On one of the last remaining islands of the Chesapeake Bay, generations of working watermen have found a home.
Settled in the late seventeenth century, Tangier Island spans a five-mile stretch of water and has never supported more than 1,500 people. Its small size and relative isolation have allowed its residents to maintain a close connection to the past, keeping old customs and a distinct Tidewater dialect alive.
Modern families—with surnames like Crockett, Pruitt, Parks and Dise—can trace their lineage back hundreds of years, and the island’s economy remains tied to the harvest of crabs, fish and oysters. But these tenuous traditions are threatened by worsening water quality and sea-level rise.
In December, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team called together decision-makers and watermen for a shared meal and stakeholders’ discussion at one of Tangier Island’s four sit-down restaurants.
Watermen from Tangier and neighboring Smith Island spoke of the problems they see in and on the Bay and how they might be more involved in the management decisions that directly impact their livelihoods.
Held in the community in which these watermen live and work, the meeting allowed many of them to speak and be heard in a new and significant way.
One of the most pressing problems for the watermen is the flow of sediment into the Bay. As sediment runs off of land and into the water, sand and silt block sunlight from reaching the grass beds that offer shedding blue crabs refuge when their soft shells make them most vulnerable.
Soft-shell crabs are critical to the Tangier Island economy. And a loss of grass beds—which one waterman called “the life blood of the Chesapeake Bay”—could mean a loss of soft-shell crabs. “The habitat,” a second waterman said. “It just ain’t there.”
Seawalls have been put in place to slow the erosion of the island. But as sea levels rise, the land sinks and storms like Sandy, Irene and Isabel grow stronger and more frequent, Tangier continues to wash away.
The northernmost portion of Tangier Island is called Uppards. Once home to a store, a school, a church and a collection of homes, the life of Uppards has disappeared, leaving behind one tumbledown trailer and stretches of marsh, sand and beach.
In October, a small cemetery was uncovered on Uppards by the winds and waves of Superstorm Sandy. Headstones in the graveyard bear the common surname Pruitt. The once-buried bones of those who died in the 1880s are now visible aboveground.
This fall, Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell and officials from the Army Corps of Engineers pledged to build a $4.2 million jetty that will protect the island’s harbor. Some see the long-awaited initiative as a beacon of hope, while others believe it serves only to slow inevitable erosion.
As Tangier Island shrinks, the costs of fuel and gear and living rise, placing further pressure on the island’s aging watermen.
But what career alternatives does a waterman have? Some take jobs aboard tug boats. Other host tours for visitors from the mainland. And still others have found work as captains and educators at island study centers operated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
But most Tangier residents would find it difficult to obtain work off the island, where a 45-minute ride on a ferry or mail boat is needed to make it to the nearest town. One waterman lamented this lack of options: “We don’t have the opportunity to get a land job.”
A dependence on the fish and shellfish of the Bay has created a conservation ethic in many Tangier watermen, including Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. Eskridge spoke of the importance of restoration efforts in a time of environmental change, and of preserving natural resources in order to preserve Tangier careers and culture: “A sustainable resource is more important to a waterman than anyone else.”
Access high-resolution images of Tangier Island on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
A year or two ago, the newest addition to a southeast Washington, D.C., stream was not nesting mallards or spring peeper frogs, but cars – abandoned in the creek at the approximate rate of one vehicle per week.
Illegal dumping was just one problem for Watts Branch: the largest D.C. tributary to the Anacostia River, which flows through the District to the Potomac River and into the Chesapeake Bay. Broken sewer lines running through the stream leaked bacteria into the water. During storms, fast-moving water cut into the stream's banks, leaving Watts Branch looking more like a trench than a backyard creek.
When water cuts into stream banks, it carries sediment (dirt) into the stream. Sediment clouds the water, preventing sunlight from reaching important aquatic life, such as amphibians and bay grasses.
This combination of bacteria and sediment pollution left Watts Branch virtually devoid of life. The creek – just blocks away from Marvin Gaye's childhood home – was beginning to mimic the music legend's environmental concerns, expressed most explicitly in his 1971 single Mercy Mercy Me. ("Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas/Fish full of mercury/Oh, mercy mercy me/Oh, things ain't what they used to be.")
Today, dumped cars are a rare sight, and spring peepers splash into the water as I walk along the banks of Watts Branch. A stream restoration project completed in fall 2011 by the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) not only corrected the dumping problem, but repaired sewer lines, installed native plants, and transformed the trench into a meandering stream that can healthily withstand storm events.
Slowing down fast moving water
"The project is designed to keep the channel relatively stable," explains Peter Hill, branch chief for DDOE's Planning and Restoration Division. "Before, the stormwater and all the runoff would come rushing through here very quickly. The banks were steep; there was not a lot of biological activity."
In one 2008 storm event, the stream’s water level rose from zero to four feet in just two hours.
(Image courtesy DDOE)
Like all stream restoration projects, the Watts Branch project aimed to slow down stormwater flowing into the stream. When water moves slower, it does not cut into and erode stream banks, carrying sediment into the water. This allows plants and wildlife to flourish both on the banks and in the stream.
"Now, when we have a storm, water will rise up, but it will tend to fall back into the center of the stream... this basically relieves the pressure from the stream banks so you don’t get erosion," explains Hill. "The water falls over stones, (in the center of the creek) as opposed to tearing up this bank."
In addition to redirecting stream flows, DDOE and Anacostia Riverkeeper installed a floating trash collecting device in the water. Groundwork Anacostia empties the device every two weeks, preventing trash from floating downstream.
Parks and People Foundation and other volunteer groups helped install native plants and aquatic grasses, which will help to keep soil on the stream banks in place.
Watts Branch was chosen for restoration because of its severe water quality impairments from sediment and bacteria. But there are hundreds of streams just like it across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In Northwest D.C., Milkhouse Ford, a tributary to Rock Creek, also suffered from high volumes of fast-moving stormwater flowing from a nearby residential neighborhood. Today, rocks separate the stream into small pools where tadpoles are hatching, and newly planted trees dot the stream banks. The DDOE and National Park Service project was completed in fall 2011.
"Each pool is a foot drop in elevation," explains project manager and DDOE Environmental Protection Specialist Stephen Reiling. "It's just one way of slowing the stormwater down and letting sediment settle in these pools. That's the simple idea: just slowing the water down."
The pools allow the stormwater to sit long enough to seep into the ground water. This allows many of the pollutants found in stormwater runoff (such as lawn fertilizer, automobile exhaust and bacteria from pet waste) to soak into the ground, instead of making their way into the Chesapeake Bay.
"We have a very impervious residential watershed up here (above the stream), so associated with that, there’s grease and oil from vehicles, sediment, and any kind of fertilizer residents put on their lawns," explains Reiling. "So we’d like to slow that down, and hopefully keep it here before it gets to the bay."
Milkhouse Ford is surrounded by the forests of Rock Creek Park, trees that the project team managed to keep intact. Preserving nearby vegetation is difficult in many stream engineering projects, which require large and heavy equipment to build up banks or replace soils.
"This is pretty unique in terms of how small the footprint is," says Hill.
Rock Creek Conservancy and other volunteer groups planted native trees and shrubs along the banks, which will hold the soil in place and prevent the stream's banks from eroding.
The stormwater story
Since streams, storms and stormwater are natural parts of the water cycle, it may seem strange that stormwater is degrading our streams and contributing to sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. But in many places, stormwater from driveways and lawns flows into a sewer on the street, which connects to a local creek. The problem? These creeks were not meant to hold stormwater from the entire neighborhood – only the water that naturally flowed into them. When too much water flows in at once, the banks wash away, bringing tons of sediment as well.
"When many of these houses (in southeast D.C.) were built, they saw stormwater as a problem, so they piped it out from the streets and sent it to the nearby stream," explains Hill.
While this infrastructure can't be entirely corrected, ensuring that the streams remain stable during storm events will improve water quality in the stream, as well as in the Chesapeake Bay.
Another way to ease pressure on our streams is to keep stormwater onsite. This means reducing runoff from your property by using rain barrels, rain gardens and native plants. In the Bay watershed, local programs such as River Star Homes (Norfolk, Virginia) and River Smart Homes (Washington, D.C.) help local residents implement runoff-reducing practices in their backyards.
More than a stream
Stream restoration project leaders like Hill and Reiling are beginning to notice an unexpected, less measurable outcome of their projects: residents have developed a sense of pride and stewardship for their newly restored neighborhood creeks.
When Watts Branch was transformed from a steep, cloudy channel littered with cars into a meandering creek with sprouting saplings, residents began to spend more time along the streamside pedestrian trail, and dumping stalled.
“Watts Branch was chosen for restoration because...it was an eyesore to the community," says Hill. "The community didn’t see it as an asset, and being D.C.’s largest tributary to the Anacostia, we wanted to fix it up.”
Neighborhoods along the 1.7 mile stretch of restored stream have seen a reduction in crime since the project’s completion, according to Hill.
“Most recently, an older gentleman brought his grandkids here and they were hanging out near the stream; he wanted to show them where he grew up,” explains Hill. “It was really nice that someone would be proud of this, so much that they want to show it to their grandkids.”
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.
“Everything you film today, everything on camera, everything you walk on, was created. None of it was here in 1998. We’d be in several feet of water right now a little more than a decade ago.” – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Chris Guy
It’s warm for a January morning. But out of habit, the team from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office (FWS) is armed with coffee thermoses and dressed in construction-orange floatation gear. The hot coffee and “survival suits” gain importance as the winter wind stings our faces on the hour-long boat ride from Annapolis to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The team embarks on this trip most mornings throughout the year, even in the coldest months.
In fact, today’s task must be completed in the first weeks of the new year. We’re hauling discarded Christmas trees to build waterfowl habitat on Poplar Island, a place where, ten years ago, wildlife habitat had nearly disappeared – because the land had disappeared. In 1997, just 10 acres of the original island remained.
Today, Poplar Island has grown to 1,140 acres, thanks to a partnership between FWS, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Environmental Service and Maryland Port Administration that uses dredge material from the Port of Baltimore to rebuild the island. Many places (such as parts of Washington D.C. and Philadelphia International Airport) have been “built” using this technique, known as “fast-landing.” But Poplar Island is distinctive: it’s being constructed not for human use, but to provide the Chesapeake Bay’s wildlife with island habitat, a rarity in an era of quick-sinking shorelines and rising sea levels.
“What's unique about this project is the habitat aspect,” says FWS biologist Chris Guy, who’s helped run the project since 2005. “It's a win-win, because you get a dredge disposal site, which is hard to come by in the Chesapeake Bay, and it's long term, and you're getting much-needed habitat restoration.”
According to FWS biologist Peter McGowan, who began working on the project in the mid 1990s, wildlife are now flocking to Poplar Island. “Back in 1996, we had ten documented bird species using the island,” he says. “Now we have over 170 species that have been documented, and over 26 nesting species.”
Every January since 2005, residents of Easton, Maryland, have put their old Christmas trees on the curb for trash pickup, unaware of the fact that their discarded holiday greenery will soon become shelter and nesting habitat for black ducks, snowy egrets, red-winged blackbirds and diamondback terrapins.
Like so many Chesapeake Bay islands before it, Poplar Island fell victim to both rapid sea level rise and post-glacial rebound: the counteraction of glaciers during the last Ice Age that’s making the Bay’s islands sink. The combination of rising water and sinking land caused shorelines to quickly erode, and eventually vanish.
Here’s a summary of Poplar Island’s life, near death and revitalization:
How do scientists and engineers turn open water into land you can confidently step on? With dried and processed dredge material that’s used to build up the land over time.
Dredging is a process of clearing sediment (dredge) out of the bottom of waterways. Dredging is necessary on many rivers leading into major ports because sediment naturally builds up over time. This sediment must be excavated so large ships can pass in and out of ports.
Maintenance dredging of the Port of Baltimore is critical to Maryland’s economy: the port contributes $1.9 billion and 50,200 jobs to the state’s economy. It’s also the number one port in the U.S. for automobile exports.
It also contributes a lot of sediment. The port estimates that maintenance dredging in the next twenty years will generate 100 million cubic yards of sediment – enough material to fill the Louisiana Superdome 25 times. Finding a place to store this massive amount of dredge material has been a problem – that is, until the Poplar Island project came calling, requiring 68 million cubic yards of dredge.
When dredge material arrives at Poplar Island through large pipes, it spends a few years drying. Then bulldozers and heavy equipment move in to dig out channels for wetlands and streams. When the topography is set, the area is planted with grasses, trees and shrubs.
A first time visitor to Poplar Island may be surprised to see bulldozers and pipes gushing black dredge material at a site renowned as a world wonder of habitat restoration. Although it’s necessary to use this heavy equipment to rebuild the island, the staff has found a way to balance these activities and still attract wildlife.
“Let's call it a ‘dance,’” says Guy. “We have to work with the construction, obviously, but we have to be sensitive to the needs of the birds.”
The Christmas trees that Guy and McGowan have been bringing to the island since 2005 give black ducks a place to lay their eggs. Black duck populations have fallen dramatically in the Chesapeake Bay region, causing the bird to be listed as a species of concern.
One reason for the species’ decline is a lack of food, including bay grasses, aquatic plants and invertebrates that have dwindled as pollution increased. Development and other human activities have encroached on its wintering and breeding habitats.
“[When we began the project], we looked at what others around the country used to attract nesting birds,” explains McGowan. “Christmas trees were a good resource. Instead of going into landfills, they could be reused.”
Discarded Christmas trees imitate shrubs that black ducks typically seek out. They’re warm, sheltered spots to raise young. Since the first tree plantings on Poplar Island took place just ten years ago, none are mature enough to provide adequate nesting habitat. So until the real trees grow tall enough, Christmas trees will have to do.
“Black ducks like to nest in thickets in the marshes,” McGowan explains. “Christmas trees help provide the structure they need. It keeps them covered and safe from predators.”
And the trees seem to be working. As we take apart last year’s piles, we find a handful of eggs underneath the dead trees.
“Seeing that we have these leftover eggs demonstrates to us that ducks are using these nest piles successfully,” says Guy. “Just about every one of them we find a few eggs, so we think they’re having multiple clutches.”
The eggs we find in the six or seven piles that we disrupt belong to mallards, but McGowan and Guy claim that black ducks are nesting on Poplar Island as well.
“We've had six or seven black ducks nesting on the island,” says Guy. “You may say six or seven isn't a big deal, but when you're down to the last few hundred black ducks nesting in the Bay, going from 0 to 6, where they're used to be thousands, that's a big success story. That's not the only thing that these trees do, but it's one of the main drivers to get these trees out here.”
Guy and McGowan have long envisioned Poplar Island as prime habitat for black ducks.
“Back [in 2005], we went around the curbs in Anne Arundel County and threw the trees in the back of my pickup,” Guy tells me. It took the pair the entire month of January to collect the trees and transport them to Poplar Island.
Seven years later, the project is finished in just one day with help from Easton Public Works and volunteers and employees from FWS and Maryland Environmental Service.
Black ducks aren’t the only critters on Poplar. The island is home to hundreds of birds, reptiles and other species that now rely on the restored landmass for food and shelter.
For more information about Poplar Island and other wildlife habitat restoration projects around the Chesapeake Bay region, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office website.
More than 1,700 Maryland farmers will plant a record 550,000 acres of winter grains this fall through the state’s Cover Crop Program.
This acreage represents 155 percent of Maryland’s cover crop goal in its Phase 1 Watershed Implementation Plan, which spells out how the state will meet federal pollution reduction requirements. Cover crops are considered one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce pollution and help restore the Bay.
Maryland’s Cover Crop Program provides farmers with grants to plant cover crops on their fields immediately following the summer crop harvest.
Cover crops are grains such as wheat, rye and barley that are planted in the fall. Once established, cover crops recycle unused nutrients, helping to improve the soil for next year’s crop. Cover crops also control soil erosion and reduce the amount of nutrients that run off the land into nearby waterways.
Visit Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s website to learn more about the cover crop enrollment figures.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed draft sediment limits as part of a “pollution diet” the agency is developing to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its local streams, creeks and rivers.
The watershed-wide draft limit of 6.1-6.7 billion pounds of sediment per year is divided among the six watershed states and the District of Columbia, as well as the major river basins. In 2009, an estimated 8.09 billion pounds of sediment flowed to and clouded the waters of the Bay and its tributaries.
Excess sediment suspended in the water is one of the leading causes of the Chesapeake Bay's poor health. The culprits are the tiny clay- and silt-sized fractions of sediment. Because of their small size, clay and silt particles often float throughout the water, rather than settling to the bottom, and can be carried long distances during rainstorms.
When there is too much sediment in the water, the water becomes cloudy and muddy-looking. Cloudy water does not allow sunlight to filter through to bay grasses growing at the bottom of the Bay's shallows. Just like plants on earth, bay grasses need sunlight to grow; without it, these underwater grasses die, which affects the young fish and blue crabs that depend on bay grasses for shelter.
Bay jurisdictions are expected to use the draft allocations as the basis for completing their Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs), which detail how they will further divide the limits among different sources of pollution and achieve the required reductions. Jurisdictions must provide the first drafts of their WIPs to the EPA by September 1, and final Phase 1 WIPs are due November 29.
“While we all recognize that every jurisdiction within the watershed will have to make very difficult choices to reduce pollution, we also recognize that we must collectively accelerate our efforts if we are going to restore this national treasure as part of our legacy for future generations,” said EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin.
The EPA expects the Bay jurisdictions to have all practices in place to meet their established pollution limits by 2025, with 60 percent of the effort completed by 2017. Progress will be measured using two-year milestones, or short-term goals. The EPA may apply consequences for inadequate plans or failing to meet the milestones.
The EPA will issue a draft Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) – the “pollution diet” – on September 24, with a 45-day public comment period immediately following. The final Bay TMDL will be established by December 31.
The EPA proposed draft allocations for nitrogen and phosphorus in July.
For more information about the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, visit www.epa.gov/chesapeakebaytmdl.
A recently released report by the U.S. EPA shows that many areas around the Bay’s shoreline are already witnessing the effects of sea level rise and that vulnerable tidal marshes may erode more rapidly over the next century because of climate change.
The report, Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region, examines the impacts of sea level rise on the human communities and wildlife habitat of the Mid-Atlantic coast, including Chesapeake Bay. According to the EPA, the Mid-Atlantic region is one area of the U.S. that will likely see the greatest impacts of climate change due to rising waters, coastal storms and a high population concentration along the coastline.
At the 20th century rate of sea level rise (3-4 mm per year), extensive areas of marsh in the Bay (depicted in red in the image to the right) will become marginal, or only able to survive under optimal conditions. Other low-lying areas, depicted in blue, will be fully submerged at the current rate of sea level rise. The report cites evidence that sea level rise is increasing due to climate change, which would accelerate erosion of the Bay’s marshes.
A clear example of the effects of sea level rise can be seen on the Bay’s marsh islands, many of which have already been lost or severely eroded. These islands are vital to bird species like terns, black skimmers and American oystercatchers, which use the islands to nest and breed. On the mainland shoreline of the Bay, nearly all of the beaches are eroding, which has led many waterfront property owners to install hardened shorelines as protection.
In addition to the effects of sea level rise, the report details the efforts of state and local governments throughout the Mid-Atlantic to protect coastal communities against erosion. Maryland is noted as having the most stringent policies on development along the Chesapeake and coastal areas. The state’s Critical Area laws limit development within 1,000 feet of the shoreline.
“Our state is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change -- including sea level rise,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley in response to the EPA report. “We are making real progress in both preparing for the impacts of climate change but also in reducing the actions that contribute to it.”
However, the report shows that most shoreline protection structures are designed to protect properties from current sea level, rather than the anticipated increases. “Preparing now can reduce the eventual environmental and economic impacts of sea level rise,” reads a report highlight.
Waterfront property owners interested in learning more on how they can protect their shoreline from erosion and sea level rise can visit Maryland DNR’s website for more information.
A partnership between the James River Association, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership and several other organizations has protected from erosion more than 500 acres of tidal freshwater marsh on Herring Creek in Charles City County, Virginia.
The newly protected marsh, known as Ducking Stool Point, is a spit of land located at the confluence of Herring Creek and the James River. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducking Stool Point provides important habitat for waterfowl, bald eagles, largemouth bass and a number of other birds and fish.
To protect the marsh from further erosion, the partnership installed an 1,825-foot-long structure of sloping stone between the marsh and the James River. Stabilizing Ducking Stool Point will help protect stream habitat for migratory and residential fish species, many of which are recreationally valuable to area residents. The project also protects bald eagles and other wildlife that nest and roost in the area.
The project was completed in November and unveiled at a ceremony this month.
Visit the James River Association’s website for more information about the Ducking Stool Point project.