Monitoring Progress in the Bay

by Jim Edward

EPA Regional Administrator Cosmo Servidio observes underwater grasses growing at the Susquehanna Flats. (Photo by Jim Edward/Chesapeake Bay Program)

August and September were very wet and rainy months in most parts of the Chesapeake Bay region. But on September 19, there was a break in the clouds, which was fortunate for those of us going on a water quality monitoring “cruise” in the northern portion of the Bay.

Maryland Secretary of Natural Resources Mark Bolton invited EPA Mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator Cosmo Servidio, Water Division Director Cathy Libertz, and me to join him and his staff on their research vessel to observe their tidal Bay monitoring team in action.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) monitoring teams do water quality monitoring cruises of the tidal Chesapeake Bay on a regular basis during the year. They take samples at numerous stations during three-day cruises beginning in the south at the mouth of the Bay and finishing up north where the Susquehanna River meets the tidal Bay.

We began by visiting one of DNR’s fixed monitoring stations where the team took various measurements including water temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, Ph, turbidity and chlorophyll a. They also took water samples to test for levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, which are the three pollutants Bay jurisdictions are working to reduce under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load.

Monitoring the Bay and its tributaries allows the Bay Program to detect changes that take place, improves our collective understanding of the Bay ecosystem, and reveals trends that provide valuable information to policy makers.

The second leg of our cruise on a smaller boat enabled us to venture out into an area in the upper Bay known as the Susquehanna Flats. This is the longest contiguous bed of underwater grasses in the Chesapeake Bay, spanning approximately 10 square miles near the mouth of the Susquehanna River.

Underwater grasses are important because they offer food to invertebrates and migratory waterfowl, shelter young fish and crabs, and keep the water healthy by absorbing excess nutrients, trapping suspended sediment and slowing shoreline erosion.

Our hosts were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to see much of the grass beds due to the unusually high amounts of rain we had this summer. Since June 1, more than twice the normal amount of rainfall has fallen over a broad swath from Washington, D.C., up through Maryland and central Pennsylvania, resulting in higher river flows into the Bay. Measurements show freshwater flows into the Bay this August were the highest ever recorded.

Despite these conditions, we saw many of the dozen or more species of underwater grasses that live in the Bay. While cloudier than usual, we still could pick out large stands of widgeon grass, wild celery and some hydrilla. I found it awe-inspiring to be out in the middle of almost 10,000 acres of underwater grasses.

It will be interesting to see next time what impact the record rainfalls and associated nutrient and sediment load increases will have on Bay water quality and the abundance of the underwater grasses.

We will see if the resiliency we are trying to build by putting best management practices on the land will help to minimize any potentially adverse impacts to water quality, underwater grass fisheries and habitats.

The Bay Program’s scientists will undoubtedly be making comparisons to Hurricane Irene, and Tropical Storm Lee, and other high-flow events to see if the resilience of the Bay ecosystem is improving as much as we have been working toward.

About the author: Jim Edward is the Acting Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program. He plays a lead role in coordinating the U.S. EPA’s activities with other federal agencies and works with state and local authorities to improve the water quality and living resources of the Bay.

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