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ShoreRivers reports gains in water quality

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CAMBRIDGE — The Mid-Shore watershed received a B- overall from ShoreRivers on the environmental organization’s annual report card, presented this year via a socially distanced Facebook presentation Friday, May 1.

Usually this time of year, ShoreRivers holds a series of events offering water quality reports on watersheds from the Sassafras to the Choptank. Coronavirus social-distancing mandates led the organization to go virtual this year, with a Facebook Watch Party.

Viewers were able to comment and ask questions through Facebook, with Riverkeepers providing real-time answers. Questions ranged from how bacteria levels are factored into the report cards to whether or not ShoreRivers’ corps of volunteers have been sidelined by the COVID-19 shutdown.

Executive Director Jeffrey Horstman offered an introduction before turning the presentation over to Riverkeepers Matt Pluta, Elle Bassett, Tim Trumbauer and Zach Kelleher. In addition to water quality measured in 2019, this year’s presentations touched on the effects of climate change on Mid-Shore rivers.

“ShoreRivers has a vision of healthy waterways across Maryland’s Eastern Shore and our report card is one way that we gauge the progress. The good news is that water quality got a little better last year and the bad news is that I have deliver this virtually as we wait out the effects of this virus,” Horstman told viewers.

A recurring theme among the Riverkeepers’ presentations is that data shows the pollution affecting local waterways is the result of the human activities on land in the watershed. Bassett spoke about that when discussing the Miles River, which saw its overall grade drop in this year’s report due to poor water quality in its upper reaches and feeder tributaries.

“We know that this pollution is coming from our own land practices, which gives us an opportunity to improve these scores,” she said.

The report attributes the progress to a “rebound” from the 2018 rain events. Additionally, the expansion of submerged aquatic vegetation that helps trap and absorb certain pollutants in the river and restoration efforts to manage pollution bolstered the water quality in the Chester, the report states.

“Nutrient pollution does increase as you travel upriver, which is one of the reasons we always emphasize that pollution in the Chester River comes from local sources,” said Trumbauer, the Chester Riverkeeper.

The Eastern Bay and Miles and Wye rivers received the lowest overall grade for a watershed with a C+. While Eastern Bay received a B, it was a C- for the Wye and a C for the Miles, which marked a decrease for the latter from 2018 water quality data.

The report states that data from the Miles showed low dissolved oxygen, high levels of nutrient pollution and poor water clarity especially in the upper section and tributaries, while the lower scored better.

“Seeing this decline in the Miles means that we have some work to do and this watershed will be a priority for restoration moving forward in the coming few years,” said Bassett, the Miles-Wye Riverkeeper.

The Choptank River stayed flat overall with a B-. The upper Choptank improved to a B-, bringing it up to the same overall rating as the lower section of the river. Tuckahoe Creek, part of the Choptank’s watershed, improved to a C+.

The report states that the low salinity levels seen last year as a result of the 2018 rainfall led to production issues with the oyster hatchery supporting the Marylanders Grow Oysters program.

Pluta, the Choptank Riverkeeper, said ShoreRivers had to cancel its participation last year in the program, which sees waterfront property owners grow the water-filtering bivalves from their docks. He hopes to bring the program back this year.

In the watershed Bassett monitors, the unincorporated village of Wye Mills is seeing increased flooding from storm events. She said that is threatening the community and the historic Wye Grist Mill, while also leading to more pollution entering the Wye River.

Pluta spoke about the outlook for the future of the Choptank, which he said is expected to see a 22% increase in nitrogen pollution over the rest of the century as it is situated primarily among agricultural lands and increased rainfall will create more runoff.

“This tells me that the opportunity to raise the bar on nutrient management efforts and implement water quality protection projects is now. Capturing runoff from our farm fields and urban areas at every chance possible is even more important given these scientific predictions. And while it may seem like an uphill battle there are resources available to help,” Pluta said.

For more information on ShoreRivers and its programs, visit shorerivers.org.

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