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

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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

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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.

Farming

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

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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

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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.

Interior Announces $6 Million Grant for Blackwater Refuge

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The US Department of the Interior announced yesterday that the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County will receive just shy of $6 million to conserve 2,500 acres of habitat to protect migratory birds.

The funds were approved by the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission, which allocates funds to the Interior Department to acquire and conserve migratory bird habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The commission meets twice a year to allocate funds and Blackwater Refuge was one of only five projects nationwide to receive grants in the announcement.

The Blackwater grant is aimed at protecting “migrating and wintering American black ducks, mallards, Canada geese and greater snow geese, as well as habitat for black rail, salt-marsh sparrow and other wetland-associated migratory birds. The project will add over 2,600 acres to the refuge’s public hunt program, expanding public opportunities for white-tailed deer, sika deer, turkey, and waterfowl hunting,” according to a press release on June 19.

The funds are made possible from the Duck Stamp program and will go directly to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the project. The stamp program was established in 1934 and 98% of the revenue goes to buy and protect wetlands.

Clean Chesapeake Coalition-funded Documentary Nominated for Local Emmy Award

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The Conowingo Dam, the main target of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition’s lobbying efforts

In a press release dated June 18, the Clean Chesapeake Coalition announced that on Saturday, June 22, the National Capital Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will host its 61st Emmy Awards in Bethesda, Maryland. Among many worthy nominees are producers Thomas and Matthew Locastro of Locastro Design, LLC for The Conowingo Factor, which was funded by the CCC and distributed by Sinclair Broadcast Group. This is the fifth nomination the Locastro brothers have received for their documentary work and the second collaboration between the two and the Clean Chesapeake Coalition (CCC).

It was the summer of 2014 when the Locastro brothers discovered the situation at the Conowingo Dam. “We had never heard about the Conowingo Dam before, much less all of the controversy surrounding it. That’s what made it even more shocking when we learned that Exelon was about to renew the Dam’s 46-year operating permit,” says Matthew. “At that time, my brother and I were thinking about starting a video production business together and this seemed like a great project to kick things off,” explained Thomas. Working at breakneck speed, the two conducted interviews over a three-day period and 19 days later, released The Conowingo Scandal on YouTube. According to Matthew, “we weren’t really sure what to expect with taking on the project. We just knew we wanted there to be a bigger conversation about the issue. We were amazed at how fast things ended up taking off.” Within weeks, their 2014 video had electrified an online debate, received national coverage with the outlet Think Progress, and even got them an audience and screening with then-Gubernatorial candidate, Larry Hogan, and his team of advisors.

Since that time, the Locastro brothers have built a thriving documentary production company that has won a regional Murrow, three Emmys and has had films featured at various domestic and international film festivals. Their documentary, Saber Rock, was released in theaters and became one of 77 films that competed for the 2018 Short Documentary Oscar. This earned them a 7-minute interview on CNN. Thomas says, “As we developed the craft of documentary filmmaking, we would sometimes think about our first video on the Conowingo Dam and wonder if we would ever get a chance to remake it. We were thrilled when we got the opportunity to partner with both the Clean Chesapeake Coalition and Sinclair Broadcast Group to help get this story in front of even more people.”

Both the original and The Conowingo Factor were commissioned by the CCC whose member counties have, since its inception in 2012, advocated for prudent, fiscally responsible strategies to improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay. To that end, the CCC has been drawing attention to the threat it sees is posed by the Dam, whose reservoir has reached dynamic equilibrium and is no longer effectively trapping nutrient-laden sediment from loading into the Bay. The CCC has been at the forefront of this issue for years, long before the current surge of interest in the threat the infilled reservoir poses to Bay health, back when certain special interest groups were still calling the impacts of the Conowingo Dam a “red herring” in the context of saving the Bay. Says CCC Chairman, Ron Fithian, “Anyone who was around when Hurricane Agnes hit in 1972 knows that it signaled the end of the oysters in the Upper Bay. Though they didn’t end up having to use the explosives they placed in case they had to blow the Dam, the amount of sediment that came through those open spill gates smothered oyster bars and other aquatic life that still hasn’t recovered… almost 50 years and billions of restoration dollars later.”

The Conowingo Dam is currently owned by Exelon Generation Company, a Fortune 100 company with 2018 revenues of $35.9 billion dollars. Since prior to the Dam’s operating license expiring in 2014, Exelon has been seeking a new, 46-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Part of this process calls for a Water Quality Certification from the State of Maryland under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. Serious concerns voiced by the State resulted in Exelon voluntarily withdrawing its application and re-submitting it for several years running, while they sought to address the issues raised through the process. In April 2018, the State of Maryland was finally able to issue a Water Quality Certification but did so with conditions, as is their federally mandated right through their jurisdiction over the navigable waters of the State. Exelon responded by suing Maryland in two courts and administratively.

CCC member counties and their county officials remain disappointed at the lengths Exelon is willing to take to shirk environmental responsibility associated with the operation of this lucrative power station. This private, for-profit corporation claims that the Maryland Department of the Environment’s qualifications for a Water Quality Certification are “impracticable.” Meanwhile, Maryland counties with annual budgets that are a tiny fraction of Exelon’s revenues are spending enormous amounts of taxpayer dollars to develop and implement their Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) and help Maryland meet its Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) goals. At the same time, local economies of Bayside counties are hurt by the Conowingo Factor impacts on the seafood and tourism industries.

Last week the Chesapeake Bay Program, quoting the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), reported that in the spring of this year, 2019, the Susquehanna delivered 102.6 million pounds of nitrogen to the Bay. To put that into perspective, consider that the Maryland Department of the Environment calculates that a single conventional septic system releases 23.2 lbs. of nitrogen annually into the groundwater; if they are upgraded, this figure is cut in half. There are approximately 420,000 septic systems in Maryland. Based on the USGS figures, this means that in a few months, the Susquehanna delivered the same amount of nitrogen that 4,422,414 conventional septic systems, or 2,211,2017 upgraded systems, deliver in a year. How many billions are we spending to upgrade septic while ignoring the upstream problem posed by decades of pollution collecting behind the Dam waiting for spill gates to open?

Well-supported by science and enforceable under the law, the Hogan Administration has embraced the once-in-a-generation opportunity to impose licensing conditions requiring the owner of Conowingo Dam to properly manage the vast quantities of nutrients, sediment and other contaminants that are accumulated in the reservoir above the Dam and scoured into the Bay, not just during major storm events but now, with increasing frequency, because of the loss of trapping capacity in the reservoir. The CCC remains supportive of these crucial efforts and to that end, in March of this year filed a Motion to Intervene in the Petition for Declaratory Order by Exelon Generation Company now pending before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). County officials realize that, in the event of a 25-year storm (which has an 80% chance of occurring over the life of the new operating license), the efforts financed through billions of taxpayer dollars and charitable contributions will be as dead as the oyster reefs that flourished in the Upper Bay before they were smothered by the sediment scoured from behind the Conowingo Dam during Hurricane Agnes. In the event that The Conowingo Factor wins an Emmy later this month, it may provide a further boost to the State’s efforts to require that Exelon not only receives lucrative benefits from the public waters of the State, but also plays a part in protecting this valuable resource.

Residents Question Funding of Clean Chesapeake Coalition

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The Conowingo Dam, the main target of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition’s lobbying efforts

During the June 4 public hearing by the Kent County Commissioner on the county budget for Fiscal Year 2020, Grenville Whitman of Rock Hall and William Herb, a retired hydrologist who lives on Fairlee Creek, raised questions about the county’s donation to the Clean Chesapeake Coalition. The draft budget includes a $17,000 donation to the Coalition, an amount matched by five other Shore counties, for a total of $85,000. Since 2013, the first year of the Coalition’s existence, the county has donated $159,000 to the Coalition. In addition to Kent, Caroline, Carroll, Cecil, Dorchester, and Queen Anne’s counties are members of the Coalition. Kent County Commissioner Ron Fithian is chairman of the Coalition.

The objective of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, according to its website, is “to pursue improvement to the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay in the most prudent and fiscally responsible manner – through research, coordination, and advocacy.” It specifically identifies the reservoir of the Conowingo Dam, which is owned and operated by Exelon Corporation, as “the largest single point source of pollution to Bay waters.” The Conowingo Dam is located on the Susquehanna River just before it enters the Bay.

Herb, who testified first, said, “The Coalition wastes taxpayers’ money by pursuing a campaign against Exelon, and erroneously blames future contamination threats on the Conowingo Dam. The Coalition’s website identifies no staff or contract support with technical expertise. Members of the Coalition are public officials whose resumes demonstrate no scientific or engineering capability. Commissioners Jacob and Mason would be unwise to seek my advice on how to run a business. Commissioner Fithian would be equally unwise to ask me how to harvest oysters. The Commissioners should not unwisely get advice on complex hydrologic and environmental issues from those with no qualifications.”

He went on to note, “The Coalition purports to be in favor of a clean Chesapeake, but documents no successes in reducing even one ounce of contamination to the Bay. […] The Coalition’s budget for 2020 projects 78% for Legal, including lobbying, 11% for General Administration, and 11% for Communication, but not one cent for pollution reduction.”

Kent County Commissioner Ron Fithian – Photo by Jane Jewell

Herb said, “All of the sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus that have entered the Bay in the past, or that will enter the Bay in the future via the Susquehanna River have their origins in Pennsylvania and New York, and not in the operation of the Conowingo Dam. If the Commissioners and the Coalition are really serious about protecting the Bay, they should seek to collect from these two upstream states, and not from a private entity, whose major environmental transgression seems to be having deep pockets.”

Finally, Herb asked that Fithian, as Chair of the Coalition, should recuse himself from any discussion, action, or vote regarding the Coalition to avoid a conflict of interest. He offered to present his technical analysis of the Conowingo Dam and the Bay to any or all of the commissioners.

Grenville Whitman at the Kent County Commissioners’ budget hearing, June 4 – Photo by Peter Heck

Whitman referred to a letter he and Herb wrote to the commissioners on April 29, which made two requests: that the commissioners conduct a public hearing “to determine what actual, tangible, real benefits Kent County residents have received from their substantial investment so far;” and that Fithian recuse himself from any discussion and abstain from any vote on his group’s funding request. He went on to list the kinds of questions the commissioners should ask before continuing the funding: what benefits have Kent County residents received for their $159,000 donations since 2013? What are the Coalition’s three most notable accomplishments in that time? And have the Coalition’s records been audited after it has received nearly $1 million in public funding?

Whitman said, “Until these questions—and others—are put to the Coalition and the Coalition responds, this funding request has not been subjected to due diligence. I ask that this request be denied, and that $17,000 be re-directed to a program that directly benefits Kent County residents. The county school system comes to mind.”

Whitman also questioned the ethics of the commissioners in allocating county funds to a group chaired by one of their members. “Perhaps the county Ethics Commission should be invited to look into this arrangement and rule on it,” he said. He questioned the ethics of the county “doling out public money” to a group that lobbies against federal and state programs and policies. He said the Coalition was within its rights to so lobby, but for them to use public funding for the purpose was questionable.

The commissioners did not respond to either Herb or Whitman at the budget hearing. At their regular meeting Tuesday, June 11, the commissioners voted unanimously to adopt the FY2020 budget. All three commissioners took part in the vote.

Large Summer ‘Dead Zone’ Forecast for Chesapeake Bay

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Ecologists from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan are forecasting a large Chesapeake Bay “dead zone” in 2019 due to well-above-average river flows associated with increased rainfall in the watershed since last fall.

“The forecast this year reflects the high levels of precipitation that have been observed across the Bay’s watershed,” said report co-author Jeremy Testa of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “The high flows observed this spring, in combination with very high flows late last fall, are expected to result in large volumes of hypoxic and anoxic water.”

The bay’s hypoxic (low oxygen) and anoxic (no oxygen) zones are caused by excess nutrient pollution, primarily from agriculture and wastewater. The excess nutrients stimulate an overgrowth of algae, which then sinks and decomposes in the water. The resulting low oxygen levels are insufficient to support most marine life and habitats in near-bottom waters, threatening the bay’s crabs, oysters and other fisheries.

This summer’s Chesapeake Bay hypoxic or “dead zone,” an area of low oxygen that can kill fish and other aquatic life, is expected to be about 2.1 cubic miles, while the volume of water with no oxygen is predicted to be between 0.49 and 0.63 cubic miles during early and late summer.

The predicted volumes are larger than the dead zone observed during the summer of 2018 and would be among the four largest in the past 20 years. Measurements of the Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone go back to 1950, and the 30-year mean maximum dead zone volume is 1.74 cubic miles.

“The forecast is not surprising considering the near-record high flows in 2018 that have continued into 2019,” said Bruce Michael, director of the Resource Assessment Service at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “That said, bottom dissolved oxygen concentrations are improving over the long-term in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay, indicating our efforts to reduce nutrient pollution throughout the entire watershed are improving water quality conditions, helping to support fish, shellfish and our aquatic resources.”

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources will conduct bimonthly Bay water quality monitoring cruises June through August to track Bay summer hypoxia. Results from each monitoring cruise will be available on the Department’s Eyes on the Bay website at http://eyesonthebay.dnr.maryland.gov/eyesonthebay/index.cfm

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Bay Report Card released earlier this spring gave the Bay a grade of “C” in 2018, in part due to the extreme precipitation. Spring rainfall plays an important role in determining the size of the Chesapeake Bay “dead zone.” This year, exceptionally high spring rainfall and streamflow is transporting nitrogen to tidal waters in amounts above the long-term average, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which provides the nitrogen-loading estimates used to generate the annual hypoxia forecast.

In spring 2019, the Susquehanna River delivered 102.6 million pounds of nitrogen into the Chesapeake Bay. The Potomac River, as measured near Washington, D.C., supplied an additional 47.7 million pounds of nitrogen, according to USGS. This is well-above long-term averages of 80.6 million pounds from the Susquehanna and 31.8 million pounds from the Potomac. Loads from the Susquehanna have not been this high since 2011.

“Managing estuarine responses to changing conditions on the landscape continues to be one of the nation’s environmental challenges,” said Joel Blomquist, hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). “The science partnership in the Chesapeake Bay is setting the standard for supporting environmental managers with observation-based science.”

“This year’s forecast is for the fourth largest dead zone in the past 20 years, illustrating that more work needs to be done,” said University of Michigan aquatic ecologist and report coauthor Don Scavia. “The Chesapeake Bay dead zone remains considerably larger than the reduction goals, and we’ll never reach those targets unless more is done to reduce nutrient pollution.”

The bay outlook is based on models developed at the University of Michigan and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, with funding provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and data generated by the United States Geological Survey and Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Throughout the year, researchers measure oxygen and nutrient levels as part of the Chesapeake Bay Monitoring Program, run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. This year’s findings will be released in the fall.

Chesapeake Report Card: Bay Health Decreased Last Year due to Rainfall but General Trend Improving

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The Chesapeake Bay score decreased in 2018, but maintained a C grade, according to the 2018 Chesapeake Bay Report Card issued today by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). This was due to extremely high precipitation over the year. Despite extreme rainfall last year, the overall trend indicates that Chesapeake Bay health is improving over time.

“While 2018 was a difficult year for Chesapeake health due to high rainfall, we are seeing trends that the Bay is still significantly improving over time. This is encouraging because the Bay is showing resilience to climate change,” said Bill Dennison, Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Almost all indicators of Bay health, such as water clarity, underwater grasses, and dissolved oxygen, as well as almost all regions, declined in 2018. In particular, chlorophyll a and total nitrogen scores had strong declines due to very high rainfall causing nutrient runoff that then fed algal blooms. However, the overall Bay-wide trend is improving. Since 2014, all regions have been improving or remaining steady.

“Our administration is pleased to see continued improvement in the health and resilience of our most precious natural asset, the Chesapeake Bay. Since taking office, we have been focused on improving the health of the Bay, investing a record $5 billion toward wide-ranging restoration programs. This report, along with the great news that Maryland’s crab population has grown 60%, is yet another promising sign of ongoing improvement of the Bay and that our continued investment is making a difference,” said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.

Of the many factors that affect Chesapeake Bay health, the extreme precipitation seen in 2018 appears to have had the biggest impact. The Baltimore area received 72 inches of rain in 2018, which is 170% above the normal of 42 inches. As a result, the reporting region closest to Baltimore—the Patapsco and Back Rivers—saw a decline in health, decreasing to an F grade in 2018. The strongest regional declines were in the Elizabeth River and the Choptank River. The two regions that remained steady were the Lower Bay and the York River.

“The extreme precipitation in 2018 was a key issue, and current science shows that with climate change this area is going to be warmer and wetter,” said Peter Goodwin, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “The Bay is in fact showing resilience in the face of climate change and extreme weather events, underlining that the restoration efforts must remain vigilant to continue these hard-won efforts.”

Fish populations received a B grade, showing a steep decline from the previous year’s score of A. Striped bass numbers sharply declined in 2018, while blue crab and bay anchovy scores declined somewhat (although blue crab are showing a revival in early 2019). These drops in scores are a cause for concern as smaller populations could lead to further declines in the future.

“This is not the time to put the brakes on efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay. Our progress has been hampered by extreme weather events, but we must keep fighting,” said U.S. Senator Ben Cardin. “The health of the Chesapeake Bay depends on all of us in the region—federal, state, local, and private partners—working together toward a common goal: the preservation and restoration of the watershed, which in turn ensures better health for our citizens, economy, and local wildlife.”

“Improving the health of the Bay doesn’t happen overnight, or even in a month or a year. We must be constantly vigilant in our efforts to restore the Bay, and that starts with providing adequate funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program and other cleanup efforts,” said U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen. “I will continue working through my role on the Appropriations Committee to prevent attempts to cut funding and to provide the Bay with the resources it needs to thrive.”

Actions that individuals can take to contribute to a cleaner Bay include reducing fertilizer use from all sources, carpooling and using public transportation, and connecting with people across the entire Bay Watershed to work together.

This is the 13th year that the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Integration and Application Network has produced the report card. It is the longest-running and most comprehensive assessment of Chesapeake Bay and its waterways. This report card uses extensive data and analysis which enhances and supports the science, management, and restoration of the Bay. For more information about the 2018 Chesapeake Bay Report Card including region-specific data, visit chesapeakebay.ecoreportcard.org.

View The Chesapeake Bay Report Card here.

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