Citizen Science Meets Horn Point Lab Science

August 3, 2023

Nearly ten years ago, Queen Anne's County residents David Rockland and Sarah Dutton put conservation practices in place to improve water quality in the stream flowing through their land. They wanted to see if it was working, to know if the practices were really having an impact. They found Tom Fisher, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) Horn Point Laboratory. FIsher and his team have been working directly with farmers and residents on the Eastern Shore for over 20 years to implement a variety of best management practices intended to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus running off the land, into streams, and into the Chesapeake Bay. 

Fisher is advising David and Sarah to better understand if the restoration practices they have implemented on their land are providing environmental benefits, primarily improving water quality. He walked David and Sarah’s property with them identifying best sites to implement their monitoring program, and helped them set up a water testing program through UMCES’ labs. 

Below, David Rockland introduces their project and how Tom Fisher’s guidance has them tracking the impact of their efforts to improve their land’s runoff water quality.  What David and Sarah learn they will share with other citizen scientists so their new knowledge will have positive impacts much like their conservation practices.  

David sampling in Stratton Creek

“We wanted to learn more about the nature around our property, land that straddles Stratton Creek in Queen Anne’s County. The land came with an old farmhouse that we bought in 2000. While our first focus was fixing up the house and putting it on the National Historic Register, we also put the land in two conservation programs with the USDA. One is forest buffer strips in two fields adjacent to Stratton Creek, which flows by the house, and the other is a wetlands restoration effort along the Mason Branch of the Tuckahoe River that receives the outflow of Stratton Creek. The property is surrounded by farm fields.

As we learned more in the Maryland Master Naturalist program, we began to wonder whether the buffer strips are making a difference when it comes to farm runoff, specifically concentrations of nitrate and phosphate that eventually find their way into the Chesapeake Bay. A call to ShoreRivers led us to Tom, our teacher and mentor. He suggested we do monthly water quality sampling at four points along the Creek, beginning where it comes into the property, and then near where it flows into Mason Branch, with a couple sites in the middle. He and his colleague Anne Gustafson taught us how to do the sampling, loaned us equipment, and lined us up with Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, Maryland, a sister lab to the Horn Point Laboratory, to analyze the water samples.


Preparing stream samples for analysis

So far, we’ve had some initial data analyzed by the lab. A story is starting to emerge which we hope to be able to better tell with a full year of data early next year. With four months of data in hand, what we are beginning to see is that phosphate levels decline as we move downstream through the buffer strips. Alternatively, the nitrate levels rise along that same stretch, albeit at a slower rate of increase as one moves downstream.  It could be that there are additional sources of nitrates that are coming from the replanting and fertilizing of the fields adjacent to the creek this spring, as well as what may be coming from a nearby development and even our own septic system.

What is truly rewarding, however, is to begin to better understand our own land, and hopefully add a bit of data and insight into the science related to water run-off from agriculture into the Chesapeake Bay. I am sure we will learn more as we get further into summer, fall and early winter; it’s a work in progress.

While we both shied away from careers in “real science” such as biology and chemistry, instead choosing business and news media, it has been a true pleasure to become budding citizen scientists with Tom’s guidance. We’ll happily share our full results once the project is complete, and then probably move on to developing a better understanding of how the wetlands restoration we did is affecting the wildlife habitat and water quality of the Tuckahoe River’s Mason Branch.

There is a lot that can be done on your own property to make the Chesapeake better. Citizen Science can help you understand your impact, while contributing to greater scientific knowledge and understanding. Get involved—it’s fun!”