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.
Most of us who live in urban or suburban settings really don’t know what a healthy stream looks like. In some cases, we can’t even see the streams that run under our roads and shopping centers because they’ve been forced into pipes; out of sight, out of mind. The remnants of streams we can see have often been filled with sediment and other pollution, their ecology altered. The plants and animals that used to live there have long since departed, their habitat destroyed. This didn’t happen overnight. The environment is suffering “a death by a thousand cuts.”
I recently got the chance to visit the Cabin Branch stream restoration project, not far from my neighborhood in Annapolis, Md. The project is being undertaken by Underwood & Associates on behalf of the Severn Riverkeeper Program, and is one of many stream restoration projects taking place across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In 2005, a volunteer cleanup removed 40 tons of tires and debris from Cabin Branch. Image courtesy Severn Riverkeeper Program.
Cabin Branch discharges to the streams and wetlands of Saltworks Creek and the Severn River, which bring water into the Bay. Aerial photos taken after a modest rain are dramatic testament to a severely damaged ecosystem that causes the Severn to run the color of chocolate milk. This same phenomenon—one of sedimentation and stormwater runoff—is repeated in streams and rivers that run through thousands of communities throughout the watershed.
Image courtesy Severn Riverkeeper Program.
It was gratifying to see the Cabin Branch project firsthand—one of many efforts to heal the damage done unknowingly by many decades of development. Like many projects of this nature, the Severn Riverkeeper Program had to overcome some bureaucratic red tape to get the permits they needed, but their perseverance will be worth the impact in helping clean local waters and the Bay.
Image courtesy Tom Wenz/EPA CBPO.
Fortunately, we are learning better ways to manage stormwater runoff through low impact development and the use of green infrastructure, which help to mimic the cleansing functions of nature. It will take some time before this patient is restored to good health, but we are on the mend.
While research continues to shed light on the environmental effects of shale gas development, much more remains unknown about the risks that the process known as “fracking” could pose for the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
According to a report released this week by a panel of scientific experts, additional research and monitoring—on sediment loads, on forest cover, on the best management practices that might lessen fracking’s environmental impact and more—must be done to determine how hydraulic fracturing might affect land and water resources in the region.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Hydraulic fracturing is a process that works to extract natural gas and oil from beneath the earth’s surface. During the process, a mixture of water, sand and additives is pumped at high pressure into underground rock formations—in the watershed, this formation is known as the Marcellus Shale—breaking them apart to allow the gas and oil to flow into wells for collection.
The process can impact the environment in a number of ways. According to the report, installing shale gas wells requires clearing forests and building roads, which can impact bird and fish habitat and increase the erosion of sediment into local rivers and streams. Withdrawing water from area sources—an essential part of gas extraction, unless water is brought in from off-site—can alter aquatic habitat and river flow. And the drilling process may result in the accumulation of trace metals in stream sediment.
Read more about the environmental effects of shale gas development in the watershed.
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.
A recent assessment of Superstorm Sandy shows the hurricane did less damage to the Chesapeake Bay than some feared, thanks in large part to its timing and track.
According to a University of Maryland report, the late-October hurricane whose path traveled north of the Bay had “ephemeral” impacts on Bay water quality—especially when compared to past storms.
The summertime arrival of Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, for instance, coincided with a critical growing period for oysters, crabs and underwater grasses, and had a damaging effect on all three. But because Sandy arrived in the fall, the nutrients and sediment that it sent into the Bay were unable to fuel harmful algae blooms or damage the underwater grasses that had already begun to die back for the season. And while Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 brought heavy rainfall and a large plume of sediment to the Susquehanna River, the bulk of Sandy’s rainfall was concentrated elsewhere, meaning minimal scouring of sediment from behind the Conowingo Dam and “virtually no sediment plume” in the Upper Bay.
These findings echo those released in November by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Read more about the ecological impacts of Sandy on the Chesapeake Bay.
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.
From the restoration of streamside forests to the planting of a green roof on an historic District of Columbia house, 41 environmental projects from across the Chesapeake Bay watershed have received $9.22 million in grant funding.
The restoration and outreach initiatives will restore vital habitats and reduce the amount of runoff entering local waterways, leading to cleaner water across the region.
Funding for the projects was awarded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund. Half of the projects will be funded by the Small Watersheds Grants Program, which funds on-the-ground restoration, conservation and community engagement. Twenty-one more will be funded by the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants Program, which funds the reduction of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment in local waterways.
Trout Unlimited, for instance, will restore stream banks and wetlands on 11 western Maryland farms, reducing agricultural runoff and benefiting brook trout. The Nature Conservancy will improve water quality and brook trout habitat in central and southern Pennsylvania, planting riparian buffers, restoring wetlands and establishing forest habitat. And the high-profile William Penn House in Washington, D.C., will install a green roof on top of the historic building, which will capture and treat almost all of the stormwater on-site.
In all, this year's projects will engage 9,000 volunteers; restore 176 miles of streamside forests and 158 acres of wetlands; and establish 170,000 square feet of green roofs and rain gardens.
"These innovative projects ... are an illustration of the incredible commitment people have to restoring our rivers and streams. With NFWF's invaluable support, these projects will make a difference, supporting progress toward a Bay that is increasingly healthy and resilient," said Jeff Corbin, Environmental Protection Agency Senior Advisor for the Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia River.
For a full list of grant recipients, visit the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund website.
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.
A year or two ago, the newest addition to a southeast Washington, D.C., stream was not nesting mallards or spring peeper frogs, but cars – abandoned in the creek at the approximate rate of one vehicle per week.
Illegal dumping was just one problem for Watts Branch: the largest D.C. tributary to the Anacostia River, which flows through the District to the Potomac River and into the Chesapeake Bay. Broken sewer lines running through the stream leaked bacteria into the water. During storms, fast-moving water cut into the stream's banks, leaving Watts Branch looking more like a trench than a backyard creek.
When water cuts into stream banks, it carries sediment (dirt) into the stream. Sediment clouds the water, preventing sunlight from reaching important aquatic life, such as amphibians and bay grasses.
This combination of bacteria and sediment pollution left Watts Branch virtually devoid of life. The creek – just blocks away from Marvin Gaye's childhood home – was beginning to mimic the music legend's environmental concerns, expressed most explicitly in his 1971 single Mercy Mercy Me. ("Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas/Fish full of mercury/Oh, mercy mercy me/Oh, things ain't what they used to be.")
Today, dumped cars are a rare sight, and spring peepers splash into the water as I walk along the banks of Watts Branch. A stream restoration project completed in fall 2011 by the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) not only corrected the dumping problem, but repaired sewer lines, installed native plants, and transformed the trench into a meandering stream that can healthily withstand storm events.
Slowing down fast moving water
"The project is designed to keep the channel relatively stable," explains Peter Hill, branch chief for DDOE's Planning and Restoration Division. "Before, the stormwater and all the runoff would come rushing through here very quickly. The banks were steep; there was not a lot of biological activity."
In one 2008 storm event, the stream’s water level rose from zero to four feet in just two hours.
(Image courtesy DDOE)
Like all stream restoration projects, the Watts Branch project aimed to slow down stormwater flowing into the stream. When water moves slower, it does not cut into and erode stream banks, carrying sediment into the water. This allows plants and wildlife to flourish both on the banks and in the stream.
"Now, when we have a storm, water will rise up, but it will tend to fall back into the center of the stream... this basically relieves the pressure from the stream banks so you don’t get erosion," explains Hill. "The water falls over stones, (in the center of the creek) as opposed to tearing up this bank."
In addition to redirecting stream flows, DDOE and Anacostia Riverkeeper installed a floating trash collecting device in the water. Groundwork Anacostia empties the device every two weeks, preventing trash from floating downstream.
Parks and People Foundation and other volunteer groups helped install native plants and aquatic grasses, which will help to keep soil on the stream banks in place.
Watts Branch was chosen for restoration because of its severe water quality impairments from sediment and bacteria. But there are hundreds of streams just like it across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In Northwest D.C., Milkhouse Ford, a tributary to Rock Creek, also suffered from high volumes of fast-moving stormwater flowing from a nearby residential neighborhood. Today, rocks separate the stream into small pools where tadpoles are hatching, and newly planted trees dot the stream banks. The DDOE and National Park Service project was completed in fall 2011.
"Each pool is a foot drop in elevation," explains project manager and DDOE Environmental Protection Specialist Stephen Reiling. "It's just one way of slowing the stormwater down and letting sediment settle in these pools. That's the simple idea: just slowing the water down."
The pools allow the stormwater to sit long enough to seep into the ground water. This allows many of the pollutants found in stormwater runoff (such as lawn fertilizer, automobile exhaust and bacteria from pet waste) to soak into the ground, instead of making their way into the Chesapeake Bay.
"We have a very impervious residential watershed up here (above the stream), so associated with that, there’s grease and oil from vehicles, sediment, and any kind of fertilizer residents put on their lawns," explains Reiling. "So we’d like to slow that down, and hopefully keep it here before it gets to the bay."
Milkhouse Ford is surrounded by the forests of Rock Creek Park, trees that the project team managed to keep intact. Preserving nearby vegetation is difficult in many stream engineering projects, which require large and heavy equipment to build up banks or replace soils.
"This is pretty unique in terms of how small the footprint is," says Hill.
Rock Creek Conservancy and other volunteer groups planted native trees and shrubs along the banks, which will hold the soil in place and prevent the stream's banks from eroding.
The stormwater story
Since streams, storms and stormwater are natural parts of the water cycle, it may seem strange that stormwater is degrading our streams and contributing to sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. But in many places, stormwater from driveways and lawns flows into a sewer on the street, which connects to a local creek. The problem? These creeks were not meant to hold stormwater from the entire neighborhood – only the water that naturally flowed into them. When too much water flows in at once, the banks wash away, bringing tons of sediment as well.
"When many of these houses (in southeast D.C.) were built, they saw stormwater as a problem, so they piped it out from the streets and sent it to the nearby stream," explains Hill.
While this infrastructure can't be entirely corrected, ensuring that the streams remain stable during storm events will improve water quality in the stream, as well as in the Chesapeake Bay.
Another way to ease pressure on our streams is to keep stormwater onsite. This means reducing runoff from your property by using rain barrels, rain gardens and native plants. In the Bay watershed, local programs such as River Star Homes (Norfolk, Virginia) and River Smart Homes (Washington, D.C.) help local residents implement runoff-reducing practices in their backyards.
More than a stream
Stream restoration project leaders like Hill and Reiling are beginning to notice an unexpected, less measurable outcome of their projects: residents have developed a sense of pride and stewardship for their newly restored neighborhood creeks.
When Watts Branch was transformed from a steep, cloudy channel littered with cars into a meandering creek with sprouting saplings, residents began to spend more time along the streamside pedestrian trail, and dumping stalled.
“Watts Branch was chosen for restoration because...it was an eyesore to the community," says Hill. "The community didn’t see it as an asset, and being D.C.’s largest tributary to the Anacostia, we wanted to fix it up.”
Neighborhoods along the 1.7 mile stretch of restored stream have seen a reduction in crime since the project’s completion, according to Hill.
“Most recently, an older gentleman brought his grandkids here and they were hanging out near the stream; he wanted to show them where he grew up,” explains Hill. “It was really nice that someone would be proud of this, so much that they want to show it to their grandkids.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation have awarded $10.9 million in grants to 55 environmental projects in Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. Collectively, the projects will preserve 3,729 acres of land, restore 32 miles of forest buffers and stream banks, and install runoff-reducing practices on 2,878 acres.
The funding was awarded through the Small Watershed Grants Program and the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants Program. Both are part of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.
The Small Watershed Grants Program provides grants to organizations and municipal governments that are working to improve the condition of their local watershed through on-the-ground restoration, habitat conservation and community engagement. The program, funded by a combination of public agencies and private support, awarded $2.8 million to 37 projects. Grant recipients provided an additional $4.4 million in matching funds.
This year’s Small Watershed Grant projects are expected to involve 8,645 volunteers and engage 2,228 landowners in conservation and restoration practices. Many recipients will reduce polluted runoff through techniques such as rain gardens, as well as through outreach and marketing initiatives that promote sustainable landscaping practices.
Recipients of this year’s Small Watershed Grants include:
The Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants Program provides grants to innovative and cost-effective projects that dramatically reduce or eliminate nutrient and sediment pollution into local waterways and the Bay. The program, funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, awarded $8.2 million to 19 projects. Grant recipients provided an additional $11.7 million in matching funds. This year’s projects are expected to prevent 600,000 tons of sediment, two million pounds of nitrogen and 700,000 pounds of phosphorus from entering the Bay.
Recipients of this year’s Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants include:
Through these grants, diverse agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are able to pool resources with corporate sponsors like Altria, Wal-Mart and FedEx to increase the impact any one of them could have alone, according to Tom Kelsch, vice president of conservation programs at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Since 2000, the Small Watershed Grants Program has provided more than $29 million to support 663 projects in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These projects have leveraged close to $95 million in local matching funds for a total investment of more than $125 million toward on-the-ground restoration.
Since 2007, the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grant Program has provided $26.8 million to 54 projects that reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
For more information, visit www.nfwf.org/chesapeake.
Plumes of sediment were observed flowing down the Susquehanna River into the Chesapeake Bay this week after the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee brought heavy rainfall to Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The large rainfall totals caused rivers to swell, washing dirt and pollution off the land and carrying it downstream to the Bay. Record flooding and water levels were recorded at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River last week.
Image courtesy NASA/GSFC/MODIS
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.
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.
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.
Eleven innovative environmental projects throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed will reduce an estimated 1.5 million pounds of nitrogen, 51,000 pounds of phosphorus and 20,000 pounds of sediment from entering the Bay and its local waterways with $5.8 million in grants through the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Program.
The Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Program, part of the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund, provides up to $1 million to innovative and cost-effective projects that dramatically reduce or eliminate nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution into local streams, creeks, rivers and the Bay.
Collectively, the 11 projects exemplify creative and effective ways to build partnerships, bridge communities, advance technology and implement innovative practices such as green infrastructure and agricultural conservation — all of which are necessary to reducing polluted runoff from cities, suburbs and farmland.
The 11 projects are:
The grants are funded by the U.S. EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program and administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Grant awardees provided an additional $10 million in matching funds.
“These projects demonstrate innovative strategies for how we can continue to live, work and play in one of the most densely populated regions of the country, while at the same time minimizing the impact on our downstream neighbors and the thousands of fish and wildlife species that call the Chesapeake Bay their home,” said Tom Kelsch, Director of Conservation Programs of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
For more information about the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund, visit www.nfwf.org/chesapeake.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed draft sediment limits as part of a “pollution diet” the agency is developing to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its local streams, creeks and rivers.
The watershed-wide draft limit of 6.1-6.7 billion pounds of sediment per year is divided among the six watershed states and the District of Columbia, as well as the major river basins. In 2009, an estimated 8.09 billion pounds of sediment flowed to and clouded the waters of the Bay and its tributaries.
Excess sediment suspended in the water is one of the leading causes of the Chesapeake Bay's poor health. The culprits are the tiny clay- and silt-sized fractions of sediment. Because of their small size, clay and silt particles often float throughout the water, rather than settling to the bottom, and can be carried long distances during rainstorms.
When there is too much sediment in the water, the water becomes cloudy and muddy-looking. Cloudy water does not allow sunlight to filter through to bay grasses growing at the bottom of the Bay's shallows. Just like plants on earth, bay grasses need sunlight to grow; without it, these underwater grasses die, which affects the young fish and blue crabs that depend on bay grasses for shelter.
Bay jurisdictions are expected to use the draft allocations as the basis for completing their Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs), which detail how they will further divide the limits among different sources of pollution and achieve the required reductions. Jurisdictions must provide the first drafts of their WIPs to the EPA by September 1, and final Phase 1 WIPs are due November 29.
“While we all recognize that every jurisdiction within the watershed will have to make very difficult choices to reduce pollution, we also recognize that we must collectively accelerate our efforts if we are going to restore this national treasure as part of our legacy for future generations,” said EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin.
The EPA expects the Bay jurisdictions to have all practices in place to meet their established pollution limits by 2025, with 60 percent of the effort completed by 2017. Progress will be measured using two-year milestones, or short-term goals. The EPA may apply consequences for inadequate plans or failing to meet the milestones.
The EPA will issue a draft Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) – the “pollution diet” – on September 24, with a 45-day public comment period immediately following. The final Bay TMDL will be established by December 31.
The EPA proposed draft allocations for nitrogen and phosphorus in July.
For more information about the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, visit www.epa.gov/chesapeakebaytmdl.
Welcome to this week’s installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week we'll take a question submitted through the Chesapeake Bay Program website and answer it here for all to read.
This week, Dave is trying to get a sense of “who is causing what” in relation to the Chesapeake Bay’s pollution issues. He wants to know: what are the main sources of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment to the Bay?
It’s important to know where Chesapeake Bay pollution comes from because we can use that knowledge to do our part to reduce the amount of pollutants each of us contributes to the Bay and its local waterways.
Nitrogen occurs naturally in soil, animal waste, plant material and the atmosphere. However, most of the nitrogen delivered to the Bay comes from:
Phosphorous, like nitrogen, occurs naturally in soil, animal waste and plant material. But these natural sources account for just 3 percent of the phosphorous loads to the Chesapeake Bay. Here are the major sources of the Bay’s phosphorus pollution:
Sediments are loose particles of clay, silt and sand. When suspended in the water, sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater bay grasses. As sediment settles to the bottom of the Bay and its rivers, it smothers bottom-dwelling animals (such as oysters). Sediment can also carry high concentrations of phosphorus and toxic chemicals.
Most of the sediment to the Bay comes from agriculture. Natural sources, stormwater runoff and erosion from streams make up the rest of the sources of sediment to the Bay and its local waterways.
While some sources of pollution may be larger than others, one source is not more important to prevent than any other. We must take any and all steps to reduce nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment loads to the Bay. Think about how your daily actions contribute pollution to the Bay and its rivers. Be sure to check out our Help the Bay tips to learn how you can do your part.
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.