News from Around the Basin – August 3, 2023

Studying harmful algal blooms, lots of conservation efforts and projects, dumping incident in Arlington, and more, in this week’s Potomac News Reservoir.

The Wrong Kind of Summer Blooms

Algal blooms can be unsightly and impede recreation on rivers and lakes. After all, who wants to paddle through mats of algae? But they can also be dangerous. Some algal blooms can produce toxins, known as cyanobacteria, that can sicken people and pets. These are known as Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs).

Algal blooms can be a common sight during the hot, dry months of late summer. Unfortunately, there is evidence that they will become more common due to climate change. Even with all the science behind them, their bloom patterns in the Potomac basin are not fully understood. ICPRB and our partners are working to fix that.

ICPRB aquatic biologists have been busy the past few weeks exploring the blooms of the North Branch and South Branch Potomac. They are working to figure out where the blooms are, why they are showing up where they are, and which species are present. Scientists at George Mason University’s Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (PEREC) then identify the species to learn more about them.

The collaboration doesn’t end there. In addition to monitoring the blooms, we are conducting drone flyovers with Virginia Commonwealth University to help identify cyanobacteria (also known as blue green algae) hot spots and working with the Virginia Department of Health to develop a rapid field test for the presence of HABs.

“Over the course of these projects, we’ll make large strides in understanding why these blooms are occurring,” explains Mike Selckmann, ICPRB’s aquatic biologist.

In addition to working in the western part of the Potomac watershed, ICPRB staff are supporting the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to develop a watershed management plan to address HABs in Lake Anna, Virginia.

ICPRB staff recently met with the Lake Anna Civic Association to discuss the project. The lake is not in the Potomac watershed, however, ICPRB is providing support due to our previous experience and expertise. Learn more about the projects mentioned above on Virginia DEQ’s Harmful Algal Bloom website.

Worried about blooms in your favorite swimming spot? According to the U.S. EPA, the signs of a possible toxic bloom include:

👃 A bad smell

🌊 Discoloration

🟩 Foam, scum, algal mats, or paint-like streaks on the surface

🐟 Dead fish or other animals washed up on its shore or beach

Some states provide algal bloom warnings, but if you are unsure of the water’s safety, it is best just to stay out of the water altogether (that includes your furry friends, too!).

Potomac River Conditions

If you only learn one thing from this newsletter, we hope it is that river flows are low and very little rain is in the forecast. Okay, that’s two things…but two important things. Much of the Potomac watershed is in moderate or severe drought.

It’s a good time to start thinking about wise water use (find more ideas at 100+ Water-Savings Tips):

🚽 Fix leaks

🧼 Only run the dishwasher/laundry with full loads

🏡 Take stock of water used for landscaping

As predicted in last week’s newsletter, ICPRB’s Section for Cooperative Water Supply on the Potomac (CO-OP) has started daily drought monitoring due to the river’s flow at Point of Rocks dipping (and continuing to fall) below 2,000 cubic feet per second. Each morning CO-OP staff coordinate with water suppliers to provide an email to water utilities and government agencies with river flow, weather, and water demand. Having informed stakeholders helps everyone make good decisions about our water supply. In the case of a serious drought, the DC metro area is well protected thanks to decades of planning and preparation.

Current flow: 1700 cfs

Median flow: 2770 cfs

90 day precipitation: – 3.2 inches below average