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.
More than 145,000 lost or abandoned crab traps may be resting on the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, according to a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program. Once lost, these so-called “ghost pots” can continue to catch crabs, fish and other species, resulting in the loss of an estimated 3.3 million blue crabs each year. Though this makes up a small proportion of the total number of blue crabs in the Bay—estimated at 553 million in 2016—the study suggests that the targeted removal of derelict fishing gear could help boost commercial crab harvest.
Each year, an estimated 600,000 crab pots are actively fished by watermen on the Bay. But whether accidentally lost or intentionally tossed overboard, 12 to 20 percent of these traps are lost each year. Lines connecting traps to buoys can come loose or be cut, strong storms can relocate the gear or pots may simply be abandoned.
This lost fishing gear can continue to “ghost fish,” trapping crabs, finfish and other underwater animals. According to the study, more than 6 million blue crabs are caught—and 3.3 million of those killed—by ghost pots each year. More than 3.5 million white perch and close to 3.6 million Atlantic croaker are also estimated to be trapped each year. And derelict gear can harm sensitive habitats like underwater grass beds and salt marshes as well.
In addition to the environmental impacts of derelict crab pots, the team of researchers—which included experts from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science—looked at how abandoned fishing gear could affect commercial crab harvest. By catching crabs that could otherwise be caught by actively-fished traps, ghost pots can potentially result in a loss of harvest. The study estimates that the removal of derelict pots from 2008 to 2014 resulted in an increased Bay-wide blue crab harvest of more than 38 million pounds—valued at $33.5 million—over the six-year period.
Removing derelict pots from heavily-fished areas could be a cost-effective way to boost harvest and reduce the gear’s harmful ecological effects, the study suggests. Biodegradable escape panels, which are inexpensive and easy to install, are another option that have been successfully tested in the Bay.
The report, Ecological and Economic Effects of Derelict Fishing Gear in the Chesapeake Bay, can be found online.
Paddlers travel on the Potomac River where it meets the Shenandoah River at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Described by Thomas Jefferson as “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature,” the town offers views of three states: West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.
This scenic spot offers not only boundless natural beauty, but a rich piece of national history. The town was named for Robert Harper, a Quaker from Pennsylvania who in 1747 was sent to erect a mission house in the Shenandoah Valley. On his way, he passed through “The Hole”—the gap in the mountains where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. He recognized the value of the site for water power and transportation, purchased 126 acres of land at the site, then established a mill and began operating a ferry across the Potomac.
In 1799, construction began on the Harpers Ferry Armory, which produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols before 1859, when one of the most famous events in Harpers Ferry history—and indeed, United States history—occurred. Abolitionist activist John Brown and 21 companions led a raid on the armory, hoping to seize weapons from the warehouse to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South. The attempted takeover of the armory was unsuccessful, however, and the event stoked the already tense relationship between the North and South, ultimately hastening the onset of the Civil War.
Today, the town is home to a national historic park where visitors can explore the historic town, visit museums and battlefields or hike the nearby mountains. It’s also home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and is known to hikers as the “psychological halfway point” of the 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail.
Image by Will Parson
Two efforts in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will receive close to $110,000 in funding through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Urban Waters Small Grants Program, which supports individuals and organizations in urban areas working to restore their local waterways.
The Anacostia Watershed Society, based in Bladensburg, Maryland, will educate and train 40 middle schoolers from low-income communities in the District of Columbia. With 10-week programs in the fall and spring, students will learn about stormwater runoff through a variety of activities, including canoe trips along the Anacostia River, tours of green infrastructure projects and hands-on restoration.
Virginia Commonwealth University will develop a community greening and green infrastructure plan for its two campuses in downtown Richmond, Virginia, as well as the Richmond Arts District. The partnership-focused effort will begin with an assessment of structures and locations that would support green infrastructure projects. Then, community meetings and an educational awareness campaign will inform residents of local water quality issues, obtain their feedback on the plan’s development and suggest ways they can reduce stormwater runoff.
Since its creation in 2012, the Urban Waters Small Grants Program has awarded close to $6.6 million to 114 organizations across the United States. Grants are awarded every two years, with individual awards up to $60,000. In addition to the two projects inside the Bay watershed, the program will fund projects from 20 organizations in 16 other states.
The Chesapeake Bay has more than 11,600 miles of shoreline. Evidence of its changing tides can be observed along much of the region, whether it is a high water mark on a dock piling, a line of seaweed on a beach or a shorebird pulling shellfish from the mud of a temporarily exposed flat.
In some watershed cities—like Annapolis, Maryland—the difference between high and low tides is about one foot. In others—like Norfolk, Virginia—this difference can reach up to three feet. We have built our roads, homes and buildings around the regular movement of this water. But as sea levels rise, land subsides and natural barriers to coastal flooding are lost, our coastal cities will face more impactful high-tide flooding that occurs regardless of heavy winds or rain.
High-tide flooding has also been called sunny-day, shallow coastal or nuisance flooding. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) records a high-tide flood when one of its local tide gauges measures a water level above the local threshold for minor impacts. While the depth and extent of high-tide floods can vary, the nuisances that result are far from minor: disrupted transportation, degraded stormwater management systems, flooded roads, homes and businesses, and strained maintenance budgets.
Rates of high-tide flooding on all coasts are rising. In a June 2016 report on the state of high-tide nuisance flooding in the United States, NOAA researchers attribute increasing flood frequencies to local sea level rise—which itself is attributed to the melting of ice on land as the air warms and the expansion of seawater as oceans warm—and local land subsidence, or the settling or sinking of land. Indeed, according to the report, “annual flood rates have increased locally by two or three times or more as compared to the rate experienced 20 years ago.”
Of the 28 local long-term tide gauges operated by NOAA, four are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Together, these four cities—Annapolis and Baltimore in Maryland, Norfolk in Virginia and the District of Columbia—experienced a total of 128 high-tide flood days in 2015, with Baltimore and Norfolk experiencing local totals just two days and one day below the highest historical record. These floods were likely exacerbated by El Niño, which affected winds and storm tracks along the mid-Atlantic and West coasts.
The 2016 outlook for each of these four cities is lower than the number of flood days the cities observed in 2015: 15 flood days are expected to occur in 2016 in Baltimore, 47 in Annapolis, 33 in Washington, D.C., and 8 in Norfolk. However, NOAA expects future outlooks to underestimate flood days because of the increasingly “nonlinear response” flood frequencies will have to sea level rise. Furthermore, the agency’s high-tide flood outlook does not account for flooding compounded by local rainfall, and precipitation in the watershed is expected to increase in response to climate change.
While we cannot reverse the effects of climate change that have already been observed in the region—which include warming temperatures, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events, as well as coastal flooding, eroding shorelines and changes in the abundance and migration patterns of wildlife—we can enhance our resiliency against them. To build resiliency against high-tide flooding, for example, cities have relied on flood barriers to block rising water, drafted ambitious plans to raise low-lying streets and constructed new facilities higher off the ground.
Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Chesapeake Bay Program has committed to increasing the resiliency of the region’s communities, living resources and wildlife habitats to the adverse impacts of changing environmental conditions. Learn about our work to monitor and assess the trends and impacts of climate change and to pursue, design and construct restoration and protection projects that will enhance the resiliency of our ecosystem.
According to fisheries experts, the Chesapeake Bay blue crab stock is not depleted and overfishing is not occurring. Nevertheless, experts recommend maintaining a risk-averse, or cautious, approach to blue crab management: just two years ago, adult female blue crabs were considered depleted. Even after a 183 percent rise in their population between 2014 and 2016, their numbers remain below target levels.
The 2016 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report was released by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC). It includes blue crab population and harvest data from Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, as well as expert recommendations on maintaining a sustainable blue crab fishery.
According to the report, the start of the 2016 crabbing season saw an estimated 194 million adult female blue crabs in the Bay. This marks a 92 percent increase from last year’s abundance of adult females, which the Chesapeake Bay Program tracks as part of its progress toward the goals and outcomes of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Because adult female blue crab abundance is above the 70 million threshold, the blue crab stock is not considered depleted. And because just 15 percent of adult females were harvested in 2015—well below the 25.5 percent target—overfishing is not occurring.
“The blue crab population is at a healthy level,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Biologist and CBSAC Chair Glenn Davis in a media release. “It is encouraging to see adult females rebound from a depleted state… but that also serves as a reminder of how quickly things can change with this animal.”
In its report, CBSAC—which includes scientists and representatives from state agencies and academic institutions, as well as federal fisheries experts—recommends the improvement of harvest and fishing effort estimates, the jurisdictional coordination of complementary management measures and the evaluation of an allocation-based blue crab management framework. An allocation-based management framework would allocate an annual total allowable catch (TAC) of blue crabs for the Bay’s commercial and recreational fisheries among its three management jurisdictions: Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. The report recognizes the importance of future stock assessments in providing in-depth scientific guidance to support blue crab management.
“It’s great to see that the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population has increased over the past two years and we are close to achieving the target of 215 million adult female blue crabs outlined in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office Director and Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team Chair Peyton Robertson in a media release. “The annual Advisory Report continues to provide valuable counsel for jurisdictional fishery managers as they work toward sustaining the blue crab population at that level over the long term.”
For more than a century, the United States has worked to protect the wilderness around us with parks, preserves and sanctuaries. While natural spaces of all shapes and sizes can benefit wildlife, only one government-designated wilderness program was established in order to build a network of wildlife habitat: the national wildlife refuge system.
The first national wildlife refuge was established in 1903. Today, there are more than 560 wildlife refuges in the nation, whose 150 million acres of land and water are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and marked with the emblem of a flying blue goose. Fifteen wildlife refuges are located in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, protecting forests, fields, ponds, marshes, swamps and shorelines in Maryland and Virginia. Federally owned land—which includes wildlife refuges—accounts for about 26 percent of the 8.37 million protected acres in the region, and is integral to our work to safeguard wildlife habitat from development. Learn about five wildlife refuges in the watershed below.
1. Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge (Rock Hall, Md.). Established in December of 1962, this 2,285-acre island refuge is located where the Chester River meets the Chesapeake Bay. The island was among the first parts of Maryland to be settled by European colonists: between 1658 and 1680, two men acquired the entire island tract by tract. Today, the island’s forests, grasslands, ponds and tidal marshes offer critical feeding and resting grounds to hundreds of species of migratory birds. Ducks, swans and geese are particularly abundant in late fall and early winter, and refuge staff have documented peaks of more than 50,000 waterfowl at one time on or near the refuge. The refuge provides visitors with opportunities to walk and bike, view wildlife, boat, fish, crab and hunt for turkey and white-tailed deer.
2. Patuxent Research Refuge (Laurel, Md.). Established in December of 1936, this refuge has expanded from its original 2,670 acres to encompass more than 12,800 acres between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. It is the only wildlife refuge established to support wildlife research. The Patuxent Wildlife Research Center is operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, whose staff specialize in research related to wildlife and natural resources science, from the status and trends of bird populations to the effects of chemical contaminants on wildlife. One of its most famous programs involves the captive breeding of whooping cranes: biological technicians raise more than 30 chicks each year, releasing most to a non-migratory flock in Louisiana and training the rest to migrate from Wisconsin to Florida. While the grounds that house the research center are not open to the public, the refuge’s North Tract and impressive National Wildlife Visitor Center provide visitors with opportunities to walk, view wildlife, fish and hunt.
3. Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge (Cape Charles, Va.). Established in 1984 to promote migratory and endangered species management, this 1,123-acre refuge located at the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula was once a military fort. During World War II, Fort John Custis protected naval bases in Virginia Beach and Norfolk. In 1950, the U.S. Air Force took ownership of the fort, renamed it the Cape Charles Air Force Station and occupied the area until 1981. Today, the refuge is valued as one of the most important stopover sites for migrating birds and butterflies in the nation. Each fall, songbirds, raptors and monarch butterflies gather at the refuge to feed and rest before resuming their migrations south. More than 400 bird species have been seen in and around the refuge, and on peak days, 100,000 monarch butterflies have been seen on refuge roosts. The refuge’s wood- and shrublands, fields, ponds and marshes are also valuable to insects (including the endangered northeastern beach tiger beetle), mammals and other critters. The refuge provides visitors with opportunities to walk, view wildlife, boat and hunt for white-tailed deer.
4. Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge (Lorton, Va.). Established in February of 1969, this 2,227-acre refuge sits on a boot-shaped peninsula between the Potomac and Occoquan rivers. While an airport and residential community were planned for the land in the early 1960s, local resident Elizabeth van Laer Speer Hartwell launched a campaign to halt the development and protect the bald eagles that called the Potomac River home. As a result, this refuge—located just 18 miles south of Washington, D.C.—became the first that was established for the explicit protection of the bald eagle and one of four named after women. It encompasses almost six miles of shoreline, 2,000 acres of mature hardwood forest and 207 acres of tidal freshwater marsh that is home to a large breeding colony of great blue herons. The refuge provides visitors with opportunities to walk, view wildlife and hunt for white-tailed deer.
5. Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Warsaw, Va.). Established in 1996, this refuge is the newest of four that compose the Eastern Virginia Rivers National Wildlife Refuge Complex. While it currently consists of 8,720 acres of forests, grassland, marshland and swamps, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to protect 20,000 acres of habitat along the Rappahannock and its tributaries over time. The refuge is home to breeding bald eagles and migrating birds, and provides visitors with opportunities to walk, view wildlife, boat, fish and hunt for white-tailed deer.
In 2016, the Chesapeake Bay Commission worked with the legislatures of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia to designate the second week in June of each year as Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week—a time to celebrate the culture, history and natural beauty of the nation’s largest estuary.
From June 4th through 12th this year, residents and visitors alike participated in this inaugural celebration by attending events, participating in restoration activities and learning about the importance of the Chesapeake Bay. Below are just a few of the ways communities marked the occasion.
Across the watershed, the first day of Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week coincided with National Trails Day. Events across the watershed encouraged hikers young and old, beginners and experts to enjoy the outdoors.
How did you celebrate Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week? Let us know in the comments!
For centuries, Chesapeake Bay residents and visitors alike have enjoyed the many benefits oysters have brought them. They’re a source of income for the watermen who harvest them, joy for the people who eat them and, for everyone else, they’re the bottom-dwellers that help filter the water in the Chesapeake Bay. But decades of overharvesting have depleted oyster stock to the point where current populations are less than one percent of historic levels. To reconcile a high demand with desperately low numbers, many in the oyster business are turning to aquaculture, or underwater farming, for solutions.
Rappahannock Oyster Company was once an oyster farm like many others; buying wild spat (baby oysters), laying them underwater on leased plots for three years and then dredging them back up. But when cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton took over their grandfather’s business in 2001, they saw a chance to revitalize the company and shake up how they farmed oysters. They began trying new approaches, such as buying seeds from a hatchery instead of spat taken from the Bay, and putting them into cages instead of directly on the river bottom.
And they didn’t just change the way they farmed oysters—they also changed how they did business. A tasting room at their farm in Topping, Virginia, and oyster bars in Richmond, Va. and Washington, D.C., serve the dual purpose of bringing oysters to consumers and educating them about farm-grown oysters. Chief Operating Officer Anthony Marchetti explains that their process is more sustainable; instead of further depleting the Bay’s oyster stock, “every oyster we put in the water is one that wasn’t there before.”
Through their method of oyster farming, Rappahannock Oyster Company hopes to get their oysters to hungry customers without impacting the long-term health of the Bay. One of their goals, Marchetti says, is to take the pressure off the wild stock of oysters, to someday get back to levels where they could be harvested—with smart management—without worrying about their or the Bay’s viability.
Oyster farming is becoming the norm in Virginia. They are the most rapidly developing sector of Virginia shellfish aquaculture, and the state is number one in oyster production on the East Coast. Newcomers to the field aren’t interested in further depleting the wild populations, says Marchetti. They’re opting for aquaculture, he says, because “you reap what you sow.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
May is National Biking Month, and the Chesapeake region has hundreds—if not thousands—of miles of bike paths and trails to explore. Biking can make for a fun afternoon and is a great way to explore an area while getting some exercise! From short loops to long regional trails, here’s a list of eight paths to explore by bike.
Originally serving as a way for horses to pull coal-filled barges down the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the C&O towpath is now a multi-use trail stretching 185 miles from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. The trail runs along the Maryland side of the Potomac River, is mostly wooded and offers sights of beautiful scenery and wildlife.
The trail has restrooms, camping areas, lookout points, historic sights and much more. While there are some paved sections, the path is mostly an even, hard-backed dirt trail. If 185 miles isn’t enough biking for you, once you reach Cumberland, you can continue another 150 miles on the Great Allegheny Passage all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Pine Creek Trail, located at the bottom of Pine Creek Gorge (also known as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon), is a 61-mile trail that runs along the river that gives the area its name. Running from Stokesdale to Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, this paved, low grade trail has multiple restrooms and runs through several small towns, making it perfect for a quick ride or a multi-day tour through northcentral Pennsylvania. Almost the entire trail runs along Pine Creek, offering spectacular views of the water, rock outcroppings, waterfalls and wildlife like eagles, osprey, wild turkeys and otters.
Originally a railroad line, High Bridge Trail stretches over 30 miles from Burkeville to Pamplin, Virginia. The main attraction of the trail is its namesake, High Bridge, which stretches 2,400 feet across the Appomattox River, and is 125 feet high. Built in 1853, High Bridge is the longest recreational bridge in Virginia and is among the longest in the U.S. It is both a Virginia Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.
High Bridge Trail is wide, generally flat and made of crushed limestone, with restrooms and picnic tables along the trail. The trail is over 30 miles long, but those who want a shorter ride can start off in nearby Farmville and bike the four and a half miles from downtown to the bridge. No matter the length, High Bridge Trail offers beautiful views of central Virginia’s woodlands and rural farmlands.
The Cross Island Trail offers views of woods, farmland, marshes and the Bay as you bike across Kent Island in Maryland. This flat, paved trail runs six miles, making it ideal for an easy afternoon bike ride. Start in the west at Terrapin Beach Park and take a break at one of the restaurants on the eastern side at Kent Narrows. Or, if you’re starting in the east, Terrapin Park is a great place for a picnic break or a short hike before biking back.
Located in Laurel, Delaware, Loblolly is a five mile trail in Trap Pond State Park. The trail loops around the pond and also takes riders through forests, across bridges, over dams and past the historic Bethesda Church’s cemetery. Visitors can access a hiking path via Loblolly Trail that takes them to Cypress Point where they can also get a view of bald cypress trees.
Jones Falls Trail is located in Baltimore, Maryland, and runs over nine miles from the Inner Harbor to northwestern Baltimore. While this trail is relatively hilly, it never exceeds a five percent grade and follows along the Jones Falls stream for much of its route
It begins in an urban setting, starting at the Inner Harbor and heading through downtown Baltimore up to Penn Station. For those who prefer more nature on their bike rides, the trail then runs past Penn Station along the Jones Falls stream and crosses into Druid Park, a 745-acre park which houses Druid Lake, the Maryland Zoo and the Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens. The trail remains mostly nature until it ends at the Cylburn Arboretum and Cylburn Mansion.
Completed in 2015, the Virginia Capital Trails runs for 52 miles from Richmond to Jamestown, Virginia’s current and former capitals. This flat and paved path follows along the James River and offers scenic ride, going past several historic sites and properties. The trail is dotted with amenities—spots for bike rentals, repair stations, rest areas and even opportunities for geocaching.
8. Bacon Ridge
While still a new trail and undergoing a new phase of development, Bacon Ridge is a great place for those more interested in mountain biking. Located in Crownsville, Maryland, Bacon Ridge is ideal for families and beginning riders, due to its relatively few obstacles such as rocks and roots. The trail’s first two-and-a-half mile loop was completed in 2015, but the trail will ultimately extend up to 12 miles.
Where do you like to bike in the Chesapeake region? Let us know in the comments. If you want to find more bike paths close to home, check out Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, American Trails or SingleTracks.
Between 2014 and 2015, underwater grass abundance in the Chesapeake Bay rose 21 percent, bringing underwater grasses in the nation’s largest estuary to the highest amount ever recorded by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science aerial survey and surpassing the Chesapeake Bay Program’s 2017 restoration target two years ahead of schedule.
Aerial imagery collected between May and November of 2015 revealed a total of 91,621 acres of underwater grasses across the region. Experts attribute this spike to the recovery of wild celery and other species in the fresher waters of the upper Bay, the continued expansion of widgeon grass in the moderately salty waters of the mid-Bay and a modest recovery of eelgrass in the very salty waters of the lower Bay.
In the Elk River, for instance, grass beds that had been decimated after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee hit the region in 2011 recovered in 2015. While the beds were not as dense as those seen the season before the storms pushed water-clouding nutrient and sediment pollution into the northeastern Maryland waterway, they were larger and more diverse than previously observed and surpassed the river’s 1,648-acre restoration target. Wild celery, whose seed pods and roots offer food to migrating waterfowl, was the dominant species detected.
Because freshwater species like wild celery are resilient, continued improvements in water quality are expected to support the continued expansion of these grasses. In spite of this good news, experts advise cautious optimism about the state of underwater grasses overall: because widgeon grass is known as a “boom and bust” species whose abundance can rise and fall from year to year, the widgeon-dominant spike we have seen is not guaranteed to persist in future seasons.
“While much of the grass that accounts for the 2015 expansion was widgeon grass—a species that is often described as a boom or bust plant—I think we can take heart in the fact that it boomed last summer—marking three consecutive years of growth,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Biologist and Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup Chair Brooke Landry in a media release. “Be it freshwater wild celery or mid-Bay widgeon grass, submerged aquatic vegetation would not expand so rapidly and into areas where it hasn’t been mapped before if water quality wasn’t improving. This report shows that we are making strides on Bay restoration and truly impacting the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution entering our waterways. As we continue to provide conditions necessary for our natural resources to thrive, their resilience will increase and they’ll have a much better chance of persisting through major weather events or other challenges.”
Underwater grass beds are critical to the Bay ecosystem. They offer food to small invertebrates and migratory waterfowl; shelter young fish and blue crabs; and keep our waters clear and healthy by absorbing excess nutrients, trapping suspended sediment and slowing shoreline erosion. For these reasons, the Bay Program has committed to achieving and sustaining 185,000 acres of underwater grasses in the Bay, with a target of 130,000 acres by 2025.
The Chesapeake Bay’s adult female blue crab population has increased 92 percent since the population was surveyed last winter. While the current adult female blue crab abundance of 194 million is well above the overfishing threshold, it remains below the 215 million abundance target.
Maryland and Virginia estimate the Bay’s blue crab population through an annual winter dredge survey. Over the course of three and a half months, scientists visit 1,500 sites around the Bay, using metal dredges to pull up crabs over-wintering in the mud.
Results of the 2016 winter dredge survey show the Bay’s total blue crab population has increased from 411 million to 553 million since last winter. Results also show the number of adult females has risen from 101 million to 194 million. The number of juvenile crabs has increased from 269 million to 271 million, which is just above the long-term average.
“The crab stock has been on a rollercoaster for most [of] the last decade,” said Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner John M.R. Bull in a media release. “We’ve seen a few great years of reproduction followed by awful years of abundance. Two years does not make a trend, and this news inspires both wary optimism and cautious management.”
In the short term, Maryland officials do predict a good crab season. “Due to a milder winter, favorable currents and tides, and wise Bay-wide management measures, the Maryland crab population continues to rebound and strengthen,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service Director Dave Blazer in a media release. “With an increase in abundance and steady recruitment, we fully anticipate a robust crab season this year.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks the adult female blue crab population as an indicator of Bay health, and in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement committed to maintaining a sustainable blue crab population based on a target of 215 million adult females. The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), which includes scientists and representatives from states, academic institutions and the federal government, will use this data to make recommendations on sustaining the blue crab population in its 2016 Blue Crab Advisory Report, expected to be released this summer.
Native species are the key to any ecosystem, and the Virginia Living Museum is a paradise of plants and animals that are native to the commonwealth. The state’s wealth of biodiversity is condensed—perhaps nowhere else does a tiger salamander share a roof with a school of striped bass—and expertly organized according to the habitats of the mid-Atlantic. There are over 250 species of native animals, and exploring the galleries and the outdoor boardwalk gives you the feeling of traveling hundreds of miles as you pass through forests, coastal plains, cypress swamps and the Chesapeake Bay.
The Virginia Living Museum is in the middle of celebrating its 50th anniversary, and it has changed considerably over the years. What began as the Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium in 1966 has grown and shifted to the use of living exhibits to connect people with nature. The museum provides a sanctuary for injured or non-releasable animals—including an aviary.
In 2008, the museum was certified as a Virginia Green attraction, after a commitment to prevent pollution from the museum. It opened the Goodson “Living Green” House, an environmental education center, in 2009 to demonstrate sustainable building technologies and Bay-friendly practices like rain barrels and a green roof made of living plants. In the same vein, the Conservation Garden highlights alternatives to pesticides and fertilizer and shows how landscaping can keep stormwater runoff from polluting nearby streams and harming wildlife.
The result of a short walk through the museum’s varied campus, then, is to see the plants and animals that benefit from these sustainable practices, and to learn how to use those practices at home.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson
From December to March, assessing the health of the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population means long stints on the water for scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). Every year the blue crab winter dredge survey samples 1,500 randomly-chosen sites divided equally between Virginia and Maryland waters, in a partnership between VIMS and the Fisheries Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The data provides a bay-wide estimate of blue crab populations that helps agencies determine how many can be harvested without hampering the recovery of one of the Chesapeake Bay’s defining resources.
After a clear, calm sunrise in the second week of March, the VIMS team left their headquarters in Gloucester Point, Virginia, with 742 of 750 sites under their belt. Their boat, the R/V Bay Eagle, is their home during trips lasting up to four days at a time. With just eight sites left to sample using their six-foot-wide crab dredge, this would be a relatively short day—the last one of the season.
“That sort of puts a smile on our face,” said Mike Seebo, a VIMS marine scientist who has worked on the winter dredge survey since its second winter in 1990.
The dredge relies on the blue crab’s winter behavior of burrowing into the mud and lying dormant when the temperature drops below 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. When the crabs wake up in the coming months, the mature females will migrate to lower-salinity spawning grounds in the Bay’s tributaries, a journey of up to 150 miles for crabs reaching the northernmost habitats.
And many of the crabs will end up harvested, steamed and covered in Old Bay seasoning. For one of the region’s mainstays, the numbers coming from the survey teams will be highly awaited.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson
Video by Steve Droter
Let’s say you’re a homeowner in Norfolk, Virginia, and a storm rolls in. As the rain falls on your yard you realize that you haven’t cleaned up after your dog. You’re tempted to forget it and stay dry. Then, through your water-streaked window you see your River Star Home flag flapping furiously in the wind, and you remember that “scoop the dog poop” is at the very top of the list of seven River Star guidelines you agreed to. You grab a raincoat and a shovel.
It’s no accident that the flag—and the pledge it represents—seems to hold a certain power for the nearly 3,200 people who have signed up for Elizabeth River Project’s (ERP) River Star Homes.
Any homeowner can sign up to join the River Star Homes program. Participants commit to do seven simple things to help improve water quality and restore the Elizabeth River.
“There are studies that show you're more likely to carry out those behaviors because everybody knows that you made that pledge,” says Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, ERP’s executive director.
With funding from a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, Jackson and her staff participated in workshops with social marketing expert Doug McKenzie-Mohr. She says the River Star Program incorporates some of the ideas from those sessions—with ERP’s own spin on them. The idea for the flag came from another marketing professional who wanted something classy that people would want to display.
“We've actually been mimicked now,” Jackson says. “But ours was the first.”
That makes homeowner Tim Ferring one of the first of the first. He signed up soon after the program launched in 2011.
“The River Star flags started popping up all over the place, and you weren’t cool unless you had one,” Ferring says, jokingly.
Walking around his suburban property with River Star Homes program manager Sara Felker and grassroots coordinator Casey Shaw, Ferring passes his rain barrel and his sizeable compost pile and steps over the low-lying native plants that mark his rain garden. Since installing the rain garden, Ferring says his basement doesn’t leak and he doesn’t have to use a sump pump.
Jackson says another lesson that helped shape River Star Homes is that once someone agrees to something small, they are more likely to take the next step.
“And then we come back and then we ask them to consider things that are more costly and actually require them to do stuff on the ground,” Jackson says. “And we have a really good response.”
Ferring, for one, talks wistfully of installing a cistern so that he can water his lawn entirely with rainwater. As she leaves, Felker promises to email him information on solar power.
ERP also runs River Star Schools and River Star Businesses. Predating River Star Homes, River Star Businesses is a program that BAE Systems Norfolk Ship Repair joined in 1998. Just two years later, the shipyard achieved model level, River Star Business’s highest recognition of accomplishments in pollution prevention and wildlife habitat.
“They were pioneers in everything—capturing the runoff, doing the [treatment for] tributyltin, oyster reefs, habitat,” says Pam Boatwright, River Star Businesses program manager.
Mike Ewing, BAE Systems’ environmental programs manager, recalls when all they had to do was put straw bales down the dock to keep trash out of the river. When the copper-based paint used on ships would be blasted off, it would stain the water a blood red and flow out into the river.
“Probably one of the biggest things we were ever been able to accomplish was convincing them that they needed to spend several hundred thousand dollars to build these troughs around the end of the dry dock to collect runoff from the docks,” Ewing says. “And then we would treat it.”
Boatwright points out that the move was voluntary, not regulatory.
In addition to treating roughly 10 million gallons of wastewater every year, including about 9 million gallons from the dry docks, BAE Systems saves another million gallons of water by reusing steam condensate in their boilers. Other initiatives include the reuse of 50,000 gallons of recovered oil, the recycling of eight million pounds of materials, and the raising of 15,000 oyster spat every year. Ewing estimates their current move to LED lighting will save about 1.5 to 2 million kWh per year.
Ewing credits new ownership, a culture shift at the shipyard, and some pushing by himself and his colleague Steve Bulleigh for the striking changes.
The relationship with ERP, however, began with Ewing’s predecessor, who first reached out for help building a little wetland.
“He was trying to make small steps,” Boatwright says. “We made it really easy in the beginning to build trust and get people into the fold.”
The relationship between ERP and BAE Systems is now approaching two decades. Over the years, Boatwright says she has done a lot of cheerleading, as well as helping BAE Systems to identify and then support those projects.
“I think once we got the ball rolling it got better,” Ewing says. “And it got easier to do. And we've been lucky.”
Ewing says BAE Systems has won about 30 awards since 2000, including the Virginia Governor's Environmental Excellence Gold Award, without ever experiencing a lot of serious pushback from the company about rolling out new environmental programs.
“There's a lot of resistance to change,” Ewing says. “But most of these guys, they're campers and fisherman and they swim and they boat. And they like the water and they’re hunters. And so they really want to do the right thing.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson
Additional photos courtesy Ed Ketz/BAE Systems
Salt marshes may be more resilient to the effects of rising sea levels than previously thought, according to a recent study from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).
Climate change is expected to bring a multitude of changes to the Chesapeake Bay region, including a rise in sea levels. As waters rise, marshes and wetlands are predicted to be overcome by water and disappear faster than wetland plants can move to higher ground, meaning a loss of important habitat that traps pollution and provides food and shelter to fish, shellfish and birds.
But the VIMS study suggests that salt marshes—coastal wetlands that are flooded and drained by salt water brought in by tides—may be able to persist through processes that allow the marshes to grow vertically and migrate inland. According to the report, more frequent flooding brings more mud into the salt marsh, raising the soil and encouraging the growth of common marsh plants.
“Predictions of marsh loss appear alarming, but they stem from simple models that don’t simulate the dynamic feedbacks that allow marshes to adapt,” said lead author Matt Kirwan in a release. “Marsh soils actually build much faster as marshes become more flooded.”
The researchers emphasize, however, the importance of allowing salt marshes to migrate inland—and that marshes are unable to migrate into areas blocked by coastal cliffs or hardened shorelines. Nearly 20 percent of the Chesapeake Bay’s shoreline is hardened by riprap, seawalls and other structures.
The study, “Overestimation of marsh vulnerability to sea level rise,” is published in Nature Climate Change.
The Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay dead zone measured slightly smaller than average this past summer, supporting scientists’ June prediction of a smaller than average hypoxic zone in the nation’s largest estuary.
Dead zones are areas of little to no dissolved oxygen that form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose. This decomposition process removes oxygen from the surrounding waters faster than it can be replenished, and the resulting low-oxygen conditions can suffocate marine life.
Each summer, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) collect water samples to measure the hypoxic volume of the Bay. At 3,806 million cubic meters, the Maryland portion of this year’s dead zone was the 13th smallest in 31 years of sampling.
According to a report from the DNR, the size of the dead zone was likely due to reduced rainfall earlier this spring.
Striped bass spawning success has improved in the Chesapeake Bay, according to scientists from both Maryland and Virginia.
Tracking the number of young-of-the-year striped bass in the Bay, or those rockfish that are less than one year old, helps scientists evaluate the health of the striped bass stock. To determine this number, scientists take a series of seine net samples in select striped bass spawning areas—like the Choptank, Potomac and Nanticoke rivers in Maryland and the Rappahannock, York and James rivers in Virginia—each summer. The resulting “juvenile abundance index” serves as an early indicator of future fish populations, helping managers predict the amount of striped bass that will be available to fishermen in the coming years.
“Striped bass are a… resilient species when given favorable environmental conditions for reproduction and survival,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton in a media release. “The robust reproduction should give Maryland anglers hope for a successful striped bass season in a few years’ time.”
In each Maryland sample, researchers caught an average of 24 juvenile striped bass; the state’s abundance index value rose from 4.06 to 10.67 this year, which is the eighth highest on record. In each Virginia sample, researchers caught an average of 12 juvenile striped bass; the Commonwealth’s abundance index value rose from 11.37 to 12, which is about equal to average historic values. There, striped bass spawning success has been average or above average in 12 of the last 13 years, which indicates consistent production in Virginia nurseries.
Striped bass hold great value in the watershed: the fish is a top predator in the food web and a critical catch for commercial and recreational fishermen. Fishing bans set in the late 1980s helped striped bass recover from harvest and pollution pressures, and experts now consider it a recovered species.
The James River Association has measured an improvement in the overall health of the James River, giving the waterway a “B-” in its latest State of the James report.
Grades are based on four indicators of river health: fish and wildlife populations, habitat, pollution reduction and restoration and protection actions. The river’s score of 61 percent is a four percent increase since the report was last issued in 2013, and it marks the first time the historically-polluted waterway has scored in the “B” range. But according to the report, much work remains to be done, particularly related to sediment pollution in the waterway.
While sediment is a natural part of the environment, excess particles of sand, silt and clay can cloud the water, harming underwater grasses, fish and shellfish. According to the James River Association, sediment pollution in the James has shown little improvement over the past several years, and it continues to pose a significant threat to the long-term health of the river.
According to the report, however, Virginia has made significant strides in reducing nutrient pollution—in particular, pollution from wastewater—as the state works to meet limits set by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
It’s an overcast summer morning in Berkeley County, West Virginia, and Todd Butler has parked his pick-up truck atop one of the many hills that roll across his property. He points to the ridge of a nearby mountain peak, where the dense, forested tree line is broken by a small gap. “I’m sitting in my house, and I can see this mountain from there,” Butler recalls. “I never will forget the very first morning I sat there, and I saw a light on top of that mountain, and I thought, ‘What is that?’ And it turns out, they’d built a house up there.”
As the fourth-generation owner of Butler Farms, Butler has been witness to plenty of changes over the years: a decline in the number of neighboring farms, a rise in residential development, a technology boom for farming equipment. And while some features have remained the same—the original farmhouse, barn and cattle gates are still standing—much of the farm’s operation is dramatically different from when Butler’s great-grandfather bought the land in 1919. Almost a century later, the 200-acre family dairy farm has grown to more than 1,000 acres, home to beef cattle, an apple orchard and a bird and deer hunting preserve.
Over the years, Butler and his father, Bill, have transformed their property into one of the top conservation farms in the Mountain State. A variety of practices—from streamside fencing to cover crops—help to reduce runoff and promote water quality. Cattle drink out of troughs rather than straight from streams, and their feed wagons are continuously moved to different locations to prevent a single area from getting trampled or polluted with manure. The farm’s 72 apple orchard plots are farmed in strips; the land between each row of trees is left untouched to help slow the flow of water and prevent soil from washing away.
Sustainable pest management practices have made the land of Butler Farms a haven for insects, birds and other wildlife. Pollinator-friendly native flowers and grasses border the fields. Patches of sorghum, an annual grass that produces bright red berries, will feed birds and deer through the winter. When Butler was younger, he remembers entire fields being sprayed with herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals. Now, he says, “we don’t use near the chemicals that we used to. Everything used to be in quarts or gallons; now we’re down to ounces.”
In the 1960s, in response to growing environmental degradation, the U.S. Congress called for the establishment of a nationwide network of councils that would build strong federal, state and local partnerships to expand ways for rural communities to succeed. Known as the Resource Conservation and Development Councils (RC&Ds), many were at one time sponsored by local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, county governments and planning districts. Today, most operate locally as non-profit organizations while also being tied together through the National Association of RC&D Councils.
For more than 50 years, the Eastern Shore RC&D, which serves Accomack and Northampton Counties on Virginia’s eastern shore, has specialized in facilitating research, outreach and education to all levels of the community and fostering deep collaborative partnerships with local governments, planning districts, research facilities, educational institutions, health care facilities, non-profits and citizen groups in the area. It has worked quietly in the background on wide ranging local issues, pioneering the development of innovative public infrastructure such as waterless fire hydrants for dealing with the challenges of rural firefighting; spearheading widespread implementation of public boat landings in many seaside and bayside towns; and collaborating on the development of model conservation demonstration programs such as living shorelines, which not only mitigate erosion from increased weather activity and rising sea levels, but also improve water quality which in turn improves aquaculture. (The reestablishment of oyster and clam beds in the Chesapeake Bay and the in the coastal waters of the seaside contribute not only to a major economic gain but also to the resiliency of our shorelines.) Its extensive network of sponsors and partners are critical in identifying, planning, funding and implementing projects.
At the invitation of Josephine Mooney, the Eastern Shore Council’s part-time projects director, I had the opportunity to spend a few days with them on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, attending their quarterly Roundtable, participating in a very ambitious schedule of site visits focusing on local collaborative projects, and speaking at a public meeting and reception. This region is truly unique—blessed with an abundance of resources and natural beauty, steeped in history and culture, it maintains a distinct identity. While my role as the Bay Program Director during this outing was to discuss water quality with leaders and citizens in the area, I also attended because I am constantly interested in learning about all the various Bay regions and communities and always curious about what motivates individuals to take on even more responsibilities which may not be required directly by their jobs. While the reasons varied, one thing was clearly shared: an interest in making the places where they live, work and play better for all to enjoy.
The Roundtable project partners include: VA Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), DCR's Natural Heritage Program, Virginia Eastern Shore Land Trust, Eastern Shore District/VDH, Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper, Resource Management Associates, Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore, The Nature Conservancy, NRCS, Soil and Water Conservation District, Cooperative Extension, VA Tech AREC, VA Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), Accomack Northampton Planning District Commission (AN-PDC), Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Chincoteague Bay Field Station, AmeriCorps/Vista Volunteer Program. Thanks to the efforts of Edwin Long, the current Council Chair, the Roundtable now enjoys a broadened membership with representation from a wide variety of federal and state agencies and non-governmental organizations with whom the Council collaborates. The Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources, Molly Ward, joined the meeting, commending the ES RC&D for its work and collaboration with this very broad network of partners.
After the Roundtable discussion, we toured the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS) Salt Water Laboratory in Wachapreague. Its new director, Dr. Richard Snyder, showed us around while explaining some of their ongoing research and his plans for the facility’s future—all with obvious enthusiasm. VIMS then hosted a small reception where the partners and collaborators had an opportunity to informally discuss their work and plans and to meet others who are working on the shore. The following day we started out early on a marathon of site visits to see some of the great projects that resulted from this collaboration. First stop was the Native Plant Demonstration Garden at Kiptopeke State Park designed and installed by the Eastern Shore Master Gardeners. Then on to Pickett’s Harbor Natural Area Preserve, one of nine such preserves on the Eastern Shore which are owned and managed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Another interesting stop was Cherrystone Aqua Farms in Cheriton, which has been producing world-renowned clams and oysters for over 115 years. Our tour guide stressed how important clean water is to the success of their operations and the concerns they have about water quality which could have a devastating impact on the economy of the region. Next we visited with Bill Jardine, owner of Quail Cove Farm, which specializes in growing, selling and distributing natural and organic foods. For Bill, growing organic foods is much more than a way to make a living: it is his passion. He experiments with different types of crops and techniques, looking for the best way to grow nutritious foods while minimizing the use of agricultural chemicals. A tall man with an infectious smile, you could feel Bill’s energy rise as he surveyed his plantings and explained what was going on. He took great delight in sharing his knowledge and experiences with us and we enjoyed listening to what he had to say.
We visited a number of other sites to view the Onancock School Nature Trail and the permeable pavement in one of the town parking lots. The Mayor of Wachapreague, Fred Janci, gave us a tour of the town’s Seaside Park in which he rightfully takes great pride. The native plantings help attract pollinators and are welcoming to the town’s residents and visitors. While we were there, a monarch butterfly made an appearance as if to confirm what the Mayor had told us.
My RC&D visit ended with a public meeting at the Eastern Shore Community College. About 70 people turned out to listen to presentations on best management practices (BMPs) for business from Shorekeeper Jay Ford and on native plants from Dot Field and Virginia Witmer, representing DCR and DEQ respectively, as well as Virginia Coastal Zone Management (CZM). I talked about the Chesapeake Bay watershed restoration effort and the importance of individual actions by land owners and residents who collectively can have a big impact on controlling pollution and helping the ecosystem recover.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia is a very special place. You only have to spend a short time there to understand that. Certainly, it faces challenges from sea level rise due to climate change, controlling development so the region can benefit economically without suffering environmentally, addressing the growth of poultry houses without sacrificing quality of life or degrading water quality. The people I met, who are collaborating on projects, understand how special this rural region is and how important it is to protect it. They are motivated, and they are making a difference. It was a beautiful thing to behold.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
On June 16, 2014, the Chesapeake Executive Council signed the historic Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, charting the future course for the multi-state and federal partnership known as the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Governor Terry McAuliffe assumed the chairmanship of the Chesapeake Executive Council, the Bay Program’s top leadership body, on January 1st of this year, and on July 23, 2015, he chaired his first meeting. This meeting focused on specific actions that will further our collective efforts to restore the Bay, from increasing the amount of forested stream corridors, excluding livestock from streams, advancing critical land conservation needs and working to increase the funding available for restoration.
Experts, scientists, agency staff and non-profits collaboratively developed the management strategies for meeting the goals and outcomes in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. These strategies, presented to the Executive Council at the July 23rd meeting, go far beyond water quality improvement, addressing issues from land conservation and fisheries management to environmental literacy and climate change.
The ongoing efforts to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay are at a critical point. The deadline called for in the Chesapeake Bay TMDL for 60 percent of nutrient and sediment reductions by 2017 is fast approaching. The more difficult task of meeting our pollution reduction commitments by 2025 will take continued progress across the entire range of nutrient and sediment sources.
Each of the six states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, along with the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the federal government represented by EPA, are responsible for meeting our collective goals. As the “downstream” state in the watershed, we in Virginia depend on our neighbors to the north and west to achieve healthy waters and the benefits that come from a clean Bay. Our neighbors will also benefit from cleaner water and more abundant fisheries and wildlife in their rivers and streams. Whether you are in Cooperstown, New York, or in Hampton, Virginia, we are all in this together.
Clean water, healthy stream corridors and the related habitat and ecological benefits make our counties, cities and towns more livable and more attractive to prospective employers, and they support our traditional industries such as agriculture, forestry, tourism and fishing, which in turn support jobs and serve our goals of a vibrant and sustainable economy.
All Bay Program partners are now fully engaged in the implementation of the management strategies. As partners, we will continue the progress we have made in meeting our water quality goals and seek the continued cooperation of key urban and agriculture sectors. We will work to bring new resources, including private and federal, to meet the costs of implementation and progress. We will be open and public about our science-based decisions and the rationale for making them. We will reach out to all sectors, public and private, to ensure that regulatory obligations are fulfilled and voluntary efforts are supported and valued.
Although we may face significant challenges in such a large and developing watershed, the payoff in terms of environmental health and economic prosperity will be enormous, and it will benefit ours and future generations.
Written by Molly Joseph Ward, Secretary of Natural Resources, Commonwealth of Virginia. Ward is chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program's Principals' Staff Committee.
While the abundance of adult female blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay is below target, fisheries experts have reported the blue crab stock is not depleted and overfishing is not occurring.
According to the 2015 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, released by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), the start of the 2015 crabbing season saw 101 million adult female blue crabs in the Bay. This marks a 47 percent increase from last year’s abundance of adult females, which the Chesapeake Bay Program tracks as an indicator of Bay health. Because blue crab abundance is above the 70 million threshold, the blue crab stock is not considered depleted. And because just 17 percent of adult females were harvested in 2014—well below the 25.5 percent target—overfishing is not occurring.
In its report, CBSAC urged the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) to maintain a risk-averse management approach to protect juvenile crabs, whose numbers fluctuate from year to year. The committee, which is made up of scientists, academics and government representatives and housed under the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team (GIT), also recommended evaluating the establishment of a Bay-wide allocation-based management framework.
An allocation-based management framework would allocate an annual “total allowable catch” of male and female crabs to Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC. In the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Bay Program committed to evaluating the establishment of this framework. “[This report] directly supports our efforts to achieve the blue crab outcomes set forth in the [Watershed] Agreement, using the best science available to provide meaningful input to management decisions made by jurisdictions,” said Peyton Robertson, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chesapeake Bay Office Director and Sustainable Fisheries GIT Chair, in a media release.
Scientists expect the Chesapeake Bay to see a slightly smaller than average dead zone this summer, due to reduced rainfall and less nutrient-rich runoff flowing into the Bay from the Susquehanna River this spring.
Dead zones are areas of little to no dissolved oxygen that form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose. Resulting low-oxygen conditions can suffocate marine life. The latest forecast predicts an early-summer no-oxygen zone of 0.27 cubic miles, a mid-summer low-oxygen zone of 1.37 cubic miles and a late-summer no-oxygen zone of 0.28 cubic miles. This forecast, funded by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is based on models developed at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan.
Nutrient pollution and weather patterns influence dead zone size. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 58 million pounds of nitrogen entered the Bay in the spring of 2015, which is 29 percent lower than last spring’s nitrogen loadings.
Researchers with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will measure oxygen levels in the Bay over the next few months. While the final dead zone measurement will not take place until October, bimonthly updates on Bay oxygen levels are available through DNR’s Eyes on the Bay.
Last year, our partners opened 17 boat ramps, fishing piers and other sites that grant public access to rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia opened 14 sites, while Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York each opened one. There are now 1,225 public places that allow people across the watershed to walk, play, swim, fish and launch their paddleboats, sailboats and powerboats into the water.
Partnerships between local, state and federal agencies and non-profit organizations have been essential in developing these sites: a soft launch for paddlecraft opened on the Chickahominy River with support from the James River Association. Walking trails, wildlife viewing platforms and interpretive signs were built on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land along Mount Landing Creek with support from the Virginia State Park Youth Conservation Corps. And a boat dock, wildlife viewing platform and public pavilion, as well as fishing access, were established at the Zimmerman Center for Heritage on the Susquehanna River with support from Pennsylvania’s Fish and Boat Commission, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Department of Transportation, as well as the National Park Service and local donors.
As development continues across the watershed, demand for places that allow the public to reach the water remains high. State, federal and local governments are often the guardians of these places, providing opportunities for everyone to enjoy the region’s natural and cultural bounty. Because physical access to the Bay and its tributaries remains limited—with real consequences for quality of life, the economy and long-term conservation—our partners set a goal in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement to bring the total number of access sites in the watershed to 1,439 by 2025. And because public access to open space and waterways can create citizen stewards who care for local resources and engage in conservation, we track public access as an indicator of our progress toward fostering environmental stewardship.
“As an avid kayaker, I know the importance of having access to rivers, creeks and streams throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release. “As we come to know the resource through access to it, we will understand its value. Once we know its value, we will be more inclined to take actions to protect it. Public access is critical to restoring this vital ecosystem.”
The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population has seen a modest rise, increasing 38 percent since the population was counted last winter. While an increase in blue crabs is an indicator of Bay health, the adult female crab population remains below its target, indicating the variability of the blue crab population and the complexities of managing the fishery.
Maryland and Virginia measure the Bay’s blue crab population through an annual winter dredge survey. Over the course of three and a half months, scientists visit 1,500 sites around the Bay, using metal dredges to pull up crabs over-wintering in the mud.
Results of the 2015 winter dredge survey show the Bay’s total blue crab population has increased from 297 million to 411 million since last winter. Results also show the number of spawning-age females has risen from a depleted 69 million to 101 million. The number of juvenile crabs has jumped from 199 million to 269 million, which is just above the long-term average.
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the cold winter and resulting low water temperatures contributed to a “substantial mortality” among blue crabs, killing an estimated 19 percent of adults.
“We are pleased that crab numbers increased despite the harsh winter temperatures,” said DNR Secretary Mark Belton in a media release.
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks the adult female blue crab population as an indicator of Bay health. The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), which includes scientists and representatives from the federal government, state governments and academic institutions, will use this data to make recommendations on sustaining the blue crab population in its 2015 Blue Crab Advisory Report, expected to be released this summer.
A new voluntary education program aimed at increasing environmental literacy was introduced in Virginia on Wednesday.
The Virginia Environmental Literacy Challenge is intended to encourage educators to engage students with the natural world in new and creative ways, by highlighting those who excel in environmental literacy efforts. A series of lesson plans—from habitat construction to recycling projects—will accompany the challenge.
“We need to make sure that our students are graduating with the skills and knowledge they need to protect Virginia’s natural resources,” said Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe in a release. Governor McAuliffe signed the executive order creating the program.
In supporting the outdoor education and sustainability efforts of teachers, administrators and schools, the program will help achieve the environmental literacy goals of the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, signed last year by the Chesapeake Executive Council, the top-level leadership entity for the Chesapeake Bay Program that Governor McAuliffe now chairs.
“Environmental literacy is an important part of the Chesapeake Bay [Watershed] Agreement,” said Molly Ward, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources and Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Principals’ Staff Committee. “A systemic approach to environmental literacy will ensure that future generations are prepared to protect and conserve our natural resources.”
Biodiversity—the variety of life on Earth—is key in supporting the complex processes that keep ecosystems healthy, stable and productive, according to a new study from an international team of researchers.
Conserving biodiversity has clear benefits for the plants and animals themselves, as well as the people that rely on these ecosystems and the services they provide. And many studies have found that biodiversity can boost a single function of an ecosystem, such as plant growth or nutrient filtering. But according to Jonathan Lefcheck, lead author of the study and post-doctoral research associate at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), this research is the first to look at how biodiversity supports the suite of complex, interconnected processes essential for a healthy and functioning ecosystem.
Researchers analyzed 94 experiments conducted around the world to examine the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem health. Their findings show that greater species diversity can benefit multiple functions of an ecosystem. “In other words,” said Lefcheck in a release, “as you consider more aspects of an ecosystem, biodiversity becomes more important: one species cannot do it all.”
A key example of these relationships can be found close to home, in the underwater grass beds of Chesapeake Bay. “Seagrasses are home to a variety of small animals that perform different jobs,” said Lefcheck. “Some control algae that would smother seagrasses. Others keep out invasive species. Still others provide food for striped bass and blue crabs that are served on our dinner tables. By conserving this variety of animals, we can maximize the health of the grass bed, and the benefits to people.”
The study is available through the online journal Nature Communications.
Representatives from states across the Bay region recently signed a cooperative accord that will help reduce the amount of nitrogen flowing from onsite wastewater systems into local waterways.
At the Chesapeake Bay Program office last week, representatives from Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia signed a Memorandum of Cooperation to share data related to the performance of advanced pretreatment technologies for “onsite wastewater treatment systems,” often called septic systems. Pretreatment of wastewater allows for the removal of potentially harmful pollutants such as nitrogen—but these technologies are often costly, and their approval takes time. Under the arrangement, information-sharing across states will help expedite the approval and deployment of these technologies, as well as offer cost savings to manufacturers and consumers.
Onsite septic systems account for less than five percent of the nutrients flowing to the Bay; advanced pretreatment technologies are expected to reduce nitrogen from these systems by at least 50 percent, as compared to conventional systems. Improvements in wastewater treatment will help achieve the clean water goals of the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which encompasses the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
For many of the people living upstream of the Chesapeake Bay, daily life doesn’t involve crab pots or oyster dredges. A group of such Bay novices — including one member who had never been on a boat — assembled in Crisfield, Md., this fall to take a ferry to Smith Island, one of the last two inhabited islands in the Chesapeake Bay. Actually a small cluster of low-lying stretches of land, Smith Island and its Virginia neighbor Tangier Island carry a rich cultural history dating back to the 1600s. Over the years, they have been subjected to the extreme weather conditions in the open Chesapeake Bay and forces of sea level rise and land subsidence that have already claimed surrounding islands. The trip, organized by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Forestry Workgroup, gave the foresters the chance to experience the unique life of a Chesapeake waterman.
“These participants are engaged in work throughout the watershed that directly benefits the quality of the Bay, but often they have very little experience on the Bay itself,” said Craig Highfield of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Forests for the Bay initiative, who has facilitated the excursion for the past two years. “This trip is a way to connect their work with a community that relies so intimately with a healthy Bay.”
Over the course of two and a half days, the group of foresters followed educators from Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Smith Island environmental education center, taking in the unique culture, exploring the changing environment and finding new connections that bring the Bay closer to home.
“I think this group was able to draw similarities between the rural communities they work with — who rely on the natural resources on the land — with this rural community that relies on the natural resources of the Bay,” said Highfield.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has been selected to chair the Chesapeake Executive Council, beginning January 1, 2015.
The Chesapeake Executive Council, established in 1983, is responsible for guiding the Chesapeake Bay Program’s policy agenda and setting conservation and restoration goals. Members include the governors of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, the Mayor of the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission Chair and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator.
“I am humbled that my colleagues on the Chesapeake Executive Council have selected me to lead our collective efforts at this critical time in the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay,” said Governor McAuliffe. “Not only are we engaged in the implementation of the recently signed Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, but we are continuing the difficult work of meeting our water quality goals under the framework of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load. The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure and an enormous economic asset for Virginia and our neighboring states. I look forward to working with my counterparts in this region to restore and protect the Bay for generations to come.”
Governor McAuliffe succeeds Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who became chair in December 2013. Under the leadership of Governor O’Malley, the Executive Council adopted the landmark Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. He also served two consecutive terms as the Executive Council Chair in 2007 and 2008 and was instrumental in developing two-year milestones that focus on short-term, achievable goals.
"The Bay has been at the top of my agenda during my two terms as Governor and I have been honored to have served as chair three times during my tenure,” said Governor O’Malley. “I know Governor McAuliffe will provide the leadership necessary to meet our collective goals, and I wish him along with the other members of the Council well.”
Rapid population growth and development remain the top threats to the health of the Potomac River Watershed, according to the Potomac Conservancy’s eighth annual State of the Nation’s River report. But the advocacy group hopes implementing smart growth strategies will help the waterway withstand pressure from a growing community.
Despite being listed as the nation’s most endangered river by American Rivers in 2012, the Potomac River’s overall health has improved in recent years. In 2013, the Potomac Conservancy raised the waterway’s grade to a “C” after giving it a “D” grade in 2011. Now, with an estimated 2.3 million new residents expected to move into the communities along its shores by 2040, the Conservancy fears a rapidly changing landscape could undo years of progress toward restoring the Potomac.
“Population growth is likely to bring positive changes to our region including more jobs, higher home values, and a more robust local tax base,” the report states. “But, left unplanned, that growth could also spell disaster for the health of our lands, waterways, and drinking water sources.”
With the region facing forest loss, polluted rivers and streams and an aging water infrastructure, the report offers a range of “smart planning opportunities” as strategies to meet the needs of a growing population without further harming local waters. The Conservancy hopes approaches including forest buffers, mixed-use communities and rain gardens, along with a focus on redevelopment in existing areas rather than new development on untouched lands, will allow for the continued improvement of the Potomac River’s health.
Eight of the top 10 U.S. cities that have seen an increase in “nuisance flooding” alongside rising seas are on the East Coast, according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Four of the top 10 cities are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Annapolis and Baltimore lead the list with a 925 and 920 percent increase in their average number of nuisance floods since 1960. Washington, D.C., has seen a 373 percent increase, while Norfolk has seen a 325 percent increase.
According to the report, nuisance flooding—or minor flooding that closes roads, overwhelms storm drains and compromises infrastructure never designed to withstand inundation or saltwater exposure—will worsen as sea level rise accelerates. Indeed, nuisance flooding has become “more noticeable and widespread” because of rising seas, sinking land and the loss of natural flood barriers.
“As relative sea level increases, it no longer takes a strong storm or a hurricane to cause flooding,” said William Sweet, oceanographer and lead author of the report, in a media release. “Flooding now occurs with high tides.”
Image courtesy rwillia533/Flickr
The study was conducted by scientists at the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, who compared data from 45 tide gauges with reports of nuisance floods; whether or not a nuisance flood has taken place is determined at the local level by a National Weather Service threshold. It is hoped the findings will “heighten awareness of a growing problem” and “encourage resiliency efforts in response to” sea level rise.
An understanding of where floods are occurring is integral to building climate resiliency. Once coastal communities know where environmental threats and vulnerabilities lie, they can take steps to move growth and development away from the coast, enhance preparedness efforts to protect human health and protect and restore wetlands, buffers and barrier islands that might shield the shoreline from strong wind and waves.
The Chesapeake Bay Program has set a goal to increase the climate resiliency of the watershed’s living resources and public infrastructure, using monitoring, assessment and adaptation to ensure the region withstands the impacts of a changing climate.
Fisheries experts have recommended a “risk-averse” approach to managing blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, following poor harvests and a dramatic decline in the abundance of adult female crabs.
Image courtesy bionicteaching/Flickr
In its annual evaluation of the Bay’s blue crab fishery, the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) urged the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) to protect female and juvenile crabs in an effort to rebuild the overall population. The committee, which is made up of scientists, academics and government representatives and housed under the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, also recommended establishing sanctuaries to protect females and improving data related to crab harvests and winter death rates.
According to the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, the start of the 2014 crabbing season saw 68.5 million adult female crabs in the Bay. This marks a 53 percent decline from last year’s abundance of adult females. This number is based on the results of the winter dredge survey, and is tracked by the Bay Program as an indicator of Bay health. It is below the 215 million target abundance and the 70 million threshold, indicating adult females are in a depleted state.
“The poor performance of the Bay’s 2013 blue crab fishery—the lowest reported harvest in the last 24 years—combined with the winter dredge survey results that indicate a depleted female population warrants management actions to conserve both females and juveniles,” said CBSAC Chair Joe Grist in a media release. “The cold winter and other environmental factors affected the crab population, and we expect that conservative regulations will help females and juveniles—the future of the blue crab population—rebound.”
Earlier this month, The Capital reported that Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC have promised to cut harvests of female crabs by 10 percent. Virginia announced its plans in June, while Maryland and the PRFC are expected to release their regulations soon.
Scientists expect the Chesapeake Bay to see an above-average dead zone this summer, due to the excess nitrogen that flowed into the Bay from the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers this spring.
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose. The latest dead zone forecast predicts an early-summer oxygen-free zone of 0.51 cubic miles, a mid-summer low-oxygen zone of 1.97 cubic miles and a late-summer oxygen-free zone of 0.32 cubic miles. This forecast was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and is based on models developed at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the University of Michigan.
Dead zone size depends on nutrient pollution and weather patterns. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 44,000 metric tons of nitrogen entered the Bay in the spring of 2014. This is 20 percent higher than last spring’s nitrogen loadings, and will influence algae growth and dead zone formation this summer.
Researchers with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will measure oxygen levels in the Bay over the next few months. While a final dead zone measurement is not expected until October, DNR biologists measured a larger-than-average low-oxygen zone on their June monitoring cruise, confirming the dead zone forecast.
Underwater grass abundance in the Chesapeake Bay increased 24 percent between 2012 and 2013, reversing the downward trend of the last three years.
Because underwater grasses are sensitive to pollution but quick to respond to water quality improvements, their abundance is a good indicator of Bay health. Aerial surveys flown from last spring to last fall showed an almost 12,000-acre increase in grass abundance across the Bay, which scientists attribute to the rapid expansion of widgeon grass in the saltier waters of the mid-Bay and the modest recovery of eelgrass in shallow waters where the species experienced a “dieback” after the hot summers of 2005 and 2010. Scientists also observed an increase in the acreage of the Susquehanna Flats.
“The mid-Bay has seen a big rise in widgeon grass,” said Robert J. Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) professor and coordinator of the school’s Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Survey, in a media release. “In fact, the expansion of this species in the saltier waters between the Honga River and Pocomoke Sound was one of the driving factors behind the rise in bay grass abundance. While widgeongrass is a boom and bust species, notorious for being incredibly abundant one year and entirely absent the next, its growth is nevertheless great to see.”
Underwater grasses, also known as submerged aquatic vegetation, are critical to the Bay, offering food to invertebrates and waterfowl and providing shelter to fish and crabs. Like grasses on land, underwater grasses need sunlight to survive. When algae blooms or suspended sediment cloud the waters of the Bay, sunlight cannot reach the bottom habitat where grasses live. While healthy grass beds can trap and absorb some nutrient and sediment pollution—thus improving water clarity where they grow—too much pollution can cause grass beds to die. Indeed, poor water clarity remains a challenge for eelgrass growth in deeper waters.
Until this year, the Bay Program mapped underwater grasses by geographic zone. Now, abundance is mapped in four different salinity zones, each of which is home to an underwater grass community that responds differently to strong storms, drought and other adverse growing conditions. This reporting change “makes more ecological sense,” said Lee Karrh, program chief at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and chair of the Bay Program’s Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup.
“Reworking our historic data was hard work, but doing so makes it easier to understand patterns in grass growth,” Karrh said.
A new report from the University of Richmond School of Law calls on Virginia to better protect its residents from chemical contaminants, millions of pounds of which are released into the environment each year by industries across the state.
Image courtesy gac/Flickr
The report, authored in part by Noah M. Sachs, director of the law school’s Center for Environmental Studies, examines the sources of chemical contaminants in Virginia and concludes that the Commonwealth should expand its existing toxic chemicals program, empower the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to clean up more contaminated sites and enact legislation and permit conditions more stringent than federal standards.
According to the report, Virginia’s industries released almost 40 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, water and land in 2011. While this represents a drop in releases compared to 2010, the discharge of chemicals into rivers and streams remains significant and, in some cases, could impact in the Chesapeake Bay.
The report notes that more than 250 facilities are allowed to send toxic chemicals into Virginia waters, and the state’s tributaries rank the second worst in the nation as measured by the amount of contaminants discharged into them. While some of the worst-ranking tributaries—like the New and Roanoke Rivers or Sandy Bottom Branch—do not drain into the Bay, the James River ranks forty-fifth in the nation for total toxic discharges and ninth in the nation for the discharge of toxics that affect human development.
Contaminants on the state’s land have also had an effect on water: a number of the 31 sites listed as contaminated under the federal Superfund program involve contaminated drinking water, surface water and groundwater.
Virginia is not the sole watershed state that faces contaminated rivers and streams. According to 2012 assessments, 74 percent of the Bay’s tidal tributaries were partially or fully impaired by chemical contaminants.
In a January 2014 editorial published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sachs recommended putting toxic chemical regulation “at the forefront of Virginia’s environmental agenda.” He wrote, “Our report recommends a comprehensive program to protect Virginians, beginning with strict permitting, increased inspections, new state authority to remediate contaminated sites and more funding and personnel.”
The intensive withdrawal of groundwater is causing land to sink in the lower Chesapeake Bay region, worsening the effects of sea-level rise and increasing the severity of floods along the Delmarva Peninsula and Virginia Coastal Plain.
Image courtesy PhotoSeoul/Flickr
Land subsidence, or the sinking of the land’s surface, is in part a natural phenomenon, occurring as bedrock responds to the melting of an ice sheet that once covered Canada and the northern United States. But according to a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), most of the land subsidence in this area is taking place in response to groundwater withdrawal, which could help explain why the region has the highest rates of relative sea-level rise on the Atlantic Coast.
When groundwater is pumped out of the earth, water levels in the area’s underground aquifers decrease. As these water levels decrease, the aquifer system compacts, causing the land above it to sink. In the southern Bay region, land subsidence has been measured at rates of 1.1 to 4.8 millimeters per year—close to the width of five stacked pennies.
Land subsidence can increase flooding, alter wetland and coastal ecosystems, and damage human infrastructure and historical sites. Some areas in Virginia—like the city of Franklin and the counties of Isle of Wight and Southhampton—have already experienced floods as the land around them sinks, and the low-lying Hampton Roads could experience similar episodes soon.
But according to the USGS, a change in water use—from moving groundwater pumping out of high-risk areas to slowing rates of groundwater withdrawal—could slow or mitigate land subsidence and relative sea-level rise.
The James River Association has measured a slight improvement in James River health, giving the waterway a “C” in its latest State of the James report.
Image courtesy tvnewsbadge/Flickr
The river’s score of 53 on a one-to-100 scale marks a two percent increase since the report was last issued in 2011, but continued problems with sediment pollution overshadow progress made elsewhere.
While sediment is a natural part of the environment, excess particles of sand, silt and clay can cloud the water, harming underwater grasses, fish and shellfish. According to the State of the James report, sediment pollution in the James has shown no improvement over the past two decades, indicating that stronger measures should be taken to restore streamside forests and other buffers that can filter runoff before it enters rivers and streams.
Virginia has made strides, however, in reducing nutrient pollution, as it works to meet limits set by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load or “pollution diet.” The Commonwealth has invested in wastewater treatment, increased funding toward agricultural conservation and focused attention on controlling stormwater runoff.
Striped bass spawning success has improved in the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy randychiu/Flickr
According to data from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), the number of juvenile striped bass in the watershed has rebounded from last year, when it was close to the lowest ever observed.
Known as the “juvenile striped bass index,” the number of young-of-the-year striped bass in the Bay is used to track the species’ reproductive success. To count the number of striped bass that hatched this spring, biologists take a series of seine net samples in noted spawning areas, from the Upper Bay to the James River.
Image courtesy VIMS
This year, the average number of juvenile striped bass caught in each Maryland sample was 5.8, which falls below the 11.7 average but above last year’s index of less than one. In Virginia waters, researchers caught more than 10 striped bass per seine sample, which is close to the historic average of 9. A VIMS media release called the results consistent with historically observed patterns in striped bass populations.
Striped bass, or rockfish, hold great value in the watershed: the fish is a top predator in the food web and a critical catch to commercial and recreational fisheries. Late-1980's fishing bans helped striped bass recover from harvest and pollution pressures, and it is now considered a recovered species.
The Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone measured near average in size this past summer, coming close to scientists’ June prediction of a smaller than average hypoxic zone in the nation’s largest estuary.
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die. The bacteria that aid in algae bloom decomposition suck up oxygen from the surrounding waters. The resulting hypoxic or anoxic conditions can suffocate marine life, shrinking the habitat available for fish, crabs and other critters.
Each summer, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) collect water samples to measure the hypoxic volume of the Bay. Since 1983, this number has ranged from 15.3 to 33.1 percent. In 2013, it measured 22.1 percent: 5.6 percent higher than the previous year and just above the 21.9 percent average.
Denser grass beds in the Chesapeake Bay could boost the region’s blue crab population, according to a new report from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).
While researchers have long known that blue crabs use grass beds as sheltered nurseries and feeding grounds, this study is the first to show that denser, higher-quality grass beds hold more crabs than open beds where patches of mud or sand separate plants.
These findings are based on fieldwork conducted between 2007 and 2008, during which scientists used a powerful vacuum to collect blue crabs from 104 sites along the shores of the lower Bay.
Graduate student Gina Ralph led the study and said in a media release that her work suggests “the quality of seagrass habitat can influence the population dynamics of blue crabs on a baywide basis.” But underwater grass abundance has declined in recent years, due to warming waters and sunlight-blocking sediment pollution. Blue crabs, too, have suffered population declines, as pollution, predators and human harvest put pressure on the iconic species.
Learn more about the link between grass beds and blue crabs.
When the start of a new school year drives students into the library, it’s not always a given that they are looking at books. In fact, one marine research center in Virginia is home to a library filled with fish.
The Nunnally Ichthyology Collection at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) contains more than 100,000 freshwater, estuarine and marine fish specimens for use in research and education. The collection is curated by Eric J. Hilton, an associate professor of marine science who has spent a great deal of his life around collections of fish and reptiles. But this one, he says, is unique: after taking on “orphaned” specimens from two other laboratories, VIMS has become the only institution to actively maintain a collection of Chesapeake Bay and mid-Atlantic fish.
The preservation process starts with the euthanization of the fish. Then, the specimen is soaked in a formalin bath to prevent tissue decay and breakdown.
Once the specimen is completely soaked (larger fish take quite a bit more time to preserve than smaller fish), the formalin is flushed from the body and the specimen is placed in a jar that contains a 70 percent ethanol solution.
Oftentimes, multiple specimens of a single species are collected and catalogued. Because there is always variation in nature, researchers prefer to compare and contrast multiple fish of the same species to gain a well-rounded perspective of what the fish and the area they live in are like. “Looking at [only] one individual from a [single] locality will not give you a good view of that locality,” Hilton said.
Each jar is given its own catalogue number that will follow the specimen far into the future. “With that [catalogue] number comes species identification, and all of the attributes of when and where that fish was caught and how it was caught,” Hilton said. “[The number] is entered into a catalogue that is accessible to people throughout the world.”
VIMS also collects a limited amount of skeletal remains in order to conduct skeletal analyses of certain species. “We hope that someday, people can come to the Chesapeake Bay and ask, ‘What was here in 2013?’ and get to see those species and specimens,” Hilton said. If the collection is properly cared for, its fish could be kept for well over 200 years. In fact, some natural resource libraries in Europe are more than 400 years old.
Because its specimens have been collected over decades, the library contains evidence of changes in the Bay. The southern flounder, for instance, is typically found off the coast of North Carolina and other southern waters. Historically, adult southern flounders have made their way to the southernmost portions of the Bay only during hot summer months when the water is warm. But in recent years, researchers have found young southern flounder in the Bay and have added them to the VIMS collection. This new addition indicates a northward shift of southern flounder spawning grounds, likely due to warming waters and climate change.
The fish collection also stores vital information about the introduction and spread of invasive species like the northern snakehead or blue catfish across the state of Virginia and the Bay watershed. Hilton explains: “We have snakeheads from different drainages, so we can track their invasion. We have some of the first juvenile blue cats, and can get a sense of where and when the invasions start.”
VIMS plans to continue their fish collection efforts for the foreseeable future. After all, as science and technology advance, researchers can conduct new tests on older specimens and learn things about the species or its environment that they might not have known before. “If you stop collecting, you limit what you are able to do,” Hilton said.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter.
Captions by Jenna Valente.
A virus that can cause disease and death in largemouth bass has been found in otherwise healthy northern snakeheads taken from two Virginia waterways. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the finding raises the possibility that northern snakeheads could be carriers of the pathogen, capable of transmitting it to other fish in the Chesapeake Bay.
The pathogen, known as the largemouth bass virus, has been found in bass, sunfish and other members of the freshwater sunfish family, but largemouth bass are the only fish known to develop disease from it.
The largemouth bass virus appears to attack the swim bladder, causing fish to lose their balance and float near the surface of the water. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the virus has been found in waters across the state, but its impacts are often short-lived and largemouth bass can build up resistance to the disease.
While the pathogen doesn’t seem to affect the health of northern snakeheads, the habitat of this invasive fish often overlaps with that of largemouth bass, which may favor transmission of the virus.
Dead zones are impacting the distribution and abundance of fish that live and feed near the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, according to new research from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fed algae blooms die and decompose, and are most pronounced in the deep waters of the Bay’s mainstem during warm summer months. During a decade-long study of the bottom-feeding fish that inhabit this portion of the Bay’s water column, scientists noticed drastic declines in species richness, diversity and catch rate as dead zones restricted habitat and displaced the fish toward more hospitable waters.
So-called “demersal” fish—which include Atlantic croaker, white perch, spot, striped bass and summer flounder—avoid dead zones because a lack of oxygen can place stress on their respiratory and metabolic systems. While the fish often return to their former habitat when oxygen levels improve, dead zones can also wreak havoc on their forage grounds, stressing or killing the bottom-dwelling invertebrates the fish need for food.
“Once oxygen levels go up, we do see the average catch rate go up,” said Andre Buchheister, Ph.D. student and author of the VIMS study. “That’s a good sign. It indicates that once those waters are re-oxygenated, it’s possible for fish to move back in. But the availability of food is compromised, and studies have shown that the productivity of benthic biomass—or the critters that live in and on the bottom of the Bay—is stressed.”
The impact that demersal fish displacement could have on Bay fisheries is unclear, Buchheister said. Commercial fishermen who work outside of the mainstem might not be affected. But recreational anglers searching for striped bass could struggle if their forced move out of cool, deep waters is shown to contribute to poor health among the population.
In June, a forecast from researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the University of Michigan predicted a smaller than average dead zone for the coming summer, thanks to lower than average nutrient loads that entered the Bay last spring. But to return the Bay’s mainstem to its former health, “one or two good summers won’t make that much of a difference,” said Buchheister. Instead, benthic habitat must be rebuilt, as long-term improvements boost Bay health from the bottom up.
Images courtesy Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS)
A report on the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population reveals a stock that is not overfished and within which overfishing is not occurring.
According to an annual evaluation from the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), the start of the 2013 crabbing season saw 147 million adult female crabs in the Bay, which marks a 54 percent increase from last year’s abundance of adult females. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this female-specific reference point as an indicator of Bay health. While this number is below CBSAC’s target, it is above the committee’s overfished threshold.
Image courtesy smaneal/Flickr
The 2013 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, presented by CBSAC at the June meeting of the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, is based on the results of the winter dredge survey. This annual estimate of the blue crab population is considered the most comprehensive blue crab survey conducted in the Bay.
To maintain a sustainable blue crab fishery, CBSAC recommends taking a risk-averse management approach and making a 10 percent cut to the 2013 female blue crab harvest. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) have agreed to pursue the latter recommendation.
CBSAC also recommends better accounting of commercial and recreational harvests and continued efforts to monitor the inactive commercial crabbing licenses in the fishery, which could lead to significant increases in harvest if they were to come into sudden use.
Learn more about the 2013 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report.
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die. As bacteria help these blooms decompose, they suck up oxygen from the surrounding waters. The resulting hypoxic or anoxic conditions can suffocate marine life.
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks dissolved oxygen as an indicator of water quality and Bay health.
The latest NOAA-funded forecast from researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the University of Michigan predicts an average summer hypoxic zone of 1.108 cubic miles, lower than last year’s mid-summer hypoxic zone of 1.45 cubic miles.
This predicted improvement should result from the lower than average nutrient loads that entered the Bay this spring. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 36,600 metric tons of nutrients entered the estuary from the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers, which is 30 percent lower than average.
The Bay’s dead zones are measured at regular intervals each year by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. While the final dead zone measurement will not take place until October, DNR biologists measured better than average dissolved oxygen on its June monitoring cruise, confirming the dead zone forecast.
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.
When cold weather arrives, blue crabs up and down the Chesapeake Bay stop their scurrying. The summertime rush of food-hunting and mate-finding is over, and the crustaceans will spend the winter months buried in sand and sediment. It is at this moment that researchers in Maryland and Virginia must strike: to count the crabs while they are still.
Known as the winter dredge survey, this annual count of the Bay’s blue crab population is a critical part of blue crab management. Without an accurate estimate of blue crab abundance, fisheries managers cannot set harvest limits for the season ahead.
“The winter dredge survey is the most vital tool that we have in crab management,” said Chris Walstrum, a natural resources biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “This is the best chance we have to assess the [blue crab] population, because the crabs are stationary.”
Walstrum and his team are responsible for counting crabs in Maryland waters; the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) conducts the winter dredge survey in the Virginia portion of the Bay. Between the two agencies, a total of 1,500 Bay sites are visited over the course of three and a half months before the numbers are crunched and fisheries managers can make recommendations on how blue crab harvests should or shouldn’t change.
On a warmer-than-normal January morning, Walstrum is aboard a boat in Broad Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The DNR vessel has been captained for more than a decade by Roger Morris, a fifth-generation waterman who used to dredge for crabs commercially and whose skills are invaluable to the success of the survey.
“Whether people like it or not, the winter dredge survey is the whole basis for our [blue crab harvest] limits,” Morris said. “That’s why I try to do the best I can do at it. It takes experience. You just can’t walk on a crab dredge boat and expect to catch crabs.”
At each survey site—six of them in this particular waterway—Morris will line up his boat and drop its so-called Virginia crab dredge into the water. The metal dredge is towed along the bottom for one minute before it is hoisted back on board, where the newly caught contents of its mesh liner are dumped out and sorted through. In each catch, there are brown leaves, oyster shells, little fish and, more often than not, a collection of blue crabs.
Each crab is weighed, measured and sexed before it is tossed back into the water. This provides an accurate picture of the blue crab population, as researchers track the number of young crabs that will form the backbone of the fishery next fall and the number of females that will produce the next generation of blue crab stock.
“The winter dredge survey provides us with a cornerstone piece of data from which to operate our [blue crab] management,” said Brenda Davis, chief of the DNR Blue Crab Program.
“It’s a long-running survey, and it’s been consistently accurate,” Davis said. “It gives us a good, static picture of the number of crabs in the Bay.”
Video produced by Steve Droter.
The blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay has dropped, but a substantial boost in the number of spawning-age females has offered officials a piece of good news in spite of this disappointing decline.
According to the results of the annual winter dredge survey, which measures the blue crab population in Maryland and Virginia, the number of spawning-age females in the Bay has risen 52 percent. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this number as an indicator of Bay health, and an increase is a sign that management methods to conserve adult female crabs are working. But an overall decline in the Bay’s blue crabs—from 765 million in 2012 to 300 million in 2013—could lead to the tightening of commercial harvest restrictions.
Image courtesy Benjamin Wilson/Flickr
Scientists have attributed the decline in blue crabs not to overfishing, but to high mortality rates among juveniles. While last year’s winter dredge survey measured an unprecedented number of juvenile crabs in the Bay, last summer and fall saw an alarming loss of blue crab habitat and a large influx of red drum, which often feed on young crabs. Young blue crabs are also known to feed on each other when population densities are high.
“It is important to keep these results in perspective,” said Jack Travelstead, commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), in a news release. “Five years ago this fishery was declared a federal disaster. That is no longer the case: overfishing is no longer occurring, a good fisheries management framework is in place, the stock is healthy and spawning-age females are doing well. If not for the disappointingly small reproductive year class we would have much to celebrate.”
In an effort to make up for this shift in blue crab abundance, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) are pursuing strategies to establish a 10 percent cut in the commercial harvest of female blue crabs. Both Maryland and the PRFC will consider adjusting or enacting daily bushel limits, which have been put in place in Virginia. Maryland and Virginia will also consider shortening their crab seasons, and it seems likely that Virginia’s winter dredge fishery will remain closed.
The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) will draft their 2013 Blue Crab Advisory Report over the next few weeks.
Read more about the 2013 winter dredge survey results.
Close to 15,000 acres of underwater grasses have disappeared from the Chesapeake Bay.
While robust grass beds on the Susquehanna Flats and expanding beds in the James River offer two examples of the Bay’s resilience, an aerial survey conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) showed a 21 percent decline in the Bay’s grasses in 2012. This so-called “alarming” loss—from just over 63,000 acres in 2011 to just over 48,000 in 2012—approaches lows last reported in 1986.
In a report released this week, Chesapeake Bay Program scientists attributed last year's decline in grass beds to warmer-than-normal water temperatures seen in 2010 and strong storms seen in the fall of 2011. The former "cooked" grasses in the Lower Bay, while the latter pushed excess sediment into rivers and streams, clouding the water and creating unfavorable growing conditions for aquatic plants in the Upper and Middle Bay.
These strong storms and episodes of heat stress have occurred alongside a widespread decline in water clarity, said Bob Orth, coordinator of the VIMS Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Survey. While Orth remains "concerned" over the decline in bay grasses, he noted that favorable growing conditions in the future could lead to quick signs of recovery in a species that is fast to respond to water quality changes—both good and bad.
"The best thing we can do [for bay grasses] is to improve water quality," said Lee Karrh, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and chair of the Bay Program's Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup. "If you improve water quality and reduce chronic problems, then the Bay should be able to deal with episodic events easier than it has been able to in the past."
Underwater grasses—also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV—are critical to the Bay ecosystem, offering food and habitat to countless critters while absorbing nutrients, trapping sediment and reducing shoreline erosion. The Bay Program uses underwater grass abundance as an indicator of Bay health, and has this week released a data visualization tool that allows users to track changes in grass abundance over time, as dominant species ebb and flow and grass beds shrink and expand.
Read more about the 2012 Distribution of Submerged Aquatic Vegetation in the Chesapeake Bay.
Owning and maintaining waterfront property can be an expensive commitment. Residents across the Chesapeake Bay watershed must contend with shoreline erosion and rising sea level, while adapting to environmental regulations that protect water quality. One strategy for tackling all of these issues has gained increasing popularity: living shorelines that not only protect human property, but also utilize and even enhance the Bay’s unique natural habitat.
Scott Hardaway and Karen Duhring are marine scientists and living shoreline experts at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), which sits at the mouth of the York River in Gloucester Point, Va.
Scott Hardaway began working for VIMS in 1979, and is now the director of the Shoreline Studies Program. He is a leading authority on the design and implementation of “headland breakwaters,” a living shoreline technique that creates protected “pocket beaches” like those constructed at VIMS in 2010.
Headland breakwater systems are built using large stone structures called “headlands,” which sit offshore and disrupt the incoming waves that can cause shoreline erosion. Mathematical formulas determine the necessary angle, shape and placement of each headland. Wider gaps between breakwaters create long, narrow pocket beaches, while narrow gaps create wide, circular beaches.
Their wave-blocking action creates a calm, shallow lagoon between the breakwaters, which are connected to shore by a sandbar called a “tombolo.”
Additional sand must be brought in to form the tombolo and stabilize the beach. This raises the cost of these projects, but is critical to the final phase of construction: planting native beach and dune vegetation.
Karen Duhring is an educator and researcher at the VIMS Center for Coastal Resources Management (CCRM), where she helps manage and monitor living shoreline projects.
According to Duhring, on-shore plantings serve key ecological functions that enhance the effectiveness of living shorelines. On sandy beaches, plant roots stabilize loose material and improve water quality, as they filter pollutants from upland runoff.
Living shorelines use native plants—smooth and saltmeadow cordgrass here in the Bay—that have adapted to thrive and reproduce in a specific environment. Once established, cordgrass recruits naturally along the beach, dispersing seeds and rhizomes that spread horizontally beneath the sand to establish new plants in empty areas.
Beach plantings are susceptible to damage from foot traffic, so precautions should be taken to prevent the trampling of plants. Access restrictions allowed for more expensive plantings on the VIMS western shore, while heavy use from research activities limited plantings on the other.
During high tides, organic material washes onto the beach and provides nutrients for the growing plants, which in turn provide habitat and food for native wildlife.
Headland breakwaters themselves also provide habitat for crabs, mollusks and other aquatic species that thrive on underwater reefs. Along the VIMS shoreline, oysters have settled on the granite rocks to form the beginnings of a complex reef community.
According to Hardaway, headland breakwaters are not always the perfect solution for every sandy shoreline. Whenever possible, existing habitat for submerged aquatic vegetation and shellfish should remain undisturbed. While the costly structures do come with some tradeoffs, they also offer invaluable protection for human infrastructure. The once-vulnerable VIMS shoreline, for instance, has withstood Hurricanes Irene and Sandy—thanks to its headland breakwaters.
As the living shorelines at VIMS demonstrate, projects such as these—which successfully address the needs of both humans and nature—are critical to Bay restoration. Through the work of experts like Hardaway and Duhring, these living shorelines continue to serve both practical and educational purposes, teaching the public how we can responsibly manage our natural resources today in order to preserve them long into the future.
View full-resolution photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
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.”
In rural West Virginia, a fisherman casts his bright green line into a mountain stream. The stream is clear, the fish are biting and it takes just minutes to make a catch.
Dustin Wichterman, Potomac Headwaters Project Coordinator with Trout Unlimited, dips his net into the water and reveals a 10-inch brook trout. Its olive green body is flecked with red and gold, and its mere presence here is a welcome sign of health for the Pendleton County waterway.
Native to the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay, the eastern brook trout is a sensitive species that needs cold, clean water to survive. But as regional water quality has declined, so, too, have brook trout populations, leading to lost revenue and diminished fishing opportunities for headwater states.
Brook trout play a critical role in the watershed: they are an important part of the region’s natural heritage, a driver of economic growth and an indicator of environmental health. For these reasons, brook trout restoration was a listed outcome in the federal Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Bay Watershed. And for the past two years, brook trout conservation has been a top goal for the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Through the Bay Program’s Habitat Goal Implementation Team, whose members work to protect and restore wetlands, woods and other habitats across the watershed, brook trout have benefited from stream restoration, fish passage renewal and tree plantings.
As odd as it might seem, the health of a fish depends not just on the health of the creek, stream or river that it calls home; it is also tied to the health of the surrounding land. And poor land management, increasing development and expanding urbanization have been cited as leading factors in brook trout decline.
“This fish is a living symbol of how actions on land affect the health of our local waterways,” said team coordinator Jennifer Greiner.
The removal of streamside trees, for instance, is a common consequence of agricultural or residential development, as seedlings are trampled by grazing cattle or trees are felled for suburban growth. But a missing forest buffer means bad news for brook trout when stream banks erode, excess sediment ruins spawning beds and an absence of shade pushes water temperatures into a range that brook trout cannot withstand.
When, on the other hand, trees and shrubs are allowed to grow along waterways, their runoff-trapping roots keep the water clean and their shade-producing leaves keep the water cold.
So Greiner and her fellow team members have worked to bring brook trout into the land-use discussion, pushing the latest brook trout distribution data out to doers and decision-makers in the watershed. Because when land managers know where brook trout are, they are more likely to take the fish into account in land-use decisions.
Land trusts in headwater states have also found that brook trout can push private landowners to conserve, and Goal Implementation Team partners—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture Partnership among them—are using the iconic fish to promote on-the-ground restoration of riparian forest buffers.
Whether a farmer installs a fence that keeps livestock out of local rivers or a landowner decides to plant a series of streamside trees, education and engagement are critical to conservation.
“By becoming educated and engaged, landowners are able to protect the streams on their land for future generations,” Greiner said. “By protecting and restoring stream habitat, the brook trout, along with other species, are also protected for future generations to enjoy.”
In Virginia, there is a local legend that explains how the Cowpasture River and its surrounding streams were named: A group of Native Americans stole a herd of cattle from a settler and headed west. The calves tired first, and were left behind at the river now known as the Calfpasture. The cows were able to make it a bit farther, to Cowpasture. And the bulls, with greater strength and stamina, made it to Bullpasture.
Image courtesy Bruce Thomson/Flickr
The tale might not be true, but the names still fit. All three rivers are bordered by pastureland and meadows, a perfect habitat for indigo buntings, northern bobwhite and other open-country birds, as well as local livestock.
The nearby George Washington and Jefferson National Forests and state natural lands offer opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts to experience this rustic, rural watershed.
If you would rather explore “underground,” be sure to check out the region’s caves and sinkholes. During periods of extended drought, the Cowpasture River dries up and flows only beneath the ground, through the limestone caves.
Image courtesy Bruce Thomson/Flickr
More from the Cowpasture River:
In Jefferson County, W.Va., shaded streams trickle down the Blue Ridge Mountains into what will become the Potomac or Shenandoah rivers. The ridge is named “blue” for its characteristic purple-blue haze. No, this isn’t some kind of rural smog, but isoprene, which the trees on the mountain release into the atmosphere.
Image courtesy Eoghann Irving/Flickr
Despite the pristine scenery found in this part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a visit to Jefferson County on a rainy day can expose a darker side. Thanks to aging infrastructure, the county has faced flooded roads and a river that carries an unknown amount of pollutants.
Residents knew they had to take action to ensure their mountain’s health. So, the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition was born. And in just over 18 months, the non-profit organization has arranged stream cleanups, showcased stormwater management practices and monitored water quality in a stretch of the Shenandoah River.
Why monitor water quality?
To monitor water quality, biologists take water samples from a stream or river and send them into a lab. There, the amount of pollutants in the water is measured. Monitoring a series of sites in a single waterway can tell us where these pollutants might be coming from.
Before the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition was formed, monitoring in the Shenandoah River was completed by a single Shenandoah University professor. Now, the college will train coalition volunteers to take water samples, as the coalition works to determine pollution sources and track the river’s long-term health.
“Our friends and neighbors on the mountain had very adamantly voiced that they wanted real facts as to what is in our lovely Shenandoah River,” explained Ronda Lehman, Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition Chair.
“We hope our river monitoring will help delineate whether our issues are born from our county’s farms, septic tanks or stormwater runoff, or a combination,” said Ronda.
Curbing runoff, preventing floods
Close to 17,000 commuters leave Jefferson County, W.Va., for Washington, D.C., each morning, and many of them travel on Route 9. But this road often floods, as it collects stormwater runoff from surrounding properties.
The Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition hopes to curb the amount of runoff coming from one of these properties—an old stone church now called the Mountain Community Center.
“A little calculating showed us that there are 1,400 gallons of water that run off the roof of the church during average rain events,” said Ronda.
The coalition will divert rainwater from the roof of the building into rain barrels and cisterns and curb the flow of sediment and stormwater with a filter installed at the end of the driveway.
“Incorporating different methods of mitigating that flow of water would give us an opportunity to showcase different practices for our neighbors to incorporate onto their own properties,” Ronda said.
If water quality monitoring and stormwater management seem too “scientific” for your tastes, then an old-fashioned trash cleanup could be for you! The Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition held its second annual cleanup in July.
The cleanup area is popular among the public, but has a history of being dirty.
The coalition hopes to amend this littering problem. “We will be purchasing banners to be placed at the busy ‘put ins’…to remind patrons to take their trash with them," said Ronda.
True to its name, West Virginia’s “Lost River” disappears.
Lost River begins in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. But just a few miles downstream, it flows into a series of caves and is carried underground. Known locally as “the Sinks,” these caves shelter the river until it reaches Wardensville, where it emerges under a different name: the Cacapon.
Image courtesy Mark Plummer/Flickr
Looking for Lost River? Catch a glimpse in the 3,700-acre Lost River State Park. And if the weather is hiker-friendly, take a trip up to Cranny Crow Overlook, where, at 3,200 feet high, you will be able to see five counties in two states. The park also offers opportunities for horseback riding and swimming.
Image courtesy vitia/Flickr
Explore the nearby Trout Pond Recreation Area to enjoy the only natural lake in West Virginia, created by a sinkhole that filled with water from a mountain stream. Trout Pond and the neighboring Rockcliff Lake boast sandy mountainside beaches, optimal fishing and challenging hiking trails.
More from Lost River:
Farmers, foresters and an active coalition of landowners and citizens have been honored for their efforts to conserve, restore and celebrate Chesapeake forests.
From planting native trees and shrubs to engaging students in forest conservation, the actions of the winners from across the watershed crowned them Chesapeake Forest Champions in an annual contest sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy Piestrack Forestlands LLC
Three farmers were named Exemplary Forest Stewards: Ed Piestrack of Nanticoke, Pa., and Nelson Hoy and Elizabeth Biggs of Williamsville, Va. Ed Piestrack and his wife, Wanda, manage 885 acres of forestland and certified Tree Farm in Steuben County, N.Y. The Piestracks have controlled invasive plants and rebuilt vital habitat on their property, installing nest boxes, restoring vernal pools and planting hundreds of trees on land that will remain intact and managed when it is transferred to their children.
Image courtesy Berriedale Farms
Close to 400 miles south in the Cowpasture River Valley sits Berriedale Farms, where Nelson Hoy and Elizabeth Biggs manage land that forms a critical corridor between a wildlife refuge and a national forest. Hoy and Biggs have integrated their 50-acre Appalachian hardwood forest into their farm operation, protecting the landscape while finding a sustainable source of income in their low-impact horse-powered forest products business.
Image courtesy Zack Roeder
Forest Resource Planner Zack Roeder was named Most Effective at Engaging the Public for his work as a forester in Pennsylvania’s largely agricultural Franklin and Cumberland counties. There, Roeder helped farmers manage and implement conservation practices on their land and helped watershed groups plant streamside forest buffers. Roeder also guided a high school in starting a “grow out” tree nursery and coordinated Growing Native events in local communities, using volunteers to collect native hardwood and shrub seeds for propagation.
Image courtesy Savage River Watershed Association
The Savage River Watershed Association in Frostburg, Md., was commended for the Greatest On-the-Ground Impact. In a watershed whose streamside trees have shaded waterways and provided critical habitat to Maryland’s rare reproducing brook trout fisheries, the organization has worked to conserve area forests, removing invasive plants and putting more than 4,000 red spruce seedlings into the ground.
American eel numbers are up in the headwater streams of Shenandoah National Park, following the 2004 removal of a large downstream dam.
Significant increases in upstream American eel populations began two years after the Rappahannock River's Embrey Dam was removed and have continued nearly every year since, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and National Park Service (NPS) researchers.
Image courtesy EricksonSmith/Flickr.
Dams can act as travel barriers to American eels, which undertake long-distance migrations from their ocean spawning grounds to freshwater streams along the Atlantic coast. While American eels can surpass substantial natural barriers--like the rapids of the Potomac River's Great Falls, for instance--dams pose a more difficult obstacle and have contributed to the widespread decline in American eel populations. Dam removal, therefore, could have long-term benefits for eel conservation.
"Our study shows that the benefits of dam removal can extend far upstream," said USGS biologist Nathanial Hitt. "American eels have been in decline for decades and so we're delighted to see them begin to return in abundance to their native streams."
Embrey Dam, which once provided hydroelectric power to Fredericksburg, Va., was breached in 2004 following years of work by nonprofit organizations and city, state and federal government agencies. Its removal was intended to benefit more than the American eel, however, as dams can impact a number of fish that must migrate up rivers to spawn.
"Shad, herring and striped bass are also using reopened habitat on the Rappahannock River," said Alan Weaver, fish passage coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "It's exciting to see a growing number of species benefiting from dam removal in Virginia."
Learn more about American eel abundance in Shenandoah National Park.
In the 1930s, Smithsonian botanist Harry A. Allard walked 3,000 miles and collected 15,000 plant specimens in the Bull Run Mountains of Virginia's Eastern Piedmont region.
Eighty years later, Smithsonian scientists collect beetle specimens in the same mountains. A few miles away, volunteer naturalists explain to children and adults why beetles are central to all life; different beetle species pollinate plants (helps plants reproduce), and assist with decomposition (eats dead organisms).
(Image courtesy Bull Run Mountains Conservancy)
Such a combination of research and education is rare, says Michael Kieffer, Executive Director of the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy, a nonprofit headquartered in the southern 800 acres of the 2,500 acre Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve, about 15 miles from Manassas, Middleburg, and Warrenton, Virginia.
"We have the unique opportunity to conduct both youth and adult education programs and to tie those programs to research on the mountains," says Michael.
While the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy leads research, stewardship, and education programs in the natural area, the land itself is owned by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.
With plenty of places to search for the region's rare plants and insects, the conservancy's nine miles of trails see 10,000 visitors per year.
"It is wonderful to have public access to this state natural area, but people management is always an issue," states Michael.
Stewardship goes hand in hand with the conservancy's education programs.
(Image courtesy Bull Run Mountains Conservancy)
Programs such as "nature preschool," "herpetology camp," and even teachers' workshops, allow participants to study the ecosystem through experience, just the way Allard did eighty years ago.
When asked to elaborate on the conservancy's immersion education philosophy, Michael explained, "Just keep them outside. They need to be outside. Yes, it’s based on the research, but no we don’t have camp counselors. It's about getting kids outside with other kids. This is vital to your life."
But as any parent knows, kids learn by example. If adults are not prone to spend time outdoors, neither will their children.
"At BRMC our education programs are equally weighed between adults and children. If adults do not learn alongside their children, then the child’s experience on the mountains is diminished.”
The Bull Run Mountains Conservancy's summer camps begin in June. But nature lovers of all ages are invited to join their naturalist-led walks, trail clean up days, rattle snake surveys, and watershed workshops throughout the year.
(Image courtesy Bull Run Mountains Conservancy)
More from the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy:
Finally – school’s out and warm weather is here! We know you’re eager to get away to your nearest beach and bury yourself in the sand with a new book. But did you know there are dozens of beautiful parks and natural areas on the way to major beaches such as Rehoboth Beach, Virginia Beach and Ocean City? Here are eight places you can enjoy the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers along the way to your summer destination. After all, some of life's greatest joys are in the journey, not in the destination!
1. Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve (Portsmouth, Va.)
Just 20 minutes west of Virginia Beach, Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve provides urban wildlife in the Norfolk/Portsmouth metro region with 142 acres of tidal and non-tidal habitat. Expect to encounter foxes, river otters, oysters and crabs along the preserve's trails. Before you go, check out Hoffler Creek’s events listings for specialties like sunset kayak tours, night owl kayak paddles by moonlight, and early morning bird walks!
2. Dutch Gap Conservation Area (Chester Va.)
(Image courtesy John.Murden/Flickr)
Just south of Richmond, Dutch Gap Conservation Area surrounds Henricus, the second successful English settlement in Virginia. Bordered by the James River, the 810-acre area contains a blue heron rookery and has been described as a "birder's dream." A diversity of habitats attract a range of flying friends: in wetlands, look for pintails and kingfishers; in meadows, you'll find goldfinches, indigo buntings and kingbirds; and in forests, expect to see scarlet tanagers and red-eye vireo. Hike or bike the 4.5 mile Dutch Gap Trail, which circumnavigates a tidal lagoon. Kayak or canoe the Lagoon Water Trail (perfect for beginner paddlers), or schedule a night to camp under the stars at the area's primitive camp site.
3. Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge (Cape Charles, Va.)
(Image courtesy Xavier de Jauréguiberry/Flickr)
Drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Bay Tunnel near Virginia Beach to arrive at the southernmost tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. Here, nearly 1,300 acres of tidal wetlands and hiking trails sport colorful views of sunsets and sunrises; enjoy being surrounded by water on three sides! The area is one of the most important avian migration funnels in the country, meaning it provides vital stopover habitat for birds and butterflies migrating south for the winter and north for the summer. Return in the winter for a trip to Fisherman Island, a remote island home to sensitive bird species and untouched shoreline.
4. Nassawango Creek Preserve of the Nature Conservancy and Furnace Town (Snow Hill, Md.)
Just south of Salisbury, Maryland, one of the northernmost stands of bald cypress trees leak tannins into the Nassawango Creek, giving this pristine Chesapeake Bay tributary a deceptive tea-like color. Bald cypress trees grow completely in the water, and are most abundant in swamps in the deep southeast United States. Visitors to the 15,000-acre Nassawango Creek Preserve can paddle among these green giants or explore upland forest habitat on the preserve's many trails. Expect to see rare plants like indian pipe and pink lady slipper, and migratory birds such as scarlet tanagers and prothonotary warblers.
Along the edge of the preserve, hidden in the Pocomoke State Forest, a brick structure stands tall among the trees. It is the remnants of an iron furnace that at one time attracted hundreds of people – miners, firemen, bargemen and sawyers – to the area. From 1831 to 1850, village residents gathered iron ore from the bogs surrounding Nassawango Creek and loaded iron bars onto barges that were floated down the creek to the Pocomoke River and the Chesapeake Bay. Today, you can get a glimpse of what life was like in the 1830s mining village by visiting the Living Heritage Museum.
5. Pickering Creek Audubon Center (Easton, Md.)
(Image courtesy Pickering Creek Audubon Center)
If you're driving to Ocean City or Assateague Island, you'll likely pass hundreds of cornfields, strawberry fields and trucks full of chickens. Farming is a significant part of the heritage of Maryland's Eastern Shore, but the agricultural industry is often blamed for polluting the Chesapeake Bay.
At Pickering Creek Audubon Center in Easton, 270 acres are farmed according to "best management practices" that reduce the amount of animal bacteria, chemicals and pesticides that end up in the bay. Visitors can learn the past and future of farming in the region, or hike through hardwood forests, fresh and brackish marshes, meadows and wetlands. A Children's Imagination Garden will let your little ones connect to nature, and a display of live reptiles allows them to get up close and personal with our scaly friends!
6. Trap Pond State Park (Laurel, Del.)
Trap Pond was created in the late 1700s to power a sawmill during the harvesting of bald cypress trees from these southwestern Delaware freshwater wetlands. Fortunately, not all of the trees were harvested, and today, Trap Pond provides a home for the northernmost stand of bald cypress trees in the United States. The thick bald cypress marsh envelops visitors in a blanket of shade, making this park the perfect destination for a hot summer day.
Within the park, Trussum Pond is the best place to view the largest of these trees. Biking, camping, boating and disc golf are just some of the recreational opportunities available at the 2,700 acre park.
7. James Branch Nature Preserve and Water Trail (Laurel, Del.)
Unlike Trap Pond, which, as a state park, exists primarily for recreational purposes, James Branch Nature Preserve's first priority is protecting and enhancing a delicate ecosystem for future generations. As the largest of the state's nature preserves, James Branch's 685 acres are mostly composed of bald cypress trees – the oldest-growth in the state! Visitors can canoe and kayak the James Branch Water Trail. Since there is the chance of encountering downed trees, low-hanging branches, and floating and submerged logs, the trail is only recommended for intermediate to advanced paddlers.
8. Adkins Arboretum (Ridgely, Md.)
For some people, it's difficult to imagine your garden untouched by invasive, exotic weeds aggressively overtaking native vegetation. But at Adkins Arboretum, you can explore 400 acres of native plant gardens and wildflower meadows. Adkins is the only public garden or arboretum that focuses solely on plants native to the mid-Atlantic coastal plain. Located at the intersection of the piedmont and coastal plain, and the junction of the north and south, Adkins supports more than 600 species of native shrubs, trees, wildflowers and grasses. Visitors can understand nature through the lens of art and history; an ongoing art exhibit features natural themes by regional artists, and Adkins describes nature's relationship to the Underground Railroad throughout the region. Before you visit, be sure you check the arboretum’s list of programs and guided walks.
When Robbi Savage’s 10-year-old grandson Seth saw a car battery submerged in the Rivanna River near Charlottesville, Virginia, he knew enough not to pick it up. Instead, he asked his dad for help, and with more frustration than curiosity, exclaimed to Robbi, “What are these people thinking, grandma?!”
“Even a 10-year-old knows that throwing car parts into the river is dangerous,” says Robbi, executive director of the Rivanna Conservation Society (RCS), a non-profit watershed group based out of Charlottesville. “And yet some folks still think of a river as a trash dump.”
(Image courtesy Rivanna Conservation Society)
Robbi and RCS’s volunteers are dedicated to cleaning up the Rivanna, a 42-mile-long James River tributary that flows from the Blue Ridge Mountains through the foothills and Piedmont region of central Virginia. It was the first river in Virginia to be designated a “Scenic River.” Although the Rivanna may be “scenic,” RCS understands that maintaining its beauty and enhancing its degrading health requires citizen participation, education and local government involvement.
“One would think that being at the headwaters, we would have close to pristine waterways, but such is not the case,” Robbi explains. “We certainly have our challenges.”
One of the Rivanna’s biggest problems is stream bank erosion, which pollutes the water with too much sediment. Bacteria from pet waste and agricultural manure also threaten swimming areas and drinking water resources; this occurs when residents don’t pick up after their pets, or when farmers allow cattle to enter streams.
RCS’s education and outreach programs have been building awareness of these issues since the group was founded in 1990. But RCS doesn’t forget to have some fun along the way. River paddles, survival workshops and geocaching are just a few outdoor activities the group sponsors.
(Image courtesy Rivanna Conservation Society)
When Robbi moved from Washington to central Virginia in 2006, she brought with her an environmental initiative she conceived while working on national water policy in Washington. The international citizen-led water quality monitoring effort World Water Monitoring Day involved 340,000 people in 77 countries in 2011. When Robbi left the Hill to become RCS’s executive director, she created a local version of the program, “Water Health for the Commonwealth.”
The program allows middle and high schools along the Rivanna and James Rivers to monitor their local water quality and connect with one another to share their results. RCS is in the process of extending this hands-on-learning opportunity to all schools along the James, from the Rivanna watershed to the Chesapeake Bay.
This “in the river” approach not only educates, but creates an appreciation for the “River Anna,” named after Queen Anne of England.
In addition to education initiatives, recreational opportunities such as river paddles and geocaching (a treasure hunt-like activity) allow area residents of all ages to get outside and appreciate the scenic Rivanna.
“Recreation is an important part of what this river is used for,” explains Robbi. “But the more people you bring to the river, which is of course part of our mission, the more attention needs to be paid to keeping it clean. We have a beautiful river here, so people want to paddle, and they want to be on the water.”
For Robbi, RCS represents community collaboration.
Robbi gained experience in environmental issues at the national and international level in her 35 years of working for EPA Office of Water, the League of Women Voters, and the State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators (now Association of Clean Water Administrators).
But when she moved to central Virginia and became involved with RCS, she experienced the challenges and successes of converting Washington’s laws and regulations into local action.
“When you work in Washington, you may come to believe that it is the center of the universe,” explains Robbi. “But when you move to a location like Charlottesville and see what it takes in terms of voter support, local government coordination, and funding decisions, it’s eye-opening. We all know that water quality is important and essential to all living things, but when you actually see the demands for scarce community resources to play out, especially in this zero-based budget economy, you understand that tough choices are being made.”
Although coordinating community leaders, landowners, citizen volunteers, lawmakers and environmentalists is no easy task, Robbi describes it as rewarding. “I would never have said this as a young pup in DC, but I think the real action is at the local level. We are turning words into action.”
(Image courtesy Rivanna Conservation Society)
The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population increased 66 percent in 2012 to its highest level since 1993, according to the annual blue crab winter dredge survey conducted by Maryland and Virginia.
The enormous increase was fueled by a “baby boom” – an almost tripling of the juvenile crab population, from 207 million last year to 587 million. This figure smashed the old record of 512 million juvenile crabs set in 1993.
Overall, the Bay’s crab population has risen to 764 million, more than triple the record low of 249 million set in 2007. That deep decline set in motion four years of concentrated efforts to rebuild the stock.
“Just a few short years ago, the future did not look bright for our blue crab population,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. “Our female crabs were being overfished, and our fishery was at risk of complete collapse. We teamed up with our neighbors in Virginia and at the Potomac River Fisheries Commission to make the tough choices, guided by science, to reverse that population decline.”
Bay-wide, the crab harvest has increased substantially since 2008, when 43 million pounds were caught. In 2011, an estimated 67.3 million pounds of crabs were harvested from the Bay.
Not all news from the survey was bright: the number of spawning-age females dropped by roughly 50 percent to 97 million. However, this figure is still above the health threshold. Maryland and Virginia will work together to produce a management strategy to avert another stock decline for this segment of the crab population.
Visit the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ website for more information about the winter dredge survey and the 2012 blue crab figures.
Ask any local about the 12 odd-shaped “Lone Star Lakes” in southern tidewater Virginia, and you’re bound to hear some fish stories about crappies, bluegill and catfish. Although these lakes were originally dug out to excavate marl (minerals such as clay and limestone), they now provide abundant fishing for enthusiasts, as well as drinking water for the nearby city of Suffolk.
Crane Lake is rumored to be the most fruitful of the Lone star Lakes, perhaps because it’s connected to Chuckatuck Creek, a 13-mile-long stream that parallels the Nansemond River before flowing into the James River. During high tide, salt water spills into the lake, sometimes sending croaker, big stripers and flounder into the hands of lucky fisherman.
Native Americans also fished in these waters; Chuckatuck Creek was a valuable resource for the Nansemond tribe. But when Englishmen arrived in the early 1600s, they robbed the tribe’s corn and burned their homes and canoes. This was the beginning of hostility between the communities, and resulted in the Nansemond tribe losing its last reservation lands in the late 1700s. Today, most Nansemond Indians still live in the Suffolk/Chesapeake area.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Chuckatuck Creek was packed with boats. Watermen made a living from harvesting oysters, fish and crabs, and taught their sons their craft for generations. Families visited one another via watercraft, depending on each other when there was little to catch.
Today, a decline in oyster populations has left few generational watermen on the Chuckatuck. Nevertheless, the creekside villages of Crittenden, Eclipse and Hobson still possess a small-town ambience, with close-knit residents and colorful local folklore.
(Image courtesy Tom Powell/Flickr)
More from Chuckatuck Creek:
Six of the seven Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions – Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia – have submitted their final cleanup plans as part of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, a “pollution diet” that aims to put in place all restoration measures needed for a clean Bay by 2025.
The final cleanup plans, officially known as Phase 2 Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs), were submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last Friday. New York submitted its draft plan, and is working with the EPA to finalize that plan.
The cleanup plans were developed by each individual state and the District, working closely with counties, municipalities and other local partners. The cleanup plans identify specific restoration measures each jurisdiction will take to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution to the Bay and its local rivers.
According to the guidelines set in the TMDL, at least 60 percent of necessary pollution reductions must be achieved by 2017. Chesapeake Bay Program partners have committed to putting all needed pollution control measures in place no later than 2025.
Visit the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay TMDL website to review and learn more about the cleanup plans.
Like many buildings in Northern Virginia, Fairfax County’s Herrity Building is surrounded by traffic and occupied by government workers. But Herrity also sports a landscaped pond that’s not just a parking lot decoration. It’s the headwaters of Difficult Run, a Potomac River tributary that winds through development-burdened Fairfax County before ending near Great Falls Park, where it’s enveloped in lush vegetation, dotted with boulders and surrounded by scenery that seems straight out of a time period from long ago.
(Image courtesy gawnesco/Flickr)
Difficult Run’s health fluctuates dramatically throughout its 15-mile run. In cities like Reston and Vienna, unsustainable land use practices have led to eroding stream banks and poor water quality. At 58 square miles wide, Difficult Run’s watershed is the largest in Fairfax County, which means the waterway is affected by development and pollution that happens very far away from its banks.
Luckily, in other places, forest buffers hug the stream’s edges, helping to keep soil in place, provide wildlife habitat, and shade and cool the water. These forested areas have become a favorite of locals who enjoy walking through the woods.
For an excellent weekend hike or bike ride, follow Difficult Run on a secluded 12-mile trail from Glade Drive in Reston to Great Falls Park. Will Difficult Run be difficult? Rumor has it that the trail is perfect for intermediate bikers and beginner hikers.
Perhaps the “difficulty” of Difficult Run lies in reversing the effects of development that has led to pollution in many parts of the stream. Fortunately, Fairfax County and others have begun work to restore this important local waterway. In 2008, the Herrity Building installed a green roof atop its parking garage. This colorful garden of native plants prevents stormwater runoff from carrying oil, trash, auto exhaust and other pollutants from the parking lot into Difficult Run.
Image courtesy Capitol Green Roofs
Along Difficult Run’s banks, the Virginia Department of Forestry has conducted streamside restoration projects and an outreach effort that now serves as a model for other local stream restoration initiatives in the state.
Fewer acres of bay grasses grew in the shallows of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers in 2011, according to scientists with the Chesapeake Bay Program. Bay grass acreage fell to an estimated 63,074 acres in 2011, down from 79,664 acres in 2010. This is the lowest Bay-wide acreage measured since 2006.
Because of heavy rainstorms that led to cloudy, muddy conditions that blocked monitoring efforts, only 57,956 acres of bay grasses were actually mapped in 2011. However, scientists believe about 5,119 acres of bay grasses may have been present during the height of the growing season, leading to the final estimated Bay-wide figure of 63,074 acres.
Bay grasses – also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV – are a critical part of the Bay ecosystem. These underwater meadows provide fish, crabs and other aquatic life with food and habitat, absorb nutrients, trap sediment, reduce erosion, and add oxygen to the water. Bay grasses are also an excellent measure of the Bay's overall condition because their health is closely linked with the Bay’s health.
“2011 was the year that bucked two trends we’ve seen over the last decade,” said Lee Karrh, chair of the Bay Program’s Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) Workgroup. “The Upper Bay had major decreases after years of increasing or sustained high acreages. On the other hand, the brackish parts of the Middle Bay witnessed dramatic increases in 2011, after prolonged decreases since the turn of the century.”
Experts agree that extreme weather conditions in 2010 and 2011 led to the substantial decrease in bay grasses. According to Bob Orth, scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and coordinator of the annual bay grass survey:
In the upper Bay (from the mouth of the Susquehanna River to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge), bay grasses covered approximately 13,287 acres, down from 21,353 acres in 2010. This is most likely an underestimate because scientists did not monitor the area until November, once muddy conditions improved but well past the end of the growing season. One bright spot in the upper Bay was the more than doubling of bay grass acreage in the Chester River and near Eastern Neck.
In the middle Bay (from the Bay Bridge to Pocomoke Sound and the Potomac River), bay grasses decreased 4 percent to an estimated 34,142 acres, down from 35,446 acres in 2010. (Only 29,023 acres were mapped, but scientists estimate that an additional 5,119 acres may have been present.) Large eelgrass losses were observed in Tangier Sound. These were offset by widgeon grass gains in many areas, including Eastern Bay and the Choptank River.
In the lower Bay (south of Pocomoke Sound and the Potomac River), bay grasses covered 15,645 acres, down 32 percent from 22,685 acres in 2010. Hot summer temperatures in 2010 led to this significant drop in acreage, which offset any gains that followed in 2011. Eelgrass in many parts of the lower Bay had been recovering from similar heat-related losses that took place in 2005.
Despite Bay-wide losses, there were a few bits of good news for bay grasses last year. The huge, dense bed on the Susquehanna Flats – which has increased threefold in size over the past 20 years – survived the late summer tropical storms, showing how resilient healthy bay grass beds can be to natural disturbances. Also, scientists recorded the first-ever bay grass bed in the mainstem James River since the area was first surveyed in 1998.
Annual bay grass acreage is estimated through an aerial survey, which is conducted from late spring to early autumn. Residents can do their part to help restore bay grasses by not fertilizing in the spring and planting more plants to reduce polluted runoff from backyards.
For detailed information about 2011 bay grasses acreage, including aerial photos and year-to-year comparisons, visit VIMS' SAV blog. For more information about the aerial survey and bay grass monitoring efforts, visit VIMS’ SAV website.
Virginia added approximately 840 miles of streams and 2 square miles of estuaries to its list of impaired waters in 2012, according to the state’s latest water quality report, released by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Virginia must develop more than 1,000 cleanup plans to restore the health of these and other polluted waterways.
About 260 miles of streams were removed from the list after achieving water quality standards, while another 230 stream miles were partially delisted.
In total, about 13,140 miles of streams and 2,130 square miles of estuaries are listed as “impaired,” which means they do not support aquatic life, fish and shellfish consumption, swimming, wildlife and/or public water supplies. Approximately 5,350 miles of streams and 140 square miles of estuaries are considered in good health.
Every two years, Virginia monitors about one-third of its watersheds on a rotating basis. The state completes a full monitoring cycle every six years. Since 2002, Virginia DEQ has assessed 98 percent of the state’s watersheds.
The full water quality report is available on Virginia DEQ’s website. The public is invited to comment on the report until April 27. Virginia DEQ will host a webinar summarizing the report’s results on April 9 from 10 to noon.
The return of ospreys whistling through the air is a surefire sign of spring in the Chesapeake Bay region. But even those who can’t make it to the Bay’s shores can enjoy a glimpse of this remarkable raptor through online osprey cams at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).
The Blackwater osprey cam is located on an osprey platform in a marsh on the wildlife refuge’s grounds in Dorchester County, Maryland. The VIMS osprey cam is trained on a nest at the top of a water tower on the school’s campus in Gloucester Point, Virginia.
The two osprey cams provide real-time views of osprey pairs during their annual nesting and breeding season in the Chesapeake region. Both osprey cams include a blog, where you can view photos and journal entries chronicling the lives and milestones of each osprey family.
Want to learn more about ospreys? Visit our osprey page in our Chesapeake Bay Field Guide.
Every Sunday morning at 8, a handful of bird enthusiasts flock to Dyke Marsh, the only freshwater marsh along the upper tidal Potomac River. The Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, located south of Alexandria, Va., is home to almost 300 species of birds. The marsh is classified as a “globally rare” habitat, one that’s particularly unique in this dense, urban area just outside the nation’s capital.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
Since 1975, the nonprofit volunteer group Friends of Dyke Marsh (FODM) has helped preserve, restore and celebrate this rare ecosystem. In addition to arranging weekly bird watching trips, FODM sponsors scientific surveys, leads school groups, removes invasive plants, organizes cleanups and builds public appreciation for the marsh.
FODM supports scientific surveys that illustrate the marsh’s irreplaceable habitat. Freshwater tidal marshes are flooded with fresh water with each incoming high tide, and include a variety of rare emergent grasses and sedges rather than shrubs.
“Dyke Marsh is a remnant of the extensive tidal wetlands that used to line the Potomac River,” explains FODM president Glenda Booth. “It provides buffering during storms. It absorbs flood waters. It’s a nursery for fish. It’s a rich biodiverse area in a large metropolitan area. We think it’s important to preserve what little is left.”
With the support of FODM, a Virginia Natural Heritage Program employee completed a survey of dragonflies and damselflies on the preserve in spring 2011. In addition, members conduct a breeding bird survey every spring. Last year, FODM recorded 78 species. The highlight? A confirmed breeding eastern screech-owl, the first documented in 20 years.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
“Our biggest challenge is to stop that erosion and restore Dyke Marsh,” says Booth.
Dyke Marsh was already destabilized in 1959, when Congress added it to the U.S. National Park system. USGS scientists largely attributed this to human impacts: sand and gravel mining that gouged out substantial parts of the marsh and removed a promontory that protected the wetland from storms, leaving Dyke Marsh exposed and vulnerable.
FODM works with the National Park Service to enhance wetland habitat and slow erosion of the marsh’s shoreline.
Educating neighbors about their connection to Dyke Marsh and fostering appreciation of this scenic area are also essential components of FODM’s preservation goals.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
Like most other parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, invasive plants are a problem in Dyke Marsh. “A lot of people plant things that are aggressive and not native, and these plants end up in the marsh.” And pollution that flows into streams throughout Fairfax County eventually empties into Dyke Marsh, threatening its wildlife and habitat.
Preserving Dyke Marsh is a goal that extends beyond the marsh itself, according to Booth. “We have to make sure that activities on our boundaries are compatible with preservation goals.” That means advocating for regulations that prohibit jet skiing, which disturbs the marsh’s nesting birds in spring.
Visit FODM’s website to learn more about upcoming outreach and educational opportunities and to find out other ways you can enjoy Dyke Marsh.
Fisheries scientists with the Chesapeake Bay Program will develop a Chesapeake Bay-wide management plan for blue and flathead catfish, two invasive fish species that pose a significant threat to the health of rivers in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
(Image courtesy USFWS Headquarters/Flickr)
Invasive species are animals and plants that are not native to their current habitat and harm the ecosystem they invade. Invasive species are able to thrive in new areas because they lack predators, diseases and other natural controls that keep them in check in their native environment.
Although they are valuable recreational species, blue and flathead catfish are harmful to the Bay ecosystem for several reasons. They grow to enormous sizes, have massive appetites, reproduce rapidly and live for many years. As top-level predators in the Bay food web, blue and flathead catfish prey upon important native species such as American shad and blueback herring.
Both catfish species have been present in Virginia rivers since the 1960s. In recent years, anglers have caught these fish in the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers, as well as the upper Chesapeake Bay. The spread may be due to people moving fish from one river to another, even though this is illegal in Maryland and Virginia.
Scientists will consider a variety of actions to control and lessen the harmful effects of these invasive catfish. For more information, read the Bay Program fisheries team’s Invasive Catfish Policy Adoption Statement.
The Bay Program fisheries team includes experts from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Potomac River Fisheries Commission, D.C. Department of the Environment, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
From old box springs to blown-out tires, we’ve all had “problem waste” that’s too big and bulky for curbside disposal. The next option is usually to borrow a friends’ pickup truck and drop off your awkward, heavy or disgusting objects at the local dump. But if you live in Fairfax County, Va., there are only two places where you can legally dump your trash (4618 West Ox Road, Fairfax, and 9850 Furnace Road, Lorton).
(Image courtesy Let’s Do It, Virginia)
Maybe it’s the inconvenience of driving across the county to get rid of “problem waste,” or maybe it’s the fee residents must pay to properly dispose of their trash ($6 for five 32-gallon bags, $9 for six to 10). Whatever the case, some residents are illegally dumping their unwanted appliances, shoes, baby clothes and car parts along Accotink Creek, a 25-mile-long Potomac River tributary.
Friends of Accotink Creek is a Fairfax-based volunteer group dedicated to battling illegal dumping. On weekends from March 31 to April 28, Friends of Accotink Creek will be cleaning different sections of the creek as a part of the greater Potomac Watershed Cleanup. The cleanups are much needed: since April 2007, there have been 166 reported illegal dumping acts in the county, and countless others remain unreported. Students, community members, religious organizations, neighbors and nature lovers will come together to drag abandoned dryers up hills and pull embedded tires out of streams. Interested in helping out? Be sure to bring your muscles!
Who knows – someone else’s trash may become your treasure. Volunteer Olivier Giron is building his master’s thesis around taking photographs of the trash – not because he thinks it’s beautiful, but because he believes the dismal juxtaposition of greenery and rusted metal will help influence people’s dumping behaviors. His website, Let’s Do It, Virginia, shows photos of the discarded trash and encourages other organizations to get involved in World Clean Up 2012.
(Image courtesy Friends of Accotink Creek)
Illegal dumping is one of the largest problems that Friends of Accotink Creek tackles. But the group also has its hands in a variety of environmental projects to restore and protect Accotink Creek.
Klub Kudzu is Friends of Accotink Creek’s invasive weed removal project. On Wednesdays, volunteers help remove kudzu, a climbing and coiling vine native to Asia. Kudzu has no predators to control its spread in the United States; as a result, it grows quickly, climbing over trees and shrubs and killing them by blocking out sunlight. If you’re free, join Friends of Accotink Creek to help save the creek’s native plants from this invader!
Volunteers monitor Accotink Creek for macroinvertebrates: worms, clams and other small creatures that live at the bottom of streams. Macroinvertebrate populations indicate the health of streams like Accotink Creek. Join other critter counters at Lake Accotink Park on the second Saturday of March, June, September and December.
(Image courtesy Friends of Accotink Creek)
Friends of Accotink Creek relies on volunteers like you to keep these restoration activities running. So contact the organization today and volunteer your time to a good cause. You can also stay in touch with Friends of Accotink Creek on Facebook.
The Elizabeth River, a 6-mile-long tributary of the James River in southeastern Virginia, was named after Princess Elizabeth Stuart. She was the daughter of England's King James I, Jamestown's namesake.
Today, Princess Elizabeth is still around – yes, you heard us right! She often speaks to students in the Hampton Roads community about how people can help restore her river to the way it looked when Captain John Smith first explored it in 1607. The princess's public speaking appointments are arranged by the Elizabeth River Project, a non-profit committed to improving the health of the Elizabeth River through restoration efforts and education programs that celebrate the river's history and natural resources.
(Image courtesy beachgirlvb/Flickr)
Royal advocacy is one of many ways the Elizabeth River Project is achieving its goal of making the river safe for swimming and eating oysters by 2020. Here are some of the Elizabeth River Project's other inspiring programs.
You may have heard that saying, "Those that can't do, teach." But like the many excellent teachers out there, the Elizabeth River Project proves this old adage wrong with its wind-powered, solar-powered, floating environmental classroom, The Learning Barge.
The objective of The Learning Barge is not only to teach visitors how they can help restore the Elizabeth River, but to exemplify these actions on the barge itself. Live floating wetlands demonstrate how these habitats absorb polluted stormwater runoff, composting toilets offer an alternative to flushing, and a rainwater system collects water to reuse. Visitors to this “green barge” can see firsthand how these actions help improve the Elizabeth River’s health.
The Learning Barge's innovation has earned it the 2011 Sea World & Busch Gardens Environmental Excellence Award, which is presented to outstanding grassroots environmental education programs across the country.
(Image courtesy Elizabeth River Project/Facebook)
Since 2009, more than 10,000 students have visited the floating classroom. This year, up to 60 students can set to sea at once on the barge. Three new stations (sun, wind and rain) focus on renewable energy technology.
The barge's field trip education programs were designed by local educators to meet Virginia standards for most subjects (not just science). The Elizabeth River Project even provides pre-and post-field trip activities, including art projects (sending a message in a bottle), journaling exercises (writing a letter to Princess Elizabeth) and more.
The Elizabeth River Project also gets adults involved in stewardship efforts through its River Star brand, a certification that home and business owners can earn after they take seven easy river-friendly steps. Some of the steps are so easy that they actually require you not to do something (such as not feeding geese, not flushing medicines and not dumping grease down the sink). Take a peek at this short video to see some River Stars in action.
The River Star certification is also applied to schools. There are already 128 River Star schools – more than half of the total 200 public and private schools in the Elizabeth River watershed. Students at River Star schools create herb and butterfly gardens, plant marsh grasses, learn how to compost and more.
(Image courtesy Elizabeth River Project/Facebook)
Although the River Star certification is available only to Hampton Roads area residents, the seven easy steps are a great idea for anyone to try.
The Elizabeth River Project offers even more creative ways to help and enjoy the river:
West Virginia may be far from the sailboats and blue crabs that we normally associate with the Chesapeake Bay. But folks at the Cacapon Institute in the state’s eastern panhandle are helping students install rain gardens, speaking with local farmers about reducing pollution, and spearheading community education initiatives – all in the name of helping the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.
(Image courtesy mdmarkus66/Flickr)
Founded by a husband and wife team in 1985, the Cacapon Institute was originally known as the Pine Cabin Run Ecological Laboratory. PCREL was established to research and teach Appalachian natural history and water quality issues around the Cacapon River, an 80-mile-long Potomac tributary that is designated by the EPA as an American Heritage River.
The Cacapon Institute’s dual mission of scientific research and education makes it stand out from organizations that emphasize one over the other. Today, the Cacapon Institute continues to balance community education and outreach with science “experiments” such as deer fencing and trout restoration.
Ever get sick of all this environmental talk? Do you think you could stop pollution if you were a county land manager or decision maker? The Cacapon Institute gives K-12 students that opportunity through its interactive Stream Cleaner Environmental Forum.
Stream Cleaner allows users to decide how land is used and see the effects of those decisions on natural resources. It’s an interactive, engaging way for students to learn about water and pollution issues.
The program is part of the greater Potomac Highlands Water School, a website that provides resources for teachers and students seeking to learn about their local environment. Slideshows, interactive games and vocabulary lists make it a hybrid of “old school” and digital learning. No matter what generation you belong to, it's worth a visit.
The Cacapon Institute isn’t just teaching students vocabulary words; it’s challenging them to collaborate on water quality projects.
(Image courtesy Cacapon Institute/Facebook)
Each spring, Cacapon sponsors the Stream Cleaner Environmental Forum, a program in which classes work together to develop solutions to specific, real-world pressures on the Potomac and the Bay.
Participating students learn from the best; collaborators range from local farmers and businesses to state and federal agencies. Projects such as Farmers as Producers of Clean Water hinge on input from local farmers about which best management practices they’d most likely adopt. By understanding the needs of different stakeholders and working with them to develop mutually beneficial solutions, Cacapon is creating a community that’s strengthened by cooperation, rather than oppressed by regulation.
The Cacapon Institute hopes that by starting with the younger generation, it can engage the wider community. This statement on its website says it all:
As educators, we work to create a future where a stream without a buffer looks as out of place as a smoker in a conference room looks today. To foster that vision, our environmental education efforts focus on students first and, through them, the larger community.
(Image courtesy Cacapon Institute/Facebook)
Here in the Chesapeake Bay region, it’s easy to use winter as an excuse for, say, drinking lattes, neglecting your exercise regimen and catching up on your favorite television show instead of getting outdoors. These indulgences provide me with some comfort in the face of frigid temperatures, high winds and slick road conditions.
But as my jeans get tighter and my skin gets paler, I’ve become inspired to conquer the season and all its hazards (realistically speaking, that is). Rather than hibernating like an animal, I’m putting my four-wheel-drive to use and showing winter who’s boss!
From cross country skiing to bird watching to doing donuts on frozen lakes, there are some outdoor experiences you can only have during our coldest season. We’ve compiled a list of six great places across the Bay watershed to experience winter. Just think how much better that hot cocoa will taste after you’ve felt the winter wind in your face!
If a winter flu’s got you down, a dip in Berkeley Springs may save your health. George Washington himself frequented Berkeley Springs to bathe in the warm mineral waters that flow from five main sources in the town. The springs discharge 2,000 gallons of clear, sparkling water per minute. The water remains at 74.3 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. It isn’t quite hot tub temperature, but it’s still warmer than a typical winter day.
The town even holds a Winter Festival of the Waters each year to celebrate the springs!
(Image courtesy @heylovedc/Flickr)
A drive through rolling hills, orchards and farmland will bring you to Catoctin Mountain Park and Cunningham Falls State Park, located the base of the Appalachian Mountains. Rock climbing, trout fishing, cross country skiing, winter hiking and horseback riding are just a few of the activities these recreational areas offer.
(Image courtesy Compass Points Media/Flickr)
The forests covering the parks are known as “second growth.” The “first growth” forest was logged extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries to support local agriculture and produce charcoal for the nearby Catoctin Ironworks Furnace. In the 1930s, the land was set aside and reforested by President Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration.
Hikers and cross country skiers will come across waterfalls and large, 500 million-year-old boulders. These rocks have been exposed as the Appalachian Mountains have flattened out over time. Trails at Cunningham Falls center around the waterfall for which the park is named. Known locally as McAfee Falls, it is the largest cascading waterfall in the state of Maryland.
Venture to Hills Creek State Park, near the Pennsylvania/New York border, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by nothing but forests. Four hundred acres of state park land are bordered by nearly 13,000 acres of state game lands, making the park an ideal destination for trappers and hunters. Winter sports fanatics will be in heaven – the park’s five and half miles of trails are open to hiking and cross country skiing in winter.
(Image courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)
Take the kids sledding on the hill near the seasonal beach; with adequate snow cover, you’ll be able to fly! If you’re lucky, you may be able to ice skate on the 137-acre Hill Creek Lake. (The park doesn’t monitor ice thickness, but does provide updates on winter conditions.)
In the winter, scenic mountain vistas are all the more impressive; without any greenery in the way, you can see for miles. For breathtaking winter views, visit Loyalsock State Forest, part of Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountain region. The park’s elevation is relatively high for the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which means you can count on winter conditions every year.
The park manages two trails specifically for cross country skiing, but skiers are welcome anywhere. Thirty-five miles of trails transverse the park, connecting visitors to a 130-mile regional trail system. Snowmobiling is also popular here.
(Image courtesy Richban/Flickr)
(Image courtesy Patuxent Research Refuge)
If winter travel isn’t in the cards for you, look no further than Patuxent Research Refuge, the 13,000-acre wildlife refuge halfway between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland. You’ll be surprised by how secluded you’ll feel just 20 minutes off I-295 (Baltimore/Washington Parkway).
Borrow binoculars and birding guides from the visitor center and walk the family-friendly trails to catch a glimpse of cardinals, tundra swans and Canada geese. The visitor center also hosts public programs for kids and houses life-sized “stuffed” animals and interactive exhibits that explain the National Wildlife Refuge system.
Seasonal hunting is also popular on the refuges’ North Tract.
If you’re still itching to get a little snow, head to the southernmost selection on our list. During this time of year, Shenandoah’s weather is unpredictable – often 10-20 degrees cooler than temperatures in the valley. Leafless trees allow you to see for miles across the park’s nearly 200,000 acres. Portions of Skyline Drive and visitors’ services are closed through March, but hiking, backcountry camping and simple Sunday drives are still welcomed! Look for bobcat tracks in the snow along the trails. If you’re brave and fit, check out the magnificent view at the top of Old Rag.
(Image courtesy Brandon Feagon/Flickr)
Now you tell us: what’s your favorite Chesapeake Bay place to explore in winter?
Though the final figures on the overall health of the Bay’s underwater grasses won’t be available for a few months, in late November, scientists with the Chesapeake Bay Program’s (CBP’s) team that monitors the abundance of the Bay’s grasses had a pleasant surprise. Aerial survey images of the vast grass-filled Susquehanna Flats, the circular area where the Susquehanna River meets the Bay, were not pictures of devastation as was feared, but pictures of health, showing that these valuable Bay habitats survived the fall’s deluge of runoff and sediment better than expected.
During Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, experts out monitoring the effects of these storms noted large tangles of all varieties of uprooted Bay grasses floating downstream. Based on these visual accounts and their knowledge of the devastation that events such as Tropical Storm Agnes wrought on the Bay’s grass beds almost forty years ago, hopes among scientists were not high for these habitats, which are a critical food source for over-wintering waterfowl at this time of year and that are vital as shelter for juvenile Bay creatures in the spring.
“We were incredibly surprised at how much of the grass bed remained on the Flats,” says Robert Orth of Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS) and leader of the team that conducts the annual survey of Bay grasses. “While we did see some declines along the flanks and edges of that big bed, my gut feeling says next year should be ok for grass beds up there. And the fact that we are now seeing overwintering waterfowl in our photographs is a good sign that lots of food is available.”
CBP’s Associate Director for Science Rich Batiuk commented, “Back on those days of Tropical Storm Lee, looking at the deluge of water over the Conowingo Dam, I would’ve bet that we had lost the Flats grasses entirely. Their survival is a good example of how large, dense beds can survive extreme conditions and another indicator of the Bay’s resilience.”
Compare the underwater grass beds on the Susquehanna Flats in VIMS aerial photographs in 2010 and 2011 at http://thumper-web.vims.edu/bio/sav/wordpress/archives/1458
The James River Association (JRA) has given Virginia’s James River a C in its latest State of the James report, down from a C+ in the last report two years ago, despite rebounding underwater bay grass beds and resurgent shad and eagle populations.
(Image courtesy Team Traveller/Flickr)
The State of the James measures four critical indicators of river health: key fish and wildlife species, habitat, pollution, and restoration and protection actions. The river received a 53 percent score, meaning it is just over the halfway point of being fully healthy. However, this score is down 4 percent from two years ago.
The largest score decline was observed in the pollution category, which fell 11 percent from the previous report’s score. According to the JRA, progress to reduce nutrient pollution has stalled, and sediment pollution actually increased due to large storms.
“The James River is healthier today than it has been in decades, but the kind of progress we have made toward improving the health of the river is waning,” said JRA Executive Director Bill Street. “Unfortunately, unless we redouble our commitment to controlling pollution flowing into the James, we run the real risk of erasing the progress we have worked so hard to achieve.”
Visit the JRA’s website to learn more about the James River and the State of the James report.
Gulls call to each other, belted kingfishers swoop down into the seagrass, monarchs chase the wind, and Alicia and I snap photographs of as much of it as we can. Fisherman Island is only open to the public during this time of year, and it is very likely that this trip will be our only opportunity to visit the tiny island at the southernmost tip of the Delmarva Peninsula.
Although thousands of motorists pass over the 1,850-acre land mass each day as they drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, few of them know that this area is one of only 17 sites classified as a “wetland of international importance.” Thousands of migratory birds stop here each fall and spring, and monarchs feed on native plants as they make their winter trip to Latin America.
The refuge is closed to the public because many of these species, such as brown pelicans and royal terns, are sensitive to threats from humans.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, manages Fisherman Island. Refuge law enforcement makes sure that the public – and yes, even fishermen – stay away.
Alicia and I were afforded access to Fisherman Island through Chesapeake Experience, a non-profit organization that offers summer camps, eco paddles, corporate retreats and experience-based environmental education for educators and students. Chesapeake Experience Director Jill Bieri and two refuge staff members led a morning walk on the island’s nearly unspoiled beach and an afternoon kayak tour from the Chesapeake to the Atlantic.
But this trip is a different kind of Chesapeake experience for us, coming from Annapolis, where the Bay’s brackish water forms a distinctive landscape.
Most of the tour participants are avid birders and have come prepared with binoculars. We see many yellow-rumped warblers, or “butter rumps,” (Dendroica coronate) squeaking back and forth across the path.
There are plenty of other interesting features to observe at Fisherman Island, including:
Although we find treasures that we’re not likely to see in Annapolis, we also saw something disappointing: plastic bags that have washed up on shore and are now buried deeply in the sand.
To me, this illustrates why efforts to restore the Bay need to collaborative, involving agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service, non-profits like Chesapeake Experience, and regular people like you and me. Although this tract of land is hardly touched by the public, and managed meticulously by the government, it is still vulnerable to the pollution that is happening throughout the Bay.
That afternoon, we paddle to where the Chesapeake Bay pours into the Atlantic Ocean, following the meandering path of the water through the marsh. Sitting on my kayak in this water, I feel it drift in and out of the Bay, and realize that the boundary lines between ocean and bay are fuzzy, or even, invisible.
A great blue heron watches us kayak into the waves. Our group slowly paddles to him, waiting for his five-foot wing span to cast a shadow over us. His flight makes our cameras snap and mouths hang open.
Jill instructs us to turn back before the waves get too rough. After all, we’re only novice kayakers!
Our homeward bound drive along Route 13 reveals abandoned homes alongside tents selling Virginia pecans, fireworks and cigarettes, all of them advertising their products with home-made, home-painted signs dotting the side of the road.
Mobile homes, their porches decorated with pots and pans and people in rocking chairs, sit on large tracts of land that I imagine to once have been profitable tobacco or cotton farms.
As the sun sets, these surroundings disappear, and we have only the stars to look at until we reach Annapolis.
The Potomac Conservancy has awarded the Potomac River’s health a barely passing “D” grade in its fifth annual State of the Nation’s River report.
Population growth and poor land use practices are the primary causes for the river’s pollution, according to the report. The Potomac River’s “two worlds” – rural farms and mountains to the west and the urban landscape to the south – pose different challenges.
Throughout the report, the Potomac Conservancy provides a vision of greater accountability, efficiency and enforcement actions to improve land use practices and water quality. These include strong federal and state stormwater laws, and changing local codes to protect riparian forest buffers, promote well-managed farms, better regulate large farm operations and treat pollution before it enters local waterways.
“We know what needs to be done, but this region is going to have to find the political will to make the hard choices,” according to Potomac Conservancy President Hedrick Belin. “Investing a dollar today to reduce pollution will return clean water dividends for years to come.”
For more information about the state of the Nation’s River report, visit the Potomac Conservancy’s website.
Image courtesy Michael Renner/Flickr
On a brisk Saturday in October, 160 volunteers collect 3.5 tons of discarded children’s toys, plastic bottles, crushed automobiles, and various other kinds of trash from their local Chesapeake Bay tributary, the Rappahannock River.
The volunteers, many of them students at the University of Mary Washington and Mountain View High School, are participants in a clean-up hosted by Friends of the Rappahannock, a non-profit advocacy, restoration and education organization based in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Friends of the Rappahannock – also known as “River Friends” or “FOR” – hosts fall and spring clean-ups each year. But its environmental efforts span the entire year. From engaging at-risk youth in streamside restoration activities to helping residents construct rain gardens in their yards, FOR’s volunteers are saving the Chesapeake Bay in a number of ways.
“We give people the chance to make a difference, to go home feeling that whatever they’ve done, they’ve made some type of positive impact,” says John Tippett, FOR’s executive director. “Providing a range of these fulfilling opportunities is what keeps our volunteers coming back.”
FOR’s diverse collection of volunteer programs are critical for a river so geographically expansive: the Rappahannock travels from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay, transecting landscapes that range from agricultural (in the headwaters and tidewaters) to urban (near Fredericksburg).
Along the its course, the river experiences nearly every type of pollution pressure that can be found in Virginia: from livestock manure on farm fields to fertilizer from suburban lawns.
How does FOR help reduce these pollution pressures? The group’s strategy varies from community to community. FOR takes into account the pollution source (anything from animal waste to fertilized lawns), but also considers the interests of residents, the involvement of local governments, and the availability of staff and volunteers.
“We strive to develop a variety of activities and volunteer opportunities to engage our members and other community members,” explains Sarah Hagan, volunteer coordinator at FOR.
Here are a few of our favorite ways you can get involved with FOR:
Contact FOR to get involved today! And if you don’t live near the Rappahannock, don’t worry; there are plenty of small, volunteer-based watershed organizations throughout the Chesapeake Bay region that you can get involved with!
MORE from FOR:
Images courtesy Friends of the Rappahannock
Just a scenic two-hour drive from Washington, D.C., the 38-mile-long Passage Creek weaves in and out of Fort Valley, Virginia, a part of the Shenandoahs so sheltered that it has been called "a valley within a valley."
In the 1800s, Passage Creek was home to five- and six-pound trout. Today, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries stocks the creek with trout three times each summer. Fisherman, local residents and conservationists are working together to protect habitat for trout and other important species.
Although there aren’t any gigantic trout (yet!), stepping onto the banks of Passage Creek is, in many ways, like taking a step back in time.
Passage Creek is considered to be a relatively healthy stream compared to other Virginia waterways, many of which have degraded habitats due to agriculture, urbanization and logging, according to the Potomac Conservancy, which has launched a restoration campaign in the area.
In addition to fishing its waters, visitors to Passage Creek cancamp in the adjacent George Washington National Forest, view the nation's first Civilian Conservation Corps camp or hike around the Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area, one of many iron ore furnaces constructed in Shenandoah Valley during the 1800s.
Visiting? Look for freshwater mussels (a sign of good stream health), salamanders, black bears, coyotes, wild turkeys and luna moths!
And if you're thirsty, look around! The area's freshwater springs first came to the public's attention in the 1850s, when a man named E.H. Munch built a "Seven Fountains" resort that treated guests to each of the seven kinds of mineral waters found in the area. Although the resort closed after the Civil War, many friendly area residents can lead you to a spring or two.
Four projects and individuals in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia have been recognized as Chesapeake Forest Champions for their contribution to Chesapeake Bay restoration through the promotion of trees and forests.
The inaugural Chesapeake Forest Champion contest honored recipients in four categories: most innovative, most effective at engaging the public, greatest on-the-ground impact and exceptional forest steward/land owner.
The "most innovative" award went to Adam Downing and Michael LaChance of Virginia Cooperative Extension and Michael Santucci of the Virginia Department of Forestry for their Virginia Family Forestland Short Course program. The team tackled a critical land conservation challenge: intergenerational transfers of family farms and forests, and the need to educate land owners on how to protect their land. Through the land transfer plans developed in this program, more than 21,000 acres of Virginia forests are expected to remain intact, family-owned and sustainably managed.
The "most effective at engaging the public" champion was ecologist Carole Bergmann from Montgomery County, Maryland. Bergmann created the Weed Warrior program in response to a significant invasive plant problem in the county's forests. To date, approximately 600 Weed Warriors have logged more than 25,000 hours of work removing and monitoring invasive weeds.
The "greatest on-the-ground impact" award went to David Wise of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for his leadership in restoring riparian forest buffers through the Pennsylvania Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) partnership. Since 2000, Pennsylvania CREP has restored more than 22,000 acres of forest buffers -- more than all the other Chesapeake Bay states combined.
The "exceptional forest steward/land owner" champion was Susan Benedict of Centre County, Pennsylvania, for her work running a sustainable tree farm. Benedict has implemented many conservation projects on her family's land, such as planting habitat to encourage pollination in a forested ecosystem.
The Chesapeake Forest Champion contest was sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay as part of the International Year of Forests. The four Chesapeake Forest Champions were honored earlier this month at the 2011 Chesapeake Watershed Forum in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Visit the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay's website to learn more about the Chesapeake Forest Champions.
Image: (from left to right) Sally Claggett, U.S. Forest Service; David Wise, Chesapeake Bay Foundation; Michael LaChance, Virginia Cooperative Extension; Susan Benedict, land owner, Centre County, Pa.; Carole Bergmann, Montgomery County, Md.; and Al Todd, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. Image courtesy Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
Virginia will close its winter blue crab dredge fishery season for the fourth year in a row in a continued effort to rebuild the Chesapeake Bay’s crab population.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted 9-0 to close the fishery at a meeting on Sept. 27. According to the commission, although great progress has been made to restore blue crabs, more work remains to bring the population back to healthy, sustainable levels.
Visit the commission’s website to learn more about the blue crab fishery and the closure.
Scientists are examining the possibility that Atlantic sturgeon – a prehistoric fish whose population is so low that it may be listed as an endangered species – may spawn more than once per year in the James River.
In early September, biologists with Virginia Commonwealth University captured a female sturgeon leaking eggs near the confluence of the Appomattox and James rivers. This area may be a place where migrating fish adjust to less salty water before moving upstream to spawn.
If the Atlantic sturgeon is placed on the federal Endangered Species List, the multiple spawning run discovery could increase the amount of time that spawning-age fish are protected each year.
Read this article from the Bay Journal to learn more about Atlantic sturgeon on the James River.
Image courtesy Virginia Institute of Marine Science
Scientists with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and other Bay Program partners have released a mid-year update on bay grass monitoring in the Chesapeake Bay.
Some highlights of the mid-year monitoring update include:
The full results of the Bay Program’s annual bay grass monitoring will be released next spring.
Visit VIMS’s website to learn more about bay grass monitoring.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has signed into law a bill that prohibits the sale, use and distribution of lawn fertilizer containing phosphorus. The legislation will go into effect on Dec. 31, 2013.
The law also prohibits the sale of deicers containing urea, nitrogen or phosphorus. Additionally, golf courses must implement nutrient management plans by 2017.
Phosphorus is one of the two main types of nutrients that pollute the Bay and its local waterways. Too much phosphorus runoff leads to algae blooms and low-oxygen “dead zones” where underwater life cannot survive.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will launch its last Chesapeake Bay “smart buoy” next week off First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach.
The First Landing smart buoy is one of 10 buoys in NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS). The network of buoys provides boaters and scientists with real-time weather and water data such as temperature, wind speed and dissolved oxygen levels. Teachers can also use the data to support their classroom lessons.
Other smart buoys are located in the Susquehanna, Patapsco, Potomac and James rivers, as well as at several sites in the main Bay.
For more information about CBIBS and the Chesapeake Bay smart buoys, visit buoybay.noaa.gov.
Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund Advisory Committee is accepting applications for nearly $308,000 in grant funding for Chesapeake Bay-related education and restoration activities. The funding is from sales of Virginia’s “Friend of the Chesapeake” license plates.
Last year, 58 grantees received approximately $312,000 in funding. Since 1996, the state has awarded nearly $6 million.
Two types of project proposals will be accepted: projects that increase public awareness about Chesapeake Bay restoration, and action-oriented projects that help restore and conserve the Bay.
The deadline for submitting a proposal for the 2012 grant is October 1, 2011. Grants will be awarded in May-June 2012.
For more information, visit the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund Advisory Committee’s website.
Biologists with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) are mapping phragmites along the York River as part of a strategy to control the invasive marsh plant.
The agency will use the phragmites location data to develop a web-based mapping tool. Landowners along the Mattaponi, Pamunkey and York rivers can use the map to see if phragmites is growing on their property. The map should be available on DCR’s invasive species page by winter.
“DCR is developing an improved web-based phragmites mapping application that will allow landowners to assess phragmites invasions on their own land in order to make plans for its control,” said DCR Project Manager Rick Myers.
Phragmites is a tall, perennial grass that grows in marshes. The non-native form of phragmites dominates other plants, forming monocultures that do not provide good habitat for wildlife. Although Virginia has treated thousands of acres with approved herbicides, phragmites is spreading fast because too few landowners are controlling it.
For more information, visit DCR's website.
The Chesapeake Executive Council announced progress toward Chesapeake Bay cleanup milestones, discussed plans for meeting requirements of the Bay “pollution diet,” and encouraged individual Bay stewardship at its annual meeting on July 11 in Richmond, Virginia.
Executive Council members in attendance included U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and Executive Council Chair Lisa Jackson; Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell; Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley; Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett; District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray; Chesapeake Bay Commission Chair Sen. Michael Brubaker; U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan; and representatives from Delaware, New York and West Virginia.
Chesapeake Bay Program partners are currently working toward short-term pollution reduction goals called milestones. All seven Bay jurisdictions are currently on-track or ahead of schedule in meeting these milestones. The deadline for the current set of two-year milestones is December 31, 2011.
Executive Council members also talked about their watershed implementation plans (WIPs), local restoration plans that show how each jurisdiction will meet pollution reductions required by the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. The jurisdictions are now in the second phase of developing their draft plans, which are due at the end of 2011.
Additionally, the Bay Program’s three advisory committees – Citizens, Local Government, and Scientific and Technical – presented to the Executive Council about Bay restoration activities from their unique areas of expertise.
The 2011 Executive Council meeting was held at the Maymont Foundation, located on the James River in Richmond. Executive Council members spent part of the afternoon touring exhibits on topics such as native plants, Bay-friendly lawn care, and soil health and testing. The location was chosen to highlight the meeting’s “Get Grounded in Tour Watershed” theme, which stresses the importance of connecting people with their local waterways. Through its Nature Center and educational programs, Maymont offers local residents a place to learn about and connect with Virginia’s environment.
"The focus of our discussions today was on empowering every citizen in the Bay watershed to be part of restoring these important waters,” said Jackson. “The actions of federal, state and local governments are just the beginning of revitalizing the Bay. We are also counting on the partnership of millions of people who live in this region to join in protecting the waters that support their health, their environment and their economy."
The Executive Council sets the policy agenda for the Chesapeake Bay Program. Visit our Chesapeake Executive Council page for more information.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is seeking federal designation of several Northern Neck creeks and rivers as “no-discharge zones,” which would prohibit overboard dumping of treated or untreated sewage to reduce bacteria contamination in local waterways.
No-discharge zones promote the use of pump-out facilities and dump stations to safely dispose of sewage from boats. The certification of marine sanitation devices, which treat and/or hold sewage on vessels, is targeted to meet fishing and swimming standards in local rivers.
Shellfish harvest restrictions due to fecal bacterial contamination are common throughout Virginia’s tidal Chesapeake Bay tributaries. This contamination has been linked to a variety of sources, including failing septic systems and sewage discharge from boats.
DEQ is proposing no-discharge zones for select water bodies in Richmond, Lancaster, Northumberland and Westmoreland counties. The four-county proposal will be sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for review by July.
Virginia already has no-discharge zones in the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach, and in Broad Creek, Jackson Creek and Fishing Bay in Middlesex County. In the Lynnhaven River, one marina reported that pump-outs nearly doubled when the tributary was designated as a no-discharge zone. Fewer boat sewage discharges combined with other pollution-reduction measures led to the re-opening of 1,462 acres of condemned shellfish growing areas to commercial harvest.
DEQ and the Northern Neck Planning District Commission will host a public meeting on June 14 to summarize the no-discharge zone application. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. in the A.T. Johnson Alumni Museum in Montross. DEQ will accept public comments on the application June 15 through July 15, 2011.
Visit DEQ’s website to learn more about Virginia’s “no-discharge zone” program.
Waterman hauled up more than 10,000 derelict “ghost pots,” lost fishing nets and other assorted metal from the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers this winter as part of Virginia’s Marine Debris Removal Program.
In total, more than 28,000 ghost pots – abandoned crab pots that litter the Bay’s bottom – have been removed over the past three years. Watermen removed more marine debris this year than in either of the last two years.
Ghost pots inadvertently trap and kill crabs, fish and other wildlife. Scientists have determined that each functional ghost pot can capture about 50 crabs a year. Ongoing research suggests 20 percent of all the crab pots set in a year are lost, primarily due to storms or boat propellers.
This year, a total of 9,970 ghost pots were recovered. In addition, 52 lost nets and 532 other pieces of junk were hauled up, including a jon boat, a portable generator frame and a large metal crate used to transport hunting dogs.
The recovered crab pots were found to have captured more than 11,000 animals, including thousands of crabs, as well as turtles, fish, eels and whelks. More than 27,000 animals, many already dead, have been found in ghost pots retrieved since 2008.
The removal program, funded by NOAA through the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and administered by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), pays out-of-work watermen to use side-imaging sonar units to detect and retrieve ghost pots and other marine debris. It is the first and largest program of its kind in the United States.
For more information about the Marine Debris Removal Program, visit VIMS' website.
Underwater bay grasses covered 79,675 acres of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers in 2010, according to data from scientists with the Chesapeake Bay Program. This is a 7 percent decrease from 2009, when bay grasses covered 85,914 acres of the Bay’s shallows.
Despite the drop, the 2010 bay grass acreage estimate ranks as the third-highest Bay-wide acreage since 1984, when the annual survey began.
"Even with the decreases in the 2010 bay grass coverage, the patterns are similar to previous years,” said Lee Karrh, living resources assessment chief with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and chair of the Bay Program's SAV Workgroup. “Many of the fresh and low salinity areas have very high abundances, including 16 that have reached their restoration targets. However, the saltier parts of the Bay continue to struggle, with most areas well below the restoration goals, with only the mouth of the James River exceeding the goal.”
Bay grass abundance is currently at 43 percent of the Bay Program’s 185,000-acre goal. This goal is based on approximate historic bay grass abundance from the 1930s to present.
“We were pleased that grasses remain healthy and abundant in two areas where nutrient pollution was reduced: the upper Potomac River and Susquehanna Flats,” said Bob Orth, scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and leader of the baywide annual survey. “However, the overall condition for bay grasses remains one of concern with many areas still having few, if any, grass beds.”
In the upper Bay (from the Susquehanna Flats to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge), bay grasses covered about 21,353 acres. This is a 10 percent decrease from 2009. Large increases were observed in the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and part of the Sassafras River. However, these were offset by large decreases in local rivers, including the Bush, Bohemia and Magothy. The massive grass bed in the Susquehanna Flats continues to dominate this area.
In the middle Bay (from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the Potomac River and Pocomoke Sound), bay grass acreage decreased 11 percent to 35,446 acres. Most segments in this part of the Bay lost grasses. The largest percentage decreases occurred in the middle and lower central Bay, as well as the Choptank, Honga, Patuxent and Potomac rivers. Increases were seen in Tangier and Pocomoke sounds and the Manokin and Big Annemessex rivers, where eelgrass continued to come back following a 2005 die-off.
In the lower Bay (south of the Potomac River), scientists mapped 22,876 acres, a 1 percent increase from 2009. This is the fourth year that bay grasses in this part of the Bay have increased since 2005, when hot summer temperatures caused a dramatic large-scale eelgrass die-off. Most of the gains were in the upper Rappahannock, lower Piankatank, and the upper section and mouth of the James River. These gains offset losses in other areas.
“In 2010, our big concern arose in the lower Bay where eelgrass appeared to suffer another setback from the incredibly hot summertime temperatures,” said Orth. “Since we had mapped those beds prior to the heat wave, losses there are not reflected in our final figures. We believe the really hot summer temperatures in the early part of the growing season may have just cooked the grasses before we were able to map them, e.g. parts of the Honga River. The changes also occurred in areas dominated by just one species, widgeongrass, which has been shown to be a boom or bust species. 2010 may have been the hottest on record but it was those summer time temperatures in June that may have tipped the scale for SAV in some areas.”
Bay grasses – also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV – are a critical part of the Bay ecosystem. They provide underwater life with food and habitat, absorb nutrients, trap sediments, reduce erosion, and add oxygen to the water.
Bay grasses are also an excellent measure of the Bay’s overall condition. The health of bay grasses is closely linked with Bay health. Annual bay grass acreage estimates are an indication of the Bay’s response to pollution control efforts.
Annual bay grass acreage is estimated through an aerial survey, which is conducted from late spring to early autumn. For more information about the aerial survey, and to view an interactive map of bay grass acreage throughout the Bay and its tidal rivers, visit VIMS’ website.
The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population is at its second-highest level since 1997, according to results from the 2011 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey. At 460 million crabs, the blue crab population is nearly double the record low of 249 million in 2007.
Additionally, the survey shows that there are 254 million adult crabs in the Bay, a figure that is above the 200 million population target for the third year in a row. This marks the first time since the early 1990s that there have been three consecutive years where the adult population was above the target.
These figures indicate that emergency crab management measures put into place in 2008 are helping the Bay’s blue crabs recover, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC).
“We continue to realize the benefits of the very tough decisions we made three years ago – decisions that are bringing us closer to our ultimate goal: a self-sustaining fishery that will support our industry and recreational fisheries over the long term,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
“The stock’s improved status from just a few short years ago is neither a random event nor a reflection of improved environmental conditions,” said Dr. Rom Lipcius, who directs the Virginia component of the dredge survey for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).
The unusually high crab abundance allowed watermen to harvest more than 89 million pounds of crabs, the largest amount since 1993. In addition, recreational crabbing license sales increased by 8 percent in 2010. However, the combined commercial and recreational blue crab harvest did not exceed the target of 46 percent. This shows that a healthy crab industry can coexist with stronger regulations, according to VMRC.
Despite these positive figures, overall crab abundance declined due to this past winter’s deep freeze that killed as many as 31 percent of Maryland’s adult crabs, compared to about 11 percent in 2010. Crab reproduction – which is heavily influenced by environmental conditions – was also lower in 2011.
“It was a harsh winter and crab mortality was higher than normal. In fact, it was the worst we’ve seen since 1996,” said VMRC Commissioner Steven G. Bowman. “Thankfully, we acted when we did in 2008 to begin rebuilding the crab population, or the crab census results we see today would be grim indeed.”
“The evidence indicates we’ve succeeded in rebuilding the stock to a degree that it can withstand a perfect storm of rapid temperature drop as crabs move into their overwintering grounds in the lower end of the Chesapeake Bay, followed by a prolonged bout of cold weather,” said VMRC Fisheries Chief Jack Travelstead.
Abundance estimates for young of the year, mature female and adult male crabs are developed separately. Together, these groups of crabs will support the 2011 fishery and produce the next generation of crabs.
The annual Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey is the primary assessment of the Bay’s blue crab population. Since 1990, Maryland DNR and VIMS have sampled for blue crabs at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake from December to March. By sampling during winter – when blue crabs “hibernate” by burying themselves in the mud – scientists can develop the most accurate estimate of the Bay’s blu crab population.
For more information about the blue crab survey results, view this presentation from Maryland DNR.
West Virginia will invest $6 million annually for 30 years toward wastewater treatment plant upgrades that will reduce nutrient pollution to the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.
The money, which will come from excess state lottery funds, will fund about $85 million in bonds that will help pay for upgrades. The funding will cover about 40 percent of the expected cost for the upgrades.
The upgrades will help West Virginia meet new pollution-reduction goals that are part of the federal pollution diet for the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. West Virginia has 13 wastewater facilities that need to be upgraded to meet nutrient limits.
Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed the bill into law on April 6.
Virginia is poised to pass a law banning the sale of fertilizer containing phosphorus, a major pollutant in the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers.
Lawns, parks, golf courses and other grass-covered areas cover 3.8 million acres of the Bay watershed. Most established lawns do not need phosphorus, but the majority of commonly used lawn fertilizers include phosphorus in their nutrient mix.
Once it goes into effect in 2013, the law will reduce an estimated 230,000 pounds of phosphorus pollution from reaching the Bay and Virginia rivers each year. This is 22 percent of Virginia's 2017 phosphorus reduction goal.
The law will also:
A variety of groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, James River Association, Home Builders Association of Virginia and Virginia Association for Commercial Real Estate, supported the legislation.
The legislation was passed by the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates. It now awaits Gov. Bob McDonnell's signature.
When passed, Virginia will become one of nine states that restrict the use or sale of phosphorus in lawn fertilizer. Maryland and Pennsylvania are considering similar legislation.
We’re all hoping that spring is just around the corner, but for now, the Chesapeake Bay region is still in winter’s grip. But don’t let the cold weather stop you from experiencing the Bay! Check out our list of six great places where you can learn about the Bay and its rivers, wildlife and history.
Located in Solomons, Maryland, the Calvert Marine Museum offers an array of different indoor activities to keep Chesapeake Bay education alive during the winter months. Explore the museum’s 29,000-square-foot indoor exhibit, which features fossils that date back 8-20 million years, a touch tank containing live Bay critters such as terrapins and horseshoe crabs, and rarely seen river otters playing in their tank!
Since tours are self-guided, you can take your time while you explore historic collections, including accounts of the region’s first settlers and artifacts from the War of 1812 pulled from a local creek.
In February the museum will hold a few special events, including conversations with Chesapeake authors featuring William Poe, a “How Animals Survive Winter” program for toddlers, and a “Slavery in Southern Maryland” exhibit.
Live in the Newport News, Virginia, area? Then you must check out the Virginia Living Museum!
The museum’s brand-new facility is equipped with five different galleries that highlight all of Virginia’s geographic regions. Walk through the “Coastal Plain Gallery” to view a 30,000 gallon tank that houses aquatic creatures native to the Chesapeake Bay. Step over to the “World of Darkness” gallery to learn a little bit about Virginia’s more mysterious critters, including pine voles, ghost crabs and moon jellyfish.
The museum also has four different Discovery Centers that display everything from working beehives to a Chesapeake Bay Touch Tank.
Located in what some consider the heart of the Chesapeake Bay, the Annapolis Maritime Museum is a piece of history itself. The museum is housed in what used to be the McNasby Oyster Company, the last remaining oyster shucking house in Annapolis, Maryland.
The Maritime Museum is known for its excellent education programs that get students out of the classroom and help them learn about Chesapeake Bay history.
Not a student? No problem. The Maritime Museum hosts a weekly lecture series that highlights topics ranging from the status of the Bay’s oyster population to discussions with authors of Bay-related books. In February, you can expect to hear from underwater archaeologist Susan B. Langley about the excavation of the ship the Scorpion from the Patuxent River.
The museum’s most popular events are photography exhibits that display iconic images of the Chesapeake Bay taken by locals who know it best. From February 5 through March 19, the Muddy Creek Artists’ Guild will display its “Chesapeake Bay Collection.”
The Great Valley Nature Center in Devault, Pennsylvania, is a great resource for teachers who are looking to bring their class to the environment or the environment into their classroom. The center offers a range of programs for varying age levels onsite during the winter. Have your class participate in the “Fur, Feathers and Fins” program to allow your students to learn about different types of animals. Or try the “Pollution Solutions” activity that not only explores the different types and sources of pollution, but how your students can help reduce it. The center even has a program on winter survival techniques of plants and animals.
Can’t get your class to the center? They will come to you! The center provides all the materials as well as a speaker; all you need to provide is the audience. Your students can learn about the animals living in their backyard without having to leave their own classroom. It’s the perfect way to bring the outdoors inside during the cold of winter.
Located on the banks of the Nanticoke River, the Seaford Museum was established to commemorate the history of the town of Seaford, Delaware. The museum is housed in a 1935 Post Office that the local community restored.
The museum includes more than 60 exhibits arranged in a timeline fashion. Topics range from the Nanticoke Indians to shipping and agriculture. You can even learn about one of the most notorious murderers in U.S. history, Seaford local Patty Cannon.
The Seaford Museum is located near the restored Governor Ross mansion and plantation. Here you can learn a little more about the lives of the people who lived in the Chesapeake Bay region during the 1850s and the mystery behind why their popular Governor Ross fled to England.
Want to experience what life on the Eastern Shore was really like 100 years ago? Then head to St. Michaels, Maryland, and visit the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. The museum is known for its summer outdoor programs, but the winter exhibits are just as exciting and interesting.
Explore the museum’s famous Maryland lighthouse, which has been restored to resemble what it would have looked like while fully operational in 1879. Or take a self-guided tour of the museum’s 10 exhibit buildings, which feature displays on the life of Native Americans, early waterman, and animals that live in the Bay.
On Saturdays from January until the end of February, the museum hosts a two-hour Kids Club, where 4 to 9 year olds participate in hands-on games, arts and crafts, and storytelling.
The museum also has special exhibitions on artwork and artifacts from private collections. One recent special exhibition featured aerial photographs of the Bay area to demonstrating how land use has changed over time in the watershed.
What are some of your favorite indoor places to learn about the Chesapeake Bay or the environment? Let us know in the comments!
Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week. Each week, we take a question submitted on the Chesapeake Bay Program website or a frequently asked question and answer it here for all to read.
This week’s question came from John, who asked: “What is the Chesapeake Bay Commission? Who are they and what do they do?”
The Chesapeake Bay Commission is a tri-state legislative body representing Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The commission was created in 1980 as a bi-state commission to help Maryland and Virginia collaborate and cooperate on Chesapeake Bay management. Pennsylvania became a member in 1985, after which time the Commission began advising each state's general assembly on matters deemed to be of Bay-wide concern.
The Commission also serves as the legislative arm of the Chesapeake Bay Program, advising each of the jurisdictions represented by the Bay Program partnership.
Since its establishment, the Commission has worked to promote policy in several areas that are vital to Chesapeake Bay restoration, including nutrient reduction, fisheries management, toxics remediation, pollution prevention, habitat restoration and land management.
The Commission has 21 members from the three states. Among those members are:
The chairman position rotates among the three states each calendar year. As of January 2011, Pennsylvania State Senator Mike Brubaker took over as Chairman of the Commission.
One of the Commission's main goals is to make sure that member states' common interests are thoroughly represented in regard to any federal government actions that may affect them. This has become a vital part of the process of developing the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and Executive Order strategies.
To learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Commission, check out their About Us page.
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week. You can also ask us a question via Twitter by sending a reply to @chesbayprogram Be sure to follow us there for all the latest in Bay news and events.
Richmond, Virginia’s Capitol Square is about to become one of the most environmentally friendly capitols in the nation, with a series of green construction projects set to begin this summer.
The projects, including a retrofit of the capitol grounds and select streets and alleys, aim to reduce polluted stormwater runoff to the James River, a major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
The “Greening Virginia’s Capitol” project was developed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the Virginia Department of General Services (DGS), the City of Richmond and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. The project, in the works for several years but put on hold due to budget cuts, is being funded by a $798,988 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Program and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
A major goal of the project is to let stormwater slowly infiltrate into the ground, rather than flowing freely across pavement and directly into the James River. Rain gardens and pervious pavement will absorb and filter runoff, cleaning it before it can reach groundwater supplies.
All phases of the project are anticipated to be completed by spring 2011, when experts estimate that overall stormwater runoff from Capitol Square will be reduced by 64 percent. Phosphorus runoff will be reduced by 69 percent and nitrogen will be reduced by 70 percent.
The first phase of the project is to “green” of alleys at 5th and 12th streets. Other phases will include:
The Greening Virginia’s Capitol project be used by Virginia DCR as a model of how to reduce stormwater runoff in an urban setting.
The project will also show citizens and officials throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed how simple changes can make a huge difference in the amount of polluted runoff that reaches the Bay and its streams, creeks and rivers.
Greening Virginia’s Capitol has also been selected as one of the first landscapes to participate in the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), a new program testing the nation’s first rating system for green landscape design, construction and maintenance.
To learn more about the Greening Virginia’s Capitol project, visit www.greenvacapitol.org.
Underwater bay grasses covered 85,899 acres of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers in 2009, about 46 percent of the 185,000-acre baywide abundance goal, according to data from scientists with the Chesapeake Bay Program. This was a 12 percent increase from 76,860 acres in 2008 and the highest baywide acreage since 2002.
Bay grasses -- also called submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV -- are critical to the Bay ecosystem because they provide habitat and nursery grounds for fish and blue crabs, serve as food for animals such as turtles and waterfowl, clear the water, absorb excess nutrients and reduce shoreline erosion. Bay grasses are also an excellent measure of the Bay's overall condition because they are not under harvest pressure and their health is closely linked to water quality.
“The overall increase in SAV acreage in 2009 was strongly driven by changes in the middle and lower Bay zones, including Tangier Sound, the lower central and eastern lower Chesapeake Bay, Mobjack Bay, and the Honga, Rappahannock and lower Pocomoke rivers,” said Bob Orth, scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and leader of the SAV baywide annual survey.
Bay grass acreage increased in all three of the Bay’s geographic zones – upper, middle and lower – for just the second time since 2001.
Upper Bay Zone (from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge north)
In the upper Bay zone, bay grasses covered about 23,598 acres, just shy of the 23,630-acre goal for this area and a 3 percent increase from 2008.
Large percentage increases were observed in the Northeast River, part of the Sassafras River and the upper central Chesapeake Bay, an area just north of the Bay Bridge. However, bay grass acreage in a few local rivers, such as the Bush and Magothy, decreased significantly and offset increases elsewhere.
Overall, the massive grass bed on the Susquehanna Flats continues to dominate this zone.
“The growth and persistence of the SAV bed in the Susquehanna Flats – including the largest bed in the Bay – continues to be a major success story for bay grass recovery today,” said Lee Karrh, living resources assessment chief with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and chair of the Bay Program's SAV Workgroup. “Many of the Bay’s lower salinity areas are doing well and seem to be driven by reductions in nutrient pollution entering the Bay. Seventeen segments in this zone have met or exceeded their restoration targets.”
Middle Bay Zone (from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the Potomac River and Pocomoke Sound)
In the middle Bay zone, bay grass acreage increased 15 percent to 39,604 acres, 34 percent of the 115,229-acre goal.
Eighty-four percent of the acreage increase in the middle Bay zone occurred in five segments: Eastern Bay, the Honga River, Pocomoke and Tangier sounds, and the lower central Chesapeake Bay. These changes reflect a large expansion of widgeon grass – the dominant SAV species in the middle Bay zone – as well as the continued recovery of eelgrass in Tangier Sound.
Elsewhere in the middle Bay zone, large percentage declines in bay grass acreage were observed in the Severn River and Piscataway Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River.
Lower Bay Zone (south of the Potomac River)
In the lower Bay zone, researchers mapped 22,697 acres of bay grasses – a 17 percent increase from 2008 and 49 percent of the 46,030-acre restoration goal. This is the third year that bay grasses in the lower Bay zone have increased since 2005, when hot summer temperatures caused a dramatic large-scale dieback of eelgrass.
Eighty-two percent of the acreage increase in the lower Bay zone occurred in Mobjack Bay, the lower Rappahannock River and the eastern lower Chesapeake Bay.
None of the 28 segments in the lower Bay zone saw large declines in bay grasses in 2009.
“We are cautiously optimistic about eelgrass recovery now that it is into its third year following the 2005 dieback,” said Orth. “But we are concerned about the long-term absence of eelgrass from areas that traditionally supported large dense beds, such as much of the York and Rappahannock rivers, many of the mid-Bay areas just north of Smith Island, and in the deeper areas of Pocomoke Sound. Declining water clarity noted in much of the lower Bay may be a major impediment to eelgrass recovery.”
Annual bay grass acreage estimates are an indication of the Bay's response to pollution control efforts, such as implementation of agricultural best management practices (BMPs) and upgrades to wastewater treatment plants.
Bay watershed residents can do their part to help bay grasses by reducing their use of lawn fertilizers, which contribute excess nutrients to local waterways and the Bay, and participating with their local tributary teams or watershed organizations.
Bay grass acreage is estimated through an aerial survey, which is flown from late spring to early fall. Visit VIMS’s website for additional information about the aerial survey and an interactive map of bay grass acreage throughout the Bay.