Political leaders of the Bay region met on Friday, Sept. 22, on Kent Island, Md., for the annual Chesapeake Executive Council meeting to adopt new measures aimed at improving water quality throughout the watershed.
The waters of the Bay served as the backdrop for the signing of important policy directives:
Prior to Friday's formal meeting, a Watershed Restoration Fair was held at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis, Md., to celebrate the organizations throughout the watershed that are helping to make Bay restoration a reality. The fair included exhibits and presentations by over 90 conservation and restoration groups, including:
National Aquarium in Baltimore
Snyder County (Pa.) Conservation District
Upper Susquehanna Coalition
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fish
Four Businesses for the Bay facilities received recognition from Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich for their pollution prevention and nutrient reduction successes: Volvo Powertrain (Md.), Wenger's Feed Mill (Pa.), Trammell Crow Company (D.C.) and Degussa Goldschmidt Chemical Corporation (Va.).
The Forest Conservation Directive obligates the signatories to identify where forests are needed most to protect water quality in their jurisdiction, and to establish individual numeric goals for forest conservation. In addition, the directive provides guidelines for developing a framework with milestones to help implement and track progress toward the numeric goal.
This directive will mark the first time the partners have joined together to support a forestland conservation initiative, formally recognizing the vital and often overlooked role forests play in improving water quality.
Coinciding with the signing of the Forest Conservation Directive is the release of The State of Chesapeake Forests. This in-depth report paints a clear picture of the values of and threats to the watershed's forests, and is the first-ever comprehensive look at how retaining and expanding forests in critical areas of the watershed may be the most cost-effective strategy to ensure long-term nutrient load reductions to the Bay.
The Executive Council partnered with the Lawn Care Product Manufacturing Industry to sign another groundbreaking policy. The Healthy Lawns and Clean Water Initiative will, by 2009, reduce by 50 percent the pounds of phosphorus in lawn care products sold in the watershed. A second initiative addressing nitrogen in fertilizers will be developed for the 2007 Executive Council meeting.
In a complementary action, the non-federal members of the council signed an agreement to support efforts to have funding included in the 2007 Farm Bill that would provide the watershed's 87,000 farms the ability to institute environmentally sound practices. The directive includes a statement recognizing the importance of technical assistance to conservation program implementation, and lists three state commitments regarding the leveraging of federal funds, the provisioning of adequate technical assistance and the coordination of state efforts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.
This resolution recognizes the need for a unified voice from the farming community to help guide the Partnership in a direction that enhances clean-up efforts in the watershed, while providing increased farm viability.
It urges state secretaries and commissioners to periodically meet and discuss issues related to farming and Bay watershed restoration, and tasks them to report back to the Executive Council with recommendations to enhance the role of agriculture in the Bay Partnership.
On any given afternoon, thousands of cars and trucks speed along Route 301 on Maryland's upper Eastern Shore, rolling past forests, rivers and soybean fields on their way north to Delaware or south to the Bay Bridge.
(Image courtesy Eastern Shoreway Alliance)
Staff with Adkins Arboretum hope motorists will soon travel on Route 301 for another reason: to see the road itself.
Since early 2002, the arboretum has led the Eastern Shoreway Alliance, a partnership of local organizations and individuals interested in conserving the rural character of this well-traveled road. The group's mission is to protect the stretch of Route 301 between Queenstown, Maryland, and the Maryland/Delaware state line from the development and urbanization threatening many of the Eastern Shore's most scenic areas.
“We want to preserve a sense of place, so you know where you are in the world,” said Ellie Altman, executive director of Adkins Arboretum and co-chair of the Eastern Shoreway Alliance. Much of that “sense of place” has already been lost around the Chesapeake Bay region, as chain restaurants and retail stores make once-unique towns look like any other place in the United States.
Take a drive north on the Eastern Shoreway — the name the Alliance has chosen for Route 301 — into Delaware, and the threat becomes a reality. New homes, stores, hotels and restaurants sit atop land where corn and soybeans grew just a few years ago. Bulldozers and “land for sale” signs along the road indicate that more development is on its way.
(Image courtesy AARoads)
This type of development is not unique to Delaware. Across the Bay watershed — and the country — new construction is concentrated along existing major roads. Although roads are necessary to modern life, they are often gateways to development and the first places where gas stations and strip malls pop up.
Back on the Maryland portion of Route 301, the scene is much closer to the traditional image of rural Delmarva. Volunteers with the arboretum have been working hard to protect this landscape by removing invasive plants and restoring meadows along the road. Dozens of signs mark these areas, which soak up excess polluted runoff and provide habitat for beneficial birds, bugs and butterflies.
With the addition of these meadows, the Eastern Shoreway now acts as a “linear arboretum” where travelers can see some of the Eastern Shore's native plants and flowers outside of Adkins' 400-acre facility in Ridgely, Maryland, according to Altman.
(Image courtesy Eastern Shoreway Alliance)
Through its website, the Eastern Shoreway Alliance markets the road as a travel destination for tourists from Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. And next year, one of the group's biggest goals will be achieved when the Eastern Shoreway is printed in the Maryland State Highway Administration's Scenic Byways Guide. It will be one of the state's few high-speed roads designated as a "scenic byway."
“Normally you think of scenic byways as backroads, not highways,” said Altman. “But highways can — and should — be beautiful, too.”
From the beginning, the State Highway Administration has been a willing participant in this project. The Eastern Shoreway Alliance is working with the agency to reduce mowing along the highway and put up signs at the crossings of the Chester and Sassafras rivers, two Bay tributaries. The group also wants to add literature on the road's significance to the highway's welcome center.
The effort isn't perfect. Billboards litter a few points along the road, advertising politicians, available land and car insurance companies. Although encroaching development can't be stopped entirely, the Eastern Shoreway Alliance hopes that future structures can be built in a way that does not harm the road's natural scenery.
Most importantly, the group has managed to garner support and build a sense of urgency among the area's residents to protect the land along this “beautiful highway.”
“People think it will be here forever,” said Altman of the road and its unspoiled scenery. “We want to interpret, protect and restore the road's environment and show travelers that you can have development that fits in with nature.”
In tiny Occoquan, Virginia, located just minutes away from bustling Interstate 95 in Prince William County, Germán and Renate Vanegas anticipate their upcoming fall Occoquan River cleanup with a concern that many other small nonprofits only ever dream of: they may have too many volunteers.
At a time when many popular environmental initiatives — such as minimizing backyard fertilizer use and implementing “smart growth” development — target white, middle-class residents, the family-run Friends of the Occoquan (FOTO) has instead directed its efforts toward the Hispanic community: a fast-growing segment of the Bay region's population that's often overlooked by environmental groups.
Using a combination of outreach, education and on-the-ground conservation, FOTO has successfully engaged Spanish-speaking residents throughout Northern Virginia in protecting their local river and becoming stewards of the Chesapeake Bay.
FOTO's work is concentrated on the Occoquan River, which splits Fairfax and Prince William counties and flows into the Potomac River.
“When we first moved here about seventeen or eighteen years ago, the river was so polluted,” said Renate. “We began cleaning up the small area in front of our property. About four years ago, we decided to get some help.”
“Some help” came in the form of about 100 community volunteers, who spent one Saturday removing trash from the banks of the river at four local parks. FOTO has since hosted two cleanups per year, attracting hundreds of volunteers to remove bicycles, mattresses, appliances, dozens of tires and several tons of debris from the river, which supplies drinking water to the area's growing population.
FOTO began concentrating on the Hispanic community after the Vanegases met with local park rangers, who had observed many Hispanic families leaving their trash on the ground. When the rangers would ask the families to pick up their trash, they found that many did not understand English.
It's not that Hispanic residents do not care about the environment, explains Renate, but that environmental awareness is not a part of many Hispanic cultures.
To help the local Spanish-speaking community understand the importance of picking up trash, FOTO created and installed bilingual signs at parks in the Occoquan River watershed. “NO LITTERING: Drains to River / NO BOTE BASURA: Va al Rio,” the signs read, with the international “no” symbol of a circle with a red slash over a picture of a person throwing trash into the water.
FOTO has also reached out to the area's Hispanic youths by speaking at local middle and high schools. The Vanegases hope that young people will grow up to respect the Occoquan River if they learn about its history, geography and importance to Northern Virginia's residents.
FOTO's outreach and education efforts have been met with measurable success. At their last cleanup, the Vanegases estimated that about 80 percent of the volunteers were Hispanic. Many of them were the same students the Vanegases spoke to at the local schools.
Last year, FOTO completed one of its largest projects to date when it helped produce a bilingual education video that teaches viewers about the link between human actions and the health of the Occoquan River and the Chesapeake Bay. “Saving Our Watersheds: Beyond the Occoquan,” has been shown on public access channels throughout Northern Virginia. FOTO is now working with other local networks so more people can learn about the importance of protecting the river.
The work has been difficult at times. But FOTO has managed to connect with a large and important part of the Bay watershed's population that may otherwise have been neglected.
As they prepare for October's cleanup — and the potential of having more volunteers than trash to pick up — the Vanegases look back on their mobilization efforts with enthusiasm.
“One thing we have learned over the years is that you have to be persistent,” said Germán.
“Yes,” Renate added with a smile. “Persistence is key.”