Aquatic Geochemistry

, Volume 20, Issue 2–3, pp 291–323 | Cite as

From Headwaters to Coast: Influence of Human Activities on Water Quality of the Potomac River Estuary

  • Suzanne B. BrickerEmail author
  • Karen C. Rice
  • Owen P. BrickerIII
Original Paper


The natural aging process of Chesapeake Bay and its tributary estuaries has been accelerated by human activities around the shoreline and within the watershed, increasing sediment and nutrient loads delivered to the bay. Riverine nutrients cause algal growth in the bay leading to reductions in light penetration with consequent declines in sea grass growth, smothering of bottom-dwelling organisms, and decreases in bottom-water dissolved oxygen as algal blooms decay. Historically, bay waters were filtered by oysters, but declines in oyster populations from overfishing and disease have led to higher concentrations of fine-sediment particles and phytoplankton in the water column. Assessments of water and biological resource quality in Chesapeake Bay and tributaries, such as the Potomac River, show a continual degraded state. In this paper, we pay tribute to Owen Bricker’s comprehensive, holistic scientific perspective using an approach that examines the connection between watershed and estuary. We evaluated nitrogen inputs from Potomac River headwaters, nutrient-related conditions within the estuary, and considered the use of shellfish aquaculture as an in-the-water nutrient management measure. Data from headwaters, nontidal, and estuarine portions of the Potomac River watershed and estuary were analyzed to examine the contribution from different parts of the watershed to total nitrogen loads to the estuary. An eutrophication model was applied to these data to evaluate eutrophication status and changes since the early 1990s and for comparison to regional and national conditions. A farm-scale aquaculture model was applied and results scaled to the estuary to determine the potential for shellfish (oyster) aquaculture to mediate eutrophication impacts. Results showed that (1) the contribution to nitrogen loads from headwater streams is small (about 2 %) of total inputs to the Potomac River Estuary; (2) eutrophic conditions in the Potomac River Estuary have improved in the upper estuary since the early 1990s, but have worsened in the lower estuary. The overall system-wide eutrophication impact is high, despite a decrease in nitrogen loads from the upper basin and declining surface water nitrate nitrogen concentrations over that period; (3) eutrophic conditions in the Potomac River Estuary are representative of Chesapeake Bay region and other US estuaries; moderate to high levels of nutrient-related degradation occur in about 65 % of US estuaries, particularly river-dominated low-flow systems such as the Potomac River Estuary; and (4) shellfish (oyster) aquaculture could remove eutrophication impacts directly from the estuary through harvest but should be considered a complement—not a substitute—for land-based measures. The total nitrogen load could be removed if 40 % of the Potomac River Estuary bottom was in shellfish cultivation; a combination of aquaculture and restoration of oyster reefs may provide larger benefits.


Nutrients Eutrophication Nitrogen load Headwater streams Shellfish aquaculture Nutrient bioextraction 



We dedicate this paper to Owen P. Bricker III, father (SBB), dear friend, and wonderful mentor (KCR), a great teacher and scientist, oyster lover, champion of the Chesapeake Bay, and one of the originators of the present Chesapeake Bay Program. Although he died in March 2011, his legacy remains in those of us whose lives he helped shape. We would like to thank the following people for their generous sharing of data and information that made our analyses possible: Renee Karrh (MD DNR), Peter Tango (USGS CBPO), Steve Gill (NOAA CO-OPS), Bob Paul (St. Mary’s College of Maryland) and Norb Jaworski (retired, USEPA) for data and insight; Brian Russell, Mandy Burch, Kevin Boyle and Sheldon Russell (Shore Thing Seafood) and Kelly Greenhawk, Maude Livings, Katie Busch (MD DNR), Don Webster (UMD) for culture practice information; Joao Ferreira (Longline Environment, Ltd.) for use of the FARM model; Greg Piniak and Julie Rose (NOAA), and Jason Price (Millersville University) for review comments; Dave Whitall (NOAA) for review comments and map construction; Jason Pope (USGS) for map data; Erik Davenport and Annie Jacob (NOAA) for statistical analyses; and Nicole Carlozo (MD DNR) for bottom culture suitable area estimates. We also thank the insightful reviewers who greatly improved the paper. Thanks to our editor-in-chief, George Luther, III. Special thanks to our handling and Associate Editor, Fred Mackenzie for helpful guidance and for suggesting this tribute volume.


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Copyright information

© US Government 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Suzanne B. Bricker
    • 1
    Email author
  • Karen C. Rice
    • 2
    • 3
  • Owen P. BrickerIII
    • 4
  1. 1.National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationSilver SpringUSA
  2. 2.U.S. Geological SurveyCharlottesvilleUSA
  3. 3.University of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA
  4. 4.Senior Scientist EmeritusU.S. Geological SurveyRestonUSA

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