By E.B. FURGURSON III, Annapolis Capital
On Earth Day some 30 volunteers spread out across the South and West/Rhode watersheds to take a "snapshot" of conditions surrounding the two rivers.
The results? Better than usual.
But the lower pollution counts in the water samples taken at 51 locations in both watersheds are likely attributable to near-drought conditions at the time, South Riverkeeper Diana Muller said.
That means less crud had washed into waterways due to scant winter snows and early spring rains.
Just as important as obtaining data over the past seven years of snapshots was getting volunteers to participate.
"It is about advocacy and education, getting people out in the field and having fun," Muller told those gathered for the South River Federation's quarterly meeting Tuesday at the London Towne Community Hall in Edgewater.
This activity gets people in touch with the watershed in which they live, she said.
The snapshot was taken during a three-hour window on Earth Day morning. Each site was analyzed with the same parameters.
Volunteers first recorded observations: The type of terrain and land use surrounding a site. Water color and clarity. Smell. Wildlife or evidence thereof. Trash. And so on.
Then they took samples and readings with kits. Water temperature, dissolved oxygen and pHwere recorded. Then samples of the water were sent to the laboratory to measure phosphate, nitrogen pollution and bacteria levels.
Sally Horner at Anne Arundel Community College processed samples at the college's lab.
The South River watershed is south of of Parole and Forest Drive and extends to Crofton in the west. The West/Rhode watershed envelops an area south of Edgewater down to Shady Side.
The sore point across both watersheds: high phosphate readings. Only two sites out of 51 had passable phosphate samples.
Phosphates are one of the two primary nutrient pollutants targeted in efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries; the other is nitrogen or nitrates. Both are active ingredients in fertilizer. Excess levels feed algae blooms that block sunlight and consume oxygen in the water, leading to "dead zones."
Phosphate levels in both watersheds were attributed to agricultural uses and urban fertilizing, plus the extra-dry conditions.
Nitrate levels were low in the South River watershed but high in the West/Rhode.
Eighty-seven percent of sites in the South River watershed met or exceeded nitrogen level guidance levels; six of 10 sample sites in the West/Road headwater streams exceeded the mark.
"That is possibly due to more agricultural activity in our watershed," said Joe Ports, a Chesapeake Conservation Corps member working for the West/Rhode riverkeeper.
Ports and and Carol Wong, the CCC staffer for the South River Federation, presented results to the 30 or so attending the meeting on Tuesday.
Most testing spots in both watersheds showed adequate dissolved oxygen - above the 5 parts per liter needed for fish to survive. Algae blooms contribute to low oxygen levels.
Bacteria levels passed muster at all but one of the 51 sites.
Both riverkeepers take samples throughout the summer to determine if bacteria exceed safe levels for swimming.
But the county Health Department has a standing warning: Do not swim in area waterways for 48 hours following any significant rainfall.
Since the snapshots were taken, however, warmer than usual temperatures and spring rains have drastically changed the complexion of the areas waterways.
"It has made our creeks and the tidal section of the South River into a nutrient and sediment soup," said Muller, the South riverkeeper.
One creek's temperature jumped 16 degrees in a month. Dissolved oxygen levels dropped to below survivable levels for fish.
The main stem of the South River saw temperatures climb into the 80s, while algae blooms blossomed and oxygen levels dropped - none of which bodes well for the river's health, with hotter weather coming.
The county and South and West/Rhode organizations post weekly bacteria readings on their respective websites: www.southriverfederation.net and www.westrhoderiverkeeper.org. There are also readings posted on www.aahealth.org.
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