Normally environmental scientists and advocates would be preparing their boats and crews to start seasonal water quality monitoring on the Severn, Magothy, South, West and Rhode rivers this month, but now they are wondering if they will have the chance to get on the water at all because of social distancing rules in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources monitors more than 100 spots in tidal and non-tidal waters throughout the state, as well as the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay, according to Resource Assessment Director Bruce Michael. Monitoring stopped in mid-March as Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and restrictions went in place to limit the spread of the virus, to protect staff.
“In 35 years of this monitoring program this is the longest we have gone without collecting some of these samples,” Michael said.
As summer approaches, Michael said they are working to develop protocols to get back in the field safely using protective equipment and social distance.
Collecting data about factors like clarity, salinity, nutrients, dissolved oxygen and temperature are important because they tell researchers how the bay is doing and whether or not restoration efforts are working, he said.
“We are looking at what we can do, if we can collect some of our monitoring using best practices,” he said.
While water quality monitoring is on hold, Michael said they have been authorized to monitor for harmful algal blooms, as those endanger the public health and monitoring can be completed by just one worker.
State monitoring isn’t the only program on hold due to the virus. Organizations such as the Arundel Rivers Federation and Severn River Association, which would normally go out by boat, have been landlocked.
Riverkeeper Jesse Iliff, a scientific and legal advocate for the West, Rhode and South rivers, says he respects Hogan’s order shutting down nonessential businesses and services as well as recreational boating, but is hoping an exception can be made for water quality monitoring.
“I am hoping that the governor will consider a request from watershed organizations to allow us to monitor water quality and pollution reporting, as long as we are able to do it safely and according to social distancing requirements,” Iliff said.
Iliff is still drafting a letter to formally make the request, and the governor’s office said they would consider the request once it is submitted.
Michael said groups like the Arundel Rivers Federation serve a great purpose because the state may only have one or two stations in a body of water.
“These volunteers usually have much better spatial coverage because they can get out much more frequently and cover a lot more stations in those tributaries, which is a great help,” Michael said.
The groups also boost public interest in environmental stewardship. The Magothy River Association released the State of the Magothy report April 1 and the Severn River Association released the State of the Severn Tuesday evening, both of which discussed an increase in submerged aquatic vegetation. On April 30, Arundel Rivers Federation will release a report about the South, West and Rhode.
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Iliff said his group monitors 52 spots in the West, Rhode and South rivers. Monitoring usually takes places April 1 to Oct. 31, so they are already a few weeks behind, Iliff said.
Typically he is joined by an intern or volunteer on the boat while traversing the rivers, which speeds up testing and sampling and gives the first mate a chance to learn. But that isn’t necessary, Iliff said — it can be done alone.
Tom Guay of the Severn River Association is in the same boat — he can’t use one right now because of pandemic restrictions.
While the program Iliff is operating has been functioning for years, Guay said they were just ramping up their monitoring program in the Severn. In 2018 they had eight sites, in 2019 they had 41. The spots have been mapped with a global positioning system, and they planned on sampling those same 41 spots again this year, Guay said.