The Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone measured near average in size this past summer, coming close to scientists’ June prediction of a smaller than average hypoxic zone in the nation’s largest estuary.
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die. The bacteria that aid in algae bloom decomposition suck up oxygen from the surrounding waters. The resulting hypoxic or anoxic conditions can suffocate marine life, shrinking the habitat available for fish, crabs and other critters.
Each summer, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) collect water samples to measure the hypoxic volume of the Bay. Since 1983, this number has ranged from 15.3 to 33.1 percent. In 2013, it measured 22.1 percent: 5.6 percent higher than the previous year and just above the 21.9 percent average.
Protecting undeveloped land, planting native trees and monitoring forests for insects and disease: each of these actions can conserve critical forest habitat, and each has been put into practice across the region by this year’s Chesapeake Forest Champions.
A researcher, a forester, a teacher and a regional water provider were among the four award-winners in the annual contest sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
“The need for local champions of trees and forests has never been greater,” said USFS liaison to the Chesapeake Bay Program Sally Claggett in a media release.
Across the watershed, forests are disappearing at an average rate of 100 acres per day, which can mean less habitat for wildlife and more pollution flowing into rivers and streams. But the examples set by these Chesapeake Forest Champions are a “continual reminder of the positive local action and careful land stewardship that is taking place to restore our treasured natural resources,” said Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay Executive Director Al Todd.
Newport News Waterworks was named an Exemplary Forest Steward. The regional water provider serves 400,000 Virginia residents and manages 12,000 acres of land, more than half of which has been a certified American Tree Farm since 1947. Here, farm fields have been reforested, stands of timber have been improved and insects, disease and invasive plants have been monitored and controlled.
Maryland middle school teacher John Smucker was commended for Greatest On-the-Ground Impact in light of his talent as a volunteer organizer and environmental educator. Smucker grows trees and shrubs from seed in a Frederick County nursery, which he and his volunteers plant across the region. Smucker also remains involved in forest maintenance, watering trees throughout the summer, mowing tall grasses and replanting trees that have died.
Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) District Forester Roy Brubaker was named Most Effective at Engaging the Public. Brubaker manages 85,000 acres of land and water at Michaux State Forest, where he engages stakeholders to resolve issues related to public use. As owner and operator of a grass-fed livestock farm, Brubaker is also involved in sustainable agriculture in the state, and has helped promote forest management to the region’s farmers.
Stroud Water Research Center President and Director Bern Sweeney received the Lifetime Achievement Award for his research and writing about the environmental impact of streamside forests. For more than two decades, Sweeney has worked to demonstrate the link between healthy forests and healthy streams.
The Chesapeake Forest Champions were celebrated at the Chesapeake Watershed Forum in Shepherdstown, W.Va. The eighth annual conference also commemorated the three decades of restoration work in which so much of the conservation community has been engaged. Learn more about the winners.
It is said that the environmental movement began with the first Earth Day. Four decades later, we have seen signs of environmental improvement: rivers no longer catch fire, chemical dumps have been cleaned up and we are breathing cleaner air. But even as we solve past environmental problems, we place renewed pressure on our ecosystem.
In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, our population has doubled over the past 60 years, reaching almost 18 million people. With that population increase comes a rise in polluted runoff from roads, parking lots and farm fields and more discharges from septic systems and wastewater treatment plants. These non-point sources of pollution push nutrients and sediment into our waterways, where they create algal blooms and low-oxygen dead zones, smother our underwater grasses and reduce fish habitat. Our actions on land continue to impact our environment, creating an ecosystem that is dangerously out of balance. Now, pollution is much more insidious.
When we look at the efforts made to restore the Bay and its watershed, we can see what works and what doesn’t. We know that technological upgrades to wastewater treatment plants can lower nitrogen and phosphorous discharges, improving water quality and, in some cases, boosting the growth of underwater grasses. We know that controls on power plant and vehicle emissions can reduce the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen, lowering nutrient pollution in the Bay. And there is evidence that planting cover crops, controlling fertilizer applications and restricting livestock from streams can reduce agricultural runoff and restore local waters.
While these actions demonstrate success, there are other actions that have not led to such improvements. But these experiences are equally important. The environment is a complex system, and what works in one location might not work as well in another. The same practice implemented in the Piedmont, for instance, will not create the same results as that practice implemented on the Coastal Plain. And some areas experience “lag-times” between the implementation of conservation practices and an improvement in water quality. Knowing what factors may cause these differences is important, so we can adjust our behavior and adapt our approaches to local conditions. As we work to restore the watershed, we must constantly ask ourselves, “What have we learned?” And we must know that how we apply these lessons will provide the key to restoring rivers, streams and the Bay.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy, endorsement, or action.
Cover crops, sediment ponds and streamside trees and shrubs: each of these conservation practices will slow the flow of pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay. But each will take different amounts of time to produce water quality results, according to a panel of experts convened by the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Image courtesy Uncle Kick-Kick/Flickr
In a report released this month, the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) notes that the impacts of changes in land use and pollution loads into rivers and streams will not always be immediately reflected in changes to water quality. In fact, these so-called “lag-times”—or the stretch of time between the adoption of a conservation practice and the effect of that practice on a particular waterway—could call for patience in awaiting visible results from our restoration work.
Lag times are a natural part of our environment: as rainwater soaks into the ground, it can move nitrogen through the soil, and strong storms can pick up sediment and deposit it elsewhere. Because conditions in the Bay are a result of current human activities and a legacy of activities from the past, it makes sense that management actions taken now could take days or even decades to produce positive results. In fact, scientists know that some practices—in particular, those that take place close to rivers and streams—can produce results faster than others.
But according to STAC, this doesn’t mean that we should scale back on watershed restoration. Instead, an understanding of lag-times improves our understanding of how the ecosystem works, and reminds us to be “patiently realistic about the time-scale for observing results.”
Learn more about lag-times and the Chesapeake Bay.