It is often said that the environment is dying a death by a thousand cuts. No single development, no act of an individual or organization or business causes a big negative impact; but collectively these developments and actions represent a significant impact on the environment. Left unchecked or unaltered, the ultimate fate is clearly predictable.
Thankfully, throughout the watershed, more and more small organizations and businesses are working with local governments to uproot pavement and concrete and replace it with gardens and natural areas. These pollution-reducing conservation practices at churches, schools, libraries, car dealerships, marinas, and, yes, even local brew pubs are healing some of the thousand cuts, as they absorb runoff from buildings and parking lots and reduce pollution flowing off the land and into local streams and creeks. Most of these projects are the result of a few dedicated and talented local citizens and organizations. Recently, the Spa Creek Conservancy, working with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Watershed Stewards Academy, with funding support from state and local agencies, installed rain gardens and infiltration basins at the Cecil Memorial Methodist and Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Churches in Annapolis, Maryland.
Remarkably, these beautiful gardens now catch and absorb virtually all of the polluted stormwater runoff that previously flowed off the property, untreated, and into nearby Spa Creek. While controlling polluted runoff was important to the leadership and congregations of these inner-city churches, so too was the sense of pride that they had in beautifying their houses of worship, with flowering native plants in the rain gardens and these community improvements.
So, how do we stop the death of a thousand cuts from which nature is suffering? By healing those cuts one at a time, through small projects like these that also lift our hearts and our souls and restore that sense of pride in our communities. How glorious and uplifting it will be for members of these churches to attend services and witness these plants in full bloom and know that they are honoring and paying tribute to creation.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
Researchers from the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) surveyed three rivers in the Chesapeake Bay region to examine how variations in land use and development impact the health of the Bay, finding that water quality and aquatic animal health could help gauge the overall well-being of coastal regions.
The NCCOS assessment, conducted from 2007 to 2009, explored linkages between land use, water quality, and aquatic animal health along the Corsica, Magothy, and Rhode Rivers. Researchers measured water quality for dissolved oxygen, nutrient concentrations and water clarity, and based aquatic animal health on the growth, disease rates and diversity of fish and shellfish stocks.
As the population of the Chesapeake Bay region grows from 17 million to a predicted 20 million residents by 2030, an increasing number of people will rely on the Bay for their food, recreation and livelihoods. The assessment results suggest that environmental pressure from development could both weaken the capacity of the Bay to provide these services and counteract the benefits of current restoration efforts.
“Luckily, ecosystems tend to be resilient; many are able to maintain a state of relatively strong health when faced with environmental stress,” the report states. However, it also clarifies that if the health of coastal waters is pushed beyond a point of recovery, it could affect the ability of the Bay to cope with “environmental stress”—including increased rainfall related to climate change.
“The science challenge, going forward, is in identifying and communicating where systems fall relative to some threshold or tipping point,” the report states. Results of the assessment can be used to inform “smart development plans” that can balance the effects of human activities with better support of Chesapeake Bay’s resiliency.
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.
As students settle into their new school-year routines, it’s a good time to reflect on how their experiences in the classroom affect the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy brucemckay/Flickr
Today’s students will play a critical role in the health of tomorrow’s Chesapeake. Making sure they understand how to critically think about evolving environmental issues is essential to the long-term success of environmental protection.
While managers are making progress in addressing the issues facing the Bay, many of the remaining challenges to a healthier ecosystem rest in the hands of individuals, businesses and communities. From decisions on how to heat and cool homes to decisions on where to live, what vehicle to drive and what to plant on private properties, individual choices can have a huge impact on the Bay. This means a successful environmental protection strategy must be built on the collective wisdom of the environment’s residents, informed by targeted environmental education and starting with our youngest students.
In recent years, a clearer picture has emerged about the environmental literacy of our students. A 2008 National Environmental Literacy Assessment and related follow-up studies showed that students who attended schools with environmental education programs knew and cared more about the environment, and were more likely to take actions to protect their environment, than students who didn’t. But learning outdoors during the school day is not common in the United States.
Image courtesy vastateparkstaff/Flickr
While our society is increasingly disconnected from the natural environment—spending more time online and less time outdoors—there is good news: states are increasingly stepping up to ensure that students have the opportunity to connect with nature. The state of Maryland, for instance, has established the nation’s first graduation requirement for environmental literacy; beginning in 2015, every student that graduates from a school within the state will have participated in a program that will help him or her make more informed decisions about the environment. Several states in the region have established partnerships for children in nature, taking a comprehensive look at how they can better encourage outdoor programs for children. Even more are recognizing the efforts of their schools to become more sustainable, ensuring that more students are learning inside buildings that model sustainable behaviors.
This momentum is being echoed at the regional level. The recently signed Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement commits the six watershed states and the District of Columbia to give every student the knowledge and skills necessary to protect and restore their local watershed. The cornerstone of this goal is the Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience, or MWEE, which should occur at least once in each elementary, middle and high school. MWEEs connect standards-based classroom learning with outdoor field investigations to create a deeper understanding of the natural environment. MWEEs ask students to explore environmental issues through sustained, teacher-supported programming. But less intensive outdoor field investigations could occur more frequently—each year when possible.
The Watershed Agreement highlights the roles that state departments of education and local education agencies play in establishing expectations and guidelines for the development and implementation of MWEEs. Indeed, plans that include strategies for MWEE implementation—coupled with outreach and training opportunities for teachers and administrators—have been effective in establishing and supporting a network for environmental literacy.
To support these efforts, funding is available: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers grants through the Bay Watershed Education & Training (B-WET) Program, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust offers similar opportunities. The Chesapeake Bay Program also maintains a clearinghouse of teaching resources on Bay Backpack.
Note: A version of this article also appeared in the October 2014 edition of the Bay Journal.
Author: Shannon Sprague is the Manager for Environmental Literacy & Partnerships with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office. She is also the co-chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Education Workgroup.
From the restoration of marshes, wetlands and forest buffers to the installation of urban, suburban and agricultural pollution-reducing practices, 45 environmental projects across the Chesapeake Bay watershed have received $9.8 million in funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.
Twenty-seven projects will be funded by the Small Watershed Grants Program, which supports on-the-ground restoration, conservation and community engagement. Eighteen more will be funded by the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants Program, which finances the reduction of nutrient and sediment pollution in rivers and streams. The 45 projects will leverage more than $19.6 million in matching funds to improve the health of the watershed.
In Maryland, for instance, Civic Works will design and install rain gardens with community organizations, nonprofits and small businesses in Baltimore City. In Washington, D.C., the District Department of the Environment will retrofit seven drainage areas around a parking lot with low impact development techniques to slow down, cool off and clean up polluted stormwater. And in Pennsylvania, the Stroud Water Research Center will implement more than 120 “best management practices” on more than 15 farms.
Officials and guests announced the awards this morning at the Town Hall in Ashland, Virginia, where a grant will support improved stormwater management at the headquarters of the Ashland Police Department.
Chesapeake Bay Program partners have identified the outcomes they will participate in to achieve the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, and have invited individuals and organizations to participate in the development of the Management Strategies that will describe how we will accomplish these outcomes and how we will monitor, assess and report our progress.
"Today marks an important milestone in Bay restoration, as all nine partners have identified the specific Management Strategies they will be… developing… to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay, its streams and its rivers,” said Joe Gill, Principals’ Staff Committee Chair and Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary, in a media release. “Moving forward, we will be engaging citizens in every step of this process.”
Indeed, public input is essential to Management Strategy development: each strategy will include a period for public review and comment before it is adopted. Individuals can keep informed about the development of these Management Strategies in three ways:
Sunken fishing traps are having a big impact on wildlife in coastal waters around the United States, including blue crabs and the watermen who depend on them in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
According to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the problem of derelict fishing gear—which includes lost and discarded nets and traps—is “pervasive, persistent and largely preventable.” Whether accidentally lost or intentionally tossed overboard, derelict gear can continue to “ghost fish,” catching fish, turtles and other species and damaging seafloor habitats. In some cases, dead organisms continue to serve as bait until the traps stop catching fish.
“People may not realize that derelict traps can catch not just the target species of the fishery, but also other animals, including threatened and endangered species where populations are already very low,” said scientist Ariana Sutton-Grier in a media release.
In the Chesapeake Bay, derelict crab traps impact blue crabs, diamondback terrapins and other species. Between 35 and 40 percent of derelict traps are ghost fishing, with the highest catch rates taking place in Maryland waters. Here, about 20 blue crabs per trap per year are caught and killed, which researchers attribute to gear that is not designed to allow species to escape when traps become derelict.
The loss of fishing gear has an economic impact, too. According to the report, derelict traps in Virginia waters have caught as many as 913,000 crabs in a year, with an estimated worth of $304,000, or one percent of the Commonwealth’s annual commercial blue crab landings. In addition to the impact on commercial fisheries, there is a irect cost to watermen to replace lost traps, which range from $60 to $600.
Traps with biodegradable escape panels—which are inexpensive and easy to install—have been successfully tested in the Bay, with no adverse effects on blue crab catch. These, along with boat lanes that keep propellers away from trap lines and improved outreach and education to watermen, could pose solutions to the region’s derelict fishing trap problem.
The R/V Rachel Carson is docked on Solomons Island. At 81 feet long, the red and blue research vessel stands out against the deadrise workboats that share the Patuxent River marina. Her mission today is to lead researchers from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) to the Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone.
Every summer, this so-called “dead zone” forms in the main stem of the Bay. The area of low-oxygen water is created by bacteria as they feed on algae blooms growing in nutrient-rich water. The dead zone persists through the warm summer months because the Bay is stratified into two layers: a surface layer of lighter, fresher water that mixes with the atmosphere, and a bottom layer of denser, saltier water, where oxygen depletion persists. These layers won’t mix until the cooler temperatures of autumn allow the surface waters to sink.
To find the dead zone, Director of Marine Operations and Rachel Carson Captain Michael H. Hulme takes us to one of the deep troughs that run down the center of the Bay. Geologic remnants of the ancient Susquehanna River, these troughs can reach up to 174 feet deep in an estuary whose average depth is just 21 feet. Hulme anchors offshore of Calvert Cliffs State Park.
The boat is equipped with a dynamic positioning system, which holds it in place regardless of wind or waves. This allows the captain to step away from the helm and offer his hands on deck. “Being able to hover over that [specific] latitude and longitude is what makes the Rachel Carson so unique,” said Hulme. It’s also one of the reasons the vessel is so useful to scientists, who often return to the same sampling site again and again over time.
UMCES Senior Faculty Research Assistant David Loewensteiner drops a CTD overboard. The oceanography instrument takes eight measurements per second, tracking conductivity, temperature and depth as it is lowered through the water. Connected to the ship with a cable, the CTD sends data to a laptop in the boat’s dry lab. We measure 2.04 mg/L of dissolved oxygen in surface water, and just 0.33 mg/L at 98 feet deep. Critters need concentrations of 5 mg/L or more to thrive; these are “classic dead zone” conditions.
Dead zones are bad for the Bay. Like animals on land, underwater critters need oxygen to survive. In a dead zone, immobile shellfish suffocate and those fish that can swim are displaced into more hospitable waters. “If you were a self-respecting fish and oxygen was [low], what would you do?” asked Bill Dennison, Vice President for Science Applications and Professor at UMCES. “Swim away.”
First reported in the 1930s, the appearance of the dead zone in the Bay is linked to our actions on land: as we replace forests with cities, suburbs and farms, we increase the amount of nutrients entering rivers and streams. This fuels the growth of algae blooms that lead to dead zones. “Hypoxia [or low-oxygen conditions] is driven by what we do on the watershed,” said UMCES Assistant Professor Jeremy Testa. “The Bay is naturally set up to generate hypoxia because of that [stratification] feature. That said… when there were no people here, there was not much hypoxia.”
While it is our actions on land that created the dead zone, it is our actions on land that can make the dead zone go away. Research has shown that certain pollution-reducing practices—like upgrading wastewater treatment plants, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions and reducing runoff from farmland—can improve the health of local rivers and streams. Scientists have also traced a decline in the duration of the dead zone from five months to four, which suggests that conservation practices gaining traction across the watershed could have very real benefits for the entire Bay.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
Have you ever found yourself looking out at the boats dotting the Chesapeake Bay and wondering, “What kind of ship is that?” So have we! Below is a list of 10 iconic watercraft visible on the Bay today.
Image courtesy Jon/Flickr
1. Log Canoe. Recognized as the Bay’s first workboat, log canoes once filled the region’s waterways as watermen sailed about in search of fish and shellfish. They are usually made from three to five hollowed out logs that are fastened together and shaped into a hull. One or two large masts jut out from the center of the boat, and sails capture the wind and use it as a propellant. Most log canoes that exist today have retired from their working lives and are sailed in races; in fact, fewer than two dozen log canoes remain in the Bay region and, out of those, less than half race.
Image courtesy Baldeaglebluff/Flickr
2. Skipjack. In the late nineteenth century, the skipjack—a popular work boat for watermen—saw a production boom as the Maryland oyster harvest reached an all-time peak of 15 million bushels. But as the Bay’s oyster population steadily declined, so did its skipjack fleet. There are 35 skipjacks left in the Bay region, many of them used for educational purposes (like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s skipjack, Stanley Norman). Like oysters, the boats that harvested them are culturally significant to this region—so much so that the state of Maryland named the skipjack its official state boat.
Image courtesy Laszlo Ilyes/Flickr
3. Skiff. Skiffs are shallow, flat-bottomed boats recognizable by their sharp bow and square stern. These watercraft are made to move through the tributaries and along the coastal areas of the Bay. While they can be used as workboats, skiffs are typically used for recreational fishing and other leisurely outings.
4. Deadrise. The official boat of Virginia, the deadrise is a traditional work boat used by watermen to catch blue crabs, fish and oysters. The vessel is marked by a sharp bow that expands down the hull into a large V shape and a square stern.
Image courtesy E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography
5. Research vessel. Restoring the health of the Bay is as complex as the Bay ecosystem itself. Research vessels like the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) R/V Rachel Carson travel the Bay, collecting data about water quality, flora and fauna to help scientists gain a better understanding about what should be done to improve our restoration efforts.
Image courtesy Judity Doyle/Flickr
6. Kayak. These small, human-powered boats are propelled by a double-bladed paddle. Kayaks are believed to be more than 4,000 years old, and originated as a hunting craft used on lakes, rivers and coastal waters. Modern kayaks vary in size and shape depending upon the paddler’s intended use. Whether it is racing through whitewater rapids or fishing in placid waters, kayaks are a sound choice for many recreational boater’s needs.
Image courtesy Jitze Couperus
7. Schooner. Schooners are sailing ships with two or more masts. They have a long history in the mid-Atlantic as workboats for the watermen who made their living harvesting oysters, blue crabs and fish from the Bay. Every October, schooners can be seen racing 146 miles down the Bay from Annapolis, Maryland, to Hampton Roads, Virginia, as a part of the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. This race was started to draw attention to the Bay’s heritage and to support environmental education and restoration work.
Image courtesy Andreas Kollmorgen/Flickr
8. Racing shell. The sport of rowing is often referred to as crew, and is a popular pastime for many who live in the watershed. While its origins can be traced back to ancient Egypt, competitive rowing did not evolve until the early eighteenth century in London. It is one of the oldest Olympic sports. While racing, athletes sit with their backs to the bow of the racing shell and face the stern, using oars to propel the boat forward.
Image courtesy Glen/Flickr
9. Shipping tanker. The shipping industry has been critical to the mid-Atlantic economy since the colonial era because the region serves as a bridge between the north and the south. In fact, the Bay is home to two of the United States’ five major North Atlantic ports: Baltimore, Maryland, and Hampton Roads, Virginia. Shipping tankers were created to transport large amounts of commodities and can range in size and capacity from several hundred tons to several hundred thousand tons.
Image courtesy Vastateparkstaff/Flickr
10. Canoe. Canoes are lightweight, human-propelled water craft that are pointed at each end and open on top. Typically, one or more people paddle the boat with an oar while seated or kneeling. Like kayaks, canoes are multifaceted watercraft that can be used for anything from recreational fishing and paddling to moving through whitewater.
Across the Chesapeake Bay, strong waves crash into shorelines, pulling sand into the water and causing beaches to disappear. In recent decades, scientists have turned to living shorelines and stone reefs to slow this process—known as erosion—and create critical habitat for wildlife. On the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, one such project has proven successful on both counts.
The 2,285-acre island refuge in Rock Hall, Maryland, is part of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex and has long offered feeding and resting grounds to songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. When a narrow piece of land at its southern point—the highest priority habitat at the refuge—proved in danger of washing away, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and several other partners came together to slow the disappearance of the shoreline.
In June, USFWS Biologist Dave Sutherland—along with staff from the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative (MARI) and Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, both of which are partners in this effort— took our team to the refuge to see the living shoreline and underwater reefs that made it a model of climate resiliency. Five years after construction on these projects began, pieces of land do still break off of the island’s long peninsula that separates Hail Cove, Hail Creek and the Chester River. But the goal was never to stop erosion: it was to slow it down without using the manmade structures that block critters from reaching the beach.
While shoreline erosion is a natural process, sea-level rise has amplified the impacts of wind and wave energy across the watershed. “I look at sea-level rise as a human-induced issue that’s exacerbating what used to be a slower, natural process,” said USFWS Fisheries Biologist John Gill. “Not to say it wasn’t happening before. Just that its rate has increased. And it’s tougher for marshes to keep up.”
For Gill, the Hail Cove restoration project achieves “a nice balancing act” in its use of manmade infrastructure and the natural environment. The essential elements? Headland breakwaters, underwater reefs and a living shoreline. “You’re working with Mother Nature, but still providing erosion control,” Gill said.
Low headland breakwaters placed at each end of Hail Cove maintain the pocket beach, blocking wave energy that might otherwise destroy the shore. A long ribbon reef deemed the “arc of stone” stretches across the cove, offering further protection for the beach and vital habitat for fish, shellfish and invertebrates.
Hooked mussels colonized the ribbon reef soon after it was built, and eastern oysters that were planted there with volunteer help continue to thrive. Algae grow on the granite rocks, small fish live in the reef’s tiny crevices and waterfowl find a source of food on their migrations over the Bay. “A lot of species are habitat-starved, and this [arc of stone] provided a lot of what they need,” Sutherland said. “It’s well-populated with cobies and blennies and worms and macroalgae. It’s really a fantastic habitat.”
Sutherland and his team soon recognized the benefits of installing infrastructure that allowed access to the beach: three weeks after sand was put down, engineers discovered nine diamondback terrapin nests on the shore, proving just how “habitat-starved” these native turtles were.
The Hail Cove project was completed this spring when 11 patch reefs—using one acre of material in all—were laid down over the two and a half-acre cove. The reefs will expand the underwater habitat that is so important to so many critters but has been lost with the decline of the Bay’s native oyster. For Sutherland, these reefs were “the icing on the cake. If the arc of stone is good, the patch reefs are going to be even better,” he said.
DNR Fisheries Biologist and MARI Coordinator Erik Zlokovitz echoed Sutherland’s satisfaction with the project. “This is a multipurpose shallow-water reef system. It’s not just an oyster reef or a fish reef. It’s a multipurpose reef for mussels, oysters and other invertebrates, which provide forage for fish and waterfowl,” he said.
The reef has also attracted recreational anglers to the area, who fish from kayaks and small boats for white perch and striped bass. Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, whose members are recreational fishermen, was a strong supporter of the Hail Cove project. For Sutherland, the cove’s restoration wouldn’t have been a success without the “great partners” that made it possible.
“Living shoreline science is really in its infancy, and every project is an experiment,” Sutherland said. But bringing partners together to strike a balance between manmade infrastructure and natural processes allowed this project to work, and Hail Cove now serves as “a starting point for reef construction in the Chester River,” said Sutherland. Indeed, relief funds for Hurricane Sandy recovery will soon finance further shoreline protection in the same area of the refuge.
“This project is a testament, to a certain extent, that if you build it, they will come,” Sutherland said. “We got to Hail Cove in the nick of time.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Alexander Jonesi and Jenna Valente. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
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.
Over the Chesapeake Bay Program’s long history, its leaders have learned that collaboration is key to restoration success. In June, the governors of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, the mayor of the District of Columbia, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission came together to sign the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Written with input from individuals, organizations and other partners, this document contains goals and outcomes that will restore and protect the nation’s largest and most productive estuary. But what will the Agreement mean for the residents of this massive watershed? Read our list to find out.
10. Improved access to the water. From fishing piers to boat launches, people in the watershed want more access to rivers, streams and the Bay. And while partners have opened 69 new access sites over the last three years, access remains limited, with consequences for tourism economies and environmental conservation. Bay Program partners have set a goal to open 300 new public access sites across the watershed by 2025. Learn more.
9. New opportunities to fish in headwater streams. Our increasing need for land and resources has fragmented our rivers and streams, harming the health of those fish that must migrate through unobstructed waters to reach their spawning grounds each spring. Bay Program partners plan to improve stream health and restore fish passage to the Bay’s headwaters, opening up habitat to migratory fish like alewife, American shad and brook trout. More habitat can mean more fish, and more fish can mean more fishing opportunities. Learn more.
Image courtesy theloushe/Flickr
8. Cleaner waters. Nutrient and sediment pollution are behind the Bay’s biggest health problems. Nutrients fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms, which create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. Suspended sediment blocks sunlight from reaching underwater plants. Bay Program partners plan to work under the Bay’s existing “pollution diet” to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution, improve water quality, and support the living resources of the Bay, its rivers and its streams. Learn more.
7. Safer waters. Almost three-quarters of the Bay’s tidal waters are considered impaired by chemical contaminants. These substances can harm the health of humans and wildlife, and have been linked to tumor growth in fish, eggshell thinning in birds and intersex conditions in amphibians. Bay Program partners are committed to reducing toxic contaminants in our waters, with a focus on mercury, PCBs and contaminants of emerging and widespread concern. Learn more.
6. Healthy waters that remain that way. Healthy watersheds provide us with clean water, critical habitat and economic benefits. While there are a number of healthy watersheds in the region, development poses a constant threat. Bay Program partners want 100 percent of state-identified healthy waters and watersheds to remain that way. Learn more.
5. A larger community of citizen stewards. The success of our restoration work will depend on local action, and local action will depend on local stewards. Bay Program partners hope to build a larger, broader and more diverse community of citizen stewards who will carry out the conservation and restoration activities that will benefit their local communities and the Bay. Learn more.
Image courtesy peterwalshprojects/Flickr
4. Sustainable seafood. Habitat loss, invasive species, poor water quality and harvest pressure threaten the sustainability of the Bay’s recreational and commercial fisheries. But Bay Program partners have committed to using sound science and responsible management to increase fish and shellfish habitat and populations, leading to more striped bass, blue crabs and oysters in the Bay and on the market. Learn more.
3. Smarter growth. With the largest land-to-water ratio of any estuary in the world, it is clear that what happens on land has a direct impact on water quality in the Bay. But stormwater runoff continues to push polluted rainwater over streets and sidewalks and into storm drains, rivers and streams. Bay Program partners plan to help local governments control polluted runoff, conserve valuable wetlands, farms and forests, and reduce the rate of land that is lost to paved roads and parking lots. Learn more.
Image courtesy Indiana.dunes/Flickr
2. More knowledge and skills to help save our watershed. It is often said that people value what they know and protect what they value. This means that a boost in environmental education now could create a vital foundation for environmental stewards of the future. Bay Program partners will work to enable area students to graduate with the knowledge, skills and meaningful experience needed to protect and restore their local watershed. Learn more.
1. Communities that are resilient to climate change. The impacts of climate change—rising seas, warming waters, extreme weather, ocean acidification—are happening now. To withstand these impacts, we must improve our natural and built infrastructure. Bay Program partners have set a goal to increase the climate resiliency of the watershed’s resources, habitats and communities using monitoring, assessment and adaptation. Learn more.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
According to evaluations released this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Chesapeake Bay Program partners are collectively on track to meet the phosphorous and sediment reduction commitments outlined in the Bay’s “pollution diet,” or Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). Further reductions in nitrogen, however, will be needed if partners are to meet all of their upcoming pollution-reducing goals.
Every two years, federal agencies and the watershed jurisdictions—which include Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia—report on the progress made toward the pollution-reducing “milestones” outlined in their Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs). These WIPs describe how each jurisdiction will reduce the nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment pollution entering rivers and streams, and are included as commitments in the partnership’s recently signed Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Jurisdictions have set a goal to have all essential pollution-reducing practices in place by 2025 in an effort to meet water quality standards in the watershed.
Nutrient and sediment pollution are behind some of the Bay’s biggest health problems. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms, which result in low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. Suspended sediment blocks sunlight from reaching underwater plants and suffocates shellfish. But “best management practices” (or BMPs) like upgraded wastewater treatment technologies, improved manure management and enhanced stormwater management can help towns, cities and states lower the amount of pollution flowing into local waters.
The EPA will continue to oversee the watershed jurisdictions’ pollution-reducing efforts, and will offer further attention to some pollution sectors—including wastewater in Delaware and New York; agricultural runoff in Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia; and urban and suburban runoff in Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia—to ensure partners remain on track to meet their 2017 targets.
Scientists expect the Chesapeake Bay to see an above-average dead zone this summer, due to the excess nitrogen that flowed into the Bay from the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers this spring.
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose. The latest dead zone forecast predicts an early-summer oxygen-free zone of 0.51 cubic miles, a mid-summer low-oxygen zone of 1.97 cubic miles and a late-summer oxygen-free zone of 0.32 cubic miles. This forecast was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and is based on models developed at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the University of Michigan.
Dead zone size depends on nutrient pollution and weather patterns. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 44,000 metric tons of nitrogen entered the Bay in the spring of 2014. This is 20 percent higher than last spring’s nitrogen loadings, and will influence algae growth and dead zone formation this summer.
Researchers with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will measure oxygen levels in the Bay over the next few months. While a final dead zone measurement is not expected until October, DNR biologists measured a larger-than-average low-oxygen zone on their June monitoring cruise, confirming the dead zone forecast.
The Chesapeake Executive Council signed the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement today, recommitting Chesapeake Bay Program partners to restoring, conserving and protecting the Bay, its tributaries and the lands around them.
Agreement signatories include the governors of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Delaware; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission; and the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on behalf of the Federal Leadership Committee for the Chesapeake Bay. This marks the first time that the Bay’s headwater states of New York, West Virginia and Delaware have pledged to work toward those restoration goals that reach beyond water quality, making them full partners in the Bay Program’s watershed-wide work.
“Today we celebrate the most inclusive, collaborative, goal-oriented Agreement the Chesapeake Bay watershed has ever seen, highlighted by unprecedented participation from the headwater states and the public,” said Chesapeake Executive Council Chair and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley in a media release. “This Agreement not only addresses our continuing water quality and land use challenges, it also confronts critical emerging issues—environmental literacy, toxic contaminants and climate change. Finally, it builds upon the strength of our diverse citizenry, calling to action the nearly 18 million people that call our watershed home. Together, we can and will achieve our united vision of a healthy Bay and a productive watershed, cared for by engaged citizens at every level.”
Image courtesy Benjamin Wilson Imagery/Flickr
Years in the making, the Agreement contains 10 goals and 29 measurable, time-bound outcomes that will help create a healthy watershed. They will lower nutrient and sediment pollution; ensure our waters are free of toxic contaminants; sustain blue crabs, oysters and forage fish; restore wetlands, underwater grass beds and other habitats; conserve farmland and forests; boost public access to and education about the environment; and increase the climate resiliency of the watershed’s resources, habitats and human communities.
Public input had a direct impact on the content of the Agreement—encouraging partners to include goals related to environmental stewardship, toxic contaminants and climate change—and will continue to contribute to how the Agreement is achieved. Indeed, partners plan to work with universities, local governments, watershed groups, businesses and citizens in creating the management strategies that will define how we will accomplish the Agreement’s outcomes and goals.
Image courtesy USACE HQ/Flickr
In addition to signing the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, Executive Council members heard from the Bay Program’s three advisory committees, which represent citizens, local governments and scientific and technical interests from across the watershed. Executive Council members also heard from four high school students representing Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. While each of these students was introduced to conservation in a different way, they have all had valuable experiences on the Bay and spoke about the importance of engaging future generations in environmental restoration, advocacy and leadership.
For the past two and a half years, the Chesapeake Bay Program has been working on a new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, an accord that will guide the collaborative restoration and conservation efforts of the six states and the District of Columbia in the 64,000 square mile network of land and waters that drains to the Chesapeake. Meaningful public review and input has proven critical to this process.
Image courtesy B Tal/Flickr
The first opportunity to gain public input occurred in July 2013, when the agreement’s framework was put out for public review. Interested parties were able to submit comments in writing, through our website and during a public meeting; through these channels, representatives of various organizations asked questions or expressed their views on various topics of discussion. This level of transparency and inclusiveness is characteristic of the manner in which the Bay Program conducts its affairs.
In addition to these opportunities, the Bay Program’s staff and leadership engaged in numerous outreach activities, addressing advisory committees, watershed organizations and local communities to ensure they were aware of this effort and could participate in a meaningful and informed way. A second opportunity for formal public comment was provided this past February on a more substantive draft agreement. In all, more than 2,400 comments were received from throughout the watershed. Each comment was reviewed, evaluated and taken into account during the decision-making process. Each step in this process was open and transparent, and summaries of all comments and how they were responded to were made available.
Image courtesy Rusty Sheriff/Flickr
Transparency and accountability have been themes throughout the development of the new agreement. And we will continue our efforts to be open and accountable as we move into the next steps of our efforts—the development of Management Strategies, an important new component of this agreement. These strategies will serve as written documentation for how we intend to achieve our goals and outcomes, and will be developed by our Goal Implementation Teams. Once a draft Management Strategy is developed, a public notice will be issued and an opportunity for public input will be provided. As before, this input will be used to consider making changes to the Management Strategies before they are finalized for implementation.
Management Strategies will specify exactly what each of the Bay Program partners will contribute, how they will address impacts associated with climate change, what resources and information they will bring to the table, how they will interact and engage communities and involve local governments, and how they will use the adaptive management process to review indicators and monitoring data and make well-documented, science-based decisions. The partnership’s Science and Technical Advisory Committee will assist the Goal Implementation Teams in developing new indicators and performance metrics to ensure they are collecting appropriate data and information to measure progress toward their outcomes and to make warranted adjustments, if necessary.
Each of these Management Strategies will be reviewed and evaluated on a biennial basis. The two-year reviews will be presented to the partnership’s governance structure for discussion and feedback. All of the Management Strategies and two-year reviews will be publicly available so progress toward the agreement’s goals and outcomes can be tracked. This level of transparency and accountability, as well as public engagement and outreach, is unprecedented in any previous agreements intended to guide the Bay restoration effort.
Image courtesy Alicia Pimental/Flickr
In my 25-year career in public service, I have not witnessed a more genuine effort to solicit public input and to give that input serious consideration. That input resulted in significant improvements in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Goals and outcomes that were not included or previously rejected were reconsidered and inserted in the new agreement as a direct result of public input. Not every comment was addressed in exactly the way it was submitted; but every comment did get deliberate consideration and was addressed in some manner by the partnership’s leadership, which includes many secretaries of state environmental agencies, federal agency representatives and leaders of non-governmental and advisory groups. In the end, the final agreement is a much clearer, stronger and more comprehensive document because of the input we received from concerned and engaged citizens throughout the watershed.
This “next generation” agreement will guide restoration of the Bay watershed and ecosystem in the decades ahead. Implementation of the new agreement will continue to be influenced and shaped by the interests, knowledge and expertise of every individual, organization, community, local government, business and partner that is willing to engage and be involved in this endeavor. On behalf of the entire Bay Program, I want to express our genuine gratitude for taking the time and making the effort to share your thoughts, concerns and suggestions with us on the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. It made a very distinct and significant difference in the outcome.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
Reducing runoff from farmland has lowered pollution in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania waters, indicating a boost in on-farm best management practices could lead to improved water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
In a report released earlier this year, researchers with the Chesapeake Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) use case studies to show that planting cover crops, managing manure and excluding cattle from rivers and streams can lower nutrient concentrations and, in some cases, sediment loads in nearby waters.
Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired the Bay: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life, while sediment can cloud the water and suffocate shellfish. In New Insights: Science-based evidence of water quality improvements, challenges and opportunities in the Chesapeake, scientists make clear that putting nutrient- and sediment-reducing practices in place on farms can improve water quality and aquatic habitat in as little as one to six years.
Planting winter cover crops on farm fields in the Wye River basin, for instance, lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into local groundwater, while planting cover crops and exporting nutrient-rich rich poultry litter in the upper Pocomoke River watershed lowered the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Eastern Shore waterway. In addition, several studies in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania showed that when cattle were excluded from streams, plant growth rebounded, nutrient and sediment levels declined and stream habitat and bank stability improved.
Image courtesy Chiot's Run/Flickr
Earlier this week, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack named the Bay watershed one of eight “critical conservation areas” under the new Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which will bring farmers and watershed organizations together to earn funds for soil and water conservation.
Researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) measured minimal changes in Chesapeake Bay health in 2013, once again giving the estuary a “C” in their annual Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
This grade was the same in 2012, up from a “D+” in 2011. The Bay Health Index was reached using several indicators of Bay health, including water clarity and dissolved oxygen, the amount of algae and nutrients in the water, the abundance of underwater grasses, and the strength of certain fish stocks, including blue crab and striped bass. Introduced in this year’s report card, the Climate Change Resilience Index will measure the Bay’s ability to withstand rising sea levels, rising water temperatures and other impacts of climate change.
UMCES Vice President for Science Applications and Professor Bill Dennison attributed the Bay’s steady course to local management actions. While pollution-reducing technologies installed at wastewater treatment plants have improved the health of some rivers along the Bay’s Western Shore, continued fertilizer applications and agricultural runoff have stalled improvements along the Eastern Shore, Dennison said in a media release.
Underwater grass abundance in the Chesapeake Bay increased 24 percent between 2012 and 2013, reversing the downward trend of the last three years.
Because underwater grasses are sensitive to pollution but quick to respond to water quality improvements, their abundance is a good indicator of Bay health. Aerial surveys flown from last spring to last fall showed an almost 12,000-acre increase in grass abundance across the Bay, which scientists attribute to the rapid expansion of widgeon grass in the saltier waters of the mid-Bay and the modest recovery of eelgrass in shallow waters where the species experienced a “dieback” after the hot summers of 2005 and 2010. Scientists also observed an increase in the acreage of the Susquehanna Flats.
“The mid-Bay has seen a big rise in widgeon grass,” said Robert J. Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) professor and coordinator of the school’s Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Survey, in a media release. “In fact, the expansion of this species in the saltier waters between the Honga River and Pocomoke Sound was one of the driving factors behind the rise in bay grass abundance. While widgeongrass is a boom and bust species, notorious for being incredibly abundant one year and entirely absent the next, its growth is nevertheless great to see.”
Underwater grasses, also known as submerged aquatic vegetation, are critical to the Bay, offering food to invertebrates and waterfowl and providing shelter to fish and crabs. Like grasses on land, underwater grasses need sunlight to survive. When algae blooms or suspended sediment cloud the waters of the Bay, sunlight cannot reach the bottom habitat where grasses live. While healthy grass beds can trap and absorb some nutrient and sediment pollution—thus improving water clarity where they grow—too much pollution can cause grass beds to die. Indeed, poor water clarity remains a challenge for eelgrass growth in deeper waters.
Until this year, the Bay Program mapped underwater grasses by geographic zone. Now, abundance is mapped in four different salinity zones, each of which is home to an underwater grass community that responds differently to strong storms, drought and other adverse growing conditions. This reporting change “makes more ecological sense,” said Lee Karrh, program chief at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and chair of the Bay Program’s Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup.
“Reworking our historic data was hard work, but doing so makes it easier to understand patterns in grass growth,” Karrh said.
Raising oysters along the bed of the Potomac River could lower pollution and improve water quality, according to new findings that show “farm-raised” shellfish are a promising method of managing nutrients.
Image courtesy Robert Rheault/Flickr
Nutrient pollution from urban, suburban and agricultural runoff has long plagued the Potomac, whose watershed spans four states and the District of Columbia and has the highest population in the Chesapeake Bay region. Excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. While filter-feeding oysters were once plentiful in the river—capable of removing nutrients from the water—their numbers have dropped due to overfishing and disease.
In a report published in Aquatic Geochemistry, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) show that cultivating shellfish on 40 percent of the Potomac’s bottom would remove all of the nitrogen now polluting the river. While conflicting uses—think shipping lanes, buried cables and pushback from boaters and landowners—mean it is unlikely that such a large area would be devoted to aquaculture, putting even 15 to 20 percent of the riverbed under cultivation would remove almost half of the incoming nitrogen. The combination of aquaculture and restored reefs could provide even greater benefits.
Image courtesy Virginia Sea Grant/Flickr
Shellfish aquaculture could also have benefits outside the realm of water quality: the shellfish could serve as a marketable seafood product, while the practice could provide growers with additional income if accepted in a nutrient trading program. Even so, the report notes that aquaculture should be considered “a complement—not a substitute” for land-based pollution-reducing measures.
“The most expedient way to reduce eutrophication in the Potomac River estuary would be to continue reducing land-based nutrients complemented by a combination of aquaculture and restored oyster reefs,” said scientist and lead study author Suzanne Bricker in a media release. “The resulting combination could provide significant removal of nutrients… and offer innovative solutions to long-term persistent water quality problems.”
At present, there are no aquaculture leases in the Potomac’s main stem. But in 2008, Maryland passed a plan to expand aquaculture in the region, and in 2009, NOAA launched an initiative to promote aquaculture in coastal waters across the United States.
Upgrading wastewater treatment technologies has lowered pollution in the Potomac, Patuxent and Back rivers, leading researchers to celebrate the Clean Water Act and recommend continued investments in the sewage sector.
Introduced in 1972, the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program regulates point sources of pollutants, or those that can be pinpointed to a specific location. Because wastewater treatment plants are a point source that can send nutrient-rich effluent into rivers and streams, this program has fueled advancements in wastewater treatment technologies. Biological nutrient removal, for instance, uses microorganisms to remove excess nutrients from wastewater, while the newer enhanced nutrient removal improves upon this process.
Researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) have linked these wastewater treatment technologies to a cleaner environment. In a report released last month, five case studies show that wastewater treatment plant upgrades in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia improved water quality in three Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
The link is clear: excess nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. Lowering the amount of nutrients that wastewater treatment plants send into rivers and streams can reduce algae blooms, bring back grass beds and improve water quality.
In New Insights: Science-based evidence of water quality improvements, challenges and opportunities in the Chesapeake, scientists show that new technologies at Baltimore’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant led to a drop in nitrogen concentrations in the Back River. Upgrades at plants in the upper Patuxent watershed led to a drop in nutrient concentrations and a resurgence in underwater grasses in the Patuxent River. And improvements at plants in northern Virginia and the District lowered nutrient pollution, shortened the duration of algae blooms and boosted underwater grass growth in the Potomac River.
Image courtesy Kevin Harber/Flickr
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks wastewater permits as an indicator of Bay health. As of 2012, 45 percent of treatment plants in the watershed had limits in effect to meet water quality standards. But a growing watershed population is putting increasing pressure on urban and suburban sewage systems.
“Further investments in [wastewater treatment plants] are needed to reduce nutrient loading associated with an increasing number of people living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” New Insights notes.
After almost a decade of confusion about just what waters the Clean Water Act protects, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have clarified that most seasonal and rain-dependent streams are guarded under the law.
While these streams might only flow during certain times of year or following a rainstorm, they are connected to downstream waters that offer habitat to wildlife and drinking water to communities.
The federal agencies’ proposed rule also protects wetlands near rivers and streams. But it does not expand the scope of the Clean Water Act, and it preserves existing exemptions for building irrigation ponds, maintaining drainage ditches and other agricultural activities. In other words, protection for ponds, lakes and other “stand-alone” waters will be determined on a case-specific basis, and those agricultural activities that do not send pollutants into protected waters will still not require a permit.
The proposed rule will be open for public comment for 90 days after its publication in the Federal Register.
More than 60 organizations and two thousand people have commented on the Chesapeake Bay Program’s draft Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, offering feedback that the Chesapeake Executive Council will consider when finalizing the restoration plan.
Image courtesy Jeff Weese/Flickr
Climate change and chemical contaminants were among the leading issues addressed. More than 1,000 individuals asked the Bay Program to integrate climate concerns and adaptation strategies into our work, while more than 300 asked us to set goals to reduce the pesticides, pharmaceuticals and other toxic contaminants in our rivers and streams. Residents from across the watershed submitted letters that described the potential effects of both issues, from rising water temperatures and eroding shorelines to intersex fish and human health impacts.
Other comments on the draft agreement addressed the need to control stormwater runoff in urban and suburban areas, increase the environmental education of the region’s students and establish more public access sites to connect citizens with local waterways.
“The Chesapeake Bay Program values citizen input,” said Joe Gill, chair of the Bay Program’s Principals’ Staff Committee and secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “More than 17 million people live in this watershed. One of the most important lessons we have learned in our decades of restoration work is that individual citizens, private businesses, watershed groups and local governments are our stakeholders—they are people who have a “stake” in what we do. They are key partners in the attainment of our restoration goals. The Executive Council will welcome and consider all of the comments we receive from our stakeholders when finalizing the new agreement.”
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement will guide signatories—which include the states of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Delaware; the District of Columbia; the Chesapeake Bay Commission; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—in the restoration of the watershed. It establishes goals and outcomes that address water quality, fisheries and habitat, land conservation, public access and environmental literacy.
Comments on the draft agreement were left between January 29 and March 17 by private citizens, nonprofit organizations, conservation districts, wastewater agencies and more. A previous comment period on a prior draft took place between July 10 and August 15, 2013, and generated comments summarized here.
On a blue bird day in Church Creek, Maryland, a white pickup truck bounces down a dirt driveway, splashing through fresh mud puddles and leaving ripples in its wake. The low whirring of female Northern pintail ducks in the middle of their courtship is exuberant, and there is excitement in the air – it is almost time for the birds to make their long migration north.
The truck rounds a bend and hundreds of waterfowl take flight, seeking solace in the nearby Honga River. Landowner Jerry Harris steps out of the truck, his two hunting dogs, Bo and Maddie, in tow. Jerry has owned Mallard Haven River Farm for nearly 20 years and has transformed it from an open pasture to an ideal stopover site for thousands of waterfowl migrating along the Atlantic Flyway.
Harris recounts purchasing the farm as an open pasture with a ditch down the center in the late ‘90s. Initially, he battled saltwater intrusion and high-tide floods of the Chesapeake Bay. His solution involved closing off the connection between the ditch and the Bay and creating a freshwater storage area that can now hold up to 6.5 million gallons of water. With financial assistance from the state of Maryland, Ducks Unlimited and North American Wetlands Conservation Act Grants (NAWCA), he built berms to create a series of separate water impoundments for use by waterfowl across 80 acres of the 230-acre farm.
Harris has hired two full-time employees to help maintain the property. “We’ve tried to do everything to improve the efficiency of our work,” Harris said. “We have pipes in all the impoundments that lead to a main water storage ditch, so we can connect our portable pumps right to the pipes and drive the water wherever we would like. If we’re irrigating this field during a dry period we don’t have to hook hoses up or anything.”
Because his land is privately owned, Harris has the freedom to experiment with unconventional conservation practices. His latest endeavor? Moist soils management, or the slow draw down of water from the impoundments to foster the growth of wetland plants like smartweed, fall panicum and fox tail. “As the water gradually comes down, it will support different kinds of weeds, and if you are good enough at it you can have a whole platter of foods that fulfill the ducks’ dietary needs,” Harris said. Moist soils management is good for the wildlife and the farmer: it cuts fertilizer use, and mechanical tilling is only needed about once every five years.
In the past, Harris grew corn on his farm to provide high-energy food for visiting waterfowl. Harris admits that deer and their affinity for corn have presented a challenge to his habitat management practices. For this reason, he plans to grow rice instead. “It’s literally the same kind of high-carbohydrate food that corn is,” Harris said. “The big advantage is that the deer don’t eat rice. In some fields, nearly half of the corn crop gets eaten by the deer.”
Harris has been an avid hunter since he was a young boy; growing up hunting with his grandfather on the bays north of San Francisco cultivated his passion for conserving wildlife habitat. He now owns three farms in Maryland and one in Montana, all under conservation easements through Ducks Unlimited, the largest land conservation owner in the United States, of which he sits on the board.
“The farm is big enough that on a windy day you can be shooting on the farm and the upwind birds will still be there. With the wild ducks, the thing you want to do if you want to keep them is not disturb them too much, otherwise they find another place to go,” Harris said. He has even calculated exactly how many ducks he and his guests can harvest in a year without negatively impacting waterfowl populations, setting the limit at 175 ducks from all four farms.
Harris designates 20 percent of his time to sitting on the board of Ducks Unlimited and of Waterfowl Chesapeake, a Maryland-based non-profit whose mission is to create, restore and conserve waterfowl habitat in the Chesapeake Bay Region. Together they help draw awareness to protecting area wetlands.
Judy Price, the executive director of Waterfowl Chesapeake, has helped the organization raise more than $5 million for habitat restoration and conservation education projects. Waterfowl Chesapeake, the umbrella organization of the annual Waterfowl Festival, held in November in Easton, Maryland, recently created an alliance for waterfowl conservation that consists of a panel of scientific experts that offer advice to current and prospective habitat restoration initiatives. They have also created a restoration project registry, expanding the visibility of high-value projects to the public and potential funders.
When asked why protecting waterfowl habitat is a priority, Price responded, “The annual migration of waterfowl truly enhances our lives throughout the Chesapeake region and, in particular, the Eastern Shore. Not only do we gain ecological benefits, but also significant economic value, from a healthy waterfowl community. By focusing on maintaining strong habitat, hopefully, we can avoid people, years from now, saying, ‘I remember seeing ducks and geese in the skies. Whatever happened to them?’”
Images by Steve Droter. To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
The duration of the Chesapeake Bay’s annual “dead zone” has declined over time, according to research published last month in the scientific journal “Limnology and Oceanography.”
First reported in the 1930s, the Bay’s dead zone, or conditions of low dissolved oxygen also known as hypoxia, results from excess nutrients, which fuel the growth of algae blooms. As these blooms die, bacteria decompose the dead algae. This decomposition process removes oxygen from the surrounding waters faster than it can be replenished, suffocating marine life. While intensified agriculture and development continue to push nutrients into rivers and streams, research by Yuntao Zhou and others shows the duration of the Bay’s dead zone decreased from five months to four months between 1985 and 2010, and the end of the hypoxic season moved up from October to September. This could suggest that efforts to manage nutrient loads—through upgrades to wastewater treatment plants, cuts to vehicle and power plant emissions and reductions to runoff from farmland—are working.
This same research showed no change in the average onset of the Bay’s dead zone or for its average volume, whose peak has moved from late to early July. In other words, while the duration of the Bay’s dead zone has declined, its size and severity have not.
While Zhou points out that nutrient pollution is the foremost factor that fuels the development of our dead zone, his research also shows that weather patterns can act as an additional driver. Northeasterly winds, for instance, can create conditions that reinforce the separation between the Bay’s fresh and saltwater, leading to larger hypoxic volumes.
Severe weather to the north of the region pushed a large number of ducks, geese and swans into the main portion of the Chesapeake Bay this winter, leading to a 22 percent jump in the results of Maryland’s 2014 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey.
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), pilots and biologists from both DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) counted more than 905,000 waterfowl during their aerial assessments of state waters this winter. The birds were easier to count this season than in winters past because a number of them were concentrated in the few ice-free, open waters of the Bay and its tributaries.
This total included 128,000 dabbling ducks and 190,300 diving ducks, representing a 76 and 94 percent jump from last winter, respectively. Indeed, the canvasback count was the highest it has been since the mid-1960s, and estimates for mallards and black ducks were the highest they have been since the mid-1970s. Survey teams also witnessed large numbers of Canada geese along the upper Bay: 512,000, 11 percent more than were witnessed in January 2013.
The USFWS Division of Migratory Bird Management pools these survey results with those from other states to get a sense of the distribution and population size of waterfowl wintering along the Atlantic Flyway. This migration route follows the Atlantic coast of North America, and this winter hosted more than 3.19 million birds. Of this total, teams counted more than 1.6 million in watershed states, including Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York.
Green roofs, porous pavement and other tools of the green infrastructure trade can be a cost-effective way to control stormwater runoff, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report that estimates the benefits of Lancaster City’s long-term green infrastructure plan.
Image courtesy Lindsayy/Flickr
Located in south-central Pennsylvania, Lancaster City has a population approaching 60,000. Each year, combined sewer overflows send almost 750 million gallons of stormwater runoff and untreated waste into the Conestoga River, pushing excess nutrients into the tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. In an effort to combat this pollution problem, the city released a green infrastructure plan in 2011 that outlines the tree plantings, parking lot excavations and other projects that will be put in place over the next 25 years.
While the plan lists the water quality benefits the city expects to see—including the reduction of stormwater runoff by more than 1 billion gallons per year—it is, for some, an incomplete assessment. So, in a report released this week, the EPA furthered the city’s benefits analysis by addressing the additional environmental, social and economic benefits that green infrastructure can provide.
According to the report, the long-term implementation of green infrastructure in Lancaster City could save $120 million in avoided gray infrastructure capital costs and earn close to $5 million in annual benefits. Green infrastructure would reduce air pollution, energy use and stormwater runoff, and offer residents a boost in property values, recreational opportunities and other qualitative benefits. With a forecasted implementation cost of between $51.6 and $94.5 million, it is clear the benefits of green infrastructure exceed the costs.
While gray infrastructure uses tanks and pipes to trap and dispose of rainwater, green infrastructure uses soil and vegetation to manage rainwater where it falls. A combination of green and gray infrastructure has proven effective for Lancaster City, and similar plans could benefit communities across the watershed.
One reconstructed parking lot, for instance, incorporated almost 6,000 square feet of bioretention and infiltration practices on South Plum Street, with an estimated annual benefit of more than $1,100. A commercial green street in northeast Lancaster incorporated bioretention and infiltration practices as well as permeable pavement, with an estimated annual benefit of more than $2,300. And an urban park redeveloped with a host of green infrastructure practices carries an estimated annual benefit of more than $5,500.
“Valuing multiple benefits of green infrastructure ensures water management investments by the city will help… provide a safer, healthier and more prosperous community,” said Liz Deardorff, Clean Water Supply director at American Rivers, in a media release. “The results of this study affirm that green infrastructure has multiple benefits for both large and small cities needing to reduce pollution and ensure clean water.”
Pollution-reducing practices can improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and have already improved the health of local rivers and streams, according to new research from the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership.
In a report released today, several case studies from across the watershed show that so-called “best management practices”—including upgrading wastewater treatment technologies, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions, and reducing runoff from farmland—have lowered nutrients and sediment in local waterways. In other words, the environmental practices supported under the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Farm Bill are working.
Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired local water quality: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life, while sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and suffocate shellfish. Best management practices used in backyards, in cities and on farms can lower the flow of these pollutants into waterways.
Data collected and analyzed by the Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have traced a number of local improvements in air, land and water to best management practices: a drop in power plant emissions across the mid-Atlantic has led to improvements in nine Appalachian watersheds, upgrades to the District of Columbia's Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant have lowered the discharge of nutrients into the Potomac River and planting cover crops on Eastern Shore farms has lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into the earth and reduced nitrate concentrations in groundwater.
“In New Insights, we find the scientific evidence to support what we’ve said before: we are rebuilding nature’s resilience back into the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, and the watershed can and will recover when our communities support clean local waters,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release.
But scientists have also noted that while we have improved water quality, our progress can be overwhelmed by intensified agriculture and unsustainable development, and our patience can be tested by the “lag-times” that delay the full benefits of restoration work.
“This report shows that long-term efforts to reduce pollution are working, but we need to remain patient and diligent in making sure we are putting the right practices in place at the right locations in Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said UMCES President Donald Boesch in a media release. “Science has and will continue to play a critical role informing us about what is working and what still needs to be done.”
UMCES Vice President for Science Applications Bill Dennison echoed Boesch’s support for patience and persistence, but added a third P to the list: perspiration. “We’ve got to do more to maintain the health of this magnificent Chesapeake Bay,” he said.
“We’ve learned that we can fix the Bay,” Dennison continued. “We can see this progress… and it’s not going to be hopeless. In fact, it’s quite hopeful. This report makes a good case for optimism about the Chesapeake Bay.”
It’s been fourteen years since the last Chesapeake Bay agreement was signed, and much has changed in the decade and a half since Chesapeake 2000 was written. We have learned more about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to conservation. We have improved how we monitor our progress. We are aware of the impacts of climate change, which will make it more difficult for us to achieve our goals. And we have watched an Executive Order and a “pollution diet” be issued, the first directing federal agencies to step up their restoration work and the second calling on states to reduce pollution entering rivers and streams. In this time, we have also recognized the need to revisit our previous Bay agreements and better coordinate our future efforts to efficiently and effectively accomplish our restoration goals.
After countless meetings, discussions and a preliminary public comment period, the Chesapeake Bay Program is now seeking review and comment on a final draft of a new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Like past agreements, this one is a result of negotiations and compromise, and will guide the six Bay states and the District of Columbia in their work to create a healthy and vibrant watershed.
This draft agreement is more focused than past versions. It contains seven high-level goals and twenty-two measurable, time-bound outcomes. These will allow our partners—which, for the first time, include West Virginia, New York and Delaware—to focus on top restoration priorities and better measure progress. Indeed, one of the agreement’s most significant improvements is its inclusion of management strategies, which will describe how and when we intend to achieve our outcomes as we engage local communities, develop indicators of success and report on our progress. Management strategies bring an unprecedented level of transparency to our work, and provide a higher level of accountability than previous agreements have done.
But to make this the best agreement possible, we need to hear from you. And we have tried to make the public comment process an easy one: the draft agreement is available here, and we will welcome comments until March 17, 2014. You can offer input at the March 13 meeting of the Management Board or submit an online comment or an email to the Bay Program. Learn more.
Three decades after the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement was signed, the Chesapeake Bay Program is seeking public input on a new agreement that will guide partners in the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and recommit stakeholders to conservation success.
Image courtesy JoshuaDavisPhotography/Flickr
The draft Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement establishes a series of goals and outcomes that address water quality, fisheries and habitat, land conservation, public access and environmental literacy. Signatories will include the states of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Delaware; the District of Columbia; the Chesapeake Bay Commission; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
By signing the agreement, partners will commit to taking the steps needed to attain a healthy watershed: to lower nutrient and sediment pollution; to sustain blue crabs, oysters and forage fish; to restore wetlands and underwater grass beds; to conserve farmland and forests; and to boost public access to and education about the environment.
“Healthy, sustainable fisheries, plentiful habitats for wildlife, conservation efforts and citizen actions that support clean water and clean air—this is how we create a healthy Bay,” said Bay Program Principals’ Staff Committee Chair and Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Joe Gill in a media release. “Connecting our citizens to these resources through public access and environmental education completes the picture, instilling the personal sense of ownership key to our progress.”
“The goals and outcomes that are outlined in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement are interrelated: improvements in water quality can mean healthier fish and shellfish; the conservation of land can mean more habitat for wildlife; and a boost in environmental literacy can mean a rise in stewards of the Bay’s resources,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale. “By signing this agreement, Bay Program partners will acknowledge that our environment is a system and that these goals will support public health and the health of the watershed as a whole.”
The draft is available here. The Bay Program welcomes comments on this draft between January 29 and March 17, 2014. Interested parties can offer input at the March 13 meeting of the Management Board or by submitting an online comment or an email to the Bay Program. Learn more.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has called on Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania to better control stormwater runoff and improve the region’s environment, economy and health.
Image courtesy brianjmatis/Flickr
Made worse by urban and suburban development, stormwater runoff is the fastest growing source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Once precipitation falls onto streets, sidewalks and lawns, it can pick up trash, oil and other pollutants before entering storm drains, rivers and streams. Each year, stormwater runoff contributes to fish mortalities and beach closures across the watershed.
In a report released this week, the Bay Foundation pushes watershed states to implement stronger pollution control permits alongside “cost-effective, common-sense projects” that will help cities meet the pollution limits outlined in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or pollution diet. Planting trees, building roadside rain gardens and installing green roofs have been proven to reduce stormwater runoff—and can often be done at lower costs than some initially estimate.
The Bay Foundation cites several cases to illustrate this point. Frederick County, Maryland, for instance, used natural vegetation rather than pipes, culverts or other structural solutions to filter polluted runoff, and reduced its projected pollution control costs by 65 percent. A University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center analysis found that Calvert County, Maryland, initially over-estimated its stormwater control costs; by installing more efficient pollution control methods and offering private business owners incentives to reduce runoff on their own properties, the county could meet their cleanup goals at a cost that was 96 percent lower than projected.
“This is a local problem requiring local solutions that will provide significant local benefits,” said Bay Foundation President William C. Baker in a media release. “But there are important roles for… governments in tackling the challenges of polluted runoff.”
At sunrise, the Roughwater heads out of its Solomons Island harbor and onto the Patuxent River. Driven by a captain who has worked the Chesapeake Bay for two decades, the boat stops over an unseen reef. Simon Dean and his crew—Brian Elder and Jason Williams—are wearing waterproof bibs and white rubber boots, and are ready to bring in oysters.
Known as patent tonging, the work that takes place on the Roughwater moves in one fluid motion: hydraulic tongs enter the water, grab a mess of oysters and dump them with a crash onto a metal culling table. Three-inch grooves built into the table’s edge help the crew cull, or sort the oysters by size. Good oysters are tossed into a plastic basket, while too-small bivalves and empty shells go back overboard.
The patent tongs are controlled by foot pedals: one pushes the tongs up and down, while the other swings them open and closed. “At the end of the day, your feet are more tired than your hands,” Dean said.
As a waterman, Dean’s work is dependent on the seasons. During the winter, he oysters. During the summer, he crabs and takes fishing parties out on the Bay. He bought the Roughwater in 2009, and was “running everybody else’s boat before that.”
Wooden-handled culling hammers help Dean and his crew knock undersized oysters off of bigger bivalves. Young oysters attach themselves to adults in order to grow, forming dense reefs that offer habitat to fish, crabs and other critters. While concrete is often used to construct artificial reefs, shell makes the best substrate for spat.
Watermen must work to “get as much shell off as you can,” Dean said. In part, this is because buyers prefer the look of a clean oyster. And in part, it is because shell must go back into the Bay, where it will provide a new place for young oysters to settle.
In an effort to restore natural oyster populations to the Bay, shell recycling programs have popped up across the region and lawmakers have established oyster sanctuaries and strengthened harvesting restrictions. But this seems to have fueled tension between states and the industry and fed the belief that watermen often work in conflict with the law.
Dean and his wife, Rachel, are working to change this oft-held perception, using heritage tourism to teach both children and adults about estuarine life and the role that watermen play in the region’s history and economy. “We’re not poachers. We’re not outlaws. We’re not thieves,” Dean said. And he hopes that Solomons Island Heritage Tours will “break down that stigma that watermen have [against them].”
Dean and his crew don’t have time for conversation while the tongs are running. Dean thinks about how he will sell his oysters, and how he will compete with other watermen. By the end of the day, they have reached their patent tonging limit: 15 bushels per license, with two licenses per boat. Dean will sell some of these to restaurants and some to individuals. But will he ever keep any for himself? “I like them,” Dean said. But when it comes to eating them, “I just don’t have time.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography.
Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
The reduction of power plant emissions in the mid-Atlantic has improved water quality in the Chesapeake region, according to new research from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES).
Image courtesy haglundc/Flickr
Researchers at the university’s Appalachian Laboratory have traced improvements in the water quality trends of nine forested watersheds located along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains to the Clean Air Act’s Acid Rain Program. Passed in 1990, the Acid Rain Program led to a 32 percent drop in human-caused nitrogen-oxide emissions in 20 states. As these emissions have declined, so too has the amount of nitrogen found in some Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia waterways.
In other words, while the Acid Rain Program only intended to reduce the air pollution that causes acid rain, it had the unintended consequence of reducing the amount of nitrogen oxide particles landing on the region’s forests, thus improving local water quality.
“Improvements in air quality provided benefits to water quality that we were not counting on,” said UMCES President Donald Boesch in a media release.
Once nitrogen oxide particles are emitted into the air, wind and weather can carry them long distances. In time, these particles fall onto the land or into the water. Nitrogen that enters rivers and streams can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life. Scientists estimate that just over one-third of the nitrogen polluting the Bay comes from the air.
People often feel helpless when confronting the environmental concerns that face us today. They want to know, in simple and straightforward terms, what they can do to help. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the answer lies in our work to reduce the flow of nutrients and sediment into our waterways.
While we have made great strides in upgrading nutrient-removal technology at wastewater treatment plants, controlling power plant and automobile exhaust emissions, and putting conservation practices in place on area farms, we have not made as much progress in reducing stormwater runoff from homes and businesses. Rainfall continues to run across rooftops, driveways and lawns, picking up pollutants before it enters storm drains, rivers and streams. And we continue to look for ways to encourage homeowners to reduce their stormwater discharges.
Image courtesy Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources/Flickr
Environmental regulations have not focused on runoff from homes because these pollution sources are too small, diffuse and numerous to manage effectively and efficiently. But the Chesapeake Bay Program is developing a system that will give homeowners credit for reducing their runoff and helping their communities meet the goals of the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or Bay “pollution diet.” More than 30 stakeholders worked through the Chesapeake Stormwater Network to develop this crediting program, which will respond to the needs of both homeowners and government agencies and provide an accurate mechanism for verifying residential best management practices.
Rain barrels, rain gardens and permeable pavement are just some of the tools that can help a homeowner manage runoff and add color and character to his property. But it is important for us to ensure that these practices are installed correctly to reduce pollution over time. So a guide is in production that will show homeowners how to design, construct and maintain different practices, and an online tool will allow them to add their practices to a website, where the data will be checked and pollution reductions will be calculated.
Training and certification programs are being planned. Smart phone apps are being developed. And this initiative appears to be catching on among homeowners and in communities across the watershed, where people see it as an opportunity to improve their neighborhood, increase their property values and make a positive impact on their local environment and the water quality of the Bay.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy, endorsement, or action.
Millions of ducks, geese and other waterfowl visit the Chesapeake Bay each year, finding food and habitat in marshes across the watershed. Hunters have long gone after these birds as a source of food, using wooden or plastic decoys to attract them to their blinds. But in recent decades, what were once tools of the hunting trade have become works of art, and modern decoys showcase the carving styles of the artists behind the birds.
“[Decoys] started out as a means of putting food on the table, of attracting live birds,” said Kristin Sullivan, a Ph.D. candidate who studies the heritage behind decoy carving at the University of Maryland. But this soon changed: “By the 1950s, decoys started to become mass-produced, so hunters could get fairly cheap plastic or wooden birds and didn’t have to carve them out themselves.” This, paired with a burgeoning collector’s market created by hunting parties who kept hand-carved decoys as souvenirs, turned decoys into decorative, collectible items.
Now, tourists are a big customer for decoy carvers. So, too, are people who have “some sort of connection to hunting, or some… sort of connection to the landscape from which the bird came,” Sullivan said. Indeed, decoys carved in the Bay region are often evocative of the estuary. “A decoy is going to reflect the landscape,” said Sullivan.
But decoys also reflect the personality of the carver. We interviewed five carvers at the Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Md., to find out how they started carving, what makes their work unique and how the Bay has informed their birds. You can find our questions and their answers below.
What drew you to decoy carving?
This show did. In about 1987, I came down here for the first time, and decided that once I retired from the Secret Service, this was going to be my job. So way back when, in 1987, is when it all started. I was cutting through one of the buildings, and in a little hallway, there was a gentleman… who was hand-chopping decoys. And I thought that was the neatest thing in the world, that someone could do that. So I’m all self-taught. After I retired, I got a bunch of reference books and I sat out in my workshop and that’s all I did until I felt that [my work] was at a point where I was comfortable with it.
Describe your carving style.
What I like to do is what they call contemporary antiques. It’s just a new bird they try to make old. [Another carver] told me to come up with your own style, don’t copy anybody else, do what you want to do. And that’s exactly what I decided to do.
How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed your work?
I grew up in Takoma Park, and we had relatives around the Bay. I wasn’t a typical Bay guy, but being in the state of Maryland and [experiencing] all the history related to the Bay—you can just get caught up in it.
What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
The whole hunting type person—you’d be surprised how those people are more in tune with the environment than the techno guys with their iPads and iPods. I think the hunting guys—the old guys especially—can give you a perspective of exactly how they did things in the beginning and how they do things now. It’s probably a 180 degree turn.
What is your favorite bird to carve?
It’d have to be a wood duck. I hate painting them, but they have so many colors in them the bird just pops. It’s a pain to do, but it’s probably the prettiest bird out there.
What drew you to decoy carving?
I’ve been carving for about 30 years. We used to visit the Waterfowl Festival all the time, and I was down here and I said to myself one time, I think I can do that.
Describe your carving style.
Well, it’s my style. I have never had a lesson, and I don’t give lessons, because I want to do birds my way. I don’t want to do a bird like somebody else, and I don’t want somebody else to do a bird like mine.
How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed your work?
At one time, I was a commercial hunter. I took hunting parties [out] and grew up on the Bay. It’s just bred into you.
What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
More than a lot of people think. You know, they preserve what they have. And if they don’t, there’s not going to be any [more birds].
What is your favorite bird to carve?
A mallard drake. Why? I don’t know. I don’t like to do wood ducks; I don’t know anybody that does. I did one a couple of months ago, and that’s probably the last one I do. I don’t mind the carving. But I don’t care what you do, you can’t make one look natural.
What drew you to decoy carving?
A necessity. When I first started hunting in the early sixties, we couldn’t afford to buy decoys, so we made them. And the first ones we made were made from two by fours and two by sixes. Kind of looked like something a little kid would make, but they worked. We were making blue bills and canvasbacks, and we made some mallards, but they weren’t that good. Back in the old days, all you had to do was paint a tin can solid black and it would work. You could decoy a duck with just a painted one-gallon can. Now, they’re manufacturing decoys for the hunter, not for the ducks. The prettier a decoy is, it draws the hunter to them. It doesn’t, per se, draw the duck to the decoy.
Describe your carving style.
My carving style today is Upper Chesapeake Bay. I worked for [Havre de Grace decoy carver] Madison Mitchell for approximately seven years. While I was working for him, I worked for the federal government at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where I tested military equipment. The person you go to if you live in Havre de Grace and you want to learn how to make decoys is Madison Mitchell. I don’t think there’s a decoy maker in Havre de Grace that did not work for him.
How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed your work?
I’ve always lived in Havre de Grace. I’ve never lived beyond three blocks from the water. When I was a kid, back in the early fifties, our whole summer was spent around that water, swimming, fishing, crabbing or doing whatever kids seven, eight, nine, 10 years old do. It’s a heritage thing with me, just like the rest of the guys here on the Eastern Shore. They grow up on some of the islands around here; they were brought up fishing, crabbing and eeling. We just followed the path of our forefathers and our grandfathers and our fathers. It’s in our blood. I’ll probably never leave Havre de Grace or leave the water.
What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
I’ve always been associated with Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited and even this organization here, the Waterfowl Festival. I’ve always given decoys so they can raise money. Of course, they transfer the money into their conservation efforts. I donate the material or the products, so they can raise the money and do the [conservation] work.
What is your favorite bird to carve?
I have two. Widgeon, a.k.a. bald pates, and pintails. Canvasbacks are okay, but there’s just so many of them around. I tend to lean toward the more colorful ducks: mallards, pintails and widgeon. That’s generally what I like to carve, something more colorful.
What drew you to decoy carving?
My husband, [Patrick Vincenti], is a carver. I work with him on a daily basis, and I run our store in Havre de Grace. My husband was drawn to [carving] because he was a hunter, and as a hunter, he had a need to make his own decoys. As he started making them, people wanted them, so he left his full-time job in 1986 to be a full-time carver.
Describe his carving style.
It’s definitely a Maryland-style bird. But more specifically, it’s an Upper Bay working decoy.
How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed his work?
Living next to this estuary—which is probably one of the best in the world—the duck hunting here was outstanding. It still is. So I would have to say, the availability of the ducks made the desire to make the decoys and hunt, and as you hunted all those years and you made the decoys, you develop a tremendous respect for that Bay and its richness.
What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
Just like deer hunters or anything else, you have to keep the numbers of birds in check, because there’s not enough food. And as we infringe upon their space, there’s less food for them. So by following the rules and the guidelines of waterfowling, you’re doing it in a fair and right way, and you’re keeping the numbers in check, just like you would for deer or any other animal.
What is your favorite bird that you and your husband sell in your store?
My husband’s would be the canvasback; mine would have to be the black duck. I like the way he paints it, and it just has a look that I like. But the canvasback is the bird that is most desirable, and [Pat] has a strong fondness for canvasbacks.
What drew you to decoy carving?
My dad has made decoys for 63 years. We all made decoys as kids; I’ve got two brothers, younger brother Joey, older brother Bobby. My dad worked for Madison Mitchell in Havre de Grace, Madison Mitchell is my godfather. So we more or less worked for my dad, all of us coming up. As the years went on, we always worked on the water crabbing, fishing and making decoys. And I’ve made decoys for a living for probably 35 years. We all make decoys for a living now.
Describe your carving style.
The carving style is a Chesapeake Bay decoy—an Upper Chesapeake Bay decoy. Where we live, the carving style of the decoy [features] an up-curved tail [and] regular, slick paint. It’s a regular gunning decoy paint style and carving style, made out of white pine and cedar and basswood.
How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed your work?
When we were kids, we body booted on the Susquehanna Flats, [standing in the water, surrounded by decoys]. It’s an area that years ago, in the twenties and thirties and even before that, was home to hundreds of thousands of canvasbacks. Everybody would come to the Flats to kill canvasbacks, black heads and redheads. The Chesapeake Bay is an estuary where all the ducks and geese come in the wintertime, and that was the first place that they stopped, coming down. Then they would disperse through the whole Bay. We grew up on that water.
What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
When they started the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Federal] Duck Stamp in 1937, when Ding Darling made the first Duck Stamp, that was the first conservation stamp. All that money goes to waterfowl. If you didn’t have waterfowlers that hunt, there would be no money to go to the wetlands that Ducks Unlimited restored in North Dakota, South Dakota, the boreal forest. There wouldn’t be anything.
What is your favorite bird to carve?
Canvasback. Drake canvasback. They’re probably the easiest duck to make, but they’re the king of ducks. They’re just so pristine, and they’re a neat duck. They’re the king of the Chesapeake.
The intensive withdrawal of groundwater is causing land to sink in the lower Chesapeake Bay region, worsening the effects of sea-level rise and increasing the severity of floods along the Delmarva Peninsula and Virginia Coastal Plain.
Image courtesy PhotoSeoul/Flickr
Land subsidence, or the sinking of the land’s surface, is in part a natural phenomenon, occurring as bedrock responds to the melting of an ice sheet that once covered Canada and the northern United States. But according to a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), most of the land subsidence in this area is taking place in response to groundwater withdrawal, which could help explain why the region has the highest rates of relative sea-level rise on the Atlantic Coast.
When groundwater is pumped out of the earth, water levels in the area’s underground aquifers decrease. As these water levels decrease, the aquifer system compacts, causing the land above it to sink. In the southern Bay region, land subsidence has been measured at rates of 1.1 to 4.8 millimeters per year—close to the width of five stacked pennies.
Land subsidence can increase flooding, alter wetland and coastal ecosystems, and damage human infrastructure and historical sites. Some areas in Virginia—like the city of Franklin and the counties of Isle of Wight and Southhampton—have already experienced floods as the land around them sinks, and the low-lying Hampton Roads could experience similar episodes soon.
But according to the USGS, a change in water use—from moving groundwater pumping out of high-risk areas to slowing rates of groundwater withdrawal—could slow or mitigate land subsidence and relative sea-level rise.
The Chesapeake Bay Program’s latest look at watershed health reflects the reality of an impaired Bay, where population growth and pollution could threaten stable blue crab, striped bass and shad populations.
Released today, Bay Barometer: Health and Restoration in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed collects and summarizes the Bay Program’s most recent data on water quality, pollution loads and other “indicators” of Bay health, from ecological markers like underwater grass abundance to measures of progress toward restoration goals.
According to the report, more than half of the watershed’s freshwater streams are in poor condition, almost three-quarters of the Bay’s tidal waters are impaired by chemical contaminants and just 29 percent of the Bay has attained water-quality standards.
But an absence of rapid improvement in Bay health is not an indication that our restoration efforts are ineffective. Instead, it is an indication that lag-times are at play. Knowing that we will have to wait before we see visible improvements in water quality gives officials hope that the work done in 2012—like the 285 miles of forest buffers planted along waterways, the 2,231 acres of wetlands established on agricultural lands or the 34 miles of streams reopened to fish passage—will lead to results in the watershed. In fact, long-term trends indicate nutrient levels in Bay tributaries are improving, with most showing lower levels of nitrogen and phosphorous.
“Bay Program partners have made significant strides in moving us ever closer to a healthy, restored Bay watershed,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release. “We will have to exercise persistence and patience as the actions we take to rebuild balance and resilience… into this complex ecosystem… show up in the data from our monitoring networks.”
Growing scientific evidence shows that pathogens, antimicrobials and hormones are increasingly appearing in livestock and poultry manure across the United States, according to a literature review prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Image courtesy USDAgov/Flickr
These “contaminants of emerging concern”—so named because their risks to human health and the environment may be unknown—could pose threats to plants, animals and people if rain, spills or storage failures push contaminated manure into rivers and streams.
The flow of manure into our waterways has long been linked to nutrient pollution. According to 2010 estimates, manure accounts for 19 percent of the nitrogen and 26 percent of the phosphorous entering the Chesapeake Bay, where it fuels the growth of algae blooms and creates dead zones that suffocate marine life. But research now shows that more of the nation’s manure could contain a new class of pollutants that could have serious implications for water quality.
Manure can contain pathogens, for instance, that could infect humans if allowed to contaminate our drinking water or food crops. It can contain antibiotics and vaccines that could facilitate the development of antimicrobial resistance. And it can contain natural and artificial hormones that, even in low concentrations, could affect the reproductive health and fitness of fish, frogs and other marine life.
Indeed, good manure management has become a key conservation practice in the watershed, where four states—Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia—rank among the ten highest manure-generating states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). As livestock and poultry production shift to larger, more concentrated operations, facilities produce more manure than can be used on the surrounding farmland. If this manure is properly applied, stored and transported, it can be kept out of rivers, streams and the Bay.
Learn more about contaminants in livestock and poultry manure.
The Potomac Conservancy has reported an improvement in the Potomac River’s health for the third year in a row, giving the waterway a “C” in its seventh annual State of the Nation’s River report.
The Potomac Conservancy, an advocacy group that fights for the health of the waterway, has an optimistic outlook for the river’s future. “After suffering the effects of historical overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction, it is no wonder that the Potomac River’s recovery is a slow one,” the report states. “We believe the river is on its way back to full health.”
In 2012, the Potomac topped American Rivers’ list of the nation’s most endangered waterways, the biggest threat a combination of agricultural and stormwater runoff. With continued population growth in the Washington, D.C., area, human development has increased the amount of impervious surfaces that cannot absorb polluted rainfall traveling across the land and into storm drains, rivers and streams.
“Going forward, when it comes to cleaning up the Potomac, public enemy number one is polluted runoff,” said Hedrick Belin, Potomac Conservancy president. “That is the single largest threat to the full recovery of the Potomac, in that it is the only source of pollution that we see growing.”
The Conservancy plans to take a “three-pronged” approach to reducing polluted runoff, strengthening regulatory frames at a local level, increasing funding for clean water programs and creating incentives and assistance programs for property owners to make it easier for them to contribute to a healthy waterway.
Belin stresses the importance of protecting both the river and the land that surrounds it. ”As we peek around the corner or over the horizon, we see some troubling trends if we don’t change how we treat the land that surrounds the Potomac,” he explained.
The oldest body of seawater ever identified is buried under the Chesapeake Bay.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), this recently discovered body of water dates back to the Early Cretaceous period, when wet and dry seasons controlled the climate, tropical jungles dominated the landscape and dinosaurs were becoming more plentiful.
Image courtesy Nicolle Rager-Fuller/National Science Foundation
The water is buried beneath a large meteorite that struck the earth 35 million years ago, throwing debris into the atmosphere and spawning a train of tsunamis that probably reached as far as the Blue Ridge Mountains. The so-called “Chesapeake Bay impact crater” is the largest crater discovered in the United States and helped determine the current shape of the Bay.
Because the water is trapped in place, USGS scientists have been able to estimate its age—100 to 145 million years old—and its salinity—twice as salty as modern seawater.
Acting USGS Associate Director for Water Jerad Bales said in a media release that before this discovery was made, no one realized that the saltier-than-normal groundwater found deep in the Atlantic Coastal Plain “was North Atlantic ocean water that has essentially been in place for 100 million years.”
“We are working directly with seawater that dates far back in earth’s history,” Bales said.
Slow-moving groundwater on the Delmarva Peninsula could push excess nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay even after we have lowered the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous we put onto the land.
Image courtesy yorgak/Flickr
According to new research from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), most of Delmarva is affected by the slow movement of nutrients from the land into the water. A USGS model developed to track the movement of nitrogen through the region showed that groundwater—and the pollutants it can contain—takes an average of 20 to 40 years to flow through the peninsula’s porous aquifers into rivers and streams. In some parts of Delmarva, the groundwater that is now flowing into local waterways contains nitrogen linked to fertilizer used three decades ago.
The slow flow of nitrogen-laden groundwater into the Bay could affect efforts to restore the watershed, lengthening the “lag-time” between the adoption of a conservation practice and the effect of that practice on a particular waterway. In other words, it could take days or even decades for today's management actions to produce positive water quality results.
“This new understanding of how groundwater affects water-quality restoration in the Chesapeake Bay will help sharpen our focus as many agencies, organizations and individuals work together to improve conditions for fish and wildlife,” said Lori Caramanian, Department of the Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, in a media release.
While these findings seem to contradict the value of our restoration work, the study in fact indicates that pollution-reducing practices put in place over the past decade have begun to work. The study also confirms that rigorous steps taken to reduce nutrients on the land will lower the amount of nitrogen loading into streams in the future.
How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?
William Shakespeare, Othello, Act II, Scene 3
Between fast food restaurants and speed-of-light cell phones, we live in a culture of instant gratification. But the environment around us doesn’t operate that way. Instead, it is slow to respond to changes—like the upsets or imbalances created by human activity.
Scientific evidence shows that many of the pollution-reducing practices we are placing on the ground now may take years to show visible improvements in water quality. One reason? Pollutants can be persistent. French and Canadian researchers, for instance, tracked the movement of fertilizer through a plot of land over the course of three decades. While more than half of the fertilizer applied to the land in 1982 was absorbed by agricultural crops like wheat and sugar beet, 12 to 15 percent remained in the soil. The researchers predicted it would take an additional 50 years before the fertilizer fully disappeared from the environment.
Much of the farmland in the Chesapeake Bay watershed sits over groundwater, now contaminated with high levels of nitrates following years of fertilizer applications above ground. Work by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has shown that it will take a decade for this nitrogen-laden groundwater to flow into rivers, streams and the Bay. On the Delmarva Peninsula, where deeper, sandy aquifers underlie the Coastal Plain, this so-called “lag-time” could take 20 to 40 years.
So what implications could lag-times have for the Bay restoration effort? Last year, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) released a report about the lag-time phenomenon. The team of experts concluded that lag-times will affect public perception of our progress toward meeting the pollution diet set forth by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
The TMDL requires the six Bay states and the District of Columbia to implement their proposed pollution-reduction measures by 2025. There may be an expectation on the part of the general public and our elected officials that once these measures are fully implemented, the Bay will have met its water quality goals. But now we know that it may take some time before we can make that claim. As 2025 approaches, we must remind the public that lag-times exist and ask for their patience in seeing a healthy Bay. Because through patience—and vigilance—the Bay will be restored.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy, endorsement, or action.
From the restoration of tidal wetlands to the greening of a town cemetery, 40 environmental projects across the Chesapeake Bay watershed have received more than $9 million in funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.
Image courtesy Eric Vance/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Half of the projects will be funded by the Small Watershed Grants Program, which supports on-the-ground restoration, conservation and community engagement. Twenty more will be funded by the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants Program, which finances the reduction of nutrient and sediment pollution in rivers and streams.
The Anacostia Watershed Society, for instance, will restore more than 10 acres of tidal wetlands along the Anacostia River, improving area flood control and outdoor recreation. The Oyster Recovery Partnership will repopulate at least 40 acres of oyster reefs in Harris Creek, bolstering current restoration work in the Choptank River tributary. And the Town of Bath in West Virginia will bring green infrastructure into a local cemetery, increasing tree canopy and reducing erosion into the Potomac River.
Image courtesy Eric Vance/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
The awards were announced this morning at the Earth Conservation Corps Pump House, where a wetland restoration project was funded by the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund in 2012.
Learn more about the grant recipients.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to more than 17 million people, each of whom is reliant on water. But as populations grow and communities expand, we send pollutants into our rivers and streams, affecting every drop of water in the region. How, then, do so many of us still have access to clean water? The answer lies within wastewater treatment plants.
One plant, in particular, plays a pivotal role in the region’s water quality. Located in Washington, D.C., the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant has served the D.C. metropolitan area since 1983. The plant receives 40 percent of its flow from Maryland, 40 percent from the District and 20 percent from Virginia. With the capacity to treat 370 million gallons of sewage each day, it is the largest wastewater treatment plant in the world and the only one in the nation to serve multiple states.
Recently, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority—also known as DC Water—made technological upgrades to Blue Plains. Evidence shows these upgrades have already accounted for reductions in nutrient pollution and a resurgence in the upper Potomac River’s bay grass beds. Indeed, putting new wastewater treatment technology in place is a critical step toward meeting the pollution limits established in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load. As of 2012, 45 percent of the watershed's 467 wastewater treatment plants had limits in place that met water quality standards.
Because of spatial constraints, many of upgrades planned for Blue Plains will focus on intensifying the wastewater treatment process. According to Sudhir Muthy, innovation chief for DC Water, the more concentrated the purification process is, the more energy efficient the plant can be.
For decades, the philosophy behind wastewater treatment plants has been to imitate those clean water processes that you might see in natural systems. Lately, there has been a shift in thinking about how wastewater is treated. Murthy explains: “Now, more attention is given to using the energy created within the treatment process to run the plant. [For example,] carbon has a lot of energy and is created during the treatment process. We are trying to harness [carbon’s] energy to help the plant run in a more energy-efficient way. We are now asking: How do we optimize the use of energy within the wastewater treatment process?”
Blue Plains hopes to become energy neutral in 10 to 15 years, and upgrades to reduce pollution and save energy will continue for years to come. A new tunnel will allow both sewage and wastewater to flow from the District to the plant, where it will be treated to reduce the flow of polluted runoff into the Potomac River. And a new process will recycle “waste” heat to “steam explode” bacterial sludge, turning it into a biosolid that can be mixed with soil, used as fertilizer and generate extra revenue.
“All processes use energy,” Muthy said. “But if you can find ways to offset or recycle that energy use, then you can move towards being more efficient.”
The James River Association has measured a slight improvement in James River health, giving the waterway a “C” in its latest State of the James report.
Image courtesy tvnewsbadge/Flickr
The river’s score of 53 on a one-to-100 scale marks a two percent increase since the report was last issued in 2011, but continued problems with sediment pollution overshadow progress made elsewhere.
While sediment is a natural part of the environment, excess particles of sand, silt and clay can cloud the water, harming underwater grasses, fish and shellfish. According to the State of the James report, sediment pollution in the James has shown no improvement over the past two decades, indicating that stronger measures should be taken to restore streamside forests and other buffers that can filter runoff before it enters rivers and streams.
Virginia has made strides, however, in reducing nutrient pollution, as it works to meet limits set by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load or “pollution diet.” The Commonwealth has invested in wastewater treatment, increased funding toward agricultural conservation and focused attention on controlling stormwater runoff.
The Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone measured near average in size this past summer, coming close to scientists’ June prediction of a smaller than average hypoxic zone in the nation’s largest estuary.
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die. The bacteria that aid in algae bloom decomposition suck up oxygen from the surrounding waters. The resulting hypoxic or anoxic conditions can suffocate marine life, shrinking the habitat available for fish, crabs and other critters.
Each summer, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) collect water samples to measure the hypoxic volume of the Bay. Since 1983, this number has ranged from 15.3 to 33.1 percent. In 2013, it measured 22.1 percent: 5.6 percent higher than the previous year and just above the 21.9 percent average.
Cover crops, sediment ponds and streamside trees and shrubs: each of these conservation practices will slow the flow of pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay. But each will take different amounts of time to produce water quality results, according to a panel of experts convened by the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Image courtesy Uncle Kick-Kick/Flickr
In a report released this month, the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) notes that the impacts of changes in land use and pollution loads into rivers and streams will not always be immediately reflected in changes to water quality. In fact, these so-called “lag-times”—or the stretch of time between the adoption of a conservation practice and the effect of that practice on a particular waterway—could call for patience in awaiting visible results from our restoration work.
Lag times are a natural part of our environment: as rainwater soaks into the ground, it can move nitrogen through the soil, and strong storms can pick up sediment and deposit it elsewhere. Because conditions in the Bay are a result of current human activities and a legacy of activities from the past, it makes sense that management actions taken now could take days or even decades to produce positive results. In fact, scientists know that some practices—in particular, those that take place close to rivers and streams—can produce results faster than others.
But according to STAC, this doesn’t mean that we should scale back on watershed restoration. Instead, an understanding of lag-times improves our understanding of how the ecosystem works, and reminds us to be “patiently realistic about the time-scale for observing results.”
Learn more about lag-times and the Chesapeake Bay.
Innovations in wastewater treatment are proving effective at removing nitrogen from our waste before it is returned to rivers and streams, according to a panel of experts convened by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC).
In a report released last week, STAC concludes that exploring and adopting these new technologies could help the 467 wastewater treatment plants across the watershed better respond to development pressure and continue to reduce nutrient pollution and restore water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
Three decades ago, wastewater treatment plants and combined sewer overflows were the second biggest source of nitrogen loads to the Bay. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and rob water of the oxygen that aquatic species need to survive. But, since the mid-1980s, advancements in nutrient reduction technologies have allowed wastewater treatment plants to reduce their nutrient loads to our waterways: between 1985 and 2012, nitrogen loads to the Bay from wastewater discharges dropped 52 percent.
A number of these new technologies put hungry microbes to work, as algae or bacteria feed on the nitrogen and phosphorous in our waste. While research in this area is still evolving, it’s possible that these technologies could also work to transform the harmful pharmaceuticals that have increasingly appeared in our wastewater over the past few decades.
Read more about wastewater treatment technologies.
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.
For many people, the summer months are an ideal time to get outdoors and connect with nature. The 64,000 square mile Chesapeake Bay watershed offers a wide range of recreational opportunities, but with the responsibilities of everyday life, some find it hard to set aside time to enjoy them. If getting outdoors is not an option, don’t fret! Here are eight ways to access the Bay from the comfort of your home or office.
Image courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
1. NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS) and Chesapeake Smart Buoy Application. The Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS) is a network of observation buoys managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The buoys mark various locations along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, capturing real-time environmental and weather data such as temperature, wind speed and wave height. This information is available online and on the new “Smart Buoy” application for the iPhone and Android. It is also accessible over the phone: calling the toll-free “dial-a-buoy” number turns each buoy into a floating classroom, as a narrator offers up parcels of information about Captain John Smith’s adventures through the Bay.
We recommend: The data snapshot page for the most up to date data on all of the buoys.
Image courtesy Chesapeake Conservancy
2. Chesapeake Conservancy's Osprey Camera. Ospreys are one of the Bay’s most resilient creatures. After bouncing back from a nearly 90 percent population decline between 1950 and 1970, their growing numbers are now watched as an indicator of Chesapeake Bay health. They mate for life and always return to the same location come nesting season. This nesting habit inspired the Chesapeake Conservancy to place a camera in the nest of their “resident” ospreys, named Tom and Audrey, and stream a live feed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for anyone who is interested in getting a bird’s eye view of nature’s ultimate “reality show.
We recommend: The Osprey Camera Blog for all things Tom and Audrey. It's an informative and highly entertaining read!
3. Chesapeake Bay Program Website: The Chesapeake Bay Program website highlights the work of the Bay Program and its partners. News and feature stories shed light on our restoration efforts, while data tracks years of restoration work. The website also offers resources that are perfect for students and teachers, from a series of pages that offer an in-depth look at the issues restoration partners must face to a collection of photos and maps.
We recommend: Using our Field Guide to learn about the hundreds of critters that call the Bay watershed home!
4. From your phone! Chesapeake Explorer and National Wildlife Refuge Applications: In this age of innovation, technology is constantly evolving and changing the way we view the world. The widespread popularity of smart phones and tablets has inspired the National Park Service (NPS) and a small New York start-up called Network Organisms to create applications that allow people to explore the Bay from the palm of their hand. The National Wildlife Refuges: Chesapeake Bay application for iPhones encourages users to explore the 11 National Wildlife Refuges around the Bay, sharing wildlife sightings and connecting with other outdoor enthusiasts. Chesapeake Explorer is compatible with both iPhone and Android devices. It helps people find places around the watershed based on specific activities, trail names or types of sites. Both applications are free, so get your phone out and start exploring!
We recommend: Experiencing the region's beauty by planning a trip to one of the National Trails featured on Chesapeake Explorer.
Image courtesy National Geographic
5. National Geographic’s Chesapeake Bay Field Scope: National Geographic’s Chesapeake Bay Field Scope is a tool that promotes the exploration, sharing and analysis of the Bay. Users are presented with real-world data sets about rivers and streams, wetlands, elevation, water depth and more. The information on this site is collected from students and scientists that work directly with the Bay. The site also features a map layering tool, a set of student observations and real time data comparisons.
We recommend: Using Query Point to get instant information about any given point on a map.
6. Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network: The Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network was created in 2000 by the National Park Service (NPS) as a resource to connect people to authentic Bay experiences, sights and places. Today, more than 160 parks, wildlife refuges, museums, sailing ships, historic communities, trails and more are part of the Gateways Network. The network allows visitors to search for sites, watch slideshows, make plans to visit and learn about the Bay.
We recommend: Listening to the Sounds of the Bay. These audio excerpts from Window on the Chesapeake: The Bay, Its People, and Places take listeners on a journey through the Bay.
7. Maryland Healthy Beaches: Plan on heading to a Maryland beach this summer? Be sure to check the Maryland Healthy Beaches' Beach Notification System before you go. This application is updated with the most current beach advisories, closures, and bacteria levels. The notification system also provides rainfall accumulation data for every beach location.
We recommend: Visiting the Healthy Beach Habitats page for helpful tips about how to enjoy the beach the healthy way.
8. National Geographic’s Exploring the Chesapeake: Then and Now. Are you a history buff? National Geographic’s Exploring the Chesapeake: Then and Now puts the Bay’s past and its present at a user’s fingertips. National Geographic launched the website alongside the 400th anniversary of the establishment of Jamestown, with the intention that it would be used to compare the world that John Smith lived in to the present day. The site includes lesson plans for educators, links to stories about the Bay, travel guides, field trip suggestions and more.
We recommend: Exploring the Chesapeake Bay as if it were the 1600’s with the site's interactive mapping tool.
Seven cities and non-profit organizations are set to reduce stormwater runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, using green development to combat the fastest-growing source of pollution in the watershed.
Image courtesy Isaac Wedin/Flickr
Grant funding administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Chesapeake Bay Trust (CBT) through the Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns initiative will help cities transform impervious sidewalks, streets and parking lots into green corridors that will capture and filter polluted runoff before it can flow into storm drains, rivers and streams.
A total of $400,000 will go toward green development projects in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. The town of Cambridge, Md., for instance, will use $75,000 to turn a paved surface into a park, while the District will use $95,000 to install bioretention cells and treeboxes along O St. NW.
Stormwater runoff is a growing concern in urban and suburban areas, where rainfall picks up pollutants as it flows across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses. But certain practices—including green roofs, rain gardens and permeable pavement—can help stormwater trickle underground rather than into the Bay.
Scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) have measured an improvement in Chesapeake Bay health, giving the estuary a “C” in its latest Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
Up from a “D+” in 2011, the Bay Health Index of 47 percent takes into account seven indicators of Bay health, including water clarity and dissolved oxygen; the amount of algae, nitrogen and phosphorous in the water; the abundance of underwater grasses; and the health of the benthic or bottom-dwelling community. While underwater grasses continued to decline, the rest of the indicators improved in 2012.
Image courtesy EcoCheck/Integration and Application Network
“I’m cautiously optimistic about the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” said UMCES Vice President for Science Applications and Professor Bill Dennison in a media release. “We are seeing progress in our efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous levels. In addition, water clarity, which had been declining, has leveled out—and may even be reversing course.”
According to the report card, these improvements are due to a number of weather events. While excess rainfall can push nutrient and sediment pollution into rivers and streams, a dry summer in 2011 led to improvements in water clarity and dissolved oxygen and the favorable timing and track of Superstorm Sandy meant the storm did less damage to the Bay than some feared.
Learn more about the 2012 Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die. As bacteria help these blooms decompose, they suck up oxygen from the surrounding waters. The resulting hypoxic or anoxic conditions can suffocate marine life.
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks dissolved oxygen as an indicator of water quality and Bay health.
The latest NOAA-funded forecast from researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the University of Michigan predicts an average summer hypoxic zone of 1.108 cubic miles, lower than last year’s mid-summer hypoxic zone of 1.45 cubic miles.
This predicted improvement should result from the lower than average nutrient loads that entered the Bay this spring. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 36,600 metric tons of nutrients entered the estuary from the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers, which is 30 percent lower than average.
The Bay’s dead zones are measured at regular intervals each year by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. While the final dead zone measurement will not take place until October, DNR biologists measured better than average dissolved oxygen on its June monitoring cruise, confirming the dead zone forecast.
To track the health of the Chesapeake Bay, researchers across the watershed watch so-called “indicator species” for clues about water quality. Bay grasses—sensitive to pollution but quick to respond to water quality improvements—are one such indicator. Bay grasses are monitored each year by a range of experts in the field, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), the latter of which compiles Bay-wide observations in an annual report on bay grass abundance.
Bay grasses, also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV, provide critical habitat and food for wildlife, add oxygen to the water, absorb nutrients, trap sediment and reduce erosion.
During the months of May, July and September, biologists like Chris Guy, who works with USFWS, visit randomly selected sample sites throughout the Bay. Occasionally accompanied by volunteers, their mission is to track the ebb and flow of underwater grass beds in order to gauge the health of the Bay.
Once a sampling site is reached, researchers use a refractometer to determine the salinity of the water. Different bay grass species prefer different salinity levels, and this measurement gives biologists a hint as to what kind of grasses they should expect to find.
Biologists measure water clarity by submerging a black and white Secchi disk until it is no longer visible, at which point it is pulled up and the waterline is measured. Clear water is important to the health of bay grasses. Because they need sunlight to survive, submerged aquatic vegetation is typically not found in water deeper than five feet.
Once the salinity and turbidity are measured, a rake is tossed into the water and allowed to sink to the bottom.
As the rake grips the bottom and the boat moves forward, the line attaching the rake to the boat becomes taught. The thrower hauls it back on board, records the grass species that are found and rates the abundance level on a scale of one to four. A one indicates an empty rake, while a four means that at least 70 percent of the rake is full of grass.
Hundreds of sampling trips allow scientists to amass a set of data that can be used to measure grass abundance across the Bay. Over the past 30 years, this number has fluctuated with changes in weather and water quality. In 2012, a VIMS analysis indicated bay grasses experienced a 21 percent decline, from just over 63,000 acres in 2011 to just over 48,000 in 2012. The Chesapeake Bay Program and its partners hope to restore 185,000 acres of underwater grasses to the Bay, which would approach historic twentieth century averages and bring a dramatic improvement to the entire Bay ecosystem.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Photos by Steve Droter
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.
Baltimore Harbor scored a C- on its latest water quality report card, marking a modest improvement from the previous year’s failing grade. According to the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore and Blue Water Baltimore, who released the Healthy Harbor Report Card earlier this month, the Harbor met water quality standards 40 percent of the time in 2012.
Image courtesy Affordable Memories Photography of Fredericksburg/Flickr
While the spring of 2012 brought an algae bloom, a fish kill and a sewage spill to the Harbor, the summer saw little rainfall and a drop in the amount of polluted runoff being pushed off of streets and into the urban waterway.
The nonprofits behind the release of the report card hope to make the Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020, and have embarked on a number of environmental initiatives to achieve this goal. More than 50 floating wetlands continue to capture stormwater runoff, absorb excess nutrients and provide habitat to water-filtering invertebrates after being installed along the Harbor’s shoreline. And students from five Baltimore City public schools have formed Green Teams to boost local awareness about the region’s persistent trash problem.
Learn more about the Healthy Harbor Report Card.
I bristle when I hear people refer to stormwater utility fees as a “rain tax.” In fact, these fees generate critical funding for green practices that mitigate the effects that roads, parking lots and rooftops have on our environment.
Businesses and residents have been adding impervious surfaces to the landscape for decades, preventing rain from percolating into the ground, where it would otherwise recharge groundwater and provide base flow for nearby streams. Instead, these impervious surfaces increase the volume and velocity of rainwater, causing flooding, damaging property and destroying local waterways. I am not trying to fix blame, but to inform folks about the problems associated with stormwater management and the best ways to correct them.
We are learning how to better manage stormwater by mimicking natural processes. We have found, for instance, that by directing rainwater from our roofs, sidewalks and parking lots into rain barrels or rain gardens, we can keep it out of our storm drains, reducing pressure on aging stormwater infrastructure. On large commercial and institutional properties, we can construct green roofs to absorb the rain so it doesn’t need to be discharged to a concrete system that is expensive to build and maintain. Green roofs can even increase the life of roofing systems and provide insulation, reducing heating and cooling costs.
Stormwater utility fees provide an equitable means for generating revenue based on the amount of impervious surface. The revenue can then be used to make these improvements. Most utilities also provide exemptions from these fees for homeowners or businesses that adopt these green practices. By promoting these practices, the costs of property damage associated with flooding are reduced, which can reduce the overall tax burden as well. Mother Nature teaches best and, in the end, it costs less.
This winter saw an increase in waterfowl along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast.
While pilots and biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) counted fewer diving and dabbling ducks this winter than they did in the 2012 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey, these same crews counted more geese.
According to a DNR news release, both Canada geese and snow geese were “noticeably more abundant during this year’s survey,” with crews counting 462,000 Canada geese—a three-year high—and 83,300 snow geese—a five-year high. Biologists have attributed the boost in goose numbers to two factors: last spring’s successful nesting season and December snow cover in New York and southern Canada, which encouraged geese to migrate into the Bay region right before the survey was taken.
While more geese could mean more damage to area farms—as the birds forage on green cover crops and grain crops—most farmers “have learned to deal with the problem,” said Larry Hindman, wildlife biologist and Waterfowl Project Leader with DNR. Fluttering plastic flags, bald eagle effigies placed in the middle of fields and the loud bang of a rifle or shotgun have all proven effective at deterring persistent geese, Hindman said, and those farmers who need extra help can find assistance and advice in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Damage Management program.
Resident Canada geese can pose a problem for rural, suburban and urban residents alike, and are considered overabundant in the region. While the birds do provide hunters with a chance for recreation, resident geese can overgraze wetlands and lawns and leave their droppings to pollute local rivers and streams. While the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey does not make a distinction between resident and migratory geese—as both stocks look the same during an aerial survey—DNR researchers do monitor the resident population using leg bands recovered from hunters.
The Midwinter Waterfowl Survey is used as an index of long-term wintering waterfowl trends. The estimates measure waterfowl populations along the Atlantic Flyway, which is a bird migration route that follows North America’s Atlantic Coast and Appalachian Mountains.
Read the full waterfowl survey results on the DNR website.
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.
Part construction site, part mud pit and part wildlife refuge, the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island, Md., tackles two unique challenges in the Chesapeake Bay.
First, sand and sediment accumulate in the Bay’s vital shipping channels—particularly during heavy rain events like Tropical Storm Lee in 2011—and threaten to block cargo ships that allow the Port of Baltimore to contribute $2 billion each year to the region’s economy.
On the other hand, sea level rise, sinking land and increasingly frequent strong storms are quickly eroding away the Bay’s few remaining islands, threatening the survival of iconic wildlife species and critical habitat.
Poplar Island, for example, spanned more than 1,100 acres in the mid-1800s and supported a small community of families, farmers and fishermen until it was abandoned in the 1930s. When restoration began in the 1990s, four scattered acres were all that remained—less than half a percent of the island’s historical size.
But the island that was nearly destroyed is now destined to be rebuilt using 65 million cubic yards of sedimentary silt—imagine a giant cube of mud a quarter mile long in each direction—dredged up from the bottom of the Bay.
In 1998, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to construct stone “containment dykes.” The walls are 10 feet tall and surround Poplar Island’s former footprint, and the island has been divided into six massive containment cells for building island habitat.
The western half of the island, surrounded by an inner ring of 27-foot dykes, is being transformed into 570 acres of forested upland island habitat similar to that of neighboring Coaches Island.
Coaches Island, once vulnerable to the same forces that washed away its neighbor, supports upland species like bald eagles and provides a shallow inlet utilized by nesting diamondback terrapins in the summer and migratory waterfowl during winter.
The eastern half of Poplar Island is further divided into 14 “sub-cells” undergoing various stages of wetland construction and management.
Low-lying wetlands are created through a four-step process. First, dredged sediment is brought in on barges by the Maryland Port Administration, mixed into a watery slurry, and pumped into each cell at precise levels.
As the slurry dries, it forms a massive crust—a vast, other-worldly landscape—that is the base for building habitat.
Next, heavy machines carefully grade the crust and excavate ditches that will function as tidal creeks in the completed marsh.
Then a spillway is opened to expose the new landscape to tidal flow, and water is allowed to move between the Bay and the newly built marshland.
Finally, individual plugs of smooth and saltmeadow cordgrass are planted row upon row into the nutrient-rich soil.
These native plants are capable of withstanding strong storms while offering food and shelter to the 175 species of shorebirds, songbirds, waterfowl and raptors that now visit Poplar Island.
Poplar Island's marshes offer protection and isolation from human and mammalian predators, and the open waters along its perimeter provide feeding opportunities for diving ducks like buffleheads, scaups and long-tailed ducks.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages the island’s vegetation and wildlife—including less welcome species like the Canada goose. Fences and fluttering pink flags help deter geese and prevent them from overfeeding on expensive marsh grass.
On our visit in January 2013, USFWS wildlife technician Robbie Callahan led a monitoring team to assess the density of muskrat huts in the marsh. The semiaquatic rodents, though a critical part of the wetland ecosystem, are controlled to prevent damage from overpopulation.
The USFWS also monitors avian predators—like the northern harriers that feed on small rodents—and migratory waterfowl, attracted to Poplar Island during their spring and fall trips along the Atlantic Flyway.
With the help of USFWS experts, Poplar Island is able to provide a range of Bay species with the safe nesting habitat that only a protected, well-managed island can.
Even sunken barges—placed here in the mid-1990s as “breakwaters” in an attempt to retain the island’s remnants—have become host to nesting ospreys and black-crowned night herons.
According to the USFWS, Poplar Island is well on its way to becoming a keystone wildlife refuge. “Poplar Island is an important refuge,” said USFWS biologist Pete McGowan, who specializes in waterfowl and island restoration. “There are species that are highly dependent on these remote island habitats. And this is a habitat type that is rapidly disappearing from the Chesapeake Bay. We need to do what we can to maximize the remaining island habitat that we have, and create new island habitat whenever possible.”
The Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project is scheduled for completion in 2041, with a final price tag estimated at $1.4 billion over 45 years. Rebuilding Poplar Island is an enormous, expensive and painstaking process—but its virtues of “beneficial use” have been extolled throughout the conservation and business communities alike, and it has become a "win-win" for the Bay and all the watershed provides.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
The District of Columbia has outlined the steps it will take to become the healthiest, greenest and most livable city in the United States.
The Sustainable DC Plan, released this week by the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) and Office of Planning (OE), sets forth more than 100 actions that are meant to improve the District’s energy consumption, waste generation, stormwater management and access to open spaces, clean water and fresh, local food—all in just two decades.
At an event that celebrated the release of the plan, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent C. Gray called Washington, D.C., a “model” of sustainability for cities across the nation and around the world.
“Things are changing. Times are changing. And we are changing,” Gray said.
In recent years, the District has become a leader in planting trees, installing green roofs, boosting public transportation and curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Sustainable DC Plan will build on these actions with ambitious goals to clean up local land, water and the Chesapeake Bay. The District will ensure, for instance, that all residents live within a 10-minute walk of parks or natural spaces; that 40 percent of the city is covered with a healthy tree canopy; and that all of the District’s waterways—including the long-polluted Anacostia River—are made fishable and swimmable by 2032.
Read more about the Sustainable DC Plan.
After eleven years, $40 million and more than 16,000 linear feet of pipe, West Virginia is set to bring a new wastewater treatment plant online and make huge cuts to the pollution it sends into the Chesapeake Bay.
Under construction in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, the Moorefield Wastewater Treatment Plant will replace four existing plants with one new system, marking a significant milestone in the headwater state’s efforts to curb pollution and improve water quality. Expected to go into operation this fall, the plant will remove 90,000 pounds of nitrogen and 93,000 pounds of phosphorous from West Virginia wastewater each year.
Funded by a range of sources—including the West Virginia Economic Development Authority, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—the new plant is heralded as evidence that thoughtful planning and forward-thinking—especially where pollution regulations are concerned—can help a community move toward conservation and environmental change.
In the 1990s, the hundreds of wastewater treatment plants that are located across the watershed could be blamed for more than a quarter of the nutrient pollution entering the Bay, as the plants pumped water laden with nitrogen and phosphorous into local rivers and streams. Such an excess of nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and, during decomposition, rob the water of the oxygen that aquatic species need to survive.
But in the last decade, technological upgrades to wastewater treatment plants have surged, and the pollution cuts that result mean these plants now contribute less than 20 percent of the nutrients still entering the Bay.
According to Rich Batiuk, Associate Director for Science with the EPA, the uptick in upgrades can be attributed to a number of factors.
“Wastewater treatment plants have always been regulated,” Batiuk said. “But [until the last decade], there wasn’t the science or the political will or the … water quality standards that could drive the higher levels of wastewater treatment that result in lower levels of nitrogen and phosphorous flowing into the watershed.”
As the science behind wastewater engineering has improved and the incentives for implementing upgrades have grown, more plants have begun to make changes. Some implement a “zero discharge” plan, using nutrient-rich effluent to feed agricultural crops rather than excess algae. Others—like the Moorefield plant—expose wastewater to nutrient-hungry microbes that feed on nitrogen and phosphorous; the resulting sludge, modified without the addition of chemicals, can be turned into compost rather than fodder for the local landfill.
Such modern upgrades to otherwise aging infrastructure have been celebrated as a boon for local communities and the wider watershed. While the Moorefield plant will, in the end, curb pollution into the Bay, it will first curb pollution in the South Branch of the Potomac River, into which it sends its effluent.
"The South Branch of the Potomac is a unique place,” Batiuk said. “People fish there, they swim there. This new plant helps more than the Chesapeake Bay.”
And Moorefield residents—including the Town of Moorefield Public Works Director Lucas Gagnon—plan to witness this local change firsthand.
“The residents in this area are aware of the Chesapeake Bay and its needed [nutrient] reductions,” Gagnon said. “But the biggest benefit for the local folks will be the reduction of nutrients in local waterways.”
“There are many people that fish and boat the South Branch,” Gagnon continued. “When this plant goes online, the water quality will be greatly enhanced, and they will have a much cleaner, better river to enjoy.”
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has measured a “modest” improvement in Chesapeake Bay health, giving the Bay a “D+” in its biannual State of the Bay report.
While the Bay’s score of 32 on a one-to-100 scale falls short of what the Foundation would like to see—70 points, or an “A+”—this does mark a progression of one point since the report was last issued in 2010, and of four points since 2008.
Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation
The report marks improvements in five of 13 “indicators,” or gauges of Bay health, which Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker attributes to sound science, renewed restoration efforts and the “Clean Water Blueprint,” or Total Maximum Daily Load, that is “in place and beginning to work.”
“Putting science to work gets results—especially when cooperation trumps conflict,” Baker said.
Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation
These results? According to the Foundation, the average size of the Bay’s annual dead zone is shrinking. Blue crabs are producing more juveniles and oyster spat are showing improved survival. And states like Virginia and Pennsylvania are planting trees and preserving land from development. Even as critical acres of underwater grass beds are lost—the one indicator to worsen over the past two years—the once-decimated grasses of the Susquehanna Flats offered good news, surviving Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.
Even so, Baker advocated caution: “Our greatest worry is that there is potential for improvement to breed complacency.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program will publish Bay Barometer, its annual snapshot of Bay health and watershed-wide restoration, later this month.
Read the 2012 State of the Bay report.
On one of the last remaining islands of the Chesapeake Bay, generations of working watermen have found a home.
Settled in the late seventeenth century, Tangier Island spans a five-mile stretch of water and has never supported more than 1,500 people. Its small size and relative isolation have allowed its residents to maintain a close connection to the past, keeping old customs and a distinct Tidewater dialect alive.
Modern families—with surnames like Crockett, Pruitt, Parks and Dise—can trace their lineage back hundreds of years, and the island’s economy remains tied to the harvest of crabs, fish and oysters. But these tenuous traditions are threatened by worsening water quality and sea-level rise.
In December, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team called together decision-makers and watermen for a shared meal and stakeholders’ discussion at one of Tangier Island’s four sit-down restaurants.
Watermen from Tangier and neighboring Smith Island spoke of the problems they see in and on the Bay and how they might be more involved in the management decisions that directly impact their livelihoods.
Held in the community in which these watermen live and work, the meeting allowed many of them to speak and be heard in a new and significant way.
One of the most pressing problems for the watermen is the flow of sediment into the Bay. As sediment runs off of land and into the water, sand and silt block sunlight from reaching the grass beds that offer shedding blue crabs refuge when their soft shells make them most vulnerable.
Soft-shell crabs are critical to the Tangier Island economy. And a loss of grass beds—which one waterman called “the life blood of the Chesapeake Bay”—could mean a loss of soft-shell crabs. “The habitat,” a second waterman said. “It just ain’t there.”
Seawalls have been put in place to slow the erosion of the island. But as sea levels rise, the land sinks and storms like Sandy, Irene and Isabel grow stronger and more frequent, Tangier continues to wash away.
The northernmost portion of Tangier Island is called Uppards. Once home to a store, a school, a church and a collection of homes, the life of Uppards has disappeared, leaving behind one tumbledown trailer and stretches of marsh, sand and beach.
In October, a small cemetery was uncovered on Uppards by the winds and waves of Superstorm Sandy. Headstones in the graveyard bear the common surname Pruitt. The once-buried bones of those who died in the 1880s are now visible aboveground.
This fall, Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell and officials from the Army Corps of Engineers pledged to build a $4.2 million jetty that will protect the island’s harbor. Some see the long-awaited initiative as a beacon of hope, while others believe it serves only to slow inevitable erosion.
As Tangier Island shrinks, the costs of fuel and gear and living rise, placing further pressure on the island’s aging watermen.
But what career alternatives does a waterman have? Some take jobs aboard tug boats. Other host tours for visitors from the mainland. And still others have found work as captains and educators at island study centers operated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
But most Tangier residents would find it difficult to obtain work off the island, where a 45-minute ride on a ferry or mail boat is needed to make it to the nearest town. One waterman lamented this lack of options: “We don’t have the opportunity to get a land job.”
A dependence on the fish and shellfish of the Bay has created a conservation ethic in many Tangier watermen, including Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. Eskridge spoke of the importance of restoration efforts in a time of environmental change, and of preserving natural resources in order to preserve Tangier careers and culture: “A sustainable resource is more important to a waterman than anyone else.”
Access high-resolution images of Tangier Island on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Autumn leaves are crumpling underfoot and winter coats are coming out of storage. It might be cold, but for one after-school enrichment provider, the onset of winter doesn’t mean we have to stay inside. In fact, their love of winter is what sets Elements apart!
Image courtesy Elements
Staff-members at Elements lead students through the Washington, D.C., wintertime woods, where a lot of layers keep kids warm on these educational afternoons. Running along trails and climbing up hills, students learn that even an hour spent outside can invigorate us.
Elements’ philosophy follows a growing body of research that points to the benefits of being outside. So what are you waiting for? Grab some gloves and get out there!
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:
Plumes of sediment, floating trash and pathogens that make once-swimmable water unsafe: pollution of all kinds continues to plague the Potomac River, as populations grow, pavement expands and stormwater runoff pushes various hazards into the 405-mile long waterway.
But for the Potomac Conservancy, a boost in incentives, assistance and enforcement just might save the nation’s river.
Image courtesy kryn13/Flickr
According to the advocacy group’s sixth annual State of the Nation’s River report, “too many stretches of the Potomac River are still too polluted to allow you to safely swim, boat or fish, or to support healthy populations of fish and other aquatic life.”
The cause? A “pending storm” of population pressure and development, said Potomac Conservancy President Hedrick Belin.
For Belin, more people means more development. More development means more pavement. And more pavement means more stormwater runoff.
The fastest growing source of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, stormwater runoff is rainfall that picks up pollutants—in the Potomac River’s case, nutrients, sediment, pathogens and chemicals—as it flows across roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses. It carries these pollutants into storm drains and rivers and streams, posing a threat to marine life and human health.
But cities and towns throughout the Potomac River basin are curbing stormwater runoff by minimizing their disturbances to the land. And it is this local, land-based action—the installation of rain barrels and green roofs, the protection of forests and natural spaces, the passing of pollution permits in urban centers—that the Conservancy thinks will push the river in the right direction.
In the report, the Conservancy calls on state and local decision-makers to strengthen pollution regulations, increase clean water funding and improve pollution-reduction incentives and technical assistance.
“The Potomac Conservancy is advocating for river-friendly land-use policies and decisions, especially at the local level,” Belin said. “Because defending the river requires protecting the land that surrounds it.”
Learn more about Troubled Waters: State of the Nation’s River 2012.
Thanksgiving is the perfect time to express gratitude for the good in life. We have much to be thankful for—and so does the Chesapeake Bay! Here is a look at six moments from the past year that signaled good news for the watershed.
6. A sustainable blue crab population. The most recent report on the Bay’s blue crab stock reveals a population that has reached sustainable levels and is not overfished. Winter estimates place the adult female blue crab population at 97 million, based on a dredge survey taken at almost 1,500 sites throughout the Bay. The survey also measured more juveniles than have been counted in the past two decades. A stable blue crab population means a more stable Bay economy, with watermen employed, restaurants stocked and recreational crabbers (and crab-eaters!) happy.
Image courtesy Erickson Smith/Flickr
5. Additional American eels. American eel numbers are up in the headwater streams of Shenandoah National Park, following the removal of a large dam that once blocked eels from moving upstream. Other anadromous swimmers like shad, herring and striped bass—which must migrate from the ocean into rivers to spawn—are also using this reopened habitat. Our rivers are thankful to see the return of these important residents.
4. A huge boost in oyster restoration. This year, restoration partners in Maryland put more than 600 million oyster spat into the Chesapeake Bay in the largest targeted restoration effort the watershed has ever seen. While some of the oyster larvae went into the Upper Bay, most went into Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River that was declared an oyster sanctuary in 2010. While habitat loss, disease and historic overfishing have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster populations, planting “spat on shell” onto harvest-safe sanctuaries is one way to bring the water-filtering bivalves back.
3. A lot of living shorelines. When shorelines wash away, fish, crabs and other wildlife lose valuable habitat, and coastal landowners lose their lawns. To curb shoreline erosion, coastal property owners are turning toward living shorelines, which replace hardened bulkhead and riprap with grasses and trees. This summer, the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s Living Shorelines program awarded $800,000 to 16 homeowner associations, non-profit organizations and towns to install more than 6,800 feet of living shoreline and wetland habitat in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
2. Greater green infrastructure. With the implementation of green infrastructure, cities can use the natural environment to better manage stormwater runoff. Green roofs, rain gardens and pervious pavement, for instance, can absorb stormwater runoff before it flows into local rivers and streams. This year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) awarded $4 million to local governments for green infrastructure projects. But the environment is not the only one who will be thankful; green infrastructure can revitalize communities and produce cost benefits that can exceed those of traditional stormwater management methods. We are grateful that more towns will be greener in both color and concept!
1. Long-term improvements in Bay health. A number of Bay monitoring sites have shown long-term improvements in nutrient and sediment levels. According to an August report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), one-third of monitoring sites have shown improvement in sediment concentrations since 1985, two-thirds have shown improvement in nitrogen concentrations and almost all have shown improvement in phosphorous concentrations. These improvements in long-term trends indicate pollution-reduction efforts—from upgrades to wastewater treatment plants to cuts in fertilizer use on farms and suburban lawns—are working.
An advisory committee has recommended that the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Watershed Model be adjusted to better account for the landscape’s influence on watershed health.
Whether it is a riparian forest buffer that can trap sediment before it flows into a stream or a wetland that can filter nutrient pollution along the edge of a creek or river, the landscape that surrounds a waterway can impact that waterway’s health.
In a report released this week, experts from the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) state that adjusting the Watershed Model to better simulate the influence of riparian forests, forested floodplains and other wetlands would improve the model’s accuracy and allow managers to better direct conservation funds toward those landscapes that most benefit water quality.
The Watershed Model is used by Chesapeake Bay Program partners and stakeholders to estimate the amount of nutrients and sediment reaching the Bay.
Impaired by trash, rated poor for nutrient pollution and listed as unsafe for human contact much of the time, Baltimore Harbor scored a failing grade on its most recent Healthy Harbor Report Card.
Image courtesy Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore
While community engagement in conservation is on the rise—volunteers have planted trees, picked up trash and even painted murals around storm drains to make a connection between streets and streams—algae blooms, dead zones and fish kills remain a problem for the urban watershed.
According to the Healthy Harbor Report Card, water quality in Baltimore Harbor did not improve in 2011, when spring and fall rains pushed pollutants into the water.
From a spring shower to a fall hurricane, the flow of pollutants into Baltimore Harbor is closely tied to regional rainfall. The amount of litter collected in the Harbor in 2011, for instance, spiked when water flow was at its highest after Tropical Storm Lee. Sewage overflows, too, were linked to large storms, when rainwater seeped into sewer pipes and pushed harmful bacteria into the Harbor.
Image courtesy Blue Water Baltimore/Flickr
To combat these problems, the non-profits behind the Healthy Harbor Report Card have engaged students and citizens in a mission to make the Harbor swimmable and fishable within the next decade. Blue Water Baltimore, for instance, has curbed stormwater runoff on school grounds and helped Clean Water Communities develop plans for cleaning and greening their neighborhoods. And the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore has published a Healthy Harbor Plan to provide Baltimoreans with a roadmap for Harbor clean-up.
Learn more about the Healthy Harbor Report Card.
In Jefferson County, W.Va., shaded streams trickle down the Blue Ridge Mountains into what will become the Potomac or Shenandoah rivers. The ridge is named “blue” for its characteristic purple-blue haze. No, this isn’t some kind of rural smog, but isoprene, which the trees on the mountain release into the atmosphere.
Image courtesy Eoghann Irving/Flickr
Despite the pristine scenery found in this part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a visit to Jefferson County on a rainy day can expose a darker side. Thanks to aging infrastructure, the county has faced flooded roads and a river that carries an unknown amount of pollutants.
Residents knew they had to take action to ensure their mountain’s health. So, the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition was born. And in just over 18 months, the non-profit organization has arranged stream cleanups, showcased stormwater management practices and monitored water quality in a stretch of the Shenandoah River.
Why monitor water quality?
To monitor water quality, biologists take water samples from a stream or river and send them into a lab. There, the amount of pollutants in the water is measured. Monitoring a series of sites in a single waterway can tell us where these pollutants might be coming from.
Before the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition was formed, monitoring in the Shenandoah River was completed by a single Shenandoah University professor. Now, the college will train coalition volunteers to take water samples, as the coalition works to determine pollution sources and track the river’s long-term health.
“Our friends and neighbors on the mountain had very adamantly voiced that they wanted real facts as to what is in our lovely Shenandoah River,” explained Ronda Lehman, Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition Chair.
“We hope our river monitoring will help delineate whether our issues are born from our county’s farms, septic tanks or stormwater runoff, or a combination,” said Ronda.
Curbing runoff, preventing floods
Close to 17,000 commuters leave Jefferson County, W.Va., for Washington, D.C., each morning, and many of them travel on Route 9. But this road often floods, as it collects stormwater runoff from surrounding properties.
The Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition hopes to curb the amount of runoff coming from one of these properties—an old stone church now called the Mountain Community Center.
“A little calculating showed us that there are 1,400 gallons of water that run off the roof of the church during average rain events,” said Ronda.
The coalition will divert rainwater from the roof of the building into rain barrels and cisterns and curb the flow of sediment and stormwater with a filter installed at the end of the driveway.
“Incorporating different methods of mitigating that flow of water would give us an opportunity to showcase different practices for our neighbors to incorporate onto their own properties,” Ronda said.
If water quality monitoring and stormwater management seem too “scientific” for your tastes, then an old-fashioned trash cleanup could be for you! The Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition held its second annual cleanup in July.
The cleanup area is popular among the public, but has a history of being dirty.
The coalition hopes to amend this littering problem. “We will be purchasing banners to be placed at the busy ‘put ins’…to remind patrons to take their trash with them," said Ronda.
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:
A paddler, a swimmer or a hiker itching to cool his tired toes can stand at the edge of a stream and judge the water. Is it clear? Is it clean? Are there critters at hand? But he won’t find an answer to his most basic question: How healthy is my waterway?
Enter the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In celebration of the Clean Water Act, the EPA has launched a new website to help users learn more about the health of their local rivers, streams and lakes.
Using information gathered from state water quality monitoring reports, the smart phone and tablet-friendly site reveals where pollution has been reported and what is being done to reduce it.
Users can engage a smart phone’s GPS to list waters within a five-mile radius or enter a zip code or place name into a search box to check on locations throughout the United States.
A few quick searches for rivers and streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed show polluted and unpolluted waters. Happy Creek in Front Royal, Va., was deemed polluted in 2008, harboring disease-causing bacteria and other microbes. But West Virginia’s Seneca Creek was assessed as unpolluted in 2010. Other waters remain “unassessed” or untested due to shortages in staff and funding.
The website’s simple descriptions and ultra-local perspective are meant to make science more accessible, understandable and relevant.
Learn more about How’s My Waterway.
This month, the Clean Water Act celebrates four decades of safeguarding our waters. The landmark legislation has worked to keep streams, rivers, lakes and the Chesapeake Bay fishable, swimmable and drinkable.
Passed on October 18, 1972, the Clean Water Act set a new national goal “to restore and maintain the…integrity of the Nation’s waters.” A revision of the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Act, the Clean Water Act helps states establish water quality standards and gauge restoration success. It regulates the discharge of wastewater into rivers and streams and of dredged material into wetlands. And it helps states implement conservation practices to cut back on pollution from non-point sources like urban, suburban and agricultural runoff.
But what can YOU do to keep our water clean? Use this list as a guide, and take a look at our How To’s and Tips for more ideas.
Image courtesy Kratka Photography/Flickr
10. Dispose of unused medicines properly. To keep medicines out of our waterways, don’t pour unused or expired drugs down the sink or flush them down the toilet. While some medications can be thrown out with household trash, consumers should take precautions when doing so. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends removing the medication from its original container and mixing it with coffee grounds or cat litter to make it less appealing to children or pets. Place the fouled medication in a sealable bag to prevent it from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag. Or return unwanted medication to a consumer drug return location or community drug “take-back” program.
Image courtesy Jesse Dill/Flickr
9. Use non-toxic household cleaners. Substitute common household cleaners with safer alternatives. Warm water and baking soda can clean and deodorize kitchen and bathroom surfaces. Olive oil and lemon juice can polish furniture. And vinegar can soften hard water deposits.
Image courtesy Ann Althouse/Flickr
8. Take proper care of your car. Wash your car on grass or gravel rather than pavement so that wash-water loaded with soap and exhaust residues doesn’t run off of your property and into storm drains. Or, clean your car at a commercial carwash, where rinse-water is often recycled and reused and wash-water is often treated before it is released into the sewer system.
Image courtesy koocbor/Flickr
7. Take proper care of your lawn. Test your soil with an at-home kit or a mail-in test to determine how much fertilizer your lawn needs. If you decide to fertilize, do so in the fall; spring rains can wash fertilizer off of lawns and into storm drains. Avoid over-application and keep fertilizer off of sidewalks, driveways and other hard surfaces, where it can be washed into local waterways.
6. Pick up after your pet. Pet waste contains nutrients, bacteria, viruses and parasites that can wash into local waterways if left on the ground. Nutrients can promote the growth of algae blooms, which contribute to dead zones in the Bay. Bacteria, viruses and parasites can threaten the health of humans and wildlife alike. Use a plastic bag to pick up dog waste; tie the bag closed and place it in the trash. Double-bag cat litter and place it in the garbage.
Image courtesy Michigan State University Physical Plant/Flickr
5. Replace asphalt or concrete with pervious pavement. Porous materials like brick or stone pavers, pervious concrete or gravel allow water to drain through hard surfaces. A porous sidewalk or driveway, therefore, allows the ground to absorb stormwater runoff, reducing pollution into local waterways. Pervious pavement can also cool its surface better than its impervious counterpart, reducing on-site temperature and improving local air quality.
Image courtesy Will Merydith/Flickr
4. Collect rainwater with a rain barrel. A one-inch rainstorm on a 1,000 square-foot roof can result in 600 gallons of usable water. Install a rain barrel underneath your home’s downspout to capture it! A single rain barrel can collect up to 80 gallons of water, which can be reused to water your lawn and garden. Excess water can be stored in an additional barrel or diverted into a patch of plants that will soak it up before it can run off of your lawn.
3. Install a rain garden in your backyard. Designed to capture stormwater and allow it to soak into the ground, rain gardens are often filled with native plants able to withstand short bouts of flooding. But these bioretention cells do more than clean and curb stormwater. Rain gardens also provide insects and animals with valuable habitat and add aesthetic appeal to your yard.
Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District/Flickr
2. Grow oysters. Popular on dinner plates across the watershed, the eastern oyster is critical to clean water. A natural filter feeder, the oyster is capable of cleaning up to 50 gallons of water in one day. While historic populations could filter the entire Bay in one week, habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster numbers. Now, a host of organizations—including, for instance, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR)—have started at-home aquaculture programs for citizens with waterfront access. Participants raise oysters in floating cages and return the adults to be planted on a reef elsewhere in the Bay, where they will continue to grow, filter water and reproduce.
Image courtesy Jeff Turner/Flickr
1. Teach a child about the Clean Water Act. From science to civics, the Clean Water Act has a lot to teach a child. Teachers and parents alike can use online resources to explore the law, like a selection of water “sourcebooks” that cover drinking water, wastewater and wetlands or a lesson plan that links law-making to the outside world. Learn more about just how and why teachers should educate students about the Clean Water Act on Bay Backpack.
When Marcus Moody hears the term “rain garden,” he will smile. Not because those colorful patches of flood-tolerant plants capture stormwater and allow it to gradually sink into the ground, but because he survived seven weeks of planting 27 rain gardens in Howard County, Md., during the hottest summer on record.
For Marcus and the 29 other 16 to 25-year-olds that participated in the Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth program this summer, also known as READY, rain gardens are no longer an intangible concept or an idea to read about in guides to “going green.” Instead, rain gardens are dirty, wet and empowering endeavors that prove that a group of focused youth can make visible, lasting change. And in most cases, rain gardens are a lot of fun to create.
“We all became friends,” said Moody. “The actual experience of … getting to know new people and working in teams with different personalities—that was great.”
READY’s participants included graduate students, fashion design majors and high school seniors looking to fund their college careers. The program provided them with a resume-building career experience, a few extra dollars and a new network of friends.
Working with people from different backgrounds toward a common goal made the summer experience stand out for Afua Boateng, who moved to Maryland from Ghana six years ago.
"Sometimes I find myself thinking about things that I feel like no one in my age group thinks about, because [in Ghana] we are trained to grow up faster. Learning to work with people that have the same interest and that are willing to work together to save something we should all care about—I really love that,” Boateng said.
Image courtesy READY/Facebook
READY was conceived with two goals in mind: first, to provide jobs for young people. Second, to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff entering the Chesapeake Bay.
Stormwater runoff, or rainfall that picks up pollutants as it flows across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses, is the fastest growing source of pollution into the Bay. But rain gardens and other so-called best management practices can reduce the flow of stormwater into creeks, streams and rivers.
For Amanda Tritinger, building rain gardens brought her studies about stormwater to life.
"I studied hydrology and hydraulics as a course in school, but the theoretical doesn't stick with me at all and I don't really get it,” Tritinger said. “Seeing all this stuff hands-on was so valuable for me.”
Image courtesy READY/Facebook
READY is the brain child of People Acting Together in Howard (PATH), a coalition of faith-based organizations in Howard County, Md. READY is funded through a grant from the Howard County government administered by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
Like any program in its inaugural year, the leaders behind READY have learned lessons for next summer, with a number of suggestions coming from the participants themselves.
For Nabil Morad, who is enrolled in the Environmental Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, working in an environment where his feedback was valued was highly encouraging. It was also the last thing he expected from a program with the words "developing youth" in its title.
"I was a little worried we were going to be treated like kindergarteners," Nabil said. "But this feels like it's an actual job."
After working in an industry where his age and experience meant his suggestions were not welcome, Nabil said that READY's willingness to listen to its participants is refreshing.
“Here, respect travels both ways in the system. I could make a suggestion to [program manager] Don [Tsusaki], and if the day comes, he'll put it into action,” Nabil added. “Everybody here is developing toward the same goal together, which is really nice.”
That goal—curbing stormwater pollution—will become more attainable if READY continues in Howard County, and if similar programs are established elsewhere in the Bay watershed.
"We have a waiting list of people who want rain gardens for next year," said PATH administrator Guy Moody. "That's a good problem to have."
Image courtesy READY/Facebook
How do rain gardens help the Chesapeake Bay?
When rainfall hits impervious surfaces like sidewalks, roofs or driveways, or when it falls onto grass lawns, it is not absorbed into the ground. Instead, it runs off into a storm drain, collecting fertilizer, pesticides, pet waste, litter and other pollutants on its way.
Rain gardens are shallow depressions planted with sedges, rushes and other flood-tolerant vegetation that capture rainfall and allow it to soak slowly into the ground.
To learn how to install a rain garden on your property, visit Anne Arundel County’s Rainscaping page.
An advisory committee of scientific experts has released a report recommending that Chesapeake Bay Program partners use multiple models to simulate conditions in the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
According to the report, improving shallow water simulations of dissolved oxygen and water clarity could improve the Chesapeake Bay Program’s understanding of the impacts that on-land conservation practices can have on the living resources found in shallow, tidal waters.
In the report, experts from the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) note that shallow water conditions are the most difficult to simulate, due in large part to interactions between shallow waters, open waters and land.
This report shows that the comparison of data produced by multiple shallow-water simulation tools could increase our confidence in the strategies managers choose to reduce pollution loads into the Bay. Dissolved oxygen and water clarity, in particular, are two water quality criteria that must be met to “delist” the Bay as impaired.
STAC’s findings encourage the Chesapeake Bay Program to set up a pilot alternative or complementary shallow-water models as soon as possible.
Learn more about the use of multiple models in the management of the Bay.
Kelley Cox knows what it takes to bring fresh seafood to the table—and to keep fisheries thriving in the Chesapeake Bay. Cox is part of a family of watermen that has worked for five generations out of Tilghman Island, Md. When Hurricane Isabelle destroyed 200 feet of their seafood buying dock in 2003, Cox did not want her heritage to be destroyed with it. She envisioned a place where she could preserve her family's legacy while teaching the public to steward the environment and the Bay. Two years later, Phillips Wharf Environmental Center (PWEC) was born.
Image courtesy PWEC/Facebook
Named after Cox's father, Garland Phillips, owner and operator of Phillips Wharf Seafood, PWEC now hosts educational programs and tours of the Bay. The center also coordinates a tree planting project and oyster growing program for residents of the three-mile long Tilghman Island. A marine biologist by profession but a waterman by blood, Cox makes sure the center’s educational efforts address both Bay ecology and Bay heritage.
Image courtesy PWEC/Facebook
Mobile Marine Fun
From preschoolers to third-graders, students can hold horseshoe crabs and diamondback terrapins or play predator, prey and pollution games to better understand how the Bay ecosystem works—all on board a converted school bus better known as the Fishmobile. This traveling marine science center visits schools, summer camps and even birthday parties! Other educational programs at PWEC allow students to race crabs, dress up as a waterman and cruise the Choptank River and the Bay to watch watermen work.
Image courtesy PWEC/Facebook
If you have residential or commercial waterfront property or keep your boat in a marina on Tilghman Island, you can volunteer for Tilghman Islanders Grow Oysters (TIGO)! Participants place PWEC-provided cages of oyster spat into the water and give them a shake once every week or two. After nine or 10 months, the growing oysters are transported to a sanctuary and replaced with new spat. The program has placed 200 cages in the water, but PWEC won’t stop until every pier on the island is growing spat.
Ecology cruises allow participants to see Tilghman Island in a new light—from the water! Excursions for local artists allow participants to paint or draw the island from an evening ride aboard the Express Royale.
Tree stumps to step over and drum circles to join. Slate easels to draw on and animals to meet. Hollow logs to climb through and dirt to dig in.
What kid wouldn’t love it here?
Image courtesy Irvine Nature Center/Facebook
The Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills, Md., has joined a growing list of nature-inspired organizations that encourage kids to explore, respect and protect the environment. Thanks to a growing body of research that supports the benefits of unstructured play and child-nature interaction, places like the Irvine Center—with its trails, garden and outdoor classroom—are popping up all over, getting kids to play in fields and forests instead of on plastic and asphalt.
The idea? When given the chance to roam and run in natural places, kids will learn about and come to love the outdoors, becoming curious environmentalists and new stewards of our watershed.
Image courtesy Irvine Nature Center/Facebook
The Irvine Center’s exhibit hall, green building and 116 acres of woods and meadows are open to the public; the Irvine Center’s outdoor classroom is open to members and to those who participate in the organization’s programs.
More from Irvine:
Three Delaware towns have received grant funding and technical assistance to create habitat and improve water quality in Delaware's tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.
The towns of Greenwood, Laurel and Bethel, located along the Route 13 corridor in Sussex County, have set their sights on curbing stormwater runoff to reduce the flow of nutrients and sediment into the Nanticoke River and Broad Creek.
When rainfall runs across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses, it can pick up pollutants before washing down storm drains and into local waterways. By using best management practices—think rain barrels, green roofs or forested buffers along the shores of streams and rivers—to target the fastest growing source of pollution into the Bay, these Delaware towns can help position the state to meet its pollution reduction goals.
The Town of Greenwood, for instance, will restore a buffer of native vegetation along a tax ditch that drains into the Nanticoke River, establishing habitat and reducing stormwater runoff from two industrial buildings in the heart of the community.
The neighboring towns of Laurel and Bethel will develop plans to bring green infrastructure to Broad Creek, stabilizing stream banks, reducing stormwater discharge and eliminating local flooding. Bethel might even implement innovative practices in the oldest part of town, bringing permeable pavement and living shorelines to the town's historic district.
"The projects in Greenwood, Laurel and Bethel will improve the water quality of our local streams and rivers, reduce flooding and enhance the quality of life for local communities," said Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) Secretary Collin O'Mara. "By ... working together, we are securing resources necessary to ensure that our waterways are safe, swimmable and fishable for current and future generations."
Funding for the Greenwood project, totaling $35,000, was awarded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.Technical assistance for the initiatives in Laurel and Bethel, valued at $100,000, was awarded through NFWF's Local Government Capacity Building Initiative. To learn more about the projects, visit the DNREC website.
The University of Maryland has received close to $700,000 in federal funding to help communities reduce stormwater runoff.
Using a software program to pinpoint pollution hot spots and an innovative brand of social marketing to boost citizen engagement, the university will embark on a multi-year project to increase the adoption of conservation practices in two watershed communities: the Wilde Lake watershed in Howard County, Md., and the Watts Branch watershed in Washington, D.C., whose waters flow into the Patuxent and Anacostia rivers, respectively.
Stormwater runoff, or rainfall that picks up pollutants as it flows across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses, is the fastest growing source of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. Best management practices can reduce the flow of stormwater into creeks, streams and rivers, from the green roofs that trap and filter stormwater to the permeable pavement that allows stormwater to trickle underground rather than rush into storm drains.
But best management practices cannot work without the citizens who put them into action.
"We need to work with communities, rather than take a top-down approach [to stormwater management]," said project lead and assistant professor Paul Leisnham. "For the long-term successful implementation of these practices ... we need communities to be involved."
The university has partnered with local schools, religious organizations and grassroots associations (among them the Maryland Sea Grant, the Anacostia Watershed Society and Groundwork Anacostia) in hopes of breaking down barriers to the adoption of best management practices and increasing community involvement—and thus, investment—in local, long-term environmental conservation.
From left, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, University of Maryland assistant professor Paul Leisnham and U.S. EPA Region 3 Administrator Shawn M. Garvin
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin commended the project at a Bladensburg Waterfront Park event as a creative and results-driven way to reduce stormwater runoff.
"It's going to allow us to make a difference in our [local] watershed, which will make a difference in the Chesapeake Bay," Cardin said.
The funding, which totaled $691,674, was awarded through the Sustainable Chesapeake Grant program administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
This school year, teens from the District of Columbia's Wards 1, 6, 7 and 8 will give up their Saturdays for the Chesapeake Bay.
Instead of watching television or playing sports, they will install wetland plants along the Anacostia River and even hike the Appalachian Trail. The ninth, tenth and eleventh graders hailing from Washington's underserved neighborhoods will develop confidence and leadership skills during the 12-month experiential learning program known as WILL (Wilderness Leadership and Learning.)
Image courtesy WILL
WILL takes learning out of the classroom, introducing participants to outdoor scenarios where teamwork and leadership skills are applicable and visible. It also allows participants to learn about the Bay without using a textbook; when participants spent three days at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Karen Noonan Study Center this year, they dredged an oyster bar, set crab pots and learned about Harriet Tubman, who was born just down the road.
After service days along the Anacostia, ropes courses, a scavenger hunt on the National Mall and a trip to the Newseum, students will wrap up their year-long experience with a final test: a seven-day trip along the Appalachian Trail.
Plant forests, issue stormwater permits, install trash traps: the list of things we can do to improve water quality seems to grow each day. And as eager environmentalists, we would love to do all of them as soon as we can. But with worsening water and shrinking budgets, perhaps we should first find out which actions would make the biggest environmental difference.
In order to determine which pollution-reduction solution might work best for ourselves and our community, we must first pinpoint our water problems. Do our waterways contain too much sediment? Too much nitrogen? Once we know these answers, we can determine where to focus our efforts—whether on residential rain gardens that curb stormwater runoff, on upgrades to wastewater treatment plants or on something else entirely.
Finding out what is in our water—or monitoring water quality—provides us with a baseline. After we install a rain garden or restore a forest buffer or complete another restoration project, we can monitor water quality once again to determine whether or not the project has been effective.
How do we monitor water quality?
There are multiple ways to monitor water quality. We chose to highlight the method that involves going out on a boat during the summer!
There are two steps: first, biologists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) collect water samples from a number of selected sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay. Then, the samples are analyzed for nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES).
This analysis paints a vivid picture for scientists, allowing them to see where pollutants come from and how they might be mitigated.
What’s in the water right now?
Due to the lack of rain this year, monitoring teams found fewer nitrates, nutrients that run off into Bay tributaries from fertilizers and soil.
With fewer nitrates, algal blooms were less able to grow and resulting “dead zones” were less able to form. A dead zone is an area that does not contain any oxygen, leaving fish, shellfish and other critters struggling to breathe. This year’s dead zone was nearly half the size of last year’s.
“Nitrates and ammonias… If you have too much of these, it leads to algal blooms, which can lead to dead zones in the Bay,” explains Carl Zimmerman, Manager of the Nutrient Analytical Service Lab at UMCES.
The UMCES lab has multiple ways of analyzing nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon in water samples it receives from field crews.
“We’re looking for changes in the nutrient concentrations. If a best management practice has been implemented, will it improve water quality? Will upgrades in sewage treatment plants reduce the amount of nutrients that come into the Bay? These [answers] can only be accomplished by looking at our water tables,” says Zimmerman.
The DNR monitoring program Eyes on the Bay has a website on which the public can track water quality at each of the Bay’s monitoring sites.
“We want to let the public know how we’re doing as a government in cleaning up the Bay,” explains Mark Trice, Program Chief of DNR's Water Quality Informatics Program.
“We all want a clean Bay and the quality of life that comes with clean water,” says Trice.
Image courtesy Eric Vance/US EPA
More about water quality monitoring:
Learn what simple changes you can make to decrease your biggest pollutant (whether it’s nitrogen, phosphorous or sediment), all from your own backyard!
Now that school is back in session, your student may be spending more time indoors than outside exploring his local environment. Fortunately, there are several ways to keep your little adventurer’s sense of curiosity alive throughout the school year.
Image courtesy Children and Nature Network/Facebook
Here are some of our favorite ways for parents and teachers to introduce hands-on environmental learning to the watershed’s younger residents:
Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr
Look for an area where your students can observe the natural world. Whether their classroom curriculum outlines the life cycle of frogs or the benefits of pollinators, students are sure to appreciate experiencing their textbooks in action.
Field studies often take place in a park or at a nature center. But if you would rather stay close to home, consider creating a schoolyard habitat with your students to attract wildlife and serve as an outdoor classroom perfect for long-term plant, insect and animal monitoring.
2. "Green" your school
What better way to get your kids to care about the earth than to “go green” yourself! Does your school have a recycling or composting program? What about a habitat for local wildlife? Implement sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices where you can and your school could earn recognition as a “Green Ribbon School” from the U.S. Department of Education.
Wondering where to start? Get advice from the Center for Green Schools, a program dedicated to transforming schools into sustainable and healthy places. And be sure to get a tip or two from your state: Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, and West Virginia all have green school programs.
3. Get outside
Educators and parents know that outdoor recess can encourage students to expend some of that extra energy. But time spent outside can also foster an appreciation for and fascination with the environment—not to mention prevent childhood obesity and curb attention deficit disorder (or ADD). After all, weren’t today’s biologists once inspired by the gooey worms they used to collect or the bird’s nests found in their backyards?
Encourage your kids to get outside with structured activities, from tag and hide-and-go-seek to geocaching. This latter sport is gaining popularity across the country, as a GPS-powered treasure hunt. Read more about geocaching with students or take a look at our photo slideshow of a geocaching adventure at the Accokeek Foundation. And learn more about how time outside can help your child from the No Child Left Inside Coalition.
4. Get to work
Image courtesy of courosa/Flickr
From coloring a white wall with an orange crayon to planting green trees in a barren field, kids love to feel like they’ve made a lasting, physical change to the environment around them. So why not plan a day of outdoor service learning? A number of schools and community groups hold these events on their grounds. Look for one near you this fall!
If you are an educator in Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Stream Restoration Challenge is a great way for your middle or high school students to learn about the Bay while giving back to their community.
When a day outside just isn’t possible, a selection of nature writing or scenic websites, movies and other multimedia can still engage your students with the natural world. Use Bay Backpack to find curriculum guides and lesson ideas based on your location, grade level and state’s environmental education requirements.
6. Get money
If your big ideas for outdoor experiences stretch far beyond your budget, consider finding funding through an outside source. Some extra support through a grant, for instance, may be just what you need to get that edible vegetable garden started outside your classroom or in your neighborhood. Learn more about funding sources here.
Professional development courses can include kayaking down a river or stream, exploring island habitats or learning how to build a rain garden. These training opportunities give you a chance to connect with other educators and to hear fresh takes on how to connect your classroom with the world outside.
8. Get ideas
Connecting with other parents or educators about their teaching techniques can bring creative juice to your curriculum. Check out the Bay Backpack Blog, which features school spotlights and easy activities for kids. And to discuss the benefits of outdoor play with other parents and professionals, join the Children and Nature Network.
From the restoration of streamside forests to the planting of a green roof on an historic District of Columbia house, 41 environmental projects from across the Chesapeake Bay watershed have received $9.22 million in grant funding.
The restoration and outreach initiatives will restore vital habitats and reduce the amount of runoff entering local waterways, leading to cleaner water across the region.
Funding for the projects was awarded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund. Half of the projects will be funded by the Small Watersheds Grants Program, which funds on-the-ground restoration, conservation and community engagement. Twenty-one more will be funded by the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants Program, which funds the reduction of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment in local waterways.
Trout Unlimited, for instance, will restore stream banks and wetlands on 11 western Maryland farms, reducing agricultural runoff and benefiting brook trout. The Nature Conservancy will improve water quality and brook trout habitat in central and southern Pennsylvania, planting riparian buffers, restoring wetlands and establishing forest habitat. And the high-profile William Penn House in Washington, D.C., will install a green roof on top of the historic building, which will capture and treat almost all of the stormwater on-site.
In all, this year's projects will engage 9,000 volunteers; restore 176 miles of streamside forests and 158 acres of wetlands; and establish 170,000 square feet of green roofs and rain gardens.
"These innovative projects ... are an illustration of the incredible commitment people have to restoring our rivers and streams. With NFWF's invaluable support, these projects will make a difference, supporting progress toward a Bay that is increasingly healthy and resilient," said Jeff Corbin, Environmental Protection Agency Senior Advisor for the Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia River.
For a full list of grant recipients, visit the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund website.
Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed might soon have an easier time putting pollution credits on the market.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded $2.5 million to five Bay organizations to improve the infrastructure behind water quality trading markets, which allow buyers to purchase "pollution credits" for reductions or cuts in pollution that landowners have made on their properties.
From better determining demand for credit to improving outreach to hundreds of eligible farmers, the planned improvements aim to benefit both the land and those who work it. A farmer who uses conservation practices to reduce his runoff of nutrients or sediment, for instance, can produce on-farm energy savings and water quality credits while improving the environmental health of his land.
Watershed recipients of Conservation Innovation Grants program funding include the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Borough of Chambersburg, Pa.
The Conservation Innovation Grants program is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This year, an additional $23.5 million has been awarded to more than 50 recipients across the nation for innovative and conservation-minded agricultural practices, from improving soil health to increasing on-farm pollinator habitat.
Drivers honk at each other, passing by layers of parking lots and shopping centers; armies of workers wait for a bus; food carts occupy every corner; and pedestrians tow their children through the cement jungle, ignoring crosswalk signals and jumping in front of cars without the slightest bit of fear.
Tucked away in this impervious kingdom called Prince George’s County is a place of natural beauty, where worms dig through compost, chickens play tag and honeybees busily buzz. Here at ECO City Farms, every inch of ground is precious; a blanket of veggies and fruits is shadowed by rows of hanging pots. The completely solar and geo-thermal powered farm located in Edmonston, Md., raises chickens and ducks, keeps bees and grows enough crops for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) operation--all on one acre of land.
Image courtesy Eco City Farms/Flickr
Also known as Engaged Community Offshoots, ECO City Farms manages land and grows food in ways that benefit the Chesapeake Bay watershed: with no chemical fertilizers, and no petro-based or non-organic treatments, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.
Impressive, but perhaps impossible? ECO City relies on natural processes to deter insects. Did you know planting marigolds next to your tomato plants will keep insects away? These simple but natural technologies define ECO City’s farming methods and ensure that the chemicals typically used in gardening operations do not end up in our food or the nearby Anacostia River and Chesapeake Bay.
ECO City implements farming methods that are healthy for the Bay watershed and its residents, but it also understands the importance of educating and engaging the local community.
The organization's tagline is "creating a just and sustainable world," a mission statement that trumps the money-making agendas of any commercial big-box farm. ECO City understands its role to exceed the agricultural industry and remains committed to connecting community members to their food.
ECO City educates and empowers local residents, giving them the tools and knowledge they need to kickstart their own urban agriculture operation. Dedicated to keeping food in the hands of the people, ECO City is not your average farm.
Image courtesy Eco City Farms/Flickr
What's new at ECO City:
Located in the residential neighborhood of Edmonston, Md., a Washington, D.C., suburb, the farm hosts volunteer Saturday work days and tours of the farm.
The New Urban/Immigrant Farmer Training program teaches interested adults the tenants of urban farming over the course of a year, and a new DIY (Do It Yourself) Green Building Series covers how to capture and reuse rain water, how to build a hoop house, how to create a green roof and more!
A new commercial kitchen will allow the farm to offer educational cooking courses and to turn produce into products (basil becomes pesto sauce, tomatoes and peppers become salsa!)
Image courtesy ECO City Farms/Flickr
Here are some ECO City methods that you may be able to take home:
Image courtesy ECO City Farms/Flickr
What comes to mind when you hear the words “Chesapeake Bay?” Maybe you remember childhood summers spent mostly under water, on the shore making mud pies or even on the dock, catching crabs. Maybe you think of long days of crabbing with your grandfather, a recent kayaking adventure or something less glamorous, like the trash in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Each of the watershed’s 17 million residents has a different relationship with the Bay, and a different reason for protecting it. We rarely share these reasons in everyday conversation, but hearing why our friends and neighbors value this tremendous resource will help us realize the multiple reasons for Bay restoration.
Image courtesy Beth Filar Williams/Flickr
Hear what water quality in the Bay means to poultry farmers, watermen, developers and more Eastern Shore residents in a series of video interviews, part of “Let’s Be Shore,” a project recently launched by Maryland Humanities Council.
For more information, visit the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s Blog.
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:
The mention of Lancaster, Pennsylvania evokes images of cows trampling through streams, laundry hanging on the line, whoopie pies, and an agricultural way of life that has been forgotten in most places of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. While tourists flock to the southeastern Pennsylvania county popularly known as "Pennsylvania Dutch Country," the City of Lancaster may soon hold its own claim to fame as a green urban center.
Vegetation overflows from rooftops, follows sidewalks, and decorates parking lots that were once neighborhood eyesores: this is how city officials envision Lancaster twenty-five years from now.
These greening projects, the first of which began construction this year, not only give red brick-clad Lancaster a sharp, aesthetically pleasing color contrast; they are part of the city’s twenty-five year plan to prevent its 750 million gallons of annual stormwater runoff from entering the Conestoga River, an impaired Susquehanna River tributary.
While stormwater runoff may appear to be “just rainwater,” as it moves through parking lots, lawns, and roadways, it picks up pollutants. These pollutants and the water that carries them are often not treated or filtered before being conveyed into local tributaries.
But in Lancaster, tree trenches along parking lots absorb stormwater; rain gardens are filled with plants that are able to absorb a large amount of water at a time. Such vegetation allows the stormwater to seep slowly into the ground before running off onto roadways, parking lots, and other “impervious” surfaces. These “hard” surfaces make it easy for water to pick up automobile chemicals, pet waste, litter, and other pollutants on its way into local storm drains and tributaries.
In places where vegetation cannot thrive, like parking lots and alleyways, concrete and asphalt are replaced by permeable pavement. This type of pavement allows water to pass through into the ground, instead of acting as a seal and forcing water to form puddles or run off into the storm drains.
"The ground will naturally absorb the sediments, the phosphorus, and the nitrogen," explains Charlotte Katzenmoyer, Director of Public Works for the City of Lancaster. "The bacteria in the soil will use this for their feeding purposes. You're actually using the ground to clean that stormwater."
Using what is already there is saving Lancaster money – lots of money. With enough vegetation and permeable pavement, Lancaster will be able to keep its stormwater on site and use the natural environment to clean it. And it will do so for less than half the amount of money it would take to manage stormwater with man-made systems.
Going green means cutting costs
In the late 1990s, Lancaster developed a plan to prevent untreated stormwater from overflowing into the Conestoga: build a 300 million dollar underground storage tank, and spend $750,000 each year to treat the storm flow passing through the tank. (This method of stormwater control, known as “grey infrastructure,” relies on man-made technologies to capture, filter, and convey stormwater.)
It would work, but it would be expensive.
"When the Environmental Protection Agency started coming to us, and asking us when we were going to build these storage tanks, that's when we took another look,” says Katzenmoyer. “We asked if we could more cost effectively achieve the same goals with green infrastructure."
"Green infrastructure" keeps stormwater onsite using natural processes and nature-inspired technologies. Plants in rain gardens and tree trenches absorb stormwater quickly in heavy rain events, preventing it from running off into storm drains. Permeable pavement, although not natural, imitates this characteristic, and allows water to infiltrate into the ground.
Lancaster's new, green infrastructure plan cut their costs dramatically; the city is able to manage its 750 million gallons of storm water per year for less than 140 million dollars total. This was less than half the amount of money required just to build the underground storage tank.
Lancaster's green infrastructure plan was born out of the Environmental Protection Agency's request that all municipalities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed detail how they plan to reduce pollution in their local Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
"As much as we are motivated to restore the natural environment and do the right thing, ultimately, this is something that the federal government, the Environmental Protection Agency, is telling us we need to address," explains Fritz Schroeder, Director of the Lancaster-based non-profit Live Green, which has been working with the City of Lancaster to educate the community on clean water issues.
"The city, with great vision and foresight, I believe, is choosing to do it in a very creative fashion, utilizing green infrastructure instead of a traditional grey infrastructure piping system,” says Schroeder. “This will help set our community apart and serve as a platform for creating a wonderful place for us to call home for years to come."
Green: the new grey?
While this stormwater management technique imitates the way the natural world manages stormwater, it is a revolutionary concept for city planners.
Most cities were built to get stormwater off site as quickly as possible, hence the storm drains that convey water into local tributaries. These stormwater systems flood in severe rain events, carrying pollutants such as automobile exhaust, bacteria from pet waste, and lawn fertilizer, directly into our rivers at high speeds. When water moves at high speeds, it often takes dirt from stream banks with it. This sediment pollution clouds the water and makes it difficult for bay grasses and other life to flourish.
Following the water: roofs, alleys, and lots
No matter which way the stormwater flows through Lancaster’s public parking lots, it will be absorbed by a garden, tree, or permeable pavement.
“The idea is that as all the stormwater comes from uphill, moving through the parking lot, one technology or another will capture the water, and then infiltrate it back into the natural environment,” explains Schroeder.
While tree trenches and rain gardens capture stormwater, shaded parking lots also reduce the heat island effect, the concept that large, developed areas heat up quickly and increase the temperature of surrounding, undeveloped areas. A reduced heat island effect reduces air conditioning costs in the summer and improves air quality.
A green roof, constructed on Graff Family Funeral Home as a project of Lancaster County Planning Commission, reduces the heat island effect on the formerly black rubber roof and has cut the building's air conditioning costs.
"Traditionally on a black rubber roof like this, you will have temperatures that are 60 to 70 degrees hotter in the summer," explains Schroeder.
The plants also absorb stormwater falling on the roof, reducing the amount that flows into the city's combined sewer system.
"As (the sedums) continue to fill in and cover all the bare spots of this roof, the roots will spread and serve as a sponge that takes up this water," says Schroeder. "We believe we're capturing and retaining between 50 and 70 percent of the rain flow that falls on the roof."
Other technologies include colorfully painted rain barrels that capture rain coming off of roofs, as well as disconnected downspouts that direct stormwater into rain gardens.
With a green infrastructure approach, all of these nature-inspired technologies work together to absorb stormwater, preventing it, and the pollutants it carries, from entering local tributaries.
Greening your yard
While Lancaster is completing 100 stormwater management projects in 2012, all are on city-owned properties. In order for stormwater flows to be reduced, private property owners also need to consider installing rain gardens and rain barrels.
The City of Lancaster works with Live Green, a non-profit whose “Save It” campaign encourages residents to install rain gardens, disconnect their downspouts, and conserve water in their homes.
“We’re reaching out to homeowners; we're meeting with them and touring their property,” explains Schroeder. “We're making suggestions on how they could capture more stormwater using rain barrels and by disconnecting downspouts from the combined sewer and running them into green space or rain gardens around their home.”
The organization has distributed over 500 rain barrels in the last five years, held multiple stormwater workshops, and distributed native trees.
Cities that have implemented green infrastructure projects have similar residential “greening” programs. In the Washington D.C. area, RiverSmart Homes offers incentives to residents who reduce runoff from their properties. In Richmond, Va., Greening Virginia’s Capitol walks residents through installing rain barrels and rain gardens.
But these green technologies don’t just improve the water quality in the Little Conestoga and Conestoga Rivers, they improve the quality of life. Increased public green space fosters a sense of stewardship for the natural world, and colorful rain gardens increase property values.
“There's a lot of data and research about the impacts on crime, the impacts on property value, the impacts on retail sales, all from implementing a program like this. But it’s just something that feels good,” says Schroeder.
“Ultimately, the big vision is livability. It's about creating a home that we're all proud of living in, that we're all comfortable living in and all take pride in restoring and growing.”
For a more thorough look at stormwater runoff in Lancaster, check out this video from Save It Lancaster.
In the 1930s, Smithsonian botanist Harry A. Allard walked 3,000 miles and collected 15,000 plant specimens in the Bull Run Mountains of Virginia's Eastern Piedmont region.
Eighty years later, Smithsonian scientists collect beetle specimens in the same mountains. A few miles away, volunteer naturalists explain to children and adults why beetles are central to all life; different beetle species pollinate plants (helps plants reproduce), and assist with decomposition (eats dead organisms).
(Image courtesy Bull Run Mountains Conservancy)
Such a combination of research and education is rare, says Michael Kieffer, Executive Director of the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy, a nonprofit headquartered in the southern 800 acres of the 2,500 acre Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve, about 15 miles from Manassas, Middleburg, and Warrenton, Virginia.
"We have the unique opportunity to conduct both youth and adult education programs and to tie those programs to research on the mountains," says Michael.
While the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy leads research, stewardship, and education programs in the natural area, the land itself is owned by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.
With plenty of places to search for the region's rare plants and insects, the conservancy's nine miles of trails see 10,000 visitors per year.
"It is wonderful to have public access to this state natural area, but people management is always an issue," states Michael.
Stewardship goes hand in hand with the conservancy's education programs.
(Image courtesy Bull Run Mountains Conservancy)
Programs such as "nature preschool," "herpetology camp," and even teachers' workshops, allow participants to study the ecosystem through experience, just the way Allard did eighty years ago.
When asked to elaborate on the conservancy's immersion education philosophy, Michael explained, "Just keep them outside. They need to be outside. Yes, it’s based on the research, but no we don’t have camp counselors. It's about getting kids outside with other kids. This is vital to your life."
But as any parent knows, kids learn by example. If adults are not prone to spend time outdoors, neither will their children.
"At BRMC our education programs are equally weighed between adults and children. If adults do not learn alongside their children, then the child’s experience on the mountains is diminished.”
The Bull Run Mountains Conservancy's summer camps begin in June. But nature lovers of all ages are invited to join their naturalist-led walks, trail clean up days, rattle snake surveys, and watershed workshops throughout the year.
(Image courtesy Bull Run Mountains Conservancy)
More from the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy:
The above 1913 photograph depicts rows of American lindens planted along Washington D.C.’s Massachusetts Avenue, west of Dupont Circle. The “double rows” of trees were planted in the 1880s, but many disappeared as the street was developed, new embassies were built, and utility lines installed. As a street that has historically been an international relations hub (it is home to major embassies), the loss of trees along Massachusetts Avenue seemed to represent the worldwide preference of commercialism over nature.
(Image courtesy Restore Mass Ave/Washingtoniana MLK Library)
Today, the climate has shifted, and politicians jump at the chance to get their photo taken in front of a newly planted tree; but long before the diplomats grabbed their shovels (and press staff), Deborah Shapley was walking up and down Massachusetts Avenue, knocking on her neighbors’ doors, and asking them how far their hoses could stretch to water parched trees in the sidewalk.
Washington’s D.C.'s Department of Transportation's Urban Forestry Administration has taken the important step of planting trees along streets throughout the city, but it did not have the resources to water them. For young trees, lack of water lowers their chances of survival in Washington’s hot summers. Instead of complaining, Deborah encouraged her neighbors to take on the responsibility of watering their nearest city sidewalk tree as if it were their own.
“I started Restore Mass.Ave to be a model of how to get local property owners excited about taking care of the city trees near them.”
But convincing property owners to take care of a tree that isn’t technically in their yard is not so easy.
“People tend not to care about the landscape that is more than a house or two away,” explains Deborah. “So the cry for them to take care of trees beyond a certain distance, that’s just not practical to them.”
But since Deborah began Restore Mass Ave in 2007, more and more residents and embassies along the street have come to understand that these trees are dually beautifying their community and helping to absorb stormwater runoff.
(Image courtesy Restore Mass Ave)
In addition to caring for the 100 sidewalk trees installed by the city, Restore Mass has worked with Casey Trees to plant 125 new trees since 2007. Most of the 225 total trees are large shade trees, which absorb stormwater and lessen pressure on the neighborhood's combined sewer system.
Like most of downtown Washington D.C., Massachusetts Avenue has a combined sewer system (css), which collects water from both stormwater runoff and household’s sanitary sewage. The CSS conveys this to treatment plants to be cleaned before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
But during heavy rain events, the combined sewer system often overflows; the stormwater and sanitary wastes flow directly into the Anacostia or Potomac River. This can cause an excess of bacteria and other pollutants in Washington D.C.’s tributaries, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
While it is always important to find ways to decrease the amount of stormwater runoff flowing into storm drains, it is particularly crucial in neighborhoods with combined sewer overflows (roughly one-third of the District of Columbia).
“The city is under requirements from the EPA to rebuild the underground tunnels and pipes” associated with the combined overflow system, explains Deborah. “They’re only able to do a certain amount per year of underground infrastructure. But large trees naturally conduct precipitation down into the soil and lowers the burden the underground pipes.”’
Stormwater will instead be absorbed by trees, and help to recharge the groundwater so more plants can grow.
“If you have a continuous line of shade trees alongside of a gutter, less water flows into that storm drain, and less water is barreling around in the tunnels of the combined stormwater system,” Deborah says.
While trees help to absorb stormwater during rain events, they do need to be watered when it is not raining. Droughts and heat waves make it difficult for young trees to survive on their own. Luckily, Restore Mass Ave’s volunteers, known as “Treekeepers,” make sure care is given to every sidewalk tree.
Since roughly one-third of Mass Ave properties are foreign-owned, the organization works with embassies to plant trees on their grounds.
While it was once typical for embassies’ groundskeepers to maintain flowers the colors of the nations’ flags, it is now popular for embassies to also maintain the surrounding trees. Governments relate the activity to their climate change agendas. Groundskeepers become, in effect, "Treekeepers."
“They have a sense of ownership that they didn’t have before,” says Deborah. “When you give people who care for plants the chance to grow nearby sidewalk trees, they are delighted.”
As Restore Mass Ave encourages private homeowners and embassy staffs to care for trees in public space, the sense of shared community and stewardship multiplies.
“As in many neighborhoods, we found that the embassies don’t often talk to each other, but when you point out the common trees, and you engage all the staff, it becomes their common garden,” explains Deborah.
While Restore Mass Ave may have found a way to create a sense of an international environmental stewardship, Deborah, founder and president of the all-volunteer organization, concedes that the nonprofit would like to expand its influence, but not its area.
“The idea is to not take over a bigger and bigger area, but to get other people to start their own groups, such as Restore Georgia Avenue or Restore Connecticut Avenue. Only as more people here understand the importance and fun of growing trees, will DC become the ‘City of Trees’ as it was known a century ago."
(Image courtesy Restore Mass Ave)
For more information on how you can get involved with Restore Mass Ave or start your own “Restore” on your street, visit the Restore Mass Ave Volunteer page.
Restore Mass Ave is trying to spread the word, via their Tree Care Blog (http://blog.restoremassave.org) and their Facebook and Twitter (#restoremassave).
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released its evaluations of the final Phase II Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. The evaluations are available online at the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay TMDL website.
Each state and the District of Columbia developed its own cleanup plan, in collaboration with local governments and conservation districts. The plans outline steps each jurisdiction will take toward restoring the thousands of streams and rivers that make up the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“The Phase II WIPs represent a transition from planning to implementing the necessary practices at the local level,” said EPA mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin.
Through the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership, state and federal officials have committed to having all of the needed pollution control measures in place to fully restore the Bay no later than 2025.
When Robbi Savage’s 10-year-old grandson Seth saw a car battery submerged in the Rivanna River near Charlottesville, Virginia, he knew enough not to pick it up. Instead, he asked his dad for help, and with more frustration than curiosity, exclaimed to Robbi, “What are these people thinking, grandma?!”
“Even a 10-year-old knows that throwing car parts into the river is dangerous,” says Robbi, executive director of the Rivanna Conservation Society (RCS), a non-profit watershed group based out of Charlottesville. “And yet some folks still think of a river as a trash dump.”
(Image courtesy Rivanna Conservation Society)
Robbi and RCS’s volunteers are dedicated to cleaning up the Rivanna, a 42-mile-long James River tributary that flows from the Blue Ridge Mountains through the foothills and Piedmont region of central Virginia. It was the first river in Virginia to be designated a “Scenic River.” Although the Rivanna may be “scenic,” RCS understands that maintaining its beauty and enhancing its degrading health requires citizen participation, education and local government involvement.
“One would think that being at the headwaters, we would have close to pristine waterways, but such is not the case,” Robbi explains. “We certainly have our challenges.”
One of the Rivanna’s biggest problems is stream bank erosion, which pollutes the water with too much sediment. Bacteria from pet waste and agricultural manure also threaten swimming areas and drinking water resources; this occurs when residents don’t pick up after their pets, or when farmers allow cattle to enter streams.
RCS’s education and outreach programs have been building awareness of these issues since the group was founded in 1990. But RCS doesn’t forget to have some fun along the way. River paddles, survival workshops and geocaching are just a few outdoor activities the group sponsors.
(Image courtesy Rivanna Conservation Society)
When Robbi moved from Washington to central Virginia in 2006, she brought with her an environmental initiative she conceived while working on national water policy in Washington. The international citizen-led water quality monitoring effort World Water Monitoring Day involved 340,000 people in 77 countries in 2011. When Robbi left the Hill to become RCS’s executive director, she created a local version of the program, “Water Health for the Commonwealth.”
The program allows middle and high schools along the Rivanna and James Rivers to monitor their local water quality and connect with one another to share their results. RCS is in the process of extending this hands-on-learning opportunity to all schools along the James, from the Rivanna watershed to the Chesapeake Bay.
This “in the river” approach not only educates, but creates an appreciation for the “River Anna,” named after Queen Anne of England.
In addition to education initiatives, recreational opportunities such as river paddles and geocaching (a treasure hunt-like activity) allow area residents of all ages to get outside and appreciate the scenic Rivanna.
“Recreation is an important part of what this river is used for,” explains Robbi. “But the more people you bring to the river, which is of course part of our mission, the more attention needs to be paid to keeping it clean. We have a beautiful river here, so people want to paddle, and they want to be on the water.”
For Robbi, RCS represents community collaboration.
Robbi gained experience in environmental issues at the national and international level in her 35 years of working for EPA Office of Water, the League of Women Voters, and the State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators (now Association of Clean Water Administrators).
But when she moved to central Virginia and became involved with RCS, she experienced the challenges and successes of converting Washington’s laws and regulations into local action.
“When you work in Washington, you may come to believe that it is the center of the universe,” explains Robbi. “But when you move to a location like Charlottesville and see what it takes in terms of voter support, local government coordination, and funding decisions, it’s eye-opening. We all know that water quality is important and essential to all living things, but when you actually see the demands for scarce community resources to play out, especially in this zero-based budget economy, you understand that tough choices are being made.”
Although coordinating community leaders, landowners, citizen volunteers, lawmakers and environmentalists is no easy task, Robbi describes it as rewarding. “I would never have said this as a young pup in DC, but I think the real action is at the local level. We are turning words into action.”
(Image courtesy Rivanna Conservation Society)
When I moved to Annapolis last August, I wanted to be located near water and close to where I work at the Bay Program’s Eastport office. I moved into an apartment adjacent to Truxtun Park on Spa Creek. I enjoy kayaking, and the park has a boat ramp. In pretty short order, I met several people from the Spa Creek Conservancy, a local volunteer group working to restore and protect the creek. The Conservancy may be small in numbers, but it is huge in heart and enthusiasm.
(Image courtesy Spa Creek Conservancy)
On Saturday, April 14, I had the opportunity to join with other Conservancy members in a Project Clean Stream cleanup. When we assembled at the Chesapeake Children’s Museum, we were joined by a troop of Daisy Scouts out for a day of learning about the environment. They were as energetic as a swarm of bumble bees buzzing around a patch of wildflowers.
Along with the water, coffee, donuts, gloves and plastic bags at the volunteer sign-in table, we also set up a great aerial photo of the Spa Creek watershed that showed our location and all the areas that drain into the creek. The world looks a lot different from that vantage point. It was interesting to see how much of the area was covered by roads, rooftops and parking lots. These hard surfaces prevent rainwater from soaking into the soil to recharge streams and groundwater supplies.
During the cleanup, there was evidence everywhere of our consumer-based economy: plastic bottles, aluminum cans, fast food wrappers, plastic shopping bags, certain unmentionables, and even an occasional tire or two. As Aldo Leopold, a noted naturalist and conservationist once said, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Those words are perhaps even more meaningful now than when he first spoke them more than 70 years ago.
What I’ve witnessed working with the incredible members of the Spa Creek Conservancy, the Watershed Stewards Academy, the South River Federation and other local, civic-minded environmental groups throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed is a strong desire to re-establish that sense of community where we live, work, play and pray – to think about how nature functions and why we need to find ways to live in harmony with it. We get lost in our own sense of self-importance as we travel at 60 miles per hour (or more) trying to get from one place to another. Often, we don’t allow ourselves to spend a few hours a week seeking to understand nature. To paraphrase another great thinker, “We don't value what we don't know; we don't protect what we don't value."
The Spa Creek cleanup was a good way to reconnect with nature and see firsthand how, perhaps unintentionally or unconsciously, we abuse it. Once we understand that, we will all be motivated to do something about it.
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:
An unusual sequence of weather events, including a wet spring, a hot, dry summer, and two tropical storms, caused the Chesapeake Bay’s health to decline in 2011, according to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
(Image courtesy Chesapeake EcoCheck)
Scientists gave the Bay a D+ on the latest Chesapeake Bay Report Card, an annual assessment of the health of the Bay and its tidal rivers. The score of 38 percent was the second lowest since assessments began in 1986 and down from a C- in 2010.
Only two areas – the lower western shore and the Patapsco and Back rivers – improved last year. The rest of the Bay’s segments remained the same or got worse. Scientists recorded lower scores in the Patuxent River, Rappahannock River, James River, Tangier Sound, and the upper and middle Bay.
"The spring rains and hot, dry summer followed by Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Lee led to poor health throughout Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries," said Dr. Bill Dennison of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "While we have been making considerable progress in various restoration activities, these results indicate we still need to do much more to reduce the input of nutrients and sediments from stormwater runoff into the Bay."
The Bay’s health is largely affected by weather conditions. Rainfall carries pollution from farms, cities and suburbs to storm drains, streams and eventually the Bay. Even as the government, communities and citizens work to reduce pollution, an increase in stormwater runoff can mask the effects of these improvements.
Wet weather last spring washed more nutrient pollution into the water, fueling the growth of algae blooms that blocked sunlight from reaching bay grasses. Hot, dry weather allowed these algae blooms to persist through summer, leading to low-oxygen “dead zones” in the Bay’s bottom waters. In late summer, the Bay was slammed by the effects of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, both of which worsened water clarity.
"The report card clearly indicates that the Chesapeake Bay watershed is a dynamic ecosystem subject to severe weather events," said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale. “The silver lining is that the Hopkins-UMCES study of 60 years of water quality data concluded that a decrease in the frequency and severity of dead zones in the Bay is the direct result of implementing measures to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. We know what works; we just need to do more of it."
The Chesapeake Bay Report Card, produced by the EcoCheck partnership, offers a timely and geographically detailed assessment of the health of the Bay’s water quality and aquatic life. Visit EcoCheck’s website for more information about the report card, including region-specific data and downloadable graphics.
Despite improvements in some key areas, the Anacostia River’s health is still in very poor condition, according to a new report card released by the Anacostia Watershed Society.
(Image courtesy Mr. T in DC/Flickr)
Stormwater runoff is the largest source of pollution to the Anacostia River, which flows to the Potomac River, one of the Chesapeake Bay’s largest tributaries. Runoff carries dirt, oil, trash, fertilizer and other pollutants from the land into the Anacostia, where they smother underwater life and make the river unsafe for fishing and swimming.
The Anacostia River report card uses data on four water quality indicators – dissolved oxygen, water clarity, fecal bacteria and chlorophyll a (algae) – to determine the river’s health. Although this year’s report card showed improvements in fecal bacteria levels, the river’s water clarity is still extremely poor due to continued sediment runoff.
New legislation just passed in Maryland to enact a stormwater fee in the state’s largest counties, combined with funding from a similar District of Columbia fee, will help implement infrastructure repairs that reduce polluted runoff to the Anacostia and other waterways.
Visit the Anacostia Watershed Society’s website for more information about the river’s health and what you can do to help restore it.
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.