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.
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!
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most of us who live in urban or suburban settings really don’t know what a healthy stream looks like. In some cases, we can’t even see the streams that run under our roads and shopping centers because they’ve been forced into pipes; out of sight, out of mind. The remnants of streams we can see have often been filled with sediment and other pollution, their ecology altered. The plants and animals that used to live there have long since departed, their habitat destroyed. This didn’t happen overnight. The environment is suffering “a death by a thousand cuts.”
I recently got the chance to visit the Cabin Branch stream restoration project, not far from my neighborhood in Annapolis, Md. The project is being undertaken by Underwood & Associates on behalf of the Severn Riverkeeper Program, and is one of many stream restoration projects taking place across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In 2005, a volunteer cleanup removed 40 tons of tires and debris from Cabin Branch. Image courtesy Severn Riverkeeper Program.
Cabin Branch discharges to the streams and wetlands of Saltworks Creek and the Severn River, which bring water into the Bay. Aerial photos taken after a modest rain are dramatic testament to a severely damaged ecosystem that causes the Severn to run the color of chocolate milk. This same phenomenon—one of sedimentation and stormwater runoff—is repeated in streams and rivers that run through thousands of communities throughout the watershed.
Image courtesy Severn Riverkeeper Program.
It was gratifying to see the Cabin Branch project firsthand—one of many efforts to heal the damage done unknowingly by many decades of development. Like many projects of this nature, the Severn Riverkeeper Program had to overcome some bureaucratic red tape to get the permits they needed, but their perseverance will be worth the impact in helping clean local waters and the Bay.
Image courtesy Tom Wenz/EPA CBPO.
Fortunately, we are learning better ways to manage stormwater runoff through low impact development and the use of green infrastructure, which help to mimic the cleansing functions of nature. It will take some time before this patient is restored to good health, but we are on the mend.
On a cold day in January, I found myself driving down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Unlike thousands of others, I wasn’t traveling into the District to celebrate our president on Inauguration Day, but to honor another great American: Martin Luther King, Jr., whose work we now commemorate with a national Day of Service. Because while Martin Luther King Day is a national holiday, it is also a day “on”—not a day “off.” And on that day, two conservation organizations—the Sierra Club and the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC)—were sponsoring a small stream cleanup at Pope Branch Park.
Pope Branch is a unique stream. According to Sierra Club field organizer and cleanup host Irv Sheffey, it is the only stream whose headwaters originate in the District and drain into the Anacostia River. So, local District residents have a greater incentive to clean up the waterway—and more control over what goes in it.
The first time I joined a cleanup at Pope Branch was five years ago, with my daughter, who is now in college in Florida. In 2008, we removed massive amounts of trash from the streambed—old appliances, couches, car parts and more—most of it a result of dumping. This time, there was still a fair amount of trash, but most of it was plastic bottles, soda and beer cans and food wrappings, all consequences of stormwater runoff. Local community organizers saw this reduced trash load as a positive sign of progress, and I did, too. But even as the residents who stopped to thank us for our work said they were pleased with the progress that had been made, they reminded us that there is still more work to do.
That same message resonates for both the Anacostia River and the Chesapeake Bay: progress is being made, but there is a lot more work to do. So let’s continue to look for opportunities to help local organizations—like the Sierra Club, the ECC or the countless others across the watershed—in their ongoing restoration efforts. We can do this, but to truly succeed, we must all do our part to once again have clean streams, healthy rivers and a restored Bay.
Nutrient and sediment trends at nine Chesapeake Bay monitoring sites have shown an overall lack of improvement, according to a report released this week by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
As part of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s integrated approach to assess water quality as the Bay “pollution diet” is implemented, the report tracks changes in nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment trends at monitoring stations on the Susquehanna, Potomac and James rivers, as well as six additional waterways in Maryland and Virginia.
Using data from 1985 to 2010, the USGS measured minimal changes in total nitrogen at six out of nine monitoring stations and minimal or worsening changes in phosphorous at seven out of nine monitoring stations. Using data from 2001 to 2010, the USGS measured minimal or worsening changes in sediment at eight out of nine monitoring stations.
But a lack of improvement in pollution trends doesn’t mean that pollution-reduction practices aren’t working.
While nutrient and sediment trends can be influenced by a number of factors—among them, wastewater treatment plant upgrades and changes in land use—there is often a lag time between when restoration work is done and when visible improvements in water quality can be seen. And while the nine stations monitored here are located downstream of almost 80 percent of the land that drains into the Bay, runoff and effluent from three of the watershed’s biggest cities—Baltimore, Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C.—do not flow past them, meaning that pollution-reduction practices implemented in these areas—or put in place after 2010—are not reflected in the study’s results.
According to the report, the USGS plans to work with partners to help explain the trends and changes described in this report; initial focus will be paid to the Eastern Shore and Potomac River Basin.
Read more about nutrient and sediment loads and trends in the Bay watershed.
Imagine a summer afternoon spent on Tuckahoe Creek. As the waterway narrows, the branches of streamside trees form a canopy over paddlers, painting the sky green from one shore to another.
Image courtesy Serafin Enriquez/Flickr
Located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Tuckahoe Creek borders Caroline, Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties. Much of the 21-mile tributary to the Choptank River is bordered by wooded marshland. In Tuckahoe State Park, visitors can launch canoes and kayaks into the creek, hikers and horse-lovers can walk or ride 20 miles of scenic trails and fishermen can press their luck in a 60-acre lake.
Imagine a stretch of water that runs from dense forests to rolling farmland, a riverside town with a rich agricultural and industrial past or a park that was once home to a working mill, but now provides paddlers and picnickers with an outdoor space to relax.
These are just some of the natural, cultural and recreational resources located along the Susquehanna River. The full list is vast, but one Pennsylvania partnership is working to tie them together.
Image courtesy Susquehanna Greenway Partnership/Flickr
A leading champion of one of the largest rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership works with individuals, governments and nonprofit organizations to improve water quality in the Susquehanna while revitalizing the economies of riverside towns.
Curbing environmental problems while curing local economies seems like an ambitious goal, but the partnership has built its forward-thinking work on the solid foundation of local history.
Image courtesy Susquehanna Greenway Partnership/Flickr
In hopes of connecting the Susquehanna with the people on its shores, the partnership has established a River Towns program that provides assistance to communities that want to revitalize and celebrate their river connection. The program ensures that small towns along the Susquehanna retain their sense of community and convenience, which can attract both residents and visitors alike. Walkable neighborhoods and nearby natural areas keep towns connected to the Susquehanna and engaged with each other.
The partnership has also worked to boost the public’s investment in the Susquehanna, increasing public access points, installing informative signs and linking parks, businesses and residential areas with wildlife habitat corridors.
More from the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership:
When you think of the Baltimore-Washington corridor, you don’t often think of rock climbing, trout fishing or horseback riding.
But you can find all of that and more in the 1,400 acres that surround Morgan Run, a stream that begins near Eldersburg, Md., and flows into Baltimore County’s Liberty Reservoir.
Image courtesy Evan Parker/Flickr
In the Morgan Run Natural Environmental Area, miles of trails will transport you to a place far from beltways and buses. Be prepared to weave in and out of different habitats, from open fields to aging forests. Birders can spot songbirds and raptors, and climbers can find bouldering opportunities along streamside trails.
Image courtesy Jive/Flickr
Fishing is a popular sport in Morgan Run. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) stocks the stream with eastern brook trout to keep the important fish in our tributaries.
Equestrian trails attract solitude-seeking horseback riders. Local riders created these trails in the early 1990s. Today, there are 11 miles of open field and woodland trails to enjoy.
True to its name, West Virginia’s “Lost River” disappears.
Lost River begins in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. But just a few miles downstream, it flows into a series of caves and is carried underground. Known locally as “the Sinks,” these caves shelter the river until it reaches Wardensville, where it emerges under a different name: the Cacapon.
Image courtesy Mark Plummer/Flickr
Looking for Lost River? Catch a glimpse in the 3,700-acre Lost River State Park. And if the weather is hiker-friendly, take a trip up to Cranny Crow Overlook, where, at 3,200 feet high, you will be able to see five counties in two states. The park also offers opportunities for horseback riding and swimming.
Image courtesy vitia/Flickr
Explore the nearby Trout Pond Recreation Area to enjoy the only natural lake in West Virginia, created by a sinkhole that filled with water from a mountain stream. Trout Pond and the neighboring Rockcliff Lake boast sandy mountainside beaches, optimal fishing and challenging hiking trails.
More from Lost River:
Five thousand cubic yards of demolition waste and bricks are scattered around an oil truck that is lodged into a hillside. The mess was left behind long ago, and the Lackawanna River Corridor Association (LRCA) is doing everything it can to clean it up.
The mess sits on land that borders the Lackawanna River, a northeastern Pennsylvania tributary to the Susquehanna. The trash has caused the river’s water quality and wildlife habitat to deteriorate, but a Lackawanna Greenway initiative will clean up this riverside land and open it to the public, giving bikers and pedestrians a chance to enjoy their local waterway.
Trail construction is being managed by LRCA’s partner, Lackawanna Heritage Valley Authority.
“We hope to provide an outlet for recreation for everybody in the community,” explained LRCA Executive Director Bernie McGurl. “It’s a way for people to walk to work, and it also increases property values.”
While two miles of the completed trail run through downtown Scranton, Bernie calls this a “lifelong project.” There is still much work to be done!
Image courtesy Lackawanna Heritage Valley Authority
Northeastern Pennsylvania contains some of the largest anthracite coal mines in the world. While coal once contributed to the economic growth of cities like Scranton, coal mining has also left behind a number of environmental problems. Some of them, like LRCA’s recently acquired coal-dumping ground, are visible; others live out of sight, underground, in abandoned mines.
There, stormwater percolates.
“We have a huge body of water in the abandoned mines underneath Scranton,” said McGurl. “It’s about the size of Lake Wallenpaupack and holds about 100 billion gallons.”
“Imagine Manhattan’s subway system on steroids,” McGurl continued. “It’s 1,100 feet deep… and then filled with water.”
But keeping the water underground is not an option. Trapped, it would be left to flood basements and low-elevation residences in many parts of Scranton. So the mine water is released into the Lackawanna River through this borehole at a rate of 100 million gallons of water per day.
Image courtesy Miguel Angel de la Cueva
The water coming from the coal mines is high in iron; three to four tons are discharged into the Lackawanna River each day from this borehole. Iron robs the water of dissolved oxygen, which fish and other aquatic wildlife need to survive.
Iron forms orange, red and yellow slime on the river’s banks and rocks. Other minerals, like aluminum, are also discharged into the river through the borehole.
While the borehole is necessary to prevent flooding, LRCA and other organizations have long been discussing alternative solutions. Some have considered constructing a mineral harvesting plant downstream of the borehole. This would remove minerals from the water and allow them to be sold to electric-generation and geothermal companies.
While the demise of the coal era has left Scranton and surrounding areas with environmental and economic struggles, Bernie and his team at LRCA remain hopeful.
“I like to use the river and the water that flows through the river as a metaphor, speaking to how we relate to each other and what our values as a community are,” explained Bernie. “It tells everyone downstream what we value and the environment that we live in.”
The organization celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. From working with the Scranton Sewer Authority to revamp the city’s combined overflow system to transforming abandoned coal sites into recreation areas, Bernie and his team have accomplished a tremendous amount in just a quarter-century.
More from the Lackawanna River Corridor Association:
The restoration of forested areas along creeks and streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed continues to decline.
Called riparian forest buffers, these streamside shrubs and trees are critical to environmental restoration. Forest buffers stabilize shorelines, remove pollutants from contaminated runoff and shade streams for the brook trout and other fish species that thrive in cooler temperatures and the cleanest waters.
While more than 7,000 miles of forest buffers have been planted across the watershed since 1996, this planting rate has experienced a sharp decline. Between 2003 and 2006, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania planted an average of 756 miles of forest buffer each year. But in 2011, the entire watershed planted just 240 miles—less than half its former average.
Farmers and agricultural landowners have been the watershed’s driving force behind forest buffer plantings, using the conservation practice to catch and filter nutrients and sediment washing off their land. But a rise in commodity prices has made it more profitable for some farmers to keep their stream buffers planted not with trees, but with crops. This, combined with an increase in funding available for other conservation practices, has meant fewer forest buffers planted each year.
But financial incentives and farmer outreach can keep agricultural landowners planting.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), for instance, has partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others to implement conservation practices on Pennsylvania farms. Working to put the state’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) funds to use, CBF provides farmers across the Commonwealth with technical assistance and financial incentives to plant forest buffers, often on the marginal pastureland that is no longer grazed or the less-than-ideal hayland that is rarely cut for hay.
The CBF Buffer-Bonus Program has encouraged Amish and Mennonite farmers to couple CREP-funded forest buffers with other conservation practices, said Dave Wise, Pennsylvania Watershed Restoration Manager with CBF. The reason, according to Wise? “Financial incentives … make it attractive for farmers to enroll.”
Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation
For each acre of forest buffer planted, CBF will provide Buffer-Bonus Program participants with up to $4,000 in the form of a “best management practice voucher” to fund conservation work. This comes in addition to CREP cost-share incentives, which fund forest buffer planting, post-planting care and annual rental fees that run from $40 to $350 per acre.
While Wise has witnessed what he called a “natural decline” in a program that has been available for more than a decade, he believes cost-share incentives can keep planting rates up, acting as “the spoonful of sugar" that encourages farmers to conserve in a state with the highest forest buffer planting rates in the watershed.
“There are few counties [in the Commonwealth] where buffer enrollments continue to be strong, and almost without exception, those are counties that have the Buffer-Bonus Program,” Wise said.
In 2007, the six watershed states committed to restoring forest buffers at a rate of 900 miles per year. This rate was incorporated into the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order, which calls for 14,400 miles of forest buffer to be restored by 2025. The Chesapeake Forest Restoration Strategy, now out in draft form, outlines the importance of forests and forest buffers and the actions needed to restore them.
Imagine walking or paddling along your favorite stretch of marshland and coming across something hiding in the grass. It's three feet tall and its wings, which open when it sees you, span an impressive four feet across.
The creature is an American bittern, a rare heron with distinguishing moustache-like cheek markings and a talent for blending in with marsh grass.
Such a sighting is unusual; the American bittern is listed as endangered in Maryland and Pennsylvania. So we were surprised to hear that these birds were seen along Pierceville Run, a Susquehanna River tributary that was added in 2002 to Pennsylvania's list of impaired waters and removed just earlier this year.
An American bittern on the banks of Pierceville Run. Image courtesy Pennsylvania Department of the Environment
The American bittern's wetland habitats have declined by as much as 50 percent over the last two centuries, due to sediment pollution, development and an excess of man-made pollutants being pushed into the water.
How did Pierceville Run go from an "impaired" waterway to the home of an endangered bird?
Pierceville Run was listed as impaired because it contained an excessive amount of sediment pollution. In other words, there was too much dirt in the water.
Sediment pollution can cloud water and prevent sunlight from reaching aquatic plants and animals. It can even block the flow of creeks, streams and other waterways.
In agricultural areas, like the Pennsylvania county where Pierceville Run is located, livestock can often cause sediment pollution. When cattle are allowed to run through a stream, they can take portions of the stream bank with them. This can lead to the erosion of stream banks and to excessive sediment in the water.
Another source of sediment is the clearing of land for development. When soil is no longer home to trees and plants whose roots can hold it in place, it loosens and can end up in nearby waterways, especially after a severe storm.
To curb Pierceville Run's sediment problems, partners restricted livestock from entering streamside areas and installed trees along the banks to hold the soil in place.
Image courtesy Pennsylvania Department of the Environment
More from Pierceville Run:
Sediment reservoirs near the mouth of the Susquehanna River are filling up faster than researchers expected, posing a new obstacle for improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
As the holding areas behind the lower Susquehanna's three dams reach capacity, their ability to trap upriver sediment and the phosphorous that is often attached wanes, and the sediment that is held grows more and more likely to flow out of the reservoirs and into the river.
According to a report released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), strong storms, severe flooding and faster-moving water have turned the one-time pollutant blockers into less effective gates.
The Susquehanna delivered more phosphorous and sediment into the Bay last year than it has in more than three decades of monitoring. The past 15 years have seen a 55 percent increase in phosphorous entering the Bay from the river and a 97 percent increase in sediment. And while nitrogen flow has dropped, it shows a jump during large storms--like Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 or Hurricane Ivan in 2004--and the flooding that follows.
Excess nutrients and sediment can harm fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. Nitrogen and phosphorous fuel the growth of algae blooms that rob water of oxygen and, with suspended sediment, cloud the water and block the sunlight that plants need to grow.
A previous USGS report cited improvements in nutrient and sediment trends as a sign of improving Bay health. The USGS has seen significant reductions in nutrient and sediment concentrations upstream of the reservoirs, which reflect the positive impacts of conservation efforts in the Susquehanna watershed. But the filling reservoirs behind the Safe Harbor and Holtwood dams in Pennsylvania and the Conowingo Dam in Maryland overshadow the pollution reduction progress that is being made.
The Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment team, composed of federal, state and regional partners and administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is exploring ways to expand the reservoirs' capacity.
The prevalence of intersex fish in the Potomac River basin has raised concerns about river health.
Intersex conditions, the presence of both male and female characteristics in an animal that should exhibit the characteristics of just one sex in its lifetime, occur when chemicals like pesticides, pharmaceuticals or personal care products enter the water and disturb the hormonal systems of fish and other species. Because the hormonal systems of fish are similar to those of humans, anomalies found in fish are an indication these chemicals may also pose a risk to people.
Image courtesy August Rode/Flickr.
According to a report released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), intersex conditions in male smallmouth bass are widespread in the Potomac River basin: 50 to 75 percent of male smallmouth bass collected in the South Branch Potomac River exhibited signs of feminization, as did 100 percent of those collected at sites in the Shenandoah.
In the case of male smallmouth bass, the "intersex condition" reveals itself in the presence of immature eggs in the testes and of a certain protein--vitellogenin, normally found only in egg-laying females--in the circulating blood. Both conditions indicate exposure to chemical contaminants, and can result in reduced reproductive success or, in the case of a shorter-lived species like the fathead minnow, population collapse.
Intersex conditions have been linked to sewage flow from wastewater treatment plants and to runoff from farmland and animal feeding operations.
A popular sport fish, the smallmouth bass experienced spring kills in the Potomac and James rivers. A number of smallmouth bass collected during this survey were also observed with skin lesions, leading researchers to believe the fish may be a sensitive indicator of watershed health.
The USGS and Chesapeake Bay Program partners will use these findings to better identify chemical contaminants and their sources, planning to develop toxic contaminant reduction outcomes by 2013.
Learn more about the hormonal disruption of fish in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Take Route 66 west from Washington, D.C. for about one hour, and you’ll find yourself far from the beltways and bypasses, at a place where the Blue Ridge Mountains meet the Shenandoah River, the principal tributary to the Potomac. This is the country for trout fishing, wine tasting, and whitewater rafting.
Flowing through Front Royal, the eight mile long Happy Creek is a lesser known tributary to the Shenandoah that made EPA’s impaired waters list in 2010. But its accessible, yet remote setting and its country charm is sure to put you in a jovial mood.
Image courtesy Suzanne Stout/Flickr
Trout and bass fisherman access the creek at Gertrude Miller Park, maintained by Warren County Parks and Recreation. The local chapter of Trout Unlimited completed a restoration project here, and fishermen often compete for a spot the morning after the creek is stocked.
White water rafting enthusiasts can begin a four mile trip just outside of Winchester. With cool mountain water below, and Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding the stream banks, Happy Creek is a lesser known rafting secret. It also makes a great paddling and kayaking destination.
Whether you’re in the area for extreme whitewater, or a romantic weekend getaway, don’t leave the watershed without hiking along the Dickey Hill Trail, just off of Skyline Drive.
More from Happy Creek:
Merry Christmas in July! If you live in Baltimore, you may remember Hampden's Annual "Miracle on 34th Street" celebration, the few weeks before Christmas when houses in the eclectic Baltimore neighborhood dress up their front yards and porches with everything and anything that is light-up, singing, or just plain funky (think kitschy singing Mickey Mouse figurines and decorative Old Bay cans).
Image courtesy sneakerdog/Flickr
The event is becoming more than a local tradition, attracting thousands of visitors this holiday season and using a lot of electricity.
But one 34th street resident found a way to still "go green" despite high energy consumption; Jim Pollock’s decorations consistent of repurposed and recycled trash. As a fine arts major-turned-environmental writer, I remained fascinated with his hubcap Christmas tree long after the holidays had passed. Pollock makes art out of discarded materials, an idea that the East Baltimore environmental organization, Back River Restoration Committee (BRRC), promotes through their annual TrashArt Auction.
This year, Pollock, along with Towson University and MICA art students and professors, collected trash from Back River and created art that was auctioned off to benefit BRRC.
This year’s $7,000 funded summer stipends for BRRC’s Civic Works summer crew members. These are students who work over the summer to clean Back River; that means dragging tires up stream banks and picking up floating diapers in the summer heat.
“When you pick up all the trash, and another rain storm comes and it's all back again, you have to do something to handle it mentally,” explains Molly Williams, Project Manager for BRRC. “You start to get creative and start to think about all the things you can do with it.”
Image courtesy Save Back River/Flickr
Some of this year’s items include a metal duck hunter made by Pollack, traffic cone jewelry, and various interpretations of tire art. These beautiful items exemplified the old adage, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Back River may have a lot of trash, but they are making the best of it!
The event also attracted a new crowd to BRRC’s mission, says Molly. “It brought many people out who wouldn't necessarily be at a cleanup.”
Back River’s back story
Located southeast of Baltimore City, Back River is situated between a highly populated urban center and the Chesapeake Bay. That means much of the city’s trash floats into Back River.
"Since we have been working to clean up trash in the river, we have begun to move upstream into the neighborhoods to reduce litter and dumping through campaigns, incentives, and awareness,” says Molly.
Image courtesy Save Back River
While the local group cannot entirely control how much trash upstream residents throw into the river, they can collect it before it goes into the Chesapeake Bay! A “trash boom” is a device that sits across the river horizontally and collects debris from upstream. Volunteers then work to empty the boom as needed. In fact, this summer, BRCC is celebrating its one year anniversary of trash boom maintenance!
The largest “boom” in the “trash boom” is after a rain storm, when a high volume of water quickly enters Back River, carrying trash along with it. (The above photo was taken after a June 1 storm event.)
This video gives you a look at the trash from the water’s angle: http://www.savebackriver.org/?page_id=774
But trash isn’t the only problem; two Superfund sites along the river leak hazardous waste into Back River. The combination of Superfund pollution and incoming trash makes Back River one of the most impaired Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
Under these conditions, it is easy to see why Back River enthusiasts may get discouraged. But a growing, committed volunteer force continues to invent creative ways to keep their community’s river clean.
“We had over 250 volunteers at our last cleanup,” says Molly. “The community is very engaged.”
According to Molly, river residents have reported seeing more wildlife along the water since Back River began cleanup efforts.
“People who live on the water and have lived there forever say they have seen a dramatic increase in that amount of life, and a decrease in amount of trash,” says Molly. “We are getting really positive feedback from all the surrounding communities.”
Image courtesy Save Back River/Flickr
More from Back River Restoration Committee:
In the late 1700s, European and American settlers arrived in the Canisteo watershed in southwestern New York. They cut down nearly 70 percent of the trees in the region and began farming. The Canisteo watershed remained an important region for the nineteenth century early timber industry, but excessive logging and ensuing development drained nearly all of the river’s wetlands.
(Image courtesy mediafury/Flickr)
Today, many hillsides have been reforested, creating a colorful view during peak fall foliage. The few marshes that dot the valley today serve as reminders of the Canisteo of the early 18th century. The river’s beauty still entertains nature photographers, kayakers, whitewater rafters, and hikers alike.
The 61-mile long tributary of the Tioga River gets its name from a Native American word for “head of water,” an appropriate name for this Susquehanna “headwaters” stream. Rising in the hills of northern Allegany County, the Canisteo flows through a valley of steep hillsides and farmland before joining the Tioga just above the New York/Pennsylvania state line.
(Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
More from the Canisteo River:
Fifteen years ago, heavy volumes of stormwater runoff from roads, rooftops, and parking lots, carved Minebank Run into a channelized ditch. The Gunpowder River tributary is located just south of the Loch Raven Reservoir near Towson, Maryland (North of Baltimore). An area that has been settled since the early 1700s, the stream's 2,135-acre watershed was once primarily agricultural land. Iron ore mining in the watershed gave the stream its name, with at least four mines along the stream's banks.
(Image courtesy Greg Wassman/Flickr)
As Baltimore became a central port and industrial center, Minebank Run flowed through residential areas, corporate buildings and the Baltimore beltway; fast-paced development increased stormwater runoff flows, which rendered it "highly impaired."
In the 1990s, Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management (DEPRM) chose to restore the stream, an effort that included the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Institute of Ecosystem Studies, and the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science.
The 3,000 trees and 6,000 shrubs planted during the 1999-2005 project absorb stormwater instead of allowing it to run off; a reshaped stream slows the runoff to avoid erosion and channelization. This has prevented up to 50,000 pounds of sediment from entering the tributary, and reduced nitrogen in the water by 50 percent.
Today, Minebank Run is a meandering stream that flows from the Lower Gunpowder River, which unlike the Upper Gunpowder, is highly urbanized. However, the various parks along the river and its tributaries give a different impression.
More from Minebank Run:
Just north of the Mason-Dixon line, the North and South branches of the 17-mile-long Muddy Creek transverse farm lands and orchards, and in some places, wild trout flourish. The two forks meet at an old railroad village appropriately named Muddy Creek Forks. The settlement was once a bustling industrial hub along the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad, but today, restored general stores and railroad tracks take visitors to a time when “workin’ on the railroad” was a way of life. Take a tour of the town’s historic buildings – structures with names like “milk collection building” and “coal bins” that have escaped the modern vocabulary.
(Image courtesy Bruce E. Hengst, Sr./Flickr)
As the creek flows through York County’s Peach Bottom and Lower Chanceford Township, its character shifts from an agricultural stream to that of a mountain river, decorated with huge boulders, flat pools, mountain laurel, and hemlock groves.
Locals spend hot summer days in the swimming holes along this section of Muddy Creek. Unfortunately, more of these swimming holes are being closed down each year due to illegal dumping violations and the threat this poses to human health.
Other outdoor enthusiasts choose to hike along the a section of the Mason Dixon Trail, which begins at the intersection of Muddy Creek and Paper Mill Road and goes to the Susquehanna River. Paddlers enjoy this section of the creek, particularly in the early spring, when the entire stretch is canoeable.
Trout fishermen from all over the country flock to Muddy Creek. A two-mile Delayed Harvest section between Bruce and Bridgeton is particularly poplar. Still others speak about the scenery between Woodbine and Castle Fin, a section of the creek only accessible via the old railroad bed.
Muddy Creek meets the Susquehanna River north of the Conowingo Dam, shortly before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
A year or two ago, the newest addition to a southeast Washington, D.C., stream was not nesting mallards or spring peeper frogs, but cars – abandoned in the creek at the approximate rate of one vehicle per week.
Illegal dumping was just one problem for Watts Branch: the largest D.C. tributary to the Anacostia River, which flows through the District to the Potomac River and into the Chesapeake Bay. Broken sewer lines running through the stream leaked bacteria into the water. During storms, fast-moving water cut into the stream's banks, leaving Watts Branch looking more like a trench than a backyard creek.
When water cuts into stream banks, it carries sediment (dirt) into the stream. Sediment clouds the water, preventing sunlight from reaching important aquatic life, such as amphibians and bay grasses.
This combination of bacteria and sediment pollution left Watts Branch virtually devoid of life. The creek – just blocks away from Marvin Gaye's childhood home – was beginning to mimic the music legend's environmental concerns, expressed most explicitly in his 1971 single Mercy Mercy Me. ("Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas/Fish full of mercury/Oh, mercy mercy me/Oh, things ain't what they used to be.")
Today, dumped cars are a rare sight, and spring peepers splash into the water as I walk along the banks of Watts Branch. A stream restoration project completed in fall 2011 by the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) not only corrected the dumping problem, but repaired sewer lines, installed native plants, and transformed the trench into a meandering stream that can healthily withstand storm events.
Slowing down fast moving water
"The project is designed to keep the channel relatively stable," explains Peter Hill, branch chief for DDOE's Planning and Restoration Division. "Before, the stormwater and all the runoff would come rushing through here very quickly. The banks were steep; there was not a lot of biological activity."
In one 2008 storm event, the stream’s water level rose from zero to four feet in just two hours.
(Image courtesy DDOE)
Like all stream restoration projects, the Watts Branch project aimed to slow down stormwater flowing into the stream. When water moves slower, it does not cut into and erode stream banks, carrying sediment into the water. This allows plants and wildlife to flourish both on the banks and in the stream.
"Now, when we have a storm, water will rise up, but it will tend to fall back into the center of the stream... this basically relieves the pressure from the stream banks so you don’t get erosion," explains Hill. "The water falls over stones, (in the center of the creek) as opposed to tearing up this bank."
In addition to redirecting stream flows, DDOE and Anacostia Riverkeeper installed a floating trash collecting device in the water. Groundwork Anacostia empties the device every two weeks, preventing trash from floating downstream.
Parks and People Foundation and other volunteer groups helped install native plants and aquatic grasses, which will help to keep soil on the stream banks in place.
Watts Branch was chosen for restoration because of its severe water quality impairments from sediment and bacteria. But there are hundreds of streams just like it across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In Northwest D.C., Milkhouse Ford, a tributary to Rock Creek, also suffered from high volumes of fast-moving stormwater flowing from a nearby residential neighborhood. Today, rocks separate the stream into small pools where tadpoles are hatching, and newly planted trees dot the stream banks. The DDOE and National Park Service project was completed in fall 2011.
"Each pool is a foot drop in elevation," explains project manager and DDOE Environmental Protection Specialist Stephen Reiling. "It's just one way of slowing the stormwater down and letting sediment settle in these pools. That's the simple idea: just slowing the water down."
The pools allow the stormwater to sit long enough to seep into the ground water. This allows many of the pollutants found in stormwater runoff (such as lawn fertilizer, automobile exhaust and bacteria from pet waste) to soak into the ground, instead of making their way into the Chesapeake Bay.
"We have a very impervious residential watershed up here (above the stream), so associated with that, there’s grease and oil from vehicles, sediment, and any kind of fertilizer residents put on their lawns," explains Reiling. "So we’d like to slow that down, and hopefully keep it here before it gets to the bay."
Milkhouse Ford is surrounded by the forests of Rock Creek Park, trees that the project team managed to keep intact. Preserving nearby vegetation is difficult in many stream engineering projects, which require large and heavy equipment to build up banks or replace soils.
"This is pretty unique in terms of how small the footprint is," says Hill.
Rock Creek Conservancy and other volunteer groups planted native trees and shrubs along the banks, which will hold the soil in place and prevent the stream's banks from eroding.
The stormwater story
Since streams, storms and stormwater are natural parts of the water cycle, it may seem strange that stormwater is degrading our streams and contributing to sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. But in many places, stormwater from driveways and lawns flows into a sewer on the street, which connects to a local creek. The problem? These creeks were not meant to hold stormwater from the entire neighborhood – only the water that naturally flowed into them. When too much water flows in at once, the banks wash away, bringing tons of sediment as well.
"When many of these houses (in southeast D.C.) were built, they saw stormwater as a problem, so they piped it out from the streets and sent it to the nearby stream," explains Hill.
While this infrastructure can't be entirely corrected, ensuring that the streams remain stable during storm events will improve water quality in the stream, as well as in the Chesapeake Bay.
Another way to ease pressure on our streams is to keep stormwater onsite. This means reducing runoff from your property by using rain barrels, rain gardens and native plants. In the Bay watershed, local programs such as River Star Homes (Norfolk, Virginia) and River Smart Homes (Washington, D.C.) help local residents implement runoff-reducing practices in their backyards.
More than a stream
Stream restoration project leaders like Hill and Reiling are beginning to notice an unexpected, less measurable outcome of their projects: residents have developed a sense of pride and stewardship for their newly restored neighborhood creeks.
When Watts Branch was transformed from a steep, cloudy channel littered with cars into a meandering creek with sprouting saplings, residents began to spend more time along the streamside pedestrian trail, and dumping stalled.
“Watts Branch was chosen for restoration because...it was an eyesore to the community," says Hill. "The community didn’t see it as an asset, and being D.C.’s largest tributary to the Anacostia, we wanted to fix it up.”
Neighborhoods along the 1.7 mile stretch of restored stream have seen a reduction in crime since the project’s completion, according to Hill.
“Most recently, an older gentleman brought his grandkids here and they were hanging out near the stream; he wanted to show them where he grew up,” explains Hill. “It was really nice that someone would be proud of this, so much that they want to show it to their grandkids.”
The Chesapeake Bay was among the first regions settled by European explorers, and at one point, much of it was up for grabs. In the 1650s, Dutch conquistadors wanted to extend their rule of New Amsterdam (New York) into Maryland. They sent a man named Augustine Herrman to Maryland’s colonial capital, St. Mary’s City, to present their case to the governor. Herrman’s expedition left from New Castle, Delaware, and sailed down the modern day Bohemia River, to the Elk River, and then into the Chesapeake Bay. Although Herrman and his team weren’t able to convince the Maryland governor to allow the Dutch to move east, Herrman was so impressed with the region’s beauty that he himself decided to settle there.
(Image courtesy William Johns/Flickr)
After striking a deal with Maryland leaders, Herrman received 4,000 acres in northeast Maryland, between the Elk River and the Bohemia River (formerly named the Oppoquermine River). Since Herrman was a native of Prague, which was then Bohemia, he named his new home “Bohemia Manor” and renamed the river.
As part of the deal, Herrman agreed to create a map of the Chesapeake Bay. The detailed account of the region was used throughout the next century.
(Image courtesy Maps of Pennsylvania)
Herrman and his surveying crew predicted the concept of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, constructed nearly 150 years later. In 1661, he wrote, “the Mingaskil and aforesaid Bohemia River run there within a league [3 miles] from each other from where we shall in time have communication with each other by water."
As Herrman’s reputation and importance grew, he convinced Maryland leaders to make northeastern Maryland its own county; as a result, Cecil County was born, and the region was separated from Baltimore County.
Although the Bohemia was navigable in Herrman’s time, today, the 5-mile tributary to the Elk River in southwestern Delaware and northeastern Maryland has since filled with sediment from agricultural operations, rendering it unsuitable for boat navigation.
A drawbridge, known as the “Bohemia River Bridge,” allowed people and farm goods to cross the Bohemia until the late 1990s, when it was demolished. Today, Maryland Route 213 crosses the river in its place, providing gorgeous views of the meandering river.
More from the Bohemia River:
The National Park Service, with support of five states, has designated four rivers – the Susquehanna, Chester, upper Nanticoke and upper James – as new sections of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
(Image courtesy Michael Land/National Park Service)
Recognition of these connecting waterways adds 841 miles to the 3,000-mile-long trail and underscores their significance to the history, cultural heritage and natural resources of the Chesapeake region.
Joel Dunn, executive director of Chesapeake Conservancy said, “These [connecting] trails provide a focus around which communities can engage in efforts to increase recreational use of the Chesapeake's great rivers and protect the river corridors and landscapes. This kind of conservation helps communities celebrate their history and culture, protect wildlife habitat, and protect lands that have unique ecological values.”
The designation comes after considerable collaboration between the National Park Service, the five states through which these rivers flow, numerous American Indian tribes and strong support of the conservation community. The National Park Service will work closely with these partners to provide technical and financial assistance, manage resources, enhance facilities, and mark and promote interpretive routes along the connecting trails.
Visit the Chesapeake Conservancy’s website to learn more about these new rivers and the entire Smith Trail.
American Rivers has named the Potomac River the nation’s most endangered river on its 2012 list of the top ten most threatened rivers in America.
(Image courtesy Scott Ableman/Flickr)
Although the Potomac is cleaner than it once was, the river is still under threat from development, stormwater runoff from cities and suburbs, and pollution from farms. The Potomac is “emblematic of what’s at state for rivers nationwide,” according to the Potomac Conservancy, a local watershed group working to restore the nation’s river.
Visit the Potomac Conservancy’s website for more information about the Potomac River and its ranking as the most endangered river in America.
A trip down the Manokin River in Somerset County, Maryland, is like taking a trip back in time. Many area residents make a living harvesting and selling fish and shellfish. Restaurants, highways and shopping centers are hard to come by. At least one large property (at the mouth of the river) has been nearly untouched since the 17th century.
(Image courtesy Wayfarer Cruiser/Flickr)
The 17-mile long Chesapeake Bay tributary cuts through farm fields and small towns as it flows southeast from Princess Anne and into Tangier Sound. A large portion of that land is designated as habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, ensuring that the river remains abundant with critters. On the north side of the Manokin, Deal Island Wildlife Management Area’s 9 miles of trails and scenic roads offer views of great egrets and colorful summer sunsets. To the south, Fairmont Wildlife Management Area is home to waterfowl in the winter and migratory shorebirds in spring and autumn.
At the river’s mouth, historic buildings dating from the early 18th to the mid 20th centuries paint a picture of the Manokin’s past inhabitants. The buildings are located on a property known as the “Manokin Settlement,” and are united by a web of family connections. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, the Manokin Historic District offers a vista downriver to Tangier Sound and upriver to Princess Anne that’s believed to remain unchanged from the 17th century.
Surrounded by preserved forested marshes, early 18th century town buildings, and residents that understand the tides the way most of us understand a clock or a calendar, the Manokin seems to be a river out of the past. Unarguably, it’s a past worth protecting.
(Image courtesy forest_choir/Flickr)
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By the 1760s, the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s first settlers were pushing farther west; they negotiated new lands and redrew the lines between European and Native American territories. But when surveyors visited one of the newly acquired regions – Lycoming County, Pennsylvania – they met a European settler named Larry Burt. Disregarding the “territories” concept, Larry had lived in the area for several years, trading with the Native Americans and marrying a Native American woman. The stream became known “Larrys Creek,” and is the only creek in the county whose Native American name remains unknown.
(Image courtesy AWCattani/Flickr)
For the next few years, this 23-mile-long tributary to the West Branch of the Susquehanna River would become a disputed border between colonial and Native American lands. Settlers living in the area were considered “Fair Play Men.” These residents were not governed or protected by the colonial government of Pennsylvania, and even made their own Declaration of Independence.
The first fork of Larrys Creek begins in northern Lycoming County in Cogan House Township, just south of a stretch of Appalachian Mountains known as Steam Valley.
Flowing southwest, the creek runs through the village of Cogan House and under the Cogan House Covered Bridge. The oldest of Lycoming County’s three covered bridges, the Cogan House Covered Bridge has survived massive floods and storms since its construction in 1877.
(Image courtesy Gregg Obst/Flickr)
Larrys Creek then winds through Pennsylvania State Game Lands Number 114, where a rough trail follows the stream for a few miles. It meets the second (westernmost) fork of Larrys Creek at Salladasburg, and flows south into the mouth of the Susquehanna River at the town of Larrys Creek.
If you travel to Larrys Creek today, you may find it to be a rather remote destination. But just over a hundred years ago, the creek and its watershed were home to 53 sawmills, making Larrys Creek a bustling industrial center. A 1903 newspaper article claimed, “No other stream in the country had so many mills in so small a territory.” As a result, much of the land was clear cut and virtually devoid of forests.
Today, more than 80 percent of the watershed is forested and nearly 9,000 acres of second-growth forest are protected for hunting and trout fishing.
More from Larrys Creek:
Once bustling with flour mills, furniture factories and dye shops, Towanda, Pennsylvania’s industrial feel differs from the quaint, historic atmosphere of Annapolis, Maryland. And with 246 miles between the two cities, it’s easy to forget they’re both part of the same Chesapeake Bay watershed.
(Image courtesy Slideshow Bruce/Flickr)
Towanda, located in northeastern Pennsylvania, is considered the southernmost point of the upper Susquehanna watershed, an area that drains into the headwaters of the Susquehanna River. The 7,500-square-mile region between Towanda and Morrisville, New York, contains more miles of streams than roads.
This is the region where the Upper Susquehanna Coalition (USC) works to enhance water quality and protect natural resources. The 19 soil and conservation districts that make up USC understand that enhancing the Susquehanna’s headwaters (where a stream or river begins) is critical to restoring the Chesapeake Bay. If the water flowing into the Susquehanna River is not clean from the start, it certainly won’t get cleaner as it passes through riverside towns including Binghamton, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Harrisburg and Havre de Grace.
What does USC do?
USC is developing environmentally and economically sustainable agriculture projects that empower family farmers while implementing conservation practices such as agricultural fencing that prevents animal waste from entering streams.
Stream corridor rehabilitation
Stream rehabilitation projects improve a stream’s health and habitat potential. Forest buffer plantings along stream banks hold soil in place, keep streams cool and reduce flooding. Stream bank erosion prevention measures reduce the amount of sediment that flows into a stream and eventually the Bay.
Because wetland plants can retain water during heavy rainstorms, restoring and enhancing wetlands is an important step to reduce flooding. Wetlands also provide wildlife habitat and reduce pollution by absorbing and filtering out harmful sediment and nutrients.
(Image courtesy AllianceForTheBay/Flickr)
More from the upper Susquehanna basin:
“The smallest ripples are often the largest fish,” Matt Sell tells me as he waves his fishing line back and forth over a dimple in the water. The scene may seem appropriate for a Saturday afternoon, but it’s actually a Wednesday morning, and Matt is at work as a brook trout specialist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Inland Fisheries Division.
Clad in chest waders and a t-shirt, Matt is armed with a fishing pole and the instincts of someone who’s been angling most of his life. His fishing efforts are rewarded with a 6-inch brook trout – exactly the species he was looking to catch.
In most parts of the state, a brook trout would be a rare catch. More than 55 percent of Maryland’s sub-watersheds have lost their entire brook trout population, and only 2 percent of the state’s sub-watersheds have a healthy population.
Why the sudden and steep population decline? Brook trout have very specific habitat requirements that are threatened by development, urbanization and poor land management.
“Brook trout need cold, very clean water with no sediment,” explains Alan Heft, biologist with Maryland DNR’s Inland Fisheries Division. “They need specific sizes of gravel in certain areas of the stream to reproduce. If they don’t have these conditions, they can’t exist.”
When excess sediment erodes from stream banks and construction sites, dirt gets into the gravel beds where brook trout spawn, hardening the bottom into a concrete-like material. And when water temperatures rise above 68 degrees due to factors such as hot summers and lack of a tree canopy along the edge of a stream, a brook trout’s internal system shuts down.
“Brook trout are kind of like the canary in the coal mine,” Alan says. “When you have a large brook trout population, you know that you have good water, clean water and a protected watershed. When you lose the brook trout, you know that you have problems.”
Because brook trout have such steep habitat requirements, they are used as an indicator species: their presence indicates whether or not a watershed is healthy. By closely monitoring brook trout populations, scientists can learn not just about the fish, but about water quality in a river system.
But monitoring brook trout requires more than just fishing. Although there are many methods used to monitor the fish, Matt and Alan have chosen radio tags, which they insert into each fish’s skin through a quick, painless surgery. The radio tags allow Matt, Alan and other scientists to follow the movements of brook trout for the next year or so.
When I follow Matt and Alan on their Wednesday morning fishing excursion, they bring me to a dense forest of eastern hemlocks. Mountain laurels hug the shallow stream banks, blocking the sun and forming a blanket of shade over the river. With the lush layers of forest, the serenity of fishing and the absence of human influence, it feels as though we’ve traveled back in time. But we’re actually on western Maryland’s Savage River, a 30-mile-long tributary of the Potomac River and the largest remaining native brook trout habitat in the mid-Atlantic.
Although brook trout have been eliminated from the majority of Maryland’s waterways, these fish have remained in the Savage River for a few reasons. With just 1,500 residents, the Savage River watershed has not been subjected to the fast-paced development taking place in other parts of the Chesapeake Bay region. About 80 percent of the watershed is state-owned, meaning that the vast majority of the land around the river is safeguarded from development and managed to enhance water quality and brook trout habitat. (Plus, who wouldn’t want to live in a traffic-free, forested oasis in the Appalachian mountains?)
“Typically with brook trout habitat in the east, outside of Maine and a few places in New York, all of the tributaries are disconnected. There’s damage or dams or pollution, and they can’t go from one spot to another,” Alan explains. “But these fish can go up to 30 miles in one direction. They can go up Poplar Lick six miles; they can go down to the reservoir. It’s incredibly unique and there’s hardly anything like this left. It’s our gem.”
Sure, there’s plenty of room for the fish to travel, but Alan, Matt and others with the Eastern Brook Trout Venture want to know exactly where the Savage River’s brook trout swim throughout the seasons. “In order to answer our questions, we implemented this radio tagging study last year,” Matt tells me. “Last year, we had one fish move about three miles overnight. I had one fish that moved about four miles from where it was tagged.”
These sudden movements tell Matt and Alan that some factor encouraged the fish to move far – and fast. “It seems the impetus for these fish to leave the river in the summer months was an increase in water temperature,” Matt says. “In the winter months, they move back.”
By identifying the fish’s preferred habitats, biologists will be able to manage the land to imitate these favored spots, which will help keep the river’s brook trout population healthy.
The large-scale decline of brook trout is not due to overfishing. However, harvesting these fish certainly won’t help rebuild populations. That’s why Maryland DNR decided to create a special regulation for brook trout harvesting in sections of the Savage River watershed.
“You can fish for brook trout with an artificial lure only, and you can’t keep them,” Alan says. “The result so far has been phenomenal, for both the population and for the quality of the fishing.”
It may be difficult to understand how Matt and Alan’s brook trout restoration efforts in the Savage River – 200 miles from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay – are connected to the Bay’s health. After all, western Maryland is a far cry from the crabs, oysters and sailboats associated with the nation’s largest estuary.
“Water rolls downhill,” Matt says simply. “It has since the beginning of time and it will continue to do so. If we can protect the water quality here, as it continues to move downstream, it has a better chance as it flows on towards the Bay.”
So the restoration efforts Matt, Alan and other brook trout scientists dedicate their careers to aren’t so far removed from the Chesapeake after all. “These streams out here 200 miles from the Bay are vital,” Alan says. “When you add up all the water in these small headwater streams, it’s an amazing amount of water.”
Ask any local about the 12 odd-shaped “Lone Star Lakes” in southern tidewater Virginia, and you’re bound to hear some fish stories about crappies, bluegill and catfish. Although these lakes were originally dug out to excavate marl (minerals such as clay and limestone), they now provide abundant fishing for enthusiasts, as well as drinking water for the nearby city of Suffolk.
Crane Lake is rumored to be the most fruitful of the Lone star Lakes, perhaps because it’s connected to Chuckatuck Creek, a 13-mile-long stream that parallels the Nansemond River before flowing into the James River. During high tide, salt water spills into the lake, sometimes sending croaker, big stripers and flounder into the hands of lucky fisherman.
Native Americans also fished in these waters; Chuckatuck Creek was a valuable resource for the Nansemond tribe. But when Englishmen arrived in the early 1600s, they robbed the tribe’s corn and burned their homes and canoes. This was the beginning of hostility between the communities, and resulted in the Nansemond tribe losing its last reservation lands in the late 1700s. Today, most Nansemond Indians still live in the Suffolk/Chesapeake area.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Chuckatuck Creek was packed with boats. Watermen made a living from harvesting oysters, fish and crabs, and taught their sons their craft for generations. Families visited one another via watercraft, depending on each other when there was little to catch.
Today, a decline in oyster populations has left few generational watermen on the Chuckatuck. Nevertheless, the creekside villages of Crittenden, Eclipse and Hobson still possess a small-town ambience, with close-knit residents and colorful local folklore.
(Image courtesy Tom Powell/Flickr)
More from Chuckatuck Creek:
Growing up, Carol McDaniel spent a summer or two playing in northeast Ohio’s streams. Catching salamanders and crayfish helped her develop affection for the outdoors. After working 30 years as a nurse in Baltimore, McDaniel is now reliving her childhood in western Maryland, where she monitors streams, searches for macroinvertebrates and mobilizes volunteers with the Savage River Watershed Association (SRWA).
“We were always into the outdoors even though we didn’t work outdoors,” McDaniel says. Her husband, Joe, is a retired scientific computer programmer. “When it got to the point where we were trying to retire, we wanted to pick a place that our kids would want to visit.”
The place they chose was a home on top of a ridge in the Youghiogheny River watershed. The Youghiogheny is not part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed (the “Yough” – pronounced yah-k – flows to the Mississippi River), but it borders the Savage River watershed, one of the most pristine corners of the Chesapeake region.
The Savage River watershed is the largest natural remaining native brook trout habitat in the Mid-Atlantic. Brook trout are able to live in the majority of the 30-mile-long Savage River and its tributaries because the water is highly oxygenated and stays cool (below 68 degrees) year-round. Because brook trout have such steep habitat requirements, they are used as an indicator species. More brook trout in a stream tells scientists that the water is healthy.
But the watershedmay not be healthy much longer. What McDaniel describes as the “inevitable” Marcellus Shale drilling poses a threat to the region. One spill, she says, and the brook trout would be gone.
Another constant issue is landowner habits, such as allowing cows to defecate in steams. Such actions spread beyond private property and into the river system. This problem is particularly serious in rural areas such as Garrett County, where residents may own large parcels of land.
Fortunately, residents involved with SRWA are working together to mitigate and monitor the river system. Since the organization first began (in 2006, with an ad in the local paper calling for “stream monitoring volunteers”), members have grown to include trout fishermen, professors and students at nearby Frostburg State University, part-time residents who vacation in the region, farm landowners, and interested streamside property owners. These diverse perspectives are a tremendous benefit to the organization, as input from every one of watershed's 1,500 residents is essential if the Savage River is to remain healthy.
“We're trying as an organization to walk a delicate line, and not be perceived as a radical tree hugging group,” explains Annie Bristow, SRWA treasurer. “We really want landowners to be on board and for us to be perceived as an organization that can help them.”
Most recently, a couple came to a SRWA meeting asking for the group’s assistance. Their property along the Savage River had begun to rapidly erode due the massive snowmelt during the winter of 2010. SWRA received a grant, and restoration is to begin in spring of 2013.
(Image courtesy Savage River Watershed Association)
“I try to have hope, but everyone keeps telling me that this is going to happen.” Bristow is referring to natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale region in western Maryland. “I guess it is inevitable.”
The Marcellus Shale is a sedimentary rock formation in the Appalachian province that contains deep underground deposits of natural gas. Its use is fairly widespread; according to USGS, in 2009, 25 percent of the energy consumed for electricity, cooking and heating the United States came from natural gas.
As the demand for affordable energy sources increases, energy companies have begun to drill through the rock to extract natural gas. Widespread concern about the environmental effects of this “fracking” process has led to regulations against it in Maryland. Although this protects Maryland's water resources, the bordering states of Pennsylvania and West Virginia have fewer natural gas drilling regulations.
“There are sections of Garrett County where there are only nine miles between Pennsylvania and West Virginia, so Maryland (in between) is still affected greatly,” explains Bristow. “There's drilling sites in West Virginia and Pennsylvania that affect our tributaries, and those streams are already being monitored.”
SRWA seeks to monitor the health of streams before drilling occurs to develop a “baseline” for post-drilling comparison. After undergoing rigorous training by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Bristow and McDaniel trained SRWA volunteers to measure water quality indicators such as temperature, pH and conductivity on 13 sites along the Savage River and its tributaries.
While SRWA and Maryland DNR have been monitoring streams long before the Marcellus Shale debate began, the potential effects of natural gas drilling serve as a new incentive to keep an eye on the Savage River.
“I think when they do begin drilling, we are going to see people concerned about the watershed coming out of the woodwork,” says McDaniel.
One reason the Savage River's water temperature is cool enough for brook trout is the shade provided by eastern hemlock trees along its banks. But these dense hemlock forests may not survive much longer; a tiny insect known as the hemlock woolly adelgid is sucking sap from hemlock trees and killing them. Just as SRWA is preparing for the inevitable Marcellus Shale development, volunteers are also expecting streamside hemlocks to disappear due to this invasive sap-sucker.
To avoid eroding soil, increased water temperatures and other perils that come with bare stream banks, SRWA has planted 4,000 red spruce trees along the Savage River’s shoreline. This spring, they plan to plant 500 more.
(Image courtesy Savage River Watershed Association)
If you drive on Interstate 68 into Garrett County, you'll see a number of farms, each with its own accompanying man-made pond.
“When this area was turned into farmland after it was logged at the turn of the last century, every farmer dug a pond,” explains McDaniel.
Ponds and other unshaded, open areas quickly heat up in warmer months. When these ponds are attached to the Savage River and its tributaries, they dump warm water into the system. This affects water quality, water temperature, and consequently, brook trout.
“One of the things we would like to start doing is to take these ponds off the stream at no expense to the farmer or landowner,” explains McDaniel.
SWRA supported a project that rerouted a pond belonging to the City of Frostburg. “We turned the pond into a three or four acre wetland and re-routed the stream,” says McDaniel. “Within two or three months, there were baby trout in the stream!”
Like many buildings in Northern Virginia, Fairfax County’s Herrity Building is surrounded by traffic and occupied by government workers. But Herrity also sports a landscaped pond that’s not just a parking lot decoration. It’s the headwaters of Difficult Run, a Potomac River tributary that winds through development-burdened Fairfax County before ending near Great Falls Park, where it’s enveloped in lush vegetation, dotted with boulders and surrounded by scenery that seems straight out of a time period from long ago.
(Image courtesy gawnesco/Flickr)
Difficult Run’s health fluctuates dramatically throughout its 15-mile run. In cities like Reston and Vienna, unsustainable land use practices have led to eroding stream banks and poor water quality. At 58 square miles wide, Difficult Run’s watershed is the largest in Fairfax County, which means the waterway is affected by development and pollution that happens very far away from its banks.
Luckily, in other places, forest buffers hug the stream’s edges, helping to keep soil in place, provide wildlife habitat, and shade and cool the water. These forested areas have become a favorite of locals who enjoy walking through the woods.
For an excellent weekend hike or bike ride, follow Difficult Run on a secluded 12-mile trail from Glade Drive in Reston to Great Falls Park. Will Difficult Run be difficult? Rumor has it that the trail is perfect for intermediate bikers and beginner hikers.
Perhaps the “difficulty” of Difficult Run lies in reversing the effects of development that has led to pollution in many parts of the stream. Fortunately, Fairfax County and others have begun work to restore this important local waterway. In 2008, the Herrity Building installed a green roof atop its parking garage. This colorful garden of native plants prevents stormwater runoff from carrying oil, trash, auto exhaust and other pollutants from the parking lot into Difficult Run.
Image courtesy Capitol Green Roofs
Along Difficult Run’s banks, the Virginia Department of Forestry has conducted streamside restoration projects and an outreach effort that now serves as a model for other local stream restoration initiatives in the state.
When a tornado hit John Long's home in June 2009, the last thing on his mind was the Chesapeake Bay. He lost the entire back half of his home, as well as ten trees on his property. After a few weeks of waiting for insurance proceedings, Long was permitted to pick up the debris scattered across his backyard, which just so happened to border Bread and Cheese Creek, a tributary of the Back River in Dundalk, Maryland.
When Long ventured down to the creek to gather the pieces of his broken home, he found more than he was expecting.
"Beneath my shingles and siding was several years of shopping carts, fast food trash, and just about anything else you can imagine," Long explains.
(Image courtesy Michael Wuyek/Flickr)
The trash wasn’t limited to Long’s property. "As I walked through more of the stream, I discovered it was the same everywhere. I was saddened because the beautiful little stream I remembered from my childhood was gone."
Long transformed his devastation into action. He contacted Baltimore County officials, who repeatedly told him that there was no money for a cleanup operation. But he didn't let that stop him. Eventually, the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability loaned him a dumpster, trash bags and a small crew. Clean Bread and Cheese Creek was born.
At the group’s first-ever cleanup, Long and 40 volunteers roamed a small portion of the creek, using their own tools to clear brush and their own bags to collect trash. Long’s parents grilled hamburgers and hot dogs for the hungry workers.
"Since then we have grown to generally draw about 140 people each cleanup, but we are still entirely funded through donations and staffed entirely by volunteers," explains Long.
Clean Bread and Cheese Creek's goal is as simple as its name states. However, funding the cleanups and enforcing illegal dumping policies isn’t quite as easy.
"Garbage bags, tools, first aid kits, flyers, posters, gloves, bottle water, food and other supplies are all from donations," Long explains. "We have the volunteers and the will, but the resources keep becoming more difficult to come by."
The group’s biggest source of funding is bake sales, courtesy of Michelle Barth, the group’s treasure and an acclaimed baker. Gold’s Gym has also been the group’s biggest sponsor, donating bottled water and advertising for cleanups.
While bottled water and bake sale profits may seem insufficient, Long explains that his “Type A thriftiness” allows a little go a long way.
“If I’m not at a cleanup, I’m at a flea market or yard sale, picking up supplies. You can buy shovels for five bucks, instead of thirty at the Home Depot.”
One may think that witnessing the overwhelming amount of trash in Bread and Cheese Creek (and often hauling it up stream banks) would change Long's view of his neighbors. But he does not speak of Dundalk residents as inconsiderate, lazy or lacking in environmental stewardship. Rather, he says that his volunteers' hard work outweighs the illegal dumping activities of others.
(Image courtesy Thomas Schwab/Flickr)
"I have volunteered at other cleanups throughout the state and you will never find people more dedicated and proud of their community," Long says. "I have worked with these people in the heat, the cold, and in the rain and they continue to laugh and joke while digging out shopping carts or pulling plastic bags from briars."
Of course, there’s only so much volunteers can do by themselves. A challenge occurs when the group hauls tires and shopping carts out of a section of the creek on Saturday, only to find a washer and dryer in their place on Sunday.
In addition to cleaning up after dumping events, Clean Bread and Cheese Creek is working to prevent them. "The illegal dumping we encounter seems to be from contractors and businesses more than individuals," Long says. "This dumping occurs primarily at night and behind business bordering the creek. We are currently working with businesses to have cameras installed in areas where the dumping occurs."
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
Another challenge to Bread and Cheese Creek is Dundalk’s stormwater management system. When rain falls on lawns, parking lots, shopping centers and other paved surfaces, it carries trash and toxins (such as oil, gas, antifreeze, pesticides and fertilizer) directly into Bread and Cheese Creek.
"The only way to stop this from occurring is for there to be a complete overhaul of the stormwater managements systems in the Dundalk area so we can meet modern standards," Long says. Sustainable stormwater management techniques such as rain gardens allow stormwater to soak into the soil, rather than running off into streams.
"Unfortunately, every time this problem is addressed with Baltimore County, we are told there is no money for this. However, how much will this cost everyone in our efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay?”
The Bread and Cheese Creek of Long's childhood was rarely affected by litter; but its pristine condition in the early 1800s is unimaginable today. British and American troops camped along the creek's banks during the War of 1812's Battle of North Point. The creek got its unusual name from these soldiers, who would sit by the stream as they ate their rations of bread and cheese.
The creek is perhaps best known for the heroic sacrifice of two young American soldiers. In 1814, Daniel Wells (age 19) and Henry McComas (age 18) waded through the stream to sneak up on British General Robert Ross. They shot and killed the general, but were killed with the British's return fire.
"American soldiers died along this creek defending our county in our nation’s second war for independence," explains Long. "This important part of our history should not be left the eyesore it currently is."
Long sees honoring the creek’s past as one way to create hope for the future. To commemorate the stream's significance in the War of 1812, Long and volunteers are attempting to clean the entire length of Bread and Cheese Creek by 2014, just in time for the War of 1812 Bicentennial Celebration.
Because the creek played such a significant role shaping America's history, it will be added to the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail.
Since Long organized the first cleanup in 2009, 608 volunteers have removed a total of 52 tons of trash, including some odd and "vintage" items like bathtubs, part of a tombstone and an unopened bottle of Pepsi from the 1980s.
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
From these numbers, it may seem like Long and his team must work 40 hours a week collecting trash. But like all Clean Bread and Cheese Creek members, Long has a day job.
Clean Bread and Cheese Creek understands that other commitments may prevent residents from thinking they can offer any help.
"Everything makes a difference, no matter how small," Long says. "We have volunteers who call on the phone and say 'I can only volunteer for an hour, is that okay?’ We are happy to have their help for fifteen minutes! During those fifteen minutes they are picking up trash someone else would need to clean up!"
The smallest efforts add up; over the last three years, streamside residents have noticed a significant improvement in Break and Cheese Creek.
"Minnows, crayfish and frogs which were once abundant in the stream are coming back – at night we can hear the bullfrogs singing again," Long testifies.
As wildlife reappears along the creek and eyesore trash is removed, Dundalk residents have come to appreciate the group that tramples through their backyard creek on Saturday mornings. This community support has led Long to transform what was initially a simple cleanup effort into an official 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Long is completing the process in the next few months, and is eager to acquire a label that will enable him to apply for grants.
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
With this potential for additional funding, Long will expand the group’s effort beyond trash pickup. Invasive plant removal and native planting projects are at the top of his list. Such projects will help enhance wildlife habitat and protect water quality along Bread and Cheese Creek.
If you live in the Dundalk area, you’ve probably already seen signs along Merritt Boulevard advertising Clean Bread and Cheese Creek’s April 14th cleanup. If you can’t make that event, the group has several other upcoming cleanups and fundraising events listed on its website.
Don’t want to get dirty? Don’t sweat it. There’s plenty of ways businesses, schools, groups and individuals can help.
If you’re not sure what you’re getting yourself into, be sure to check out Long’s extensive photo library of volunteers, trash and the creek.
Virginia added approximately 840 miles of streams and 2 square miles of estuaries to its list of impaired waters in 2012, according to the state’s latest water quality report, released by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Virginia must develop more than 1,000 cleanup plans to restore the health of these and other polluted waterways.
About 260 miles of streams were removed from the list after achieving water quality standards, while another 230 stream miles were partially delisted.
In total, about 13,140 miles of streams and 2,130 square miles of estuaries are listed as “impaired,” which means they do not support aquatic life, fish and shellfish consumption, swimming, wildlife and/or public water supplies. Approximately 5,350 miles of streams and 140 square miles of estuaries are considered in good health.
Every two years, Virginia monitors about one-third of its watersheds on a rotating basis. The state completes a full monitoring cycle every six years. Since 2002, Virginia DEQ has assessed 98 percent of the state’s watersheds.
The full water quality report is available on Virginia DEQ’s website. The public is invited to comment on the report until April 27. Virginia DEQ will host a webinar summarizing the report’s results on April 9 from 10 to noon.
In Maryland’s Washington, D.C. suburbs, Beaverdam Creek flows past agricultural fields, an abandoned airport, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and parts of the University of Maryland campus before flowing into Indian Creek, and then the Anacostia River.
(Image courtesy thisisbossi/Flickr)
The diverse suburban surroundings of Beaverdam Creek bring many challenges, including litter, polluted stormwater runoff and eroding stream banks. Luckily, the area’s dense population provides lots of volunteers to plant trees and organize cleanups that help improve habitat and water quality in and around this beautiful stream.
Although Beaverdam Creek may be a lesser-known Anacostia River tributary, it is one of the most scenic. The stream flows through Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, acres of federally owned farm fields used for experimental composting, weed control and honeybee projects. Beaverdam Road, which runs through this facility, offers an excellent view of the area. The road is a favorite of bike commuters traveling between Laurel and Greenbelt.
Beaverdam Creek’s 14-square-mile watershed is home to plants and wildlife you might not expect to see just a few miles outside the nation’s capital. Pitcher plants – large, insect-eating plants – grow in bogs near the creek. You may also see river otters flirting along the banks, great blue herons hunting for fish, and bald eagles swirling overhead.
(Photo courtesy taoboy49/Flickr)
More from Beaverdam Creek:
Don’t go chasing waterfalls along Gwynns “Falls,” the 25-mile-long stream that originates in Reisterstown, Maryland, and empties into the Patapsco River in Baltimore City. You won’t find any. Despite the stream’s name, there are no natural waterfalls along Gwynns Falls’ course.
(Image courtesy Jim Carson/Flickr)
The term “falls” was first used by Captain John Smith, the first known Englishman to navigate the stream. Smith wrote how the stream tumbled over “felles,” or large rocks and boulders. This confusing reference to rocky streams as “falls” was also applied to Baltimore’s Jones Falls and Gunpowder Falls, neither of which have natural waterfalls.
Although Gwynns Falls’ rocky bottom prevented the stream from being used for navigational purposes, its fast-flowing waters powered 26 mills that boosted Baltimore’s industry into the 20th century. Perhaps the most successful of these mill operators was the Ellicott family, which built a series of millraces and a dam that diverted more water towards their mills. Several historic mill sites are located along the Gwynns Falls Trail, one of the largest urban wilderness parks on the East Coast. The 15-mile-long greenway connects 30 Baltimore neighborhoods and transverses five public parks.
(Image courtesy Jim Carson/Flickr)
An afternoon along the Gwynns Falls Trail is a lesson in both history and nature. Go back in time as you explore the site of the historic Windsor Mill; awe at the miniature railroad and Crimea mansion at Leakin Park; look for a waterwheel that pumped water to the Crimea mansion; and walk among tulip poplars, sycamores and sweetgum trees. It’s all just a few miles from the Inner Harbor, but you’ll feel worlds away from urban life.
Gwynns Falls also cuts through Owings Mills, an area that has experienced a high rate of development in recent years. Fortunately, additional public land holdings have allowed a portion of this area to remain forested. Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area consists of 1,900 acres of unique serpentine habitat that protects rare insects and endangered wildflowers. Soldiers Delight’s seven miles of trails are open to hikers and hunters most of the year.
More to see and learn about Gwynns Falls:
Fisheries scientists with the Chesapeake Bay Program will develop a Chesapeake Bay-wide management plan for blue and flathead catfish, two invasive fish species that pose a significant threat to the health of rivers in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
(Image courtesy USFWS Headquarters/Flickr)
Invasive species are animals and plants that are not native to their current habitat and harm the ecosystem they invade. Invasive species are able to thrive in new areas because they lack predators, diseases and other natural controls that keep them in check in their native environment.
Although they are valuable recreational species, blue and flathead catfish are harmful to the Bay ecosystem for several reasons. They grow to enormous sizes, have massive appetites, reproduce rapidly and live for many years. As top-level predators in the Bay food web, blue and flathead catfish prey upon important native species such as American shad and blueback herring.
Both catfish species have been present in Virginia rivers since the 1960s. In recent years, anglers have caught these fish in the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers, as well as the upper Chesapeake Bay. The spread may be due to people moving fish from one river to another, even though this is illegal in Maryland and Virginia.
Scientists will consider a variety of actions to control and lessen the harmful effects of these invasive catfish. For more information, read the Bay Program fisheries team’s Invasive Catfish Policy Adoption Statement.
The Bay Program fisheries team includes experts from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Potomac River Fisheries Commission, D.C. Department of the Environment, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Just over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, residents in Centreville, Md., spent Saturdays building rain gardens, installing native plants and talking to their neighbors about improving the health of the Corsica River, a tributary of the Chester River.
(Image courtesy Corsica River Conservancy)
Volunteers with the Corsica River Conservancy (CRC) are seeking to remove the Corsica from the official list of impaired waterways. This goal requires major pollution reduction and habitat enhancement projects.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways for Corsica River area residents to help. All watershed residents are eligible to apply for a free rain garden valued at up to $2,000. Volunteers can also get involved with CRC’s oyster gardening and shoreline restoration projects. Take a look at this interactive map to find a project near you.
Check out this blog post from the Chesapeake Bay Trust to learn more about the Corsica River Conservancy.
Agricultural ditches in Kent County, Delaware, flow through farm fields and into Marshyhope Creek, a 37-mile-long tributary of the Nanticoke River. This scenic waterway begins in Harrington, Delaware and runs across the Maryland state line, meandering through Caroline and Dorchester counties before emptying into the Nanticoke River at Sharptown.
(Image courtesy WWJB/Flickr)
Outdoor enthusiasts should explore the 3,800-acre Idylwild Wildlife Management Area, located east of the Marshyhope in Caroline County. A mix of agricultural fields and forests attract red-crested pileated woodpeckers, as well as bluebirds, beavers, wild turkeys, woodcocks, gray foxes and more. Idylwild will please anglers, hunters and wildlife watchers alike. Bring your bike, ATV or hiking shoes and hit the trails.
Marshyhope Creek also winds through Federalsburg, a quaint Maryland town whose slogan is “Pride in the Past, Hope in the Future.” The town’s name comes from a Federalist Party meeting in the early 19th century. If you’re fond of hiking and biking, you’ll want to check out the 2.5 mile Marshyhope Hike and Bike Trail in town. Be sure to cross the Harrison Ferry Bridge to get an excellent view of the Marshyhope.
(Image courtesy of Nathan Bolduc/Bridgehunter)
Have you been to Marshyhope Creek? Tell us what you thought about it!
You may recognize the name “Sideling Hill” from the impressively steep mountainside interrupted by Interstate 68 in western Maryland, about two hours outside of Washington, D.C. If you’re the type that’s impressed by scenery, a westward trip means stopping at the Sideling Hill Rest Stop and Visitors Center to explore the mountainside, which is almost desert-like in its lack of forests.
(Image courtesy dlhdavidlh/Flickr)
Despite its barren appearance, Sideling Hill Creek, which runs through this mountain, is one of the healthiest streams in the entire state of Maryland. With 287 stream and tributary miles and only 2,200 residents in its watershed, this Potomac River tributary is a fortunate one because it suffers from few human impacts.
Here’s a few ways to explore Sideling Hill Creek:
Look out for rare wildflowers
Sideling Hill is so pristine that it supports an endangered wildflower called harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum). In fact, harperella can only be found in ten places in the world! It’s rumored that this flower also grows in West Virginia along Sleepy Creek and a few Cacapon River tributaries.
Trout, turkey and more
The 3,100 acre Sideling Hill Wildlife Management Area provides opportunities for hunters, anglers and anyone else who enjoys beautiful mountain scenery. In the spring, look out for turkey gobblers as they display their colorful feathers. Old logging roads challenge hikers with a variety of terrains. If you love to canoe or kayak, be sure to visit Sideling Hill in spring to explore one of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s most scenic local waterways.
Learn about what you’re viewing
With its steep ridges and deep valleys, Sideling Hill is home to unique plants, wildlife and geologic formations. So when you visit, take some time to learn about what you’re looking at! The Nature Conservancy offers a Sideling Hill Creek audio tour that will introduce you to the specific types of rocks and plants found in the area. When your trip is over, you’ll not only be refreshed from the beautiful scenery, but also more knowledgeable about the creek’s link to the greater Bay watershed.
(Image courtesy mdmarkus66/Flickr)
Have you been to Sideling Hill? Tell us how you liked it in the comments!
If you think “Conodoguinet” is difficult to pronounce, try “Guiniipduckhanet.” That’s the name Native Americans used for this 90-mile-long tributary of the Susquehanna River. The creek’s 524-square-mile watershed in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, was home to Native Americans as early as 1,000 B.C. These early inhabitants depended on the creek’s freshwater mussels and fish.
(Image courtesy Steve Cavrich/Flickr)
Today, residents of the area may not associate their dinner plans with casting a line in the Conodoguinet, but the creek’s natural resources are nevertheless vital to a healthy community and functioning ecosystem.
To preserve the history of the creek, enhance its fishing potential and protect its unique geological formations, a group of local citizens formed the Conodoguinet Creek Watershed Association (CCWA). CCWA volunteers work with school groups, streamside residents, local governments and non-profits to clean up the creek and remove invasive plants.
The Conodoguinet Creek Watershed Association offers a number of volunteer opportunities, including:
(Image courtesy Conodoguinet Creek Watershed Association)
Another part of CCWA’s mission is to promote and preserve the recreational quality of Conodoguinet Creek and its connecting streams. If you live in the area, get outside and enjoy all the creek has to offer with one of these great recreational opportunities:
(Image courtesy Jason Trommetter/Flickr)
For more information about the association and Conodoguinet Creek, visit CCWA’s website.
Named after the nearby Catoctin Mountains, Catoctin Creek begins near Myersville, Maryland, and flows south for 28 miles, entering the Potomac River near Brunswick. Frederick County residents and National Park Service employees have dedicated the last few years to restoring bridges and waterfowl habitat in the creek’s watershed.
(Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation/Flickr)
Little Catoctin Creek converges with Catoctin Creek near Doub's Meadow Park in Myersville, a spot that's a favorite of Little League Baseball teams and residents looking to take a nature walk. Close by, a stream restoration project funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation improved the creek's streamside habitat. The location now serves as a place for local students to learn about stream ecology.
Catoctin Creek transverses the quaint town of Middletown, Maryland, and the new Catoctin Creek Park and Nature Center. The nature center's activities run throughout the year. An upcoming Green Roof Astronomy Series leads visitors in star-gazing and marshmallow roasting. A springtime nature festival celebrates Catoctin Creek with family-friendly activities.
Nearby, you may be able to watch waterfowl thanks to potholes constructed by the Potomac Watershed Partnership. When it rains, the potholes fill with water and provide ducks a place to breed in spring and migratory birds a place to stop for food in winter. Before it was restored as a wetland, the property was a poorly drained agricultural area.
Further south, where the Catoctin flows into the Potomac, the restored 140-year old Catoctin Aqueduct spans the creek. Of the 11 stone aqueducts on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the Catoctin Aqueduct was known to be the most beautiful. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
(Image courtesy Steve 1828/Flickr)
After a series of storms and floods collapsed two of its three arches in October 1973, the aqueduct was replaced by a steel frame bridge that allowed C&O Canal bikers and hikers to cross the creek. The Catoctin Aqueduct Restoration Fund began raising funds to restore the aqueduct in 2006; the aqueduct restoration was completed this past October.
More near Catoctin Creek:
The Elizabeth River, a 6-mile-long tributary of the James River in southeastern Virginia, was named after Princess Elizabeth Stuart. She was the daughter of England's King James I, Jamestown's namesake.
Today, Princess Elizabeth is still around – yes, you heard us right! She often speaks to students in the Hampton Roads community about how people can help restore her river to the way it looked when Captain John Smith first explored it in 1607. The princess's public speaking appointments are arranged by the Elizabeth River Project, a non-profit committed to improving the health of the Elizabeth River through restoration efforts and education programs that celebrate the river's history and natural resources.
(Image courtesy beachgirlvb/Flickr)
Royal advocacy is one of many ways the Elizabeth River Project is achieving its goal of making the river safe for swimming and eating oysters by 2020. Here are some of the Elizabeth River Project's other inspiring programs.
You may have heard that saying, "Those that can't do, teach." But like the many excellent teachers out there, the Elizabeth River Project proves this old adage wrong with its wind-powered, solar-powered, floating environmental classroom, The Learning Barge.
The objective of The Learning Barge is not only to teach visitors how they can help restore the Elizabeth River, but to exemplify these actions on the barge itself. Live floating wetlands demonstrate how these habitats absorb polluted stormwater runoff, composting toilets offer an alternative to flushing, and a rainwater system collects water to reuse. Visitors to this “green barge” can see firsthand how these actions help improve the Elizabeth River’s health.
The Learning Barge's innovation has earned it the 2011 Sea World & Busch Gardens Environmental Excellence Award, which is presented to outstanding grassroots environmental education programs across the country.
(Image courtesy Elizabeth River Project/Facebook)
Since 2009, more than 10,000 students have visited the floating classroom. This year, up to 60 students can set to sea at once on the barge. Three new stations (sun, wind and rain) focus on renewable energy technology.
The barge's field trip education programs were designed by local educators to meet Virginia standards for most subjects (not just science). The Elizabeth River Project even provides pre-and post-field trip activities, including art projects (sending a message in a bottle), journaling exercises (writing a letter to Princess Elizabeth) and more.
The Elizabeth River Project also gets adults involved in stewardship efforts through its River Star brand, a certification that home and business owners can earn after they take seven easy river-friendly steps. Some of the steps are so easy that they actually require you not to do something (such as not feeding geese, not flushing medicines and not dumping grease down the sink). Take a peek at this short video to see some River Stars in action.
The River Star certification is also applied to schools. There are already 128 River Star schools – more than half of the total 200 public and private schools in the Elizabeth River watershed. Students at River Star schools create herb and butterfly gardens, plant marsh grasses, learn how to compost and more.
(Image courtesy Elizabeth River Project/Facebook)
Although the River Star certification is available only to Hampton Roads area residents, the seven easy steps are a great idea for anyone to try.
The Elizabeth River Project offers even more creative ways to help and enjoy the river:
A few miles outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania, stands the 240-foot-tall Tunkhannock Viaduct, a railroad bridge that held the record for the largest concrete bridge in the United States for more than half a century. Today, the structure still draws ooos and ahhs from passersby. But many of them don’t pay mind to the creek that runs below the bridge.
(Image courtesy jasonb42882/Flickr)
That waterway is Tunkhannock Creek, a 40-mile-long tributary of the North Branch Susquehanna River that runs parallel to Pennsylvania Route 92 in Wyoming and Monroe counties. Like many of the streams and rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, "Tunkhannock" has Native American origins. The Lenni-Lenape translations include "wilderness stream" and "meeting of the waters."
Although the industrial coal towns the creek bypasses may not fit a typical expectation of "wilderness," there are places where the Tunkhannock seems relatively remote. The creek is even becoming a whitewater rafting destination. Classified as a Class I-III by American Whitewater, Tunkhannock Creek offers the perfect experience for beginners.
If fishing is your thing, you'll want to check out the creek's East Branch (in Herrick Township) and South Branch (in Scott Township).
Rumors of a swimming hole on the creek near Factoryville sound like trip back in time. But be careful – we're not convinced this recreation area is on public property.
Hikers can sneak views of the creek on Choke Creek Trail, a 6-mile trek through blueberry bushes and the Lackawanna State Forest. The nearby Endless Mountain region is overflowing with recreational opportunities.
(Image courtesy katecav/Flickr)
The health of Tunkhannock Creek, however, remains questionable. Efforts to manage polluted stormwater runoff are attempting to keep up with the effects of sprawling development throughout the South Branch's 100-square-mile watershed.
More to see around Tunkhannock Creek:
West Virginia may be far from the sailboats and blue crabs that we normally associate with the Chesapeake Bay. But folks at the Cacapon Institute in the state’s eastern panhandle are helping students install rain gardens, speaking with local farmers about reducing pollution, and spearheading community education initiatives – all in the name of helping the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.
(Image courtesy mdmarkus66/Flickr)
Founded by a husband and wife team in 1985, the Cacapon Institute was originally known as the Pine Cabin Run Ecological Laboratory. PCREL was established to research and teach Appalachian natural history and water quality issues around the Cacapon River, an 80-mile-long Potomac tributary that is designated by the EPA as an American Heritage River.
The Cacapon Institute’s dual mission of scientific research and education makes it stand out from organizations that emphasize one over the other. Today, the Cacapon Institute continues to balance community education and outreach with science “experiments” such as deer fencing and trout restoration.
Ever get sick of all this environmental talk? Do you think you could stop pollution if you were a county land manager or decision maker? The Cacapon Institute gives K-12 students that opportunity through its interactive Stream Cleaner Environmental Forum.
Stream Cleaner allows users to decide how land is used and see the effects of those decisions on natural resources. It’s an interactive, engaging way for students to learn about water and pollution issues.
The program is part of the greater Potomac Highlands Water School, a website that provides resources for teachers and students seeking to learn about their local environment. Slideshows, interactive games and vocabulary lists make it a hybrid of “old school” and digital learning. No matter what generation you belong to, it's worth a visit.
The Cacapon Institute isn’t just teaching students vocabulary words; it’s challenging them to collaborate on water quality projects.
(Image courtesy Cacapon Institute/Facebook)
Each spring, Cacapon sponsors the Stream Cleaner Environmental Forum, a program in which classes work together to develop solutions to specific, real-world pressures on the Potomac and the Bay.
Participating students learn from the best; collaborators range from local farmers and businesses to state and federal agencies. Projects such as Farmers as Producers of Clean Water hinge on input from local farmers about which best management practices they’d most likely adopt. By understanding the needs of different stakeholders and working with them to develop mutually beneficial solutions, Cacapon is creating a community that’s strengthened by cooperation, rather than oppressed by regulation.
The Cacapon Institute hopes that by starting with the younger generation, it can engage the wider community. This statement on its website says it all:
As educators, we work to create a future where a stream without a buffer looks as out of place as a smoker in a conference room looks today. To foster that vision, our environmental education efforts focus on students first and, through them, the larger community.
(Image courtesy Cacapon Institute/Facebook)
Start in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital city and home to about 50,000 people, and follow a few winding roads north. Soon, the hustle and bustle dissolves to a typical rural Pennsylvania scene: hardwood and conifer forests, cold-water trout streams, and family farms scattered across the base of the Appalachians.
Take a turn onto Pennsylvania Route 325 and you’ll find yourself traveling parallel to Clark Creek, a 31-mile-long tributary of the Susquehanna River and a popular destination for hikers, hunters, cyclists and fly fishermen alike.
(Image courtesy Chris Updegrave/Flickr)
Clark Creek begins in Tower City, Pennsylvania, a coal town in the Schuylkill Valley. It flows through an area appropriately known as Clark’s Valley in the Blue Mountains, the easternmost range in the Pennsylvania Appalachians. It then runs beneath a highway into the Susquehanna River near Dauphin.
But what’s with all this “Clark,” anyway? William Clark began as a farmer and statesman in Pennsylvania. He then served as treasurer of the United States from Pennsylvania and returned to Dauphin after his stint in Washington.
In the 1940s, the Works Progress Administration dammed Clark Creek to create DeHart Reservoir, which still provides water for Harrisburg residents. The reservoir, which is still pristine today, is a popular destination for cyclists. Many speak of the veil of mountain fog that hovers over the reservoir in the early morning hours.
For fly fishermen, the most interesting part of Clark Creek is the 15 or so miles south of DeHart Reservoir. This 35-foot-wide section of stream is stocked with brook trout. A canopy of thick forest over the stream keeps the water cool year round. Most of the stream is easily accessible from Route 325.
Hikers and hunters will also find this area desirable. The nearby Appalachian Trail goes over Stony and Second mountains, both of which alongside Clark Creek. The trail takes you through an area known as the St. Anthony Wilderness, the largest roadless tract of land in southeastern Pennsylvania. Hikers pass through two ghost towns that were once flourishing mining settlements and report several century-old abandoned coal mines served by the Reading Railroad. Another sight to watch out for? Black bears.
Here are some more great spots on Clark Creek and around Clark’s Valley.
Have you been to Clark Creek or the surrounding Clark’s Valley? Tell us about your adventures!
Spend a Saturday morning walking along the Sligo Creek Trail in Takoma Park, Maryland, and you'll likely see at least one family trekking through the brush with a trash bag, picking up discarded aluminum cans and plastic grocery bags. These are the members of Friends of Sligo Creek (FOSC), a community volunteer organization that has worked since 2001 to clean up this tributary of the Anacostia River. The organization has now swelled to more than 500 members – an impressive figure for a nine-mile-long creek, even in this densely populated Washington, D.C., suburb.
(Image courtesy Mark Ames/Flickr)
Sligo Creek’s watershed is ethnically and economically diverse, encompassing everything from million dollar homes to public housing. This diversity is both a challenge and an opportunity for FOSC, which aims to be an environmental organization that genuinely reflects the interests and values of its eclectic community.
Stormwater Committee Leader Ed Murtagh reveals that although Sligo Creek's watershed is home to a varied population, a number of residents are professional environmental experts. "We have EPA employees, natural history experts, Smithsonian workers living in this area. There's a lot of folks who care about these things."
Also unique to Sligo Creek is its urban setting. Flowing through the D.C. suburbs of Silver Spring, Takoma Park and Hyattsville, the creek faces challenges specific to high-density areas, where human impacts are everywhere. Polluted stormwater runoff, land development, and the spread of invasive weeds are some specific challenges Sligo faces.
"It’s pretty common now to see rain barrels and rain gardens," Murtagh says. But when he started volunteering with FOSC in 2002, stormwater infrastructure wasn't so cool. "We try to make it a social thing," he explains, holding education and outreach activities for the community to learn more about beneficial landscaping.
For example, FOSC has sponsored sustainable gardening tours to showcase rain gardens and native plants that homeowners have planted along the creek. According to Murtagh, it's an excellent opportunity to reach out to friends and neighbors interested in gardening.
Additionally, FOSC’s website provides an excellent description of stormwater basics to explain "what happens when it rains" to those who can’t make an event.
When a developer proposed building a cell phone tower on Sligo’s oak-hickory uplands, FOSC knew the project would not only destroy woodlands, but increase erosion and sediment pollution in the creek. Working with neighbors, FOSC members organized successful protests that led to the project being abandoned in early 2011.
Additionally, the cell phone tower proposal would have contradicted Takoma Park’s interest in increasing wildlife habitat in the community. This year, the city became the first in Maryland to be certified by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) as a Community Wildlife Habitat.
NWF’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat certifications are popping up across the country (look for these yard signs). A Community Wildlife Habitat certification, however, is a larger undertaking. Food-bearing plants and water sources must be installed throughout the community so critters can travel throughout different neighborhoods, rather than being isolated to small areas.
In Takoma Park, the certification required that four schools, four public spaces and 150 backyards provide native wildlife with food, water, shelter and a place to rear young. FOSC’s Bruce Sidwell worked with the Takoma Horticulture Club and the Takoma Foundation to garner community support and provide technical assistance to participating neighbors.
(Image courtesy Friends of Sligo Creek)
Invasive weeds grow at much higher rates in urban areas (like the Sligo Creek watershed) than in rural areas. That’s because of us: humans spread seeds and disturb soil when we hike and bike through natural areas, allowing harmful weeds to invade new areas.
How is FOSC battling the somewhat overwhelming invasive weed problem? By splitting up the job. The group has designated a "Sligo Steward" for each of the creek’s 15 stream tracts. Sligo Stewards organize invasive weed removal days, as well as litter pickups. It’s each Sligo Steward’s job to make sure his or her section of the creek is in good health. The Sligo Steward program helps build community, gives neighbors a common goal and fosters a sense of ownership of the creek.
But FOSC volunteers know the fight against invasive weeds reaches beyond their organization. That’s why FOSC has joined forces with the Montgomery County Parks Weed Warriors program, which trains volunteers how to properly remove invasive weeds and sponsors group work days in natural areas.
The partnership between FOSC and the Weed Warriors has been successful at teaching members about invasive weeds and increasing participation in weed removals in the community. This November, a record number of volunteers participated in a Weed Warrior work day at Sligo Creek.
What else is special about Friends of Sligo Creek?
With separate committees for stormwater, invasive plants, water quality, litter, outreach and even natural history, Friends of Sligo Creek is structured in a way that covers all "environmental bases."
In addition to its many neighborhood events, FOSC holds a "Sweep the Creek" trash cleanup twice a year. During last fall’s Sweep the Creek, 222 FOSC volunteers collected 167 bags of trash. According to Murtagh, the amount of trash that volunteers have picked up at each event has decreased significantly over the past 10 years, even as the region’s population has grown.
It seems like all the great work FOSC volunteers are doing is making a difference toward a cleaner Sligo Creek, Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.
(Image courtesy Friends of Sligo Creek)
More from Friends of Sligo Creek:
The story of upstate New York's Cayuta Creek begins as all good stories do: once upon a time, when – according to local folklore – a young and talented princess named Kayutah was born into a local Seneca tribe. Kayutah was so extraordinary that one of the neighboring tribes kidnapped her. Her devastated mother cried so many tears that they filled the entire valley, creating what is now known as Cayuta Lake.
(Image courtesy Chris Waits/Flickr)
Cayuta Lake, known locally as Little Lake, drains north to south instead of south to north, just like the nearby Finger Lakes. It empties into the 40-mile-long Cayuta Creek, which meanders south before emptying into the Susquehanna River. Cayuta Lake’s waters, or “Kayuta's tears," travel some 300 miles south before reaching the Chesapeake Bay!
Although the aforementioned legend affirms that the lake was born out of sadness, the surrounding region is now a favorite of outdoor enthusiasts and vacationers alike. Like most of the region’s small lakes, Cayuta Lake completely freezes during the winter, offering opportunities for ice skating, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. There have even been reports of people racing their cars on the lake – although we don’t endorse that idea!
Cayuta Lake and the surrounding areas provide a pristine habitat for rare plants and animals. The best example is a freshwater sponge (Spongilla) that is so sensitive to pollution and human disturbances that the only other place in the world it can be found is Siberia! The sponge lives in the Cayuta Inlet, an area known as the James W. and Helene D. Allen Preserve that’s a favorite study spot of Cornell University students. These sponges are the only food source for the Spongilla fly, a rare insect.
And where there are insects, there are also...fly fishermen! Freshwater trout are abundant in Cayuta Lake and Cayuta Creek. But if you don't want to get in the water, the Finger Lakes Trail provides the perfect opportunity to view this scenic stream. The trail runs from Watkins Glen State Park over State Route 228, and follows Cayuta Creek for miles south. Rumor has it that spring is the best time for hikers, as Watkins Glen is home to rare native flowers and ferns. Not to mention the park's magnificent gorge, rapids and waterfalls, formed by glaciers during the last Ice Age.
(Image courtesy She Who Shall Not Be Named/Flickr)
There are plenty of other natural areas surrounding Cayuta Lake and Cayuta Creek. Here are some of my favorites:
Owl handler, goat walker, Monarch butterfly tagger…these are just a few of the roles volunteers take on with the Howard County Conservancy. The conservancy is headquartered in a 300-year-old farm house on a 232-acre property near Woodstock, Maryland, making it an ideal location for Howard County residents to escape from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives.
Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Trust
The Howard County Conservancy’s mission is two-fold. Like most conservancies, it is dedicated to preserving natural areas. But the Howard County Conservancy is also committed to educating and engaging the public. The property’s historic buildings, four miles of trails and 140 species of birds make it a must-see for any Marylander. Who knows – you may enjoy it so much that you decide to become a volunteer!
For more information about the Howard County Conservancy, visit the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s blog to read how one man became an “accidental” conservancy volunteer.
Bald cypress trees emerge from the water, their branches convoluted and their greenery draping, haunting and lush. Their structure is impressionistic, and somehow looks more like a painting than a photograph. The scene seems to belong in Louisiana, Mississippi or any other place you’d expect to find alligators, Cajun river monsters and Spanish moss…
But this is Delaware – Sussex County, home of the Great Cypress Swamp. This forest – the largest of its kind on the Delmarva Peninsula – forms the headwaters of the 73-mile-long Pocomoke River, the Chesapeake Bay’s easternmost tributary. With depths ranging from 7 to 45 feet and a width of less than 100 feet, the Pocomoke is rumored to be the deepest river for its width in the world.
At the Great Cypress Swamp, you can walk (or boat) among the northernmost stands of bald cypress in the United States. How do these swamp giants survive in high water? Their “knees,” of course! Bald cypress trunks have “knees,” or knots near the water’s surface, which allow the trees to send oxygen from the air down into their root system underwater…kind of like a snorkel!
Acid from the bald cypress roots contributes to the Pocomoke’s dark, tea-stained color. This may be what gave the river its name; locals will tell you that Pocomoke means “black water.” However, experts will tell you that it means “broken ground,” referring to the indigenous tribes’ farming methods. I’m not sure who’s right or wrong, but the color of the water is unique. As one writer put it, the Pocomoke’s water offers the perfect reflection surface for cypress and other trees that line the river banks.
As the Pocomoke flows south into Maryland, it forms the boundary between Wicomico and Worcester counties. At Porter’s Crossing, the river begins to narrow as it flows southwest. It runs through Snow Hill and Pocomoke City before emptying into Pocomoke Sound in the Chesapeake Bay.
Along the way, you can find birds – and lots of them! One hundred seventy-two different species have been recorded in the area. The Pocomoke’s marshes are some of the best places in the Atlantic Flyway to observe both warblers and waterfowl.
If you’d like to take to the “black water” yourself, check out local canoe and kayak rental companies in Pocomoke City and Snow Hill. Hiking trails in Pocomoke River State Forest, Pocomoke River State Park and the Nassawango Preserve of The Nature Conservancy reveal views of the swamps surrounding the river. If you’re lucky, you can get up-close and personal with some of the river’s non-human residents!
For you history buffs, be sure to visit the Furnace Town Living History Museum, a nature and archeology site dedicated to preserving the history of the Nassawango Iron Furnace, started in 1829 near Snow Hill.
(Image courtesy Uncommon Fritillary/Flickr)
Fishing is also excellent in the Pocomoke. Expect to find largemouth bass and panfish, but keep a lookout for pickerel and longnose gar. Since the Pocomoke is a tidal tributary, figuring out the tides is key to having a good fishing experience!
Have you been to the Pocomoke River? Tell us all about it!
Whether your ideal autumn weekend includes scenic trout fishing, white water rafting, backcountry hiking, or simply taking in views of fall foliage, Loyalsock Creek in north central Pennsylvania has something for you.
The 64-mile long tributary of the West Branch Susquehanna River is one of the Chesapeake Bay watershed's more hidden and pristine streams. Loyalsock Creek runs through Loyalsock State Forest and World's End State Park – a serene recreation area as other-worldly as its name suggests – before meeting the Susquehanna River at Montoursville.
What makes Loyalsock Creek so special? Some say it's the Haystacks, the name given to the creek's quartz sandstone boulders, which glisten in the sunlight and make a challenging path for kayakers and rafters. Others say it is the 200 miles of trails that run along the creek, or the views of colorful fall foliage over the water.
Have you been to Layalsock Creek? Tell us about it, and let us know what your favorite part of the creek is.
Just a scenic two-hour drive from Washington, D.C., the 38-mile-long Passage Creek weaves in and out of Fort Valley, Virginia, a part of the Shenandoahs so sheltered that it has been called "a valley within a valley."
In the 1800s, Passage Creek was home to five- and six-pound trout. Today, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries stocks the creek with trout three times each summer. Fisherman, local residents and conservationists are working together to protect habitat for trout and other important species.
Although there aren’t any gigantic trout (yet!), stepping onto the banks of Passage Creek is, in many ways, like taking a step back in time.
Passage Creek is considered to be a relatively healthy stream compared to other Virginia waterways, many of which have degraded habitats due to agriculture, urbanization and logging, according to the Potomac Conservancy, which has launched a restoration campaign in the area.
In addition to fishing its waters, visitors to Passage Creek cancamp in the adjacent George Washington National Forest, view the nation's first Civilian Conservation Corps camp or hike around the Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area, one of many iron ore furnaces constructed in Shenandoah Valley during the 1800s.
Visiting? Look for freshwater mussels (a sign of good stream health), salamanders, black bears, coyotes, wild turkeys and luna moths!
And if you're thirsty, look around! The area's freshwater springs first came to the public's attention in the 1850s, when a man named E.H. Munch built a "Seven Fountains" resort that treated guests to each of the seven kinds of mineral waters found in the area. Although the resort closed after the Civil War, many friendly area residents can lead you to a spring or two.
Eleven federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, have joined together in a new initiative to revitalize the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers.
The Urban Waters Federal Partnership will focus on the two Chesapeake Bay region rivers, as well as five other waterways throughout the United States, as pilot locations for the new initiative. The partnership’s goal is to help underserved communities access and benefit from their local waterways.
Urban waterways like the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers provide local residents with drinking water and opportunities for fishing, boating and swimming. Cleaning up and restoring these rivers is essential to protecting human health, improving quality of life, and connecting people to their local natural areas.
For more information, visit www.urbanwaters.gov.
Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler saw his white sneakers through 31.25 inches of water at the 24th annual Patuxent River wade-in on June 12. This was down three inches from last year and a far cry from the 60-plus inches of water Fowler could see his sneakers through during his youth.
About 100 government officials, environmental leaders and members of the community joined Fowler at Jefferson Patterson Park, where the annual Patuxent River wade-in is now held. Fowler had previously hosted the wade-in near his childhood home on Broomes Island.
The Patuxent wade-in is held on the second Sunday of June each year to draw attention to the muddy, polluted waters of the river and Chesapeake Bay. Fowler speaks of the days of his youth when he could wade up to his shoulders in his beloved Patuxent and still see the river's bottom, teeming with crabs and fish swimming among the grasses and oyster shells.
The "sneaker index" is a measurement of the deepest point at which Fowler can still see his white sneakers as he wades into the Patuxent River.
The Patuxent River wade-in has spawned community wade-ins on many creeks and rivers throughout Maryland.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is seeking federal designation of several Northern Neck creeks and rivers as “no-discharge zones,” which would prohibit overboard dumping of treated or untreated sewage to reduce bacteria contamination in local waterways.
No-discharge zones promote the use of pump-out facilities and dump stations to safely dispose of sewage from boats. The certification of marine sanitation devices, which treat and/or hold sewage on vessels, is targeted to meet fishing and swimming standards in local rivers.
Shellfish harvest restrictions due to fecal bacterial contamination are common throughout Virginia’s tidal Chesapeake Bay tributaries. This contamination has been linked to a variety of sources, including failing septic systems and sewage discharge from boats.
DEQ is proposing no-discharge zones for select water bodies in Richmond, Lancaster, Northumberland and Westmoreland counties. The four-county proposal will be sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for review by July.
Virginia already has no-discharge zones in the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach, and in Broad Creek, Jackson Creek and Fishing Bay in Middlesex County. In the Lynnhaven River, one marina reported that pump-outs nearly doubled when the tributary was designated as a no-discharge zone. Fewer boat sewage discharges combined with other pollution-reduction measures led to the re-opening of 1,462 acres of condemned shellfish growing areas to commercial harvest.
DEQ and the Northern Neck Planning District Commission will host a public meeting on June 14 to summarize the no-discharge zone application. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. in the A.T. Johnson Alumni Museum in Montross. DEQ will accept public comments on the application June 15 through July 15, 2011.
Visit DEQ’s website to learn more about Virginia’s “no-discharge zone” program.
Nutrient pollution in the majority of the Chesapeake Bay region’s freshwater streams and rivers has decreased over the last 25 years, according to data from scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Almost 70 percent of the watershed’s 32 monitoring locations show decreasing nitrogen and phosphorus levels, meaning fewer of these harmful nutrients are entering the Chesapeake’s local waterways. Approximately 40 percent of the sites show decreasing trends for sediment pollution.
Although this data may indicate long-term improvements in the health of the Bay’s streams and rivers, pollution loads to the Bay were higher in 2010 due to more rain, snow and river flow.
“These long-term trends indicate that pollution reduction efforts, such as improved controls at wastewater treatment plants and practices to reduce nutrients and sediment on farms and suburban lands, are improving water quality conditions in many areas,” said USGS scientist Scott Phillips. “However, nutrients, sediment and contaminants will need to be further reduced to achieve a healthier Bay and streams.”
Each day, billions of gallons of fresh water flow through thousands of streams and rivers that eventually empty into the Bay. This fresh water is known as “river flow.” In general, as river flow increases, more nutrient and sediment pollution is carried downstream to the Bay. Pollution levels in rivers vary greatly from year to year because they are influenced by rainfall. Scientists make adjustments to remove the effects of weather variations, allowing consistent measurement of pollution levels over time and better evaluation of long-term changes.
In the 2010 water year (October 2009-September 2010):
The Bay Program’s goal is to have a long-term average of 186 million pounds of nitrogen and 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus entering the Bay from streams and rivers.
In a different, shorter-term study conducted between 2000 and 2008, the health of individual freshwater streams across the watershed showed mixed conditions. Of the 7,886 stream sites sampled, more than half (55 percent) were found to be in very poor or poor condition. The remaining 45 percent were found to be in fair, good or excellent condition.
This study uses data on the tiny, bottom-dwelling creatures that live in freshwater streams and rivers as an indicator of overall stream health. This method provides a uniform evaluation of the health of local waterways across state lines and throughout the entire Bay watershed.
The USGS estimates how much river flow enters the Bay each year, monitors pollution loads in the Bay’s major rivers, and works with the Bay Program to estimate how much pollution reaches the Bay. To learn more about the USGS’s Chesapeake monitoring activities, visit http://chesapeake.usgs.gov.
We've been getting a lot of rain in the Chesapeake Bay region this spring. One day after a rain storm a few weeks ago, we decided to go around the neighborhood to see what trash we could find on the street.
After an hour, we had picked up about half a garbage bag full of trash. Our route along an Annapolis street led us to a storm drain that was located directly above a small creek. All of the trash we picked up that day would eventually have gone into the storm drain and then into the creek it flows to. How? Rain!
Rain picks up trash and other pollutants and washes them into storm drains, which flow to our local streams, creeks and rivers. And our local waterways flow to the Chesapeake Bay. This is why you should always pick up your trash!
Welcome to the latest entry in our "Ask a Scientist" series! Each month, we take a question submitted through our website or Twitter (@chesbayprogram) and have a scientist from the Bay Program partnership answer it here on our blog.
Today’s reader question is about the effect of spring rainstorms on the Chesapeake Bay's health. We asked Scott Phillips, Peter Tango and Joel Blomquist, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and members of the Bay Program’s Nontidal Water Quality Workgroup, for their explanation on why heavy rains have such a big effect on the Bay and its local rivers.
They say April showers bring May flowers. But around the Chesapeake Bay, rainstorms bring a whole lot more.
The rain and snow that falls on the Bay watershed, an area of land that stretches from New York to Virginia, drains into local streams and rivers, which eventually flow to the Chesapeake Bay. About half of the water in the Bay comes from its rivers; the other half from the Atlantic Ocean.
The U.S. Geological Survey measures river flow throughout the Bay watershed and estimates the amount of fresh water that enters the Bay each month and year.Typically, 52 billion gallons of water drain into the Chesapeake Bay each day.
The river water that flows into the Bay has a significant impact on the Bay’s water quality, habitats, and fish and shellfish. Spring rains affect the amount of pollution going into the Bay. During periods of higher river flow, more nutrient and sediment pollution enters the Bay. During dry periods, fewer pollutants are washed into streams and carried into the Bay. In general, river flow into the Bay is highest during the spring, when there are more rain storms.
This past March started with noteworthy flooding across the watershed. River flows in March were some of the highest ever recorded. Field crews mobilized to collect nutrient and sediment samples that help determine the amount of pollution that washed into the Bay.
Too many nutrients and sediment contribute to pollution in the Bay and local streams. Elevated nutrient levels in the Bay tend to cause excessive algal growth. As algae decay, dissolved oxygen levels drop. This leads to unhealthy conditions for fish, crabs and other underwater life. Algae and sediment also block out sunlight that underwater grasses need. For these reasons, Chesapeake Bay Program partners are working to reduce these pollutants.
River flow also affects the salinity, or amount of salt, in the Bay’s water. The Bay’s salinity ranges from fresh water near the top of the Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland, to ocean water near Norfolk, Virginia. In dry years, there is less river flow so saltier water moves further up the Bay. During wet springs, more fresh water enters the Bay, pushing salty water farther south.
Changes in salinity affect fish, oysters and underwater bay grasses. For example, some underwater grasses cannot survive if the water is too salty, while others can only survive in fresh water. Diseases spread to more oysters in saltier waters. Finally, sea nettles are more common in saltier water. So salinity and river flow influence our choice of places to swim to avoid frequent and painful jellyfish stings!
The Magothy River in Anne Arundel County, Md., received a D-minus on its latest health report card, the same grade as last year but a significant decline from several years ago, according to the Magothy River Association’s latest Magothy River Index.
The index assesses the river’s health according to three indicators: water clarity, dissolved oxygen and bay grasses. Bay grass acreage in the river decreased in 2007 and water clarity diminished in 2008. Scores for both have remained low ever since.
Low dissolved oxygen at the surface of several creeks is also a problem in the river. Upper Mill and Dividing creeks had the worst surface dissolved oxygen, suggesting that pollution problems that lead to low oxygen levels are worse in those areas.
Despite the low scores, the Magothy River Association is looking to the future to help restore the river. The group is working with scientists to explore if any native species of bivalves other than oysters could be used to help clean up the river. Bivalves can help filter algae out of the water as they feed, but oysters can’t live in many parts of the Magothy because the water is too fresh. One species that may help is dark false mussels, which helped improve water clarity and bay grass acreage in one Magothy River creek in 2005 when they were abundant.
The Magothy River Association also encourages its members and area residents to take small steps to help reduce pollution to the river. Planting more native trees and flowers, installing rain gardens, reducing use of lawn fertilizer and maintaining septic systems are a few of the tips the group suggests. These practices will help reduce pollution no matter where you live.
The Magothy River Index is an annual health report developed by Dr. Peter Bergstrom, a NOAA scientist and Magothy River Association member. The index uses scientific data from state agencies and volunteer water quality monitors. The Magothy River Association has released the index each year since 2003.
For more information, visit the Magothy River Association’s website.