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Assessing the effectiveness of riparian buffers for reducing organic nitrogen loads in the Coastal Plain of the Chesapeake Bay watershed using a watershed model

Riparian buffers are an important conservation practice to mitigate water quality degradation in the Coastal Plain of the Chesapeake Bay watershed (CBW). Although forested and grassed riparian buffers have been implemented in this region through government programs, the impacts of riparian buffers on water quality have been rarely examined. The objective of this study was to assess the long-term effects of riparian buffers to improve water quality in the Coastal Plain of the CBW. A watershed model, Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT), was employed for this study. Considering impacts of model uncertainty (i.e., equifinality) on the effectiveness of riparian buffers, we adopted all parameter sets that produced acceptable simulation results. Multiple riparian buffer implementation scenarios were developed to generate the baseline condition on total organic nitrogen (TON) loads without riparian buffers and examine variation of TON loads with areal coverage of riparian buffers. Through the calibration processes, a total of 235 acceptable parameter sets were identified and used to simulate TON loads. The simulation results indicated that riparian buffers significantly reduce TON loads. Without riparian buffers, annual TON loads from the 220 km2 study watershed were 18 to 34 metric tons, but declined to 8 to 21 metric tons with riparian buffers. The effectiveness of riparian buffers on reducing annual TON loads increased from 17% to 45% with an increase in the extent of riparian buffer implementation. The effectiveness of riparian buffers tended to be higher during early spring than other seasons as high soil water conditions promote occurrence of surface water flow and thus TON loads. Riparian buffers were more efficient on croplands than other land use types due to high soil nutrient levels caused by fertilizer applications. The effectiveness of riparian buffers differed considerably by parameter set. Thus, efforts to consider model uncertainty are important to provide better insight into the impacts of conservation practices. This study supports ongoing riparian buffer programs for the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain by demonstrating the effectiveness of riparian buffers and informing implementation guidelines.

Published in the Journal of Hydrology, Volume 585, June 2020:

Integrating Sustainable Water Resource Management and Land Use Decision-Making

Human uses of land and water are directly linked and must, therefore, be managed with each other in mind. This paper puts forward an approach for integrating sustainable water resource management into local land use decision-making in the Potomac basin. The approach includes developing a clear understanding of the current regulatory, programmatic, and financial approaches to land use management; identifying opportunities from innovation; and developing a flexible, stakeholder-based framework for moving forward. Four opportunities for innovation were identified in the Potomac basin utilizing this approach, including enhancing coordination and access to information, promoting incentives to achieve desired outcomes, encouraging and promoting innovation, and integrating programs to achieve multiple objectives. The successful integration of land and water decision-making requires a sustained, long-term commitment to improvement rather than a one-time fix mentality. Initial steps for implementation include identifying and engaging diverse partners, as well as establishing channels for information dissemination. The lessons learned from this work may prove valuable to decision-makers in other regions to holistically manage diverse land and water resources.

The article was published in Water 202012(8), 2282;

Planning Assistance to States: Jennings Randolph Lake Scoping Study Phase II Report

The watershed of the North Branch Potomac River experienced severe environmental degradation and flooding in the 20th century. A dam across the river mainstem was completed in 1982, creating Jennings Randolph Lake. The lake and dam are operated by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers for four authorized purposes: control floods, dilute downstream pollution, supply drinking to Washington DC during droughts, and provide recreation. Water quality in the North Branch watershed has improved considerably since the dam was built due to many factors, including regulatory enforcement, mine runoff mitigation, wastewater treatment, infrastructure improvements, forest regrowth and the abatement of acid rain (see ICPRB report 19-4). This pilot study was done to determine if an update of the 1997 Reservoir Regulation manual is appropriate at this time. The report reviews and evaluates each of the authorized purposes in terms of their original management goals and objectives, current relevance, and future application.

A copy of the report is available here.

Pilot Analysis of Maryland Phase I MS4 Permit Water Quality Data

The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) and the Center for Watershed Protection (CWP) conducted a pilot study of water quality data collected at Moores Run in Baltimore City, Airpark Business Center in Carroll County, and Urbana in Frederick County to characterize stormwater discharges and evaluate watershed restoration activities. The overarching objectives were to determine if there are trends in water quality over time and, if any trends are found, attempt to relate them to watershed restoration efforts or the implementation of Best Management Practices (BMPs). Another goal of the pilot study was to provide recommendations for future analysis of MS4 monitoring data and improving the monitoring requirements in Maryland’s Phase I MS4 permits.

Tables and figures are available here.

Creating a stream health baseline for the Chesapeake basin from monitoring and model data

This report describes how monitoring and model data were analyzed and combined to generate a preliminary estimate of acceptable stream health in the Chesapeake Bay basin for the 2006 – 2011 baseline period. Streams in about 73% of the basin’s 64,020 sq. miles of drainage area were evaluated with monitoring results, and output from a predictive model was used to estimate stream health in the remaining 27%. Stream health was measured with the bioregion, family-level version of the “Chessie BIBI,” a multi-metric index for stream macroinvertebrate communities. Index scores are normally expressed as one of five index ratings: Excellent or Good (well-functioning), Fair (considered satisfactory), and Poor or Very Poor (stressed or poorly-functioning). Four versions of the predictive model were developed and tested, and the selected version outputs results as three-ratings: Excellent/Good, Fair, and Poor/Very Poor. The five ratings in the monitoring data were re-grouped to match the three ratings of the selected predictive model. The monitoring- and model-based ratings were then area-weighted to reduce bias caused by uneven sample densities and aggregated to the Chesapeake basin scale, with monitoring results given preference. The combined results suggest approximately 60% of the basin’s area had acceptable stream ratings (Excellent, Good, or Fair) during 2006 – 2011. This estimate is a preliminary baseline for the Chesapeake Bay Program’s stream health goal. A final baseline estimate will be produced after a higher resolution stream layer becomes available and acceptable stream health can be estimated as a percent of the basin’s stream miles.

The Influence of Jennings Randolph Lake and Dam Operations on River Flow and Water Quality in the North Branch Potomac River

A multi-year study began in 2018 to determine if an update of the Army Corps’ 1997 Water Control Plan for Jennings Randolph Lake is needed. Watershed and river conditions have improved significantly since the turn of the century, an outcome of regulatory enforcement, mine runoff mitigation, wastewater treatment,  infrastructure improvements, forest regrowth and the abatement of acid rain. The Commission, in partnership with the Corps, has produced a draft Scoping Study report that reviews the dam’s long-running operational objectives and procedures, and assesses the current importance of these procedures in achieving the four mandates. It also reviews various modeling approaches that incorporate modern science and technology for better future management. Learn more…