The Silver Lining in the Next Snowstorm

Electricity: back on, after 30 hours.
VDOT snow removal budget: exhausted, according to Wall Street Journal.
Car: able to get out of subdivision without multiple pushes, finally.
Muscles: still tired, after shoveling, then shoveling, then shoveling again.
Kitchen wall: still dented where portable radio impacted it, after announcers reported on next snowstorm.
Attitude: was improving, but now shifting towards crabby after breaking portable radio.

For those of us with cabin fever, or with broken tree branches looming over fragile powerlines, the thought of another major snowstorm is not welcome.  For the Chesapeake Bay… it’s a good thing we’re getting more snow, instead of rain.

Slow-to-melt snow seeps gradually into the ground, or flows to the creeks over days rather than hours.  In contrast, warm rains rush to the streams, carrying slugs of pollution from parking lots and then scouring streambanks to carry sediment downstream.

When sediment and contaminants wash rapidly to the Chesapeake Bay, the storm runoff overloads the capacity of the bay to absorb the changes.  The crabs, oysters, and other critters can handle only so much habitat alteration in a short burst.  Hurricane Agnes clobbered the submerged aquatic vegetation in particular.  Since that 1972 storm, continued pollution loads have weakened the natural capacity of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay to recover from changes in salinity and new coatings of sediment.

A warm rain today, melting 20+ inches of snow, could overload the system again.  If we got 3 inches of rain instead of another 10+ inches of snow, then much of our current snow piles would melt, local creeks would flood, and high-energy water racing downstream would carry massive amounts of sediment, nitrogen, phosphorous, and other pollution swiftly to the Potomac River and then the Chesapeake Bay.

In time, the “snowmageddon” piles surrounding us now will finally melt.  Be patient; we will see crocuses and daffodils emerge in a few more weeks.  Later this summer, people will be feasting on crabs, oysters, rockfish, and other seafood from the Chesapeake Bay.  Soon enough, life will go on as before in Northern Virginia.  If this next snowstorm buries Northern Virginia again for a day or two – hey, we’ll survive (though I’ll miss hearing the weather reports on that portable radio, if the power goes out again).

However, if we got the next surge of moisture as rainfall instead of snow, life would not go on as before downstream.  Some of the life in the Chesapeake Bay would not survive a significant flood of pollution washing down swiftly from Northern Virginia.

That would affect our summertime picnics; for those of us who enjoy seafood, it’s important to Save the Bay.  A recent marketing campaign to Save the Bay focused not on the environment, but on food.  Ads encouraged everyone in the DC area to fertilize lawns in just the Fall season (rather than in the Spring), to protect vegetation along stream corridors, and to limit stormwater runoff – so we can save the crabs and then eat them.

So when the snowflakes fall again, and the muscles ache from shoveling yet again… visualize a seafood feast, and be thankful that we got snow instead of rain.


1 comment so far

  1. khosen on

    Snow is good for replenishing the groundwater but it can still be a problem for the Bay, especially unusually large amounts such as what’s on the ground now (with more on the way!).

    Sooner or later all that snow is going to melt into local streams and eventually make its way to the Bay. When that happens, the water will carry the “normal” pollution loads plus thousands of tons of the salt, sand and de-icing chemicals VDOT and homeowners use to clear roads, driveways and sidewalks. Snow also absorbs and carries large amounts on nitrogen (deposition from air pollution).

    The ground is saturated now, when the snow melts pollutants could be released into the Bay en masse. How fast the snow melts will make a difference but, given the huge amount on the ground, a surge of pollution from melting snow seems likely and could signal a bad year for the Chesapeake Bay.

    Pollution comes from everywhere and everyone. This spring will be a great time for best practices in the backyard!

    There is lots of information online about how you can improve the appearance of your yard, attract wildlife and help save the Bay. Check out the BayScapes guides for homeowners here

    Another good resource is DCRs brochure about lawn care for homeowners in the Chesapeake Bay region, here

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