The days are growing longer, if not much warmer. I always enjoy the coming of spring. Given the winter we’ve had, even more so this year. Though we have clocks and calendars that tell us the time and signal the change of seasons, it’s the natural world’s harbingers of spring that give me true hope that the snowy, cold winter will soon be over.
Image courtesy John Cholod/Flickr
Trees, flowers and iconic species like American shad, striped bass and osprey have their own “clocks” that tell them when warmer days are on the way and it’s time to begin their return migration to the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. For me, those are the true indications that we will soon be able to enjoy warm weather and all of the outdoor opportunities our region has to offer. Somehow I trust them more than I do the calendar on my wall.
Just as plants and animals are emerging, many people seem to be itching to get outside once again. All around me, people are preparing their camping gear, planning their gardens and getting their boats ready for the water. Groups across the watershed are gearing up for their season of restoration, and their upcoming tree plantings and stream clean-ups will benefit communities and the environment. And our partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have re-launched several smart buoys that are part of the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS), which were removed in winter to prevent ice damage. Some of these buoys are located along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, and they allow travelers to check real-time water and weather conditions and listen to narration about natural and cultural history.
Image courtesy Ferd/Flickr
I’m still waiting for the last true indicator of spring: that indescribable but unmistakable smell in the air. It’s hard to express in words, but you know it when it happens. The earth warms, flowers begin to bloom, breezes turn buttery and wildlife emerges. And the cycle—the rhythm of nature—begins anew. The sound of sails luffing is not far off.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
After almost a decade of confusion about just what waters the Clean Water Act protects, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have clarified that most seasonal and rain-dependent streams are guarded under the law.
While these streams might only flow during certain times of year or following a rainstorm, they are connected to downstream waters that offer habitat to wildlife and drinking water to communities.
The federal agencies’ proposed rule also protects wetlands near rivers and streams. But it does not expand the scope of the Clean Water Act, and it preserves existing exemptions for building irrigation ponds, maintaining drainage ditches and other agricultural activities. In other words, protection for ponds, lakes and other “stand-alone” waters will be determined on a case-specific basis, and those agricultural activities that do not send pollutants into protected waters will still not require a permit.
The proposed rule will be open for public comment for 90 days after its publication in the Federal Register.
More than 60 organizations and two thousand people have commented on the Chesapeake Bay Program’s draft Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, offering feedback that the Chesapeake Executive Council will consider when finalizing the restoration plan.
Image courtesy Jeff Weese/Flickr
Climate change and chemical contaminants were among the leading issues addressed. More than 1,000 individuals asked the Bay Program to integrate climate concerns and adaptation strategies into our work, while more than 300 asked us to set goals to reduce the pesticides, pharmaceuticals and other toxic contaminants in our rivers and streams. Residents from across the watershed submitted letters that described the potential effects of both issues, from rising water temperatures and eroding shorelines to intersex fish and human health impacts.
Other comments on the draft agreement addressed the need to control stormwater runoff in urban and suburban areas, increase the environmental education of the region’s students and establish more public access sites to connect citizens with local waterways.
“The Chesapeake Bay Program values citizen input,” said Joe Gill, chair of the Bay Program’s Principals’ Staff Committee and secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “More than 17 million people live in this watershed. One of the most important lessons we have learned in our decades of restoration work is that individual citizens, private businesses, watershed groups and local governments are our stakeholders—they are people who have a “stake” in what we do. They are key partners in the attainment of our restoration goals. The Executive Council will welcome and consider all of the comments we receive from our stakeholders when finalizing the new agreement.”
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement will guide signatories—which include the states of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Delaware; the District of Columbia; the Chesapeake Bay Commission; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—in the restoration of the watershed. It establishes goals and outcomes that address water quality, fisheries and habitat, land conservation, public access and environmental literacy.
Comments on the draft agreement were left between January 29 and March 17 by private citizens, nonprofit organizations, conservation districts, wastewater agencies and more. A previous comment period on a prior draft took place between July 10 and August 15, 2013, and generated comments summarized here.
On a blue bird day in Church Creek, Maryland, a white pickup truck bounces down a dirt driveway, splashing through fresh mud puddles and leaving ripples in its wake. The low whirring of female Northern pintail ducks in the middle of their courtship is exuberant, and there is excitement in the air – it is almost time for the birds to make their long migration north.
The truck rounds a bend and hundreds of waterfowl take flight, seeking solace in the nearby Honga River. Landowner Jerry Harris steps out of the truck, his two hunting dogs, Bo and Maddie, in tow. Jerry has owned Mallard Haven River Farm for nearly 20 years and has transformed it from an open pasture to an ideal stopover site for thousands of waterfowl migrating along the Atlantic Flyway.
Harris recounts purchasing the farm as an open pasture with a ditch down the center in the late ‘90s. Initially, he battled saltwater intrusion and high-tide floods of the Chesapeake Bay. His solution involved closing off the connection between the ditch and the Bay and creating a freshwater storage area that can now hold up to 6.5 million gallons of water. With financial assistance from the state of Maryland, Ducks Unlimited and North American Wetlands Conservation Act Grants (NAWCA), he built berms to create a series of separate water impoundments for use by waterfowl across 80 acres of the 230-acre farm.
Harris has hired two full-time employees to help maintain the property. “We’ve tried to do everything to improve the efficiency of our work,” Harris said. “We have pipes in all the impoundments that lead to a main water storage ditch, so we can connect our portable pumps right to the pipes and drive the water wherever we would like. If we’re irrigating this field during a dry period we don’t have to hook hoses up or anything.”
Because his land is privately owned, Harris has the freedom to experiment with unconventional conservation practices. His latest endeavor? Moist soils management, or the slow draw down of water from the impoundments to foster the growth of wetland plants like smartweed, fall panicum and fox tail. “As the water gradually comes down, it will support different kinds of weeds, and if you are good enough at it you can have a whole platter of foods that fulfill the ducks’ dietary needs,” Harris said. Moist soils management is good for the wildlife and the farmer: it cuts fertilizer use, and mechanical tilling is only needed about once every five years.
In the past, Harris grew corn on his farm to provide high-energy food for visiting waterfowl. Harris admits that deer and their affinity for corn have presented a challenge to his habitat management practices. For this reason, he plans to grow rice instead. “It’s literally the same kind of high-carbohydrate food that corn is,” Harris said. “The big advantage is that the deer don’t eat rice. In some fields, nearly half of the corn crop gets eaten by the deer.”
Harris has been an avid hunter since he was a young boy; growing up hunting with his grandfather on the bays north of San Francisco cultivated his passion for conserving wildlife habitat. He now owns three farms in Maryland and one in Montana, all under conservation easements through Ducks Unlimited, the largest land conservation owner in the United States, of which he sits on the board.
“The farm is big enough that on a windy day you can be shooting on the farm and the upwind birds will still be there. With the wild ducks, the thing you want to do if you want to keep them is not disturb them too much, otherwise they find another place to go,” Harris said. He has even calculated exactly how many ducks he and his guests can harvest in a year without negatively impacting waterfowl populations, setting the limit at 175 ducks from all four farms.
Harris designates 20 percent of his time to sitting on the board of Ducks Unlimited and of Waterfowl Chesapeake, a Maryland-based non-profit whose mission is to create, restore and conserve waterfowl habitat in the Chesapeake Bay Region. Together they help draw awareness to protecting area wetlands.
Judy Price, the executive director of Waterfowl Chesapeake, has helped the organization raise more than $5 million for habitat restoration and conservation education projects. Waterfowl Chesapeake, the umbrella organization of the annual Waterfowl Festival, held in November in Easton, Maryland, recently created an alliance for waterfowl conservation that consists of a panel of scientific experts that offer advice to current and prospective habitat restoration initiatives. They have also created a restoration project registry, expanding the visibility of high-value projects to the public and potential funders.
When asked why protecting waterfowl habitat is a priority, Price responded, “The annual migration of waterfowl truly enhances our lives throughout the Chesapeake region and, in particular, the Eastern Shore. Not only do we gain ecological benefits, but also significant economic value, from a healthy waterfowl community. By focusing on maintaining strong habitat, hopefully, we can avoid people, years from now, saying, ‘I remember seeing ducks and geese in the skies. Whatever happened to them?’”
Images by Steve Droter. To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.