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Chesapeake Bay News


Urban farms offer novel approach to stormwater management

Stormwater runoff, or rainfall that picks up pollutants as it flows across paved roads and parking lots, is the fastest growing source of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. But urban farms may offer an innovative way to manage that polluted runoff, according to a report from American Rivers.

Image by Arina P Habich/Shutterstock

Green infrastructure—such as rain gardens, green roofs and porous pavement—uses soil and vegetation to help slow the flow of runoff and manage rainwater where it falls. These projects can also offer benefits like cleaner air, reduced energy use and a boost in property values. According to the report, urban farms can offer not only the typical benefits of green infrastructure projects, but also benefits like improved nutrition and increased access to green space.

The report includes a list of ten recommendations for promoting the use of urban farms to manage stormwater runoff, such as providing training and funding opportunities for farmers, identifying vacant lots that could be converted to farms and updating city zoning codes to allow for urban agriculture.

The report, Urban Farms: A Green Infrastructure Tool for the Chesapeake Bay, is available online.


Photo Essay: Climbing aboard the Learning Barge

Elizabeth River Project educator Ashley Shepard, left, supplies fourth grade students from Granby Elementary School in Norfolk, Va., with plastic bottle "fish" to grab after learning how herons hunt for prey on the Learning Barge, docked at Grandy Village Learning Center in Norfolk on Oct. 23, 2015. The barge features six learning stations and claims to be the world’s first floating classroom.

On a fall morning, a lot is happening on the 120-by-32-foot steel deck of the Elizabeth River Project’s Dominion Virginia Power Learning Barge. A stream of fourth grade students from Granby Elementary School follows Robin Dunbar, the Elizabeth River Project’s deputy director of education, onto the vessel via a narrow boardwalk at the Grandy Village Learning Center in Norfolk, Virginia. After splitting into groups, they measure oyster shells, they listen to osprey calls, they find periwinkles in the wetland observation pool and they make traditional mud art in a small classroom onboard. With solar panels above their heads, and captured rainwater below their feet, students on the Learning Barge get excited about their local river—and how they can impact it—in a space that is smaller than a basketball court.

Students pull up buckets of water from the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River before measuring water quality on the Learning Barge.

The Learning Barge launched in 2009 and has seen almost 60,000 students—about 10,000 a year—according to Dunbar. She floats from group to group as staff guide lessons on how to build a nest like an osprey or how to use buckets to collect water samples.

“All this was going to be a big wetland,” Dunbar says, standing on the partially-covered deck, which was designed by the University of Virginia School of Architecture and is organized into six indoor and outdoor learning stations for the barge’s 2015-2016 fall and spring programs. “I had a different idea and worked with U.Va. to turn it into a classroom.”

Teacher Marquita Fulford, right, leads a lesson that touches on oyster history in the Chesapeake Bay and their ability to filter water.

Before there was a barge to build on, the Elizabeth River Project had to grapple with the financial realities of owning and operating such a sizable vessel.

“The [Elizabeth River Project’s] board was very concerned about maintenance in the beginning,” says Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, executive director of ERP. “But the ship repair community, and the tug boats—the maritime community—has adopted the barge.”

It takes about $200,000 a year to operate the Learning Barge, but the cost would be significantly higher without all of the volunteers involved. For example, Jackson says the Elizabeth River Project has never paid for transporting the barge, which is not self-propelled. Last summer, Colonna’s Shipyard donated a paint job for the hull—a value of $40,000. And every winter, BAE Industries takes the barge into their shipyard and asks what projects need to be done.

Elizabeth River Project educator Wes Cheney, seated, leads a song during a lesson about traditional African Mali mud art.

Paint dries on recycled cloth that fourth graders from Granby Elementary School in Norfolk, Va., turned into artwork based on African Mali mud art on the Learning Barge.

The sum of the Learning Barge’s parts, which are powered entirely by solar and wind power captured onboard, contribute to a meaningful watershed educational experience for students in the Norfolk area—including several low-income school districts—who may have never really spent time on a river despite living so close to one.

“It’s all science but it touches on different grade levels and they’re able to go back to the schoolhouse and apply some of that to what they’re learning the classroom,” says Marquita Fulford, standing at the Chesapeake Gold station, where students trace and measure oysters. A second-grade teacher at Camp Young in Norfolk, Fulford is in her third year working with students on the Learning Barge.

“Hands on activities, they love those,” Fulford says. “And they remember them—more so than somebody just talking to you.”

Students get answers to questions about blue crabs at the Tidal Moon River station on the Learning Barge. Learning stations on the barge featured science lessons on topics such as water quality and wildlife.

A fourth grade student from Granby Elementary School in Norfolk, Va., absorbs a lesson on oysters on the Learning Barge.

Students emulate osprey nests with sticks at the Shore Savers learning station on the Learning Barge.

A wind turbine provides power to the Learning Barge while evacuated tubes absorb solar energy that heats water on the barge. The Learning Barge is dubbed "America's Greenest Vessel" by the Elizabeth River Project, which owns and operates it, and other sustainable features include 1,600 watts of solar panels, 1,200 gallons of rainwater collection, and composting toilets.

Elizabeth River Project educator April Orleans, right, hoists up a crab pot holding a blue crab at the Tidal Moon River learning station aboard the Learning Barge.

A fourth grade student from Granby Elementary School in Norfolk, Va., holds a periwinkle plucked from the 16-by-16-foot wetland observation pool on the Learning Barge. The Learning Barge is home to various freshwater and saltwater species.

The Learning Barge hosts fourth grade students from Granby Elementary School in Norfolk, Va., while docked at Grandy Village Learning Center in Norfolk on Oct. 23, 2015. The million-dollar Learning Barge will be moved to Elizabeth River Landing Park in Chesapeake, Va., for programs running from April to June 2016.

To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page

Photos and Text by Will Parson

Will Parson's avatar
About Will Parson - Will is the Multimedia Specialist for the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of Bakersfield, California, he acquired an interest in photojournalism while studying ecology and evolution at University of California, San Diego. He pursued stories about water and culture as a graduate student at Ohio University's School of Visual Communication, and as an intern at several newspapers in New England before landing in Maryland.


The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement: A year in review

This is the time of year we reflect back on what we have accomplished over the past year and look forward to what we can do to continually improve. For those of us who are planners, we often set measurable goals at the beginning of the year to see the progress we make—and we adjust those goals in our next round of resolutions to continually improve our lives. So too, we at the Chesapeake Bay Program took a step back in 2014 and re-envisioned our direction with the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, in which we set out ten goals and 31 outcomes to achieve our vision for the watershed, as well as the principles by which we would conduct ourselves as a partnership.

In 2015, our emphasis was on setting the stage to support the achievement of that vision. Many of you participated in the development of the 25 management strategies that identified the factors likely to affect the outcomes, recognized existing work and gaps, and outlined the partnership’s direction for meeting the outcomes of the Watershed Agreement. Public input and expert advice helped us improve each management strategy, which we adopted and delivered to the Chesapeake Executive Council in July.

Nicholas DiPasquale, Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, delivers the Chesapeake Bay Agreement management strategies to the Chesapeake Executive Council Chair, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, at the Chesapeake Bay Program 2015 Executive Council Meeting at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., on July 23, 2015.

These management strategies provide our overall direction for the next ten years—they focus on achieving our vision of clean water, abundant life, conserved lands and engaged communities, with an increased emphasis on expanding and diversifying our partnership and our outreach to citizens, strengthening the knowledge and capacity of our local governments, recognizing the need to adapt and find resiliency in the face of a changing climate, committing to continually improve our approaches as we learn, and increasing our emphasis on transparency and accountability.

Our next step was to develop detailed plans to guide our work toward meeting our goals. These short-term workplans include specific actions we as partners—and as individual agencies and organizations—will take over the next two years to get us jump-started in achieving the outcomes of the Watershed Agreement. Some of you are already participating in developing these workplans, and we will be seeking additional input this winter to make sure we are focusing on the right actions to help us achieve these outcomes.

In addition, we’ve been working on developing our “measuring sticks,” or indicators, so we can track not only whether we are doing what we said we would do, but whether we are getting the results we are hoping to get. We are organizing these measures in a way that will help us make better decisions, learn from our successes and our challenges, and improve our work. By developing a framework to organize these measures, we can more effectively communicate how we are doing.

As we move into 2016, we will continue to share the successes and challenges we face in our work. Early next year, our annual Bay Barometer report will give a quick but comprehensive glimpse at our progress, and our soon-to-be released ChesapeakeProgress website (part of the ChesapeakeStat suite of products) will allow you to dig more deeply into these achievements and the reasons behind the progress. Both products will allow you to be a part of our continual process of reflection and improvement, and your feedback during the public input process for the two-year workplans will help guide our path over the next two years.

Written by Carin Bisland, Associate Director for Partnerships and Accountability at the Chesapeake Bay Program


By the Numbers: 87

With its attractive mix of forested uplands, tidal marshes and intertidal mud flats, beaches and manmade rocky shores, the Chesapeake Bay offers a wide range of habitats to waterbirds. Even in the dead of winter, the productivity and position of the nation’s largest estuary—which offers fish, grasses and aquatic invertebrates to eat and is located in the center of the Atlantic Flyway—make it a perfect place for those birds that depend on aquatic resources to take up residence. Indeed, according to a report from the Center for Conservation Biology, the Bay supports 87 species of waterbirds during winter months.

Of these wintering waterbirds, 14 species rely on the Bay to serve as habitat for more than 10 percent of their continental populations. Learn about five of these species below.

Image by Patrick Rolands/Shutterstock

1. The canvasback (Aythya valisineria) is the largest species of diving duck, with a long, sloping profile and wedge-shaped head. Because the birds keep their breeding plumage for most of the year, males are often seen with chestnut-colored heads, black breasts and white wings, sides and bellies. Canvasbacks feed on the roots, leaves and buds of underwater grasses—with wild celery a favorite winter food—as well as snails, clams and other aquatic invertebrates. In 2015, researchers with the Maryland Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey recorded 64,200 canvasbacks along the state’s Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast. This is one of the state’s highest canvasback counts since the mid-1960s, and close to the survey’s 2014 estimate of 68,400 birds.

Image by Erni/Shutterstock

2. The horned grebe (Podiceps auritus) is a small, duck-like waterbird whose plumage is black and white during winter months. During the breeding season, it has black and chestnut plumage and two golden patches of feathers behind its scarlet eyes. It can raise and lower these “horns” at will, and these give the species its common name. Horned grebes can use their straight, stubby bills to pick insects out of the air or off of the water’s surface, but most often dive into the water to hunt for aquatic invertebrates.

Image by Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

3. The long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) is a medium-sized diving duck that has been reported to forage for food at depths of up to 200 feet. In the Chesapeake Bay, however, the birds usually dive to depths of 25 feet to reach the plant matter, small fish and aquatic invertebrates on which it feeds. Male long-tailed ducks have two long and slender tail feathers—which give the species its common name—and often have a pink band near the tip of their black bills. The birds often swim in small groups within a large, loose gathering of several hundred individuals. In 2015, researchers with the Maryland Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey recorded 100 long-tailed ducks along the state’s Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast. This is the state’s lowest long-tailed duck count of the last five years, and continues the decline that has been recorded since 2012, when 800 birds were observed.

Image by Steve Byland/Shutterstock

4. The ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) is one of the smallest ducks of the Chesapeake Bay. The chubby bird has a long, stiff tail—which it often holds upright—and a wide, gray bill—which on males turns blue in the summer. Ruddy ducks dive into the water to search for aquatic plants and invertebrates and to seek refuge from predators, diving instead of flying when frightened. In 2015, researchers with the Maryland Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey recorded 20,000 ruddy ducks along the state’s Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast. This is just below the state’s short-term average ruddy duck count.

Image by Menno Schaefer/Shutterstock

5. The Atlantic brant (Branta bernicla) is a small goose with a small, black head; short, black bill and neck; white necklace; and light gray belly. Brants graze on land, dip their heads underwater and upend their whole bodies to feed on aquatic plants and invertebrates. Eelgrass is a favorite food and staple of their diet. In 2015, researchers with the Maryland Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey recorded 900 brants along state’s Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast. This is just below the state’s short-term average brant count.

Catherine Krikstan's avatar
About Catherine Krikstan - Catherine Krikstan is a web writer at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She began writing about the watershed as a reporter in Annapolis, Md., where she covered algae blooms and climate change and interviewed hog farmers and watermen. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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