New report shows progress in Wicomico River cleanup

City Administrator Julia Glanz paddles a kayak with her dog Luna following a presentation of the 2018 Wicomico River Health Report on Tuesday.

Water quality in the Wicomico River is showing some signs of improvement, but three of the five parameters it was tested for remain unchanged from 2017, according to a report released Tuesday by the Wicomico Environmental Trust and the Wicomico Creekwatchers.

The best news from the report is that annual averages for nitrogen in the Upper Wicomico have improved significantly, due mostly to Salisbury’s new wastewater treatment plant that went online last year.

“With the literal flip of a switch, we became one of the cleanest facilities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said Mayor Jake Day during a presentation of the report at the Salisbury Marina.

While water in the Salisbury area showed less nitrogen, measurements taken in other parts of the river were not significantly different than in 2017, according to the report. Two ponds remained at high levels.

Water clarity also was slightly improved over the previous year, but the number of healthy sites decreased to two, the report said.

The report also highlighted areas in need of improvement.

The annual averages for phosphorus sampled throughout the watershed were slightly worse or unchanged, with the exception of Coulbourne Mill Pond which was the only healthy location

Chlorophyll levels worsened for all areas of the watershed, mostly in the upper river and ponds.

“This continues a 10-year worsening trend and is fueled by heavy rains in the spring and warmer temperatures in the summer leading to algae blooms,” according to the report.

The Creekwatchers, a group of “citizen scientists” who regularly collect water samples, also reported high levels of fecal bacteria. Two sites – Wikander and Sharps Point – were ranked very poor with a high risk for swimmers, and every site in the watershed tested unsafe for swimming at least once during the testing season.

Salisbury is actively taking steps toward a healthier river, in addition to building a new sewage treatment plant, said Amanda Pollack, the city’s director of infrastructure and development.

The city is creating “green streets” by adding landscaping that serves as bio-retention areas, she said. Examples can be seen in the improvements made recently along Main Street where plants help soak up rainwater before it goes into the storm drains and then the river.

The Main Street project also includes porous brick pavers around trees that allow water to go directly to the tree roots.

Other new projects, such as the Riverwalk Amphitheater that opened last year and the town square currently under construction on South Division Street, also have stormwater components to help keep runoff away from the river, Pollack said.

Wicomico County officials are in the process of developing a water and sewer master plan that will, in part, address failing septic systems, said Weston Young, the county’s deputy director of administration.

Day said city, county and state officials have been working to help improve water quality in the river.

 “There’s always work to be done and we’ve got a long way to go,” he said.

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