“Where have all the flowers gone?” You may be asking yourself the 1960’s song title if you have recently been on or around the Sassafras Creeks and noticed that, in some locations, little or no American Lotus (Nelumbo Lutes) blossoms are evident. The bright yellow flowers, held high above the 12”-18” lotus pads, are known as the largest flower blossom in the continental United States. In many of the creeks along the Sassafras River, the blossoms are spectacular and abundant.
In several of our creeks this year, however, there has been a drastic reduction in the numbers of American Lotus. When the lotus began breaking the surface of the water in early May, I noticed that the pads looked weak, small, and brownish. Missing were the strong, dark green pads that usually welcome a boater into Sassafras Creeks in summer. Chris Cerino of the Sultana Education Foundation also reported a stark reduction of Lotus in Turner and McGill Creeks where they lead many kayak and canoe paddles.
To help answer the questions that were beginning to come into our office about the “Lotus problem”, I contacted the University of Maryland Plant Diagnostic Laboratory to request an evaluation of our Lotus. Paul Schlenker, one of our volunteer Sassafras Samplers, helped secure three complete plants from bloom to roots and we shipped them off to Dr. Karen Rane for evaluation.
The Lab’s diagnosis was that the plants have been damaged by a Phytopythium species, one of the group of fungus-like microorganisms called water molds, “which is usually a secondary invader of roots damaged from other causes.” So the disease attacks susceptible roots that were already weakened by another factor…but what was the other factor? What caused the weakened condition of the roots? Without a clue from the Plant Diagnostic Lab, the mystery deepened.
Fortunately the Sassafras River Association records a variety of water quality indicators on a weekly basis, and our data shows a possible answer to the weakened plants. When I compared the data over the last few years, I noticed that in the summer and fall of 2016 the salinity levels were unusually high in the Sassafras – sometimes 8-10 times higher than in a normal year. I recalled confirming our readings at the time by comparing them against the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Sampling Station at Budd’s Landing which had recorded similar readings.
While there is always some salt in the Sassafras, it is considered to be tidal fresh water containing less than 0.5 mg per liter. The mixing zone where the river meets the Bay is regularly flushed by storm flows from the Susquehanna River, but the salinity was definitely higher than usual last year and corresponded to the August and September drought conditions in Southeastern Pennsylvania as reported by the PA Department of Environmental Protection:
Could the higher salt levels last year have caused this year’s lotus problem? My research found that American Lotus is a fresh water plant generally found in ponds and along slow, fresh rivers, leading me to conclude that the elevated salinity over the summer and fall of 2016 may have been the catalyst that weakened the Lotus roots and allowed Phytopythium to kill many of our beautiful American Lotus plants in 2017.
Now for some good news. This year's water quality sampling shows that salinity levels during the spring and summer have returned to a low-to-normal state, and there still appears to be many healthy Lotus plants in most of the creeks along the river. We can be hopeful that the huge blue-green pads and spectacular yellow blossoms of the American Lotus will continue to thrive – and that our precious Sassafras will continue to be one of the most beautiful rivers on the Chesapeake Bay.
I’ll see you on the river!
Captain Emmett Duke
On Tuesday, June 13, the annual eradication efforts began for invasive water chestnuts (trapa natans) in the tributaries of the Sassafras River. The European water chestnuts (not the delightfully crunchy kind we find in Chinese food) first appeared in the Sassafras River in 1964. Various eradication efforts have occurred since then, and in 1999, approximately 400,000 pounds of plants were mechanically and hand-harvested from the Sassafras and the Byrd River across the Chesapeake Bay.
Water chestnuts are a particular problem because the seed pods of the exotic plants can live up to 12 years in the mud before sprouting. When sprouting occurs, a thin stem emerges from the creek bed and quickly finds its way to the surface, where two things happen: leaves form as tiny rosettes, and football-shaped spongy growths form along the branches - which serve to float the entire plant.
As the plant continues to grow on the surface of the water, the rosettes enlarge and mesh together which creates mats of vegetation. The thick mats greatly impede boaters, fisherman, water skiers and swimmers, and these limitations on water use can negatively impact real estate values.
As sunlight is blocked, the habitat is destroyed for beneficial native grasses. Underwater vegetation is critically important to the health of the river because they stabilize the sediment runoff from erosion, provide habitat protection for small fish and crabs, provide food for river critters and migratory waterfowl, and refresh the water with oxygen.
When the plants die in the fall, T. natans can deplete the dissolved oxygen in the water, and the resulting low oxygen condition (anoxia) can lead to fish kills and harm other aquatic organisms.
Each June and July, the Sassafras River Association joins with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to bring staff and volunteers to remove as many plants as possible from the creeks around the Sassafras. The plants grow in shallow water, so we use kayaks, canoes, and jon boats to reach the chestnuts.
If you are interested in volunteering, please call our RIVERKEEPER™ Emmett Duke, at 410-275-1400.
Find more information about water chestnuts here.
I recently had a beautiful dream for a Riverkeeper. The beginning was very short, I think because the content was so startling that it woke me up. I was looking down at the surface of the Sassafras River, and the river was as transparent as a glass of water, and as emerald blue as the waters of the Florida Keys.
As I eased back into sleep, I was thinking about what I had just dreamed. I wondered if the water in the river had ever really been that clear and beautiful. As I drifted back into my dream, I found myself on a sailing vessel, at the northern end of the “Great Shellfish Bay” as the natives called the huge estuary, using a word that sounded like
Chesapeake to the English explorers and colonists. The year was 1608, and our ship’s Captain, John Smith, and the crew were engaging in an effort to explore and map the
tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Captain Smith was drawing maps that were to be used by explorers and colonists for generations to come.
I peered back down at the water, and realized that I could see the bottom, which was covered in oyster reefs. The oysters were so plentiful and grew so high into the water column that we regarded them as hazards to navigation in some areas of the Bay. Between the oyster reefs, I saw beds of sea grasses in thick abundance.
There were enormous schools of fish of all description. Striped bass, Atlantic and Short-nosed Sturgeon, Spanish mackerel, Sea Trout, and Bluefish were boiling the water as far as I could see while feeding on a never ending mass of Atlantic Menhaden, white and yellow perch, and a variety of tiny minnows. Blue crabs virtually covered the oyster reefs, creating a moving mass of blues and greens- with occasional flashes of the red painted claws of the females. I looked toward the shoreline, and saw forests, tidal wetlands, and grassy meadows. “This is pretty close to paradise”, I said to myself.
We sailed several miles up a river, past the steep orange banks along the shorelines, and met a group of people who lived in a palisaded village on the banks of what possibly was today’s Turners Creek. They called themselves Tochwoghs, and they welcomed us as friends. As we explored the land around the village, we were awed by the massive forests of oaks, black locusts, and groves of sassafras trees. (To read Captain Smith’s journal of “voyage #2”, click here)
It occurred to me that I was in a place where there were no roads, no cleared land for systematic agriculture, or neighborhoods, or shopping centers with hard surfaced parking lots, or airports or golf courses. There was only the intricately complicated – and yet inherently simple - natural ecosystem, and a group of people who lived in harmony with nature. I saw clean water, lush green trees and bushes and grasses, in a perfect habitat for nature’s plants and animals. Rain water was absorbed into the ground where it landed. Every inch of the soil was crowded with roots - anxiously drinking every drop of water that landed on the ground.
As I slowly awoke and transitioned into the realization of who I am, and where I live, and the time in which I live, I was reminded of the reasons why the Sassafras River is no longer clear and blue. Rain water is now washed into the river from cleared land, residential and shopping center rooftops, paved parking lots, roads, and fertilized lawns and gardens. During rain storms, not many drops of water are absorbed into the ground where they fall. Instead, storm water sheets across all the impervious surfaces and gushes in great torrents into the river, bringing mud and nutrients, and clouding the water with sediment and algae and bacteria. It is a very different world than the one in the life of the Tochwoghs.
But there is good news. People today have come to realize that we are the cause of the problems in our creeks and rivers, and we are forming groups like the Sassafras River Association and many others to correct some of our mistakes. We are joining together and taking positive actions to mitigate our negative impacts on our waters. Humans may never again experience clear, blue water when we look down into the Sassafras, but we are learning to reduce the amount of damage that we inflict on our rivers. And we are making progress.
Someday, our children and grandchildren will not merely understand the importance of the work we are doing for our rivers and the Great Shellfish Bay - they will actually experience what for us simply began as a beautiful dream.
Captain Emmett Duke
The Susquehanna River is responsible for much of the sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, but the Conowingo Dam has often been targeted with the blame. The truth is that the Dam has been an effective sediment trap for the nearly 90 years of its existence. But the sediment trap is so full now that, in the event of large storms in the Susquehanna watershed, some of the mud is scoured by fast flowing water and pours into the Bay in large quantities.
Some say that when scouring occurs, the sediment flowing past the dam negatively affects the work of watershed organizations like the Sassafras River Association. That is not the case, however. Extensive tidal and non-tidal water quality sampling, conducted by the SRA and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, shows that the river contains more sediment and nutrients the farther it is from the Bay - and the cleanest part of the river is where it meets the Bay.
Since our restoration projects are where the most problems are, far upstream from the Bay itself, sediment from the Dam does not reach them, and has no effect on their success. Restoration projects like those we continue to install are shown to improve water quality and provide wildlife habitat, and will continue to provide benefits no matter what happens at the Conowingo Dam. (You can read more about SRA Restoration Projects here.)
There are reasons to advocate for dredging the sediment trap at Conowingo, but the myth of storm surges negating our work is not one of them.
We will continue to look to our own watershed and act on a local level to improve the health of the Sassafras and its tributaries. If we are serious about our goal to "Save the Bay", we must concentrate on cleaning all the rivers that flow into the Bay.
See you on the River,
Capt. Emmett Duke
This issue of RIVERKEEPER’S COVE will be more serious than most. I usually try to write something that reflects our optimism about our efforts to restore and protect the Sassafras River, and at the same time make an effort to help the reader understand what a beautiful and precious resource we have right here on the Upper Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
This month I’m obliged to write about a more serious subject - the Growth Tier Map for Cecil County. County Executive Tari Moore submitted a Tier Map to the Maryland Office of Planning, just prior to the end of 2012 as required by SB236, “The Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act”. The law requires certain areas of the county to be included in Tier IV – specifically, Priority Preservation areas, Rural Legacy areas, forested areas, and agricultural lands. The state informed the County that the submitted map did not meet these requirements, or the requirements of the Cecil County Comprehensive Plan.
In November, SRA and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, 1000 Friends of Maryland, Friends of the Bohemia, Elk and North East Watershed Association, Cecil Land Use Alliance, and several private citizens wrote a joint letter to the Cecil Planning Commission, where this proposal was first taken by the Cecil Planning Director, Eric Sennstrom. We all spoke to the Planning Commission on Nov. 21 with the goal of convincing them to send a recommendation to the Council to table the issue for a few months and form a working stakeholder group to develop an acceptable Tier Map. They Planning Commission voted unanimously in favor of this sensible solution.
When the County Council held the public hearing on December 20, our group and several residents individually expressed our request to table the issue and appoint a Working Group of stakeholders to create an acceptable Tier Map. Several people also spoke against this proposal in favor of immediately accepting the current Tier Map into the Comprehensive Plan. The Council voted for the latter approach, dismissing both state law and the Planning Commission’s recommendation to table the issue, but amended the resolution by requesting that a Stakeholder Workgroup be formed to study the map and offer an alternative at a later date.
The December 21st edition of Cecil Daily News provides coverage of the Public hearing here.
We will continue to provide our members with updates to this issue as they become available.
So, as the year draws to a close, your SRA continues to be busy working to restore and protect our precious Sassafras River, and also helping to restore all the waters of Cecil and Kent Counties to better health. We have had many successes in 2016, and we’re hoping that 2017 brings even greater progress to our work.
We wish you and your family a happy and healthy Christmas and Holiday Season.
Thank you so much for everything you do to help us!
And I’ll see you on the river,
Capt. Emmett Duke
Autumn leaves mean different things to different people, but virtually everyone appreciates them at some level. The red, yellow, and orange foliage may be God’s way of rewarding us for putting up with the heat and the bugs of summer - which are so necessary for growing and pollinating the fruits and vegetables that sustain us all.
While summer has its own beauty, autumn can be visibly savored. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do on Saturday, November 19 at Turners Creek Landing. At the Sassafras River Association, we call it our “Fall Colors Paddle”, and this year we’re joining up with the Sassafras Environmental Education Center and the Kent County Parks and Recreation Department for a joint paddling event.
Turners Creek is spectacular this time of year, and we’ll paddle in the calm waters through a vast array of beautiful surroundings. Then we’ll ease around the bend of Sassafras Natural Resources Management Area along the Sassafras shoreline to the tidal pond. We’ll explore the unusual beauty of the pond, then build a fire on the beach and roast hot dogs for the hearty souls who are lucky enough – and brave enough – to join us.
In addition to the fall foliage, we’ll likely be rewarded with sights of Canada Geese, wild turkeys, blue herons, bald eagles, and sandy beaches. The famous chronicler and cartographer of the SassafrasRiver, Captain John Smith, no doubt witnessed the same sights when he met and traded with the Tockwogh Indians a little over 400 years ago. Perhaps the serenity and beauty of the Sassafras is why the Tockwoghs were described by Captain Smith as such a gentle, friendly people.
Our unique outdoor experience will be from 11 AM until 1 PM, and there are still a few slots available. Anyone who would like to join us, please email me by noon on Friday, Nov. 18th at firstname.lastname@example.org , or call 410-275-1400. Hope you can join us!
Captain Emmett Duke
The Grass Is Always Greener Over The Septic Tank was Erma Bombeck’s first book, published in 1976. I don’t remember reading it, but it must have been successful, because she published another book two years later called If Life Is A Bowl Of Cherries, What Am I Doing In The Pits? Erma was a funny lady.
I was talking to Fred Von Staden, the Environmental Health Officer for Cecil County, the other day and he asked if I thought the SassafrasRiver Association would like to have some water quality sampling records from the 1960’s up to about the turn of the century. Now, I do realize that the average person wouldn’t think twice before refusing an offer like that, but I am the Riverkeeper, you know. We Riverkeepers are all about water quality sampling and trying to improve the water quality in our rivers.
Fred is aware of that, or he wouldn’t have made the offer. So I responded the way he thought I would, and was in his office as soon as I could get there. We sat down and he produced a manila folder with some faded papers which, sure enough, were fecal coliform sampling and other health department records of the Sassafras River from as much as a half century ago.
I am not going to slow down this story with a bunch of numbers, but the bacteria counts were so high I asked if the same protocols and operating procedures were used to collect them as we use today. Fred assured me the methods of collection and counting were the same. I asked how could that be, and he explained about how “humanure” (my word, not Fred’s) disposal facilities have changed over the years.
When I was a lad in the mid nineteen-fifties, my family bought a house with a septic tank. I asked my Dad why part of the lawn was greener than the rest, and what do you know…he said the grass was greener over the septic tank. Looking back, I now know the green grass was an indication that our septic tank was not very efficient, and nutrients were being released and making their way to the surface. I don’t know if we even had a septic drain field. But, hey, we had a septic tank! And that was the best available technology at the time.
Over half the homes in the sixties in Cecil County had what Fred called a toilet-and-pit facility, or as I’ve heard them called, “out houses”. Picture in your mind an unheated “porta-potty”, in your back yard, with un-insulated wooden walls and roof, and a deep hole in the ground underneath. As the name suggests, they were not in the living quarters, and were memorably uncomfortable from about October through March - even longer the further north one ventured.
Nowadays, modern septic systems have been improved with the addition of nitrogen removal filters, and are again called ‘Best Available Technology” (BAT). Most towns now have a central waste water treatment plant which not only provides primary treatment (settling lagoons), but also secondary treatment to remove most of the nutrients prior to releasing the effluent back into the environment. In the Sassafras watershed, Galena and Betterton are making headway toward an “enhanced nutrient removal” system which will greatly reduce the amount of algae-causing nutrients from our waterways.
Looking at the records Fred provided, the bacteria levels were unbelievably high in the Sassafras River in the 1970’s. As I said before, I won’t bore you with details - but the numbers are staggering.
The records also show that over 50% of the homes along the rivers in Cecil County were discharging sewage directly into the waterways with no treatment. Cecil was surely no worse than other counties around the Bay, so the amount of fecal coliform bacteria in our rivers and Bay were hundreds of times higher than today. We have made great strides from removing this source of bacteria and the accompanying nutrients from our waters.
When the Betterton and Galena WWTP’s have been completed, and with more and more conversions to a BAT septic system, combined with the reduced input from farms and boats, the Sassafras River is seeing positive steps toward those future warm summer days when we rarely see algae blooms and the healthy underwater vegetation is again flourishing.
And no one will even think of the days when the grass was always greener over the septic tank.
I’ll see you on the river,
Captain Emmett Duke
The cooler air of September and October reminds boaters that winterization time is nearing …way too soon for most of us. Many do-it-yourselfers will be performing their own winterization soon, and every year there are those who wonder what to do with the old oil, grease, and antifreeze.
Those of us in various degrees of old-timerhood remember when the “accepted” practice was to simply pour them on the ground, with the understanding that the earth would drink them and (we supposed) re-absorb the chemicals with little or no harm done. I’m sure we all have learned that there are much better and more acceptable methods of disposal these days. For those who are not sure how to rid themselves of noxious substances, this month’s Riverkeeper Cove will highlight the solutions. You can check with your closest marina, since some marinas that are not listed below provide used oil containers for the convenience of boaters. Also, every county in Maryland provides locations for proper disposal.
The two counties in the Sassafras Watershed provide multiple sites, and SRA urges you to take advantage of the services provided.
Cecil County Collection Sites
Cecil County Central Landfill
758 East Old Philadelphia Road
North East, MD 21901
Locust Point Marina
145 River Road
Elkton, MD 21921
Mondays & Thursday-Sunday, 9am-4pm (closed December, January & February)
Stemmers Run Transfer Station
45 Stemmers Run Road
Earleville, MD 21919
Tuesdays, Fridays & Saturdays, 8am-4pm
Town of Elkton Public Works Facility
209 Blue Ball Avenue
Elkton, MD 21921
Woodlawn Transfer Station
5 Waibel Road (at Fire Tower Road)
Port Deposit, MD 21904
Bohemia Vista Marina
140 Vista Marina Road
Chesapeake City, MD 21915 7
Days a week, 8am-5pm
Kent County Collection Sites
Haven Harbour Marina
20880 Rock Hall Avenue
Rock Hall, MD 21661
Monday-Sunday, 8am-5pm (winter hours – Saturdays & Sundays, 10am-4pm)
Duck Puddle Drop-Off Center
30480 Duck Puddle Road
Kennedyville, MD 21645
Tuesday-Thursday, 8am-4pm; Saturdays, 8am-2pm
Nicholson Drop-Off Center
23750 Larney Nick Road
Fairlee, MD 21620
Mondays, Wednesdays & Fridays, 8am-4pm; Saturdays, 8am-2pm
Sharptown Drop-Off Center
5809 Crosby Road
Rock Hall, MD 21661 (0.3 miles from the intersection of Rock Hall Road & Crosby Road)
Tuesdays & Thursdays, 8am-4pm; Saturdays, 8am-2pm
Kent and Cecil Counties also have programs in place to collect Household Hazardous Waste such as mercury, paint, paint thinner, pesticides, herbicides, batteries, and in some cases, medicines. For more information in Cecil County, call Tanya Adams at 410-996-6275, and in Kent County, call Marty Holden at 410-778-7448, or watch your local papers for notices.
For the sake of our rivers and ground waters, your Sassafras River Association strongly urges you to take the time to properly dispose of your winterization fluids at an approved county location - if for no other reason than the super good feeling you’ll have on your way back home!
I’ll see you on the river,
Capt. Emmett Duke,
To pump or not to pump, that is the question!
One of the subjects that comes up in my conversations with boaters about how they can help clean our river is marine sanitation devices (MSDs), more generally referred to as the head, or toilet.
The function of an MSD is to electronically kill bacteria in sewage waste prior to pumping it into the on-board holding tank.
Many, perhaps most, boaters believe that if the bacteria has been killed that it’s ok to pump the remaining effluent overboard and no damage is being done to the river. In this month’s Cove, I want to explain that nothing could be further from the truth.
It is true that electronically treating sewage kills the bacteria. But it is also true that MSDs do not remove any of the nitrogen and phosphorus which are present in all animal waste, and are two of the three known pollutants of the Sassafras River.
Nitrogen and phosphorus are the nutrients that produce algae blooms. Algae is a good and natural part of a healthy ecosystem, and provides food for bi-valves and some fish including Atlantic Menhaden, which is the primary forage fish for most of the other species of fish on the East Coast.
But when algae is introduced to more nutrients than it requires, it grows at an alarming rate and “blooms” - clouding the water and in some cases producing toxins which can harm aquatic life, small animals, and people. The cloudiness blocks sunlight and can kill the submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), commonly known as “Bay grasses”. Thriving grasses are one of the prime indicators of clean rivers, and few remain in the Sassafras.
When the algae inevitably dies and decomposes, dissolved oxygen in the water is quickly depleted, and often produces “fish kills”. It is no secret that there has been a large “dead zone” in the Middle Chesapeake Bay for many years caused every summer by this exact series of events.
The truth is that we boaters should not pump sewage - even treated sewage - into the Bay or any of its tributaries. There is only one good place to pump the sewage from your boat, and that is at a pump out station at any marina. When you do so, you are doing your part to help restore and protect our beautiful Sassafras River.
Thank you for your efforts to help us clean the Sassafras, and I hope to see you on the river!
Capt. Emmett Duke
Every year in early June, your Sassafras RIVERKEEPER™ scouts the creeks that feed the Sassafras River for invasive water chestnuts. These are not the crunchy delicacies found in oriental food, but a noxious weed that grows in shallow water in the tributaries of the Sassafras.
When the water warms around the time of the summer solstice, after a dormancy of from one to twelve years, each spiny seed sends a thin shoot to the surface. Air-filled pods develop, enabling the small rosettes to float on the water. Then the plants really spring to life, spreading like a mat on the water’s surface with flat leaves that resemble the leaves of a strawberry plant. In a few weeks, each plant has sent out more and more rosettes, which in turn send out still more. The leaf mat gets so thick that the water surface becomes completely covered, and sunlight is thoroughly prevented from reaching the creek bed.
This situation presents serious problems for submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), which are so necessary for a healthy river system. SAV, or the “grasses” as they are commonly called, provide essential habitat for small fish and shedding crabs, and in the process of respiration create oxygen for all the critters in the water and in the muddy creek bottom. The underwater grasses need sunlight to exist, and they cannot thrive in areas of invasive water chestnuts.
The chestnuts are removed from the tributaries of the Sassafras each June and July by your RIVERKEEPER™ and a crew of volunteers, including some from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. On Saturday, June 25, Jeff Russell, Mike Kline, and John Cleary went “down and dirty” to pull the weeds from the muddy bottom of Dyer Creek near Georgetown. There will be a follow-up excursion to the same creek on Thursday, July 21st to finish the job for this year. In the meantime, some chestnuts were spotted in Turners Creek on a scouting trip with my grandson, Drew Kuechler. I’ll arrange for a crew of volunteers to go after them soon. If you’re interested in joining us, please contact me at email@example.com.
And as always, I hope to see you on the river!
Capt. Emmett Duke,