It has been an eventful year on the Sassafras for your Riverkeeper and the Sassafras River Association.
SRA staff and 90 volunteers worked for several days cleaning up trash along the shorelines and roadways in the watershed - removing over two tons of plastics, tires, household trash, and other debris. It is remarkable that every year we remove a similar amount of trash from along the shorelines and roadsides in our river watershed.
Your Riverkeeper and a total of 38 volunteers removed over 85 bushels of invasive water chestnut plants from Dyer Creek, Turners Creek, and Lloyd’s Creek…the highest quantity of harmful aquatic vegetation removed in one summer since I’ve been with the SRA. Volunteers - as diverse as local citizens, residents of Easton and Gaithersburg, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and three groups from AmeriCorps, paddled kayaks and canoes to help clear harmful water chestnuts from our tributaries.
Employing scientific methodologies to gather and record water quality data, we conducted water sampling on the tidal portion every week at seven locations on the river from April 1 – October 31.
Our tidal data is complemented by non-tidal data, which is collected year-round by a corps of dedicated volunteers we call Sassafras Samplers. The extensive water quality sampling is necessary to obtain data with which we produce our annual Report Card. The data also serves as a historical record of the health of the Sassafras, and is invaluable when we look back to analyze river conditions.
Our attention was called to a die-off of the beautiful American Lotus plants in some of our creeks by Chris Cerino of the Sultana Education Foundation. After working with the Plant Diagnostic Lab at the University of Maryland, we discovered that the killer was a root disease that doesn’t usually kill Lotus, unless they have been weakened by another factor. By looking at the historical record of water sampling data, we found the plants were likely weakened by the elevated level of salt in the river in mid-to-late 2016. The Lotus is a fresh water species unable to tolerate the higher levels of salt. Unfortunately, a similar elevation in salinity has been occurring in the river this year in August, September, and October. I don’t believe this bodes well for next year’s Lotus population.
This is the first summer that your Riverkeeper has joined the Sultana Education Foundation on several of their guided paddles, and they proved to be educational and enjoyable experiences. I paddled with a group led by John Mann, and another group led by Chris Cerino. Both are experienced and very interesting guides. The Sultana conducts 5 or 6 expertly led paddles on the Sassafras each summer, and I highly recommend them.
In mid-summer, several boaters reported seeing a two foot thick tree trunk imbedded in about 10 feet of water on the western side of Sassafras Natural Resource Management Area. The tree only showed a little above the water, and was a real hazard to boaters. I located it, marked it with brightly colored jugs, and enlisted support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is only charged with keeping the Baltimore Shipping Channels clear of “hazards to navigation”, but they generously extended a courtesy to the SRA and removed the dangerous tree trunk from the river.
I was alerted to a situation at Indian Acres whereby the water in the pond had been lowered, creating a stressful condition for frogs, fish, and other critters. After checking with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Department of the Environment (MDE), I had a conversation with one of the owners. I learned that the dam is in a weakened condition and is under an order from MDE to be repaired. MDE ordered the lowering of the water level to relieve pressure on the dam until repairs can be completed. Plans are to replace the dam, which serves as the entrance road to the Acres, to be repaired this winter.
One of the indications of a reduction in the health of the Sassafras is the near-absence of underwater grasses. Submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) is considered to be the single best indicator of a healthy water body, and assures us that sunlight can penetrate the water to the level that allows plants to live. Sunlight is being blocked in the Sassafras by fine particles of sediment and algae clouding the water, and the invasive water chestnut plants. Mark Lewandowski, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and I planted about 4 million “wild celery” seeds in three of our creeks, and we’re hoping they produce new colonies of SAV.
I will tell you that this Riverkeeper’s Cove article could be much, much longer. I’ve tried to bring you a sample of the different activities that are typical of a summer on the Sassafras. I hope you found it interesting, and I hope it sparks a desire in you to get involved. Even if you cannot join us as a volunteer, I encourage you to make a generous donation. You can be assured that it will go toward a group of dedicated staff and volunteers who work passionately to create a cleaner and healthier Sassafras.
And I hope to see you on the river!
Capt. Emmett Duke