- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The health of the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River remained steady in 2013, according to annual data released by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
Overall, the Chesapeake scored a “C” with nearly the same score as the previous year. The Patuxent River scored a “D,” with three percentage points lower than the previous year.
Despite a year of above-average rainfall and record heat, the scores remained steady, which indicates rain does not affect the scores as much as other factors.
“Nutrient and sediment pollution carried by stormwater are important factors in Chesapeake Bay health,” said Bill Dennison of the Center for Environmental Science in a press release. “Based on the patterns in rainfall and report card grades for several reporting regions, we conclude that it is not the rain that affects the report card scores. It is what the rain carries.”
The data indicates the Chesapeake Bay is becoming murkier. In 2012, there were some water clarity improvements, but 2013 was a year of poor water clarity.
The Patuxent River remains in poor health. The water quality declines further downstream, Dennison said. The river has a narrow opening, and bay water is exchanged with river water at the mouth, contributing to the poor water quality in that area.
Increased vehicle traffic, sewage buildup and fertilizer runoff also contribute to the water quality issues of the Patuxent.
On the bright side, the Patuxent River had one of its best dissolved oxygen scores, at 76 percent. When the oxygen score is poor, Dennison said, with less oxygen, the water is murkier, and there are fewer grasses. Although the rest of the seven indicators measured did not score as well, the oxygen score shows the river has the potential to be on the right track. The Patuxent received a score of 3 percent for aquatic grasses and 10 percent for water clarity.
Within Calvert County, the 2012 Tidal Creeks Study conducted by the UMCES Chesapeake Biological Laboratory found oxygen levels better than any previous year of the study, said Dave Brownlee, principal environmental planner for Calvert County. The Tidal Creeks Study has been conducted in Solomons Harbor and various tidal creeks in the county and, in past years, has found indicators of improvement, but Brownlee said more data is needed to gauge the progress.
“Is the bay getting better or worse?” Dennison said. “The answer is: It depends.”
Sewage improvements, fertilizer regulations and living shorelines are three of the most important measures to improve the health of the Patuxent and the bay, he said.
“Fifty percent of nutrients that come in are absorbed through marshes,” Dennison said. “Grasses are really the keystone.”
Many of the systems needed to improve water quality are in place already, but it can take years before they fully take effect and make the water healthier, said Jeremy Testa, associate professor at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, who conducted research on the health of the Patuxent from 1985 to 2003.
“Some of those things take a long time to see the effects,” Testa said.
In the 1990s, some health indicators of the Patuxent improved after significant sewage system upgrades, Testa said. As a result of the upgrades, nitrogen levels improved.
“There was a pretty substantial decline in those concentrations,” Testa said.
Still, some things can’t be changed or improved upon, like rainfall and temperature, which are variables in water quality.
“We’re looking at a balance of things we can manage versus things we can’t manage,” Testa said.