For 383 miles, the Potomac River flows steadily down from West Virginia, through the nation’s capital and past Maryland’s Point Lookout State Park until it reaches its final destination: the Chesapeake Bay.
For the group of Ojibwe women leading the Potomac River Nibi Walk, their destination is the same as the river’s.
In Ojibwe tradition, a Nibi Walk is an act of spiritual devotion. These women have traveled from their home in Minnesota to the river’s beginning in West Virginia to perform the walk. The goal is to carry water collected at the headwaters of the Potomac in Fairfax Stone, West Virginia, down to where it meets the Chesapeake Bay, praying to and honoring the spirit of the water with every step.
Sharon Day, the organizer of the walk, says that she and others from her community took this act of prayer and meditation out of their homes and communities into the “geopolitical landscape” because they feel that waterway health in the United States needs to be a major concern.
Day’s trying to bring this message around the country. Other walks have covered the Cuyahoga, James, Minnesota and Ohio Rivers among others. “I urge all the walkers that the walk is just the beginning,” she says. “How do we–every single one of us–be a part of the solution?”
The last day of the walk takes on a certain rhythm: the steady pace of the human body punctuated by fluid handoffs and quick footsteps on asphalt. One or two people walk with the water at a time, down stretches of road that may or may not be pedestrian-friendly. They relay the water every mile or so and keep it moving from the early morning until about the time the sun goes down when they rest. In Ojibwe life, women are the keepers of the water, so they are the ones who carry the vessel. Men act in supporting roles, such as carrying the eagle staff.
The group completes the last 20 or so miles of their journey and ends on a rocky shoreline at Point Lookout State Park as the sun sinks low in the sky. Once people steady themselves on the jagged rocks, a moment of calm settles over what had been a day of constant movement. The water laps and gurgles beneath as Day removes the beaded cloth that covered the copper bucket and acted as a metronome throughout the walk, clinking against the vessel with every step. She raises the water three times before releasing it from her possession into the waves of the Chesapeake Bay as the group lets out cheers of excitement.
The light fades as the travelers reflect on their journey, complete an offering ceremony and sing for the water all together one last time on the Potomac River Nibi Walk.
Video, photos and text by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
A peregrine falcon flies from its nest at the Conowingo Hydroelectric Generating Station, or Conowingo Dam, in Conowingo, Maryland, on March 11, 2015. The dam sits across the lower Susquehanna River, about ten miles from where the waterway meets the Chesapeake Bay.
Just below the dam is an area well-known for bird-watching—most famously for bald eagles and great blue herons, drawn there by the high availability of fish around the dam’s outflow. Also known to frequent the site are peregrine falcons, whose preference for hunting by diving leads them to nest high on natural and man-made structures, like the nearly-100-foot-tall Conowingo Dam. Highly territorial, only one to two birds typically nest at the site at a time.
Although peregrines can be found on every continent except Antarctica, the falcons are uncommon in many parts of their historic range: in the mid-20th century, widespread pesticide use led to a drastic decline in peregrine falcon populations. By 1964, nesting peregrines were extinct in the eastern United States.
In 1979, a recovery plan was established to restore breeding peregrines to the eastern U.S. Through the program, 174 pairs of nesting peregrine falcons were established by 1997, with at least 27 pairs originating from the Chesapeake Bay region. By 1999, the peregrine falcon was removed from the Endangered Species List—and in the years since, the Chesapeake Bay has reestablished itself as an important region for nesting and migrating peregrines.
Peregrines in the Chesapeake region are perhaps best-known for their tendency to nest on man-made structures: the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Francis Scott Key Bridge, as well as skyscrapers in downtown Baltimore, Richmond, Harrisburg and other cities. Each spring, the Chesapeake Conservancy streams live video of a pair of peregrine falcons nesting on Baltimore’s Transamerica Building. Last year, peregrines “Boh” and “Barb” raised three young falcons at the site.
Learn more about the peregrine falcon.
Image by Will Parson
Our annual report on environmental health and restoration in the Chesapeake Bay watershed shows we have reached—and in some cases, surpassed—the halfway mark toward half a dozen of the commitments built into the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. In the face of risks posed by land use changes and political uncertainty, our partnership has renewed its emphasis on engaging landowners and local governments in achieving our vision of a sustainable watershed. We stand with federal agencies, states, academic institutions and nongovernmental organizations in a united front against risks and threats.
Bay Barometer: Health and Restoration in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed (2015-2016) is a science-based snapshot of the nation’s largest estuary. This data it features informs the work of various individuals and organizations, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). Earlier this year, CBF graded the Chesapeake Bay a ‘C-‘ in its biannual State of the Bay report; in May 2016, UMCES graded it a ‘C’ in its Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
The indicators of environmental health, restoration and stewardship summarized in Bay Barometer reveal a resilient Chesapeake Bay. The data in this report reflect the Bay’s health over the course of many years and, in some cases, decades. In 2016, for instance, an analysis of the first oyster reefs to be built and seeded with larvae in Maryland’s Harris Creek showed that all reefs met the minimum criteria for success in oyster weight and density, and half met even higher weight and density targets. In the same year, an annual count of blue crabs revealed the population of adult females had reached its highest total of the last five years and was just ten percent below the restoration target. In 2015, underwater grass abundance reached its highest total of the last three decades and surpassed the 2017 target two years ahead of schedule. The continued health of underwater grass beds, the restoration of native oyster reefs and the sustainable management of fish and shellfish will benefit local seafood economies, but will require continued efforts to reduce pollution and protect wildlife habitat. You can track our progress toward the Oyster, Blue Crab Abundance and Submerged Aquatic Vegetation outcomes online.
Reducing Pollution, Protecting Land
Federal, state and local agencies are often on the front lines of pollution control. The pollution-reducing practices that states have put in place—including upgrading wastewater treatment plants, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions, and reducing runoff from farmland—are integral in ensuring the Chesapeake Bay meets its “pollution diet.” A recent analysis shows these practices are in place to achieve 81 percent of the phosphorus reductions, 48 percent of the sediment reductions and 31 percent of the nitrogen reductions needed to reach our clean water goals. Indeed, significant nutrient reductions in the wastewater sector allowed the partnership as a whole to meet its 2025 pollution reduction targets for this sector ten years ahead of schedule.
Federal, state and local agencies also play a critical role alongside nongovernmental organizations and individual landowners in protecting land from development. Between 2010 and 2015, these partners protected more than one million acres, marking an achievement of 50 percent of the target. When fully realized, our protected lands goal will help ensure the watershed can withstand population growth while sustaining the plants, animals and people that live here. You can track our progress toward the Reducing Pollution and Protected Lands outcomes online.
As the watershed’s population grows, development pressures are dramatically changing the landscape. Urban and suburban development can fragment habitat, harden shorelines, increase impervious surfaces and push pollution into rivers and streams. On the other hand, land use pressures can also open opportunities for dialogue and decision-making to protect ecologically and culturally valuable lands or mitigate damage when impacts are impossible to avoid.
Because public and political attitudes toward conservation vary, approaches to education, engagement and policy must be tailored toward local needs and opportunities. For these reasons, our partnership has placed a renewed emphasis on engaging landowners and local governments in our work to restore forest buffers, wetlands and other habitats, protect land from development, maintain healthy watersheds and more. Most notably, the partnership’s governing body recently signed a resolution to support local government engagement; commended the actions taken by local governments and local utilities to address their pollution reduction goals within the wastewater sectors; and committed to raising awareness about the economic and environmental benefits of investing in watershed protection and restoration efforts at the local level.
The well-being of the Chesapeake Bay watershed will soon rest in the hands of its youngest residents. For many, efforts to instill in students a connection to the natural world—and in turn, a desire to care for it—begin with greening the buildings in which students learn. Whether by installing rain gardens and water bottle filling stations like Lanier Middle School in Fairfax, Virginia; turning an unused open-air space to a light-filled atrium like Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C.; or installing a geothermal heat pump and two thousand solar panels like Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, Maryland, schools across the region have made big strides toward sustainability.
Sustainable schools are built around reducing environmental impact, improving human health and strengthening environmental literacy. Because certification programs often require progress in each of these three pillars of sustainability, the benefits of sustainable schools are varied, from the conservation of water and energy to the improved test scores that have been linked to hands-on environmental education.
But building a sustainable school can take time and dedication on the part of principals, teachers and facilities staff. While the benefits of sustainable schools are proven—and outweigh costs 20 to 1—resources aren’t always distributed evenly and buy-in is not always easy to get.
“If a school administration does not understand the benefits of a sustainable school program and does not support teachers or other school staff investing time towards school sustainability, then it’s going to be difficult for any school to achieve it,” said Kevin Schabow, coordinator of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Education Workgroup, which advances the partnership’s environmental literacy goals. “There are many priorities for administrators, and school sustainability may not be on their radar.”
That said, making a school sustainable can begin with grassroots enthusiasm. “Student voice is a powerful thing,” Schabow said. Whether the driver is a desire to compete with other schools or the knowledge that sustainable schools are good for staff and students alike, motivation can come in the form of a superintendent who encourages principals to go green, a teacher who excites students about stewardship or a group of students who lobby their principal for a change.
In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a total of 502 public and charter schools—or 12 percent of all public and charter schools—are certified sustainable by one of the following programs: U.S. Green Ribbon Schools, Eco-Schools USA, Maryland Green Schools and Virginia Naturally Schools. Maryland is home to most of the sustainable schools in the region, in large part because their robust in-state program was established almost 20 years ago. Indeed, state-specific programs are not equal: in some states, these programs are robust; in others, these programs are not well-established; and in others, these programs do not yet exist. The Chesapeake Bay Program will continue to monitor sustainable schools in the region and provide support through funding and other means.
Schabow notes that the partnership’s sustainable school goal—which was adopted in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement and aims to continually increase the number of sustainable schools in the region—has increased awareness around the sustainable school initiative. “I’m hopeful that we can continue supporting state projects and see increased interest and participation in these programs,” Schabow said. “That’s really what we’re looking for. We’ve got the baseline [counted], but we want to see more.”
Learn more about our work to increase sustainable schools in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.