Estuarine Ecosystems: How Rivers Affect Downstream Bays
In recent times, eyes have been drawn to the climate change headlines with increasingly volatile weather patterns sweeping across America. From wildfires in the west to severe hurricanes in the south and the ever-present threat of rising oceans to lower-lying cities, climate change is doubling and changing reality as we know it. But for many years there was a silent problem that spread from the higher elevations to the bays and into the ocean. Water wars between states have impacted the flow of streams and rivers, and the fragility of our watersheds has become all the more pronounced.
How it works
Precipitation and snowmelt gradually descend to the lowest points on Earth. This water trickles down streams and rivers until it eventually flows into the ocean. The only exceptions are water that is diverted for use by people or ends up in a completely enclosed lake. Everything else is pulled towards the ocean. However, the amount of water that flows into rivers and streams and what it drains into the ocean is what causes major problems.
In a functioning watershed, streams and rivers help reduce pollution that could flow downstream into lakes, bays and eventually the ocean. When certain nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus are delivered and released too downstream and in excess, it triggers responses such as algal blooms. These blooms can kill wildlife or food sources for wildlife, resulting in dead zones. Chesapeake Bay with its complex system of watersheds is just one example of a risk area. In Delaware, nearly 200,000 acres of wetlands could be destroyed without adequate protection from pollutant spills, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The effects would also be seen in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia wherever the water flows.
It is vital to balance brackish water
Just as the ocean is vulnerable to excess pollutants and nutrients downstream, berries are also vulnerable. Bays are made up of brackish water which is a combination of salt water from the ocean and fresh water deposited by streams and rivers. According to the Apalachicola Reserve, when too much or too little fresh water is channeled downstream through the watershed and into the bays, it affects the salinity of the water.
Wildlife such as oysters are highly dependent on their environment being within a certain salinity range, just as coral reefs can only tolerate warming waters to a certain level. Much like reefs, bays with high salinity due to the lack of fresh water flowing into the area can also kill wildlife, such as in Apalachicola Bay. This is why it is important to be aware of the use of water, even in cities hundreds of kilometers away. Ultimately, all the water used in a watershed impacts the ocean and all the wildlife that rivers and streams support along the way to wetlands and bays.
What this means for the future
Of course, protecting waterways is important for the planet and its ecosystems. But it also benefits communities, because it also protects the economy. Places that depend on fishing, hunting, recreational sports, and even agriculture all depend on waterways in one form or another. These industries also translate into a lot of money.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly $ 42 billion is spent annually on the fishing industry alone by about 33 million people. This money is spent on guides, trips to fisherman’s dream destinations, licenses and tons of other things to support the sport. Hunting brings in nearly $ 2 billion each year as 2.6 million people seek to capture migratory birds that are found in wetlands.
Whether it’s to save the environment and the wildlife that depend on it or to make sure your annual fishing charter doesn’t get canceled, protecting waterways has never been more important. There are many ways to help, such as volunteering with a local drinking water organization or simply limiting water use. Organizations like Flint Riverkeeper are also worth donating. No matter how you get involved, everything helps as it gets harder and harder to maintain safe habitats.