2021 State of the Bays Report
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The Delaware Inland Bays provide a myriad of environmental, economic, and human health benefits. Bay ecosystems support abundant fish and wildlife, filter pollutants, and protect upland areas from storm damage. Overall, the Inland Bays contribute $4.5 billion in economic activity every year. Healthy Bay habitats and clean water are critical to ensure the long-term vitality of these shared resources and our overall quality of life.
Since the release of the 2016 State of the Delaware Inland Bays report, progress has been achieved in some areas. The conversion of discharge from the City of Rehoboth Beach’s wastewater treatment system to an ocean outfall in 2018 means that all major point sources of nutrient pollution—nitrogen and phosphorus—have now been removed from the Inland Bays. Additionally, Sussex County facilitated the conversion of an estimated 52,884 septic systems to central sewer, far surpassing the 45,000 goal set in the Pollution Control Strategy.
Water quality in Little Assawoman Bay has continued to show modest improvements. Scattered beds of widgeon grass have been observed in some areas of the Bay, likely due to lower nutrient concentrations and clearer water there.
The first leases for shellfish aquaculture were issued in December 2017. While the COVID-19 pandemic led to some setbacks, ten growers harvested and sold over 400,000 oysters in 2021 alone. A growing shellfish farming industry is a win for both water quality and the local economy.
However, despite decades of work to improve the health of the Bays, the estuary continues to face serious challenges.
The Inland Bays’ water quality as a whole received a “POOR” or “D” rating—exactly the same as five years ago
Inputs of nitrogen from nonpoint sources continue to far exceed healthy limits in all three Bays, with no improving trend. While well-flushed, open areas of the Bays have relatively good water quality, the water quality in most tributaries and canal systems remains poor. These areas consistently have unhealthy amounts of nutrient pollution and frequent summer algal blooms that deplete the water of oxygen. Nitrogen concentrations in the Indian River and Guinea Creek are particularly high. Baygrasses are extremely rare in the Bays—eelgrass is altogether nonexistent.
Land use in the watershed is changing in response to rapid population growth. Residential and commercial development has replaced large areas of forest and agricultural land. This development brings with it more roadways and other impervious surfaces, as well as increased demands on wastewater treatment systems. Conservation and restoration of natural habitats and shorelines has not kept pace with these changes.
While many areas of the Bays are generally safe for recreational water activities such as boating or wading, fecal bacteria levels in upper tributaries and canals may pose a risk for swimming. Moreover, slightly fewer monitoring stations met the swimming standard during the past five-year period than in 2016.
Climate change poses an existential threat to the Inland Bays and their surrounding communities—and its impacts already are apparent. Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere are causing big changes to the local weather and climate. The past decade was the hottest on record in southern Delaware, and heavy rainfall associated with severe storms is becoming more frequent. Sea levels are rising at an accelerated rate. Flooding is more frequent, and higher waters are degrading the health of salt marshes. The Inland Bays are changing in direct response to a changing climate and so too will the habitats, wildlife, and communities that depend on this delicate system.
The health of the Bays, their living resources, and people are inextricably linked. The Center and its partners are committed to working together to clean Bay waters and preserve and restore natural habitats across the watershed.
Proactive planning and new environmental policies that implement the Inland Bays Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan is are key. A recent Sussex County ordinance intended to better protect wetlands and waterways by enhancing buffers was a step in the right direction. However, stronger protections are needed. At a pivotal moment for the Bays’ health, the Center and its partners also are engaged in actions to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of a warming climate and rising seas on the Inland Bays and their watershed.