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Chesapeake Bay News

Archives: June 2012

Jun
20
2012

Watershed Wednesday: Bull Run Mountains Conservancy (Broad Run, Va.)

In the 1930s, Smithsonian botanist Harry A. Allard walked 3,000 miles and collected 15,000 plant specimens in the Bull Run Mountains of Virginia's Eastern Piedmont region.

Eighty years later, Smithsonian scientists collect beetle specimens in the same mountains. A few miles away, volunteer naturalists explain to children and adults why beetles are central to all life; different beetle species pollinate plants (helps plants reproduce), and assist with decomposition (eats dead organisms).

A group of young campers and their parents pose at Bull Run Mountains Conservancy.
(Image courtesy Bull Run Mountains Conservancy)

Such a combination of research and education is rare, says Michael Kieffer, Executive Director of the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy, a nonprofit headquartered in the southern 800 acres of the 2,500 acre Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve, about 15 miles from Manassas, Middleburg, and Warrenton, Virginia.

"We have the unique opportunity to conduct both youth and adult education programs and to tie those programs to research on the mountains," says Michael.

While the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy leads research, stewardship, and education programs in the natural area, the land itself is owned by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.

With plenty of places to search for the region's rare plants and insects, the conservancy's nine miles of trails see 10,000 visitors per year.

"It is wonderful to have public access to this state natural area, but people management is always an issue," states Michael.

Stewardship goes hand in hand with the conservancy's education programs.

A group of environmental education program participants peak into a culvert at Bull Run Mountains Conservancy.
(Image courtesy Bull Run Mountains Conservancy)

Programs such as "nature preschool," "herpetology camp," and even teachers' workshops, allow participants to study the ecosystem through experience, just the way Allard did eighty years ago.

When asked to elaborate on the conservancy's immersion education philosophy, Michael explained, "Just keep them outside. They need to be outside. Yes, it’s based on the research, but no we don’t have camp counselors. It's about getting kids outside with other kids. This is vital to your life."

But as any parent knows, kids learn by example. If adults are not prone to spend time outdoors, neither will their children.

"At BRMC our education programs are equally weighed between adults and children.  If adults do not learn alongside their children, then the child’s experience on the mountains is diminished.”

The Bull Run Mountains Conservancy's summer camps begin in June. But nature lovers of all ages are invited to join their naturalist-led walks, trail clean up days, rattle snake surveys, and watershed workshops throughout the year.

A bald eagle soars near Bull Run Mountains Conservancy.
(Image courtesy Bull Run Mountains Conservancy)

More from the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy:

Caitlin Finnerty's avatar
About Caitlin Finnerty - Caitlin Finnerty is the Communications Staffer at the Chesapeake Research Consortium and Chesapeake Bay Program. Caitlin grew up digging for dinosaur bones and making mud pies in Harrisburg, Pa. Her fine arts degree landed her environmental field work jobs everywhere from Oregon to Maryland. Now settled in Baltimore, she is eagerly expecting her first child while creating an urban garden oasis on her cement patio.



Jun
12
2012

2011 dissolved oxygen levels lowest in four years

In 2011, monitoring data collected by the Bay jurisdictions and other partners showed that dissolved oxygen concentrations in the Chesapeake fell to their lowest level in the last four years with 34 percent of the waters meeting the established DO standards for the summer months.  This represents a decrease of 4 percent from the 2010 figures according to the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) partnership and is almost half of the higher DO values recorded a decade ago.

In spite of lower levels and in the face of many weather challenges, various Bay habitats and creatures that have been the target of restoration efforts showed resilience last year.  In CBP news this March, scientists from Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS) reported that despite a decrease in Bay grasses overall, the restored, healthy grass beds at Susquehanna Flats remained intact, widgeon grass beds grew (likely due to seed germination stimulated by lower salinities) and new grass beds were found in Virginia’s James River.  In terms of fisheries, preliminary data by oyster scientists from Maryland Department of Natural Resources and NOAA showed good news, too.  Experts estimate last year’s oyster survival rate was at its highest since 1985, oyster biomass increased 44 percent and oyster disease was at an all time low. 

“Last year’s heavy rains and even this year’s early algae blooms and fish kills reinforce the critical importance of controlling polluted runoff reaching the Bay’s waters,” said Nick DiPasquale, Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program. “The survival rates of some oyster and grass beds in 2011 shows us that our efforts are working.  By actively restoring and protecting valuable resources we can build a stronger, healthier Bay ecosystem that can withstand the forces of nature.  Clearly, while we can’t control the weather, we can restore the watershed’s ability to survive its more extreme events.   We know what works; we just need to do more of it.”

Experts were not terribly surprised by the final information on the Bay’s 2011 “dead zones” given the extreme weather.  Between the very wet spring that sent excessive nutrients downstream, a hot, dry, early summer and more heavy rains accompanying Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Irene, conditions in the Chesapeake were bound to be affected. 

Peter Tango, CBP Monitoring Coordinator and U.S. Geological Survey scientists explains, “The Bay ecosystem functions most effectively when fresh and salt water can mix, just like oil and vinegar need to mix to form salad dressing.  A large fresh water influx such as that in 2011, along with intense heat, can result in vast differences in quantities of warm fresh and cool salt water in the Bay.  These variables make it more difficult for water to mix vertically in the water column.”

In addition to vertical mixing, the dissolved oxygen levels in the Bay are also affected by what happens at the edges.  Tango continues: “By the fall of last year, the Upper Bay became mostly fresh water due to rain. The Lower Bay became a hot tub due to heat,” illustrates Tango.  “While the initial effects of the Tropical Storm Lee’s arrival was to mix the Bay more than usual in late summer, this combination of salinity and temperature conditions resulted in minimal levels of oxygen in bottom waters that  lasted well into the fall. The delay in autumn vertical mixing and the persistent summer-like water quality conditions at the northern and southern boundaries pushed on the mid-Bay waters, resulting in what we scientists call a dissolved oxygen or ‘DO squeeze.’” 

All of the Bay's living creatures – from the fish and crabs that swim through its waters to the worms that bury themselves in its muddy bottom – need  oxygen to survive, although the amounts needed vary by species, season and location in the Bay.  A DO squeeze challenges the health of fish, crabs, and other Bay creatures since they become compacted together – predator and prey, from north to south and bottom to top – in significantly smaller sections of water where and conditions are less-than-ideal for their survival.



Jun
12
2012

Tributary Tuesday: Muddy Creek (York, Pa.)

Just north of the Mason-Dixon line, the North and South branches of the 17-mile-long Muddy Creek transverse farm lands and orchards, and in some places, wild trout flourish. The two forks meet at an old railroad village appropriately named Muddy Creek Forks. The settlement was once a bustling industrial hub along the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad, but today, restored general stores and railroad tracks take visitors to a time when “workin’ on the railroad” was a way of life. Take a tour of the town’s historic buildings – structures with names like “milk collection building” and “coal bins” that have escaped the modern vocabulary.

Muddy Creek watershed

(Image courtesy Bruce E. Hengst, Sr./Flickr)

As the creek flows through York County’s Peach Bottom and Lower Chanceford Township, its character shifts from an agricultural stream to that of a mountain river, decorated with huge boulders, flat pools, mountain laurel, and hemlock groves.

Locals spend hot summer days in the swimming holes along this section of Muddy Creek. Unfortunately, more of these swimming holes are being closed down each year due to illegal dumping violations and the threat this poses to human health.

Other outdoor enthusiasts choose to hike along the a section of the Mason Dixon Trail, which begins at the intersection of Muddy Creek and Paper Mill Road and goes to the Susquehanna River. Paddlers enjoy this section of the creek, particularly in the early spring, when the entire stretch is canoeable.

Trout fishermen from all over the country flock to Muddy Creek. A two-mile Delayed Harvest section between Bruce and Bridgeton is particularly poplar. Still others speak about the scenery between Woodbine and Castle Fin, a section of the creek only accessible via the old railroad bed.

Muddy Creek meets the Susquehanna River north of the Conowingo Dam, shortly before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

More from Muddy Creek:

Caitlin Finnerty's avatar
About Caitlin Finnerty - Caitlin Finnerty is the Communications Staffer at the Chesapeake Research Consortium and Chesapeake Bay Program. Caitlin grew up digging for dinosaur bones and making mud pies in Harrisburg, Pa. Her fine arts degree landed her environmental field work jobs everywhere from Oregon to Maryland. Now settled in Baltimore, she is eagerly expecting her first child while creating an urban garden oasis on her cement patio.



Jun
06
2012

Watershed Wednesday: Restore Mass Ave (Washington, D.C.)

The above 1913 photograph depicts rows of American lindens planted along Washington D.C.’s Massachusetts Avenue, west of Dupont Circle. The “double rows” of trees were planted in the 1880s, but many disappeared as the street was developed, new embassies were built, and utility lines installed. As a street that has historically been an international relations hub (it is home to major embassies), the loss of trees along Massachusetts Avenue seemed to represent the worldwide preference of commercialism over nature.

historic Mass Ave photo

(Image courtesy Restore Mass Ave/Washingtoniana MLK Library)

Today, the climate has shifted, and politicians jump at the chance to get their photo taken in front of a newly planted tree; but long before the diplomats grabbed their shovels (and press staff), Deborah Shapley was walking up and down Massachusetts Avenue, knocking on her neighbors’ doors, and asking them how far their hoses could stretch to water parched trees in the sidewalk.

Washington’s D.C.'s Department of Transportation's Urban Forestry Administration has taken the important step of planting trees along streets throughout the city, but it did not have the resources to water them. For young trees, lack of water lowers their chances of survival in Washington’s hot summers. Instead of complaining, Deborah encouraged her neighbors to take on the responsibility of watering their nearest city sidewalk tree as if it were their own.

“I started Restore Mass.Ave to be a model of how to get local property owners excited about taking care of the city trees near them.”

But convincing property owners to take care of a tree that isn’t technically in their yard is not so easy.

“People tend not to care about the landscape that is more than a house or two away,” explains Deborah. “So the cry for them to take care of trees beyond a certain distance, that’s just not practical to them.”

But since Deborah began Restore Mass Ave in 2007, more and more residents and embassies along the street have come to understand that these trees are dually beautifying their community and helping to absorb stormwater runoff.

Restore Mass Ave volunteers

(Image courtesy Restore Mass Ave)

In addition to caring for the 100 sidewalk trees installed by the city, Restore Mass has worked with Casey Trees to plant 125 new trees since 2007. Most of the 225 total trees are large shade trees, which absorb stormwater and lessen pressure on the neighborhood's combined sewer system.

Like most of downtown Washington D.C., Massachusetts Avenue has a combined sewer system (css), which collects water from both stormwater runoff and household’s sanitary sewage. The CSS conveys this to treatment plants to be cleaned before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

But during heavy rain events, the combined sewer system often overflows; the stormwater and sanitary wastes flow directly into the Anacostia or Potomac River. This can cause an excess of bacteria and other pollutants in Washington D.C.’s tributaries, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

While it is always important to find ways to decrease the amount of stormwater runoff flowing into storm drains, it is particularly crucial in neighborhoods with combined sewer overflows (roughly one-third of the District of Columbia).

“The city is under requirements from the EPA to rebuild the underground tunnels and pipes” associated with the combined overflow system, explains Deborah. “They’re only able to do a certain amount per year of underground infrastructure. But large trees naturally conduct precipitation down into the soil and lowers the burden the underground pipes.”’

Stormwater will instead be absorbed by trees, and help to recharge the groundwater so more plants can grow.

“If you have a continuous line of shade trees alongside of a gutter, less water flows into that storm drain, and less water is barreling around in the tunnels of the combined stormwater system,” Deborah says.

While trees help to absorb stormwater during rain events, they do need to be watered when it is not raining. Droughts and heat waves make it difficult for young trees to survive on their own. Luckily, Restore Mass Ave’s volunteers, known as “Treekeepers,” make sure care is given to every sidewalk tree.

Since roughly one-third of Mass Ave properties are foreign-owned, the organization works with embassies to plant trees on their grounds.

While it was once typical for embassies’ groundskeepers to maintain flowers the colors of the nations’ flags, it is now popular for embassies to also maintain the surrounding trees. Governments relate the activity to their climate change agendas. Groundskeepers become, in effect, "Treekeepers."

“They have a sense of ownership that they didn’t have before,” says Deborah. “When you give people who care for plants the chance to grow nearby sidewalk trees, they are delighted.”

As Restore Mass Ave encourages private homeowners and embassy staffs to care for trees in public space, the sense of shared community and stewardship multiplies.

“As in many neighborhoods, we found that the embassies don’t often talk to each other, but when you point out the common trees, and you engage all the staff, it becomes their common garden,” explains Deborah.

While Restore Mass Ave may have found a way to create a sense of an international environmental stewardship, Deborah, founder and president of the all-volunteer organization, concedes that the nonprofit would like to expand its influence, but not its area.

“The idea is to not take over a bigger and bigger area, but to get other people to start their own groups, such as Restore Georgia Avenue or Restore Connecticut Avenue. Only as more people here understand the importance and fun of growing trees, will DC become the ‘City of Trees’ as it was known a century ago."

Restore Mass Ave volunteers

(Image courtesy Restore Mass Ave)

Get involved

For more information on how you can get involved with Restore Mass Ave or start your own “Restore” on your street, visit the Restore Mass Ave Volunteer page.

Restore Mass Ave is trying to spread the word, via their Tree Care Blog (http://blog.restoremassave.org) and their Facebook and Twitter (#restoremassave).

Caitlin Finnerty's avatar
About Caitlin Finnerty - Caitlin Finnerty is the Communications Staffer at the Chesapeake Research Consortium and Chesapeake Bay Program. Caitlin grew up digging for dinosaur bones and making mud pies in Harrisburg, Pa. Her fine arts degree landed her environmental field work jobs everywhere from Oregon to Maryland. Now settled in Baltimore, she is eagerly expecting her first child while creating an urban garden oasis on her cement patio.



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