Water Quality Monitoring Project Sheds New Light on Pollution Problems

Rehoboth Beach, Del. — A new research effort by the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays is offering deeper insight into the true state of water quality in the most polluted areas of the Bays.

The blue devices seen here are sondes.

Continuous monitoring devices called “sondes” are part of a new network of sensors that collect water quality data every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day, at five locations in the Inland Bays watershed. The establishment of this network is part of the Center’s recently updated Environmental Monitoring Plan for Delaware’s Inland Bays, which aims to track the status and trends of key environmental indicators to gauge the health of the Bays, their tributaries, and the fish and shellfish that depend on them. Expanding water quality monitoring efforts is a key recommendation of the plan, which will help scientists learn more about the true state of water quality and environmental conditions in the Inland Bays. That knowledge will help inform management decisions while also educating the public and providing scientific support for the resources and policies needed to restore the Bays.

“Long-term monitoring is key to not only understanding the health of our Bays, but also to evaluating the effectiveness of the many investments that have been directed at improving water quality and habitats,” said the Center’s Science & Restoration Coordinator Dr. Marianne Walch. “The Environmental Monitoring Plan is intended to guide future research and increase the integration and efficiency of monitoring efforts across organizations involved in collecting data.”

In addition to expanded water quality monitoring efforts, the Center’s plan also outlines the need for studies of baygrasses (which is a good indicator of water quality), identifying emerging contaminants, tracking sea-level rise impacts, oyster growth, shoreline and marsh changes, and much more.

The Center is already gaining insight from continuously collected water quality data. During several recent fish kills reported in Rehoboth and Indian River Bays, the Center’s monitoring devices recorded extremely low oxygen levels in multiple areas of the Bays— indicating that the unhealthy conditions and the resulting death of marine life (over a million menhaden in June alone) are neither isolated nor uncommon this time of year.

This fish kill was reported in mid-June 2021 in a canal off Rehoboth Bay, near Arnell Creek.

“Despite the millions of dollars that have been put into management actions, water quality in many parts of our Bays is not improving,” said Dr. Walch, particularly of the data collected from portions of the Indian River. “Data collected monthly or bimonthly by the state of Delaware does not reveal the full picture of what is actually happening in polluted areas. That points out the importance of the Center’s work to collect and share high-frequency data.”

Intense algae blooms, which are driven by nutrient pollution from agricultural and urban runoff, are common in the Bays this time of year. They also lead to low levels of dissolved oxygen, which fish and shellfish need to survive.

The Center’s sondes serve as continuous eyes on the Bays, collecting data on dissolved oxygen levels, salinity, water clarity, pH and temperature from sites in the Indian River, Pepper Creek and Guinea Creek. 

Data shows that between June 1, 2020, and October 1, 2020, oxygen levels in the upper Indian River failed to meet the state’s water quality standard for dissolved oxygen on 75% of mornings. On five occasions, dissolved oxygen levels remained below the healthy limit for eight hours or longer.  Similar conditions are being observed in summer 2021.

The Center has partnered with the University of Delaware on this project, with plans to install additional stations in 2021 and 2022.

This new research effort is featured in the Spring/Summer 2021 edition of the Inland Bays Journal, a free, seasonal publication that highlights the Center’s projects and accomplishments. The Journal is mailed to anyone who signs up for the Center’s mailing list at inlandbays.org/mailing.

Nutrient pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus remains the greatest threat to water quality in the Bays. The Center is currently working on the five-year update to its State of the Inland Bays report, which will provide the latest information on how the Bays are faring. Stay tuned for more information on the next State of the Bays report!

The Delaware Center for the Inland Bays is a nonprofit organization established in 1994, and is one of 28 National Estuary Programs. With its many partners, the Center works to preserve, protect and restore Delaware’s Inland Bays and their watershed. Learn more at inlandbays.org