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Potomac Basin Reporter, Summer 2018

A couple paddles along the river with cherry blossoms in the foreground.

IN THIS ISSUE

Summer 2018; Vol 70., No. 1

When it Rains, Salinity Falls

The waters of the Potomac are again receding from flood levels after several late-May and June storm systems, although damage (and maybe some benefits) will continue for some time. The flooding in the upper Potomac basin brought large amounts of sediment and nutrients into the river that can provide the food needed for algae blooms later this summer. The flows, which included numerous stormwater and sewer backups, also can cause some short-term spikes in bacterial levels. These conditions can stress aquatic animals and plants, as well as restricting recreational use. Roads and other infrastructure also sustained damage in the upper basin and Shenandoah watershed.

As flood waters move downriver, they affect salinity and oxygen levels in the tidal river, stressing aquatic communities. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission are concerned about effects on oyster populations near the Route 301 Bridge that crosses the Potomac near Colonial Beach, Va.  Oyster restoration efforts are being stressed by the lower salinity levels caused by the massive freshwater input from upstream, as well as how these flows may cause stratification between the fresh water moving downriver on the surface and the heavier, saltier water moving upstream on the tide. This stratification can deplete oxygen levels near the bottom, and future algae blooms that die and fall to the bottom to decompose (oxygen is used in decomposition) will intensify the problem for the oysters, which need both salty water and oxygen. These conditions can favor the growth of plants that like freshwater at the expense of plants that prefer saltier water. This interaction highlights the complex ecology of the Potomac River, where salt and oxygen levels can change rapidly in response to flow and weather conditions. These effects also influence the growth of aquatic plants (see related article), fish spawning runs, and other ecological aspects.

While these episodes of deluges and dry weather can’t necessarily be blamed on climate change, ICPRB research using climate change models to predict future water availability found that many of the models did agree that weather events in the basin would become more extreme. These weather events come at a time when basin water quality is improving in many aspects, but is still fragile enough for weather patterns to exert a powerful effect.

The Potomac River: A Story of Love, Loss, and Redemption

A map of the Potomac River in Virginia from 1612.

During one of the first warm days of the year, a group of people gathered in the heart of the District of Columbia. Forgoing the sun and warmth, they sat in a conference room at the Smithsonian Institution’s S. Dillon Ripley Center to learn about the backdrop to the nation’s capital and the source of our drinking water: the Potomac River.

Just like the plot of a romantic novel, the visitors learned of the (ecologically) rich and beautiful Potomac as seen by the original inhabitants and the first European explorers. They learned of the struggles the Potomac experienced due to neglect, pollution, and overharvest. Finally, our river heroine sees hope in the future and a revived love from the community.

“Washingtonians are paying attention to the fact that we are a river city in a way they haven’t in the past,” exclaimed Rebecca Roberts, program coordinator for the Smithsonian Associates, the event organizer. Roberts said it was the newly renewed love affair with the river that was the inspiration for the event, titled, “The Potomac: Rolling Through DC’s History and Heart.”

Watery Highway to the West

The morning started out with a look through the river’s storied human history with a presentation by author and historian Garrett Peck. He let us in on a secret: contrary to popular belief, the city of Washington, D.C. was not built on a swamp. Its residents will need to blame the humidity on something else from now on.

According to Peck, the Potomac River was thought by the English explorer Captain John Smith, to be a passageway to the Pacific Ocean. He found it teeming with life. Indigenous peoples lived along the river, relying on its abundant aquatic life for sustenance throughout the year.  Over a century later, George Washington also saw the river as a watery highway to the west, envisioning a system of canals that could easily move people and goods up and down the river. Alas, the canal system was beat out by the cheaper and more efficient railroad system and the rest, as they say, is history.

Peck went onto explain that even with the failed canal system, the river was still an important mode of transportation. The Alexandria port was once the 5th busiest port on the east coast. There were several more ports in the Washington, D.C. area that could accommodate deep, ocean-going vessels. Tobacco farms and other anthropogenic activities upstream have since filled these ports with so much sediment that now, during low tide, you are more likely to walk on them than to navigate a boat.

Smash together, break apart, smash together, etcetera, etcetera

Callan Bentley, assistant professor of geology at Northern Virginia Community College, walked the audience through the geological mega-history of the area.  The six different geological regions in the Potomac River basin each tell their own story. A colorful GIF featuring the six regions can be found on Bentley’s Twitter feed. A billion years ago, the Potomac River basin was part of a pre-Pangea supercontinent known as Rodinia. The orogeny (the technical term for tectonic plate action) of the continents forming, tearing apart, smashing together again to create Pangea, then breaking apart once more created the mountain ranges in the west of the basin.

The oldest geologic formation in the basin is Old Rag Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Old Rag Granite that this mountain sits upon was crystallized during the formation of the supercontinent Rodinia.

The love affair with the Potomac River celebrated by John Smith, George Washington and so many others that lived along its shores took its toll on the river itself. Sediment, pollutants, sewage, harvesting and damming decreased aquatic animals and plants, making the river a toxic brew in places.

A River Renewed

Just as many storybook romances contain a tale of struggle and loss before a victorious ending, so too, did the people of the Potomac River basin. A renewed outcry from the basin’s residents lead to new legislation, new technology and infrastructure that reduced sewage output, and efforts across the basin lead to a cleaner Potomac river. Organizations like the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin worked tirelessly for a cleaner, healthier river.

The river’s progress has been followed closely by Chris Jones of George Mason University (GMU), a speaker at the Smithsonian Associate’s event. Since 1984, scientists at GMU have been monitoring the water quality and biological communities in Gunston Cove, an embayment of the tidal freshwater Potomac River. At the event, Jones spoke of improved water clarity and the return of submerged aquatic vegetation, and general ecosystem recovery over the last couple decades. This trend is associated with a reduction in phosphorous loading due to process changes in the wastewater treatment plant located along the shores of the bay.

A similar recovery has been seen upriver of Gunston Cove, claimed Claire Buchanan, Aquatic Biologist at the Interstate Commission of the Potomac River Basin, another speaker at the event. Her presentation started with an explanation of the abundance of fish and wildlife and the many deepwater ports along the river in the years before sediment and pollutants muddied the waters. Oysters, mussels, and underwater grasses abounded. Although progress has been made, that abundance of life has not returned and probably never will. Once an ecological regime shift passes a critical threshold, it is very difficult to return to the previous status.

The river may not return to the golden era of abundance, but many are working towards a cleaner future. The final speaker at the event was Carlton Ray of DC Water, the water utility that provides drinking water to D.C. residents and provides wholesale wastewater treatment services to 2.1 million people in the Washington Metro Area. As part of the utility’s Clean Rivers Project, the combined sewer overflows, that have heavily polluted the Anacostia and Potomac rivers in the past, will decrease by 98% by the year 2023. The first phase of the project, the Anacostia River Tunnel Project, came online March 2018. The second phase, the Potomac River Tunnel Project, is underway. Due to projects like these and many others, the Anacostia River, once known as the Forgotten River, is no longer left behind. Its resurgence was noted in a recent WAMU article.

Changes are being made. Fish are returning, dissolved oxygen is improving, and sewage is decreasing. There are even discussions of allowing people to swim in the waters in the next few years. We are on our way to a new era in clean water, a new regime. There is hope for the river still.

Record Growth for Aquatic Grasses in the Bay. The Potomac, while Healthy, had Setbacks.

Aquatic grasses, also known as submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), are seen floating below and on the surface of the Potomac River. Trees are seen along the shore.

An estimated 104,843 acres of underwater grasses were mapped in the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries in 2017, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. It is the highest total amount ever recorded and the first time that total abundance has surpassed 100,000 acres since monitoring began. It was the third consecutive year of record-setting growth.

The Bay total is more than 14,000 acres greater than the 2017 restoration target, and 57 percent of the ultimate restoration goal under the Chesapeake Bay Program. The total increased by five percent from 2016 to 2017.

Changes in weather and runoff

The increases have resulted both from the weather conducive to plant growth and from reductions in nutrient loadings both from reduced precipitation and the success of efforts under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). Both modeling and monitoring results during the past several years have documented decreases in nutrients that suggest that the many efforts to reduce nutrients and sediment under the Bay TMDL are bearing fruit. Reducing nutrients is a key factor in promoting aquatic plants, which like their land-based cousins, require sunlight to grow. Excess nutrients feed algal blooms that decrease water clarity and the sunlight available to the plants. In addition, some algae attach to plants and further block sunlight. In a positive feedback cycle, as plants become established, they consume nutrients in the water and trap sediment and thereby increase water clarity.

Different species of plants populate the bay watershed, and the kinds of plants found in a particular area are related to the saltiness of the water.  There are several “salinity zones” in the bay with boundaries that move somewhat seasonally and with rainfall. The Bay Program examined abundance by salinity zone. They noted that the tidal freshwater area grew during 2017, achieving 96.5 percent of the zone goal. Slightly salty waters (oligohaline) fell slightly, moderately salty waters (mesohaline) rose somewhat, achieving 51 percent of the goal, with the bay’s very salty waters (polyhaline) also registering an increase.

Aquatic grasses, also known as submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), are seen floating below and on the surface of the Potomac River.Closer to Home

While this is great news overall, the Potomac watershed was hardly mentioned in press releases from the Bay Program or Maryland. The Potomac didn’t fare as well as some other regions of the bay, although the good news is that areas of the watershed were already doing quite well.

The Anacostia River in the District of Columbia, part of the Potomac’s tidal freshwater region, held about 13 acres of plants in 2017, up almost 60 percent from the previous year. No plants were found upstream in the Maryland portion of the Anacostia, which has not held plants since monitoring began and has no coverage goal under the Bay Program.  The Potomac River in the District decreased slightly in 2017 but still meets its plant goal. The Maryland portion of the tidal freshwater Potomac doubled its acreage from last year and is close to meeting its goal. The Virginia side of the river decreased slightly from 2016 but is already meeting its goal.

A little further downstream, Piscataway and Mattawoman creeks continue to hold rich beds of aquatic plants, and Mattawoman Creek, despite a slight decline, is not far from its goal. Piscataway remains at about 50 percent of its goal. Piscataway Creek was one of the first tidal Potomac tributaries to hold extensive hydrilla beds in the 1980s, but plant populations have wildly fluctuated. Its preliminary 2017 acreage was about 347 acres. It held about 523 acres in 2010, declined, hit 541 acres in 2015, and has declined again. In general, aquatic plant communities experience boom-and-bust cycles, although not as extreme a what is seen in Piscataway Bay.

The Potomac’s slightly salty (oligohaline) waters, which run from downstream of the Occoquan area to the Route 301 Bridge, experienced strong decreases of plants. Bob Orth, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science professor who conducts the annual bay surveys, noted that the extended dry period could be a major reason for the die-off. Salt-tolerant freshwater plants have been growing in the sector, and more than a year of drought conditions (preceding the frequent rain events of spring 2018) have increased the salinity and stressed the plants.

The Potomac’s moderately salty (mesohaline) waters fared well, as did many of these areas in the bay. Expansion of eelgrass beds in these regions have grown during the last several seasons.

The Potomac River, with more than 100 miles of tidal river will usually show a wider range of conditions because of its multiple habitats.

Overall, “2017 was quite an exciting year for the survey. First, we exceeded 100,000 acres for the first time ever in the survey, and now have three successive years of record high numbers. Second, we noted submerged aquatic vegetation in two areas of the bay that had not seen any since 1972 (in front of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Laboratory in Solomons, Md., and in the upper Choptank near Mumfort Island, Va.). Hopefully, this trend will continue in 2018.” Orth said.

To learn how to identify different aquatic plants check out the previous Reporter article, Common Plant Species found in the Potomac River.

New Science Center focuses on the Potomac

Four photos: 1) A side of the PEREC building, 2) A crowd watching a speaker at a podium, 3) A woman taking a photo of a display, 4) A woman talking about the PEREC center to a crowd.

A large crowd gathered in Woodbridge, Va., on April 12, a rare warm spring day, to celebrate the opening of George Mason University’s Potomac Science Center on Belmont Bay. The new 50,000-square-foot complex will house the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (PEREC), a unit of the university devoted to environmental research on the Potomac and aspects of aquatic science, and include facilities for general environmental science and programs for teaching science to visiting area school groups. The facility meets LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver certification standards.

The Potomac Science Center’s unique focus on the river makes it a valuable new asset for the basin. The university began that focus decades ago with continuing research on aspects of Belmont Bay and the Potomac and Occoquan rivers, and an overall emphasis on tidal freshwater habitats. Its most comprehensive effort is an ongoing study of the ecology of nearby Gunston Cove. Water quality, wildlife, and plant data have been collected at the cove for more than 30 years.

The center has been a dream of PEREC Director Prof. R. Christian Jones for many years, and the new facility, with its beautiful waterfront location, modern building with gleaming new labs and class spaces is impressive. The new facility will invite partnerships with other institutions of all types, and make PEREC a leader in increasing understanding of the ecology of the tidal Potomac River.

PEREC’s Prof. Cindy Smith, the K-12 Education and Outreach Director, led a group through the facility, highlighting both the laboratories with spectrometers and chromatographs, as well as classrooms and simpler tools that have helped her host area school groups in environmental education programs. Since 2009, PEREC has delivered watershed education to more than 40,000 Prince William County and 25,000 Fairfax County school students. The new center will help PEREC to provide even more opportunities for area schools, Smith noted.

The next phase of development will include an enlarged pier providing deepwater access for research boats and as a platform for visiting school students to conduct experiments. The ICPRB congratulates our colleagues at PEREC and welcomes these new resources aimed at protecting and improving the Potomac.

ICPRB joins the Cleanup Effort

Five people posing with a pile of trash bags. In the Potomac river basin, the month of April is known for light rain, spring flowers, and picking up trash. So. Much. Trash. More than 340,000 pounds of it.

A small boy picks up trash off a forest floor. The Alice Ferguson Foundation has organized the Potomac Watershed Cleanup every April for the past three decades. Out of interest and need, the original one-day event has turned into a month-long lineup of river cleanups of all shapes and sizes throughout the watershed.

This past April, 9,700 people participated in the cleanup events, picking up all kinds of trash, including tires, plastic bags, and the recent poster-child of harmful litter, plastic straws.

The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin organized two events during the month of April. One in Frederick, Md. and one in Herndon, Va.  There were 26 bags of trash picked up by 18 volunteers of all ages. We would like to thank those who joined ICPRB and other organizations to clean our streams and rivers!

You don’t have to wait until next April to cleanup the river. Picking up trash is an easy way to protect our drinking water. Much of the trash along the road ends up in storm drains which can flow directly into your local river or stream. Why not take it a step further and go plogging? This is a new trend that combines jogging and trash pickup.

ICYMI

A stone bathtub built in the ground with a stone wall behind it. A plaque on the wall says "George Washington's Bathtub (1748)"During the summer months, ICPRB publishes a weekly column, About the Basin, that introduces readers to fun and interesting places around the Potomac River basin. In case you missed it (ICYMI), a recent article about the only outdoor monument to presidential bathing, George Washington’s Bathtub, really caught the public’s attention!

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to catch future editions of About the Basin.

Potomac Love

This past Valentine’s Day we saw a lot of love from ICPRB Commissioners and staff when they participated in a #PotomacLove event across social media declaring why they love the river. Watch their stories in the video above. Then post your own #PotomacLove story on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.


Looking for up-to-date information on the Potomac River basin? Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our Newsletter!

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Potomac Basin Reporter, Winter 2017

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IN THIS ISSUE

Ahoy, Ship of the Potomac!

Archaeologist inspects the historic ship. Courtesy of Alexandria Archaeology, Alexandria, Va.

What does a chunk of coral from the Caribbean Sea, a brick sidewalk, two outhouses, and a 200-year old ship have in common? They were all found in the recent excavation for the parking garage of the Indigo Hotel in Alexandria, Va. At one point these items were above the waterline of the Potomac River. However, a few decades after the city of Alexandria was founded in 1749, the riverfront landowner wanted to increase his property so he did something that was pretty common back then, he just filled in the river bank. Known as “banking out”, the landowner sometimes scuttles, or sinks, an old ship in the spot to help contain the new materials added to the riverbed. That is believed to the be the case for the 50-foot ship fragment found in this soon-to-be parking garage.

The ship was painstakingly excavated from the pit in January 2016 by Thunderbird Archaeology. The wood needed to stay wet to prevent additional deterioration so the pieces were placed in large water tanks in a city facility for storage and protection. Little is known about the actual ship. Researchers are hoping that its restoration will unveil some of its secrets, including its construction, history, and possibly even the crew. Preliminary research has revealed that the ship’s timber was felled in the state of Massachusetts sometime after 1741. Based on historic maps, it is thought that the ship was buried on the Potomac shoreline between 1788 and 1798, along with sand, rocks and other debris.

After requesting proposals from professional conservationists around the world, the City of Alexandria’s Archaeology Department put the ship into the hands of experts at Texas A&M University’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation (TAMU).

In preparation for its cross-country voyage, each beam of the ship was meticulously documented, examined, photographed and measured. All hands were on deck for this painstaking process. Each historic piece was wrapped in a wet paper-towel material, followed by plastic-wrap, then a layer of foam padding. Over 1.5 miles of foam padding were used to protect the precious cargo. When completed, the floor of the storage facility seemed to be covered with Egyptian mummies of all shapes and sizes.

TAMU will spend an extensive time documenting each piece of timber, creating a laser scanned image of each beam that can be used for further research. “We hope to learn about the ship’s construction methods and original size and appearance”, said Dr. Eleanor Breen, the acting City Archaeologist working on the project. TAMU will conduct a 2-step restoration process. Initially, the water will be slowly replaced with polyethylene glycol (PEG) to stabilize and strengthen the delicate planks. Finally, a freeze-drying procedure will remove any remaining moisture.

It may be 5 to 6 years before the ship’s homecoming, but the work for its return has already begun. “The ship is poised to be the anchor for a new waterfront historical interpretation of Alexandria’s maritime heritage,” claims Breen. The display is destined to be a figurehead of Alexandria’s maritime history.

To learn more about the ship and its restoration adventures, follow the Alexandria Archaeology Museum on Twitter at @AlexArchaeology or the hashtag #SaveOurShipALX. A Save Our Ship Fundraiser has been established to preserve this precious piece of history for future generations.

What the Future of our Water Supply Might Look Like

A map of areas served by WMA Suppliers as of 2014

When residents of the Washington metropolitan area turn on their taps, potable water comes out. That it is a largely thoughtless practice is a testament to decades of careful planning and cooperation among area water suppliers assisted by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB). The commission’s Section for Cooperative Water Supply Operations on the Potomac River (CO-OP) studies water use in the region, organizes coordinated utility operations during extreme droughts, and assesses the reliability of current and future raw water supplies. The ICPRB also helps basin water suppliers protect the region’s drinking water sources.

A new CO-OP study is proposing a range of solutions to increase the capacity of the region’s water supply, which could fail to meet unrestricted demands by 2040. In this case, there would be a small probability of failure if no action is taken to reduce water use during an extreme drought. The study, “Washington Metropolitan Area Water Supply Alternatives,” also provides information on options for a reliable water supply out to 2085. Alternatives have been evaluated according to their capabilities to increase future system reliability in the face of growing metropolitan area demands, decreasing river flows due to upstream consumptive use, and the potential impacts of climate change.

The options for augmenting future supply are both structural and operational.  Many have been the subject of past investigations by metropolitan area water suppliers. Although most of the structural alternatives (for example, conversion of stone quarries to store water from the Potomac) would provide water directly to only one or two suppliers, all would provide regional benefits by reducing Potomac River withdrawals during times of low flow. All structural alternatives would require significant investments in new infrastructure including new underground conduits to transfer raw and/or treated water from one part of the supply system to another. The operational alternatives would require little or no infrastructure investment. They would instead require new cooperative agreements, and/or contracts between water suppliers, and/or investment in research to develop new operational tools and policies.

In general, the study found that combinations of structural and operational alternatives should be in place to ensure system reliability in the future. For the medium-term planning horizon of 2040, two strategies for phased implementation of quarries and operational enhancements were recommended for further refinement. These two combinations of alternatives were selected in part to ensure system reliability under a moderately severe climate scenario with a 7 percent decrease in average summer stream flows.

The strategies also consider the need for steps toward broader regional cooperation to help prepare for more severe challenges that may occur in the decades after 2040. Over the longer-term planning horizon, by 2085, study results indicate that most of the proposed alternatives will be needed to ensure future reliability.

“This is the next step in keeping the area’s water supply able to meet the demands of residents,” said ICPRB Executive Director Carlton Haywood. “The region’s water supply will maintain its very high level of reliability with proactive planning and actions by the water providers and governments. This level of planning, cooperation, and execution is why we are looked upon as an example by other regions,” Haywood said.

American Shad, Striped Bass Show Good Recruitment this Year

A map of areas served by WMA Suppliers as of 2014

American shad and striped bass stocks had good spawns in the Potomac during 2017. Maryland’s annual young-of-the-year survey consists of seine net hauls at 22 locations around the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay to gauge how many fish were hatched after the springtime spawn. The survey is an important tool in measuring the health of Chesapeake Bay and tidal river fisheries.

This year’s survey showed encouraging numbers for both striped bass and American shad. Many areas of the bay contributed to the striped bass number, while American shad reproduction came almost entirely from the Potomac.

Overall, bay-wide numbers for both the species were improved over a poor 2016. Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist and manager of the young-of-year survey Eric Durrell noted that spring weather conditions, including river flow, water temperature, and other factors heavily influence the success of migratory fish species such as the striped bass and shad. The fish time their runs upriver based on these conditions, which give the eggs and larvae the best environmental conditions for success.

Striped bass in the Potomac were near the long-term average. American shad were well above the long-term average on the Potomac, and should help buoy stocks after a phenomenal 2015 Year Class. The same could not be said for the rest of the bay, where reproduction was minimal. “We caught 1,093 American shad during the survey,” Durrell said, “And 1,004 of those fish came from the Potomac.” He noted that the river has historically spawned a lot of shad and that the modifications of Little Falls Dam restored miles of historical spawning and nursery habitat for the fish. In the upper bay, The Susquehanna has several dams that limit the kind of habitat the fish needs, Durrell said.

The Potomac has benefitted from an ICPRB organized coalition of government agencies, nonprofits, schools, and teachers who played a role in aggressively stocking the river for about 10 years and pushed for the modifications to the dam that reopened about 10 miles of the fishes’ habitat. The project is one of the success stories of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Read more about the project online.

American shad reproduction has not been going well on the James and Rappahannock rivers in Virginia, despite a multi-year stocking effort that has, at times, used eggs taken from Potomac fish. A lack of progress toward goals and budget considerations have curtailed the stocking efforts on those rivers.

More information on the juvenile striped bass program and the more than 100 species of fish that are seen during the effort is available online.

The Past, Present, and Future of Potomac Aquatic Plants and Why they Matter

A map of areas served by WMA Suppliers as of 2014

For many people, a boat trip or walk along the shores of the metropolitan Potomac includes seeing a lot of aquatic plants (as well as some algae). Many sections of the Potomac support lush grass beds during the warm months. This has not always been the case, and the growth of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) has both signaled and been a major factor in the improved water quality of the river. The resurgence of many species of SAV during the last four decades points to the river’s revitalization, noted Nancy Rybicki, a U.S, Geological Survey scientist who has monitored Potomac aquatic plant growth during that time.

Rybicki periodically updates groups about the river’s plant status, as she did recently at a meeting of the Friends of Dyke Marsh. The packed room was given a history lesson, as well as warnings about water chestnut, an aquatic plant that once crowded the river downstream of Washington, then was eradicated, and has recently reestablished.

Rybicki’s focus over the years has been the upper tidal Potomac. The lower Potomac has not fared as well. The saltier lower river still suffers from water clarity and low dissolved oxygen issues, and is more strongly affected by Chesapeake Bay water quality issues.

The Potomac’s plant populations declined significantly from nutrient and sediment pollution and accompanying algal blooms through the 1930s but massive water chestnut stands downstream of Washington remained. Unlike other aquatic plants, the rooted water chestnut lives on the water’s surface where it can get the sunlight it needed to flourish, despite the sediment and pollution. By 1933, 10,000 acres of dense water chestnut beds clogged the river from Washington, D.C. to Quantico, Va. The growth was finally controlled by a multi-year harvesting and eradication effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that ended in 1945. Removal by hand continued until at least 1965.

Sewage treatment has improved greatly beginning in the 1970s, resulting in some water quality improvements. About 1983, some vegetation returned to the metropolitan river. Monitoring revealed that the plants were hydrilla, a non-native plant often mistaken for the resident plant elodea. They can be distinguished by the number of leaves that encircle the stem―elodea has 3 leaves while hydrilla has 4-5 leaves per whorl, giving the plant a bushier look. Based on hydrilla management schemes in Florida, which was spending millions of dollars a year, the ICPRB brought groups together to assess the issue. Eventually, an intergovernmental group started mechanically harvesting the plants in areas with high boat traffic.

Although not a native plant, hydrilla stands helped improve water clarity, and hydrilla was followed by a number of other, native, aquatic plants that returned to the river. Hydrilla remains the most common plant, but now shares the river with about 20 other species of plants. Learn to distinguish some of the most common species in the article below. Both the amounts and diversity of aquatic plants increased 10-fold from 1990 to 2007, and continues to increase, Rybicki noted. The growth of Potomac plant populations in a fragile but improving Potomac during that time has been uneven, with weather conditions in any given year (stormy springs with reduced sunlight, high flows that scour the river bottom, cooler temperatures, and other factors) promoting or reducing plant growth.

The growth of aquatic plants in the Potomac has helped improve water quality, helping make the river habitable to more plants, as well as providing food, cover, and water clarity that supports more fish and other creatures in the Potomac ecosystem.

Common Plant Species Found in the Potomac River

The metropolitan Potomac River, devoid of aquatic plants in the late 1970s, saw the return of both native and invasive plants in the following decades. Plant populations in the river grew by a factor of ten from 1990-2007.  More than 20 species of plants now call the river home, these include:

Photo of Hydrilla by David J. Moorhead, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata): is an invasive plant that was one of the first to appear in the river’s resurgence of plants in 1981, remains the most common species on the river. It grows in dense beds and can be found in both the fresh and tidal waters. (Photo: David J. Moorhead, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org)
 Valisneria Americana, Photo by Gary P. Fleming, DCR-DNH Wild celery (Vallisneria americana): is a native plant that is an important food source for birds. (Photo: Gary P. Fleming, DCR-DNH)
 Eurasian Watermilfoil photo by Wisconsin DNR Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum): is a non-native plant favored by Potomac sport anglers. Its feather like leaves make it less dense than stands of other plants, allowing anglers to penetrate the beds with lures and catch fish. (Photo: Wisconsin DNR)
Coonstail photo by Paul Skawinski, 2009 Coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum): also known as hornwort, has slender, densely branched stems. It does not put roots into the river bed, but lives as long strands anchored by other plants or structure. It spreads mainly through segments of plant breaking off and floating to new areas. (Photo: Paul Skawinski, 2009)
 Elodea canadensis by Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4870689 Waterweed (Elodea canadensis): is a native plant that looks a lot like hydrilla. It is primarily found in fresh water, but can tolerate some salt and is found in the tidal Potomac as well. (Photo: Christian Fischer)
 Heteranthera dubia - Grassleaf mudplantain Photo by Fritz Flohr Reynolds Water stargrass (Heteranthera dubia): is a native plant with grass-like leaves and sprouts small yellow flowers later in the summer. The plant is found mostly in the freshwater river, but has been extending its range into the upper tidal river. (Photo: Fritz Flohr Reynolds)
Water chestnut (Trapa Natans): has only recently become an issue on the Potomac, but may be spreading from stormwater ponds into the river. If you see it, report it! See the article above for more information.

Quiz Results

In the last Potomac Basin Reporter, we challenged your knowledge of the river with our quiz:”How much do you know about the Potomac River?”
We were impressed with the results! There are a lot of Potomac River experts out there. We thought the questions would be difficult, but the average quiz-taker answered 67% of the questions correctly.

It’s not too late to take the quiz! Click here to take it before reading further. Then come back here to compare your results. The most correctly answered question asked to identify how many jurisdictions the Potomac River spans. A whopping 86% of you chose the correct answer of four states (Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania) and the District of Columbia. The most difficult question, with only 46% of people answering correctly, was the average number of gallons withdrawn from the Potomac River each day. This includes irrigation, agriculture, residential and all other uses. This number spikes in the hottest months of the summer, but the average daily withdrawal from the Potomac is 486 million gallons, or 736 Olympic sized pools.

ICPRB in the Community

ICPRB employee at a public event

Staffers at ICPRB spent many fun summer days sharing their love of the Potomac River watershed with the residents who call it home. The ICPRB tables shared information on water quality, educator resources, and other information on the basin. Here are just a few of the events they enjoyed:

Festival del Rio (Bladensburg, Md.) – This multi-cultural, bilingual event is designed to give Latinos an opportunity to learn about local environmental issues.

Jones Point Park Event (Alexandria, Va.) – 75 fourth-graders enjoyed a day of outdoor environmental education at this Every Kid in a Park event.

West Va. Science Teachers Association Conference (Wheeling, W.Va.) – ICPRB staff shared our m any educator resources with West Virginia science teachers.

As part of ICPRB’s Score Four program, the high school students celebrated the Conservation Garden installation at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md. Watch the sign dedication ceremony on Facebook.

What’s New Online

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Bilingual Educator Resources – Bilingual lessons are available in English and Spanish for ICPRB educational programs.

Washington Metropolitan Area Water Supply Alternatives – This study assesses a range of solutions to increase the capacity of the region’s water supply, which could fail to meet unrestricted demands by 2040.

Water Quality Trends – an online visualization tool to quality assure water quality data, allowing one to quickly evaluate trends using various parameters.

Chessie BIBI – a multi-metric index of stream health applicable to freshwater streams and small rivers across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

2016 Drought Exercise Report – For over two decades, ICPRB’s CO-OP has been conducting annual drought exercises for the Washington Metropolitan area.

Watershed Activities to Encourage Restoration – simple, low-cost projects that your organization can use to help protect and restore your watershed.

Calendar of Events – Fun events in the watershed!


**The content of this email does not represent the policies of ICPRB or its Commissioners.**

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Potomac Basin Reporter, Spring 2017

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IN THIS ISSUE

To read the original newsletter email, click here.

An Unwelcome Bloom

Growing and persistent blooms of filamentous algae in some river and stream segments have restricted or eliminated their use for recreation. Chronic algae blooms also can impact water quality, stream ecology and use as a drinking water source. Chronic filamentous algae blooms on West Virginia’s South Branch Potomac and Cacapon rivers is the subject of a multi-year ICPRB study to document segments in the two rivers with chronic blooms, understand the reasons behind them, and assess ecological effects. The answers gained will indicate possible restoration actions. The project is sponsored by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is looking for answers about the blooms on these two very popular waterways.

The ICPRB’s involvement in the project began in 2012, with surveys of three rivers, the South Branch Potomac, Cacapon, and Shenandoah rivers. The project started with a list of sites for which DEP had received complaints from stakeholders. As the study progressed, the lower Shenandoah  was dropped from the priority list when it did not consistently experience blooms, while additional sites were selected on the South Branch. Since 2015, the South Branch Potomac has not produced large and consistent blooms. Although the South Branch Potomac still experiences blooms, the popular recreational sites that were the subject of complaints no longer foster chronic algae blooms. Upgrades to sewage treatment and other agricultural improvements are possible reasons for the improvement.

Water chemistry, hydrology, and ecological data have been collected and analyzed at all of these sites since the project’s creation. Efforts during some years were limited by weather and flow conditions, which are tied to the strength of blooms during the warmer months when they occur. In later years, the study also has made use of data loggers, small devices left in a stream that log dissolved oxygen and temperature and report levels multiple times each hour over the course of many days. This information is important because large blooms can drastically change oxygen levels in nearby water as they produce lots of oxygen during sunshine, and take up oxygen at night.

For the 2017 season, ICPRB’s work will focus on six South Branch Potomac sites and eight Cacapon sites with continued physical assessments that include monthly assessments of the sizes of algae blooms from June to September. An approximately 5-mile segment of the Cacapon River around Yellow Spring, W.Va., which has the most consistent blooms, will receive a more-intensive assessment. The area, which comprises six of the Cacapon sites, also will receive enhanced water chemistry testing. Additionally, sediment and flow assessments also will be performed.

The multi-year effort has given DEP a picture of these two Potomac tributaries over time and to learn about how and why algae blooms occur. As with most good research, the study also has generated more questions. While there is no certainty to why blooms have been decreasing in some areas, research indicates that algae blooms are not just the product of too many nutrients (phosphorus in fresh water streams). Weather, stream flow, sunlight, sediments, and ecological attributes can all affect the growth of algae into blooms. “It’s a complex system with many variables that can influence what grows,” said ICPRB Aquatic Ecologist Gordon Selckmann. “Collecting this information can allow West Virginia to understand why these blooms consistently occur in certain areas and address these segments in the most effective way,” he said.

In the end, the goal is for people to be able to paddle the rivers and catch smallmouth bass instead of long strings of algae.

How Much do you Know about the Potomac River? Take our quiz to find out!

Photo of the Potomac River at sunset

Take the Quiz

Former ICPRB Commissioner and E.D., Herb Sachs, Passes Away

The Potomac River and Maryland’s waterways lost a strong advocate and tireless worker with the passing of Herbert M. Sachs on April 12. He was 82. Sachs served ICPRB as a Maryland commissioner and executive director for nearly 30 years.

As a commissioner, Sachs represented Maryland’s interests in water supply, resources, and quality. As executive director (1992-1997), Sachs led the agency’s efforts in supporting the regional Chesapeake Bay Program, with staff participating in several work groups and

Two men standing behind a print of the Potomac.

Sachs received a print of the Potomac River as a thank you for his service at ICPRB.

subcommittees, providing Potomac data and other support.  In these years, ICPRB led the efforts to reallocate water supplies at the Jennings Randolph Reservoir as well as cooperative water quality and law enforcement efforts for the reservoir and the North Branch Potomac. The North Branch Task Force, a group of stakeholders and officials facilitated by ICPRB that gives stakeholders a voice in management decisions is an offshoot of the project. He was at the helm when ICPRB embarked on its successful effort to restore American shad to the Potomac River

Other actions under Sachs tenure included the Potomac Visions project, which guided communities in the upper basin in a series of surveys and other activities to produce a vision for the future of their local watershed. Groups were then assisted with support in forming watershed groups that could pursue restoration and conservation activities to reach their vision. The Commission had an international emphasis at the time, with staff traveling to China to help build water monitoring capacity. The ICPRB also entered into a sister river agreement with a group representing the Ara River that flows through Tokyo, Japan. The agreement is still active with periodic exchanges. Through his tenure both as an executive director and twice as a Maryland Commissioner, Sachs brought a calm, can-do attitude to the agency, and his constructive, inclusive nature were well-tailored to helping the Potomac jurisdictions work together.

Sachs’ work at ICPRB was in addition to a very productive career with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Department of the Environment, holding upper level positions in both agencies. He will be missed by all. Read more about Sachs in his obituary.

Spring Cleaning on the Potomac

Spring cleaning is a big tradition for many, and in the Potomac River watershed, it has brought a growing number of residents to remove trash and debris from their local waterways for 28 years. In that time, the annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup has grown from a single site—the Potomac shoreline of Hard Bargain Farm, the home of the Alice Ferguson Foundation—to about 250 sites touching each of the basin jurisdictions.

The ICPRB is one of many organizational partners involved in the cleanup and is one of the oldest, having assisted for 25 years.  Assistance has included identifying and sponsoring sites, providing outreach and publicity, distributing supplies, and other tasks. The ICPRB also participates in the Ferguson Foundation’s larger Trash-Free Potomac initiative.

The 2017 cleanup kicked off on April 8, at 110 sites. Cleanups at additional sites will occur throughout April and May. Preliminary reports from some of the sites have already tallied more than 1,000 volunteers removing more than 10,000 pounds of trash.

This year’s effort, when completed, should be on par with 2016, when nearly 10,000 volunteers collected almost 335,000 pounds of trash at 265 sites. The cleanup’s effect on the watershed is likely greater than reported, as some sites don’t report cleanup data.

The cleanup serves as the public focus of a suite of efforts designed to stop littering of our waterways. Over the years, the Foundation has conducted social research campaigns to learn about who litters and why, worked toward plastic bag bans and bottle deposit laws, sponsored anti-litter pilot projects in a number of communities and schools, and worked with local and regional law enforcement agencies to bring greater awareness of the problem, along with new laws and stronger penalties. The Foundation has hosted annual summit meetings to keep the momentum going for a clearer Potomac. The effort also brought a trash TMDL to the Anacostia watershed, only the second of its kind in the United States.

Taken as a whole, the program has many accomplishments, with components of the program bringing pressure on multiple fronts. Greater public attention on trash prompted several local jurisdictions to ban or restrict the use of plastic bags at groceries and restaurants. The bans have been linked to reductions in the amount of the ubiquitous bags found in stream beds and adjacent trees during cleanups. Other jurisdictions are considering bag bans and deposits for plastic and glass bottles.

For a while, the Potomac Watershed Cleanup adopted the slogan of Trash Free by 2013, and many local and regional officials signed on to the “trash free” pledge at annual trash summit meetings. While that goal was not reached, the effort endures and continues to set records. The same enthusiasm that created the slogan remains with the efforts of thousands of volunteers working toward a cleaner river. For more information on the many facets of the cleanup, visit the Alice Ferguson Foundation website. Keep your eye on ICPRB’s Calendar of Events for future cleanups scheduled in your area.


A Different Story for Aquatic Plants in the Lower Potomac

An annual survey of aquatic vegetation in the Chesapeake Bay and its major tributaries for 2016 reported a fourth straight year of growth. The lower Potomac River, however, lost more than half its plants.

The 97,433 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) in the annual study performed by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) is the greatest amount ever recorded, and is the fourth consecutive year of bay-wide increases. The 2016 assessment found aquatic plants at about 53 percent of the 185,000 acres of grasses needed to reach the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.

The acreage assessment is considered conservative since weather conditions and government flight restrictions prevented some flights. Several of the flight lines were over areas that had large plant populations in previous years.

The VIMS assessment, which has tracked plant growth since 1984, categorizes plant coverage by salinity zones. This helps connect changes in grass communities with changes in growing conditions through time, according to Prof. Robert Orth, in charge of the VIMS survey.

The bulk of the 2016 expansion came in the mesohaline, or moderately salty areas, which saw very large increases in widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima), in some cases almost tripling, since 2012. More than most aquatic plants, widgeon grass is noted for its “boom-or-bust” cycles of heavy growth followed by large die-offs.

For the Potomac, the tidal freshwater areas in and downstream of Washington, D.C. remained in good shape, and gained slightly in some areas. The saltier area of the river downstream of the Harry Nice (Route 301) Bridge, however, did not fare well last year. Widgeon and eelgrass in this lower segment of the river died back, although these same species did better upstream, Orth noted.

Professor Orth said that the environment for plants around and downstream of the Nice bridge is “very complex.” Changes in salinity from drought or stormwater runoff can change water chemistry very quickly, making it hard for plants to adapt. Add to that sediment and turbidity, and the plants’ resiliency is tested. He noted how hydrilla, a freshwater plant with some salt tolerance, had moved downstream into new areas during wet years, but after a few dry seasons (when salinity increased) the plants had disappeared from some Virginia embayments. The seeds from plants, and in the case of hydrilla, tubers in the sediment, can remain dormant until conditions are again favorable for plant growth.

The dynamics of the system are such that Orth would not be shocked if the lower Potomac regained this year most of the plant acreage it lost in 2016.

Spring Through the Lens

A delicate plant shoots up from the wet soil, vernal pools ripple with tadpoles, and a chick pecks its way out of an egg. Spring is here and it is time to celebrate the new life that emerges with the season. Modern technology has made it easier than ever to experience these miracles from the comfort of our home or office. Wildlife cameras, also known as critter cams, bring you up close and personal to these everyday marvels.

Wildlife camera technology has improved immensely over the years; they have evolved from grainy, silent, barely discernible images to crystal clear, high-definition videos with vibrant sound. It is now possible to see the individual, fuzzy down-feathers on the back of the grey bald eaglet and hear it’s “tweet-tweet” cries to momma-eagle.

From the depths of deep oceans to the tops of tall trees, wildlife cameras bring a focus on animals that we might not otherwise see. Through a lens, we can explore the daily activities of sharks, jellyfish, bats, ribbon dragons, bison, and a vast range of birds from, hummingbirds to bald eagles.

With improvement also came innovation for their use in scientific research. In-person, scientific observation of wildlife is costly, time intensive, and can create a disturbance for the wildlife, but critter cams can give scientists the tools they need to do the research without the interruption to wildlife. From swimming with sharks to learning exactly how the chicken crossed the road, cameras have been used to advance our knowledge of animal behavior. They are also used as important resources in the classroom to teach biology, environmental science, and other STEM topics.

Critter cams are not the only way to virtually enjoy the great outdoors. Even though we at ICPRB love to see people outside enjoying the river, we know it’s not always possible because of pesky things like employment and bad weather. Chesapeake Conservancy and Terrain360 partnered to provide an opportunity to explore the Potomac River (and many other places) through a virtual tour. This online platform makes it easy to enjoy your favorite spot along the river or discover an area you have never been, from the comfort of your desk chair or couch.

Here is a list of some of our favorite cameras in the Potomac basin and beyond:

  • Only a quarter-mile from the Potomac River in Shepherdstown, W.Va., the National Conservation Training Center has a camera featuring a pair of nesting bald eagles. These majestic birds mate for life and can return to the same nest year after year to breed.
  • The Earth Conservation Corps are keeping their eye on the offspring of Liberty and Justice.
  • President and the First Lady have been returning to the nest featured in the National Arboretum Eagle Cam in Washington, D.C. since 2014.
  • Not too far from the Potomac River basin is the Severna Park Osprey cam. Ospreys mate for life. After migrating thousands of miles each year, they return to the same spot to mate with their partner.
  • Audrey and Tom, two feisty ospreys in Kent Island, Md. can be found on the Chesapeake Conservancy camera. Check out the Great Blue Heron and the Peregrine Falcon cameras while you’re there.
  • Explore.org has a wide variety of critter cams, from puppies to jellyfish to hummingbirds, all over the world.

Do you know of a critter cam that is not listed above? Let us know and we will add it to the list.

River Flow

River flows throughout the Potomac basin have been generally low during this winter and spring, although precipitation has started to bring river levels closer to the norm in late April. Except for January, precipitation in the basin has been below normal since October 2016, with February and March 2017 very dry. Parts of Virginia have been the hardest hit. Although recent rains have brought the Shenandoah and other Virginia tributaries higher, groundwater levels in parts of Virginia remain at or near record lows. Virginia issued a drought advisory in March, and it will likely take an extended rainy period to bring groundwater levels back to the normal range.

The graph for flow at Little Falls is important in that the gage captures the collective flow of all the Potomac tributaries before USGS Graph showing measured discharge and the medial daily statistictidewater, and generally represents the hydrology of the upper basin, for which the metro area depends for water supply. The graph shows that although river flow was not far from the median at times each month, it was below median for extended periods of time.

The drier weather and highly variable spring temperatures have interfered somewhat with fish spawning, particularly migratory fish whose spawn timing is the result of water temperatures, flow, and other variables. Weather and flow can compact or expand the windows for spawning, as well as affecting the availability of food for adults and fry (juvenile fish). The lack of strong spring freshets has likely decreased nutrient loadings from runoff and that may be good news for limiting algal blooms later in the summer.

More timely information is available near the beginning of each month from the ICPRB Section for Cooperative Water Supply Operation’s Water Supply Outlook.

What’s New Online

ICPRB Year in Review: 2016 │ Environmental Resource Directory │ Calendar of Events (new and improved) │ North Branch Potomac Advisory Committee │ Is it Safe to Swim? (an oldie but goodie)

ICPRB in the Community

One of the best things about living in the Potomac watershed is the many diverse environments to explore. The bay, big-river tidal Potomac, rolling agricultural lands and streams, mountains, trout streams, and more! Come explore some watershed environments with us this summer to learn more about how our natural world supports us and why it needs your stewardship. Here are the adventures we want to share with you this summer.

Occoquan River Festival, May 13, Occoquan Regional Park, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Come see some of the live stream critters who are essential parts of a healthy waterway and learn how to determine the quality of your local stream by looking for what is living there. Our exhibit is one of many fun and free things to do at the park, including complementary boat rides on Miss River Shore!
Activities include a children’s midway (with a $5 charge for a wrist band), history paddle, live animals, nature hike, stream science with George Mason University, and more.

An ICPRB Walk in the Woods, Point of Rocks, Md., June 3.
The guide for this Walk in the Woods is retired ICPRB Biologist, Jim Cummins. He will discuss the flora, fauna, and natural and social history of the Potomac River basin, introducing the concepts of watershed management, water resources, and drinking water source protection in a natural, fun environment. Jim is full of great stories and interesting history.

An ICPRB Walk in the Woods, Frederick Municipal Forest, Frederick, Md., June 24
The guide for this Walk in the Woods, is arborist and tree-devotee, Jenny Willoughby. A former ICPRB staffer, Jenny is now the sustainability officer for the City of Frederick. We will discuss the flora, fauna, and natural history of the Potomac River basin and Frederick City watershed, introducing the concepts of watershed management, water resources, and drinking water source protection in a natural, fun environment. Jen is a knowledgeable and engaging teacher with extensive knowledge of the region.

We will be adding other events as the summer progresses. Of course, there are many other opportunities to get outside, enjoy, and learn more about our watershed. Check out our Calendar of Events.

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Potomac Basin Reporter, Winter 2017

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IN THIS ISSUE

What’s New Online

Dear Readers,

Welcome to the Potomac Basin Reporter.

On behalf of the ICPRB Commissioners and staff, I wish you a happy New Year, and pledge that the Commission, in partnership with the basin states and our many agency partners will spend 2017 working for a healthier Potomac basin.

We begin this New Year by reinstituting the Commission’s newsletter, the Potomac Basin Reporter, distributed electronically to save money and trees. The Reporter, published quarterly, will join the Potomac News Reservoir, social media pages, and our website in keeping basin stakeholders informed about Potomac basin water quality and resources issues and how ICPRB and other agencies are working to protect the river’s values.

In addition, the Reporter will include stories about the places, people, and activities that make the basin’s waterways an important part of residents’ lives. We also will publish updates on the river’s flow and how it changes seasonally and annually, as well as other features.

The Reporter will afford us a chance to provide lengthier, more-complete articles on subjects affecting the basin’s water quality, quantity, and resources. It also will allow opportunities to encourage the public stewardship needed to ensure the basin’s resources for future generations.

We are excited to begin this effort to create a more informed and involved community focused on preserving and improving the health of the Potomac River and its many uses. We welcome comments and criticism that will help make this effort useful and valuable to the basin’s residents. We look forward to hearing from you.

H. Carlton Haywood, ICPRB Executive Director

Weird River Resident

Let’s play a game called “Guess the Weird River Resident”. Here are your clues: There are 1700 species and they are picture1found on all continents except Antarctica. They look like a tiny version of a creature that would chase you through the woods in Jurassic Park. Stream monitors love to find them as they are a sign the stream is clean, cool and has high dissolved oxygen. The males of the species start a tiny jam band to attract the females. Have you guessed the river resident?

If you guessed stonefly larva, you win! But what about the tiny jam band, you ask? To attract females, the males make drumming and tapping sounds on the rocks. If the prospective lady-friend is interested, she repeats the sounds back to him. The noises are repeated until they find each other, and everlasting insect love. Which, in this case, only lasts 1-3 weeks, the typical lifespan of an adult stonefly. (Photo Credits: Larva by Instagrammar @lizziedee13, Adult by Zachary Smith)

What’s New Online

Watershed Group Directory and Map │ Residential Oil Tanks (INFOGRAPHIC) │ Coal Ash Use in the Potomac Basin │ Citizen Science Opportunities │ Final Report: American Shad Project

Next Generation Brings Watershed Stewardship to Campus

ICPRB’s Score Four Program makes headway in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Maryland has more than 10,000 miles of rivers and streams—spanning from the Appalachians to the Eastern Shore—each being of vital importance to the Chesapeake Bay. Our treasured waterways range from small, unnamed creeks in our neighborhoods to the grand Potomac River. They serve as habitats for species that are important to maintaining a healthy ecosystem and provide essential natural services to our environment. We depend on our waterways to help grow our crops, feed our reservoirs, and provide food, drinking water, and recreational activities. The value they provide is of great importance. It is imperative that we keep our streams healthy because the water, life, and pollutants in them eventually flow into larger rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. The quality of the Bay is dependent upon the quality of our streams.

Unfortunately, only 20 percent of Maryland streams meet the criteria for “good” condition.Score Four Students Planting a Tree Most streams have eroded stream banks, are polluted and filled with sediment and litter, and lack an abundance of wildlife. With 80 percent of our streams in poor or fair condition, we should all work to protect them and to improve their water quality. This past school year, students in Prince George’s County, Md. did just that. More than 400 students removed approximately 700 square feet of turf grass and replaced it with gardens containing more than 200 native trees and plants that increase infiltration and absorption of runoff, reducing the amount of pollution that enters their local streams.

During the 2015-2016 school year, three Prince George’s County public high schools participated in ICPRB’s Score Four: Students, Schools, Streams, and the Bay program, led by ICPRB educators Rebecca Wolf and Nguyen Le. These schools included the Academy of Health Sciences at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, and Parkdale High School in Riverdale. The Score Four program leads students through the process of exploring their watershed and assessing their school campus in order to develop a Stormwater Action Project aimed at reducing stormwater pollution to local streams.

Students began the year exploring their watershed by researching their local stream and learning about stormwater pollution sources and reduction methods. They were excited to discover that their local stream was within walking distance of campus and learned what they could do to improve its quality. During their research, they learned about the negative correlation between impervious surfaces and stream quality; the higher the amount of impervious surfaces, the lower the stream quality. Impervious surfaces do not allow water to infiltrate into the ground. Stormwater runs directly into storm drains, carrying trash and other pollutants into the stream or river, eventually making its way to Chesapeake Bay.

In the next phase of the program, the students assessed their campus by performing scientific inquiries to determine how their campus contributes to stormwater pollution. These inquiries helped students understand key concepts related to stormwater issues on their campus that would assist them in developing their project. They conducted a campus assessment to identify stormwater paths, problem areas, and possible locations for their project. They also investigated the permeability of the school grounds, as well as soil percolation and composition. With this data, the students determined their secondary project goals and project site, then selected native plants and created a design for their garden. Through this process, the students were able to tailor a project to their individual school campus.

At the Academy of Health Sciences, social studies teacher Carmen Wright and biology teacher Apollo Cordon, envisioned installling a conservation landscape on campus. A conservation landscape reduces stormwater runoff while beautifying the campus and attracting wildlife, such as beneficial insects and butterflies. After performing research, collecting data, and selecting plants, the students used their creativity and math skills to develop potential designs for their garden. Teams of students created 30 potential designs. The students presented their designs to their classmates and used a scoring rubric to judge each design, with the highest scoring design from each class entered into a design contest. Students then voted for the winning design. The final design for their garden centered on an eastern redbud tree as the focal point surrounded by butterfly milkweeds, New England asters, black-eyed Susans, and Joe-Pye weeds, totaling more than 60 plants. Bright orange blooms of butterfly milkweeds with plentiful monarch butterfly caterpillars greeted the students upon their return this fall.

Students removing sod to plant a conservation garden.Kari Rowe, an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher from Northwestern High School, also envisioned a conservation landscape on campus. In the beginning of the program, it was difficult for the students to fully understand the concepts. However, despite the language barrier, the program was able to be adapted with guidance from Ms. Rowe. By the end, the students displayed their understanding and confidence through the success of their garden. The students designed the garden in a classic “bean” shape, planting more than 60 shrubs and perennials. The garden transformed the area with beautiful blooms of blazing stars, black-eyed Susans, and vibrant purple berries on their beautyberry bush.

Environmental science teacher Malka Ostchega had different visions for her students at Parkdale High School. She envisioned installing the beginnings of a food forest on campus that would continually develop throughout the years. Her students researched edible native plants that would meet their site conditions. They planted more than 70 trees and shrubs, ranging from persimmon trees to blackberry bushes to blueberry bushes, on a large hill near the entrance of the school. By selecting to plant on the hill, the food forest is optimally placed to reduce runoff.

At the conclusion of the program, the students celebrated their efforts and their gardens, taking great pride in what they accomplished. One student described how she valued implementing a project to address the problem of stormwater pollution instead of just vaguely talking about how we can help the environment. The students became environmentally knowledgeable and felt driven to continue to make a difference in protecting the valuable assets of Maryland’s landscape.

The success of this program was dependent on the cooperation, hard work, and dedication of the students, teachers, partners, and sponsors. Thank you to the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment and Chesapeake Bay Trust for providing funding through the Prince George’s County Stormwater Stewardship grant program.

You can watch a VIDEO on the Parkdale High School students journey through the Score Four program.

A Comprehensive Plan for the Future of the Potomac River Basin

Over the years, the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) has been involved in helping the Potomac jurisdictions in creating water resources plans and policies that attempt to meet the demands of the many users of water resources in the basin. Drinking water supply, wastewater treatment, recreation, industrial use, cooling water for power plants, and other uses are all important to the region’s quality of life. These uses sometimes conflict with consequences for water availability and water quality.

Little Seneca Reservoir

Little Seneca Reservoir

Each jurisdiction has a resources plan that addresses issues within its boundaries, but they are not meant to consider the collective impacts on the entire watershed. This can cause conflicts between jurisdictions and degrade the overall quality and quantity of the basin’s shared water resources. The ICPRB is building on its previous work with the jurisdictions, water suppliers, federal agencies, and other basin stakeholders to create a Potomac basin comprehensive water resources plan. The plan also will be adaptive so that changes can be incorporated based on what is learned through existing policies and new research. The plan should be completed in 2018.

The Potomac jurisdictions’ plans all have concerns in common. Those commonalities served as a starting point to identify issues for a basin-wide plan that builds on the similarities and seeks to address areas that are of basin-wide or interstate significance. In this way, a basin comprehensive plan can assist the jurisdictions in acknowledging their shared resources and guide them in strengthening their plans.

Assessing the facets of existing plans and the challenges that each jurisdiction faces was an important first step. That initial effort is being reviewed by a newly created advisory committee consisting of a wide range of stakeholders from all parts of the basin. This group will assist during each phase of the plan’s development. Their input will help guide an assessment of the basin’s water resources challenges, identification of practical, implementable solutions, preparation of a plan document, and review and revision of the plan for successful implementation. More than 47 challenges in 10 topic areas were identified, including climate change, ecological health, floods/droughts, land use change, and source water protection.

Many other stakeholders, while not on the committee, will receive regular updates and requests for feedback  via an email distribution list. These two groups will provide diverse perspectives that can guide the developing plan. Currently, the advisory committee has 23 members, with another 130 on the email distribution list.

The advisory committee held its introductory meeting in September, guided by a facilitation team hired for the project, Policy Works LLC. Facilitator Kristin Rowles ran through the project timeline, and stressed that the plan was focused on seeking consensus where possible, and that reporting on different perspectives will be crucial.

Little Seneca Reservoir at sunrise.

Little Seneca Reservoir holds several wetlands, trails, and other amenities. It is a good example of the many things for which we rely on the Potomac and its resources.

The committee also discussed some stakeholder interest areas that should be better represented, and added additional areas of concern that should be addressed by the plan. The committee also reviewed their initial input into a project vision statement and broke into small groups to identify a vision of desired conditions in 50 years and the role the comprehensive plan can play in meeting those goals.

The process is off to a good start, with an energized advisory committee and a general agreement that this planning process can provide valuable assistance for the region’s waters in sustainably meeting the many current and future demands on the resource.

With the assistance of the stakeholders, ICPRB is now in the process of finalizing the list of challenges and beginning to develop recommendations to be refined by the stakeholders groups.  The plan document will then be written and reviewed.

How the plan will finally be used will largely be up to the jurisdictions and agencies of the watershed, which can benefit from a basin-focused plan that identifies common problems and solutions, as well as reducing the chance for interstate resources conflicts.

Unlike many studies that do little more than collect dust on a shelf, the basin comprehensive plan has from its inception been designed to be inclusive and transparent. Its potential users have been a part of the process, and will more likely be motivated to use the recommendations that they helped develop.

“The comprehensive plan will serve as a roadmap to a sustainable future,” said ICPRB Executive Director Carlton Haywood. “Handing healthy, useful rivers and streams to future generations is one of the highest callings of the Commission,” he said.

Want to learn more or be added to the email distribution list? Visit our website, or contact us with additional questions.

Festival del Río Anacostia

When it comes to learning about local environmental issues it is important that everybody has a seat at the table (or on the boat). That was the thought behind the recent Festival del Río Anacostia held on October 15, 2016, at Bladensburg Waterfront Park in Bladensburg, Md. The riverfest with a Latin twist brought 200-300 watershed residents to the park, where local watershed groups, including the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, discussed river health, pollution, fishing, and more with the largely Spanish-speaking attendees.
Crowd gathered around a benthic macroinvertabrate display.
“The Festival organizers wanted a fun environmental event that would be language- and family-friendly for the many Latino residents of the Anacostia watershed. Our overall goals were to inform Latino communities of environmental issues that affect their lives, of outdoor recreation opportunities, and to involve them in the protection of the watershed,” noted Rebecca Wolf of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, one of the organizers of the event.

Dedicated to connecting the Latin community to the Anacostia, each organization had a Spanish-speaking attendant to help with translations and explanations. Free fishing lessons and boat-rides let people experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the river. Each booth had an activity for the young attendees, Marimba dancers entertained the crowd, and many enjoyed tacos and pupusas while perusing the booths.

It is no secret that the Anacostia River has struggled with the effects of urbanization. It is one of the most densely populated watersheds within the Chesapeake Bay region. The high population upstream has contributed to stormwater runoff, trash, and other pollutants in the waterway east of the Nation’s Capital. However, recent years have seen much improvement. Local non-profits and government organizations have worked to increase aquatic vegetation, clean up trash, and institute other restoration efforts as well as increase recreation opportunities for those that live within its watershed.

The first annual event was declared a success by all. Mark your calendars for Festival del Río Anacostia, 2017 on October 15. “After the success of this year’s pilot festival, the event organizers plan for a bigger festival next year,” said Wolf.

ICPRB would like to thank all the organizations and the volunteers that made the Festival del Río Anacostia a success.

Watching the River Flow

The Potomac has always been known as a “flashy” river, with high and low river flows that sometimes are only a few days apart. It earned its title this spring and summer. There was plenty of precipitation during the summer, although the region did not get the massive storms that cause serious flooding.  From March through October, the highest daily flow measured at Little Falls gage (which captures flow in the basin upstream of Washington, D.C.) was about 20.9 billion gallons per day on May 8, 2016. The gage recorded a low of about 565 million gallons per day on September 19. Average annual flow of the river is about 7 billion gallons per day. Flows are tracked by the U.S. Geological Survey at gage stations  around the watershed.  During that time, flows rose and fell frequently from May through August.In the tidal Potomac, there were reports of remarkable water clarity in some areas, although the river as a whole looked fairly normal. The frequent rains also limited sunlight, and submerged vegetation in the river got off to a very slow start in the spring, but quickly recovered to normal or above-normal levels.USGS graph of water discharge on the Potomac River.

The mouth of the Potomac is near the southern end of the annual “dead zone” of low-oxygen (hypoxic) water that infests part of the Chesapeake’s bottom each summer. The Potomac has its own warm-weather hypoxic zone that is present at the mouth and can extend up toward the Route 301 Bridge in bad summers. Like the bay, the lower Potomac’s zone was about normal for the year after bouncing around the median. Bottom dissolved oxygen near the river’s mouth approaches zero in many years.

When an extended dry spell gripped the basin in September, river levels fell to a point where the ICPRB Section for Cooperative Water Supply Operation on the Potomac (CO-OP) began daily monitoring of river levels, water supply utility demands and precipitation. The daily status monitoring allows a smooth transition into drought operations, if needed. In a strong drought, CO-OP works with the utilities to guide their use of water sources and to request releases of stored water from the Jennings Randolph Reservoir, more than 100 miles upstream. Daily monitoring occurred during the month of September. River levels rose in early October, but monitoring began again on October 24, and has been ongoing. Water usage drops strongly in the fall (after people stop watering lawns and gardens) and even with continued dry weather the probability of a water release is very small.

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Next Generation Brings Watershed Stewardship to Campus

ICPRB’s Score Four Program makes headway in Prince George’s County, Md.

Maryland has more than 10,000 miles of rivers and streams—spanning from the Appalachians to the Eastern Shore—each being of vital importance to the Chesapeake Bay. Our treasured waterways range from small, unnamed creeks in our neighborhoods to the grand Potomac River. They serve as habitats for species that are important to maintaining a healthy ecosystem and provide essential natural services to our environment. We depend on our waterways to help grow our crops, feed our reservoirs, and provide food, drinking water, and recreational activities. The value they provide is of great importance. It is imperative that we keep our streams healthy because the water, life, and pollutants in them eventually flow into larger rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. The quality of the Bay is dependent upon the quality of our streams.

Unfortunately, only 20 percent of Maryland streams meet the criteria for “good” condition. Most streams have eroded stream banks, are polluted and filled with sediment and litter, and lack an abundance of wildlife. With 80 percent of our streams in poor or fair condition, we should all work to protect them and to improve their water quality. This past school year, students in Prince George’s County, Md. did just that. More than 400 students removed approximately 700 square feet of turf grass and replaced it with gardens containing more than 200 native trees and plants that increase infiltration and absorption of runoff, reducing the amount of pollution that enters their local streams.

During the 2015-2016 school year, three Prince George’s County public high schools participated in ICPRB’s Score Four: Students, Schools, Streams, and the Bay program, led by ICPRB educators Rebecca Wolf and Nguyen Le. These schools included the Academy of Health Sciences at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, and Parkdale High School in Riverdale. The Score Four program leads students through the process of exploring their watershed and assessing their school campus in order to develop a Stormwater Action Project aimed at reducing stormwater pollution to local streams.

Students began the year exploring their watershed by researching their local stream and learning about stormwater pollution sources and reduction methods. They were excited to discover that their local stream was within walking distance of campus and learned what they could do to improve its quality. During their research, they learned about the negative correlation between impervious surfaces and stream quality; the higher the amount of impervious surfaces, the lower the stream quality. Impervious surfaces do not allow water to infiltrate into the ground. Stormwater runs directly into storm drains, carrying trash and other pollutants into the stream or river, eventually making its way to Chesapeake Bay.

In the next phase of the program, the students assessed their campus by performing scientific inquiries to determine how their campus contributes to stormwater pollution. These inquiries helped students understand key concepts related to stormwater issues on their campus that would assist them in developing their project. They conducted a campus assessment to identify stormwater paths, problem areas, and possible locations for their project. They also investigated the permeability of the school grounds, as well as soil percolation and composition. With this data, the students determined their secondary project goals and project site, then selected native plants and created a design for their garden. Through this process, the students were able to tailor a project to their individual school campus.

At the Academy of Health Sciences, social studies teacher Carmen Wright and biology teacher Apollo Cordon, envisioned installling a conservation landscape on campus. A conservation landscape reduces stormwater runoff while beautifying the campus and attracting wildlife, such as beneficial insects and butterflies. After performing research, collecting data, and selecting plants, the students used their creativity and math skills to develop potential designs for their garden. Teams of students created 30 potential designs. The students presented their designs to their classmates and used a scoring rubric to judge each design, with the highest scoring design from each class entered into a design contest. Students then voted for the winning design. The final design for their garden centered on an eastern redbud tree as the focal point surrounded by butterfly milkweeds, New England asters, black-eyed Susans, and Joe-Pye weeds, totaling more than 60 plants. Bright orange blooms of butterfly milkweeds with plentiful monarch butterfly caterpillars greeted the students upon their return this fall.

Kari Rowe, an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher from Northwestern High School, also envisioned a conservation landscape on campus. In the beginning of the program, it was difficult for the students to fully understand the concepts. However, despite the language barrier, the program was able to be adapted with guidance from Ms. Rowe. By the end, the students displayed their understanding and confidence through the success of their garden. The students designed the garden in a classic “bean” shape, planting more than 60 shrubs and perennials. The garden transformed the area with beautiful blooms of blazing stars, black-eyed Susans, and vibrant purple berries on their beautyberry bush.

Environmental science teacher Malka Ostchega had different visions for her students at Parkdale High School. She envisioned installing the beginnings of a food forest on campus that would continually develop throughout the years. Her students researched edible native plants that would meet their site conditions. They planted more than 70 trees and shrubs, ranging from persimmon trees to blackberry bushes to blueberry bushes, on a large hill near the entrance of the school. By selecting to plant on the hill, the food forest is optimally placed to reduce runoff.

At the conclusion of the program, the students celebrated their efforts and their gardens, taking great pride in what they accomplished. One student described how she valued implementing a project to address the problem of stormwater pollution instead of just vaguely talking about how we can help the environment. The students became environmentally knowledgeable and felt driven to continue to make a difference in protecting the valuable assets of Maryland’s landscape.

The success of this program was dependent on the cooperation, hard work, and dedication of the students, teachers, partners, and sponsors. Thank you to the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment and Chesapeake Bay Trust for providing funding through the Prince George’s County Stormwater Stewardship grant program.

You can watch a VIDEO on the Parkdale High School students journey through the Score Four program.