CHESTERTOWN — Last year, Maryland received more than 70 inches of rainfall — nearly 30 inches more than average. Despite that record-breaking precipitation, the Chester River held on to its C+ for the fourth straight year, according to ShoreRivers’ annual report card.
The Chester’s grade was revealed in a State of the Chester program held May 2 in the Hynson Lounge at Washington College. Chester Riverkeeper Tim Trumbauer was on hand to provide the audience with information about the river’s health and ShoreRivers’ work to protect it.
“Pollution is damaging our rivers, right, the Chester and all of our rivers. Most of the pollution is coming from within our local watershed. And again, we gave the C+ to the Chester River, but we’re really grading ourselves. We’re really grading ourselves and what we’re doing to our land,” Trumbauer said. “We’re slightly above average, but I think we can do better.”
This was the first year the grade determined by ShoreRivers was listed in a combined report card for the Sassafras, Chester, Miles, Wye and Choptank rivers. The Chester River’s grade previously was monitored by the Chester River Association, which merged with other organizations to form ShoreRivers.
ShoreRivers uses the Mid-Atlantic Tributary Assessment Coalition’s “scientific protocols to collect and evaluate water quality data.”
Trumbauer said the data is collected by citizen scientists, or “Chester Testers,” who volunteer their time collecting water samples from various locations on the creeks that feed into the Chester River.
More than 200 locations are tested by ShoreRivers, from the upper Sassafras River to the lower Choptank River. Those samples are then tested for temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, nutrients, water clarity, algae and bacteria, which all factor into determining the health of the rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
While the Chester River’s overall grade remains at a C+, Trumbauer said it was points away from being a B-. The lower Chester River holds that grade.
Trumbauer said this proves restoration works. He said if Kent County continues engaging in restoration work, the Chester River’s health will improve.
He said the near constant rainfall from last year had a “tremendous impact” on the rivers. He said the rainfall caused a decrease in water salinity, which impacts the growth of saltwater-loving oysters.
He also recorded a record-breaking water temperature of 93 degrees in the Chester. He said warmer temperatures fuel algae blooms, which can make water unsafe for swimming.
“With toxic algae, basically, just use common sense. If you see an algae bloom, don’t go swimming in it,” Trumbauer said.
On the positive side, Trumbauer said there has been an increase in subaquatic vegetation growing in upper parts of the Chester River.
Trumbauer said another issue ShoreRivers grappled with and monitored during 2018 is the large Four Seasons development on Kent Island.
In explaining why ShoreRivers is against the development as well as a potential third crossing of the Chesapeake Bay landing in Kent County, Trumbauer said ShoreRivers is not anti-development but is pro-river. He cited the sediment pollution associated with Four Seasons and a third Bay crossing’s potential damage to waterways in Kent County as reasons for ShoreRivers’ opposition.
Other issues ShoreRivers has been monitoring are sea levels rising and water hyacinths taking over in the Chester River. Trumbauer showed pictures of boats overflowing with hyacinths collected from the river, which he used as compost in a meadow on his property.
Part of ShoreRivers’ work also is to monitor water quality levels on the Shore and determine whether, and where, it is safe to swim. Trumbauer said Morgan Creek has consistently seen high levels of bacteria — making it unsafe for swimming — but these levels are probably related to animals like muskrats or geese.
In past years, Trumbauer said water clarity was on the rise. Due to last year’s rainfall, however, clarity flatlined across the Shore. In Centreville, there was an increase in water clarity because of false dark mussels, which thrive in less salty water. While the mussels filter carbonate, they are poisonous to dogs.
Trumbauer said dissolved oxygen levels remained constant in the Chester despite all the rain. He said even though there was more sediment runoff and nutrient pollution than past years, the stable dissolved oxygen levels allowed the Chester to hang onto its C+.
Water tested from up the river showed higher levels of nitrogen, which Trumbauer said proves the nitrogen pollution is coming from Kent County.
However, he said this is not all bad, citing “local pollution, local solution.”
Trumbauer described phosphorus levels as “pretty bad everywhere,” but that can be attributed to high levels of silt washing into the river because of rain.
Trumbauer said the five most polluted creeks in the Chester River’s watershed are Grays Inn, Shipyard, Airy Hill and Morgan creeks, and Mills Branch. He said because the creeks all have silty bottoms, the increased rainfall may have stirred up the sediment leading to poor water quality.
The five best creeks are Reed Creek, Three Bridges Branch, Rosin Creek, Rileys Mill Branch and Foreman Branch. Trumbauer said restoration work is a common denominator for most of the creeks and branch with good grades.
“We see a lot of restoration work, we see good water quality,” Trumbauer said.
ShoreRivers also has partnered with the app Swim Guide to provide and share bacteria monitoring results. For more information, visit swimguide.org.
All ShoreRivers riverkeepers also provide updates every two weeks on the health of their rivers. Search #SwimmableShoreRivers on Facebook or Instagram.
Despite the ongoing pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and Chester River, the image on the front of ShoreRivers’ report card was a rainbow. Trumbaeur said this was because the organization is hopeful its restoration and advocacy will continue to help clean up the Chester River.