Text Size: A  A  A

Bay Blog: weather


In wake of flooding, Ellicott City works to recover and adapt

Angie and Michel Tersiguel pose for a portrait in the space of the basement that used to be the wine cellar. Their restaurant on Main St. was forced to close for repairs after the devastating July 30, 2016, flood that hit Ellicott City.

The sound of a phone echoes through three empty floors of a restaurant under construction. Michel Tersiguel’s steps crinkle plastic sheeting on the ground as he walks past stacked tables and empty shelves to the phone hanging on the wall of the entry hallway. His face lights up, “Our phones are working! That’s the first time I’ve heard it ring.” For the first time since floods on July 30, 2016, pummeled historic Ellicott City, Maryland and forced his business, Tersiguel’s French Country Restaurant, to close for repairs nearly two months ago, he picks up the phone to say, “Bonjour, Tersiguel’s, may I help you?”

Ed Lilley looks down the under-construction Main Street in his hometown of historic Ellicott City. His family has roots to this community dating back to 1878 and almost all of his professional life has centered around Main St. "I didn't lose possessions or a business but you still feel a loss when you've been here that long," he said.

The Flood

At 7:18 p.m. on Saturday, July 30, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning as a thunderstorm lumbered east across Maryland. Runoff coursed through the many tributary streams of the Patapsco River that carve down steep slopes around historic downtown Ellicott City.

Walls of water swept down driveways, streets and parking lots in downtown Ellicott City; it filled basements and first stories of buildings and launched cars into shop windows. At some point the bank of a retention pond at the Burgess Mill Station residential development breached, sending the water it was containing careening downhill towards Main Street. Just over six inches of rain fell in only two hours and by 9:00 p.m. the Patapsco rose 13 feet, turning a normally serene river into a tree uprooting, bank-eroding, debris-carrying monster for miles.

Part of a stormwater retention pond was fenced off at the Burgess Mill Station development on September 11, 2016. The bank collapsed during the July 30 floods.

Heroic citizens rescued a woman from her car on Main Street as the water surged around them, but tragedy visited the historic downtown area as well. Jessica Watsula, mother to a 10 year-old, left Portalli’s Italian restaurant after a night out when she was caught in the wall of water that had taken over Main Street. She was swept away and killed by the surge. Joseph Blevins and his girlfriend, Heather Owens, were in her car when the water overwhelmed them. She managed to escape but he did not; his body was found about 8:30 a.m. the next morning on the banks of the Patapsco River.

The large-scale damage on Main Street that the flood left in its wake was immediately apparent: cars belonging to patrons of restaurants like Tersiguel’s piled in the Patapsco River, debris lines that reached past the first story of some buildings and large chunks of sidewalk and building foundations eroded away.

The bridge over the Patapsco River in Ellicott City, Maryland, remained closed September 9, 2016, after stormwater runoff and heavy rainfall made the river rise 13 feet in 100 minutes during the July 30 flood.

Unique Problems

Steep slopes surrounding the historic downtown area that saw the most severe damage, adding a unique and recognizable landscape but also creating challenges during big storms.

Ed Lilley grew up in Ellicott City and has worked on Main Street most of his career. He is a longtime community organizer, sits on the board for the Ellicott City Partnership’s Clean Green and Safe Committee, works at the B&O Museum and was out on Main Street at 6 a.m. the morning after the flood signing up volunteers and taking donations.

“The unfortunate thing for Ellicott City is we are the bottom of the bowl,” he said.

The historic nature of a city founded in 1772 means that some of the development—and therefore impervious surface like roads, sidewalks and buildings—was built before managing stormwater runoff was considered a necessity. Impervious surfaces mean less water can be absorbed into the ground, and as water collects and moves more rapidly runoff becomes more hazardous.

The Tiber-Hudson watershed, which includes Ellicott City, is about 21 percent covered by impervious surfaces. According to Cecilia Lane, stormwater coordinator for the Chesapeake Stormwater Network, “Any more than 10 percent impervious cover in the watershed and you will begin to see impacts.” 

About one-quarter of the Tiber-Hudson watershed is covered by impervious surfaces. (Map courtesy Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning)

“We know that the storm and rainfall was exceptional, and that perhaps the best of systems could not have contained all of the runoff,” said Mary Catherine Cochran, executive director of the Patapsco Heritage Greenway. “But we don’t have the best of systems in place.”

Older developments and private property often have no way to manage stormwater runoff, Cochran explained. And although new developments have some stormwater mitigation in place, it may not be enough. “Even the newest developments have systems in place to handle 100-year floods, but not 1,000-year floods,” said Cochran.

The probability for a storm to bring such a large amount of rain in any given year was 1 in 1000 making it what experts call a 1,000-year storm. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean an event like July 30 will only happen every thousand years—in fact growing evidence shows that potentially flood producing downpours are happening more often.


Downstream from Ellicott City, staff at the Patapsco Valley State Park are focused on flood recovery.

Maintenance coordinator Dennis Cutcher has seen the river go through many changes since he first began playing and fishing in it as a child in the 1960s and 1970s. He’s noticed more frequent flooding as more people have moved in and built homes around the river and its tributaries.

Aerial photos show the increases in development in and around the Tiber Hudson Watershed since 1943. (Images courtesy Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning)

“I would say I’m close to it because of the simple fact that I grew up in that river,” Cutcher said. “I played in there since I was a little kid. It’s sort of a part of me if you want to look at it that way.”


Dennis Cutcher, maintenance coordinator and park ranger at Patapsco Valley State Park, looks out over the Patapsco River at Bloede Dam September 21, 2016. He grew up playing in the river and has seen it change dramatically as more people move to the area around the Patapsco and its tributaries.

Evidence of the July 30 flood remains apparent.

More than a month after the storm, evidence of a flood still lingered: stray recycling bins, car tires embedded in newly-formed sediment islands, log jams piled high with uprooted trees that once stood 30 to 40 feet tall. Their intricate root systems seemed to grasp wildly in the wrong direction.

A large uprooted tree lays on the banks of the Patapsco about 40 yards from the water on September 21, 2016. It serves as an indicator for how strong and high the July 30 floodwaters got along this stretch downstream from Ellicott City.

“When we get those heavy rains like we had, the river changes from one side to another,” Cutcher said. Sediment gets moved around shifting the flow of the river, vegetation gets washed away thereby destabilizing the banks and new beaches and islands form, which disrupts fish and other wildlife.

A great blue heron walks past a car tire embedded in sediment washed down by the July 30 flood in Patapsco Valley State Park along the Patapsco River on September 21, 2016.

With the slightly above average rainfall that occurred in September, some of the logjams along the Patapsco have broken up, and the debris, including plastics and other trash, is headed downstream towards the Chesapeake Bay.

“As far as how debris affects the Bay, we know that the most persistent debris that will linger is plastic, since it doesn't fully break up,” said Julie Lawson, founder and director of Trash Free Maryland. “It may cause visual blight, but it also can absorb chemicals from the water and be ingested by aquatic life, both obviously negative environmental effects.”

Less visible but still concerning: a sewage overflow released more than 17 million gallons of untreated wastewater over about three days at Sucker Branch, a tributary to the Patapsco.

The July 30 flood swept the clock in downtown Ellicott City into the Patapsco River and it was thought lost until Bobby Barker, a kayaker, found it. It has proven to be a symbol of hope and recovery for the community.

Adaptation is Key

With Ellicott City’s placement directly over a stream and very near a river, floods have been occurring for a long time. The scientific consensus is that they will continue—and, as climate change continues its trajectory, occur with greater frequency.

Future climate projections look at two scenarios: one in which emissions like carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere are significantly lowered, and one that assumes a continued increase in emissions. In the scenario where emissions are reduced, extreme daily precipitation events would occur twice as often from 2081 to 2100 as compared to 1981 to 2000. But if emissions continue to increase, those events would occur up to five times as often.

Local groups and government organizations have been and are working to mitigate the impact of severe flooding. Tom Schueler, founder of the Chesapeake Stormwater Network based in Ellicott City, says adaptation to more frequent flood producing storms and a careful examination of the science behind the flood should be the focus moving forward. Also the county has put in place Clean Water Howard that incentivizes commercial and private property owners to treat or remove impervious surfaces on their land by providing reimbursements for stormwater projects and a reduction in their watershed protection fee.

Without preemptive efforts by Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth or READY, the flood may have been even worse. They employ young people throughout Howard County who work in Ellicott City to maintain stream channels from Route 29 down to the Patapsco River.

The sense of community responsibility and the instinct to rebuild no matter what is apparent in Ellicott City. As of October 20, 2016, forty-four businesses have reopened, including Tersiguel’s French Country Restaurant, and another twenty-three have preliminary time frames for when they plan to reopen according to Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman’s Facebook page.

“No one fights as hard as these business people, and no one enjoys the town as much as those that live here. We have come back from floods, from fire and more floods,” Angie Tersiguel said as she and her husband Michel get their restaurant back up and running again. “We are still here. Striving and working to be the best we can be.” 

Photos and text by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson

To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page


From the Field: Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System

Warm weather is upon us, and that means people will be taking to the water to escape from the heat. Soon enough, the Chesapeake Bay will be dotted with bobbing watercrafts of all shapes and sizes. For those recreating on the Bay, the bright yellow Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS) markers may be a familiar sight, but they serve as much more than eye-catching aquatic beacons: they provide key insights into the health and safety conditions of the Bay.

The first buoys were deployed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Chesapeake Bay Office in 2007—marking 10 locations along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Historic Trail—and have been collecting and transmitting real-time water quality and atmospheric data ever since. “It’s [the buoy system] interpretive because we work with the National Park Service as a partner to interpret John Smith’s trail, so there is a bit of a historical aspect to it,” said Katie Kirk, Senior Buoy Specialist at Earth Resources Technology, a contractor that supplies support staff and assistance to NOAA and other government agencies.

“Our main mission is to keep the 10 buoys that we have up and alive and transmitting as often as we can and deliver the data to as many users as we can,” said Kirk in reference to her and the field team’s work. Routine maintenance and repairs on the buoy fleet presents a swath of challenges that keeps the small team of CBIBS buoy technicians busy year-round.

Senior buoy specialist Katie Kirk works on buoy electronics inside a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) warehouse in Annapolis, Md., on March 31. Kirk helps maintain 10 buoys that comprise the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS), which collects data and marks locations on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Historic Trail.

The life of a CBIBS buoy technician differs from day-to-day and can be a physically demanding profession. Some days are spent in their Annapolis, Md., warehouse—affectionately referred to as the ‘buoy spa’—calibrating instruments, cleaning buoys, swapping out parts and working with computer systems. Other times, the team braves the wind, waves and elements to do onsite repairs and buoy maintenance.

As the summer and fall wind down and cold weather approaches, the team removes the three northernmost buoys from the Patapsco, Susquehanna and Upper Potomac rivers before freezing conditions set in to prevent ice damage. But this winter, the southern buoys succumbed to the frigid conditions: wind gusts exceeding 50 miles-per-hour and below-freezing water temperatures caused ice from sea spray to accumulate on and topple over the buoys, something the CBIBS team had never seen before. “The buoys that were off location tipped over, cracked and no longer had power, so we couldn’t track them on the GPS to figure out where they were. That was a pretty intense time trying to figure out where the buoys had moved to and how we could get to them,” explained Kirk.

Kirk and buoy technical specialist Nikiforos Delatolas finish deploying a buoy in the mouth of the Susquehanna River in Havre de Grace, Md., on April 10.

After winter, the team’s short-term goals were to get all of the buoys repaired, online and transmitting data. With that completed, Kirk is now striving to see the data being analyzed and produced in scientific papers. “It’s been done before, but I want to get back to that and try to reach out to more teachers and researchers and see if they want more buoys or buoys in different locations,” Kirk said. “Then we can take the time and think about how our system reaches out to those users, what they need from us and what they would prefer.”

While many people accessing the data are local sailors and kayakers looking for information on the wind speed, currents, wave heights and local conditions before venturing out on the water, educators also integrate the data into their curriculum. Utilizing the data for educational purposes is of utmost importance to NOAA, so much so that they have an entire education team dedicated to reaching out to local schools to demonstrate how the CBIBS data can be used in the classroom.

A CBIBS buoy floats in the mouth of the Susquehanna River after Kirk and Delatolas finished deploying sensors on April 10.

In addition to live reporting of local water and weather conditions, the buoy data provides a snapshot into what is happening around the Bay, demonstrating in a quantitative way how each part of the ecosystem is interrelated. Information on water temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen can help researchers uncover important linkages between water quality and blue crab stocks, fish populations, bay grass abundance and more.

Despite the many challenges that the buoy technicians face, Kirk and her team exude an air of passion and commitment to maintaining the instruments that provide the most up-to-date information about the state of the Bay, all in the name of presenting the best science. For those working to restore the estuary and those interested in learning about the issues the Bay faces, the data can serve as a useful tool.

“I think we have an amazing opportunity to protect this watershed and this bay,” said Kirk. “It goes back to resources and taking pride in where you live. This is your home, why wouldn’t you protect it?”

All of the data is free to the public and can be accessed online, by phone at (877) 286-9229 and via a mobile app

To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.

Video and images by Will Parson
Text by Jenna Valente

Jenna Valente's avatar
About Jenna Valente - Jenna developed a passion for conservation through her outdoorsy nature and upbringing in Hawaii, Washington State and Maine. A graduate of Virginia Tech's Executive Master of Natural Resources program and University of Maine's School of Communication and Journalism, she welcomes any opportunity to educate the public about the importance of caring for the environment.


More than $100M available to protect communities from climate change

More than $100 million in grant funding is available for work to protect communities affected by Hurricane Sandy from the growing risks of climate change.

Announced by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) on the one-year anniversary of the “superstorm” that affected the entire East Coast, raising river flow in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and causing significant damage to New Jersey and New York, the Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grants Program will direct funding to those states that declared a natural disaster after the storm, including all seven Bay jurisdictions.

In an effort to benefit humans and wildlife alike, funding will be directed to those projects that use natural ecosystems to protect coastal communities from strong storms, sea level rise and erosion. The restoration of marshes, wetlands and oyster reefs, for example, can build coastal resiliency in the face of climate change; so, too, can planting streamside trees, removing dams from rivers and streams, and better managing stormwater runoff.

“By stabilizing marshes and beaches, restoring wetlands and improving the resilience of coastal areas, we not only create opportunities for people to connect with nature…, but we can also provide an effective buffer that protects local communities from powerful storm surges and devastating floods when a storm like Sandy hits,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a media release.

The grant program will be administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF). Learn more, or read the Request for Proposals, due Friday, January 31, 2014.


University of Maryland report card measures improvement in Chesapeake Bay health

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.


Chesapeake Bay’s underwater grasses decline in 2012

Close to 15,000 acres of underwater grasses have disappeared from the Chesapeake Bay.

While robust grass beds on the Susquehanna Flats and expanding beds in the James River offer two examples of the Bay’s resilience, an aerial survey conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) showed a 21 percent decline in the Bay’s grasses in 2012. This so-called “alarming” loss—from just over 63,000 acres in 2011 to just over 48,000 in 2012—approaches lows last reported in 1986.

In a report released this week, Chesapeake Bay Program scientists attributed last year's decline in grass beds to warmer-than-normal water temperatures seen in 2010 and strong storms seen in the fall of 2011. The former "cooked" grasses in the Lower Bay, while the latter pushed excess sediment into rivers and streams, clouding the water and creating unfavorable growing conditions for aquatic plants in the Upper and Middle Bay.

These strong storms and episodes of heat stress have occurred alongside a widespread decline in water clarity, said Bob Orth, coordinator of the VIMS Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Survey. While Orth remains "concerned" over the decline in bay grasses, he noted that favorable growing conditions in the future could lead to quick signs of recovery in a species that is fast to respond to water quality changes—both good and bad. 

"The best thing we can do [for bay grasses] is to improve water quality," said Lee Karrh, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and chair of the Bay Program's Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup. "If you improve water quality and reduce chronic problems, then the Bay should be able to deal with episodic events easier than it has been able to in the past."

Underwater grasses—also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV—are critical to the Bay ecosystem, offering food and habitat to countless critters while absorbing nutrients, trapping sediment and reducing shoreline erosion. The Bay Program uses underwater grass abundance as an indicator of Bay health, and has this week released a data visualization tool that allows users to track changes in grass abundance over time, as dominant species ebb and flow and grass beds shrink and expand.

Read more about the 2012 Distribution of Submerged Aquatic Vegetation in the Chesapeake Bay.


Timing and track curbed Sandy’s impact on Chesapeake Bay

A recent assessment of Superstorm Sandy shows the hurricane did less damage to the Chesapeake Bay than some feared, thanks in large part to its timing and track.

According to a University of Maryland report, the late-October hurricane whose path traveled north of the Bay had “ephemeral” impacts on Bay water quality—especially when compared to past storms.

The summertime arrival of Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, for instance, coincided with a critical growing period for oysters, crabs and underwater grasses, and had a damaging effect on all three. But because Sandy arrived in the fall, the nutrients and sediment that it sent into the Bay were unable to fuel harmful algae blooms or damage the underwater grasses that had already begun to die back for the season. And while Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 brought heavy rainfall and a large plume of sediment to the Susquehanna River, the bulk of Sandy’s rainfall was concentrated elsewhere, meaning minimal scouring of sediment from behind the Conowingo Dam and “virtually no sediment plume” in the Upper Bay.

These findings echo those released in November by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Read more about the ecological impacts of Sandy on the Chesapeake Bay.


Favorable winds, timing curbed Sandy’s impact on Chesapeake Bay

The superstorm known as Sandy has boosted river flow in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but favorable winds and timing meant it did not do as much damage as some feared.

Image courtesy thisisbossi/Flickr

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), much of the watershed avoided surge-related flooding during the height of the storm, as northerly winds kept a large push of water from moving into the Bay. While some locations did experience post-storm surges of two to four feet, even the highest surge was about half of that seen during Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

And while rainfall has raised river flow in the watershed, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has reported that flow conditions remain below record levels—and lower than expected.

Preliminary data from the USGS also show that the accompanying nutrient and sediment loads pushed into rivers from polluted runoff are not expected to approach those seen in 2011 from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. Nor is the flow in the Susquehanna River expected to produce a significant scour of sediment from the Conowingo Reservoir. While nutrients and sediment can disturb the habitat of underwater grasses and marine life, Sandy’s end-of-autumn timing—while underwater grasses are dormant—means that its impact will likely not be as great as that of a super-sized summertime storm.

According to NOAA, much of Sandy’s rainfall is still working its way down the watershed’s rivers. Scientists from NOAA, USGS and other Chesapeake Bay Program partners will continue to conduct in-depth research on Sandy’s effects on the Bay and its resources.


Updated: Sandy brings rain, flooding to Chesapeake Bay

UPDATED: Superstorm Sandy brought rain, wind and flooding to the mid-Atlantic coast. But how has the storm affected the Chesapeake Bay? Take a look at the headlines below for the latest news on the environmental impacts of this damaging storm.

Sandy May Leave Toxic Legacy 
Discovery News 11/05/2012

Hurricane Sandy has little effect on Bay 
The (Easton, Md.) Star Democrat 11/05/2012

Coastal cities seek protections against superstorms
The Washington Post 11/04/2012

Gushing Susquehanna Called a Bigger Threat to Bay Pollution than Local Runoff 
Southern Maryland Online 11/04/2012

Sandy might not harm Bay 
The (Annapolis, Md.) Capital 11/04/2012

Sandy Environmental Toll: Polluted Rivers, Lost Seabirds
International Business Times 11/02/2012

Sandy's path, derecho eased wind damage in region 
Southern Maryland News 11/02/2012

Raw sewage spills into Mattawoman Creek
Southern Maryland News 11/02/2012

Researchers Gauging Sandy's Impact on Chesapeake
Associated Press 11/01/2012

Beach Repairs After Sandy May Cost $8 Million a Mile
Bloomberg News 11/01/2012

In the wake of Sandy, Tangier makes its case for help
The Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch 11/01/2012

Sandy's Impact on Chesapeake Bay Less Than Expected
Patch.com (Edgewater-Davidsonville, Md.) 11/01/2012

Eastern Shore resilient, state will help in recovery, McDonnell says
The Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch 10/31/2012

Some Va. waters to be opened to shellfish harvesting
The (Hampton Roads) Virginian-Pilot 10/31/2012

Civil Air Patrol begins coastline damage assessment
The (Easton, Md.) Star Democrat 10/31/2012

Havre de Grace Not Worried About Flooding from Conowingo Dam
Patch.com (Havre de Grace, Md.) 10/31/2012

Power restored to Maryland water treatment plant
WTOP (Washington, D.C.) 103.5 FM 10/31/2012

Storm triggers big Howard sewage spill
B'More Green 10/30/2012

Sewage spilled into waterways from Virginia to New England
United Press International 10/30/2012

After the Storm: Cecil County Recovers but Bay, Susquehanna Still a Worry
The Cecil (Md.) Times 10/30/2012

Virginia portions of the Chesapeake Bay closed to shellfish harvesting due to flooding, rain
Associated Press 10/29/2012

Hurricane Sandy poses environmental threat to Chesapeake Bay
The Washington Post 10/27/2012

October 26, 2012 -- Hurricane Sandy could make landfall along the mid-Atlantic shoreline, raising concern over potential wind, rain, inland and coastal flooding and erosion in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Image courtesy National Hurricane Center

At the time of this post, the latest model simulation from the National Hurricane Center shows the storm hitting the mid-Atlantic region early next week.

But an exact forecast is hard to make. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storm’s large size, unusual pattern as it interacts with an incoming cold-weather storm and timing to coincide with the full moon’s higher-than-normal tides make it difficult to predict its precise path and the resulting consequences it could have for the region.

Under certain conditions, the storm could create problems for the Bay. Excess rainfall in the watershed could increase the flow of polluted stormwater into rivers and streams and lead to inland flooding. A spike in Pennsylvania rainfall could boost the flow of the Susquehanna River and push sediment and debris into the Upper Bay, clouding the water and impairing marine life habitat. Strong winds could lead to strong waves, increasing erosion along beaches and shorelines.

When storms like this one enter the Bay ecosystem, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s network of scientists and experts monitor the storm’s effects on waters, habitats and resources.

While large storms can pose a challenge for the Bay, some regions have shown resilience to severe weather. After Tropical Storm Lee, for instance, scientists noticed that despite a decline in underwater grasses overall, grass beds in the Susquehanna Flats remained intact; widgeon grass beds grew, fueled by an influx of freshwater; and new grass beds were found in the James River.

The National Hurricane Center’s forecast track is updated every three hours. NOAA encourages citizens to check national and local weather forecasts often to prepare for the oncoming storm.

Bay conditions can be monitored at any time through the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System.

Learn more about preparing for a storm like Sandy.


Restored wetlands critical to Bay's health during hurricane season

During the Atlantic Basin's six-month hurricane season, wetlands along the edges of rivers, streams and Chesapeake Bay shorelines play a critical role in maintaining healthy waters.

Storms and hurricanes like Lee and Irene in 2011 or Isabel in 2003 can have serious consequences for the Bay region, as rains wash nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous off of farms, lawns and gardens; push sediment-laden runoff into local waterways; and inundate grass and oyster beds with suffocating silt. But this sort of storm damage is often temporary, and can be mitigated by abundant, healthy wetlands and ongoing efforts to restore them. 

Wetlands stabilize shorelines, protect properties from strong waves and surging floods, soak up stormwater runoff and absorb sediment and chemical contaminants. While wetlands alone will not stop excess nutrients and sediment from reaching our waters, strong, healthy wetlands are vital to reducing the impacts of polluted runoff and supporting the Bay's resilience. 

Last year, Chesapeake Bay Program partners restored more than 3,700 acres of wetlands in the Bay watershed--an acreage equivalent to about 2,855 football fields. These efforts build on the 14,765 acres of wetlands established from 1998 to 2010 and represent a solid step by Bay jurisdictions toward meeting the goal to restore 30,000 acres and rejuvenate 150,000 acres of these landscapes by 2025.


Chesapeake Bay health receives D+ on 2011 report card

An unusual sequence of weather events, including a wet spring, a hot, dry summer, and two tropical storms, caused the Chesapeake Bay’s health to decline in 2011, according to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

report card scores

(Image courtesy Chesapeake EcoCheck)

Scientists gave the Bay a D+ on the latest Chesapeake Bay Report Card, an annual assessment of the health of the Bay and its tidal rivers. The score of 38 percent was the second lowest since assessments began in 1986 and down from a C- in 2010.

Only two areas – the lower western shore and the Patapsco and Back rivers – improved last year. The rest of the Bay’s segments remained the same or got worse. Scientists recorded lower scores in the Patuxent River, Rappahannock River, James River, Tangier Sound, and the upper and middle Bay.

"The spring rains and hot, dry summer followed by Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Lee led to poor health throughout Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries," said Dr. Bill Dennison of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "While we have been making considerable progress in various restoration activities, these results indicate we still need to do much more to reduce the input of nutrients and sediments from stormwater runoff into the Bay."

The Bay’s health is largely affected by weather conditions. Rainfall carries pollution from farms, cities and suburbs to storm drains, streams and eventually the Bay. Even as the government, communities and citizens work to reduce pollution, an increase in stormwater runoff can mask the effects of these improvements.

Wet weather last spring washed more nutrient pollution into the water, fueling the growth of algae blooms that blocked sunlight from reaching bay grasses. Hot, dry weather allowed these algae blooms to persist through summer, leading to low-oxygen “dead zones” in the Bay’s bottom waters. In late summer, the Bay was slammed by the effects of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, both of which worsened water clarity.

"The report card clearly indicates that the Chesapeake Bay watershed is a dynamic ecosystem subject to severe weather events," said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale. “The silver lining is that the Hopkins-UMCES study of 60 years of water quality data concluded that a decrease in the frequency and severity of dead zones in the Bay is the direct result of implementing measures to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. We know what works; we just need to do more of it."

The Chesapeake Bay Report Card, produced by the EcoCheck partnership, offers a timely and geographically detailed assessment of the health of the Bay’s water quality and aquatic life. Visit EcoCheck’s website for more information about the report card, including region-specific data and downloadable graphics.


Chesapeake Bay underwater grasses decrease 21 percent in 2011

Fewer acres of bay grasses grew in the shallows of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers in 2011, according to scientists with the Chesapeake Bay Program. Bay grass acreage fell to an estimated 63,074 acres in 2011, down from 79,664 acres in 2010. This is the lowest Bay-wide acreage measured since 2006.

bay grasses on Susquehanna Flats

Because of heavy rainstorms that led to cloudy, muddy conditions that blocked monitoring efforts, only 57,956 acres of bay grasses were actually mapped in 2011. However, scientists believe about 5,119 acres of bay grasses may have been present during the height of the growing season, leading to the final estimated Bay-wide figure of 63,074 acres.

Bay grasses – also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV – are a critical part of the Bay ecosystem. These underwater meadows provide fish, crabs and other aquatic life with food and habitat, absorb nutrients, trap sediment, reduce erosion, and add oxygen to the water. Bay grasses are also an excellent measure of the Bay's overall condition because their health is closely linked with the Bay’s health. 

“2011 was the year that bucked two trends we’ve seen over the last decade,” said Lee Karrh, chair of the Bay Program’s Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) Workgroup. “The Upper Bay had major decreases after years of increasing or sustained high acreages. On the other hand, the brackish parts of the Middle Bay witnessed dramatic increases in 2011, after prolonged decreases since the turn of the century.”

Experts agree that extreme weather conditions in 2010 and 2011 led to the substantial decrease in bay grasses. According to Bob Orth, scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and coordinator of the annual bay grass survey:

  • Summer 2010 was unusually hot, causing severe eelgrass die offs in the lower Bay. These beds had already been measured for the 2010 acreage survey, so these eelgrass losses were not officially recorded until 2011.
  • In spring 2011, heavy rains and resulting runoff created very muddy conditions in the upper Bay and its rivers during the bay grass growing season.
  • Last September, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee brought even more rain and mud to the Bay’s waters.

In the upper Bay (from the mouth of the Susquehanna River to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge), bay grasses covered approximately 13,287 acres, down from 21,353 acres in 2010. This is most likely an underestimate because scientists did not monitor the area until November, once muddy conditions improved but well past the end of the growing season. One bright spot in the upper Bay was the more than doubling of bay grass acreage in the Chester River and near Eastern Neck.

In the middle Bay (from the Bay Bridge to Pocomoke Sound and the Potomac River), bay grasses decreased 4 percent to an estimated 34,142 acres, down from 35,446 acres in 2010. (Only 29,023 acres were mapped, but scientists estimate that an additional 5,119 acres may have been present.) Large eelgrass losses were observed in Tangier Sound. These were offset by widgeon grass gains in many areas, including Eastern Bay and the Choptank River.

In the lower Bay (south of Pocomoke Sound and the Potomac River), bay grasses covered 15,645 acres, down 32 percent from 22,685 acres in 2010. Hot summer temperatures in 2010 led to this significant drop in acreage, which offset any gains that followed in 2011. Eelgrass in many parts of the lower Bay had been recovering from similar heat-related losses that took place in 2005.

Despite Bay-wide losses, there were a few bits of good news for bay grasses last year. The huge, dense bed on the Susquehanna Flats – which has increased threefold in size over the past 20 years – survived the late summer tropical storms, showing how resilient healthy bay grass beds can be to natural disturbances. Also, scientists recorded the first-ever bay grass bed in the mainstem James River since the area was first surveyed in 1998.

Annual bay grass acreage is estimated through an aerial survey, which is conducted from late spring to early autumn. Residents can do their part to help restore bay grasses by not fertilizing in the spring and planting more plants to reduce polluted runoff from backyards.

For detailed information about 2011 bay grasses acreage, including aerial photos and year-to-year comparisons, visit VIMS' SAV blog. For more information about the aerial survey and bay grass monitoring efforts, visit VIMS’ SAV website.


Five signs of spring in the Chesapeake Bay region

If sixty-degree days weren’t enough to convince you that winter has bid us farewell and spring is just around the corner, these harbingers of the changing seasons surely will! Take a look around your  backyard, community or local park for these five telltale signs of spring in the Chesapeake Bay region.

1. Spring peepers are peeping

northern spring peeper

(Image courtesy bbodjack/Flickr)

If you happen to live near a pond or wetland, you may be accustomed to hearing a chorus of “peeps” in early spring. The northern spring peeper is one of the first to breed in spring. This small amphibian’s mating call is described as a “peep,” but it can be almost deafening when hundreds of frogs sing in one location.

2. Daffodils are blooming


(Image courtesy bobtravis/Flickr)

These yellow beauties are the first bulb plants to pop up each March, sometimes emerging through melting snow and always signaling warmer weather ahead. Any gardener will tell you there’s no way to tell exactly when daffodils will bloom, but they seem to pop up almost overnight. A website tracks photos and reports of the first daffodil sightings each year around the world.

If you can’t get enough of these buttercup blooms, head over to the American Daffodil Society’s National Convention in April in Baltimore.

3. Bees fly in


Image courtesy Martin LaBar/Flickr)

Where there are flowers, bees should follow – but native bee populations have fallen rapidly in recent years. Find out how you can make your yard a bee haven and help give bees a home! (Don’t worry – most of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s native bees don’t sting!)

A bee-friendly backyard will benefit you and your garden: bees pollinate plants and crops, a service that’s worth millions each year to our economy.

4. Woodcocks dance

“PEENT! PEENT!” The mating call of the American woodcock may be a familiar sound if you stroll through in open forests this time of year. Males put on an elaborate show most evenings in early spring. After repeated “peents,” he flies upward in a spiral, reaching a height of about 300 feet. Then he begins chirping as he dives back down in a zig-zag pattern, landing right next to his chosen female.

Read how renowned nature writer Aldo Leopold described the woodcock mating ritual in A Sand County Almanac.

5. Skunk cabbage emerges

skunk cabbage

(Image courtesy Lynette S./Flickr)

This bright green, large-leaved wetland plant that appears in early spring may actually help melt leftover snowfall. Skunk cabbage generates temperatures up to 59-95 degrees above the air temperature, allowing the plant to literally break through frozen ground and sprout when temperatures are still too cold for other plants to sprout.

The plant’s foul odor attracts pollinators, including flies and bees, and discourages predators.

Caitlin Finnerty's avatar
About Caitlin Finnerty - Caitlin Finnerty is the Communications Staffer at the Chesapeake Research Consortium and Chesapeake Bay Program. Caitlin grew up digging for dinosaur bones and making mud pies in Harrisburg, Pa. Her fine arts degree landed her environmental field work jobs everywhere from Oregon to Maryland. Now settled in Baltimore, she is eagerly expecting her first child while creating an urban garden oasis on her cement patio.

Keywords: birds, weather, spring, plants, list

What did 2011 weather conditions mean for the Chesapeake Bay?

Hurricanes, earthquakes, a freezing cold winter and a blistering hot summer – 2011 has been an interesting year for weather in the Chesapeake Bay region. Scientists with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have written some preliminary thoughts about the bizarre weather and its link to conditions in the Bay in a post on SERC’s blog, Shorelines.

Flooded river after Tropical Storm Lee (Image courtesy Iris Goldstein/Flickr)

While SERC tends to focus on the long-term picture rather than brief snapshots, this year has prompted more than a few raised eyebrows among our scientists. What does it mean for the environment? What does it mean for Chesapeake Bay? And can any of it be linked to climate change?

Visit SERC’s blog to read more about the link between 2011 weather and the Chesapeake Bay.

Image courtesy Iris Goldstein/Flickr


Satellite image shows sediment pollution flowing into Chesapeake Bay

Plumes of sediment were observed flowing down the Susquehanna River into the Chesapeake Bay this week after the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee brought heavy rainfall to Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Chesapeake Bay satellite image

The large rainfall totals caused rivers to swell, washing dirt and pollution off the land and carrying it downstream to the Bay. Record flooding and water levels were recorded at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River last week.

Image courtesy NASA/GSFC/MODIS


Scientists measure near-record river flow throughout Chesapeake Bay watershed

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) measured a near-record flow of 775,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River on the morning of Friday, Sept. 9. The river is expected to reach the third-highest flow in history this weekend, ranking behind the June 1972 flow of 1,130,000 cfs and the January 1996 flow of 909,000 cfs.

satellite image

2011 will most likely be one of the highest annual flow years on record for the Susquehanna River due to wet spring weather and the September tropical storms Irene and Lee. High river flows are also being measured throughout other parts of the Bay watershed. (Visit the USGS’s real-time streamflow website for more information about the region’s river flows.)

Scientists expect that the sheer magnitude of the flood waters – which carry nutrient and sediment pollution from the land to the water – will have a negative effect on the Bay’s health. Some concerns and potential effects of the flooding include:

  • Scouring of the Bay’s bottom, which can destroy next year’s crop of bay grasses.
  • Smothering of oyster bars and other important hard-bottom habitats due to excess sediment flowing to the Bay.
  • Drastic salinity changes as a flood of freshwater flows from rivers to the Bay.
  • The release of nutrients, sediment and chemical contaminants that were previously trapped behind Conowingo Dam.

Timing makes a big difference in whether flood events have a short-term or long-term effect on the Bay’s health. Because these storms occurred in late summer, the Bay Program expects that there will be fewer long term impacts to the Bay ecosystem. September is the end of the peak growing season for bay grasses and is not a major spawning period for aquatic life. Additionally, cooler temperatures should prevent large algae blooms from growing in response to excess nutrient pollution.

It will take time for Bay Program partners to monitor and assess conditions before the true impact of the rain events is known. Maryland and Virginia are working closely with scientists from universities, the U.S. EPA and NOAA to expand monitoring of the Bay and its tidal rivers in the coming days and weeks. The USGS is working with the six Bay states, the District of Columbia and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to measure nutrient and sediment pollution at key monitoring sites as part of the Bay Program’s non-tidal water quality monitoring network.

For more information about Chesapeake Bay monitoring and to get real-time monitoring data, visit the USGS Chesapeake Bay Activities website or Maryland’s Eyes on the Bay website.


Impact of Hurricane Irene on the Health of Chesapeake Bay? Only Time (and Monitoring) Will Tell!

When it became clear that Hurricane Irene would move through the Bay region, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s (CBP) monitoring program coordinators, like Bruce Michael at Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, adjusted the Bay water quality monitoring cruise schedules to get data just following the hurricane. 

Now in the days since the hurricane, recent data from Maryland’s Eyes on the Bay program is showing that the Bay received a short term water quality boost from the hurricane.  This is a result of the physical mixing of the Bay’s waters by extreme winds and waves that sent oxygen-rich surface waters into the deeper channels that are normally lacking oxygen at this time of year.

It’s all in the timing

When it comes to hurricanes and their impact on the Bay, it’s the timing that makes the big difference in terms of whether there is a short term (weeks to a month) or a long lasting (months to years) impact on the Bay ecosystem.

In this case, timing is made up of two important components: the point during the hurricane season when the hurricane moves through Bay country and how long the hurricane lingers over the Bay and its surrounding watershed.

When hurricanes strike during important growing seasons for fish, oysters and underwater bay grasses, the results can over longer lasting effects. Hurricane Agnes back in 1972 (a tropical storm by the time it hit the Bay), hit in June at the peak of the underwater Bay grasses growing season, tipping an already declining Bay ecosystem into a tailspin lasting into the early 1980s.

Also, when a hurricane stalls and hangs around the Bay and its watershed for days, the amount of rain and resultant flooding can increase dramatically compared to the effects of Irene who moved all the way through the region over in less than a 24-hour period.

And it’s good to be “late” sometimes

Fortunately in the case of Hurricane Irene, we are at the tail end of the peak growing season for bay grasses, so the clouded water and increased amounts of sediments entering the Bay’s tidal waters via runoff will not have as big of an impact compared to if the hurricane hit us in June or July. 

We are also not in prime oyster spawning season (later in the fall to early winter) nor are we in any critical fish spawning period (late winter to late spring) so we missed those opportunities for a bigger, more direct impacts on our fish, crabs, oysters and grasses.

To surge or not to surge

Unlike Hurricane Isabel, Irene’s track and, therefore, wind directions meant that we did not experience a devastating storm surge that resulted in the extreme shoreline erosion the region witnessed in the fall of 2003.

The flood waters will continue to bring in extra nutrient and sediment pollution loads into the Bay for days and even weeks to come. But again, timing is on our side. With cooler temperatures and shorter days coming, those excess nutrients will not feed algal blooms which love hot, sunny, calm days.

Lingering effects

Some of the excess nutrients that flowed downstream during the storm will remain in the Bay’s tidal waters and will support next year’s algal growth.  However their impact is likely less than if the hurricane had struck later in October or November when the nutrients have a greater opportunity to hang around until the next year.

All about the wait

The bottom line on Hurricane Irene’s impact is that we will have to wait for weeks (mixing up of the water column with good oxygen levels; short term algal blooms), and really months (impact on the next spring’s algal blooms, early summer’s re-growth of underwater Bay grasses, and mid-summer’s dissolved oxygen conditions years), to fully answer the question, “What was the impact of Hurricane Irene (and even the fall 2011 hurricane season) on the Bay?”

Fortunately, the CBP partnership has an extensive monitoring program in place which continues to measure various indicators of the Bay’s health — in this case, prior to the hurricane and in the weeks and months following the storm.

In a nutshell?

Given the timing of this storm, the Bay likely dodged a potentially serious bullet thanks to Irene’s timing, rapid movement through the region, and track.

For more information about the effects of Hurricane Irene on the Chesapeake Bay, visit these links from our partners:

Alicia Pimental's avatar
About Alicia Pimental - Alicia is the Chesapeake Bay Program's online communications manager. She manages the Bay Program's web content and social media channels. Alicia discovered her love for nature and the environment while growing up along Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts. When she's not at work, Alicia enjoys cooking, traveling, photography and playing with her chocolate lab, Tess.


What flows into storm drains?

We've been getting a lot of rain in the Chesapeake Bay region this spring. One day after a rain storm a few weeks ago, we decided to go around the neighborhood to see what trash we could find on the street.

After an hour, we had picked up about half a garbage bag full of trash. Our route along an Annapolis street led us to a storm drain that was located directly above a small creek. All of the trash we picked up that day would eventually have gone into the storm drain and then into the creek it flows to. How? Rain!

Rain picks up trash and other pollutants and washes them into storm drains, which flow to our local streams, creeks and rivers. And our local waterways flow to the Chesapeake Bay. This is why you should always pick up your trash!

Kristen Foringer's avatar
About Kristen Foringer - Need some text


Ask a Scientist: How do heavy spring rainstorms affect the Chesapeake Bay?

Welcome to the latest entry in our "Ask a Scientist" series! Each month, we take a question submitted through our website or Twitter (@chesbayprogram) and have a scientist from the Bay Program partnership answer it here on our blog.

Today’s reader question is about the effect of spring rainstorms on the Chesapeake Bay's health. We asked Scott Phillips, Peter Tango and Joel Blomquist, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and members of the Bay Program’s Nontidal Water Quality Workgroup, for their explanation on why heavy rains have such a big effect on the Bay and its local rivers.

They say April showers bring May flowers. But around the Chesapeake Bay, rainstorms bring a whole lot more.

The rain and snow that falls on the Bay watershed, an area of land that stretches from New York to Virginia, drains into local streams and rivers, which eventually flow to the Chesapeake Bay. About half of the water in the Bay comes from its rivers; the other half from the Atlantic Ocean.

The U.S. Geological Survey measures river flow throughout the Bay watershed and estimates the amount of fresh water that enters the Bay each month and year.Typically, 52 billion gallons of water drain into the Chesapeake Bay each day.

The river water that flows into the Bay has a significant impact on the Bay’s water quality, habitats, and fish and shellfish. Spring rains affect the amount of pollution going into the Bay. During periods of higher river flow, more nutrient and sediment pollution enters the Bay. During dry periods, fewer pollutants are washed into streams and carried into the Bay. In general, river flow into the Bay is highest during the spring, when there are more rain storms.

This past March started with noteworthy flooding across the watershed. River flows in March were some of the highest ever recorded. Field crews mobilized to collect nutrient and sediment samples that help determine the amount of pollution that washed into the Bay.

Too many nutrients and sediment contribute to pollution in the Bay and local streams. Elevated nutrient levels in the Bay tend to cause excessive algal growth. As algae decay, dissolved oxygen levels drop. This leads to unhealthy conditions for fish, crabs and other underwater life. Algae and sediment also block out sunlight that underwater grasses need. For these reasons, Chesapeake Bay Program partners are working to reduce these pollutants.

River flow also affects the salinity, or amount of salt, in the Bay’s water. The Bay’s salinity ranges from fresh water near the top of the Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland, to ocean water near Norfolk, Virginia. In dry years, there is less river flow so saltier water moves further up the Bay.  During wet springs, more fresh water enters the Bay, pushing salty water farther south.

Changes in salinity affect fish, oysters and underwater bay grasses. For example, some underwater grasses cannot survive if the water is too salty, while others can only survive in fresh water. Diseases spread to more oysters in saltier waters. Finally, sea nettles are more common in saltier water. So salinity and river flow influence our choice of places to swim to avoid frequent and painful jellyfish stings!

For more information on river flow to the Bay, visit the U.S. Geological Survey’s website. You can also read our March 22 article about Maryland DNR's monitoring after the heavy rains in early March.


Heavy rainstorms flood Chesapeake Bay with nutrient, sediment pollution

Early March's heavy rains and snow melt caused a flood of nutrients and sediment to flow into the Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna River, according to scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

This heavy runoff, which resulted in record poor water clarity in many areas, could harm bay grasses and cause more algae blooms to form in the Bay this spring and summer, especially if the wet weather continues.

Two days after a very heavy rainstorm that doused the region with 2+ inches of rain, the U.S. Geological Survey recorded a peak flow of 485,000 cubic feet/second (cfs) from the Susquehanna River at Conowingo Dam. This was well above the March average of 75,000 cfs and the highest average daily flow rate observed at the dam since September 2004, when floodwaters from Tropical Storm Ivan passed through.

Large amounts of fresh water flowing from the Bay’s rivers can erode stream banks and bring polluted runoff from the land into the Bay. Late winter and early spring are critical times for many of the Bay’s aquatic species. Bay grasses are just beginning to grow and many fish are starting to spawn.

Maryland DNR will continue to monitor water conditions to assess any short- or long-term storm effects of the wet weather.

For more information, visit Maryland DNR's website.


What effect does heavy rainfall have on the Bay?

Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week, we take a question submitted on the Chesapeake Bay Program website or a frequently asked question and answer it here for all to read.

This week’s question is all about the wet weather we’ve had in the region lately: “What effect does heavy rainfall have on the Bay?”

The amount of rainfall the Chesapeake Bay region receives affects the amount of water that flows into the Bay from its rivers. This is called river flow. When we get more rain, it increases the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that gets into local streams and rivers, and eventually the Bay.

When it rains, stormwater runs off lawns, farms, streets and parking lots, picking up pollution and carrying it into the nearest storm drain or waterway. A lot of rain can also erode stream banks, which causes more sediment to make its way to the Bay. Excess nutrients and sediments are harmful because they block sunlight from reaching bay grasses. Excess nutrients also fuel the growth of algae blooms that can lead to low oxygen levels.

But heavy rainfall can also carry with it much more visible signs of pollution: namely, trash.

The Baltimore Sun’s B’More Green Blog posted some compelling photos this morning, taken at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore by the National Aquarium. It seems that not only did all the rain likely carry a lot of nutrients and sediment into the Bay, it also "trashed" the harbor.

The EPA has officially dubbed Baltimore’s Inner Harbor as “impaired” by trash. The Anacostia River watershed in Washington, D.C., has a similar, if not more severe, issue. The Anacostia recently became the first interstate river to have a Clean Water Act “trash pollution diet” imposed on it.

If there's one good thing about all this rain, it's that seeing all the trash it carries into our local waterways reminds us to try and minimize the trash we use in our day-to-day routines. After all, do you want to be swimming with a bunch of old coffee cups -- or eating seafood that has been doing the same?

Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week! You can also ask us a question via Twitter by sending a reply to @chesbayprogram! Be sure to follow us there for all the latest in Bay news and events.


Six Signs of Spring in the Chesapeake Region

After a long, cold winter full of snow, ice and disrupted plans, many people in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are looking forward to the first signs of spring. Throughout the region, there are plenty of little signs that the season is about to change, from the return of familiar fish and birds to the departure of the region’s winter visitors.

Whether good or bad, these six signals should give you a little bit of hope that the winter blues will soon be relieved by the warmer days of spring.

Tundra swans leave

The tundra swan migrates to the Chesapeake Bay region in the fall and stays here through the winter. But once spring approaches, these beautiful white birds begin to leave the area and migrate back to the arctic tundra, where they will remain to breed and live through the summer. Observing a mass exodus of tundra swans – which leave just the invasive mute swan in our area for the rest of the year – is a sure sign of spring’s arrival.

Ospreys return

After wintering in the Caribbean and South America, local legend has it that ospreys return to the Chesapeake Bay region by St. Patrick’s Day every year. Ospreys are often spotted in the region before this date, though, as they seem to be guided by daylight and can sense when days are beginning to get longer. Because ospreys are relatively tolerant of human presence and nest in close proximity to people, it shouldn’t be too much longer before you start to see a few ospreys building their nests in the area.

Skunk cabbage appear

One of the earliest and truest signs of the coming of spring is the emergence of skunk cabbage, a fragrant plant that often appears in the Bay region as early as February, fighting through snow to reach the surface. While many associate the coming of spring with pleasant-smelling flowers, skunk cabbages emit a rather unpleasant aroma. Nevertheless, it is a sign that the wetlands where the plant grows are beginning to soften as temperatures rise and spring makes its way to the region.

Peeper frogs sing

The spring peeper frog is one of the first to call and breed during the spring, making the peeper’s shrill call another sure sign of the change of seasons from winter to spring. The peeper emits a single, clear “peep” once every second beginning in March.

Shad return to spawn

As temperatures begin to rise, shad make their way back “home” to the Chesapeake Bay from the ocean to spawn during the spring months. They are said to follow their uncanny sense of smell back to the same river or stream where they were born. Males arrive first, soon followed by females.

Shad runs have always been a cause for celebration in the Chesapeake region, beginning with Native Americans and continuing today. Many towns in the region have annual shad festivals to celebrate the fish’s spawning runs. A native plant called the shadbush, which grows on the edge of forested wetlands, blooms in March to coincide with the return of its namesake, the shad.

Algae blooms return

An unwelcome signs of spring in the Bay and its rivers is the return of algae blooms, which can block sunlight from reaching underwater bay grasses that are just starting to grow. Each spring, as snow from winter storms melts and heavy spring rains begin, nutrients are washed into local waterways and algae blooms make their unwanted return, an unfortunate but sure sign of warmer weather in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Keywords: weather

Question of the Week: Road Salt, Snow Melt and the Bay

Welcome to this week’s installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week. Each week we'll take a question submitted through the Chesapeake Bay Program website and answer it here for all to read.

This week’s question comes from Daniel, who came to our website seeking information about the effects of road salt on the Chesapeake Bay and its local waterways. He said, “With all the information that is out there about the pollution in our Bay…it seems like we have created another major source of pollution by throwing all the salt into the Bay.”

Much of the Chesapeake Bay watershed has experienced record-breaking snow storms this winter. With roads covered in snow and ice, road crews had to use the most effective deicer at their disposal: salt, and lots of it. Controversy struck when it was announced that plows in Baltimore would begin dumping snow from the roadways into the Inner Harbor. What would all of that salt do to the water? Isn’t there a better way to handle it?

While public safety was the most important factor during these major snowstorms, the decisions made by public officials also took environmental concerns into consideration.

Dumping snow into the Inner Harbor or the Chesapeake Bay, which are already brackish (a combination of salt and fresh water), is not necessarily bad because salt is already present in the water. However, dumping salt-treated snow into freshwater streams and creeks is dangerous because it can drastically change the amount of salt in the water, harming the freshwater species that call these waterways their home.

Of course, even without dumping snow directly into a body of water, salt will end up there as snow begins to melt and run off our streets, lawns and driveways. Since runoff is the fastest growing source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, scientists in the region will closely monitor the effects of snow melt and runoff.

The runoff caused by snow melt, however, is generally more gradual than that of a strong rain storm, giving road salt and other pollutants more time to absorb into the ground, where they can be filtered out by trees and vegetation. Heavy rainfalls, on the other hand, accelerate the speed at which polluted runoff flows into streams, rivers and the Bay.

To get back to the question from Daniel, yes, the salt used on roadways during snowstorms can become a pollutant in the Chesapeake Bay and local rivers, creeks and streams – but so can fertilizers, dirt, oil, trash and other substances carried by runoff into waterways. There are other deicing agents that could be used, but most are more expensive and some have not yet been tested for environmental effects.

Since this year was a rarity in terms of snowfall for most parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, hopefully the problem of too much road salt and snow melt won’t be something we’ll have to address very often in the future!

Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Submit it on our website and it could be our next Question of the Week!

Keywords: questions, weather, winter

Question of the Week: The effect of storms on the Bay's health

Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week we take a question submitted through the Chesapeake Bay Program website and answer it here for all to read.

This week’s question is one a lot of people have been asking in recent days: With the nor’easter from Hurricane Ida blowing through the region, high winds, flooding and stormwater are on everyone’s minds. So what effect does a storm like this November nor’easter have on the Chesapeake Bay?

The amount of rain that falls on the Bay watershed has a direct effect on river flow, which is the volume of fresh water that flows into the Chesapeake from its tributaries. Typically, fresh water makes up about half of the Bay’s entire volume. When large amounts of rain fall in the region, such as during this nor’easter, it can tip the balance of fresh and salty water in the Bay.

A major issue associated with more rainfall is an increase in stormwater runoff, which carries dirt, trash, nutrients and other pollutants from our roads, lawns and parking lots into the Bay and its local waterways. Once in the water, this pollution can fuel the growth of algae blooms and harm underwater life, including crabs, oysters and bay grasses.

We’re already seeing the effects of this storm in Virginia, where officials have implemented a temporary ban on shellfish harvesting. The fear is that clams, oysters and scallops could become contaminated due to human and animal waste being washed into the Bay from tidal flooding.

High tides and flooding are certainly of concern to those who live by the Bay’s shores, but large storms like this have an effect on every stream, creek and river throughout the region. You can do your part to minimize the impact of storms and eliminate as much pollution as possible by picking up litter on the ground and covering bare spots in your yard to reduce erosion.

For more information about how weather affects the Bay and its watershed, check out our weather page.

Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Please send it to us through our web comment form. Your question might be chosen for our next BayBlog Question of the Week!

Keywords: questions, weather

Seasons of the Chesapeake

Autumn makes you think of pumpkin pie, hot apple cider and the earthy smell of fallen leaves.  I am thankful we get to experience all four seasons here in the Chesapeake region – even though I’m not as fond of the ice storms winter brings to us in Maryland. 

See what the Chesapeake looks like today in each season by visiting NASA's website.  It is amazing how the landscape changes from spring to summer to fall to winter. 


Alicia Pimental's avatar
About Alicia Pimental - Alicia is the Chesapeake Bay Program's online communications manager. She manages the Bay Program's web content and social media channels. Alicia discovered her love for nature and the environment while growing up along Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts. When she's not at work, Alicia enjoys cooking, traveling, photography and playing with her chocolate lab, Tess.

Keywords: weather

The Heat Is On

A hot, steamy summer has settled on the Bay watershed, bringing scorching temperatures and high electric bills. The news has been filled with reports of poor air quality and power outages, and we still have over a month of summer left.

But high temperatures affect a lot more than our sweat glands and wallets; they impact the Chesapeake as well. Although it is America's largest estuary, the Bay is surprisingly shallow, with an average depth of about 21 feet. (In contrast, Lake Michigan has an average depth of 279 feet.) Because of its shallow nature, the Bay suffers large seasonal fluctuations in temperature.

As summer water temperatures rise, it lessens the water's capacity to hold dissolved oxygen, which is vital to a host of creatures, from blue crabs to striped bass. The warmer the water gets, the less oxygen it contains. When combined with tons of nutrients and sediments, the heat spells trouble for the Bay in the form of numerous anoxic “dead zones.” These areas are becoming an annual summer problem in the Bay's deep channels.

High water temperatures may also affect underwater grass beds. Last year, warmer than average water temperatures may have caused the large scale loss of eelgrass in Tangier Sound. And while high temperatures can negatively affect SAV, they aid in the growth of something not so desirable: algae. These tiny plants flourish in the hot summer sun, soaking up rays and nutrients, but often multiplying to unhealthy proportions. These harmful algae blooms can block out sunlight needed by SAV, or produce toxins that kill fish and sicken humans.

If you are interest in ways to combat the problems facing the Bay, check out our list of ways you can help. Maryland DNR also offers the latest information on harmful algae blooms.

410 Severn Avenue / Suite 112
Annapolis, Maryland 21403
Tel: (800) YOUR-BAY / Fax: (410) 267-5777
Directions to the Bay Program Office
Terms of Use | Privacy Policy
©2012 Chesapeake Bay Program | All Rights Reserved