Shad abundance has surged in four Chesapeake Bay rivers, surpassing restoration goals in the Potomac and Rappahannock. While shad populations are critically low along the Atlantic coast, scientists hope to see rising trends continue in these two waterways. Shad spend most of their adult lives in the ocean, migrating into freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. Their return brings food to the Bay in the form of protein-rich eggs, adult shad that can be captured during the spawn and a new generation of shad that can offer forage to striped bass, bluefish and other species as they return to the sea.
Once one of the most valuable fisheries in the Bay, shad populations have declined in recent decades due to pollution, historic overfishing and the construction of dams that block the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. The Bay Program tracks the abundance of American shad in the James, Potomac, Rappahannock, Susquehanna and York rivers as an indicator of watershed health. Collectively, these five waterways account for about 90 percent of the Bay’s shad population, and each has its own population target.
Between 2000 and 2014, shad abundance in the Bay increased from 11 percent to 44 percent of the goal. The Potomac River has seen the most consistent rise in returning shad, but the Rappahannock has also seen notable highs. In 2014, abundance in the Potomac and Rappahannock reached 130 and 110 percent of the rivers’ respective targets.
Scientists attribute these increases to a series of factors, including improvements in water quality; a resurgence in underwater grass beds; moratoriums on shad harvest; an increase in habitat available to migratory fish; stocking efforts that reprint fish to rivers and kick-start local populations; and the overall suitability of the Potomac, in particular, as shad habitat.
“The Potomac River shad population has surpassed its sustainability target,” said Jim Cummins, director of living resources for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin and co-chair of the Bay Program’s American Shad Indicator Action Team. “But we want to see recovery continue until a robust population is once again providing ecological benefits and supporting a fishery that includes some recreational harvest. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, anglers will be able to enjoy shad on the table and at the end of a line.”
Shad abundance remains negligible in the upper James and Susquehanna and variable in the lower James and York. Some variability is natural, but the continued scarcity of shad in the upper James and Susquehanna can be attributed to large dams. Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Bay Program has committed to opening more stream miles to migratory fish and improving our capacity to understand the role forage fish populations play in the Bay ecosystem.
Nearly 18 million people reside in the Chesapeake Bay region, with more moving to the area each year. Growing disputes over land use have conservationists working hard to protect the robust natural resources that can be found within the Bay region. A significant part of these efforts include developing and improving public access points as means for people to experience, explore and develop connections to the land, water and wildlife.
Nestled in between Accokeek Creek and Potomac Creek, Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve in Stafford, Virginia serves as one of the state’s highest land conservation priorities in the past 10 years. “This is a priority site because it’s such a large intact ecosystem. You have thousands of acres of mature hardwood forest on the coastal plain in Virginia,” explained Michael Lott, Crow’s Nest Manager and Northern Region Steward for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).
In addition to around 2,200 acres of mature hardwood forest, the site boasts 750 acres of nearly pristine wetlands and more than 10 miles of hiking trails, and it acts as a safe haven for wildlife and countless viewing opportunities for critters such as migratory waterfowl, white-tailed deer, river otters and beavers.
The preserve and those who manage it have faced many obstacles over the past few decades, including population growth and development encroaching on the area. “In the 1970’s, there were around 30,000 people in Stafford County; a few of the subdivisions were vacation homes for people in D.C. Now, the population is about 130,000. This is the best remaining tidal marsh in Stafford County, so our priority here is conservation,” said Geoff Austin, Northern Region Operations Steward with DCR.
Despite the vastness of the preserve and the great potential it holds for environmental education and recreational opportunities, the property is largely closed to the public until further operational resources can be effectively implemented.
The dynamic duo of Lott and Austin dedicate 90 percent of their working hours toward maintaining the preserve and trying to make it accessible to the public, but one major hurdle stands in their way – a mile-and-a-half long access road. “The big obstacle is the access road to the [completed] parking lot. We need to raise the money to fix that road. That road has been there since the colonial era, it’s been dug down and needs a lot of work before it’s passable for cars,” explained Austin. The team – with help from volunteers - keeps the trails clear, maintains the parking lot and plans to install proper trail signage once the road is completed.
Lott and Austin measure their success one victory - no matter the size - at a time, their latest being the installation of a handicap-accessible boat ramp to be opened to the public within the next couple of months. The ramp overlooks acres of tidal marsh, provides access to Accokeek Creek and lays adjacent to a half-mile trail complete with benches for wildlife observers. “It’s a great birding spot,” said Austin. The launch is part of a larger plan to connect a water trail system along the Potomac River.
DCR wants the public to be able to experience the preserve’s natural wonder. “In the past, this landscape did not lend itself to farming very well, and so a lot of the soil we have out here is still very much intact. Researchers have said that throughout the mid-Atlantic and East Coast, you can’t find soil like this in very many places anymore, which is why the forest out here is so productive,“ explained Lott. “A lot of the forest, particularly in the ravines, hasn’t been logged intensively since the Civil War, so it’s trending back toward mature forest. [For this reason] we keep the trails clear and have been holding open houses twice a year for five years now, so people have had the opportunity to see it and enjoy the trails.”
Tending to nearly 3,000 acres of forest and wetlands is no simple task for two people, but the work is done out of a place of deep caring and passion for protecting and sharing the special places in life with the public. “I grew up in this area and it’s nice to have an intact piece of hardwood [forest] that is going to be preserved in the area for years to come. It’s great to be able to walk out there when I’m working or hunting and see the big trees; you don’t see that in many other places in this area. As stewards of the land year-round you spend a lot of time here – it means a lot to be able to take care of this place.” said Austin.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Rapid population growth and development remain the top threats to the health of the Potomac River Watershed, according to the Potomac Conservancy’s eighth annual State of the Nation’s River report. But the advocacy group hopes implementing smart growth strategies will help the waterway withstand pressure from a growing community.
Despite being listed as the nation’s most endangered river by American Rivers in 2012, the Potomac River’s overall health has improved in recent years. In 2013, the Potomac Conservancy raised the waterway’s grade to a “C” after giving it a “D” grade in 2011. Now, with an estimated 2.3 million new residents expected to move into the communities along its shores by 2040, the Conservancy fears a rapidly changing landscape could undo years of progress toward restoring the Potomac.
“Population growth is likely to bring positive changes to our region including more jobs, higher home values, and a more robust local tax base,” the report states. “But, left unplanned, that growth could also spell disaster for the health of our lands, waterways, and drinking water sources.”
With the region facing forest loss, polluted rivers and streams and an aging water infrastructure, the report offers a range of “smart planning opportunities” as strategies to meet the needs of a growing population without further harming local waters. The Conservancy hopes approaches including forest buffers, mixed-use communities and rain gardens, along with a focus on redevelopment in existing areas rather than new development on untouched lands, will allow for the continued improvement of the Potomac River’s health.
Fisheries experts have recommended a “risk-averse” approach to managing blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, following poor harvests and a dramatic decline in the abundance of adult female crabs.
Image courtesy bionicteaching/Flickr
In its annual evaluation of the Bay’s blue crab fishery, the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) urged the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) to protect female and juvenile crabs in an effort to rebuild the overall population. The committee, which is made up of scientists, academics and government representatives and housed under the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, also recommended establishing sanctuaries to protect females and improving data related to crab harvests and winter death rates.
According to the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, the start of the 2014 crabbing season saw 68.5 million adult female crabs in the Bay. This marks a 53 percent decline from last year’s abundance of adult females. This number is based on the results of the winter dredge survey, and is tracked by the Bay Program as an indicator of Bay health. It is below the 215 million target abundance and the 70 million threshold, indicating adult females are in a depleted state.
“The poor performance of the Bay’s 2013 blue crab fishery—the lowest reported harvest in the last 24 years—combined with the winter dredge survey results that indicate a depleted female population warrants management actions to conserve both females and juveniles,” said CBSAC Chair Joe Grist in a media release. “The cold winter and other environmental factors affected the crab population, and we expect that conservative regulations will help females and juveniles—the future of the blue crab population—rebound.”
Earlier this month, The Capital reported that Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC have promised to cut harvests of female crabs by 10 percent. Virginia announced its plans in June, while Maryland and the PRFC are expected to release their regulations soon.
At the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an object as small as a piece of Styrofoam poses a big problem. Because whether it can be held in a volunteer’s hand or just fits into the bed of a truck, litter is at the center of the non-profit organization’s work.
Founded in 1954, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has an office in Washington, D.C., and an historic farmhouse-turned-workspace in southern Maryland. Whether it is through teacher trainings, field studies or volunteer clean-ups, the organization works to promote the sustainability of the Potomac River watershed. And one of the biggest issues facing the Potomac River is trash.
Most of what the Alice Ferguson Foundation does touches on litter: its danger is discussed with students on field studies; programs, events and meetings are often trash-free; and the office culture is one of low- to no-waste. You won’t find disposable plates or cups in the kitchen, and cloth napkins are washed, dried and reused on-site. Food waste is given to the pigs on Hard Bargain Farm, and bathrooms are equipped with hand-dryers. Clara Elias, Program Manager for the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative, puts it simply: “We’re committed to reducing trash.”
Image courtesy kryn13/Flickr
In the Potomac River watershed, there are two kinds of trash. First, Elias explained, there is the new litter that is generated on a regular basis, like the plastic bags, cigarette butts and beverage bottles found on streets and sidewalks. Second, there is the legacy litter left behind long ago at a particular site, like a pile of old tires sitting on the edge of a parking lot. Across the watershed, trash is both an urban and rural issue, although it differs between regions. While bottles and cans often float down the river from urban centers, rural areas that are without strong recycling programs face issues with illegal dumping of appliances, cars and even deer carcasses.
Over the 26 years that the Alice Ferguson Foundation has hosted the Potomac River Watershed Clean Up, the trash in the Potomac has changed. Volunteers used to pick up a lot of plastic bags, but after bag fees were passed in the District of Columbia, plastic bags in District waters dropped 50 percent. Similar legislation passed in Montgomery County caused this number to drop 70 percent. There was a change, too, in the plastic bags themselves, as volunteers now find more pet waste and newspaper bags than the shopping bags that carry the five-cent fee. Even so, Elias noted that at least half of the trash picked up along the Potomac is recyclable, which indicates more must be done to slow the flow of pollution into our rivers and streams.
“In American culture, we’re so used to having so many disposable things. We’re not taught how much energy it takes to dispose of [all of] it,” Elias said. So the Alice Ferguson Foundation teaches people just that.
On a Bridging the Watershed field study, students play a game of Trash Tag and learn about street sweepers, trash traps and other litter-reducing best management practices. On the Hard Bargain Farm, students sprinkle a shower curtain with food coloring, sand and pieces of paper. When the curtain gets wet, the pretend fertilizer, sediment and trash are washed downstream. And before their visit to the site, students are given a guide to packing a trash-free lunch. After their meal, students weigh the paper napkins, straw wrappers and other leftover trash and compete with other school groups to produce the least amount.
In addition to its field studies, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has also had success with its Trash Free Schools initiative, which helps students teach their peers, lead their own cleanups and change their school’s culture to produce less waste.
Trash is “tangible and physical, unlike energy or [stormwater] runoff, which are things you can’t see or touch or smell,” Elias said. “It builds momentum among students. Trash is a great issue for students to learn about.”
The blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay has dropped, due to a range of factors that include weather patterns, coastal currents and natural predators.
According to scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the long, cold winter and resulting low water temperatures killed an estimated 28 percent of adult crabs in state waters. This marks one of the worst “cold-kill” events since the state started tracking blue crab populations in 1990.
Both Maryland and Virginia measure the Bay’s blue crab population by conducting an annual winter dredge survey. Over the course of three and a half months, scientists visit 1,500 sites around the Bay, using metal dredges to pull up the crabs that are over-wintering in the mud.
Results of the most recent winter dredge survey show that the Bay’s total blue crab population fell from 300 million to 297 million between 2012 and 2013; the number of spawning-age females fell from 147 million to 69 million, passing the minimum threshold that managers adopted in 2011. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this latter number as an indicator of Bay health, and a decline could be a factor in determining blue crab management methods.
Indeed, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) have committed to collaborating on a two-pronged management approach to conserve adult female crabs: first, the groups will work to protect adult females that will be spawning this summer. Second, the groups will work to protect the current population of juvenile females through next spring, in order to build up the population of females that will spawn next year.
“Even though our 2008 conservation measures were designed to allow for naturally occurring fluctuations in crabs, these results are not what we had hoped to see,” said DNR Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell in a media release. “What is most important here is that the structure we put into place to cooperatively manage this fishery is strong, and that we continue to work with our partners and stakeholders to initiate a new stock assessment that could help evaluate our current management framework.”
The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) is expected to release their 2014 Blue Crab Advisory Report this summer.
Raising oysters along the bed of the Potomac River could lower pollution and improve water quality, according to new findings that show “farm-raised” shellfish are a promising method of managing nutrients.
Image courtesy Robert Rheault/Flickr
Nutrient pollution from urban, suburban and agricultural runoff has long plagued the Potomac, whose watershed spans four states and the District of Columbia and has the highest population in the Chesapeake Bay region. Excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. While filter-feeding oysters were once plentiful in the river—capable of removing nutrients from the water—their numbers have dropped due to overfishing and disease.
In a report published in Aquatic Geochemistry, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) show that cultivating shellfish on 40 percent of the Potomac’s bottom would remove all of the nitrogen now polluting the river. While conflicting uses—think shipping lanes, buried cables and pushback from boaters and landowners—mean it is unlikely that such a large area would be devoted to aquaculture, putting even 15 to 20 percent of the riverbed under cultivation would remove almost half of the incoming nitrogen. The combination of aquaculture and restored reefs could provide even greater benefits.
Image courtesy Virginia Sea Grant/Flickr
Shellfish aquaculture could also have benefits outside the realm of water quality: the shellfish could serve as a marketable seafood product, while the practice could provide growers with additional income if accepted in a nutrient trading program. Even so, the report notes that aquaculture should be considered “a complement—not a substitute” for land-based pollution-reducing measures.
“The most expedient way to reduce eutrophication in the Potomac River estuary would be to continue reducing land-based nutrients complemented by a combination of aquaculture and restored oyster reefs,” said scientist and lead study author Suzanne Bricker in a media release. “The resulting combination could provide significant removal of nutrients… and offer innovative solutions to long-term persistent water quality problems.”
At present, there are no aquaculture leases in the Potomac’s main stem. But in 2008, Maryland passed a plan to expand aquaculture in the region, and in 2009, NOAA launched an initiative to promote aquaculture in coastal waters across the United States.
Over the last decade, American shad abundance in the Potomac River has continued its consistent rise, driving the overall upward trend of shad abundance in the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy MTSOfan/Flickr
While shad spend most of their adult lives in the ocean, the anadromous fish migrate into freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. Since 2000, shad abundance in the Bay has increased from 9 percent of the goal to 41 percent of the goal, with the Potomac seeing the most consistent rise in returning shad. Between 2000 and 2013, shad abundance in the Potomac rose from 12.4 percent to 129.4 percent of the target. Scientists attribute this increase to a series of factors, including improvements in water quality; a resurgence in underwater grass beds; the installation of a fish passageway at Little Falls Dam; a moratorium on recreational shad harvest; stocking efforts that reprinted fish to the river and kick-started the population; and the overall suitability of the Potomac as shad habitat.
“While there are several factors behind the shad recovery in the Potomac River, improved water quality is the cornerstone,” said Jim Cummins, director for living resources at the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) and co-chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s American Shad Indicator Action Team. “Without cleaner waters in the Potomac River, we would never have seen such a boost in returning shad. We’ve reached the sustainable fishery target for the river, but we are still working to achieve a more robust goal: to see the shad population healthy and fit, and to see the river run silver again. That’s not a ‘pristine river’ goal—that’s a goal we can achieve.”
The Bay Program tracks the abundance of shad in the James, Potomac, Rappahannock, Susquehanna and York rivers as an indicator of watershed health. Collectively, these five waterways account for about 90 percent of the Bay’s shad population, and each has its own population target.
While shad abundance is relatively high in the Rappahannock River—reaching 92.7 percent of the target in 2012 but falling to 88.9 percent of the target in 2013—abundance remains negligible in the upper James and Susquehanna and variable in the lower James and York. Some variability is natural, but the continued scarcity of shad in the upper James and Susquehanna can be attributed to large dams that block fish passage and mute some of the natural cues that send migratory fish upstream.
Once one of the most valuable fisheries in the Bay, shad populations have declined in recent decades due to pollution, historic overfishing and the construction of dams that block the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. Commercial shad harvest is now closed across most of the region, and Bay Program partners are working to remove dams, install passageways that allow shad to reach upstream habitats and restock waterways with hatchery-raised fish. In addition, students in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia are raising shad and releasing them into the Potomac River, bringing public attention to the importance of the once-forgotten fish.
Overall, shad abundance in the Bay has increased from 8 percent of the goal in 2000 to 41 percent of the goal in 2013.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has launched a state-wide campaign to teach citizens about the impact of blue and flathead catfish and encourage anglers to remove the invasive species from local rivers and streams.
Native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river basins, blue catfish were introduced to the James, Rappahannock and York rivers in the 1970s and ‘80s as a sport fish. Flathead catfish were introduced to the James in the 1960s for the same reason. Over time, the natural movement and purposeful introduction of the fish into new waters have hastened their establishment in Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
This concerns scientists, who fear the fast-growing and long-lived blue catfish, in particular, could impact the region’s ecologic and economic resources. Because of its opportunistic feeding habits, the blue catfish has become an apex predator, disrupting the structure of the Bay ecosystem and eating up critical aquatic species.
Indeed, “gut content analyses” of the fish have found American shad, Atlantic menhaden, freshwater mussels and blue crabs in their stomachs. Peyton Robertson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office and chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, compared the blue catfish to a Bengal tiger, noting that the fish eats “just about anything.”
“If left unchecked, [blue catfish] could, as top predators, start to impact other parts of our ecosystem,” Robertson said.
But its eradication isn’t feasible, and experts believe the invasive fish is here to stay. So managers hope to mitigate their spread and minimize their impact on native fish.
With support from the Bay Program, DNR has established more than 150 signs at water access points and kiosks around the state to help anglers identify, catch and keep the species, while Maryland Seafood has escalated its efforts to market the fish to restaurants and boost consumer demand.
“[Humans] are great at overfishing things,” said Maryland Seafood Marketing Director Steve Vilnit. “And [the blue catfish] is a species that we want to overfish.”
Upgrading wastewater treatment technologies has lowered pollution in the Potomac, Patuxent and Back rivers, leading researchers to celebrate the Clean Water Act and recommend continued investments in the sewage sector.
Introduced in 1972, the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program regulates point sources of pollutants, or those that can be pinpointed to a specific location. Because wastewater treatment plants are a point source that can send nutrient-rich effluent into rivers and streams, this program has fueled advancements in wastewater treatment technologies. Biological nutrient removal, for instance, uses microorganisms to remove excess nutrients from wastewater, while the newer enhanced nutrient removal improves upon this process.
Researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) have linked these wastewater treatment technologies to a cleaner environment. In a report released last month, five case studies show that wastewater treatment plant upgrades in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia improved water quality in three Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
The link is clear: excess nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. Lowering the amount of nutrients that wastewater treatment plants send into rivers and streams can reduce algae blooms, bring back grass beds and improve water quality.
In New Insights: Science-based evidence of water quality improvements, challenges and opportunities in the Chesapeake, scientists show that new technologies at Baltimore’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant led to a drop in nitrogen concentrations in the Back River. Upgrades at plants in the upper Patuxent watershed led to a drop in nutrient concentrations and a resurgence in underwater grasses in the Patuxent River. And improvements at plants in northern Virginia and the District lowered nutrient pollution, shortened the duration of algae blooms and boosted underwater grass growth in the Potomac River.
Image courtesy Kevin Harber/Flickr
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks wastewater permits as an indicator of Bay health. As of 2012, 45 percent of treatment plants in the watershed had limits in effect to meet water quality standards. But a growing watershed population is putting increasing pressure on urban and suburban sewage systems.
“Further investments in [wastewater treatment plants] are needed to reduce nutrient loading associated with an increasing number of people living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” New Insights notes.
The Potomac Conservancy has reported an improvement in the Potomac River’s health for the third year in a row, giving the waterway a “C” in its seventh annual State of the Nation’s River report.
The Potomac Conservancy, an advocacy group that fights for the health of the waterway, has an optimistic outlook for the river’s future. “After suffering the effects of historical overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction, it is no wonder that the Potomac River’s recovery is a slow one,” the report states. “We believe the river is on its way back to full health.”
In 2012, the Potomac topped American Rivers’ list of the nation’s most endangered waterways, the biggest threat a combination of agricultural and stormwater runoff. With continued population growth in the Washington, D.C., area, human development has increased the amount of impervious surfaces that cannot absorb polluted rainfall traveling across the land and into storm drains, rivers and streams.
“Going forward, when it comes to cleaning up the Potomac, public enemy number one is polluted runoff,” said Hedrick Belin, Potomac Conservancy president. “That is the single largest threat to the full recovery of the Potomac, in that it is the only source of pollution that we see growing.”
The Conservancy plans to take a “three-pronged” approach to reducing polluted runoff, strengthening regulatory frames at a local level, increasing funding for clean water programs and creating incentives and assistance programs for property owners to make it easier for them to contribute to a healthy waterway.
Belin stresses the importance of protecting both the river and the land that surrounds it. ”As we peek around the corner or over the horizon, we see some troubling trends if we don’t change how we treat the land that surrounds the Potomac,” he explained.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to more than 17 million people, each of whom is reliant on water. But as populations grow and communities expand, we send pollutants into our rivers and streams, affecting every drop of water in the region. How, then, do so many of us still have access to clean water? The answer lies within wastewater treatment plants.
One plant, in particular, plays a pivotal role in the region’s water quality. Located in Washington, D.C., the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant has served the D.C. metropolitan area since 1983. The plant receives 40 percent of its flow from Maryland, 40 percent from the District and 20 percent from Virginia. With the capacity to treat 370 million gallons of sewage each day, it is the largest wastewater treatment plant in the world and the only one in the nation to serve multiple states.
Recently, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority—also known as DC Water—made technological upgrades to Blue Plains. Evidence shows these upgrades have already accounted for reductions in nutrient pollution and a resurgence in the upper Potomac River’s bay grass beds. Indeed, putting new wastewater treatment technology in place is a critical step toward meeting the pollution limits established in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load. As of 2012, 45 percent of the watershed's 467 wastewater treatment plants had limits in place that met water quality standards.
Because of spatial constraints, many of upgrades planned for Blue Plains will focus on intensifying the wastewater treatment process. According to Sudhir Muthy, innovation chief for DC Water, the more concentrated the purification process is, the more energy efficient the plant can be.
For decades, the philosophy behind wastewater treatment plants has been to imitate those clean water processes that you might see in natural systems. Lately, there has been a shift in thinking about how wastewater is treated. Murthy explains: “Now, more attention is given to using the energy created within the treatment process to run the plant. [For example,] carbon has a lot of energy and is created during the treatment process. We are trying to harness [carbon’s] energy to help the plant run in a more energy-efficient way. We are now asking: How do we optimize the use of energy within the wastewater treatment process?”
Blue Plains hopes to become energy neutral in 10 to 15 years, and upgrades to reduce pollution and save energy will continue for years to come. A new tunnel will allow both sewage and wastewater to flow from the District to the plant, where it will be treated to reduce the flow of polluted runoff into the Potomac River. And a new process will recycle “waste” heat to “steam explode” bacterial sludge, turning it into a biosolid that can be mixed with soil, used as fertilizer and generate extra revenue.
“All processes use energy,” Muthy said. “But if you can find ways to offset or recycle that energy use, then you can move towards being more efficient.”
A virus that can cause disease and death in largemouth bass has been found in otherwise healthy northern snakeheads taken from two Virginia waterways. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the finding raises the possibility that northern snakeheads could be carriers of the pathogen, capable of transmitting it to other fish in the Chesapeake Bay.
The pathogen, known as the largemouth bass virus, has been found in bass, sunfish and other members of the freshwater sunfish family, but largemouth bass are the only fish known to develop disease from it.
The largemouth bass virus appears to attack the swim bladder, causing fish to lose their balance and float near the surface of the water. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the virus has been found in waters across the state, but its impacts are often short-lived and largemouth bass can build up resistance to the disease.
While the pathogen doesn’t seem to affect the health of northern snakeheads, the habitat of this invasive fish often overlaps with that of largemouth bass, which may favor transmission of the virus.
A report on the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population reveals a stock that is not overfished and within which overfishing is not occurring.
According to an annual evaluation from the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), the start of the 2013 crabbing season saw 147 million adult female crabs in the Bay, which marks a 54 percent increase from last year’s abundance of adult females. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this female-specific reference point as an indicator of Bay health. While this number is below CBSAC’s target, it is above the committee’s overfished threshold.
Image courtesy smaneal/Flickr
The 2013 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, presented by CBSAC at the June meeting of the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, is based on the results of the winter dredge survey. This annual estimate of the blue crab population is considered the most comprehensive blue crab survey conducted in the Bay.
To maintain a sustainable blue crab fishery, CBSAC recommends taking a risk-averse management approach and making a 10 percent cut to the 2013 female blue crab harvest. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) have agreed to pursue the latter recommendation.
CBSAC also recommends better accounting of commercial and recreational harvests and continued efforts to monitor the inactive commercial crabbing licenses in the fishery, which could lead to significant increases in harvest if they were to come into sudden use.
Learn more about the 2013 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report.
On a quiet cove in Southern Maryland, a series of orange and white markers declares a stretch of water off limits to fishing. Under the surface sits spawning habitat for largemouth bass, a fish that contributes millions of dollars to the region’s economy each year and for whom two such sanctuaries have been established in the state. Here, the fish are protected from recreational anglers each spring and studied by scientists hoping to learn more about them and their habitat needs.
The largemouth bass can be found across the watershed and is considered one of the most popular sport fishes in the United States. While regional populations are strong, a changing Chesapeake Bay—think rising water temperatures, disappearing grasses and the continued arrival of invasive species—is changing bass habitat and could have an effect on future fish.
For decades, scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have collected data on the distribution of largemouth bass, tracking the species and monitoring the state’s two sanctuaries in order to gather the knowledge needed to keep the fishery sustainable. Established in 2010 on the Chicamuxen and Nanjemoy creeks, both of which flow into the Potomac River, these sanctuaries have been fortified with plastic pipes meant to serve as spawning structures. And, it seems, these sanctuaries are in high demand during spawning season.
On an overcast day in April, three members of the DNR Tidal Bass Survey team—Joseph Love, Tim Groves and Branson Williams—are surveying the sanctuary in Chicamuxen Creek. Groves flips a switch and the vessel starts to send electrical currents into the water, stunning fish for capture by the scientists on board. The previous day, the team caught, tagged and released 20 bass; this morning, the men catch 19, none of which were tagged the day before.
“This [lack of recaptures] indicates that we have quite a few bass out here,” said Love, Tidal Bass Manager.
Indeed, the state’s largemouth bass fishery “is pretty doggone good,” Love continued. “That said, we recognize that the ecosystem is changing. And I don’t think anybody wants to rest on the laurels of a great fishery.”
As Love and his team learn how largemouth bass are using the state’s sanctuaries, they can work to improve the sanctuaries’ function and move to protect them and similar habitats from further development or disturbance.
“We can speculate where the best coves are, but this is the ground truthing that we need to do,” Love said.
In the fall, the team will return to the cove to count juvenile bass and report on juvenile-to-adult population ratios. While the assessment of the state’s sanctuaries is a small-scale project, it is one “aimed at the bigger picture,” Love said.
Love’s team is “doing what we can to improve the use of these coves by bass.” And protecting bass habitat and improving water quality will have a positive effect on the coves overall, creating healthier systems for neighboring plants and animals.
“By protecting these important areas, we are also protecting the larger ecosystem,” Love said.
Photos by Jenna Valente. To view more, visit our Flickr set.
The blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay has dropped, but a substantial boost in the number of spawning-age females has offered officials a piece of good news in spite of this disappointing decline.
According to the results of the annual winter dredge survey, which measures the blue crab population in Maryland and Virginia, the number of spawning-age females in the Bay has risen 52 percent. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this number as an indicator of Bay health, and an increase is a sign that management methods to conserve adult female crabs are working. But an overall decline in the Bay’s blue crabs—from 765 million in 2012 to 300 million in 2013—could lead to the tightening of commercial harvest restrictions.
Image courtesy Benjamin Wilson/Flickr
Scientists have attributed the decline in blue crabs not to overfishing, but to high mortality rates among juveniles. While last year’s winter dredge survey measured an unprecedented number of juvenile crabs in the Bay, last summer and fall saw an alarming loss of blue crab habitat and a large influx of red drum, which often feed on young crabs. Young blue crabs are also known to feed on each other when population densities are high.
“It is important to keep these results in perspective,” said Jack Travelstead, commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), in a news release. “Five years ago this fishery was declared a federal disaster. That is no longer the case: overfishing is no longer occurring, a good fisheries management framework is in place, the stock is healthy and spawning-age females are doing well. If not for the disappointingly small reproductive year class we would have much to celebrate.”
In an effort to make up for this shift in blue crab abundance, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) are pursuing strategies to establish a 10 percent cut in the commercial harvest of female blue crabs. Both Maryland and the PRFC will consider adjusting or enacting daily bushel limits, which have been put in place in Virginia. Maryland and Virginia will also consider shortening their crab seasons, and it seems likely that Virginia’s winter dredge fishery will remain closed.
The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) will draft their 2013 Blue Crab Advisory Report over the next few weeks.
Read more about the 2013 winter dredge survey results.
Plumes of sediment, floating trash and pathogens that make once-swimmable water unsafe: pollution of all kinds continues to plague the Potomac River, as populations grow, pavement expands and stormwater runoff pushes various hazards into the 405-mile long waterway.
But for the Potomac Conservancy, a boost in incentives, assistance and enforcement just might save the nation’s river.
Image courtesy kryn13/Flickr
According to the advocacy group’s sixth annual State of the Nation’s River report, “too many stretches of the Potomac River are still too polluted to allow you to safely swim, boat or fish, or to support healthy populations of fish and other aquatic life.”
The cause? A “pending storm” of population pressure and development, said Potomac Conservancy President Hedrick Belin.
For Belin, more people means more development. More development means more pavement. And more pavement means more stormwater runoff.
The fastest growing source of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, stormwater runoff is rainfall that picks up pollutants—in the Potomac River’s case, nutrients, sediment, pathogens and chemicals—as it flows across roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses. It carries these pollutants into storm drains and rivers and streams, posing a threat to marine life and human health.
But cities and towns throughout the Potomac River basin are curbing stormwater runoff by minimizing their disturbances to the land. And it is this local, land-based action—the installation of rain barrels and green roofs, the protection of forests and natural spaces, the passing of pollution permits in urban centers—that the Conservancy thinks will push the river in the right direction.
In the report, the Conservancy calls on state and local decision-makers to strengthen pollution regulations, increase clean water funding and improve pollution-reduction incentives and technical assistance.
“The Potomac Conservancy is advocating for river-friendly land-use policies and decisions, especially at the local level,” Belin said. “Because defending the river requires protecting the land that surrounds it.”
Learn more about Troubled Waters: State of the Nation’s River 2012.
Charity walks, charity marathons—and charity paddles? From a nine-day paddle that spotlights the Potomac River to an 11-stop float plan from northeast Maryland to southeast Virginia, more organizations are getting out on the water to fundraise for the Chesapeake Bay.
In one effort to garner grassroots support, the District of Columbia-based Potomac Riverkeeper sent two paddlers down a stretch of the Potomac and documented the nine-day, 150-mile trip online. Joe Hage and Whit Overstreet—one the caretaker of the Sycamore Island Canoe Club, the other a member of the Potomac Riverkeeper staff—used Twitter, Facebook and regular blog posts to publicize their paddle and solicit mile-by-mile donations, raising more than $3,000 for a project that will create a Potomac River water trail designed for people in self-powered crafts.
Image courtesy Potomac Riverkeeper
Hage and Overstreet made their trip along Virginia's shore in red and orange sea kayaks, which held their camping gear, provisions and a couple of good luck charms: for Joe, a stuffed dog, and for Whit, a rubber duck, both found in piles of onshore trash. The trip, started each morning before sunrise, solidified the two paddlers' connection with the Potomac. But, as Overstreet said, it also opened a window for others to experience the river "from the comfort of their PCs."
Image courtesy Potomac Riverkeeper
As Hage and Overstreet paddled down the Potomac, travelers-in-spirit stuck at their desks could also check in with a third paddler: Lou Etgen, making an 11-day charity paddle down the entire length of the Bay. And just as the Internet helped Hage and Overstreet share their stories—a Tweet about the waves and water, a Facebook post signaling their arrival at a campsite—the Internet allowed Etgen to show his friends, colleagues and even complete strangers the sights and sounds of the watershed.
Image courtesy Lou Etgen
The Associate Director of Programs with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay made the sojourn from Havre de Grace, Md., to Cedar View, Va., for a number of reasons: to celebrate his 50th birthday, to reconnect with the water and to fundraise, first for the Alliance and second for Autism Speaks. Joined by a gear boat and an ever-changing group of fellow paddlers, each day Etgen spent on the water was a memorable one, whether he was marveling at underwater grasses on the Susquehanna flats or paddling alongside blue crabs and bald eagles. Throughout the trip, Etgen remained impressed with the water's health, while his readers remained engrossed in his writing.
"I spoke with many folks on my return who told me of waking up and going to their computer to check in on the blog from the night before," Etgen wrote in an online epilogue. "The blog comments from friends and folks I did not know were tremendous and helped to spur us on."
For Etgen, this show-and-tell turned out to be an integral part—even his favorite part—of the trip.
"This wasn't my trip," Etgen said. "This was our trip. It became so much bigger than my journey."
Image courtesy Lou Etgen
Overstreet and Hage also garnered online support, amassing countless "likes" and comments on the hundreds of photos taken with a smart phone and posted to their Facebook page from the water.
"We were able to show people that this is a feasible trip, rather than a challenging odyssey," Overstreet said. "People really seemed to enjoy it."
To read more, visit the Potomac Riverkeeper and Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay websites. To get out of cyberspace and into the water, find a public access site near you. Or, join the Waterkeeper Alliance on September 15 for the Rally for Clean Water, where a morning paddle on the Potomac will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.
The prevalence of intersex fish in the Potomac River basin has raised concerns about river health.
Intersex conditions, the presence of both male and female characteristics in an animal that should exhibit the characteristics of just one sex in its lifetime, occur when chemicals like pesticides, pharmaceuticals or personal care products enter the water and disturb the hormonal systems of fish and other species. Because the hormonal systems of fish are similar to those of humans, anomalies found in fish are an indication these chemicals may also pose a risk to people.
Image courtesy August Rode/Flickr.
According to a report released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), intersex conditions in male smallmouth bass are widespread in the Potomac River basin: 50 to 75 percent of male smallmouth bass collected in the South Branch Potomac River exhibited signs of feminization, as did 100 percent of those collected at sites in the Shenandoah.
In the case of male smallmouth bass, the "intersex condition" reveals itself in the presence of immature eggs in the testes and of a certain protein--vitellogenin, normally found only in egg-laying females--in the circulating blood. Both conditions indicate exposure to chemical contaminants, and can result in reduced reproductive success or, in the case of a shorter-lived species like the fathead minnow, population collapse.
Intersex conditions have been linked to sewage flow from wastewater treatment plants and to runoff from farmland and animal feeding operations.
A popular sport fish, the smallmouth bass experienced spring kills in the Potomac and James rivers. A number of smallmouth bass collected during this survey were also observed with skin lesions, leading researchers to believe the fish may be a sensitive indicator of watershed health.
The USGS and Chesapeake Bay Program partners will use these findings to better identify chemical contaminants and their sources, planning to develop toxic contaminant reduction outcomes by 2013.
Learn more about the hormonal disruption of fish in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
American Rivers has named the Potomac River the nation’s most endangered river on its 2012 list of the top ten most threatened rivers in America.
(Image courtesy Scott Ableman/Flickr)
Although the Potomac is cleaner than it once was, the river is still under threat from development, stormwater runoff from cities and suburbs, and pollution from farms. The Potomac is “emblematic of what’s at state for rivers nationwide,” according to the Potomac Conservancy, a local watershed group working to restore the nation’s river.
Visit the Potomac Conservancy’s website for more information about the Potomac River and its ranking as the most endangered river in America.
You may recognize the name “Sideling Hill” from the impressively steep mountainside interrupted by Interstate 68 in western Maryland, about two hours outside of Washington, D.C. If you’re the type that’s impressed by scenery, a westward trip means stopping at the Sideling Hill Rest Stop and Visitors Center to explore the mountainside, which is almost desert-like in its lack of forests.
(Image courtesy dlhdavidlh/Flickr)
Despite its barren appearance, Sideling Hill Creek, which runs through this mountain, is one of the healthiest streams in the entire state of Maryland. With 287 stream and tributary miles and only 2,200 residents in its watershed, this Potomac River tributary is a fortunate one because it suffers from few human impacts.
Here’s a few ways to explore Sideling Hill Creek:
Look out for rare wildflowers
Sideling Hill is so pristine that it supports an endangered wildflower called harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum). In fact, harperella can only be found in ten places in the world! It’s rumored that this flower also grows in West Virginia along Sleepy Creek and a few Cacapon River tributaries.
Trout, turkey and more
The 3,100 acre Sideling Hill Wildlife Management Area provides opportunities for hunters, anglers and anyone else who enjoys beautiful mountain scenery. In the spring, look out for turkey gobblers as they display their colorful feathers. Old logging roads challenge hikers with a variety of terrains. If you love to canoe or kayak, be sure to visit Sideling Hill in spring to explore one of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s most scenic local waterways.
Learn about what you’re viewing
With its steep ridges and deep valleys, Sideling Hill is home to unique plants, wildlife and geologic formations. So when you visit, take some time to learn about what you’re looking at! The Nature Conservancy offers a Sideling Hill Creek audio tour that will introduce you to the specific types of rocks and plants found in the area. When your trip is over, you’ll not only be refreshed from the beautiful scenery, but also more knowledgeable about the creek’s link to the greater Bay watershed.
(Image courtesy mdmarkus66/Flickr)
Have you been to Sideling Hill? Tell us how you liked it in the comments!
West Virginia may be far from the sailboats and blue crabs that we normally associate with the Chesapeake Bay. But folks at the Cacapon Institute in the state’s eastern panhandle are helping students install rain gardens, speaking with local farmers about reducing pollution, and spearheading community education initiatives – all in the name of helping the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.
(Image courtesy mdmarkus66/Flickr)
Founded by a husband and wife team in 1985, the Cacapon Institute was originally known as the Pine Cabin Run Ecological Laboratory. PCREL was established to research and teach Appalachian natural history and water quality issues around the Cacapon River, an 80-mile-long Potomac tributary that is designated by the EPA as an American Heritage River.
The Cacapon Institute’s dual mission of scientific research and education makes it stand out from organizations that emphasize one over the other. Today, the Cacapon Institute continues to balance community education and outreach with science “experiments” such as deer fencing and trout restoration.
Ever get sick of all this environmental talk? Do you think you could stop pollution if you were a county land manager or decision maker? The Cacapon Institute gives K-12 students that opportunity through its interactive Stream Cleaner Environmental Forum.
Stream Cleaner allows users to decide how land is used and see the effects of those decisions on natural resources. It’s an interactive, engaging way for students to learn about water and pollution issues.
The program is part of the greater Potomac Highlands Water School, a website that provides resources for teachers and students seeking to learn about their local environment. Slideshows, interactive games and vocabulary lists make it a hybrid of “old school” and digital learning. No matter what generation you belong to, it's worth a visit.
The Cacapon Institute isn’t just teaching students vocabulary words; it’s challenging them to collaborate on water quality projects.
(Image courtesy Cacapon Institute/Facebook)
Each spring, Cacapon sponsors the Stream Cleaner Environmental Forum, a program in which classes work together to develop solutions to specific, real-world pressures on the Potomac and the Bay.
Participating students learn from the best; collaborators range from local farmers and businesses to state and federal agencies. Projects such as Farmers as Producers of Clean Water hinge on input from local farmers about which best management practices they’d most likely adopt. By understanding the needs of different stakeholders and working with them to develop mutually beneficial solutions, Cacapon is creating a community that’s strengthened by cooperation, rather than oppressed by regulation.
The Cacapon Institute hopes that by starting with the younger generation, it can engage the wider community. This statement on its website says it all:
As educators, we work to create a future where a stream without a buffer looks as out of place as a smoker in a conference room looks today. To foster that vision, our environmental education efforts focus on students first and, through them, the larger community.
(Image courtesy Cacapon Institute/Facebook)
The Potomac Conservancy has awarded the Potomac River’s health a barely passing “D” grade in its fifth annual State of the Nation’s River report.
Population growth and poor land use practices are the primary causes for the river’s pollution, according to the report. The Potomac River’s “two worlds” – rural farms and mountains to the west and the urban landscape to the south – pose different challenges.
Throughout the report, the Potomac Conservancy provides a vision of greater accountability, efficiency and enforcement actions to improve land use practices and water quality. These include strong federal and state stormwater laws, and changing local codes to protect riparian forest buffers, promote well-managed farms, better regulate large farm operations and treat pollution before it enters local waterways.
“We know what needs to be done, but this region is going to have to find the political will to make the hard choices,” according to Potomac Conservancy President Hedrick Belin. “Investing a dollar today to reduce pollution will return clean water dividends for years to come.”
For more information about the state of the Nation’s River report, visit the Potomac Conservancy’s website.
Image courtesy Michael Renner/Flickr
A $2.6 billion project in Washington, D.C., will nearly eliminate combined sewer overflows (CSOs) to Rock Creek and the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, helping to improve the Chesapeake Bay’s health.
The Clean Rivers Project, led by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), is the largest construction project in the District since Metro was built.
Combined sewer overflows occur during heavy rainstorms, when the mixture of sewage and stormwater cannot fit in the sewer pipes and overflows to the nearest water body. CSOs direct about 2.5 billion gallons of sewage and stormwater into Rock Creek and the Anacostia and Potomac rivers in an average year.
The Clean Rivers Project consists of massive underground tunnels to store the combined sewage during rainstorms, releasing it to the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant after the storms subside. The first, and largest, tunnel system will serve the Anacostia River.
Visit DC Water’s website for more information about the Clean Rivers Project.
Image courtesy Daniel Lobo/Flickr
The Potomac Conservancy has released its fourth annual State of the Nation’s River report, naming development a primary source of stress on farms, forests and the health of the water in the Potomac River region.
The report highlights changes in the way land is being used in the Potomac River region. Forests and working farmland, both economically and ecologically valuable features, are being lost as the area continues to grow. This ultimately affects the health of the river, which is a source of drinking water for Washington, D.C., and other communities.
The report also explores the potential of “green infrastructure” as a way to accommodate growth while also supporting the health of the river and the environment.
“We invest so much in our man-made infrastructure, like roads … Our green infrastructure deserves the same investment,” said Aimee Weldon, Potomac Conservancy’s senior director of restoration and land, about the need for a new system of connected forests, farms and river. “That investment in natural networks of connected lands will strongly support wildlife and provide benefits to human populations.”
The report illustrates many examples of good and bad land use practices in the Potomac region. One recent example took place in Loudoun County, Virginia, where more than 450 trees along 1.5 miles of the river were cut down to clear a view. According to the Potomac Conservancy, this action was legal under county rules, showing that codes and ordinances need to be updated to reflect the current nature of development.
“Through sufficient funding and thoughtful codes and ordinances, county, state and federal agencies can work with local partners and communities to build a strong network of lands and streams, which will maximize and protect public and private investments in land conservation and restoration,” said Hedrick Belin, president of the Potomac Conservancy.
A companion document, called the 2010 Potomac Agenda, recommends several actions to preserve forests and better manage farmland:
For more information about the State of the Nation's River, visit the Potomac Conservancy's website.