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List of State Officials - Martin O'Malley, Governor; Anthony Brown, Lt. Governor; Shari T. Wilson, Acting MDE Secretary 

Volume II, Number 11

 March 2007

eMDE is a monthly publication of the Maryland Department of the Environment. It covers articles on current environmental issues and events in the state. 

Discovering Pollution Sources

By Kathy Brohawn, Heather Morehead, and Anna Soehl, Science Services Administration

Click on photo to view larger image

Photo 1 of a Shoreline 

Photo 2 of a Shoreline 

Shoreline Diagram 

Home septic system failure 

Pier covered with bird droppings 

Sign at Wicomico Shores Public Landing 

Back to this issue's cover page 

MDE combines tried and true pollution source survey methods with new technology

During its annual shoreline survey effort in November 2006, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), in cooperation with St. Mary’s County Environmental Health Department personnel, identified a number of bacteria sources that impact the water quality of Wicomico Shores beaches.

“Working together with local health and public works departments makes it much easier to implement necessary corrective measures that are identified during the survey process,” said Dr. Richard Eskin, director, Technical and Regulatory Services Administration.

Getting to the Source

When performing a pollution source survey, MDE staff get an up close look at the area’s topography, population density and land use, as well as a chance to talk to homeowners about the condition of their waste disposal systems. Shoreline surveys provide MDE with other useful information, such as estimated counts of domestic pets and wildlife residing in the watershed. 

Utilizing New Technology

During the November survey, MDE personnel had an opportunity to test new equipment and technology, which included:

  • Tablet laptop computer
  • Hand-held Global Positioning System unit
  • Prototype database that included a Maryland Property View 2004 geographic information system (GIS) layer
  • Digital data-entry form developed by Quentin Forrest of MDE’s Annapolis Field Office

The prototype system developed for MDE’s Beaches Program and the new equipment enabled field personnel to easily document and geo-reference any observed pollution source that may significantly impact water quality in nearby beaches. In addition, the new software will enable MDE to develop an electronic database for all watersheds where pollution source surveys are conducted. This makes the data more readily available for analysis by internal and external users and provides a unique overview of bacteria sources within a specific watershed.

Sources of Bacteria

Through the survey effort, MDE identified many potential sources of bacteria that may impact water quality at nearby beaches, including: domestic pets, wildlife, waterfowl, and two domestic wastewater collection pipeline failures. Waste from all of these sources drains directly into the marsh area, eventually making its way to the beach.

Human Sources

Septic system failures, leaking sewer infrastructure, and sewer overflows are often suspects in high bacteria counts. The homes, located near the Wicomico Shores beach area, are served by the Wicomico Shores Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is managed by St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission (METCOM). METCOM is a quasi-governmental, non-profit body that supplies water and sewer services to St. Mary's County. In order to determine whether human waste is a major contributor of bacterial pollution in the Wicomico Shores area, MDE staff examined accessible wastewater pipelines and identified two properties with potential wastewater pipe failures. Raw sewage was also observed around one of the wastewater cleanout pipes. MDE reported these findings to METCOM, resulting in elimination of the pollution sources within a week.

Pets and Domestic Animal Sources

Pets and domestic animals are often a significant source of bacterial pollution entering our waters. The incorporation of new technology into the shoreline survey effort made it possible to efficiently map the number of homes with pets along Wicomico Shores. Approximately 39 percent of the homes surveyed had residents with pets. MDE personnel also observed horse manure in the neighborhood streets and surrounding trails. The runoff from these homes and trails drains directly into the marsh next to Wicomico Shores Beach.

Wildlife Pollution Sources

Fecal matter from wildlife is another source of bacteria entering the local surface waters. The shoreline survey revealed that the Wicomico Shores area is comprised of ponds, freshwater marshes, and woodlands that serve as habitat for a wide variety of wildlife and waterfowl. These areas drain into the freshwater marsh area and into the outlet next to the beach. At the time of the survey, MDE staff noted that the dock located on the Wicomico Shores Beach was noticeably covered with seagull droppings. Also, there were numerous footprints left by wildlife and shorebirds along the beach by the marsh outlet.

Agricultural Sources

According to local residents interviewed during the survey, an agricultural field south of Wicomico Shores emanates an odor indicative of manure application. Following best management practices will reduce runoff from the field that could drain into the freshwater marsh and into the adjacent outlet to Wicomico Shores Beach. 

Value of Pollution Source Shoreline Survey

The shoreline surveys carried out by MDE provide beach management agencies with a detailed evaluation of potential bacteria sources that affect water quality in nearby beaches.

“With this level of detail, agencies can move toward mitigating sources that are identified as having the most impact,” said Quentin Forrest, MDE Environmental Specialist, Technical Studies Section. “For example, a neighborhood pet waste cleanup program is a worthwhile effort in areas where pets and dogs are a major source of pollution.”

In the future, MDE plans to utilize the new shoreline survey technology in other areas throughout Maryland. Once an electronic database is compiled, the GIS technology will provide valuable insight into the scope of potential bacteria sources. As the program evolves, MDE will continue to share its findings with local health departments who have the authority to take actions toward correcting failing septic systems. Local environmental authorities can also use the information to make informed decisions about measures they need to take to mitigate shoreline pollution sources.


©2007 Copyright MDE

Editorial Board
Maryland Department of the Environment
1800 Washington Boulevard, Baltimore, MD 21230