Rich soil and a mild climate have made the lands of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a haven for agriculture. Thousands of farms—more than any other county in the state—dot the landscape of gently rolling countryside. Traveling through the region, the fields and fences, barns and silos can begin to blur together. But venture onto the land itself, and each tract of farmland tells a unique story. For Oregon Dairy Farm in the heart of Lancaster County, the story is one of family, conservation and community.
A family-run operation, Oregon Dairy Farm is managed by George Hurst, his son Chad and his daughter and son-in-law Maria and Tim Forry. Hurst also co-owns the nearby market, restaurant and ice cream parlor with his brothers. He is the second-generation owner of the land, after his father bought the farm in the early 1950s. “I grew up here and bought the farm, bought the house where I grew up,” said Hurst. “Now my daughter, Maria, is living in that same house.”
Pennsylvania is second in the nation for number of dairy farms, outranking every state except Wisconsin. And that number continues to grow: in 2014, Pennsylvania was the only state in which the number of dairy farms increased. Though this may be good news for ice cream lovers, it can sometimes be difficult to reconcile agricultural growth with the health of the Chesapeake Bay, as agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the estuary. But for the Hurst family, protecting the Bay is an important part of the way they run their farm.
Two decades ago, the Hurst family took a visit to the Chesapeake Bay. What they saw—polluted waters and their damaging effects on local fishermen—troubled them. “When I took that tour, I knew we had to do what we can here [at Oregon Dairy Farm] to make sure we’re not polluting the Bay,” Hurst recalled. “That’s when we became even more intentional with the practices we have in place here.”
Those practices include a variety of “best management practices,” or BMPs—conservation methods that can help curb nutrients and sediment from running off agricultural land and into rivers, streams and the Bay. To protect the health of waters running through their land, the Hurst family practices no-till farming, uses cover crops, plants trees and shrubs to prevent streambank erosion and has installed fencing to keep livestock out of waterways.
As home to 500 cows, one of the farm’s biggest challenges was figuring out how to manage all the animal waste. “Because we’re a dairy, there’s lots of manure,” Hurst explained. According to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), livestock waste accounts for 19 percent of the nitrogen and 26 percent of the phosphorous entering the Bay. These excess nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and, during decomposition, rob the water of oxygen that plants and animals need to survive.
To avoid nutrient runoff, Hurst puts as much of this waste to use as possible. A methane digester collects and heats the manure, and the resulting methane gas powers a generator that produces more than enough electricity to run the farm.
After traveling through the digester, solid and liquid wastes are separated. Solid waste can be dried and used as livestock bedding or transported to the on-site composting facility. Three large hoop buildings house the compost piles, which will eventually be sold wholesale to landscapers or in Oregon Dairy’s retail lawn and garden store. Liquid waste flows to the lagoon, which holds about an eight month supply, allowing it to be applied to the land when the fields need it and will absorb it. “We make sure we aren’t putting more manure on than what will stay in place, and no more than what the soil needs or what will be taken up by the crops,” said Hurst. These innovative waste practices helped the farm win a U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award in 2015.
Since the 1980s, outside dairy farmers, school field trips and other community members have been welcome to tour—and learn from—the farm. School tours bring nearly 2,000 student visitors each year, and Family Farm Days events can draw upwards of 15,000 people a year to the farm. More than just a way of life, Hurst and his family see their farm as a way to teach others about how they care for their land.
“Our passion and vision is to help people understand where their food comes from,” said Hurst. “That’s where [the farm tours] originated and that’s really why we do what we do.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Stephanie Smith
Forests are critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay—they protect clean water and air, provide habitat to wildlife and support the region’s economy. However, since European settlement of the region in the 17th century, deforestation has taken a toll on the once thriving forests of the mid-Atlantic region. Human influences such as development and parcelization have reduced forest acreage from 95 to about 45 percent of historic coverage.
Deforestation in the Bay region may seem a problem that is too complex to tackle, but one man, dubbed the modern-day Johnny Appleseed, is proof that a little curiosity, passion and hard work can have profound effects on the environment. John Smucker, a Technology Education teacher at Northwest Middle School in Taneytown, Maryland, has become a catalyst for reforestation efforts, melding his engineering experience with restoration initiatives.
Smucker recalls the moment 10 years ago that sparked his interest in forest restoration. “It all started behind my house with a reforestation effort, but all of the trees that were planted slowly died. I didn’t like that so I did a lot of research to help [the trees] out and fell in love with the process, which led me to start dropping acorns into empty tree shelters,” said Smucker.
The moment created a ripple effect that resulted in Smucker spearheading forest restoration by organizing volunteer plantings and entering into a partnership with Mount Saint Mary’s University and the Francis Scott Key Center. Both locations provide space for Smucker to grow the thousands of trees he uses for plantings.
Smucker spends about 700 hours every year in all aspects of creating riparian buffers, like meeting with landowners, auguring the holes, organizing the volunteers and also conducting the most critical part of the process Smucker says, maintenance. Plantings are held on Saturdays during April, May and October – the most opportune months for tree survivability and comfortable outdoor temperatures for volunteers to work.
When choosing planting locations, Smucker explains, “Being a grower really is a game changer for me, because I can fully understand what the trees need to survive.” Once a site is selected, he samples the soil, observes what plant species are in the area, spends time in his greenhouses flagging all of the appropriate trees for the site and rallies his volunteer base around the planting.
When it comes to tree plantings, the name of the game is fun and education. Many of his volunteers are young people who are in a mindset to learn. Each planting is preceded with an ecology lesson highlighting the importance of riparian zones, stream shading and nutrient removal. “As a middle school teacher it is important to organize the event so it’s fun and rewarding, because if they get frustrated, they will associate that frustration with tree planting. If they associate it with fun, then the environmental stewardship will perpetuate a lot better. If it’s organized right and goes smoothly then it’s a feel-good thing, just like in the classroom,“ Smucker explained.
Smucker encourages his students to work out solutions to engineering problems with the tree plantings and challenges them to think up innovative ways to overcome obstacles. “Tree planting and technology education are really the same thing. It’s problem solving and the engineering design process. What is the problem? What is the solution? Evaluate and modify,” said Smucker.
Over the years, Smucker’s volunteer base and partner organizations have expanded to the point where he has been able to launch an organization of his own, Stream Link Education, a nonprofit that organizes and leads tree plantings with local community members, organizations and businesses. “The coolest thing I think we do is Natives for Nonprofits. We grow trees for giveaways to other organizations, which is great because budgets are really tight and donations are hugely welcome. It also helps establish partnerships, not because I want something in return but because it’s neat to make connections,” said Smucker.
Smucker aims to perpetuate choices and actions by providing people with hands on educational experiences. “If you’re excited about something and value it, then demonstrate the value, they [the volunteers] will see it. The excitement can be catching,” he said. He continued to explain that in addition to educating others and improving the environment, his enthusiasm for restoration remains strong because he is still able to grow as well, “I’m going to turn 50 in January and I’m thinking, ‘if I do this right, I’ve got my 50’s and 60’s and if I can stay healthy, I can do this for a long time.’ And that’s great. There is always something to learn.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
When thinking of wine, Maryland may not be the first state that comes to mind, but for the Deford family, the artful pairing of responsible land management and master craftsmanship at Boordy Vineyards has put the Free State on the wine aficionado map.
Nestled in the rolling countryside of Long Green Valley in Hyde, Maryland, a mere 30 minutes outside of Baltimore, the 240-acre property provides solace to visitors, melting away the stressors of daily life with views of rich vegetation, historic farmland and 25 acres of intricately arranged rows of grapevines.
The family strives to develop a lasting connection with the community and welcomes visitors year-round by regularly hosting events. “Everything we do here has an educational component to it because wineries are unusual in Maryland, farming is increasingly rare and we are constantly competing with other views of how the countryside around Baltimore County should be managed,” said Robert Deford, President and owner of Boordy. “We really want farming to succeed here.”
To Deford, a twelfth generation Marylander and the fourth generation to be raised on the farm, success and sustainability go hand-in-hand. In 2000, the family placed the property under permanent conservation easement through Maryland Environmental Trust, allowing the farm to proceed without having to compete with development money by taking the option to sell the land to developers off the table. “We look at land not as an empty resource to be built on, but as something to be tended to and taken care of. For me, sustainability means the ability to realize the dream of continuing to live and work here,” explained Deford.
The 25 full-time and 75 part-time employees have adopted the Defords’ mission of sustainability and assist in the efforts to be as efficient as possible. “If we are not sustainable by definition, we are going to go out of business at some point. The land is what sustains us, so if we treat it badly the system is going to crash,” said Deford.
A number of best management practices have been implemented on the vineyard to reduce the establishment’s energy demands and impact on the environment. Staff hand-pick the fruit – avoiding the use of machinery – to ensure only the highest-quality grapes end up in the wine; the rest are left for wildlife, like birds, to scavenge. Grass grows freely in between the vines to stabilize the soil and mitigate runoff of sediment into the adjacent stream on the property. Additionally, all stems and pomace are composted post-production and returned to the fields as fertilizer.
A wetland was created at the head of the stream to catch any residual runoff before it enters the waterway, eventually making its way to the Gunpowder River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. The wetland serves not only as a pollution buffer but also as habitat to countless species of wildlife such as beavers, ducks, white-tailed deer and raptors. “Another thing that is great is we have excluded all livestock [from the stream], and it is astounding the fish people are finding down there, especially the American eel. I think it is a great model for what can be done to a stream that was really in distress,” said Deford.
The family is mindful of their greenhouse gas emissions and works to reduce their outputs by using the carbon dioxide created in the fermentation process to stir their red wine tanks. The carbon dioxide is collected, builds up and eventually erupts through the tank – stirring the wine and saving electricity. “There is an interesting concern over the fact that when you make wine you emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; however, what I always point out to people is that just up the hill is the other end of it – those vines take in carbon dioxide, so really it’s just a cycle,” notes Deford.
Helpful for Boordy has been the advent of the local food movement, a developing culture focused around locally-produced food and the process of getting it from the farm to the table. With the movement comes a growing consumer demand to meet the farmer and know where food comes from. “This isn’t just liquid in a bottle,” said Deford. “A lot more goes into it.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
Think of a food, any food. It could be what you had for breakfast, or something you’ve been craving. Once you have an image in your mind, imagine what that snack would look like without the existence of fruits, vegetables or grains. Would it completely disappear? Would only a portion remain? Now ask yourself, “What is the common link—the necessary life source—behind the production of our food?”
The answer lies in the simple act of pollination. It is nearly impossible to think of something within our diet that can exist without it. Pollination, or the transfer of pollen between like species of flowers by wind or wildlife, leads to the formation of healthy fruit and seeds. It is estimated that nearly one-third of all plants and plant products consumed by humans depend on bee pollination alone.
Educators at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville, Maryland, understand this fact and work to teach others about the important role that pollinators—like bees, butterflies and bats—play in our ecosystem. For the past 17 years, the center has partnered with the Anne Arundel Beekeepers Association (AABA) to provide a home for more than 80,000 honeybees each year. When needed, AABA donates bees to Arlington Echo to replenish the center’s four outdoor bee boxes and two indoor observation hives. While the outdoor apiary is used for ecological purposes—providing habitat for the bees—the observation hives are used to teach children and adults alike about insect anatomy and life cycles, pollinator survival, community roles and math.
While it started as a recreation center, Arlington Echo quickly evolved to support authentic, hands-on learning. Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center is part of Anne Arundel County Public Schools and has been for 45 years. In fact, it is visited by every fourth grader in the county. “Education facilitates change,” said Sheen Goldberg, Teacher Specialist at Arlington Echo. The volume of students they reach each year provides a valuable opportunity to plant the seed of environmental awareness in many young minds. Here, people learn to make the connection between pollinators and the food they eat.
“One of the major issues we face today… is a lack of knowledge about the environment and where things come from,” said Melanie Parker, Coordinator of Arlington Echo’s Environmental Literacy and Outdoor Education Department. “[Food] doesn’t come from the grocery store. And it’s not just our kids [who are unaware]. Sometimes, it’s parents. Sometimes, generations don’t have that connection with the land and nature. There’s not that experience or exposure. All people see is that chicken comes in a package and isn’t an animal that’s running around on the ground. There is a detachment to where our stuff comes from.”
Spreading knowledge and linking people to their natural environment is a vital part of Arlington Echo’s mission. By connecting the dots between healthy pollinators and a healthy environment, they hope to incite positive change and help pollinators overcome the challenges they face. Population growth and development have encroached on pollinator habitat; chemical contaminants harm their health; and both native and invasive pests, parasites and diseases threaten populations.
“Right now, pesticides are a really big deal. Bees are going through something that we are calling Colony Collapse Disorder because we don’t actually know what causes it,” said Heather Calabrese, Program Assistant at Arlington Echo. “There is some research that points to a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. It’s interesting how it, and many other pesticides, work. It doesn’t actually kill the animal right away. It effects the nervous system, disorienting it, [the animal] stops cleaning itself, eating, feeding other animals, and then it starves to death or dies of disease.”
Although honeybees, like those kept at Arlington Echo, are not native to North America, they are not considered invasive. Instead, they are considered an important part of our natural ecosystem, and their decline is directly linked to habitat loss. Development fragments wildlife habitat and pushes native species out. “Because of development, we lose native plant populations. If there is not enough food for our pollinators because we have built on their habitat, then we won’t have the native pollinators,” Parker explained.
Over the past 60 years, managed bee populations have declined from 6 million to 2.5 million, an alarming number that has sparked many states and organizations to offer financial and tax incentives to encourage people to keep bees.
Parker, Goldberg and Calabrese are all enthusiastic about keeping bees and claim that once you start, you can’t help but become fascinated by the social complexities of the critters. “You can put as much or as little work into maintaining the hive as you would like,” said Goldberg. “The bees are clean, hardworking and good at taking care of the hive for the most part.”
The educators at Arlington Echo stress the importance of making connections between the natural world and human health. Many of the things that harm pollinators also pose a threat to humans, water and other wildlife. “There is the developmental part of… pollinator population decline, but also the pesticide use,” Parker said. “Those pesticides end up in our waterways. You know, everything is connected. You pull one string and the rest unravels. So, even though it seems like a small piece, it is part of a bigger issue.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
At the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an object as small as a piece of Styrofoam poses a big problem. Because whether it can be held in a volunteer’s hand or just fits into the bed of a truck, litter is at the center of the non-profit organization’s work.
Founded in 1954, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has an office in Washington, D.C., and an historic farmhouse-turned-workspace in southern Maryland. Whether it is through teacher trainings, field studies or volunteer clean-ups, the organization works to promote the sustainability of the Potomac River watershed. And one of the biggest issues facing the Potomac River is trash.
Most of what the Alice Ferguson Foundation does touches on litter: its danger is discussed with students on field studies; programs, events and meetings are often trash-free; and the office culture is one of low- to no-waste. You won’t find disposable plates or cups in the kitchen, and cloth napkins are washed, dried and reused on-site. Food waste is given to the pigs on Hard Bargain Farm, and bathrooms are equipped with hand-dryers. Clara Elias, Program Manager for the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative, puts it simply: “We’re committed to reducing trash.”
Image courtesy kryn13/Flickr
In the Potomac River watershed, there are two kinds of trash. First, Elias explained, there is the new litter that is generated on a regular basis, like the plastic bags, cigarette butts and beverage bottles found on streets and sidewalks. Second, there is the legacy litter left behind long ago at a particular site, like a pile of old tires sitting on the edge of a parking lot. Across the watershed, trash is both an urban and rural issue, although it differs between regions. While bottles and cans often float down the river from urban centers, rural areas that are without strong recycling programs face issues with illegal dumping of appliances, cars and even deer carcasses.
Over the 26 years that the Alice Ferguson Foundation has hosted the Potomac River Watershed Clean Up, the trash in the Potomac has changed. Volunteers used to pick up a lot of plastic bags, but after bag fees were passed in the District of Columbia, plastic bags in District waters dropped 50 percent. Similar legislation passed in Montgomery County caused this number to drop 70 percent. There was a change, too, in the plastic bags themselves, as volunteers now find more pet waste and newspaper bags than the shopping bags that carry the five-cent fee. Even so, Elias noted that at least half of the trash picked up along the Potomac is recyclable, which indicates more must be done to slow the flow of pollution into our rivers and streams.
“In American culture, we’re so used to having so many disposable things. We’re not taught how much energy it takes to dispose of [all of] it,” Elias said. So the Alice Ferguson Foundation teaches people just that.
On a Bridging the Watershed field study, students play a game of Trash Tag and learn about street sweepers, trash traps and other litter-reducing best management practices. On the Hard Bargain Farm, students sprinkle a shower curtain with food coloring, sand and pieces of paper. When the curtain gets wet, the pretend fertilizer, sediment and trash are washed downstream. And before their visit to the site, students are given a guide to packing a trash-free lunch. After their meal, students weigh the paper napkins, straw wrappers and other leftover trash and compete with other school groups to produce the least amount.
In addition to its field studies, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has also had success with its Trash Free Schools initiative, which helps students teach their peers, lead their own cleanups and change their school’s culture to produce less waste.
Trash is “tangible and physical, unlike energy or [stormwater] runoff, which are things you can’t see or touch or smell,” Elias said. “It builds momentum among students. Trash is a great issue for students to learn about.”
On a blue bird day in Church Creek, Maryland, a white pickup truck bounces down a dirt driveway, splashing through fresh mud puddles and leaving ripples in its wake. The low whirring of female Northern pintail ducks in the middle of their courtship is exuberant, and there is excitement in the air – it is almost time for the birds to make their long migration north.
The truck rounds a bend and hundreds of waterfowl take flight, seeking solace in the nearby Honga River. Landowner Jerry Harris steps out of the truck, his two hunting dogs, Bo and Maddie, in tow. Jerry has owned Mallard Haven River Farm for nearly 20 years and has transformed it from an open pasture to an ideal stopover site for thousands of waterfowl migrating along the Atlantic Flyway.
Harris recounts purchasing the farm as an open pasture with a ditch down the center in the late ‘90s. Initially, he battled saltwater intrusion and high-tide floods of the Chesapeake Bay. His solution involved closing off the connection between the ditch and the Bay and creating a freshwater storage area that can now hold up to 6.5 million gallons of water. With financial assistance from the state of Maryland, Ducks Unlimited and North American Wetlands Conservation Act Grants (NAWCA), he built berms to create a series of separate water impoundments for use by waterfowl across 80 acres of the 230-acre farm.
Harris has hired two full-time employees to help maintain the property. “We’ve tried to do everything to improve the efficiency of our work,” Harris said. “We have pipes in all the impoundments that lead to a main water storage ditch, so we can connect our portable pumps right to the pipes and drive the water wherever we would like. If we’re irrigating this field during a dry period we don’t have to hook hoses up or anything.”
Because his land is privately owned, Harris has the freedom to experiment with unconventional conservation practices. His latest endeavor? Moist soils management, or the slow draw down of water from the impoundments to foster the growth of wetland plants like smartweed, fall panicum and fox tail. “As the water gradually comes down, it will support different kinds of weeds, and if you are good enough at it you can have a whole platter of foods that fulfill the ducks’ dietary needs,” Harris said. Moist soils management is good for the wildlife and the farmer: it cuts fertilizer use, and mechanical tilling is only needed about once every five years.
In the past, Harris grew corn on his farm to provide high-energy food for visiting waterfowl. Harris admits that deer and their affinity for corn have presented a challenge to his habitat management practices. For this reason, he plans to grow rice instead. “It’s literally the same kind of high-carbohydrate food that corn is,” Harris said. “The big advantage is that the deer don’t eat rice. In some fields, nearly half of the corn crop gets eaten by the deer.”
Harris has been an avid hunter since he was a young boy; growing up hunting with his grandfather on the bays north of San Francisco cultivated his passion for conserving wildlife habitat. He now owns three farms in Maryland and one in Montana, all under conservation easements through Ducks Unlimited, the largest land conservation owner in the United States, of which he sits on the board.
“The farm is big enough that on a windy day you can be shooting on the farm and the upwind birds will still be there. With the wild ducks, the thing you want to do if you want to keep them is not disturb them too much, otherwise they find another place to go,” Harris said. He has even calculated exactly how many ducks he and his guests can harvest in a year without negatively impacting waterfowl populations, setting the limit at 175 ducks from all four farms.
Harris designates 20 percent of his time to sitting on the board of Ducks Unlimited and of Waterfowl Chesapeake, a Maryland-based non-profit whose mission is to create, restore and conserve waterfowl habitat in the Chesapeake Bay Region. Together they help draw awareness to protecting area wetlands.
Judy Price, the executive director of Waterfowl Chesapeake, has helped the organization raise more than $5 million for habitat restoration and conservation education projects. Waterfowl Chesapeake, the umbrella organization of the annual Waterfowl Festival, held in November in Easton, Maryland, recently created an alliance for waterfowl conservation that consists of a panel of scientific experts that offer advice to current and prospective habitat restoration initiatives. They have also created a restoration project registry, expanding the visibility of high-value projects to the public and potential funders.
When asked why protecting waterfowl habitat is a priority, Price responded, “The annual migration of waterfowl truly enhances our lives throughout the Chesapeake region and, in particular, the Eastern Shore. Not only do we gain ecological benefits, but also significant economic value, from a healthy waterfowl community. By focusing on maintaining strong habitat, hopefully, we can avoid people, years from now, saying, ‘I remember seeing ducks and geese in the skies. Whatever happened to them?’”
Images by Steve Droter. To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Garden beds filled with native plants, parking spots reserved for fuel-efficient vehicles and plant-covered roofs that trap rainfall before it runs into storm drains: these simple steps to “go green” have turned a Southern Maryland community college into a model of conservation.
Located less than five miles from the Patuxent River, the College of Southern Maryland’s (CSM) Prince Frederick campus has become home to a green building that shows students and citizens alike the benefits of green infrastructure.
Indeed, green building has become the norm for new facilities in a state that has long championed smart growth and all that it entails, from funding development inside of existing communities to protecting rural areas from suburban sprawl. Maryland legislation passed in 2008 even requires building projects of a certain size to be certified as green, whether it is through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Certification program or the Green Globes system. At 30,000 square feet, the academic building in Prince Frederick fit the bill of needing to be green.
“[Earning green certification] was a mandate from the state,” said Richard Fleming, CSM vice president and dean of the Prince Frederick campus. “It’s a laborious process, but it has also been exciting, because I had never worked with [a green building] before.”
Fleming has worked with community colleges for 35 years, and was until 2009 the vice president for academic affairs at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Va. The chance to construct a new building on the fastest-growing campus in the CSM network attracted him to this new position at his sixth college in as many states.
Opened in September and funded in part by the state, the Prince Frederick building is the second LEED-certified building in Calvert County. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, which operates the LEED certification program, green buildings can lower energy use and operational costs; reduce waste and carbon emissions; and provide healthy indoor spaces for building occupants. These are all benefits that Fleming hopes to see.
“The goal behind LEED is to one, reduce water consumption, and two, reduce energy consumption,” Fleming said. “We should, after a period of time… start to see some kind of gas savings, electrical savings, energy savings.”
To earn LEED certification, building projects collect points based on different aspects of their construction. The higher their final score, the higher the certification level earned. Fleming hopes that the Prince Frederick building will reach gold status, and gave us a tour of some of the items on its green building checklist: large windows that flood the space with natural light; green roofs that capture rainfall; bike racks that encourage public transportation; bio-retention cells that collect stormwater from sidewalks and parking lots; and native, drought-tolerant plants—like black-eyed Susans, American beautyberry and Joe-Pye weed—that fill up garden beds.
Students and faculty “are all very pleased with [the new building],” Fleming said. But it is not just the campus that will benefit.
“This is a building that’s open to the public,” said Dorothy Hill, lead media relations coordinator for CSM. The campus has hosted film festivals and concert series, and the new building’s 3,000-square-foot meeting space has been called the best in Calvert County.
“At the dedication, people were very interested in learning what LEED certification was all about,” Hill said. “The community comes here, and will be able to see… that we’re stewards of the environment, and we care about the community.”
Photos by Jenna Valente.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to more than 17 million people, each of whom is reliant on water. But as populations grow and communities expand, we send pollutants into our rivers and streams, affecting every drop of water in the region. How, then, do so many of us still have access to clean water? The answer lies within wastewater treatment plants.
One plant, in particular, plays a pivotal role in the region’s water quality. Located in Washington, D.C., the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant has served the D.C. metropolitan area since 1983. The plant receives 40 percent of its flow from Maryland, 40 percent from the District and 20 percent from Virginia. With the capacity to treat 370 million gallons of sewage each day, it is the largest wastewater treatment plant in the world and the only one in the nation to serve multiple states.
Recently, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority—also known as DC Water—made technological upgrades to Blue Plains. Evidence shows these upgrades have already accounted for reductions in nutrient pollution and a resurgence in the upper Potomac River’s bay grass beds. Indeed, putting new wastewater treatment technology in place is a critical step toward meeting the pollution limits established in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load. As of 2012, 45 percent of the watershed's 467 wastewater treatment plants had limits in place that met water quality standards.
Because of spatial constraints, many of upgrades planned for Blue Plains will focus on intensifying the wastewater treatment process. According to Sudhir Muthy, innovation chief for DC Water, the more concentrated the purification process is, the more energy efficient the plant can be.
For decades, the philosophy behind wastewater treatment plants has been to imitate those clean water processes that you might see in natural systems. Lately, there has been a shift in thinking about how wastewater is treated. Murthy explains: “Now, more attention is given to using the energy created within the treatment process to run the plant. [For example,] carbon has a lot of energy and is created during the treatment process. We are trying to harness [carbon’s] energy to help the plant run in a more energy-efficient way. We are now asking: How do we optimize the use of energy within the wastewater treatment process?”
Blue Plains hopes to become energy neutral in 10 to 15 years, and upgrades to reduce pollution and save energy will continue for years to come. A new tunnel will allow both sewage and wastewater to flow from the District to the plant, where it will be treated to reduce the flow of polluted runoff into the Potomac River. And a new process will recycle “waste” heat to “steam explode” bacterial sludge, turning it into a biosolid that can be mixed with soil, used as fertilizer and generate extra revenue.
“All processes use energy,” Muthy said. “But if you can find ways to offset or recycle that energy use, then you can move towards being more efficient.”
Along the developed waterfront of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor sits a 16-acre marina complex known as Lighthouse Point. The Canton business rents slips to hundreds of people each year, and has become a hub for eco-conscious boaters who want to dock their craft with a staff who works hard for clean water.
Lighthouse Point is managed by Baltimore Marine Centers, which operates four other marinas in one of the busiest harbors in the Chesapeake Bay. Each of their facilities is a certified Clean Marina, and the business has worked to promote green practices throughout Baltimore.
Lighthouse Point was named a 2012 Clean Marina of the Year as part of a Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) initiative that recognizes marinas that adopt pollution prevention practices. From picking up trash along shorelines to containing dust and debris from boat repair and maintenance, close to 25 percent of the state’s 600 marinas are practicing Clean Marinas or Clean Marina Partners, and the designation has borne benefits for businesses and the Bay alike.
According to the DNR, a number of Clean Marina operators have experienced reduced insurance rates, improved relationships with inspectors and an ability to attract customers and charge competitive rates for slips and other services.
“[The Clean Marina program] is not only good for the environment. It’s a great marketing tool,” said Jessica Bowling, Director of Sales for Baltimore Marine Centers. “Boaters that value clean water and responsible businesses can come here, and we take pride in that.”
Baltimore Marine Centers hopes that taking part in the Clean Marina program will help spread this Bay-friendly mindset among its customers. Educating boaters in clean boating practices is a critical component of Clean Marina certification, and a responsibility the business looks forward to fulfilling.
“We have to educate boaters,” Bowling said. “We see that as a responsibility. [We have] to say, these things aren’t right, you shouldn’t be doing them. If you care about our water, you need to take care of it.”
So Baltimore Marine Centers shares clean boating tips in its electronic newsletter, which is sent to 6,000 boaters each week. And at Lighthouse Point, staff make their pollution prevention practices known.
On a recent tour of the marina, marina manager Kevin McGuire showed us what the business has done to protect clean water. He pointed out the fuel absorbencies that boaters use while pumping their gas and the pump-out facilities that ensure waste ends up at local treatment plants rather than in rivers and streams. He showed us the large recycling cans that are emptied up to three times each week and the signs that encourage boaters to pick up after their pets. He told us that staff scoop litter out of the water each morning and encourage boaters to avoid tossing their soda cans, snack packaging and other trash overboard. And he pointed out the shorelines that could soon be home to wetland plants, which would turn an empty space into a beneficial one.
“You don’t want a dirty marina,” McGuire said. “You want a green and clean facility.”
Bowling agreed. “Boaters love to be on their boats,” she said. “But they want swimmable water, too. And they recognize that they play a role in making that happen.”
Images by Jenna Valente
On a quiet cove in Southern Maryland, a series of orange and white markers declares a stretch of water off limits to fishing. Under the surface sits spawning habitat for largemouth bass, a fish that contributes millions of dollars to the region’s economy each year and for whom two such sanctuaries have been established in the state. Here, the fish are protected from recreational anglers each spring and studied by scientists hoping to learn more about them and their habitat needs.
The largemouth bass can be found across the watershed and is considered one of the most popular sport fishes in the United States. While regional populations are strong, a changing Chesapeake Bay—think rising water temperatures, disappearing grasses and the continued arrival of invasive species—is changing bass habitat and could have an effect on future fish.
For decades, scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have collected data on the distribution of largemouth bass, tracking the species and monitoring the state’s two sanctuaries in order to gather the knowledge needed to keep the fishery sustainable. Established in 2010 on the Chicamuxen and Nanjemoy creeks, both of which flow into the Potomac River, these sanctuaries have been fortified with plastic pipes meant to serve as spawning structures. And, it seems, these sanctuaries are in high demand during spawning season.
On an overcast day in April, three members of the DNR Tidal Bass Survey team—Joseph Love, Tim Groves and Branson Williams—are surveying the sanctuary in Chicamuxen Creek. Groves flips a switch and the vessel starts to send electrical currents into the water, stunning fish for capture by the scientists on board. The previous day, the team caught, tagged and released 20 bass; this morning, the men catch 19, none of which were tagged the day before.
“This [lack of recaptures] indicates that we have quite a few bass out here,” said Love, Tidal Bass Manager.
Indeed, the state’s largemouth bass fishery “is pretty doggone good,” Love continued. “That said, we recognize that the ecosystem is changing. And I don’t think anybody wants to rest on the laurels of a great fishery.”
As Love and his team learn how largemouth bass are using the state’s sanctuaries, they can work to improve the sanctuaries’ function and move to protect them and similar habitats from further development or disturbance.
“We can speculate where the best coves are, but this is the ground truthing that we need to do,” Love said.
In the fall, the team will return to the cove to count juvenile bass and report on juvenile-to-adult population ratios. While the assessment of the state’s sanctuaries is a small-scale project, it is one “aimed at the bigger picture,” Love said.
Love’s team is “doing what we can to improve the use of these coves by bass.” And protecting bass habitat and improving water quality will have a positive effect on the coves overall, creating healthier systems for neighboring plants and animals.
“By protecting these important areas, we are also protecting the larger ecosystem,” Love said.
Photos by Jenna Valente. To view more, visit our Flickr set.
Cover crops, streamside trees and nutrient management plans: all are exceptional ways to reduce nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. And for father and son duo Elwood and Hunter Williams, restoring the Bay begins with conservation practices and a shift in mentality.
“We knew coming down the road that we needed to do a better job with keeping the water clean,” Hunter said. “We decided that if there was going to be a problem with the streams it wasn’t going to be us.”
Excess nutrients come from many places, including wastewater treatment plants, agricultural runoff and polluted air. When nitrogen and phosphorus reach waterways, they can fuel the growth of large algae blooms that negatively affect the health of the Bay. In order to reduce these impacts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has implemented a Bay “pollution diet,” known as the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
Since the passing of the TMDL, many farmers in the watershed have felt the added pressure of the cleanup on their shoulders, but for the Williams family, having the foresight to implement best management practices (BMPs) just seemed like the environmentally and fiscally responsible thing to do.
”We don’t want to get to a point where regulations are completely out of control,” Hunter explained. “Farmers know what they’re putting on the ground so we have the ability to control it. Most people who have yards don’t have a clue what they’re putting on the ground when they use fertilizer. The difference has to be made up by the farmers because we know exactly what is going on to our soil.”
The Williams family began implementing BMPs on Misty Mountain Farm in 2006 by teaming up with the Potomac Valley Conservation District (PVCD). The government-funded non-profit organization has been providing assistance to farmers and working to preserve West Virginia’s natural resources since 1943.
The PVCD operates the Agricultural Enhancement Program (AgEP), which has steadily gained popularity among chicken farmers and livestock owners located in the West Virginia panhandle and Potomac Valley. While these two districts make up just 14 percent of West Virginia’s land mass, these regions are where many of the Bay’s tributaries begin—so it is important for area landowners to be conscious of pollutants entering rivers and streams.
AgEP is designed to provide financial aid and advice to farmers in areas that the Farm Bill does not cover. PVCD is run in a grassroots fashion, as employees collaborate with local farmers to pinpoint and meet their specific needs.
“It [AgEP] has been very well received,” said Carla Hardy, Watershed Program Coordinator with the PVCD. “It’s the local, state and individuals saying, “These are our needs and this is how our money should be spent.” Farmers understand that in order to keep AgEP a voluntary plan they need to pay attention to their conservation practices.”
Hunter admits the hardest part of switching to BMPs was changing his mindset and getting on board. Originally, Hunter was looking at the Bay’s pollution problems as a whole, but with optimistic thinking and assistance from PVCD, he realized that the best way to overcome a large problem was to cross one bridge at a time.
It wasn’t long before the Williams family started to see results: fencing off streams from cattle led to cleaner water; building barns to overwinter cows allowed them to grow an average of 75 pounds heavier than before, making them more valuable to the farm.
By using BMPs, the Williams family has set a positive example for farmers across the watershed, proving that with hard work and a ‘sky is the limit’ mentality, seemingly impossible goals can be met.
Hunter points out, “We are proud to know that if you are traveling to Misty Mountain Farm you can’t say, “Hey these guys aren’t doing their part.”
Video produced by Steve Droter.
On private piers up and down Harris Creek, hundreds of metal cages hang from ropes into blue-green water. Inside each cage are countless little oysters, which will grow here, safe from predators and sediment, during their first nine months of life. Once the spat are large enough, they will be pulled out of their short-term shelters and put onto boats to be replanted on protected reefs just a few short miles away.
The cages—along with the bivalves inside them—are cared for by volunteers with the Tilghman Islanders Grow Oysters (TIGO) program, itself a local branch of the Marylanders Grow Oysters program that is managed by the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center (PWEC).
Now in its second season, TIGO has recruited more than 80 volunteers across the so-called “Bay Hundred” region—from Bozman and Neavitt to Wittman and Tilghman Island—to further oyster restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay.
Over the past two centuries, native oyster populations have experienced a dramatic decline, as habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have taken their toll. But programs like this one give hatchery-grown oysters a head start before they are put into the Bay to replenish critical underwater reefs.
The TIGO program has attracted a wide range of restoration enthusiasts, from the middle-school student who has tracked her oysters’ growth for a science fair project to the neighbors who have competed against each other to grow more and bigger oysters. The main draw? What little effort is involved.
“Growing oysters is an effort, but it’s a really easy effort,” said TIGO coordinator Carol McCollough. “And we remove as many of the roadblocks as we possibly can for people who want to do this.”
Aside from a promise to keep cages free of excess sand and silt, the program doesn’t ask too much of its volunteers—and this has worked to its advantage.
H. Truitt Sunderland is a Wittman resident whose cages are filling up fast after six months of growth. The oysters have gone from mere millimeters to one and two inches in size, and a host of other critters—like grass shrimp and gobies, mud crabs and skillet fish—have taken up residence on this makeshift reef just as they would do on oyster bars in the Bay.
Sunderland’s home sits on Cummings Creek, and Sunderland has used the ease of the work involved—“I don’t even know how they can call this volunteer work,” he laughed—to involve his neighbors. Now, there are 24 cages on 12 piers in this single stretch of water.
Tilghman Island resident and fellow volunteer Steve Bender has had a similar experience. “The process is simple,” Bender said, standing on a wooden pier that juts into Blackwalnut Cove. “It’s not that demanding. It’s not that difficult to care for [the oysters].” And in response to his encouragement, Bender’s neighbors have been “glad” to join.
While projects like this one are a small drop in the restoration bucket, McCullough hopes that TIGO can cast a personal light on conservation for all those who are involved.
“We [at PWEC] inform, inspire and involve,” McCullough said. “We’re all about getting people to commit to [changes in] behaviors. It’s very easy to give money. It’s less easy to write letters. And I think in many ways, it’s even less easy to do something personal—to do restoration work on your own.”
But for McCullough, it’s possible that the simple act of caring for a cage of oysters could act as a stepping stone toward further involvement in the Bay.
“Oysters have become very exciting to people,” McCullough said. “They recognize that every single additional oyster in the Bay is a positive thing. That oyster restoration is something that’s bigger than they are.”
For more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Photos by Multimedia Coordinator Steve Droter.
On a winter morning in Annapolis, Md., a snow-covered truck pulls into the parking lot of a local seafood restaurant. A man in white boots and rubber gloves steps out of the cab, a metal door swings open behind the building and plastic trash cans full of oyster shells are exchanged between restaurant chef and shell recycler.
The trade is just one stop on a route that connects the 130 members of the Shell Recycling Alliance: a group of restaurants, caterers and seafood wholesalers that save their unneeded shells—some in five-gallon buckets, some in 14-gallon trash cans, some in 55-gallon wheeled bins—for pick up by Tommy Price.
Price is a Special Programs Specialist with the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a conservation group that has for two decades worked to restore oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. As a driver in the partnership’s fleet of trucks—which are complete with shell recycling logos and oyster-themed license plates—Price has watched the Shell Recycling Alliance grow, generating more than 1,000 tons of shell that are an integral piece in the oyster restoration puzzle.
Sent to an environmental research lab and oyster hatchery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the shells are cured, power-washed and put to work as settling material for the billions of oyster larvae that are planted to replenish reefs across the Bay.
Over the past two centuries, native oyster populations have experienced a dramatic decline as habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have taken their toll. But by filtering water, forming aquatic reefs and feeding countless watershed residents, the bivalves have become an essential part of the Bay’s environment and economy.
It is this link between businesses and the Bay that inspired Boatyard Bar and Grill to sign on to the Shell Recycling Alliance.
“The Bay is a huge economic engine for this area,” said restaurant owner Dick Franyo. “Look at what we do here—it’s all about fishing, sailing, ‘Save the Bay.’ It’s where we come from. It’s what we think about.”
Franyo, who sits on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s board of trustees, has upheld a conservation ethic in much of what his restaurant does. It donates at least one percent of its annual revenue to environmental organizations; it composts all of its food waste; it recycles oyster shells alongside glass, metal and plastic; and it spreads the word about the restoration efforts that still need to be made.
All Shell Recycling Alliance members are given brochures, table tents and “Zagat”-style window stickers to use as tools of engagement, teaching customers and clientele about the importance of saving shell.
“Shell is a vital ingredient in oyster restoration,” said Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. “It’s like flour in bread.”
Indeed, it has become such a valuable resource that a bill has been proposed that would give individuals and businesses a $1 tax credit for each bushel of shell recycled.
“The Bay, restoration and oysters—it’s all one story,” Abel said. And without oyster shells, the story would be incomplete.
After eleven years, $40 million and more than 16,000 linear feet of pipe, West Virginia is set to bring a new wastewater treatment plant online and make huge cuts to the pollution it sends into the Chesapeake Bay.
Under construction in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, the Moorefield Wastewater Treatment Plant will replace four existing plants with one new system, marking a significant milestone in the headwater state’s efforts to curb pollution and improve water quality. Expected to go into operation this fall, the plant will remove 90,000 pounds of nitrogen and 93,000 pounds of phosphorous from West Virginia wastewater each year.
Funded by a range of sources—including the West Virginia Economic Development Authority, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—the new plant is heralded as evidence that thoughtful planning and forward-thinking—especially where pollution regulations are concerned—can help a community move toward conservation and environmental change.
In the 1990s, the hundreds of wastewater treatment plants that are located across the watershed could be blamed for more than a quarter of the nutrient pollution entering the Bay, as the plants pumped water laden with nitrogen and phosphorous into local rivers and streams. Such an excess of nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and, during decomposition, rob the water of the oxygen that aquatic species need to survive.
But in the last decade, technological upgrades to wastewater treatment plants have surged, and the pollution cuts that result mean these plants now contribute less than 20 percent of the nutrients still entering the Bay.
According to Rich Batiuk, Associate Director for Science with the EPA, the uptick in upgrades can be attributed to a number of factors.
“Wastewater treatment plants have always been regulated,” Batiuk said. “But [until the last decade], there wasn’t the science or the political will or the … water quality standards that could drive the higher levels of wastewater treatment that result in lower levels of nitrogen and phosphorous flowing into the watershed.”
As the science behind wastewater engineering has improved and the incentives for implementing upgrades have grown, more plants have begun to make changes. Some implement a “zero discharge” plan, using nutrient-rich effluent to feed agricultural crops rather than excess algae. Others—like the Moorefield plant—expose wastewater to nutrient-hungry microbes that feed on nitrogen and phosphorous; the resulting sludge, modified without the addition of chemicals, can be turned into compost rather than fodder for the local landfill.
Such modern upgrades to otherwise aging infrastructure have been celebrated as a boon for local communities and the wider watershed. While the Moorefield plant will, in the end, curb pollution into the Bay, it will first curb pollution in the South Branch of the Potomac River, into which it sends its effluent.
"The South Branch of the Potomac is a unique place,” Batiuk said. “People fish there, they swim there. This new plant helps more than the Chesapeake Bay.”
And Moorefield residents—including the Town of Moorefield Public Works Director Lucas Gagnon—plan to witness this local change firsthand.
“The residents in this area are aware of the Chesapeake Bay and its needed [nutrient] reductions,” Gagnon said. “But the biggest benefit for the local folks will be the reduction of nutrients in local waterways.”
“There are many people that fish and boat the South Branch,” Gagnon continued. “When this plant goes online, the water quality will be greatly enhanced, and they will have a much cleaner, better river to enjoy.”