For the past decade, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has led Project Clean Stream--a vast network of organized annual trash cleanups along the Bay's many tributaries--to help clean up the Bay and connect residents to their local waterways.
During this year's unified day of service on Saturday, April 6, a group of 13 volunteers gathered near the small town of Marydel on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where resident Carol Sparks (not pictured) had reported an illegal dump site along a drainage ditch running adjacent to her property.
According to Sparks, residents from two nearby trailer parks often travel along the foot path adjacent to the ditch, and some have been dumping trash here for years. "I've called everybody and it seemed like nobody wanted to do anything about it. I finally contacted Debbie Rowe, the mayor of Marydel, and she's the one who organized this group, bless her heart."
"I got a call from the property owner that the ditch was in disrepair," said Rowe (below left, with volunteer Wilbur Levengood, Jr.), who had recently learned about Project Clean Stream through the Choptank Tributary Team, a volunteer watershed group from Easton, Md. "To be honest, I didn't know this was back here."
Jennifer Dindinger chairs the Choptank Trib Team, which was searching for neglected sites in neighboring Caroline County where they could make a bigger impact during this year's Project Clean Stream effort. "You don't see trash floating down the Choptank River, but there are places like this that, although it might not end up in the main stem of the Bay, negatively impact life along the tributaries to the river."
Despite the strong odor and armed with garden rakes and stainless steel dip nets, Project Clean Stream volunteers spent their Saturday morning combing through layers of algae in the stagnant drainage ditch. "It's just a nice thing to do on a sunny day," said William Ryall, a fellow Choptank Trib Team volunteer and wetland restoration engineer from Easton, Md. "All of these ditches are connected to the Bay, so it's really important to get this stuff out of here."
"We need everyone to understand how important the drainage is to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and what it will do health-wise and for the environment if we do it correctly," said Wilbur Levengood, Jr., president of the Caroline County Commissioners. "We don't need to bring huge machines in here and disturb a lot of earth to achieve the drainage, we just need to keep it clean."
According to Levengood, the many drainage ditches in Caroline County are an environmental compromise critical to this landscape. "Without these ditches, ponds and wetlands like the one next door to here would otherwise require chemical pesticides to control the mosquito population. Cleaning up the trash will lower the water level in this ditch by a few inches and get the water moving again."
While most of the trash collected from the Marydel site was of the household variety--36 bags total, including diapers, beverage containers and rotting food--a tell-tale oil slick is evidence of even more hazardous materials lying beneath the surface.
According to Levengood, non-salvageable appliances like television sets and mattresses, as well as toxic materials like motor oil and other automotive fluids that cost money to discard, are often thrown into the drainage ditches along Caroline County roads.
"It's not just necessarily that it looks bad. It's an all-around health hazard, and if we don't keep the water going it's just going to get stagnant and cause mosquitoes and more problems," said Mayor Rowe, who recruited local youth to help with the cleanup. "Now that we know it's here, we can all help as a community to help keep it clean and it'll be safe for everybody."
"My mom is friends with Ms. Debbie [Rowe], so she asked if I could come help with cleaning up trash from the ditch," said Gary Colby of Marydel (top), who in turn recruited his friend Daniel Santangelo. "I just wanted to help out Marydel," Santangelo said.
According to Rowe, part of the dumping problem stems from the challenge of cross-cultural communication. More than half of Marydel's population are Hispanic or Latino immigrants, but today's effort to reach the town's young people seems to be paying off.
"I just offered to help my buddies out," said Carlos Martinez (left), who moved to Marydel last year from Mexico City and volunteered with friends Omar Fuentes (center) and Jordy Cordova (right). "I know it's not young people littering because I know my friends."
"I think we just need to recycle more," said Cordova. Fuentes agrees. Like Mayor Rowe, he says "I never even noticed the trash in the ditch, and I've lived here for 10 years."
During a well-deserved break from the cleanup, Mayor Rowe and the other volunteers discussed the idea of posting bilingual signs to explain the ditch's importance in controlling the mosquito population, and to warn of health risks associated with litter and water pollution. Omar Fuentes and Jordy Cordova agree that signs in Spanish might help curb the littering problem, and promised to talk to their neighbors about the ditch. For first-time cleanup volunteer Wilbur Levengood, Jr., this point made the purpose of the day's effort overwhelmingly clear: "This project puts all aspects of people together working for the better, and we just need more of that."
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.
Part construction site, part mud pit and part wildlife refuge, the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island, Md., tackles two unique challenges in the Chesapeake Bay.
First, sand and sediment accumulate in the Bay’s vital shipping channels—particularly during heavy rain events like Tropical Storm Lee in 2011—and threaten to block cargo ships that allow the Port of Baltimore to contribute $2 billion each year to the region’s economy.
On the other hand, sea level rise, sinking land and increasingly frequent strong storms are quickly eroding away the Bay’s few remaining islands, threatening the survival of iconic wildlife species and critical habitat.
Poplar Island, for example, spanned more than 1,100 acres in the mid-1800s and supported a small community of families, farmers and fishermen until it was abandoned in the 1930s. When restoration began in the 1990s, four scattered acres were all that remained—less than half a percent of the island’s historical size.
But the island that was nearly destroyed is now destined to be rebuilt using 65 million cubic yards of sedimentary silt—imagine a giant cube of mud a quarter mile long in each direction—dredged up from the bottom of the Bay.
In 1998, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to construct stone “containment dykes.” The walls are 10 feet tall and surround Poplar Island’s former footprint, and the island has been divided into six massive containment cells for building island habitat.
The western half of the island, surrounded by an inner ring of 27-foot dykes, is being transformed into 570 acres of forested upland island habitat similar to that of neighboring Coaches Island.
Coaches Island, once vulnerable to the same forces that washed away its neighbor, supports upland species like bald eagles and provides a shallow inlet utilized by nesting diamondback terrapins in the summer and migratory waterfowl during winter.
The eastern half of Poplar Island is further divided into 14 “sub-cells” undergoing various stages of wetland construction and management.
Low-lying wetlands are created through a four-step process. First, dredged sediment is brought in on barges by the Maryland Port Administration, mixed into a watery slurry, and pumped into each cell at precise levels.
As the slurry dries, it forms a massive crust—a vast, other-worldly landscape—that is the base for building habitat.
Next, heavy machines carefully grade the crust and excavate ditches that will function as tidal creeks in the completed marsh.
Then a spillway is opened to expose the new landscape to tidal flow, and water is allowed to move between the Bay and the newly built marshland.
Finally, individual plugs of smooth and saltmeadow cordgrass are planted row upon row into the nutrient-rich soil.
These native plants are capable of withstanding strong storms while offering food and shelter to the 175 species of shorebirds, songbirds, waterfowl and raptors that now visit Poplar Island.
Poplar Island's marshes offer protection and isolation from human and mammalian predators, and the open waters along its perimeter provide feeding opportunities for diving ducks like buffleheads, scaups and long-tailed ducks.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages the island’s vegetation and wildlife—including less welcome species like the Canada goose. Fences and fluttering pink flags help deter geese and prevent them from overfeeding on expensive marsh grass.
On our visit in January 2013, USFWS wildlife technician Robbie Callahan led a monitoring team to assess the density of muskrat huts in the marsh. The semiaquatic rodents, though a critical part of the wetland ecosystem, are controlled to prevent damage from overpopulation.
The USFWS also monitors avian predators—like the northern harriers that feed on small rodents—and migratory waterfowl, attracted to Poplar Island during their spring and fall trips along the Atlantic Flyway.
With the help of USFWS experts, Poplar Island is able to provide a range of Bay species with the safe nesting habitat that only a protected, well-managed island can.
Even sunken barges—placed here in the mid-1990s as “breakwaters” in an attempt to retain the island’s remnants—have become host to nesting ospreys and black-crowned night herons.
According to the USFWS, Poplar Island is well on its way to becoming a keystone wildlife refuge. “Poplar Island is an important refuge,” said USFWS biologist Pete McGowan, who specializes in waterfowl and island restoration. “There are species that are highly dependent on these remote island habitats. And this is a habitat type that is rapidly disappearing from the Chesapeake Bay. We need to do what we can to maximize the remaining island habitat that we have, and create new island habitat whenever possible.”
The Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project is scheduled for completion in 2041, with a final price tag estimated at $1.4 billion over 45 years. Rebuilding Poplar Island is an enormous, expensive and painstaking process—but its virtues of “beneficial use” have been extolled throughout the conservation and business communities alike, and it has become a "win-win" for the Bay and all the watershed provides.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
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.