Summer Drought, Summer Flood

Over the weekend, the heavens opened up and poured into the dry summer soil of the Delmarva Peninsula. The entirety of Sunday was a cacophony of thunder rumbles and lightning blasts, all underscored by the rushing patter of inches and inches of water falling. A fragment of a hurricane was stalled over us, and for hours, the furies of the weather continued unabated by an eye or a twinkle of sunshine.


From our little hill, in the slightly elevated part of the upper Eastern Shore, all was safe, if saturated. But an hour south, in Talbot County, some incredibly dramatic events unfolding, precipitated of course by the day’s seemingly endless precipitation.


                           Photo courtesy of the Talbot Spy.

In Easton, Maryland, just about the mid-point of the Eastern Shore, it was raining too- but in wet, wild torrents, that submerged the town in 8 inches of water and rising. Cars were stranded, with waves from the flooding runoff lapping at their windows. Drivers were rescued, as the town’s arteries surged and overflowed with rainwater that bypassed the usual storm drains and instead created temporary rivers where the traffic usually flowed.


                             Photo courtesy of the Talbot Spy.

Farther south, in St. Michaels (home of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum), the rain had also swamped the low-lying town. People gamely plowed through the rushing water, attempting (bravely or foolhardily, depending on how you look at it) to go about business as usual as if a foot of water wasn’t obscuring their passage.

This storm was certainly an unusual occurrence for the Eastern Shore- and particularly this summer, when much of the state suffered drought conditions and record-breaking temperatures for much of the sultry summer months. For weeks, it seemed as if the only sign of rain was the constant presence of a veil of humidity, softening the edges of the horizon with a suffocating wetness.


Smoky the Bear warned visitors at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland of the heightened possibility of summer blazes in July. source

Thought the drought this summer has touched almost every corn field with its withering finger, there is a silver lining. For the Chesapeake Bay, a summer with hardly any rain also translates to a summer with almost no pollution. And when there is no pollution (read: fertilizer both animal and chemical, sewage, or exhaust), the dead zones in the Chesapeake shrink to a size not observed since 1983.

              A 2005 chart of the Chesapeake's  record high dead zones.

To translate, dead zones are simply expanses of water where the oxygen levels are not high enough to support life. They are caused when pollution, including nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers on lawns and farm fields, is washed by rains into the Bay, where it spurs algae blooms during longer, warmer summer days. When the blooms die off, bacteria that break down the dead algae consume oxygen in the water. Dead zones tend to be found in the Chesapeake’s main stem, where the runoff from rivers with high populations collect and merge (see chart above).The algae blooms that precede them can be green, brown, or even red, and often, though a harbinger of foul conditions, are quite beautiful from above.


An algae bloom in Hampton Roads, Virginia, in the Leehaven River. (Ryan C. Henriksen | The Virginian-Pilot)

This year, only 11.8% of the Maryland portion of the Bay had official dead zones, but normally the number is at least twice as high. It’s especially interesting since all predictions for this summer were dire. With 2011 Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee sending torrents of water and sediment coursing down the Susquehanna, through Conowingo Dam, and into the Bay, the assumption was the Bay this summer would be its least life-sustaining yet. But the extreme Chesapeake crisis was averted, though it was through an unpredicted but just-as-extreme summer drought that left many Bay farmers examining fractured soil and dried corn stalks for signs of life.


                           A Maryland farm field in July 2012.

In today’s modern Chesapeake, it takes a killing drought on land to restore balance below the water. Simply put, that’s the definition of unsustainable- and on a scale that seems to huge as to be insurmountable. But this very question of restoring balance to the Chesapeake, especially when the effects are so visibly obvious, hasn’t deterred or dispirited advocacy at all. Rather, the Chesapeake’s distress has  become a lightning rod for innovation- and most of it is humbly human-sized. From oyster restoration to cover crops, organizations and individuals throughout the watershed are cooking up potential solutions to the problem that can be addressed by one person at a time. A great illustration of this outpouring of ideas is summarized, for a youthful audience (though we can all benefit), in Sunday’s Washington Post:

The flood we endured this weekend was one of torrential rains, but the flood we need is one of ideas, to help create a Chesapeake we can all live in, whether we farm, mow, garden, swim or filter. Sometimes it takes a deluge, a profound drenching that swamps our cars, our yards, and our complacency to remind us that we still have a lot of work to do, if we want to take care of this place we call home.