Troubled waters loom in future of Nanticoke?

By Lynn R. Parks

After nearly two years, a team of about 20 volunteers has submitted its plan for reducing nutrients in the Nanticoke River watershed. But according to the state, the team’s recommendations will not be enough to satisfy state and federal guidelines regarding limiting nitrogen and phosphorus in the watershed. “Further efforts to reduce nutrient loading are needed in all sectors, agricultural, residential and urban,” the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) wrote in its response to the team’s report. “We would recommend that the team consider adding recommendations to their [pollution control strategy].” “Our plan was not sufficient to achieve the reductions we need,” said Alan Girard, project manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and leader of the group. “Unfortunately, we were not able to put together enough of a study to meet the goals.” The Nanticoke River watershed, part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, has been identified by the federal government as an impaired waterway. As such, it is required to reduce the excess nutrients that are flowing into the watershed by 2010, Girard said. Total maximum daily loads of nutrients – the maximum load of nutrients to make the watershed healthy – for the Nanticoke were set by the state in 1998. The state wanted to have plans in place to meet those loads two years after that, said Kathy Bunting-Howarth, an environmental planner with DNREC. “We are interested in the Nanticoke team getting its second draft as soon as possible,” she added. The state is working with volunteer teams on three other watersheds: the inland bays, the Murderkill and the Appoquinimink. The inland bays team is ready to present its final draft to the public. The Appoquinimink team has completed its first draft and the Murderkill team is nearing completion of its first draft.

Excess nutrients, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus, in waterways have been linked with poor living conditions for fish. Algae thrive in the nutrient-rich water. They grow in the millions, forming large clouds of what is called red tide or mahogany tide. During the day, when the sun is bright, algae, like all thriving plants, give off oxygen through photosynthesis. But at night, and even on cloudy days, the plants switch over to respiration, using oxygen and putting off carbon dioxide. They also die and the resultant bacterial action, or decay, consumes even more oxygen. That resulting lack of life-giving oxygen leads to fish kills. In addition, the thick algae blocks the sun from reaching bottom-growing sea grasses, which provide nursery and breeding habitat for aquatic life, including recreational and commercially important estuarine fish and shellfish. The total maximum daily loads for the Nanticoke set in 1998 require a 30-percent reduction in non-point source nitrogen load from a baseline set on 1992 levels. Non-point sources are sources of nutrients that, unlike point sources such as wastewater treatment plants that dump waste into the waterways at specific points, seep into the waterway from runoff and through groundwater. The TMDL also requires a 50-percent reduction in non-point source phosphorous load, also starting from 1992 levels.
The Nanticoke Tributary Team started meeting in spring 2000. The volunteers, while lacking in technical knowledge, were knowledgeable about the river and its tributaries, Girard said. “Having local people involved in this is critical,” he said. Bunting-Howarth said that having local people work on the recommendations helps to ensure that residents will abide by them. “We are interested in having people come up with plans that they know their friends and neighbors can follow,” she said. “These are very difficult decisions to make,” added team member Jack Conner, a land surveyor who lives near Woodland. “We want them to be equitable and fair to everyone in the watershed.” But the final recommendations that the team came up with fell short, the state said. “The recommended pollution control strategies…will provide at least 42 percent of the needed reduction in total nitrogen and 83 percent of the needed reduction in total phosphorus,” the state said in its reply to the team’s recommendations. Girard said that the volunteers will start meeting again in January. He hopes that they can get a second draft to the state by April. “Some process needs to work, because we have to get these loads down,” he added. “We need to do as much as we can locally before the federal government tells us what we have to do.”

In its recommendations, the Nanticoke team suggested that onsite wastewater treatment systems, or septic systems, be inspected whenever the property on which they are located is sold. The state replied that it too would like to see such inspections. “The department has originally included this requirement in the…regulations that were updated in March 2002,” the state’s response said. “However, due to public outcry, members of the General Assembly asked that the department eliminate the [requirement].” The team also said that all septic systems “must be maintained according to Delaware guidelines and regulations.” Again, the state agreed but said that it is limited in making sure that that happens. “In order to run the compliance and inspection program state-wide, we will need a consistently funded budget line item,” it said. “However, given the budget situation, the General Assembly may by difficult to convince in the short time. It would be wise to begin the process of informing locally-elected officials as to the need for such a program.” The Nanticoke team’s recommendations also suggested steps that the agriculture community can take to help the river. Fertilizer applied to cropland in excess of the amount used by the crops ends up in the watershed, scientists say, contributing to nutrient loads. The team suggested that the state encourage participation in programs designed to reduce nutrient runoff. These programs, in which the state said it already encourages participation, include planting cover crops, manure relocation and alternative use, planting grasses, wildlife habitat and filter strips and installing wetlands and ponds. In its response, the state suggested that the Nanticoke team work on more specific goals for the agriculture community. It also suggested that the team make suggestions regarding stormwater management and lawn care. “We would recommend that the team consider adding recommendations regarding working with homeowners to reduce their loading of nutrients through lawn care practices,” the state’s response said. For your information: Volunteers can still join the Nanticoke Tributary Team. For information, call Alan Girard, (410) 543-1999.

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