Written on: September 12th, 2018 in Wetland Assessments
by Alex Thomas, Wetland Monitoring & Assessment Program
When I got the call telling me that I had been offered the position of Wetland Field Technician for DNREC I was ecstatic. I would be working outside all summer, assisting on legitimate research projects and working with something I absolutely love. What I didn’t know at that time, was that field work comes with some….challenges.
There are some of the obvious ones like heat and thorny plants, however nobody told me that turkeys like to make nests in shrubs and jump out at you screaming bloody murder as you walk right next to them. Having this experience my second day on the job really set the tone for the rest of the summer.
Like I said before heat was an ever present challenge. I can recall one day we were in the Piney Point salt marsh with no shade, and a heat index of 110 degrees. (When you start sweating through your shirt 15 steps from the car, you know it’s going to be a great day.) Not to mention this particular salt marsh is littered with 3 foot holes hidden under tall swathes of Spartina alterniflora. Traversing this maze of hidden holes carrying all of our field equipment was an experience.
I can only imagine what we must have looked like to a random bystander. Seeing a team of scientists, completely drenched in sweat, walking three steps and sinking into hip deep mud with everything but the top of their heads covered by Spartina must have been hilarious to watch. Taking my first steps out of that marsh that day was nothing short of relief. I would also like to formally apologize on behalf of all of us who used the research van that day. We tried our best to keep it clean.
Everyday this past summer was one filled with excitement, even the days we spent primarily in the office. However, there is one day that will stand out above the rest. One day after finishing our last site of the day, Kenny and I were walking out of the woods back to the car to head back to the office. Everything was going smoothly until I felt a sharp pain in the back of my leg.
I immediately told Kenny that I think I walked through some stinging nettle and that he should be careful. A few steps later I feel more sharp pains and I start looking around frantically trying to find out what’s been stinging me. That is until I look at my finger and see a small black and yellow insect sitting there and the sharp pain I felt in the back of my legs starts to spread through my hand.
At this point I hear Kenny shout “YELLOWJACKETS!” and we start sprinting through the woods and trampling over patches of greenbrier and hurdling downed tree trunks like Olympic athletes, all the while being chased by a swarm of angry yellow jackets. Once out of the woods we were able to regroup and swat off the remaining bugs. All in all I was stung 17 times and had the pleasure of watching my calves and thighs swell up to almost twice their normal size.
Even though these stories may sound scary or dangerous, I wouldn’t change a single thing that happened to me this summer! Summer 2018 has been a summer to remember. I will never forget the experiences I gained working for DNREC. Not only has this position prepared me for future field work positions, It has opened my eyes to the hard work that goes into assessing and preserving Delaware’s wetland habitats.
Lastly I would like to personally thank everybody that I have worked with this summer. This summer wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting or informative if it wasn’t for all of you. Thank you for allowing me to have this experience with all of you, keep up the good work
This post is part of a series of posts titled “Confessions of a Seasonal”, and is written by a summer seasonal worker of DNREC’s Wetland Monitoring & Assessment Program.
Written on: September 12th, 2018 in Outreach
by Mark Biddle, DNREC Watershed Assessment and Management Section
States and tribes across the nation are scrambling to assess how waters are protected within their jurisdiction under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). Specifically, a recent U.S. District Court ruling to CWA Section 404, which is the federal program that regulates dredge and fill activities in traditionally navigable waters and wetlands, has changed the scope of what is regulated in some states. Additionally, newly proposed legislation in Congress could affect states approval authority under CWA Section 401, which requires any applicant of a federal permit to also get water quality certification based on that state’s water quality standards.
Section 401 Water Quality Certification has long been a successful partnership between federal and state water quality protection programs. Simply, the EPA has given states the ability to set water quality standards for wetlands and surface waters, and with it the authority to add valuable local knowledge through 401 Certification in coordination with federal approvals.
A new bill in Congress was created in reaction to two states holding firm ground in their ability to permit, through Section 401, large and significant energy projects. Since Section 401 gives the states the ability to veto federal government approval in considering how a project may affect a state’s waters, it’s viewed as a hurdle for large energy industry projects that may be beneficial to even more than one state. Proponents of the bill say it closes loopholes ripe for abuse, while opponents see the bill as a removal of state’s rights and the ability of states to have a say in protecting its wetlands and surface waters.
For Section 404, a ruling in mid-August by the South Carolina District Court (Charleston Division) found that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers failed to adhere to the Administrative Procedures Act in issuing the ‘Suspension Rule’ in February, 2018. The Suspension Rule was one of the steps taken by EPA and Corps in reaction to the Presidential Executive Order 13778 which set to rescind the 2015 Waters of the United States Rule (WOTUS), and replace it with a new rule. The Suspension Rule set to delay the 2015 WOTUS Rule until 2020 to allow time for creating a replacement. The 2015 Rule was developed to provide more clarity to the Section 404 program and much of it was based on review and recommendations by a Science Advisory Board assembled by EPA. The 2015 Rule received challenges in a few U.S. Circuit Courts leading to a stay of the rule nationwide. This new ruling in the South Carolina District Court puts back in place the 2015 WOTUS Rule for 26 states, including Delaware, while there are still District Court injunctions in place for the other 24 states.
One of the main benefits of the 2015 Rule is that the Science Advisory Board reviewed scientific research that establishes the water ‘system’ connections between flowing surface waters and those adjacent wetlands that may not have a surface connection, but are just as important to downstream water quality within a watershed. In Delaware, we have ecologically unique wetlands known as Delmarva Bays or Coastal Plain ponds. These depression-like wetlands are vitally important to many plant and animal species, some state or globally rare, while also contributing to flood control and water filtration. (I.e. Delmarva Bays are good water quality filters for downstream waters.) There are similar wetlands to Delmarva Bays in other states such as the Prairie Potholes and Carolina Bays which are also included under the 2015 Rule.
There are still many moving parts to where water and wetland protection will end up, most importantly with state’s rights. Recently, the federal government has on one hand reached out to states in the name of cooperative federalism (404), but has also shown the desire to roll back state’s ability to protect its waters and wetlands (401).
In early August, the Corps released a statement encouraging states to assume Section 404 oversight. For the protection of wetlands and clean water, it is imperative to have baseline federal protection of intrastate waters. If water regulation is completely left to each individual state, states downstream from other states may have to deal with another state’s pollution. A baseline federal protection gives states a platform to build upon in protecting sovereign waters and wetlands, and a federal-state partnership in protecting these resources is vital.
For more information please visit epa.gov/wotus-rule.
Written on: September 12th, 2018 in Outreach
by Erin Dorset, Wetland Monitoring & Assessment Program
Wetland plants live a tough life. They are often under water for significant periods of time, meaning that they are frequently deprived of oxygen. Wetland plants also need to remain stable in the soil if they deal with fast moving water that ebbs and flows. Those that live in marine or estuarine areas are under even more stress simply because they need to be able to deal with saltwater! So how are wetland plants able to survive and reproduce under these difficult conditions?
Read on to learn about just a handful of the cool adaptations that some of Delaware’s wetland plants have that allow them to thrive in watery—and sometimes salty—habitats!
If you’ve ever seen a saltmarsh in Delaware, then you’ve probably seen saltmarsh cordgrass. It grows in the areas in saltmarshes that are relatively low in elevation, meaning that they are flooded at every high tide (Figure 1). This plant has to deal with saltwater, and lots of it! It is also what’s known as a halophyte, which is a plant that can tolerate saltwater conditions. This grass actually has salt glands so that it can secrete all of the excess salt out (Figure 2). If you look carefully at its leaves, you can sometimes actually see the salt crystal secretions! Some other saltmarsh plants have this ability too, such as spike saltgrass (Distichlis spicata).
The name of this plant is fitting, because its leaves look like large arrowheads (Figure 3). Arrow arum likes to live in tidal freshwater marshes, lakes, and ponds where the water is shallow. This plant has evolved an interesting and effective way of reproducing while living in the water. The fruits, which look like greenish berries, fall into the water when they are ripe. Once they are in the water, the coating around the fruits swells and eventually bursts. After the coating bursts, the berries are capable of floating on the surface of the water. The berries can then release seeds, which sink to the ground below the water to eventually germinate and grow new plants. Because the berries can float on the water, seeds can disperse for plants to grow in new areas. Arrow arum knows how to work with the water!
Bald cypress trees are deciduous conifers that grow in swamps and in floodplains along rivers and streams. They are southern trees, so Delaware is the farthest north that they grow naturally! How is it that a big tree can withstand so much water? Well, bald cypress trees have specialized root structures called pneumatophores—commonly called “knees”—that grow vertically out of the ground and water (Figure 4). Scientists believe that these knees help get air to roots that are under water. They might also help stabilize the tree in very watery conditions. A great place to go see bald cypress trees and their cool wetland adaptations in Delaware is Trap Pond State Park!
Cattails are one of the most well-known wetland plants because they are widespread and easily recognizable with their brown, “tail-like” flowering structures (Figure 5). There are two species of cattail in Delaware; the broadleaf cattail is native (Typha latifolia), while the narrowleaf cattail (Typha angustifolia) is invasive. Both species are commonly found in marshes, shallow ponds, ditches, and wet meadows.
These areas often have standing water, and cattails have evolved a way to cope with that. Cattails have something called aerenchyma in their leaves, stems, and roots. Aerenchyma are basically open spaces that allow oxygen to travel from the air, to the leaves and shoots, and down to the roots and rhizomes (underground root-like stems) that are underwater. This keeps the parts of the plant that are submerged happy! They also help keep cattails upright in water because they keep the leaves fairly stiff. If you cut a cattail leaf open, you can actually see the aerenchyma in the leaves! Many other herbaceous wetland plants share this same adaptation to survive in wetland environments.
Next time you’re near a wetland, notice the plants and get curious about all of the amazing ways that they have adapted to live in watery conditions. After all, not just any plant can do it!
Written on: September 12th, 2018 in Wetland Assessments
Guest Writer: Nicole Rodi, Delaware Coastal Programs
Ahh the average morning routine- drinking some coffee, making lunch, brushing your teeth, and washing your face- unknowingly rubbing tiny pieces of plastic on your face, and teeth!
Fortunately, due to the Microbead Free Waters Act there is a ban on microbeads in tooth paste and facewash, but the sink drain is not the only way microplastics get into the environment (Pallone, 2015). The microbeads that USED to be found in products like this are just one form of microplastic.
A microplastic is defined by NOAA as a piece of plastic smaller than 5mm (Roles, n.d). Microplastics come in all forms. Sometimes they enter the environment already small, such as a microbeads or microfibers, but often they enter the environment through the degradation of large pieces of plastics like water bottles and balloons.
Plastic does not biodegrade once it enters the environment, however, over years of sun and water exposure it will photodegrade into smaller and smaller pieces that likely never disappear, and only get smaller. The lightweight nature of plastic means it can be easily carried by wind and water, meaning when litter is thrown out the window in a city in the middle of the country it will most likely find its way to the ocean.
Scientists are now starting to study microplastics and their movement within the ecosystem, as well as their impacts to wildlife and habitats. Through these studies scientist have discovered that microplastics are being ingested by the smallest of organisms, zooplanktons, which are arguably the building block of the entire ocean food web (Cole et. al, 2013).
The Delaware Coastal Programs (DCP) is delving into the issue to develop baseline data and information about the abundance and locations of microplastics in the state. Through research on microplastic identification methodologies and quantification DCP hopes to discover the fate of these microplastics and where they are building up in our ecosystem. Identifying the sources and sinks of microplastics is the first step in tackling the issue.
The DCP study started with sand collection on three beaches of Kent County, Delaware and has expanded to water and sediment samples in the St. Jones estuary. The initial phase of the study is developing guidelines for sampling and identification methodologies for the state. The next phase occurring in the fall of 2018 will include microplastic quantification on those beaches of Kent county and further exploration of microplastics in sediment and water of the estuary.
As we continue to learn more in this emerging field, scientists are still trying to figure out what these tiny pieces of plastic mean for the health of the ecosystems, wildlife, and humans who ingest seafood. But you can help too! The next time you have plastic to throw out, try recycling it so it doesn’t end up in our ecosystems!
Pallone, F. (2015). H.R.1321 – 114th Congress (2015-2016): Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015.
Roles, A (n.d). Microplastic Marine Debris. National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.