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Middle-Aged Tarzans Hurtling into the James? What Are They Thinking?

Today's guest blog is from Krista Schlyer, a professional photographer with the International League of Conservation Photographers who has been documenting the pollution issues plaguing the Chesapeake Bay. Last time we heard from Krista she was exploring the Anacostia River in Maryland. She has since moved on to Virginia's James River.

Remember when every kid had a swimming hole and every river a rope swing? I remember heading down to the creek swinging a metal pail with an apple and sandwich Ma made for me, fishing pole on my shoulder, Albert waiting for me at our favorite spot. Wait, no, that was Little House on the Prairie. But I swam in rivers once, I think. Don’t remember. But I do remember very clearly the day when I was about 9 years old and my mom wouldn’t let us go swimming with a group of kids in the St. Joe River in northern Indiana. A friend of hers had recently gotten a chunk of glass lodged in his leg while swimming in the river, and it was off limits to us ever after.

Not being able to swim in a river on a hot day is kind of like being dehydrated, having a glass of water right in front of you but knowing it is at least a little bit poisonous. It’s torture, the deepest kind of alienation from the earth. But I’ve always figured we were all in the same boat. I didn’t think people swam in urban rivers any more, which is why during my trip to Richmond to cover the James River for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE, my jaw dropped wide open when I saw a whole community of people swimming off the city’s riverbank. My first inclination was to stop the people around me and say, “Did you see this? What the crack are they doin?” Multiple rope swings were set up along a stretch of the river in downtown Richmond. Kids and adults alike waited in line for their turn at the rope. Grown men hollered Tarzan yells and tried to outdo each other when it came their turns. Is this Mars? 1950? A rerun of Gentle Ben?

Few people swim in the Potomac or the Anacostia Rivers, in part because it is illegal in the District of Columbia due to concerns about the health of the water. I once did a triathlon swim in the Potomac, but there were daily tests of the water quality leading up to the event. Had there been a good rain, the swimming portion of the event would have been canceled rather than risk illness of swimming in the river. So seeing these apparently normal human beings swimming in the James made my head spin. It looked like so much fun. It occurred to me, maybe the James is just that much cleaner than the Potomac.

No, not really. The sewage that flows into the river after large rains pours in downstream of where most people swim, which helps increase water quality for swimmers. But the suburbs and rural agriculture runoff that enter the James upstream ensure that unhealthy chemicals and fecal matter are part of the water here just as they are in the Potomac. Swimmers can get ear and intestinal infections, and who knows what else, but the idea of not swimming in the river must be worse than swimming in a polluted river. How’s that for a choice?

On a walk along the James the following morning, I happened across one of the signs the city of Richmond displays to explain the sewage overflow system to its citizens. In an unfortunate choice of colors, the brown sign has a caricature of a fish who looks quite pleased with himself for swimming above the outflows of sewage coming from urban Richmond. The text supports the contentment of the poster-fish, saying the fish and birds are not harmed by sewage because the pollutants are mixed into the river water by the rapids. Water + poo = smiley. The sign also reads: “Releasing storm water here two or three times a year is an economically and socially prudent way to combine the impact of a vibrant urban community with the need for a clean and healthy river.” I’m not sure how putting sewage in the river makes it cleaner and healthier, but I’m no expert. And that fish sure looks happy.

The reflections of the city off the river in soft morning light, combined with thoughts of a city of middle-aged Tarzans hurtling themselves into the James, highlight what an amazing resource the river is. This city seems in the process of a great revitalization. There are terrific restaurants featuring local foods, there are new galleries and river parks, the kind of things that lead to healthier living and greater quality of life. But soft-pedaling the impact of human waste, street and industrial runoff, and agricultural pollutants flowing into the river seems unnecessary. We have made strides on water quality. Many rivers are in better shape than they were a couple of decades ago, thanks to the Clean Water Act. But we have a long way to go before we can tell people they no longer have to make a choice between swimming in our rivers and their health. Pathogens with ominous names like vibrio, cyanobacteria and crypto sporidium, along with mercury from coal plants and nitrates from farm and lawn runoff, pose potentially serious health risks to people and wildlife. Back in the 1950s and 60s we may have had the excuse that we didn’t know the impact of human pollution on our watersheds. We no longer have that excuse. Now it comes down to a choice between making important changes, or continuing business as usual and accepting our alienation from our own rivers.

On August 23, 2010, Virginia released its latest 303d Water Quality Report. According to the report, the number of waterways on the state's "dirty waters list" continues to increase. Find out more about the report on CBF.org.

For more information about the continuing health hazardous posed in our waterways, read our Bay Daily Blog post, "Increased Risk of Dangerous Infections from the Bay" and download our 2009 Bad Water report, "The Impact on Human Health in the Chesapeake Bay Region."


Documenting Abandoned Mines and Their Impact on Water

Today's guest blog is from Miguel Angel de la Cueva, a professional photographer with the International League of Conservation Photographers who has been documenting sites affected by abandoned mines.

13/08/2010 Today i arrived Ashley to visit the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation and it’s Executive Director Robert Hughes, we visited 4 sites (Newport Township, Nanticoke, Old Forge and Wilkes-Barre) affected by abandoned mines and suffering from acid mine damage/drainage,  local media came along and did coverage also, i never spected to find such a polluted environment, almost two days after my clothes are stained with a intense orange color and the strong smell of sulphur remains.

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(above) Newport Lake-”Loch Mess”-an abandoned water-filled anthracite strip mining pit 20 acres in size, 40′ deep down the center of the pit floor, nearly 200′ feet across, 4/10s of a mile long down valley; The pit is flooded with abandoned mine drainage that enters the pit in several fractured areas along one side of the highwall to the camera right, looking down valley (north) of where we were shooting. The abandoned mine water has an alkaline pH of 6.2, very low acidity levels, and iron hydroxide levels that exceed 40 parts per million (40 mg/L). The orange-ish, red color exhibited in the pit and along the highwall’s edge is precipitated iron oxide that has dropped our of solution and deposited naturally on the rocks around the site and at the base of the natural vegetation that has grown around the water’s edge. Introduced the concept of native wetlands native vegetation or phytoremediation to treat the polluted abandoned mine drainage (AMD) utilizing plants such as cattails (typha latifolia), that have extensive, far reaching and dense rhizome root systems at the base of their stalks to filter out the iron oxide as it passes through the plants underwater roots.

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(above) The Old Forge AMD Borehole (above) -This is a 50-80 million gallons per day discharge directly into the Lackawanna River, a major tributary to the Susquehanna River that mainly flows from Susquehanna County in the Forest City area at the very northern tip of the Anthracite Coal fields through Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties, mainly through the City of Scranton and Old Forge, with several smaller coal town communities in between the Lackawanna Valley.

Continue reading the full post.


Clean Water: A shared responsibility

The following is a reprint of a guest column written by CBF Virginia State Director Ann Jennings and published in The News Leader today. The piece addresses incorrect statements in The News Leader's recent editorial "Distribute Blame Fairly."

Remember the telephone game? Most of us played this game as children. We sat in a circle and whispered a phrase into the ear of the person seated next to us — by the time the phrase made it around the circle, the result was so unrecognizable from the original that hysterical giggles ensued.

But the game isn't so funny when adults unwittingly repeat what they've been told. I believe that's what happened when The News Leader ran its "Distribute Blame Fairly" editorial. The Virginia Farm Bureau has whispered in the ear of their members and local legislators, who likely whispered into the ear of The News Leader and behold, the text that ran in the paper about the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act of 2010 is unfortunately wrong. It would be funny like the telephone game if the water quality in the Shenandoah River and the health of the Chesapeake Bay were not at stake.

Scientists from the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program calculate that agriculture is among the largest land uses in the watershed and contributes 33 percent of the nitrogen pollution, 43 percent of the phosphorus pollution, and 50 percent of the sediment pollution that must be reduced in Virginia. In the Shenandoah Valley, you can't spend time on the water without seeing farms with cows urinating and defecating in the streams and tearing up the stream banks.

For years, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has worked hand-in-hand with farmers to help them implement conservation practices. Last year alone, our agricultural team worked with local Soil and Water Conservation districts and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help farmers fence 75 miles of stream shoreline and plant almost 1,000 acres in riparian buffers. We are committed to being part of the solution because we want to preserve open farmland — a well-managed farm is better for the health of the watershed than a suburb or a parking lot.

The Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act is part of the solution needed to restore our rivers and streams. The bill does not place a disproportionate cost burden on the backs of family farmers. In fact, it could be a financial gain for Virginia farmers. If passed, the bill will:

  • Authorize no less than $96 million in new funds for technical assistance to support agricultural conservation practices. This is in addition to the $600 million already available as part of the Farm Bill for Chesapeake Stewardship Grants.
  • Provide for new rural jobs — more than 11,000 new jobs of at least a year's duration, according to an economic study by the University of Virginia.
  • Create an interstate pollution credit program that will allow farmers to sell conservation credits at a profit to municipalities and wastewater treatment plants and reduce pollution in a more cost-effective manner. Economists estimate that the credit program could generate up to $50 million in annual revenue for Virginia's farmers.

The legislation does NOT require farmers to obtain EPA permits for an ordinary farming operation, no matter the size of the farm, as stated by some in the agricultural community.

In fact, the bill allows the Commonwealth to determine how best to address pollution reductions for most farmers.

The bill does not ask farmers to do more than their fair share and certainly will not drive farmers to give up their way of life. As The News Leader suggests, cleaning up local rivers and the Bay is everyone's responsibility — homeowners, local governments, developers, farmers, legislators, and conservationists. Truth be told, the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act asks all of us to do our part. Passage will assure that we have healthy rivers and streams that valley residents can enjoy, as well as a vibrant farm economy.

Visit cbf.org/ccwa for more information about the Chesapeake Clean Water Act.


How to Fish "Bad Water" - Part II

By John Page Williams, CBF Senior Naturalist and avid boater and fisherman. In Part I of this two-part series, John Page gives anglers some insight into the images on your sonar fish finders. In Part II he looks at how you can use that information to catch more fish.

So what’s an angler to do when bad water shows up on the fish finder? 
First, think about what the fish are telling you: they won’t—or can’t—go any deeper than the levels where you see them. This kind of situation calls for precise depth control. Can you cast out a jig, count it down to just above the level where you see them, and swim it back through them? Can you troll a plug or a spoon through them? If you’re live-lining, can you use a bobber to hang your bait at their level? Think through your options. You may just find that the way bad water concentrates fish actually makes it easier to catch them.

In the short run, that is. 
In the long run, though, bad water costs our Bay a huge loss in summertime fish habitat. For one thing, it concentrates fish in thin layers of warm water where diseases like Mycobacteriosis can spread. On a broader level, over the past 10 summers, more than 80 percent of the Bay has qualified as "bad water" that does not meet the EPA’s water quality standards for dissolved oxygen. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of that bad water qualifies as dead zones that are completely off limits to fish and crabs each summer. Think of having to give up 20 percent of the space in your boat, or in your house, and being uncomfortably stressed in most of the rest of it! Think how that loss affects the “carrying capacity” of the Chesapeake, its ability to serve as home to the fish species we love! Bad water is costing us the resource we love most in our Bay. 

What causes the bad water problem is pollution, nitrogen pollution to be specific. Too much nitrogen (about 600 percent too much, in fact) fertilizes the growth of trillions of algae cells. (See yesterday's post "Hampton Roads Algal Blooms Send Distress Signals") 

Over the past twenty-five years, many sewage treatment plants have made good progress reducing nitrogen pollution, and so have some farmers. To really make a difference, though, the Bay needs more farmers to participate fully in reducing nitrogen pollution, more sewer authorities to continue their upgrade progress, and most of all, many states, cities, towns, and private citizens to reduce polluting runoff from roadways, parking lots, and rooftops.  

Now there are solutions, and Bay anglers can help, big-time.
Over the next two months, contact your U.S. Senators and ask them to support Senate Bill 1816, the Chesapeake Clean Water Act. It offers the most important legislative opportunity to reduce runoff pollution to come along in the past thirty-five years. For more information, visit cbf.org/ccwa

In addition, the Bay states are putting together Watershed Implementation Plans (“WIPs”) that lay out specific actions they must follow to improve the Chesapeake’s water quality. We anglers can help there by following the WIP development process, participating in the public hearings about them, and urging our state agencies to submit strong plans that really will make a difference in the Bay’s health. CBF’s Anglers for Clean Water Web Site (cbf.org/ccwa-anglers) will keep you informed of those opportunities to help.


Hampton Roads Algal Blooms Send Distress Signal

By Christy Everett, CBF Hampton Roads Director

Today I flew over the Hampton Roads area in a 4-seater Cessna with CBF’s volunteer pilot Fred Bashara and Daily Press environmental reporter Cory Nealon to observe algal blooms.   It was Cory’s first time viewing algal blooms from the air. Fred’s been flying for 40 years and remarked that the algal blooms have gotten much worse over the past few years. 

Although I’ve witnessed algal blooms from Fred’s plane before, I too was shocked to see how pervasive they are this summer.  These ugly massive swirls of reddish brown algae are stark reminders of why we need to reduce pollution from all sources.  

It is frustrating to see the waterways we’re trying so hard to restore remain endangered by too much nitrogen and phosphorous pollution.  This type of pollution is the most serious problem facing the Bay today, and we have a lot more to do to curb it.

When this “nutrient pollution” invades our summer-warmed waterways through a rain event, it feeds an over-abundance of algae that “blooms” and grows, blocking sunlight beneath the surface for days.  As the algae die, decompose, and sink to the bottom, they consume oxygen from the water which leads to “dead zones,” areas where dissolved oxygen levels are so low fish, crabs, and oysters cannot survive.  

Stormwater runoff in Hampton Roads continues to hinder restoration efforts.  Although we’ve seen some positive signs from the Bay such as the rebounding crab population, these algal blooms have become more common and intense in recent years and indicate our waterways are still in trouble.  

From the ground, you can only see a small part of the algal blooms.  Once you’re in the air though, you realize that we all live near a waterway and this annual invasion threatens water quality throughout countless neighborhoods in Hampton Roads.

AlgalBloom_081110_Mill_Creek

I’m often asked what one person can do to help improve water quality.  Typically I respond with tips such as picking up your dog’s waste, refraining from blowing grass clippings into the street, not applying excessive lawn fertilizer, etc.  This year, I tell people the single most effective thing they can do immediately is to pick up the phone or write a quick note to Senators Warner and Webb, urging them to support the Chesapeake Clean Water Act, currently in Congress.  

For the first time in decades, this legislation provides hope of holding all pollution sources accountable. If passed, the act would give states flexibility to reduce pollution from all sources, provide funding incentives and penalties, and establish real deadlines for state pollution plans, with phased implementation, for restoring the Bay by 2025.  But opposition from agricultural and other groups threatens the bill’s passage.  CBF is working hard to discuss these issues with farmers and elected officials, explaining that the bill will help, not hurt, the economy while providing desperately needed help for the Chesapeake Bay.

If the Chesapeake Clean Water Act passes, I trust that one day when I fly over Hampton Roads on a hot August day, those ugly algal blooms will be a faded memory, not a predictable reality.

  


How to Fish "Bad Water" - Part I

By John Page Williams, CBF Senior Naturalist and avid boater and fisherman. In this two-part series, John Page gives anglers some insight into the images on your sonar fish finders—what they mean and how you can use that information to catch more fish.

Ever see an image like this on your fish finder?

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Here is what is going on:

This image shows dense schools of bait fish (mostly menhaden) and some larger fish (probably rockfish) suspended high in the water column over 40 feet of water in the Severn River, about a mile above the Route 50 bridge in Annapolis, Maryland, on August 1, 2010. The fish are swimming at depths between 10 feet and 18 feet, where they have water as cool as possible (around 81 degrees instead of 83 degrees at the surface) and enough dissolved oxygen to “breathe.” The dissolved oxygen level in the zone where the fish are holding is 2 to 5 mg/l (milligrams per liter), low enough to cause stress to the menhaden and rockfish but not enough to kill them. Below 18 feet, the dissolved oxygen tails off to lethal levels of just 1.7 mg/l at 20 feet and 0.9 at 35 feet.

In the Chesapeake at this time of year, the water at the surface is generally warmer than the bottom, because it is closer to the sun, and fresher, because it has flowed into the Bay or a river from rainfall. The bottom water, on the other hand, is denser because it is cooler, and saltier because some of it has flowed up the Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. If the weather is stable, without heavy rainfall and strong winds, the lighter surface water sits like a lid on the bottom water.

Meanwhile, trillions of algae cells at the surface die every day and sink into that sealed-off bottom water, where aerobic (oxygen-consuming) bacteria decay them. This process literally sucks the life out of the deep water, causing what we now call “Bad Water” where fish and crabs get stressed (2-5 mg/l) or “dead zones” where they can’t live at all (less than 2 mg/l). The result of this process is a situation like the one you see in the image above.

Sometimes, the boundary line between warmer, fresher, well-oxygenated water and cooler, saltier, poorer water is very sharp:

Bad-Water-010810-_4_-2

See the lines going across the screen at 16 feet and 24 feet? Most sonar manufacturers call them thermoclines, a term that refers to sharp temperature changes, but in an estuary like the Chesapeake, those breaks can also be caused by abrupt changes in salinity, or a combination of both factors. In this image, taken in the open Bay off the mouth of the Chester River in May, each of the two breaks is caused by changes in both salinity and temperature. Those density changes are sharp enough to bounce sonar echoes! Notice how fish tend to suspend on or just above them.

Part 2On Thursday, John Page will be back with a look at how you can use this information to catch more fish—in both the short run and long run.