Creekwatchers group grades Wicomico River at C-plus

A member of the Wicomico River Creekwatchers captures a water sample.

At a small gathering next to the city of Salisbury’s Edible Garden, the results of the 2019 Wicomico River Creekwatchers season were officially released, delayed by the arrival in March of the novel Coronavirus and Covid-19 pandemic.

Creekwatchers is a program of the Wicomico Environmental Trust.

Gina Bloodworth, Associate Professor of Geography, Geoscience and Environmental Studies at Salisbury University, offered insight into the meaning of the data collected twice monthly, March-November, by volunteer citizen-scientists during the 2019 sampling season.

Bloodworth, along with colleague Christina Bradley, an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, work in a lab at SU with some of their students analyzing the water samples and other data provided by the volunteer creekwatchers.

“If I had to give the Wicomico River a report-card grade today,” Bloodworth told those gathered for the announcement, “it would be a C-plus.”

A report card is something most people can relate to, and a C-plus grade is basically satisfactory, neither failing nor outstanding.

But Bloodworth had even bigger news.

“2019 was a really big year for Creekwatchers,” she said. “As of 2019, we now have 15 years of data on the condition of the Wicomico River, which means we can track long-term trends in water quality data for the river.”

The 2019 report indicates that nitrates and chlorophyll are trending up, but phosphates are moving in the opposite direction. The river in general is improving, based on those long-term data points.

“But it’s not improving as rapidly as we would like,” she said.

In addition to the raw water quality data and analyses, what helps to explain both the data itself as well as the reason it matters is how the surrounding land in the watershed is used.

“What goes into the land goes into the river,” Bloodworth explained.

One factor that has made a huge difference is Salisbury’s new wastewater treatment plant, along with money collected through the city’s stormwater utility fee that was used to improve infrastructure that manages stormwater runoff.

“WET is focused on properties that actually touch the river, along with its ponds and creeks,” she said. “Factors like impervious surfaces, paving, population growth all affect the watershed and therefore the water quality of the Wicomico River.”

Salisbury City Administrator Julia Glanz was on hand as well and talked about the partnerships that support stewardship of the river and waterways.

“We are proud to partner with Wicomico Environmental Trust and Wicomico County, through our Green Team,” Glanz said, “to take actions and pass policies to improve that stewardship. But there’s still more to do, through public education and awareness. The signs of climate change are overwhelming – the fires, sea-level rise, powerful storms – but Salisbury makes me hopeful. Look at the rooftop garden at Roadie Joe’s, for example.”

Glanz, like Bloodworth, said the river overall is trending in the right direction the collective effort must continue.

Creekwatcher samples are tested for phosphates and nitrates as well as phosphorus and nitrogen. Those are different forms of the same two basic compounds, but the distinction is important because they indicate different sources of pollution.

Nitrogen and phosphorus can occur naturally in soil in small amounts, while phosphates and nitrates are specific to commercial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. In addition to indicating the source, phosphates and nitrates, which are man-made compounds, take longer to biodegrade in the environment than the naturally occurring forms, according to Bloodworth.

pH is also measured.

“It’s associated with climate change, but not life-threatening,” said Bloodworth. “It can also be related to a busy hurricane season that stirs up excess nutrients that are found in sediment.”

But the hurricanes are themselves related to climate change, feeding on warmer, wetter air currents and increased ocean temperatures.

Chlorophyll is essentially algae, which is another indication of excess nutrients.

Dissolved oxygen, which Creekwatchers only recently began to monitor, is related to algae blooming and dying, and low levels are implicated in fish kills, essentially suffocating fish and other marine life. Salinity, or salt, can be indicative of saltwater incursions into areas that were previously fresh, and this is also associated with sea-level rise and climate change.

Bacteria levels, on the other hand, are mostly related to sewage runoff, and with upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, levels are expected to continue to fall in 2020.

In short, all the measurements tell a story about Delmarva’s waterways, the land surrounding it and what is running from land throughout the watershed into the water. This in turn helps county and city leaders make informed decisions about land use, zoning and other matters of importance to farmers, businesses and residents.

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