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.
Restoring tidal wetlands could lower the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and offset the impacts of climate change, according to research released this month by Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE).
In a report on research conducted in Washington’s Puget Sound, scientists show that the 1,353 hectares—or 3,300+ acres—of wetlands that are planned or under construction in the sound’s Snohomish Estuary will help remove at least 2.55 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the next century. This is equal to the annual emissions of 500,000 average-sized cars.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that can trap heat in our atmosphere and contribute to climate change. It is the top greenhouse gas emitted by human activities, but it can be removed from the atmosphere by plants, which need it to create food.
When wetlands take in carbon dioxide, excess carbon is stored in organic-rich soils. When wetlands are drained and developed, however, carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Restoring wetlands can reactivate this carbon sequestration process.
“This report is a call to action,” said Steve Emmett-Mattox, senior director at RAE and co-author of the study, in a media release. “We need to invest more substantially in coastal restoration nationwide and in science to increase our understanding of the climate benefits which accrue from coastal restoration and protection efforts.”
In addition to climate benefits, wetlands can improve water quality, support fisheries and reduce flood risks. But according to a 2013 report, the United States is losing wetlands at a rate of 80,000 acres per year, and the rising seas of climate change threaten to turn wetlands into shallow bays.
Related research from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center has shown that high levels of carbon dioxide can help wetlands create new soil faster, which could help the habitats move to higher elevations ahead of rising seas.
Coastal wetlands in the United States are disappearing faster than ever, as population growth and human development place pressure on this critical habitat.
According to a report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the nation lost almost 370,000 acres of coastal wetlands between 2004 and 2009, at a rate of 80,000 acres per year. This marks a 25 percent faster rate of loss than researchers measured between 1998 and 2004.
Coastal wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems on earth, and a loss of wetlands is also a loss of wildlife habitat, water quality control and shoreline protection. Wetlands provide spawning grounds, nurseries, shelter and food to fish, shellfish, birds and other animals; wetlands filter polluted runoff before it can enter our rivers and streams; and wetlands stabilize shorelines in the face of strong storms, sea level rise and climate change.
While some wetland losses can be offset by the creation of new wetlands elsewhere, this mitigation strategy is often ineffective along the coast. According to the report, this is because coastal ecosystems can be difficult to work in, storms and sea level rise can hamper reestablishment efforts, and human encroachment and land use can cut down on the number of available sites to restore. Indeed, most of the nation’s coastal wetland loss can be attributed to development and other human activities that increase impervious surface area, affect water quality and fragment or destroy natural habitats.
An investment in habitat conservation could be a smart one for fisheries and the economies that depend on them, according to a new report.
In More Habitat Means More Fish, released this week by Restore Americas Estuaries, the American Sportfishing Association and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the link between healthy habitats and strong fisheries is made clear: without feeding or breeding grounds, fish cannot grow or reproduce, which means fewer fish and a decline in fisheries-dependent jobs, income and recreational opportunities.
Most of the nation’s commercial and recreational fish depend on coastal and estuarine habitats for food and shelter. Investments and improvements in these habitats can have immediate and long-lasting effects on fish populations.
The construction of an oyster reef, for instance, can provide food and shelter to a number of aquatic species. The conservation of marshes and underwater grass beds can boost the number and diversity of fish and their prey. And the restoration of fish passage to once-blocked rivers can open up new habitat to those species that must migrate upstream to spawn.
“Investing in coastal and estuarine habitat restoration is essential… for the long-term future of our fisheries,” said Restore Americas Estuaries President and CEO Jeff Benoit in a media release. “In order to have fish, we have to have healthy habitat. If we want more fish, we need more healthy habitat.”
Read more about More Habitat Means More Fish.
During the Atlantic Basin's six-month hurricane season, wetlands along the edges of rivers, streams and Chesapeake Bay shorelines play a critical role in maintaining healthy waters.
Storms and hurricanes like Lee and Irene in 2011 or Isabel in 2003 can have serious consequences for the Bay region, as rains wash nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous off of farms, lawns and gardens; push sediment-laden runoff into local waterways; and inundate grass and oyster beds with suffocating silt. But this sort of storm damage is often temporary, and can be mitigated by abundant, healthy wetlands and ongoing efforts to restore them.
Wetlands stabilize shorelines, protect properties from strong waves and surging floods, soak up stormwater runoff and absorb sediment and chemical contaminants. While wetlands alone will not stop excess nutrients and sediment from reaching our waters, strong, healthy wetlands are vital to reducing the impacts of polluted runoff and supporting the Bay's resilience.
Last year, Chesapeake Bay Program partners restored more than 3,700 acres of wetlands in the Bay watershed--an acreage equivalent to about 2,855 football fields. These efforts build on the 14,765 acres of wetlands established from 1998 to 2010 and represent a solid step by Bay jurisdictions toward meeting the goal to restore 30,000 acres and rejuvenate 150,000 acres of these landscapes by 2025.
Every Sunday morning at 8, a handful of bird enthusiasts flock to Dyke Marsh, the only freshwater marsh along the upper tidal Potomac River. The Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, located south of Alexandria, Va., is home to almost 300 species of birds. The marsh is classified as a “globally rare” habitat, one that’s particularly unique in this dense, urban area just outside the nation’s capital.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
Since 1975, the nonprofit volunteer group Friends of Dyke Marsh (FODM) has helped preserve, restore and celebrate this rare ecosystem. In addition to arranging weekly bird watching trips, FODM sponsors scientific surveys, leads school groups, removes invasive plants, organizes cleanups and builds public appreciation for the marsh.
FODM supports scientific surveys that illustrate the marsh’s irreplaceable habitat. Freshwater tidal marshes are flooded with fresh water with each incoming high tide, and include a variety of rare emergent grasses and sedges rather than shrubs.
“Dyke Marsh is a remnant of the extensive tidal wetlands that used to line the Potomac River,” explains FODM president Glenda Booth. “It provides buffering during storms. It absorbs flood waters. It’s a nursery for fish. It’s a rich biodiverse area in a large metropolitan area. We think it’s important to preserve what little is left.”
With the support of FODM, a Virginia Natural Heritage Program employee completed a survey of dragonflies and damselflies on the preserve in spring 2011. In addition, members conduct a breeding bird survey every spring. Last year, FODM recorded 78 species. The highlight? A confirmed breeding eastern screech-owl, the first documented in 20 years.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
“Our biggest challenge is to stop that erosion and restore Dyke Marsh,” says Booth.
Dyke Marsh was already destabilized in 1959, when Congress added it to the U.S. National Park system. USGS scientists largely attributed this to human impacts: sand and gravel mining that gouged out substantial parts of the marsh and removed a promontory that protected the wetland from storms, leaving Dyke Marsh exposed and vulnerable.
FODM works with the National Park Service to enhance wetland habitat and slow erosion of the marsh’s shoreline.
Educating neighbors about their connection to Dyke Marsh and fostering appreciation of this scenic area are also essential components of FODM’s preservation goals.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
Like most other parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, invasive plants are a problem in Dyke Marsh. “A lot of people plant things that are aggressive and not native, and these plants end up in the marsh.” And pollution that flows into streams throughout Fairfax County eventually empties into Dyke Marsh, threatening its wildlife and habitat.
Preserving Dyke Marsh is a goal that extends beyond the marsh itself, according to Booth. “We have to make sure that activities on our boundaries are compatible with preservation goals.” That means advocating for regulations that prohibit jet skiing, which disturbs the marsh’s nesting birds in spring.
Visit FODM’s website to learn more about upcoming outreach and educational opportunities and to find out other ways you can enjoy Dyke Marsh.
“Everything you film today, everything on camera, everything you walk on, was created. None of it was here in 1998. We’d be in several feet of water right now a little more than a decade ago.” – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Chris Guy
It’s warm for a January morning. But out of habit, the team from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office (FWS) is armed with coffee thermoses and dressed in construction-orange floatation gear. The hot coffee and “survival suits” gain importance as the winter wind stings our faces on the hour-long boat ride from Annapolis to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The team embarks on this trip most mornings throughout the year, even in the coldest months.
In fact, today’s task must be completed in the first weeks of the new year. We’re hauling discarded Christmas trees to build waterfowl habitat on Poplar Island, a place where, ten years ago, wildlife habitat had nearly disappeared – because the land had disappeared. In 1997, just 10 acres of the original island remained.
Today, Poplar Island has grown to 1,140 acres, thanks to a partnership between FWS, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Environmental Service and Maryland Port Administration that uses dredge material from the Port of Baltimore to rebuild the island. Many places (such as parts of Washington D.C. and Philadelphia International Airport) have been “built” using this technique, known as “fast-landing.” But Poplar Island is distinctive: it’s being constructed not for human use, but to provide the Chesapeake Bay’s wildlife with island habitat, a rarity in an era of quick-sinking shorelines and rising sea levels.
“What's unique about this project is the habitat aspect,” says FWS biologist Chris Guy, who’s helped run the project since 2005. “It's a win-win, because you get a dredge disposal site, which is hard to come by in the Chesapeake Bay, and it's long term, and you're getting much-needed habitat restoration.”
According to FWS biologist Peter McGowan, who began working on the project in the mid 1990s, wildlife are now flocking to Poplar Island. “Back in 1996, we had ten documented bird species using the island,” he says. “Now we have over 170 species that have been documented, and over 26 nesting species.”
Every January since 2005, residents of Easton, Maryland, have put their old Christmas trees on the curb for trash pickup, unaware of the fact that their discarded holiday greenery will soon become shelter and nesting habitat for black ducks, snowy egrets, red-winged blackbirds and diamondback terrapins.
Like so many Chesapeake Bay islands before it, Poplar Island fell victim to both rapid sea level rise and post-glacial rebound: the counteraction of glaciers during the last Ice Age that’s making the Bay’s islands sink. The combination of rising water and sinking land caused shorelines to quickly erode, and eventually vanish.
Here’s a summary of Poplar Island’s life, near death and revitalization:
How do scientists and engineers turn open water into land you can confidently step on? With dried and processed dredge material that’s used to build up the land over time.
Dredging is a process of clearing sediment (dredge) out of the bottom of waterways. Dredging is necessary on many rivers leading into major ports because sediment naturally builds up over time. This sediment must be excavated so large ships can pass in and out of ports.
Maintenance dredging of the Port of Baltimore is critical to Maryland’s economy: the port contributes $1.9 billion and 50,200 jobs to the state’s economy. It’s also the number one port in the U.S. for automobile exports.
It also contributes a lot of sediment. The port estimates that maintenance dredging in the next twenty years will generate 100 million cubic yards of sediment – enough material to fill the Louisiana Superdome 25 times. Finding a place to store this massive amount of dredge material has been a problem – that is, until the Poplar Island project came calling, requiring 68 million cubic yards of dredge.
When dredge material arrives at Poplar Island through large pipes, it spends a few years drying. Then bulldozers and heavy equipment move in to dig out channels for wetlands and streams. When the topography is set, the area is planted with grasses, trees and shrubs.
A first time visitor to Poplar Island may be surprised to see bulldozers and pipes gushing black dredge material at a site renowned as a world wonder of habitat restoration. Although it’s necessary to use this heavy equipment to rebuild the island, the staff has found a way to balance these activities and still attract wildlife.
“Let's call it a ‘dance,’” says Guy. “We have to work with the construction, obviously, but we have to be sensitive to the needs of the birds.”
The Christmas trees that Guy and McGowan have been bringing to the island since 2005 give black ducks a place to lay their eggs. Black duck populations have fallen dramatically in the Chesapeake Bay region, causing the bird to be listed as a species of concern.
One reason for the species’ decline is a lack of food, including bay grasses, aquatic plants and invertebrates that have dwindled as pollution increased. Development and other human activities have encroached on its wintering and breeding habitats.
“[When we began the project], we looked at what others around the country used to attract nesting birds,” explains McGowan. “Christmas trees were a good resource. Instead of going into landfills, they could be reused.”
Discarded Christmas trees imitate shrubs that black ducks typically seek out. They’re warm, sheltered spots to raise young. Since the first tree plantings on Poplar Island took place just ten years ago, none are mature enough to provide adequate nesting habitat. So until the real trees grow tall enough, Christmas trees will have to do.
“Black ducks like to nest in thickets in the marshes,” McGowan explains. “Christmas trees help provide the structure they need. It keeps them covered and safe from predators.”
And the trees seem to be working. As we take apart last year’s piles, we find a handful of eggs underneath the dead trees.
“Seeing that we have these leftover eggs demonstrates to us that ducks are using these nest piles successfully,” says Guy. “Just about every one of them we find a few eggs, so we think they’re having multiple clutches.”
The eggs we find in the six or seven piles that we disrupt belong to mallards, but McGowan and Guy claim that black ducks are nesting on Poplar Island as well.
“We've had six or seven black ducks nesting on the island,” says Guy. “You may say six or seven isn't a big deal, but when you're down to the last few hundred black ducks nesting in the Bay, going from 0 to 6, where they're used to be thousands, that's a big success story. That's not the only thing that these trees do, but it's one of the main drivers to get these trees out here.”
Guy and McGowan have long envisioned Poplar Island as prime habitat for black ducks.
“Back [in 2005], we went around the curbs in Anne Arundel County and threw the trees in the back of my pickup,” Guy tells me. It took the pair the entire month of January to collect the trees and transport them to Poplar Island.
Seven years later, the project is finished in just one day with help from Easton Public Works and volunteers and employees from FWS and Maryland Environmental Service.
Black ducks aren’t the only critters on Poplar. The island is home to hundreds of birds, reptiles and other species that now rely on the restored landmass for food and shelter.
For more information about Poplar Island and other wildlife habitat restoration projects around the Chesapeake Bay region, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office website.
As the sun rises, bald eagles swoop from tree to ground; Canada geese honk happily in a nearby field; and a crew of scientists, boaters and trappers begin a day’s work at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland. The mission? To keep the marshes that fringe the shoreline along this part of the Chesapeake Bay from disappearing.
Although wetland degradation can be attributed to a variety of factors, the field crew at Blackwater is focusing their efforts on one cause they believe can be easily controlled: an invasive rodent called nutria. Native to South America, nutria were introduced to the United States in the early 20th century for their fur, which was thought to be valuable at the time. These 20-pound animals with the build of a beaver and the tail of muskrat may seem harmless, but their effect on marshes across the United States has been devastating.
An overindulgent diet of wetland plants, a lack of natural predators and ridiculously high reproduction rates are characteristics that have led nutria to be labeled as an “invasive species.” Simply put, this means they aren’t originally from here, and they harm the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.
Nutria eat 25 percent of their body weight in marsh plants per day. Let’s put that into perspective: if you’re a 120-pound woman, you’d have to eat 30 pounds of plants each day to eat like a nutria. And since marsh plants don’t weigh all that much, you’d find yourself eating a lot of vegetation.
To make matters worse, nutria tear up the roots of marsh plants when they eat, making it impossible for new plants to grow. As a result, large areas of marshland erode away to open water.
“One property owner on Island Pond had a 300-acre marsh property. Now there’s about 30 acres left,” describes Stephen Kendrot, who works on the Nutria Eradication Project for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS).
Aerial photographs of Blackwater depict a similar scenario. The refuge has lost 50 percent of its wetlands since nutria were introduced in the 1940s. The photos below depict Blackwater in 1939 (left) and 1989 (right.)
Certainly, this loss is a tragedy for Eastern Shore landowners. And while residents may be disappointed that they can’t look out at a beautiful marsh view or help their children find frogs in their backyard wetland, loss of marshland also results in irreversible ecological consequences.
Marsh plants are incredibly beneficial to the environment because they:
In the early 1990s, U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff fenced off random quarter-acre plots in Blackwater’s marsh, excluding nutria but allowing other animals to enter. After several growing seasons, the marsh plants inside the enclosure began to grow, while the vegetation outside the fencing declined. This finding proved that nutria was the direct cause of marsh loss.
Like most rodents, nutria are prolific breeders. This means that those areas with just one or two nutria won’t stay that way for long. Female nutria are fertile as young as six months old, and they can become pregnant again just 24 hours after giving birth. (Essentially, a lifetime of being pregnant.)
“Sometimes we miss a couple animals and they might find each other and start a new population,” explains Kendrot.
As the nutria problem grew serious, federal and state agencies, universities and private organizations partnered to form the Nutria Eradication Project. The project team is made up of academically trained biologists and Eastern Shore natives who have been trapping nutria since they were kids.
Although nutria have been eradicated from Blackwater since the project took off in 2002, there are still substantial populations in other, less densely populated areas. These are the spots the Nutria Eradication Project is now targeting.
Today, Kendrot and I tag along with the field team to survey for nutria on the Wicomico River, an area where residents have reported nutria.
Mario Eusi, who has been trapping nutria for years, drives our boat down the Wicomico River and turns into a narrow inlet. This area is privately owned, but the landowners have granted the team permission to access their property. This type of support is critical to the project’s success.
“About half the nutria we find are on private property,” Kendrot explains. “And almost all the property on the Wicomico is privately owned.”
Consequently, the team dedicates lots of time to public outreach. Kendrot and other team members make phone calls and sit down at kitchen tables across Wicomico and Dorchester counties to explain the harmful effects of nutria. The team must assure landowners that if they grant access to their land, they are preventing their property from disappearing. From this perspective, the federally funded Nutria Eradication Project is actually a public service to waterfront landowners – the team does their best to prevent residents’ marshland from sinking into the Chesapeake Bay.
Today we are tracking nutria, which means looking for signs such as scat, paw prints, chewed plants, flattened grass beds – anything to prove “a nutria was here.” A good tracker must have both a keen knowledge of what nutria signs look like and the sharp senses to catch them, regardless of weather conditions or the speed of the boat cruising down the river. The team also tracks nutria through other methods, including dogs, radio collars and hidden video cameras.
Finding the “nute” is the bigger half of the battle. “Trapping is the easy part,” the field team assures me. Team members must first find signs of nutria before they can decide where to set traps in the spring. I admit: I’m relieved I won’t have to see any nutria in traps today.
The tide is rising, so we have to be quick; soon, the water will wash away paw prints and make it difficult to identify nesting areas. Eusi points out the difference between nutria and muskrat scat. His eye for detail and ingrained awareness of the great outdoors makes him an excellent tracker.
Suddenly, we find a nesting site: an area of flattened grasses that looks like someone has been sitting in the marsh. The signs multiply, and soon the team is out of the boat, bushwhacking through twelve-foot high cattails. I try to catch up, but my foot gets stuck in the mud, and soon I am up to my hips in wetland!
As we continue through the marsh, we find one of the most conclusive signs of an active nutria population: a 10-foot-wide “eat-out,” or an open area where nutria have eaten all of the grasses and their roots. These bare, muddy areas, stripped of all vegetation, eventually erode away into open water.
When we spot a larger “eat-out” not a few steps away, it occurs to me that the two areas will likely merge into one giant mud flat. The cattails I just bushwhacked and the mud I sank into will soon disappear forever into the Wicomico River.
Since we have successfully tracked nutria on the Wicomico today, the team can now think about how to trap the animals.
When a nutria is trapped, it drowns quickly. Team members record the age and sex of each nutria to determine if it is newly born or if it was missed during the previous round of trapping. One way to estimate a nutria’s age is to weigh its eyeballs, because the lenses grow at a fixed rate throughout its life.
Dead nutria have another benefit: carcasses left in the wild provide food for bald eagles, turtles and other wildlife.
While the term “eradication” may conjure up images of ruthless killers, the field team does not seek to conquer these rodents. Rather, the goal is to preserve the wetlands that support the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and define the culture and economy of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The team’s work also benefits the region’s economy as a whole. It’s estimated that nutria cost Maryland $4 million in lost revenue in 2004 alone. The Bay’s crab and oyster fisheries are just two of countless industries that depend on coastal wetlands. The natural filtering capabilities of marsh plants cost millions of dollars to imitate with wastewater treatment plants. Nutria eradication doesn’t just save our wetlands; it also saves our money.
Nutria are often confused with beavers and muskrats, two native and ecologically important mammals. The Fish and Wildlife Service offers a nutria identification page on its website to help you distinguish the difference between these three similar-looking species.
If you think you may have nutria on your property, you should contact the Nutria Eradication Team.
In Louisiana, the nutria infestation problem is even worse. The current generation is carrying on the traditions of fur-bearing trappers thanks to the state’s Nutria Control Program, which pays trappers per nutria they collect. The state even promotes nutria trapping by providing recipes for dishes such as smoked nutria and nutria chili!
Real fur may no longer be a faux pas for the environmentally conscious fashionista. Coats and hats made from nutria fur are considered by many to be “green and guilt-free.” George Costanza thought so, anyway: in an episode of Seinfeld, he replaces Elaine’s lost sable hat with another made from the fur of this invasive rodent.
Gulls call to each other, belted kingfishers swoop down into the seagrass, monarchs chase the wind, and Alicia and I snap photographs of as much of it as we can. Fisherman Island is only open to the public during this time of year, and it is very likely that this trip will be our only opportunity to visit the tiny island at the southernmost tip of the Delmarva Peninsula.
Although thousands of motorists pass over the 1,850-acre land mass each day as they drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, few of them know that this area is one of only 17 sites classified as a “wetland of international importance.” Thousands of migratory birds stop here each fall and spring, and monarchs feed on native plants as they make their winter trip to Latin America.
The refuge is closed to the public because many of these species, such as brown pelicans and royal terns, are sensitive to threats from humans.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, manages Fisherman Island. Refuge law enforcement makes sure that the public – and yes, even fishermen – stay away.
Alicia and I were afforded access to Fisherman Island through Chesapeake Experience, a non-profit organization that offers summer camps, eco paddles, corporate retreats and experience-based environmental education for educators and students. Chesapeake Experience Director Jill Bieri and two refuge staff members led a morning walk on the island’s nearly unspoiled beach and an afternoon kayak tour from the Chesapeake to the Atlantic.
But this trip is a different kind of Chesapeake experience for us, coming from Annapolis, where the Bay’s brackish water forms a distinctive landscape.
Most of the tour participants are avid birders and have come prepared with binoculars. We see many yellow-rumped warblers, or “butter rumps,” (Dendroica coronate) squeaking back and forth across the path.
There are plenty of other interesting features to observe at Fisherman Island, including:
Although we find treasures that we’re not likely to see in Annapolis, we also saw something disappointing: plastic bags that have washed up on shore and are now buried deeply in the sand.
To me, this illustrates why efforts to restore the Bay need to collaborative, involving agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service, non-profits like Chesapeake Experience, and regular people like you and me. Although this tract of land is hardly touched by the public, and managed meticulously by the government, it is still vulnerable to the pollution that is happening throughout the Bay.
That afternoon, we paddle to where the Chesapeake Bay pours into the Atlantic Ocean, following the meandering path of the water through the marsh. Sitting on my kayak in this water, I feel it drift in and out of the Bay, and realize that the boundary lines between ocean and bay are fuzzy, or even, invisible.
A great blue heron watches us kayak into the waves. Our group slowly paddles to him, waiting for his five-foot wing span to cast a shadow over us. His flight makes our cameras snap and mouths hang open.
Jill instructs us to turn back before the waves get too rough. After all, we’re only novice kayakers!
Our homeward bound drive along Route 13 reveals abandoned homes alongside tents selling Virginia pecans, fireworks and cigarettes, all of them advertising their products with home-made, home-painted signs dotting the side of the road.
Mobile homes, their porches decorated with pots and pans and people in rocking chairs, sit on large tracts of land that I imagine to once have been profitable tobacco or cotton farms.
As the sun sets, these surroundings disappear, and we have only the stars to look at until we reach Annapolis.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has purchased 825 acres of land along the Nanticoke River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to expand Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
The purchase conserves two tracts of land: one along a section of the Nanticoke River near Vienna and another to the north on Marshyhope Creek near Brookview.
The land has been identified as prime habitat for migratory waterfowl such as black ducks, blue-winged teal and wood ducks, as well as for bald eagles and the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel. Additionally, the southern land tract is located along the Nanticoke section of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is one of the nation’s premier national wildlife refuges. It consists of more than 27,000 acres, including one-third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands and some of the most ecologically important areas in the state.
Visit Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge’s website to learn more about the refuge and the expansion.
There are several different kinds of habitats found in the Bay’s watershed. Each one is important to the survival of the watershed’s diverse wildlife. Habitats also play important roles in Bay restoration.
Chesapeake Bay habitats include:
Forests covered approximately 95 percent of the Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed when Europeans arrived in the 17th century. Now, forests only cover about 58 percent of the watershed.
Forests are important because they provide vital habitat for wildlife. Forests also filter pollution, keeping nearby waterways cleaner. Forests act as huge natural sponges that absorb and slowly release excess stormwater runoff, which often contains harmful pollutants. Forests also absorb airborne nitrogen that might otherwise pollute our land and water.
Wetlands are transitional areas between land and water. There are two general categories of wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay watershed: tidal and non-tidal. Tidal wetlands, found along the Bay's shores, are filled with salt or brackish water when the tide rises. Non-tidal wetlands contain fresh water
Just like forests, wetlands act as important buffers, absorbing and slowing the flow of polluted runoff to the Bay and its tributaries.
Streams and rivers not only provide the Chesapeake Bay with its fresh water, they also provide many aquatic species with critical habitat. Fish, invertebrates, amphibians and other wildlife species all depend on the Bay’s tributaries for survival.
When the Bay’s streams and rivers are in poor health, so is the Bay, and the great array of wildlife it harbors is put in danger.
Shallow waters are the areas of water from the shoreline to about 10 feet deep. Shallow waters are constantly changing with the tides and weather throughout the year. The shallows support plant life, fish, birds and shellfish.
Tidal marshes in the Bay's shallows connect shorelines to forests and wetlands. Marshes and provide food and shelter for the wildlife that lives in the Bay's shallow waters. Freshwater marshes are found in the upper Bay, brackish marshes in the middle Bay and salt marshes in the lower Bay.
Aquatic reefs are solid three-dimensional habitats made up of densely packed oysters. The reefs form when oyster larvae attach to larger oysters at the bottom of the Bay.
Reefs provide habitat and communities for many aquatic species in the Bay, including fish and crabs. The high concentration of oysters in aquatic reefs improve water quality by filtering algae and pollutants from the water.
Open waters are beyond the shoreline and the shallows. Aquatic reefs replace underwater bay grasses, which cannot grow where the sunlight cannot penetrate deep waters. Open water provides vital habitat for pelagic fish, birds and invertebrates.
Each of these habitats are vital to the survival of the Chesapeake Bay’s many different species of wildlife. It's important to protect and restore habitats to help promote the overall health of the Bay. So do your part to save the Bay by protecting habitats near you – find out how.
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week! You can also ask us a question via Twitter by sending a reply to @chesbayprogram! Be sure to follow us there for all the latest in Bay news and events
On the first Wednesday in December, landowner Ray Lewis proudly looked across one of three recently constructed wetlands on his upstate New York farm. Accompanied by several local organizations involved in the effort, Mr. Lewis explained to Jeff Lape, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, why he had taken on such a project.
“My wife Loddie and I bought this farm several years ago and we’ve done lots of work to improve it. Building these wetlands will catch sediment and farm-related pollution before it enters our creek.”
Lewis was referring to Carr’s Creek, which borders approximately one mile of his farm before joining the upper Susquehanna River near Sidney, New York.
“These wetlands will also contribute to restoration and protection of the Chesapeake Bay,” Lewis said.
And what compelled Lewis and his wife – who are recent transplants from Philadelphia – to take on such an ambitious project? It started a few years ago, when Lewis attended a meeting of the Sidney Center Improvement Group. There, he learned how landowners could improve local stream conditions through watershed management: conserving and restoring natural areas to protect habitats, the health of local waterways and quality of life in communities.
“It started a couple of years ago when I attended a meeting of the Sidney Center Improvement Group, learned about watershed management and how landowners could improve local stream conditions,” explained Lewis.
After participating in a stream monitoring workshop sponsored by the Improvement Group, Izaak Walton League of America and the National Park Service, Lewis contacted the Delaware County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Upper Susquehanna Coalition. He soon was approving a design for a series of three wetlands financed in part by the Soil and Water District and constructed by the Coalition.
The Chesapeake Bay Program got involved with this project, hundreds of miles removed from the Bay, when the Sidney Center Improvement Group contacted the Bay Program for assistance managing streams, according to the group's president, Joe Lally. The group was referred to the National Park Service, a partner organization with the Bay Program.
“And we have received hands-on assistance from the Park Service’s Rivers and Trails staff ever since,” Lally said.
A recently released report by the U.S. EPA shows that many areas around the Bay’s shoreline are already witnessing the effects of sea level rise and that vulnerable tidal marshes may erode more rapidly over the next century because of climate change.
The report, Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region, examines the impacts of sea level rise on the human communities and wildlife habitat of the Mid-Atlantic coast, including Chesapeake Bay. According to the EPA, the Mid-Atlantic region is one area of the U.S. that will likely see the greatest impacts of climate change due to rising waters, coastal storms and a high population concentration along the coastline.
At the 20th century rate of sea level rise (3-4 mm per year), extensive areas of marsh in the Bay (depicted in red in the image to the right) will become marginal, or only able to survive under optimal conditions. Other low-lying areas, depicted in blue, will be fully submerged at the current rate of sea level rise. The report cites evidence that sea level rise is increasing due to climate change, which would accelerate erosion of the Bay’s marshes.
A clear example of the effects of sea level rise can be seen on the Bay’s marsh islands, many of which have already been lost or severely eroded. These islands are vital to bird species like terns, black skimmers and American oystercatchers, which use the islands to nest and breed. On the mainland shoreline of the Bay, nearly all of the beaches are eroding, which has led many waterfront property owners to install hardened shorelines as protection.
In addition to the effects of sea level rise, the report details the efforts of state and local governments throughout the Mid-Atlantic to protect coastal communities against erosion. Maryland is noted as having the most stringent policies on development along the Chesapeake and coastal areas. The state’s Critical Area laws limit development within 1,000 feet of the shoreline.
“Our state is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change -- including sea level rise,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley in response to the EPA report. “We are making real progress in both preparing for the impacts of climate change but also in reducing the actions that contribute to it.”
However, the report shows that most shoreline protection structures are designed to protect properties from current sea level, rather than the anticipated increases. “Preparing now can reduce the eventual environmental and economic impacts of sea level rise,” reads a report highlight.
Waterfront property owners interested in learning more on how they can protect their shoreline from erosion and sea level rise can visit Maryland DNR’s website for more information.
A partnership between the James River Association, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership and several other organizations has protected from erosion more than 500 acres of tidal freshwater marsh on Herring Creek in Charles City County, Virginia.
The newly protected marsh, known as Ducking Stool Point, is a spit of land located at the confluence of Herring Creek and the James River. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducking Stool Point provides important habitat for waterfowl, bald eagles, largemouth bass and a number of other birds and fish.
To protect the marsh from further erosion, the partnership installed an 1,825-foot-long structure of sloping stone between the marsh and the James River. Stabilizing Ducking Stool Point will help protect stream habitat for migratory and residential fish species, many of which are recreationally valuable to area residents. The project also protects bald eagles and other wildlife that nest and roost in the area.
The project was completed in November and unveiled at a ceremony this month.
Visit the James River Association’s website for more information about the Ducking Stool Point project.
On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, pollution from development and agriculture are much-debated issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay's health. But one of the region's most destructive forces is unseen by many: a large, beaver-like rodent that digs out and feeds on the roots of marsh grasses.
Nutria are an invasive species that live in the Delmarva Peninsula's marshes and wetlands. Since their introduction in the 1940s, nutria have eaten through thousands of acres of marshland on the Eastern Shore. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County has been especially hard-hit: nutria have destroyed more than half of the marshes there -- nearly 7,000 acres.
Marshes and wetlands are important because they protect clean water by filtering out pollutants and reducing shoreline erosion. They also provide opportunities for outdoor nature activities such as paddling, hiking, hunting and bird-watching.
Additionally, wetland destruction by nutria costs Maryland’s economy $4 million per year in lost environmental services from the degradation of farmland, property, water quality, commercial fisheries and outdoor activities. Recent reports estimate that figure will increase to $30 million per year by 2050 if nutria are left unchecked.
To combat nutria’s destruction of valuable marshland, a group of federal, state and local organizations has come together to eradicate the invasive rodent from the Eastern Shore.
The Maryland Nutria Project began in the late 1990s as the Maryland Nutria Project Partnership, a group of 22 organizations that joined together to investigate the potential to eliminate nutria from Eastern Shore marshes. In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received federal funding to develop a strategy to eradicate nutria in Maryland.
Today, the Maryland Nutria Project is one of a small handful of highly successful invasive species programs in the United States. Since its work began in 2002, the Project has removed nutria from almost 150,000 acres of wetlands in Caroline, Dorchester, Somerset, Talbot and Wicomico counties.
The Maryland Nutria Project’s trapping efforts were originally concentrated in a 95,000-acre “nutria eradication zone,” which included Blackwater, the state-owned Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, the privately owned Tudor Farms, and other nearby private lands.
“Except for monitoring activities, the Project is finished in the nutria eradication zone,” said Dan Murphy, program supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office. “We are continuing to expand out of Dorchester County into nutria-infested marshes in Caroline, Somerset, Talbot and Wicomico counties.
Marshes have shown a remarkable ability to recover once nutria are removed from an area. But without a continued effort to eradicate them, nutria will re-infest and once again destroy wetlands. The Project must expand its efforts into the remaining five southern Maryland Eastern Shore counties and the Delaware and Virginia portions of Delmarva -- a total of more than 400,000 acres of wetlands.
“The challenge ahead is for the Project to continue to expand into surrounding marshlands while preventing re-infestation of previously trapped habitats on state, federal and private lands,” Murphy said. “This will require the trapping team to work in much larger areas and expand the trapping zone on a much broader front.”
Based on current staffing, progress and field efforts, the Maryland Nutria Project estimates that it will eradicate nutria from the Eastern Shore by 2013. After that time, Project members will continue to monitor marshes and remove any nutria they find.
The Nutria Management Team, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office, oversees the nutria eradication project. Other members of the Maryland Nutria Project include:
Learn more about nutria and the Maryland Nutria Partnership from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
A new wetlands restoration partnership in Maryland will bring corporations, government agencies and nonprofits together to help improve and restore the state’s aquatic wildlife habitats.
The Maryland Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership (CWRP) is an innovative, public-private initiative created to restore and create wetlands and oyster reefs, enhance fish passage, and control invasive species at sites throughout the state.
The Maryland CWRP is a chapter of the national CWRP, which began in Massachusetts and now includes chapters across the United States and the world.
So far, three corporations -- The Brick Companies, Constellation Energy and Biohabitats -- have signed on to the Maryland CWRP. In addition, nonprofits such as Ducks Unlimited, Maryland state agencies like the Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources, and federal agencies such as the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are joining in.
“It is essential that we work together with government agencies and non-government institutions to propagate new ideas and find innovative solutions,” said Paul Allen, senior vice president and chief environmental officer at Constellation Energy and vice-chair of the Maryland Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership. “That’s why this partnership is so important.”
Currently, Maryland CWRP has proposed seven restoration projects throughout the state, four of which are in the Bay watershed.
At Eastern Neck, the proposed project by Maryland CWRP would protect the shoreline around Hail Cove, which is eroding by 7 feet per year. Hail Cove is an important wintering area for black ducks and other migratory waterfowl, shielding them from prevailing winds as they roost and feed. In addition, reducing erosion would stop sediment from flowing to the Chester River and protect underwater bay grasses growing in Hail Cove.
The Maryland CWRP is looking for other corporations to join the partnership and new potential restoration projects, particularly involving oyster habitat restoration and projects in urban areas. For more information about CWRP, visit the partnership’s website at www.cwrp.org.
Bay Program partners established and/or reestablished nearly 1,000 acres of wetlands between 2005 and 2006, contributing to a cumulative total of more than 11,000 acres since 1998, according to recently compiled numbers.
“Established” wetlands refer to forming a wetland where there previously wasn't one, such as re-shaping an upland site to make it suitable for wetland plants. “Reestablished” wetlands are areas that were historically marshes or swamps, but have been converted to another land use, such as farming. By reestablishing the land's hydrology, a wetland can form once again.
In 2000, Bay Program signatories agreed to pursue a net gain of 25,000 acres of tidal and non-tidal wetlands in the Bay watershed by 2010. These wetland acres would be gained through voluntary projects. In 2005, Bay Program partners clarified this goal to track only wetland establishment and re-establishment projects, which represent true gains in wetland acreage.
One such wetland restoration project was undertaken this year by Bay Program partners Ducks Unlimited, Maryland DNR, the Maryland-DC Audubon Society, the Waterfowl Festival and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Partners for Fish & Wildlife Program. Learn more about this project, which is restoring 63 acres of wetland habitat in Bozman, Maryland.
While creating and restoring over 11,000 acres of wetlands in the Bay watershed is significant, there is still much work to be done to achieve the 25,000 acre goal by 2010.
Note: Not all of the wetlands counted are functional; they are present but not necessarily serving as a benefit to the bay.
When it comes to cleaning up the Bay, partnerships among state agencies and non-profit organizations give restoration efforts the most “bang for the buck” by coupling funding opportunities with unmatched expertise. This is evident at the 950-acre Jean Ellen DuPont Shehan Audubon Sanctuary, where Maryland DNR, the Maryland-DC Audubon Society, Ducks Unlimited and the Waterfowl Festival have teamed up to restore and enhance vital wildlife habitat.
The property, located in Bozman, Md., on a peninsula surrounded by three creeks, includes over 200 acres of grass meadows, 300 acres of woodlands, 8 miles of shoreline and 10 miles of walking trails. The Sanctuary is used for scientific research, outdoor science-based education and wildlife and habitat conservation. Nearly 200 bird species frequent the Sanctuary's diverse habitats throughout the year.
Ducks Unlimited, the nation's largest wetlands and waterfowl conservation group, is leading the effort to restore 63 acres of wildlife habitat at the Sanctuary: 25 acres of shallow water and emergent wetlands, 19 acres of forested buffers, 12 acres of wildlife food plots and 7 acres of warm season grass buffers. In addition to the water quality benefits that the project will provide, the site will also be used to demonstrate and showcase the effectiveness of partnerships in Bay restoration.
The importance of the wetlands restoration at the Sanctuary cannot be overstated. Wetlands account for only about 4 percent of the 64,000-square mile Bay watershed, but they are vital to the health and productivity of the Bay and its tributaries. Wetlands improve and protect water quality by:
Wetlands also help prevent flooding by temporarily storing floodwaters, and help prevent erosion by acting as a buffer between larger bodies of water and the land.
The wetland restoration project at the Jean Ellen DuPont Shehan Audubon Sanctuary is part of the Bay Program's current strategy committing partners to the restoration of 25,000 acres of wetlands by 2010. Between 1998 and 2005, 10,463 acres of tidal and non-tidal wetlands were established or reestablished in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. (Establishment is creating a wetland that did not previously exist; reestablishment is restoring the historic functions of a former wetland.) * Note: Current status is based on cumulative voluntary efforts through 2005 in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, and through 2004 in Pennsylvania.
Those wishing to view the restored wetlands can participate in one of the guided tours planned for each day of the 2007 Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Maryland.
When one thinks of wetlands in the Chesapeake region, what usually comes to mind are the vast, tidal salt marshes lining thousands of miles of Bay shoreline. These tidal, or estuarine, wetlands play a crucial part in the Bay's ecology. But there is another type of wetland that has an equally important—but often overlooked—role.
Non-tidal, or palustrine, wetlands are usually found near the Bay's streams and ponds. They can also be found in poorly drained depressions. Water levels in non-tidal wetlands can vary from a few inches to three feet deep.
Of the total 1.5 million acres of wetlands in the Bay watershed, about 1.3 million are non-tidal. The Bay watershed's two most common types of palustrine wetlands are scrub-shrub and forested wetlands.
Alders, willows, buttonbush, swamp rose and silky dogwood can be found in scrub-shrub wetlands.
Forested wetlands are usually characterized by green ash, sweet and black gum, willow and pin oak, and red and silver maple trees.
Non-tidal wetlands perform a variety of functions vital to a healthy and thriving Bay watershed:
Non-tidal wetlands are packed with nutrients and are one of the most productive ecosystems on earth.
They host a multitude of wetland plants which in turn provide habitat for numerous animals.
Non-tidal wetlands are the nursery grounds for a wide variety of Bay creatures, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, waterfowl and songbirds.
Non-tidal wetlands also protect and improve water quality and control flooding and erosion, providing additional benefits to people living in the Bay watershed.
Non-tidal wetlands remove excess nitrogen and phosphorous from groundwater. They also contain sediment loads and absorb chemical and organic pollutants before they can enter streams and rivers, and eventually the Bay.
Just like a sponge, non-tidal wetlands help prevent flooding during large rain events by temporarily storing floodwaters then slowly releasing them.
Non-tidal wetlands act as a natural buffer between high ground and fast-moving waters, inhibiting property erosion.
Fishing, swimming, boating, waterfowl hunting, bird-watching and nature photography are popular activities in and around non-tidal wetlands.
Bay Program partners at the federal, state and private levels are heavily involved in protecting and restoring these valuable non-tidal wetlands throughout the watershed.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wetlands Reserve Program and Pennsylvania's Growing Greener Program provide funding to help landowners restore wetlands on their properties. Private groups such as Environmental Concern and Ducks Unlimited are also experts in wetland conservation and restoration throughout the Bay region.