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Waterfront Property Stewardship I - Nutrification

(Published May 2001)

Waterfront property owners are blessed with a unique environment in which to live. Along with that blessing comes the responsibility to treat local waterways so as to preserve and enhance them for all citizens of the County and State, even in the smallest creeks. Individual property ownership ends at the shoreline. None of us own the water adjacent to our property. There are many things that property owners (and others) can do to improve our waterways. Pogo was right. “We have met the enemy and he is us”. We can’t blame the deteriorated condition of our local waterways on “those urban folks”. We ourselves are to blame.

First and foremost, never throw anything into the water. If any kind of organic material is thrown in the water (kitchen or yard waste like grass clippings, fish carcasses, crab shells, etc.), most of the organic material will ultimately be decomposed by bacteria. The decomposition of organic material consumes dissolved oxygen, which animals need. Bacterial decomposition releases the nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from the organic material. These nutrients fertilize algae, which grow in the water column and cloud the water, limiting the ability of submerged plants to grow. Submerged plants (Sub-Aquatic Vegetation, or SAV) retard erosion and provide habitat for juvenile fish and crabs. By destroying SAV throughout the Bay, we have destroyed about 90% of a major Bay habitat.

"Over-fertilization" of the Chesapeake Bay has been identified as the single biggest threat to the health of the Bay. Local additions of organic material directly to the water, along with effluent from septic systems and agricultural lands, which enter each and every waterway by normal groundwater discharge, are all forms of "non-point source pollution". These kinds of “nutrification” are of great concern as we seek to voluntarily de-list Chesapeake Bay from EPA's "impaired waters" list by 2010. Many people justify throwing organic debris into the creeks as “feeding the crabs”. But the crabs’ problem is not lack of food, it is lack of habitat like grass beds to grow up in. We need to improve water clarity by reducing the nutrients added to our local waterways so that grass beds can be re-established.

If other kinds of waste are added to the water (oil, batteries, electrical equipment, soap from washing vehicles, etc.), toxic substances can be released which are detrimental to both plants and animals. Waterways are not sewers, although treating waterways like landfills was a common practice in the past. Natural environments are remarkably resilient, and a few families disposing of their wastes in the creeks probably didn't have much of an impact a century ago. But there now are simply too many people generating too much trash for this practice to continue.

We all, especially waterfront property owners, should minimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides. These materials should be used exceedingly sparingly, and always according to the instructions. It is a good idea not to use any chemicals (fertilizers, weed killers, etc.) in the Resource Protection Area (RPA) within 100 feet of the waterway.

Open lawn should be avoided on property adjacent to waterways. Instead, trees and low shrubs should be planted along the shoreline, and especially between the drain-field (never over it!) and the waterway. The deep roots of trees and shrubs help hold the soil and consume some of the nutrients in the groundwater before the dissolved nitrate and phosphate can be discharged into the waterway by normal groundwater flow. “Bayscaping” is more environmentally sound and easier to maintain than open lawn. Big shade trees “frame” the view of the water and, if properly placed, also provide shade which reduces summer cooling bills.

Waterfront property owners must also be especially vigilant to ensure that their septic system is working properly. The septic tank should not be full of sludge. If it is, anaerobic decomposition cannot take place efficiently and the absorption field can become clogged. Harsh chemicals (bleach, ammonia, solvents, etc,) should never be poured down the drain or the microbes that make a septic system function properly can be killed. Minimizing the amounts of both solids and water that go down the drain reduces the nutrient output to the groundwater and increases the life span of the septic system.

The next “Stewardship Tip” will discuss other actions that waterfront property owners can take to improve our waterways.


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