On June 16, 2014, the Chesapeake Executive Council signed the historic Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, charting the future course for the multi-state and federal partnership known as the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Governor Terry McAuliffe assumed the chairmanship of the Chesapeake Executive Council, the Bay Program’s top leadership body, on January 1st of this year, and on July 23, 2015, he chaired his first meeting. This meeting focused on specific actions that will further our collective efforts to restore the Bay, from increasing the amount of forested stream corridors, excluding livestock from streams, advancing critical land conservation needs and working to increase the funding available for restoration.
Experts, scientists, agency staff and non-profits collaboratively developed the management strategies for meeting the goals and outcomes in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. These strategies, presented to the Executive Council at the July 23rd meeting, go far beyond water quality improvement, addressing issues from land conservation and fisheries management to environmental literacy and climate change.
The ongoing efforts to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay are at a critical point. The deadline called for in the Chesapeake Bay TMDL for 60 percent of nutrient and sediment reductions by 2017 is fast approaching. The more difficult task of meeting our pollution reduction commitments by 2025 will take continued progress across the entire range of nutrient and sediment sources.
Each of the six states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, along with the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the federal government represented by EPA, are responsible for meeting our collective goals. As the “downstream” state in the watershed, we in Virginia depend on our neighbors to the north and west to achieve healthy waters and the benefits that come from a clean Bay. Our neighbors will also benefit from cleaner water and more abundant fisheries and wildlife in their rivers and streams. Whether you are in Cooperstown, New York, or in Hampton, Virginia, we are all in this together.
Clean water, healthy stream corridors and the related habitat and ecological benefits make our counties, cities and towns more livable and more attractive to prospective employers, and they support our traditional industries such as agriculture, forestry, tourism and fishing, which in turn support jobs and serve our goals of a vibrant and sustainable economy.
All Bay Program partners are now fully engaged in the implementation of the management strategies. As partners, we will continue the progress we have made in meeting our water quality goals and seek the continued cooperation of key urban and agriculture sectors. We will work to bring new resources, including private and federal, to meet the costs of implementation and progress. We will be open and public about our science-based decisions and the rationale for making them. We will reach out to all sectors, public and private, to ensure that regulatory obligations are fulfilled and voluntary efforts are supported and valued.
Although we may face significant challenges in such a large and developing watershed, the payoff in terms of environmental health and economic prosperity will be enormous, and it will benefit ours and future generations.
Written by Molly Joseph Ward, Secretary of Natural Resources, Commonwealth of Virginia. Ward is chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program's Principals' Staff Committee.
Between 2013 and 2014, underwater grass abundance in the Chesapeake Bay rose 27 percent, marking a 27,600-acre increase from the last decade’s low and an achievement of 41 percent of our 185,000-acre goal.
Scientists attribute this boost in bay grasses to the rapid expansion of widgeongrass in moderately salty waters, even in areas where vegetation has not been observed before. Scientists have also observed a modest recovery of eelgrass in very salty waters, where the hot summers of 2005 and 2010 led to dramatic diebacks.
“This data offer hope to those of us who have watched these grasses decline in our lifetime,” said Virginia Institute of Marine Science Professor Robert J. Orth in a media release. “As efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay continue, these plant populations can rapidly recover. We cannot give up on our efforts to improve water quality, because there are plants and animals that depend on us to make this happen.”
Underwater grass beds are critical to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. They offer food to small invertebrates and migratory waterfowl; shelter young fish and blue crabs; and keep our waters clear and healthy by absorbing excess nutrients, trapping suspended sediment and slowing shoreline erosion. For these reasons, the Chesapeake Bay Program has committed to achieving and sustaining 185,000 acres of underwater grasses in the Bay, with a target of 90,000 acres by 2017 and 130,000 acres by 2025. “
“Every additional acre of underwater grasses measured in 2014 indicates improved water clarity and improved wildlife habitat,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Biologist and Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup Co-Chair Brooke Landry. “This [increase in underwater grasses] shows that restoration efforts are working and, if we stay the course, we could be successful in reaching our long-term goals. These data also highlight the importance and value of the Submerged Aquatic Vegetation monitoring program. Without it, measuring our progress towards a restored Bay would be infinitely more difficult, so I thank the Virginia Institute of Marine Science for providing such vital information.”
Underwater grass abundance is estimated through aerial surveys flown from late spring to early fall. Abundance is mapped in four different salinity zones, each of which is home to an underwater grass community that responds differently to strong storms, drought and other growing conditions.
Four partnerships in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will receive more than $150,000 through the Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration Program, which supports the restoration of urban rivers, wetlands and stream banks across the United States.
In the District of Columbia, the Earth Conservation Corps will join with several other partners to restore portions of the Anacostia River and to connect communities with hands-on urban birds programming.
In Baltimore, Outward Bound Baltimore will protect the city’s urban birds by restoring habitat, reducing collision hazards for birds and creating awareness of migratory species that travel through the city. The Living Classrooms Foundation at Masonville Cove will work with the Hispanic Access Foundation to engage local Hispanic church congregations in conservation activities focused around urban watershed issues and the Monarch butterfly.
The Alice Ferguson Foundation, Trash Free Maryland and other partners will trawl the surface of the Chesapeake Bay for samples of microplastics, to better understand and educate others about the level of plastic pollution in local waters.
Each of these projects will help support work toward achieving the goals of the recent Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, in particular those outcomes related to citizen stewardship, diversity and toxic contaminants.
The Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration Program began in 1999 as a partnership between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Association of Counties and the Wildlife Habitat Council. In addition to the four projects inside the Bay watershed, the program will fund 60 projects in 28 other states.
The calm, mirror-like surface of Otsego Lake is the subject of history and legend. Nicknamed “Glimmerglass” by James Fenimore Cooper, the author describes the lake in his work The Deerslayer as “a bed of the pure mountain atmosphere compressed into a setting of hills and woods.” The narrow, finger-like lake runs nine miles from north to south, coming to a point at Cooperstown, New York, where it marks the start of the Susquehanna River. Hop into a boat and follow the current, and a winding, 464-mile journey downriver will eventually drop you in the Chesapeake Bay. At first glance, the lake’s tranquil surface may seem humble beginnings for a mighty river that churns billions of gallons of fresh water into the nation’s largest estuary each day. But Otsego is a flurry of activity, home to a rich diversity of critters, habitats and ecosystems.
Alongside the shores of Otsego Lake sits the Biological Field Station, a laboratory that serves the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Oneonta, where researchers work year-round to study and preserve the lake. In 1967, the field station began as a 365-acre donation from the Clark Family Foundation. Now, the field station’s facilities— which include the main laboratory, a farm and boathouse, and various research sites and conserved lands—span more than 2,600 acres. Director Bill Harman, a professor of biology, has led the Biological Field Station for the entirety of its more than 40 year existence. As resident Otsego expert, Harman oversees the monitoring, research, training, workshops and field trips at the field station’s facilities.
Hands-on learning opportunities are abundant across the waters, marshes and forests surrounding Otsego Lake. Field trips, summer internships and general research bring kindergarteners through post-graduates to the field station’s facilities. Students of SUNY Oneonta’s Master of Lake Management program—the first such program in North America—complete their studies at the Biological Field Station, sampling, monitoring and researching the waters of Otsego and other nearby lakes. Local residents and other visitors are also welcome to explore and can participate in lake monitoring alongside the field station’s scientists.
Though located far from the Chesapeake Bay itself, Otsego Lake suffers from many of the same issues threatening the estuary, like nutrient pollution and a rise in invasive species. Zebra mussels and purple loosestrife—two infamous invasive species plaguing the watershed—have overtaken much of the lake and surrounding lands. Once a rich source of shad, herring and eels, downstream dams have blocked many of these fish from migrating to the lake. But Harman and his colleagues don’t see Otsego as a closed system. As they collect their data and monitor the lake, they are actively seeking solutions that could be applied across the region.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Stephanie Smith