Agriculture and tourism at beach resorts are two of Sussex County’s most obvious assets. But consider this: Sussex County is also home to three bodies of water that stand out among East Coast states as unique and ecologically significant: the inland bays.
Seasonal visitors might not think much about the inland bays as they speed southward. Yet Rehoboth Bay, Indian River Bay and Little Assawoman Bay are barometers of the state of the watershed and an integral part of the overall ecological health of Sussex County. These large, shallow bodies of water serve as the center of a varied and bountiful ecology, despite mistreatment almost since the first settlers arrived.
A shallow coastal lagoon, Rehoboth Bay stretches from Dewey Beach south to Bottom Hills at Delaware Seashore State Park. Indian River Bay, a drowned river valley system, begins where Rehoboth Bay ends, stretching south a few miles, but reaching west all the way to Millsboro. Indian River Bay is the largest of the three bodies. Little Assawoman Bay, the smallest and shallowest, begins west of South Bethany and stretches south to Fenwick Island.
All the bays connect to the ocean via various natural inlets and man-made canals. Each averages three to eight feet in depth. Within the 32 square miles they cover, a wide variety of marine and avian wildlife flourish.
The areas also serve as some of the most popular fishing and recreational areas outside of the oceanfront beach communities. The bays still give up a significant amount of fish and shellfish that is safe for consumption, though swimming is still considered an at-your-own-risk prospect.
Making the bays both fully swimmable and fishable is a combined effort of the government, non-profit organizations, industry and private citizens, all of whom are doing their part to bring the bays back from years of neglect.
Around the bays has long existed a culture like that of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where agricultural and marine trades have lived side-by-side in a pastoral landscape of small farm towns and quaint fishing villages.
But World War II changed all that. Former soldiers, college educated on the G.I. Bill, got good jobs that paid far more than those their parents held. With better jobs came more disposable income and leisure time, which many families decided they would spend by the ocean, either as visitors for a week or owners of second homes.
Oceanfront development boomed, and former church camps like Rehoboth and Bethany beaches exploded with people. Unfortunately, improvements to waste water treatment weren’t among the many technological advancements of the day. That meant that the inland bays, situated just west of booming oceanfront communities and the fragile barrier islands they were built on, became dumps for untreated sewage.
“These bays have been impacted for years and years through the discharge of untreated wastewater,” says Ed Ambrogio, deputy associate director for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of State and Watershed Partnerships at the agency’s Mid-Atlantic office in Philadelphia. “So things have probably improved from in the past.”
While housing development exploded, farmers around the inland bays were drawn to new fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides. Runoff of excess fertilizer, as well as manure, also made its way to the bays.
Animal waste and manufactured fertilizers provide nutrients that, in small quantities, are helpful to farm crops. But poured into coastal and intertidal waters in large quantities, such products overwhelm the ecosystem. Nutrients—such as nitrates and phosphates—continue to do their work where that work isn’t needed, encouraging aquatic life to grow out of control.
Excessive nutrients also spur excessive growth of phytoplankton, or micro algae. Though algae function as a natural part of the cycle of death and decomposition in aquatic environments, so-called blooms of the microscopic organisms deplete oxygen in the water. When the algae dies, bacteria feed on the remains, thus using more oxygen, depriving other aquatic life of what it needs to breath and, unchecked, causing massive fish kills. What’s more, many algae-eating bacteria are toxic to animals and humans. So as they pass through the ecosystem, they can harm other aquatic lifeforms, such as shellfish.
By the mid-1990s, researchers at the University of Delaware and the Environmental Protection Agency had found that the bays had suffered significant damage. It became clear to many that without action that damage could become irreversible.
Sewage treatment has improved dramatically since World War II, and federal laws such as the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Water Quality Act of 1987 have reduced the amount of pollution from sources such as untreated sewage (though both Rehoboth Beach and Sussex County continue to discharge treated wastewater into the bays). But the Clean Water Act didn’t address discharge from agriculture, which, over the years, continued unabated.
According to the Center for the Inland Bays, 70 million chickens are raised annually in the inland bays watershed, and they create 95 million tons of manure. That may be a mind-boggling amount of potential pollution, but Ed Lewandowski, executive director of the center, praises farmers for owning up to the problem and helping to resolve it.
“Our agricultural community has done a super job of stepping up and really accepting the challenge before them,” says Lewandowski. “They could have dug their heels in and said, ‘We’re not the cause,’ but they did the opposite. I think we’re all proud of what the agricultural community has done.”
One example is the Clean Bays agreement, signed in 2006 by Perdue Farms Inc. and the Environmental Protection Agency. By signing, Perdue pledged to better manage the waste from farms that supply its chickens in an effort to protect the inland bays and the Chesapeake. The goal is to have farmers comply with quality levels for agricultural runoff.
“It’s more of a cooperative agreement to get a handle on things before they become a problem,” says Ambrogio. “Perdue has stepped up to the plate and said, ‘We caused problems, and we’d like to work together not to do so, so that’s an ongoing initiative right now.”
The measure is a shining example of success in reducing the source pollution. It’s widely known, after all, what causes problems in the inland bays. What is sometimes a mystery is when those pollutants will arrive. Pollutants in tributaries of the inland bays, for instance, are relatively easy to track because they become evident in surface water almost as soon as they are released. The real danger is what is in the sky and below us in the ground.
Ed Whereat, volunteer coordinator for the UD’s College of Marine and Earth Studies’ Citizen Monitoring Program, says some estimates suggest 80 percent of the pollution in the bays comes from groundwater that has absorbed contaminants in the soil.
“It’s this kind of invisible stuff that’s under our feet that we don’t even realize,” Whereat says. “There are some estimates that a quarter of the nitrogen in the bay is coming in from the atmosphere,” via rain and smog blowing in from the Ohio Valley.
Nitrogen is a major component of the air we breathe. But when nitrogen molecules are broken up by combustion, their atoms can reform into chemicals such as nitrous oxide or ammonia, which can return to earth in rain. So those who monitor the bays must account not only for localized pollution, but also for pollution that originates 400 miles away.
The fact that Delaware has the Center for the Inland Bays is a testament to the public’s concern for the health of the bays and a realization of their importance to both ecology and tourism.
The nonprofit center was formed in 1994, six years after the designation of the bays as “estuaries of national significance.” Its mission is to educate people about the inland bays and to preserve them. The center operates out of a rehabbed U.S. Coast Guard barrack on the shore of Balders Pond, just west of Delaware Seashore State Park between Dewey Beach and Bethany Beach.
From the deck of the center, you can see the recent history of the inland bays. Near this spot, on which is also located a marina and a Coast Guard station, the waters of Rehoboth Bay and Indian River Bay mix between Burton Island on the east and Lynch Thicket to the west.
Two decades ago, the view from this spot might have been relatively unspoiled. Today the far shore is distinguished by what is becoming more and more indicative of the inland bays’ plight: an unbroken line of waterfront homes.
It’s just another example of how challenging one of the center’s primary goals—reducing habitat loss—can be in an area where so many people want to live.
It’s a snowy February night in Lewes, which seems ready for the spring just as winter is delivering the final punch of an otherwise mild season.
Local businesses have changed their marquees from “Closed for the Season” to phrases like “Reopening St. Patrick’s Day,” all of them anticipating another surge of tourists and seasonal residents to accompany the warmer weather.
Along Second Street, activity is limited to the few customers who huddle around the bar at Jerry’s Seafood. Among them is George Tutlane, manager of the United States Postal Service’s Lewes branch. The conversation turns from Obama vs. Clinton to local gossip, then to the condition of the inland bays.
Tutlane puts Sussex’s population growth into perspective. The Lewes zip code, he says, is now the largest south of Dover. His carriers deliver to nearly 70,000 mailboxes.
Those mailboxes serve a population that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, rose 7.3 percent, from 156,638 to 168,027, between 2000 and 2003. That made Sussex the fastest growing of Delaware’s three counties. It more than doubled the rate of growth in New Castle (3 percent) and outpaced Kent’s 6.1 percent growth during that same period. That influx of people is expected to grow 30 percent over the next 20 years. The number of summer weekend visitors is expected to explode 200 percent over the same period.
Many of those new residents are moving into neighborhoods that are similar to the housing developments they left: standard-issue home, standard-issue lawn, but in tidy new coastal communities where taxes are low and residents enjoy the easy-going feeling marketers call the “coastal lifestyle.”
But that lifestyle, built around images of watermen and farmers at work, is something of a myth these days. The explosion of seasonal and permanent residents around the bays has resulted in continued loss of habitat for native plants and animals and is a new source of harmful nutrients flowing into the bays.
With each development built around the inland bays, a chunk of habitat is destroyed. Plants serve as the backbone of their ecosystems. When essential plants are destroyed, the systems collapse and many animals are forced to move elsewhere.
Marshes and wetlands that buffer areas between dry land and open water are often referred to as the kidneys of an ecosystem. They flush contaminants from tributaries upstream before they can reach a main body of water. Though federal law prevents developers from destroying wetlands, “They can be impacted even though they’re not dug up or filled in,” Ambrogio says.
Those buffer zones are often altered by creation of “impervious surfaces,” which are essentially anything that covers the ground that keeps water from seeping into the earth, such as roads, parking lots, even driveways. Harmful substances on those surfaces—motor oil, gasoline, antifreeze, paint and other chemicals—are washed away by precipitation, then seep into the ground or run into storm drains to pollute the earth and water. Meanwhile, those lush lawns that homeowners love so much require fertilizer—basically concentrated nutrients—some of which runs into the bays and their tributaries.
And it’s not only the coastal development that worries those who monitor the bay’s health. With more than 18,000 septic systems in the inland bays watershed, hundreds of thousands of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous end up in the soil.
Such sources have proven difficult for local governments and agencies like the EPA to manage because they don’t arrive from a single point. What’s worse, no one knows how long it will take soil pollution from places such as Frankford or Selbyville, on the edges of the watershed, to percolate into the bays. Some estimate decades, so last week’s gasoline spill in Frankford may not infiltrate the bays for 15 or 20 years.
As a result, the Center for the Inland Bays maintains a dialogue with the county about how to manage future development.
“This is an identified growth zone,” says Lewandowski. “People want to live around the bays, and there’s infrastructure here to support that growth. A lot of the emphasis now is on trying to make sure that we grow appropriately in those areas outside this growth zone.”
The center offers education programs for locals, visitors and school children to explain the need to care for the watershed. Signs remind visitors and literature is distributed at motels and vacation homes to keep visitors aware of the fragility of the surrounding ecosystem. To that end, the area has benefited from a greater degree of environmental awareness among those who are moving there.
“We have a lot of older people either buying second homes or retirement homes, and they’re coming from areas where there may have been some higher degree of environmental ethic. They have already brought with them some knowledge, some awareness of how to do things in a manner that will help us improve our local environment,” Lewandowski says. “So we’re not that far from where we need to be.”
Many folks volunteer with the University of Delaware’s citizen monitoring program, which equips volunteers with the basic tools and knowledge to report regularly on the condition of the bays in their areas. One goal is to make sure pollutants in the bays don’t exceed the maximum daily loads of phosphorous and nitrogen set by the Center for the Inland Bays’ Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan.
As program manager Joe Farrell notes, there’s more interest and awareness, not just through his program, but in other areas around the inland bays.
“I think you see whole communities dealing with those types of issues, particularly water quality,” he says. He cites a group of educated home owners and community members that has helped grapple with water quality issues in South Bethany. “We do see those community groundswells of support for what we’re doing.”
As to the potential for safer fishing and swimming, Ambrogio is hopeful, especially considering plans for Sussex County to use a portion of treated wastewater for spray irrigation and to reroute the rest out to sea rather than into the bays. “If that were approved, I think the condition of the inland bays would drastically improve,” he says.
Regardless, as long as humans live nearby, stresses on the bays will remain.
“Where there are coastal waters is where people want to live, and it draws a lot of people because of the lifestyle and the environment,” he says. “Sometimes they just love it to death. It’s an ongoing struggle.”