Today, the Chesapeake Bay Program released a collection of short-term plans aimed at protecting and restoring the Bay, its rivers and streams and the surrounding lands. These twenty-seven work plans outline specific actions our partners intend to take over the next two years in their work toward achieving the goals and outcomes of the landmark Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
Each two-year work plan addresses one or more of the Watershed Agreement’s thirty-one interconnected outcomes and outlines short-term actions critical to our work, integrating both new and long-held strategies to create an environmentally and economically sound Chesapeake Bay. Actions outlined in the plans will help maintain the health of local waters, sustain abundant fish and wildlife populations, restore vital habitats, foster engaged and diverse communities through increased public access and education, conserve farmland and forests and improve the climate resiliency of the region. The plans will help the Bay Program partnership track implementation, evaluate progress and manage adaptively to foster continuous improvement.
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement was signed in June 2014 by representatives from the six watershed states, the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of the federal government. In July 2015, the Chesapeake Executive Council announced the release of a set of twenty-five strategies outlining our long-term approach for implementation, monitoring and assessing progress toward the Watershed Agreement’s goals. Our work plans outline the specific, short-term steps our partners plan to take over the next two years toward meeting those long-term goals, and represent the next step in a continued commitment toward a healthy and vibrant Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The work plans and a summary of participating partners can be found online on the Management Strategies and Work Plans Dashboard.
Many residents of the region know that pollutants in rivers like the James, Potomac and Susquehanna can end up in the Chesapeake Bay. In fact, the Chesapeake Bay watershed—or the area of land over which water flows into the nation’s largest estuary—stretches from Cooperstown, New York, to Norfolk, Virginia. Less well known is the fact that the Bay’s so-called “airshed” extends much farther: particles of air pollution emitted as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio, can reach the waters of the Bay.
At 570,000 square miles, the Bay’s airshed is nine times as large as its watershed. Because pollution emitted into the air can be carried over long distances by wind and weather, it should come as no surprise that emissions associated with hydraulic fracturing operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia have been found in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., or that emissions from gas, coal and oil-powered machines in Tennessee or North Carolina can lead to algae blooms in the waters of Maryland and Virginia.
Scientists estimate that one-third of the total nitrogen that pollutes the Bay comes from the air, often in the form of nitrogen oxides generated by power plants or machines. Through a process known as atmospheric deposition, six to eight percent of this airborne nitrogen falls onto the water directly, sometimes as dry particles and sometimes attached to raindrops, snowflakes or sleet. The rest falls onto the land, where it soaks into groundwater or washes into rivers and streams. Once in the water, nitrogen can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life.
But there is evidence that regulations meant to curb air pollution are having a positive impact on our air and our water. In 2014, for instance, researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science traced a drop in the amount of nitrogen found in some Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia waterways to the Clean Air Act. In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the drop in the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen observed in the region over the past two decades can also be attributed to the Clean Air Act. And in 2016, our own water quality modeling experts confirmed we are still seeing benefits of the Clean Air Act emerge as estimates of the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen continue to fall.
This means efforts to curb air pollution across the nation have curbed water pollution in our watershed. In 1985, an estimated 52.2 million pounds of nitrogen fell directly onto the region’s waters. Thirty years later, this number has dropped to 17.88 million pounds, and data show that pollution-reducing practices put in place between 2009 and 2015 in an effort to meet the Bay’s “pollution diet” have reduced the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen 20 percent.
Between 2014 and 2015, underwater grass abundance in the Chesapeake Bay rose 21 percent, bringing underwater grasses in the nation’s largest estuary to the highest amount ever recorded by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science aerial survey and surpassing the Chesapeake Bay Program’s 2017 restoration target two years ahead of schedule.
Aerial imagery collected between May and November of 2015 revealed a total of 91,621 acres of underwater grasses across the region. Experts attribute this spike to the recovery of wild celery and other species in the fresher waters of the upper Bay, the continued expansion of widgeon grass in the moderately salty waters of the mid-Bay and a modest recovery of eelgrass in the very salty waters of the lower Bay.
In the Elk River, for instance, grass beds that had been decimated after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee hit the region in 2011 recovered in 2015. While the beds were not as dense as those seen the season before the storms pushed water-clouding nutrient and sediment pollution into the northeastern Maryland waterway, they were larger and more diverse than previously observed and surpassed the river’s 1,648-acre restoration target. Wild celery, whose seed pods and roots offer food to migrating waterfowl, was the dominant species detected.
Because freshwater species like wild celery are resilient, continued improvements in water quality are expected to support the continued expansion of these grasses. In spite of this good news, experts advise cautious optimism about the state of underwater grasses overall: because widgeon grass is known as a “boom and bust” species whose abundance can rise and fall from year to year, the widgeon-dominant spike we have seen is not guaranteed to persist in future seasons.
“While much of the grass that accounts for the 2015 expansion was widgeon grass—a species that is often described as a boom or bust plant—I think we can take heart in the fact that it boomed last summer—marking three consecutive years of growth,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Biologist and Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup Chair Brooke Landry in a media release. “Be it freshwater wild celery or mid-Bay widgeon grass, submerged aquatic vegetation would not expand so rapidly and into areas where it hasn’t been mapped before if water quality wasn’t improving. This report shows that we are making strides on Bay restoration and truly impacting the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution entering our waterways. As we continue to provide conditions necessary for our natural resources to thrive, their resilience will increase and they’ll have a much better chance of persisting through major weather events or other challenges.”
Underwater grass beds are critical to the 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 Bay Program has committed to achieving and sustaining 185,000 acres of underwater grasses in the Bay, with a target of 130,000 acres by 2025.
In late March, Pennsylvania’s South Mountain was already weeks into spring’s thaw, but a stinging breeze and sinking sun meant jackets and beanies for a group forming under the tall, swaying pines near Kings Gap State Park.
Devin Thomas, almost ten years old, from nearby Carlisle, showed up in shorts and sneakers but came prepared with a headlamp he made using an old pair of underwear and faithfully equipped with enthusiasm for the outdoors.
“He won’t even kill bugs,” said Ray Thomas, Devin’s father—also wearing shorts.
As more people arrived, they took turns dunking their boots in a bucket of soapy disinfectant, used to get rid of harmful microbes, seeds, and any other invasive species. It was a precaution justified by the group’s destination, the vernal pools of Forest Pools Preserve.
Vernal pools are ephemeral forest ponds, fed by snow, rain or groundwater, and blanketed in leaves from a healthy forest. They host a wealth of animals and only stay wet for about seven months, which is just long enough for a cascade of frogs and salamanders to use them as a home for their developing young.
You won’t find fish—they would eat all the eggs—but if you get the timing right, you’ll hear the clucking chatter of spawning wood frogs or the car alarm call of camouflaged spring peepers. You might see yellow spotted salamanders wriggling among the leaves, and you might see tiny fairy shrimp, the country cousins of the commercial pet Sea-Monkeys.
If you were visiting the area ten years ago, you would also see piles of trash and hear the sound of broken glass underfoot.
“I guess back in the olden days you would see these depressions in the forest, and before we had trash pickup I think that’s where a lot of people would just put their trash,” said Molly Anderson, a volunteer program manager with The Nature Conservancy. “You’d walk and you’d just hear ‘crunch crunch.’”
The Conservancy purchased the preserve’s 70 acres in 2007, and for three years it held volunteer trash cleanups and monitored the vernal pools there. A Conservancy scientist started noticing that some of the pools weren’t holding water long enough for the young amphibians to develop.
Several theories arose. One was that growing development, with people drilling wells, had lowered the water table below the groundwater-fed pools. Another was that it might be just be a naturally drier period than normal.
“I also heard that maybe the clay liner that was holding the water, that it was popped by all the trash that was laying in it,” Anderson said.
In 2010, with grants received by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy held a workshop to restore some of the ailing pools. Volunteers Mike Bertram and Kathy King, a local married couple, were instrumental volunteers overseeing the effort, and nearby Dickinson Township provided equipment, Anderson said.
The work involved raking away leaves, setting aside mosses and other plants, using heavy machinery to remove layers of soil and carefully replacing everything above a synthetic liner placed in the depression. A season’s worth of leaf litter was the finishing touch.
“The restoration took place in the beginning of August, and we came back in the fall of the same year and it was hard to tell that anything was done there,” Anderson said.
In the years since, the restored pools hold water when the pools that weren’t restored are drying up, Anderson said. Now Forest Pools Preserve serves not only as critical habitat but as a means to raise awareness.
“One of the things that we’re concerned about is that because vernal pools are really small and kind of unnoticeable, they’re not protected really under any kind of laws protecting water,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the Conservancy is trying to educate local governments about the importance of vernal pools and address issues raised by landowners, such as the threat of mosquitos. Aiding the effort, the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program has a vernal pool landowner incentive program and an online registry.
“In a really healthy vernal pool, you’ll have a lot of different predators on mosquito larvae that would keep the mosquito numbers in check,” Anderson said.
Conservancy volunteer Andy Green helps monitor the pools and led the walk that the Thomas family attended. A retired doctor who grew up in Carlisle, Green managed remnant prairie and stormwater programs in Illinois before returning to Pennsylvania. He lives just down the road from Forest Pools Preserve.
“It’s interesting, there are none of these pools in the North Mountain, or many of these mountain ridges north of here,” Green said. “This is essentially a South Mountain phenomenon.”
Bringing the group to a pool fed by groundwater, Green pointed out the telltale masses of wood frog eggs. Wood frogs love a 40-degree night with rain, he said. The eggs were a sign that the frogs had already found a break in the cold weather, came, and left before anyone could spot them.
“They fooled everybody,” Green said.
Smaller in number were masses of eggs belonging to Jefferson and spotted salamanders, attached to sticks where the male of the species first places a sperm packet, or spermatophore.
As the adults listened to Green, the younger members of the group dispersed once they learned that they could find salamanders underneath rocks. They became the most avid explorers of the night, flipping rocks and logs, finding tiny red-backed salamanders, and replacing them as they were—at Green’s urging—before moving on to crouch low and face the water’s surface at each pool.
At the site of another pool, Green was dismayed to find nothing but a depression full of leaves. Under some of the leaves were wood frog egg masses, still moist, but the pool protecting them had dried up, and without a rain the eggs would dry up as well.
Green led the group to a final stop just over the boundary with Kings Gap State Park, which the Conservancy acquired in 1973 and transferred to the state. The sound of spring peepers became louder and louder as the group approached a pool, until the chorus seemed to be coming from every direction at once.
One of the adults held a spotted salamander she had found near the pool, showing it to the admiring group and periodically wetting her hands in the pool to keep the salamander’s skin moist—just another measure to keep the vernal pool community healthy.
The peeper’s call that had been so piercing faded quickly as the group left the low-lying bowl holding the pool, giving way to the crunching of leaves and excited recounting of what the group had just seen.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson