Each spring and fall, a stream gushing from a spring in the middle of Lititz, Pa., becomes the center of attention for a group of Warwick High School chemistry students. Lititz Run starts flowing in Lititz Springs Park, mere yards from the students’ campus, where they begin a biannual field trip to measure their local water quality.
The students get a hands-on learning experience that builds their environmental literacy and also provides meaningful data to the Lititz Run Watershed Alliance (LRWA) and Warwick Township. That data helps them assess completed restoration projects and decide what they want to do in the future to improve Lititz Run, which the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection lists as an impaired stream. It takes just a few miles for Lititz Run to join the Conestoga River, but along the way it picks up pollution from urban runoff, storm sewers, wastewater discharge and agriculture.
It is up to Warwick teachers Diana Griffiths and Doug Balmer to navigate the logistics of funding, paperwork, and tight curricula needed to pull off the field trips.
“We don’t have a whole lot of time or flexibility to give lots of units on applications of chemistry,” Griffiths said. “So this gives some kids a chance to see some of that chemistry put to use out in the field, even though it’s just a day.”
The trips are a partnership between Warwick High School and the LRWA. Matt Kofroth, a watershed coordinator with the Lancaster County Conservation District, has been assisting with the trips almost since they began in 1997. He describes the relationship as symbiotic.
“I’m just very thankful that they continue to be active partners in this, because you see very few communities and watershed groups working together like that,” Kofroth said.
He said it is hard to tease out the effects of restoration, an upgrade to Lititz Wastewater Treatment Plant, tree plantings and public education, but their cumulative positive impact is not surprising.
“It might seem early, but there is a slight decrease in the nutrients [in Lititz Run] over time,” Kofroth said.
Another piece of evidence for the stream’s recovery is the return of brown trout, which need cold, oxygenated waters to reproduce. Kofroth likens them to a canary in a coal mine.
And for the students, especially those who may have never seen a freshwater macroinvertebrate before, the opportunity to learn outside is a memorable one.
“I’ve had one parent contact me one time and say this is the best field trip their child has ever been on, ever, in their whole school experience. Now I’m not saying that is true for every kid, but for that kid it was just eye opening,” Griffiths said.
“I think just the fact that it’s literally in their town, in their backyard, makes a difference.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images, captions and text by Will Parson
Several waterways on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore saw improvements in water clarity over the past year, helping them earn higher grades in the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy’s fifth annual report card.
Of the sixteen rivers and streams tracked by the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, grades for ten of the waterways improved from the previous year. This includes Tuckahoe Creek, a tributary of the Choptank and historically one of the area’s most polluted rivers, which was upgraded from a “D+” to a “C.” Increased water clarity and a rebound in underwater grass abundance helped the Choptank overall earn a “B-,” up from a “C” last year. Eastern Bay and the surrounding creeks showed modest improvement, all scoring “B” grades or higher.
Runoff from agriculture is the primary factor slowing the recovery of water quality in the area, according to the report. The Miles and Wye Rivers continue to struggle—earning “C” grades overall—due in part to increases in nitrogen pollution and low dissolved oxygen levels. Excess nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms, blocking sunlight and creating low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate aquatic life.
Grades are based on data from more than 100 sampling sites, where volunteers test for water clarity, dissolved oxygen, nutrients and chloropyll a. The Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy also tracks water temperature, pH, salinity and bacteria levels.
For more information on nutrient and sediment loads in the Bay’s major rivers— including the Choptank—see the Bay Program's latest pollution load indicators.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released their final Clean Water Rule this week, clarifying which streams and wetlands are protected from pollution and development under the Clean Water Act.
Included under the new rule are seasonal and rain-dependent streams that may only flow during certain times of the year, but which have a significant connection to downstream waters that were previously protected. Wetlands and waterways that border larger waterbodies will also be covered. According to the EPA, the rule will help protect the drinking water of nearly 117 million people.
“For the water in the rivers and lakes in our communities that flow to our drinking water to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them need to be clean too,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a release.
Two complex Supreme Court decisions led to nearly a decade of confusion over just which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act. While the new rule clarifies which waterways are now protected, it does not expand the scope of the Clean Water Act, and it preserves existing exemptions for irrigation ponds, drainage ditches and other agricultural activities.
The sandy shores of Virginia Beach are no stranger to development. As the shoreline curves along the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, homes, hotels and resorts boast Bay-front and oceanfront views. And in 2008, Pleasure House Point—a 118-acre tract of tidal marshes, salt meadows and maritime forest along the shores of the Lynnhaven River—was set to be transformed as well.
Developers were preparing to begin construction on “Indigo Dunes,” an expansive development that would cover nearly every piece of the property with 1,100 condos and townhomes, including two 11-story towers directly along the water’s edge. But if you travel to the land now, no high-rise towers block your view; instead, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s long, slender Brock Environmental Center sits far back from the riverbank, huddled close to the ground and nestled among the trees and marsh grasses.
Completed in late 2014, the Brock Environmental Center represents a community effort to protect Pleasure House Point for natural use. According to Christy Everett, head of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Hampton Roads office, preservation of the land began almost as wishful thinking: “It was a suggestion that was very out on a limb—‘Hey, maybe we could stop this development.’”
After bankers foreclosed on the property in 2011, lack of funding, legal uncertainties and apprehension from the community delayed the protection of the land and construction of the Center. Many residents supported conserving the land, but some—concerned the Center would be built too close to the shore—thought it shouldn’t be developed at all. “We went door to door several times, to every house in the neighborhood, to get their feedback,” said Everett. And with the Center now open for public tours, Everett says community support is steadily continuing to grow. “Some people didn’t feel comfortable until they came to the building. But people come today and say, ‘oh, now I understand what you were doing.’”
The Center acts a hub for the Bay Foundation’s hands-on environmental education efforts. A pier hugs the shoreline, where a “floating classroom” waits to take students and teachers on an exploration of the Chesapeake ecosystem. But the building itself presents a different type of lesson to its visitors: one of energy efficiency, resource conservation and modern green building technologies.
As one of the top green buildings in the nation, the Center is on track to be one of only a handful of buildings certified under the Living Building Challenge each year. The Challenge—described as the “built environment’s most rigorous performance standard”—is based on seven criteria, called petals: place, water, energy, health, happiness, materials, equity and beauty. In order to be certified, the Center must meet several strict requirements over the next year, including producing zero net waste and no net carbon dioxide emissions.
Designed to be as resource-efficient as possible, the Center uses solar panels, wind turbines and geothermal wells for all its energy needs—while simultaneously creating ways to educate visitors about resource conservation. When local birding groups voiced their opposition to the turbines, the Bay Foundation tweaked the placement and orientation of the structures. “We did a lot of research into the wind turbines we have, what kind of bird and bat kills happen from which type of turbines in the Chesapeake Bay area,” said Everett. “We keep a spreadsheet that’s monitored every day for potential bird deaths, and there haven’t been any. In that way, we’re contributing to the knowledge about these turbines.”
The Center also uses cutting-edge technology for water use and conservation, including turning rainwater into potable drinking water. “We believe we’re the only public facility in the continental United States that treats its rainwater,” said Everett. “The entire site has zero stormwater runoff. It’s really important to us that any water gets used on site instead of running into local waterways.”
While the building is newly assembled, the pieces that comprise it tell the history of the surrounding community. Bleachers from a local school, marked by carvings from students of years past, frame the building’s doors and windows. Countertops made from old art tables line the office supply alcove, and corks from champagne bottles serve as handles for drawers and cupboards. A striking mural—made from the pieces of an old, discarded oak tree—hangs against a wall in one of the Center’s few meeting rooms.
Walking along the Center’s waterfront trail, it can be hard to imagine the vast resort that nearly transformed the landscape. Though the wetland restoration is still in its early stages, signs of wildlife and new growth peek through. “You kind of want it to hurry up and restore,” Everett laughs. But with the marshes, meadows and forests now protected, the land can recover for years to come.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
You can track the status of the Center’s energy and water use through the Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center Building Dashboard.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Stephanie Smith