Local watersheds making the grade
MRC report shows improvement in most Mid-Shore Chesapeake areas
ST. MICHAELS — It’s good news on top of good news for Mid-Shore Chesapeake watersheds, according to data gathered by the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy and presented Friday evening, April 29, during its annual State of the Rivers Party & Report Card Release at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
Most rivers, creeks and bays are holding their own with good grades on the Mid-Shore side of the Chesapeake.
Five areas have made significant improvements and only one area declined — Crab Alley Bay of Kent Island.
For six years, the MRC’s army of more than 50 volunteer creek watchers have sampled and tested Bay waters from 120 strategic sites to record the quality of the Chesapeake Bay’s waters from May through October.
The volunteers’ work is supplemented by MRC’s staff and riverkeepers who patrol the rivers at least weekly collecting data, making note of potentially harmful trends and sniffing out sources of pollution.
The River Report Card party is the annual gathering of creek watchers, who get treated with refreshments, a keynote speaker and a chance to see the fruits of their labors.
The scientists said one of the highlights of summer 2015 was that water clarity in the middle portions of Mid-Shore rivers was the best it had been in many years.
They said it was primarily because 2014 and 2015 had relatively low rainfall, meaning there were less nutrients flowing off land saturated by rain.
They said all that dry weather meant higher saline
concentrations and saltier water pushed up from the lower Bay.
“Less diluted, saltier inflows from the lower Bay and ocean can also lead to better water quality since they carry fewer nutrients,” Matt Pluta said in his report. Pluta is the MRC staff riverkeeper for the Choptank River and tributaries. He said there was also a welcome profusion of underwater grasses in those areas.
Pluta said at Harris Creek, the site where a large oyster restoration had been completed, there was a 20 percent increase in overall clarity from 2014 to 2015.
On the down side, he said, dissolved oxygen scores did not improve, except in LaTrappe Creek and Island Creek.
Looking at nutrient levels, he said, there was little change in nitrogen levels from 2014 to 2015 in the Choptank, and phosphorus worsened at all test areas.
The Tuckahoe River continues to score the lowest on the Mid-Shore, even though phosphorus has decreased 28 percent, representing the largest decrease of any tributary, he said.
Pluta said after analyzing five years of data, it shows the mouths of rivers tend to be cleaner than the upstream reaches and changes in water quality seem to coincide with wet and dry years.
That supports the theory that the watershed’s land is the source of pollution, Pluta said.
“If we reduce pollution inputs to mimic those in a dry year, then we will see rapid improvement in water quality,” he said.
Jeff Horstman, MRC Executive Director and staff riverkeeper for the Miles River, the Wye River and Eastern Bay, said the data indicated some strong water quality improvements in his watersheds.
“On my trips to Eastern Bay last summer, I could frequently see the bottom in 8 to 10 feet of clear water,” he wrote in his report. “Something we have not experienced in many years.”
Horstman said he knew many felt the water improvements were from lack of summer rains, but he hoped it was the beginning of a larger trend.
He said on a percentage basis, he and his team saw real improvement in the Miles and Wye rivers, experiencing 14.5 percent and 9.5 percent increases, respectively, in overall water quality, mainly because of water clarity.
Even so, both rivers scored poorly with too much phosphorus, he said. Bacteria sampling was sometimes too high, he said, and in some cases indicated swimming should be restricted.
He also said improper discharge from boaters in the Miles River is a main source of bacteria and he hoped the MRC’s new Pump Out Boat that begins operation this spring would help.
Sixteen main sites, from Kent Island to upper Dorchester County, were sampled.
Those grades that stayed the same were Prospect Bay with a B plus; Greenwood Creek, Eastern Bay, Harris Creek and Broad Creek with the score of B; the Tred Avon River and Choptank River with the score of B minus; and the Wye River, Wye Narrows and Tuckahoe River with the score of C.
Those areas that improved were Cox Creek and Shipping Creek, both of which went from a B to a B plus; LaTrappe and Island Creek went from a B minus to a B; the Miles River went from a C to a B minus; and the Wye East River went from a C minus to a C.
The only area to decline was Crab Alley Bay, which went from a B plus to a B. For the first time in several years, no areas were rated C minus.
Each year, MRC gives a volunteer of the year award, and it was announced on Friday evening that the award would be named for Andy Coombs, a volunteer for MRC who helped found the organization and was instrumental in its oyster restoration efforts.
Coombs died on April 15. His family was present to see the first awards given in his name.
Volunteers Joe Jelich and Mike Bilek were the first to receive the Andy Coombs Volunteer Award.
“They’ve been dedicated creek watchers from the beginning,” Horstman said. “They go out together. They take their responsibilities seriously while they have fun with it.”
He said it they had an icebreaker, they would continue take samples all year long, and they support all of MRC’s fundraisers and events.
Also honored was Linda Scoggins, former Anne Arundel County schoolteacher who has been helping with MRC’s education programs.
Kate Livie, education director at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, gave the keynote speech about her new book, “Chesapeake Oysters.”
For more information about the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy’s work, volunteering, programs and outreach, visit its website at www.midshoreriverkeeper.org or call 443-385-0511.
Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy volunteers Mike Bilek, right, and Joe Jelich were honored with the Andy Coombs Volunteer Award on Friday.