Creekwatchers issue mixed report on river’s progress

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Swimming in the upper Wicomico River should be avoided, due to high bacteria levels that present a health risk.

That’s one of the findings of The Wicomico Creekwatchers’ 2015 report, released this week.

Complete report here: 2015 Wicomico Creekwatchers Annual Report

“I thought we were seeing improvements, but 2015 knocked it back. We need more data for long-term trends,” said Dr. Judith Stribling, who directs the annual study and oversees students who work with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies Horn Point Laboratory. They test for chlorophyll, salinity, pH, nitrogen and phosphorous.

Creekwatchers was founded in 2002 to work on returning the river to its original condition.

The 2015 report stated fecal enterococci levels were worse than in 2014, with all sites ranking either “poor” or “very poor.” High bacteria levels are common when there has been abundant rainfall, as there was in 2015, because pollution from stormwater runoff carries more bacteria into the river.

“The Wicomico River is very susceptible to run-off,” Stribling said.

“The city has a committee to address the problem and the county is aware of it, but we haven’t seen a turn-around,” she said, adding contact with the water should be avoided.

Even so, she is hopeful conditions will improve.

“This is not a static situation. It’s a situation that can be addressed. We all just need to get behind it and support it,” she said.

Concerned individuals can help by:

  • Using lawn chemicals and fertilizers sparingly.
  • Creating buffers that will absorb excess rainwater by planting native trees, shrubs, and grasses.
  • Using rain barrels to collect rainwater from the roof, and,
  • Planting rain gardens to trap the water on the ground.

Every year, volunteers take water samples every two weeks, focusing on four sections – ponds, the upper river, lower river and Wicomico Creek.

In 2015, the Wicomico River’s water quality was mixed compared to 2014, reflecting a year of moderate to abundant rainfall most months, Stribling said.

High rainfall is associated with elevated bacteria levels, and the Wicomico River system has “substantial delivery of fecal bacteria to its waters.”

Water clarity was impaired, below the healthy threshold of one meter, in all but two sites.

Annual averages for phosphorus were worse, but nitrogen levels were slightly better.

Chlorophyll “a” and water clarity both improved, even though bacteria levels were worse.

Concerning nitrogen, annual averages were mixed, with small improvements only for the upper Wicomico and ponds. The number of healthy sites increased and high-nitrogen sites decreased slightly.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are essential for plants and animals, but an overabundance causes algal blooms and low dissolved-oxygen levels, the report states.

It also showed annual averages of total phosphorus were either worse or unchanged.

The upper river and ponds had six of the seven healthy-level sites, and as in 2014, no site averages were above the unhealthy level.

Water clarity improved except in the upper river, where there was little change. For the third consecutive year, two pond site averages were above the healthy level.

Chlorophyll “a” levels improved substantially in the upper river and a bit in Wicomico Creek and the ponds, Stribling said.

Total nitrogen remained highest in the upper river and lowest downstream, indicating high sources upstream and dilution with lower nitrogen tidal waters coming from Tangier Sound.

Total phosphorus was worse in every segment except the upper Wicomico, even exceeding the long-term average in the lower Wicomico.

Chlorophyll “a” levels improved in several site averages, including the site nearest the mouth of the river, and the uppermost Wicomico Creek site.

Chlorophyll allows plants, including algae, to capture sunlight and perform photosynthesis. The abundance of chlorophyll “a” is a good indicator of the amount of algae present in water. Light is critical for growth of underwater grasses. Poor water clarity indicates water that is clouded with suspended sediment and algae, according to the report.

The Wicomico Creekwatchers Program monitors water quality in 22 sites throughout the Wicomico River system from March to November. Citizen scientists collect water samples and data on water clarity and field conditions.

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