Bernie Fowler remembers the days when he could wade up to his shoulders in his beloved Patuxent River and still see the river's bottom, teeming with crabs and fish swimming among the grasses and oyster shells.
Today the picture is not so clear. The river has been clouded by years of nutrient pollution and sediment runoff. Even at waist height, it is hard to catch a glimpse of the bottom.
To draw attention to this issue, Bernie began wading into the Patuxent River each year to measure water clarity. “If we can wade out chest high and see my feet, and see the little crabs and the grass shrimp clearly, then, we will be there,” said Bernie, who has waded into the river on the second Sunday of every June since 1988.
This year, on June 11, a crowd of more than 100 gathered with him, including school children, river advocates and Maryland gubernatorial candidates Martin O'Malley and Doug Duncan. All spoke of a declining river in need of help and protection.
Following the speakers, Bernie waded into the river hand-in-hand with friends, relatives and others, until he could no longer see his shoes. The waterline on Bernie's denim overalls—known as the “sneaker index”—was measured at 27.5 inches, similar to last year's mark of 27 inches.
While the river's health appears to be holding steady, it will take a concentrated effort by many to bring it back to the clear conditions that Bernie remembers. Improved water clarity could cause an ecological domino effect, with more underwater grass beds that filter water, produce oxygen and soften wave action. Water clarity is indicative of a healthy river and Bay, and is a key component of water quality, which the Bay Program is working to improve.
At announcement ceremonies in Harrisburg and Annapolis on May 2, ten watershed-based partnerships were awarded grants ranging from of $500,000 to $1 million to help improve the quality of local waters and the Chesapeake Bay.
To help support local organizations restoring the Bay, the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Chesapeake Bay Trust provided $7.7 million to help reduce pollution reaching the Bay from agricultural and suburban lands.
Projects include managing nutrient runoff from manure through precision feeding and identifying markets for manure as fertilizer; integrating farm stewardship with ecosystem restoration activities; and implementing various “low-impact development” and “social marketing” approaches to address urban/suburban stormwater in cost-effective ways.
The ten projects will reduce more than nine million pounds of nitrogen and nearly seven million pounds of phosphorous annually to the Bay. The projects reduce pollution from a range of sources and explore market-based incentives to encourage more widespread implementation of pollution-fighting programs.
Projects focus in four key areas: Crop Management, Manure and Poultry Litter Management, Urban/Suburban Stormwater Management, and Market-Based Incentives.
Environmental Defense will work directly with 350 farmers in the Lower Susquehanna River Basin to improve on-farm nutrient use efficiency, including Plain Sect farmers who may be reluctant to participate in government-sponsored programs.d
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection -- in partnership with Penn State Cooperative Extension, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Capital Area RC&D Council, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council -- will facilitate the conversion of 12,750 acres of cropland to continuous no-till agriculture.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture, in collaboration with the Agricultural Research Service Beltsville, the Caroline Soil Conservation District, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the University of Maryland Extension Service , and Public Drainage Associations, will work with farmers in the Choptank River watershed to increase agricultural BMP implementation to reduce nutrient and sediment loads.
The Upper Susquehanna Coalition will integrate innovative prescribed grazing with riparian preservation and restoration approaches on agricultural land in the Upper Susquehanna River Watershed.
The University of Maryland , working in partnership with the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the Adams County Conservation District, will demonstrate the comprehensive use of three key management strategies to reduce nutrient losses from dairy farms in the Monocacy watershed by as much as 30 to 40 percent.
As an outgrowth of the 2005 Waste Solutions Forum, this diverse partnership – including Virginia Tech, the Virginia Poultry Federation, the Dairy Foundation of Virginia, the Shenandoah RC&D Council, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, to name a few – will demonstrate a comprehensive and innovative approach to managing excess animal manure and poultry litter in the North River Watershed of the Shenandoah Valley.
This project, which is a partnership among the Chesapeake Bay Recovery Partnership, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, seeks to effectively address urban and suburban stormwater runoff in the Corsica River watershed by engaging residents in implementing non structural best management practices.
Using the Paxton Creek Watershed as a model, this project will develop a multi-jurisdictional stormwater management structure spanning several municipalities in the greater Harrisburg area. To test the management structure and address water quality impacts, the initiative also will implement five stormwater demonstration projects that are supported by and funded through public-private partnerships.
A broad-based partnership, including Virginia Tech, West Virginia University , the Frederick-Winchester Service Authority, as well as federal, state and local governments, community groups and business interests, will use proven and innovative best management practices to accelerate nutrient reduction in the Opequon Creek Watershed.
Virginia Tech is partnering with Virginia Commonwealth University and two oyster producers to demonstrate and assess the potential for commercial oyster production to be credited with water quality improvements under Chesapeake Bay water quality trading and offset programs.
Download more information (142 kb) about these projects.
Underwater bay grass acreage increased by seven percent in 2005 to a total of 78,260 acres, according to data gathered by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science for the Chesapeake Bay Program. The 2005 acreage represents about 42 percent of baywide restoration goals.
While this increased acreage is encouraging, scientists are concerned about possible losses in 2006 due to a widespread defoliation of eelgrass in lower and mid-bay areas. This occurred after last summer's unusually high water temperatures and calm conditions. The full extent of the losses will not be known until June, when the aerial survey of key areas is completed.
Abundant bay grasses are essential for a thriving Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Bay grasses reduce pollution by absorbing nutrients and trapping sediments and provide shelter and nursery areas for juvenile striped bass and crabs.
The Bay has seen a slow increase in bay grass coverage, from 38,000 acres in 1984 to nearly 90,000 acres in 2002. Because of the importance of bay grasses to the Bay ecosystem, the Bay Program partners have committed to protect and restore 185,000 acres by 2010.
Bay Program partners are working to provide optimal water quality conditions for bay grasses by upgrading sewage treatment plants, planting streamside forest buffers and minimizing runoff from developed and agricultural areas. Water clarity improvements are critical to helping the Bay's underwater grasses return to their former abundance.
Some 19,464 acres of underwater grasses were mapped in 2005. While about ten percent lower than last year's record level of 21,673 acres, the average density of the beds increased, providing higher quality habitat for resident aquatic life. The density of grass beds in this area has been steadily increasing since 1999, following almost 15 years of sparse coverage. Bed density has almost tripled since 1999, increasing from about 1,700 acres to nearly 5,000 acres of moderate- to high-density beds in 2005.
Last year's 39,576 acres marked a 17 percent increase, but is far below the previous high of 52,971 acres in 2002. Bay grass acreage in this region is dominated by widgeon grass, a species that shows tremendous inter-annual variability. The middle bay has seen two peaks since 1984, one in 1992-93, and one in 2001-02.
Below the Maryland/Virginia state line, grasses covered 19,220 acres in 2005, a nine percent increase from the unusually low acreage recorded in 2004. After a period of steady increase from 1984 through 1993, bay grass abundance in this region has fluctuated, generally averaging of approximately 21,000 acres. Changes observed between 2004 and 2005 in some areas of the lower and mid-bay were likely a result of these beds beginning a recovery from the effects of Hurricane Isabel in 2003.