Standing at the edge of the Jones Falls, amid polystyrene coffee cups and plastic soda bottles, dwarfed by vibrant graffiti on the surrounding concrete walls, it’s almost possible to hear the rush of water over the noise of the nearby interstate and train tracks. It’s a mild January morning, and Alice Volpitta and Rose Dunn—armed with sensors and sampling bottles—are carefully perched on boulders next to the water.
The two are with Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit that once a month monitors water quality at sites along the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls, two streams that run through the heart of Baltimore City. Today, Volpitta, Water Quality Manager, and Dunn, her volunteer monitoring intern, are visiting five sites along the downstream portion of the Jones Falls. It’s one less than the typical six, because a locked gate is blocking the path to one of the monitoring sites.
“There’s hardly any access to the water,” explains Volpitta. “It’s tough to actually get to it.”
Locked gates aren’t the only obstacle: at various points along the five-stop route, the pair’s progress is slowed by steep, gravelly inclines; thick, viscous mud; and concrete barriers. “This is what I mean by lack of access,” Volpitta laughs at one site, as she and Dunn climb over the wooden railing of a staircase to get down to the water’s edge.
It’s the perfect illustration of how far-removed Baltimore can feel from the water. Apart from the tidal Patapsco River—which makes up the city’s Inner Harbor—Charm City seems mostly paved over. But amidst, and often beneath, the pavement sits a tangled network of streams, including the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls.
“We’re only going to five sites, but you will see more of Baltimore streams today than most people will ever see,” says Volpitta.
It’s what’s unseen in the water that Blue Water Baltimore is concerned with. The organization tracks a variety of measurements typical of water monitoring programs: nutrient and sediment pollution, dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature and conductivity. They also track levels of fecal bacteria, which waterways in the Baltimore region are infamous for—especially after a rainfall, and it had just rained the night before.
This means that, even if you find your way to the water’s edge, it can be best to adhere to a “look, don’t touch” policy.
“We never touch the water directly,” Volpitta explains. Each time they gather their sampling supplies and head down to a monitoring site, she and Dunn pull on pairs of disposable nitrile gloves.
Bacteria can reach the water in a few different ways. When rain falls on non-porous surfaces like roads, sidewalks or buildings, it’s unable to soak into the ground. Instead, it flushes away whatever it can from the surface—from leaking motor oil to pet waste—and rushes it to the nearest waterway. And with as much pavement as a city like Baltimore has, that can add up to a lot of pollution-laden water.
“There’s so much impervious surface in the city that every time it rains it just flash floods, basically,” says Volpitta. At one site, the cover of a sewer manhole had shifted, revealing an opening a few inches wide. The movement seems slight, but it was the result of hundreds of pounds of metal being lifted just by the force of rushing water.
Aside from polluted runoff, Baltimore’s aging water infrastructure plays a role in the presence of fecal bacteria in the Jones Falls. When it was first put in place, the city’s sewer system was state-of-the-art. But when rainfall overwhelms the now 110-year-old system, sewage can be directly discharged into the Jones Falls and other waterways.
The City of Baltimore is actively making repairs and upgrades to the system, but with more than 3,000 miles of sewer lines—some of which are cracked, clogged or simply too small to accommodate the necessary amount of water—progress has been slower than some had hoped for.
In 2002, repeated sewer overflows led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Maryland Department of the Environment to sue the City of Baltimore. As part of a settlement, the city agreed to fix the sewer system by 2016. Last year, this agreement was revised, giving the city until 2021 to stop its sewage discharges into the Jones Falls and until 2030 to complete all repairs the sewer system requires.
At one monitoring station—near Lake Roland, a former Baltimore City reservoir—it’s easy to forget how close you are to downtown. The loudest noise is the piercing rattle of a belted kingfisher as it flits from tree to tree, followed by the soft murmurs of visitors walking their dogs along the wooded pathway. It’s almost serene enough to persuade you that the water seems less polluted.
But that day, the fecal bacteria count at the Lake Roland site was 260 colonies per 100 milliliters of water. For reference, 151 is considered safe for limited contact with the water, and 61 is considered the safe threshold for full-body contact with the water.
Due in part to the rainfall the night before, none of the sites sampled that day had safe levels for human contact.
All of the monitoring data collected by Blue Water Baltimore undergoes a quality control check before being posted on Harbor Alert, which offers the most recent monitoring data for each site. Data is run through an algorithm to see if it’s safe to swim in the water, and each site is given a red, yellow or green indication of safe contact. In 2015, none of the sampling sites along the Jones Falls or Gwynns Falls were safe for swimming more than 60 percent of the time.
Each year, all the data collected is rolled up into the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor report card, which last year gave Baltimore’s streams a grade of D-minus (the Inner Harbor and other tidal waters received an F).
Although plenty of work lies ahead, Volpitta and her colleagues remain focused on the long-term goal: healthy Baltimore waterways.
“I think it’s safe to say that Blue Water Baltimore, and for myself personally, we all are really looking forward to a future where we have swimmable and fishable waterways,” Volpitta says. “Sometimes people think that that term ‘swimmable and fishable’ is a pie in the sky, it’s never going to be attainable. But that’s a phrase directly from the Clean Water Act. So if our legislators thought it was good enough for the Clean Water Act, I think it’s good enough for Baltimore City.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Video, images and captions by Will Parson
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seeds and seed pods are arranged in a still life. Native throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the plant’s bright-orange coloring and copious nectar production attract bees, hummingbirds and other native pollinators. Milkweed seeds’ fine, feathery fibers—called silk or floss—allow the seeds to be carried on the wind.
As its name implies, butterfly milkweed is perhaps best known for its importance to butterflies. Also called butterfly flower or butterflyweed, the plant—along with other types of milkweed, including common milkweed and swamp milkweed—is the only food source of the monarch butterfly. Milkweed produces toxic chemicals that accumulate in the insect’s body, making them poisonous to predators.
But historically, milkweed has played an important role for humans as well. Pillows and mattresses have been stuffed with milkweed silk for centuries. During World War II, the plant gained national fame when war with Japan cut off access to the soft, cottony fibers of the seeds of the kapok tree, which the U.S. had used as filling for military life jackets. Through a national campaign, an estimated 11 million pounds of milkweed were collected—primarily by children using pillowcases—as a substitute filling.
Although potentially poisonous, the plant has been used for medicinal purposes as well. Many indigenous tribes applied milkweed sap for wart removal and chewed its roots to treat dysentery. It was also used in salves and infusions to treat swelling, rashes, coughs, fevers and asthma. Milkweed was even added to dishes for flavor, or to thicken soups—although special care was needed in the identification and preparation of the plant, to avoid its toxicity.
Image by Will Parson
When Mike and Laura Jackson wanted to restore wildlife habitat on their slice of a forested Pennsylvania mountainside, they did something you might not expect. The husband and wife, who live on 114 acres in Bedford County, started cutting down trees.
The Jacksons were motivated to drastic action in part by a small gray bird with flashes of yellow on its head and wings.
“We’ve always been birders, so we keep track of what we see,” Laura said, while she and Mike followed the trails that wind through their land. “And we’ve had golden-winged warblers on our property—but the last one we saw or heard was in 2009.”
The golden-winged warbler is a migratory bird that breeds in the Upper Midwest and Appalachian Mountains and winters in Central America. Its population has declined by roughly two-thirds in the past 50 years, in pace with the decline of the early successional habitat it needs—a young forest.
After becoming Pennsylvania Forest Stewards through a program at Penn State University in 2000, Mike and Laura began to recognize why the forest on their own land wasn’t healthy.
“That really opened our eyes to forest management—things that we could do to help the property because we saw that we were getting invasive species,” Laura said.
The Jacksons worked with a service forester from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) in 2002 to develop a ten-year forest stewardship plan for their property. Their goals were to improve forest health, control invasive species, increase native plant diversity and manage for wildlife.
Meanwhile, the golden-winged warbler was listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2004.
Though Laura was still teaching, Mike took advantage of his retirement to implement what they were learning at the many classes and workshops they were attending. He built trails and wildlife amenities such as brush piles, bird houses, squirrel boxes and owl boxes. He removed invasive species like multiflora rose and Japanese barberry, and he planted native shrubs, trees and wildflowers. He applied a technique called crown release, which thins out vegetation to give valuable wildlife trees like wild cherry, oak and hickory more sunlight and room to grow.
“Then, in 2010 we donated an easement to Western Pennsylvania Conservancy so the land can’t be developed,” Laura said. “They don’t accept just any property but they liked our property because of its good wildlife value—we have a lot of box turtles on it, a lot of birds.”
Laura said it also helped that the land is part of a roughly 9,000-acre stretch of forest that includes Pennsylvania state game lands and Tussey Mountain.
“Even though [golden-winged warblers] nest in very young forest, they take their young after they’ve fledged, and they spend time in mature forest feeding and trying to teach them what to do as survival techniques.” Laura said.
In late 2011, the Jacksons attended a workshop for land managers to learn about best management practices for the golden-winged warbler. They were the only private landowners at the meeting.
“And we thought, ‘Wow, if we can work with people who know what they’re doing and who will try to help us with our invasive species control, we could get a healthy forest again,’” Laura said.
“Which meant cutting some trees,” Mike added.
A few months later, the Jacksons invited experts from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, DCNR and Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) Research Institute to look at their land. They determined it was a good fit for a golden-winged warbler habitat restoration project.
With support from the Game Commission, a forester returned to mark which trees to keep inside a 27-acre area, then invasive plants were treated with herbicide on all 108 acres of the Jacksons’ forest.
Mike and Laura interviewed a number of loggers before settling on a company that uses low-impact methods to remove trees.
The cut unveiled at least one surprise on the Jacksons’ property.
“We discovered that once we got rid of some of the trees, there are a couple spring seeps,” Laura said. “So we have a nice little wetland to walk through that we could never see before.”
Funding for the logging came from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Working Lands for Wildlife program. NRCS also paid for a fence around the restoration to keep out deer, allowing new plants to flourish.
“I was just surprised it came so fast,” Mike said.
Where the Jacksons had battled invasives for years, Mike said they are mostly gone.
“So as we walk through the area we’re looking for invasive species that still need to be maintained,” Laura said. “And we’re looking at this thick underbrush—and that’s what golden-winged warblers need.”
Monitoring for the project began the year following the cut, looking for regeneration as well as the golden-winged warbler.
“We’ve done [the monitoring] now two times after the logging, and we still have not seen or heard any golden-winged warblers,” Laura said. “But that’s not unexpected because there’s still a lot of regeneration yet to go and they need really thick, really heavy vegetation on the ground, and we just don’t have that yet.”
The Jacksons are prepared to wait, and said it might be another three years before the golden-winged warbler returns to their property. Through surveys they do for the Game Commission, they know that there is an active golden-winged warbler breeding site eight miles away, which puts them in the vicinity, even if it is still pretty far away.
“But what was neat was the very first spring when we were monitoring, we heard cerulean warblers,” Laura said. “And cerulean warblers are also a species of concern.”
Other at-risk birds in the project area include hooded warblers, Kentucky warblers and wood thrush. Monitoring overseen by IUP Research Institute has also identified six bird species present in the project area that benefit from young forest, including ovenbirds, chestnut-sided warblers, common yellowthroats, red-eyed vireos, indigo buntings and eastern towhees.
For their years of effort to restore wildlife habitat in their forest, Mike and Laura were honored as Exemplary Forest Stewards by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay at the 2016 Chesapeake Watershed Forum in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, last fall. Nowadays, Mike and Laura also host several tours a year and enjoy answering visitors’ questions about their property.
The Jacksons’ land shows that dealing with nature can be counter-intuitive, that intervening can sometimes help it rebound.
“It’s nice to see people who might think that logging is bad and really a detriment to the woods.” Laura said. “[We can] turn their thinking around a little bit and help them realize that we did something that...even if we don’t get golden-winged warblers, we’ve done something to create a healthy forest. And that’s really the important thing.”
Photos and Video by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
Text by Will Parson
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page
Cold weather in early December may have driven more waterfowl to migrate to Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast, according to the results of Maryland’s 2017 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey. Experts from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) counted more ducks, geese and swans in their aerial surveys than in 2016, resulting in a nearly 23 percent increase in the results of the annual survey.
An early-December cold snap throughout the eastern United States spurred the migration of waterfowl to the Chesapeake region, according to a DNR release, resulting in an overall count of 812,600 birds—higher than last year’s 663,000 and slightly above the five year average of 795,240.
This year’s total included 87,900 dabbling ducks (an increase from 69,800 in 2016) and 283,600 diving ducks (up from 246,000 in 2016). The increase in diving ducks can be attributed to teams observing more scaup and canvasbacks. Survey teams also observed more Canada geese than in 2016: 394,700 birds, a 34 percent increase from the previous year.
Marshes, mud flats and shorelines—which offer plenty of fish, underwater grasses and aquatic invertebrates to feast on—make the Bay region a perfect winter stopover for migrating waterfowl. Tracking the abundance of species like the American black duck helps scientists assess habitat health and food availability to support both migrating and resident waterfowl populations.
The USFWS Division of Migratory Bird Management combines these survey results with those from other states to get a sense of the distribution and population size of waterfowl wintering along the Atlantic Flyway, the migration route that follows the Atlantic coast of North America.
Learn more about the results of the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey.