Q&A: Dr. Judith Stribling is watching our waterways

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A unique thing about where we live is how closely each of us is tied to the natural environment. Nature — and protecting it — are a shared interest.

While there’s a lot of debate among local folks about what methods should be employed and what costs should be committed, the issue seems universally important.

Here in Wicomico County, a group of loyal volunteers has been working since 2002 to monitor water conditions in the river, as well as local streams and ponds. The mission of Wicomico Creekwatchers is to collect and develop objective, scientifically credible water quality data.

The Creekwatchers is respected in its effort to provide the most accurate information, from which citizens and public officials can craft public policies and other management tools to protect the Leading the Creekwatchers is Dr. Judith Stribling, a Salisbury University professor and ecologist who is an expert in wetlands and plant ecology, biogeochemistry, and watershed and tributary nutrient monitoring.

With a doctorate in Marine, Estuarine and Environmental Science from the University of Maryland, Stribling also leads a team of student volunteers who analyze the Creekwatchers’ water samples,  while seeking solutions to pollution problems.

Last month, the Creekwatchers issued their 2015 report, which suggested that cleanup progress was mixed, mostly because of moderate to abundant rainfall most months.

The sense is that much more work remains in the fight to curb unfiltered runoff from hitting the river in large surges.

Q. What are the results of your latest survey of water conditions in the Wicomico River?

A. Well, the report was a little bit discouraging. I guess you might say we have seen in 2015 a decrease in water quality.

In some areas, generally speaking, nitrogen has been improving, especially in the ponds around Salisbury, which is a really good sign that maybe people are managing their fertilizers better and things of that nature.

But, overall in the river, nitrogen was worse than most places. Phosphorus was considerably worse in the upper river, especially.

So we have indicators that nutrient levels have increased throughout the system, probably very likely due to increased rainfall in 2015.

Q. We hear about the negative effects of nitrogen and phosphorus, but you also measure for other things.

A. We also measure chlorophyll and (water) clarity, and both of those were mixed as well.

Generally chlorophyll actually did improve somewhat. We see that happen when there’s more runoff — it seems to push the algae out of the system and send them down into the bay.

The river is still exhibiting the effects of stormwater runoff.

The most-concerning part of the report, I think, is for the bacterial levels. They were in the unhealthy range at six out of the eight sites. We measure for annual averages and were very, very poor and then moderately poor at the other two — so we had no swimmable sites in the areA

Q. How often are the samples taken? Don’t conditions constantly change?

A. It’s all a matter of movement and when you measure, to a degree. That’s why we measure every two weeks, so we’re talking about an annual average from mid-March to early November.

The volunteers sample exactly with in a one-day window, generally within a few hours of each other. Then those samples are delivered to my laboratory (at Salisbury University), and my volunteer students analyze them.

Q. Why are nitrogen and phosphorus such a big deal?

A. They are no direct harm to human health whatsoever, but those high levels produce algae blooms. They are fertilizer for the river algae. When the algae flourish, that’s not a bad thing either — it’s when they die see you get blooms.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are both a problem, and it depends really on where you are. Generally, in freshwater, phosphorus can be more of a problem. In marine systems, nitrogen tends to be the problem.

It’s like a boom-and-bust cycle in the stock market, they crash, they die they decompose. Their decomposition sucks oxygen out of the water and creates dead zones.

That’s really a major problem in the main stream of the bay and the deeper waters. We have fish and crabs being limited in where they can go because of low oxygen question.

Q. I never realized algae decay was the issue. I thought the algae sucked out the oxygen when it was living.

A. There can be some problems if you have excessive levels of nutrients, which we really don’t have in the Wicomico River — I really need to emphasize that we’re not above the real serious levels for nitrogen and phosphorus, we’re in the moderate range.

So it’s problematic for nutrients, but not as bad as in some areas. In those areas where it’s really high you can get harmful algal blooms, and we see these throughout the Chesapeake Bay at different times, and it has happened locally as well.

creek stribling

Q. Of course, fecal bacteria is the really nasty stuff. Where does that mostly come from?

A. That’s a very good question. Folks in our Bacterial Source Tracking Lab back at SU are looking at that question, directly trying to trace those bacteria to their sources — whether it’s human, dog, cat, goose or whatever. So we are not sure; we don’t know in our measurements.

All we know is we we have this bacteria — we don’t know where they came from.

One of the things I am really interested in doing is looking at our pond systems. We know we have some potential sources in some areas, perhaps from leaking septic tanks and things like that.

Failing septic tanks could be a direct source for this right now.

Q. People love to blame the city of Salisbury and their sewer plant for everything that is wrong in the river. Is it a culprit?

A.  The wastewater treatment plant actually discharges zero bacteria levels because they treat it with, you know, antibiotics and with chlorine.

A couple of years ago when we had very little rain, we had pristine waters right around the sewer outfall. It was essentially depleting the waters of bacteriA

Q. If you could pick one pollution culprit to go after, who would it be? Farmers? Septic tank owners?

A. The Creekwatchers’ mission is to provide datA We don’t point fingers. We do try to assist in determining sources, sure, but I think what our objective is to provide information to folks who have the ability to make changes.

Everyone has the ability to make changes, and changes are being made.

I think one of the things that our data shows is that it’s really important to look at the effect of rainfall. If you look at wet years versus dryer, you’ll see good water quality in the dry years.

Q. So it’s really just a matter of stormwater management?

A. The best thing we can do — whatever the sources of these nutrients — is to control their delivery.

We can slow their delivery to a great degree by controlling storm-water runoff.

Salisbury has recently adopted a stormwater utility; Wicomico County is implementing some stormwater management. These are great measures. I think this is what citizens of the region need to get behind.

We see a lot of progress in our new construction, from the state-mandated guidelines. You know, even new poultry houses have to have (strict runoff controls), so it’s going to make a difference.

Q. I am always amazed by people who move here who’ve never heard of a septic tank. How important is migrating away from septic tanks?

A. I think there’s a lot to be said for being able to manage wastewater in a centralized way, but that can also promote more sprawl development and things of that sort, so there’s a built-in bit of a balancing act.

The most important thing people in the short-term can do is that they can pump out the septic tanks on a very short-term basis and can keep that material, essentially, in a short-term storage unit. Then it can be taken to the wastewater treatment plant, where it gets treated, the nitrogen gets removed.

Q. You’re someone who’s known as a really thoughtful voice that you try to see things from both points of view.

A. I look at the dialogue as a dialogue, not a battle. I have had exceptional experience over the years with people who disagree with many things by just looking into what they are thinking and why they do.

My own personal views haven’t changed dramatically. I think my style has changed, in that I do tend to be — at heart — someone who believes that we are dangerously dangerously close to the tipping point with respect to our views of the entire environment.

I’m not going to tie myself to a tree in front of a logging operation, but I think you know there’s far too little regard for what we all depend on.

Our “green infrastructure” is called that for a reason — it is infrastructure and it underpins everything that we do.

I can get passionate about my own evolution.

Q. The Creekwatchers volunteers: Who are they?

A. We have this fabulous group of volunteers who live up and down the river and they sample every other week, (at 23 sites) starting in March and going through November. he water every two weeks on Tuesday. They collect data — environmental data —  up and down the river.

They collect from the river, some of the ponds and Wicomico Creek.

Q. How can someone become a Creekwatcher?

A. Go to the Salisbury University Website (salisbury.edu) or call me at the university and I’ll direct you to our volunteer coordinator who will set you up. One of our sites that we’re looking for some help on is way down in Whitehaven.

These people do a lot to help contribute — some will drive all the way from Mount Vernon to Salisbury every other week to deliver their samples. It’s a very quick process in terms of collecting the sample and the data.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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