When people ask how waterways like the South River are doing, they expect a simple pass or fail answer. Is the river dirty or clean? The South River Federation is breaking down its data so residents and boaters can decide for themselves.
The interactive South River Data Map is designed to answer questions the federation is asked most: “Is it safe to swim?
“Can fish breathe?” and “How dirty is the water?”
To do this, the map rates water clarity, dissolved oxygen and bacteria levels on a simple scale. Red, yellow and green dots mimic traffic lights signals for each qualifier.
Nancy Sullivan, who helped develop the map in partnership with the Chesapeake Conservancy, says there are some misconceptions about what goes into a healthy river.
“When people ask how dirty the river is, they think of pollution. Not many people know our number one pollutant is dirt,” Sullivan said. “ That’s our big problem. Dirt is natural, but we have thousands of tons of dirt every year that overwhelms the system.”
By itself, excess dirt kills underwater grasses and suffocates fish spawning grounds, Sullivan says. It also acts as a carrier for deadlier pollutants.
By following the traffic-light pattern of dots, the federation’s map shows where dirt is coming from, and which areas have the most of it.
Map users can also explore 44 of the federation’s restoration projects. Reforestation, wetland, living shoreline, rain garden, stream restoration and green roof areas are each given a profile. Some include before and after photos of the restoration process.
The map’s data will be updated twice a month, and more maps could be coming soon.
Chesapeake Conservancy Director of Conservation Technology Jeffrey Allenby said the project can be replicated for other rivers of the Chesapeake.
Sullivan hopes the map helps clear up confusion.
“There’s so much confusion. It’s a hard story to tell. Is it getting better? Yeah. Is it getting worse? yeah.”
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Overall, Sullivan says the river has become safer for swimmers, and has grown more fish and crabs.