In a watershed whose population has expanded by more than eight million people in the last 50 years, protecting land while allowing urban and suburban growth can pose a challenge. But one piece of Maryland’s land protection puzzle has proven successful in protecting forests and, according to some, could provide guidance to other regions interested in keeping trees on land that is threatened by residential development.
The Maryland Forest Conservation Act was passed under Governor William Donald Schaefer in late 1991 and implemented at the local level by county and municipal governments in 1993. It was designed to reduce forest loss following development and is the only statewide forest conservation regulation in the nation to focus on forest retention and replanting during the construction permitting process.
The Act affects those who propose land use changes on properties of one acre and greater in size and that require a subdivision approval, grading permit or sediment control permit: for example, a homeowner who wants to add a new residence to his property or a developer who wants to build a subdivision. These landowners must work with a licensed forester, licensed landscape architect or other qualified professional to submit their plans to protect trees during construction and to mitigate construction by retaining a portion of existing forest cover or by planting new trees.
By its nature as a required rather than optional regulation, the Act affects and engages a wide swath of landowners in planting trees and protecting land. “We’re more restrictive here [in Maryland than in other states] on what happens [to land] during development. There are a lot of environmental laws at the local level and at the state level that you need in order to get your building permits. Other states aren’t that way,” said Marian Honeczy, Urban & Community Forestry Programs Manager with the Maryland Forest Service.
Some landowners have argued against planting new trees when their proposed developments don’t involve removing them. But as Honeczy explains, the Act was meant to engage everyone in the work of environmental conservation. “Governor Schaefer felt that everyone should bear the burden of protecting the Bay, since we’re all sharing the benefits. It didn’t matter if you had a forested site or a farm field [slated for development]. Everyone had to comply with the law.”
That said, not everyone bears the same burden. Different zoning categories have different afforestation and reforestation thresholds and different forest retention amounts. In other words, those developing a farm field may have to plant fewer trees than those developing a woodlot. “But you’re still planting trees,” Honeczy said.
Healthy forests are critical to a healthy Chesapeake Bay: they protect clean air and water and provide food and habitat to wildlife. (For this reason, the Chesapeake Bay Program has committed to expanding urban tree canopy by 2,400 acres by 2025.) And for Honeczy, the Forest Conservation Act has “more than accomplished” its intended goal of conserving forests in the face of development. Indeed, research suggests the regulation has had a significant and positive effect on Maryland’s forest cover, and the numbers seem to agree: In the first 20 years of the Forest Conservation Act, 110,701 acres of forest land were put under protection from development. That area is two and a half times bigger than Washington, D.C.!
The Act does face challenges—in the form of finite land and finite funding—but it was “never intended to be the sole answer for all of our forest cover and urban tree issues,” Honeczy said. Just as protecting forests was not intended to be a burden on the shoulders of one landowner, it was also not intended to be a burden on the shoulders of one law, one program or one state agency.
Whether it is through the Woodland Incentive Program—which provides cost-share assistance for tree planting and timber stand improvement on forests between five and 1,000 acres in size—the Lawn to Woodland program—which fully funds the conversion of one- to four-acre lawns to forests—or the Marylanders Plant Trees program—which provides coupons to homeowners who want to purchase trees to plant—the Maryland Forest Service and their partners across the state will continue to connect anyone who wants to plant a tree with people and programs that will help them do so.
“Trees do so much in a cheap, efficient way to protect the Bay,” Honeczy said. “And every person can plant a tree on their property.”
Flying low over the Chesapeake Bay, it’s not actually the water that draws your attention—except for the sporadic glint of sunlight reflected off of its calm surface. Instead, it’s the patchwork landscape and the rate at which a quiet farm field gives way to grids of streets or wriggling stretches of wetlands.
And there’s another reason to pay attention to all that land: because the Chesapeake Bay is so shallow—its average depth is just 21 feet—and because so much land area feeds into it, the health of the Bay depends greatly on how the land is treated.
With the support of a volunteer pilot from the nonprofit organization LightHawk, we took a look around the northern edges of the Chesapeake Bay to see some of the ways the land has been shaped by the people living there.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
Photographs and text by Will Parson
Three centuries ago, the Chesapeake Bay watershed was covered with trees. Maples, pines and oaks captured rainfall, stabilized the soil and offered food, shelter and migration paths to wildlife. But as the country was settled and developed, more people moved into the region, and forests were cleared for farms and communities and trees were cut for timber and fuel. The population of the region now stands at almost 18 million—more than double what it was in the 1950s. While valuable forests do remain in the region, many suffer from fragmentation: separation into smaller pieces that are vulnerable to threats.
According to a report from the U.S. Forest Service, 60 percent of Chesapeake forests have been divided into disconnected fragments by roads, homes and other gaps that are too wide or dangerous for wildlife to cross. The isolated communities of plants and animals that result have smaller gene pools that make them more susceptible to disease. The sensitive species that thrive in the moderate temperatures and light levels of an “interior” forest (which is mature and separate from other land uses) can’t find the unique habitat characteristics they need. And the forests themselves are more vulnerable to invasive species and other threats.
In an effort to reconnect fragmented forests, conservationists have turned to wildlife corridors. These corridors give wildlife the space to move and can be found around the world. The World Wildlife Federation runs the Freedom to Roam initiative to protect corridors along the Northern Great Plains and Eastern Himalayas. The National Wildlife Federation runs the Critical Paths Project to cut the number of fatal road crossings for animals in Vermont. And watershed states like Maryland and Virginia have incorporated wildlife corridors into their green infrastructure plans.
Even local landowners have contributed to the corridor movement: in September, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay recognized Christine and Fred Andreae as Exemplary Forest Stewards for their work to manage 800 acres of forestland—including a corridor that connects George Washington National Forest and Shenandoah National Park—along the Page and Warren county lines in Virginia.
Christine and Fred placed the property under conservation easement through the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which was established by the Commonwealth in 1966. The Andreaes have also convinced their neighbors to follow suit: what started as an agreement between Christine, Fred and one neighbor to connect a patch of land on two sides of the Shenandoah River eventually expanded to include eight property owners and 1,750 contiguous acres. Today, bald eagles and bears abound on the land that can be seen from Skyline Drive.
“[Our neighbors] wanted to keep the land undeveloped,” Fred said when asked how he motivated others to join the conservation cause. “Most of them had family connections to the land—some [spanning] 100 years or more. It was their heritage they wanted to see preserved.”
The Andreaes have made their property as self-sustaining as possible so that once their two sons inherit it, it won’t have to be sold. “We’ve done something that will last. That’s a legacy. That will be there, theoretically, forever,” Fred said. “There aren’t too many things you can do that will be there after you’re gone—that will have an impact on my family and the other people who live in the area.”
Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Chesapeake Bay Program has committed to expanding urban tree canopy and restoring hundreds of thousands of miles of streamside trees and shrubs. Learn more about forests and our work to protect them.
Nearly 18 million people reside in the Chesapeake Bay region, with more moving to the area each year. Growing disputes over land use have conservationists working hard to protect the robust natural resources that can be found within the Bay region. A significant part of these efforts include developing and improving public access points as means for people to experience, explore and develop connections to the land, water and wildlife.
Nestled in between Accokeek Creek and Potomac Creek, Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve in Stafford, Virginia serves as one of the state’s highest land conservation priorities in the past 10 years. “This is a priority site because it’s such a large intact ecosystem. You have thousands of acres of mature hardwood forest on the coastal plain in Virginia,” explained Michael Lott, Crow’s Nest Manager and Northern Region Steward for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).
In addition to around 2,200 acres of mature hardwood forest, the site boasts 750 acres of nearly pristine wetlands and more than 10 miles of hiking trails, and it acts as a safe haven for wildlife and countless viewing opportunities for critters such as migratory waterfowl, white-tailed deer, river otters and beavers.
The preserve and those who manage it have faced many obstacles over the past few decades, including population growth and development encroaching on the area. “In the 1970’s, there were around 30,000 people in Stafford County; a few of the subdivisions were vacation homes for people in D.C. Now, the population is about 130,000. This is the best remaining tidal marsh in Stafford County, so our priority here is conservation,” said Geoff Austin, Northern Region Operations Steward with DCR.
Despite the vastness of the preserve and the great potential it holds for environmental education and recreational opportunities, the property is largely closed to the public until further operational resources can be effectively implemented.
The dynamic duo of Lott and Austin dedicate 90 percent of their working hours toward maintaining the preserve and trying to make it accessible to the public, but one major hurdle stands in their way – a mile-and-a-half long access road. “The big obstacle is the access road to the [completed] parking lot. We need to raise the money to fix that road. That road has been there since the colonial era, it’s been dug down and needs a lot of work before it’s passable for cars,” explained Austin. The team – with help from volunteers - keeps the trails clear, maintains the parking lot and plans to install proper trail signage once the road is completed.
Lott and Austin measure their success one victory - no matter the size - at a time, their latest being the installation of a handicap-accessible boat ramp to be opened to the public within the next couple of months. The ramp overlooks acres of tidal marsh, provides access to Accokeek Creek and lays adjacent to a half-mile trail complete with benches for wildlife observers. “It’s a great birding spot,” said Austin. The launch is part of a larger plan to connect a water trail system along the Potomac River.
DCR wants the public to be able to experience the preserve’s natural wonder. “In the past, this landscape did not lend itself to farming very well, and so a lot of the soil we have out here is still very much intact. Researchers have said that throughout the mid-Atlantic and East Coast, you can’t find soil like this in very many places anymore, which is why the forest out here is so productive," explained Lott. “A lot of the forest, particularly in the ravines, hasn’t been logged intensively since the Civil War, so it’s trending back toward mature forest. [For this reason] we keep the trails clear and have been holding open houses twice a year for five years now, so people have had the opportunity to see it and enjoy the trails.”
Tending to nearly 3,000 acres of forest and wetlands is no simple task for two people, but the work is done out of a place of deep caring and passion for protecting and sharing the special places in life with the public. “I grew up in this area and it’s nice to have an intact piece of hardwood [forest] that is going to be preserved in the area for years to come. It’s great to be able to walk out there when I’m working or hunting and see the big trees; you don’t see that in many other places in this area. As stewards of the land year-round you spend a lot of time here – it means a lot to be able to take care of this place.” said Austin.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
It is often said that the environment is dying a death by a thousand cuts. No single development, no act of an individual or organization or business causes a big negative impact; but collectively these developments and actions represent a significant impact on the environment. Left unchecked or unaltered, the ultimate fate is clearly predictable.
Thankfully, throughout the watershed, more and more small organizations and businesses are working with local governments to uproot pavement and concrete and replace it with gardens and natural areas. These pollution-reducing conservation practices at churches, schools, libraries, car dealerships, marinas, and, yes, even local brew pubs are healing some of the thousand cuts, as they absorb runoff from buildings and parking lots and reduce pollution flowing off the land and into local streams and creeks. Most of these projects are the result of a few dedicated and talented local citizens and organizations. Recently, the Spa Creek Conservancy, working with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Watershed Stewards Academy, with funding support from state and local agencies, installed rain gardens and infiltration basins at the Cecil Memorial Methodist and Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Churches in Annapolis, Maryland.
Remarkably, these beautiful gardens now catch and absorb virtually all of the polluted stormwater runoff that previously flowed off the property, untreated, and into nearby Spa Creek. While controlling polluted runoff was important to the leadership and congregations of these inner-city churches, so too was the sense of pride that they had in beautifying their houses of worship, with flowering native plants in the rain gardens and these community improvements.
So, how do we stop the death of a thousand cuts from which nature is suffering? By healing those cuts one at a time, through small projects like these that also lift our hearts and our souls and restore that sense of pride in our communities. How glorious and uplifting it will be for members of these churches to attend services and witness these plants in full bloom and know that they are honoring and paying tribute to creation.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
Researchers from the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) surveyed three rivers in the Chesapeake Bay region to examine how variations in land use and development impact the health of the Bay, finding that water quality and aquatic animal health could help gauge the overall well-being of coastal regions.
The NCCOS assessment, conducted from 2007 to 2009, explored linkages between land use, water quality, and aquatic animal health along the Corsica, Magothy, and Rhode Rivers. Researchers measured water quality for dissolved oxygen, nutrient concentrations and water clarity, and based aquatic animal health on the growth, disease rates and diversity of fish and shellfish stocks.
As the population of the Chesapeake Bay region grows from 17 million to a predicted 20 million residents by 2030, an increasing number of people will rely on the Bay for their food, recreation and livelihoods. The assessment results suggest that environmental pressure from development could both weaken the capacity of the Bay to provide these services and counteract the benefits of current restoration efforts.
“Luckily, ecosystems tend to be resilient; many are able to maintain a state of relatively strong health when faced with environmental stress,” the report states. However, it also clarifies that if the health of coastal waters is pushed beyond a point of recovery, it could affect the ability of the Bay to cope with “environmental stress”—including increased rainfall related to climate change.
“The science challenge, going forward, is in identifying and communicating where systems fall relative to some threshold or tipping point,” the report states. Results of the assessment can be used to inform “smart development plans” that can balance the effects of human activities with better support of Chesapeake Bay’s resiliency.
Green roofs, porous pavement and other tools of the green infrastructure trade can be a cost-effective way to control stormwater runoff, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report that estimates the benefits of Lancaster City’s long-term green infrastructure plan.
Image courtesy Lindsayy/Flickr
Located in south-central Pennsylvania, Lancaster City has a population approaching 60,000. Each year, combined sewer overflows send almost 750 million gallons of stormwater runoff and untreated waste into the Conestoga River, pushing excess nutrients into the tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. In an effort to combat this pollution problem, the city released a green infrastructure plan in 2011 that outlines the tree plantings, parking lot excavations and other projects that will be put in place over the next 25 years.
While the plan lists the water quality benefits the city expects to see—including the reduction of stormwater runoff by more than 1 billion gallons per year—it is, for some, an incomplete assessment. So, in a report released this week, the EPA furthered the city’s benefits analysis by addressing the additional environmental, social and economic benefits that green infrastructure can provide.
According to the report, the long-term implementation of green infrastructure in Lancaster City could save $120 million in avoided gray infrastructure capital costs and earn close to $5 million in annual benefits. Green infrastructure would reduce air pollution, energy use and stormwater runoff, and offer residents a boost in property values, recreational opportunities and other qualitative benefits. With a forecasted implementation cost of between $51.6 and $94.5 million, it is clear the benefits of green infrastructure exceed the costs.
While gray infrastructure uses tanks and pipes to trap and dispose of rainwater, green infrastructure uses soil and vegetation to manage rainwater where it falls. A combination of green and gray infrastructure has proven effective for Lancaster City, and similar plans could benefit communities across the watershed.
One reconstructed parking lot, for instance, incorporated almost 6,000 square feet of bioretention and infiltration practices on South Plum Street, with an estimated annual benefit of more than $1,100. A commercial green street in northeast Lancaster incorporated bioretention and infiltration practices as well as permeable pavement, with an estimated annual benefit of more than $2,300. And an urban park redeveloped with a host of green infrastructure practices carries an estimated annual benefit of more than $5,500.
“Valuing multiple benefits of green infrastructure ensures water management investments by the city will help… provide a safer, healthier and more prosperous community,” said Liz Deardorff, Clean Water Supply director at American Rivers, in a media release. “The results of this study affirm that green infrastructure has multiple benefits for both large and small cities needing to reduce pollution and ensure clean water.”
Coastal wetlands in the United States are disappearing faster than ever, as population growth and human development place pressure on this critical habitat.
According to a report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the nation lost almost 370,000 acres of coastal wetlands between 2004 and 2009, at a rate of 80,000 acres per year. This marks a 25 percent faster rate of loss than researchers measured between 1998 and 2004.
Coastal wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems on earth, and a loss of wetlands is also a loss of wildlife habitat, water quality control and shoreline protection. Wetlands provide spawning grounds, nurseries, shelter and food to fish, shellfish, birds and other animals; wetlands filter polluted runoff before it can enter our rivers and streams; and wetlands stabilize shorelines in the face of strong storms, sea level rise and climate change.
While some wetland losses can be offset by the creation of new wetlands elsewhere, this mitigation strategy is often ineffective along the coast. According to the report, this is because coastal ecosystems can be difficult to work in, storms and sea level rise can hamper reestablishment efforts, and human encroachment and land use can cut down on the number of available sites to restore. Indeed, most of the nation’s coastal wetland loss can be attributed to development and other human activities that increase impervious surface area, affect water quality and fragment or destroy natural habitats.
Garden beds filled with native plants, parking spots reserved for fuel-efficient vehicles and plant-covered roofs that trap rainfall before it runs into storm drains: these simple steps to “go green” have turned a Southern Maryland community college into a model of conservation.
Located less than five miles from the Patuxent River, the College of Southern Maryland’s (CSM) Prince Frederick campus has become home to a green building that shows students and citizens alike the benefits of green infrastructure.
Indeed, green building has become the norm for new facilities in a state that has long championed smart growth and all that it entails, from funding development inside of existing communities to protecting rural areas from suburban sprawl. Maryland legislation passed in 2008 even requires building projects of a certain size to be certified as green, whether it is through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Certification program or the Green Globes system. At 30,000 square feet, the academic building in Prince Frederick fit the bill of needing to be green.
“[Earning green certification] was a mandate from the state,” said Richard Fleming, CSM vice president and dean of the Prince Frederick campus. “It’s a laborious process, but it has also been exciting, because I had never worked with [a green building] before.”
Fleming has worked with community colleges for 35 years, and was until 2009 the vice president for academic affairs at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Va. The chance to construct a new building on the fastest-growing campus in the CSM network attracted him to this new position at his sixth college in as many states.
Opened in September and funded in part by the state, the Prince Frederick building is the second LEED-certified building in Calvert County. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, which operates the LEED certification program, green buildings can lower energy use and operational costs; reduce waste and carbon emissions; and provide healthy indoor spaces for building occupants. These are all benefits that Fleming hopes to see.
“The goal behind LEED is to one, reduce water consumption, and two, reduce energy consumption,” Fleming said. “We should, after a period of time… start to see some kind of gas savings, electrical savings, energy savings.”
To earn LEED certification, building projects collect points based on different aspects of their construction. The higher their final score, the higher the certification level earned. Fleming hopes that the Prince Frederick building will reach gold status, and gave us a tour of some of the items on its green building checklist: large windows that flood the space with natural light; green roofs that capture rainfall; bike racks that encourage public transportation; bio-retention cells that collect stormwater from sidewalks and parking lots; and native, drought-tolerant plants—like black-eyed Susans, American beautyberry and Joe-Pye weed—that fill up garden beds.
Students and faculty “are all very pleased with [the new building],” Fleming said. But it is not just the campus that will benefit.
“This is a building that’s open to the public,” said Dorothy Hill, lead media relations coordinator for CSM. The campus has hosted film festivals and concert series, and the new building’s 3,000-square-foot meeting space has been called the best in Calvert County.
“At the dedication, people were very interested in learning what LEED certification was all about,” Hill said. “The community comes here, and will be able to see… that we’re stewards of the environment, and we care about the community.”
Photos by Jenna Valente.
Streams across the United States are suffering a decline in health, as human development alters stream flow and pushes pollutants into the water.
Between 1993 and 2005, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) sampled the algal, macroinvertebrate and fish communities in thousands of streams across the nation. According to a report released by the USGS National Water-Quality Assessment Program, the health of at least one of these three aquatic communities was altered in 83 percent of the streams assessed.
Healthy streams are critical to our communities. Streams provide drinking water, control floods, support commercial and recreational fisheries, and bring aesthetic value into our lives. But stream flow that is altered by human activities can impact native fish, and excess pollutants can alter plant and animal communities.
According to the USGS, tens of thousands of dams and diversions have contributed to the modification in stream flow of 86 percent of the waters assessed in this study. Excess nutrients have altered algal communities, while excess pesticides have had an adverse affect on macroinvertebrates, many of which can be harmed by the toxins found in insecticides.
But one in five streams in urban and agricultural areas was found to be in good health. This finding suggests that green development, on-farm conservation and other best management practices can help us maintain healthy streams alongside continued development.
Read more about the The Quality of Our Nation’s Waters.
Natural gas resources underlie almost half of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but some of the regulations that govern Bay cleanup do not take extraction-related pollution into account.
According to the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC), more research is needed to track the environmental effects of natural gas extraction and to help jurisdictions determine whether or not they must implement conservation practices to offset potential pollution loads and meet the Bay pollution diet.
Image courtesy WCN24/7/Flickr
The pollution diet, or Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), limits the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that can enter the Bay from across the watershed. According to STAC, hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has the potential to change local pollution loads, as natural gas extraction increases the erosion of sediment into local rivers and withdraws water from area sources, altering aquatic habitat and river flow.
In a factsheet released this week, STAC outlines the recommendations that the panel made following a workshop on shale gas development. STAC recommends that the Bay Program incorporate natural gas drilling into the Bay Watershed Model, which estimates the amount of nutrients and sediment reaching the Bay. STAC also recommends that the industry, scientific and policy-making communities continue to research shale gas development and implement conservation practices to lower natural gas extraction’s cumulative impact on the Bay.
Read more about the environmental effects of shale gas development in the watershed.
The District of Columbia has outlined the steps it will take to become the healthiest, greenest and most livable city in the United States.
The Sustainable DC Plan, released this week by the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) and Office of Planning (OE), sets forth more than 100 actions that are meant to improve the District’s energy consumption, waste generation, stormwater management and access to open spaces, clean water and fresh, local food—all in just two decades.
At an event that celebrated the release of the plan, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent C. Gray called Washington, D.C., a “model” of sustainability for cities across the nation and around the world.
“Things are changing. Times are changing. And we are changing,” Gray said.
In recent years, the District has become a leader in planting trees, installing green roofs, boosting public transportation and curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Sustainable DC Plan will build on these actions with ambitious goals to clean up local land, water and the Chesapeake Bay. The District will ensure, for instance, that all residents live within a 10-minute walk of parks or natural spaces; that 40 percent of the city is covered with a healthy tree canopy; and that all of the District’s waterways—including the long-polluted Anacostia River—are made fishable and swimmable by 2032.
Read more about the Sustainable DC Plan.
While research continues to shed light on the environmental effects of shale gas development, much more remains unknown about the risks that the process known as “fracking” could pose for the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
According to a report released this week by a panel of scientific experts, additional research and monitoring—on sediment loads, on forest cover, on the best management practices that might lessen fracking’s environmental impact and more—must be done to determine how hydraulic fracturing might affect land and water resources in the region.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Hydraulic fracturing is a process that works to extract natural gas and oil from beneath the earth’s surface. During the process, a mixture of water, sand and additives is pumped at high pressure into underground rock formations—in the watershed, this formation is known as the Marcellus Shale—breaking them apart to allow the gas and oil to flow into wells for collection.
The process can impact the environment in a number of ways. According to the report, installing shale gas wells requires clearing forests and building roads, which can impact bird and fish habitat and increase the erosion of sediment into local rivers and streams. Withdrawing water from area sources—an essential part of gas extraction, unless water is brought in from off-site—can alter aquatic habitat and river flow. And the drilling process may result in the accumulation of trace metals in stream sediment.
Read more about the environmental effects of shale gas development in the watershed.
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.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved new standards to control polluted stormwater runoff from roads, buildings and other developed areas in Washington, D.C.
The District’s renewed municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permit requires that redevelopment projects in the city install runoff-reducing practices to slow the flow of polluted stormwater to the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
The required practices include:
Roads, rooftops, parking lots and other hard surfaces channel stormwater directly into local rivers and streams, carrying pollution and eroding streambanks. The renewed permit will help the District in meeting its Bay pollution reduction goals and Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP).
Visit the EPA’s website to learn more about the new stormwater permit and standards.
It takes a lot of work to protect the critical land that borders the Chesapeake Bay and its streams, rivers and wetlands. Mary Owens, conservation and education coordinator for the Maryland Critical Area Commission, takes us through a typical day in her job in our latest “From the Field” feature.
The calendar tells me that it is spring, and I am looking forward to a day in the field. As a natural resources planner for Maryland’s Critical Area Commission, my days are varied and involve a combination of tasks and activities that frequently have me outdoors. I love this part of my job!
The Critical Area Program is a natural resources protection and conservation program. Through the Critical Area Program, Maryland works cooperatively with local county and municipal governments to regulate land use and development activity within the state’s “Critical Area.” The Critical Area includes all land and water within 1,000 feet of tidal waters and tidal wetlands. Because of the Chesapeake Bay’s irregular shoreline, as well as the Atlantic coastal bays and all of the tidal rivers and creeks that feed into the bays, this “strip” of land includes about 680,000 acres -- about 11 percent of the state.
After stepping outside and realizing that the weather has turned back to a wintry chill, I get a fleece vest, scarf and gloves (just in case). In this line of work, you soon realize that it is always colder and windier near the water. While this is great in August, it can be a little rough in early April. It’s difficult to review a proposed development project or evaluate a forested buffer when all you can think about is being cold.
My first task for the day is to talk with my boss about a problem with a development project in southern Maryland. The project I am reviewing is an 11-lot subdivision that involves clearing a mature forest, which has been identified as Forest Interior Dwelling Species (FIDS) habitat. This type of habitat is very important to Maryland songbirds. Many songbird species have experienced significant population declines in the last several decades. The dwindling numbers are largely due to fragmentation of the large forested tracts (usually 50 to 100 acres) that songbirds need to nest and breed. To offset the impacts associated with clearing FIDS habitat, developers are usually required to plant and protect similar habitat on another property.
The problem is that a suitable FIDS mitigation site has not been identified for this project. So we have to notify the planning staff that the project cannot proceed without addressing this requirement. We agree to send a letter to the planning director to request a meeting to resolve this issue before any additional permits are issued.
My next activity is also related to FIDS mitigation, and it involves a FIDS Mitigation Bank that we have been working on for over a year. Over the last two years, Commission staff have worked very closely with several local governments and the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage to develop FIDS Mitigation Banks throughout the Critical Area. This effort is essential to the successful protection and conservation of FIDS species.
I have just obtained updated survey information, aerial imagery and a forest management plan for a proposed bank. I meet with DNR Heritage staff to go over the information as we move toward “certifying the bank” as suitable for FIDS mitigation. The meeting goes well, and it looks like we have just over the necessary 100 acres that we hoped to protect on this property. Hopefully this “bank” will be “open for business” in the next month or so.
After these two meetings, I finally get on the road and head out to a site visit in Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC). It’s rainy, windy, and cold, so I am glad I have extra clothes in the car. The purpose of my field trip is to meet with a horticulturist and other HSMC staff to explore the possibility of using goats to remove invasive plant species. Yes – goats! Low tech perhaps, but highly effective, since they eat undesirables like poison ivy and multiflora rose.
Within the Critical Area and particularly within the buffer (the first 100 feet adjacent to tidal waters, tidal wetlands and tributary streams), maintaining natural vegetation is very important. Unfortunately, this is the area where most people want to clear all of the vegetation so they can have a panoramic water view. Massive clearing, grading and bushogging are not allowed in the buffer because they remove natural forest vegetation, which is extremely important to water quality and habitat. These activities can also create severe erosion and sedimentation problems in tidal waters and wetlands.
Fortunately at Historic St. Mary’s City, they aren’t proposing to “clear” large buffer areas to create a view. Rather, they are looking at creative ways to address a serious invasive species problem. We walk around several areas of the property to look at the condition of the landscape and assess topography, soils, vegetation, and existing uses and access. In various areas, the invasive species have literally taken over the natural forest. Without eliminating these undesirable species, it is impossible for the buffer to function optimally. Often, removing invasive species and judiciously pruning trees can create a great view without compromising the value of the forested buffer. This type of work requires a Buffer Management Plan to ensure that the work is properly managed and that mitigation, in the form of supplemental planting, is provided if necessary.
The meeting with the owner of Eco-Goats goes well. It seems like using the goat herd may be a cost-effective and ecologically friendly method of addressing the invasive species problem. The owner tells us that the goats especially like many of the species that are present. The goats can also get to steeply sloping areas that are generally inaccessible to equipment and dangerous for humans. Using the goats is definitely preferable to applying herbicides, especially close to streams, wetlands and waterways. In the roughly one-half to 1 acre area that is identified as a good test site, he estimates that it would take 30 goats less than a week to munch the invasive species down to stems.
After this meeting, the HSMC staff wants to show me a site where they are proposing to construct a special events pavilion. The proposed location is outside the 100-foot buffer, which is good. Unfortunately, it is located in an area where there is an existing stormwater management facility, so that facility will need to be relocated. Fortunately, there are many new stormwater treatment technologies available, so it is likely that we well be able to use several smaller practices such as rain gardens, submerged gravel wetlands or infiltration practices. It’s really beneficial to have the opportunity to discuss various options at the beginning of the design stage, because planning is very important when you are proposing projects in the Critical Area.
My day wraps up in a good way as the sun finally comes out, and it feels like spring. I’ve driven quite a few miles, walked a couple of miles, and learned a lot about goats! As I head homeI drive past the St. Mary’s River, and the sun sparkling on the water is absolutely beautiful! It reminds me that it often does take many small efforts to accomplish things. Small steps, taken together, can eventually take you somewhere. It’s always good to not just focus on the destination, but to enjoy the journey as well.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Inspector General (IG) released on Sept. 10 an evaluation report stating that development growth in the Bay watershed is outpacing Bay restoration efforts. The report was written in response to Congressional requests to evaluate how well the EPA is assisting its Chesapeake Bay partners in restoring the estuary.
The Bay watershed's population is over 16.5 million and growing by more than 170,000 residents annually. The rapid rate of population growth and related residential and commercial development means that this is the only pollution sector in the Bay watershed that is still growing.
In the Bay Program's 2006 Bay Health and Restoration Assessment, it was estimated that increases in pollution due to development have surpassed the gains achieved to date from improved landscape design and stormwater management practices. This estimation from Bay Program scientists has now been corroborated by the IG report.
To combat the increase in pollution from development in the Bay watershed, Bay Program partners are focusing restoration efforts on reducing nutrient and sediment runoff from new development.
Pennsylvania and Virginia have been revising their stormwater regulations.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley recently signed a new stormwater law, and the Maryland Department of the Environment is now working on regulatory actions it will need to put in place to comply with the new Maryland law.
The IG report listed two main recommendations for reducing nutrient and sediment loads from developing lands.
The Chesapeake Bay Program Office director should prepare a strategy to:
Download the full IG evaluation report from the EPA website.
Centuries of population growth and landscape changes have taken their toll on the Bay's water quality, according to the recently released Chesapeake Bay 2006 Health and Restoration Assessment.
Part Two of the assessment, Restoration Efforts, explains that “progress” toward the Bay Program's goal to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution from urban/suburban lands and septic systems is negative due to the rapid rate of population growth in the watershed—and the residential and commercial development that has come with it. About 16.6 million people are estimated to live in the Bay watershed, with an additional 170,000 people moving in each year.
The pollution increases associated with land development—such as converting farms and forests to urban and suburban developments—have surpassed the gains achieved from improved landscape design and stormwater management practices. Pollution from urban and suburban lands is now the only pollution sector in the Bay watershed that is still growing.
Population growth and related commercial and residential developments cause significant amounts of nutrients, sediment and chemical contaminants to make their way into the Bay and its rivers, degrading water quality.
Homes, roads, parking lots and shopping centers cover once-natural lands with impervious—or hardened—surfaces, which prevent water from entering the ground. During the 1990s, the amount of impervious surface in the Bay watershed grew by 41 percent—but the population during that same time period only grew by about 8 percent.
When it rains or snows, stormwater runs across roads, rooftops and other hardened surfaces, carrying with it the harmful pollutants we contribute to the environment—from driving our cars to fertilizing our lawns to not picking up pet waste. All of this is washed into our nearest stormwater drain or stream, and eventually to the Bay.
Once in the water, excess nutrients fuel the growth of algae, which deplete the water of oxygen that all of the Bay's living things need to survive.
Excess nutrients and sediments also cloud the water, which decreases the amount of sunlight that reaches bay grasses. These underwater grass beds provide vital food and habitat for fish, birds, blue crabs and other Bay creatures, and also help oxygenate the water.
Scientists estimate that one-quarter to one-third of the nitrogen reaching the Bay and its rivers comes through the air. One of the primary sources of air pollution are mobile sources, which include vehicles, construction equipment and gas-powered lawn tools. Pollutants released into the air eventually fall onto water surfaces and the land, where they can be washed into local waterways.
Everything we do on the land has an impact on the Bay and the creatures that live in it. By making small changes in the way we live our lives , the Bay watershed's ever-growing population can take part in the Bay restoration effort, helping to reverse the trend of declining water quality to protect all that live in the Bay and preserve the nation's largest estuary for generations to come.
On any given afternoon, thousands of cars and trucks speed along Route 301 on Maryland's upper Eastern Shore, rolling past forests, rivers and soybean fields on their way north to Delaware or south to the Bay Bridge.
(Image courtesy Eastern Shoreway Alliance)
Staff with Adkins Arboretum hope motorists will soon travel on Route 301 for another reason: to see the road itself.
Since early 2002, the arboretum has led the Eastern Shoreway Alliance, a partnership of local organizations and individuals interested in conserving the rural character of this well-traveled road. The group's mission is to protect the stretch of Route 301 between Queenstown, Maryland, and the Maryland/Delaware state line from the development and urbanization threatening many of the Eastern Shore's most scenic areas.
“We want to preserve a sense of place, so you know where you are in the world,” said Ellie Altman, executive director of Adkins Arboretum and co-chair of the Eastern Shoreway Alliance. Much of that “sense of place” has already been lost around the Chesapeake Bay region, as chain restaurants and retail stores make once-unique towns look like any other place in the United States.
Take a drive north on the Eastern Shoreway — the name the Alliance has chosen for Route 301 — into Delaware, and the threat becomes a reality. New homes, stores, hotels and restaurants sit atop land where corn and soybeans grew just a few years ago. Bulldozers and “land for sale” signs along the road indicate that more development is on its way.
(Image courtesy AARoads)
This type of development is not unique to Delaware. Across the Bay watershed — and the country — new construction is concentrated along existing major roads. Although roads are necessary to modern life, they are often gateways to development and the first places where gas stations and strip malls pop up.
Back on the Maryland portion of Route 301, the scene is much closer to the traditional image of rural Delmarva. Volunteers with the arboretum have been working hard to protect this landscape by removing invasive plants and restoring meadows along the road. Dozens of signs mark these areas, which soak up excess polluted runoff and provide habitat for beneficial birds, bugs and butterflies.
With the addition of these meadows, the Eastern Shoreway now acts as a “linear arboretum” where travelers can see some of the Eastern Shore's native plants and flowers outside of Adkins' 400-acre facility in Ridgely, Maryland, according to Altman.
(Image courtesy Eastern Shoreway Alliance)
Through its website, the Eastern Shoreway Alliance markets the road as a travel destination for tourists from Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. And next year, one of the group's biggest goals will be achieved when the Eastern Shoreway is printed in the Maryland State Highway Administration's Scenic Byways Guide. It will be one of the state's few high-speed roads designated as a "scenic byway."
“Normally you think of scenic byways as backroads, not highways,” said Altman. “But highways can — and should — be beautiful, too.”
From the beginning, the State Highway Administration has been a willing participant in this project. The Eastern Shoreway Alliance is working with the agency to reduce mowing along the highway and put up signs at the crossings of the Chester and Sassafras rivers, two Bay tributaries. The group also wants to add literature on the road's significance to the highway's welcome center.
The effort isn't perfect. Billboards litter a few points along the road, advertising politicians, available land and car insurance companies. Although encroaching development can't be stopped entirely, the Eastern Shoreway Alliance hopes that future structures can be built in a way that does not harm the road's natural scenery.
Most importantly, the group has managed to garner support and build a sense of urgency among the area's residents to protect the land along this “beautiful highway.”
“People think it will be here forever,” said Altman of the road and its unspoiled scenery. “We want to interpret, protect and restore the road's environment and show travelers that you can have development that fits in with nature.”