With a glance out the window, and a quick check of the television, anyone can quickly figure out what weather — and even pollution — conditions to expect on a given day.
But when it comes to knowing what conditions might be encountered in the local water, forget it.
Even the best trained scientists historically have had only limited information about what everyday water quality was like for their aquatic neighbors.
“In many ways, the Bay and its tidal creeks are inaccessible,” said Rob Magnien, director of Tidewater Ecosystem Assessment for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “We can’t observe them like the weather.”
But now, new technology — and a new web site — let scientists and citizens alike see water quality the way a fish or crab sees it.
The DNR recently unveiled a new web site, www.eyesonthebay.net that allows the public to get “real time” information about what is going on in some shallow bays and creeks — areas that are being targeted for cleanup by new restoration goals under development by the Bay Program.
The site makes available information collected from new monitoring techniques that the department has started using in recent years to get a better picture of what was happening in near-shore areas.
“The problems close to our shorelines have not been appreciated as much as those in the Bay’s deeper channels, where much of the Bay’s research and monitoring has been conducted in the past, but they are just as damaging, if not more so, to living resources,” said DNR Secretary Chuck Fox.
“It is in these shallow waters where our Bay grasses are struggling to survive and where most of our fish kills occur due to nutrient overenrichment, harmful algal blooms and low dissolved oxygen.”
For nearly 20 years, the state-federal Bay Program has supported a monitoring program which takes twice-a-month water quality samples from the main part of the Chesapeake.
While that may be fine for the mainstem of the Bay where conditions remain relatively stable, such infrequent sampling barely scratches the surface of the murky tidal rivers feeding the Chesapeake.
The DNR initially began deploying state-of-the-art continuous monitoring devices on the Pocomoke River in 1998 to learn more about water quality conditions that might be associated with pfiesteria outbreaks.
Anchored just below the water’s surface, the devices collect a suite of water quality information — temperature, dissolved oxygen, salinity and chlorophyll — and transmit it back to the DNR.
In recent years, the department began moving some of the 10 devices to the Western Shore, where biologists have had concerns about habitat quality stemming from a number of fish kills and a lack of grasses in tidal creeks.
The new continuous monitoring has shown surprising fluctuations for oxygen levels in the tidal tributaries. While oxygen levels may be fine during the day, they often drop to near zero during the night — when no one historically would be taking samples — sometimes creating fish-killing conditions.
While scientists knew dissolved oxygen levels naturally fluctuated, the magnitude of those changes has been a surprise, Magnien said. “It turns out that the environment is extremely dynamic. It changes hour by hour.”
The monitoring has also shown surprisingly high concentrations of chlorophyll in many creeks. Chlorophyll is a measure of algae production. The data suggest that the greater the size of the bloom, the greater the fluctuation in dissolved oxygen levels within the creeks.
That was illustrated by information collected before, during, and after a June 7 fish kill involving 15,000 menhaden near the Isle of Wight Bay. A nearby continuous monitoring station showed that dissolved oxygen levels had fallen to below 1 milligram per liter as the result of an algal bloom die-off several days earlier.
The continuous monitoring devices are complemented with new, biweekly boat-based water quality mapping systems that take thousands of readings as the watercraft cruises back and forth across the tributaries.
Besides explaining problems such as fish kills, Magnien said the detailed new data can be used to help pinpoint areas with water quality suitable for restoration efforts, such as planting underwater grasses.
Apart from giving biologists a fish-eye view of the Bay, officials hope the availability of the information piques the interest of residents. By being able to access information about areas that have traditionally been out of sight — and out of mind — Magnien said they may become better stewards of their waterways.
“The cleanup is getting to the point where it’s not just somebody else’s problem,” Magnien said. People who have seen presentations, he said, often want one of the devices in their local waterway, but at $16,000 each, the department is limited as to how many it can deploy.
The information will come into play as the Bay Program works to set new water quality standards for the Chesapeake and its tidal tributaries to be protective of fish and other aquatic dwellers. The standards will set, among other things, minimum levels for dissolved oxygen in the water.
But one issue that has been debated is whether the oxygen levels must be met all the time, or whether levels would be averaged over a period of time. “We need an instantaneous measure of oxygen because of the variability we are seeing,” Magnien said.
From a fish-eye view, Magnien said, “average is not going to cut it.”