BLADENSBURG – It will come as no surprise to most residents in Prince George’s County that the Patuxent and Anacostia rivers are not safe to swim or fish in. In fact, those two rivers have been part of a long-standing campaign in the state of Maryland to make the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries swimmable […]
BLADENSBURG – It will come as no surprise to most residents in Prince George’s County that the Patuxent and Anacostia rivers are not safe to swim or fish in.
In fact, those two rivers have been part of a long-standing campaign in the state of Maryland to make the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries swimmable and fishable by the year 2025. But the Patuxent and Anacostia are two rivers environmentalists have struggled to advocate for and keep clean.
The Sentinel Newspapers conducted a series of tests into the quality of water within the county’s two main rivers and found not only reasons for residents to remain cautious in their interactions with the rivers, but also factors Jim Foster, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society and Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, believe should motivate residents to become more active in the restoration of the watersheds.
Over the past few months, The Sentinel conducted tests at three individual sites, two along the Anacostia and one along the Patuxent. E-coli and coliform, an indicator of further bacteria in the water, were found in both rivers. High levels of metals such as iron, aluminum, manganese, lithium, copper and zinc were also present in the water, as were sulfate, nitrate and chloride.
While the names of these items found in the water may not individually raise alarms, Tutman said these are signs of a river plagued with misuse from things such as power plant waste, waste runoff from farms, sewage dumping in the Patuxent River and urban growth pulling from a limited water resource.
Each year the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) releases a report card on the standing of the river.
The AWS report has always returned a failing grade for the river, with 2016 being no exception. Although the river continually fails in overall water quality, the AWS has consistently scored the effort toward cleaning and revitalizing the river in the “C” range.
Among a “D-minus” for fecal bacteria and “F” for water quality, the stormwater management effectiveness looks dismal. The runoff volume as well as the level of toxins and trash in the river all received failing grades, but Foster and the AWS believe the river is improving, and part of that is thanks to revitalized efforts in stormwater management.
“It is getting much better and I really think, if not in 2016 than 2017, we’re going to start to see passing grades. Yeah, it might be a ‘D-minus’ or something, but we’re just on the cusp of coming over that hump,” he said. “And it’s because of many years of collaborative efforts on the part of government, (non-governmental organizations) and such. A couple of lawsuits here and there, but we are making progress.”
Stormwater runoff often carries metals and bacteria from impervious surfaces such as parking lots, sidewalks and streets where cars can leave oil, gas and toxins. That, along with anything from winter salt and litter to left behind dog poop can flow into the rivers or their branches. That is where metals such as phosphorus, iron and lead and inorganic matter such as nitrates and chloride enter into the equation, which The Sentinel found in both rivers.
In the past several years the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment (DoE) has committed to several stormwater management initiatives, especially in areas of the county that, prior to the 1972 Clean Water Act, were developed without “any stormwater management and water quality considerations.”
In 2014 Prince George’s County initiated a watershed protection program to collect funds for the acceleration of its stormwater program. In addition, the county increased its public outreach on environmental awareness and has offered grants for citizens to improve “water quality at the source.”
“Addressing uncontrolled urban stormwater is the county’s first priority,” DoE spokesperson Lauren Kinard wrote in an email. “The DoE continues to make progress by installing stormwater controls on untreated impervious surfaces. Given the large amount of untreated impervious surfaces in uncontrolled urban areas, the county’s goal is to treat 20 percent by 2019.”
Foster has hailed county leadership for the strides made in the past years, especially in green infrastructure devices such as rain gardens and projects focused on impervious surfaces.
“We’ve had just a great new focus on this stuff. Is it perfect? No, it’s not perfect, but we’re really working hard to catch up with the years of abuse here in Prince George’s County,” he said.
Still, Foster and Tutman believe a lot more can be done to safeguard the rivers.
Tutman said the state is touting better bay conditions while at the same time “lowering standards.” In addition, he said power plants are destroying wetlands on the Patuxent, which historically help filter the water, and some power plants even have permits to discharge waste in the river.
“People are saying the bay is getting better but we got a C. I don’t know where you went to school but a C is failure in anybody’s book, or at least average. It’s not satisfactory,” he said.
Despite victories for the river such as the “rain tax,” which is a stormwater management fee, increased dedication from local jurisdictions to decrease the total maximum daily loads and favorable rulings in lawsuits with pollution-causing businesses, the fastest growing source of pollution in the bay and rivers is stormwater runoff.
“Polluted runoff from city and suburban landscapes is the only major type of water pollution that is increasing in the region. Pollution from farms, sewage plants, and other sources is decreasing,” according to Tom Pelton of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
However, Foster said there are still concerns about raw sewage being dumped in the river and Tutman lamented the waste runoff from nearby farms, especially those raising chickens. Animals nonnative to the rivers’ ecosystems such as geese and dogs have also contributed to the degradation of the river by introducing invasive bacteria and eating native plants that had specific purposes in the system.
But Tutman said he is particularly interested in what the Environmental Protection Agency and other testers are not looking at when it comes to river health.
He said there has to be a “connecting the dots” moment for people where they realized that it’s not just river water, but it’s the water they drink and bathe in and its an indicator of the entire community’s health.
“What’s in the rivers eventually ends up in the aquifers. What’s in the aquifers eventually percolates to the surface and visa-versa. It all ends up in that hydrologic chain,” he said.
Tutman said there are new factors being introduced to the water sources and their ecosystems that the riverkeepers haven’t seen before. Acetaminophen from drugs like Tylenol and high levels of estrogen excreted from females using birth control are commonly found in drinking water and in river fish, Tutman said, and are having unknown effects on the populace.
“Nobody seems to have a lucid understanding of that and the public’s not being told of it,” he said. “The real irony is the stuff that can actually hurt you, people aren’t looking for.”
In Maryland there are fish advisories warning women of childbearing years to avoid certain types of fish, or only eat a certain amount of seafood, and Tutman thinks that is alarming.
“Think of how imprecise that is. Should we go around measuring all our food,” he asked. “That’s pretty shocking to most people but that’s the implication. How much mercury do you want in your corn flakes? A little goes a long damn way.”
Tutman said issues surrounding water quality are complicated and get wrapped up into politics, business and the lives of everyday people.
Although he admits there are no easy answers to ensuring good water quality, he said citizens must take notice of what is going on.
“How can you consider that you’re going to let market forces sort out the reality of how much pollution we can put into these rivers without overstressing them or exceeding their capacities,” he said. “It’s a contradiction and hypocrisy. On the one hand we say we want to clean up these rivers, but we haven’t managed to do even one of them out of the multiple tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. We’ve had 40 years of the bay movement and have yet to clean up one of them. Not even one river.”
Moving forward, Foster said there is still much to be done in the rivers to make ensure they are swimmable and fishable by 2025.
“I think we may have to understand what fishable and swimmable means as far as water quality. Is it going to be drinkable? Probably not, but we should be able to safety get in the water without worrying about contracting some kind of disease,” Foster said.