One's Place in Food Chain Molds Post-Storm Prospects

By Elizabeth Williamson and Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 1, 2006

About 172 billion gallons of rainwater fell on the District and Montgomery and Fairfax counties this week, in time for one of summer's biggest recreational weekends. Is that bad?

If you are a large fish, mosquito, tree, tomato plant or angler, no. If you are a very small fish, an oyster, crab, kayaker or Little Leaguer, it's a problem.

An entire house washed into the Susquehanna River, the Chesapeake Bay's biggest tributary, this week. But even three-bedroom debris doesn't rank when compared with the fertilizer and dirt that churned into waterways from parking lots, pastures and lawns.

"This is like a big slug of fertilizer coming into the system," said Bill Goldsborough of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. All that nitrogen and phosphorus feed "blooms" of microscopic algae too numerous to be eaten by other creatures. The algae die and decompose in a process that hogs oxygen. Hypoxia, as the condition is known, leads to massive "dead zones" that are unable to support much life. Last year, the foundation says, that accounted for about 40 percent of the bay. This year, it could be more.

"Parts of the bay look like Nestl? Quik right now," said Christopher Conner, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program. He said the storms were going to produce "a pulse of pollution" expected to affect the estuary all summer.

With 800,000 acres of pavement, the Chesapeake Bay watershed is more funnel than filter in a rainstorm. Torrents of water have thrown the estuary's salt and freshwater mix off-kilter -- chasing out jellyfish, which love salty water, but stressing crabs and oysters, especially those farthest from the ocean.

Flood-borne sediment covers oyster and grass beds and clogs fish and crab gills. The problems are "not lethal but may make them more susceptible to disease," Goldsborough said.

But the news isn't all bad. In the Potomac River, the storm could mean good fishing this weekend -- as long as you avoid bodily contact with the water.

Two-thirds of the Potomac watershed is west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where rainfall was less than half what it was in the District, so the river didn't overflow. But the fast current dislodged plenty of creatures that big fish can gorge on.

The rain could also "be a dispersal mechanism for snakeheads . . . but we'll have to see," said Jim Cummins, director of living resources at the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. Big snakeheads, like all big fish, probably took cover on the shoulders of the river. Many young fish and small creatures caught in the flood died, battered by the current or starved when they couldn't see food in the murky, rushing water.

Boaters beware: Near the city, "debris islands" are piled with branches, garbage, even propane tanks. Runoff- and sewage-related bacteria could put anyone who ingests the water in the hospital. Kayakers should keep their mouths shut.

The rain wreaked havoc on other recreational activities, swamping the region's parks and ballfields. Most dirt infields in the flooded areas remain soup, their backstops clogged with debris. In the District, an eight-foot-wide sinkhole ate a chunk of the Banneker Park outfield. Hiking trails are strewn with downed trees, and footbridges have been weakened or swept away by swollen streams.

In Fairfax County, the pump system at historic Colvin Mill was destroyed and will cost $250,000 to replace. Sand traps at the Oak Marr golf course in Oakton were washed out, and entire sections of Fairfax's new cross-county trail floated away.

Fairfax parks manager Ron Pearson said the toll was worse than after Hurricane Isabel. Then, he said, "we had tree damage, but not the type of flooding we saw in this storm. This was countywide. All our parks have been affected."

Arlington County yesterday estimated $3 million in damage to its parks and recreational facilities.

Flooding closed the Takoma Community Center in Northwest Washington, and severe erosion washed out Fort Lincoln trails, said Regina Williams with the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.

All week, counties in the region added to the long list of battered recreational facilities and swamped parks that will be shut down until further notice, posting the closures on their Web sites.

Trails, playgrounds, ballfields, campgrounds and nature centers were taken out by the storms across Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Officials said they're still trying to gauge the destruction.

By next week, the region will go from sloshing to slapping as a bumper crop of mosquitoes turns up in time for Fourth of July barbecues, said Jorge Arias, mosquito control chief at Fairfax's health department.

Although the deluge washed plenty of mosquito larvae away, Arias said, eggs laid by daylight-biting tiger mosquitoes, which survive droughts, were "just hanging around waiting for all the artificial containers" -- flowerpots, barbecue grills, the seat of your kid's bicycle -- "to fill up."

"I believe in seven to 10 days, we're going to have a lot of problems," Arias said. High season for West Nile virus coincided with the flood, Arias said, so "if we do get a big surge [in mosquito numbers], things could go badly."

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