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Making the Connection between Underwater Grasses and Water Quality

Tuesday, March 10, 2020
Author: 
Kelsey Ellis, APNEP Communications and Outreach Specialist

“Clean water is foundational to submerged aquatic vegetation health. And in turn, submerged aquatic vegetation improves water quality – they are integrally linked.” With this connection between healthy water and healthy habitat, N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Assistant Secretary for Environment Sheila Holman kicked off the “Clean Waters and SAV: Making the Connection” Technical Workshop on March 4th.

The workshop, which took place through the combined efforts of the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, and Pew Charitable Trusts, brought together regional experts in both water quality and submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) to discuss linkages between SAV and water quality. North Carolina is estimated to have more than 130,000 acres of SAV, but recent data has indicated that this resource may be in decline - likely in large part due to decreasing water quality. Because these underwater meadows provide innumerable benefits to coastal ecosystems, including sediment stabilization, carbon sequestration, nursery habitat for fish and invertebrates, and reductions in nutrient levels, urgent action is needed to ensure the state’s remaining SAV habitat is conserved.

Beyond data needs and management strategies, one ingredient for success highlighted throughout the workshop was the importance of working together to accomplish SAV protection. “You have all the elements you need to make this happen – but you need collaboration to bring everything together,” advised Rich Batuik, retired Chesapeake Bay Program scientist and co-founder of CoastWise Partners along with Holly Greening, former director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. CoastWise Partners shared their success stories from the Chesapeake Bay and Tampa Bay, focusing on ways to clearly communicate the importance of SAV habitat to nontechnical groups as well as how to build wider involvement in protection of the resource.  Brooke Landry, lead for the Chesapeake Bay Program’s SAV Workgroup, also presented on current SAV initiatives for Chesapeake Bay related to policy review, research and monitoring, and citizen involvement.  

The current state of water quality data in North Carolina’s sounds was also discussed during the morning’s presentations. Jim Hawhee, Program Consultant with the N.C. Division of Water Resources, discussed the state’s historical and recent nutrient management strategies. Dr. Hans Paerl of the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences focused on “the 8000 pound gorilla – climate change” and how scientists are having to contend with a shifting baseline for precipitation-caused water quality changes. The increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events “are really big perturbations that are impacting habitat in the system. With wetter, more intense storm events...you get an increase in nutrient loads for the year compared to non-wet years, as well as big spikes in chlorophyll a during these wet years,” said Dr. Paerl. The UNC Institute of Marine Sciences’ Dr. Nathan Hall then brought the group up to speed on current water quality trends and data gaps in the region. Available data shows that while there aren’t clear trends in water quality within the high-salinity, eastern side of the sounds, water transparency – an important factor for SAV, which need light to grow – has recently decreased in the Neuse River and southwest Pamlico Sound.

In turn, retired NOAA scientist and APNEP SAV Action Team Lead Dr. Jud Kenworthy discussed what is known about the current state of the region’s underwater grasses. “I want to illustrate how urgent it is that we take today and we move forward fast,” said Dr. Kenworthy during his presentation, in reference to the threat posed to SAV by observed water quality declines and the immense difficulty of restoring SAV habitat once it has degraded. He stated that data show that the resource is reasonably healthy, but slowly declining – particularly in the southern part of the Albemarle-Pamlico region. “We know that if we apply the right management actions...we can be successful. But the longer we wait, the harder it gets and the more it costs,” Dr. Kenworthy stated.

After learning about the current state of knowledge regarding water quality and SAV in the state’s estuaries throughout the morning, workshop attendees spent the afternoon in breakout groups identifying data gaps and management strategies that could be implemented in the near-term to facilitate SAV protection and restoration. These identified needs, alongside more detailed information about the workshop itself, will be published in a workshop Summary Report in spring 2020. The synthesized discussion and recommendations from the workshop will also be integrated into a forthcoming SAV Issue Paper, which itself will be utilized in the NC DMF- and APNEP-coordinated 2021 revision of the N.C. Coastal Habitat Protection Plan (CHPP).

While participants acknowledged that there is a long road ahead to get to halt the decline of SAV habitat, the day’s debate and discussions were an effort to bring experts together and kickstart collaborative action. “This is the first time in my career that I’ve ever sat in a room like this with this kind of expertise...I certainly see a huge opportunity here,” said Dr. Kenworthy, “to pull all this together and start making progress before it’s too late.”