Reducing runoff from farmland has lowered pollution in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania waters, indicating a boost in on-farm best management practices could lead to improved water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
In a report released earlier this year, researchers with the Chesapeake Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) use case studies to show that planting cover crops, managing manure and excluding cattle from rivers and streams can lower nutrient concentrations and, in some cases, sediment loads in nearby waters.
Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired the Bay: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life, while sediment can cloud the water and suffocate shellfish. In New Insights: Science-based evidence of water quality improvements, challenges and opportunities in the Chesapeake, scientists make clear that putting nutrient- and sediment-reducing practices in place on farms can improve water quality and aquatic habitat in as little as one to six years.
Planting winter cover crops on farm fields in the Wye River basin, for instance, lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into local groundwater, while planting cover crops and exporting nutrient-rich rich poultry litter in the upper Pocomoke River watershed lowered the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Eastern Shore waterway. In addition, several studies in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania showed that when cattle were excluded from streams, plant growth rebounded, nutrient and sediment levels declined and stream habitat and bank stability improved.
Image courtesy Chiot's Run/Flickr
Earlier this week, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack named the Bay watershed one of eight “critical conservation areas” under the new Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which will bring farmers and watershed organizations together to earn funds for soil and water conservation.
Researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) measured minimal changes in Chesapeake Bay health in 2013, once again giving the estuary a “C” in their annual Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
This grade was the same in 2012, up from a “D+” in 2011. The Bay Health Index was reached using several indicators of Bay health, including water clarity and dissolved oxygen, the amount of algae and nutrients in the water, the abundance of underwater grasses, and the strength of certain fish stocks, including blue crab and striped bass. Introduced in this year’s report card, the Climate Change Resilience Index will measure the Bay’s ability to withstand rising sea levels, rising water temperatures and other impacts of climate change.
UMCES Vice President for Science Applications and Professor Bill Dennison attributed the Bay’s steady course to local management actions. While pollution-reducing technologies installed at wastewater treatment plants have improved the health of some rivers along the Bay’s Western Shore, continued fertilizer applications and agricultural runoff have stalled improvements along the Eastern Shore, Dennison said in a media release.
Last year, Chesapeake Bay Program partners opened 36 new public access sites along rivers and streams in the watershed, bringing the total number of access sites in the region to 1,208. In fact, more public access sites were opened in 2013 than in previously tracked years, as states work to meet the public’s high demand for ways to get on the water.
State, federal and local governments are often the guardians of public access sites, providing opportunities for people to swim, fish and launch their boats into the Bay. But because physical access to the Bay and its tributaries remains limited—with real consequences for quality of life, the economy and long-term conservation—Bay Program partners set a goal in 2010 to add 300 new public access sites to the watershed by 2025. As of 2013, partners have added 69 sites, meeting 23 percent of this goal.
From floating canoe launches to bank fishing opportunities, increasing public access to open space and waterways can strengthen the bond between people and place, boosting local tourism economies and creating citizen stewards who are engaged in conservation efforts.
“Having public access to enjoy and learn about the value of nature is important,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release. “I believe that you value what you know, and you are motivated to protect what you value. Whether it’s a relaxing trip along a shoreline or a paddle on a pond or stream, when more people get to know and value the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams, more people will be driven to protect it.”
For close to 50 years, Nick Carter has owned 33 acres on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Aside from a house, a few sheds and a trail or two, much of this land has returned to its natural state: former farm fields have become bogs, wetlands and forests, pushed along by natural growth and Carter’s deep-seated desire to create healthy habitat and clean water.
Carter’s property runs next to the Choptank River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Close to one-third of the Choptank watershed is forested, covered with the tree-and-shrub-filled habitat considered the most beneficial land use for the Bay. Forests absorb airborne pollutants, keep nutrients and sediment from entering our rivers and streams, and provide food, shelter and safe migration paths for wildlife. It is for these reasons that Carter has allowed forests to dominate his land.
“I’d like to see this little bit of property go back to old growth,” Carter said, referring to a type of forest that has evaded unnatural changes for a century or two. Carter and his wife purchased their property when he finished graduate school in 1966. For 35 years, Carter worked as a fish biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Now, he offers informal tours to naturalists, native plant societies and school groups, carrying along a walking stick that effectively points out the things visitors might not notice.
Take the plants, for example. There are 250 species on Carter’s property, and in one two-hour walk it seems he can point out most of them. There are spring ephemera like jack-in-the-pulpit and pink lady’s slipper, the latter of which has a relationship with underground fungi that make them almost impossible to transplant. There are cinnamon ferns and sphagnum moss in a bog that Carter is particularly proud of because he created it with the simple act of laying down a few logs to form a makeshift dam. And there are the pine and oak trees that dominate the upland woods, including the willow oak whose acorns are so small that blue jays can pick them up and carry them in their beaks.
Then there are the reptiles and amphibians. Carter has counted 30 species of these, from the tree and wood frogs that favor damp habitat to the broad-headed skink and Eastern fence lizard that like forests with abundant leaf litter. Leaves that litter the ground conserve water, recycle nutrients and offer shelter to small critters. Its presence on Carter’s land can be felt as soon as you step from the hard pavement of Draper’s Mill Road to the soft, spongy forest floor.
Carter’s woods are home to charismatic fauna, too, including 30 species of mammals and 85 species of birds. Because so much of the property is forested, it serves as suitable habitat for “forest interior dwelling” birds, or those birds that need the moderate temperatures and light levels found deep within the woods. Carter has spotted pine warblers, prothonotary warblers and ovenbirds, but on our walk we spotted a bird that was much bigger and a little less particular about its habitat: a female wild turkey on her nest in a grove of skunk cabbage.
These critters flourish here because Carter has done so little to disrupt the natural processes of the world around him, aside from building the dam that led to the bog and managing some invasive species. While Maryland’s white-tailed deer often chew up low-growing plants, changing the structure of area forests, Carter’s dogs have warded them off with their loud howls. And when invasive plants like autumn olive, oriental bittersweet, English ivy and bush honeysuckle start to grow, Carter steps in to exert control. “Some I spray, some I cut, some I pull,” he said.
The changes that have taken place on Carter’s land present a classic case of succession: disturbed ground is replaced by shrubs, shrubs are replaced by pines and pines are replaced by hardwoods. In other words, this land works “the way it ought to work,” Carter said. And it reminds us of the habitats the Maintain Healthy Watersheds Goal Implementation Team is working to preserve in order to demonstrate the challenge of protecting streams.
Carter’s work to bring people onto his property could help further this goal, as he shares knowledge that can inform and inspire his visitors. “Here’s a little piece of land on which I can make all the rules,” Carter said. “Here, I can make this land good for the Bay and its rivers. And I can show people what’s good for the Bay and its rivers.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter and Jenna Valente. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.