High Flows to Chesapeake Continued in July, Triggering Large Dead Zone


The Susquehanna exceeds its banks at Port Deposit during a high flow period in September 2018. Bay Journal photo by Dave Harp

The Bay continued to be on the receiving end of high river flows in July. The flows have been higher than normal for 13 out of the last 15 months, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The pollution carried into the Bay during that span has led to worse than normal water quality and last month triggered a large oxygen-starved “dead zone” in the Bay.

In July, the USGS reported that the estimated cumulative flow into the Bay from its nine largest rivers — which account for more than 95% of the freshwater entering the Bay — averaged 54,000 cubic feet per second. That was the 15th highest flow on record for the month since the agency began tracking river flows into the Bay in 1936.

So far this year, the flows were above normal in five of the first seven months of the year. That followed an eight-month period from May through December last year when flows were above normal every month.

The USGS considers a flow to be above normal if it is among the top 25% for a given month.

The data is available on a new USGS web page.

High freshwater flows are typically bad news for Bay water quality because they carry large amounts of water-fouling nutrients and sediments, which are flushed off the landscape and into the Chesapeake.

In the Bay, nutrients fuel algae blooms that cloud the water. As the blooms die and decompose, they are consumed by bacteria in a process that depletes water of oxygen. Sediment also clouds the water and smothers bottom habitats.

Scientists have been worried that the protracted period of high flows will lead to a decline in underwater grass beds, which need sunlight to survive. Earlier this year they predicted that the huge influx of nutrients would lead to a greatly expanded dead zone.

Indeed, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported that the area of low oxygen, or hypoxic, water was significantly worse than average during its two July water quality monitoring surveys.

In early July, the DNR reported a dead zone of 1.92 cubic miles in the Maryland portion of the Bay, compared with an average of 1.36 cubic miles. In late July, scientists found 2.01 cubic miles of low-oxygen water, compared with the late July average of 1.34 cubic miles.

Along with pollution, high flows added a surge of freshwater to the Bay that kept salinity low near the surface, causing strong stratification between the surface and higher salinity bottom waters. That essentially traps oxygen-starved water on the bottom and prevents it from mixing with the oxygen-rich surface.

DNR scientists said conditions also were aggravated by temperatures that warmed Bay waters to nearly 90 degrees. Warmer water holds less oxygen than cool water.

The department’s monitoring reports are available here.

By Karl Blankenship

Leave it to Beavers by Bay Journal’s Tom Horton


Notes to myself on preparing to teach my Chesapeake Bay course at Salisbury University for the 10th year:

A pair of young beavers perch atop their lodge in a Nanticoke River wetland. Bay Journal photo by Dave Harp

Teach oysters? Always, but this time I’m also going bigger, with beavers. Both are “keystone” species, and Castor canadensis, aka the North American beaver, is potentially the more important, even if restoring bivalves gets more press.

Sewage treatment? Can’t ever ignore 17 million toilet flushers, but as with beavers over oysters, I’m moving inland, traveling upslope, emphasizing the lands of the Bay’s watershed vs. the Bay itself.

And that word, “watershed,” let’s reimagine it — it only entered the language around 1800, by which time we’d already eliminated most beavers and their dams and ponds throughout the Chesapeake region. And, that fundamentally altered and accelerated the way water moved off the landscape.

So what’s a better word — waterkeep? Waterseep? Waterooze? Waterhold? …Something to get us back conceptually to the way it was when the Bay was healthy, its lands more fiercely retentive of life (water equals life).

You want to tell students everything you know. But when you have just 16 three-hour classes a semester, and you’re trying to spend four or five of those sessions outside with watermen and farmers and scientists, or paddling through climate-changed landscapes, you have to choose.

Land use most of the ballgame

Recently, my choices have moved upslope, come ashore, for a couple of reasons.

Land use is most of the ballgame in our estuary, more so than almost any other on Earth. The watershed/waterkeep is about 16 times the area of the tidal waters into which it drains. And the Bay is so shallow that there’s astoundingly little volume of water given its long, broad surface — clearly too little to dilute the runoff from 48 million acres.

The other reason is that the advanced sewage treatment and air pollution control technologies that have carried the Bay restoration to its current, modest success don’t have enough juice left to get us to our 2025 cleanup goals.

This is especially so in light of a growing population — and in light of no population-control policies at any level of government, or even among most environmental groups.

Success by 2025 is going to depend more and more on how well we can halt pollution running from the land — specifically the land that our population radically alters wherever it goes.

Stormwater controls from developed landscapes are better designed than ever, but expensive. It’s uncertain they will be deployed, maintained, inspected and enforced anywhere near 100%. Sediment control, for example, decades after it became law in places like Maryland, remains inadequate.


Agriculture, a far larger pollution source, is moving in some good directions with a new phosphorus-based manure control mandate in Maryland and the increasing use of winter cover crops that suck up fertilizers from groundwater before it carries them to the Bay.

But this is not happening everywhere, particularly not in Pennsylvania; and even where it is happening, we still don’t have convincing evidence that we’ll get big enough pollution reductions from the intensive row cropping and concentrations of animals that typify modern farming.

Add to this the real possibility that national policy may soon call for greater use of corn-based ethanol in gasoline. It saves little or no energy and would likely result in clearing more acres around the Bay for more corn.

There are promising programs to counteract polluted runoff, such as planting thousands of miles of vegetated buffers along rivers and streams. But those efforts are far behind schedule, and they don’t specifically call for the vegetation to be forest, the best buffer.

When beavers ruled

And while such greening of the Bay’s lands is good, we know that far better would be green and wet; and that’s where we need to reconsider and actively restore the beaver.

No creature on Earth, save for modern humans, has more capacity to transform a landscape; and in designing a landscape that produces excellent water quality, the beaver has no equal.

Beavers ruled the hydrology of North America for a million years or more, until just the last few centuries, when fur trapping reduced populations from an estimated 100 million or more to less than half a million. In the Chesapeake, from millions to thousands is a fair estimate.

Through damming and ponding, beavers stanched the shedding of water from the watershed, cleansed it, filtered it, held back floods, let rain soak in to keep water tables high and streams running even in drought. They created luxurious habitats for a stunning variety of amphibians, fish, waterfowl and mammals.

In recent decades, beavers have come back to the point where a solid body of science in Canada and the United States confirms they were this continent’s most important keystone species — a species whose functioning underpins a whole ecosystem.

My class this year listened to a young man in the stream-restoration business say that in many cases, the work that his company does might be done as well or better by just releasing beavers.

But it is illegal to do that, he said.

That’s a mindset that needs to change. It will take education to overcome prevailing views of beavers as tree-chewing, property-flooding nuisances. They can be, but there are technologies to help us coexist — piping that keeps beaver ponds deep enough for the animals without flooding, for example.

You will hear more about beavers in my future columns — and in the news, I hope. A good place to start: Should the Chesapeake restoration effort include a beaver goal?

In the meantime, we must emulate the animal any way we can, creating wetlands throughout the landscape wherever there is opportunity, moving rapidly toward a “slower” watershed, one that sheds water only grudgingly.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.

Ecosystem: WATER/WAYS: Smithsonian Exhibit Opens in Oxford


Water: Seventy-one percent of earth’s surface is covered with it. It influences what we eat, where we live, and how we work. It impacts climate, inspires art, music, and religion. It is an environmental necessity. It affects our life on the Eastern Shore. Which is why the current traveling Smithsonian Museum on Main Street (MoMS) exhibit, Water/Ways, at the St. Paul’s Church in Oxford is such a significant exhibition.

Sponsored by the Oxford Museum & Maryland Humanities, the program is designed to explore and raises awareness of water and how it influences economy, history, migration, culture, and spirituality. It also looks at the environmental impact and ways to protect dwindling supplies of this critical resource.

The concept behind MoMS is to send high-quality exhibits to small museums in towns with small populations. Places that usually wouldn’t have the opportunity to participate in a national exhibition program. The selected towns are provided with ready-to-install exhibitions containing a variety of high-quality, informative units with photographs, text panels, and touchscreen interactive kiosks featuring video and audio content. Much of the work done to coordinate, install, and present the exhibition is done by volunteers. After six weeks, the exhibit is taken down and sent to the next scheduled location. Organizations all across Maryland competed for the chance to host this traveling exhibition, and the Oxford Museum was one of only six communities awarded the unique opportunity.

“The way it’s laid out, it’s meant to be of interest to a lot of different levels of curiosity,” says Stuart Parnes, president of the Oxford Museum. “So, there are things here that if you just want to look at the big picture, you can just do that. If you want to read a lot of detail, you can do that. The whole idea of these shows is to get people to think about issues and traditions that have affected our lives forever and we just kind of overlooked them or don’t think they’re important to us.”

But the exhibit is meant to do more than just be an educational experience. With support from state humanities councils, towns have the opportunity to create their own educational programs. “The idea is that each community that takes one of these shows amplifies it with what makes sense in the local community with their local culture or their local history, and their local arts,” says Parnes.

Since the Oxford Museum was too small to contain the 650 square foot exhibit along with the local programming, the main presentation is at the St. Paul’s Church, who cleared their calendar for the 6-week show. Two ancillary Water/Ways exhibits are on display at the Museum: “Carrying On – Four Centuries on the Oxford Bellevue Ferry,” which details one of the area’s most popular tourist attractions and “A Rising Tide in the Heart of the Chesapeake Bay,” which tells the story of Smith and Holland Islands and their struggle with erosion and rising waters. We have a split venue.” says Parnes, “We decided to have them open on the same days and the same schedule so that people could walk back and forth between both locations.”

Expanding on the experience of the informative, inspiring, and eye-opening exhibitions are a series of free and open to the public programs that feature experts in their field. “We’re trying to use people who are local that maybe folks haven’t really connected to yet,” says Parnes. “So, we’re not bringing people in from Baltimore and not bringing people in from Washington. This is about our own little area.” Oxford Community Center, Oxford Town Hall, Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, and the Easton Library provided space for the educational series which began in mid-July. The remaining lineup includes:

August 7, 5:30pm: Water, Water Everywhere: Sea Level Rise on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy staff.
August 8, 6:00pm: Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier with the book’s author, Earl Swift.
August 14, 5:30pm: Vibrio bacteria: Everything You Didn’t Want to Know, But Probably Should with Ava Ellett (Cooperative Oxford Lab/NOAA).
August 21, 5:30pm: Flushed with Pride (a discussion on Oxford’s new state of the art water treatment facility) by Oxford Town Manager, Cheryl Lewis
Additional information and location of programs may be found by visiting: https://www.oxfordmuseummd.org/events/

Water/Ways is open Friday-Monday 10:00am-4:00pm
St. Paul’s Church 225 S Morris St. and the Oxford Museum 101 S Morris St.
The exhibit runs through August 24, 2019

Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.

Shorter, Warmer Winters Could Lead to Longer, more Productive Blue Crab Season


Scientists from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science are predicting that warmer winters in the Chesapeake Bay will likely lead to longer and more productive seasons for Maryland’s favorite summer crustacean, the blue crab.

Researchers examined data on increasing temperatures in the Chesapeake Bay and predictions for continued warming. They found that winters will be up to 50% shorter by 2100, and overwinter survival of the blue crab will increase by at least 20% compared to current conditions.

“Blue crabs are a climate change winner in the bay. As the bay gets warmer they will do better because they are a more tropical species,” said study co-author and Professor Tom Miller of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “We always hear about those species that are going to struggle or move. Blue crab are going to do better.”

The blue crab is found along the Atlantic Coast from New England to Argentina. Maryland’s blue crabs spend their winters dormant in the muddy sediment at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, emerging only when water temperatures near 50° F. In recent years, this dormancy period has been becoming shorter, and trends indicate it will become shorter still—and could potentially become nonexistent.

“Water temperatures are warming and the crabs are cold blooded so their metabolic rate is directly related to warmer temperature. Warmer water means they grow faster,” said Hillary Lane Glandon, who conducted this research as a graduate student at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and is now a post-doctoral research associate at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington.

Scientists predict that the shortening of winter combined with increases in average wintertime temperatures will cause a significant increase in juvenile blue crab winter survival so that the population behavior comes to resemble that currently observed in the Sounds of North Carolina and further south.

“In 100 years, we would expect winter for crabs in Solomons to look more like winter currently looks in southern North Carolina,” said Glandon. “No winter for the crabs.”

While this may sound great, don’t stock up on your mallets and Old Bay yet.

Crabbing is prohibited December through March in the lower Chesapeake Bay, which has helped in maintaining the population at sustainable levels. However, an increase in wintertime crab activity may encourage a lengthening of crabbing season similar to states such as North Carolina and Louisiana, where crabs are active year-round.

“People will be able to fish for them almost year-round. However, this challenges the traditional pattern in which waterman fish for striped bass in the spring and crabs in the summer and oysters in the winter—that traditional seasonal rotation of the harvest. It’s a cultural challenge,” said Miller.

Climate change not only signals warming temperatures but also increased variability in temperatures, further complicating wintertime management of the species. A particularly cold winter could devastate a year-round fishery.

“If crabs start moving and feeding year-round, they represent an added predation pressures on the bay’s ecosystem, and we don’t know how the ecosystem will respond,” said Miller.

Predicting change

The researchers used computer-modeled projections of future temperature from the World Climate Research Programme’s Coupled Model Intercomparison Project to explore how changes in water temperature may impact the overwintering behavior and winter survival of blue crab in the Chesapeake Bay in the next 100 years.

In order to create a model that was directly relevant to the Chesapeake Bay near Solomons, Maryland, they were able to access a long-term (1938-2016) dataset of daily water and air temperature measurements collected right in their backyard in the Patuxent River. From the pier at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, water temperatures have been taken by hand at noon from 1938–2012 and by automatic instrumentation from 2012 to 2016. Average daily temperatures have increased 3.2˚F since 1938.

“The data from right off our pier is a unique data set because it is so long. We couldn’t do this work without someone taking measurements every day off the pier. This highlights the value of long-term monitoring and efforts we make to do that,” said UMCES paleoclimatologist Hali Kilbourne, who looks deep into the past to predict future climate changes. “This study is a good example of the pay-off for all the effort that goes into climate data.”

Humans burning fossil fuels have caused an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the 1800s. Due to the greenhouse effect, this increase has and will continue to cause an increase in atmospheric and ocean temperatures, which are projected to warm from current temperatures by 4.7-8.6°F by the year 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked.

“Our analysis of historical and future predicted temperatures indicates that water temperatures will continue to rise in the Chesapeake Bay through the year 2100. This increase in

water temperature will occur equally in all seasons of the year, and will therefore effect blue crab wintertime behavior and survival,” said Glandon.

The study, “Winter is (not) coming: warming temperatures will affect the overwinter behavior and survival of blue crab,” was published in PLOS One by Hillary Lane Glandon, K. Halimeda Kilbourne, Thomas J. Miller of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

QACA Hails Balloon Release Legislation


July 9, Centreville–Queen Anne’s Conservation Association (QACA), the oldest environmental group on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, today announced its strong support for pending legislation prohibiting the release of non-biodegradable helium balloons into the atmosphere.

“Deflated mylar and latex balloons, and the ribbons they’re attached to, are rapidly accumulating in the environment, maiming and killing wildlife, sea creatures, and farm animals,” said QACA’s Executive Director Jay Falstad. “We applaud the Queen Anne’s County Commissioners for taking the lead against this increasing, but readily preventable, form of environmental pollution.”

The balloon release ordinance, first in the State, was introduced by Commissioner Christopher M. Corchiarino before the Board of the Queen Anne’s County Commissioners on July 9. A hearing is expected for July 23rd. The bill provides for fines of up to $250 for deliberate violations of the prohibition on balloon releases.

“Intentionally releasing balloons into the atmosphere is nothing short of littering”, said Commissioner Corchiarino.  “This ordinance will allow us to protect a cross-section of interests in the County while furthering the stewardship of our waterways and rural landscapes”.

Kristin Weed of Kent Island Beach CleanUps said balloons are always part of the trash collected during the organization’s beach clean-up efforts.

“We find clusters of balloons during every single beach or road cleanup,” she said.  “They’re usually stuck in trees or bay grasses, on the beach, and in ditches along our county roads.”

On Unicorn Lake, in northern Queen Anne’s County, balloons were found that had been released in Dayton, Ohio, four days earlier and had traveled some 460 miles.

“Balloons are often mistaken for food by marine animals such as turtles and birds,” Falstad said. “These creatures then become tangled in the ribbons and are killed.  If balloons from the Midwest are reaching the East Coast, then balloons released from the East Coast are ending up in the Atlantic Ocean.”

Alerted to the balloon problem, Falstad reached out to sailors, boating enthusiasts, and off-shore fishing organizations and learned that they have spotted clusters of helium balloons floating miles off-shore along the Atlantic Coast.

Released helium balloons pose a problem for the agricultural community, as well.  In an online survey Falstad created, farmland owners reported deflated balloons in their fields, requiring farmers to retrieve the balloons in order to prevent them from being entangled in equipment.
 Queen Anne’s farm owner Clara Bramble said runaway balloons pose a risk to their animals.

“When balloons land in our pastures, the cows—and especially calves—can ingest them and the balloon strings can cause choking,” Bramble said.  “The horses and foals are also at risk, and I’ve witnessed horses being spooked by shiny balloons landing in our fields and seeing a horse run through a fence to get away from the balloons.”

Wye Mills farmer Jon Shaw says they recover at least 50 clusters of balloons a year.

“We find them almost every week,” Shaw said. “Balloons spook our horses, they get trapped in our hedgerows, and get wrapped in our equipment all the time.”

“The bill doesn’t apply to the six-year-old kid who accidentally releases a balloon at a birthday party,” Falstad said.  “What it does is raise awareness, and tell people to be thoughtful, because these colorful, non-biodegradable balloons are a serious form of environmental pollution. We’re one county, but this is a nationwide problem, and balloons in trees or farm-fields, or the Chesapeake Bay or any other waterway are a significant, if not widely realized, environmental threat.”


Contact: Jay Falstad, 410-739-6570 – jay.falstad@qaca.org

Proposal to Aerate Bay: Breath of Fresh Air or Pipe Dream?


Dan Sheer, founder and president emeritus of a Maryland water resources consulting firm, guides his sailboat up Rock Creek, where aerators have been used since 1988. They successfully dealt with low-oxygen conditions there that generated a rotten egg odor. Bay Journal photo by Timothy Wheeler

What if the dead zone that plagues the Chesapeake Bay could be eliminated now, not years down the road — and at a fraction of the billions being spent annually on restoring the troubled estuary?

Fanciful as it sounds, Dan Sheer figures it’s technically doable. Whether it’s the right thing to do is another question. Bay scientists are wary of potential pitfalls, but some still think it’s worth taking a closer look.

Sheer, founder and president emeritus of HydroLogics, a Maryland-based water resource consulting firm, has suggested that the oxygen-starved area down the center of the Bay could become a thing of the past if enough air could be pumped into the depths and be allowed to bubble up through the water.

“It pretty much gets rid of the problem,” he said during a recent presentation to scientists at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. And it’s not just him saying that. The federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program ran his oxygen-bubbling calculations through the computer model it uses to simulate water quality in the Bay, and the preliminary results appear to back him up.

Algae blooms produce dead zone

The dead zone, as it’s called, is produced when algae blooms fed by excessive nutrients in the water die and decay, consuming the dissolved oxygen that fish, crabs and shellfish need to live. This zone of low to no oxygen forms near the bottom in the deep trough down the center of the Bay every spring and grows through summer, until finally receding in fall when algae growth ends.

The Bay Program has been laboring since the 1980s to reduce nutrient pollution and raise dissolved oxygen levels enough to eliminate the dead zone, but the effort has been costly and challenging.

The region missed two earlier cleanup deadlines and is now working toward another target date of 2025, when all projects and programs needed to meet nutrient reduction goals should be in place. That’s looking increasingly unrealistic as well.

Aerating the Bay would be quicker, Sheer contends, and potentially less expensive. His idea: Lay 16 pipes across the deepest part of the Chesapeake at 5-mile intervals from Maryland’s Bay Bridge to the Potomac River, with a series of openings in them to release streams of tiny air bubbles. The oxygen in the bubbles would dissolve into the water and help sustain aquatic life.

Not a new proposal

Sheer isn’t the first to suggest bubbling the Bay like an aquarium. It’s been brought up repeatedly over the last 30 years, only to be dismissed as unworkable and inordinately expensive — harebrained, even.

In the late 1980s, Maryland tested floating aerators in a cove off the Patuxent River, but gave up after they produced a barely detectable change in oxygen near the bottom.

In 2011, the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore, in partnership with a consulting firm, placed a small aerator in Baltimore’s harbor, with similar results.

Aeration has been used with some success elsewhere in freshwater lakes and reservoirs that suffer from nutrient pollution. And, it has helped water quality in some rivers, such as the Thames in the United Kingdom.

Pumping air into big open bodies of tidal water is more problematic. Scientists in Sweden and Finland have looked at and tested aeration as a possible remedy for severe algae blooms in the Baltic Sea. But they’ve held back from trying it on a large scale, in part because of uncertainty about its costs and effectiveness.

Given that history, reaction to Sheer’s proposal has been mixed.

Lot of questions

“I’m enthusiastic about the idea in a lot of ways, but there are a lot of questions,” said Bill Ball, director of the Chesapeake Research Consortium, a nonprofit that coordinates Bay studies among seven universities and labs in the region.

Sheer, who holds a doctorate in environmental engineering from Johns Hopkins University, said the idea of aerating the Bay mainstem came to him about 18 months ago while listening to a presentation at UMBC about the costs and complications of the federal-state restoration effort. When he stood up and asked why not try bubbling the dead zone away, he said others in attendance ticked off a litany of flaws they saw in his proposal.

“The room sort of turned into a shooting gallery,” he recalled, “and I was the target. I had lots of objections … ‘you’re fixing the symptoms and not the problem,’ ‘you can’t possibly pump enough air,’ ‘it’s way too expensive, takes too much energy’” and more.

After that, Sheer set out to see if his critics were right.

“It looks like it really will work,” he said.

Working at Rock Creek


Sheer pointed out that aeration has long been in use in one small corner of the Bay watershed, where he happens to keep his sailboat.

Rock Creek, a tributary of the Patapsco River near Baltimore, has had aerators since 1988. They were put there in response to complaints about the rotten-egg odor given off by the creek in summer.

A 2014 study by researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science rated the Rock Creek aerators a success. They raised oxygen levels near the bottom enough to stop hydrogen sulfide from bubbling out of the sediments — another byproduct of low-oxygen conditions.

“The aerators were incredibly effective at restoring dissolved oxygen to the creek,” said Lora Harris, an associate professor at the UMCES Chesapeake Biological Laboratory and lead author of the study. Water quality improved even downstream, she said, nearly to the mouth of the tidally influenced creek.

Rock Creek is relatively shallow and small, compared to the water bodies where aeration has been tested before. The aerators there also were placed on the bottom, rather than floating on the surface.

Aeration has successfully treated low-oxygen conditions in Maryland’s Rock Creek, where they caused a rotten egg odor and prompted complaints from local residents. Anne Arundel County is currently replacing the original aerators at a cost of approximately $1 million. Bay Journal photo by Timothy Wheeler

The Rock Creek aerators cost $285,000 to install and about $7,000 a year to run, according to Janis Markusic, a planner with Anne Arundel County’s watershed restoration office. The county is now replacing the original aerators, she said, to the tune of $1 million.

Might cost $10-20 million

Doing it in the Bay mainstem would likely cost much more. Working with scientific colleagues, Sheer has estimated that it would cost $10 million–$20 million to install the piping network, bubble diffusers, air compressors, oxygen generators and other equipment. To run it would take another $11 million a year, by their estimates, with much of that spent on electricity to power the air compressors, pumps and other equipment.

While not cheap, that’s far less expensive than the current Bay cleanup tab, Sheer pointed out. In fiscal year 2017 alone, the six Bay watershed states and federal government spent nearly $2 billion on the restoration effort, according to Bay Program figures.

Sheer said the Bay Program model runs showed his aeration proposal would do just as much to raise oxygen levels in the Bay’s depths as the last round of nutrient-reducing cleanup plans drawn up by the watershed states and the District of Columbia.

The model also indicated aeration would actually outperform the Bay pollution diet in another, important way. Artificially increasing oxygen levels would reduce the release of algae-fueling phosphorus and nitrogen back into the water from bottom sediments where they had built up over time. That recycling of nutrients from the sediments has long been viewed by scientists as a potential hindrance to the Bay restoration.

A lot we don’t know

Scientists with whom Sheer has consulted — and Sheer himself — are quick to point out that his proposal relies on some unproven assumptions and could have unintended negative consequences, what engineers and scientists call “revenge effects.”

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” Sheer said. “There’s a lot we think we know that might be wrong.”

Ball, an environmental engineering professor at Johns Hopkins, said that from his experience with aeration in wastewater treatment plants, he’s not sure how well bubblers will work at raising oxygen levels in the Bay’s depths.

“He’s relying a lot on the sloshing of the tides,” Ball said, adding that “there’s a lot more work to do to figure this out.”

Jeremy Testa, an assistant professor at the UMCES lab, called the Bay Program model results “intriguing,” particularly in regard to limiting the flux of nutrients back into the water from sediments. But there are potentially significant downsides, he said.

One is that if the current rate of nutrient pollution isn’t reduced, he said, the phosphorus and nitrogen may simply continue to build up in the sediments, and then pour out into the water in one huge algae-blooming pulse if the bubblers ever shut down, even for a short spell.

That’s what Lora Harris said that she, Testa and other colleagues found at Rock Creek. They also found that the creek was emitting significantly more nitrous oxide — a climate-warming greenhouse gas — than other comparable water bodies.

There’s even a possibility, Harris noted, that pumping oxygen into nutrient-enriched waters could increase the formation of toxic methylmercury, which can build up in fish and is already one of the top two causes for fish consumption advisories in the Bay.

There’s also some concern that a series of aerators would create “bubble curtains” in the water that would impede fish movement.

“You never know what’s going to happen when you start manipulating the environment,” Testa said.

Treating the symptoms

Others say that even if technically feasible, aeration is just treating one of the symptoms of a distressed Chesapeake without fixing the causes of its woes.

While aeration could engineer a remedy for low dissolved oxygen, Testa warned that if nutrient pollution isn’t reduced, “we’re still going to have problems” with algae blooms, sediment-clouded water and important habitat like sea grasses not getting enough light to grow.

“Frankly, from a policy perspective, I think it’s a horrible idea,’’ said Beth McGee, director of science and agriculture policy with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. It would “let people off the hook,” she contended, weakening public and political pressure to make pollution reductions that would benefit the whole Bay watershed, including its rivers and streams — not just the dead zone.

Indeed, the 2014 Bay Watershed Agreement lays out 10 different goals that go beyond improving water quality to seeking such things as sustainable populations of fish, shellfish and black ducks, increased conservation of land and enhanced public access to the Bay and its tributaries.

‘Horrible idea’ or worth a try?

Sheer acknowledges that aeration is not a substitute for the nutrient and sediment reductions states are having to make under the Baywide Total Maximum Daily Load set in 2010 by the EPA. But rather than sap public interest in saving the Bay, he suggested that it could actually boost it. “If you have a big success,” he said, “maybe you’ll increase momentum to finish the job.”

Lewis Linker, acting associate director of the EPA’s Bay Program office, said that model runs testing Sheer’s proposal are very preliminary and need much more study. But he said “no way, no how” would he see aeration replacing the restoration effort’s current multi-goal approach.

At best, Linker suggested, aeriation might serve as an “add-on,” after all needed pollution reductions have been made, to help maintain healthy oxygen levels in the Bay’s mainstem even under extreme weather conditions.

The only way to find out if aeration can help, Sheer said, is to test the idea someplace in the Bay, with a pilot project costing around $2 million.

“This is not ripe to go out and do,” Sheer said, “but it is ripe, really ripe to go out and do a pilot. … I really think what we need to do next is put a station out there and see what the hell happens.”

Some of the scientists with whom Sheer has consulted agree that for all its potential pitfalls, it’s still worth further study.

“It’s not necessarily the complete solution,” Harris said, to the Bay’s nutrient overenrichment. But, she said, “It’s potentially nudging one of the symptoms that we do care about. …We have an obligation to think about all sides.”

By Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler (twheeler@bayjournal.com)is associate editor of  Bay Journal, published by Bay Journal Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, to inform the public about issues that affect the Chesapeake Bay. 

ShoreRivers Announces “Tour the Shore” Public Paddle Series


Press Release–ShoreRivers’ Tour the Shore summer kayak series begins this month, with a monthly paddle on one of four rivers through September. Tour the Shore gives novice and experienced paddlers alike an opportunity to explore creeks and rivers with small groups led by ShoreRivers’ experienced, certified staff.  Paddle routes are chosen to highlight the Eastern Shore’s most scenic riverscapes and natural features, including great blue heron roosts, underwater grasses, and flooded forests.

Director of Education and Outreach Suzanne Sullivan, describes how the paddles serve ShoreRivers’ vision of health waterways across the Eastern Shore. “The Tour the Shore paddle series provides an opportunity for residents and visitors alike to get to know our rivers intimately. The more that individuals connect with a waterway and experience its value firsthand, the more they are going to want to protect that natural resource.”

Paddlers may bring their own kayaks or rent one from ShoreRivers’. Space is limited. Contact Suzanne at 443-385-0511 or ssullivan@shorerivers.org to reserve seats. Tours are $20 for ShoreRivers members, $30 for non-members; kayak rentals are an additional $30. Bring your lunch!

2019 Tour the Shore Dates and Locations

Friday, July 12, 10am to 1pm – Robbins Creek (Choptank River)
Departs from Two Johns Landing in Preston. This paddle helps beat the heat as it meanders alongside the forested Lynch Preserve, property that was donated to Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.  Paddlers might just flush some wood ducks!

Friday, August 23, 10am to 2pm – Wye Island (Wye River)
Join the Miles-Wye Riverkeeper for a paddle that explores the peaceful coves around Wye Island Natural Resource Management Area. With over 85% of the island managed by Maryland State Park Service, this paddle-plus-hike showcases old growth trees and brightly colored song bird species.

Thursday, September 13, 10am to 1pm – Turner’s Creek (Sassafras River)
Join the Sassafras Riverkeeper for a paddle on Turner’s Creek in Kennedyville. Explore the famous tidal pond, see the magnificent lotus blooms, and witness one of the last working waterfronts on the river; a quintessential day on the Sassafras!

Friday, September 27, 10am to 1pm – Chester River
Late September is prime paddle time as the air cools and marshes and forest edges change colors on the upper Chester. For the final paddle of the season, kayakers will be joined by the Chester Riverkeeper, launching from Shadding Reach Landing in Crumpton, and exploring the narrow upper reaches of the Chester.


ShoreRivers protects and restores Eastern Shore waterways through science-based advocacy, restoration, and education.

Media Contact:
Ann Frock
(EASTON, MD) July 1, 2019




DNR: Species of Carnivorous Plant Found in Maryland


Dwarf Sundew Expands its Range North

Photo of dwarf sundew

Photo by Chase Howard

Botanists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy recently confirmed the discovery of a new plant species in Maryland — the dwarf sundew (Drosera brevifolia). Local volunteer botanist Chase Howard discovered and reported the plant growing in open areas with wet, peaty sand in Worcester County.

This is the first record of this species growing in Maryland. Prior to this discovery, Virginia was the northern range limit.

Dwarf sundew is an insectivorous plant with a unique way of catching its prey. The paddle-shaped leaves of the sundew form a rosette at the base and are densely covered with hairs that exude a clear, sticky liquid, which attracts and traps various kinds of insects. It then uses the nutrients from the prey animals as fertilizer. 

Photo of dwarf sundew next to a dime

Photo by Chase Howard

“This clever plant has adapted to life in very nutrient-poor environments,” Maryland Department of Natural Resources community ecologist Jason Harrison said. “Discoveries like this continue to show that we’re not done learning about Maryland’s biodiversity.”

Dwarf sundew is now the smallest of four sundew species known to Maryland. One of the more common sundews is Spatula-leaved sundew (Drosera intermedia), which is known to exist in open wetlands in southern and eastern portions of the state. Two other sundews, Pink sundew (Drosera capillaris) and Roundleaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), are much more rare and usually found in very acidic wetlands with peaty soils.

People Land Water – Review of a 6 Year Study


Fisher and Lewis in Lewis’ farm field.

The Horn Point Laboratory invites you to join a half-day technical meeting, open to the public.  The meeting will review 6 years of data gathered to evaluate the impact of best management practices implemented by farmers to improve water quality.  The meeting will be held on Friday August 9, 2019, from 1-5 pm in Public Hearing Room #110 of the Caroline County government offices in Denton, MD (403 S. 7th Street, Denton MD 21629). Parking is available around the building.

The meeting agenda includes; information on impediments to BMP implementation, a farmer panel reflecting their perspective on BMPs and water quality, and results of water quality monitoring on farms where BMPs are installed, at intermediate streams draining several farms, and at the watershed outlets.

The research project is called “People Land Water” to emphasize that people living and working on the land contribute to the quality of the water leaving the land. Horn Point Laboratory professor, Tom Fisher, and his research team lead this project.  The project is funded by the National Science Foundation, the United States Dept. of Agriculture, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, and the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology.  The goals of the research are: (1) to obtain the cooperation of farmers to add BMPs to four small watersheds with long-term monitoring, (2) to evaluate farmers’ attitudes towards BMPs and water quality, (3) to examine the economic efficiency of BMPs, and (4) to test the biogeochemical efficiency of BMPs to retain N, P, and soil on farms and out of groundwater and streams.

Jim Lewis, University of Maryland Ag Extension agent shared this comment about the long-term study, “It increases the confidence of farmers like me that the water quality data being collected by Tom Fisher’s research team is accurate because it is right at the site of our farms on the Choptank River. This is the kind of work on Best Management practice that the farm community wants to collaborate on.”

This meeting is an important element of the overall research project. The team will provide attendees with information they have gathered on the people living and working on the land, and the water quality of these four heavily monitored agricultural watersheds. Project leader, Tom Fisher Professor at UMCES – HPL, “My great hope is that we can figure out which Best Management Practices at least make sense and figure out how to properly compensate farmers to implement the ones that work best.”

Please add this event to your calendar and join the discussion of this project and its results.

For more information, contact Anne (410-221-8238 or abgust@umces.edu).

Register to this FREE program via EventBrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/water-quality-agriculture-in-the-choptank-watershed-tickets-63393297058. Space is limited to 110.

People Land Water Science Team: Tom Fisher, Rebecca Fox, Kalla Kvalnes, Anne Gustafson, Erika Koontz, Jim Lewis, Jon Winsten

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