Kevin Sellner is most comfortable in two environments: his laboratory at Hood College or getting his feet wet. An oceanographer by trade, he has spent his career studying plankton and nutrient pollution in rivers, lakes and the Chesapeake Bay.
“When I see algae in the water, I look around and say, ‘How are they getting sufficient nutrients?’” Sellner said.
It’s a question with broader reach than one might think. In fact, it has driven decades of policy within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed as blooms of algae have devastated portions of the bay’s ecosystem and — through years of expensive rehabilitation and conservation — begun to show improvements.
In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a landmark “pollution diet” for the watershed, known as the Total Maximum Daily Load, which set goals to limit nutrients and sediments entering the bay by 2025. From that, the seven jurisdictions in the watershed wrote Watershed Implantation Plans to reach those goals.
Jason Keppler at the Maryland Department of Agriculture is one of the people overseeing the implementation of the state’s plan by acting as the go-between for on-the-ground conservation efforts and the Chesapeake Bay Program’s modeling office, which monitors if implementation is putting the watershed on target or letting it fall behind.
The first wave of regulations addressing nutrient pollution fell heavily on wastewater treatment plants and farms, Keppler said. Counties and towns invested millions to upgrade wastewater facilities to remove more nitrogen and phosphorus, and farms poured money into runoff controls and manure storage.
“Wastewater and agriculture shared the burden of the load early on,” Keppler said. “And we recognize some of the other sectors are a lot more expensive to upgrade.”
But with a review of phase three of the Watershed Implementation Plans about to get underway and more reductions on the horizon, it can be easy to point fingers while the big picture goes out of focus.
A source of controversy
Sellner spent 14 years as the director of the Chesapeake Research Consortium before he retired and moved to Frederick, where he works as a senior scholar for the Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies at Hood College. He occasionally weighs in on county water affairs, and on the periphery, he has watched a debate about the Monocacy River erupt.
The water quality of the Monocacy River has been a controversial topic in Frederick County over the last year and a half as policymakers, advocates and residents have tried to write a management plan for its future. A large tree buffer and a resource protection zone were originally proposed along the river corridor — where there is active agricultural land — in the draft released in 2016.
The draft has since been modified, but in its wake, a groundswell of people have denied that Frederick County’s agriculture is affecting the water quality of the river. Instead, residents have pointed blame at Pennsylvania, urban stormwater runoff or discharge from local wastewater treatment plants.
“In my opinion, they’ve ignored the data from the river,” Sellner said.
The Monocacy River has “marginally” and “slowly” been improving, but it is nowhere near where it’s supposed to be, he said. And the interpretation that Frederick County is not contributing nutrients or sediment to the river also isn’t backed up by available data, he said.
Data collected since the 1980s from monitoring sites at the top and bottom of the river show that more nitrogen exits the Monocacy River at its confluence with the Potomac River than flows into it from the Pennsylvania border, Sellner said.
Frederick County has more than 127,000 acres of farmland, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, which makes it one of the largest land uses in the county.
Some of that land is owned by Dwight Dotterer, program director of the Nutrient Management Program at the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Dotterer was a dairyman and raised a herd of Holsteins and Ayrshires on his farm in Frederick.
In October 2013, he was appointed to lead the nutrient program, which oversees all lawn and farmland fertilization in the state. His team aims to visit approximately 20 percent of farms each year to review the implementation of state-mandated nutrient management plans.
Inspectors compare the farm’s plan with the land application records for all the manure, fertilizer and chemicals applied to the land and crops. They make sure records align with the plan and that nutrients are being applied in the prescribed amounts to the different fields.
Over-application is rare, Dotterer said. When his inspectors do find it, it’s typically because a contractor used one blend of chemicals on all the fields.
The inspections are announced and the program does not take independent soil samples to verify a farmer’s records, he said. His office also does not compare new soil samples with previous plans to check for consistency.
“At this point, we haven’t had a real reason to question that,” Dotterer said.
Being one of the largest land uses in the county, however, means that some of the Monocacy River’s nutrient pollution can be logically linked to agriculture.
“There’s going to be some nutrients leaving the farmland and reaching the Monocacy,” Dotterer said.
Confronting the issue
The problem is nitrogen and phosphorus are much easier to control on land than in the water, which is why people have advocated for buffers between roads, developments, farms and rivers.
Any vegetation between those sources is an opportunity for the root structure to absorb dissolved nitrogen, Sellner said. And it’s not just as it moves across the surface, but underground as well.
Like sugar in coffee, nitrogen fertilizer is dissolved and absorbed by plants. Some plants are leakier than others, leaving nitrogen in the soils to migrate with groundwater, he said. The best way to stop the unabsorbed nitrogen is to create wetlands where the nitrogen can naturally transform into nitrogen gas over time.
Between 2010 and 2015, nearly 8,000 acres of wetlands were created or re-established on agricultural lands, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program’s 2016-2017 Bay Barometer report. The goal is to restore 83,000 acres total on agricultural lands.
Phosphorus, on the other hand, binds itself to sediment particles and can move during rain into bodies of water. A buffer can also intercept sediment, but if one isn’t there, the water becomes turbid, Sellner said.
In 2015, the Chesapeake Bay Program reported a six-year low of forest buffer planting. Only 64 miles of forested buffers were planted along the Chesapeake Bay Watershed’s rivers and streams, according to the Bay Barometer report. Currently, an estimated 55 percent of the watershed’s 288,000 miles of stream banks and shorelines have forest buffers.
Compared with an acre of forest, an acre of agricultural land releases 116 times the amount of nitrogen and 38 times the amount of phosphorus, Sellner said.
“With those kinds of numbers, you’re saying if the Monocacy corridor could have buffers everywhere you might intercept those loads,” Sellner said.
The farming community has instilled other best management practices to reduce the amount of sediment and phosphorus in the water. Many of Frederick County’s farms are no-till and exclude grazing livestock from streams through fencing.
Despite all these changes, a June 2016 report from the EPA on progress in the Chesapeake Bay, found that between 1985 and 2015:
- Nitrogen from wastewater reduced from 28 to 16 percent of the watershed’s load, while agriculture remained 45 percent of the total load.
- Phosphorus from wastewater reduced from 39 to 16 percent of watershed’s load, while agriculture grew from 43 to 55 percent of the total load.
When presented with this data, Dotterer said he was baffled.
“I know what I’m seeing, and I’m seeing all these improvements,” Dotterer said.
Amid the Monocacy Scenic River Management Plan debate, residents have called for the county to conduct its own study to determine the specific properties that are adding nutrients. Residents have even offered to donate the first $500 to get the study off the ground.
However, that would come nowhere near covering the cost of a study of that scale, Sellner said. To discern where the nutrients were coming from, each property would need to be marked with an isotope — so later it could be linked back to a specific property. Coupling that with the number of monitoring sites would make it a multimillion-dollar endeavor.
Funding a solution
Instead, the state commits between $6 million and $8 million annually to projects to address nutrient and sediment pollution through the state’s soil conservation districts.
The offices help farmers make wanted changes to their properties, said Denny Remsburg, district manager of the Frederick and Catoctin Soil Conservation Districts. All the agencies’ help is voluntary, and staff does not seek out properties for potential projects.
The districts complete projects on a first-come, first-served basis regardless of the amount of phosphorus or nitrogen one project would reduce compared to another.
“I think we just have to put our best forward and do what we can based off resources available,” Remsburg said.
For the watershed’s efforts, promising sustained results are starting to emerge.
Brooke Landry, chairwoman of the Submerged Aquatic Vegetation work group, co-author a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal this year that showed that by lowering the average nitrogen loading of the bay 23 percent and phosphorus 8 percent between 1984 and 2015, sea grasses were able to regrow.
Underwater grasses are a good indicator of change, because they respond quickly to improvements or degradation, she said. The grasses also require clear water and sunlight to grow, which is absent when nutrients feed large algae blooms that block the sun.
Despite populations around the Chesapeake Bay doubling since 1950, people have been able to reduce the amount of nutrients reaching the bay through policy and implementation of best management practices, she said.
“You don’t need a miracle. You need just continued, sustained effort,” Landry said.