The amount of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay fell significantly between 2014 and 2015, helping improve water quality in the nation’s largest estuary. Experts attribute this drop in pollution loads to dry weather and below-normal river flow, but note local efforts to reduce pollution also played a role. Indeed, related research shows “best management practices”—including upgrading wastewater treatment plants, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions, and reducing runoff from farmland—have lowered nutrients and sediment in local waterways.
Excess nutrients and sediment are among the leading causes of the Bay’s poor health. Nitrogen and phosphorus can fuel the growth of algae blooms that lead to low-oxygen “dead zones,” while sediment can suffocate shellfish and block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses. By tracking pollution loads into rivers and streams, the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) can ensure our partners are on track to meet clean water goals.
According to data from the CBP and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment loads to the Bay were below the long-term average in 2015. Between 2014 and 2015, nitrogen loads fell 25 percent, phosphorus loads fell 44 percent and sediment loads fell 59 percent. Below-average loads are considered positive because reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution can improve water quality.
The most recent assessment of water quality—which examines dissolved oxygen, water clarity and chlorophyll a (a measure of algae growth) in the Bay and its tidal waters—makes these improvements clear: between 2013 and 2015, an estimated 37 percent of the tidal Chesapeake met water quality standards. While this is far below the 100 percent attainment needed for clean water and a stable aquatic habitat, it marks an almost 10 percent improvement from the previous assessment period.
A large portion of pollution loads enters the Bay from the rivers within its watershed. Accordingly, the USGS tracks both annual pollution loads and trends in these loads at monitoring stations along nine of the biggest rivers that feed the Bay. In some cases, long-term pollution trends at these stations reflect efforts to improve water quality. Long-term trends in nitrogen, for example, are improving at six of the nine monitoring stations. Long-term trends in phosphorus and sediment, however, are more variable, and short-term pollution trends show less improvement.
“While the lowered amount of pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay in 2015 is encouraging, the trends of nutrients and sediment over the last decade in the major rivers flowing into the Bay show mixed results,” said U.S. Geological Survey Chesapeake Bay Coordinator Scott Phillips in a media release. “There will need to be improving trends in all of these rivers to support improvement in the Bay’s health.”
Last year’s decline in pollution loads can, in large part, be attributed to favorable weather. While high precipitation can increase river flow and push pollution into the Bay, river flow was below normal in 2015. The long-term decline in pollution loads can also be attributed to on-the-ground pollution-reducing practices, which jurisdictions put in place to meet first the 1983 Chesapeake Bay Agreement, then similar agreements signed in 1987 and 2000, and later the requirements of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (Bay TMDL). As of 2015, computer simulations show these practices are in place to achieve 31 percent of the nitrogen reductions, 81 percent of the phosphorus reductions and 48 percent of the sediment reductions necessary to reach our clean water goals.
While improvements in water quality will take time—due in large part to the lag between the implementation of a conservation practice and the visible effect of that practice on a particular waterway—the ecosystem is beginning to respond to protection and restoration efforts. Last year, researchers observed more than 91,000 acres of underwater grasses (also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV) in the Bay, which surpassed the Chesapeake Bay Program’s 2017 restoration target two years ahead of schedule and marked the highest amount ever recorded by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science aerial survey.
“As an SAV biologist, I’m thrilled to see these improving trends in water quality, whether they’re an effect of low flow or our pollution reduction efforts, or both,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Biologist and Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup Chair Brooke Landry. “Better water quality means more SAV, and more SAV means more food and habitat for the fish, invertebrates and waterfowl that depend on it. In 2015, SAV expanded in areas throughout the Bay, and even appeared in places where it's never been recorded before, reaching almost 50 percent of our ultimate restoration goal. This is very exciting and provides the incentive we need to stay on track with our efforts to clean up the Bay. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it.”
“The ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay watershed is large and complex and can be affected by a variety of different factors,” said Chesapeake Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release. “We are witnessing improvement in a number of our indicators—bay grasses, water clarity and water quality standards attainment, as well as a number of our fisheries such as blue crab population. But we must stay focused and ramp up our pollution reduction efforts if we are to be successful over the long term.”
At 464 miles in length, the Susquehanna River is the largest in the region and supplies the Bay with about half of its fresh water. This mighty river crosses three state borders, beginning in upstate New York, snaking its way through Pennsylvania and ultimately emptying into the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. But while the Susquehanna’s most northern point is in New York, a large branch of the river goes as far west as Blair County, Pennsylvania. The Susquehanna River has an incredibly wide reach, flowing past thousands of acres of beautiful scenery and countless numbers of towns with their own unique history and culture. Whether you’ve lived by the river your whole live or are visiting it for the first time, take a trip down the Susquehanna—and through the Chesapeake region—by exploring these seven spots.
1. Glimmerglass State Park
Glimmerglass State Park offers the chance to experience the Susquehanna River where it begins, just outside of Cooperstown, New York, at Otsego Lake. The park features a trail with views of the lake as well as the self-guided Beaver Pond Nature Trail. Also located in the park is the Hyde Hall Mansion, a National Historic Landmark that’s open for tours from May through October.
2. Roberson Museum and Science Center
Follow the river south to Binghamton, New York, and stop in at Roberson Museum and Science Center. Housed in the Roberson Mansion, the museum features art, local history, science and natural history exhibits. Along with its exhibits, the museum is home to a large model train display—one of the largest in the region—depicting Binghamton and the surrounding landscape.
3. Susquehanna River Water Trail
What better way to see the Susquehanna River than by getting out on it? Experience the river first-hand on the Susquehanna River Water Trail. Consisting of four separate sections—the North Branch, West Branch, Middle Section and Lower Section—the water trail covers all of Pennsylvania’s portion of the Susquehanna River and its western branch, totaling over 500 miles. Complete the North, Middle and Lower sections and you can be a member of the elite 444 Club!
4. Shikellamy State Park
Get a glimpse of the river’s confluence—where the west branch and north branch combine into a single stem—at Shikellamy State Park. Consisting of two separate areas, a marina located on an island at the beginning of the north branch and an overlook on the west side of the west branch, Shikellamy offers a unique view of the confluence of hundreds of miles of river.
5. Sproul State Forest
Explore the Susquehanna’s west branch by visiting Sproul State Forest. Covering over 467 square miles, Sproul is the largest state forest in Pennsylvania, with plenty of space for picnicking, hunting, fishing, boating, camping and trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and ATVs.
6. Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art
Continue down the Susquehanna River to Millersburg, Pennsylvania, and stop into nature and art museum named after hometown artist, naturalist and writer, Ned Smith. The museum, featuring the artist’s work as well as rotating exhibits, sits on over 500 acres of land that contain 12 miles of trails as well as views of the Susquehanna River.
7. Susquehanna Museum
End your trip down the river at the beginning of the Chesapeake Bay in Havre de Grace, Maryland. There you can visit the Susquehanna Museum, located in a building that originally served as the lock house for the Tidewater Canal. The canal spanned the 45 miles between Havre de Grace and Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, creating a link for easy trade among central Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Baltimore. The restored lock house now serves as a museum telling the history of the canal and Havre de Grace.
What’s your favorite spot along the Susquehanna River? Tell us in the comments!
Richard Burlingame hoses down cages of oysters pulled from the Rappahannock River at Rappahannock Oyster Company in Topping, Virginia. Like many others in Virginia, the company has turned to aquaculture—oyster farming—in recent years to yield a more sustainable harvest.
An oft-repeated piece of advice about oysters is to only eat them in months containing the letter “R”: September, October, November and so on. But this adage became popular before commercial harvesting and oyster aquaculture were widespread. Warm weather brings along a variety of conditions that can make oysters less-than-appetizing: the bivalve’s natural lifecycle leads to a soft, flimsy oyster in the summer months; bacteria and harmful algae are more likely to be present and absorbed by the oysters; and it simply isn’t safe to eat shellfish that have been sitting out in hot weather, which was a concern in the days before refrigeration.
These days, oyster farming, water-quality monitoring and strict food safety practices have made it safe to eat raw oysters year-round. Many vendors use sterile breeds or import shellfish from cooler climates to avoid the thin, milky meat of spawning oysters. Monitoring bacteria and pollution at every step of the farming and harvesting process ensures that only oysters from clean waters make it onto your plate. And strict food safety regulations mean the shellfish are refrigerated from the moment they leave the water to when they’re sold to consumers.
Still, aficionados know the flavor of oysters can vary based on when and where they’re harvested. But you can rest easy knowing they’re safe to eat no matter the month.
Image by Will Parson
A wind turbine generates energy above agricultural crops in Madison County, New York. Wind energy is just one of the many ways federal, state and local partners are working to reduce air pollution across the Chesapeake Bay region.
Polluted air doesn’t just cloud the air we breathe—it can also have quite an impact on water quality. Experts estimate that one-third of the nitrogen in the Bay comes from the air through a process known as atmospheric deposition. Wind and weather can carry the pollution emitted by power plants, airplanes, cars and other sources over long distances until it falls onto land or directly into the water.
While the area of land that drains into the Bay spans six states and 64,000 square miles, the Bay’s “airshed”—the area of land over which airborne pollutants travel to enter the estuary—is nine times that size. This makes far-reaching efforts like the Clean Air Act essential in reducing the amount of pollution that reaches the Bay. Alternative sources of energy like hydropower dams, manure and poultry litter, wind turbines and solar panels can also help lessen the amount of energy-related pollution emitted into the air.
Image by Will Parson