Seven Communities Ante Up for More Science in 2016

Nicole Sarrett measures eelgrass density, Great Bay

 By Kalle Matso, PREP’s Coastal Science Program Manager

The 2016 field season for Great Bay Estuary science and monitoring just got a $90,000 boost, thanks to the contributions of seven communities in the Great Bay Watershed. Because of the donations of these communities, a lot of critical information will be collected and analyzed that would not have occurred otherwise. Plus, these contributions also create the opportunity to bring in external peer review, to help guide the monitoring program’s long-term strategy.

The following towns stepped up to the plate in 2016. Dover and Rochester contributed the most, giving $29,962 and $29,686, respectively. Their contributions will go to paying for external peer review of Great Bay science and monitoring as well as remote sensing of eelgrass presence/absence in the estuary. Eelgrass,Zostera marina, a key seagrass habitat in the estuary that offers a nursery for young fish and invertebrates and fights erosion due to large storms, has decreased by approximately 44% since peak levels in the 1990s.

The towns of Exeter and Stratham have committed $15,000 and $12,300 to the Monitoring Collaborative, respectively. Portsmouth and Newmarket have committed $5,000 and $3,565, respectively. Finally, the Town of Newfields contributed $1,000.

There were additional towns like Durham, who are also supportive and would have liked to participate this year, but due to budget cycling didn’t have enough time to include a contribution this year.  PREP expects to provide a request that cycles more closely with the town budget development process for 2017 so that additional communities can participate in next summer’s monitoring program.

The Monitoring Collaborative is comprised of many partners, including PREP, the communities, EPA, the Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (GBNERR) and NH Department of Environmental Services.

The Collaborative is currently making decisions about how to allocate funds from Exeter, Stratham, Portsmouth and Newfields. (Newmarket’s contribution will support external review) One option is to support a SeagrassNet monitoring site in the Great Bay, south of Adam’s Point in Durham. SeagrassNet is a monitoring protocol that involves collecting a suite of measurements to better understand how a particular eelgrass bed is doing healthwise. How tall are the leaves growing? How much plant material is above the ground and below the ground? Are the leaves covered with algae? How much? This is different from the remote sensing work described earlier, because that work only describes if eelgrass is present or absent; it doesn’t tell you how the eelgrass is actually faring. This is an important distinction because some observations indicate that Great Bay eelgrass beds have been decreasing in density and are also being taken over by invasive species of seaweeds (macroalgae).
GB Oct 2015 SeagrassNet quadat
SeagrassNet site in 2016. It shows that even though this is categorized as an eelgrass bed, it’s dominated by macroalgae. This is from the Great Bay, taken around August, 2016.

A second monitoring activity involves a more collaborative approach to estimating nutrient loading into the Great Bay Estuary. Scientists from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) will now be able to spend more time working with communities to leverage efforts around understanding how much nutrients are being added to the estuary, both from wastewater treatment plants and from stormwater and other sources, such as septic systems, etc. Understanding nutrient “loading” is critical because too much nutrients—such as nitrogen and phosphorous—can cause ecosystem degradation and loss of key habitats that New Hampshire citizens have come to count on.

A third critical activity supported by the Monitoring Collaborative is estimating changes in impervious cover in the Great Bay Watershed. “Impervious cover” relates to the percentage of an area that has been made impermeable to water, due to paving of roads or construction of buildings. It is well established that as communities approach and pass the threshold of 10% impervious cover, decreases in water quality begin to occur. When this happens, communities may have to spend large amounts of money to meet water quality standards set by EPA and NH DES. With support from communities, the Monitoring Collaborative will be able to update the 2010 impervious cover assessment with new images acquired in 2015 from the NH Department of Transportation.

The Monitoring Collaborative is a relatively new idea, first tried in 2013 and now repeated for 2016. PREP is confident that these contributions from communities will continue on an annual basis, and will actually increase in 2017 and in following years, until community investments equal the amount of money that EPA invests in PREP on an annual basis, which is $600,000.

This increase in monitoring funds is critical to fill gaps that are necessary to 1) understand how are ecosystem changes over time, and 2) understand more about WHY these changes are happening…so that resource managers can adjust their management interventions, appropriately.

Although it is often said that “we know what’s causing problems in our estuary,” PREP’s observation is that this is true at a high and general level only. On the other hand, for particular areas of the estuary, we still don’t know why things are unfolding as they are. Also, monitoring work in other estuaries around the world clearly indicates that improvements in ecosystem health rarely unfold as they are predicted to unfold. For that reason, the system needs to be closely monitored so resource managers can react to change.

Other contributions come from PREP partners. For example, GBNERR spends nearly $150,000 per year of its research funds, which comes from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), on collecting water quality data in the Great Bay. In 2016, NH DES is contributing $65,000 to the Monitoring Collaborative. Part of these funds ($15,000), come from NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management under the Coastal Zone Management. The balance ($50,000) come from state revolving funds.

For more information on the Monitoring Collaborative, please contact Kalle Matso (kalle.matso@unh.edu) or (603) 781-6591.

PREP is part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Estuary Program, a joint program between local, state and federal agencies established under the Clean Water Act with the goal of protecting and enhancing nationally significant estuarine resources. PREP is supported in part by an EPA matching grant and is housed within the School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering at the University of New Hampshire.

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