is exploring whether Phase III WIPs should include local area targets and, if so, how these targets could be expressed to best inform local planning and decision-making.
Many challenges remain, however. With so many local governments throughout the watershed, how do we provide timely and useful information to local decision-makers? How do we share success stories, so local governments and communities can benefit from new approaches that have demonstrated their value? How do we spread innovation more quickly? The partnership’s Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC), many of whom are local officials themselves, is taking on several of these issues. They are participating in municipal and county meetings to get the word out and seek input, as well as trying to get local officials who have implemented successful approaches to share that information with their peers.
Through funding provided to the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program Office, local governments have received both financial and technical assistance. For the past three years, we’ve provided $5 million to support local governments and projects such as green roof rebates, rain barrel installations, environmental education and efforts to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution. From 2008 through 2014, funds made available by EPA to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) have supported a number of local projects, making nearly $9 million available to local governments and $18.4 million available to local organizations through four grant programs. Finally, CBPO has provided $740,000 in funding to the Environmental Finance Center to help local governments identify financing options to support urban and agricultural stormwater management.
The partnership understands the critical role local governments play in implementing many of the measures necessary to achieve our water quality goals and restore the living resources of this economically, culturally and environmentally important ecosystem.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
On a warm day last September, Julie Lawson, Director of Trash Free Maryland, sat on a boat, motoring from a dock in Annapolis. She was surrounded by guests she had invited, and as she spoke to them, a mason jar full of algae-thick water sloshed in her hand with every gesture.
Looking more closely at the jar, several small flecks of white floated at the surface, occasionally sticking to the side of the glass. They were pieces of microplastic—degraded bits of waste less than five millimeters in size. Microplastic is a potential threat to marine life, which can mistake pieces of waste for food. It can also absorb and release harmful chemicals.
“It's funny, I actually started out by caring about trash in the water, and most of the time now all I do is talk about neighborhoods,” Lawson said.
The previous fall, Lawson had collected several similar samples from the Chesapeake Bay with grant support by the Chesapeake Bay Trust and with the help of Stiv Wilson, Campaign Director of The Story of Stuff Project. The result was a visual demonstration of what happens when trash on land gets washed into streams, rivers, and ultimately the Bay and the ocean.
Returning to the water after winning a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Lawson, Wilson and Dr. Chelsea Rochman, an ecotoxicologist and postdoctoral fellow with the University of California, Davis, included more sites from throughout the Bay, in order to obtain 60 samples. Half of the samples would be sent to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lab for scientific analysis.
The process, in a protocol developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), uses what’s called a manta trawl with a 20x60-centimeter opening and a 333-micron mesh net to skim the water surface for exactly 15 minutes at a time.
"Then I sampled wastewater that drains into the bay from from urban runoff, agricultural runoff and wastewater treatment plants to see if there was microplastic in these sources—and if the type and shape matched with what we saw in the Bay," said Rochman, who also sampled oysters last summer.
The manta trawl samples include everything from underwater grasses and fish eggs to a pair of sunglasses and a lighter. Pulling on plastic gloves that day in September, Lawson fought her nerves while handling a jellyfish that ended up in one jar. She didn’t get stung.
Lawson said the research will help determine how much plastic is in the Chesapeake Bay, which would set a baseline to help determine if the level of pollution is going up or down. They also want to know the types of plastic, which would provide insight into where that plastic is coming from.
“Is it film? Is it microbeads?” Lawson said. “What kind of chemical is it contaminated with?”
Lawson expects to have lab results from the trawl later this year. The last phase of their study will examine the digestive tracts of fish species frequently caught by fishermen, in order to determine how much plastic the animals are consuming.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Video, photos and text by Will Parson
Declining pollution, recovering fish populations and protected lands are signs of improving health for the Potomac River, according to the Potomac Conservancy’s ninth annual State of the Nation’s River report.
In 2012, American Rivers listed the Potomac as the nation’s most endangered river. But the river’s latest grade of “B-”—up from a “C” in 2013 and a “D” in 2011—indicates slow but steady progress on the waterway’s path to recovery. Nutrient and sediment pollution has decreased, fish like shad and white perch are returning to the waterway and more than a quarter of the land in the Potomac region is protected from development.
“Not all is well with our Nation’s River, however,” the report states. The fastest growing source of pollution into both the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay is stormwater runoff—rainfall that picks up pollutants as it flows across roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses and carries them into rivers and streams, threatening marine life and human health. With millions expected to move to the Potomac region in the coming decades, an increase in polluted runoff threatens to offset much of the progress made so far.
According to the Conservancy, approaches like streamside forest buffers, green infrastructure, mixed-use communities and low-impact development could help support the river on its path toward recovery.