For 383 miles, the Potomac River flows steadily down from West Virginia, through the nation’s capital and past Maryland’s Point Lookout State Park until it reaches its final destination: the Chesapeake Bay.
For the group of Ojibwe women leading the Potomac River Nibi Walk, their destination is the same as the river’s.
In Ojibwe tradition, a Nibi Walk is an act of spiritual devotion. These women have traveled from their home in Minnesota to the river’s beginning in West Virginia to perform the walk. The goal is to carry water collected at the headwaters of the Potomac in Fairfax Stone, West Virginia, down to where it meets the Chesapeake Bay, praying to and honoring the spirit of the water with every step.
Sharon Day, the organizer of the walk, says that she and others from her community took this act of prayer and meditation out of their homes and communities into the “geopolitical landscape” because they feel that waterway health in the United States needs to be a major concern.
Day’s trying to bring this message around the country. Other walks have covered the Cuyahoga, James, Minnesota and Ohio Rivers among others. “I urge all the walkers that the walk is just the beginning,” she says. “How do we–every single one of us–be a part of the solution?”
The last day of the walk takes on a certain rhythm: the steady pace of the human body punctuated by fluid handoffs and quick footsteps on asphalt. One or two people walk with the water at a time, down stretches of road that may or may not be pedestrian-friendly. They relay the water every mile or so and keep it moving from the early morning until about the time the sun goes down when they rest. In Ojibwe life, women are the keepers of the water, so they are the ones who carry the vessel. Men act in supporting roles, such as carrying the eagle staff.
The group completes the last 20 or so miles of their journey and ends on a rocky shoreline at Point Lookout State Park as the sun sinks low in the sky. Once people steady themselves on the jagged rocks, a moment of calm settles over what had been a day of constant movement. The water laps and gurgles beneath as Day removes the beaded cloth that covered the copper bucket and acted as a metronome throughout the walk, clinking against the vessel with every step. She raises the water three times before releasing it from her possession into the waves of the Chesapeake Bay as the group lets out cheers of excitement.
The light fades as the travelers reflect on their journey, complete an offering ceremony and sing for the water all together one last time on the Potomac River Nibi Walk.
Video, photos and text by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
About thirty minutes north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Ned Smith Center for Nature & Art sits on over 500 acres of protected forest land with the Wiconisco Creek, a tributary to the Susquehanna River, running through it. The Center offers a variety of educational programs about nature, art and conservation. But on this crisp day in October, I was meeting up with Jerry Hassinger, a volunteer at the center and a noted mushroom hunter, to see what kinds of wood-eating fungi we could find.
Often overlooked, wood-eating fungi are a key component of what keeps a forest ecosystem healthy and functioning properly. Forest land acts like a sponge, absorbing air pollution, trapping polluted runoff before it reaches waterways and stabilizing the soil while providing a habitat for a diverse group of critters. Keeping forests healthy leads to clean waterways, which in turn helps protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay.
Hassinger is a regular volunteer at the Center and has written, photographed and spoken about the importance and beauty of fungi for most of his life. His passion for fungi and background in environmental science was immediately apparent upon my arrival, when he handed me a folder containing a piece of photo paper with beautiful images of fungi we were likely to see on our hunt that day. Each photo was neatly numbered and labeled with the common name and the page number where I could look it up in his edition of the National Audubon Field Guide. Hassinger, formerly with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, humbly considers himself a “fungi enthusiast”—not an expert.
The rest of our mushroom hunting party consisted of Beth Sanders, Director of Education for the Center, and Santino Lauricella, Environmental Educator for the Center. We set off at an appropriately slow clip, looking for what I assumed would be small, ground-dwelling fungi. Hassinger said he uses looking for fungi as an excuse to hike slowly along trails, “I just crossed the eighty year mark, so I don’t walk fast.” He did, however, scramble up a few slopes and down into the creek bed with more agility than I did.
In the few miles we covered, we saw more shapes, textures and sizes of fungi than I ever expected would exist. I learned about white cheese fungus, so-named because it looks like the wet crumbles of goat cheese; ceramic parchment, which covers entire fallen trunks in small, light brown segments resembling tiles; and pear-shaped puffballs that expelled a dusty brown cloud when squeezed. We also saw false turkey tails, deadly galorina, bearded tooth and hen of the woods.
A forest ecosystem is constantly regenerating, and wood-eating fungi play a major role in recycling fallen trees. They digest the dead wood and release nutrients from the bark back into the soil, supporting new growth and reducing fuel available for forest fires.
“Beth!” Hassinger shouted across a clearing as he tromped through the leaves off trail to point out our next mushroom find. “This next one is going to blow your mind.”
From a distance, I could make out an off-white mass that protruded from the bottom of a tree about a few hundred yards from the trail. Hassinger bounded over to it, obviously excited to show us this particular specimen that was about the size of a kid’s basketball. Long, white, hair-like structures covered the rounded form to make it look more like a mythical woodland creature than a mushroom.
Hassinger said it had survived for over a month already and that this fruiting body was just the visible part of what was probably a much larger web of mycelium. Mycelium is a network of millions of microscopic threads that attaches to roots and logs and grows through the soil, sometimes for miles. It forms mutually beneficial relationships: effectively expanding the reach of tree and plant root systems, protecting against some pathogens and providing minerals and water to the roots as it takes sugars produced during photosynthesis. Even more astounding is that mycelium acts as a kind of communication system for the forest. If a tree is attacked by insects, the mycelium will produce a chemical making it less desirable to eat. That chemical works its way through the network of roots and mycelium to other trees of the same species, prompting them to produce that same chemical and ward off the attack.
Walking through the forest with Hassinger, I gained a new insight on just how much is happening all at once, on so many different levels of the forest. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you find when you take the time to look closely.
Text, images and captions by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
With more than 150,000 miles of riparian forest buffers growing in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, it’s clear that planting trees and shrubs along rivers and streams is a popular practice for protecting waterways. While it stands to reason that wide forest buffers could generate more benefits than narrow ones, it was not until 2014 that the Stroud Water Research Center set about to determine just how wide a buffer needed to be to work.
When Stroud Water Research Center President, Director and Senior Research Scientist Bernard W. Sweeney and Research Scientist J. Denis Newbold dove into research on forest buffer width, they were already decades into forest buffer history. In the seventies, wide zones of streamside vegetation were known to protect streams from the impacts of logging. In 1985, the sixth U.S. Farm Bill funded the planting of streamside vegetation to slow farmland erosion. And seven years later, research from Sweeney himself revealed the quality of streamside vegetation was likely the single most important human-altered factor affecting the structure, function and quality of our streams. But would width amplify all the benefits a forest buffer has to offer? And how wide is wide enough?
After examining eight ecosystem functions streams are known to support—including nutrient removal, sediment trapping and the health of macroinvertebrates and fish—Sweeney and Newbold found that the integrity of small streams can only be protected by forest buffers at least 30 meters—about 100 feet—wide. In other words, the ideal width of a forest buffer is only slightly shorter than three school buses laid end to end!
Of course, Sweeney and Newbold recognized the layout of a particular piece of land could limit the width of any forest buffers that may be planted there. The scientists also acknowledged forest buffer policies may need to accommodate site-specific factors. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a forest buffer must be at least 35 feet wide to count as a pollution-reducing practice that supports work toward the Bay’s “pollution diet.” Even so, the average forest buffer in the watershed is almost three times this size, and the benefits of a wide forest buffer are clear.
According to Sweeney and Newbold’s literature review, which synthesized the results of hundreds of scientific studies, effective nitrogen removal requires buffers that are at least 30 meters wide. Buffers of this size can also be expected to trap about 85 percent of any sediment delivered by water moving over the land (which is 30 percent more than a buffer only 10 meters wide!). A 30-meter width can also ensure a buffer protects streams from measurable increases in water temperature during summer months; sends a natural level of stems, branches and other large woody debris into a waterway; and supports natural macroinvertebrate and fish communities.
In our watershed, the planting and care of forest buffers can be limited by a lack of technical assistance and maintenance support. Indeed, buffer restoration has slowed in recent years. While the Chesapeake Bay Program has set a goal to restore 900 miles of buffers every year until at least 70 percent of the watershed’s riparian areas are forested, plantings continue to fall short of this annual target: last year saw the lowest restoration total of the last 16 years.
As part of our work to restore forest buffers, our partners have committed to increasing efforts to teach landowners about buffer establishment and care. Our partners have also committed to better tracking and spending technical assistance funds, seeking out additional funding for the suppression of interfering weeds and determining whether current payments that support buffer care should be raised.
Learn about our work to restore forest buffers.
The Elizabeth River Project stored roughly 1,000 cubic yards, or about 30 truckloads, of shucked oyster shell in Chesapeake, Virginia. Now, these shells are part of a 1-acre oyster reef located in the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River, in a project funded by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation.
The Eastern Branch oyster reef was constructed in two layers. On the bottom is a layer of crushed concrete, recycled from nearby buildings that were knocked down, followed by a layer of shells sourced from shucking houses in North Carolina. The Elizabeth River Project completed building its acre-sized oyster reef in June, but has a much larger goal of restoring 10 acres of native oysters by the year 2024. Using a National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association survey of the Eastern Branch, the Elizabeth River Project identified an additional eight acres for restoration and is now working on getting funding to continue their restoration work.
Along with creating the oyster reef, the Elizabeth River Project has also been busy building oyster “castles” along the branch’s shoreline. Oyster castles are stacks of concrete blocks that create suitable habitat for first-generation oysters. The height allows for oysters to attach without sinking into the mud, and since oysters prefer to attach to areas that already have oyster shells, the blocks typically contain about 30 percent shell.
The restoration projects in the Eastern Branch would not be possible without local partnerships, says Deputy Director of Restoration Joe Rieger. The Elizabeth River Project partnered with organizations such as Kinder Morgen to store and stockpile oyster shells, the Hampton Roads Sanitation District to turn waste concrete into oyster blocks and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to eventually seed the area with baby oysters.
Image by Will Parson
Oysters are simple creatures; they have no centralized nervous system and take in nutrients passively through water filtration. Their impacts on the Chesapeake Bay, however, are multi-faceted and far-reaching. They have cultural, economic and biological significance that goes far beyond their humble station as filter-feeders. The Edgewater, Maryland-based South River Federation and John Flood, one of its founders, understand that restoring the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary, the South River, means oysters need to have a fighting chance and some good real estate.
Throughout an oyster’s lifetime—which ranges from several years to twenty years in captivity—it will filter about 50 gallons of water a day, every day. If one oyster lived for four years, it could filter 73 thousand gallons of water, effectively removing contaminants and algae in its pursuit of nutrients. Multiply that by the thousands of oysters on a sanctuary reef and you’ve got some serious and sustainable filtration power to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers.
One of the hurdles facing oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay is how vulnerable the oysters are in their first year of life. If the baby oysters, or spat, are simply dumped into the water and left they can contract disease, become food or succumb to nutrient pollution. To combat this, John Flood began growing oysters in repurposed paint buckets. The buckets hang suspended in the water off of docks for their first year, then Flood and volunteers load up his small fishing boat or the Federation’s Carolina Skiff with adolescent oysters and takes them to a sanctuary reef where harvesting is prohibited.
These “Flood buckets” don’t need much until they are ready to be transferred to a sanctuary reef. Growers need to make sure the oysters remain submerged but off the bottom and clean them off every couple of weeks to prevent too much algae from collecting on the cages and restricting circulation. At the end of the year, they take their briny charges to join a sanctuary reef where they will hopefully live out their lives performing their simple function of siphoning nutrients from the current.
On September 23, 2016, volunteers from Price Waterhouse Cooper went through the labor intensive, muddy but important work of emptying the almost 200 buckets hanging from a private marina dock in Flood’s waterfront Annapolis neighborhood. Busy dislodging oysters from their first homes with a combination of sledge hammers and vigorous shaking, they were careful to allow the fish, eels and crabs that made their home in the buckets to evacuate. Once free, the oysters were ferried to their new homes on the South River sanctuary reef.
Flood is the “godfather of citizens growing oysters,” according to Nancy Merrill, Volunteer and Outreach Program Coordinator for the South River Federation. He’s also a salty guy with a lot of intensity. Concerned about poaching on the sanctuary reefs, Flood and Merrill don’t like to share the exact location. “If we showed it to you we’d have to kill you,” Flood joked with volunteers.
Flood felt a great sense of loss when he saw the dismal state of the South River: dead underwater grass beds, chemical contamination and major oyster reef degradation. This was the river he spent his childhood fishing and swimming in, and that long-standing connection called him to action. “I watched it collapse from nutrient pollution when I was a boy,” he said, adding later, “I lost something that was too valuable not to fight to get it back.” By helping to found the South River Federation in 2000, he hopes to aid in bringing back underwater grass beds and oysters, thereby improving the river and the Chesapeake Bay for future generations.
There are close to 70 oyster growers working directly with the South River Federation, who partners with Maryland Department of Natural Resource’s Marylanders Grow Oysters Program. Through the state’s program that works with local groups, 1,500 waterfront property owners on 30 Bay tributaries are growing millions of young oysters for sanctuary reefs.
“The lonely oyster, to me, is the symbol of recovery,” Flood said. “And if we would let it work, respect its simple function in the Bay, harvest it sustainably and realize its importance as a keystone species then we can understand the Bay better and be better stewards.”
Text, images and captions by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
Industry lines the Elizabeth River, looking south from the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge in Portsmouth, Virginia. As the site of ports, shipyards and industrial processing facilities—both past and present—the Elizabeth River has faced significant pollution challenges.
One of the most highly polluted waterbodies in both the Bay region and the entire East Coast, the Elizabeth River has been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as one of three “regions of concern” in the Bay watershed for chemical contaminants, alongside Baltimore Harbor and the Anacostia River. These chemical contaminants can range from pesticides to pharmaceuticals, metals and more, and can harm the health of both humans and wildlife.
Almost three-quarters of the Chesapeake Bay’s tidal waters are considered impaired by chemical contaminants, according to the most recent estimates. Contaminants can enter the Bay and its tributaries in a multitude of ways: air pollution, agricultural runoff, polluted stormwater and wastewater are all potential sources. These toxics can then be taken up by fish, shellfish, birds and other critters, affecting their survival and threatening the health of humans who use them for food. Cities and states issue fish consumption advisories in areas when there is a concern that locally caught fish could contain chemical contaminants.
Learn more about chemical contaminants in the Bay watershed.
Image by Will Parson
On October 15th, alongside a mud-banked river usually empty of life, little children skip among brightly tented booths, carrying fishing lines and nature-inspired passport books. Community members watch water run clear through a root-planting demonstration or try to spot American eels in a cloudy-water tank teeming with fish. In the air, marimba music and the tantalizing smells of Latin fare mingle with the musical murmur of combined Spanish and English conversations. A few feet away, a paper mural of insects is constantly expanded as everyone tries their hand at drawing local bugs. This is the Festival del Rio Anacostia, and it’s impossible to decide whether you are at an environmental event or a cultural celebration.
That perfect fusion is certainly true for Ricardo, an English-speaking local resident who heard about the event through a Spanish-scripted Facebook post. Recognizing the word “festival,” he thought it’d be a nice way to spend an afternoon and enjoy some good food. Not until arriving did he realize the festival was heavy with nature awareness. “That’s good!” he exclaims. “We have to live in it. Anything we can do to make it better for me, for you, for the younger generation coming up, you know… be a participant. You learn and take it back to your own neighborhood.” He planned to take pictures and share them with people in his neighborhood that couldn’t make it that day—allowing them to witness the good food, dancing and environmental lessons alike.
Coming together and collaboration were evident in the creation of the festival as much as the event itself. It began as an idea of the Latino Outreach Subcommittee of the Anacostia Watershed Citizens Advisory Committee. Before long, a diverse array of government bodies, citizen committees and environmental organizations offered their capacities and expertise. The space at Bladensburg Park was donated, along with the tents and chairs. Music was provided by Guate Marimba and entertainment by Despertar Maya Ma’am in conjunction with Asociacion de Guatemaltecos Sin Fronteras. Parks and Recreation Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Anacostia Watershed Society, Chispa, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, Friends of Sligo Creek, Chesapeake Bay Trust and Anacostia Riverkeepers were all heavily involved in making the festival a reality.
Being aware of your environment and learning to care for it go hand in hand, and organizers do their best to highlight that intersection. Most booths have both English- and Spanish-speaking personnel; at others, roving translators are available and happy to help. For those without readily available transportation, buses run throughout the day to pick up attendees for the festival and later take them back home. “In many cases due to language and economic barriers, Latinos do not have an opportunity to recreate in the Anacostia River,” wrote Chispa Maryland Program Director Ramon Palencia-Calvo. “[This festival] open[s] the river to this environmentally underserved community.”
Indeed it does, and plans are already underway for a Festival del Rio Anacostia 2017. For more information or to get involved with next year’s festival, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
A small crayfish is found along the banks of the Potomac River in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The thousands of rivers and streams that flow to the Chesapeake Bay are home to many species of native crayfish—also called crawfish, crawdads or mudbugs—which are freshwater crustaceans that resemble small lobsters. But several species of invasive crayfish also call the waterways home, displacing native species of crayfish and reducing the amount and diversity of underwater plants.
Certain species of crayfish are commonly eaten or even kept as pets in freshwater aquariums. But the widespread use of live crayfish by fishermen as bait has led to their introduction in waterways across the region. Unused buckets of live crayfish are often unknowingly dumped into rivers and streams, where they aggressively establish themselves at the expense of native crayfish populations.
Some of the most infamous invasive crayfish in the region include the rusty crayfish (Orconectes rusticus), the red swamp crawfish (Procambarus clarkii) and the virile crayfish (Orconectes virilis). According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), virile crayfish populations in the state are nine times more abundant than all native crayfish species combined. And because removing invasive crayfish would harm other, native species, prevention is the only effective way to stop the spread. The DNR recommends never moving caught crayfish from one waterbody to another and either disposing of unused bait humanely or saving it for future use.
Learn more about invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Image by Will Parson
Robin Dunbar of the Elizabeth River Project conducts a teachers' workshop at Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth, Virginia. The area surrounding Paradise Creek—a tributary of the Elizabeth River—was once nicknamed "Paradise Lost" because of its close proximity to the former New Gosport landfill. Now, the creek has become a model for urban waterway restoration.
Since 1991, the Elizabeth River Project has worked tirelessly to restore the Elizabeth River, which flows between the cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake, Virginia, before making its way to the Bay. For years, the river was one of the most polluted in the region. But in recent years, though the river still faces a long road to recovery, improving trends have brought new hope to a waterway once thought to be devoid of life.
In addition to on-the-ground restoration projects, part of the Elizabeth River Project’s mission is connecting with and educating the local community. Initiatives include the River Star Homes, River Star Schools and River Star Businesses programs; the Learning Barge, a 120-by-32 foot barge-turned-classroom; and Paradise Creek Nature Park, which hosts educational programs for both schools and the general public.
Learn more about the Elizabeth River Project.
Image by Will Parson
Paddlers travel on the Potomac River where it meets the Shenandoah River at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Described by Thomas Jefferson as “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature,” the town offers views of three states: West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.
This scenic spot offers not only boundless natural beauty, but a rich piece of national history. The town was named for Robert Harper, a Quaker from Pennsylvania who in 1747 was sent to erect a mission house in the Shenandoah Valley. On his way, he passed through “The Hole”—the gap in the mountains where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. He recognized the value of the site for water power and transportation, purchased 126 acres of land at the site, then established a mill and began operating a ferry across the Potomac.
In 1799, construction began on the Harpers Ferry Armory, which produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols before 1859, when one of the most famous events in Harpers Ferry history—and indeed, United States history—occurred. Abolitionist activist John Brown and 21 companions led a raid on the armory, hoping to seize weapons from the warehouse to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South. The attempted takeover of the armory was unsuccessful, however, and the event stoked the already tense relationship between the North and South, ultimately hastening the onset of the Civil War.
Today, the town is home to a national historic park where visitors can explore the historic town, visit museums and battlefields or hike the nearby mountains. It’s also home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and is known to hikers as the “psychological halfway point” of the 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail.
Image by Will Parson
The amount of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay fell significantly between 2014 and 2015, helping improve water quality in the nation’s largest estuary. Experts attribute this drop in pollution loads to dry weather and below-normal river flow, but note local efforts to reduce pollution also played a role. Indeed, related research shows “best management practices”—including upgrading wastewater treatment plants, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions, and reducing runoff from farmland—have lowered nutrients and sediment in local waterways.
Excess nutrients and sediment are among the leading causes of the Bay’s poor health. Nitrogen and phosphorus can fuel the growth of algae blooms that lead to low-oxygen “dead zones,” while sediment can suffocate shellfish and block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses. By tracking pollution loads into rivers and streams, the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) can ensure our partners are on track to meet clean water goals.
According to data from the CBP and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment loads to the Bay were below the long-term average in 2015. Between 2014 and 2015, nitrogen loads fell 25 percent, phosphorus loads fell 44 percent and sediment loads fell 59 percent. Below-average loads are considered positive because reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution can improve water quality.
The most recent assessment of water quality—which examines dissolved oxygen, water clarity and chlorophyll a (a measure of algae growth) in the Bay and its tidal waters—makes these improvements clear: between 2013 and 2015, an estimated 37 percent of the tidal Chesapeake met water quality standards. While this is far below the 100 percent attainment needed for clean water and a stable aquatic habitat, it marks an almost 10 percent improvement from the previous assessment period.
A large portion of pollution loads enters the Bay from the rivers within its watershed. Accordingly, the USGS tracks both annual pollution loads and trends in these loads at monitoring stations along nine of the biggest rivers that feed the Bay. In some cases, long-term pollution trends at these stations reflect efforts to improve water quality. Long-term trends in nitrogen, for example, are improving at six of the nine monitoring stations. Long-term trends in phosphorus and sediment, however, are more variable, and short-term pollution trends show less improvement.
“While the lowered amount of pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay in 2015 is encouraging, the trends of nutrients and sediment over the last decade in the major rivers flowing into the Bay show mixed results,” said U.S. Geological Survey Chesapeake Bay Coordinator Scott Phillips in a media release. “There will need to be improving trends in all of these rivers to support improvement in the Bay’s health.”
Last year’s decline in pollution loads can, in large part, be attributed to favorable weather. While high precipitation can increase river flow and push pollution into the Bay, river flow was below normal in 2015. The long-term decline in pollution loads can also be attributed to on-the-ground pollution-reducing practices, which jurisdictions put in place to meet first the 1983 Chesapeake Bay Agreement, then similar agreements signed in 1987 and 2000, and later the requirements of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (Bay TMDL). As of 2015, computer simulations show these practices are in place to achieve 31 percent of the nitrogen reductions, 81 percent of the phosphorus reductions and 48 percent of the sediment reductions necessary to reach our clean water goals.
While improvements in water quality will take time—due in large part to the lag between the implementation of a conservation practice and the visible effect of that practice on a particular waterway—the ecosystem is beginning to respond to protection and restoration efforts. Last year, researchers observed more than 91,000 acres of underwater grasses (also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV) in the Bay, which surpassed the Chesapeake Bay Program’s 2017 restoration target two years ahead of schedule and marked the highest amount ever recorded by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science aerial survey.
“As an SAV biologist, I’m thrilled to see these improving trends in water quality, whether they’re an effect of low flow or our pollution reduction efforts, or both,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Biologist and Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup Chair Brooke Landry. “Better water quality means more SAV, and more SAV means more food and habitat for the fish, invertebrates and waterfowl that depend on it. In 2015, SAV expanded in areas throughout the Bay, and even appeared in places where it's never been recorded before, reaching almost 50 percent of our ultimate restoration goal. This is very exciting and provides the incentive we need to stay on track with our efforts to clean up the Bay. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it.”
“The ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay watershed is large and complex and can be affected by a variety of different factors,” said Chesapeake Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release. “We are witnessing improvement in a number of our indicators—bay grasses, water clarity and water quality standards attainment, as well as a number of our fisheries such as blue crab population. But we must stay focused and ramp up our pollution reduction efforts if we are to be successful over the long term.”
At 464 miles in length, the Susquehanna River is the largest in the region and supplies the Bay with about half of its fresh water. This mighty river crosses three state borders, beginning in upstate New York, snaking its way through Pennsylvania and ultimately emptying into the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. But while the Susquehanna’s most northern point is in New York, a large branch of the river goes as far west as Blair County, Pennsylvania. The Susquehanna River has an incredibly wide reach, flowing past thousands of acres of beautiful scenery and countless numbers of towns with their own unique history and culture. Whether you’ve lived by the river your whole live or are visiting it for the first time, take a trip down the Susquehanna—and through the Chesapeake region—by exploring these seven spots.
1. Glimmerglass State Park
Glimmerglass State Park offers the chance to experience the Susquehanna River where it begins, just outside of Cooperstown, New York, at Otsego Lake. The park features a trail with views of the lake as well as the self-guided Beaver Pond Nature Trail. Also located in the park is the Hyde Hall Mansion, a National Historic Landmark that’s open for tours from May through October.
2. Roberson Museum and Science Center
Follow the river south to Binghamton, New York, and stop in at Roberson Museum and Science Center. Housed in the Roberson Mansion, the museum features art, local history, science and natural history exhibits. Along with its exhibits, the museum is home to a large model train display—one of the largest in the region—depicting Binghamton and the surrounding landscape.
3. Susquehanna River Water Trail
What better way to see the Susquehanna River than by getting out on it? Experience the river first-hand on the Susquehanna River Water Trail. Consisting of four separate sections—the North Branch, West Branch, Middle Section and Lower Section—the water trail covers all of Pennsylvania’s portion of the Susquehanna River and its western branch, totaling over 500 miles. Complete the North, Middle and Lower sections and you can be a member of the elite 444 Club!
4. Shikellamy State Park
Get a glimpse of the river’s confluence—where the west branch and north branch combine into a single stem—at Shikellamy State Park. Consisting of two separate areas, a marina located on an island at the beginning of the north branch and an overlook on the west side of the west branch, Shikellamy offers a unique view of the confluence of hundreds of miles of river.
5. Sproul State Forest
Explore the Susquehanna’s west branch by visiting Sproul State Forest. Covering over 467 square miles, Sproul is the largest state forest in Pennsylvania, with plenty of space for picnicking, hunting, fishing, boating, camping and trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and ATVs.
6. Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art
Continue down the Susquehanna River to Millersburg, Pennsylvania, and stop into nature and art museum named after hometown artist, naturalist and writer, Ned Smith. The museum, featuring the artist’s work as well as rotating exhibits, sits on over 500 acres of land that contain 12 miles of trails as well as views of the Susquehanna River.
7. Susquehanna Museum
End your trip down the river at the beginning of the Chesapeake Bay in Havre de Grace, Maryland. There you can visit the Susquehanna Museum, located in a building that originally served as the lock house for the Tidewater Canal. The canal spanned the 45 miles between Havre de Grace and Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, creating a link for easy trade among central Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Baltimore. The restored lock house now serves as a museum telling the history of the canal and Havre de Grace.
What’s your favorite spot along the Susquehanna River? Tell us in the comments!
Spectators look on as hundreds of amateur and professional paddlers participate in the 2015 General Clinton Canoe Regatta. The 70-mile canoe race—the longest single-day canoe race in North America—is held each year on Memorial Day weekend. Teams begin in Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York, with the first finishers reaching Bainbridge, New York, in about eight hours.
First held in 1963, the General Clinton Canoe Regatta started as a way for the Chamber of Commerce in Bainbridge, New York, to promote community and tourism. The event is named after Revolutionary War figure Brigadier General James Clinton. As part of a campaign, General Clinton had his men dam the Susquehanna River—allowing waters in Otsego Lake, the river’s source, to rise. They then destroyed the dam, flooded the river and rode in canoes on the high waters to surprise their adversaries downstream.
Originally just a single, one-day canoe race, the regatta has grown to a four-day spectacle full of live music, a 5K run, carnival rides and fireworks. But the canoe races are still the main event, with close to 1,000 participants in the 2016 regatta.
Image by Will Parson
Joe Wright of Stafford, Virginia, fishes off the end of the Port Royal Landing in Caroline County, Virginia. Port Royal’s new 200-foot pier—just opened in 2015—features a soft launch for paddlers and was funded by grants from the National Park Service, Friends of the Rappahannock, the Chesapeake Conservancy and other organizations.
Nestled along the Rappahannock River, the small historic town of Port Royal borders the Port Royal Unit of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, where a 1.4-mile wildlife trail and two viewing platforms allow for visitors to hike and observe the river and surrounding land. The refuge—one of the first of its kind—is actually a collection of 17 unconnected tracts of land. From the northernmost Port Royal Unit to the Laurel Grove tract nearly 40 miles downstream, the refuge makes up 8,720 acres of protected land. The goal is to one day protect 20,000 acres along the river and its tributaries.
In the future, Friends of the Rappahannock and the Town of Port Royal will be working with the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge to establish a water trail that will provide access to the Styer Bishop, Port Royal and Toby’s Point areas of the refuge.
Image by Will Parson
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
Air quality improvements throughout the Potomac River watershed—due primarily to the Clean Air Act—have helped improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, according to research from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES).
When cars, power plants and other sources emit air pollution, it can be carried by wind and weather over long distances until it falls onto land or directly into the water. In fact, scientists estimate that one third of the nitrogen in the Chesapeake Bay comes from the air—through a process known as atmospheric deposition. And while studying water quality trends in the Upper Potomac River Basin, UMCES scientists confirmed that reductions in atmospheric nitrogen deposition are playing a large role in improvements in the area’s water quality.
“Most best management practices—like a riparian buffer or retention pond—only impact a relatively small area,” said Keith Eshleman, professor at UMCES’ Appalachian Laboratory and co-author of the study. “You can think about the Clean Air Act as a best management practice that affects every square meter of the watershed.”
Experts at the Chesapeake Bay Program will be able to incorporate the findings into their modeling efforts, in order to better simulate the benefits of the Clean Air Act on reducing nitrogen pollution. The study—along with other research, monitoring and data collected over the past decade—will support Bay Program decision-making during the upcoming Midpoint Assessment of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL.
Last year, the Chesapeake Bay Program released an interactive story map illustrating how Clean Air Act regulations, as well as decades of enforcement actions, led to a steady decline in air pollution across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The study—“Declining nitrate-N yields in the Upper Potomac River Basin: What is really driving progress under the Chesapeake Bay restoration?”—can be found online.
In June, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) removed the Lafayette River from its list of rivers contaminated by bacteria. The Lafayette, a branch of the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, Virginia, now meets the state’s water quality standards for recreational use, including swimming, boating and other recreational activities.
Virginia DEQ monitors the state’s rivers, reviewing the data every six years to update its list of impaired waterways. In its most recent water quality report, Virginia DEQ delisted a majority of the Lafayette River—except for a small tributary called Knitting Mill Creek—for bacteria, meaning the river’s levels dropped to those considered safe for recreational activities.
Despite this achievement, the Elizabeth River Project, a local nonprofit dedicated to the restoration of the Elizabeth River, still urges caution when on the water. They advise against recreational contact with the Lafayette within 72 hours of rain, as well as avoiding narrow, shallow areas such as the river’s small creeks. Stormwater runoff can wash disease-causing pathogens into waterways, and the smaller creeks can have higher bacteria numbers since they don’t flush out bacteria as well as larger rivers. They also note that swimmers should always take precautions such as avoiding the water if they have open cuts and showering or washing hands after contact with the water.
The new status of the Lafayette reflects the hard work of local groups and organizations. The City of Norfolk, along with the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, have been working together to upgrade sewer lines to prevent leakages into the river. The city is also restoring seven acres of wetlands along the Lafayette, in addition to 15 acres already restored by local partners. The Elizabeth River Project, in partnership with the City of Norfolk and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is working to restore the river’s natural oyster population by constructing over a dozen reefs. Their River Star Homes program, which began in 2011, now has over 3,300 participants who have pledged to take action toward protecting local waterways. "This is a great example of how the efforts of a small organization, the Elizabeth River Project, working with the community and other partners over a sustained period of time, can achieve such incredible results,” noted Chesapeake Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale. “Hats off to ERP."
Nahshon Forde, an operations assistant with the Anacostia Watershed Society, steers his kayak to shore after helping with a free paddle night organized by the AWS in Washington, D.C. "By doing paddle nights and things like that we’re helping people develop a relationship with the river, and that’s kind of a conveyor belt to a lot of our other ways to be involved with AWS," said Lee Cain, former Director of Recreation at AWS.
Historically overrun with pollution, the Anacostia is still plagued by litter, toxics and stormwater runoff. But the river is also home to a wealth of wildlife: deer silently approaching the water’s edge, egrets congregating in the shallows and bald eagles defending their nests.
In June 2014, the Anacostia Water Trail officially opened. This nine-mile water trail runs from Bladensburg, Maryland, through Washington, D.C., to where the Anacostia meets the Potomac River, passing by natural areas and recreation sites like Kenilworth Park, the National Arboretum, Kingman Island and Yards Park.
Image by Will Parson
According to fisheries experts, the Chesapeake Bay blue crab stock is not depleted and overfishing is not occurring. Nevertheless, experts recommend maintaining a risk-averse, or cautious, approach to blue crab management: just two years ago, adult female blue crabs were considered depleted. Even after a 183 percent rise in their population between 2014 and 2016, their numbers remain below target levels.
The 2016 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report was released by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC). It includes blue crab population and harvest data from Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, as well as expert recommendations on maintaining a sustainable blue crab fishery.
According to the report, the start of the 2016 crabbing season saw an estimated 194 million adult female blue crabs in the Bay. This marks a 92 percent increase from last year’s abundance of adult females, which the Chesapeake Bay Program tracks as part of its progress toward the goals and outcomes of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Because adult female blue crab abundance is above the 70 million threshold, the blue crab stock is not considered depleted. And because just 15 percent of adult females were harvested in 2015—well below the 25.5 percent target—overfishing is not occurring.
“The blue crab population is at a healthy level,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Biologist and CBSAC Chair Glenn Davis in a media release. “It is encouraging to see adult females rebound from a depleted state… but that also serves as a reminder of how quickly things can change with this animal.”
In its report, CBSAC—which includes scientists and representatives from state agencies and academic institutions, as well as federal fisheries experts—recommends the improvement of harvest and fishing effort estimates, the jurisdictional coordination of complementary management measures and the evaluation of an allocation-based blue crab management framework. An allocation-based management framework would allocate an annual total allowable catch (TAC) of blue crabs for the Bay’s commercial and recreational fisheries among its three management jurisdictions: Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. The report recognizes the importance of future stock assessments in providing in-depth scientific guidance to support blue crab management.
“It’s great to see that the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population has increased over the past two years and we are close to achieving the target of 215 million adult female blue crabs outlined in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office Director and Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team Chair Peyton Robertson in a media release. “The annual Advisory Report continues to provide valuable counsel for jurisdictional fishery managers as they work toward sustaining the blue crab population at that level over the long term.”
For centuries, Chesapeake Bay residents and visitors alike have enjoyed the many benefits oysters have brought them. They’re a source of income for the watermen who harvest them, joy for the people who eat them and, for everyone else, they’re the bottom-dwellers that help filter the water in the Chesapeake Bay. But decades of overharvesting have depleted oyster stock to the point where current populations are less than one percent of historic levels. To reconcile a high demand with desperately low numbers, many in the oyster business are turning to aquaculture, or underwater farming, for solutions.
Rappahannock Oyster Company was once an oyster farm like many others; buying wild spat (baby oysters), laying them underwater on leased plots for three years and then dredging them back up. But when cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton took over their grandfather’s business in 2001, they saw a chance to revitalize the company and shake up how they farmed oysters. They began trying new approaches, such as buying seeds from a hatchery instead of spat taken from the Bay, and putting them into cages instead of directly on the river bottom.
And they didn’t just change the way they farmed oysters—they also changed how they did business. A tasting room at their farm in Topping, Virginia, and oyster bars in Richmond, Va. and Washington, D.C., serve the dual purpose of bringing oysters to consumers and educating them about farm-grown oysters. Chief Operating Officer Anthony Marchetti explains that their process is more sustainable; instead of further depleting the Bay’s oyster stock, “every oyster we put in the water is one that wasn’t there before.”
Through their method of oyster farming, Rappahannock Oyster Company hopes to get their oysters to hungry customers without impacting the long-term health of the Bay. One of their goals, Marchetti says, is to take the pressure off the wild stock of oysters, to someday get back to levels where they could be harvested—with smart management—without worrying about their or the Bay’s viability.
Oyster farming is becoming the norm in Virginia. They are the most rapidly developing sector of Virginia shellfish aquaculture, and the state is number one in oyster production on the East Coast. Newcomers to the field aren’t interested in further depleting the wild populations, says Marchetti. They’re opting for aquaculture, he says, because “you reap what you sow.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler saw his sneakers through 31 inches of water at the 29th annual Patuxent River Wade-In on June 12. High winds and rough waters meant this year’s “sneaker index”—the deepest point at which Fowler can still see his shoes as he wades into the water—measured far lower than 2015’s 44.5 inches.
Since 1988, the now 92-year-old Fowler—clad in his signature white sneakers—has held the wade-in on the second Sunday in June, to bring attention to the polluted waters of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. The event moved to Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in 2010 after decades on Broomes Island.
In his youth, Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. But nutrient and sediment pollution in the river have led to degraded water clarity and fueled algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching the river bottom. The 1960s sneaker index of 57 inches now serves as the benchmark for a restored Patuxent River.
Bill Anderson is an avid fisherman living in Blair County, Pennsylvania, and the nonprofit he leads has restored 28,000 square feet of forest buffer, secured several miles of permanent public access for fishing, and organized annual cleanups along the 32-mile Little Juniata River.
In our interview, we asked Anderson what the Chesapeake Bay means to him. Watch the video above to hear his response.
Learn more about the efforts to restore this wild trout fishery in our Restoration Spotlight.
Throughout Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week, we'll be sharing the stories of people who live, work and play in the Chesapeake region. Join the conversation on social media: #HumansOfTheChesapeake
Video by Will Parson
Marsh periwinkles cling to saltmarsh cordgrass at Money Point in Chesapeake, Virginia. The periwinkle is a small snail that lives in tidal marshes and wetlands near the mid- and lower Chesapeake Bay. Periwinkles rise and fall with each tide, feeding on algae growing on the blades of grass. The small snails are also known to practice “fungiculture” by chewing holes in the cordgrass and spreading waste across the cuts, allowing them to “farm” fungus.
Previously a 35-acre “dead zone,” Money Point is located along the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River. It was once so polluted that the river bottom was nearly lifeless. Recent restoration projects led by the Elizabeth River Project and others have significantly improved the health of the waterway.
Learn more about the recovery of the Elizabeth River.
Image by Will Parson
In 2015, Chesapeake Bay Program partners opened 22 boat ramps, fishing piers and other sites that grant public access to creeks, streams and rivers in the region. Virginia opened 10 sites along eight waterways; Pennsylvania opened six sites along the Susquehanna River; Maryland opened five sites along three waterways; and the District of Columbia opened one site along the Anacostia River. There are now 1,247 public access sites in the watershed for boating, fishing, swimming and other recreational activities.
The varied ownership of the region’s public access sites demonstrates the importance of establishing strong partnerships and public access initiatives at all levels of government and with nongovernmental organizations: nine of the new sites are owned by local governments, nine are owned by state governments, two are owned by the federal government and two are owned by nongovernmental organizations.
“As the state with the most public water access points in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, Maryland will continue to seek out innovative partnerships to create, enhance and improve water access so more of our citizens can enjoy the beauty and bounty of the Bay,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary of Natural Resources Mark Belton in a media release. “Expanding public access, either through creating new access points or improving existing sites, is a worthwhile goal for Bay restoration, our citizens and the state.”
Increasing public access to open space and waterways creates a shared sense of responsibility to protect these important natural environments. Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, our partners have committed to increasing public access as part of a larger effort to engage communities in our conservation work. The number of public access sites in the watershed is on track to reach 1,439 by 2025. Since tracking began in 2010, our partners have opened 108 sites, meeting 36 percent of our goal to open 300 sites over the next decade.
In celebration of its 100th anniversary, the National Park Service—a Chesapeake Bay Program partner—encourages people to visit parks of all kinds to connect with history and culture and enjoy the natural world.
It’s a gray Saturday morning in Washington, D.C. The sky is full of clouds, threatening rain, but Kenilworth Park isn’t empty. In fact, a large group of people are gathered around a tent in the park’s large, open field. But they’re not here for flag football or barbecuing; they’re here to work.
Today is the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) Earth Day Cleanup, and all of these people came out to Kenilworth Park to volunteer. As the overcast sky begins to shed its first drops of rain, they break off into smaller groups and head out to different sections of the park. Some begin scouring the field for trash, others head toward the Anacostia River—which cuts through the park—and some begin working on one of the river’s smaller tributaries.
While the Kenilworth group is large, they’re just a small portion of the 2,400 volunteers who signed up to take part in today’s cleanup at 31 different sites around D.C. and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland. Today seems like a large-scale cleanup effort—because it is—but AWS’s day of action is part of an even larger network of cleanups called Project Clean Stream, hosted by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. For the past 13 years, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has coordinated cleanups around the Chesapeake region. This year, cleanups ran from Sandbridge, Virginia, all the way up to Westfield, Pennsylvania.
For some of the volunteers at Kenilworth Park, this is their first time participating in a cleanup. Many were drawn to the event through Broccoli City Fest, a local concert that offered tickets to people in exchange for community service at a number of designated locations. One volunteer, Hilina Kibron, remarked, “I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own time. This actually forces me to do it.”
For experts and newcomers alike, the day is a learning opportunity. After just a few hours of picking up bottle after bottle and a seemingly endless stream of Styrofoam containers, volunteers reflected on personal changes they wanted to make, and hopes they had for others. After cleaning up plastic bottles and even an oil drum, William Klein said, “I hope that it will bring more awareness about littering and trying prevent that so in the future we won’t have to have days like these because people will be more sustainable.”
Despite the trash, many saw the beauty of Kenilworth Park and the Anacostia River, and wanted others to see that as well. They expressed hope about the value that a clean natural space could bring to the community and its residents. Fajr Chestnut, volunteering with her young daughter Ryanna, summed it up best: “The river means health and sustainability and economic development, and it’s the basis for the community. Once it’s to the level where it’s supposed to be, people will be able to have recreation. It’s bettering the community; it’s making it look better, making it sound better, making it feel better. So it’s important to have a clean river.”
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Photos by Will Parson
Improvements in water clarity helped waterways on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore score higher grades on Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy’s sixth annual report card.
Of the sixteen rivers and streams tracked by the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, fifteen of the waterways either improved or maintained the same grade from the previous year. Increased water clarity—in part caused by decreased precipitation—helped the Choptank maintain its “B-” grade from 2014. Eastern Bay and the surrounding creeks showed some of the best water quality recorded, all scoring “B” grades or higher.
According to the report, continued stormwater and agricultural runoff are slowing the recovery of water quality in the area. The Wye River continues to struggle—earning a “C” grade overall—with phosphorus pollution in the “D” to “D-” range.
Grades are based on data from more than 100 sampling sites, where volunteers test for water clarity, dissolved oxygen, nutrients and chloropyll a. The Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy also tracks water temperature, pH, salinity and bacteria levels.
Though they spend most of their lives at sea, American shad are nonetheless dependent on the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay every spring. They are the largest of five species of river herring that swim upstream to spawn in freshwater, a fact that once made them easy pickings for nearby residents. Native Americans and European colonists—tipped off to the shad’s return by the blooming of the aptly-named shadbush—would use baskets, nets and traps to catch the fish.
But population growth put more pressure on the species, and the construction of dams and other structures blocked migrations to shad habitat. The 1980s and 90s saw the closure of commercial shad fisheries in Maryland and Virginia.
To see the efforts of shad restoration today, one can simply follow the shad as they make the same upstream migration they always have. First efforts tap into the same seasonal migration. Adult shad are caught just before spawning, and their fertilized eggs are sent to hatcheries to help restock tributaries. Some dams have been removed, while others, like Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, have implemented fish lifts or other measures to allow shad and other anadromous species to pass. Between 1989 and 2015, more than 3,300 miles of fish passage were opened in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
By 2014, shad numbers in some tributaries had improved significantly. Shad were above targets in the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, though they were less established in the lower James and York and negligible in the upper James and Susquehanna.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson
The Chester River Association (CRA) measured a slight improvement in the health of the Chester River in 2015, giving the waterway a “C+” on its latest report card. While the grade is step up from 2014’s “C” score, nutrient and sediment pollution continues to threaten many of the creeks and streams that flow into the river.
CRA assesses the river’s overall health based on water clarity, dissolved oxygen levels and nutrient pollution, as well as algae levels in the tidal portions of the waterway. Although progress is encouraging, the report notes there is much restoration work left to be done, particularly in upstream portions of the watershed.
Highlighted in the report is the importance of land use on local water quality. CRA has found that areas with installed restoration projects—Riley’s Mill, Corsica Creeks and Radcliffe Creek—have shown consistent improvements in water quality.
For more information, visit the Chester River Association’s website.
Declining pollution, recovering fish populations and protected lands are signs of improving health for the Potomac River, according to the Potomac Conservancy’s ninth annual State of the Nation’s River report.
In 2012, American Rivers listed the Potomac as the nation’s most endangered river. But the river’s latest grade of “B-”—up from a “C” in 2013 and a “D” in 2011—indicates slow but steady progress on the waterway’s path to recovery. Nutrient and sediment pollution has decreased, fish like shad and white perch are returning to the waterway and more than a quarter of the land in the Potomac region is protected from development.
“Not all is well with our Nation’s River, however,” the report states. The fastest growing source of pollution into both the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay is stormwater runoff—rainfall that picks up pollutants as it flows across roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses and carries them into rivers and streams, threatening marine life and human health. With millions expected to move to the Potomac region in the coming decades, an increase in polluted runoff threatens to offset much of the progress made so far.
According to the Conservancy, approaches like streamside forest buffers, green infrastructure, mixed-use communities and low-impact development could help support the river on its path toward recovery.
Let’s say you’re a homeowner in Norfolk, Virginia, and a storm rolls in. As the rain falls on your yard you realize that you haven’t cleaned up after your dog. You’re tempted to forget it and stay dry. Then, through your water-streaked window you see your River Star Home flag flapping furiously in the wind, and you remember that “scoop the dog poop” is at the very top of the list of seven River Star guidelines you agreed to. You grab a raincoat and a shovel.
It’s no accident that the flag—and the pledge it represents—seems to hold a certain power for the nearly 3,200 people who have signed up for Elizabeth River Project’s (ERP) River Star Homes.
Any homeowner can sign up to join the River Star Homes program. Participants commit to do seven simple things to help improve water quality and restore the Elizabeth River.
“There are studies that show you're more likely to carry out those behaviors because everybody knows that you made that pledge,” says Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, ERP’s executive director.
With funding from a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, Jackson and her staff participated in workshops with social marketing expert Doug McKenzie-Mohr. She says the River Star Program incorporates some of the ideas from those sessions—with ERP’s own spin on them. The idea for the flag came from another marketing professional who wanted something classy that people would want to display.
“We've actually been mimicked now,” Jackson says. “But ours was the first.”
That makes homeowner Tim Ferring one of the first of the first. He signed up soon after the program launched in 2011.
“The River Star flags started popping up all over the place, and you weren’t cool unless you had one,” Ferring says, jokingly.
Walking around his suburban property with River Star Homes program manager Sara Felker and grassroots coordinator Casey Shaw, Ferring passes his rain barrel and his sizeable compost pile and steps over the low-lying native plants that mark his rain garden. Since installing the rain garden, Ferring says his basement doesn’t leak and he doesn’t have to use a sump pump.
Jackson says another lesson that helped shape River Star Homes is that once someone agrees to something small, they are more likely to take the next step.
“And then we come back and then we ask them to consider things that are more costly and actually require them to do stuff on the ground,” Jackson says. “And we have a really good response.”
Ferring, for one, talks wistfully of installing a cistern so that he can water his lawn entirely with rainwater. As she leaves, Felker promises to email him information on solar power.
ERP also runs River Star Schools and River Star Businesses. Predating River Star Homes, River Star Businesses is a program that BAE Systems Norfolk Ship Repair joined in 1998. Just two years later, the shipyard achieved model level, River Star Business’s highest recognition of accomplishments in pollution prevention and wildlife habitat.
“They were pioneers in everything—capturing the runoff, doing the [treatment for] tributyltin, oyster reefs, habitat,” says Pam Boatwright, River Star Businesses program manager.
Mike Ewing, BAE Systems’ environmental programs manager, recalls when all they had to do was put straw bales down the dock to keep trash out of the river. When the copper-based paint used on ships would be blasted off, it would stain the water a blood red and flow out into the river.
“Probably one of the biggest things we were ever been able to accomplish was convincing them that they needed to spend several hundred thousand dollars to build these troughs around the end of the dry dock to collect runoff from the docks,” Ewing says. “And then we would treat it.”
Boatwright points out that the move was voluntary, not regulatory.
In addition to treating roughly 10 million gallons of wastewater every year, including about 9 million gallons from the dry docks, BAE Systems saves another million gallons of water by reusing steam condensate in their boilers. Other initiatives include the reuse of 50,000 gallons of recovered oil, the recycling of eight million pounds of materials, and the raising of 15,000 oyster spat every year. Ewing estimates their current move to LED lighting will save about 1.5 to 2 million kWh per year.
Ewing credits new ownership, a culture shift at the shipyard, and some pushing by himself and his colleague Steve Bulleigh for the striking changes.
The relationship with ERP, however, began with Ewing’s predecessor, who first reached out for help building a little wetland.
“He was trying to make small steps,” Boatwright says. “We made it really easy in the beginning to build trust and get people into the fold.”
The relationship between ERP and BAE Systems is now approaching two decades. Over the years, Boatwright says she has done a lot of cheerleading, as well as helping BAE Systems to identify and then support those projects.
“I think once we got the ball rolling it got better,” Ewing says. “And it got easier to do. And we've been lucky.”
Ewing says BAE Systems has won about 30 awards since 2000, including the Virginia Governor's Environmental Excellence Gold Award, without ever experiencing a lot of serious pushback from the company about rolling out new environmental programs.
“There's a lot of resistance to change,” Ewing says. “But most of these guys, they're campers and fisherman and they swim and they boat. And they like the water and they’re hunters. And so they really want to do the right thing.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson
Additional photos courtesy Ed Ketz/BAE Systems
Reducing pollution in the Susquehanna River watershed could ease the environmental effects of an essentially full reservoir behind Conowingo Dam, according to a final report from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment (LSRWA) team released today.
For decades, the reservoir behind Conowingo Dam—as well as those behind the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams—has trapped particles of sediment flowing down the Susquehanna River, along with the nutrients that are often attached. But a draft report from the LSRWA team released in November 2014 indicated this reservoir is full—and the final report upholds these findings: no substantial changes were made to the findings or recommendations of the report between the draft and final phases.
According to the report, the reservoir is trapping smaller amounts of sediment and nutrients and, during large storms, sending more of these pollutants into the Susquehanna River more often. The report indicates that reducing pollution loads, particularly nutrients, upstream of the dam would provide a more effective solution than various strategies for managing sediment at the dam itself, such as dredging or bypassing.
In 2010, the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) was established to reduce nutrient and sediment loads across the watershed. Bay jurisdictions—Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia—and federal agencies are currently in the process of submitting draft two-year water quality goals, or milestones, to achieve the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reduction goals of the TMDL.
The final report is available on the LSRWA website.
Each winter, the mid-Atlantic receives an average of 23 inches of snow. To combat the flakes that freeze on roads and slow drivers down, states spread road salt on highly traveled highways. While removing ice and increasing tire traction is critical to keeping drivers safe during snowstorms, the most commonly used road salt can have adverse effects on the surrounding environment.
According to the Chesapeake Stormwater Network, between 10 and 20 million tons of road salt—the most common form of which is sodium chloride—are applied to the nation’s highways each year. About a third of this is applied to states in the mid-Atlantic, and stormwater professionals estimate that 2.5 million tons of road salt are applied annually across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. While a Chesapeake Bay Commission review of regional road salt policies found that the indiscriminate application of road salt does not typically occur in Maryland, Virginia or Pennsylvania, evidence shows that chloride concentrations in Maryland’s freshwater streams have increased over the last 40 years because of salt accumulation.
Because sodium chloride dissolves in water, it enters streams easily when surrounding snow melts. Small streams located close to treated roads are disproportionately affected by road salt and suffer notable chloride spikes each winter. While streams that are considered freshwater typically contain less than 300 mg of chloride per liter—and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recommended long-term chloride exposure fall under 230 mg per liter in freshwater streams—a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that urban streams in the mid-Atlantic can contain five to ten times that amount.
What does this mean for streams and the critters that call them home? A literature review from the Maryland Department of the Environment notes that malformations among green frogs and mortality among spotted salamanders rise with exposure to road salt. High chloride levels can also lower the variety and abundance of fish in a waterway and cause those fish that are left to eat less and exhibit slower growth. And while some bottom-dwelling macroinvertebrates—whose presence is a key indicator of stream health—can withstand elevated chloride concentrations, long-term exposure is harmful. In Maryland, Index of Biotic Integrity scores—which rank stream health on a five-point scale—appear to decline as chloride concentrations increase, indicating road salt could be at least partially responsible for the “impaired” listings of certain streams in the state.
What can be done? Because road salt is a clear contributor to the long-term salinization of streams in the region, the Maryland Department of the Environment recommends aggressively managing and, in some cases, limiting road salt use. States can set chloride concentration standards, for instance, while highway agencies can work to improve the storage and application efficiency of deicers. Individual homeowners can make sure to apply deicers when they will be most effective or use chemical alternatives.
Slight decreases in water clarity and dissolved oxygen led the Magothy River in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, to receive a “D” grade for the second year in a row, according to the Magothy River Association. While the river’s health has improved somewhat in recent years, the score of 33 percent remains well below the 80-percent threshold needed for an “A” grade.
The Magothy River Association’s “Magothy River Index” assesses the river’s health according to three indicators: water clarity, dissolved oxygen and underwater grasses. While both water clarity and dissolved oxygen decreased from 2014 to 2015, underwater grasses improved slightly after several years without growth.
Bacteria in the river remained at generally safe levels during the summer of 2015, although the report card stresses that swimming after a rainfall event is not recommended, as heavy rains can wash polluted runoff and pet waste into local waterways.
Since 2003, the Magothy River Association has used scientific data from agencies and volunteer monitors to develop the Magothy River Index. For more information, visit the Magothy River Association’s website.
Countless creeks, streams and rivers flow into the Chesapeake Bay. For decades, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has measured the flow of the region’s rivers in order to forecast floods, spot low-flow conditions and estimate the amount of pollution running from the land into the water. While annual river flow has remained within its normal range for much of the last decade, our increasingly variable climate has fostered increasingly variable river flow, which has the potential to affect habitats and pollution levels in the Bay.
While river flow is tracked at 300 monitoring stations across the watershed, it is the data that are collected at stations along its three biggest rivers—the Susquehanna, the Potomac and the James—that are used to calculate total flow into the Bay. Data collected at these monitoring stations show that, on average, 51 billion gallons of water flow into the Bay each day.
Annual river flow that falls between 44 and 58 billion gallons per day is considered normal. But the last 15 years have seen extreme flow variability, which can affect the surrounding ecosystem.
While low river flow can dry up stream beds and threaten fish, high river flow has garnered much attention in the region.Excess river flow can damage stream banks, trigger sewage overflows and push pollutants—including nutrients, sediment and toxic contaminants picked up from farm fields, backyards, parking lots and roads—into the Bay. It can also lower salinity levels in the Bay itself, which has a direct impact on underwater grasses, fish and shellfish. Often, high river flow is linked to heavy precipitation, which has become a noted impact of our changing climate.
In 2014, the U.S. Global Change Research Program reported in its National Climate Assessment that heavy downpours have increased across the nation. The Northeast, in particular, has seen a 71 percent rise in the amount of precipitation that falls during heavy downpours: a higher jump than any other region in the United States. In our work to protect the nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay Program is taking these and other climate impacts into account.
Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement’s climate resiliency goal, our partners have committed to monitoring climate trends and the effectiveness of our restoration policies, programs and projects under these changing conditions. Our partners have also committed to adjusting our work as needed in order to enhance the resiliency of the watershed against climate change. Because in building the resiliency of the Bay, we can increase the likelihood that its living resources, habitats, public infrastructure and communities will withstand the changes—to temperature, sea level and even river flow—that may come their way.
On a fall morning, a lot is happening on the 120-by-32-foot steel deck of the Elizabeth River Project’s Dominion Virginia Power Learning Barge. A stream of fourth grade students from Granby Elementary School follows Robin Dunbar, the Elizabeth River Project’s deputy director of education, onto the vessel via a narrow boardwalk at the Grandy Village Learning Center in Norfolk, Virginia. After splitting into groups, they measure oyster shells, they listen to osprey calls, they find periwinkles in the wetland observation pool and they make traditional mud art in a small classroom onboard. With solar panels above their heads, and captured rainwater below their feet, students on the Learning Barge get excited about their local river—and how they can impact it—in a space that is smaller than a basketball court.
The Learning Barge launched in 2009 and has seen almost 60,000 students—about 10,000 a year—according to Dunbar. She floats from group to group as staff guide lessons on how to build a nest like an osprey or how to use buckets to collect water samples.
“All this was going to be a big wetland,” Dunbar says, standing on the partially-covered deck, which was designed by the University of Virginia School of Architecture and is organized into six indoor and outdoor learning stations for the barge’s 2015-2016 fall and spring programs. “I had a different idea and worked with U.Va. to turn it into a classroom.”
Before there was a barge to build on, the Elizabeth River Project had to grapple with the financial realities of owning and operating such a sizable vessel.
“The [Elizabeth River Project’s] board was very concerned about maintenance in the beginning,” says Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, executive director of ERP. “But the ship repair community, and the tug boats—the maritime community—has adopted the barge.”
It takes about $200,000 a year to operate the Learning Barge, but the cost would be significantly higher without all of the volunteers involved. For example, Jackson says the Elizabeth River Project has never paid for transporting the barge, which is not self-propelled. Last summer, Colonna’s Shipyard donated a paint job for the hull—a value of $40,000. And every winter, BAE Industries takes the barge into their shipyard and asks what projects need to be done.
The sum of the Learning Barge’s parts, which are powered entirely by solar and wind power captured onboard, contribute to a meaningful watershed educational experience for students in the Norfolk area—including several low-income school districts—who may have never really spent time on a river despite living so close to one.
“It’s all science but it touches on different grade levels and they’re able to go back to the schoolhouse and apply some of that to what they’re learning the classroom,” says Marquita Fulford, standing at the Chesapeake Gold station, where students trace and measure oysters. A second-grade teacher at Camp Young in Norfolk, Fulford is in her third year working with students on the Learning Barge.
“Hands on activities, they love those,” Fulford says. “And they remember them—more so than somebody just talking to you.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and Text by Will Parson
At Endless Trails Farm in Hubbardsville, N.Y., Troy Bishopp is looking for cow pies.
“There’s a little bit there, but overall there isn’t a whole lot of manure,” he says, explaining to the farm's manager. “Every rotation we’re going to want more.”
Bishopp is a conservation specialist with New York’s Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Upper Susquehanna Coalition, and among the services he provides is advice on how grassland farmers can get the most out of their pastures. With 30 years of experience, he has learned to pay attention to the subtleties that only come with walking out in a field and talking with farmers.
“I’m constantly looking, because wherever that cow manure lands is where there’s going to be more grass than not,” Bishopp says. This passion for grass has led to him being called the Grass Whisperer, a moniker first bestowed on him by his friend Dick Warner during a visit to Washington to educate congressional districts about grass-based agriculture in New York.
Bishopp has worked with Endless Trails Farm for about eight years, first to set up some conservation practices like stream buffers, then helping with fencing and offering rotational grazing advice. When he visits a farm, his tools are cheap—a plastic grazing stick helps him assess how many pounds of feed are in a pasture, and a reel of electrified tape lets him keep animals on and off sections of pasture, a practice he prescribed for Endless Trails.
“There was no real system of fencing or paddock rotation [on this farm]. And so usually in July and August there wasn’t a whole lot of grass here,” Bishopp says. “Implementing strategic fencing, water spots around the farm, water tubs, and then allowing the grass and the pastures to rest for a month or two, always made a lot of grass which actually sequestered any rain that came, which is huge up here.”
The water infiltration resulted in more grass for cattle at the farm, and also less runoff, including sediment and nutrients, running into streams and ultimately into the Chesapeake Bay. In 2011, the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District named Endless Trails its Conservation Farm of the Year.
“Generally speaking, we want to retain our topsoil, have good water infiltration and keep the waters clean,” Bishopp says. “When you produce a lot of feed and you do those things that make you money, conservation comes right along with it.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Video, Images and Text by Will Parson
Invasive species, or plants and animals that have been introduced to an area, can cause harm when they establish themselves at the expense of native wildlife. These invaders pose a threat to native species by outcompeting them for resources like food and habitat that are necessary for survival. Often, these species expand their range and population numbers at such a rapid pace that landowners and wildlife managers struggle to contain their spread.
Brian Knox is President of Sustainable Resource Management, Inc., a natural resource consulting firm based out of Davidsonville, Md., that deals primarily with managing forest vegetation. Knox has seen success in combating invasive plants by implementing outside-the-box tactics. “A lot of people these days are getting more conscious about their herbicide usage,” said Knox. “As a very small company, we’re not afraid to try anything.”
In 2007, Knox began unleashing a herd of goats—referred to as Eco-Goats—on areas overrun by invasive vegetation. The goats have proven to be a viable option for these problem areas, because they can go many places that people and machinery cannot reach, like steep slopes and hillsides. Additionally, because of the goats’ mouth shape and digestive system structure, they are able to grind up seeds in a way that ensures seeds are not returned to the soil to resprout at the end of the digestive process.
A herd of about 30 goats can work through about a half-acre of dense vegetation in 3 to 4 days. “Goats are very good at biomass reduction,” explained Knox. “Typically, a goat can eat about 25 percent of its bodyweight a day in green material. If you figure an average of 100 pounds, that’s 25 pounds of vegetation going into every goat that’s out there.”
Although the goats are fond of invasive species like kudzu, porcelain berry, wine berry and mile-a-minute and are undeterred by thorns, they do not discriminate against native species. So before committing his goats to an area, Knox surveys each site to make sure the vegetation is appropriate. “A misapplied goat is every bit as bad as a chemical spill,” said Knox. “You can do damage with a goat... I look for native species and ask, ‘Is there more here to save than there is to get rid of?’ If so, that’s a terrible place for a goat.”
Spending your day with a herd of goats may sound like fun, but managing the goats is hard work. “A lot of people think it’s just sitting around and watching the goats, and boy, that would be a great job. And then you talk to them about how it took me two days to get the fence up and I’m soaked through to my socks by eight in the morning,” said Knox. “But clearly there’s something that I really love about this. And it’s the educational aspect of it, seeing people’s eyes light up while watching the goats.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and video by Keith Rutowski
Text by Jenna Valente
The James River Association has measured an improvement in the overall health of the James River, giving the waterway a “B-” in its latest State of the James report.
Grades are based on four indicators of river health: fish and wildlife populations, habitat, pollution reduction and restoration and protection actions. The river’s score of 61 percent is a four percent increase since the report was last issued in 2013, and it marks the first time the historically-polluted waterway has scored in the “B” range. But according to the report, much work remains to be done, particularly related to sediment pollution in the waterway.
While sediment is a natural part of the environment, excess particles of sand, silt and clay can cloud the water, harming underwater grasses, fish and shellfish. According to the James River Association, sediment pollution in the James has shown little improvement over the past several years, and it continues to pose a significant threat to the long-term health of the river.
According to the report, however, Virginia has made significant strides in reducing nutrient pollution—in particular, pollution from wastewater—as the state works to meet limits set by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
As the clear, cold waters of the Little Juniata River rush through the forests and farmland of central Pennsylvania, hidden spring holes and rocky boulders provide hideaways for the cautious brown trout. Above water, Bill Anderson is teaching longtime friend John Norton the basics of fly fishing, in the hopes of catching one of these popular sport fish. “Fly fishing provides a means to get to be in nature as a participant instead of a spectator,” Anderson describes. “You’re there actively seeking a target, in this case the trout. And there’s something very primal and addictive about the infrequent benefit that comes from standing in cold water and tossing a fly at a spot on the water where you think a fish is going to take it.”
The Little Juniata—or “Little J”—is a sanctuary for fly fishermen on the East Coast. Little-known to outsiders, it attracts fishermen from across the region who hope to catch brown trout in its cool waters. But just a few decades ago, fishing in the Little Juniata River seemed unthinkable. “Well, the Little Juniata River is not well-known nationally, primarily because it’s only been a trout stream since around 1975,” Anderson says. “The reason being that prior to that it was literally an open sewer.”
A long history of pollution from municipal sources, nearby tanneries and a paper mill had degraded the river into what Anderson calls a “dead stream.” And after a mysterious pollution event in 1997 destroyed much of the waterway’s aquatic insect and invertebrate population—essentially starving the brown trout—the community had had enough. “We never determined the cause. But several local people got together who loved the river and decided that wasn’t going to happen again,” says Anderson, current president of the nonprofit organization that emerged: the Little Juniata River Association (LJRA).
For a handful years after its foundation, the LJRA sat dormant: most of the few dozen members had drifted away and meetings were infrequent. But in the decade since Anderson became its president, the group has transformed nearly as much as the river itself. The purely-volunteer organization now boasts more than 200 members, and its mission includes not just monitoring of the river, but the improvement of the whole watershed. Activities range from restoring stream banks to protecting fish habitat. More than 1,400 feet of stream bank has been repaired to prevent excess sediment from entering the river, where it can block sunlight from reaching underwater plants and smother bottom-dwelling species. The nonprofit also hosts an annual trash pick-up, clearing 20 miles of riverbank of litter and debris.
These days, the LJRA is focused on the future. With changing climate conditions come rising water temperatures, which can be devastating for the health of cold-water fish like brown trout. In association with Juniata College, the LJRA tagged 24 mature trout to determine where the fish go when water temperatures warm. “The idea is let the trout lead us to the places that need to be improved, and then we’ll set about improving those pieces and parts of the river, whether for spawning or for refuge from heat,” Anderson explains.
Just as important to Anderson as the health of the trout is the opportunity for others—like his friend Norton—to fish for them. In recent years, private fishing clubs have purchased and leased land along the river, requiring expensive memberships for fishermen to access the stream. But with help from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the LJRA has worked with landowners to establish more than five miles of permanent public fishing easements. “We’re not done,” says Anderson. “We won’t be done until all 32 miles of river are permanently publicly accessible. We want to make sure this resource stays open for our children and grandchildren.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Stephanie Smith
The calm, mirror-like surface of Otsego Lake is the subject of history and legend. Nicknamed “Glimmerglass” by James Fenimore Cooper, the author describes the lake in his work The Deerslayer as “a bed of the pure mountain atmosphere compressed into a setting of hills and woods.” The narrow, finger-like lake runs nine miles from north to south, coming to a point at Cooperstown, New York, where it marks the start of the Susquehanna River. Hop into a boat and follow the current, and a winding, 464-mile journey downriver will eventually drop you in the Chesapeake Bay. At first glance, the lake’s tranquil surface may seem humble beginnings for a mighty river that churns billions of gallons of fresh water into the nation’s largest estuary each day. But Otsego is a flurry of activity, home to a rich diversity of critters, habitats and ecosystems.
Alongside the shores of Otsego Lake sits the Biological Field Station, a laboratory that serves the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Oneonta, where researchers work year-round to study and preserve the lake. In 1967, the field station began as a 365-acre donation from the Clark Family Foundation. Now, the field station’s facilities— which include the main laboratory, a farm and boathouse, and various research sites and conserved lands—span more than 2,600 acres. Director Bill Harman, a professor of biology, has led the Biological Field Station for the entirety of its more than 40 year existence. As resident Otsego expert, Harman oversees the monitoring, research, training, workshops and field trips at the field station’s facilities.
Hands-on learning opportunities are abundant across the waters, marshes and forests surrounding Otsego Lake. Field trips, summer internships and general research bring kindergarteners through post-graduates to the field station’s facilities. Students of SUNY Oneonta’s Master of Lake Management program—the first such program in North America—complete their studies at the Biological Field Station, sampling, monitoring and researching the waters of Otsego and other nearby lakes. Local residents and other visitors are also welcome to explore and can participate in lake monitoring alongside the field station’s scientists.
Though located far from the Chesapeake Bay itself, Otsego Lake suffers from many of the same issues threatening the estuary, like nutrient pollution and a rise in invasive species. Zebra mussels and purple loosestrife—two infamous invasive species plaguing the watershed—have overtaken much of the lake and surrounding lands. Once a rich source of shad, herring and eels, downstream dams have blocked many of these fish from migrating to the lake. But Harman and his colleagues don’t see Otsego as a closed system. As they collect their data and monitor the lake, they are actively seeking solutions that could be applied across the region.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Stephanie Smith
Today, the Chesapeake Executive Council announced the release of twenty-five management strategies outlining the Chesapeake Bay Program’s plans to meet the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, advancing the restoration, conservation and protection of the Bay, its tributaries and the lands that surround them.
Members of the Executive Council—which represents the seven watershed jurisdictions, a tri-state legislative commission and federal agencies—met to review the state of the Bay Program and finalize the strategies at their annual meeting, held at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.
In addition to announcing the strategies, the Executive Council passed two resolutions—first, endorsing the recommendations of the State Riparian Forest Buffer Task Force and committing to collaborative efforts that will increase the miles of forests on agricultural lands, and second, that the Bay Program hold a symposium on financing environmental restoration efforts. Members also agreed to two joint letters, one supporting programs to keep livestock out of streams and another supporting funding in the President’s 2016 budget for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which includes more than $33 million for the Rivers of the Chesapeake collaborative proposal.
“Our partnership to restore the Bay continues to move forward,” said Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, Executive Council Chair, in a release. “We recognize the significant challenges we face and look forward to meeting them head on to ensure the restoration of our ecologic and economic treasure, the Chesapeake Bay.”
Each management strategy addresses one or more of the Watershed Agreement’s thirty-one measurable, time-bound outcomes that will help create a healthy watershed. They will reduce nutrient and sediment pollution; ensure our waters are free of the effects of toxic contaminants; sustain blue crabs, oysters and forage fish; restore wetlands, underwater grass beds and other habitats; conserve farmland and forests; foster engaged and diverse citizen stewards through increased public access and education; and increase the climate resiliency of the watershed’s resources, habitats and human communities.
Considerable public input was sought and received which had a substantial impact on the content of the management strategies, representing a collaborative effort between Bay Program partners, academic institutions, local governments, non-governmental organizations, businesses and citizens. Stakeholders throughout the region participated in the development of the strategies and submitted hundreds of comments during the public review period. In the continued work toward accomplishing the goals of the Watershed Agreement, Bay Program partners are currently drafting two-year work plans that summarize the specific commitments, short-term actions and resources required for success.
Prior to this year’s annual meeting, Governor McAuliffe met to discuss recommendations from the local government, citizen and scientific communities with the council’s three advisory committees—the Citizens Advisory Committee, the Local Government Advisory Committee and the Science and Technical Advisory Committee.
In the rivers and streams of Pennsylvania, you can find channel catfish, small and largemouth bass, white perch and rainbow trout. But the persistence of toxic contaminants in the Delaware, Ohio and Susquehanna river basins has limited the amount of fish you can consume from the Commonwealth’s waters.
Mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other toxic contaminants pose risks across the United States. Toxics enter the environment through air pollution, agricultural and urban runoff, and wastewater discharged from industrial and municipal treatment plants. Toxics bind to sediment, build up in the tissues of fish and move through the food web through a process called bioaccumulation. Because of the health risks associated with the frequent consumption of fish affected by toxics—birth defects and cancer among them—Pennsylvania has advised people to consume no more than eight ounces of locally caught sport fish in a given week.
Pennsylvania isn’t the only state in the watershed coping with contaminants. According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 74 percent of the tidal Chesapeake Bay is partially or fully impaired by toxics. And all states in the watershed have issued fish consumption advisories as a result.
Of course, most fish consumption advisories aren’t meant to stop the consumption of all locally caught fish, unless Do Not Eat is shown in an advisory listing. Some people are more at-risk (pregnant and breast-feeding women, women of childbearing age, and children), and some fish are safer to eat (smaller, younger fish and those species that are not as fatty as their catfish, carp or eel counterparts). For most, the benefits of eating fish can be gained as long as you choose a safe place to fish, pick a safe species to eat, trim and cook your catch correctly, and follow recommended meal frequencies.
Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Chesapeake Bay Program has committed to reviewing the latest research on toxic contaminants and improving the practices and controls that would reduce their effects. Learn more about our efforts to further toxic contaminants research and policy and prevention.
Warm weather is upon us, and that means people will be taking to the water to escape from the heat. Soon enough, the Chesapeake Bay will be dotted with bobbing watercrafts of all shapes and sizes. For those recreating on the Bay, the bright yellow Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS) markers may be a familiar sight, but they serve as much more than eye-catching aquatic beacons: they provide key insights into the health and safety conditions of the Bay.
The first buoys were deployed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Chesapeake Bay Office in 2007—marking 10 locations along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Historic Trail—and have been collecting and transmitting real-time water quality and atmospheric data ever since. “It’s [the buoy system] interpretive because we work with the National Park Service as a partner to interpret John Smith’s trail, so there is a bit of a historical aspect to it,” said Katie Kirk, Senior Buoy Specialist at Earth Resources Technology, a contractor that supplies support staff and assistance to NOAA and other government agencies.
“Our main mission is to keep the 10 buoys that we have up and alive and transmitting as often as we can and deliver the data to as many users as we can,” said Kirk in reference to her and the field team’s work. Routine maintenance and repairs on the buoy fleet presents a swath of challenges that keeps the small team of CBIBS buoy technicians busy year-round.
The life of a CBIBS buoy technician differs from day-to-day and can be a physically demanding profession. Some days are spent in their Annapolis, Md., warehouse—affectionately referred to as the ‘buoy spa’—calibrating instruments, cleaning buoys, swapping out parts and working with computer systems. Other times, the team braves the wind, waves and elements to do onsite repairs and buoy maintenance.
As the summer and fall wind down and cold weather approaches, the team removes the three northernmost buoys from the Patapsco, Susquehanna and Upper Potomac rivers before freezing conditions set in to prevent ice damage. But this winter, the southern buoys succumbed to the frigid conditions: wind gusts exceeding 50 miles-per-hour and below-freezing water temperatures caused ice from sea spray to accumulate on and topple over the buoys, something the CBIBS team had never seen before. “The buoys that were off location tipped over, cracked and no longer had power, so we couldn’t track them on the GPS to figure out where they were. That was a pretty intense time trying to figure out where the buoys had moved to and how we could get to them,” explained Kirk.
After winter, the team’s short-term goals were to get all of the buoys repaired, online and transmitting data. With that completed, Kirk is now striving to see the data being analyzed and produced in scientific papers. “It’s been done before, but I want to get back to that and try to reach out to more teachers and researchers and see if they want more buoys or buoys in different locations,” Kirk said. “Then we can take the time and think about how our system reaches out to those users, what they need from us and what they would prefer.”
While many people accessing the data are local sailors and kayakers looking for information on the wind speed, currents, wave heights and local conditions before venturing out on the water, educators also integrate the data into their curriculum. Utilizing the data for educational purposes is of utmost importance to NOAA, so much so that they have an entire education team dedicated to reaching out to local schools to demonstrate how the CBIBS data can be used in the classroom.
In addition to live reporting of local water and weather conditions, the buoy data provides a snapshot into what is happening around the Bay, demonstrating in a quantitative way how each part of the ecosystem is interrelated. Information on water temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen can help researchers uncover important linkages between water quality and blue crab stocks, fish populations, bay grass abundance and more.
Despite the many challenges that the buoy technicians face, Kirk and her team exude an air of passion and commitment to maintaining the instruments that provide the most up-to-date information about the state of the Bay, all in the name of presenting the best science. For those working to restore the estuary and those interested in learning about the issues the Bay faces, the data can serve as a useful tool.
“I think we have an amazing opportunity to protect this watershed and this bay,” said Kirk. “It goes back to resources and taking pride in where you live. This is your home, why wouldn’t you protect it?”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Video and images by Will Parson
Text by Jenna Valente
While the abundance of adult female blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay is below target, fisheries experts have reported the blue crab stock is not depleted and overfishing is not occurring.
According to the 2015 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, released by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), the start of the 2015 crabbing season saw 101 million adult female blue crabs in the Bay. This marks a 47 percent increase from last year’s abundance of adult females, which the Chesapeake Bay Program tracks as an indicator of Bay health. Because blue crab abundance is above the 70 million threshold, the blue crab stock is not considered depleted. And because just 17 percent of adult females were harvested in 2014—well below the 25.5 percent target—overfishing is not occurring.
In its report, CBSAC urged the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) to maintain a risk-averse management approach to protect juvenile crabs, whose numbers fluctuate from year to year. The committee, which is made up of scientists, academics and government representatives and housed under the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team (GIT), also recommended evaluating the establishment of a Bay-wide allocation-based management framework.
An allocation-based management framework would allocate an annual “total allowable catch” of male and female crabs to Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC. In the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Bay Program committed to evaluating the establishment of this framework. “[This report] directly supports our efforts to achieve the blue crab outcomes set forth in the [Watershed] Agreement, using the best science available to provide meaningful input to management decisions made by jurisdictions,” said Peyton Robertson, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chesapeake Bay Office Director and Sustainable Fisheries GIT Chair, in a media release.
Before the Susquehanna River meets the Chesapeake Bay, before it churns through Conowingo Dam, and before it winds through the farmlands of Pennsylvania, it begins its 464-mile journey with a calm exit from Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York. Every Memorial Day weekend, an assortment of canoe and kayak paddlers share the first 70 miles of that journey, taking in the green landscape of central New York during the General Clinton Canoe Regatta.
This year, over 200 vessels entered the full course from Cooperstown to Bainbridge, with most holding two or more paddlers. Entrants came from across the country, and Canada was also well represented — English and French could be heard throughout the race. Paddlers shouted as they portaged their vessels past spectators at three dams. Support crews cheered while making quick, timesaving handoffs of energy drinks and food. Shallow water following a dry spring season may have slowed things down this year, but the racers remained focused, and the leading professional team still finished in less than eight hours.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and text by Will Parson.
Last year, our partners opened 17 boat ramps, fishing piers and other sites that grant public access to rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia opened 14 sites, while Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York each opened one. There are now 1,225 public places that allow people across the watershed to walk, play, swim, fish and launch their paddleboats, sailboats and powerboats into the water.
Partnerships between local, state and federal agencies and non-profit organizations have been essential in developing these sites: a soft launch for paddlecraft opened on the Chickahominy River with support from the James River Association. Walking trails, wildlife viewing platforms and interpretive signs were built on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land along Mount Landing Creek with support from the Virginia State Park Youth Conservation Corps. And a boat dock, wildlife viewing platform and public pavilion, as well as fishing access, were established at the Zimmerman Center for Heritage on the Susquehanna River with support from Pennsylvania’s Fish and Boat Commission, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Department of Transportation, as well as the National Park Service and local donors.
As development continues across the watershed, demand for places that allow the public to reach the water remains high. State, federal and local governments are often the guardians of these places, providing opportunities for everyone to enjoy the region’s natural and cultural bounty. Because physical access to the Bay and its tributaries remains limited—with real consequences for quality of life, the economy and long-term conservation—our partners set a goal in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement to bring the total number of access sites in the watershed to 1,439 by 2025. And because public access to open space and waterways can create citizen stewards who care for local resources and engage in conservation, we track public access as an indicator of our progress toward fostering environmental stewardship.
“As an avid kayaker, I know the importance of having access to rivers, creeks and streams throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release. “As we come to know the resource through access to it, we will understand its value. Once we know its value, we will be more inclined to take actions to protect it. Public access is critical to restoring this vital ecosystem.”
Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler saw his sneakers through 44.5 inches of water at this year’s 28th annual Patuxent River Wade-In on June 14. This marks the deepest measurement of the “sneaker index”—the deepest point at which Fowler can still see his shoes as he wades into the water—since 1997.
Fowler holds the wade-in each year on the second Sunday in June to bring attention to the polluted waters of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. After decades on Broomes Island, the event moved to Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in 2010.
In his youth, Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. But nutrient and sediment pollution in the river have led to degraded water clarity and fueled algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching the river bottom. The 1960s sneaker index of 57 inches now serves as the benchmark for a restored Patuxent River. While still well below this target, this year’s measurement is close to double last year’s depth of 23 inches.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
On a verdant spring morning, tie-dye clad students of the Gunston School, a private high school of about 160 students in Centreville on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, gather on the dew-covered front lawn to participate in a team-building exercise. Giggling teens in conga line formations scramble around in an attempt to follow directions shouted through a megaphone by Emily Beck, the sustainability coordinator for the school. It’s Earth Day; there’s an electric energy in the air.
A one-mile access road offers the tranquility of hundreds of lush acres of farm fields, all placed under permanent conservation easement, leading up to 32 acres of campus that are nestled into the nape of the Corsica River. The rural expansiveness sets the tone for a core message that is threaded throughout everything the Gunston School does: sustainability.
Out of the 2,220 schools in Maryland, only 20 percent—or 450—of them, including the Gunston School, are certified through the Maryland Association for Environmental & Outdoor Education (MAEOE) as Green Schools. Certified schools must meet a stringent set of criteria that includes benchmarks such as school-wide environmental behavior changes, water conservation, pollution reduction, instruction on environmental issues and many more.
Certified green schools are also required to hold an annual celebration of green practices; for the Gunston School, that materializes in the form of a daylong Earth Day celebration planned and organized by the students. Instead of attending class, students participate in a morning of workshops conducted by students, faculty and outside presenters and an afternoon film session and green fair. This year’s celebration focused on the intersection of land, livestock and wildlife and offered programs such as poetry in nature; oyster restoration through the Chesapeake Environmental Center; community supported, organic and sustainable farming practices; and a number of road, campus and shoreline cleanups.
Being a green school is embedded in the core of the Gunston School’s identity. “The Gunston School has embraced being a green school; we first applied in 2011 and we reapplied this year,” said Beck. “That has really helped to inform the students, teachers, faculty and administration about what a school can be in terms of a role model in the community.”
The Gunston School’s overarching mission is to help students grow and thrive in a way that way that will prepare them for not only college, but also to be lifelong leaders. The curriculum takes a personalized approach, with instructors working closely with each student to help them develop their leadership skills and academic strengths with a special emphasis on global awareness and sustainable living. In that focus, the school is able to harness their location and pair it with lessons through their Chesapeake Bay Studies program, an integral part of the curriculum that has been in existence for more than 20 years.
Although the Bay Studies program is weaved into lesson plans throughout the year, it culminates in an annual weeklong series of experiential seminars designed to get the students in and on the Bay. By partnering with organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Outward Bound and the Sultana Project, students are directly exposed to and informed about the ecological problems surrounding the Bay and its watershed.
“Students learn in many different ways; we have students who are classic book learners for whom getting into the Bay helps to bring that book learning alive, and we have students who are more hands on learners and they transfer that knowledge that they got during their hands on experience back into the classroom,” said John Lewis, Headmaster of the Gunston School. “I think that if the students aren’t ever really in the Bay or immersed in the watershed, they’re sort of just abstract environmentalists—they’re not actually seeing the impacts and the dynamics of the Bay system and that goes for not just kids, but also the teachers.”
Patience and adaptation are the name of the game when it comes to taking students outdoors for lessons. “The biggest fear [for teachers] of taking students outside is that they will run wild, and it’s a downside of our current education system is that the only time that kids get to go outside is for recess. So, the times that you take them outside, their mentality is recess,” said Beck.
At the Gunston School, pairing lessons with the natural world means students have learned over the years that being outside means learning, and they remain engaged. If a distraction happens, like an eagle flying by, teachers are content with taking a moment to appreciate the sighting and even adapting their lesson to their surroundings if need be, because, like many things in life, it’s important to expect the unexpected and go with the flow.
Although outdoors learning is an ideal opportunity for both teachers and students, some challenges can come along with it. Not all schools have the ample space and natural resources that the Gunston School is fortunate enough to have access to. “There are opportunities to create teaching environments in the barest amount of space or make use of your indoor environment if it is not possible to get out of doors,” said Beck. “The natural world is all around us, it’s just changing your focus a little bit to see the learning opportunities.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
Each spring and fall, a stream gushing from a spring in the middle of Lititz, Pa., becomes the center of attention for a group of Warwick High School chemistry students. Lititz Run starts flowing in Lititz Springs Park, mere yards from the students’ campus, where they begin a biannual field trip to measure their local water quality.
The students get a hands-on learning experience that builds their environmental literacy and also provides meaningful data to the Lititz Run Watershed Alliance (LRWA) and Warwick Township. That data helps them assess completed restoration projects and decide what they want to do in the future to improve Lititz Run, which the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection lists as an impaired stream. It takes just a few miles for Lititz Run to join the Conestoga River, but along the way it picks up pollution from urban runoff, storm sewers, wastewater discharge and agriculture.
It is up to Warwick teachers Diana Griffiths and Doug Balmer to navigate the logistics of funding, paperwork, and tight curricula needed to pull off the field trips.
“We don’t have a whole lot of time or flexibility to give lots of units on applications of chemistry,” Griffiths said. “So this gives some kids a chance to see some of that chemistry put to use out in the field, even though it’s just a day.”
The trips are a partnership between Warwick High School and the LRWA. Matt Kofroth, a watershed coordinator with the Lancaster County Conservation District, has been assisting with the trips almost since they began in 1997. He describes the relationship as symbiotic.
“I’m just very thankful that they continue to be active partners in this, because you see very few communities and watershed groups working together like that,” Kofroth said.
He said it is hard to tease out the effects of restoration, an upgrade to Lititz Wastewater Treatment Plant, tree plantings and public education, but their cumulative positive impact is not surprising.
“It might seem early, but there is a slight decrease in the nutrients [in Lititz Run] over time,” Kofroth said.
Another piece of evidence for the stream’s recovery is the return of brown trout, which need cold, oxygenated waters to reproduce. Kofroth likens them to a canary in a coal mine.
And for the students, especially those who may have never seen a freshwater macroinvertebrate before, the opportunity to learn outside is a memorable one.
“I’ve had one parent contact me one time and say this is the best field trip their child has ever been on, ever, in their whole school experience. Now I’m not saying that is true for every kid, but for that kid it was just eye opening,” Griffiths said.
“I think just the fact that it’s literally in their town, in their backyard, makes a difference.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images, captions and text by Will Parson
Several waterways on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore saw improvements in water clarity over the past year, helping them earn higher grades in the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy’s fifth annual report card.
Of the sixteen rivers and streams tracked by the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, grades for ten of the waterways improved from the previous year. This includes Tuckahoe Creek, a tributary of the Choptank and historically one of the area’s most polluted rivers, which was upgraded from a “D+” to a “C.” Increased water clarity and a rebound in underwater grass abundance helped the Choptank overall earn a “B-,” up from a “C” last year. Eastern Bay and the surrounding creeks showed modest improvement, all scoring “B” grades or higher.
Runoff from agriculture is the primary factor slowing the recovery of water quality in the area, according to the report. The Miles and Wye Rivers continue to struggle—earning “C” grades overall—due in part to increases in nitrogen pollution and low dissolved oxygen levels. Excess nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms, blocking sunlight and creating low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate aquatic life.
Grades are based on data from more than 100 sampling sites, where volunteers test for water clarity, dissolved oxygen, nutrients and chloropyll a. The Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy also tracks water temperature, pH, salinity and bacteria levels.
For more information on nutrient and sediment loads in the Bay’s major rivers— including the Choptank—see the Bay Program's latest pollution load indicators.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released their final Clean Water Rule this week, clarifying which streams and wetlands are protected from pollution and development under the Clean Water Act.
Included under the new rule are seasonal and rain-dependent streams that may only flow during certain times of the year, but which have a significant connection to downstream waters that were previously protected. Wetlands and waterways that border larger waterbodies will also be covered. According to the EPA, the rule will help protect the drinking water of nearly 117 million people.
“For the water in the rivers and lakes in our communities that flow to our drinking water to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them need to be clean too,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a release.
Two complex Supreme Court decisions led to nearly a decade of confusion over just which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act. While the new rule clarifies which waterways are now protected, it does not expand the scope of the Clean Water Act, and it preserves existing exemptions for irrigation ponds, drainage ditches and other agricultural activities.
Shad abundance has surged in four Chesapeake Bay rivers, surpassing restoration goals in the Potomac and Rappahannock. While shad populations are critically low along the Atlantic coast, scientists hope to see rising trends continue in these two waterways. Shad spend most of their adult lives in the ocean, migrating into freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. Their return brings food to the Bay in the form of protein-rich eggs, adult shad that can be captured during the spawn and a new generation of shad that can offer forage to striped bass, bluefish and other species as they return to the sea.
Once one of the most valuable fisheries in the Bay, shad populations have declined in recent decades due to pollution, historic overfishing and the construction of dams that block the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. The Bay Program tracks the abundance of American shad in the James, Potomac, Rappahannock, Susquehanna and York rivers as an indicator of watershed health. Collectively, these five waterways account for about 90 percent of the Bay’s shad population, and each has its own population target.
Between 2000 and 2014, shad abundance in the Bay increased from 11 percent to 44 percent of the goal. The Potomac River has seen the most consistent rise in returning shad, but the Rappahannock has also seen notable highs. In 2014, abundance in the Potomac and Rappahannock reached 130 and 110 percent of the rivers’ respective targets.
Scientists attribute these increases to a series of factors, including improvements in water quality; a resurgence in underwater grass beds; moratoriums on shad harvest; an increase in habitat available to migratory fish; stocking efforts that reprint fish to rivers and kick-start local populations; and the overall suitability of the Potomac, in particular, as shad habitat.
“The Potomac River shad population has surpassed its sustainability target,” said Jim Cummins, director of living resources for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin and co-chair of the Bay Program’s American Shad Indicator Action Team. “But we want to see recovery continue until a robust population is once again providing ecological benefits and supporting a fishery that includes some recreational harvest. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, anglers will be able to enjoy shad on the table and at the end of a line.”
Shad abundance remains negligible in the upper James and Susquehanna and variable in the lower James and York. Some variability is natural, but the continued scarcity of shad in the upper James and Susquehanna can be attributed to large dams. Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Bay Program has committed to opening more stream miles to migratory fish and improving our capacity to understand the role forage fish populations play in the Bay ecosystem.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead
This quote is often used to characterize the efforts of individuals working for small organizations who get great things done. As I’ve traveled throughout the watershed over the past four years, I’ve repeatedly witnessed the remarkable work of these local organizations. Just recently, I attended a kick-off event for the fourth revision of the Elizabeth River Project’s Watershed Action Plan. More than 70 people attended, representing the major stakeholder groups in the Elizabeth River watershed: community representatives; local, state and federal government officials; business leaders; teachers and university faculty; and members of environmental organizations—a true collaboration.
The Elizabeth River flows between the cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake as it makes it way to the Chesapeake Bay. Once one of the most heavily polluted water bodies in the region, the area has faced significant environmental challenges. Money Point, along the Southern Branch of the river, was once a 35-acre “dead zone” contaminated by creosote, a chemical used as wood preservative. Most would find the thought of taking on these environmental challenges more than a little daunting. But in 1991, four local citizens outlined a vision for creating an organization to do just that, establishing the Elizabeth River Project just two years later.
The Elizabeth River Project released its first Watershed Action Plan in 1996, updating it every six years. The 2008 Plan established a set of guiding principles: build strong partnerships through collaboration, incorporate environmental education into every action, plan proactively to reduce impacts from sea level rise, monitor progress using indicators tracked against a baseline and promote environmental justice for all stakeholders. With each revision to the Watershed Action Plan, the goals have grown to be quite ambitious. In their current work on a fourth update to the Plan, the group’s determination only continues to grow.
In 2014, the Elizabeth River Project issued a State of the River report assessing the health of each of the five major branches. By any measure, the success of the past 20 years in meeting the ambitious goals they set for themselves is, in a word, incredible. On the notorious Southern Branch, including Money Point, more than 36 million pounds of contaminated sediment have already been removed, with further improvements underway. The number of fish species observed in the area has increased from four to 26, and the rate of cancerous and pre-cancerous lesions in the mummichog, an indicator species, has dropped from above 40 percent to almost background levels.
Several programs run by the Elizabeth River Project work to increase awareness among various segments of society and to reward citizens who take positive steps to improve their environment. Their River Star Program highlights homes, schools and businesses that take simple steps to protect the Elizabeth River. With the help of donors and other supporters, they developed the Learning Barge, a solar- and wind-powered barge equipped with living wetlands, an enclosed classroom, composting toilets and a rainwater filtration system. More than 50,000 people—including 20,000 K-12 students—have been educated on the barge, which is moved from location to location by tug operators that volunteer their time and equipment. Restoration work by the Elizabeth River Project and its partners led to the opening of Paradise Creek Nature Park—40 acres of land along Paradise Creek, a tributary of the Southern Branch—in 2013.
While the Elizabeth River Project and its partners have accomplished amazing things in a relatively short period of time, they continue to look ahead at the work still left to do. On March 23, they held a kick-off meeting to once again revise and update their Watershed Action Plan—the first of four meetings that will culminate with a plan that guides the collaborative efforts of the organization and its partners for the next six years. Just as I have no doubt they will set their aim high when establishing their goals for the years to come, I also have no doubt they will achieve those goals in large measure. The Elizabeth River Project and its partners have never been intimidated by the magnitude or complexity of the challenge. It’s their river, and they are reclaiming it. They serve as an inspiration to all of us.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
Sediment building up behind Conowingo Dam has almost reached the reservoir’s capacity for storage, according to a report released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The reservoir is considered at its limit for holding sediment when it is half full—at present, it is 92 percent of the way toward this maximum.
Since its construction in 1929, the Conowingo reservoir, along with the reservoirs behind the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams, has trapped sediment and nutrients as they flow down the Susquehanna River—which provides nearly half of the fresh water that flows into the Bay. According to the report, the ability of these reservoirs to trap pollutants has been steadily declining.
“Storage capacity in Conowingo reservoir continues to decrease, and ultimately that means more nutrients and sediment will flow into the Bay,” said Mike Langland, author of the study, in a release. “Understanding the sediments and nutrients flowing into the Bay from the Susquehanna River is critical to monitoring and managing the health of the Bay.”
Excess sediment can cloud the water and harm underwater grasses, fish and shellfish, while nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms and the creation of low-oxygen “dead zones,” which suffocate underwater life. Reducing the amount of pollutants in local waterways is integral to Bay restoration efforts, including the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or “pollution diet,” which Bay Program partners recommitted to achieving as part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. In anticipation of a decline in Conowingo reservoir’s ability to trap sediment, the TMDL includes a mechanism for addressing any increases in nutrient and sediment pollution caused by a full reservoir.
The report from USGS reiterates the findings of a study by the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment (LSRWA) team, released in November 2014, which found that the once-effective “pollution gate” is trapping smaller amounts of sediment and nutrients and, during large storms, sending more of these pollutants into the Susquehanna River more often. The team found that reducing pollution loads upstream of the dam would pose a more effective solution that dredging, bypassing or other operational changes, which would come with high costs and low or short-lived benefits.
The USGS report, Sediment Transport and Capacity Change in Three Reservoirs, Lower Susquehanna River Basin, Pennsylvania and Maryland 1900–2012, is available online.
The tale of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad is revered as one of the most influential moments in the emancipation of slaves in the United States. As the birthplace of Tubman, the Eastern Shore of Maryland holds a rich history in its expansive farm fields, quaint settlements and wetlands that nestle into the crooks and creeks of the Chesapeake Bay. Many individuals, municipalities and organizations have learned the stories of those that traversed the trail, risking their lives for freedom, and have collaborated to permanently preserve important landmarks along the Underground Railroad.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway spans 125 miles through Caroline and Dorchester Counties in Maryland. Along it, visitors can explore the secret network of trails and buildings of the Underground Railroad, a path forged by freedom-seeking slaves and abolitionists in the 19th century. It does not take long for those on the trail to learn the trials, tribulations and successes that occurred along the way - all because a few people decided to band together to overcome adversity and do extraordinary things.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
Captions by Jenna Valente
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.
Researchers have measured marked improvements in the health of the Elizabeth River – most notably in the “notoriously polluted” Southern Branch – earning the waterway an overall “C” in the latest State of the Elizabeth River report.
Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District/Flickr
The report, compiled by a team of scientists convened by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Elizabeth River Project, evaluates river health by using bacteria levels, algae, dissolved oxygen, diversity of bottom-dwelling species, nutrient concentrations and the presence of chemical contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District/Flickr
Improvements in river health are due in part to local restoration efforts, including establishing wetlands, building oyster reefs, and dredging contaminated sediment. Between 2009 and 2013, the Elizabeth River Project helped to remove more than 36 million pounds of sediment contaminated with PAHs – a legacy of four wood treatment facilities once situated on the shore – from the river bottom near Money Point, a peninsula on the Southern Branch of the waterway. Since then, the report states, cancer rates in mummichog fish have declined six-fold, and the number of fish species observed in the area has risen from four to twenty-six.
Despite significant progress in many regions of the waterway, much remains to be done. According to the report, upcoming river recovery projects will focus on the Eastern Branch, where the Broad Creek and Indian River tributaries both received “F” grades, and on reducing the high levels of PCBs found in fish and shellfish throughout the river.
When thinking of wine, Maryland may not be the first state that comes to mind, but for the Deford family, the artful pairing of responsible land management and master craftsmanship at Boordy Vineyards has put the Free State on the wine aficionado map.
Nestled in the rolling countryside of Long Green Valley in Hyde, Maryland, a mere 30 minutes outside of Baltimore, the 240-acre property provides solace to visitors, melting away the stressors of daily life with views of rich vegetation, historic farmland and 25 acres of intricately arranged rows of grapevines.
The family strives to develop a lasting connection with the community and welcomes visitors year-round by regularly hosting events. “Everything we do here has an educational component to it because wineries are unusual in Maryland, farming is increasingly rare and we are constantly competing with other views of how the countryside around Baltimore County should be managed,” said Robert Deford, President and owner of Boordy. “We really want farming to succeed here.”
To Deford, a twelfth generation Marylander and the fourth generation to be raised on the farm, success and sustainability go hand-in-hand. In 2000, the family placed the property under permanent conservation easement through Maryland Environmental Trust, allowing the farm to proceed without having to compete with development money by taking the option to sell the land to developers off the table. “We look at land not as an empty resource to be built on, but as something to be tended to and taken care of. For me, sustainability means the ability to realize the dream of continuing to live and work here,” explained Deford.
The 25 full-time and 75 part-time employees have adopted the Defords’ mission of sustainability and assist in the efforts to be as efficient as possible. “If we are not sustainable by definition, we are going to go out of business at some point. The land is what sustains us, so if we treat it badly the system is going to crash,” said Deford.
A number of best management practices have been implemented on the vineyard to reduce the establishment’s energy demands and impact on the environment. Staff hand-pick the fruit – avoiding the use of machinery – to ensure only the highest-quality grapes end up in the wine; the rest are left for wildlife, like birds, to scavenge. Grass grows freely in between the vines to stabilize the soil and mitigate runoff of sediment into the adjacent stream on the property. Additionally, all stems and pomace are composted post-production and returned to the fields as fertilizer.
A wetland was created at the head of the stream to catch any residual runoff before it enters the waterway, eventually making its way to the Gunpowder River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. The wetland serves not only as a pollution buffer but also as habitat to countless species of wildlife such as beavers, ducks, white-tailed deer and raptors. “Another thing that is great is we have excluded all livestock [from the stream], and it is astounding the fish people are finding down there, especially the American eel. I think it is a great model for what can be done to a stream that was really in distress,” said Deford.
The family is mindful of their greenhouse gas emissions and works to reduce their outputs by using the carbon dioxide created in the fermentation process to stir their red wine tanks. The carbon dioxide is collected, builds up and eventually erupts through the tank – stirring the wine and saving electricity. “There is an interesting concern over the fact that when you make wine you emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; however, what I always point out to people is that just up the hill is the other end of it – those vines take in carbon dioxide, so really it’s just a cycle,” notes Deford.
Helpful for Boordy has been the advent of the local food movement, a developing culture focused around locally-produced food and the process of getting it from the farm to the table. With the movement comes a growing consumer demand to meet the farmer and know where food comes from. “This isn’t just liquid in a bottle,” said Deford. “A lot more goes into it.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
A team of scientists has found that reducing pollution in the Susquehanna River watershed—which includes portions of New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland—could ease the environmental effects of an “essentially full” reservoir behind the Conowingo Dam, whose pollution-trapping capacity has diminished in recent years.
The reservoir behind the Conowingo Dam—as well as those behind the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams—has for decades trapped particles of sediment flowing down the Susquehanna River, as well as the nutrients that are often attached. But according to research from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment (LSRWA) team, this reservoir is full. The once-effective “pollution gate” is trapping smaller amounts of sediment and nutrients and, during large storms, sending more of these pollutants into the Susquehanna River more often.
While researchers explored strategies for managing sediment at the dam, the team found that reducing pollution loads upstream of the dam would pose a more effective solution to the “full reservoir” problem. Indeed, dredging, bypassing or other operational changes would come with high costs and low or short-lived benefits. But adhering to the Chesapeake Bay’s “pollution diet”—and taking additional steps to reduce pollution where possible—would offer management flexibility and environmental benefits.
The Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) was established in 2010 to reduce nutrient and sediment loads across the watershed. Lowering these pollutants is integral to restoring the health of the Bay: excess sediment can cloud the water and harm underwater grasses, fish and shellfish, and nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms. While the LSRWA team did find that the effects of the sediment that “scour” from the Conowingo reservoir cease once it settles to the bottom of the river, the effects of nutrient pollution linger. Green infrastructure, forest buffers and sound farm and lawn management can help businesses, landowners and individuals contribute to a restored Chesapeake.
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.
Rapid population growth and development remain the top threats to the health of the Potomac River Watershed, according to the Potomac Conservancy’s eighth annual State of the Nation’s River report. But the advocacy group hopes implementing smart growth strategies will help the waterway withstand pressure from a growing community.
Despite being listed as the nation’s most endangered river by American Rivers in 2012, the Potomac River’s overall health has improved in recent years. In 2013, the Potomac Conservancy raised the waterway’s grade to a “C” after giving it a “D” grade in 2011. Now, with an estimated 2.3 million new residents expected to move into the communities along its shores by 2040, the Conservancy fears a rapidly changing landscape could undo years of progress toward restoring the Potomac.
“Population growth is likely to bring positive changes to our region including more jobs, higher home values, and a more robust local tax base,” the report states. “But, left unplanned, that growth could also spell disaster for the health of our lands, waterways, and drinking water sources.”
With the region facing forest loss, polluted rivers and streams and an aging water infrastructure, the report offers a range of “smart planning opportunities” as strategies to meet the needs of a growing population without further harming local waters. The Conservancy hopes approaches including forest buffers, mixed-use communities and rain gardens, along with a focus on redevelopment in existing areas rather than new development on untouched lands, will allow for the continued improvement of the Potomac River’s health.
For the uninitiated, paddling the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., provides an opportunity to discover a hidden natural gem. Paddling away from the riverbank on an early fall evening, we quickly begin to slide past egrets hunting in the shallows and turtles diving deep to avoid our canoe. Joining them is a kingfisher, chattering as it circles before landing on a branch, and a bald eagle, following the course of the river upstream and disappearing around a bend. Moments like this are why the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) hosts free paddle nights like the one at Kenilworth Park in D.C. — to change perceptions of a river with a reputation of being heavily polluted.
“From the perspective of someone who’s heard about the river but never been there, I think the most surprising thing is that there’s a whole lot of nature,” says Lee Cain, Director of Recreation at AWS. “When you get out there, there’s some places where you’re there and you think, ‘Am I in the middle of West Virginia?’”
Cain says he heard many negative stories about the Anacostia River before visiting it for the first time, but his perceptions changed after experiencing it up close. The Anacostia is indeed still plagued by trash, sewage, toxins and runoff. But it is also a place where Cain has seen fox and deer swimming across the river, where egrets aggregate by the dozens at nighttime, and where bald eagles and osprey lay their eggs in March so their fledglings can feed on shad. In June, the 9-mile Anacostia Water Trail officially opened, featuring many natural areas and recreation sites along the river.
“You’re probably going to see a higher density of wildlife on this river than you might in even the Jug Bay wetlands,” says Cain.
Cain says the Anacostia is better than it was 25 years ago, when cars, refrigerators and tires were the big items being pulled from the river. Positive signs of change have come in the form of a plastic bag fee passed by the D.C. Council in 2009, and a ban on plastic-foam food containers that passed in June. A group called Groundwork Anacostia River DC has implemented litter traps in several tributaries, and AWS operates a trash trap study as well. The Anacostia Revitalization Fund, established in 2012, has provided funding for local initiatives aimed at restoring the river’s health. DC Water’s $2.6 billion Clean River Project will remove 98 percent of combined sewer overflows to the Anacostia by 2022, keeping 1.5 billion gallons of diluted sewage from entering the Anacostia every year. And the Pepco Benning Road Power Plant, which ran on coal then oil for over a century, sits quietly near the Anacostia, shuttered since 2012 and slated for demolition.
“If [the power plant] has some source of PCB contamination then at least that source is gone and now, when we clean out the soil, we’ll have a pretty clean space,” says Cain.
He says it has been a big year for toxins in the river, with the District of Columbia taking core samples along the river to assess what is down there and what it will cost for removal.
“One thing that’s encouraging is that it took us a couple centuries to sort of destroy this river, and then it’s only taken us about 25 years to get it to where it is now,” says Cain. “So you can imagine in another 25 years where it will be.”
In the meantime, AWS will continue working toward the goal of a fishable and swimmable Anacostia by 2025. Getting people on the Anacostia on paddle nights is just one effort to let people see firsthand what it already has to offer. The hope is that some of those visitors might become volunteers with AWS’ or their partners’ trash, stewardship, education and other programs.
“There’s a lot of the Anacostia that’s not exactly accessible to people, and in order to have all of these things and these efforts continue we need the support of the public,” says Cain. “We need people to recognize that this is a resource worth saving.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
The history of the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers is similar to that of countless other mid-Atlantic waterways. At one time, these rivers served as sources of power that fueled industrialization and as sewer lines that removed human and industrial wastes from urban areas. Over time, these rivers lost their identities as “natural resources” and the values placed on them for food and spiritual renewal.
Image courtesy eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr
Rivers were our early highways, transporting people and goods from one place to another. They bound communities together, giving people a common experience. Earlier this month, community representatives, academics and activists came together at the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum to share their experiences in trying to reclaim the original values of these resources for local residents.
Image courtesy Mr. T in DC/Flickr
Historian and University of Maryland Eastern Shore Professor Emeritus John Wennersten has studied and written about the Anacostia River for decades. At this talk, he discussed the ethical responsibility we have to remedy the environmental burdens that have been disproportionately placed on low-income and minority communities. Indeed, restoring urban waterways is an important step in this process. Both the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers have legacies of industrial development and pollution, and Dan Smith with the Anacostia Watershed Society and Joe Stewart with the Baltimore Historical Society described efforts to engage the community in reclaiming and restoring waterfronts. As part of this work, Christina Bradley from Baltimore’s Parks & People Foundation described efforts to improve the grounds of city schools. By replacing pavement with plants, her organization gives students, teachers and community members the opportunity to experience the value of urban green space.
There is power in encouraging students to experience the environment. Dennis Chestnut, Director of Groundwork Anacostia River DC, has returned to the neighborhoods of his childhood to reconnect both youth and adult residents to their river. And Tony Thomas, the museum’s “Science Guy,” framed the evening’s discussion by describing his experience as a science teacher and the thrill he would feel when the “light bulb” went on for one of his students to illuminate a concept or idea.
Image courtesy Mr. T in DC/Flickr
The turnout for this event was at a disadvantage, thanks to beautiful weather and a Washington Nationals baseball game. But for those who spoke and those who attended, it offered a valuable time to share our experiences and learn from each other, driven by a common passion to reclaim, reconnect and restore our communities and our natural resources. It was a wonderful thing to witness.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
The R/V Rachel Carson is docked on Solomons Island. At 81 feet long, the red and blue research vessel stands out against the deadrise workboats that share the Patuxent River marina. Her mission today is to lead researchers from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) to the Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone.
Every summer, this so-called “dead zone” forms in the main stem of the Bay. The area of low-oxygen water is created by bacteria as they feed on algae blooms growing in nutrient-rich water. The dead zone persists through the warm summer months because the Bay is stratified into two layers: a surface layer of lighter, fresher water that mixes with the atmosphere, and a bottom layer of denser, saltier water, where oxygen depletion persists. These layers won’t mix until the cooler temperatures of autumn allow the surface waters to sink.
To find the dead zone, Director of Marine Operations and Rachel Carson Captain Michael H. Hulme takes us to one of the deep troughs that run down the center of the Bay. Geologic remnants of the ancient Susquehanna River, these troughs can reach up to 174 feet deep in an estuary whose average depth is just 21 feet. Hulme anchors offshore of Calvert Cliffs State Park.
The boat is equipped with a dynamic positioning system, which holds it in place regardless of wind or waves. This allows the captain to step away from the helm and offer his hands on deck. “Being able to hover over that [specific] latitude and longitude is what makes the Rachel Carson so unique,” said Hulme. It’s also one of the reasons the vessel is so useful to scientists, who often return to the same sampling site again and again over time.
UMCES Senior Faculty Research Assistant David Loewensteiner drops a CTD overboard. The oceanography instrument takes eight measurements per second, tracking conductivity, temperature and depth as it is lowered through the water. Connected to the ship with a cable, the CTD sends data to a laptop in the boat’s dry lab. We measure 2.04 mg/L of dissolved oxygen in surface water, and just 0.33 mg/L at 98 feet deep. Critters need concentrations of 5 mg/L or more to thrive; these are “classic dead zone” conditions.
Dead zones are bad for the Bay. Like animals on land, underwater critters need oxygen to survive. In a dead zone, immobile shellfish suffocate and those fish that can swim are displaced into more hospitable waters. “If you were a self-respecting fish and oxygen was [low], what would you do?” asked Bill Dennison, Vice President for Science Applications and Professor at UMCES. “Swim away.”
First reported in the 1930s, the appearance of the dead zone in the Bay is linked to our actions on land: as we replace forests with cities, suburbs and farms, we increase the amount of nutrients entering rivers and streams. This fuels the growth of algae blooms that lead to dead zones. “Hypoxia [or low-oxygen conditions] is driven by what we do on the watershed,” said UMCES Assistant Professor Jeremy Testa. “The Bay is naturally set up to generate hypoxia because of that [stratification] feature. That said… when there were no people here, there was not much hypoxia.”
While it is our actions on land that created the dead zone, it is our actions on land that can make the dead zone go away. Research has shown that certain pollution-reducing practices—like upgrading wastewater treatment plants, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions and reducing runoff from farmland—can improve the health of local rivers and streams. Scientists have also traced a decline in the duration of the dead zone from five months to four, which suggests that conservation practices gaining traction across the watershed could have very real benefits for the entire Bay.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
It is a refreshing June morning as the sun shines down on Solomons, Maryland, causing the Patuxent River to sparkle in its reflection. A crew of four Washington, D.C., area chefs stands on a wooden dock alongside Steve Vilnit, the Director of Fisheries Marketing at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), eagerly awaiting the arrival of our captain, Bruce Abbott, and his fishing vessel.
Vilnit coordinates educational trips intended to connect local chefs with living resources. By creating these experiences, he is able to spread the word about the importance of buying local seafood and illustrate the hard work that goes into moving fresh seafood from the ocean to the dinner table.
The O’Dark Thirty appears in the distance and sidles up to the dock for the crew and guests to climb aboard. Once everyone is situated, Abbott heads east, out of the mouth of the Patuxent and into the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay. About 20 minutes go by before the boat comes to a halt next to one of roughly 1,500 pound nets in the Bay. Pound nets are used by watermen to harvest large quantities of a specific fish species, like perch, menhaden, croaker or striped bass. Vilnit describes the net and why it is so popular: “The way a pound net works is by playing off of a fish’s natural instinct to head to deeper water when they feel threatened. The net funnels them into the center where they are trapped,” he said.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
Vilnit explained that, from a sustainability standpoint, pound nets are a great fishing method. Despite its high bycatch rate, the majority of the fish in the net are kept alive. “The fish are just swimming around in the net until the fishermen come. What they’ll do when they pull the net is, they start cinching it up so it pulls all the fish together and congregates them and then they scoop them out one-by-one with a dip net and release all the bycatch.”
The journey continued towards Maryland’s Eastern Shore, stopping next for a live demonstration of trotlining. Trotlines are a favored method for catching blue crabs in the Bay, but can only be used in its tributaries, as they can pose a navigational hazard for boats; crab pots are standard gear for those harvesting crabs in the main stem.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
After the demonstration, Vilnit passed around the clawed critters for an up-close-and-personal anatomy lesson. “The apron—or [flap] on the belly—of the female crab is rounded like the Capitol dome and the apron on the male looks like the Washington Monument. You can also see a difference in the claw color: the females have what they call fingernail polish—it’s the red tips on the claws—versus the males that have blue claws,” Vilnit said.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
The final leg of our trip took us to Barren Island Oysters, a sustainability-minded, high-end oyster company based out of Hoopers Island, Maryland. Owner and founder Tim Devine launched the farm slightly more than a year ago and has already seen tremendous success.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
Devine’s company is an authentic example of the power of proper research and collaboration. “I had a lot of time to do some market research as I waited the 18 months to get my permits for this business,” Devine said. “In the meantime I was shooting photography for a magazine that took me around to different restaurants, so I would ask the chefs, ‘Hey, what do you want?’” What he found was a high demand for the disease-resistant, triploid oyster.
Listening to the calls from the chefs, Devine began to grow triploid oysters in an unorthodox fashion: chipping off new shell growth forced the oysters to not only grow stronger but also develop a deep, uniform, cup-shaped shell. “I think my biggest advantage is that I didn’t know anything coming into this, so I had no history as to how all these people [watermen] do this. Because this is such a new industry and there are many new markets for a premium oyster, I wasn’t stuck in any old ways of farming,” Devine explained.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
By openly communicating with chefs, Devine was able to discover a niche market for premium oysters that would meet these chefs’ requests. Vilnit hopes his educational tours will create more relationships of this kind. And for those who cannot get out on the water, signing onto the True Blue and Oyster Pledge programs is a positive way that chefs and restaurateurs can show their establishment’s commitment to fresh, locally harvested seafood.
Four organizations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will receive more than $230,000 to restore portions of the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers.
Image courtesy Tommy Wells/Flickr
In the District of Columbia, two organizations will connect students to the Anacostia in an effort to boost local stewardship. Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region will put third and fifth graders onto canoes, kayaks and an educational vessel, while the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum will turn at-risk high school students into citizen scientists to monitor water quality along Watts Branch.
In College Park, the University of Maryland will design low-impact development solutions to lower the amount of polluted stormwater running off of schools and into the Anacostia. And in Baltimore, the University of Baltimore will monitor fecal bacteria in a portion of a Patapsco River tributary to help two blue collar neighborhoods reduce pet waste and prioritize infrastructure repairs.
Image courtesy Zach Karpinski/Flickr
The funding has been granted through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Urban Waters Small Grants program, which supports the restoration of urban rivers and streams in 18 geographic regions.
Healthy and accessible urban waters can improve economic, educational, recreational and social opportunities in nearby communities.
“People, buildings and businesses are all concentrated in urban areas, making it even more important to protect waterways from pollution,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a media release. “These communities will receive grants, allowing them to help turn these waterways into centerpieces of urban renewal, spurring economic development and job creation.”
In addition to the four projects inside the Bay watershed, the Urban Waters Small Grants program will fund 32 projects in 15 other states and Puerto Rico.
Across the Chesapeake Bay, strong waves crash into shorelines, pulling sand into the water and causing beaches to disappear. In recent decades, scientists have turned to living shorelines and stone reefs to slow this process—known as erosion—and create critical habitat for wildlife. On the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, one such project has proven successful on both counts.
The 2,285-acre island refuge in Rock Hall, Maryland, is part of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex and has long offered feeding and resting grounds to songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. When a narrow piece of land at its southern point—the highest priority habitat at the refuge—proved in danger of washing away, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and several other partners came together to slow the disappearance of the shoreline.
In June, USFWS Biologist Dave Sutherland—along with staff from the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative (MARI) and Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, both of which are partners in this effort— took our team to the refuge to see the living shoreline and underwater reefs that made it a model of climate resiliency. Five years after construction on these projects began, pieces of land do still break off of the island’s long peninsula that separates Hail Cove, Hail Creek and the Chester River. But the goal was never to stop erosion: it was to slow it down without using the manmade structures that block critters from reaching the beach.
While shoreline erosion is a natural process, sea-level rise has amplified the impacts of wind and wave energy across the watershed. “I look at sea-level rise as a human-induced issue that’s exacerbating what used to be a slower, natural process,” said USFWS Fisheries Biologist John Gill. “Not to say it wasn’t happening before. Just that its rate has increased. And it’s tougher for marshes to keep up.”
For Gill, the Hail Cove restoration project achieves “a nice balancing act” in its use of manmade infrastructure and the natural environment. The essential elements? Headland breakwaters, underwater reefs and a living shoreline. “You’re working with Mother Nature, but still providing erosion control,” Gill said.
Low headland breakwaters placed at each end of Hail Cove maintain the pocket beach, blocking wave energy that might otherwise destroy the shore. A long ribbon reef deemed the “arc of stone” stretches across the cove, offering further protection for the beach and vital habitat for fish, shellfish and invertebrates.
Hooked mussels colonized the ribbon reef soon after it was built, and eastern oysters that were planted there with volunteer help continue to thrive. Algae grow on the granite rocks, small fish live in the reef’s tiny crevices and waterfowl find a source of food on their migrations over the Bay. “A lot of species are habitat-starved, and this [arc of stone] provided a lot of what they need,” Sutherland said. “It’s well-populated with cobies and blennies and worms and macroalgae. It’s really a fantastic habitat.”
Sutherland and his team soon recognized the benefits of installing infrastructure that allowed access to the beach: three weeks after sand was put down, engineers discovered nine diamondback terrapin nests on the shore, proving just how “habitat-starved” these native turtles were.
The Hail Cove project was completed this spring when 11 patch reefs—using one acre of material in all—were laid down over the two and a half-acre cove. The reefs will expand the underwater habitat that is so important to so many critters but has been lost with the decline of the Bay’s native oyster. For Sutherland, these reefs were “the icing on the cake. If the arc of stone is good, the patch reefs are going to be even better,” he said.
DNR Fisheries Biologist and MARI Coordinator Erik Zlokovitz echoed Sutherland’s satisfaction with the project. “This is a multipurpose shallow-water reef system. It’s not just an oyster reef or a fish reef. It’s a multipurpose reef for mussels, oysters and other invertebrates, which provide forage for fish and waterfowl,” he said.
The reef has also attracted recreational anglers to the area, who fish from kayaks and small boats for white perch and striped bass. Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, whose members are recreational fishermen, was a strong supporter of the Hail Cove project. For Sutherland, the cove’s restoration wouldn’t have been a success without the “great partners” that made it possible.
“Living shoreline science is really in its infancy, and every project is an experiment,” Sutherland said. But bringing partners together to strike a balance between manmade infrastructure and natural processes allowed this project to work, and Hail Cove now serves as “a starting point for reef construction in the Chester River,” said Sutherland. Indeed, relief funds for Hurricane Sandy recovery will soon finance further shoreline protection in the same area of the refuge.
“This project is a testament, to a certain extent, that if you build it, they will come,” Sutherland said. “We got to Hail Cove in the nick of time.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Alexander Jonesi and Jenna Valente. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
Fisheries experts have recommended a “risk-averse” approach to managing blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, following poor harvests and a dramatic decline in the abundance of adult female crabs.
Image courtesy bionicteaching/Flickr
In its annual evaluation of the Bay’s blue crab fishery, the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) urged the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) to protect female and juvenile crabs in an effort to rebuild the overall population. The committee, which is made up of scientists, academics and government representatives and housed under the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, also recommended establishing sanctuaries to protect females and improving data related to crab harvests and winter death rates.
According to the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, the start of the 2014 crabbing season saw 68.5 million adult female crabs in the Bay. This marks a 53 percent decline from last year’s abundance of adult females. This number is based on the results of the winter dredge survey, and is tracked by the Bay Program as an indicator of Bay health. It is below the 215 million target abundance and the 70 million threshold, indicating adult females are in a depleted state.
“The poor performance of the Bay’s 2013 blue crab fishery—the lowest reported harvest in the last 24 years—combined with the winter dredge survey results that indicate a depleted female population warrants management actions to conserve both females and juveniles,” said CBSAC Chair Joe Grist in a media release. “The cold winter and other environmental factors affected the crab population, and we expect that conservative regulations will help females and juveniles—the future of the blue crab population—rebound.”
Earlier this month, The Capital reported that Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC have promised to cut harvests of female crabs by 10 percent. Virginia announced its plans in June, while Maryland and the PRFC are expected to release their regulations soon.
Scientists have found intersex fish in three Pennsylvania river basins, indicating hormone-disrupting chemicals are more widespread in the Chesapeake Bay watershed than once thought.
Image courtesy RTD Photography/Flickr
Intersex conditions occur when pesticides, pharmaceuticals or other chemicals disrupt the hormonal systems of an animal, leading to the presence of both male and female characteristics. The presence of intersex conditions in fish, frogs and other species is linked to land use, as the chemicals that lead to these conditions often enter rivers and streams through agricultural runoff or wastewater.
Previous samplings of fish in the region have found intersex conditions in the Potomac, Shenandoah and Susquehanna rivers, as well as lakes and ponds on the Delmarva Peninsula. On samplings conducted at 16 sites between 2007 and 2010, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found intersex fish in the Susquehanna, Delaware and Ohio river basins.
According to the USGS, freshwater fish called white suckers from sample sites in the Delaware and Susquehanna river basins had a yolk precursor in their blood. Male smallmouth bass from all sample sites had immature eggs in their testes. The prevalence of intersex fish was highest in the Susquehanna river basin, which researchers attribute to the higher rate of farms—and related herbicides, pesticides and hormone-containing manure—in the area. While scientists found no relationship between the number of wastewater treatment plants in an area and the prevalence of immature eggs in fish, the severity of intersex conditions did rise at sites downstream from wastewater discharge points.
“The sources of estrogenic chemicals are most likely complex mixtures from both agricultural sources, such as animal wastes, pesticides and herbicides, and human sources from wastewater treatment plant effluent and other sewer discharges,” said fish biologist Vicki Blazer in a media release.
At the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an object as small as a piece of Styrofoam poses a big problem. Because whether it can be held in a volunteer’s hand or just fits into the bed of a truck, litter is at the center of the non-profit organization’s work.
Founded in 1954, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has an office in Washington, D.C., and an historic farmhouse-turned-workspace in southern Maryland. Whether it is through teacher trainings, field studies or volunteer clean-ups, the organization works to promote the sustainability of the Potomac River watershed. And one of the biggest issues facing the Potomac River is trash.
Most of what the Alice Ferguson Foundation does touches on litter: its danger is discussed with students on field studies; programs, events and meetings are often trash-free; and the office culture is one of low- to no-waste. You won’t find disposable plates or cups in the kitchen, and cloth napkins are washed, dried and reused on-site. Food waste is given to the pigs on Hard Bargain Farm, and bathrooms are equipped with hand-dryers. Clara Elias, Program Manager for the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative, puts it simply: “We’re committed to reducing trash.”
Image courtesy kryn13/Flickr
In the Potomac River watershed, there are two kinds of trash. First, Elias explained, there is the new litter that is generated on a regular basis, like the plastic bags, cigarette butts and beverage bottles found on streets and sidewalks. Second, there is the legacy litter left behind long ago at a particular site, like a pile of old tires sitting on the edge of a parking lot. Across the watershed, trash is both an urban and rural issue, although it differs between regions. While bottles and cans often float down the river from urban centers, rural areas that are without strong recycling programs face issues with illegal dumping of appliances, cars and even deer carcasses.
Over the 26 years that the Alice Ferguson Foundation has hosted the Potomac River Watershed Clean Up, the trash in the Potomac has changed. Volunteers used to pick up a lot of plastic bags, but after bag fees were passed in the District of Columbia, plastic bags in District waters dropped 50 percent. Similar legislation passed in Montgomery County caused this number to drop 70 percent. There was a change, too, in the plastic bags themselves, as volunteers now find more pet waste and newspaper bags than the shopping bags that carry the five-cent fee. Even so, Elias noted that at least half of the trash picked up along the Potomac is recyclable, which indicates more must be done to slow the flow of pollution into our rivers and streams.
“In American culture, we’re so used to having so many disposable things. We’re not taught how much energy it takes to dispose of [all of] it,” Elias said. So the Alice Ferguson Foundation teaches people just that.
On a Bridging the Watershed field study, students play a game of Trash Tag and learn about street sweepers, trash traps and other litter-reducing best management practices. On the Hard Bargain Farm, students sprinkle a shower curtain with food coloring, sand and pieces of paper. When the curtain gets wet, the pretend fertilizer, sediment and trash are washed downstream. And before their visit to the site, students are given a guide to packing a trash-free lunch. After their meal, students weigh the paper napkins, straw wrappers and other leftover trash and compete with other school groups to produce the least amount.
In addition to its field studies, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has also had success with its Trash Free Schools initiative, which helps students teach their peers, lead their own cleanups and change their school’s culture to produce less waste.
Trash is “tangible and physical, unlike energy or [stormwater] runoff, which are things you can’t see or touch or smell,” Elias said. “It builds momentum among students. Trash is a great issue for students to learn about.”
A habitat is the natural environment in which plants, animals and other organisms live, feed and breed. Many habitats are shared by numerous living things, forming what is called an ecosystem. Ecosystems range in size and can be as tiny as a patch of dirt or as large as the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Sometimes, different species within the same ecosystem are forced to compete for resources like food, water and shelter. Dominant species and environmental stressors can take their toll on lesser plants and animals.
Rapidly increasing human development contributes to this environmental stress: as our population rises, so does our demand for the same resources that many plants and animals also depend on to survive. We build dams to control stream flow and capture energy, develop wilderness into urban hubs and use our finite freshwater resources at an alarming rate.
Migratory fish are particularly sensitive to ecosystem changes because they rely on certain migration routes between connected habitats to reach their breeding grounds. Dams, road culverts and other blockages that fragment waterways can act as barriers to fish passage.
In an effort to better understand the effect that dams and other manmade structures have on fish passage, Steve Minkkinen, project leader at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Maryland Fisheries Office, has teamed up with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a 10-year survey of American eel populations in the Susquehanna River.
“We learned quite a bit in 2013. We collected 300,000 juveniles [eels] and transported them above the [Conowingo] Dam. The dam has been blocking the [eels’] migration up the Susquehanna River,” Minkkinen explained. “There has been a lot of work [to open] upstream passage for shad and river herring,” Minkkinen continued. But that work has only focused on adult fish, and as Minkkinen pointed out, the dam’s flow is too fast for younger eels to travel through.
Monitoring American eels is important: at historic levels, they made up 20 percent of the freshwater biomass along the Eastern seaboard. However, the introduction of dams and other structures has blocked eel populations from important migration routes, changing eel populations.
Researchers capture and inject chips known as passive integrated transponders, or PIT tags, into the eels. These tags can be detected in future surveys and help the team track eel populations by letting them know if they are encountering a new eel or one that was caught during a previous survey.
The American eel is the only catadromous fish in the Bay region, which means they spend most of their lives in fresh water but migrate to the ocean to spawn. Spawning takes place in late January when the fish swim out of the Bay and into the Sargasso Sea, a portion of the Atlantic Ocean east of the Bahamas.
Eel larvae drift in ocean currents for nine to 12 months before reaching fresh water and swimming upstream. Monitoring allows scientists to study the migration habits of juvenile eels and learn how to aid their upstream journey.
Minkkinen and his team believe that if fish passage to the upper Susquehanna opens, both American eels and freshwater mussels would thrive. This bivalve relies on fish to store their eggs in their gills until the mussels turn into microscopic juveniles and drop off. Mussel populations in the upper Susquehanna are, for the most part, comprised of older, larger individuals. Because mussels are natural filter feeders, Minkkinen’s team believes that a rise in freshwater mussels will lead to cleaner water and a healthier ecosystem.
“Our hopes are that we can develop passage and restore eel and mussel habitat to that [upper Susquehanna] portion of the watershed,” Minkkinen said.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter. Captions by Jenna Valente.
Last year, Chesapeake Bay Program partners opened 36 new public access sites along rivers and streams in the watershed, bringing the total number of access sites in the region to 1,208. In fact, more public access sites were opened in 2013 than in previously tracked years, as states work to meet the public’s high demand for ways to get on the water.
State, federal and local governments are often the guardians of public access sites, providing opportunities for people to swim, fish and launch their boats into the Bay. But because physical access to the Bay and its tributaries remains limited—with real consequences for quality of life, the economy and long-term conservation—Bay Program partners set a goal in 2010 to add 300 new public access sites to the watershed by 2025. As of 2013, partners have added 69 sites, meeting 23 percent of this goal.
From floating canoe launches to bank fishing opportunities, increasing public access to open space and waterways can strengthen the bond between people and place, boosting local tourism economies and creating citizen stewards who are engaged in conservation efforts.
“Having public access to enjoy and learn about the value of nature is important,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release. “I believe that you value what you know, and you are motivated to protect what you value. Whether it’s a relaxing trip along a shoreline or a paddle on a pond or stream, when more people get to know and value the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams, more people will be driven to protect it.”
For close to 50 years, Nick Carter has owned 33 acres on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Aside from a houses, a few sheds and a trail or two, much of this land has returned to its natural state: former farm fields have become bogs, wetlands and forests, pushed along by natural growth and Carter’s deep-seated desire to create healthy habitat and clean water.
Carter’s property runs next to the Choptank River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Close to one-third of the Choptank watershed is forested, covered with the tree-and-shrub-filled habitat considered the most beneficial land use for the Bay. Forests absorb airborne pollutants, keep nutrients and sediment from entering our rivers and streams, and provide food, shelter and safe migration paths for wildlife. It is for these reasons that Carter has allowed forests to dominate his land.
“I’d like to see this little bit of property go back to old growth,” Carter said, referring to a type of forest that has evaded unnatural changes for a century or two. Carter and his wife purchased their property when he finished graduate school in 1966. For 35 years, Carter worked as a fish biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Now, he offers informal tours to naturalists, native plant societies and school groups, carrying along a walking stick that effectively points out the things visitors might not notice.
Take the plants, for example. There are 250 species on Carter’s property, and in one two-hour walk it seems he can point out most of them. There are spring ephemera like jack-in-the-pulpit and pink lady’s slipper, the latter of which has a relationship with underground fungi that make them almost impossible to transplant. There are cinnamon ferns and sphagnum moss in a bog that Carter is particularly proud of because he created it with the simple act of laying down a few logs to form a makeshift dam. And there are the pine and oak trees that dominate the upland woods, including the willow oak whose acorns are so small that blue jays can pick them up and carry them in their beaks.
Then there are the reptiles and amphibians. Carter has counted 30 species of these, from the tree and wood frogs that favor damp habitat to the broad-headed skink and Eastern fence lizard that like forests with abundant leaf litter. Leaves that litter the ground conserve water, recycle nutrients and offer shelter to small critters. Its presence on Carter’s land can be felt as soon as you step from the hard pavement of Draper’s Mill Road to the soft, spongy forest floor.
Carter’s woods are home to charismatic fauna, too, including 30 species of mammals and 85 species of birds. Because so much of the property is forested, it serves as suitable habitat for “forest interior dwelling” birds, or those birds that need the moderate temperatures and light levels found deep within the woods. Carter has spotted pine warblers, prothonotary warblers and ovenbirds, but on our walk we spotted a bird that was much bigger and a little less particular about its habitat: a female wild turkey on her nest in a grove of skunk cabbage.
These critters flourish here because Carter has done so little to disrupt the natural processes of the world around him, aside from building the dam that led to the bog and managing some invasive species. While Maryland’s white-tailed deer often chew up low-growing plants, changing the structure of area forests, Carter’s dogs have warded them off with their loud howls. And when invasive plants like autumn olive, oriental bittersweet, English ivy and bush honeysuckle start to grow, Carter steps in to exert control. “Some I spray, some I cut, some I pull,” he said.
The changes that have taken place on Carter’s land present a classic case of succession: disturbed ground is replaced by shrubs, shrubs are replaced by pines and pines are replaced by hardwoods. In other words, this land works “the way it ought to work,” Carter said. And it reminds us of the habitats the Maintain Healthy Watersheds Goal Implementation Team is working to preserve in order to demonstrate the challenge of protecting streams.
Carter’s work to bring people onto his property could help further this goal, as he shares knowledge that can inform and inspire his visitors. “Here’s a little piece of land on which I can make all the rules,” Carter said. “Here, I can make this land good for the Bay and its rivers. And I can show people what’s good for the Bay and its rivers.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter and Jenna Valente. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
The blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay has dropped, due to a range of factors that include weather patterns, coastal currents and natural predators.
According to scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the long, cold winter and resulting low water temperatures killed an estimated 28 percent of adult crabs in state waters. This marks one of the worst “cold-kill” events since the state started tracking blue crab populations in 1990.
Both Maryland and Virginia measure the Bay’s blue crab population by conducting an annual winter dredge survey. Over the course of three and a half months, scientists visit 1,500 sites around the Bay, using metal dredges to pull up the crabs that are over-wintering in the mud.
Results of the most recent winter dredge survey show that the Bay’s total blue crab population fell from 300 million to 297 million between 2012 and 2013; the number of spawning-age females fell from 147 million to 69 million, passing the minimum threshold that managers adopted in 2011. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this latter number as an indicator of Bay health, and a decline could be a factor in determining blue crab management methods.
Indeed, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) have committed to collaborating on a two-pronged management approach to conserve adult female crabs: first, the groups will work to protect adult females that will be spawning this summer. Second, the groups will work to protect the current population of juvenile females through next spring, in order to build up the population of females that will spawn next year.
“Even though our 2008 conservation measures were designed to allow for naturally occurring fluctuations in crabs, these results are not what we had hoped to see,” said DNR Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell in a media release. “What is most important here is that the structure we put into place to cooperatively manage this fishery is strong, and that we continue to work with our partners and stakeholders to initiate a new stock assessment that could help evaluate our current management framework.”
The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) is expected to release their 2014 Blue Crab Advisory Report this summer.
Raising oysters along the bed of the Potomac River could lower pollution and improve water quality, according to new findings that show “farm-raised” shellfish are a promising method of managing nutrients.
Image courtesy Robert Rheault/Flickr
Nutrient pollution from urban, suburban and agricultural runoff has long plagued the Potomac, whose watershed spans four states and the District of Columbia and has the highest population in the Chesapeake Bay region. Excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. While filter-feeding oysters were once plentiful in the river—capable of removing nutrients from the water—their numbers have dropped due to overfishing and disease.
In a report published in Aquatic Geochemistry, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) show that cultivating shellfish on 40 percent of the Potomac’s bottom would remove all of the nitrogen now polluting the river. While conflicting uses—think shipping lanes, buried cables and pushback from boaters and landowners—mean it is unlikely that such a large area would be devoted to aquaculture, putting even 15 to 20 percent of the riverbed under cultivation would remove almost half of the incoming nitrogen. The combination of aquaculture and restored reefs could provide even greater benefits.
Image courtesy Virginia Sea Grant/Flickr
Shellfish aquaculture could also have benefits outside the realm of water quality: the shellfish could serve as a marketable seafood product, while the practice could provide growers with additional income if accepted in a nutrient trading program. Even so, the report notes that aquaculture should be considered “a complement—not a substitute” for land-based pollution-reducing measures.
“The most expedient way to reduce eutrophication in the Potomac River estuary would be to continue reducing land-based nutrients complemented by a combination of aquaculture and restored oyster reefs,” said scientist and lead study author Suzanne Bricker in a media release. “The resulting combination could provide significant removal of nutrients… and offer innovative solutions to long-term persistent water quality problems.”
At present, there are no aquaculture leases in the Potomac’s main stem. But in 2008, Maryland passed a plan to expand aquaculture in the region, and in 2009, NOAA launched an initiative to promote aquaculture in coastal waters across the United States.
Over the last decade, American shad abundance in the Potomac River has continued its consistent rise, driving the overall upward trend of shad abundance in the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy MTSOfan/Flickr
While shad spend most of their adult lives in the ocean, the anadromous fish migrate into freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. Since 2000, shad abundance in the Bay has increased from 9 percent of the goal to 41 percent of the goal, with the Potomac seeing the most consistent rise in returning shad. Between 2000 and 2013, shad abundance in the Potomac rose from 12.4 percent to 129.4 percent of the target. Scientists attribute this increase to a series of factors, including improvements in water quality; a resurgence in underwater grass beds; the installation of a fish passageway at Little Falls Dam; a moratorium on recreational shad harvest; stocking efforts that reprinted fish to the river and kick-started the population; and the overall suitability of the Potomac as shad habitat.
“While there are several factors behind the shad recovery in the Potomac River, improved water quality is the cornerstone,” said Jim Cummins, director for living resources at the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) and co-chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s American Shad Indicator Action Team. “Without cleaner waters in the Potomac River, we would never have seen such a boost in returning shad. We’ve reached the sustainable fishery target for the river, but we are still working to achieve a more robust goal: to see the shad population healthy and fit, and to see the river run silver again. That’s not a ‘pristine river’ goal—that’s a goal we can achieve.”
The Bay Program tracks the abundance of shad in the James, Potomac, Rappahannock, Susquehanna and York rivers as an indicator of watershed health. Collectively, these five waterways account for about 90 percent of the Bay’s shad population, and each has its own population target.
While shad abundance is relatively high in the Rappahannock River—reaching 92.7 percent of the target in 2012 but falling to 88.9 percent of the target in 2013—abundance remains negligible in the upper James and Susquehanna and variable in the lower James and York. Some variability is natural, but the continued scarcity of shad in the upper James and Susquehanna can be attributed to large dams that block fish passage and mute some of the natural cues that send migratory fish upstream.
Once one of the most valuable fisheries in the Bay, shad populations have declined in recent decades due to pollution, historic overfishing and the construction of dams that block the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. Commercial shad harvest is now closed across most of the region, and Bay Program partners are working to remove dams, install passageways that allow shad to reach upstream habitats and restock waterways with hatchery-raised fish. In addition, students in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia are raising shad and releasing them into the Potomac River, bringing public attention to the importance of the once-forgotten fish.
Overall, shad abundance in the Bay has increased from 8 percent of the goal in 2000 to 41 percent of the goal in 2013.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has launched a state-wide campaign to teach citizens about the impact of blue and flathead catfish and encourage anglers to remove the invasive species from local rivers and streams.
Native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river basins, blue catfish were introduced to the James, Rappahannock and York rivers in the 1970s and ‘80s as a sport fish. Flathead catfish were introduced to the James in the 1960s for the same reason. Over time, the natural movement and purposeful introduction of the fish into new waters have hastened their establishment in Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
This concerns scientists, who fear the fast-growing and long-lived blue catfish, in particular, could impact the region’s ecologic and economic resources. Because of its opportunistic feeding habits, the blue catfish has become an apex predator, disrupting the structure of the Bay ecosystem and eating up critical aquatic species.
Indeed, “gut content analyses” of the fish have found American shad, Atlantic menhaden, freshwater mussels and blue crabs in their stomachs. Peyton Robertson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office and chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, compared the blue catfish to a Bengal tiger, noting that the fish eats “just about anything.”
“If left unchecked, [blue catfish] could, as top predators, start to impact other parts of our ecosystem,” Robertson said.
But its eradication isn’t feasible, and experts believe the invasive fish is here to stay. So managers hope to mitigate their spread and minimize their impact on native fish.
With support from the Bay Program, DNR has established more than 150 signs at water access points and kiosks around the state to help anglers identify, catch and keep the species, while Maryland Seafood has escalated its efforts to market the fish to restaurants and boost consumer demand.
“[Humans] are great at overfishing things,” said Maryland Seafood Marketing Director Steve Vilnit. “And [the blue catfish] is a species that we want to overfish.”
Upgrading wastewater treatment technologies has lowered pollution in the Potomac, Patuxent and Back rivers, leading researchers to celebrate the Clean Water Act and recommend continued investments in the sewage sector.
Introduced in 1972, the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program regulates point sources of pollutants, or those that can be pinpointed to a specific location. Because wastewater treatment plants are a point source that can send nutrient-rich effluent into rivers and streams, this program has fueled advancements in wastewater treatment technologies. Biological nutrient removal, for instance, uses microorganisms to remove excess nutrients from wastewater, while the newer enhanced nutrient removal improves upon this process.
Researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) have linked these wastewater treatment technologies to a cleaner environment. In a report released last month, five case studies show that wastewater treatment plant upgrades in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia improved water quality in three Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
The link is clear: excess nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. Lowering the amount of nutrients that wastewater treatment plants send into rivers and streams can reduce algae blooms, bring back grass beds and improve water quality.
In New Insights: Science-based evidence of water quality improvements, challenges and opportunities in the Chesapeake, scientists show that new technologies at Baltimore’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant led to a drop in nitrogen concentrations in the Back River. Upgrades at plants in the upper Patuxent watershed led to a drop in nutrient concentrations and a resurgence in underwater grasses in the Patuxent River. And improvements at plants in northern Virginia and the District lowered nutrient pollution, shortened the duration of algae blooms and boosted underwater grass growth in the Potomac River.
Image courtesy Kevin Harber/Flickr
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks wastewater permits as an indicator of Bay health. As of 2012, 45 percent of treatment plants in the watershed had limits in effect to meet water quality standards. But a growing watershed population is putting increasing pressure on urban and suburban sewage systems.
“Further investments in [wastewater treatment plants] are needed to reduce nutrient loading associated with an increasing number of people living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” New Insights notes.
After almost a decade of confusion about just what waters the Clean Water Act protects, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have clarified that most seasonal and rain-dependent streams are guarded under the law.
While these streams might only flow during certain times of year or following a rainstorm, they are connected to downstream waters that offer habitat to wildlife and drinking water to communities.
The federal agencies’ proposed rule also protects wetlands near rivers and streams. But it does not expand the scope of the Clean Water Act, and it preserves existing exemptions for building irrigation ponds, maintaining drainage ditches and other agricultural activities. In other words, protection for ponds, lakes and other “stand-alone” waters will be determined on a case-specific basis, and those agricultural activities that do not send pollutants into protected waters will still not require a permit.
The proposed rule will be open for public comment for 90 days after its publication in the Federal Register.
A new report from the University of Richmond School of Law calls on Virginia to better protect its residents from chemical contaminants, millions of pounds of which are released into the environment each year by industries across the state.
Image courtesy gac/Flickr
The report, authored in part by Noah M. Sachs, director of the law school’s Center for Environmental Studies, examines the sources of chemical contaminants in Virginia and concludes that the Commonwealth should expand its existing toxic chemicals program, empower the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to clean up more contaminated sites and enact legislation and permit conditions more stringent than federal standards.
According to the report, Virginia’s industries released almost 40 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, water and land in 2011. While this represents a drop in releases compared to 2010, the discharge of chemicals into rivers and streams remains significant and, in some cases, could impact in the Chesapeake Bay.
The report notes that more than 250 facilities are allowed to send toxic chemicals into Virginia waters, and the state’s tributaries rank the second worst in the nation as measured by the amount of contaminants discharged into them. While some of the worst-ranking tributaries—like the New and Roanoke Rivers or Sandy Bottom Branch—do not drain into the Bay, the James River ranks forty-fifth in the nation for total toxic discharges and ninth in the nation for the discharge of toxics that affect human development.
Contaminants on the state’s land have also had an effect on water: a number of the 31 sites listed as contaminated under the federal Superfund program involve contaminated drinking water, surface water and groundwater.
Virginia is not the sole watershed state that faces contaminated rivers and streams. According to 2012 assessments, 74 percent of the Bay’s tidal tributaries were partially or fully impaired by chemical contaminants.
In a January 2014 editorial published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sachs recommended putting toxic chemical regulation “at the forefront of Virginia’s environmental agenda.” He wrote, “Our report recommends a comprehensive program to protect Virginians, beginning with strict permitting, increased inspections, new state authority to remediate contaminated sites and more funding and personnel.”
At sunrise, the Roughwater heads out of its Solomons Island harbor and onto the Patuxent River. Driven by a captain who has worked the Chesapeake Bay for two decades, the boat stops over an unseen reef. Simon Dean and his crew—Brian Elder and Jason Williams—are wearing waterproof bibs and white rubber boots, and are ready to bring in oysters.
Known as patent tonging, the work that takes place on the Roughwater moves in one fluid motion: hydraulic tongs enter the water, grab a mess of oysters and dump them with a crash onto a metal culling table. Three-inch grooves built into the table’s edge help the crew cull, or sort the oysters by size. Good oysters are tossed into a plastic basket, while too-small bivalves and empty shells go back overboard.
The patent tongs are controlled by foot pedals: one pushes the tongs up and down, while the other swings them open and closed. “At the end of the day, your feet are more tired than your hands,” Dean said.
As a waterman, Dean’s work is dependent on the seasons. During the winter, he oysters. During the summer, he crabs and takes fishing parties out on the Bay. He bought the Roughwater in 2009, and was “running everybody else’s boat before that.”
Wooden-handled culling hammers help Dean and his crew knock undersized oysters off of bigger bivalves. Young oysters attach themselves to adults in order to grow, forming dense reefs that offer habitat to fish, crabs and other critters. While concrete is often used to construct artificial reefs, shell makes the best substrate for spat.
Watermen must work to “get as much shell off as you can,” Dean said. In part, this is because buyers prefer the look of a clean oyster. And in part, it is because shell must go back into the Bay, where it will provide a new place for young oysters to settle.
In an effort to restore natural oyster populations to the Bay, shell recycling programs have popped up across the region and lawmakers have established oyster sanctuaries and strengthened harvesting restrictions. But this seems to have fueled tension between states and the industry and fed the belief that watermen often work in conflict with the law.
Dean and his wife, Rachel, are working to change this oft-held perception, using heritage tourism to teach both children and adults about estuarine life and the role that watermen play in the region’s history and economy. “We’re not poachers. We’re not outlaws. We’re not thieves,” Dean said. And he hopes that Solomons Island Heritage Tours will “break down that stigma that watermen have [against them].”
Dean and his crew don’t have time for conversation while the tongs are running. Dean thinks about how he will sell his oysters, and how he will compete with other watermen. By the end of the day, they have reached their patent tonging limit: 15 bushels per license, with two licenses per boat. Dean will sell some of these to restaurants and some to individuals. But will he ever keep any for himself? “I like them,” Dean said. But when it comes to eating them, “I just don’t have time.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography.
Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
More than 100,000 tons of fossilized oyster shell will be shipped from the Gulf Coast to Baltimore on CSX Corporation trains, thanks to a new partnership between the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Jacksonville, Fla., transportation company.
Image courtesy James Butler/Flickr
The shell will be used to restore reefs in Harris Creek and the Little Choptank River, both of which flow into the Choptank on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The waterways are the first two sites of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-led strategy meant to restore oysters to 20 Chesapeake Bay tributaries by 2025.
The 377-acre Harris Creek site was chosen because its water quality, salinity and protected status point to a high likelihood of restoration success. While granite will be used to build some of Harris Creek’s reefs, shell is the best material for oyster larvae to settle on, and a lack of natural shell in the region posed a restoration roadblock. The state met the challenge by spending $6.3 million on shell from Gulf Coast Aggregates.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) helped negotiate the state’s agreement with CSX, which will transport 50 train cars filled with Gulf Coast shell at cost to Curtis Bay two to three times each month over the next nine months. The shell will then be transported by barge to the Eastern Shore sanctuaries.
“This collaboration is monumental, as it allows us to complete the substrate construction of the largest tributary-focused oyster reef restoration project on the East Coast,” said Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP), in a media release. ORP will help build the oyster reefs, seed them with baby oysters and monitor planting success. “In all, more shell will be placed in Maryland waters over the next nine months than in the past decade—enough to cover 80 football fields with shell 12 inches deep.”
Habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster populations. But the bivalves play a critical role in the Bay’s environment and the region’s economy, filtering water and feeding countless area residents.
The Potomac Conservancy has reported an improvement in the Potomac River’s health for the third year in a row, giving the waterway a “C” in its seventh annual State of the Nation’s River report.
The Potomac Conservancy, an advocacy group that fights for the health of the waterway, has an optimistic outlook for the river’s future. “After suffering the effects of historical overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction, it is no wonder that the Potomac River’s recovery is a slow one,” the report states. “We believe the river is on its way back to full health.”
In 2012, the Potomac topped American Rivers’ list of the nation’s most endangered waterways, the biggest threat a combination of agricultural and stormwater runoff. With continued population growth in the Washington, D.C., area, human development has increased the amount of impervious surfaces that cannot absorb polluted rainfall traveling across the land and into storm drains, rivers and streams.
“Going forward, when it comes to cleaning up the Potomac, public enemy number one is polluted runoff,” said Hedrick Belin, Potomac Conservancy president. “That is the single largest threat to the full recovery of the Potomac, in that it is the only source of pollution that we see growing.”
The Conservancy plans to take a “three-pronged” approach to reducing polluted runoff, strengthening regulatory frames at a local level, increasing funding for clean water programs and creating incentives and assistance programs for property owners to make it easier for them to contribute to a healthy waterway.
Belin stresses the importance of protecting both the river and the land that surrounds it. ”As we peek around the corner or over the horizon, we see some troubling trends if we don’t change how we treat the land that surrounds the Potomac,” he explained.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to more than 17 million people, each of whom is reliant on water. But as populations grow and communities expand, we send pollutants into our rivers and streams, affecting every drop of water in the region. How, then, do so many of us still have access to clean water? The answer lies within wastewater treatment plants.
One plant, in particular, plays a pivotal role in the region’s water quality. Located in Washington, D.C., the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant has served the D.C. metropolitan area since 1983. The plant receives 40 percent of its flow from Maryland, 40 percent from the District and 20 percent from Virginia. With the capacity to treat 370 million gallons of sewage each day, it is the largest wastewater treatment plant in the world and the only one in the nation to serve multiple states.
Recently, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority—also known as DC Water—made technological upgrades to Blue Plains. Evidence shows these upgrades have already accounted for reductions in nutrient pollution and a resurgence in the upper Potomac River’s bay grass beds. Indeed, putting new wastewater treatment technology in place is a critical step toward meeting the pollution limits established in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load. As of 2012, 45 percent of the watershed's 467 wastewater treatment plants had limits in place that met water quality standards.
Because of spatial constraints, many of upgrades planned for Blue Plains will focus on intensifying the wastewater treatment process. According to Sudhir Muthy, innovation chief for DC Water, the more concentrated the purification process is, the more energy efficient the plant can be.
For decades, the philosophy behind wastewater treatment plants has been to imitate those clean water processes that you might see in natural systems. Lately, there has been a shift in thinking about how wastewater is treated. Murthy explains: “Now, more attention is given to using the energy created within the treatment process to run the plant. [For example,] carbon has a lot of energy and is created during the treatment process. We are trying to harness [carbon’s] energy to help the plant run in a more energy-efficient way. We are now asking: How do we optimize the use of energy within the wastewater treatment process?”
Blue Plains hopes to become energy neutral in 10 to 15 years, and upgrades to reduce pollution and save energy will continue for years to come. A new tunnel will allow both sewage and wastewater to flow from the District to the plant, where it will be treated to reduce the flow of polluted runoff into the Potomac River. And a new process will recycle “waste” heat to “steam explode” bacterial sludge, turning it into a biosolid that can be mixed with soil, used as fertilizer and generate extra revenue.
“All processes use energy,” Muthy said. “But if you can find ways to offset or recycle that energy use, then you can move towards being more efficient.”
The James River Association has measured a slight improvement in James River health, giving the waterway a “C” in its latest State of the James report.
Image courtesy tvnewsbadge/Flickr
The river’s score of 53 on a one-to-100 scale marks a two percent increase since the report was last issued in 2011, but continued problems with sediment pollution overshadow progress made elsewhere.
While sediment is a natural part of the environment, excess particles of sand, silt and clay can cloud the water, harming underwater grasses, fish and shellfish. According to the State of the James report, sediment pollution in the James has shown no improvement over the past two decades, indicating that stronger measures should be taken to restore streamside forests and other buffers that can filter runoff before it enters rivers and streams.
Virginia has made strides, however, in reducing nutrient pollution, as it works to meet limits set by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load or “pollution diet.” The Commonwealth has invested in wastewater treatment, increased funding toward agricultural conservation and focused attention on controlling stormwater runoff.
Last month, I had the chance to attend the two-day Mid-Atlantic Volunteer Monitoring Conference in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The conference was hosted by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, and brought volunteers, environmental organizations and governmental agencies together to discuss the ins and outs of water quality monitoring, from sample collection and analysis to the management, presentation, visualization and communication of data.
Water quality monitoring is at the heart of Chesapeake Bay restoration. This critical data helps us determine how well our pollution control measures are working. Chesapeake Bay Program partners collect a huge amount of water quality data from nearly 270 tidal and non-tidal monitoring stations across the watershed. The cost of this work—approximately $10 million each year—is borne by federal agencies, watershed states, local jurisdictions and organizations like the Susquehanna River Basin Commission and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.
While this monitoring network is extensive and the data it generates is rich, it can’t tell us what water quality is like in some of our smaller creeks and streams. But this gap has been slowly filled over the past 30 years, as non-profit organizations have grown in size and sophistication and have developed their own water quality monitoring capabilities. Some of these volunteer monitoring groups, along with a growing number of counties and municipalities, have even established sample collection and analysis procedures comparable to those used by state and federal agencies.
Local citizens want to know what water quality is like in the creeks, streams and rivers that run through their own communities. Many want to know what’s going on—sometimes literally—in their own backyards. And government can’t do it all. So we have come to recognize the value of volunteer-collected local monitoring data, and we use this data to supplement our own. Last month’s volunteer monitoring conference convinced me that we must continue to encourage these local efforts if we are to succeed in restoring the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
More than 40 miles of the Patapsco River will be opened to the annual migrations of herring, alewife and American shad once the waterway’s lowermost dam is removed.
Bloede Dam has blocked the passage of migratory fish for close to a century. It has also posed a public safety hazard, creating strong currents that have killed a number of swimmers. Its removal is the next step in the Patapsco River Restoration Project, and will be funded by a $3.57 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Restoration Center to American Rivers.
American Rivers has worked on the Patapsco project for the past five years with NOAA, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Friends of the Patapsco Valley State Park. The river’s Union and Simkins dams were removed in 2010 and 2011 in order to create better habitat for fish and a safer swimming hole for people.
“Removing one dam can make a major difference in the health of a river and its fisheries. But removing multiple dams… is really a game-changer,” said Serena McClain, director of river restoration at American Rivers, in a media release.
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks the opening of fish passage as an indicator of Chesapeake Bay health, and has achieved 91 percent of its goal to open more than 2,800 miles of fish passage by 2014. Because dams, culverts and other barriers can disrupt the natural flow of rivers, their removal can mean a boost in habitat, a drop in pollution and improved protection from flooding.
Learn more about the removal of Bloede Dam.
A virus that can cause disease and death in largemouth bass has been found in otherwise healthy northern snakeheads taken from two Virginia waterways. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the finding raises the possibility that northern snakeheads could be carriers of the pathogen, capable of transmitting it to other fish in the Chesapeake Bay.
The pathogen, known as the largemouth bass virus, has been found in bass, sunfish and other members of the freshwater sunfish family, but largemouth bass are the only fish known to develop disease from it.
The largemouth bass virus appears to attack the swim bladder, causing fish to lose their balance and float near the surface of the water. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the virus has been found in waters across the state, but its impacts are often short-lived and largemouth bass can build up resistance to the disease.
While the pathogen doesn’t seem to affect the health of northern snakeheads, the habitat of this invasive fish often overlaps with that of largemouth bass, which may favor transmission of the virus.
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.
I enjoy kayaking—a lot. In fact, I like kayaking more than any other outdoor activity. And a recent weekend spent entirely on the water—first on the South River, and later on a tributary to the Nanticoke—felt like heaven.
The weekend started with the South River Days Kayak, Wade-In and Picnic. More than 60 people participated in the celebration of the South River, connecting with the waterway on kayaks, a canoe and a stand-up paddleboard. The colorful regatta and community spirit reminded us that we must continue our work to ensure we have clean water for fishing, swimming and public health and well-being.
Then, I joined a host of Chesapeake Bay professionals—from Nikki Tinsley, former chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee, to Al Todd and Lou Etgen from the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay—on Chicone Creek, which flows into the Nanticoke River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Tom Horton was also on board. The former Baltimore Sun reporter and current Salisbury University professor is an encyclopedia of facts and stories about the Bay. He spoke about the area’s history, its early settlements, its local characters, its plant and animal life and the current state of its environment.
We stopped for a picnic lunch in Vienna, Md., and enjoyed the hospitality of Mayor Russ Brinsfield, who let us use his front lawn and shade tree. In addition to being Vienna’s mayor, Russ is also a farmer, the director of the University of Maryland’s Wye Research and Education Center and a member of the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee. Russ has a long and deep history with the Bay.
Later that afternoon, we watched a large barge being pushed downriver by a tug and were reminded that the Nanticoke is a working river. Our waters can serve a variety of purposes—but can do so only as long as we protect them.
A report on the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population reveals a stock that is not overfished and within which overfishing is not occurring.
According to an annual evaluation from the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), the start of the 2013 crabbing season saw 147 million adult female crabs in the Bay, which marks a 54 percent increase from last year’s abundance of adult females. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this female-specific reference point as an indicator of Bay health. While this number is below CBSAC’s target, it is above the committee’s overfished threshold.
Image courtesy smaneal/Flickr
The 2013 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, presented by CBSAC at the June meeting of the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, is based on the results of the winter dredge survey. This annual estimate of the blue crab population is considered the most comprehensive blue crab survey conducted in the Bay.
To maintain a sustainable blue crab fishery, CBSAC recommends taking a risk-averse management approach and making a 10 percent cut to the 2013 female blue crab harvest. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) have agreed to pursue the latter recommendation.
CBSAC also recommends better accounting of commercial and recreational harvests and continued efforts to monitor the inactive commercial crabbing licenses in the fishery, which could lead to significant increases in harvest if they were to come into sudden use.
Learn more about the 2013 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report.
Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler saw his sneakers through 34 inches of water at the 26th annual Patuxent River Wade-In on June 9. This marks a one-inch drop from last year’s “sneaker index,” which is what Fowler has come to call the deepest point at which he can still see his shoes as he wades into the water.
Fowler holds the wade-in each year to bring attention to the polluted waters of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. This year marked the fourth wade-in to be held at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, after decades on Broomes Island.
In the 1950s, Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. But as nutrient and sediment pollution are pushed into the river, algae blooms and suspended silt block sunlight from reaching the river bottom and degrade water clarity. The 1950s sneaker index of 63 inches now serves as the benchmark for a restored Patuxent River.
Fowler’s infamous white sneakers were retired before this year’s wade-in, but will be preserved for permanent display at the Calvert Marine Museum.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
As we know from our years at school, it is important to measure our progress, whether it pertains to our ability to learn and use information or to our work restoring water quality. Over the past 30 years, many non-governmental organizations, academic institutions and even individuals have used grades to measure how well we are doing in correcting environmental problems. In Maryland, former state Sen. Bernie Fowler uses his annual Paxtuent River Wade-In to bring attention to the need for continued vigilance on cleaning up our waterways. As a youth, Sen. Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see his sneakers; this is now his modern-day yardstick, known as the “Sneaker Index.”
Each year, Sen. Fowler wades into the Patuxent until he can no longer see his shoes. He comes out of the river and measures the water line on his denim overalls. Over the years, this number has become the “grade” for the river’s water quality. A number of other organizations publish similar report cards for different water bodies. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Blue Water Baltimore and others have developed sophisticated methods of measuring the health of our waterways, issuing letter grades to show how well or how poorly our efforts are working to improve the environment.
But, just like our report cards from school, water quality report cards don’t tell the whole story. While they can tell us what conditions are right now—whether we did well or poorly in a particular course or over the school year—there are a lot of factors that can influence a waterway’s score from one year to the next. We are making progress, although at times we may see setbacks. And as Sen. Fowler reminds us each year, we must stick to it, redouble our efforts and work even harder if we want to get and keep a passing grade.
For close to a decade, scientists and volunteers have spent their springs at the Nanticoke Shad Hatchery, working to rebuild populations of American shad.
In this small building near Bethel, Del., hundreds of thousands of American shad are raised each year before they are returned to their native spawning grounds in the Nanticoke River. This spring, the hatchery stocked about 558,000 fish to the waterway.
In the early 1900s, excessive commercial harvests took a heavy toll on American shad. Over the past century, poor water quality and the construction of dams that restrict the anadromous fish’s access to upstream spawning grounds have caused shad populations to decline.
Today, restoration efforts are giving American shad a much-needed population boost. Restocking programs across the Chesapeake Bay watershed—combined with harvest restrictions, improved water quality and the removal of dams—are critical to the re-establishment of the species.
American shad spend most of their lives in brackish and saltwater before returning to their birth waters to spawn. The Nanticoke Shad Hatchery collects its brood stock directly from the Nanticoke River and its Deep Creek tributary to ensure adult fish will return to the waterway and to preserve the genetic integrity of the local shad population.
Throughout the spring spawning season, which runs from mid-March through April, mature shad that are held in the hatchery’s closely monitored, 3,500-gallon spawning tanks periodically release eggs and sperm.
On the morning after an overnight spawning event, pea-sized eggs are filtered into an egg collection tank.
“Bad eggs” are removed from the tank before fertilized eggs are measured by volume and placed in incubation jars to grow.
Eggs that survive to the “eyed” stage are moved to one of four culture tanks, where they will hatch into larval fish within a week.
After a few more days spent in the safety of the culture tanks, the larval fish absorb their nutritive yolk sac and transform into fry that are ready to feed on their own in their natural habitat.
Before the hatchery-produced fish are released into the Nanticoke River, scientists mark them with oxytetracycline. Tracking the fish will allow scientists to gauge their survival and stocking success over time.
Six years of sampling surveys on the Nanticoke River show that adult American shad abundance has increased, while the number of hatchery-produced juveniles has decreased. According to hatchery manager Mike Stengl, this suggests the hatchery is succeeding in its long-term goal: to reduce the percentage of hatchery-grown fish in the river and encourage the wild population to spawn on its own.
Success at the Nanticoke Shad Hatchery and at other hatcheries across the region are giving American shad a second chance at survival in the watershed.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
On a quiet cove in Southern Maryland, a series of orange and white markers declares a stretch of water off limits to fishing. Under the surface sits spawning habitat for largemouth bass, a fish that contributes millions of dollars to the region’s economy each year and for whom two such sanctuaries have been established in the state. Here, the fish are protected from recreational anglers each spring and studied by scientists hoping to learn more about them and their habitat needs.
The largemouth bass can be found across the watershed and is considered one of the most popular sport fishes in the United States. While regional populations are strong, a changing Chesapeake Bay—think rising water temperatures, disappearing grasses and the continued arrival of invasive species—is changing bass habitat and could have an effect on future fish.
For decades, scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have collected data on the distribution of largemouth bass, tracking the species and monitoring the state’s two sanctuaries in order to gather the knowledge needed to keep the fishery sustainable. Established in 2010 on the Chicamuxen and Nanjemoy creeks, both of which flow into the Potomac River, these sanctuaries have been fortified with plastic pipes meant to serve as spawning structures. And, it seems, these sanctuaries are in high demand during spawning season.
On an overcast day in April, three members of the DNR Tidal Bass Survey team—Joseph Love, Tim Groves and Branson Williams—are surveying the sanctuary in Chicamuxen Creek. Groves flips a switch and the vessel starts to send electrical currents into the water, stunning fish for capture by the scientists on board. The previous day, the team caught, tagged and released 20 bass; this morning, the men catch 19, none of which were tagged the day before.
“This [lack of recaptures] indicates that we have quite a few bass out here,” said Love, Tidal Bass Manager.
Indeed, the state’s largemouth bass fishery “is pretty doggone good,” Love continued. “That said, we recognize that the ecosystem is changing. And I don’t think anybody wants to rest on the laurels of a great fishery.”
As Love and his team learn how largemouth bass are using the state’s sanctuaries, they can work to improve the sanctuaries’ function and move to protect them and similar habitats from further development or disturbance.
“We can speculate where the best coves are, but this is the ground truthing that we need to do,” Love said.
In the fall, the team will return to the cove to count juvenile bass and report on juvenile-to-adult population ratios. While the assessment of the state’s sanctuaries is a small-scale project, it is one “aimed at the bigger picture,” Love said.
Love’s team is “doing what we can to improve the use of these coves by bass.” And protecting bass habitat and improving water quality will have a positive effect on the coves overall, creating healthier systems for neighboring plants and animals.
“By protecting these important areas, we are also protecting the larger ecosystem,” Love said.
Photos by Jenna Valente. To view more, visit our Flickr set.
Restoring urban streams can help restore urban communities, according to a new analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
In a report released last week, the USGS documents the contributions that the restoration of an Anacostia River tributary made to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, from the creation of jobs to the creation of open space for residents. The yearlong restoration of a 1.8 mile stretch of Watts Branch is one in a series of case studies highlighting the economic impacts of restoration projects supported by the Department of the Interior.
Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region
Completed in 2011, the efforts to restore Watts Branch included the restoration of an eroded stream channel and the relocation and improvement of streamside sewer lines. The work—a collaboration between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the District Department of the Environment, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and others—reduced erosion, improved water quality and wildlife habitat, and provided local residents with an urban sanctuary where green space is otherwise limited.
The restoration project also accounted for 45 jobs, $2.6 million in local labor income and $3.4 million in value added to the District of Columbia and 20 counties in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.
According to the EPA, $3.7 million in project implementation costs were funded by multiple agencies and organizations, including the EPA and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Read more about Restoring a Stream, Restoring a Community.
Tumor rates among catfish in the Anacostia River are down, according to a new report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Biologists with the agency’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office have studied the brown bullhead catfish for decades as an indicator of habitat status and the success of cleanup efforts. The bottom-dwelling fish is sensitive to contaminants that accumulate in the mud in which it finds its food, often developing liver and skin tumors after exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.
Image courtesy USDA/Wikimedia Commons
Brown bullheads in the Anacostia River once had the highest rates of liver tumors in North America, but recent USFWS surveys show that tumors in the fish have dropped. While the rate is still higher than the Bay-wide average, this improvement could indicate that exposure to chemical contaminants is on the decline.
Liver tumors in fish are caused by exposure to sediment that is contaminated with polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. PAHs can be found in coal, oil and gasoline, and enter rivers and streams from stormwater runoff, waste sites and the atmosphere.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) have coordinated a number of recent cleanup efforts to lower PAH contamination in the watershed, from improved stormwater management and more frequent street sweeping to the targeted inspection of local automobile repair shops to lower loadings of oil and grease.
Read more about Tumors in Brown Bullhead Catfish in the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers.
Over the past decade, smallmouth bass in five Chesapeake Bay tributaries have suffered from fish kills and perplexing illnesses—and nutrient pollution could be to blame.
According to a new report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), excess nitrogen and phosphorous in our rivers and streams could be behind two of the leading problems affecting smallmouth bass: first, the rapid growth of fish parasites and their hosts, and second, the expansion of large algae blooms that can lead to low-oxygen conditions and spikes in pH. When paired with rising water temperatures and ever more prevalent chemical contaminants, nutrient pollution seems to have created a “perfect storm” of factors that are making smallmouth bass more susceptible to infections and death.
Image courtesy Mr. OutdoorGuy/Flickr
In a media call, CBF President Will Baker called the smallmouth bass “the canary in the coal mine for the Bay’s rivers.” Because the fish is sensitive to pollution, problems within the population could indicate problems within the Bay.
Smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna, Monocacy, Shenandoah, Cowpasture and South Branch of the Potomac rivers have seen a string of recent health problems, from open sores and wart-like growths to abnormal sexual development. In the Susquehanna, smallmouth bass populations have plummeted so far that Pennsylvania has made it illegal to catch the fish during spawning season.
“Our fish are sick, our anglers are mad and my board and I—protectors of our [smallmouth bass] fishery—are frustrated,” said John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “Our bass, and our grandchildren who will fish for them, are depending on us to fix the problem.”
Image courtesy CBF
While specific causes of smallmouth bass fish kills and illnesses remain unclear, CBF has called on state and local governments to accelerate their pollution-reduction efforts in hopes of improving water quality and saving the driving force behind a $630 million recreational fishing industry. The non-profit has also called on the federal government to designate a 98-mile stretch of the Susquehanna as impaired, which would commit Pennsylvania to reversing the river’s decline.
“This is the moment in time to save fishing in our streams and rivers, as well as the jobs and quality of life that are connected to it,” Baker said.
The blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay has dropped, but a substantial boost in the number of spawning-age females has offered officials a piece of good news in spite of this disappointing decline.
According to the results of the annual winter dredge survey, which measures the blue crab population in Maryland and Virginia, the number of spawning-age females in the Bay has risen 52 percent. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this number as an indicator of Bay health, and an increase is a sign that management methods to conserve adult female crabs are working. But an overall decline in the Bay’s blue crabs—from 765 million in 2012 to 300 million in 2013—could lead to the tightening of commercial harvest restrictions.
Image courtesy Benjamin Wilson/Flickr
Scientists have attributed the decline in blue crabs not to overfishing, but to high mortality rates among juveniles. While last year’s winter dredge survey measured an unprecedented number of juvenile crabs in the Bay, last summer and fall saw an alarming loss of blue crab habitat and a large influx of red drum, which often feed on young crabs. Young blue crabs are also known to feed on each other when population densities are high.
“It is important to keep these results in perspective,” said Jack Travelstead, commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), in a news release. “Five years ago this fishery was declared a federal disaster. That is no longer the case: overfishing is no longer occurring, a good fisheries management framework is in place, the stock is healthy and spawning-age females are doing well. If not for the disappointingly small reproductive year class we would have much to celebrate.”
In an effort to make up for this shift in blue crab abundance, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) are pursuing strategies to establish a 10 percent cut in the commercial harvest of female blue crabs. Both Maryland and the PRFC will consider adjusting or enacting daily bushel limits, which have been put in place in Virginia. Maryland and Virginia will also consider shortening their crab seasons, and it seems likely that Virginia’s winter dredge fishery will remain closed.
The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) will draft their 2013 Blue Crab Advisory Report over the next few weeks.
Read more about the 2013 winter dredge survey results.
More than half of the nation’s river and stream miles are in poor health, according to a new study from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The latest National Rivers and Streams Assessment, a sampling effort conducted during the summers of 2008 and 2009, found that 55 percent of the nation’s rivers and streams are in poor condition and 23 percent are in fair condition, their health impaired by nutrient pollution, a loss of streamside vegetation and bacterial and chemical contaminants.
These same stressors have impacted the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters. Excess nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that suck oxygen from the water, creating “dead zones” within which animals cannot survive. A loss of streamside vegetation can boost erosion and push sand, soil and sediment into waterways, blocking sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and smothering the habitat that some aquatic organisms need to live or breed. And chemical contaminants—like, for instance, mercury—can accumulate in the tissues of fish, leading to fish consumption advisories in polluted waterways.
But rivers and streams are critical to the health of humans and wildlife alike, as sources of drinking water, food and habitat. According to the EPA, this survey suggests the need to better address pollution at its source, whether it is urban, suburban or agricultural runoff or the treatment of wastewater.