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Horn Point Laboratory

Testing the waters

Scientists partner with farmers, landowners to help reduce runoff

Tom Fisher and his team want to measure the impacts of best management practices like cover crops and steam buffers on water quality. 

Professor Tom Fisher wades into the water just past his knees in a creek at South Forge.

We’re below a bridge on the edge of a narrow two-lane road that winds past farms and houses in Caroline County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The shallow stream itself runs past a farm, through a patch of woods, and into a large metal outflow pipe that carries the water under the road and eventually into the Choptank River on its way to the Chesapeake Bay. 

He strings a rope across the stream that hangs a few inches above the water. From there, he holds up a meter stick and takes measurements of the stream’s depth. Then he straps on a device that measures the water velocity of the stream using a long metal pole that he systematically moves across the stream.

On the bank, field technician Michelle Lepori-Bui blows spiders out of a barrel-shaped device that automatically pulls water in from the stream at designated intervals so it can be tested for nitrogen and phosphorus levels, nutrients that are good for crops but bad for waterways. Algae blooms occur downstream in the Choptank and Chesapeake, blocking sunlight and reducing oxygen after the algae settle to the bottom, making it difficult for fish and oysters to survive.  

The monitoring is part of a five-year project called People Land Water. Funded by the National Science Foundation, Fisher and his team from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Laboratory are working directly with farmers and residents on the Eastern Shore to measure the impacts of best management practices like cover crops and stream buffers on water quality. They are looking for the best ways to combat harmful runoff from farms and lawns in the watershed.

“A 5 square-mile area drains to this point,” says Fisher. “The idea was to pick small areas so we could get to know all the farmers and as many of the residents as possible so we have a chance of making a significant increase in best management practices. There are some here already, but we’re trying to add on to that and measure the impact.”

(Keep reading below the images)

Fisher and his team have been working directly with 25 farmers in Caroline County 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. This region has particularly high nitrogen and phosphorus pollution because the dominant land use is agriculture.

Maryland has been making progress toward its cleanup goals for the Chesapeake Bay. The latest report card gave the Bay a ‘C’ overall, crediting sewage treatment upgrades, use of winter cover crops by farmers, and reductions in atmospheric nitrogen deposition to moving the needle on restoration. While some tributaries have been improving, water quality in the Choptank River has been on the decline. Fisher and his team are trying to figure out why.

“If we can get 15 best management practices upstream, we can see an effect right here,” said Fisher, pointing to the stream as a truck rumbles by. “We can we see it in terms of nitrogen in base flow, and we can we see it in terms of phosphorus in storm events.”

The group works directly with farmers and residents to implement best management practices, also known as BMPs. For instance, residents can use rain barrels, rain gardens, denitrifying septic systems, and porous pavers to reduce impervious surfaces. Farmers can use cover crops in the off season, controlled drainage structures, and riparian buffers to protect streams from the adjacent land use.

Farmers pay for nitrogen and phosphorus for their crops to increase crop yields, applying it at a rate that is recommended by the State of Maryland. If the nutrients in the field end up in the waterways instead of making corn and vegetables grow big and strong, it not only causes poor water quality, but it is like washing money down the drain for farmers.

The People Land Water project also has sociological and economic components. Through annual surveys, Horn Point Laboratory research scientist Kalla Kvalnes is studying whether and how much farmers' attitudes are changing toward their role in improving water quality. The economic aspect, undertaken by agricultural and environmental economist Jon Winsten at Winrock International, provides information about the relative costs and benefits of management practices. 

“I’m hoping it will make a difference in what BMPs are used,” said Fisher. “ I’m fairly certain that’s going to turn into a positive thing.”

Learn more about the People Land Water project.