Four rural communities in the Chesapeake Bay region will receive more than $34 million in financial assistance to improve their water and wastewater infrastructure, thanks to loans and grants provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development Water & Environmental Programs.
Earlier this week, the USDA announced it will invest $331 million to support 85 infrastructure projects across 39 states and American Samoa. The agency’s Water & Environmental Programs provide financing to support drinking water and waste disposal systems in rural communities of 10,000 or fewer residents.
More than $34 million of these investments will go to communities in the Bay watershed, supporting a biosolids treatment facility in Talbot County, Maryland; water and sewer system improvements in Wayne County, Pennsylvania; sewer repair and replacement in Caroline County, Virginia; and a sewer system improvement project in Jefferson County, West Virginia.
Of the 85 projects, 21 of them—including the project in Caroline County, Virginia—are located in StrikeForce areas. Launched in 2010, StrikeForce is the USDA’s initiative to address persistent poverty in rural areas across the United States.
Canada geese fly along the Mattaponi River in Walkerton, Virginia. The characteristic honking and “V”-shaped flying pattern of Canada geese are distinctive sounds and sights of autumn in the Chesapeake region.
As part of the Atlantic Flyway—one of the major bird migration routes in the United States—the Chesapeake Bay is an important stopover for migrating geese. But these migratory birds are not the only type of Canada geese found in the area. While many flocks leave the area in early spring to return to their northern breeding grounds, countless others remain year-round. “Resident” geese, as they’re known, may appear nearly identical to their migratory relatives, but they actually make up a distinct population.
Most resident geese originated from flocks that were brought to the Chesapeake region in the early 1900s, through government stocking programs and for use as live decoys. These non-migratory geese are typically larger, begin breeding at a younger age and produce more eggs than their migratory counterparts. And because they tend to live in urban and suburban areas—like lawns, parks and golf courses—resident geese are less likely to be exposed to hunting, meaning they live longer as well.
In the Bay region and beyond, populations of resident Canada geese have grown exponentially since the mid-20th century, bringing with them a variety of environmental problems: from threatening the health of waterways and humans with their droppings to overgrazing on aquatic vegetation that might otherwise sustain migratory birds on their long journeys. Both resident and migratory Canada geese are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but experts have worked to identify ways to reduce the damage caused by resident geese. The National Park Service, for example, sought public comments last year on its plan to use border collies to chase away Canada geese on the National Mall.
Image by Will Parson
Chesapeake Bay Program partners are welcoming the review of new high-resolution land use data for all 206 counties in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The data will inform the partnership’s next generation of models used to estimate nutrient and sediment loads and to credit efforts to reduce those pollutants from draining into the nation’s largest estuary.
The high-resolution mapping of land use—such as residential areas, agricultural lands, streamside forests, parking lots and roads—is a critical component of the Bay Program’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed Model, used to inform restoration activities and support local, state and regional decision making across the region. The latest version of this model, Phase 6, is currently under development and review. To continually improve our understanding of the landscape, Bay Program partners have been working to incorporate the most accurate land use information available into this updated version.
Over the past two years, the Bay Program worked with local government partners in all the Chesapeake Bay watershed counties and major municipalities to ask for access to local land cover, land use, parcel and zoning data. Thanks to the commitment from our local partners, local land data were collected from over 80 percent of local jurisdictions. In parallel, Bay Program partners funded the development of new high-resolution data on land cover—such as impervious surfaces, tree cover and water—for the entire watershed. This unprecedented work, carried out by the Chesapeake Conservancy, the University of Vermont and World View Solutions, mapped out land cover across more than 80,000 square miles at a one-square-meter resolution. This land cover data was then combined with the information provided by numerous local governments to produce a detailed land use dataset for each county.
To ensure that local land use and parcel data has been correctly interpreted, Bay Program partners are seeking input on these final land use datasets. While open to all interested parties, this review process is especially intended for local governments to participate.
As datasets for each county become ready for review during the last week of October and the first week of November, they are being made available on the U.S. Geological Survey’s Phase 6 Land Use Review Application website. Reviewers will have four weeks to review once a dataset has been posted, but fatal flaw comments are due two weeks after data are made available. Once the data have been reviewed and finalized, the high resolution land cover and land use datasets will be made available free-of-charge to local governments and the public. In addition, Bay Program partners will be making available extensive data on past land cover and land use (from 1984 to 2013), as well as comprehensive geographic coverages of federal lands, sewer service areas, regulated stormwater areas and combined sewer overflow areas, all mapped at similar local scales within each county.
The current review is part of the Bay Program’s larger and long-term commitment to regular updated mapping of Chesapeake Bay watershed counties’ high resolution land cover and land use data to be repeated on a periodic basis. Local government representatives are encouraged to stay engaged in future efforts to continually improve data accuracy. All these future high resolution land cover and land use data sets will continue to be made available to local governments and the public free-of-charge.
Local governments will be able to use the full suite of high resolution land cover and land use data for their own purposes in making better, more well-informed decisions on where to carry out stream restoration projects, plant stream side forests, place easements and permanently conserve lands, as well as to inform comprehensive plans and future zoning and development decisions.
For additional information on the land use data and how to provide feedback, a pre-recorded webinar is available online. Questions and requests for further information can be directed to Lindsey Gordon at Gordon.Lindsey@epa.gov and (410) 295-1380.
Looking at Bob Ingersoll’s farm, you’d never know that he had been growing hay for over 15 years. The fields that had produced hay—and corn before that—are now covered in native grasses and wildflowers. Last year, Ingersoll enrolled his almost 60-acre farm in Chestertown, Maryland, into the Washington College Center for Environment and Society’s (CES) Natural Lands Project.
This September morning, Ingersoll and Natural Lands Project Coordinator Dan Small walk around Ingersoll’s fields, observing the growth and pointing out the different species of wildflowers and grasses they planted only five months earlier.
Ingersoll got involved with the Natural Lands Project through the Chester River Association, one of the project’s sponsors. While he chose to enroll his entire farm, CES typically works with farmers and landowners to plant 100-foot grassland buffers on their land. That way, they can still get money from agricultural production and rented-out land for hunting—as well as a small income from the Natural Lands Project—but also sow the benefits of grassland buffers.
These buffers are known as a best management practice, or BMP, because they can absorb nutrients that run off of farm fields and prevent sediment from entering waterways. But alongside their water quality benefits, buffers can also provide ideal habitat for many species of animals.
Quail and habitat restoration
A large component of the Natural Lands Project is creating suitable grassland habitat for northern bobwhite quail. Quail used to be prevalent on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and many people in the area grew up hunting quail, but their populations have declined drastically since the mid-1900s—due in part to habitat loss.
When it comes to installing grassland buffers, Small says, “we found that there’s no real tangible benefit to the landowners or farmers if we just talk about water quality on the land.” However, if they grew up hunting quail, they have an emotional connection to the bird.
Quail require three types of habitat to be successful: open areas, grassy cover and woody cover. “We’re specifically looking to create warm season grass habitat,” says Small. Cool season grasses, like those typically found on lawns, grow thick—meaning small grassland birds like quail that require open ground can’t move through them. “Think of your lawn,” he says. “If that grew up, there’s no way a quail could walk through that.” Warm season grasses, on the other hand, grow in clumps, leaving plenty of space for quail.
One of the factors associated with the decline in quail populations is the lack of woody cover. The disappearance of hedgerows—a row of shrubs or low growing trees that typically form boundaries between farm fields—has had a huge impact on quail, according to Small. As farms got larger, those hedgerows were taken out, and quail lost an important place to go during the winter when the rest of the landscape is covered in snow.
For that reason, dispersed throughout the grasses and wildflowers, are colored markers labeling where they planted hedgerows. “Not only are we adding nesting habitat in all the grass, but we need to add winter habitat as well.”
Creating habitat suited for quail doesn’t just benefit them, but many other species as well. “We have a lot more small birds here than we did any year that I can ever remember, because there’s something there for them to eat,” says Ingersoll. “And butterflies! I’ve never ever seen so many butterflies.” He points out bees and finds a fuzzy caterpillar on one of the wildflowers. Small points out the call of a bobolink, a bird that requires grasslands on its migration. Even deer take advantage of the tall grass cover, as evidenced by the imprint from where a deer had been lying not too long before.
A long-term commitment
It takes about three years for the grasses to get established, but once that happens, they still need to be managed. “You can’t just put it in and walk away,” says Small. After they’re established, they will be managed in part through controlled burns. As the grasses grow, they begin to lay down on top of each other, making it difficult for the quail to move on the ground. “Controlled fire is a really good method to wipe the slate clean,” says Small. “You don’t really hurt the native [plants] because they can respond to that and pop back up.”
Landowners who enroll in the Natural Lands Project sign a 10-year contact with CES. This long-term commitment is a promise both to CES that there is sufficient time committed to establish habitat on the land, but also to the landowner that CES won’t plant the new habitat and then leave. They work with landowners over that time to make sure that the land is in good condition.
“The landowner, somebody like myself, is relying on the best information I can get from Dan to make this as successful as I possibly can,” says Ingersoll. “If we didn’t have the backup, it’d be like learning it all over again. And I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Photos and captions by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
Video by Will Parson