Good News, Bad News In Wicomico River Audit

SALISBURY- In conjunction with the arrival of Earth Day, Maryland Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Doug Gansler this week released the results of his audit of the Wicomico River conducted last summer and the results for the watershed were generally mixed.

Gansler on Tuesday released his 2013 Chesapeake Bay Environmental Audit, which last year focused on four watersheds around the state that feed into the bay. Included among the watershed audits released this week was the Wicomico River, which flows from southern Sussex County in Delaware through Wicomico County and Salisbury and ultimately across the Lower Shore to Somerset where it connects with the lower Chesapeake Bay. Other watersheds audited by the Attorney

General in 2013 included the Liberty and Pretty Boy reservoirs in Baltimore and Carroll Counties and the Antietam Creek in Washington County. During the audits, Gansler met with residents, environmental activists and local leaders who live and work in the communities to hear firsthand from those who know, use and appreciate the diverse watersheds.

“We listen to the residents, activists and civic leaders who explain their specific environmental issues and frequently offer significant common sense solutions,” said Gansler this week. “By strengthening our relationships with these communities we are making progress that benefits the health of all Marylander, their enjoyment of nature and the future of the Chesapeake Bay.”

Since April 2008, the Attorney General’s Office has been conducting the annual audits in every corner of the state. In addition to meeting with local stakeholders, Gansler has toured rivers and other waterways by boat and walked the shorelines to examine the problems, pollution sources and ongoing restoration efforts up close.

Among the watersheds audited this year was the Wicomico River, which runs through the Lower Shore for about 33 miles and its watershed covers around 240 square miles. The Wicomico River is part of the Lower Shore Basin, which also includes the Nanticoke, Manokin, Big Annemessex and Pocomoke Rivers along with Fishing Bay, Tangier Sound and Pocomoke Sound.

The Wicomico River’s gentle, free-flowing nature makes it a popular area for recreational canoeing, kayaking, fishing and crabbing. The river is also used by larger vessels, including barge traffic and two automobile ferries at Whitehaven and Upper Ferry. According to the audit, while a large portion of the watershed is agricultural, much of Wicomico’s agricultural land is being lost to development. Wicomico County leads the Eastern Shore in population growth as well as loss and fragmentation of agricultural land.

Increased development and loss of agricultural land has landed the Wicomico River on the state’s list of impaired watersheds. For example, segments of the river have been listed as impaired by bacteria, nutrients and sediments as well as other biological impairments. In response to high nutrient levels over the years, almost all segments of the river have been listed as impaired for nitrogen and phosphorous. In addition, Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for fecal coliform have been established for the river.

However, while the picture remains grim, there are several ongoing restoration efforts for the river. For example, in 2012, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced a $75,000 grant for the city of Salisbury, Wicomico County, the Center for Watershed Protection, the Wicomico Environmental Trust and the Wicomico Creekwatchers. The grant is being used to fund a watershed characterization study and baseline assessment of the river, field assessments for two sub-watersheds in the Salisbury area and public outreach efforts to increase awareness of the need for pollution reduction. The grant is helping the county develop a watershed improvement plan and initiate restoration and remedial activities to improve water quality in the river.

The audit covered a handful of active enforcement actions and other pending matters related to the river. For example, during the construction of the city of Delmar’s new wastewater treatment plant, a spike in phosphorous was detected in the river nearest that municipality and corrective measures were taken, although the problem has not been entirely corrected and has triggered penalties. At the time of the audit, the matter was still under review by the Attorney General’s Office.

During the audit, Gansler learned firsthand some of the problems specific to the Wicomico River watershed. A large issue was the finding the funding for restoration efforts and a number of unfunded mandates handed down by the state. Another large issue identified were failing septic systems in the watershed and TMDLs. Local officials told Gansler they believed it was unfair to hold the watershed and the Lower Shore accountable for so many pollution sources further up the Chesapeake.

Other issues identified in the audit included various pollution sources specific to the watershed, including stormwater runoff, non-compliant bulk-headed waterfronts instead of the favored soft, natural shorelines, oyster health and boat traffic on the river among other things.