Standing at the edge of the Jones Falls, amid polystyrene coffee cups and plastic soda bottles, dwarfed by vibrant graffiti on the surrounding concrete walls, it’s almost possible to hear the rush of water over the noise of the nearby interstate and train tracks. It’s a mild January morning, and Alice Volpitta and Rose Dunn—armed with sensors and sampling bottles—are carefully perched on boulders next to the water.
The two are with Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit that once a month monitors water quality at sites along the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls, two streams that run through the heart of Baltimore City. Today, Volpitta, Water Quality Manager, and Dunn, her volunteer monitoring intern, are visiting five sites along the downstream portion of the Jones Falls. It’s one less than the typical six, because a locked gate is blocking the path to one of the monitoring sites.
“There’s hardly any access to the water,” explains Volpitta. “It’s tough to actually get to it.”
Locked gates aren’t the only obstacle: at various points along the five-stop route, the pair’s progress is slowed by steep, gravelly inclines; thick, viscous mud; and concrete barriers. “This is what I mean by lack of access,” Volpitta laughs at one site, as she and Dunn climb over the wooden railing of a staircase to get down to the water’s edge.
It’s the perfect illustration of how far-removed Baltimore can feel from the water. Apart from the tidal Patapsco River—which makes up the city’s Inner Harbor—Charm City seems mostly paved over. But amidst, and often beneath, the pavement sits a tangled network of streams, including the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls.
“We’re only going to five sites, but you will see more of Baltimore streams today than most people will ever see,” says Volpitta.
It’s what’s unseen in the water that Blue Water Baltimore is concerned with. The organization tracks a variety of measurements typical of water monitoring programs: nutrient and sediment pollution, dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature and conductivity. They also track levels of fecal bacteria, which waterways in the Baltimore region are infamous for—especially after a rainfall, and it had just rained the night before.
This means that, even if you find your way to the water’s edge, it can be best to adhere to a “look, don’t touch” policy.
“We never touch the water directly,” Volpitta explains. Each time they gather their sampling supplies and head down to a monitoring site, she and Dunn pull on pairs of disposable nitrile gloves.
Bacteria can reach the water in a few different ways. When rain falls on non-porous surfaces like roads, sidewalks or buildings, it’s unable to soak into the ground. Instead, it flushes away whatever it can from the surface—from leaking motor oil to pet waste—and rushes it to the nearest waterway. And with as much pavement as a city like Baltimore has, that can add up to a lot of pollution-laden water.
“There’s so much impervious surface in the city that every time it rains it just flash floods, basically,” says Volpitta. At one site, the cover of a sewer manhole had shifted, revealing an opening a few inches wide. The movement seems slight, but it was the result of hundreds of pounds of metal being lifted just by the force of rushing water.
Aside from polluted runoff, Baltimore’s aging water infrastructure plays a role in the presence of fecal bacteria in the Jones Falls. When it was first put in place, the city’s sewer system was state-of-the-art. But when rainfall overwhelms the now 110-year-old system, sewage can be directly discharged into the Jones Falls and other waterways.
The City of Baltimore is actively making repairs and upgrades to the system, but with more than 3,000 miles of sewer lines—some of which are cracked, clogged or simply too small to accommodate the necessary amount of water—progress has been slower than some had hoped for.
In 2002, repeated sewer overflows led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Maryland Department of the Environment to sue the City of Baltimore. As part of a settlement, the city agreed to fix the sewer system by 2016. Last year, this agreement was revised, giving the city until 2021 to stop its sewage discharges into the Jones Falls and until 2030 to complete all repairs the sewer system requires.
At one monitoring station—near Lake Roland, a former Baltimore City reservoir—it’s easy to forget how close you are to downtown. The loudest noise is the piercing rattle of a belted kingfisher as it flits from tree to tree, followed by the soft murmurs of visitors walking their dogs along the wooded pathway. It’s almost serene enough to persuade you that the water seems less polluted.
But that day, the fecal bacteria count at the Lake Roland site was 260 colonies per 100 milliliters of water. For reference, 151 is considered safe for limited contact with the water, and 61 is considered the safe threshold for full-body contact with the water.
Due in part to the rainfall the night before, none of the sites sampled that day had safe levels for human contact.
All of the monitoring data collected by Blue Water Baltimore undergoes a quality control check before being posted on Harbor Alert, which offers the most recent monitoring data for each site. Data is run through an algorithm to see if it’s safe to swim in the water, and each site is given a red, yellow or green indication of safe contact. In 2015, none of the sampling sites along the Jones Falls or Gwynns Falls were safe for swimming more than 60 percent of the time.
Each year, all the data collected is rolled up into the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor report card, which last year gave Baltimore’s streams a grade of D-minus (the Inner Harbor and other tidal waters received an F).
Although plenty of work lies ahead, Volpitta and her colleagues remain focused on the long-term goal: healthy Baltimore waterways.
“I think it’s safe to say that Blue Water Baltimore, and for myself personally, we all are really looking forward to a future where we have swimmable and fishable waterways,” Volpitta says. “Sometimes people think that that term ‘swimmable and fishable’ is a pie in the sky, it’s never going to be attainable. But that’s a phrase directly from the Clean Water Act. So if our legislators thought it was good enough for the Clean Water Act, I think it’s good enough for Baltimore City.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Video, images and captions by Will Parson
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.
Nutrient and sediment trends at nine Chesapeake Bay monitoring sites have shown an overall lack of improvement, according to a report released this week by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
As part of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s integrated approach to assess water quality as the Bay “pollution diet” is implemented, the report tracks changes in nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment trends at monitoring stations on the Susquehanna, Potomac and James rivers, as well as six additional waterways in Maryland and Virginia.
Using data from 1985 to 2010, the USGS measured minimal changes in total nitrogen at six out of nine monitoring stations and minimal or worsening changes in phosphorous at seven out of nine monitoring stations. Using data from 2001 to 2010, the USGS measured minimal or worsening changes in sediment at eight out of nine monitoring stations.
But a lack of improvement in pollution trends doesn’t mean that pollution-reduction practices aren’t working.
While nutrient and sediment trends can be influenced by a number of factors—among them, wastewater treatment plant upgrades and changes in land use—there is often a lag time between when restoration work is done and when visible improvements in water quality can be seen. And while the nine stations monitored here are located downstream of almost 80 percent of the land that drains into the Bay, runoff and effluent from three of the watershed’s biggest cities—Baltimore, Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C.—do not flow past them, meaning that pollution-reduction practices implemented in these areas—or put in place after 2010—are not reflected in the study’s results.
According to the report, the USGS plans to work with partners to help explain the trends and changes described in this report; initial focus will be paid to the Eastern Shore and Potomac River Basin.
Read more about nutrient and sediment loads and trends in the Bay watershed.
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.
Nutrient and sediment levels at a number of Chesapeake Bay monitoring sites have improved since 1985, according to a report released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). These improvements in long-term trends indicate pollution-reduction efforts are working.
By measuring nutrient and sediment trends and by tracking changes in water clarity, underwater grasses and other indicators of river and Bay health, the USGS and Chesapeake Bay Program partners can make a more accurate assessment of changes in our waters. This kind of on-the-water monitoring is an integral part of ensuring Bay states and the District of Columbia are meeting "pollution diet" goals.
Excess nutrients and sediment can harm fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. Nitrogen and phosphorous fuel the growth of algae blooms that later rob water of the oxygen that aquatic species need to survive; sediment clouds the water, blocking the sunlight that plants need to grow. But a number of practices, from upgrading wastewater treatment plants to reducing agricultural, urban and suburban runoff, can stop or slow nutrients and sediment from entering the Bay.
According to the USGS report, one-third of monitoring sites have shown improvement in sediment concentrations since 1985. Within the same time period, two-thirds of these sites have shown improvement in nitrogen concentrations and almost all have shown improvement in phosphorous concentrations. However, in the past decade, the majority of sites surveyed showed no significant change in nitrogen or phosphorous levels, and only a handful showed improvement in sediment trends.
This doesn't mean that pollution-reduction efforts have been in vain. Long-term trends show us that pollution-reduction efforts do have an impact; findings from the last 10 years illustrate the lag time that can exist between restoration efforts and firm evidence of restoration success.
While upgrades to wastewater treatment plants, for instance, can yield relatively quick results, the effects of consistent reduced fertilizer on farms or suburban lawns may not be visible for years.
"While we see long-term improvements in many areas of the Bay watershed, there is a lag time between implementing water-quality practices and seeing the full benefit in rivers," said USGS scientist Scott Phillips. "Which is one reason why scientists see less improvement over the past 10 years."
"Long-term trends indicate that pollution-reduction efforts are improvement water-quality conditions in many areas of the watershed," Phillips said. "However, nutrients, sediment and contaminants will need to be further reduced to achieve a healthier Bay."
Learn more about Monitoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
“The smallest ripples are often the largest fish,” Matt Sell tells me as he waves his fishing line back and forth over a dimple in the water. The scene may seem appropriate for a Saturday afternoon, but it’s actually a Wednesday morning, and Matt is at work as a brook trout specialist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Inland Fisheries Division.
Clad in chest waders and a t-shirt, Matt is armed with a fishing pole and the instincts of someone who’s been angling most of his life. His fishing efforts are rewarded with a 6-inch brook trout – exactly the species he was looking to catch.
In most parts of the state, a brook trout would be a rare catch. More than 55 percent of Maryland’s sub-watersheds have lost their entire brook trout population, and only 2 percent of the state’s sub-watersheds have a healthy population.
Why the sudden and steep population decline? Brook trout have very specific habitat requirements that are threatened by development, urbanization and poor land management.
“Brook trout need cold, very clean water with no sediment,” explains Alan Heft, biologist with Maryland DNR’s Inland Fisheries Division. “They need specific sizes of gravel in certain areas of the stream to reproduce. If they don’t have these conditions, they can’t exist.”
When excess sediment erodes from stream banks and construction sites, dirt gets into the gravel beds where brook trout spawn, hardening the bottom into a concrete-like material. And when water temperatures rise above 68 degrees due to factors such as hot summers and lack of a tree canopy along the edge of a stream, a brook trout’s internal system shuts down.
“Brook trout are kind of like the canary in the coal mine,” Alan says. “When you have a large brook trout population, you know that you have good water, clean water and a protected watershed. When you lose the brook trout, you know that you have problems.”
Because brook trout have such steep habitat requirements, they are used as an indicator species: their presence indicates whether or not a watershed is healthy. By closely monitoring brook trout populations, scientists can learn not just about the fish, but about water quality in a river system.
But monitoring brook trout requires more than just fishing. Although there are many methods used to monitor the fish, Matt and Alan have chosen radio tags, which they insert into each fish’s skin through a quick, painless surgery. The radio tags allow Matt, Alan and other scientists to follow the movements of brook trout for the next year or so.
When I follow Matt and Alan on their Wednesday morning fishing excursion, they bring me to a dense forest of eastern hemlocks. Mountain laurels hug the shallow stream banks, blocking the sun and forming a blanket of shade over the river. With the lush layers of forest, the serenity of fishing and the absence of human influence, it feels as though we’ve traveled back in time. But we’re actually on western Maryland’s Savage River, a 30-mile-long tributary of the Potomac River and the largest remaining native brook trout habitat in the mid-Atlantic.
Although brook trout have been eliminated from the majority of Maryland’s waterways, these fish have remained in the Savage River for a few reasons. With just 1,500 residents, the Savage River watershed has not been subjected to the fast-paced development taking place in other parts of the Chesapeake Bay region. About 80 percent of the watershed is state-owned, meaning that the vast majority of the land around the river is safeguarded from development and managed to enhance water quality and brook trout habitat. (Plus, who wouldn’t want to live in a traffic-free, forested oasis in the Appalachian mountains?)
“Typically with brook trout habitat in the east, outside of Maine and a few places in New York, all of the tributaries are disconnected. There’s damage or dams or pollution, and they can’t go from one spot to another,” Alan explains. “But these fish can go up to 30 miles in one direction. They can go up Poplar Lick six miles; they can go down to the reservoir. It’s incredibly unique and there’s hardly anything like this left. It’s our gem.”
Sure, there’s plenty of room for the fish to travel, but Alan, Matt and others with the Eastern Brook Trout Venture want to know exactly where the Savage River’s brook trout swim throughout the seasons. “In order to answer our questions, we implemented this radio tagging study last year,” Matt tells me. “Last year, we had one fish move about three miles overnight. I had one fish that moved about four miles from where it was tagged.”
These sudden movements tell Matt and Alan that some factor encouraged the fish to move far – and fast. “It seems the impetus for these fish to leave the river in the summer months was an increase in water temperature,” Matt says. “In the winter months, they move back.”
By identifying the fish’s preferred habitats, biologists will be able to manage the land to imitate these favored spots, which will help keep the river’s brook trout population healthy.
The large-scale decline of brook trout is not due to overfishing. However, harvesting these fish certainly won’t help rebuild populations. That’s why Maryland DNR decided to create a special regulation for brook trout harvesting in sections of the Savage River watershed.
“You can fish for brook trout with an artificial lure only, and you can’t keep them,” Alan says. “The result so far has been phenomenal, for both the population and for the quality of the fishing.”
It may be difficult to understand how Matt and Alan’s brook trout restoration efforts in the Savage River – 200 miles from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay – are connected to the Bay’s health. After all, western Maryland is a far cry from the crabs, oysters and sailboats associated with the nation’s largest estuary.
“Water rolls downhill,” Matt says simply. “It has since the beginning of time and it will continue to do so. If we can protect the water quality here, as it continues to move downstream, it has a better chance as it flows on towards the Bay.”
So the restoration efforts Matt, Alan and other brook trout scientists dedicate their careers to aren’t so far removed from the Chesapeake after all. “These streams out here 200 miles from the Bay are vital,” Alan says. “When you add up all the water in these small headwater streams, it’s an amazing amount of water.”
Growing up, Carol McDaniel spent a summer or two playing in northeast Ohio’s streams. Catching salamanders and crayfish helped her develop affection for the outdoors. After working 30 years as a nurse in Baltimore, McDaniel is now reliving her childhood in western Maryland, where she monitors streams, searches for macroinvertebrates and mobilizes volunteers with the Savage River Watershed Association (SRWA).
“We were always into the outdoors even though we didn’t work outdoors,” McDaniel says. Her husband, Joe, is a retired scientific computer programmer. “When it got to the point where we were trying to retire, we wanted to pick a place that our kids would want to visit.”
The place they chose was a home on top of a ridge in the Youghiogheny River watershed. The Youghiogheny is not part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed (the “Yough” – pronounced yah-k – flows to the Mississippi River), but it borders the Savage River watershed, one of the most pristine corners of the Chesapeake region.
The Savage River watershed is the largest natural remaining native brook trout habitat in the Mid-Atlantic. Brook trout are able to live in the majority of the 30-mile-long Savage River and its tributaries because the water is highly oxygenated and stays cool (below 68 degrees) year-round. Because brook trout have such steep habitat requirements, they are used as an indicator species. More brook trout in a stream tells scientists that the water is healthy.
But the watershedmay not be healthy much longer. What McDaniel describes as the “inevitable” Marcellus Shale drilling poses a threat to the region. One spill, she says, and the brook trout would be gone.
Another constant issue is landowner habits, such as allowing cows to defecate in steams. Such actions spread beyond private property and into the river system. This problem is particularly serious in rural areas such as Garrett County, where residents may own large parcels of land.
Fortunately, residents involved with SRWA are working together to mitigate and monitor the river system. Since the organization first began (in 2006, with an ad in the local paper calling for “stream monitoring volunteers”), members have grown to include trout fishermen, professors and students at nearby Frostburg State University, part-time residents who vacation in the region, farm landowners, and interested streamside property owners. These diverse perspectives are a tremendous benefit to the organization, as input from every one of watershed's 1,500 residents is essential if the Savage River is to remain healthy.
“We're trying as an organization to walk a delicate line, and not be perceived as a radical tree hugging group,” explains Annie Bristow, SRWA treasurer. “We really want landowners to be on board and for us to be perceived as an organization that can help them.”
Most recently, a couple came to a SRWA meeting asking for the group’s assistance. Their property along the Savage River had begun to rapidly erode due the massive snowmelt during the winter of 2010. SWRA received a grant, and restoration is to begin in spring of 2013.
(Image courtesy Savage River Watershed Association)
“I try to have hope, but everyone keeps telling me that this is going to happen.” Bristow is referring to natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale region in western Maryland. “I guess it is inevitable.”
The Marcellus Shale is a sedimentary rock formation in the Appalachian province that contains deep underground deposits of natural gas. Its use is fairly widespread; according to USGS, in 2009, 25 percent of the energy consumed for electricity, cooking and heating the United States came from natural gas.
As the demand for affordable energy sources increases, energy companies have begun to drill through the rock to extract natural gas. Widespread concern about the environmental effects of this “fracking” process has led to regulations against it in Maryland. Although this protects Maryland's water resources, the bordering states of Pennsylvania and West Virginia have fewer natural gas drilling regulations.
“There are sections of Garrett County where there are only nine miles between Pennsylvania and West Virginia, so Maryland (in between) is still affected greatly,” explains Bristow. “There's drilling sites in West Virginia and Pennsylvania that affect our tributaries, and those streams are already being monitored.”
SRWA seeks to monitor the health of streams before drilling occurs to develop a “baseline” for post-drilling comparison. After undergoing rigorous training by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Bristow and McDaniel trained SRWA volunteers to measure water quality indicators such as temperature, pH and conductivity on 13 sites along the Savage River and its tributaries.
While SRWA and Maryland DNR have been monitoring streams long before the Marcellus Shale debate began, the potential effects of natural gas drilling serve as a new incentive to keep an eye on the Savage River.
“I think when they do begin drilling, we are going to see people concerned about the watershed coming out of the woodwork,” says McDaniel.
One reason the Savage River's water temperature is cool enough for brook trout is the shade provided by eastern hemlock trees along its banks. But these dense hemlock forests may not survive much longer; a tiny insect known as the hemlock woolly adelgid is sucking sap from hemlock trees and killing them. Just as SRWA is preparing for the inevitable Marcellus Shale development, volunteers are also expecting streamside hemlocks to disappear due to this invasive sap-sucker.
To avoid eroding soil, increased water temperatures and other perils that come with bare stream banks, SRWA has planted 4,000 red spruce trees along the Savage River’s shoreline. This spring, they plan to plant 500 more.
(Image courtesy Savage River Watershed Association)
If you drive on Interstate 68 into Garrett County, you'll see a number of farms, each with its own accompanying man-made pond.
“When this area was turned into farmland after it was logged at the turn of the last century, every farmer dug a pond,” explains McDaniel.
Ponds and other unshaded, open areas quickly heat up in warmer months. When these ponds are attached to the Savage River and its tributaries, they dump warm water into the system. This affects water quality, water temperature, and consequently, brook trout.
“One of the things we would like to start doing is to take these ponds off the stream at no expense to the farmer or landowner,” explains McDaniel.
SWRA supported a project that rerouted a pond belonging to the City of Frostburg. “We turned the pond into a three or four acre wetland and re-routed the stream,” says McDaniel. “Within two or three months, there were baby trout in the stream!”
“You’re going to want to take those off for this.” Alicia points to my gloves.
Exposing my hands to the cold – the kind of bitter cold that strikes only in the middle of winter, in the middle of night, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay – did not seem like something I’d ever “want” to do. Why did I volunteer for this again?
But Alicia Berlin, leader of the Atlantic Seaduck Project, has given me the job of untangling something called a "mist net." The net’s delicate fabric is quick to catch on fabric as we stretch it forty or so feet across the Chesapeake Bay. So I reluctantly shed the gloves, exposing my bare hands to winter’s icy chill.
Alicia and her team hope to capture surf scoters and black scoters in the mist net, and then arm them with GPS-like trackers that allow researchers to monitor the ducks’ migration patterns and feeding habits.
Since sea ducks only visit the Chesapeake Bay in winter, and since they are most active in the pre-dawn hours, Alicia’s team works in the cold darkness to assemble the mist net and trap these vacationing birds.
I quickly realize that unraveling the mist net is the easy job. The other volunteer I’m working with is leaning over the edge of the raft, his bare hands in the water; his headlamp the only source of light to illuminate his task.
He’s huffing and puffing and shivering as he pulls our raft along the anchor line, waiting for me to untangle the net above him before we can move forward. I stand nearly on top of him, praying I don't trip and fall overboard into the black, bone-chilling water just a foot below us. It’s so cold I can smell it.
Minutes later, we’re staring at our end product: what looks like a large volleyball net floating in the middle of the water, surrounded by two dozen decoys (plastic fake ducks) bobbling on the frigid waves. The darkness is turning gray, so we rush to our second location and set ourselves on repeat.
Once we finish our setup, there’s nothing left to do but wait. I try to force myself to stay alert – to listen for ducks calling, to search the horizon for flying silhouettes coming towards our decoys – but I can't. The frosty weather is numbing every part of my body, even though I’m wearing a ridiculous-looking "survival suit," a garment reminiscent of Randy's snow suit in A Christmas Story.
I’m not the only one who’s falling asleep sitting up. I met Alicia and her team on the Eastern Shore at 1 a.m., giving me just three hours of sleep. The more consistent volunteers are completely exhausted, pulling all-nighters followed by eight-hour work days. This collective sleep deprivation leads to an interestingly honest team dynamic and contributes to a plethora of freak accidents. (Alicia somehow drove our boat directly into a mist net just minutes after we had set it up.)
One can only hope that our lack of sleep will pays off, but not a single duck has flown into the mist nets all week. Perhaps tonight will make up for team’s previous disappointments.
Apparently, mist netting isn’t the most effective technique to capture sea ducks. According to Alicia, night lighting is far more successful. A team goes out on the water in the middle of the night, preferably in rainy weather, and shines flood lights on the water to locate ducks. Volunteers then capture the unsuspecting ducks in nets.
Captured ducks are kept in cages on the boat until morning. Then they’re transported to Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland, where a surgeon implants the tracking devices in the ducks. (Alicia assures me the ducks can't feel the device.) The next evening, lucky volunteers set the sea ducks free on the Chesapeake Bay.
(Image courtesy Andrew Reding/Flickr)
The number of sea ducks wintering on the Chesapeake Bay has decreased in recent years due to food availability and the effects of climate change. Many sea ducks rely on bay grasses that only grow at certain depths and are affected by algae blooms and high temperatures.
I’m awakened at sunrise by honks and quacks. My raft mates and I scope out the skies in different directions, identifying packs of ducks that will hopefully visit our mist net. My eyes follow pair after pair flying toward the net; but at the last minute, each one goes over or around it. Perhaps these birds are smarter than we give them credit for.
The larger boat that’s watching the second net has similar bad luck. That team decides to sneak up on a pack and drive the birds in the general direction of our nets. After a mess of quacking and fluttering, the ducks head not for the net, but directly toward our raft!
We chase the ducks around the Bay until 10 or 11 that morning, but not a single sea duck gets caught in the nets we worked so hard to set up. 'Tis the unpredictable nature of wildlife biology, the team says. Everything is a constant experiment: from the team's capture technique to the location of the nets to the weather. Failure is simply part of the learning process. Alicia is confident that tomorrow will bring better luck, and that night lighting next week will guarantee results.
We disassemble the mist net and head toward the shore, just in time to beat the growing waves that signal an approaching rain storm.
I've never been happier to bask under an automobile's heat vents.
Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) measured a near-record flow of 775,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River on the morning of Friday, Sept. 9. The river is expected to reach the third-highest flow in history this weekend, ranking behind the June 1972 flow of 1,130,000 cfs and the January 1996 flow of 909,000 cfs.
2011 will most likely be one of the highest annual flow years on record for the Susquehanna River due to wet spring weather and the September tropical storms Irene and Lee. High river flows are also being measured throughout other parts of the Bay watershed. (Visit the USGS’s real-time streamflow website for more information about the region’s river flows.)
Scientists expect that the sheer magnitude of the flood waters – which carry nutrient and sediment pollution from the land to the water – will have a negative effect on the Bay’s health. Some concerns and potential effects of the flooding include:
Timing makes a big difference in whether flood events have a short-term or long-term effect on the Bay’s health. Because these storms occurred in late summer, the Bay Program expects that there will be fewer long term impacts to the Bay ecosystem. September is the end of the peak growing season for bay grasses and is not a major spawning period for aquatic life. Additionally, cooler temperatures should prevent large algae blooms from growing in response to excess nutrient pollution.
It will take time for Bay Program partners to monitor and assess conditions before the true impact of the rain events is known. Maryland and Virginia are working closely with scientists from universities, the U.S. EPA and NOAA to expand monitoring of the Bay and its tidal rivers in the coming days and weeks. The USGS is working with the six Bay states, the District of Columbia and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to measure nutrient and sediment pollution at key monitoring sites as part of the Bay Program’s non-tidal water quality monitoring network.
Four monitoring reports by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) show both good and poor results for the health of the Susquehanna River and its tributaries. The reports focus on the Susquehanna River and other large rivers; the West Branch Susquehanna Subbasin; the Lackawanna River; and streams that cross the New York-Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania-Maryland state lines.
Researchers with the Susquehanna Large River Assessment Project found fairly good water quality at the eight stations they assessed in the upper and middle Susquehanna subbasins and the Chemung River, located between Sidney, N.Y., and Towanda, Pa. Four of the sites were designated as “non-impaired,” while three sites were slightly impaired and one site was moderately impaired. Only 4.5 percent of the water quality values exceeded their respective limits.
During the Middle Susquehanna Subbasin Year-2 Survey, researchers studied water quality in the Middle Susquehanna Subbasin, focusing on the Lackawanna River watershed. In particular, SRBC examined the effects of stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows on the health of the Lackawanna River and its tributaries. Researchers found that during storms, nutrients and suspended solids often exceeded water quality standards. Some of this pollution was likely due to the introduction of human sewage from combined sewer overflows.
Abandoned mine drainage, followed by pollution from air deposition, was the most prevalent pollution issue found during the West Branch Susquehanna Subbasin Year-1 Survey. Researchers collected samples at 141 sites and found that the percentage of impaired streams in this subbasin continued to be higher than in other parts of the Susquehanna River basin.
During the Assessment of Interstate Streams in the Susquehanna River Basin, researchers found that streams crossing the New York-Pennsylvania state line most frequently exceeded aluminum and iron standards. Many Pennsylvania-Maryland state line streams, which are located in a heavily agricultural region, had high nutrient concentrations.
The monitoring results are included in four technical reports, which are available on SRBC's website.
The Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) is installing real-time monitoring stations on 10 streams in the upper Susquehanna River watershed to collect data that may be used in the future to evaluate the effects of drilling on local streams.
Each monitoring station will be equipped with sensors that can detect subtle changes in water temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, conductance and water clarity. The stations also record water depth so establish a relationship with stream flows.
The new monitoring stations will be installed in December, and data will be available starting January 1 on SRBC’s website.
Given the public’s concern about natural gas drilling in the Marcellus shale, SRBC is trying to record the health of streams in the upper Susquehanna River as quickly as possible, according to SRBC Executive Director Paul Schwartz.
“Knowing background conditions is how water managers determine if changes in a particular stream are normal for that area or the result of possible pollution events,” Schwartz said.
For example, salt used to de-ice roads can increase conductivity in streams. This activity is not related to natural gas drilling, but elevated conductance levels could be presumed to be the result of drilling. Learning about the factors that currently affect the health of streams will help scientists determine if future changes are typical or unusual.
The 10 stream watersheds cover 12 counties: Allegany, Broome, Chemung, Cortland, Madison, Oneida, Otsego, Steuben, Tioga and Tompkins counties in New York and Bradford and Susquehanna counties in Pennsylvania.
The monitoring stations will become part of SRBC’s Remote Water Quality Monitoring Network, which provides environmental protection officials with early warnings to help them better pinpoint and respond more quickly to changes in the health of streams.
SRBC has already installed 27 monitoring stations, mostly in northern Pennsylvania, where drilling in the Marcellus shale is most active, as well as other locations where no drilling is planned for control data.
Visit SRBC’s website for more information about real-time water quality monitoring on the Susquehanna River.
Underwater bay grasses covered 85,899 acres of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers in 2009, about 46 percent of the 185,000-acre baywide abundance goal, according to data from scientists with the Chesapeake Bay Program. This was a 12 percent increase from 76,860 acres in 2008 and the highest baywide acreage since 2002.
Bay grasses -- also called submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV -- are critical to the Bay ecosystem because they provide habitat and nursery grounds for fish and blue crabs, serve as food for animals such as turtles and waterfowl, clear the water, absorb excess nutrients and reduce shoreline erosion. Bay grasses are also an excellent measure of the Bay's overall condition because they are not under harvest pressure and their health is closely linked to water quality.
“The overall increase in SAV acreage in 2009 was strongly driven by changes in the middle and lower Bay zones, including Tangier Sound, the lower central and eastern lower Chesapeake Bay, Mobjack Bay, and the Honga, Rappahannock and lower Pocomoke rivers,” said Bob Orth, scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and leader of the SAV baywide annual survey.
Bay grass acreage increased in all three of the Bay’s geographic zones – upper, middle and lower – for just the second time since 2001.
Upper Bay Zone (from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge north)
In the upper Bay zone, bay grasses covered about 23,598 acres, just shy of the 23,630-acre goal for this area and a 3 percent increase from 2008.
Large percentage increases were observed in the Northeast River, part of the Sassafras River and the upper central Chesapeake Bay, an area just north of the Bay Bridge. However, bay grass acreage in a few local rivers, such as the Bush and Magothy, decreased significantly and offset increases elsewhere.
Overall, the massive grass bed on the Susquehanna Flats continues to dominate this zone.
“The growth and persistence of the SAV bed in the Susquehanna Flats – including the largest bed in the Bay – continues to be a major success story for bay grass recovery today,” said Lee Karrh, living resources assessment chief with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and chair of the Bay Program's SAV Workgroup. “Many of the Bay’s lower salinity areas are doing well and seem to be driven by reductions in nutrient pollution entering the Bay. Seventeen segments in this zone have met or exceeded their restoration targets.”
Middle Bay Zone (from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the Potomac River and Pocomoke Sound)
In the middle Bay zone, bay grass acreage increased 15 percent to 39,604 acres, 34 percent of the 115,229-acre goal.
Eighty-four percent of the acreage increase in the middle Bay zone occurred in five segments: Eastern Bay, the Honga River, Pocomoke and Tangier sounds, and the lower central Chesapeake Bay. These changes reflect a large expansion of widgeon grass – the dominant SAV species in the middle Bay zone – as well as the continued recovery of eelgrass in Tangier Sound.
Elsewhere in the middle Bay zone, large percentage declines in bay grass acreage were observed in the Severn River and Piscataway Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River.
Lower Bay Zone (south of the Potomac River)
In the lower Bay zone, researchers mapped 22,697 acres of bay grasses – a 17 percent increase from 2008 and 49 percent of the 46,030-acre restoration goal. This is the third year that bay grasses in the lower Bay zone have increased since 2005, when hot summer temperatures caused a dramatic large-scale dieback of eelgrass.
Eighty-two percent of the acreage increase in the lower Bay zone occurred in Mobjack Bay, the lower Rappahannock River and the eastern lower Chesapeake Bay.
None of the 28 segments in the lower Bay zone saw large declines in bay grasses in 2009.
“We are cautiously optimistic about eelgrass recovery now that it is into its third year following the 2005 dieback,” said Orth. “But we are concerned about the long-term absence of eelgrass from areas that traditionally supported large dense beds, such as much of the York and Rappahannock rivers, many of the mid-Bay areas just north of Smith Island, and in the deeper areas of Pocomoke Sound. Declining water clarity noted in much of the lower Bay may be a major impediment to eelgrass recovery.”
Annual bay grass acreage estimates are an indication of the Bay's response to pollution control efforts, such as implementation of agricultural best management practices (BMPs) and upgrades to wastewater treatment plants.
Bay watershed residents can do their part to help bay grasses by reducing their use of lawn fertilizers, which contribute excess nutrients to local waterways and the Bay, and participating with their local tributary teams or watershed organizations.
Bay grass acreage is estimated through an aerial survey, which is flown from late spring to early fall. Visit VIMS’s website for additional information about the aerial survey and an interactive map of bay grass acreage throughout the Bay.
This post was adapted from the Bay Backpack blog.
Get involved in National Environmental Education Week, which runs from April 11th to the 17th. The theme this year is Be Water and Energy Wise. Water and energy conservation are a very important part of the Chesapeake restoration effort. As more and more people move into the Chesapeake region, our need for electricity and water increases while the supply remains about the same. So how can we address the needs of a growing population? The answer is simple: through CONSERVING our resources.
So how can YOUR school conserve during National Environmental Education Week?
Hold a School Water Audit
School water audits are a great way to get the entire school involved in a project for EE Week. Audits are fun, hands-on and educational. During a water audit your students will examine the ways they use water everyday and then discuss ways they can conserve water by using it more efficiently. Look through the Water Audit Teacher’s Guide to find out how to get your school involved before, during and after your water audit.
Then use the Water Audit Lesson to actually conduct an audit at your school. In this lesson students will examine the school’s water use over the past year, use flow meters to determine how much water sinks and toilets use and finally compare water use between classrooms. Once your school completes its water audit you can share your data online with classrooms around the country!
Test the Water in Your Creek
Testing the quality of the water in your local creek or river is a great way to engage students in hands-on learning about our water resources. By purchasing a simple water testing kit (about $30) you can test your stream for the following:
Using the water testing kit students can record observations about the health of their local stream. With data in hand, you can examine the land around the stream to hypothesize why the stream is healthy or polluted. Your class map pipes from stormdrains and development in the area to try to determine the source of your water pollution. Using this information students can then suggest ways to redesign development to minimize the impact on our water resources.
So get involved and BE WATER WISE this week!
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.
The Bay Program’s integrated models, monitoring and research used for Chesapeake restoration were featured at a scientific symposium for the 2008 World Water Expo in Zaragoza, Spain, in mid-May.
The presentation detailed the Bay Program’s linked airshed, watershed, estuarine and living resource models, along with supporting and corroborating monitoring observations and research. The well-received presentation 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.
A paper on the Bay Program’s presentation will be included in a peer-reviewed book of scientific papers associated with the Expo, to be published later this year.
Water resource experts from across the globe -- including Australia, Israel, Jordan, South Africa and the United States -- participated in the scientific symposium, a kick-off event to the Water Expo. The theme of this year’s Water Expo, which will run from June 14 to September 14, is “Water and Sustainable Development.”
For more information about the 2008 World Water Expo, read this short article from the New York Times.