Rapid population growth and development remain the top threats to the health of the Potomac River Watershed, according to the Potomac Conservancy’s eighth annual State of the Nation’s River report. But the advocacy group hopes implementing smart growth strategies will help the waterway withstand pressure from a growing community.
Despite being listed as the nation’s most endangered river by American Rivers in 2012, the Potomac River’s overall health has improved in recent years. In 2013, the Potomac Conservancy raised the waterway’s grade to a “C” after giving it a “D” grade in 2011. Now, with an estimated 2.3 million new residents expected to move into the communities along its shores by 2040, the Conservancy fears a rapidly changing landscape could undo years of progress toward restoring the Potomac.
“Population growth is likely to bring positive changes to our region including more jobs, higher home values, and a more robust local tax base,” the report states. “But, left unplanned, that growth could also spell disaster for the health of our lands, waterways, and drinking water sources.”
With the region facing forest loss, polluted rivers and streams and an aging water infrastructure, the report offers a range of “smart planning opportunities” as strategies to meet the needs of a growing population without further harming local waters. The Conservancy hopes approaches including forest buffers, mixed-use communities and rain gardens, along with a focus on redevelopment in existing areas rather than new development on untouched lands, will allow for the continued improvement of the Potomac River’s health.
For the uninitiated, paddling the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., provides an opportunity to discover a hidden natural gem. Paddling away from the riverbank on an early fall evening, we quickly begin to slide past egrets hunting in the shallows and turtles diving deep to avoid our canoe. Joining them is a kingfisher, chattering as it circles before landing on a branch, and a bald eagle, following the course of the river upstream and disappearing around a bend. Moments like this are why the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) hosts free paddle nights like the one at Kenilworth Park in D.C. — to change perceptions of a river with a reputation of being heavily polluted.
“From the perspective of someone who’s heard about the river but never been there, I think the most surprising thing is that there’s a whole lot of nature,” says Lee Cain, Director of Recreation at AWS. “When you get out there, there’s some places where you’re there and you think, ‘Am I in the middle of West Virginia?’”
Cain says he heard many negative stories about the Anacostia River before visiting it for the first time, but his perceptions changed after experiencing it up close. The Anacostia is indeed still plagued by trash, sewage, toxins and runoff. But it is also a place where Cain has seen fox and deer swimming across the river, where egrets aggregate by the dozens at nighttime, and where bald eagles and osprey lay their eggs in March so their fledglings can feed on shad. In June, the 9-mile Anacostia Water Trail officially opened, featuring many natural areas and recreation sites along the river.
“You’re probably going to see a higher density of wildlife on this river than you might in even the Jug Bay wetlands,” says Cain.
Cain says the Anacostia is better than it was 25 years ago, when cars, refrigerators and tires were the big items being pulled from the river. Positive signs of change have come in the form of a plastic bag fee passed by the D.C. Council in 2009, and a ban on plastic-foam food containers that passed in June. A group called Groundwork Anacostia River DC has implemented litter traps in several tributaries, and AWS operates a trash trap study as well. The Anacostia Revitalization Fund, established in 2012, has provided funding for local initiatives aimed at restoring the river’s health. DC Water’s $2.6 billion Clean River Project will remove 98 percent of combined sewer overflows to the Anacostia by 2022, keeping 1.5 billion gallons of diluted sewage from entering the Anacostia every year. And the Pepco Benning Road Power Plant, which ran on coal then oil for over a century, sits quietly near the Anacostia, shuttered since 2012 and slated for demolition.
“If [the power plant] has some source of PCB contamination then at least that source is gone and now, when we clean out the soil, we’ll have a pretty clean space,” says Cain.
He says it has been a big year for toxins in the river, with the District of Columbia taking core samples along the river to assess what is down there and what it will cost for removal.
“One thing that’s encouraging is that it took us a couple centuries to sort of destroy this river, and then it’s only taken us about 25 years to get it to where it is now,” says Cain. “So you can imagine in another 25 years where it will be.”
In the meantime, AWS will continue working toward the goal of a fishable and swimmable Anacostia by 2025. Getting people on the Anacostia on paddle nights is just one effort to let people see firsthand what it already has to offer. The hope is that some of those visitors might become volunteers with AWS’ or their partners’ trash, stewardship, education and other programs.
“There’s a lot of the Anacostia that’s not exactly accessible to people, and in order to have all of these things and these efforts continue we need the support of the public,” says Cain. “We need people to recognize that this is a resource worth saving.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Nestled next to Patuxent River State Park in Laytonsville, Maryland, are the 220 rolling, vegetation-rich acres of Waredaca horse farm. Husband and wife Robert and Gretchen Butts are the second generation to manage the family farm since Robert’s parents purchased the property in 1953. To them, Waredaca is more than just a business: it is their home.
The farm has evolved from a summer camp to a boarding stable for more than 80 horses, 30 of which are directly owned by Waredaca; recreational and competitive riders board the rest. The farm continues to host a youth summer camp, hold eventing competitions and offer year-round riding lessons. “To be able to make a living doing things you love—and to do it at home—is the best. This place is my life, and that’s pretty special,” Robert said.
The Butts’ connection to their land has sparked a deep sense of environmental stewardship within their family. “We’ve been here our whole lives, and plan on being here a long time. I think for a large portion of the agricultural community, that’s the case. Many have been motivated conservationists for years,” Robert explained.
A prominent part of Maryland’s environmental efforts to conserve farmland has included the equine community. “In recent years, certainly the state and Montgomery County have clarified in legislation that horses are a part of agriculture and therefore the services and outreach pertain to them,” said Robert. “Outreach to the equine community has been particularly important to [increasing] participation [in restoration initiatives].”
The Maryland Horse Council has been a strong partner with the state’s Farm Stewardship Certification and Assessment Program (FSCAP), which certifies agricultural stewards throughout the state. Since its development in 2010, FSCAP, administered by the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts (MASCD), has conducted 131 reviews on 108 farms and certified 91 agricultural conservation stewards protecting 27,000 acres in 16 counties. The Maryland Horse Council has helped FSCAP certify 20 horse farms.
According to the state, any farm with more than eight “animal units”—normally defined as one mature cow weighing about 1,000 pounds and her suckling calf—is required to follow a nutrient management plan to ensure that excess manure is properly disposed of. Assessors from FSCAP are trained by the Maryland Department of Agriculture to review nutrient management plans with the same attention to detail provided by official inspectors. Assessors also inspect other “best management practices” (BMPs), which reduce pollution and improve habitat on farmland. When certified, each steward gets his or her own webpage on the FSCAP website and the landowner receives a large sign to place on their property, advertising their environmental stewardship.
“The program was created in order to provide some positive recognition for farmers that are doing a great job [caring for the land], in light of what seems like fairly constant criticism about agriculture’s role in polluting the Chesapeake Bay,” said FSCAP Project Leader Gerald Talbert. “We carefully gathered core partners for this program because we wanted both the agricultural and the environmental communities to be involved.”
"Many stewards feel that certification means more than just personal recognition; it’s also good for business,especially with farms that deal directly with the public” Talbert said. “ So far, we’ve provided 91 signs, but there are 133 signs displayed.
By working together, Robert and Gerald were able to identify and address a streamside fencing issue that thwarted Waredaca’s certification efforts. The problem has since been fixed and the farm has been certified.
The Butts follow a nutrient management plan, composting their manure and spreading it on their fields to encourage rich soil and healthy pastures. They have also put a number of BMPs in place: a manure storage facility, a spring-fed water tank and stream-side buffers with fencing to keep horses out of streams, thereby keeping the surrounding creeks and streams clean.
The Butts also practice rotational grazing. Strategically moving livestock to fresh pastures can allow previously grazed fields to regenerate, and is a preferred practice for fighting overgrazing. But many farmers do not have the space to rotate their grazing pastures, leading to field erosion and the sedimentation of rivers, streams and the Bay.
“We are very blessed to have a lot of room where the horses can roam,” Robert said. “Lack of space can be a limiting factor for many [horse-owners]. Overgrazing is a very common thing in the horse business, and will be hard to eliminate completely because of the way horses eat. Cows don’t eat the grass all the way down to the ground, but horses do,” he explained.
Through the efforts of programs like FSCAP and the willingness of farmers like the Butts to sign on to voluntary conservation programs, stewardship certification programs are gaining traction among the agricultural community. “Part of the effort here is not just to recognize those folks that have already done a great job, but to also provide incentive for someone to step up and put those one or two BMPs in place that they may have been missing to meet the standard,” said Talbert.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
A new report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) indicates the economic benefits of a restored Chesapeake Bay could total $130 billion each year, as the watershed’s “pollution diet” creates clean air and water, protects properties from floods and fuels local restaurant and recreation industries.
Image courtesy olorak/Flickr
The Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which the Annapolis-based nonprofit calls the Clean Water Blueprint, was established in 2010 to reduce pollution loads across the watershed. It limits the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment that can enter rivers and streams to improve water quality. Jurisdictions use Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) to put these limits in place.
According to the report, which was produced by ecological economist Spencer Phillips and CBF Senior Scientist Beth McGee, the annual value of the natural benefits provided by a “pre-Blueprint” Bay is an estimated $107 billion. Once the TMDL is put in place and its benefits are realized, this amount would increase 21 percent to $129.7 billion. While Virginia is set to benefit most from a restored Bay—increasing its annual earnings by $8.3 billion—other watershed states would also benefit: Pennsylvania would see an earnings increase of $6.1 billion, Maryland $4.6 billion, New York $1.9 billion, West Virginia $1.3 billion and Delaware $205 million.
“The conclusion is clear: the region’s environmental and economic health will improve when we fully implement the [Clean Water] Blueprint,” said Phillips in a media release. “The cleanup plan was designed with the understanding that all people and communities in the watershed can contribute to making the Bay cleaner, and that everyone will benefit when pollution is reduced. Our analysis confirms this.”
While its report doesn’t address the annual watershed-wide cost of restoration, CBF estimates this figure is in the range of $5 billion.
Note: This blog post was written by a staff-member of the Chesapeake Bay Program.