Elle Bassett and her work toward swimmable, fishable rivers
Elle Bassett serves as the Miles-Wye Riverkeeper at ShoreRivers, an organization dedicated to protecting and restoring Eastern Shore waterways (the Chester, Choptank, Miles and Wye, and Sassafras Rivers) through science-based advocacy, restoration, and education. SpinSheet recently caught up with Elle to discuss her work with ShoreRivers. She has served as the Miles-Wye Riverkeeper since 2018.
Did you enjoy boating and the environment as a child?
The South River was very much a part of my life growing up. As I’m sure many in Annapolis can relate, our summer holiday revolved around boat trips and raftups with friends. I remember noticing how the shoreline would change when I was younger, and the beach by my home slowly changed and eventually disappeared which sparked my curiosity.
I actually went to school to become an English teacher, but was required to take a science course at my college, Washington College. I took an environmental science course which involved mostly outdoor lessons, including sailing on historic skipjacks, canoeing on the river, and exploring how our society and waterways interact with and depend upon each other. I was completely hooked.
I felt as if I was learning more from the river than I was in any of my textbooks. I decided that I wanted to help others build similar relationships to the river that I had rediscovered in that course, so I focused my career after school on environmental education. I achieved a masters in environmental education and worked on developing programs that would bring students and adults to the river to learn not only about its ecology but also about how it benefits us as people recreationally, economically, aesthetically, and culturally.
What does a typical day look like you for you as a riverkeeper?
Being a riverkeeper means that you are the voice for that river, and I aim to make sure that the river has a seat at the table. The river can be impacted in many ways, which means that my work tasks can vastly differ on a day-to-day basis. In a typical week I may work on environmental enforcement, water quality monitoring, high school or elementary field trips, kayak tours, legislative hearings, native plantings, oyster planting, and more. The variety is one of my favorite parts of being a riverkeeper. One of the more consistent aspects of being though is water-quality monitoring.
The Miles and Wye Rivers are impaired waterways and suffer from an overload of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) and sediment. I test multiple sites on our rivers weekly, April-October. I monitor salinity, pH, temperature, clarity, dissolved oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus, and chlorophyll A (algae). During the summer swimming months we also test for enterococcus bacteria, which can make swimmers sick if found in high levels. Monitoring these rivers is an integral part of my job as it allows me to not only monitor trends and identify areas that may need restoration, but it also allows me to effectively communicate to the public how our rivers are doing.
A general trend that we see in our rivers on the Eastern Shore is that our water quality tends to decrease as you move upriver. This means that the majority of our pollution is coming from our land and from our practices. To me, this is encouraging because that means we have the opportunity to do so something about it.
Can you describe some of the projects that you’re involved in?
Our mission at ShoreRivers is to protect and restore our waterways through science-based advocacy, restoration, and education. There are many projects ShoreRivers is working on to achieve our mission, but I specifically am currently working on multiple projects that engage our public, improve water quality, and educate future generations. I am working with several communities to implement river-friendly yard practices to reduce runoff from their properties.
The general idea of these practices and of major restoration practices is to mimic dry years, even in wet years. How can we capture, treat, and slow the flow of water down as much as possible to reduce runoff and nutrient and sediment loading in our rivers? River-friendly yard projects include buffers, rain gardens, conservation plantings, and rain barrels. If we all focus on doing our part, I feel that we can truly make a difference in our local waterways.
I am also advocating for better protection for our submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). SAV is vital to the health of the Bay—it uptakes nutrients, produces oxygen and shelter, and buffers our shorelines among many other benefits. Currently however, our SAV is at risk and is not adequately protected from the hydraulic escalator dredge, which is used to harvest clams in Maryland. The dredge completely uproots the SAV and produces sediment plumes that can smother grass beds. I am advocating for a sustainable balance between our environment and economy that adequately considers the environmental impacts from this dredge.
Although I work on many other projects, environmental education is a personal priority to me. I strongly believe that people will not protect what they do not know and love, and that the future of our rivers lies in the future generation’s hands. ShoreRivers has multiple environmental education programs that work to reconnect students to their local waterways in an effort to make sure they know and love their rivers and therefore can make environmentally minded decisions in the future.
What are your goals for the future of Eastern Shore waterways?
My personal goal is to work myself out of a job, meaning we reach a point where our rivers have been restored and are adequately protected. The Miles and Wye Rivers’ water quality are not where they could be and should be, so we need to see a reduction of nutrient and sediment pollution and to see our rivers thrive again. We all deserve swimmable, fishable rivers.
For more information on ShoreRivers and the waterways it protects, visit shorerivers.org.