This past Saturday, I joined the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. While I marched for a number of social justice issues, one of my primary concerns in today’s world is climate change, and the preservation of the scientific community. Since this is a blog dedicated to the Chesapeake Bay, I would like to remind readers of the threats climate change pose to the Bay and the greater watershed.
Sea Level Rise:
Sea level rise is one of the most well known impacts associated with climate change. The most recent projection from climate scientists (March 2016), foresee global waters rising by two meters, or over six feet, by 2100. Sea level rise is already having severe impacts in the region, particularly on Smith and Tangier Islands in the Chesapeake. I visited both islands in 2011, and saw – more noticeably on Smith Island- major portions of the island inundated with water. Although sea barriers can delay impacts, waters are rising on the islands by about 2 feet each year. It is estimated that Smith Island will be completely underwater by the end of the century.
Sea level rise is especially potent in this region due to the natural sinking of land at the southernmost part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. We’re seeing the biggest impact on our islands, but coastal towns and cities are facing sea level rise as well. Because of climate change and land subsidence, the Hampton Roads area for instance, is “experiencing the highest rates of sea level rise along the entire U.S. East Coast,” (WRI, 2014).
Coastal Flooding & Shoreline Erosion:
Related to sea level rise are the issues of coastal flooding and shoreline erosion. Sea level rise contributes to shoreline erosion and leads to an increase in flooding incidents. Cities in Southeast Virginia will be especially vulnerable to increased coastal flooding events (VIMS, 2012). Cities further north in the watershed are seeing a rise in coastal flooding events too. Annapolis reports that floods occur ten times as often as they did in the 1950s (CBP, 2016).
Miles of coastline along the southern Chesapeake region have been eroded; sea level rise may be playing a part (see former post here on Dameron Marsh and Hughlett Point).
Ocean acidification is the acidifying of marine waters as the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. It is unclear how much of the Bay watershed will be impacted by acidification, however acidification could impact several species in the Bay. Shellfish make their shells out of calcium carbonate. As waters absorb CO2, and water chemistries change, certain shellfish face difficulties building their shell. This is true for the Eastern oyster found in the Chesapeake Bay, whose shells would become more brittle in acidified waters, and leave them more vulnerable to other threats.
Oysters are making a major comeback in Virginia, but the oyster farms and the restaurants that have emerged around this industry in recent years would face the biggest economic losses if and when Bay waters become more acidic.
Scientists are still studying how ocean acidification will impact the blue crab population in the bay (studies are being undertaken at institutions like UMCES). Crabs form their shells differently than oysters, and acidification may actually strengthen the shells of blue crabs. However, a researcher at UMCES has found that juvenile crabs grow more slowly in acidic waters. Given that juvenile crabs are threatened by other environmental issues in the Bay- such as the loss of seagrass habitat- ocean acidification could play a part in reducing blue crab population numbers.
Temperatures of regional bodies of water have been rising in correlation with rising air temperatures. Over the past 50 years, stream temperatures in all six Bay states (NY, WV, DE, MD, PA and VA) and in Washington, D.C. have risen by an average of 1.2 degrees F and up to 2.2 degrees F (CBP, 2016; EPA, 2016). This may not seem like a major increase to us, but it can be to marine species. Warming waters – even seemingly small increases in temperature- can contribute to dead zones and algal blooms. Cold-water fish species are more likely to be displaced by fish that thrive in warmer waters. Warmer waters can also impact fish and plant growth and reproduction.
Scientific studies – including data collection and modeling- play a crucial role in understanding how our climate is changing, and how our environment and wildlife will respond to these changes, both in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and beyond. We must continue to support the collection of data and dissemination of scientific reports on our environment.
Late last month I put together a list of environmental bills that were going to come up in the Virginia General Assembly for the 2017 session. I would like to go into more detail on the bills related to Alexandria’s combined sewer system, and provide you with some updates on those bills.
The City of Alexandria has an outdated wastewater management system. Their combined sewer system, which collects both wastewater and stormwater for treatment at Alexandria Renew, is prone to overflow events during periods of heavy rainfall. Overflows discharge millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Potomac River- up to 70 million gallons per year, according to the Potomac Riverkeepers. Raw sewage discharged into the Potomac River negatively impacts water quality and wildlife; causes major public health risks; and exacerbates nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay- a watershed that the state of Virginia has pledged to clean up, through the EPA-mandated Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.
Two of the original bills in the 2017 legislative session -House Bill 1423 and Senate Bill 819- targeted discharges from the City of Alexandria’s combined sewer overflow (CSO) system.
House Bill 1423, was first referred to the Committee on Commerce and Labor, has since been referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake, and Natural Resources (on 1/19). This bill calls for the Department of Environmental Quality to identify CSO outfalls that discharge into the Potomac River and lay out actions to bring these outfalls into compliance with federal and state laws by July 1, 2027. This bill would directly target Alexandria’s CSO Outfall Site 001.
Senate Bill (SB) 819, introduced by Senator Adam Ebbin (who represents part of Alexandria) called for the City to complete an assessment of needed system improvements and discharges from Alexandria Renew’s outfall sites to the Potomac River watershed by January 1, 2029. Failure to do so would cause the State Water Control Board to hold off on renewing the Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for this wastewater facility. This bill was stricken from the docket of the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation, and Natural Resources on January 12, before it could reach the Senate floor.
Senate Bill 819 seems to have been scrapped in favor of stronger regulation. On January 12, the same committee that killed SB 819 introduced a new bill, which would require the City of Alexandria to eliminate all discharges of sewer into the Potomac River watershed by July 1, 2020, with severe financial penalties enacted for failure to comply. The committee ultimately adopted a substitute (on 1/19) to bring to the Senate floor, lengthening this timeline to 2025.
The City of Alexandria needs to update and reconfigure its combined sewer system to eliminate overflow events, and it needs to do so sooner than the timelines laid out in the recent House and Senate bills if Alexandria is serious about improving water quality and decreasing public health risks. The City of Alexandria released their Long Term Control Plan Update late last year which lays out how they will deal with this issue, but the timeline for this plan is also too long. Many of the proposed fixes would not be fully implemented for at least another 15 years. The DEQ still needs to approve this plan and the City must finalize funding. The Long Term Control Plan Update is several steps away from being put into motion.
The first wastewater treatment facility in the City of Alexandria was constructed in 1956; a combined sewer system existed long before that. This discharge issue is one that has been occurring for decades. It is time to eliminate all discharges of raw sewage to the Potomac River.
I’ve been looking into which environmental bills and resolutions will be coming up at the 2017 Regular Session of the Virginia General Assembly. The state House and Senate will be meeting in exactly two weeks, on January 11. Several of the upcoming bills deal with water quality issues, as well as fisheries and habitat of tidal water. I’ll outline these proposed bills below, sorted via bill subject, and over the next few weeks, post updates on the states of these bills.
*Note: HB refers to House Bill followed by it’s number ID, SB refers to Senate Bill
Waters of the State, Ports, and Harbors
HB 1423/ SB 818: This bill addresses water quality in the Potomac River Watershed by designating the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to 1. identify point sources when combined sewer overflow outfalls occurs, discharging untreated wastewater into the Potomac River or its tributaries and 2. gives the DEQ the responsibility of following up with owners of these discharge facilities to come up with action plans to reduce combined sewer outfalls. By doing so, the state will be acting in compliance with the Clean Water Act and the EPA’s Combined Sewer Overflow Control Policy (owners of combined sewer overflow sites must be in full compliance with this federal regulation by July 1, 2027).
A combined sewer system is when wastewater and stormwater are carried to a water treatment facility using a combined system of piping (in a separate sewer system, only wastewater is treated; stormwater flows directly into nearby streams). During periods of heavy precipitation, combined sewer systems can easily be overtaxed, leading to overflows of untreated water into streams and rivers. To my knowledge, only three major cities in Virginia still have this combined system and of these, only the city of Alexandria falls within the Potomac River Watershed. Treatment centers in this area would be subject to HB 1423/ SB 818.
Therefore, related to this last bill is SB 819, which if passed, would require the City of Alexandria to assess discharges from its Combined Sewer Outfall Number 001 (which discharges into the Potomac River) by January 2029. The City of Alexandria would have to submit this assessment to the State Water Control Board, and include an outline of actions and control technologies that must be adopted to prevent overflow discharges to the Potomac River.
HB 1454 would designate a stretch of the James River as part of the Virginia Scenic Rivers System. When the General Assembly designates a river, or sections of a river, as part of the Scenic Rivers System, it means it possesses “superior natural and scenic beauty, fish and wildlife, and historic, recreational, geologic, cultural, and other assets” (Code of Virginia, 10.1-400 Definitions). From my research, I cannot tell that this offers any kind of direct additional protection of these waters or habitats, but the designation may be important for outside conservation efforts.
Water and Sewer Systems
HB 1460 addresses the regulation of private wells, and would allow Stafford County to set standards for the construction or abandonment of private wells. Stafford County would join a growing list of state counties already able to set stronger regulations for their private wells. While this is primarily a public health issue, abandoned wells can impact groundwater, which eventually seeps into bodies of water.
Fisheries and Habitat of Tidal Waters
SB 820 would impact the Virginia Marine Resources Commission’s (VMRC) management of the menhaden industry. The bill would require the VMRC to implement the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic menhaden and adopt regulations to manage the industry.
Atlantic menhaden can be found along the North American coast, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. As these fish are used for a variety of purposes, they have a long history of being overfished. Menhaden are used as bait for other fisheries (including the crabbing industry), and for fish meal and the production of fish oil. Protecting the stock of menhaden in Virginia protects a number of fishery-related industries.
Last month, the Washington Post published a piece on the presence of microplastics in waters all across the globe. The article featured the work of scientist Abby Barrows at Adventure Scientists, who has been collecting water samples from citizens to document the presence of microplastics.
You’ve probably heard a lot about the levels of plastic waste in our oceans. Marine birds and animals are susceptible to ingesting or strangling on large pieces of debris. What scientists are now discovering is that many of our waters have microscopic levels of plastics in them. While these microplastics pose different hazards than plastic debris, marine species could equally be as threatened. More studies need to be conducted, but there is preliminary evidence that ingesting microplastics has a negative impact on the eating habits and growth rates of marine species. Microplastics can come from a number of sources, including clothing and cosmetics. The US has already introduced a ban on microbeads in cosmetic products, with microbeads set to be phased out by 2019. However, the synthetic fibers used in the production of many of clothes (particularly fleeces), shed microplastics when washed.
Microplastics have been found throughout the world’s oceans. The Adventure Scientists are looking into how widespread pollution is. Their website features a map of all the places and watersheds where microplastics have been detected so far. I encourage you to check it out and see where there are gaps. If you plan on travelling, or if you live in an area where samples would be needed, all you have to do is sign up, read through the procedures, and take a short quiz in order to participate in sampling. They’re particularly interested in freshwater at the moment.
As G2 was already scheduled to sample in Antipoison Creek and Indian Creek earlier in November, we signed up to sample for microplastics as well. The results take about 6 to 8 weeks to come back, so we will be sure to share them as they become available!
Sorry things have been silent around here on my end. I have been working “offline” on modeling and water quality analysis on several tributaries in Virginia’s Lancaster County. With input and feedback from Professor Mark Brush at VIMS, we have completed a tidal prism and two versions of a Nitrogen Loading Model (NLM) for Antipoison Creek. These NLMs show annual loads of nitrogen to the creek, but since local agricultural fields transition between corn and winter wheat at different times of the year, we have a model for each crop. I will upload a more detailed account of our findings in the next few days.
We have also begun to water sample at the neighboring Indian Creek. Dependent on time and resources, we will complete NLMs for Indian Creek, and the Corrotoman River (where water quality monitoring is conducted by an outside source and collected by the Chesapeake Bay Program).
Earlier this summer, I reported on estimates that the Bay hypoxic zone would be smaller than average this year. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has just released their data for dissolved oxygen levels for July and early August in the main stem of the Bay (see this report). While the hypoxic area in August was about average, July measurements exceeded estimates.
To refresh, hypoxic zones are areas where dissolved oxygen levels fall below 2 milligrams per liter. Anoxic zones, which have not occurred this year, are areas where oxygen levels fall below 0.2 milligrams per liter. Hypoxic and anoxic zones are commonly referred to as dead zones, as low oxygen levels make it difficult for marine species to live in these areas.
Earlier estimates, made by a team of scientists from UMCES, the University of Michigan, NOAA and USGS, were calculated from spring rainfall and nutrient loading data from major Bay tributaries, such as the Susquehanna and Potomac Rivers. Spring rainfall, which carries nutrient runoff into the main stem of the Bay, is a major indicator of how big or small dead zones may be later in the year.
Measurements of dissolved oxygen are then taken throughout the summer months. Data is collected by the DNR, and compared to long-term averages (1985-2015).
July dissolved oxygen levels, and the subsequent hypoxic zone area, were higher than average. The hypoxic zone grew to 1.65 cubic miles last month, which was the seventh largest hypoxic zone on record in the Bay. (The July long-term average is 1.29 cubic miles). Early August levels were closer to estimates; the August 2016 (Aug 8-10) hypoxic zone measured 1.15 cubic miles, compared to the 1.13 cubic mile average.
Dissolved oxygen is measured with various other water quality indicators, which can give scientists a better idea of what causes average or above average dead zones. This year, scientists measured higher salinity in the Bay in June through early August. Higher salinity is indicative of less rainfall and less nutrient runoff. In wetter years, more nutrient runoff usually results in larger hypoxic zones. The results for early August confirm spring estimates. With the drier spring we had this year, we would expect to see average or lower than average dissolved oxygen levels, hypoxic zone areas, and salinity measurements.
But what about July? Why was the hypoxic zone so much larger than average? Other environmental factors, such as temperature, were likely to blame. July temperatures were especially high last month. Warmer air and water temperatures result in stagnant waters; oxygen on the Bay surface is unable to mix with bottom waters, where species such blue crabs, oysters, and finfish can be found.
Monitoring of the Bay hypoxic zone concludes in September. Check back for an update in a few weeks when the late August/ early September data is released.
Last week I posted a review of Kate Livie’s book, Chesapeake Oysters: The Bay’s Foundation and Future. The final portion of Livie’s book is dedicated to the rise of aquaculture in the Bay watershed over the past 15- 20 years.
Aquaculture is reliant on the production of disease-resistant, sterile triploid oysters. (To read more about the production of these triploids please see this former post on a Chesapeake Bay hatchery; and this former post on a nearby oyster farm). Raised in floating cages, or in cages suspended on the Bay floor, triploids are being raised in the millions in Virginia and Maryland, revitalizing the local oyster industry. The Chesapeake oyster can once again be found in restaurants and markets across the Eastern seaboard (and sometimes even across the country).
Aquaculture represents the future of the Chesapeake oyster in this region. However, traditional forms of harvest are still taking place in the Chesapeake and its tributaries. Despite the fact that traditional harvesting methods produce a minute fraction of historic records, harvesting of reefs, both natural and manmade, is an ongoing practice in Maryland and Virginia. Some question whether harvesting of reefs should be allowed at all, when the wild oyster population remains so low. As stated previously, the current population is estimated to be at or below 1% of historic levels.
Virginia and Maryland have both attempted to increase these population levels, with limited success. State-owned sanctuaries, where harvesting is limited or forbidden all together, are a way to protect and revive the wild oyster population. A recent report from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources unsurprisingly documents a population boom among oysters in Maryland sanctuaries over the past five years, while the oyster population outside of protected areas fell. Livie’s telling of the decline of the wild Chesapeake oyster, and this recent DNR report leave us with the questions: Should harvesting be allowed in these sanctuaries? Should harvesting continue at all while population numbers remain so low? If Maryland was more open to aquaculture, would this present a solution to displaced watermen, or those seeking alternate means of employment within the industry?
These aren’t easy questions to answer. Harvesting of oyster reefs remains an economic and cultural cornerstone of several waterfront communities in the Chesapeake region. The studies that have been undertaken do not definitively prove that harvesting of oyster reefs is harming current populations. On the other hand, with population levels as low as they are, it would seem that stricter regulations could only help.
As with many environment and water quality issues in the Bay, there are no easy solutions. But it’s certainly interesting to examine all sides to the story.