Month: March 2016

The Potomac Conservancy Releases Report Card for River’s Health

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The Potomac Conservancy has released their biennial report on the Potomac River, the second largest river draining into the Chesapeake Bay. The health of the Potomac River, due to its large area and population size within watershed boundaries, is very important to the health of the Bay. The Potomac Conservancy has issued the River a grade of B- in terms of overall health. Rising from a D to a C to a B- over the past ten years, the state of the Potomac River is improving. However, a number of different areas need to be addressed to continue to improve water quality in the Potomac and the Chesapeake.

Figures 1, 2, and 3 show changes to nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment loads in the Potomac from 1985 to 2014. Over this time period, there have been load reductions from these three major sources of pollution.

The improvements in overall health of the Potomac River are due in large part to reduced sediment and nutrient loads from agricultural activity and wastewater treatment plants.

Wastewater treatment facilities have undergone a number of upgrades to ensure that water discharged from facilities contains smaller concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus. With higher standards now required by the EPA, upgrades to many wastewater treatment facilities in the watershed have contributed to cleaner waters in the Potomac River. (Between 2011 and 2015, there was a 13% increase in facilities adhering to stricter EPA standards).

Agriculture in the Potomac River watershed has likely contributed fewer nutrient loads because agricultural activity within the region is declining, as land is converted to accommodate urban sprawl. The Potomac River, which flows from Fairfax Stone, West Virginia to Point Lookout, Maryland, covers a large urban and suburban area. So, while agricultural runoff is decreasing, nitrogen and phosphorus loads in stormwater runoff from developed areas is still a major concern.

Within this report, the Potomac Conservancy grades a number of sub-indicators of river health, such as fish population, underwater grass abundance, and recreational use. These ratings are then examined together to determine overall health. While overall health of the river is improving, there are some areas that are actually doing worse, or showing no marked improvement from previous years. This is the case for water clarity and underwater grass abundance, which received a grade of C-. These two factors are important indicators of health in the Chesapeake Bay (underwater grasses provide food and habitat for marine species, and filter sediments and nutrients in the water, which can improve water clarity). Going forward, I would definitely like to see higher rates of recovery for these two indicators.

There is mixed news for the river’s fish populations. Certain species, such as shad, white perch, and smallmouth bass are experiencing population growth. The Bay’s rockfish population, however, has declined slightly over the past ten years. Many fish species are at continued risk of predation from invasive species such as the blue catfish and snakehead.

In terms of tidal water quality, certain conditions are improving, although numbers for dissolved oxygen, clarity, and chlorophyll A (a measure of algae), vary year to year. Chlorophyll A levels have declined over the last fourteen years. See Figure 4 below.

[We have been taking water samples from both the Potomac River (out of Great Falls), and Antipoison Creek, (which is just off of the Chesapeake Bay, close to where the Rappahannock River meets the Bay), and interestingly, found higher chlorophyll levels in Antipoison Creek. I’ll post more on our results later.]

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Figure 4: Tidal Water Quality

There was good news for recreational land use, which has gone up since the last report. Recreational use of waterways can be an indicator of improved water quality.

Protected land area has increased, from 1.8 million acres in 2011 to 1.9 million acres in 2013. This area equates to 26.6 percent of land in the Potomac River watershed.

Concerns going forward include rates of deforestation and development in unsuitable areas, and runoff from suburban and urban regions. Agricultural areas, while declining, could still do with the enforcement of Best Management Practices (BMPs). The amount of forested buffers (streamside vegetation which reduces agricultural runoff into tributaries), received a grade of C-.

It’s important to keep in mind that the results in this report do not come from the most current data. The Potomac Conservancy gathers its information from a number of institutions, such as the EPA and the USGS. There is a couple years lag time on data for many of these sub-indicators of overall health.

Information and graph source: State of the Nation’s River 2016, Potomac River Conservancy,

Phosphorus Levels on Maryland Farmland Lower Than Expected, Still a Significant Risk to Bay Water Quality

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The Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) released a report earlier this month on soil phosphorus levels on state farmland from the second half of 2015. The MDA found that 18% of Maryland’s farmland has soils oversaturated with phosphorus. While this percentage is not as high as was expected,** this is still a significant amount of state land contributing to phosphorus pollution in local waters- this is one out of every five acres of farmland statewide; and two out of three acres on the Eastern Shore, according to the Bay Journal (Wheeler, 2016).

Phosphorus pollution from agricultural fields is a major issue in Maryland, given the high number of poultry farms and poultry manure that is applied as fertilizer to nearby fields. When over-applied to farmland, fertilizer high in phosphorous (which poultry manure is), runs off into local waterways, and pollutes the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Last year’s update to the Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT), and the 2016 Poultry Litter Management Act, which has yet to be voted on in the state General Assembly, are Maryland’s regulatory attempts to solve this pollution issue. These regulations would transport phosphorus-laden fertilizer to farmland elsewhere in the state where phosphorus levels are low. The MDA report stated that 82% of farm fields have lower phosphorus levels, excluding these fields from the PMT regulation- meaning these farms will be allowed to continue to apply fertilizer as usual.

The 18% of fields found to have oversaturated soils (high in phosphorus) will be subject to PMT regulations. This targets farmland on the Eastern Shore- two thirds of farmland on the Eastern Shore will be subject to PMT restrictions- and the Lower Eastern Shore in particular, where 11% of farmland is subject to restrictions on phosphorus fertilizers altogether (Maryland Department of Agriculture, 2016).


**Keep in mind that the report gets its data from samples taken on state farmlands, and data is incomplete. The document does not account for 30% of state soils due to a lack of reporting. Half of missing data comes from the Eastern Shore- the portion of Maryland where poultry production is highest, and soil phosphorus levels are of the biggest concern.





Dominion Power Agrees to Advanced, but Still Deficient Treatment of Coal Ash Wastewater at Prince William Co. Facility

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Dominion Power entered into an agreement with Prince William County late last night regarding treatment of coal ash wastewater at their Possum Point facility. Prince William was appealing the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) approval of a permit for Dominion Power to divert water from coal ash holding ponds into Quantico Creek. Concerns over this permit from the Prince William County Board of Supervisors were echoed by the state of Maryland and by environmental organizations such as the Potomac Riverkeepers and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. While Prince William County has dropped their formal appeal of the DEQ permit, the Potomac Riverkeepers’ lawsuit still stands.

With the acceptance of last night’s new plan, Dominion agreed to increased testing and treatment of wastewater that will be discharged into Quantico Creek. A major water quality concern with coal ash wastewater is the presence of metals that are ingested by local fish populations and make their way up the food chain. These metals include selenium, copper, antimony, thallium, chromium, and hexavalent chromium. According to, Dominion’s new plan sets new water concentration limits on some of these metals, a “66 percent reduction in selenium, a 71 percent reduction in lead, a 66 percent reduction in copper and 50 percent reductions in antimony and thallium.” Chromium and hexavalent chromium are not mentioned.

Dominion will test wastewater before discharge at a laboratory disassociated with their company, with samples now set to be taken on an hourly basis versus throughout the week. I’m happy to see Dominion cooperating with local jurisdictions to ensure improved water quality at their facilities. However, I question whether treatment of coal ash wastewater under this new plan will be enough to minimize risk to aquatic organisms to the best of Dominion’s abilities. According to the Potomac Riverkeepers, arsenic and metal concentrations under the new plan are still of concern. I would also like to see a treatment plan include all harmful metals discharged from the facility’s holding ponds into Quantico Creek, for both chromium and hexavalent chromium.

With ongoing legal battles against Dominion Power’s discharge permit, there is likely to be more news on this front in the coming months.

Environmentalists Continue to Dispute Dominion Power Coal Ash Plans at Two Virginia Facilities

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This article by Steve Szkotak at the Richmond Times-Dispatch has a great summary on the continuing discourse between Virginia Dominion Power, planning to release coal ash waste into the Potomac and James River from two of their facilities, and environmentalists concerned with water quality at these two locations.

To review, two Dominion Power facilities, one in Fluvanna County, and one in Prince William County, recently gained permit approval from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to release coal ash wastewater into neighboring bodies of water. These two facilities have stopped burning coal for energy, but have millions of gallons of coal ash left over from previous operations. Dominion Power wants to release this waste into the James River, (from the Fluvanna County facility), and Quantico Creek, which flows into the Potomac River (from the Prince William County facility).

Dominion Power claims release will be slow, and in volumes the watersheds can manage. Environmentalists, however, are concerned over wastewater discharge loads, and the impacts this wastewater will have on the local creeks and rivers. The health of the greater Chesapeake Bay watershed and its species are also a concern.