Scientists expect the Chesapeake Bay to see a slightly smaller than average dead zone this summer, due to reduced rainfall and less nutrient-rich runoff flowing into the Bay from the Susquehanna River this spring.
Dead zones are areas of little to no dissolved oxygen that form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose. Resulting low-oxygen conditions can suffocate marine life. The latest forecast predicts an early-summer no-oxygen zone of 0.27 cubic miles, a mid-summer low-oxygen zone of 1.37 cubic miles and a late-summer no-oxygen zone of 0.28 cubic miles. This forecast, funded by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is based on models developed at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan.
Nutrient pollution and weather patterns influence dead zone size. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 58 million pounds of nitrogen entered the Bay in the spring of 2015, which is 29 percent lower than last spring’s nitrogen loadings.
Researchers with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will measure oxygen levels in the Bay over the next few months. While the final dead zone measurement will not take place until October, bimonthly updates on Bay oxygen levels are available through DNR’s Eyes on the Bay.
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.
Nutrients flowing from the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore make up a disproportionate amount of the excess nitrogen and phosphorus polluting the estuary, according to a recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
The land to the east of the Bay, known as the Delmarva Peninsula, includes parts of western Delaware and eastern Maryland and Virginia, and makes up just seven percent of the watershed’s total land area. But per square mile, Delmarva receives nearly twice as much nitrogen and phosphorus as other areas in the region, leading to degraded water quality in the rivers, streams and groundwater that flow to the Bay. These nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that block sunlight and create low-oxygen areas, or “dead zones,” that suffocate marine life.
“On the Eastern Shore, the concentrations of nitrogen in groundwater, and nitrogen and phosphorus in surface waters, are well above natural levels and are among the highest in the nation,” said Scott Ator, a USGS hydrologist and co-author of the study.
According to the report, agricultural production—including fertilizer and manure applied to cropland—accounts for more than 90 percent of the nutrients reaching the lands of the Eastern Shore. When more fertilizer and manure is applied to the land than is needed by crops, nitrogen builds up in the groundwater and phosphorus builds up in the soil, and these nutrients eventually move into streams that flow to the Chesapeake Bay.
Under the clean water goals in the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which encompasses the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), Chesapeake Bay Program partners are working to reduce the amount of nutrients entering local waterways—including working with farmers across the watershed to implement “best management practices” or “BMPs” that curb agricultural runoff. Findings from the USGS report will help improve the placement of these practices to reduce the nutrient pollution reaching groundwater, streams and the Bay.
Sediment building up behind Conowingo Dam has almost reached the reservoir’s capacity for storage, according to a report released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The reservoir is considered at its limit for holding sediment when it is half full—at present, it is 92 percent of the way toward this maximum.
Since its construction in 1929, the Conowingo reservoir, along with the reservoirs behind the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams, has trapped sediment and nutrients as they flow down the Susquehanna River—which provides nearly half of the fresh water that flows into the Bay. According to the report, the ability of these reservoirs to trap pollutants has been steadily declining.
“Storage capacity in Conowingo reservoir continues to decrease, and ultimately that means more nutrients and sediment will flow into the Bay,” said Mike Langland, author of the study, in a release. “Understanding the sediments and nutrients flowing into the Bay from the Susquehanna River is critical to monitoring and managing the health of the Bay.”
Excess sediment can cloud the water and harm underwater grasses, fish and shellfish, while nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms and the creation of low-oxygen “dead zones,” which suffocate underwater life. Reducing the amount of pollutants in local waterways is integral to Bay restoration efforts, including the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or “pollution diet,” which Bay Program partners recommitted to achieving as part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. In anticipation of a decline in Conowingo reservoir’s ability to trap sediment, the TMDL includes a mechanism for addressing any increases in nutrient and sediment pollution caused by a full reservoir.
The report from USGS reiterates the findings of a study by the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment (LSRWA) team, released in November 2014, which found that the once-effective “pollution gate” is trapping smaller amounts of sediment and nutrients and, during large storms, sending more of these pollutants into the Susquehanna River more often. The team found that reducing pollution loads upstream of the dam would pose a more effective solution that dredging, bypassing or other operational changes, which would come with high costs and low or short-lived benefits.
The USGS report, Sediment Transport and Capacity Change in Three Reservoirs, Lower Susquehanna River Basin, Pennsylvania and Maryland 1900–2012, is available online.
The amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that flowed from nine major rivers into the Chesapeake Bay remained below the 25-year average in 2013. While scientists expect this to have a positive impact on the long-term health of the nation’s largest estuary, much of the Bay’s tidal waters remain impaired: between 2011 and 2013, just 29 percent of the water quality standards necessary to support underwater plants and animals were achieved.
Excess nutrients and sediment are among the leading causes of the Bay’s poor health. Nitrogen and phosphorus can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that lead to low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life. Sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and suffocate shellfish. Lowering the amount of nutrients and sediment moving from our streets, lawns and farm fields into the water is a critical step in the restoration of the Bay, and scientists have attributed the below-average pollution loads of 2013 to below-average river flow and the pollution-reducing practices our partners have put in place on the land.
Because pollution in our rivers has a direct impact on water quality in the Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Program tracks both environmental indicators to gain a wider picture of watershed health.
Pollution loads and trends
Our partners at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) monitor nutrient and suspended sediment loads delivered from the large watersheds located upstream of nine river monitoring stations to the Chesapeake Bay. Together, these stations—which are located on the Appomattox, Choptank, James, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Patuxent, Potomac, Rappahannock and Susquehanna rivers—reflect loads delivered to the Bay from 78 percent of its watershed. Data show that nutrient and sediment loads measured in water year 2013 were below the long-term average.
Water quality standards achievement
The Chesapeake Bay Program measures progress toward the achievement of water quality standards in the Bay and its tidal tributaries using three environmental factors: dissolved oxygen, water clarity or underwater grass abundance, and chlorophyll a. Data are assessed in three-year periods. After more than a decade of steady improvement between 1989 and 2002, the attainment of water quality standards has seen mixed results. Changes seen in the past 10 years have not been statistically significant, and it is likely that the slow recovery of underwater grasses in the Upper Bay has stalled some water quality improvements.
Underwater grasses offer important habitat to underwater species and have a direct impact on water quality: healthy bay grass beds add oxygen to the water, absorb nutrient pollution, reduce wave energy and help suspended and potentially light-blocking particles like sediment settle to the bottom. Between 2009 and 2012, unfavorable growing conditions caused bay grasses to decline across the region. In 2011, for instance, heavy rains and the resulting runoff clouded the water during the spring growing season. That fall, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee muddied the water again. Because water quality is reported in three-year assessment periods—and the most recent assessment period spanned 2011, 2012 and 2013—it is likely this drop in bay grass abundance influenced water quality results. But bay grasses have shown resilience: a dense bed on the Susquehanna Flats persisted through the storms of 2011, and showed how resilient such grass beds can be to disturbances in water quality. If bay grasses continue the recovery that took place in 2013, there could be positive effects across the wider Bay ecosystem.
A team of scientists has found that reducing pollution in the Susquehanna River watershed—which includes portions of New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland—could ease the environmental effects of an “essentially full” reservoir behind the Conowingo Dam, whose pollution-trapping capacity has diminished in recent years.
The reservoir behind the Conowingo Dam—as well as those behind the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams—has for decades trapped particles of sediment flowing down the Susquehanna River, as well as the nutrients that are often attached. But according to research from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment (LSRWA) team, this reservoir is full. The once-effective “pollution gate” is trapping smaller amounts of sediment and nutrients and, during large storms, sending more of these pollutants into the Susquehanna River more often.
While researchers explored strategies for managing sediment at the dam, the team found that reducing pollution loads upstream of the dam would pose a more effective solution to the “full reservoir” problem. Indeed, dredging, bypassing or other operational changes would come with high costs and low or short-lived benefits. But adhering to the Chesapeake Bay’s “pollution diet”—and taking additional steps to reduce pollution where possible—would offer management flexibility and environmental benefits.
The Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) was established in 2010 to reduce nutrient and sediment loads across the watershed. Lowering these pollutants is integral to restoring the health of the Bay: excess sediment can cloud the water and harm underwater grasses, fish and shellfish, and nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms. While the LSRWA team did find that the effects of the sediment that “scour” from the Conowingo reservoir cease once it settles to the bottom of the river, the effects of nutrient pollution linger. Green infrastructure, forest buffers and sound farm and lawn management can help businesses, landowners and individuals contribute to a restored Chesapeake.
During summer months, Chesapeake Bay waters become home to a range of bacteria. One of the most talked-about bacteria is Vibrio, which occurs naturally in warm estuarine waters and can infect those who eat contaminated shellfish or swim with open wounds in contaminated waters. But illness can be avoided. Learn about the bacteria—and how to avoid infection—with this list of five Vibrio facts.
Image courtesy CDC/Wikimedia Commons
1. Vibrio is a naturally occurring bacteria. There are more than 80 species of Vibrio, which occur naturally in brackish and saltwater. Not all species can infect humans, but two strains that can have raised concern in the Bay watershed: Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus. The bacteria are carried on the shells and in the bodies of microscopic animals called copepods.
2. The presence of Vibrio in surface waters is affected by water temperature, salinity and chlorophyll. Because Vibrio prefers warm waters, it is not found in the Bay during winter months. Instead, it is common in the summer and early fall. When water temperatures are warm, algae blooms form, fed by nutrients in the water. These blooms feed the copepods that carry the Vibrio bacteria. When the copepods die, Vibrio bacteria are shed into the water. As climate change increases the temperature of the Bay, both algae blooms and Vibrio could persist later in the season.
3. Vibrio infections can occur in people who eat raw or undercooked shellfish or who swim with open wounds or punctures in contaminated waters. While infections are rare, they do take place and can be particularly dangerous for people with compromised immune systems. The ingestion of Vibrio can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, and in some cases can infect the bloodstream. If an open wound or puncture comes into contact with the bacteria, the area around the wound can experience swelling, redness, pain, blistering and ulceration of the skin.
4. Infection can be avoided. To avoid Vibrio infection, follow these tips:
5. Vibrio symptoms can start 12 to 72 hours after exposure. If you think you’ve been infected with Vibrio, seek medical attention. Make sure to let your doctor know that you have eaten raw or undercooked shellfish or crabs or have come into contact with brackish or saltwater.
The R/V Rachel Carson is docked on Solomons Island. At 81 feet long, the red and blue research vessel stands out against the deadrise workboats that share the Patuxent River marina. Her mission today is to lead researchers from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) to the Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone.
Every summer, this so-called “dead zone” forms in the main stem of the Bay. The area of low-oxygen water is created by bacteria as they feed on algae blooms growing in nutrient-rich water. The dead zone persists through the warm summer months because the Bay is stratified into two layers: a surface layer of lighter, fresher water that mixes with the atmosphere, and a bottom layer of denser, saltier water, where oxygen depletion persists. These layers won’t mix until the cooler temperatures of autumn allow the surface waters to sink.
To find the dead zone, Director of Marine Operations and Rachel Carson Captain Michael H. Hulme takes us to one of the deep troughs that run down the center of the Bay. Geologic remnants of the ancient Susquehanna River, these troughs can reach up to 174 feet deep in an estuary whose average depth is just 21 feet. Hulme anchors offshore of Calvert Cliffs State Park.
The boat is equipped with a dynamic positioning system, which holds it in place regardless of wind or waves. This allows the captain to step away from the helm and offer his hands on deck. “Being able to hover over that [specific] latitude and longitude is what makes the Rachel Carson so unique,” said Hulme. It’s also one of the reasons the vessel is so useful to scientists, who often return to the same sampling site again and again over time.
UMCES Senior Faculty Research Assistant David Loewensteiner drops a CTD overboard. The oceanography instrument takes eight measurements per second, tracking conductivity, temperature and depth as it is lowered through the water. Connected to the ship with a cable, the CTD sends data to a laptop in the boat’s dry lab. We measure 2.04 mg/L of dissolved oxygen in surface water, and just 0.33 mg/L at 98 feet deep. Critters need concentrations of 5 mg/L or more to thrive; these are “classic dead zone” conditions.
Dead zones are bad for the Bay. Like animals on land, underwater critters need oxygen to survive. In a dead zone, immobile shellfish suffocate and those fish that can swim are displaced into more hospitable waters. “If you were a self-respecting fish and oxygen was [low], what would you do?” asked Bill Dennison, Vice President for Science Applications and Professor at UMCES. “Swim away.”
First reported in the 1930s, the appearance of the dead zone in the Bay is linked to our actions on land: as we replace forests with cities, suburbs and farms, we increase the amount of nutrients entering rivers and streams. This fuels the growth of algae blooms that lead to dead zones. “Hypoxia [or low-oxygen conditions] is driven by what we do on the watershed,” said UMCES Assistant Professor Jeremy Testa. “The Bay is naturally set up to generate hypoxia because of that [stratification] feature. That said… when there were no people here, there was not much hypoxia.”
While it is our actions on land that created the dead zone, it is our actions on land that can make the dead zone go away. Research has shown that certain pollution-reducing practices—like upgrading wastewater treatment plants, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions and reducing runoff from farmland—can improve the health of local rivers and streams. Scientists have also traced a decline in the duration of the dead zone from five months to four, which suggests that conservation practices gaining traction across the watershed could have very real benefits for the entire Bay.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
According to evaluations released this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Chesapeake Bay Program partners are collectively on track to meet the phosphorous and sediment reduction commitments outlined in the Bay’s “pollution diet,” or Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). Further reductions in nitrogen, however, will be needed if partners are to meet all of their upcoming pollution-reducing goals.
Every two years, federal agencies and the watershed jurisdictions—which include Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia—report on the progress made toward the pollution-reducing “milestones” outlined in their Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs). These WIPs describe how each jurisdiction will reduce the nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment pollution entering rivers and streams, and are included as commitments in the partnership’s recently signed Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Jurisdictions have set a goal to have all essential pollution-reducing practices in place by 2025 in an effort to meet water quality standards in the watershed.
Nutrient and sediment pollution are behind some of the Bay’s biggest health problems. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms, which result in low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. Suspended sediment blocks sunlight from reaching underwater plants and suffocates shellfish. But “best management practices” (or BMPs) like upgraded wastewater treatment technologies, improved manure management and enhanced stormwater management can help towns, cities and states lower the amount of pollution flowing into local waters.
The EPA will continue to oversee the watershed jurisdictions’ pollution-reducing efforts, and will offer further attention to some pollution sectors—including wastewater in Delaware and New York; agricultural runoff in Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia; and urban and suburban runoff in Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia—to ensure partners remain on track to meet their 2017 targets.
Scientists expect the Chesapeake Bay to see an above-average dead zone this summer, due to the excess nitrogen that flowed into the Bay from the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers this spring.
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose. The latest dead zone forecast predicts an early-summer oxygen-free zone of 0.51 cubic miles, a mid-summer low-oxygen zone of 1.97 cubic miles and a late-summer oxygen-free zone of 0.32 cubic miles. This forecast was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and is based on models developed at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the University of Michigan.
Dead zone size depends on nutrient pollution and weather patterns. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 44,000 metric tons of nitrogen entered the Bay in the spring of 2014. This is 20 percent higher than last spring’s nitrogen loadings, and will influence algae growth and dead zone formation this summer.
Researchers with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will measure oxygen levels in the Bay over the next few months. While a final dead zone measurement is not expected until October, DNR biologists measured a larger-than-average low-oxygen zone on their June monitoring cruise, confirming the dead zone forecast.
Reducing runoff from farmland has lowered pollution in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania waters, indicating a boost in on-farm best management practices could lead to improved water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
In a report released earlier this year, researchers with the Chesapeake Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) use case studies to show that planting cover crops, managing manure and excluding cattle from rivers and streams can lower nutrient concentrations and, in some cases, sediment loads in nearby waters.
Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired the Bay: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life, while sediment can cloud the water and suffocate shellfish. In New Insights: Science-based evidence of water quality improvements, challenges and opportunities in the Chesapeake, scientists make clear that putting nutrient- and sediment-reducing practices in place on farms can improve water quality and aquatic habitat in as little as one to six years.
Planting winter cover crops on farm fields in the Wye River basin, for instance, lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into local groundwater, while planting cover crops and exporting nutrient-rich rich poultry litter in the upper Pocomoke River watershed lowered the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Eastern Shore waterway. In addition, several studies in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania showed that when cattle were excluded from streams, plant growth rebounded, nutrient and sediment levels declined and stream habitat and bank stability improved.
Image courtesy Chiot's Run/Flickr
Earlier this week, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack named the Bay watershed one of eight “critical conservation areas” under the new Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which will bring farmers and watershed organizations together to earn funds for soil and water conservation.
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 duration of the Chesapeake Bay’s annual “dead zone” has declined over time, according to research published last month in the scientific journal “Limnology and Oceanography.”
First reported in the 1930s, the Bay’s dead zone, or conditions of low dissolved oxygen also known as hypoxia, results from excess nutrients, which fuel the growth of algae blooms. As these blooms die, bacteria decompose the dead algae. This decomposition process removes oxygen from the surrounding waters faster than it can be replenished, suffocating marine life. While intensified agriculture and development continue to push nutrients into rivers and streams, research by Yuntao Zhou and others shows the duration of the Bay’s dead zone decreased from five months to four months between 1985 and 2010, and the end of the hypoxic season moved up from October to September. This could suggest that efforts to manage nutrient loads—through upgrades to wastewater treatment plants, cuts to vehicle and power plant emissions and reductions to runoff from farmland—are working.
This same research showed no change in the average onset of the Bay’s dead zone or for its average volume, whose peak has moved from late to early July. In other words, while the duration of the Bay’s dead zone has declined, its size and severity have not.
While Zhou points out that nutrient pollution is the foremost factor that fuels the development of our dead zone, his research also shows that weather patterns can act as an additional driver. Northeasterly winds, for instance, can create conditions that reinforce the separation between the Bay’s fresh and saltwater, leading to larger hypoxic volumes.
Pollution-reducing practices can improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and have already improved the health of local rivers and streams, according to new research from the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership.
In a report released today, several case studies from across the watershed show that so-called “best management practices”—including upgrading wastewater treatment technologies, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions, and reducing runoff from farmland—have lowered nutrients and sediment in local waterways. In other words, the environmental practices supported under the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Farm Bill are working.
Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired local water quality: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life, while sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and suffocate shellfish. Best management practices used in backyards, in cities and on farms can lower the flow of these pollutants into waterways.
Data collected and analyzed by the Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have traced a number of local improvements in air, land and water to best management practices: a drop in power plant emissions across the mid-Atlantic has led to improvements in nine Appalachian watersheds, upgrades to the District of Columbia's Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant have lowered the discharge of nutrients into the Potomac River and planting cover crops on Eastern Shore farms has lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into the earth and reduced nitrate concentrations in groundwater.
“In New Insights, we find the scientific evidence to support what we’ve said before: we are rebuilding nature’s resilience back into the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, and the watershed can and will recover when our communities support clean local waters,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release.
But scientists have also noted that while we have improved water quality, our progress can be overwhelmed by intensified agriculture and unsustainable development, and our patience can be tested by the “lag-times” that delay the full benefits of restoration work.
“This report shows that long-term efforts to reduce pollution are working, but we need to remain patient and diligent in making sure we are putting the right practices in place at the right locations in Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said UMCES President Donald Boesch in a media release. “Science has and will continue to play a critical role informing us about what is working and what still needs to be done.”
UMCES Vice President for Science Applications Bill Dennison echoed Boesch’s support for patience and persistence, but added a third P to the list: perspiration. “We’ve got to do more to maintain the health of this magnificent Chesapeake Bay,” he said.
“We’ve learned that we can fix the Bay,” Dennison continued. “We can see this progress… and it’s not going to be hopeless. In fact, it’s quite hopeful. This report makes a good case for optimism about the Chesapeake Bay.”
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.
Slow-moving groundwater on the Delmarva Peninsula could push excess nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay even after we have lowered the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous we put onto the land.
Image courtesy yorgak/Flickr
According to new research from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), most of Delmarva is affected by the slow movement of nutrients from the land into the water. A USGS model developed to track the movement of nitrogen through the region showed that groundwater—and the pollutants it can contain—takes an average of 20 to 40 years to flow through the peninsula’s porous aquifers into rivers and streams. In some parts of Delmarva, the groundwater that is now flowing into local waterways contains nitrogen linked to fertilizer used three decades ago.
The slow flow of nitrogen-laden groundwater into the Bay could affect efforts to restore the watershed, lengthening the “lag-time” between the adoption of a conservation practice and the effect of that practice on a particular waterway. In other words, it could take days or even decades for today's management actions to produce positive water quality results.
“This new understanding of how groundwater affects water-quality restoration in the Chesapeake Bay will help sharpen our focus as many agencies, organizations and individuals work together to improve conditions for fish and wildlife,” said Lori Caramanian, Department of the Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, in a media release.
While these findings seem to contradict the value of our restoration work, the study in fact indicates that pollution-reducing practices put in place over the past decade have begun to work. The study also confirms that rigorous steps taken to reduce nutrients on the land will lower the amount of nitrogen loading into streams in the future.
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.”
The Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone measured near average in size this past summer, coming close to scientists’ June prediction of a smaller than average hypoxic zone in the nation’s largest estuary.
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die. The bacteria that aid in algae bloom decomposition suck up oxygen from the surrounding waters. The resulting hypoxic or anoxic conditions can suffocate marine life, shrinking the habitat available for fish, crabs and other critters.
Each summer, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) collect water samples to measure the hypoxic volume of the Bay. Since 1983, this number has ranged from 15.3 to 33.1 percent. In 2013, it measured 22.1 percent: 5.6 percent higher than the previous year and just above the 21.9 percent average.
Cover crops, sediment ponds and streamside trees and shrubs: each of these conservation practices will slow the flow of pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay. But each will take different amounts of time to produce water quality results, according to a panel of experts convened by the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Image courtesy Uncle Kick-Kick/Flickr
In a report released this month, the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) notes that the impacts of changes in land use and pollution loads into rivers and streams will not always be immediately reflected in changes to water quality. In fact, these so-called “lag-times”—or the stretch of time between the adoption of a conservation practice and the effect of that practice on a particular waterway—could call for patience in awaiting visible results from our restoration work.
Lag times are a natural part of our environment: as rainwater soaks into the ground, it can move nitrogen through the soil, and strong storms can pick up sediment and deposit it elsewhere. Because conditions in the Bay are a result of current human activities and a legacy of activities from the past, it makes sense that management actions taken now could take days or even decades to produce positive results. In fact, scientists know that some practices—in particular, those that take place close to rivers and streams—can produce results faster than others.
But according to STAC, this doesn’t mean that we should scale back on watershed restoration. Instead, an understanding of lag-times improves our understanding of how the ecosystem works, and reminds us to be “patiently realistic about the time-scale for observing results.”
Learn more about lag-times and the Chesapeake Bay.
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.
Streams across the United States are suffering a decline in health, as human development alters stream flow and pushes pollutants into the water.
Between 1993 and 2005, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) sampled the algal, macroinvertebrate and fish communities in thousands of streams across the nation. According to a report released by the USGS National Water-Quality Assessment Program, the health of at least one of these three aquatic communities was altered in 83 percent of the streams assessed.
Healthy streams are critical to our communities. Streams provide drinking water, control floods, support commercial and recreational fisheries, and bring aesthetic value into our lives. But stream flow that is altered by human activities can impact native fish, and excess pollutants can alter plant and animal communities.
According to the USGS, tens of thousands of dams and diversions have contributed to the modification in stream flow of 86 percent of the waters assessed in this study. Excess nutrients have altered algal communities, while excess pesticides have had an adverse affect on macroinvertebrates, many of which can be harmed by the toxins found in insecticides.
But one in five streams in urban and agricultural areas was found to be in good health. This finding suggests that green development, on-farm conservation and other best management practices can help us maintain healthy streams alongside continued development.
Read more about the The Quality of Our Nation’s Waters.
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die. As bacteria help these blooms decompose, they suck up oxygen from the surrounding waters. The resulting hypoxic or anoxic conditions can suffocate marine life.
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks dissolved oxygen as an indicator of water quality and Bay health.
The latest NOAA-funded forecast from researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the University of Michigan predicts an average summer hypoxic zone of 1.108 cubic miles, lower than last year’s mid-summer hypoxic zone of 1.45 cubic miles.
This predicted improvement should result from the lower than average nutrient loads that entered the Bay this spring. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 36,600 metric tons of nutrients entered the estuary from the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers, which is 30 percent lower than average.
The Bay’s dead zones are measured at regular intervals each year by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. While the final dead zone measurement will not take place until October, DNR biologists measured better than average dissolved oxygen on its June monitoring cruise, confirming the dead zone forecast.
Cover crops, streamside trees and nutrient management plans: all are exceptional ways to reduce nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. And for father and son duo Elwood and Hunter Williams, restoring the Bay begins with conservation practices and a shift in mentality.
“We knew coming down the road that we needed to do a better job with keeping the water clean,” Hunter said. “We decided that if there was going to be a problem with the streams it wasn’t going to be us.”
Excess nutrients come from many places, including wastewater treatment plants, agricultural runoff and polluted air. When nitrogen and phosphorus reach waterways, they can fuel the growth of large algae blooms that negatively affect the health of the Bay. In order to reduce these impacts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has implemented a Bay “pollution diet,” known as the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
Since the passing of the TMDL, many farmers in the watershed have felt the added pressure of the cleanup on their shoulders, but for the Williams family, having the foresight to implement best management practices (BMPs) just seemed like the environmentally and fiscally responsible thing to do.
”We don’t want to get to a point where regulations are completely out of control,” Hunter explained. “Farmers know what they’re putting on the ground so we have the ability to control it. Most people who have yards don’t have a clue what they’re putting on the ground when they use fertilizer. The difference has to be made up by the farmers because we know exactly what is going on to our soil.”
The Williams family began implementing BMPs on Misty Mountain Farm in 2006 by teaming up with the Potomac Valley Conservation District (PVCD). The government-funded non-profit organization has been providing assistance to farmers and working to preserve West Virginia’s natural resources since 1943.
The PVCD operates the Agricultural Enhancement Program (AgEP), which has steadily gained popularity among chicken farmers and livestock owners located in the West Virginia panhandle and Potomac Valley. While these two districts make up just 14 percent of West Virginia’s land mass, these regions are where many of the Bay’s tributaries begin—so it is important for area landowners to be conscious of pollutants entering rivers and streams.
AgEP is designed to provide financial aid and advice to farmers in areas that the Farm Bill does not cover. PVCD is run in a grassroots fashion, as employees collaborate with local farmers to pinpoint and meet their specific needs.
“It [AgEP] has been very well received,” said Carla Hardy, Watershed Program Coordinator with the PVCD. “It’s the local, state and individuals saying, “These are our needs and this is how our money should be spent.” Farmers understand that in order to keep AgEP a voluntary plan they need to pay attention to their conservation practices.”
Hunter admits the hardest part of switching to BMPs was changing his mindset and getting on board. Originally, Hunter was looking at the Bay’s pollution problems as a whole, but with optimistic thinking and assistance from PVCD, he realized that the best way to overcome a large problem was to cross one bridge at a time.
It wasn’t long before the Williams family started to see results: fencing off streams from cattle led to cleaner water; building barns to overwinter cows allowed them to grow an average of 75 pounds heavier than before, making them more valuable to the farm.
By using BMPs, the Williams family has set a positive example for farmers across the watershed, proving that with hard work and a ‘sky is the limit’ mentality, seemingly impossible goals can be met.
Hunter points out, “We are proud to know that if you are traveling to Misty Mountain Farm you can’t say, “Hey these guys aren’t doing their part.”
Video produced by Steve Droter.
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.
Nutrient and sediment trends at nine Chesapeake Bay monitoring sites have shown an overall lack of improvement, according to a report released this week by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
As part of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s integrated approach to assess water quality as the Bay “pollution diet” is implemented, the report tracks changes in nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment trends at monitoring stations on the Susquehanna, Potomac and James rivers, as well as six additional waterways in Maryland and Virginia.
Using data from 1985 to 2010, the USGS measured minimal changes in total nitrogen at six out of nine monitoring stations and minimal or worsening changes in phosphorous at seven out of nine monitoring stations. Using data from 2001 to 2010, the USGS measured minimal or worsening changes in sediment at eight out of nine monitoring stations.
But a lack of improvement in pollution trends doesn’t mean that pollution-reduction practices aren’t working.
While nutrient and sediment trends can be influenced by a number of factors—among them, wastewater treatment plant upgrades and changes in land use—there is often a lag time between when restoration work is done and when visible improvements in water quality can be seen. And while the nine stations monitored here are located downstream of almost 80 percent of the land that drains into the Bay, runoff and effluent from three of the watershed’s biggest cities—Baltimore, Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C.—do not flow past them, meaning that pollution-reduction practices implemented in these areas—or put in place after 2010—are not reflected in the study’s results.
According to the report, the USGS plans to work with partners to help explain the trends and changes described in this report; initial focus will be paid to the Eastern Shore and Potomac River Basin.
Read more about nutrient and sediment loads and trends in the Bay watershed.
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.”
Thanksgiving is the perfect time to express gratitude for the good in life. We have much to be thankful for—and so does the Chesapeake Bay! Here is a look at six moments from the past year that signaled good news for the watershed.
6. A sustainable blue crab population. The most recent report on the Bay’s blue crab stock reveals a population that has reached sustainable levels and is not overfished. Winter estimates place the adult female blue crab population at 97 million, based on a dredge survey taken at almost 1,500 sites throughout the Bay. The survey also measured more juveniles than have been counted in the past two decades. A stable blue crab population means a more stable Bay economy, with watermen employed, restaurants stocked and recreational crabbers (and crab-eaters!) happy.
Image courtesy Erickson Smith/Flickr
5. Additional American eels. American eel numbers are up in the headwater streams of Shenandoah National Park, following the removal of a large dam that once blocked eels from moving upstream. Other anadromous swimmers like shad, herring and striped bass—which must migrate from the ocean into rivers to spawn—are also using this reopened habitat. Our rivers are thankful to see the return of these important residents.
4. A huge boost in oyster restoration. This year, restoration partners in Maryland put more than 600 million oyster spat into the Chesapeake Bay in the largest targeted restoration effort the watershed has ever seen. While some of the oyster larvae went into the Upper Bay, most went into Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River that was declared an oyster sanctuary in 2010. While habitat loss, disease and historic overfishing have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster populations, planting “spat on shell” onto harvest-safe sanctuaries is one way to bring the water-filtering bivalves back.
3. A lot of living shorelines. When shorelines wash away, fish, crabs and other wildlife lose valuable habitat, and coastal landowners lose their lawns. To curb shoreline erosion, coastal property owners are turning toward living shorelines, which replace hardened bulkhead and riprap with grasses and trees. This summer, the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s Living Shorelines program awarded $800,000 to 16 homeowner associations, non-profit organizations and towns to install more than 6,800 feet of living shoreline and wetland habitat in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
2. Greater green infrastructure. With the implementation of green infrastructure, cities can use the natural environment to better manage stormwater runoff. Green roofs, rain gardens and pervious pavement, for instance, can absorb stormwater runoff before it flows into local rivers and streams. This year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) awarded $4 million to local governments for green infrastructure projects. But the environment is not the only one who will be thankful; green infrastructure can revitalize communities and produce cost benefits that can exceed those of traditional stormwater management methods. We are grateful that more towns will be greener in both color and concept!
1. Long-term improvements in Bay health. A number of Bay monitoring sites have shown long-term improvements in nutrient and sediment levels. According to an August report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), one-third of monitoring sites have shown improvement in sediment concentrations since 1985, two-thirds have shown improvement in nitrogen concentrations and almost all have shown improvement in phosphorous concentrations. These improvements in long-term trends indicate pollution-reduction efforts—from upgrades to wastewater treatment plants to cuts in fertilizer use on farms and suburban lawns—are working.
An advisory committee has recommended that the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Watershed Model be adjusted to better account for the landscape’s influence on watershed health.
Whether it is a riparian forest buffer that can trap sediment before it flows into a stream or a wetland that can filter nutrient pollution along the edge of a creek or river, the landscape that surrounds a waterway can impact that waterway’s health.
In a report released this week, experts from the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) state that adjusting the Watershed Model to better simulate the influence of riparian forests, forested floodplains and other wetlands would improve the model’s accuracy and allow managers to better direct conservation funds toward those landscapes that most benefit water quality.
The Watershed Model is used by Chesapeake Bay Program partners and stakeholders to estimate the amount of nutrients and sediment reaching the Bay.
Sediment reservoirs near the mouth of the Susquehanna River are filling up faster than researchers expected, posing a new obstacle for improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
As the holding areas behind the lower Susquehanna's three dams reach capacity, their ability to trap upriver sediment and the phosphorous that is often attached wanes, and the sediment that is held grows more and more likely to flow out of the reservoirs and into the river.
According to a report released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), strong storms, severe flooding and faster-moving water have turned the one-time pollutant blockers into less effective gates.
The Susquehanna delivered more phosphorous and sediment into the Bay last year than it has in more than three decades of monitoring. The past 15 years have seen a 55 percent increase in phosphorous entering the Bay from the river and a 97 percent increase in sediment. And while nitrogen flow has dropped, it shows a jump during large storms--like Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 or Hurricane Ivan in 2004--and the flooding that follows.
Excess nutrients and sediment can harm fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. Nitrogen and phosphorous fuel the growth of algae blooms that rob water of oxygen and, with suspended sediment, cloud the water and block the sunlight that plants need to grow.
A previous USGS report cited improvements in nutrient and sediment trends as a sign of improving Bay health. The USGS has seen significant reductions in nutrient and sediment concentrations upstream of the reservoirs, which reflect the positive impacts of conservation efforts in the Susquehanna watershed. But the filling reservoirs behind the Safe Harbor and Holtwood dams in Pennsylvania and the Conowingo Dam in Maryland overshadow the pollution reduction progress that is being made.
The Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment team, composed of federal, state and regional partners and administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is exploring ways to expand the reservoirs' capacity.
Nutrient and sediment levels at a number of Chesapeake Bay monitoring sites have improved since 1985, according to a report released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). These improvements in long-term trends indicate pollution-reduction efforts are working.
By measuring nutrient and sediment trends and by tracking changes in water clarity, underwater grasses and other indicators of river and Bay health, the USGS and Chesapeake Bay Program partners can make a more accurate assessment of changes in our waters. This kind of on-the-water monitoring is an integral part of ensuring Bay states and the District of Columbia are meeting "pollution diet" goals.
Excess nutrients and sediment can harm fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. Nitrogen and phosphorous fuel the growth of algae blooms that later rob water of the oxygen that aquatic species need to survive; sediment clouds the water, blocking the sunlight that plants need to grow. But a number of practices, from upgrading wastewater treatment plants to reducing agricultural, urban and suburban runoff, can stop or slow nutrients and sediment from entering the Bay.
According to the USGS report, one-third of monitoring sites have shown improvement in sediment concentrations since 1985. Within the same time period, two-thirds of these sites have shown improvement in nitrogen concentrations and almost all have shown improvement in phosphorous concentrations. However, in the past decade, the majority of sites surveyed showed no significant change in nitrogen or phosphorous levels, and only a handful showed improvement in sediment trends.
This doesn't mean that pollution-reduction efforts have been in vain. Long-term trends show us that pollution-reduction efforts do have an impact; findings from the last 10 years illustrate the lag time that can exist between restoration efforts and firm evidence of restoration success.
While upgrades to wastewater treatment plants, for instance, can yield relatively quick results, the effects of consistent reduced fertilizer on farms or suburban lawns may not be visible for years.
"While we see long-term improvements in many areas of the Bay watershed, there is a lag time between implementing water-quality practices and seeing the full benefit in rivers," said USGS scientist Scott Phillips. "Which is one reason why scientists see less improvement over the past 10 years."
"Long-term trends indicate that pollution-reduction efforts are improvement water-quality conditions in many areas of the watershed," Phillips said. "However, nutrients, sediment and contaminants will need to be further reduced to achieve a healthier Bay."
Learn more about Monitoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
Nutrient credit trading could significantly trim the cost of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, according to a new study released by the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
Nutrient credit trading is a system that enables one pollution source to meet its pollution reduction goals by purchasing those reductions from another source.
The economic analysis showed that nutrient credit trading could save 20 percent to as much as 80 percent of costs to meet pollution reduction goals called for in the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, the federal “pollution diet” to clean up the Bay. State and local governments must reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from farms, wastewater treatment plants, stormwater systems and other sources to meet these goals by 2025.
The study recommends that governments define trading rules and protocols, provide information and technical assistance, and ensure compliance and enforcement to maximize cost benefits and guarantee trading programs actually deliver pollution reductions.
To date, four Chesapeake Bay watershed states – Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia – have initiated water quality trading programs.
Visit the Chesapeake Bay Commission’s website to learn more about the study and download the full analysis.
Maryland will provide more than $19 million in grants to reduce nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers by upgrading technology at four wastewater treatment plants in the state. Upgrading wastewater treatment facilities to remove more nitrogen and phosphorus from treated sewage is a critical part of meeting Bay cleanup goals.
The four facilities that will be upgraded are:
Biological nutrient removal (BNR) uses microorganisms to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater during treatment. Wastewater treated at facilities using BNR contains less than 8 milligrams per liter (mg/l) of nitrogen. Enhanced nutrient removal (ENR) improves upon the nutrient reductions achieved through BNR. Wastewater treated at facilities using ENR contains 3 mg/l of nitrogen and 0.3 mg/l of phosphorus.
Funding for the upgrades comes from Maryland’s Bay Restoration Fund – also known as the “Flush Fee.” To learn more about wastewater treatment plant upgrades in Maryland, visit the Maryland Department of the Environment’s website.
Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) measured a near-record flow of 775,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River on the morning of Friday, Sept. 9. The river is expected to reach the third-highest flow in history this weekend, ranking behind the June 1972 flow of 1,130,000 cfs and the January 1996 flow of 909,000 cfs.
2011 will most likely be one of the highest annual flow years on record for the Susquehanna River due to wet spring weather and the September tropical storms Irene and Lee. High river flows are also being measured throughout other parts of the Bay watershed. (Visit the USGS’s real-time streamflow website for more information about the region’s river flows.)
Scientists expect that the sheer magnitude of the flood waters – which carry nutrient and sediment pollution from the land to the water – will have a negative effect on the Bay’s health. Some concerns and potential effects of the flooding include:
Timing makes a big difference in whether flood events have a short-term or long-term effect on the Bay’s health. Because these storms occurred in late summer, the Bay Program expects that there will be fewer long term impacts to the Bay ecosystem. September is the end of the peak growing season for bay grasses and is not a major spawning period for aquatic life. Additionally, cooler temperatures should prevent large algae blooms from growing in response to excess nutrient pollution.
It will take time for Bay Program partners to monitor and assess conditions before the true impact of the rain events is known. Maryland and Virginia are working closely with scientists from universities, the U.S. EPA and NOAA to expand monitoring of the Bay and its tidal rivers in the coming days and weeks. The USGS is working with the six Bay states, the District of Columbia and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to measure nutrient and sediment pollution at key monitoring sites as part of the Bay Program’s non-tidal water quality monitoring network.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will receive nearly $850,000 through a grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to help Chesapeake Bay watershed farmers convert manure to energy.
The grant will be used to help farmers in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia convert excess manure to energy to generate income. The project will also improve the Bay’s health by reducing land application of manure. Efforts will be concentrated in four of the region’s “phosphorus hot spots” – areas with high concentrations of phosphorus in the soil.
The funding was provided through the 2011 Conservation Innovation Grants, a program that invests millions in innovative conservation technologies that address natural resources issues.
"The grants will help to spur creativity and problem solving to benefit conservation-minded farmers and ranchers," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Visit www.nrcs.usda.gov for more information about the recipients of the 2011 Conservation Innovation Grants.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has signed into law a bill that prohibits the sale, use and distribution of lawn fertilizer containing phosphorus. The legislation will go into effect on Dec. 31, 2013.
The law also prohibits the sale of deicers containing urea, nitrogen or phosphorus. Additionally, golf courses must implement nutrient management plans by 2017.
Phosphorus is one of the two main types of nutrients that pollute the Bay and its local waterways. Too much phosphorus runoff leads to algae blooms and low-oxygen “dead zones” where underwater life cannot survive.
More than 1,700 Maryland farmers will plant a record 550,000 acres of winter grains this fall through the state’s Cover Crop Program.
This acreage represents 155 percent of Maryland’s cover crop goal in its Phase 1 Watershed Implementation Plan, which spells out how the state will meet federal pollution reduction requirements. Cover crops are considered one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce pollution and help restore the Bay.
Maryland’s Cover Crop Program provides farmers with grants to plant cover crops on their fields immediately following the summer crop harvest.
Cover crops are grains such as wheat, rye and barley that are planted in the fall. Once established, cover crops recycle unused nutrients, helping to improve the soil for next year’s crop. Cover crops also control soil erosion and reduce the amount of nutrients that run off the land into nearby waterways.
Visit Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s website to learn more about the cover crop enrollment figures.
The Chesapeake Bay Program’s staff is on a mission to restore the Bay and its rivers. Whether they work on water quality, education or oysters, everyone here is dedicated to helping the Chesapeake. But do they keep the Bay in mind when they aren’t behind their desk?
A few months ago, we sent our staff a quick survey asking them about the types of positive activities they do for the Bay when they’re not at work. Some results were typical, while others were very interesting! The following eight activities were the most popular:
Is anyone surprised that recycling ranked as the number one thing Bay Program staff do to help the Bay? Recycling is one of the easiest things you can do for the environment.
One of the most common reasons why people don’t recycle is because their location does not offer recycling services. If you’re having trouble finding recycling services in your, enter your area code at Earth911 for a listing of drop-off locations near you.
You know you work with environmentalists when fertilizer use ranks near the top of the list! The average person may not realize that yard runoff containing fertilizer can be harmful to local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. Fertilizer is full of nutrients, which fuel the growth of algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching bay grasses and rob the water of oxygen.
To learn more about Bay-friendly fertilizer use, visit Chesapeake Club.
A little more than half of respondents said they composted at home on a regular basis. Composting is a great way to save time, money and the Bay! When you compost things like kitchen scraps and leaves, you are not only creating your own free fertilizer, but you are reducing the amount of waste that goes to landfills. Old composters used to require a pitchfork to turn over the pile, but these have been replaced with easy-to-use bins with hand cranks.
To help you get started with composting, visit How to Compost.
If you live in or have driven through Maryland, you have probably noticed the iconic blue Chesapeake Bay license plate. What many people don’t know is that the proceeds from this “vanity plate” go to the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a non-profit that conducts restoration, education and community engagement activities throughout the Bay watershed. To date, the Trust has planted 220,648 native plants and trees, restored 65 acres of wetlands, oyster reefs and streamside buffers, and engaged 86,717 students.
If you live in Maryland, buying a Bay plate is one of the easiest things you can do to help the Chesapeake Bay. Visit the Bay Plate website to learn more.
All the funding in the world for restoration projects will not help if there is no one to do the work! There are an overwhelming amount of opportunities to get involved with environmental organizations in our region. From planting trees to removing invasive species to building oyster reefs, there are activities for every interest. Volunteering is also a great way to get your kids outside and help them appreciate nature.
If you are interested in getting your family involved, the Baltimore Aquarium offers regular restoration events. You can also contact your local watershed organization for more information about opportunities near you.
Rain barrels and rain gardens are important because they collect water from roofs, yards and paved surfaces that would otherwise flow into storm drains. Rain gardens and rain barrels are so important that some counties actually offer funding and tax breaks for implementing them. Check with your city environmental office to see if your area has a program.
To learn more about rain barrels and rain gardens, visit Rainscaping.org.
It is common misconception that it’s safe to leave pet waste on the ground because some consider it a “natural fertilizer.” However, pet waste actually contains harmful nutrients and bacteria that can run off into local waterways. Some areas can be closed off to swimmers in summertime due to high bacteria levels from pet waste. Dog waste should be thrown away, flushed or put in a pet waste composter.
For more information about pet waste pollution, visit the Stormwater Center Pollution Prevention website.
People tend not to carpool because they do not know if anyone else who works with them lives nearby. People also enjoy the freedom of being able to come and go as they please without having to worry about altering their schedule because of another carpool rider. However, carpooling can actually save you time and money. You will spend less on gas and vehicle maintenance, and you can take advantage of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes.
The best solution is to create a way for colleagues who are interested in carpooling to list where they live. Put it in a well-traveled place, such as a kitchen, front desk or break room.
After seeing what the “average environmentalist” does for the Chesapeake Bay, do you think you do the same? Or more? What activities do you do that help the Chesapeake?
Maryland has passed a law that will reduce pollution from lawn fertilizer applied to homes, golf courses and businesses.
The Chesapeake Bay Commission, whose members introduced the legislation, estimates that the Fertilizer Use Act of 2011 will reduce phosphorus pollution from urban sources by 15 percent compared to 2009 levels. This equates to 20 percent of the phosphorus reduction Maryland needs to achieve its pollution reduction goals for the Chesapeake Bay TMDL.
Turf grass is now the largest “crop” in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, exceeding the amount of acres planted in corn and fast approaching all row crops combined. As the amount of lawns in the region increases, so does fertilizer use.
The legislation limits the amount of nutrients in fertilizer used by homeowners and lawn care professionals. Nitrogen will be limited and phosphorus will be banned in most types of lawn fertilizer.
Additionally, professional fertilizer applicators will have to be trained and certified in proper fertilizer application, such as keeping fertilizer off paved surfaces and not applying before heavy rain or when the ground is frozen. Areas along waterways, drainage ditches and near storm drains will be designated as “no-fertilizer zones.” (Read a full list of the lawn fertilizer bill provisions.)
The commission worked with soil scientists, environmental groups, fertilizer manufacturers, the Maryland Department of Agriculture, and associations representing lawn care professionals and golf courses to develop the provisions. Similar legislation passed in Virginia this winter, and is expected to be introduced in Pennsylvania this year.
Calling this bill “one of the nation’s most comprehensive and protective standards for lawn fertilizer content and use,” Chris Wible, director of environmental stewardship for the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, pledged to work with Bay groups to teach homeowners about protecting the Bay from their own backyards.
Another important part of the legislation is increasing and improving homeowner outreach. Within one year, the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the University of Maryland will develop and distribute consumer guidelines to help homeowners better understand how to reduce pollution from lawn fertilizer.
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:
The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has released a pilot study that contains science-based conclusions and recommendations to help the Chesapeake Bay Program evaluate its efforts to achieve nutrient reduction goals and clean up the Bay.
The study, “Achieving Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Goals in the Chesapeake Bay: An Evaluation of Program Strategies and Implementation,” validates and provides constructive feedback on the work the Bay Program has undertaken during the last 18 months to improve accountability.
“While supporting the program’s current efforts, the report also points out some critical challenges to consider in making decisions moving forward,” said Shawn M. Garvin, EPA regional administrator and chair of the Bay Program’s Principals' Staff Committee.
The NAS study results reinforce the partnership’s current work, including the Chesapeake Bay “pollution diet,” or TMDL; the Bay jurisdictions’ Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs); and two-year milestones. NAS recognized the Bay watershed’s complexity and the equally intricate tracking systems needed to accurately report on restoration progress, as well as the fact that the Bay Program is in the process of better integrating its voluntary and regulatory work.
The study also provides suggestions for strengthening processes for tracking and accounting of best management practices (BMPs); assessing two-year milestones; adaptive management; and implementation strategies.
“As the states continue to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, we must regularly review and take steps to improve the management of our resources to achieve the most cost-effective results for our citizens and the Bay," said Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Robert M. Summers. “We believe a healthy Chesapeake Bay is finally within our sights, and we look forward to working with our partners to determine how the Academy's recommendations can help.”
Within 90 days, the Bay Program will provide a written response to all of the study’s recommendations.
The Bay Program solicited this self-evaluation in 2009 after the Chesapeake Executive Council requested at its 2008 annual meeting that a nationally recognized, independent science organization evaluate the program’s efforts to accelerate implementation of nutrient reduction goals to restore the Bay.
The evaluation was jointly funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Chesapeake Bay Program, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
The Chesapeake Bay has received a C-minus on the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) 2010 Bay Health Report Card. The 2010 grade is a 4 percent decrease from 2009, when the Bay’s health received a C.
Higher rainfall – which led to increased stormwater runoff from the land – drove down scores for water quality and biological heath indicators. Researchers believe that two closely timed, large-scale weather events in winter 2010 played a role in the decrease.
The Bay’s health is affected by many factors, including human activities and natural variations in rainfall, which is the major driver of runoff from farms, cities and suburbs. Even as pollution is reduced, higher rainfall and associated runoff can mask the effects of these improvements.
“One of the main drivers of annual conditions in Chesapeake Bay is river flow related to weather patterns,” said UMCES-EcoCheck scientist Dr. Heath Kelsey. “While efforts to reduce pollution have been stepped up in recent years, nature overwhelmed those measures in 2010 and temporarily set the Bay back a bit.”
The declines are the first observed since 2003 and are on par with conditions observed in 2007. Annual weather-related variability in scores, even as more pollution-reduction measures are put into place, is to be expected in a highly complex ecosystem like the Bay, according to Dr. Kelsey.
Overall, the Lower Bay’s health score stayed relatively steady from 2009, while the Mid- and Upper Bay regions declined slightly. Results were fairly consistent in that declines were seen in most indicators.
The report card, based on data collected by state and federal agencies through the Chesapeake Bay Program, provides an independent analysis of Chesapeake Bay ecosystem health. It is expected that Bay Health Index scores will increase over time, as restoration and pollutant reduction activities are increased.
The report card analysis is conducted through the EcoCheck partnership between UMCES and the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office. In addition to the Bay-wide reportcard, UMCES works with local watershed organizations to develop river-specific report cards to give residents a creek-by-creek look at their local waters.
For more information about the 2010 Chesapeake Bay Health Report Card, including region-specific data, visit the Chesapeake EcoCheck website.
West Virginia will invest $6 million annually for 30 years toward wastewater treatment plant upgrades that will reduce nutrient pollution to the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.
The money, which will come from excess state lottery funds, will fund about $85 million in bonds that will help pay for upgrades. The funding will cover about 40 percent of the expected cost for the upgrades.
The upgrades will help West Virginia meet new pollution-reduction goals that are part of the federal pollution diet for the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. West Virginia has 13 wastewater facilities that need to be upgraded to meet nutrient limits.
Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed the bill into law on April 6.
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.
Early March's heavy rains and snow melt caused a flood of nutrients and sediment to flow into the Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna River, according to scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
This heavy runoff, which resulted in record poor water clarity in many areas, could harm bay grasses and cause more algae blooms to form in the Bay this spring and summer, especially if the wet weather continues.
Two days after a very heavy rainstorm that doused the region with 2+ inches of rain, the U.S. Geological Survey recorded a peak flow of 485,000 cubic feet/second (cfs) from the Susquehanna River at Conowingo Dam. This was well above the March average of 75,000 cfs and the highest average daily flow rate observed at the dam since September 2004, when floodwaters from Tropical Storm Ivan passed through.
Large amounts of fresh water flowing from the Bay’s rivers can erode stream banks and bring polluted runoff from the land into the Bay. Late winter and early spring are critical times for many of the Bay’s aquatic species. Bay grasses are just beginning to grow and many fish are starting to spawn.
Maryland DNR will continue to monitor water conditions to assess any short- or long-term storm effects of the wet weather.
For more information, visit Maryland DNR's website.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has released a study showing that effective use of conservation practices on farmland throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed is reducing nutrient and sediment pollution to the Bay and its rivers.
The study, “Assessment of Conservation Practices on Cultivated Cropland in the Chesapeake Bay Region,” quantifies the environmental gains of using conservation practices and identifies opportunities for farmers to reduce even more pollution.
Agricultural conservation practices such as cover crops, conservation tillage and forest buffers help reduce and absorb excess nutrients and sediment before they can run off farmland or soak into groundwater.
According to the study, agricultural conservation practices have reduced edge-of-field sediment losses by 55 percent, surface nitrogen runoff by 42 percent, nitrogen in sub-surface flow by 31 percent and phosphorus by 40 percent.
“This study confirms that farmers are reducing sediment and nutrient losses from their fields,” said Dave White, chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Our voluntary, incentives-based conservation approach is delivering significant and proven results.”
The study shows that using additional conservation practices on farmland prone to runoff and leaching could reduce even more nutrient and sediment pollution. Targeting conservation practices in these high-need areas can reduce per-acre nutrient and sediment losses by more than twice that of treating acres with low or moderate conservation needs.
Scientists and officials will use the study results to better focus on priority conservation needs and achieve greater pollution reduction results throughout the Bay watershed.
For more information about the study, visit the USDA's website.
Virginia is poised to pass a law banning the sale of fertilizer containing phosphorus, a major pollutant in the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers.
Lawns, parks, golf courses and other grass-covered areas cover 3.8 million acres of the Bay watershed. Most established lawns do not need phosphorus, but the majority of commonly used lawn fertilizers include phosphorus in their nutrient mix.
Once it goes into effect in 2013, the law will reduce an estimated 230,000 pounds of phosphorus pollution from reaching the Bay and Virginia rivers each year. This is 22 percent of Virginia's 2017 phosphorus reduction goal.
The law will also:
A variety of groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, James River Association, Home Builders Association of Virginia and Virginia Association for Commercial Real Estate, supported the legislation.
The legislation was passed by the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates. It now awaits Gov. Bob McDonnell's signature.
When passed, Virginia will become one of nine states that restrict the use or sale of phosphorus in lawn fertilizer. Maryland and Pennsylvania are considering similar legislation.
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.
Bernie Fowler remembers the days when he could wade up to his shoulders in his beloved Patuxent River and still see the river's bottom, teeming with crabs and fish swimming among the grasses and oyster shells.
Today the picture is not so clear. The river has been clouded by years of nutrient pollution and sediment runoff. Even at waist height, it is hard to catch a glimpse of the bottom.
To draw attention to this issue, Bernie began wading into the Patuxent River each year to measure water clarity. “If we can wade out chest high and see my feet, and see the little crabs and the grass shrimp clearly, then, we will be there,” said Bernie, who has waded into the river on the second Sunday of every June since 1988.
This year, on June 11, a crowd of more than 100 gathered with him, including school children, river advocates and Maryland gubernatorial candidates Martin O'Malley and Doug Duncan. All spoke of a declining river in need of help and protection.
Following the speakers, Bernie waded into the river hand-in-hand with friends, relatives and others, until he could no longer see his shoes. The waterline on Bernie's denim overalls—known as the “sneaker index”—was measured at 27.5 inches, similar to last year's mark of 27 inches.
While the river's health appears to be holding steady, it will take a concentrated effort by many to bring it back to the clear conditions that Bernie remembers. Improved water clarity could cause an ecological domino effect, with more underwater grass beds that filter water, produce oxygen and soften wave action. Water clarity is indicative of a healthy river and Bay, and is a key component of water quality, which the Bay Program is working to improve.