Researchers studying historic pollution levels in the Chesapeake Bay found their answers in a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary subject: oyster shells. A recent study from the University of Alabama looked at nutrient levels in Bay oyster shells dating back over three thousand years, finding that humans have been polluting the Chesapeake Bay since the early 19th century.
Because they live stationary lives, oysters can make useful study subjects, serving as snapshots of environmental conditions in one location. As filter feeders—they eat by pumping water through their gills—the bivalves remove nutrients from the water, absorbing much of it into their shells. This study was one of the first to use oyster shells, commonly found at archaeological sites in the region, to backdate nitrogen levels. Using that data, researchers could determine when nitrogen levels increased and what role humans may have played.
Studying oyster shells dating back to 1250 BC, researchers found a dramatic increase in nitrogen content that began in the early 1800s and increased almost exponentially until present day. That timeline corresponds what is known about human activities in the Chesapeake Bay region at that time: dramatic increases in population, agriculture and forest clearing. While American Indians altered their environment and contributed to higher nitrogen levels in the water, the effects were local. Beginning in the 17th century, an influx of European colonizers led to an increase in agriculture and forest clearing— but it wasn’t until the 19th century that human effects began to dramatically alter nitrogen levels in oysters.
Industrialization and population increases in the 1800s left their mark on the Chesapeake Bay. Between 1830 and 1880, the area’s population tripled. As a result, over 80 percent of forests surrounding the Bay were cleared for farming and development. Plowing and erosion increased the amount of sewage and sediment entering the water, increasing nitrogen levels in the water as well. Oyster populations also declined, thus limiting the ability of the Bay to filter out this influx of pollution.
While this research focused on historical nitrogen levels, nutrient pollution is still a problem in the Chesapeake Bay today. Nitrogen is necessary for plants and animals to survive, but too much of it can lead to algal blooms, which create harmful conditions for underwater life. Manure and fertilizers can wash off of agricultural fields into nearby waterways, and stormwater runoff can pick up nutrients from excess lawn and garden fertilizers, pet waste and other sources in urban areas. Chesapeake Bay Program partners work with states, local governments, farmers, businesses and many more stakeholders to implement practices that can reduce and even eliminate pollution entering waterways.
The study, “δ15N Values in Crassostrea virginica Shells Provides Early Direct Evidence for Nitrogen Loading to Chesapeake Bay,” is available online in Scientific Reports.
Michael McMahon walked between two adjacent fields of tall, swaying corn in Homer, New York, to point out an invisible boundary running through his family farm.
Water to the north of that boundary, he explained, eventually flows into Skaneateles Lake, one of the Finger Lakes. But any rain or snow falling to the south ends up in Factory Brook, which flows into the Tioughnioga River, then the Chenango River, the Susquehanna River, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.
About 30 percent of McMahon’s E-Z Acres Farm, which Michael McMahon owns with his brother Peter McMahon, feeds into the water supply of the city of Syracuse. The larger southern section rests above the groundwater aquifer that is the only water supply for the village of Homer, which abuts the southern end of the farm and is home to 25,000 people. As their business has grown, the McMahons’ awareness of their farm’s potential impact on their neighbors has led them to be fervent stewards and engage their community—for the benefit of both local streams and faraway bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay.
“The end of our tillable land is only about 200 yards from the big municipal well (in Homer),” McMahon said. “It’s extremely productive ground, but at the same time you could be really doing some damage if you weren’t conscious of it.”
E-Z Acres began with McMahon’s father in 1957, a dairy operation with 160 acres and just eight heifers. Now, their 2,500 acres stretch across much of the valley above Homer in Cortland County.
“The 1400 head that are on the place today all come from those eight heifers,” McMahon said. “We never purchased any animals.”
McMahon says that early advice from his father made it easier to adopt nutrient management practices when the dairy consolidated four separate facilities into one large operation about 20 years ago.
“Even back, as far back as the 60s, we were taught from our dad that you get manure on all the fields, you don’t just concentrate on where it’s easiest and quickest,” McMahon said. “So it was easy for us to transition to a CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation] where we have all those plans there in the blue notebooks that tell us exactly what field, what time of the year, how many gallons, all of that.”
In 1997, after the consolidation, the McMahons decided to start testing water for nitrates and phosphorus quarterly at five different sites in the valley.
“Nobody ever told us we had to do this,” McMahon said. “But, we just wanted to know if our agronomic practices were in line, that we weren’t going to see spikes in nitrates in well water.”
The tests are also useful for easing worried minds of residents in Homer, and where foul smells wafting from farm fields sometimes cause worries about water quality.
“You’ll get concerns and typically it’s odor-initiated, when we’re spreading manure,” McMahon said.
McMahon said E-Z Acres has grown by purchasing neighboring farms as they have come for sale over the past several decades, and their management practices have extended to these lands. For example, he observed that every farm they bought had its own dump—something his father never believed a farm should have. E-Z Acres subsequently cleared all those dumps.
About five miles of a stream called Factory Brook runs through E-Z Acres, and McMahon said that they have made a concentrated effort to protect what is nearest their cropland, which he estimated at about three and a half to four miles. They have let the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) establish riparian buffers on both sides of Factory Brook by bringing children from 4-H clubs to plant willow wattles, or shrubs. They have also granted public access through DEC for a section of Factory Brook.
“In many cases the farms that we purchased, you know people were cropping right up to the edge, you know, spreading their manure and stuff like that,” McMahon said. “Where we do farm near the stream, we keep that land in permanent grass as opposed to turning the soil over and putting in a row crop,” McMahon said.
McMahon credited his home state as becoming a leader in the Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts by first addressing local watershed issues, which meant that his farm already had many practices in place by the time the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) in 2010.
“And maybe I’m just biased because I’m in New York, but we got involved in the Agricultural Environmental Management (AEM) program in New York way back in the 80s when they first thought of it.” McMahon said. “We cleaned up dumps. We looked at chemical storage. We did a lot of things way back before it was ever thought to be mandated. And that was all part of New York State’s own program, and not just for the sake of the Chesapeake but for the sake of all watersheds. And we felt at the time I mean we knew that we sat over an aquifer and that we were kind of responsible for keeping the water clean for all these people who either have private or public water supplies derived from this.”
McMahon says they are motivated by trying to “stay ahead of that curve” and “be good neighbors.” For their efforts, the McMahons were awarded the 2015 Agricultural Environmental Management Award by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
E-Z Acres hosts open houses regularly, and every June they welcome all of the fifth grade students in the county—about 400 for each of two days.
“So, that’s a ball,” McMahon said. “In many cases it’s the one and only chance a lot of those kids will have to ever see where milk comes from. So we think it’s a good idea to embrace the community, engage the community and be part of it.”
Text, Photos and Video by Will Parson
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
The word “pollution” tends to bring to mind images of dark smoke billowing out of smokestacks or fluorescent-colored water spilling out of pipes. But there are other types of pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay region and they come from a somewhat unexpected place: agriculture.
Agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay region. Nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, feed algal blooms that create harmful conditions for the Bay’s fish. Too much sediment can cloud the water and smother bottom-dwelling animals. These pollutants are difficult to control because, instead of spilling out of pipes, they run off of large fields when it rains. Sam Owings, a farmer in Chestertown, Maryland, knew the challenges of controlling agricultural runoff, so he decided to develop his own solution.
Owings knows farming, and he knows stormwater. He grew up on a farm where he worked until he was 30 years old, after which he started a site development contracting business. “I learned a lot about soil erosion and soil conservation in agriculture,” he said, “and then I learned about stormwater control in site development.”
After returning to farming 15 years ago, he combined that knowledge to develop what he calls the “cascading system.” The system, which he built and tested on his farm, is a strip of four 40 by 140 foot trenches in a grass waterway between two of his fields. The grass waterway is an area where rainwater—and farm runoff—naturally collect from over 100 acres of surrounding land and are funneled toward a nearby creek.
“The idea behind it is to reduce stormwater flows from the land into state waters,” Owing said. It’s designed to slow down the flow of water by having it run through the strip of basins, filling up each one before allowing any water to discharge into the creek. After the rain stops, the remaining water sits in the basins to either evaporate or absorb back into the ground. Owings specifically placed the basins in an area that receives concentrated runoff from a large area of over 100 acres.
After receiving a research grant from Maryland Industrial Partnerships, Owings teamed up with University of Maryland professor Dr. Allen Davis to conduct a two year study of the system. The results Davis got were telling: of the water that entered the cascading system, 56 percent was not released out the other end and into the creek. The system also captured 65 percent of sediment and over half the nutrients.
Even with the apparent success of the cascading system, Owings isn’t done. He developed a “chain system,” or what he described as a “filter strip on steroids.” Unlike the cascading system, which was designed for concentrated, high-flow areas, the point of the chain system is to collect regular runoff from fields. “The concept is simple,” he said about both of his systems. “You can take an existing filter strip and retrofit it into these.”
The suitability to existing farms is one of the advantages Owings sees in both of his systems. “With many environmental programs, [farmers] have to give up tillable land,” he explained. But since the cascading and chain systems are in grass waterways, which are generally not utilized by farmers, “you’re just making the land more efficient.”
All in all, the project seems to be working for Owings. Now, he’s working with Earth Data to try and get his cascading system certified as a best management practice, a designation that means it is an efficient and effective practice to combat agricultural runoff.
When asked why he developed these systems, Owings’ answer was straightforward: “Farmers are inherently problem-solvers. Agriculture pollution is a problem, and so why not work on a solution?”
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Video and photo by Will Parson
Many residents of the region know that pollutants in rivers like the James, Potomac and Susquehanna can end up in the Chesapeake Bay. In fact, the Chesapeake Bay watershed—or the area of land over which water flows into the nation’s largest estuary—stretches from Cooperstown, New York, to Norfolk, Virginia. Less well known is the fact that the Bay’s so-called “airshed” extends much farther: particles of air pollution emitted as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio, can reach the waters of the Bay.
At 570,000 square miles, the Bay’s airshed is nine times as large as its watershed. Because pollution emitted into the air can be carried over long distances by wind and weather, it should come as no surprise that emissions associated with hydraulic fracturing operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia have been found in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., or that emissions from gas, coal and oil-powered machines in Tennessee or North Carolina can lead to algae blooms in the waters of Maryland and Virginia.
Scientists estimate that one-third of the total nitrogen that pollutes the Bay comes from the air, often in the form of nitrogen oxides generated by power plants or machines. Through a process known as atmospheric deposition, six to eight percent of this airborne nitrogen falls onto the water directly, sometimes as dry particles and sometimes attached to raindrops, snowflakes or sleet. The rest falls onto the land, where it soaks into groundwater or washes into rivers and streams. Once in the water, nitrogen can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life.
But there is evidence that regulations meant to curb air pollution are having a positive impact on our air and our water. In 2014, for instance, researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science traced a drop in the amount of nitrogen found in some Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia waterways to the Clean Air Act. In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the drop in the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen observed in the region over the past two decades can also be attributed to the Clean Air Act. And in 2016, our own water quality modeling experts confirmed we are still seeing benefits of the Clean Air Act emerge as estimates of the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen continue to fall.
This means efforts to curb air pollution across the nation have curbed water pollution in our watershed. In 1985, an estimated 52.2 million pounds of nitrogen fell directly onto the region’s waters. Thirty years later, this number has dropped to 17.88 million pounds, and data show that pollution-reducing practices put in place between 2009 and 2015 in an effort to meet the Bay’s “pollution diet” have reduced the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen 20 percent.
Water quality modeling experts have announced a drop in estimated nutrient and sediment loads entering the Chesapeake Bay. Computer simulations show that pollution controls put in place between 2009 and 2015 have reduced the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment entering the Bay by eight, 20 and seven percent. During the 2014 to 2015 reporting period alone, these controls reduced nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment loads by three, three and four percent. Experts attribute this drop to significant reductions of nitrogen and phosphorus in the wastewater sector, reductions in the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen as a result of the Clean Air Act and the increased implementation of agricultural conservation practices. Improved reporting and enhanced crediting of these practices have also generated a more accurate picture of the pollution entering rivers and streams from this sector.
Excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment impair water quality: nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that lead to low-oxygen “dead zones,” while sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and suffocate shellfish. The pollution load estimates discussed here are one in a suite of tools used to track progress toward our clean water goals, which include the pollution-reducing commitments of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load.
Nutrient reductions in the wastewater sector account for 41 percent of the estimated Bay-wide nitrogen reductions and 38 percent of the estimated Bay-wide phosphorus reductions that took place between 2014 and 2015. Indeed, many large municipal wastewater treatment plants are removing more nitrogen from effluent than it was previously thought technology would allow.
Our picture of agricultural best management practices has also changed: cover crops have seen improved reporting, conservation tillage has seen increased implementation and nutrient management plans have become associated with increased nutrient reductions. Improved reporting and enhanced crediting allow computer simulations to show a more accurate picture of the pollution entering rivers and streams from the agricultural sector.
By incorporating the best available data into our computer simulations, we gain a more accurate picture of pollution in the watershed. This gives us a better understanding of the actions that are needed to restore water quality in our work toward an environmentally and economically sustainable watershed.
While pollution controls put in place over the last five years have lowered the amount of nutrients and sediment entering the nation’s largest estuary, new data show that agricultural sources have sent more nitrogen and sediment into the Bay since 2007 than previously thought.
Excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment can impair water quality: nitrogen and phosphorus can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms, while sediment can suffocate shellfish and block sunlight from reaching underwater plants.
Each year, the seven watershed jurisdictions report the steps they have taken to lower the nutrients and sediment entering rivers and streams. Bay Program experts run this information through a suite of computer simulations, which generate pollution load estimates that show us how far our partners have come toward meeting the Bay’s “pollution diet.” When bolstered with new data on population size, land use and agricultural commodities, these simulations show a drop in pollution since 2009—including a six percent drop in nitrogen, an 18 percent drop in phosphorus and a 4 percent drop in sediment—but a two percent rise in nitrogen and sediment loads between 2013 and 2014.
A shift in agricultural commodities could explain this rise in nitrogen and sediment loads. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, several states have seen a surge in corn plantings since 2007. Because corn requires nitrogen-rich fertilizer that can leach off the ground and into local waterways, more corn plantings led to more nitrogen loadings than anticipated when pollution targets and reduction milestones were set.
The Bay Program uses the best possible data and information to track our progress toward restoring water quality. By incorporating new data into our computer simulations and pollution load estimates, we are allowed a more accurate picture of pollution in the watershed and a better understanding of the actions that are needed to reach our clean water goals. Because these computer simulations generate pollution load estimates using long-term average weather conditions, it’s possible for these estimates to differ from those that are based on water quality monitoring data; the latter can vary with the amount of rainfall in a given year.
“Each year, we employ the most current data and up-to-date science [to] offer the highest quality information to the public on pollution reductions resulting from Chesapeake Bay Program partners’ continued efforts. While we… have a lot of work to do… we are making steady progress toward meeting water quality goals,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release.
These pollution load estimates are just one in a suite of tools the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses to evaluate whether jurisdictions are on track to meet the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and its two-year milestone commitments. The EPA also considers data and information on best management practice implementation, best management practice effectiveness and jurisdictions’ progress toward putting programs in place to achieve pollution cuts. It is expected to release interim assessments of jurisdictions’ work in May and conduct the next full two-year assessment in 2016.
When too much nitrogen enters the Chesapeake Bay, it can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen areas, or “dead zones,” that suffocate marine life. But some key successes in curbing the amount of nitrogen entering local waterways have a potentially surprising source—the Clean Air Act.
In a factsheet released last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlines how declines in air pollution have substantially reduced the amount of airborne nitrogen that ends up in the Bay, helping the agency and its partners stay on track to meet the water quality goals of the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or “pollution diet,” which representatives from across the Bay region recommitted to achieving as part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
Polluted air can have quite an impact on the health of local waters: scientists estimate that one third of the nitrogen in the Bay comes from the air through a process known as atmospheric deposition. When our cars, power plants or other sources emit air pollution, it can be carried by wind and weather over long distances until it falls onto land or into the water.
“Atmospheric deposition falls everywhere on the Chesapeake watershed, from forests, to fields, to parking lots,” said Lewis Linker, modeling coordinator with the Chesapeake Bay Program. “When this load of nitrogen is reduced, it improves water quality everywhere from stormwater runoff, to small headwater streams, …to the Chesapeake Bay.”
Even pollution emitted thousands of miles away can eventually end up in our waterways. 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. Nearly three-quarters of the airborne nitrogen that eventually ends up in the Bay is generated by sources within this airshed, and the remaining 25 percent is emitted from sources even farther away. Which is why, says Linker, national policies like the Clean Air Act are essential in reducing the amount of pollution that reaches the Bay.
“To restore the Chesapeake, the citizens of the Chesapeake watershed have done a lot of bootstrapped cleanup in their own backyards and watersheds,” said Linker. “But when it comes to atmospheric deposition of nitrogen, the reduction can’t be done by the Chesapeake state partners alone—it’s a job for the whole nation.”
For more on what you can do to curb air pollution, Take Action.
Learn more about the EPA’s efforts to curb nitrogen deposition in the Chesapeake.
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.
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.
Over the last four years, pollution controls put in place by Chesapeake Bay Program partners have lowered the amount of nutrients and sediment entering the Chesapeake Bay. This is a critical step toward improving water quality and environmental health.
Each year, the seven jurisdictions in the watershed—which include Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia—report the steps they have taken to lower the nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment entering rivers and streams. Bay Program experts analyze this information using a suite of computer simulations, and the resulting estimates tell us how far these jurisdictions have come toward reducing pollution to levels that would lead to a healthy Bay.
Between 2009 and 2013, our estimates show that nitrogen loads to the Bay decreased 7 percent, phosphorous loads decreased 11 percent and sediment loads decreased 6 percent. As a whole, reductions in phosphorous and sediment are on track, but efforts to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution from urban streets, farm fields and onsite septic systems are lagging behind.
Excess nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms that create low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life. Excess sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and suffocate shellfish.
But land-based actions—from upgrading wastewater treatment plants to managing nutrients on farmland—can reduce nutrient and sediment pollution. Jurisdictions will continue to put such actions in place in an effort to meet the pollution-reducing requirements set forth in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or “pollution diet.”
In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to release an assessment of jurisdictions’ progress toward this diet’s milestones. By 2017, partners should have practices in place to achieve at least 60 percent of the pollution reduction targets necessary to meet water quality standards in the Bay. Jurisdictions’ strategies to achieve these goals are outlined in their Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs).
The reduction of power plant emissions in the mid-Atlantic has improved water quality in the Chesapeake region, according to new research from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES).
Image courtesy haglundc/Flickr
Researchers at the university’s Appalachian Laboratory have traced improvements in the water quality trends of nine forested watersheds located along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains to the Clean Air Act’s Acid Rain Program. Passed in 1990, the Acid Rain Program led to a 32 percent drop in human-caused nitrogen-oxide emissions in 20 states. As these emissions have declined, so too has the amount of nitrogen found in some Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia waterways.
In other words, while the Acid Rain Program only intended to reduce the air pollution that causes acid rain, it had the unintended consequence of reducing the amount of nitrogen oxide particles landing on the region’s forests, thus improving local water quality.
“Improvements in air quality provided benefits to water quality that we were not counting on,” said UMCES President Donald Boesch in a media release.
Once nitrogen oxide particles are emitted into the air, wind and weather can carry them long distances. In time, these particles fall onto the land or into the water. Nitrogen that enters rivers and streams can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life. Scientists estimate that just over one-third of the nitrogen polluting the Bay comes from the air.
Innovations in wastewater treatment are proving effective at removing nitrogen from our waste before it is returned to rivers and streams, according to a panel of experts convened by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC).
In a report released last week, STAC concludes that exploring and adopting these new technologies could help the 467 wastewater treatment plants across the watershed better respond to development pressure and continue to reduce nutrient pollution and restore water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
Three decades ago, wastewater treatment plants and combined sewer overflows were the second biggest source of nitrogen loads to the Bay. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and rob water of the oxygen that aquatic species need to survive. But, since the mid-1980s, advancements in nutrient reduction technologies have allowed wastewater treatment plants to reduce their nutrient loads to our waterways: between 1985 and 2012, nitrogen loads to the Bay from wastewater discharges dropped 52 percent.
A number of these new technologies put hungry microbes to work, as algae or bacteria feed on the nitrogen and phosphorous in our waste. While research in this area is still evolving, it’s possible that these technologies could also work to transform the harmful pharmaceuticals that have increasingly appeared in our wastewater over the past few decades.
Read more about wastewater treatment technologies.
Over the last three years, estimates indicate that communities across the Chesapeake Bay watershed have made big reductions to the pollution they are sending into rivers and streams.
As part of the Bay’s “pollution diet”—or Total Maximum Daily Load—the six Bay states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have curbed the amount of nutrients and sediment running off of land and into local waters. According to data released today by the Chesapeake Bay Program, simulations show that partners have achieved more than a quarter of their overall pollution reduction goals.
Excess nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that create “dead zones” and suffocate aquatic life. Excess sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and suffocate shellfish.
But a number of land-based actions can reduce nutrient and sediment pollution. Towns and cities, for instance, can make technological upgrades to wastewater treatment plants and “green” roofs, sidewalks and parking lots to better capture stormwater runoff. Homeowners can install rain gardens in their backyards or plant big trees to boost forest cover in their neighborhoods. And farmers can protect streams from livestock and plant cover crops to hold soil in place.
Read more about reducing nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment in the Chesapeake Bay.
Over the past decade, smallmouth bass in five Chesapeake Bay tributaries have suffered from fish kills and perplexing illnesses—and nutrient pollution could be to blame.
According to a new report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), excess nitrogen and phosphorous in our rivers and streams could be behind two of the leading problems affecting smallmouth bass: first, the rapid growth of fish parasites and their hosts, and second, the expansion of large algae blooms that can lead to low-oxygen conditions and spikes in pH. When paired with rising water temperatures and ever more prevalent chemical contaminants, nutrient pollution seems to have created a “perfect storm” of factors that are making smallmouth bass more susceptible to infections and death.
Image courtesy Mr. OutdoorGuy/Flickr
In a media call, CBF President Will Baker called the smallmouth bass “the canary in the coal mine for the Bay’s rivers.” Because the fish is sensitive to pollution, problems within the population could indicate problems within the Bay.
Smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna, Monocacy, Shenandoah, Cowpasture and South Branch of the Potomac rivers have seen a string of recent health problems, from open sores and wart-like growths to abnormal sexual development. In the Susquehanna, smallmouth bass populations have plummeted so far that Pennsylvania has made it illegal to catch the fish during spawning season.
“Our fish are sick, our anglers are mad and my board and I—protectors of our [smallmouth bass] fishery—are frustrated,” said John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “Our bass, and our grandchildren who will fish for them, are depending on us to fix the problem.”
Image courtesy CBF
While specific causes of smallmouth bass fish kills and illnesses remain unclear, CBF has called on state and local governments to accelerate their pollution-reduction efforts in hopes of improving water quality and saving the driving force behind a $630 million recreational fishing industry. The non-profit has also called on the federal government to designate a 98-mile stretch of the Susquehanna as impaired, which would commit Pennsylvania to reversing the river’s decline.
“This is the moment in time to save fishing in our streams and rivers, as well as the jobs and quality of life that are connected to it,” Baker said.
After eleven years, $40 million and more than 16,000 linear feet of pipe, West Virginia is set to bring a new wastewater treatment plant online and make huge cuts to the pollution it sends into the Chesapeake Bay.
Under construction in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, the Moorefield Wastewater Treatment Plant will replace four existing plants with one new system, marking a significant milestone in the headwater state’s efforts to curb pollution and improve water quality. Expected to go into operation this fall, the plant will remove 90,000 pounds of nitrogen and 93,000 pounds of phosphorous from West Virginia wastewater each year.
Funded by a range of sources—including the West Virginia Economic Development Authority, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—the new plant is heralded as evidence that thoughtful planning and forward-thinking—especially where pollution regulations are concerned—can help a community move toward conservation and environmental change.
In the 1990s, the hundreds of wastewater treatment plants that are located across the watershed could be blamed for more than a quarter of the nutrient pollution entering the Bay, as the plants pumped water laden with nitrogen and phosphorous into local rivers and streams. Such an excess of nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and, during decomposition, rob the water of the oxygen that aquatic species need to survive.
But in the last decade, technological upgrades to wastewater treatment plants have surged, and the pollution cuts that result mean these plants now contribute less than 20 percent of the nutrients still entering the Bay.
According to Rich Batiuk, Associate Director for Science with the EPA, the uptick in upgrades can be attributed to a number of factors.
“Wastewater treatment plants have always been regulated,” Batiuk said. “But [until the last decade], there wasn’t the science or the political will or the … water quality standards that could drive the higher levels of wastewater treatment that result in lower levels of nitrogen and phosphorous flowing into the watershed.”
As the science behind wastewater engineering has improved and the incentives for implementing upgrades have grown, more plants have begun to make changes. Some implement a “zero discharge” plan, using nutrient-rich effluent to feed agricultural crops rather than excess algae. Others—like the Moorefield plant—expose wastewater to nutrient-hungry microbes that feed on nitrogen and phosphorous; the resulting sludge, modified without the addition of chemicals, can be turned into compost rather than fodder for the local landfill.
Such modern upgrades to otherwise aging infrastructure have been celebrated as a boon for local communities and the wider watershed. While the Moorefield plant will, in the end, curb pollution into the Bay, it will first curb pollution in the South Branch of the Potomac River, into which it sends its effluent.
"The South Branch of the Potomac is a unique place,” Batiuk said. “People fish there, they swim there. This new plant helps more than the Chesapeake Bay.”
And Moorefield residents—including the Town of Moorefield Public Works Director Lucas Gagnon—plan to witness this local change firsthand.
“The residents in this area are aware of the Chesapeake Bay and its needed [nutrient] reductions,” Gagnon said. “But the biggest benefit for the local folks will be the reduction of nutrients in local waterways.”
“There are many people that fish and boat the South Branch,” Gagnon continued. “When this plant goes online, the water quality will be greatly enhanced, and they will have a much cleaner, better river to enjoy.”
The early summer dissolved oxygen forecast (called an “anoxia forecast”) is based on nitrogen loads to the Bay during winter and spring, as well as high river flow in May due to heavy rainfall. According to scientists, the Bay’s 2011 low-oxygen area – commonly called the “dead zone” – could be the fourth-largest since 1985.
The annual summer ecological forecast uses data such as nitrogen loads, wind direction and sea level to predict dissolved oxygen levels in the Bay’s mainstem. The forecast is split into early summer (June to mid-July) and late summer (mid-July to September) because scientists have observed a significant change in oxygen levels following early summer wind events.
The forecast is supported through research at the Chesapeake Bay Program, Johns Hopkins University, Old Dominion University, and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Lab.
For more information about the dissolved oxygen forecast, visit Chesapeake Eco-Check’s website.
Nutrient pollution in the majority of the Chesapeake Bay region’s freshwater streams and rivers has decreased over the last 25 years, according to data from scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Almost 70 percent of the watershed’s 32 monitoring locations show decreasing nitrogen and phosphorus levels, meaning fewer of these harmful nutrients are entering the Chesapeake’s local waterways. Approximately 40 percent of the sites show decreasing trends for sediment pollution.
Although this data may indicate long-term improvements in the health of the Bay’s streams and rivers, pollution loads to the Bay were higher in 2010 due to more rain, snow and river flow.
“These long-term trends indicate that pollution reduction efforts, such as improved controls at wastewater treatment plants and practices to reduce nutrients and sediment on farms and suburban lands, are improving water quality conditions in many areas,” said USGS scientist Scott Phillips. “However, nutrients, sediment and contaminants will need to be further reduced to achieve a healthier Bay and streams.”
Each day, billions of gallons of fresh water flow through thousands of streams and rivers that eventually empty into the Bay. This fresh water is known as “river flow.” In general, as river flow increases, more nutrient and sediment pollution is carried downstream to the Bay. Pollution levels in rivers vary greatly from year to year because they are influenced by rainfall. Scientists make adjustments to remove the effects of weather variations, allowing consistent measurement of pollution levels over time and better evaluation of long-term changes.
In the 2010 water year (October 2009-September 2010):
The Bay Program’s goal is to have a long-term average of 186 million pounds of nitrogen and 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus entering the Bay from streams and rivers.
In a different, shorter-term study conducted between 2000 and 2008, the health of individual freshwater streams across the watershed showed mixed conditions. Of the 7,886 stream sites sampled, more than half (55 percent) were found to be in very poor or poor condition. The remaining 45 percent were found to be in fair, good or excellent condition.
This study uses data on the tiny, bottom-dwelling creatures that live in freshwater streams and rivers as an indicator of overall stream health. This method provides a uniform evaluation of the health of local waterways across state lines and throughout the entire Bay watershed.
The USGS estimates how much river flow enters the Bay each year, monitors pollution loads in the Bay’s major rivers, and works with the Bay Program to estimate how much pollution reaches the Bay. To learn more about the USGS’s Chesapeake monitoring activities, visit http://chesapeake.usgs.gov.
What do farms, manure, and a developing technology for creating fertilizer have to do with the Chesapeake Bay? Well, almost one-quarter of the Chesapeake Bay’s 64,000 square mile watershed is agricultural land. Runoff from farmland inevitably drains into the local streams, creeks and rivers that flow to the Chesapeake Bay.
When best management practices are not implemented on agricultural lands, runoff can carry animal waste and excess fertilizer into these waterways, overloading them with nutrients, bacteria and pathogens.
A developing technology called anaerobic digestion has been proposed to reduce phosphorus runoff from many farms. Pilot studies have been conducted in several locations around the world, including at least three Chesapeake Bay watershed states.
Anaerobic digesters, or biodigesters, have become an increasingly popular tool for managing manure on farms. Biodigesters are thought to have several benefits, including reducing farm animal waste runoff, producing nitrogen-rich liquid that can be used as fertilizer, and producing phosphorus-rich solids that can be processed into mulch and other products that would reduce runoff.
Biodigesters are increasing in popularity for use with dairy farms and manure handled as a liquid, slurry or semisolid. However, a Bay Program website visitor wanted to know about the effectiveness of using biodigesters on poultry farms with litter feedstock to improve water quality in the Bay and its tributaries.
One study conducted in the Bay watershed for the Propane Education Research Council tried to determine if this method could decrease the phosphorus in the liquid effluent from the digester exit point. Unfortunately, the study concluded that this was not the case. Phosphorus was only decreased by approximately 5 percent – the same rate of reduction without the anaerobic digestion process. The council concluded that significant phosphorus reduction could be possible if a separate post-digester step was added.
According to that study, the use of biodigesters would not be an effective way for farmers to help improve water quality.
John Ignosh is a scientist with the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia Tech, working on agricultural byproduct utilization. “As far as digesters [used for] litter,” he said, “there have been a few pilot projects looking at this. The main challenge is that digestion is better suited for slurry type feedstocks.”
Most discussion of anaerobic digesters is in reference to digesters using a slurry type feedstock, but Ignosh said there have been pilot projects with litter feed conducted in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, among other locations.
An important note is that regardless of the type of feedstock used for the biodigesters, there is not a significant reduction in nutrients from the waste. Nitrogen enters the digester as ammonium and organic nitrogen, and the ammonium is not destroyed in the digester. Instead, the organic nitrogen is converted to ammonium. So the nitrogen in the effluent from the digester typically ends up being higher than when it went in. Similarly, the microorganisms used in the digester do not consume phosphorus. Although some of the phosphorus can be converted to a soluble form, the total mass of phosphorus remains constant.
Therefore, while anaerobic digesters may be useful for producing biogas to create energy and manage waste, they do not reduce the amount of nutrients in the fertilizer or other products it might result in. So fertilizer that is made from a biodigester and is used on farmland would not decrease the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that would run off the land. These devices also tend to be prohibitively expensive for many farms and do not provide the best benefit for the investment.
For more information, visit the following websites:
A new report by Environment Maryland details the harmful effects of lawn fertilizer on the Chesapeake Bay and explains the steps that should be taken to reduce this pollutant and clean up local waterways.
Lawn fertilizer contains the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, which are major sources of pollution in the Bay and its rivers. When homeowners apply too much fertilizer to their lawns, the nutrients can run off into local storm drains when it rains. Excess nutrients can also seep into groundwater, which eventually makes its way into the Bay's streams and rivers.
Turf grass is now the largest crop in Maryland. In 2009, 1.3 million acres were planted with turf, compared with 1.5 million acres for all other crops combined. While farmers are required to develop nutrient management plans and control polluted runoff on their land, there are few rules for homeowners and lawn care companies to follow for fertilizer applications.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture reports that “nonfarm use” of fertilizer is quickly catching up with farm fertilizer sales. Estimates suggest that Maryland landowners apply approximately 86 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizer to their lawns each year. According to the report, researchers monitoring one suburban stream near Baltimore found that 56 percent of the nutrients in the water came from lawn fertilizer.
The report concludes that to reduce pollution for lawn fertilizer, lawmakers need to take two broad steps: limit the amount and type of nutrients in the fertilizer itself, and ensure that homeowners and lawn care companies apply less fertilizer to the ground.
For more information, download the full lawn fertilizer report, “Urban Fertilizers and the Chesapeake Bay: An Opportunity for Major Pollution Reduction.
The new analysis reveals mixed news about progress toward reducing nutrients over the past 31 years, particularly during the last decade.
Since 2000, nitrogen has been decreasing in the Susquehanna and Potomac rivers, while levels are nearly unchanged in the James and Rappahannock rivers. During the same period, phosphorus levels changed minimally in the Susquehanna, while there were moderate decreases in the Potomac and measurable increases and the James and Rappahannock.
Looking back even farther, scientists found a substantial improvement in pollution loads from the Patuxent River since 1978. Phosphorus from the Patuxent declined by 75 percent from 1978-2000, while nitrogen declined by about 26 percent during the same time period and an additional 15 percent from 2000-2008. These improvements are likely due to large investments in advanced wastewater treatment facilities.
Conversely, there was a 53 percent increase in nitrogen from the Choptank River from 1978-2008. Much of the increase is attributed to groundwater flowing into the river from deep below the land surrounding the river.
The new method takes multiple factors into consideration: seasonality, variations in river flow, and long-term trends driven by human activities, such as wastewater treatment and land management.
“When we analyze long-term nutrient trends for the Chesapeake Bay or other major water systems, it’s important that we consider [river] flow variations,” said Robert Hirsch, a USGS research hydrologist who led the development of the new method. “This new method enables us to remove this source of variation from the data and get a much clearer picture of the effect of human activities, including nutrient-management actions, on nutrient delivery from these watersheds to the Bay.”
Methods that do not consider variations in river flow can paint a much different picture of long-term nutrient trends in the Bay.
For example, 1999-2002 were very dry years throughout the Bay watershed. As a result, nutrient delivery to the Bay was relatively low and conditions in the Bay appeared to be much improved.
These years were followed by extremely high flow conditions in 2003, and then a series of progressively drier years from 2004 through 2008. The 2003 data showed very poor conditions, but the subsequent years’ data suggest slow improvements from one year to the next.
“These apparent changes were largely the consequence of differences in flow,” said Hirsch. “This new method helps us to see past these random year-to-year changes and get at the underlying long-term changes taking place.”
“The new USGS method will allow the Chesapeake Bay partners to better assess progress toward reducing the delivery of nutrients and sediment to the Chesapeake Bay,” said Rich Batiuk, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s associate director for science. “This method, based on monitoring data, will improve accountability regarding the nutrient reductions needed to meet our restoration goals for the Bay.”
USGS, a Chesapeake Bay Program partner, works with other partners to collect data for the Bay Program’s Nontidal Water Quality Network and provides critical science to the Bay Program partnership. Learn more about USGS Chesapeake Bay activities at http://chesapeake.usgs.gov.
The new analysis is available online in a report from the Journal of the American Water Resources Association.
Welcome to this week’s installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week we'll take a question submitted through the Chesapeake Bay Program website and answer it here for all to read.
This week, Dave is trying to get a sense of “who is causing what” in relation to the Chesapeake Bay’s pollution issues. He wants to know: what are the main sources of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment to the Bay?
It’s important to know where Chesapeake Bay pollution comes from because we can use that knowledge to do our part to reduce the amount of pollutants each of us contributes to the Bay and its local waterways.
Nitrogen occurs naturally in soil, animal waste, plant material and the atmosphere. However, most of the nitrogen delivered to the Bay comes from:
Phosphorous, like nitrogen, occurs naturally in soil, animal waste and plant material. But these natural sources account for just 3 percent of the phosphorous loads to the Chesapeake Bay. Here are the major sources of the Bay’s phosphorus pollution:
Sediments are loose particles of clay, silt and sand. When suspended in the water, sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater bay grasses. As sediment settles to the bottom of the Bay and its rivers, it smothers bottom-dwelling animals (such as oysters). Sediment can also carry high concentrations of phosphorus and toxic chemicals.
Most of the sediment to the Bay comes from agriculture. Natural sources, stormwater runoff and erosion from streams make up the rest of the sources of sediment to the Bay and its local waterways.
While some sources of pollution may be larger than others, one source is not more important to prevent than any other. We must take any and all steps to reduce nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment loads to the Bay. Think about how your daily actions contribute pollution to the Bay and its rivers. Be sure to check out our Help the Bay tips to learn how you can do your part.
Ever wonder how much pollution you contribute to the Bay and its rivers? The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) has launched a new online tool to help you find out.
The Bay Foundation’s Nitrogen Calculator uses information about your home to assess how much algae-producing nitrogen your family sends each year to the Bay or your local river. As you enter details about your sewer system, electricity use, and travel and lawn care habits, the calculator comes up with a yearly “nitrogen footprint” for you and your family.
“We hope this new tool will encourage people to think about the choices they make and take actions that will reduce nitrogen pollution across the watershed,” said CBF Senior Scientist Dr. Beth McGee.
One way Maryland residents that use septic systems can help reduce pollution to the Bay is to upgrade their system to one that removes more nitrogen. The Maryland Department of the Environment is currently offering free upgrades to nitrogen-removing systems.
Here’s some other ways you can help reduce nitrogen pollution to the Bay:
Centuries of population growth and landscape changes have taken their toll on the Bay's water quality, according to the recently released Chesapeake Bay 2006 Health and Restoration Assessment.
Part Two of the assessment, Restoration Efforts, explains that “progress” toward the Bay Program's goal to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution from urban/suburban lands and septic systems is negative due to the rapid rate of population growth in the watershed—and the residential and commercial development that has come with it. About 16.6 million people are estimated to live in the Bay watershed, with an additional 170,000 people moving in each year.
The pollution increases associated with land development—such as converting farms and forests to urban and suburban developments—have surpassed the gains achieved from improved landscape design and stormwater management practices. Pollution from urban and suburban lands is now the only pollution sector in the Bay watershed that is still growing.
Population growth and related commercial and residential developments cause significant amounts of nutrients, sediment and chemical contaminants to make their way into the Bay and its rivers, degrading water quality.
Homes, roads, parking lots and shopping centers cover once-natural lands with impervious—or hardened—surfaces, which prevent water from entering the ground. During the 1990s, the amount of impervious surface in the Bay watershed grew by 41 percent—but the population during that same time period only grew by about 8 percent.
When it rains or snows, stormwater runs across roads, rooftops and other hardened surfaces, carrying with it the harmful pollutants we contribute to the environment—from driving our cars to fertilizing our lawns to not picking up pet waste. All of this is washed into our nearest stormwater drain or stream, and eventually to the Bay.
Once in the water, excess nutrients fuel the growth of algae, which deplete the water of oxygen that all of the Bay's living things need to survive.
Excess nutrients and sediments also cloud the water, which decreases the amount of sunlight that reaches bay grasses. These underwater grass beds provide vital food and habitat for fish, birds, blue crabs and other Bay creatures, and also help oxygenate the water.
Scientists estimate that one-quarter to one-third of the nitrogen reaching the Bay and its rivers comes through the air. One of the primary sources of air pollution are mobile sources, which include vehicles, construction equipment and gas-powered lawn tools. Pollutants released into the air eventually fall onto water surfaces and the land, where they can be washed into local waterways.
Everything we do on the land has an impact on the Bay and the creatures that live in it. By making small changes in the way we live our lives , the Bay watershed's ever-growing population can take part in the Bay restoration effort, helping to reverse the trend of declining water quality to protect all that live in the Bay and preserve the nation's largest estuary for generations to come.