Crickets are shrilling on a sultry summer evening in Delaware as my daughter and I push our kayak into White Creek. The channel bends left, then right, then left again, widening as we paddle downstream toward Indian River Bay. Fish are jumping in the twilight. Snowy egrets emerge from marshes at the water’s edge, picking through the silty mud on bright yellow feet.
At the mouth of the bay, we follow the shoreline, watching blue crabs prowl in the shallows. On an empty dock, something hunches on a pillar, casting a lopsided reflection in the darkening water. As we drift closer, the hump unfolds into a full-grown blue heron that tracks our approach, swiveling its long neck. When we draw within a paddle’s length, it lurches into the air with a rusty honk that sounds like birdspeak for, “You kids get off my lawn.”
Who can blame him? Among the birds and bugs and fish and crabs, we humans are the interlopers here. And he has reason to be wary.
“This is a beautiful region, and the secret is out,” says Sally Boswell, education and outreach coordinator for the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays. Delaware has only 28 miles of coast, but its mild weather and natural beauty draw thousands of visitors year-round. And then there are the residents: more than 112,000 in the Inland Bays’ 300-mile watershed, a population that has doubled since 1990. Many come for the brightly lit boardwalks and resort-town amenities of Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach. But more and more are discovering Delaware’s three connected inland bays: Rehoboth, Indian River, and Little Assawoman.
Separated by a coastal highway from the beach towns, these unsung attractions are at once geographically nearby and a world away. Like the larger and better known Chesapeake Bay 80 miles to the west, the Inland Bays are estuaries, where fresh and salt water mix. Although they cover about 32 square miles, they’re no more than 8 feet deep, with virtually no waves. They are, as William Warner wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 book, Beautiful Swimmers, “an intimate place where land and water intertwine in infinite varieties of mood and pattern.”
As with so many natural havens, the Inland Bays’ delicate beauty also makes them vulnerable. What’s happening on Delmarva—the peninsula between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic coast, which contains all of Delaware and parts of Maryland and Virginia—is a case study for the entire United States coastline. Between 1960 and 2010, the population of American coastal counties nearly doubled, spurred by rising incomes, highway construction, and cheap federal flood insurance. And the rush continues: According to some estimates, 75 percent of Americans will live within 50 miles of a coast by 2075.
Meanwhile, experts warn that we’re on the verge of loving our shorelines to death. In regions from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico and Seattle to San Diego, development has polluted coastal waters and degraded wetlands. The Inland Bays are not immune. Once-clear water has turned murky, and many of the bays’ abundant seagrass and shellfish beds have died off. As rapid coastal growth continues, conservationists and the public must find ways to protect the very resources that drew people here in the first place.
Estuaries are some of the most fertile ecosystems in the world, containing habitats from mud flats to sandy beaches to salt marshes. Because many fish and shellfish spawn or grow in the sheltered waters, these areas often are called the nurseries of the sea. More than 100 species of fish are known to swim the Inland Bays, and every year recreational anglers make more than 300,000 fishing trips to cast for them. Prized catches include striped bass and flounder, as well as sea trout and an occasional bluefish. Smaller fish, including mummichogs, spot, and silversides, serve as important food sources for larger species, while many human residents harvest clams and feisty blue crabs—Warner’s titular “beautiful swimmers.”
Because the estuaries lie along coastal migration routes, they also provide important habitat for birds and birders. “Delaware sits right in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway for north-south migration,” says Bill Stewart, president of the Delmarva Ornithological Society. “It’s a major staging area and overwintering area for hundreds of species of birds. At least 85 species depend on the Inland Bays year-round, and up to 200 species use the bays for food and protection in summer.”
Sightings change with the seasons. Some 25 species of ducks and geese spend winters on the bays. In spring, many water birds—herons, egrets, oystercatchers—nest on small islands for protection from foxes and raccoons. During the summer, ospreys perch on raised platforms dotting the bays, and it’s not uncommon to spot bald eagles in trees near the water.
Despite the seeming profusion of wildlife, conservationists say there are clear signs of stress. “Fish and wildlife populations have declined at estuaries across the United States, including the Inland Bays,” Boswell says. In the mid-1950s, clammers pulled up to 18 million clams yearly from the bays. Today they take around 1 million. And according to Stewart, regional bird counts have declined over the past decade as well: “We don’t see some cool species, like the eastern meadowlarks, any more, because they don’t want to land on golf courses.”
To work toward offsetting those trends, the Center for the Inland Bays is reforesting 40 acres of former farmland near the bays, has built an artificial nesting structure for herons and egrets on an island, and is planning projects to restore five more acres each of tidal wetlands and uplands, creating new sites in the bays where birds can nest and avoid predators.
Why are fish and bird populations in such a state of flux? It’s a question with a complex but distillable answer: pollution. Pollution flows into the estuaries from many sources, mucking up the one thing—clean water—that benefits every bay species, from the tiniest crab on up the food chain. Fertilizers wash off from farmlands and lawns. Some cities and towns allow wastewater treatment plants to discharge effluent, or treated water that still contains allowable quantities of pollutants, into rivers and bays. And in rural areas where homes are not connected to town sewer lines, residential septic systems release pollutants directly into the groundwater.
And then there’s the impact of converting natural land, such as farmland and forests, to impervious surfaces, such as paved highways, that water can’t penetrate. Instead of filtering down through the soil, rain and melting snow run over hard surfaces, picking up pesticides, fertilizers, and other pollutants before washing into the nearest body of water. When more than 10 percent of the land in a watershed becomes impervious, water quality starts to suffer.
All of that runoff and wastewater contains massive quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus, which generate huge algae blooms. When the algae die, waterborne bacteria break them down, using oxygen as fuel. This process leaves too little oxygen in the water to support plants and fish. Shallow water bodies, such as the Inland Bays, are especially at risk because their water supply turns over very slowly. (Remember that lack of tides, so appealing to paddlers and anglers?) This prolonged cycle lets nitrogen and phosphorus build up, creating especially large blooms of algae.
Little Assawoman Bay, which receives salt water through two narrow canals at its northern and southern ends, is the most vulnerable of the Inland Bays. Rehoboth and Indian River bays are flushed more thoroughly by tidal flows through the Indian River outlet, a broad, deep channel that connects directly to the Atlantic. In open, well-circulating areas, water quality in the bays is generally fair to good. But many zones on the western shores and along tributary rivers and creeks have high levels of algae and pollutants.
Following the creation of both the National Estuary Program, in 1987, and the state’s own Center for the Inland Bays, in 1994, Delaware has adopted regulations for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus in the bays. This plan, the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), calls for ending treated wastewater discharges into the bays; helping homeowners modernize their septic systems or connect to sewer lines; showing farmers ways to reduce nutrient pollution from fertilizer and manure; and requiring developers to take steps that will protect water quality—for example, installing local sewer lines—in order to receive permits for new projects.
Some policies are showing results. When Delaware adopted the TMDL in 1998, 13 municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants were discharging into the bays. Today only one remains, in Rehoboth Beach. The town has received state approval to build a pipeline that will pump its treated effluent a mile out to sea—a strategy that some environmental groups oppose but is in place in other coastal cities, including Honolulu and Boston. What’s more, state and local governments have switched more than 23,000 buildings in the Inland Bays’ watershed from septic systems to sewer lines with plans to convert roughly 18,000 more.
Thanks to these and other steps, nitrogren levels in the bays are declining, algae concentrations are falling, and water is becoming clearer—slowly. Pollutants from past practices are still leaching into the bays, “but we’ve seen many fewer fish kills in recent years than we did when we started monitoring water quality in the early 1990s,” says Joe Farrell, director of the University of Delaware’s citizen monitoring program.
In addition to enacting water treatment standards, Delaware is taking a second, more homegrown approach to cleaner water. In 2013, the state passed a law that allows shellfish farming in the Inland Bays. Clams and oysters are filter feeders that remove pollutants from the water around them. A single adult oyster can filter up to 60 gallons of water per day. The Center for the Inland Bays estimates that establishing shellfish farms on 1 percent of the bays’ total acreage could filter as much as 22 percent of bay water every day.
As the second-smallest state in the nation, dwarfing only Rhode Island, Delaware can be easily overlooked. That dynamic is echoed by the Inland Bays, which feed and sustain but fall in the shadow of the splashier beach towns’ $2 billion a year tourism industry. There’s a fine line between depending on and abusing the bays, but Delaware conservationists and lawmakers understand the connection between healthy Inland Bays and healthy oceans—not to mention healthy communities. Plus, as more people discover the quiet pleasures of fishing and paddling on the bays, more volunteer to assist with conservation efforts, counting species and cleaning up shorelines.
“Growth has helped in some ways,” Farrell says. “People are very engaged, and they care about clean water. I think we’re on a good path.”
LEARN MORE: WHERE TO PADDLE THE INLAND BAYS
The best way to experience the bays is to get on the water. “The bays are calm and shallow, so they’re a great place to paddle and explore the marshes,” says Mitch Mitchell, co-owner of the local outfitter Coastal Kayak, located on Little Assawoman Bay. For boat and stand-up paddleboard rentals, lessons, and guided tours of the four spots below, as well as other regional destinations, visit coastalkayak.com.
1. Assawoman Bay State Wildlife Area, on the northwest side of Little Assawoman Bay. “There are three launch areas, so you can always find one that’s out of the wind,” Mitchell says. “And the rookery island in the middle of the bay has unbelievable bird concentrations in spring.”
2. Southern Rehoboth Bay, just north of the Indian River inlet. Launch from the end of Savages Ditch Road, accessible from southbound Route 1. Hug the marshes to look for horseshoe crabs or paddle across open water to sandy islands in the center of the bay—a great vantage point for sunsets.
3. Trap Pond State Park, in Laurel. Weave through still waters between towering bald cypress, the northernmost natural stand of these trees in the United States. The park is also a good place to see birds, including herons, owls, warblers, and bald eagles.
4. Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, in Milton. This coastal preserve 30 miles north of the Inland Bays includes a 7-mile, self-guided canoe trail along a non-tidal freshwater creek with three launch sites. More than 300 species of birds pass through the refuge each year.
LEARN MORE: GET INVOLVED
AMC’s legacy of conservation leadership in the Mid-Atlantic continues today through advocacy in support of the federal Highlands Conservation Act, which works to protect forested headwaters in the Delaware River Watershed.
“Paddlers and outdoor enthusiasts can be assured that the bountiful clean water that flows down the Delaware River, into the Delaware Bay, past spectacular national public lands such as Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and ultimately on to the Atlantic Ocean will continue to support a thriving and healthy ecosystem for diverse wildlife and people, for generations to come,” says Mark Zakutanksy, AMC’s Mid-Atlantic policy manager.
To learn more about AMC’s conservation efforts in the Mid-Atlantic, visit our Conservation Department. To lend the Inland Bays a hand, start here:
1. Inland Bays Volunteer Fish Monitoring Program: Track the variety and abundance of more than 100 species by helping capture, identify, and release fish.
2. University of Delaware’s Citizen Monitoring Program: Collect river and bay water samples that state regulators use for many purposes, including filing Congressional reports and tracking algae blooms.
3. Delaware Shorebird Project: Help scientists and ornithologists catch, identify, and band threatened red knots and other shorebirds during migration season in May and early June.