Like animals on land, critters in the Chesapeake Bay need oxygen to survive. But persistent nutrient pollution—and the algae blooms that result—mean some fish and shellfish have a hard time finding the oxygen they need to survive and thrive.
Under water, oxygen is present in dissolved form. When nutrient-fueled algae blooms die, the bacteria that arrive to decompose them use up oxygen in the water, leaving little for fish and shellfish and creating so-called “dead zones.” Increased nutrient pollution leads to larger algae blooms, which in turn create more dead zones.
Scientists measure dissolved oxygen as part of their work to determine the health of an ecosystem. Because an animal’s size and habitat determine how much oxygen it needs, scientists have set different dissolved oxygen standards for different aquatic habitats at different times of the year. An American shad, white perch or other fish found in shallow water, for instance, needs more oxygen than a worm, clam, oyster or other invertebrate found on the Bay’s bottom. While the former thrive at dissolved oxygen concentrations of 5 milligrams per liter of water, the latter need just one. The Bay’s infamous blue crabs and oysters, on the other hand, need dissolved oxygen concentrations of three milligrams per liter to thrive.
According to recent data, between 2011 and 2013, 24 percent of the water quality standards for dissolved oxygen were met in the deep-water habitat where bottom-feeding fish, blue crabs and oysters are found. Because the Chesapeake Bay Program has set a goal to achieve the clean water necessary to support aquatic resources and protect human health, our partners are working to reduce pollution and bring the Bay up to water quality standards. Learn how you can help.
Preventing livestock from entering streams could improve the health of both local waterways and the animals themselves, according to a new report from the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
When hoofed farm animals—such as cattle, horses, pigs, sheep and goats—have clear access to streams, they trample and erode the banks and bottoms of waterways, freeing sediment and nutrients to flow downstream to the Bay. Animal waste contributes additional nutrient pollution, as well as bacteria that can cause human health concerns.
“Livestock exclusion” is an agricultural best management practice (BMP) that uses fences, streamside buffers and alternative water sources to draw animals away from streams and wetlands. The practice benefits not only water quality but the health of the animals themselves: in operations that have installed fences along streams, farmers have reported decreases in injuries and disease in their herds. In the report, the Bay Commission details the benefits of livestock exclusion; describes current efforts throughout its member states of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia; and looks at factors affecting the widespread implementation of these practices.
By lowering the amount of sediment and nutrients flowing to the Bay, practices like livestock exclusion help meet the clean water goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which encompasses the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
The report, Healthy Livestock, Healthy Streams: Policy Actions to Promote Livestock Stream Exclusion, is available through the Chesapeake Bay Commission website.
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.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation once again gave the Chesapeake Bay a “D+” grade in its biennial State of the Bay report, with improvements in water quality offset by declines in fisheries.
This grade remains the same from the nonprofit’s 2012 report. The score of 32 on a one-to-100 scale marks an improvement of one point since 2010 and of four points since 2008 but remains well short of the Foundation’s goal of 70, representing an “A+” or a “saved Bay.”
According to the report, four of the 13 indicators of Bay health showed signs of recovery: dissolved oxygen, water clarity, oyster populations and underwater grass abundance. Of those, dissolved oxygen showed the greatest improvement, with this year’s “dead zone” - an area of little to no dissolved oxygen where aquatic life is unable to thrive - the smallest it has been in thirty years. But these advances were offset by declines blue crab and striped bass populations, as well as increases in phosphorous pollution.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker attributes improvements in water quality to the “Clean Water Blueprint,” or Total Maximum Daily Load - a comprehensive plan to reduce pollution going to the Bay and its rivers and streams.
“We have never before had this level of accountability and transparency in Bay restoration efforts,” said Baker in a release. “Our children and grandchildren can inherit a restored Chesapeake Bay, but only if we continue the hard work and investments that will lead to success.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program will publish Bay Barometer, its annual snapshot of watershed-wide health and restoration, later this month. The Bay Program is a voluntary partnership that includes the six watershed states of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency representing the federal government.
Learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Researchers from the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) surveyed three rivers in the Chesapeake Bay region to examine how variations in land use and development impact the health of the Bay, finding that water quality and aquatic animal health could help gauge the overall well-being of coastal regions.
The NCCOS assessment, conducted from 2007 to 2009, explored linkages between land use, water quality, and aquatic animal health along the Corsica, Magothy, and Rhode Rivers. Researchers measured water quality for dissolved oxygen, nutrient concentrations and water clarity, and based aquatic animal health on the growth, disease rates and diversity of fish and shellfish stocks.
As the population of the Chesapeake Bay region grows from 17 million to a predicted 20 million residents by 2030, an increasing number of people will rely on the Bay for their food, recreation and livelihoods. The assessment results suggest that environmental pressure from development could both weaken the capacity of the Bay to provide these services and counteract the benefits of current restoration efforts.
“Luckily, ecosystems tend to be resilient; many are able to maintain a state of relatively strong health when faced with environmental stress,” the report states. However, it also clarifies that if the health of coastal waters is pushed beyond a point of recovery, it could affect the ability of the Bay to cope with “environmental stress”—including increased rainfall related to climate change.
“The science challenge, going forward, is in identifying and communicating where systems fall relative to some threshold or tipping point,” the report states. Results of the assessment can be used to inform “smart development plans” that can balance the effects of human activities with better support of Chesapeake Bay’s resiliency.
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.
Researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) measured minimal changes in Chesapeake Bay health in 2013, once again giving the estuary a “C” in their annual Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
This grade was the same in 2012, up from a “D+” in 2011. The Bay Health Index was reached using several indicators of Bay health, including water clarity and dissolved oxygen, the amount of algae and nutrients in the water, the abundance of underwater grasses, and the strength of certain fish stocks, including blue crab and striped bass. Introduced in this year’s report card, the Climate Change Resilience Index will measure the Bay’s ability to withstand rising sea levels, rising water temperatures and other impacts of climate change.
UMCES Vice President for Science Applications and Professor Bill Dennison attributed the Bay’s steady course to local management actions. While pollution-reducing technologies installed at wastewater treatment plants have improved the health of some rivers along the Bay’s Western Shore, continued fertilizer applications and agricultural runoff have stalled improvements along the Eastern Shore, Dennison said in a media release.
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.
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.
The Chesapeake Bay Program’s latest look at watershed health reflects the reality of an impaired Bay, where population growth and pollution could threaten stable blue crab, striped bass and shad populations.
Released today, Bay Barometer: Health and Restoration in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed collects and summarizes the Bay Program’s most recent data on water quality, pollution loads and other “indicators” of Bay health, from ecological markers like underwater grass abundance to measures of progress toward restoration goals.
According to the report, more than half of the watershed’s freshwater streams are in poor condition, almost three-quarters of the Bay’s tidal waters are impaired by chemical contaminants and just 29 percent of the Bay has attained water-quality standards.
But an absence of rapid improvement in Bay health is not an indication that our restoration efforts are ineffective. Instead, it is an indication that lag-times are at play. Knowing that we will have to wait before we see visible improvements in water quality gives officials hope that the work done in 2012—like the 285 miles of forest buffers planted along waterways, the 2,231 acres of wetlands established on agricultural lands or the 34 miles of streams reopened to fish passage—will lead to results in the watershed. In fact, long-term trends indicate nutrient levels in Bay tributaries are improving, with most showing lower levels of nitrogen and phosphorous.
“Bay Program partners have made significant strides in moving us ever closer to a healthy, restored Bay watershed,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release. “We will have to exercise persistence and patience as the actions we take to rebuild balance and resilience… into this complex ecosystem… show up in the data from our monitoring networks.”
Growing scientific evidence shows that pathogens, antimicrobials and hormones are increasingly appearing in livestock and poultry manure across the United States, according to a literature review prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Image courtesy USDAgov/Flickr
These “contaminants of emerging concern”—so named because their risks to human health and the environment may be unknown—could pose threats to plants, animals and people if rain, spills or storage failures push contaminated manure into rivers and streams.
The flow of manure into our waterways has long been linked to nutrient pollution. According to 2010 estimates, manure accounts for 19 percent of the nitrogen and 26 percent of the phosphorous entering the Chesapeake Bay, where it fuels the growth of algae blooms and creates dead zones that suffocate marine life. But research now shows that more of the nation’s manure could contain a new class of pollutants that could have serious implications for water quality.
Manure can contain pathogens, for instance, that could infect humans if allowed to contaminate our drinking water or food crops. It can contain antibiotics and vaccines that could facilitate the development of antimicrobial resistance. And it can contain natural and artificial hormones that, even in low concentrations, could affect the reproductive health and fitness of fish, frogs and other marine life.
Indeed, good manure management has become a key conservation practice in the watershed, where four states—Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia—rank among the ten highest manure-generating states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). As livestock and poultry production shift to larger, more concentrated operations, facilities produce more manure than can be used on the surrounding farmland. If this manure is properly applied, stored and transported, it can be kept out of rivers, streams and the Bay.
Learn more about contaminants in livestock and poultry manure.
The Potomac Conservancy has reported an improvement in the Potomac River’s health for the third year in a row, giving the waterway a “C” in its seventh annual State of the Nation’s River report.
The Potomac Conservancy, an advocacy group that fights for the health of the waterway, has an optimistic outlook for the river’s future. “After suffering the effects of historical overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction, it is no wonder that the Potomac River’s recovery is a slow one,” the report states. “We believe the river is on its way back to full health.”
In 2012, the Potomac topped American Rivers’ list of the nation’s most endangered waterways, the biggest threat a combination of agricultural and stormwater runoff. With continued population growth in the Washington, D.C., area, human development has increased the amount of impervious surfaces that cannot absorb polluted rainfall traveling across the land and into storm drains, rivers and streams.
“Going forward, when it comes to cleaning up the Potomac, public enemy number one is polluted runoff,” said Hedrick Belin, Potomac Conservancy president. “That is the single largest threat to the full recovery of the Potomac, in that it is the only source of pollution that we see growing.”
The Conservancy plans to take a “three-pronged” approach to reducing polluted runoff, strengthening regulatory frames at a local level, increasing funding for clean water programs and creating incentives and assistance programs for property owners to make it easier for them to contribute to a healthy waterway.
Belin stresses the importance of protecting both the river and the land that surrounds it. ”As we peek around the corner or over the horizon, we see some troubling trends if we don’t change how we treat the land that surrounds the Potomac,” he explained.
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.
How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?
William Shakespeare, Othello, Act II, Scene 3
Between fast food restaurants and speed-of-light cell phones, we live in a culture of instant gratification. But the environment around us doesn’t operate that way. Instead, it is slow to respond to changes—like the upsets or imbalances created by human activity.
Scientific evidence shows that many of the pollution-reducing practices we are placing on the ground now may take years to show visible improvements in water quality. One reason? Pollutants can be persistent. French and Canadian researchers, for instance, tracked the movement of fertilizer through a plot of land over the course of three decades. While more than half of the fertilizer applied to the land in 1982 was absorbed by agricultural crops like wheat and sugar beet, 12 to 15 percent remained in the soil. The researchers predicted it would take an additional 50 years before the fertilizer fully disappeared from the environment.
Much of the farmland in the Chesapeake Bay watershed sits over groundwater, now contaminated with high levels of nitrates following years of fertilizer applications above ground. Work by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has shown that it will take a decade for this nitrogen-laden groundwater to flow into rivers, streams and the Bay. On the Delmarva Peninsula, where deeper, sandy aquifers underlie the Coastal Plain, this so-called “lag-time” could take 20 to 40 years.
So what implications could lag-times have for the Bay restoration effort? Last year, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) released a report about the lag-time phenomenon. The team of experts concluded that lag-times will affect public perception of our progress toward meeting the pollution diet set forth by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
The TMDL requires the six Bay states and the District of Columbia to implement their proposed pollution-reduction measures by 2025. There may be an expectation on the part of the general public and our elected officials that once these measures are fully implemented, the Bay will have met its water quality goals. But now we know that it may take some time before we can make that claim. As 2025 approaches, we must remind the public that lag-times exist and ask for their patience in seeing a healthy Bay. Because through patience—and vigilance—the Bay will be restored.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy, endorsement, or action.
The James River Association has measured a slight improvement in James River health, giving the waterway a “C” in its latest State of the James report.
Image courtesy tvnewsbadge/Flickr
The river’s score of 53 on a one-to-100 scale marks a two percent increase since the report was last issued in 2011, but continued problems with sediment pollution overshadow progress made elsewhere.
While sediment is a natural part of the environment, excess particles of sand, silt and clay can cloud the water, harming underwater grasses, fish and shellfish. According to the State of the James report, sediment pollution in the James has shown no improvement over the past two decades, indicating that stronger measures should be taken to restore streamside forests and other buffers that can filter runoff before it enters rivers and streams.
Virginia has made strides, however, in reducing nutrient pollution, as it works to meet limits set by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load or “pollution diet.” The Commonwealth has invested in wastewater treatment, increased funding toward agricultural conservation and focused attention on controlling stormwater runoff.
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.
Last month, I had the chance to attend the two-day Mid-Atlantic Volunteer Monitoring Conference in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The conference was hosted by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, and brought volunteers, environmental organizations and governmental agencies together to discuss the ins and outs of water quality monitoring, from sample collection and analysis to the management, presentation, visualization and communication of data.
Water quality monitoring is at the heart of Chesapeake Bay restoration. This critical data helps us determine how well our pollution control measures are working. Chesapeake Bay Program partners collect a huge amount of water quality data from nearly 270 tidal and non-tidal monitoring stations across the watershed. The cost of this work—approximately $10 million each year—is borne by federal agencies, watershed states, local jurisdictions and organizations like the Susquehanna River Basin Commission and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.
While this monitoring network is extensive and the data it generates is rich, it can’t tell us what water quality is like in some of our smaller creeks and streams. But this gap has been slowly filled over the past 30 years, as non-profit organizations have grown in size and sophistication and have developed their own water quality monitoring capabilities. Some of these volunteer monitoring groups, along with a growing number of counties and municipalities, have even established sample collection and analysis procedures comparable to those used by state and federal agencies.
Local citizens want to know what water quality is like in the creeks, streams and rivers that run through their own communities. Many want to know what’s going on—sometimes literally—in their own backyards. And government can’t do it all. So we have come to recognize the value of volunteer-collected local monitoring data, and we use this data to supplement our own. Last month’s volunteer monitoring conference convinced me that we must continue to encourage these local efforts if we are to succeed in restoring the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) have measured an improvement in Chesapeake Bay health, giving the estuary a “C” in its latest Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
Up from a “D+” in 2011, the Bay Health Index of 47 percent takes into account seven indicators of Bay health, including water clarity and dissolved oxygen; the amount of algae, nitrogen and phosphorous in the water; the abundance of underwater grasses; and the health of the benthic or bottom-dwelling community. While underwater grasses continued to decline, the rest of the indicators improved in 2012.
Image courtesy EcoCheck/Integration and Application Network
“I’m cautiously optimistic about the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” said UMCES Vice President for Science Applications and Professor Bill Dennison in a media release. “We are seeing progress in our efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous levels. In addition, water clarity, which had been declining, has leveled out—and may even be reversing course.”
According to the report card, these improvements are due to a number of weather events. While excess rainfall can push nutrient and sediment pollution into rivers and streams, a dry summer in 2011 led to improvements in water clarity and dissolved oxygen and the favorable timing and track of Superstorm Sandy meant the storm did less damage to the Bay than some feared.
Learn more about the 2012 Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
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.
To track the health of the Chesapeake Bay, researchers across the watershed watch so-called “indicator species” for clues about water quality. Bay grasses—sensitive to pollution but quick to respond to water quality improvements—are one such indicator. Bay grasses are monitored each year by a range of experts in the field, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), the latter of which compiles Bay-wide observations in an annual report on bay grass abundance.
Bay grasses, also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV, provide critical habitat and food for wildlife, add oxygen to the water, absorb nutrients, trap sediment and reduce erosion.
During the months of May, July and September, biologists like Chris Guy, who works with USFWS, visit randomly selected sample sites throughout the Bay. Occasionally accompanied by volunteers, their mission is to track the ebb and flow of underwater grass beds in order to gauge the health of the Bay.
Once a sampling site is reached, researchers use a refractometer to determine the salinity of the water. Different bay grass species prefer different salinity levels, and this measurement gives biologists a hint as to what kind of grasses they should expect to find.
Biologists measure water clarity by submerging a black and white Secchi disk until it is no longer visible, at which point it is pulled up and the waterline is measured. Clear water is important to the health of bay grasses. Because they need sunlight to survive, submerged aquatic vegetation is typically not found in water deeper than five feet.
Once the salinity and turbidity are measured, a rake is tossed into the water and allowed to sink to the bottom.
As the rake grips the bottom and the boat moves forward, the line attaching the rake to the boat becomes taught. The thrower hauls it back on board, records the grass species that are found and rates the abundance level on a scale of one to four. A one indicates an empty rake, while a four means that at least 70 percent of the rake is full of grass.
Hundreds of sampling trips allow scientists to amass a set of data that can be used to measure grass abundance across the Bay. Over the past 30 years, this number has fluctuated with changes in weather and water quality. In 2012, a VIMS analysis indicated bay grasses experienced a 21 percent decline, from just over 63,000 acres in 2011 to just over 48,000 in 2012. The Chesapeake Bay Program and its partners hope to restore 185,000 acres of underwater grasses to the Bay, which would approach historic twentieth century averages and bring a dramatic improvement to the entire Bay ecosystem.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Photos by Steve Droter
Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler saw his sneakers through 34 inches of water at the 26th annual Patuxent River Wade-In on June 9. This marks a one-inch drop from last year’s “sneaker index,” which is what Fowler has come to call the deepest point at which he can still see his shoes as he wades into the water.
Fowler holds the wade-in each year to bring attention to the polluted waters of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. This year marked the fourth wade-in to be held at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, after decades on Broomes Island.
In the 1950s, Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. But as nutrient and sediment pollution are pushed into the river, algae blooms and suspended silt block sunlight from reaching the river bottom and degrade water clarity. The 1950s sneaker index of 63 inches now serves as the benchmark for a restored Patuxent River.
Fowler’s infamous white sneakers were retired before this year’s wade-in, but will be preserved for permanent display at the Calvert Marine Museum.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Baltimore Harbor scored a C- on its latest water quality report card, marking a modest improvement from the previous year’s failing grade. According to the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore and Blue Water Baltimore, who released the Healthy Harbor Report Card earlier this month, the Harbor met water quality standards 40 percent of the time in 2012.
Image courtesy Affordable Memories Photography of Fredericksburg/Flickr
While the spring of 2012 brought an algae bloom, a fish kill and a sewage spill to the Harbor, the summer saw little rainfall and a drop in the amount of polluted runoff being pushed off of streets and into the urban waterway.
The nonprofits behind the release of the report card hope to make the Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020, and have embarked on a number of environmental initiatives to achieve this goal. More than 50 floating wetlands continue to capture stormwater runoff, absorb excess nutrients and provide habitat to water-filtering invertebrates after being installed along the Harbor’s shoreline. And students from five Baltimore City public schools have formed Green Teams to boost local awareness about the region’s persistent trash problem.
Learn more about the Healthy Harbor Report Card.
The District of Columbia has outlined the steps it will take to become the healthiest, greenest and most livable city in the United States.
The Sustainable DC Plan, released this week by the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) and Office of Planning (OE), sets forth more than 100 actions that are meant to improve the District’s energy consumption, waste generation, stormwater management and access to open spaces, clean water and fresh, local food—all in just two decades.
At an event that celebrated the release of the plan, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent C. Gray called Washington, D.C., a “model” of sustainability for cities across the nation and around the world.
“Things are changing. Times are changing. And we are changing,” Gray said.
In recent years, the District has become a leader in planting trees, installing green roofs, boosting public transportation and curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Sustainable DC Plan will build on these actions with ambitious goals to clean up local land, water and the Chesapeake Bay. The District will ensure, for instance, that all residents live within a 10-minute walk of parks or natural spaces; that 40 percent of the city is covered with a healthy tree canopy; and that all of the District’s waterways—including the long-polluted Anacostia River—are made fishable and swimmable by 2032.
Read more about the Sustainable DC Plan.
After eleven years, $40 million and more than 16,000 linear feet of pipe, West Virginia is set to bring a new wastewater treatment plant online and make huge cuts to the pollution it sends into the Chesapeake Bay.
Under construction in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, the Moorefield Wastewater Treatment Plant will replace four existing plants with one new system, marking a significant milestone in the headwater state’s efforts to curb pollution and improve water quality. Expected to go into operation this fall, the plant will remove 90,000 pounds of nitrogen and 93,000 pounds of phosphorous from West Virginia wastewater each year.
Funded by a range of sources—including the West Virginia Economic Development Authority, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—the new plant is heralded as evidence that thoughtful planning and forward-thinking—especially where pollution regulations are concerned—can help a community move toward conservation and environmental change.
In the 1990s, the hundreds of wastewater treatment plants that are located across the watershed could be blamed for more than a quarter of the nutrient pollution entering the Bay, as the plants pumped water laden with nitrogen and phosphorous into local rivers and streams. Such an excess of nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and, during decomposition, rob the water of the oxygen that aquatic species need to survive.
But in the last decade, technological upgrades to wastewater treatment plants have surged, and the pollution cuts that result mean these plants now contribute less than 20 percent of the nutrients still entering the Bay.
According to Rich Batiuk, Associate Director for Science with the EPA, the uptick in upgrades can be attributed to a number of factors.
“Wastewater treatment plants have always been regulated,” Batiuk said. “But [until the last decade], there wasn’t the science or the political will or the … water quality standards that could drive the higher levels of wastewater treatment that result in lower levels of nitrogen and phosphorous flowing into the watershed.”
As the science behind wastewater engineering has improved and the incentives for implementing upgrades have grown, more plants have begun to make changes. Some implement a “zero discharge” plan, using nutrient-rich effluent to feed agricultural crops rather than excess algae. Others—like the Moorefield plant—expose wastewater to nutrient-hungry microbes that feed on nitrogen and phosphorous; the resulting sludge, modified without the addition of chemicals, can be turned into compost rather than fodder for the local landfill.
Such modern upgrades to otherwise aging infrastructure have been celebrated as a boon for local communities and the wider watershed. While the Moorefield plant will, in the end, curb pollution into the Bay, it will first curb pollution in the South Branch of the Potomac River, into which it sends its effluent.
"The South Branch of the Potomac is a unique place,” Batiuk said. “People fish there, they swim there. This new plant helps more than the Chesapeake Bay.”
And Moorefield residents—including the Town of Moorefield Public Works Director Lucas Gagnon—plan to witness this local change firsthand.
“The residents in this area are aware of the Chesapeake Bay and its needed [nutrient] reductions,” Gagnon said. “But the biggest benefit for the local folks will be the reduction of nutrients in local waterways.”
“There are many people that fish and boat the South Branch,” Gagnon continued. “When this plant goes online, the water quality will be greatly enhanced, and they will have a much cleaner, better river to enjoy.”
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has measured a “modest” improvement in Chesapeake Bay health, giving the Bay a “D+” in its biannual State of the Bay report.
While the Bay’s score of 32 on a one-to-100 scale falls short of what the Foundation would like to see—70 points, or an “A+”—this does mark a progression of one point since the report was last issued in 2010, and of four points since 2008.
Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation
The report marks improvements in five of 13 “indicators,” or gauges of Bay health, which Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker attributes to sound science, renewed restoration efforts and the “Clean Water Blueprint,” or Total Maximum Daily Load, that is “in place and beginning to work.”
“Putting science to work gets results—especially when cooperation trumps conflict,” Baker said.
Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation
These results? According to the Foundation, the average size of the Bay’s annual dead zone is shrinking. Blue crabs are producing more juveniles and oyster spat are showing improved survival. And states like Virginia and Pennsylvania are planting trees and preserving land from development. Even as critical acres of underwater grass beds are lost—the one indicator to worsen over the past two years—the once-decimated grasses of the Susquehanna Flats offered good news, surviving Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.
Even so, Baker advocated caution: “Our greatest worry is that there is potential for improvement to breed complacency.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program will publish Bay Barometer, its annual snapshot of Bay health and watershed-wide restoration, later this month.
Read the 2012 State of the Bay report.
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.
Impaired by trash, rated poor for nutrient pollution and listed as unsafe for human contact much of the time, Baltimore Harbor scored a failing grade on its most recent Healthy Harbor Report Card.
Image courtesy Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore
While community engagement in conservation is on the rise—volunteers have planted trees, picked up trash and even painted murals around storm drains to make a connection between streets and streams—algae blooms, dead zones and fish kills remain a problem for the urban watershed.
According to the Healthy Harbor Report Card, water quality in Baltimore Harbor did not improve in 2011, when spring and fall rains pushed pollutants into the water.
From a spring shower to a fall hurricane, the flow of pollutants into Baltimore Harbor is closely tied to regional rainfall. The amount of litter collected in the Harbor in 2011, for instance, spiked when water flow was at its highest after Tropical Storm Lee. Sewage overflows, too, were linked to large storms, when rainwater seeped into sewer pipes and pushed harmful bacteria into the Harbor.
Image courtesy Blue Water Baltimore/Flickr
To combat these problems, the non-profits behind the Healthy Harbor Report Card have engaged students and citizens in a mission to make the Harbor swimmable and fishable within the next decade. Blue Water Baltimore, for instance, has curbed stormwater runoff on school grounds and helped Clean Water Communities develop plans for cleaning and greening their neighborhoods. And the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore has published a Healthy Harbor Plan to provide Baltimoreans with a roadmap for Harbor clean-up.
Learn more about the Healthy Harbor Report Card.
A paddler, a swimmer or a hiker itching to cool his tired toes can stand at the edge of a stream and judge the water. Is it clear? Is it clean? Are there critters at hand? But he won’t find an answer to his most basic question: How healthy is my waterway?
Enter the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In celebration of the Clean Water Act, the EPA has launched a new website to help users learn more about the health of their local rivers, streams and lakes.
Using information gathered from state water quality monitoring reports, the smart phone and tablet-friendly site reveals where pollution has been reported and what is being done to reduce it.
Users can engage a smart phone’s GPS to list waters within a five-mile radius or enter a zip code or place name into a search box to check on locations throughout the United States.
A few quick searches for rivers and streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed show polluted and unpolluted waters. Happy Creek in Front Royal, Va., was deemed polluted in 2008, harboring disease-causing bacteria and other microbes. But West Virginia’s Seneca Creek was assessed as unpolluted in 2010. Other waters remain “unassessed” or untested due to shortages in staff and funding.
The website’s simple descriptions and ultra-local perspective are meant to make science more accessible, understandable and relevant.
Learn more about How’s My Waterway.
An advisory committee of scientific experts has released a report recommending that Chesapeake Bay Program partners use multiple models to simulate conditions in the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
According to the report, improving shallow water simulations of dissolved oxygen and water clarity could improve the Chesapeake Bay Program’s understanding of the impacts that on-land conservation practices can have on the living resources found in shallow, tidal waters.
In the report, experts from the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) note that shallow water conditions are the most difficult to simulate, due in large part to interactions between shallow waters, open waters and land.
This report shows that the comparison of data produced by multiple shallow-water simulation tools could increase our confidence in the strategies managers choose to reduce pollution loads into the Bay. Dissolved oxygen and water clarity, in particular, are two water quality criteria that must be met to “delist” the Bay as impaired.
STAC’s findings encourage the Chesapeake Bay Program to set up a pilot alternative or complementary shallow-water models as soon as possible.
Learn more about the use of multiple models in the management of the Bay.
Plant forests, issue stormwater permits, install trash traps: the list of things we can do to improve water quality seems to grow each day. And as eager environmentalists, we would love to do all of them as soon as we can. But with worsening water and shrinking budgets, perhaps we should first find out which actions would make the biggest environmental difference.
In order to determine which pollution-reduction solution might work best for ourselves and our community, we must first pinpoint our water problems. Do our waterways contain too much sediment? Too much nitrogen? Once we know these answers, we can determine where to focus our efforts—whether on residential rain gardens that curb stormwater runoff, on upgrades to wastewater treatment plants or on something else entirely.
Finding out what is in our water—or monitoring water quality—provides us with a baseline. After we install a rain garden or restore a forest buffer or complete another restoration project, we can monitor water quality once again to determine whether or not the project has been effective.
How do we monitor water quality?
There are multiple ways to monitor water quality. We chose to highlight the method that involves going out on a boat during the summer!
There are two steps: first, biologists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) collect water samples from a number of selected sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay. Then, the samples are analyzed for nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES).
This analysis paints a vivid picture for scientists, allowing them to see where pollutants come from and how they might be mitigated.
What’s in the water right now?
Due to the lack of rain this year, monitoring teams found fewer nitrates, nutrients that run off into Bay tributaries from fertilizers and soil.
With fewer nitrates, algal blooms were less able to grow and resulting “dead zones” were less able to form. A dead zone is an area that does not contain any oxygen, leaving fish, shellfish and other critters struggling to breathe. This year’s dead zone was nearly half the size of last year’s.
“Nitrates and ammonias… If you have too much of these, it leads to algal blooms, which can lead to dead zones in the Bay,” explains Carl Zimmerman, Manager of the Nutrient Analytical Service Lab at UMCES.
The UMCES lab has multiple ways of analyzing nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon in water samples it receives from field crews.
“We’re looking for changes in the nutrient concentrations. If a best management practice has been implemented, will it improve water quality? Will upgrades in sewage treatment plants reduce the amount of nutrients that come into the Bay? These [answers] can only be accomplished by looking at our water tables,” says Zimmerman.
The DNR monitoring program Eyes on the Bay has a website on which the public can track water quality at each of the Bay’s monitoring sites.
“We want to let the public know how we’re doing as a government in cleaning up the Bay,” explains Mark Trice, Program Chief of DNR's Water Quality Informatics Program.
“We all want a clean Bay and the quality of life that comes with clean water,” says Trice.
Image courtesy Eric Vance/US EPA
More about water quality monitoring:
Learn what simple changes you can make to decrease your biggest pollutant (whether it’s nitrogen, phosphorous or sediment), all from your own backyard!
Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed might soon have an easier time putting pollution credits on the market.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded $2.5 million to five Bay organizations to improve the infrastructure behind water quality trading markets, which allow buyers to purchase "pollution credits" for reductions or cuts in pollution that landowners have made on their properties.
From better determining demand for credit to improving outreach to hundreds of eligible farmers, the planned improvements aim to benefit both the land and those who work it. A farmer who uses conservation practices to reduce his runoff of nutrients or sediment, for instance, can produce on-farm energy savings and water quality credits while improving the environmental health of his land.
Watershed recipients of Conservation Innovation Grants program funding include the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Borough of Chambersburg, Pa.
The Conservation Innovation Grants program is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This year, an additional $23.5 million has been awarded to more than 50 recipients across the nation for innovative and conservation-minded agricultural practices, from improving soil health to increasing on-farm pollinator habitat.
The health of some Virginia rivers is showing signs of improvement, but many of the state’s waterways are still polluted, according to a recent report issued by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
The report assesses water quality in more than 1,200 Virginia watersheds from January 2003 through December 2008 and includes a statewide list of “impaired” waters.
Water quality is assessed in relation to several “designated uses”: wildlife, aquatic life, swimming, fish consumption, shellfish consumption and public water supply. A waterway is considered impaired if its water quality cannot support one or more of these uses. Several subcategories also exist for the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries to ensure that water quality in those waterways can support the Bay’s aquatic life.
Pollution continues to plague many streams, rivers and lakes in Virginia, leading to the addition of about 1,400 miles of streams and rivers and 2,500 acres of lakes to this year’s statewide impaired waters list.
More than 430 waters, including about 25 square miles of estuaries, were removed from the list, as they now fully meet water quality standards. An additional 600 waters were removed for at least one impairment.
In addition, the report proposes 80 full delistings and 540 partial delistings.
According to the report, about 5,600 miles of rivers and streams, 16,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs and 113 square miles of estuaries have high water quality that supports some or all of the designated uses. About 12,100 miles of rivers and streams, 96,500 acres of lakes and reservoirs and 2,200 square miles of estuaries are considered impaired.
Of the waters that were assessed, less than one-third of stream and river miles has high water quality; about 14 percent of lake and reservoir acres have high water quality; and less than 5 percent of estuary square miles has high water quality.
“We continue to find watersheds where pollution is a problem, but we also are seeing more areas where water quality has improved,” said Virginia DEQ Director David Paylor. “This is good news that we expect to continue as our cleanup efforts progress throughout the state.”
Every two years Virginia DEQ monitors about one-third of the state’s watersheds on a rotating basis, taking six years to complete a full monitoring cycle. The agency has assessed 98 percent of the state’s watersheds (1,218 out of 1,247) since the 2002 report.
The water quality assessments completed for the Virginia portions of the Bay watershed may help set clean-up plans for the waters that will be part of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
The draft water quality report is available in its entirety at www.deq.virginia.gov. DEQ is soliciting public comment on the report until Sept. 24 at 5 p.m.
Welcome once again to 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’s question comes from Michael, who asked: Are there any real-time or near real-time monitoring stations on the Chesapeake Bay? How can I access that data?
Maryland and Virginia have real-time, near-time and fixed monitoring stations throughout the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. These stations collect data on salinity, water temperature, dissolved oxygen and a host of other indicators. Data for stations in Maryland are available at www.eyesonthebay.net, which is run by the Department of Natural Resources, and data for stations in Virginia are available through the Virginia Estuarine and Coastal Observing System, part of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
You can also visit the Bay Program’s Water Quality Database for a map of monitoring stations, metadata, schedules of monitoring cruises and other links related to monitoring in the Bay.
In addition to these monitoring stations, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has deployed seven “smart buoys” at various locations throughout the Bay. These buoys, known formally as the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System or CBIBS, collect data on wind, air and water temperature, dissolved oxygen, turbidity and other environmental indicators every 10 to 60 minutes. The data is distributed to the public via the web at www.buoybay.org and by phone at 1-877-BUOY-BAY.
The seven buoys are located at:
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and your question might be chosen for our next Question of the Week!
On Friday, July 3, I did my usual twice-monthly volunteer water quality sampling at four sites on the Magothy River near where I live. I started doing this in 1991 through a program run by Anne Arundel County to get a better understanding of Bay water quality, and I’ve kept doing it ever since. The county program was discontinued, but I’ve continued sampling with the Magothy River Association, which has other volunteers who also do water monitoring.
This monitoring trip was different from recent ones because my four-year-old granddaughter came with me. This was only the second time she'd seen any part of the Chesapeake up close (she lives in Vermont and usually visits us at Christmas). Thus, I was thinking about how she was reacting to it. It’s been a long time since my own kids helped me with monitoring (my youngest child is 26).
We started our sampling at the end of the Bayberry pier, on the south shore on the lower part of the river’s mainstem, where all seemed to be well. Several people were catching juvenile spot (Leiostomus xanthurus) pretty regularly, and my granddaughter was fascinated by watching them. The reason they were able to catch these bottom-dwelling fish at that location was apparent when we measured the dissolved oxygen (DO): it was over 8 mg/l on both the surface and bottom, plenty of oxygen for fish. The bottom DO here has not fallen below 5 mg/l (the EPA and state standard for fish habitat) since I started sampling at Bayberry in April.
The fish & DO story was different at the three other Magothy sites I sample, and the news was not good.
At the first two these sites, Ulmstead in the mouth of Forked Creek and in my own neighborhood (Stewarts Landing) on Old Man Creek, the bottom DO was less than 1 mg/l at both sites, but that’s fairly common in the summer. There were no weird colors or smells, and people were fishing or crabbing in shallow water nearby, although not in water as deep as where I sample.
However, in upper Cattail Creek in Berrywood, the water was a weird milky green and there was a musky smell, so I knew before I lowered the meter that the DO would be bad. The color and the smell are both signs of an algae bloom that died and is decomposing. The surface DO was only 0.7 mg/l, the second lowest surface DO reading I've ever made, and the bottom DO was definitely anoxic with 0.00 mg/l, the lowest DO meter reading I’ve ever seen. My granddaughter can't quite read numbers yet, but she knows zero when she sees it. It made me sad to show her how dead the creek was. Amazingly there were no signs of any dead fish; I think the fish usually avoid the whole upper creek when it's such a dead zone. I’ve never seen anyone fishing or crabbing nearby. A week after I sampled there, Cattail Creek had a health advisory against swimming posted by the county health department for high bacteria levels, so that creek has multiple problems.
The water quality in these creeks was not always this dismal. Both Cattail and Old Man creeks were much healthier in 2004 and 2005, when dark false mussels covered almost all of the hard surfaces over a variety of depths in both creeks. By pure luck, when I chose my sampling sites in 1991 I picked two sites that would have some of the densest mussels 13 years later, so I have been able to document the water quality improvements that followed their filtration. Water clarity (measured by Secchi depth) and bottom dissolved oxygen showed dramatic improvements in both creeks in those years, and underwater bay grass (SAV) acreage in the Magothy went up in both 2004 and 2005. Volunteer divers and kayakers organized by Dick Carey of the Magothy River Association estimated the number of mussels and the volume of the creek. From that research they estimated that, in 2004, the mussels could filter the water in Cattail Creek every two days, while it took them 15 days in 2005. (Watch an eight-minute video about the mussels and the 2004 surveys.) Imagine how healthy the Bay would be if oysters were filtering its water every two days, or even every 15 days.
People who remember the mussels from 2004 keep asking me how we can get them back, along with improved water quality. I don’t have an easy answer. Memories of the mussels do give me hope that improvement is possible. I just wish the mussels and the good water quality were still here to show my granddaughter, instead of zeroes on the DO meter.
More than 60 nonprofit organizations from throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed have launched a new campaign called “Choose Clean Water” that will help local communities clean up and protect the waterways that flow to the Bay.
The “Choose Clean Water” campaign is the first coordinated effort by the newly formed Chesapeake Bay Coalition, a partnership of national, regional and local nonprofit organizations working together to push for stronger federal action on Bay restoration.
“Choose Clean Water” has three specific policy goals:
The campaign will highlight where actions to protect the Chesapeake need to be taken and who is responsible to take those actions. The Chesapeake Bay Coalition will track and report on how officials are fulfilling their responsibilities to provide every Bay region resident with clean water.
“We are very excited to be part of this new effort because clean water is important for everyone in our region,” said Bill Street, executive director of the James River Association, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Coalition. “The state of the Chesapeake is only the cumulative result of the many policy decisions made by our leaders every day, and together we will provide the public voice and the mandate for change.”
The Chesapeake Bay Coalition currently has more than 60 member organizations, including national organizations such as American Rivers and Ducks Unlimited, regional organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, and local organizations such as Lynnhaven River NOW and the Herring Run Watershed Association.
“By coordinating our experiences, our expertise, and our members, we will be able to speak with a clear, strong voice to make the tough choices that will give us clean water,” said Tony Caligiuri, regional executive director at the National Wildlife Federation, the organization coordinating the coalition.
For more information about the Chesapeake Bay Coalition and the “Choose Clean Water” campaign, visit choosecleanwater.org.
The world’s a pretty big place. So when a group of water resource experts from different parts of the world come together, and all describe the same problems (though seen through different lenses of geography, culture, and language), that’s a notable thing.
That’s what happened at the 2008 World Water Expo in Zaragoza, Spain, where water resource experts from across the globe — including Australia, Israel, Jordan, Spain, South Africa, and the United States — participated in a scientific symposium as a kick-off to the Expo. All invited speakers there spoke of problems with growth, water supply, water quality, and climate disruption. The water resource conditions in the various countries were as varied as the languages spoken, but the underlying problems were the same. Jordan, for example, is arid with a developing economy, whereas Australia is arid with a post-industrial economy — yet both face the same challenges of growth, water supply, water quality, and climate disruption.
Where does the Bay Program fit into this picture? As an invited participant, the Bay Program described our approach of integrating models, monitoring, and research for restoration of the Chesapeake. Our presentation of the linked airshed, watershed, estuarine, and living resource models, along with the supporting and corroborating monitoring observations and research was well-received, and was seen as a world-class example of the information systems needed to support water resources under pressure from population growth, climate change, and past environmental degradation.
All of the invited speakers spoke to problems of growth and water quality. In the Chesapeake, we’ve been working a long time to restore water quality despite growth pressures in our watershed, so these are issues we’re familiar with. But just like in other parts of the world, the issues of providing an adequate water supply and climate disruption are also emerging issues for the Chesapeake. Last year, the city of Fredrick, Maryland, had to curtail construction permits due to concerns over the sufficiency of water supply. This may be a harbinger, because our Chesapeake water supply infrastructure is designed for average annual flows different from the decreased annual flows we may see with future climate change, as the Bay Program has described in presentations at the 2007 American Water Resources Society and the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation.
At the World Water Expo we saw that the challenges of growth, adequate water supply, water quality, and climate disruption were ubiquitous. The world’s a big place and a watery place. How ironic that we’re all in the same boat.
The Chesapeake Bay 2006 Health and Restoration Assessment reports show that the Bay's overall health remains degraded, despite significant advances in restoration efforts by Bay Program partners through newly focused programs, legislation and/or funding.
“While much has been accomplished, there is still much work left to be done,” said Jeff Lape , director of the Bay Program Office. “Restoring the Chesapeake Bay cannot be done with government support alone. It is up to every citizen living in the Bay watershed to become a steward of our nation's largest and most cherished estuary.”
The annual Health and Restoration Assessment reports give watershed residents a clear and concise synopsis of Bay health and on-the-ground restoration efforts in key areas including:
Read or download the full report.
Scientists with the Bay Program have found little damage to underwater grass beds in the upper Bay and tidal Potomac River during their initial trips to assess the impacts of the major rainstorms and flooding that took place in the Bay watershed during the end of June.
Intense rainfall events affect water quality by carrying excessive loads of sediments, nutrients and contaminants into the Bay. This runoff has become more intense in recent years, due to the increase in impervious surfaces (such as paved roads, driveways and parking lots) in the Bay watershed. Instead of being absorbed into the ground, the rain flows rapidly and intensely across these surfaces into streams, causing streambank erosion and an excess flow of dirt and pollutants into the water.
The excess flow can cause losses of clams, oysters, underwater grasses and other living resources by blocking sunlight, burying them in sediment or creating oxygen-deprived “dead zones.” The beginning of summer is an especially critical time of the year, because shellfish are spawning and young grasses are trying to grow.
While the flow into the Bay after the June rain event was high, it was not unprecedented. Flows this high or higher occur about once every three years. The flow from Hurricane Agnes, which hit the Bay region in June 1972, was three times higher than this June's rainfall event. However, a flow this high during the early summer period is unusual; 1972 was the only other year this has occurred in June since 1968.
Scientists with the Bay Program will continue to take extra steps to monitor the health of the Bay this summer, including:
Additional cruises and flyovers to track water quality conditions. These will show scientists the effects of excess nutrients and sediment on water clarity, and allow them to see if harmful algal blooms are forming. Visits to oyster beds and underwater grass meadows, which are vulnerable to the excess flow of nutrients, sediment and contaminants caused by the rainfall. Using increased technology to pinpoint where excess sediments end up in the Bay.
An immediate concern with the rainfall is the potential for high bacteria counts in some water bodies. People should not swim in the Bay's rivers, creeks and any other area that is not regularly monitored for bacteria. The Bay's swimming beaches are regularly monitored, and swimming there will be restricted if high bacteria levels are found.
For updates on Bay conditions this summer, visit the Bay Program Web site; also, conditions in the Maryland portion of the Bay will be posted at Eyes on the Bay.