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Chesapeake Bay News: Chesapeake Bay Program


Many Pennsylvania farmers taking voluntary action to improve water quality, survey finds

Streamside buffers like those on Brubaker Farms in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, are one of many agricultural conservation practices that farmers can use to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution.

Many farmers across the Pennsylvania portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed have taken voluntary action to improve water quality, according to research from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. Results of the study were presented to the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Agriculture Workgroup, which approved the survey methodology and recommended that the verified practices be credited in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Model.

Agricultural conservation practices reduce the runoff of pollution: for example, planting cover crops help prevent nutrients from running off cropland, while streamside buffers can uptake nutrients before they enter waterways, stabilize stream banks and provide habitat for wildlife. The research effort—funded in part by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)—provides the first comprehensive inventory of conservation practices farmers have voluntarily implemented to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution flowing into streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

The PSU Survey results were presented to the Bay Program's Agriculture Workgroup at their December 15 meeting. The Workgroup approved the survey methodology and recommended its use in the effort to document and verify practices in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Model. The latest version of this model, Phase 6, is currently under development and review.

In early 2016, 6,782 farmers from 41 counties in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed completed the survey. More than 700 respondents were then randomly selected for farm visits, which confirmed farmers were accurate in their reporting. Respondents reported voluntarily implementing a range of agricultural conservation practices, including 475,800 acres of nutrient management plans, 228,264 acres of conservation plans, 7,565 acres of grass and forested streamside buffers and more than 1.3 million feet of fencing along streambanks.

Learn more.


Photo of the Week: A big lift to help restore the American shad

American shad larvae start to hatch from eggs collected from the Potomac River at the Van Dyke Research Station for Anadromous Fishes in Port Royal, Pennsylvania. Anadromous fish, like shad, live their adult lives in the ocean, but migrate back to freshwater rivers and streams to spawn.

Shad are an iconic species of the Chesapeake Bay region, but a combination of pollution, overfishing and the blocking of their migratory paths has led to a decline in their populations. To help boost shad numbers, federal, state and tribal governments have raised young shad in hatcheries and released them in rivers across the region.

But in order to sustain a stable population, shad need to be able to reproduce for themselves. As migratory fish, they require clear passage from the ocean to where they spawn in the Chesapeake’s freshwater tributaries, but barriers such as dams and culverts block waterways and separate shad from their spawning areas. The Chesapeake Bay Program’s Fish Passage Workgroup works with state agencies, local governments and nonprofits to remove these barriers where possible.

There are some places where barriers can’t be removed, such as the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, so the dam’s owner, Exelon Corporation, built a fish lift to help transport shad upstream. Unfortunately, despite some early success with the lift—transporting as many as 193,000 shad in 2001—annual catches have been steadily declining, with only 8,341 shad transported in 2015.

In an attempt to increase those numbers, in April 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a 50-year agreement with Exelon to help American shad migrate up the Susquehanna River to spawn. Exelon agreed to make structural changes, including improvements to the fish lift, to help attract shad to the lift and create enough room so they aren’t crowded out by other fish. The company also pledged to truck up to 100,000 shad upstream.

Learn more about the important role shad play in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and the work being done to restore them.


Image by Will Parson

Joan Smedinghoff's avatar
About Joan Smedinghoff - Joan is the Communications Office Staffer at the Chesapeake Bay Program. Originally from Chicago, she was introduced to the Chesapeake Bay region through the streams of central Pennsylvania. She received her Bachelor's in Environmental Studies from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where she first discovered her passion for storytelling.


By the Numbers: 100

With more than 150,000 miles of riparian forest buffers growing in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, it’s clear that planting trees and shrubs along rivers and streams is a popular practice for protecting waterways. While it stands to reason that wide forest buffers could generate more benefits than narrow ones, it was not until 2014 that the Stroud Water Research Center set about to determine just how wide a buffer needed to be to work.

Trees and shrubs planted alongside rivers and stream can prevent pollution from entering waterways, stabilize stream banks and provide food and habitat to wildlife.

When Stroud Water Research Center President, Director and Senior Research Scientist Bernard W. Sweeney and Research Scientist J. Denis Newbold dove into research on forest buffer width, they were already decades into forest buffer history. In the seventies, wide zones of streamside vegetation were known to protect streams from the impacts of logging. In 1985, the sixth U.S. Farm Bill funded the planting of streamside vegetation to slow farmland erosion. And seven years later, research from Sweeney himself revealed the quality of streamside vegetation was likely the single most important human-altered factor affecting the structure, function and quality of our streams. But would width amplify all the benefits a forest buffer has to offer? And how wide is wide enough?

After examining eight ecosystem functions streams are known to support—including nutrient removal, sediment trapping and the health of macroinvertebrates and fish—Sweeney and Newbold found that the integrity of small streams can only be protected by forest buffers at least 30 meters—about 100 feet—wide. In other words, the ideal width of a forest buffer is only slightly shorter than three school buses laid end to end!

Gunpowder Valley Conservancy President Charlie Conklin visits trees planted along Dulaney Branch in Baltimore County, Maryland. The average forest buffer in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is 103 feet wide. 

Of course, Sweeney and Newbold recognized the layout of a particular piece of land could limit the width of any forest buffers that may be planted there. The scientists also acknowledged forest buffer policies may need to accommodate site-specific factors. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a forest buffer must be at least 35 feet wide to count as a pollution-reducing practice that supports work toward the Bay’s “pollution diet.” Even so, the average forest buffer in the watershed is almost three times this size, and the benefits of a wide forest buffer are clear.

According to Sweeney and Newbold’s literature review, which synthesized the results of hundreds of scientific studies, effective nitrogen removal requires buffers that are at least 30 meters wide. Buffers of this size can also be expected to trap about 85 percent of any sediment delivered by water moving over the land (which is 30 percent more than a buffer only 10 meters wide!). A 30-meter width can also ensure a buffer protects streams from measurable increases in water temperature during summer months; sends a natural level of stems, branches and other large woody debris into a waterway; and supports natural macroinvertebrate and fish communities.

Wide forest buffers can support natural macroinvertebrate and fish communities, which can mean good news for the anglers in Pennsylvania’s Little Juniata River.

In our watershed, the planting and care of forest buffers can be limited by a lack of technical assistance and maintenance support. Indeed, buffer restoration has slowed in recent years. While the Chesapeake Bay Program has set a goal to restore 900 miles of buffers every year until at least 70 percent of the watershed’s riparian areas are forested, plantings continue to fall short of this annual target: last year saw the lowest restoration total of the last 16 years.

As part of our work to restore forest buffers, our partners have committed to increasing efforts to teach landowners about buffer establishment and care. Our partners have also committed to better tracking and spending technical assistance funds, seeking out additional funding for the suppression of interfering weeds and determining whether current payments that support buffer care should be raised.

Learn about our work to restore forest buffers.

Catherine Krikstan's avatar
About Catherine Krikstan - Catherine Krikstan is a web writer at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She began writing about the watershed as a reporter in Annapolis, Md., where she covered algae blooms and climate change and interviewed hog farmers and watermen. She lives in Washington, D.C.


Report explores variations in water quality among small watersheds

The upper part of the Chester River in Maryland was one of four small watersheds targeted for implementation of best management practices. The Upper Chester River watershed is made up of 64 percent agricultural land use.

A new report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) explores variations in water quality in four small watersheds in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Results of the study will aid in efforts to understand how pollution-reducing practices affect the health of waterways in these areas.

When agricultural best management practices—or BMPs—like cover crops and streamside fencing are implemented, the water quality improvements that may result are more likely to first be detected at a smaller scale. But although water quality throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed is monitored through a large-scale network, fewer resources exist for monitoring smaller watersheds.

In 2010, the USGS partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to monitor water quality in four small (i.e., less than 150 square miles) watersheds: Smith Creek in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia; the Upper Chester River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore; Conewago Creek near York, Pennsylvania; and Difficult Run near Great Falls Park in Virginia. Representing a wide range of land uses and geologic features, these four regions had been targeted as “showcase projects” for the increased use of BMPs as part of the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order Strategy.

From 2010 through 2013, experts monitored water quality in the four areas, measuring aspects of water chemistry—such as dissolved oxygen, temperature and pH—as well as nutrient and sediment pollution. The results, available in the report, will allow scientists to characterize current conditions, identify sources and sinks of pollution and understand the movement of pollutants like nutrients and sediment in each watershed. Future work building off of these results may improve knowledge of how water quality in these areas responds to BMPs, allowing for the focused implementation of practices to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution.

Learn more.

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