Monday, April 27, 2015

The Report Cards are Coming Out

Every year, we play a game in the Chesapeake Bay area. All the various tributes and the Bay as a whole get "report cards" where various governmental agencies and NGO issue grades for the state of their condition, and then spin them to their benefit. Better is better, and shows we're making progress, but a little worse is OK too, because it means we can demand more money. This year they're selling the gains.

Mid-Shore rivers get better grades
The news is mostly good, according to staff members at the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy when they released the compiled 2014 data on local rivers at their State of the Rivers Party on Friday, April 24.

“This is the fifth year that we’ve done this, and this is the first year that we’ve actually seen significant improvement,” MRC executive director Tim Junkin said.

Those findings were some of the conclusions when “grades” were announced for the MRC’s annual “Report Card” grading water quality in Mid-Shore rivers. The gathering was hosted by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

A team of more than 50 volunteer “creekwatchers” test 117 sites from mid-April to mid-November in two main watershed areas: the Miles River watershed and the Choptank River watershed.

“These are strategic sites that help us understand what’s going on with our rivers,” Junkin said.

The volunteers test for nitrogen content, phosphorus content, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll a, temperature, pH, salinity, observations about flora and fauna, and water clarity.

Newly hired Choptank Riverkeeper Matthew Pluta talked about the grades.

Ten out of 16 test areas have seen improvement, even in the area’s most polluted rivers.
That's a little better than 50:50, but not much. Note it would only take 3 reversal (out of 16) to change that to no change.
The overall Choptank River rose from a C to a B-; LaTrappe and Island Creek moved from a C to a B+; the Tred Avon River improved from a C to a B-; Harris Creek rose from a C+ to a B; Eastern Bay upgraded from a B- to a B; Greenwood Creek moved from a C+ to a B; Cox Creek went from a B- to a B; the Wye Narrows went from a C- to a C; Prospect Bay improved from a B- to a B+; and the most polluted river on the Mid-Shore, the Tuckahoe, upgraded from a D+ to a C.
Note that most of the improvements are a single notch on a 15 point scale! Not a big jump.

What accounted for the increases?
“I think our biggest surprise last year is water clarity,” Rosen said. “We’ve had a number of our creekwatchers comment on how clear the water was, even late into the season.”

He said generally June through August is when algae appears throughout the Mid-Shore waterways. He said we had areas that maintained relatively good clarity during that part of the year.

“That was the biggest success story, the biggest surprise,” he said. “Water clarity.”
. . .
He said the goal is to get a least 5 to 6 feet of clarity throughout the Chesapeake Bay because that means most of the bottom will have light on it. Light to the bottom will grow most submerged aquatic vegetation.

“So if we can maintain that clarity throughout the watershed during the growing months, that means we’ll have a reemergence of submerged aquatic vegetation, which is key for crabs and small fish for hiding,” he said.
My problem with the rating systems is that they are very weather dependent. A good weather year can bump large areas of the Bay up; a bad one down. Without taking into account that factor, the movements of the ratings are essentially noisy fluctuations around a basically stagnant degraded state. Let me see improvement in a running 5 or 10 year average before I get too excited.

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