Environmental experts at the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays say if Sussex County residents want healthier waterways where they can swim and eat the fish they catch, now is the time to speak up.
“We're presented with a great opportunity to work with the Sussex County comprehensive plan to not only enhance water quality buffer ordinances, but also for you, as residents of the watershed, to speak up and have your concerns incorporated into the planning process,” said Emily Seldomridge, the center's watershed coordinator and one of five authors of the recently released 2016 State of the Delaware Inland Bays report.
Seldomridge and others at the center said citizens should call for wider forested buffers along rivers, creeks and bays, extending central sewer connections and enhancing stormwater management. As it stands, the Inland Bays – Rehoboth, Indian River and Little Assawoman bays – and their tributaries are seriously impaired by nutrient pollution and high levels of bacteria, the report states.
“As members of the community, it's imperative for you to speak up for cleaner water,” Seldomridge said. “Policy initiatives are needed to guide how our land is developed and managed in the future.”
A boost in population growth and the resulting boom in development stresses the health of the Inland Bays, the report states.
From 1990 to 2010, the number of people living in the Inland Bays watershed more than doubled, census reports show, and the report estimates another 15 percent boost in population growth by 2020.
“This population growth is driving many of the changes that are impacting our bays,” said Marianne Walch, report co-author and the center's science and restoration coordinator. For the past five years, she said, preserving and restoring natural habitats has stalled in the face of development.
Since the last report was published in 2011, development has increased by 11 percent, with more than 19,000 acres in the Inland Bays watershed now covered by impervious surfaces such as roofs, parking lots and roads.
Nonpoint source pollution, like runoff from impervious surfaces, contributes to poor water quality. Many Delaware waterways, including popular kayaking spots like Rehoboth Bay's Love Creek, are considered unsafe for swimming and fishing, and are unable to support healthy marine life because of high levels of nutrient and bacteria pollution. Scientists found enterococcus bacteria levels, which indicate that bacteria are present that could cause gastrointestinal infections in humans, at the mouth of Love Creek have increased since the last report.
It's not all bad news
There's a silver lining in the report: Water quality in Little Assawoman Bay has improved in the last five years. But scientists aren't quite sure why.
Andrew McGowan, one of the report's authors and an environmental scientist at the center, said it's likely a conversion to central sewer around Little Assawoman Bay has prompted the improvement in water quality. However, without data such as how specific farms manage fertilizer applications, it is difficult for scientists to pinpoint the exact reasons for the positive trend.
The elimination of point-source discharges from local wastewater treatment plants also has greatly contributed to nutrient reductions in the bays. Since 1990, all but two direct sources have been eliminated from the Inland Bays; Rehoboth Beach's wastewater treatment plant, which will soon shift to an ocean outfall, and Allen Harim's discharge from the former Vlasic pickle plant in Millsboro are the only direct point sources remaining.
Overall, nutrient pollution management practices have improved, but experts are calling for more resources to fund cover crops and forested buffers - two strategies that reduce runoff by filtering and absorbing pollutants.
“We need more resources to be able to continue the great work that we've done here,” said Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary David Small. “If people are able to have the opportunity to get out on or near these waterways, they can't help but develop an appreciation and affinity for these resources.”
Nutrient management practices in the agricultural industry - which still accounts for the largest land use in the area - are a mixed bag, the report states.
The farming community is adopting some practices needed to curb water-related pollution. Building poultry sheds and relocating manure have diverted nutrients that previously found their way into the bays through tributaries or groundwater. But other practices, including wider use of cover crops, wetlands restoration and buffers, have not quite caught on, possibly due to a lack of dedicated funding and incentives.
“I think the real area we need to focus on is agriculture, because that's where you get the biggest bang for the buck,” said Chris Bason, the center's executive director. “The demand for cover crops is way more than the money that is available to fund it. I would suspect if enough money was made available, folks would be interested in establishing these forested buffers and grass buffers, and converting croplands into wetlands.”
Actions needed to improve water quality
Seldomridge pointed to the 2008 Pollution Control Strategy, which outlines specific actions and regulations needed to meet goals for reducing nutrients that impair water quality. She estimated it would cost about $27 million per year to implement every action the strategy proposes.
“It takes really big money to accomplish really big goals,” she said. “It truly is possible to attain our water quality goals, if we're willing to make the commitments to work together and to fully invest in the future of our watershed.”
The report shows the county's years-long push to get residents off on-site septic and connected to central sewer systems has decreased nutrient pollution, but a lot more still needs to be done.
More than 6,800 septic systems were replaced by central sewer connections since the last report in 2011, far exceeding nutrient pollution reduction goals outlined in the Pollution Control Strategy.
Even with those improvements, state officials still warn people not to swim in many creeks, rivers and streams for fear of bacteria-induced infections. Warning signs are posted at many Delaware waterways, recommending people eat little or none of what they catch.
However, there has been little progress regarding many other management actions outlined in the Pollution Control Strategy for the Inland Bays, including a lack of financial and legislative support for stormwater retrofits and wetland restoration. Without more support – financial, political and community-based – the Inland Bays will continue the struggle to fully support wildlife and recreational interests.
“We've definitely seen some encouraging progress in some of the environmental indicators,” Walch said. “But lack of progress in some areas ... suggests the bays will have many water quality challenges ahead.”
To read the full report, go to inlandbays.org.