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Citizen scientists uncover beauty, bacteria

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

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ENVIRONMENT; Smart development, large buffers are key to water quality

Looking out on Love Creek from his backyard, Steve Britz said he loves to watch great blue herons land near shore, soaking up the beauty of the Sussex County waterway. But he said he was amazed to find that below the surface of so much beauty, there's an alarming amount of bacteria.

"You can have beautiful bodies of water that are clear and pristine looking, but the bacteria levels can be high. Just because it looks good doesn't mean it is good," the retired scientist said. "For me, that's probably the most significant takeaway."

Over the span of more than a year, Britz joined staff, local residents and volunteers with the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays' Your Creek project to collect samples and document conditions on Love Creek, a major tributary of Rehoboth Bay.

The elevated bacteria and nitrogen levels found in Love Creek illustrate the impaired state of Delaware's waterways - specifically the Inland Bays watershed.

"Love Creek, like every other area in the Inland Bays, is facing stresses from excess nutrients and habitat loss," said Marianne Walch, the center's science and restoration coordinator. "I think what we've discovered about development pressure and its impact on Love Creek can be translated just about everywhere else in the Inland Bays."

In Hetty Fisher Glade, a small tributary of Love Creek, Britz found the highest level of enterococcus bacteria, found in fecal matter from humans or animals.

Despite the water's seemingly pristine condition, that area of the creek contained alarming levels of the bacteria, which is known to cause diarrhea and other illnesses in humans.

"It's just vegetated banks on either side; you don't see any houses. Where it's all coming from is a mystery," he said. A previous single study of Love Creek conducted in December 2013 also found enterococcus bacteria, and a molecular analysis of that bacteria's source revealed that dogs, humans and gulls were the primary contributors. Surprisingly, Britz said, that isolated study showed no evidence bacteria was produced by chickens, despite Sussex County's massive poultry industry.

"The bacteria findings were really important," Britz said. "We knew the bacteria was problematic. But seeing more of these data and having it be possibly associated with failing septic systems, that's important in terms of how we manage the creek and the Inland Bays."

The center's final report on the state of Love Creek, published in December, points out the creek's watershed has a higher density of septic systems than other Inland Bays watersheds. The report found more than 1,300 septic systems in the 24-square-mile watershed, with an average of 55 active septic permits per square mile.

The report supports converting septic systems to central sewer to reduce pollution and the possibility of contamination from failed septic systems.

Britz said there may be good news, as he's noticed an emphasis on moving toward central sewer in Sussex County.

"Smart development is the key," he said. "Installing sewers is a good thing to reduce the number of septic systems draining into the creek. That will reduce the nitrogen and bacteria that are sneaking along for the ride."

An underwater meadow

But there's some hope among the enterococcus.

Healthy underwater meadows of horned pondweed were found during the study, giving researchers a sign of hope that life can go on even in poor conditions.

"The bay grasses are extremely exciting because that's the nursery for all the good things in the bay: the shellfish, the fish, who, without the nursery, wouldn't grow," said Susan Ball, chair of the center's Citizens Advisory Committee, which is spearheading the Your Creek projects.

Horned pond weed is a relatively resilient plant, capable of withstanding high levels of nitrogen, which is why it's thriving in an otherwise impaired waterway. Meadows had been previously documented in Love Creek, but this new survey found that the grasses are expanding their reach.

Walch said the expansion of horned pond weed needs to be preserved.

"Most of them have disappeared from the Inland Bays," she said. "This is fairly unique compared to other areas."

In addition to protecting the underwater meadows and rare lobelia plants also found during the survey, more work is needed to to reduce nitrogen in Love Creek. Phosphorus, which has continually been documented below state standards, is not a nutrient of concern, but will require continual monitoring.

Britz said there were no clear trends regarding nitrogen and phosphorus, based on the current study and previous findings. He couldn't say the same for bacteria.

"Bacteria looks like it's getting worse, and we now know that humans are a significant contributor," Britz said.

Because of the high nitrogen and bacteria levels, which prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to officially list Love Creek as an impaired waterway more than a decade ago, Britz warned that people using the creek for recreation, such as kayaking, exposes them to the harmful bacteria.

"Enterococcus results in limited suitability for human recreation," he said. "If you're out there kayaking, you're getting exposed to aerosols, with splashing and wind over the surface of the water."

Smart development is key

Britz and Walch said large, forested buffers at the Retreat at Love Creek development illustrate how smart development can help improve water quality.

"It possible that the reason those bay grasses still persist in Love Creek is because of the presence of fairly wide, forested buffers in the upper part of the watershed," Walch said. Ball agreed.

"Extensive forested buffers contribute to the water quality because they filter all the runoff from farms and houses," Ball said.

"We need to keep the forested buffers," she said. "That will take care of a lot of those issues."

While the Retreat at Love Creek is an example of smart development, Ball, Britz and Walch agreed development still poses the greatest threat to the health of local waterways. "Everyone wants to live on the water and have a view of the water ... but there are ways to do the development that are more environmentally friendly," Walch said. Britz agreed, saying development is inevitable, and a renewed focus on smart development is key to improving water quality.

Britz said Love Creek monitoring will continue to see if conditions change. Surveys of the second creek featured in the center's Your Creek project - Dirickson Creek - are in progress and a final report is expected this spring.

For more information about the state of Love Creek report or the Your Creek projects, go to

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Original Publication Date: January 8, 2016

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