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Did the recent storms hurt our waterways? - September 15, 2011

With record flooding across Delmarva in recent weeks, stormwater impacts are apparent. After 8-12 inches of rain fell in many towns, yards and basements flooded, roads closed, and shorelines eroded. The effects of the water on our land and property are easy to see. But what about the effects on our water -- specifically, water quality?

Nonpoint source pollution is caused when rain moves across the land. As storm runoff flows, it picks up pollutants and deposits them into streams, wetlands, and our coastal bays. Unlike a point source of pollution, like a sewage outfall, you usually can't point a finger to the exact origin of nonpoint source pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency cites excess fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides from agricultural lands and residential areas; oil, grease, and toxic chemicals from urban runoff; sediment from improperly managed construction sites, crop and forest lands, and eroding streambanks; and bacteria and nutrients from livestock, pet wastes, and faulty septic systems as just some of the causes of nonpoint source pollution.

Stormwater runoff has complex ramifications for water quality. According to Catherine Wazniak, Integrated Assessment Program Chief for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, "storm flows carrying a high level of polluted runoff (stormwater) into the bays can increase algae and reduce water clarity that may result in impacts to the growth of aquatic grasses and fishing activities.

These flows carry high loads of nutrient and sediment pollutants from the land into streams and to the bays. Additional nutrients at this time of the year can fuel the growth of late season algal blooms.

Until these materials settle, loads of suspended sediments can reduce water clarity which can shade aquatic grasses and reduce their growth, and affect fishing success."

"Within days of Hurricane Irene, an algae bloom occurred in the Bishopville Prong in Worcester County. Chlorophyll concentrations were nearly sixfold above those measured throughout August before the storm. This phenomenon is a direct response to elevated nutrient concentrations carried in runoff from Irene's rains," said Wazniak.

"Chlorophyll concentrations remained high for more than a week after the storm's departure, showing that the bloom persisted. Once the bloom begins to die back, decomposition of algal cells may produce low dissolved oxygen conditions that are unfavorable to fish and shellfish."

Carol Cain, technical director for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, says: "Many people believe that storm drains in the street are connected to water treatment plants. While this is true in some arid areas of the U.S., it is not so in our watershed. Our storm drains empty directly into a ditch, creek, river or bay, and the flow carries much of the nutrients, bacteria, trash and debris, or heavy metals and toxics encountered along the way."

Wherever you live, there are steps you can take to help mitigate the impacts of stormwater.

Install a rain barrel to help capture some of the water for reuse. Plant a rain garden, to help filter water. Replace impervious surfaces, which speed up runoff, with pervious surfaces, which help to slow the water and allow for filtering and absorption.

You can also help by reducing pollutants. Limit your use of fertilizer and pesticides, and take care to apply them according to label directions and at the appropriate time of the year. Dispose of oil, paint, grease, and other toxic household chemicals properly. Maintain septic systems. Pick up pet waste.

"One of our most solvable water quality problems in the coastal bays is stormwater," notes Dave Wilson, executive director of the MCBP. For more information on how to protect our coastal bays, please visit www.mdcoastalbays.org.

Samis is the education coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

 

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