The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released their final Clean Water Rule this week, clarifying which streams and wetlands are protected from pollution and development under the Clean Water Act.
Included under the new rule are seasonal and rain-dependent streams that may only flow during certain times of the year, but which have a significant connection to downstream waters that were previously protected. Wetlands and waterways that border larger waterbodies will also be covered. According to the EPA, the rule will help protect the drinking water of nearly 117 million people.
“For the water in the rivers and lakes in our communities that flow to our drinking water to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them need to be clean too,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a release.
Two complex Supreme Court decisions led to nearly a decade of confusion over just which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act. While the new rule clarifies which waterways are now protected, it does not expand the scope of the Clean Water Act, and it preserves existing exemptions for irrigation ponds, drainage ditches and other agricultural activities.
The sandy shores of Virginia Beach are no stranger to development. As the shoreline curves along the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, homes, hotels and resorts boast Bay-front and oceanfront views. And in 2008, Pleasure House Point—a 118-acre tract of tidal marshes, salt meadows and maritime forest along the shores of the Lynnhaven River—was set to be transformed as well.
Developers were preparing to begin construction on “Indigo Dunes,” an expansive development that would cover nearly every piece of the property with 1,100 condos and townhomes, including two 11-story towers directly along the water’s edge. But if you travel to the land now, no high-rise towers block your view; instead, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s long, slender Brock Environmental Center sits far back from the riverbank, huddled close to the ground and nestled among the trees and marsh grasses.
Completed in late 2014, the Brock Environmental Center represents a community effort to protect Pleasure House Point for natural use. According to Christy Everett, head of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Hampton Roads office, preservation of the land began almost as wishful thinking: “It was a suggestion that was very out on a limb—‘Hey, maybe we could stop this development.’”
After bankers foreclosed on the property in 2011, lack of funding, legal uncertainties and apprehension from the community delayed the protection of the land and construction of the Center. Many residents supported conserving the land, but some—concerned the Center would be built too close to the shore—thought it shouldn’t be developed at all. “We went door to door several times, to every house in the neighborhood, to get their feedback,” said Everett. And with the Center now open for public tours, Everett says community support is steadily continuing to grow. “Some people didn’t feel comfortable until they came to the building. But people come today and say, ‘oh, now I understand what you were doing.’”
The Center acts a hub for the Bay Foundation’s hands-on environmental education efforts. A pier hugs the shoreline, where a “floating classroom” waits to take students and teachers on an exploration of the Chesapeake ecosystem. But the building itself presents a different type of lesson to its visitors: one of energy efficiency, resource conservation and modern green building technologies.
As one of the top green buildings in the nation, the Center is on track to be one of only a handful of buildings certified under the Living Building Challenge each year. The Challenge—described as the “built environment’s most rigorous performance standard”—is based on seven criteria, called petals: place, water, energy, health, happiness, materials, equity and beauty. In order to be certified, the Center must meet several strict requirements over the next year, including producing zero net waste and no net carbon dioxide emissions.
Designed to be as resource-efficient as possible, the Center uses solar panels, wind turbines and geothermal wells for all its energy needs—while simultaneously creating ways to educate visitors about resource conservation. When local birding groups voiced their opposition to the turbines, the Bay Foundation tweaked the placement and orientation of the structures. “We did a lot of research into the wind turbines we have, what kind of bird and bat kills happen from which type of turbines in the Chesapeake Bay area,” said Everett. “We keep a spreadsheet that’s monitored every day for potential bird deaths, and there haven’t been any. In that way, we’re contributing to the knowledge about these turbines.”
The Center also uses cutting-edge technology for water use and conservation, including turning rainwater into potable drinking water. “We believe we’re the only public facility in the continental United States that treats its rainwater,” said Everett. “The entire site has zero stormwater runoff. It’s really important to us that any water gets used on site instead of running into local waterways.”
While the building is newly assembled, the pieces that comprise it tell the history of the surrounding community. Bleachers from a local school, marked by carvings from students of years past, frame the building’s doors and windows. Countertops made from old art tables line the office supply alcove, and corks from champagne bottles serve as handles for drawers and cupboards. A striking mural—made from the pieces of an old, discarded oak tree—hangs against a wall in one of the Center’s few meeting rooms.
Walking along the Center’s waterfront trail, it can be hard to imagine the vast resort that nearly transformed the landscape. Though the wetland restoration is still in its early stages, signs of wildlife and new growth peek through. “You kind of want it to hurry up and restore,” Everett laughs. But with the marshes, meadows and forests now protected, the land can recover for years to come.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
You can track the status of the Center’s energy and water use through the Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center Building Dashboard.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Stephanie Smith
Shad abundance has surged in four Chesapeake Bay rivers, surpassing restoration goals in the Potomac and Rappahannock. While shad populations are critically low along the Atlantic coast, scientists hope to see rising trends continue in these two waterways. Shad spend most of their adult lives in the ocean, migrating into freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. Their return brings food to the Bay in the form of protein-rich eggs, adult shad that can be captured during the spawn and a new generation of shad that can offer forage to striped bass, bluefish and other species as they return to the sea.
Once one of the most valuable fisheries in the Bay, shad populations have declined in recent decades due to pollution, historic overfishing and the construction of dams that block the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. The Bay Program tracks the abundance of American shad in the James, Potomac, Rappahannock, Susquehanna and York rivers as an indicator of watershed health. Collectively, these five waterways account for about 90 percent of the Bay’s shad population, and each has its own population target.
Between 2000 and 2014, shad abundance in the Bay increased from 11 percent to 44 percent of the goal. The Potomac River has seen the most consistent rise in returning shad, but the Rappahannock has also seen notable highs. In 2014, abundance in the Potomac and Rappahannock reached 130 and 110 percent of the rivers’ respective targets.
Scientists attribute these increases to a series of factors, including improvements in water quality; a resurgence in underwater grass beds; moratoriums on shad harvest; an increase in habitat available to migratory fish; stocking efforts that reprint fish to rivers and kick-start local populations; and the overall suitability of the Potomac, in particular, as shad habitat.
“The Potomac River shad population has surpassed its sustainability target,” said Jim Cummins, director of living resources for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin and co-chair of the Bay Program’s American Shad Indicator Action Team. “But we want to see recovery continue until a robust population is once again providing ecological benefits and supporting a fishery that includes some recreational harvest. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, anglers will be able to enjoy shad on the table and at the end of a line.”
Shad abundance remains negligible in the upper James and Susquehanna and variable in the lower James and York. Some variability is natural, but the continued scarcity of shad in the upper James and Susquehanna can be attributed to large dams. Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Bay Program has committed to opening more stream miles to migratory fish and improving our capacity to understand the role forage fish populations play in the Bay ecosystem.
Preventing livestock from entering streams could improve the health of both local waterways and the animals themselves, according to a new report from the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
When hoofed farm animals—such as cattle, horses, pigs, sheep and goats—have clear access to streams, they trample and erode the banks and bottoms of waterways, freeing sediment and nutrients to flow downstream to the Bay. Animal waste contributes additional nutrient pollution, as well as bacteria that can cause human health concerns.
“Livestock exclusion” is an agricultural best management practice (BMP) that uses fences, streamside buffers and alternative water sources to draw animals away from streams and wetlands. The practice benefits not only water quality but the health of the animals themselves: in operations that have installed fences along streams, farmers have reported decreases in injuries and disease in their herds. In the report, the Bay Commission details the benefits of livestock exclusion; describes current efforts throughout its member states of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia; and looks at factors affecting the widespread implementation of these practices.
By lowering the amount of sediment and nutrients flowing to the Bay, practices like livestock exclusion help meet the clean water goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which encompasses the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
The report, Healthy Livestock, Healthy Streams: Policy Actions to Promote Livestock Stream Exclusion, is available through the Chesapeake Bay Commission website.