October 19, 2018
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  • While the bay’s overall health has improved, the overall health of the Magothy and Severn have been stagnant over the last few years.
    Photo courtesy of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources
    While the bay’s overall health has improved, the overall health of the Magothy and Severn have been stagnant over the last few years.

Chesapeake Bay Health Improves As Government Reduces Cleanup Enforcement

Maya Pottiger
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August 21, 2018

Conowingo Dam Overflows

The Chesapeake Bay’s 2017 report card, which was released in July, delivered good news: The bay’s overall health improved in 2017.

The report was produced by the Integration & Application Network, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

“We’ve seen tremendous progress,” said Bruce Michael, the resource assessment service director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

However, after the constant heavy rains caused the Conowingo Dam to overflow in July, there may be some long-term effects to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.

Impact Of The Conowingo Dam

The Conowingo Dam was built to trap nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution and keep it from reaching the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay. With the overflow, all of the built-up debris and pollutants are flowing into the bay.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is monitoring the bay and taking samples of the water to send to labs for analytics, Michael said. The results of these tests will come back in one or two months, which is when Department of Natural Resources will compare the data with previous tests.

A potential long-term effect of the overflow is how the influx of fresh water will affect the bay’s oysters.

“Oysters can withstand a certain amount of fresh water, but over a long duration, there could be an impact on the oyster populations, as well,” Michael said. “We won’t know that until probably in the fall, as well.”

The fish population isn’t as much of a concern because fish can swim away.

“Some of them are euryhaline, which means they spend some of their time in fresh water and some of their time in salt water, so it doesn’t impact those species too much,” Michael said.

Are The Local Rivers Getting Healthier?

Despite the improvements of the Chesapeake, the Magothy and Patapsco rivers aren’t directly affected by these changes.

The rivers notice more seasonal changes than consistent health improvements. A rainy spring means more runoff, bringing pollutants from land into the water. Underwater plants vary year by year, changing the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water.

On a positive note, the fresh water from the dam overflow mixed the water column, “so it’s helped provide oxygen to some of the bottom waters, providing a little bit better habitat for fish to deal with during the summer when we have these low oxygen levels,” Michael said. The fresh water also helped lower the surface temperature, which was heating up in the summer months.

The sources of the rivers’ problems can be defined by the “four S’s,” said Andrew Muller, an associate professor at the United States Naval Academy: stormwater runoff, septics, sewers and sediments.

Patapsco River Status

While the bay’s overall health has improved, the report card shows the Patapsco River (grouped with Back River) has scored the lowest out of all the bay’s rivers since the report card started in 1986. The highest score the rivers have received was 27 percent in 2016.

“Throughout the Patapsco River in general, it’s highly developed, so we have a lot of roads and sidewalks and pavements,” said Angela Haren, the Baltimore Harbor waterkeeper at Blue Water Baltimore. “When it rains, the water just washes over the impervious pavement and takes the pollutants directly into storm drain.”

Because of the interconnected ecosystem, the health improvements of the Chesapeake Bay will eventually reach the Patapsco River through tidal flushing.

“Until we curb the vast amount of stormwater and sewage pollution that’s coming into the streams and Patapsco, we won’t really see any improvements,” Haren said.

Magothy River Status

The overall health of the Magothy has been stagnant over the last few years. The best way to determine whether the health is improving is by taking yearly averages and looking at trends, said Magothy River Association President Paul Spadaro.

“The trend of the Magothy has been stagnating for years,” Spadaro said. “Our health has always been around an F and a D-, especially in the last 10 years. We’ve had encouraging signs. We’ve seen more grasses growing, and then two to three years from that point, it falls back.”

However, the Magothy is currently experiencing a “mussels explosion,” Spadaro said.

“That’s really a significant situation because these mussels are filter feeders. They’re like oysters, but these reproduce faster than the oysters do,” Spadaro said. “Years that we have these mussels, you will see, in a matter of weeks, improvements to water clarity.”

Spadaro said he anticipates a healthier year in the Magothy due to the mussels, which are a native “feast-or-bust species.”

While the Magothy may reap some of the benefits of a healthier Chesapeake Bay, it’s not known how long it would take for that to happen.

“Right now, we’re not seeing the great benefit of those improvements yet, at least downstream,” Muller said. “Upstream, we’re seeing definite benefits. Nobody knows what the lag time will be; we just know it’s not going to be an immediate improvement.”

Government Rolls Back Clean-Up Enforcement

To ensure all areas of the bay are getting cleaned, all of the watershed states have specific targets they have to meet to reduce the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), Michael said. There are six states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed: Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia.

“We have specific targets that we have to meet to reduce our loadings to the bay by the year 2025,” Michael said. “Each state gets a certain target, and each state has developed strategies to meet those specific targets. The bay TMDL, which is a regulatory tool, makes it mandated that we have to do this with EPA oversight.”

However, the U.S. House of Representatives voted for the second time this year in July to prohibit the federal government from penalizing states from missing set targets. Maryland’s congressional delegation voted 7-0 against the amendment. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer did not vote.

The bill still has to pass through the Senate, which overrode it the first time the bill passed through the House.

“We’re hoping that the same scenario works out again this year,” Michael said. “Having that federal oversight is important. The EPA has basically a stick of funding and other things that they can mandate the states to do, and they can withhold funding. That’s why we hope that the bill is not passed as it currently was submitted by the House.”

To view the Chesapeake Bay’s 2017 report card, visit www.ecoreportcard.org/report-cards/chesapeake-bay.

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