Monday, January 30, 2012

Mid-Winter Swim

There’s about a month to go till things start to come alive again around here. Not that things are really dead. Life is there, it’s just not as active and noticeable. It’s nuzzled down into the cobbles instead of flying over the bottom. It has been a warm season, and while most days it hasn’t felt like it, it is still winter and things, while present, are more muted.

We haven’t had any ice on our creeks and I’m starting to wonder if we will ice over this season at all. Not that I particularly enjoy snorkeling in ice, but ice is part of the system, and its absence is a departure from normal. Not good, not bad, but different, and different has an effect. I wonder what effect no ice will have on our stream ecosystems if in fact we remain ice free for the next month.

Temperatures are off, but everything else points to winter. The sun sits low in the sky and long shadows are cast early. The stream valley is grey by four. Cold knife points of frigid water stab my face and hands as I crawl upstream. Caddisfly larvae have sealed the openings of their cases with quartz grains as they usually do right about now.

Other caddis are still out grazing. A Northern case maker caddisfly is clawing at a smooth cobble, as it tries to get a firm grip to hold against the current. A blast of water blows the caddisfly off the rock, and a single thread keeps it tethered. Its twig case vibrates violently like a kite in a storm, drops to the bottom, scrambles for a good grip and gets blown into the water column again. If fish were out and active this insect would have been eaten long ago.

I want to explore more, to see who is out and who isn’t. To see who is struggling to hang on and who is just waiting till water temperatures increase and the flourish of spring life ensues. But my hands become painfully cold after just 20 minutes in the water, and it’s time to leave. There is always amazing life in our streams, even our most common ones.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Unsung Heroes of Water Quality

The term ‘hero’ is way overused. Chevy recently called NFL players “unsung heroes”. Really Chevy? Heroes? For what? And I think a couple million dollar contract is pretty well sung. But when it comes to water quality, especially estuarine and specifically Chesapeake Bay water quality, one key player in that goes unmentioned. We hear time and again how if we could restore the Chesapeake’s oyster population, we could restore water quality. And that’s true. Oysters are amazing filters, and restoring the Chesapeake’s oysters would go a long way in restoring water quality. But the Bays problems start way up watershed, and so too do the solutions to the problem, partly in the form of, well an unsung hero of water quality.
I drift out from the bank into big open water of the Susquehanna. Conowingo dam isn’t running right now, so the water is low and its easy for me to drift away from the shore without getting swept downstream. There is supposed to be an incredible mussel bed in this area somewhere. I instantly see thousands of Asian clam shells, an invasive imported to North America when Chinese Immigrants come to build our railroads. The clams have marched across this, and every other temperate continent, and some call this animal the most invasive freshwater organism on the planet. A few more feet out and I start to see dead mussel shell, patina green on white with mother of pearl spots where the adductor mussels attached when the animal was alive. I was hoping to find some live ones. While eastern elliptio mussles aren’t endangered, there aren’t many young entering the population in the Susquehanna River, especially upstream of the Conowingo dam. We haven’t seen a population decline yet we think because elliptios are very long lived…possibly 100 years, so the death of the old timers hasn’t quite caught up with the lack of young to affect the number of mussels. I hope to see some small ones.
Mussles do a great job of blending in so most people don’t know they are there, and most people, including estuarine scientists, don’t realize their water filtering abilities. Bill Lellis from the USGS researched the filtering capacity of the elliptio population in the Delaware River and found that they filter between 2 and 6 billion gallons of water per day. I have a hard time conceptualizing 2-6 billion so just as a point of reference, Baltimore City “only” uses about 50 million gallons per day. Freshwater mussels can do the heavy lifting of water filtration and therefore water quality improvement.
Finally I see the frills and open slit of an incurrent syphon. Then another and another. I am finally on the bed, and just relax, drift and enjoy watching these unsung heroes of water quality do their thing: filter water headed to the Chesapeake. We devote a lot of time and attention to restoring oysters to the Chesapeake, in the name of water quality. Maybe we should do the same for the unsung filtering heroes, the fresh water mussels of our up watershed rivers and streams.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Water Quality Starts Here

Stone Run isn’t much to look at. There really isn’t much to it. It is a small stream that flows through hay fields and suburban yards, and according to a study done by the Center for Watershed Protection (, it’s one of the tributaries to the Octoraro Creek with the most problems which include high levels of nutrients, impaired stream habitat and impacted biota. It’s an everyday stream, one that flows through our neighborhoods, one that we all see but hardly notice as we hustle through our daily schedules.

There are a few sections that hold a lot of hope since they have excellent habitat, and diverse biota. But overall, Stone Run is a poor quality stream. The particular stretch I was about to enter didn’t hold much promise either. It was rated as poor based on stream habitat, connection to the floodplain, and biota diversity. A sewage treatment lagoon was on one bank and a pasture on the other. The reach was just below route 1. I didn’t expect to see much, and questioned the sanity of going through the hassle of putting all this gear on to get into freezing water to see nothing.

The substrate seemed fake. Imported stone brought in to keep the outside bank from eroding through to the sewage lagoon, and stone left over from route 1 construction mixed with the native geology. It all looked artificial and out of place. But there was life here and where there is life, there is hope. Caddis grazed in the riffles and common shiners foraged in the eddies. I could have laid there for hours watching the caddis in their crystalline particle cases clean algae from the rocks, but it didn’t take long for the cold to penetrate the layers through to my skin.

There is hope for even this impaired section of stream. The Center for Watershed Protection and the Octoraro Creek Watershed Association ( have come up with a list concrete, realistic actions that will improve the quality of Stone Run. Some of these are easy things we can all do like install rain barrels and rain gardens and plant forested buffers. Water quality starts here in this tiny stream, with these simple actions.