A Chesapeake Portrait, Painted by Almost a Thousand Words by Tom Horton

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Photo by Dave Harp

Combing the beach, I stoop to pick up an essay for my upcoming college nature writing class. It’s a reddish, roundish pebble, tumbling in the clear lapping waves during a campout to the vanished community of Holland Island.

For a couple of centuries, before erosion forced Holland’s people to the mainland, my pebble was a brick, proud and sturdy and eminently useful in its uniform rectangularity for stacking when constructing a home’s foundation with precise edges and level tops.

Made by humans, who have the corner on corners as no other species, the brick has been reshaped by nature, which embraces the rounded, the curved and the meandering, from spiral galaxies and loopy marsh creeks to the shells of whelks.

The brick/pebble thus becomes distilled and refined to a rich essential — to an image — the straight versus the curved, the human versus the natural.

This gives my fledgling essayists a useful lens. Later in the semester we’ll look at farm drainage ditches versus swamps, the former doing one thing very well — whisking rainwater from cropland; the latter doing no one thing spectacularly — just nurturing life in diversity unknown to the ditch and the cornrow.

They may expand their view further, to the pavement and the curb, the gutter and the storm drain, versus the woody debris and leaf duff of the forest floor; they may ponder which of those landscapes, during a downpour, a trout in a stream would most like living next to.

A photograph may be worth a thousand words, but a good word image is worth a hard drive’s worth of photos. Word imagery is especially important when you are writing to explain a six-state, 64,000-square-mile, Atlantic-to-Susquehanna ecosystem like the Chesapeake Bay. Here are a few of the images I’ve found useful over the decades:

The Skinny Bay

From Havre de Grace, MD, to Virginia Beach, the Bay’s about a million feet long — and up to 100,000 feet wide. Yet the average depth is around 21 feet. So many implications flow from that.

Large as it looks, the estuary has scant water to dilute runoff from Cooperstown, NY, to Altoona, PA, to Lynchburg, VA, so how we use the land matters big time for water quality.
This essential shallowness also means that light penetrates to the bottom copiously, growing lush habitats of seagrasses, which support waterfowl and waterfowl hunting cultures and soft-crabbing.

It means that wind pushes water around so easily that it is often more important, ecologically, than the tides. It also also dictates the classic “deadrise” designs of skipjacks and other watermen’s crafts, evolved to make their living in skinny water.

Wet

The Chesapeake ecosystem for most of time is widely understood to have been green, with forests covering most of its watershed. But thanks to the scientific detective work of people like Grace Brush of Johns Hopkins University, we now comprehend how much of the landscape was also wet, dammed and ponded by millions of beavers.

Brush’s work, now in book form — Decoding the Deep Sediments, available from Maryland Sea Grant — shows how prevalent the pollens of aquatic plants are in sediment cores that allow us to look back through what was washing into the Bay in centuries past.

Green and wet. Why does it matter so much? Because that landscape fostered the healthiest Chesapeake, the landscapes we should most try to emulate and restore.

Ask yourself, WWBD — what would beavers do?

Edges

Edges are inherently interesting: the gradations of color and texture that artists employ to draw the eye to the glorious intersections of the seasons, adorned by the great migrations of fish and fowl they trigger.

Life loves an edge. Hunters who prowl the seams where forest meets field know this, as do fishermen who troll the dropoffs from shallows to channels, as do blue herons and egrets, nesting eagles and beachcombers (I prefer “proggers,” the waterman’s term for them).

The Bay, with around 11,000 miles of tidal edges, is at the heart of the heart of this phenomenon. That includes the overwhelming preference of humans to also locate along the edge, drawn by everything from places to discharge waste, cool their power plants and hoist drinks to the sunset.

The search for peaceful co-existence between humans and the rest of edge-loving nature is a fundamental tension that runs through much of my writing.

Ecosystem Services

If you would be popularly read, avoid such terms, but not what they include. Consider the oyster. The revelation in recent decades of their immense values in filtering and cleansing Bay waters has fundamentally changed the way we regard them — not only as a tasty food and commerce by the bushel, but also as sanctuaries for the health of the Bay.

Some scientists say it’s likely that the reefs, built by oysters to form undisturbed, undredged, untonged communities, are at least as valuable for habitat as for their filtration.

And One Last Favorite: Horseshoe Crabs

These marvelous animals are living fossils for whom the rise and fall of dinosaurs was just a short span in the species’ history. When they scrabble onto remote beaches in May and June, with nothing else in the scene but the full moon gleaming on their bronze-colored shells from above, sand and the lapping of saltwater below — that’s as close as you will ever get to traveling back in time half a billion years.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

Op-Ed: How Much Woods Would a Woodpecker Need if It’s to Succeed? By Tom Horton

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The piney woods stretching for miles around us smell springy, as warm winds melt the last of a big January snow. At the crest of a rise, Bobby Clontz stops his pickup: “Look back . . . that’s a hard view to beat.”

A tawny, sunlit sea of native grasses and low shrubs laps the dark columns of tall, widely spaced loblolly pines. Light streams through the green needles, which gleam as they toss in the breeze. It’s a classic pine savannah, often described as “parklike.” Psychologist John Falk has found humans associate strongly with such landscapes, which resemble the African savannahs where humanoids climbed down from the trees hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Bobby Clontz, left, and Bryan Watts walk through the Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve, just south of the James River. (Dave Harp)

Such pine parks once covered much of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, from Virginia to Texas; nowadays, perhaps 1 percent remains. And this remnant, including the 3,200 acres that Clontz manages here at The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve just south of the James River, is now strongly linked with a tiny, endangered bird.

The red-cockaded woodpecker was listed as nationally endangered three years before the federal Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. The cardinal-size bird depends on pines old enough to have become diseased with a fungus that rots their heartwood, a process of decay that can take up to a century or longer.

The heart-rot that would mean ruin to the logger is the salvation of the RCW, as it is commonly called by birders and conservationists. A red-cockaded woodpecker may spend a year or two of its five-year average lifespan excavating its nest, boring through several inches of tough, outer wood and creating a chamber in the softened heart of an old pine.

The red-cockaded woodpecker

Piney Grove Preserve is a “lifeline,” the last shot for the bird in the whole Chesapeake region, said Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, who’s along today. Since the 1970s, as corporate logging took down the remaining great old pines, the center, part of the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University, has been documenting the bird’s march toward extinction in Virginia and researching its habitat needs.

“Mitchell [Byrd, founder of the Center] would come back to check on a nesting area and find woodpeckers flying around, landing on stumps where their habitat used to be,” Watts recounted. By 2002, Virginia was down to two nesting pairs. The last RCWs in Maryland disappeared from Dorchester County, their northernmost range, between the 1950s and 1970s, as the last old-growth pines there were clear-cut.

Virginia state Sen. Garland Gray, whose timber company owned Piney Grove, was no friend of endangered birds, deliberately cutting and otherwise altering their nesting areas to avoid restrictions of the Endangered Species Act.

Ironically, Gray’s company cut pines on a long-term rotation — every 70–90 years — unusual in an industry that typically harvested trees at much earlier ages. So, when The Nature Conservancy acquired Piney Grove in the late 1990s, it was already potential RCW habitat.
Birds had to be trapped and transferred from North Carolina to jump-start breeding in the preserve. We hear proof today that it has worked: the woodpecker’s nasal, raspy calls and probing the bark platelets of pines for insects.

Sheets of whitish sap girdling some trees make it easy to spot nesting cavities. The woodpecker spends a good deal of its day chipping sapwood around its nest to encourage a flow of sticky resin that discourages snakes and other predators from entering.

Piney Grove, Watts and Clontz said, is nearly at “saturation,” with 13 nesting red-cockaded woodpecker pairs and 70 birds total. The additional birds are integral to the RCW’s unusual, cooperative nesting. They act as “helpers” by helping to feed the nesting pairs’ young. A nesting “cluster” can require up to 400 acres of territory, Clontz said.

Setting the woods on fire is one of Clontz’s most important duties. He’s burned as much as three square miles at a time. Fire is key to pine savannahs, keeping the understory open and free of hardwoods, which discourages predators and creates the habitat that the woodpecker needs.

Expansion plans, using adjoining state forests and pending private land deals by The Nature Conservancy, could soon enlarge the bird’s habitat here to as much as 30,000 acres.

This is critical, Watts said, because all of the other RCW restoration sites in this northernmost part of the bird’s range (North Carolina and Virginia) may vanish because of accelerating sea level rise in the next century. An attempt to get the woodpeckers nesting in the nearby Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge has not yet worked.

What’s good for the woodpecker also lends needed help to other species, like the brown-headed nuthatch, chuck-will’s-widow, bobwhite quail, coastal fox squirrel and Bachman’s sparrow. All but the sparrow are thriving at Piney Grove, and Watts wants to introduce that bird here as well. Nontidal wetlands throughout Piney Grove form a rich habitat for state-threatened fish and salamanders. Clontz is re-introducing longleaf pines, too. Longer lived than loblollies, they form the primary red-cockaded woodpecker habitat throughout most of its range and once covered an estimated one million acres in Virginia.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is up to 6,000 nesting clusters throughout its range, extending through coastal plain pines all the way to Texas. The core of its comeback involved U.S. military bases like Fort Bragg and Eglin Air Force Base. Their training missions required preserving large blocks of old forest, which military exercises frequently set afire—a perfect prescription for the bird, Clontz said.

The little bird has driven big changes. Research on its habitat needs by Watts’ center has changed forest management across millions of acres, far beyond Virginia.

And the military, in part from concerns it that would become the last refuge for the woodpecker, created a multi-billion-dollar program to protect natural lands outside of bases for a variety of purposes, a program that now extends throughout the Chesapeake watershed.

Tending to the woodpeckers’ survival, as with so many endangered species recovery efforts, brings science and conservation to bear on restoring whole ecosystems.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. 

Nutrient Reductions Credited for Remarkable Resurgence in Bay’s Underwater Grasses

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Nutrient reductions over the last 30 years are the primary factor behind the resurgence of underwater grasses in the Chesapeake — something that scientists cite in a new study as tangible evidence that efforts to improve Bay water quality are paying off.

Seagrass beds are in decline globally, but the Chesapeake Bay is one of the few places — and the largest example — where that trend has been successfully reversed, according to an article published in March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That’s good news for the Bay, as underwater grasses provide important habitat for fish, crabs and waterfowl. The scientists who led the study also said that the recovery likely foreshadows a broader comeback in the estuary’s health.

“We are thinking of the resurgence of the grasses as being the harbinger of things to come,” said Bill Dennison, vice president for science applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and a co-author of the study. “We are using them now as an early signal for the restoration of the Bay.”

The study, built upon an analysis of a wide variety of data collected over three decades, found that a 23 percent decline in nitrogen concentrations in the Bay and an 8 percent decline in phosphorus were the primary factors behind a nearly threefold increase in underwater grasses since 1984.

Like all plants, underwater grasses require sunlight to survive, and scientists have long known that algae blooms and sediment in the water can block light from reaching plants, causing them to die.

But the study found that nutrients play a “dominant role” in causing the loss of grass beds because they not only spur algae blooms, but also promote algae growth directly on the plants. That “epiphytic” growth, the study found, was three times more harmful to plants than the indirect effects of phytoplankton blooms in the water column.

“We show that nutrients are actually the primary control over these underwater grasses,” said Jonathan Lefcheck, the lead author of the report, who conducted this work while a post-doctoral student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. He now works at the Bigelow Institute of Marine Science in Maine.

The amount of underwater grasses still fluctuates from year to year, in large part because of weather — rainy years drive more water-fouling nutrients into the water than do dry ones. Nonetheless, while the amount of grasses has varied, their overall acreage has increased over time, from a low of 38,229 acres in 1984 to a high of 97,400 acres mapped in 2016.

“Beyond the noise of inter-annual variability, we’ve got the right trajectory, and we can link it to specifically the nutrient reductions,” Dennison said.

While nutrients are the driving force, other factors still play a role. Areas with several underwater grass species do better over time than those with a single species, the study found. The importance of diversity may explain, in part, why grass bed recovery in high-salinity areas, which has always been dominated by a single species — eelgrass — has been less robust than in other parts of the Bay.

It also offers a clue as to how to maintain comebacks in mid-salinity parts of the Bay, where widgeon grass dominates but its abundance often fluctuates greatly from year to year. The researchers said that Bay restoration efforts — which now focus only on water quality — should put more focus on restoring a mix of species in mid-salinity areas.

“When we look at those beds historically, we know diversity was important,” said Bob Orth, also of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who co-authored the study and has overseen the Bay’s annual underwater grass survey since its inception. “When you add one species, it has a significant effect on the stability of the meadow.”

The study has 14 co-authors representing universities and agencies from around the Bay region and the country. This team met five times over the course of two years in Annapolis, digging deep into the data. They compiled extensive datasets about land use, manure and fertilizer applications, wastewater treatment plant discharges and water quality, as well as the abundance, diversity and density of grass beds.

Using sophisticated new analytical techniques unavailable just a few years ago to analyze that data, the scientists were able to draw conclusions that sometimes challenged their assumptions about factors affecting the grasses.

For instance, while wastewater treatment may be locally critical for grass beds, actions on the landscape — such as changes in land use or fertilizer applications on farms — were more important to larger trends in grass bed acreage.

Similarly, while sediment in the water column may be locally important, it was a less important factor than nutrients in Baywide underwater grass abundance.

“With this multi-author, multi-partner synthesis type of science, you can bring in different types of expertise,” said Jennifer Keisman, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and co-author of the study. “It is really important.”

Further analyzing that data, the authors said, could provide new insights for managers and promote an additional comeback of grass beds. “This is not the end, but the end of the beginning for all of this work,” Orth said.

The Chesapeake is still far short of the goal to restore 185,000 acres of underwater grasses, but it is doing better than any other place on the planet, the article said.

Seagrasses have declined globally by 29 percent, largely because of nutrient and sediment runoff. While they have come back in places such as Tampa Bay and the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands, researchers found that the Chesapeake has seen a “greater total and proportional recovery.”

A continued comeback would be good news for the Bay. Grass beds are a critical component of its ecosystem. They pump oxygen into the water, trap sediments, buffer shorelines from wave action, provide food for waterfowl and shelter for fish and blue crabs.

That trajectory is likely to continue, at least for now. Orth said a preliminary review of data from last year suggests that the Bay’s underwater grasses will likely set yet another record.

By Karl Blankenship

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Bay Journal Media. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991.

Op-Ed: Some Things We Know by William C. Baker

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By William C. Baker, for the Bay Journal News Service

In case anyone is asking: Warmer temperatures do hurt the Chesapeake Bay, in many ways.

In a February interview on a Las Vegas television station, Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, suggested a warming climate might actually be a good thing. “We know that humans have flourished during times of warming trends. So, I think there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Do we really know what the ideal temperature should be during the year 2100, or the year 2018?” he asked.

Here in the Chesapeake, there is overwhelming documentation of the damage that climate change will wreak on this national treasure. And it’s not just about the future. The inconvenient truth is that we’re already witnessing the damaging effects of climate change.

Based on long-term records from the piers at the Chesapeake’s two historic marine laboratories — dating back to 1938 at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory on Solomon’s Island, MD, and to 1948 at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at Gloucester Point — the Bay is getting warmer.

Warmer water has less capacity to hold dissolved oxygen, and dissolved oxygen is critical for life in the Bay, its rivers and its streams. Higher temperatures exacerbate the Chesapeake’s dead zones, expanding both the size and the duration of oxygen-deprived areas in the Bay.

Scientific models agree that storms will become more intense in the future. Storm intensity and increased rainfall will adversely affect the Bay’s ecological health. Increased scouring and runoff from more intense rain events, regardless of the season, carries significantly more nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution to local rivers, streams and eventually, the Bay.

Increases in water temperature are known to affect the distribution and health of aquatic vegetation in the Chesapeake. For instance, species that are already stressed by high summer temperatures — such as the eelgrass, which provides important fish and crab habitats in the Lower Bay — may be greatly reduced or eliminated. Goodbye grasses. Goodbye crabs. Simply put, grasses equal crabs.

Warming waters caused by climate change also directly affect the distribution and range of animal species along the mid-Atlantic coast. Species at the southern end of their range, like soft-shell clams, are already retreating northward up the Atlantic Coast toward colder waters.

Atlantic menhaden, a critical forage fish in the Bay food web, haven’t produced strong year classes in the Bay in 20 years, possibly because climate-related shifts in ocean currents interfere with or interrupt their life cycles. The lack of strong menhaden reproduction in turn affects rockfish, which turn to blue crabs as a primary food source. That has negative nutritional consequences for the rockfish and obvious negative consequences for crabs.

And those same crabs may be facing new predators such as red drum, which have expanded their range northward into the Chesapeake.

There is no serious debate over the impact of climate change on the Bay. Climate change, and an EPA administrator continuing to ignore the science, are making all of our efforts to restore this national treasure much harder.

William C. Baker is president and CEO of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

Washington College Students work with Eastern Shore Towns to Identify Energy Savings

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Higher education can have real world greening impacts. Case in point: The Shore Power Project, launched several years ago at Washington College, has helped local governments on Maryland’s Eastern Shore find ways to reduce energy costs while also shrinking their carbon footprint.

For students and staff at the private liberal arts college in Chestertown, the project offered a chance to help Shore communities address climate change by adapting to the shifting energy landscape.

“The energy sector is an important force for change for the future,” explained Mike Hardesty, the associate director for the college’s Center for Environment and Society. “We’ve always wanted to get involved to assist the community to become more energy efficient.”

With funding from the Town Creek Foundation, the project’s student interns and staff pored over power bills and recommended cost-saving alternatives to nine Shore towns, two school districts and one county.

Grant Samms, an environmental sociologist who oversees the student interns’ work, said they contacted local government offices around the Shore to connect with town managers, public works directors or other staffers who dealt with energy. They initially pitched that they could identify opportunities for cost savings by analyzing where the locality’s energy dollars were going. But they also pointed out the environmental benefits, Samms noted, of reducing power consumption and switching to renewable energy.

“There’s a general assumption when it comes to rural communities, [that] they’re conservative and don’t care about climate change,” Samms said. “That may in part be true, but when you have a resource constraint, there’s always interest in saving money.”

The project started out working with Chestertown, home of the small liberal arts school. The municipality had already taken some steps to reduce energy costs, including the bidding out of electric supply contracts for all town meters and the installation of a 3-megawatt solar facility at its wastewater treatment plant.

Town Manager Bill Ingersoll said he’s constantly thinking about how to save money. The Shore Power project’s initial contribution to the town in that regard was more conceptual than detailed practical advice, he said.

“What they do is they may create a climate where you may want to think more about what you’re doing,” Ingersoll said. As a follow-up to the project’s initial study, he has since asked it to examine what the town’s paying for electricity generated by the solar facility, to see if the savings promised by the provider have panned out.

In Easton, the Washington College group assisted the town in going forward with a plan to install new cost-saving LED streetlights.

“What was really helpful was having the Shore Power Project look at this and say, ‘If you did this, this could be your savings,’” said Kelly Simonsen, spokesperson for Easton Utilities. Within three years, with grants from the Maryland Energy Administration to help pay for the replacements, the new lights reduced the town’s electricity consumption by 30 percent, Simonsen said.

That LED streetlight replacement, which is continuing, has contributed to the town’s successful bid to become a Maryland Sustainable Certified community, she said.

“We needed someone to kind of look at our overall energy usage and things we could change and implement, so we could get that credential,” Simonsen explained. “[The certification] puts Easton in a place on the map to show we’re forward thinking and we’re doing things for our community to be more sustainable and (to) consider our environmental impact.”

The college has offered internships to seven students over the project’s five-semester lifespan, according to Hardesty. Three students have stuck with it and done repeat stints. And for at least one, it’s opened up a career path.

Tori Alpaugh said that working on energy usage data for the Shore communities while an undergraduate at Washington College piqued her interest. So, when the New Jersey native graduated in May 2016, she started looking for energy-related jobs.

Her search led to AWS Truepower, a renewable energy services provider based in Albany, NY, where she pitched her Shore Power experience.

“That was the No. 1 thing on my resume,” she said, “and the No. 1 thing we talked about on my interview.” Hired in August, she’s now a project coordinator, working with meteorologists, engineers and GIS specialists on large-scale renewable energy projects.

“I think it’s safe to say it’s the reason I got my job here,” Alpaugh said of the Shore Power project.

The foundation’s funding for the project ended last year; now, the college aims to continue the project as a fee-for-service consulting business. Even though communities are almost certain to realize long-term savings from taking steps to conserve energy and build in climate resiliency, Samms acknowledged that the upfront costs pose a “perennial challenge” for small towns with competing short-term priorities.

“So,” he said, “we are putting forward a hybrid system that is partially underwritten by support from our center and continued support from foundations, as they are realized. This will save towns money and lower the impediment to energy conservation measures.”

The center also wants to address another, non-financial barrier. The recent flurry of solar energy arrays cropping up on farmland across the Shore has generated a backlash in affected communities. Samms said he hopes the project can conduct research and community outreach “to identify ways to truly lower the barriers to this type of development while ensuring it goes forward in a democratized manner.” The center hopes to get foundation support for that effort as well.

“We’ve proven it over and over again that there’s cost savings here,” Hardesty said. “Now that we’ve got a proven model in hand, we’re looking to expand on it.”

by Tim Wheeler

Timothy B. Wheeler is associate editor and senior writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

Bay Ecosystem: A Walk In The Woods With A Different Kind Of Forester by Tom Horton

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It was a chill November morning, the rising sun sloshing light on the tree tops. Larry Walton and I were about half a mile into the woods that line the Nanticoke River near Vienna, MD, when he wrapped his arms around a great old Atlantic white cedar.

That tree species once shaded thousands of acres of Delmarva Peninsula swamps with its dense, evergreen canopies, until rampant logging and wetlands destruction made cedars relatively rare. Today, you seldom see specimens like this.

Larry Walton

I was about to kid my friend Larry, a career commercial forester, that he’d become a tree hugger as he approaches retirement at age 65. But he was just measuring the massive, columnar trunk to see how much wood the cedar’s added since he was here some years ago. “(I) used to be able to reach around it; not now,” Larry said.

But I also know he was happy to see that cedar thriving, standing tall, promising to thrill hikers here long after he and I are gone.

With Larry, it’s never been “hug or log” or “for us or against us.” Maybe that’s why his recent farewell party was a unique assemblage of the region’s logging community and a number of environmentalists. Only for Larry, I thought.

He could have cut that big cedar and others like it anytime during the years he managed around 60,000 acres of woodlands and wetlands around the Bay’s tidal rivers for Chesapeake Forest Products, a Virginia-based commercial timber corporation.

The company surely was not shy about clear-cutting or the almost complete leveling of the forests it owned hereabouts. That’s simply the most effective way to harvest the predominantly pine stands that are the mainstay of commercial timbering in this region.

Clear-cuts, to most non-timber people, are visually shocking, ugly. Far less apparent was what Larry and Chesapeake were electing not to cut, which included some beautiful forests and magnificent trees, including woods buffering tidal creeks and rivers like the Nanticoke and Pocomoke.

Where we were hiking could easily have been a giant sand and gravel pit, he said. Instead, it’s a fine tract of pine and hardwood, with patches of forested swamp, sloping down to the Nanticoke. It’s understory of wild rhododendron will bloom gorgeously in May and June. It features a nature trail now, open year-round to the public.

“A mining company approached us about selling this and forests up on the Marshyhope,” he said, referring to a tributary of the Nanticoke, where sturgeon are making a historic comeback. “We just didn’t like that kind of future for the land.”

Back in the early 1990s, stung by environmental criticism of his company, Larry and one of his woodland managers, the late Tom Tyler, began opening up to environmentalists, taking us through their operations. It gave us a lot to think about, and it began to build trust. More than anyone I knew on the logging side of things, Larry understood us greenies and respected where we were coming from, even if it wasn’t his view.

“A lighter shade of green,” is how he describes himself. Even as a New Jersey kid growing up in the shadow of New York and Newark, he loved wandering the phragmites-lined local brook, which wound through landfills and developments on its way to the Passaic River. Summers with family in the Maine woods probably steered him to Clemson University’s forestry school, he said.

Around 2000, as his timbering career flourished, something happened that would delight environmentalists but threaten to end life as Larry knew it. In a massive land deal, assembled in secrecy until it was done, all of the forests he managed for Chesapeake Forest Products were sold out from under him, to be added to Maryland’s public timberlands as the Chesapeake Forest.

“I was about as welcome as a pig at a Bar Mitzvah,” recalled Neil Sampson, a nationally known conservationist and forestry consultant who came to the Eastern Shore to handle the transition with Larry and his staff.

The giant Chesapeake acquisition, which added 58,000 acres, or 1 percent of the state’s area, to public lands, was intended by state officials to set the standard for sustainable, verifiable, long-term forest management.

Larry and his crew “made it happen,” Sampson said. Eventually he and Larry would form a new company, Vision Forestry, and take over management of the whole forest for several years.

Today, 17 years later, “it is a heck of a lot better forest . . . huge improvements,” Sampson said.
Larry plans to soon head back to the Clemson, SC, area for retirement. “[There are] opportunities in disagreement,” he said during our walk. “But it seems like it’s getting harder to disagree respectfully anymore.”

Years ago, Larry gave me a bumper sticker. “Trees Are the Answer,” it said. I told him I was always leery of simplistic solutions. But you know what? He was right.

Bottom line, there is no other land use better for the Chesapeake Bay and its flora and fauna. The worst clear-cut, if left to regrow, is still better for air and water quality than farming or suburban development, and it leaves your options open for an older, more diverse forest next time.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, MD, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

Is Organic Farming Good for the Chesapeake? By Whitney Pipkin

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Organic agriculture is the fastest growing sector of the food industry in the United States, and its footprint in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is growing in kind.

The brand of agriculture that eschews the use of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and genetically engineered ingredients now makes up 20 percent of Perdue Farms’ poultry production on the Delmarva Peninsula, where the company is headquartered.

Smaller poultry producers in the region also are growing their organic operations at a steady clip: Bell & Evans, which is based in Fredericksburg, PA, and sells its chicken meat to high-end retailers such as Whole Foods Market, launched its line of organic products in 2009 and opened a certified organic hatchery this year.

Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley Organic opened its first poultry facility in Harrisonburg in 2014, providing contract feed growers interested in making the switch with an alternative buyer in that region.

As organic poultry production increases, so does the demand for organically grown grains to feed the birds, such as corn and soybeans, much of which comes from outside the country. But that’s beginning to change — and could represent a significant shift in land use for the Bay watershed. Perdue alone is buying organic grains grown on more than 13,000 acres of cropland across the region, and seeks much more.

The practices that earn poultry and grain producers the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic label may keep certain pesticides, antibiotics and hormones out of foods, but are they necessarily better for water quality and the Bay than conventional agriculture?

“The basic answer is, it depends on if you’re a good organic grower or not,” said Michel Cavigelli, lead scientist on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farming Systems Project in Beltsville, MD. “Not all organic is equal, and not all conventional is equal.”

Comparing organic and conventional practices on mid-Atlantic soils is just what Cavigelli’s team has been doing for more than 20 years. The project has measured the performance of conventional and organic cropping systems by applying the different management systems to fields planted with the same crops.

Nutrient runoff is one of several factors monitored that has implications for local water quality. When asked whether the growth of organic practices in the watershed could be good for the Bay, Cavigelli began with the caveats.

For starters, he said, each type of farming comes with tradeoffs: Conventional growers use genetically engineered seeds and herbicides to combat weeds; organic growers till their fields to suppress weeds, which can lead to erosion and nutrient runoff when compared with farms that practice no-till cultivation.

The project’s findings so far indicate that organic fields typically have less phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment runoff than conventional plots — unless those conventional plots are no-till. That, in part, is because organic farms tend to build organic matter in the soils over time, which helps fields retain water and nutrients. But some of that work is undone when an organic farmer, rather than using herbicides, tills the soil to prevent weeds.

About a quarter of cropland acres in the country are farmed using no-till practices, according to the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture in 2012. Another 20 percent of those acres were farmed with other “conservation-tillage” practices aimed at minimizing soil disturbances. Maryland farmers had the highest percentage of no-till acres at 55 percent in 2012.

“Based on our studies, no-till has less runoff of silt and nutrients than any other method we use, including organic,” Cavigelli said.

Since time immemorial, farmers have fertilized and plowed croplands in the spring to turn over the soil and prepare it for planting. But heavy spring rains can wash fertilizer and soil from bare fields. The nutrients from fertilizers and sediment from freshly plowed fields run off into nearby ditches and streams, eventually winding up in the Bay.

No-till farming, which began taking root after the 1930s Dust Bowl, leaves the soil undisturbed from the fall harvest through winter. In the spring, seeds are planted in narrow slots that are “drilled” into the ground.

Cavigelli’s research project has compared the different cultivation regimens using virtually the same crop rotations, patterned after most commodity-growing fields in the Bay region, over a three-year period: corn the first year, soybeans the second year and wheat the third. In the third year, the conventional fields, including tilled and no-till, follow the wheat with a quick crop of soybeans, which are harvested too late in the fall to allow a cover crop to be planted. The organic fields, in contrast, are planted in a perennial alfalfa after the third-year crop, so they have less nutrient runoff that year than all of the conventional fields.

In the short-term, the runoff-control benefits of no-till farming edge out organic. But if the organic crop rotation pattern is repeated for decades, using cover crops for longer periods, Cavigelli said, the organic fields could end up performing better on overall nutrient absorption.

“We’ve been improving conventional for 100 years now,” he said, referring to technological improvements that have reduced conventional farming’s impacts on water quality over time, “and organic for just 20 years or so. There are trade-offs between all these systems, but it seems there’s a lot of room for improvement with organic.”

Cavigelli acknowledges that his work focuses on just a few aspects of the many comparisons that can be drawn between the farming practices. There’s another factor to consider — fertilizer use.

Organic crops typically use less nitrogen to begin with, or rely on slow-release forms of nutrients, such as manure, which reduce the risk of nutrient runoff and leaching.

While organic advocates bring that up as a water-quality advantage, other research indicates organic farming practices can leach just as much nitrate as conventional farming systems if the goal is to maintain the same crop yields.

With manure application, “it’s more difficult to be prescriptive,” said Ken Staver, research scientist at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “When you use chemical fertilizers, there are methods to apply it very precisely and to apply it closer to where the crop uptake is” to reduce nutrient loss.

But that comparison only holds true if the fields are planting the same crops. If organic agriculture does, in fact, plant more perennials such as alfalfa, Staver added, “that will always lower the nutrient loss.”

As a riverkeeper who grows organic grains for Perdue chickens on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Jeff Horstman views the intersection of agribusiness and water quality from a unique perspective. Horstman is the executive director of ShoreRivers, a new consolidation of watershed advocacy groups on the peninsula — the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, the Chester River Association and the Sassafras River Association.

Those organizations’ priorities have at times diverged from those of local poultry producers, to put it mildly. The Waterkeeper Alliance, the umbrella organization for riverkeeper groups like his, filed an unsuccessful federal lawsuit seven years ago accusing Perdue and one of its contract growers of polluting a Bay tributary. The case, dismissed by a judge after a lengthy trial, left a trail of lingering bitterness and suspicion between farmers and environmentalists.

But Horstman and others see in organic agriculture a growing opportunity to find common ground. “I moved back to the family farm and one of the things I wanted to do was become an organic farmer,” said Horstman — whose grandfather, J. I. Rodale, founded the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit devoted to organic farming research in Kutztown, PA. “I appreciate what Perdue does for the Shore and how they’re trying to cultivate organic.” he said. “I think agricultural diversity is good, and organic is a step toward that.”

This fall, the farmland Horstman inherited on the Wye River in Queenstown produced its first crop of organic corn — 170 acres of it — to be sold to Perdue for chicken feed.

Perdue got into organic poultry with its purchase of Coleman Natural Foods in 2011. In response to growing consumer demand, Perdue has since converted a poultry plant in Milford, DE, and a feed mill in Hurlock, MD, to process only certified organic products. The company has also banned the use of antibiotics by all its producers, not just organic operations.

The company has been spreading the word among local growers that it needs organic grains — and that the price is right. This season, farmers could get close to $10 per bushel for organic corn, which can come with lower yields, compared with $3 a bushel for conventional. But a farmer who decides to grow organically on a piece of land in 2017 typically would have to wait until 2020 to sell its first organic crop because of a three-year transition period required by the organic label.

Even with the lag, Perdue expects to have purchased 7,000 acres of organic corn, 3,600 acres of organic soybeans and 2,700 acres of organic wheat from Bay watershed states this year, company spokesman Joe Forsthoffer said. Most of Perdue’s organic grains are currently imported from growers in South America.

“The nice thing about the larger outfits like Perdue is, because they need it and have the capacity, they’re willing to do a contract that reduces your risk and locks in a price early,” said Matt Nielsen, the farmer who’s growing organic grains on Horstman’s land.

Nielsen, 33, also has 75 acres of his own land in organic production and is looking for more organic acreage to farm. He thinks 250 acres or so would be enough to achieve some economies of scale and would also allow him to diversify. He’d like to pasture animals on some acres that aren’t fit for crops and leave several fields at a time in perennial grasses to combat weeds.

But is all that better than the alternative when it comes to local water quality?

“The soil will truly benefit from a lot of different types of agriculture,” Nielsen said. “I’m not sure if you can conclusively rule organic as better or worse, but I do know that there are things we do in organic that have benefits.”

For Horstman, growing organic grains is a good place to start — both for his family farm and for the local water quality he’s concerned with protecting. Like the consumers who are fueling the organic industry’s growth, Horstman is concerned about the environmental and health impacts of conventional agriculture: its reliance on pesticides and herbicides and the way it bolsters an intensified approach to both grain and meat production.

“It’s definitely going to be better for human health, and I think less herbicides and pesticides in the water is definitely an improvement,” he said. “I do think it will be better for the Bay.”

Steve Levitsky, Perdue’s vice president of sustainability, said the company’s ultimate goal is to make organic poultry more affordable for consumers — and sourcing more organic grains from the Bay watershed, rather than overseas, will help.

“Part of the equation is getting more organic [feed] grown on the Eastern Shore,” he said. “That would also help the local grain farmers get higher premiums for their crops, and maybe they won’t need as large of a land mass to be viable.”

Perdue growers produced almost 40 million organic chickens in the Bay region in 2016, or 20 percent of the company’s regional production, with 80 percent of those houses in the Lancaster region of Pennsylvania and the rest on the Eastern Shore.

There are several reasons that organic chicken costs more at the grocery store, and some of them have stronger links to environmental benefits than others. Most of that extra cost is attributable to organic chicken feed, which can cost two to four times as much as conventional. Organic poultry houses also include comparatively expensive amenities, such as windows, “enrichment” equipment and access to the outdoors.

Alicia LaPorte, campaign manager for Fair Farms Maryland, a coalition of environmental and public health groups that advocate for better farming systems, said Perdue’s operation-wide antibiotics ban changed the industry, with other retailers and producers following suit. That gives her hope that other incremental changes, including the continued growth of organic production.

Fair Farms founder Betsy Nicholas, who’s also the executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, said more organic options in the watershed might be a step in the right direction for local farmers and water quality — but one that still doesn’t go far enough.

Nicholas points to a growing number of small farms, organic and conventional, that are raising animals on pastures, rather than growing feed for them on the Eastern Shore and selling them to local markets.

“It’s absolutely better to have more organic than non-organic farming, [considering] pesticides alone,” she said. “But, ultimately, what we’d want to see is a more diverse agricultural system with more diverse crops. If you have a system that’s based on animal agriculture and the grain crops to feed that animal agriculture, that’s not a diverse system.”

Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. She is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

Count Maryland In: Hogan Announces State will join Coalition to Fight Climate Change by Tim Wheeler

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Declaring that the need for states to work together to fight climate change “grows stronger every day,” nnounced Wednesday that Maryland would join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a mostly Democratic coalition of states committed to reducing greenhouse gases.

The move, disclosed in a letter released by Hogan’s office, represents a shift for the Republican governor, who had remained noncommittal to pleas last year for Maryland to join the alliance, saying he wasn’t sure what the group’s intentions were.

In the letter to the alliance, Hogan recalled that he had publicly disagreed with President Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord reached by nearly 200 nations, including the United States.

The governor’s announcement comes on the heels of another move to distance himself from the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations and initiatives. On Monday, Hogan’s office released a letter by Ben Grumbles, his secretary of the environment, opposing the Trump administration’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants adopted by the Obama administration.

For much of last year, Hogan had been sparing in his public comments, pro or con, on the Trump administration, something Democrats had relentlessly highlighted. But Hogan is seeking re-election this year in a state where voters are overwhelmingly registered Democrats, and where surveys show they tend to support environmental protections.

Some had pressed Hogan last June to join the alliance, a group of 15 states — including Delaware, New York and Virginia in the Bay watershed — that have pledged to curb greenhouse gases in accordance with the 2016 Paris agreement.

Hogan rebuffed those calls then by saying Maryland’s clean air standards were already more stringent than those called for in the Paris deal. He reiterated that stance in the letter Wednesday, but indicated that his views about the need for state action have changed.

“The importance of aggressive but balanced action in states, communities and businesses, and the need for multi-state collaboration and international leadership on climate change, grows stronger every day,” Hogan wrote.

His chief reason for joining the alliance, the governor said, will be to urge all states to adopt air quality standards and greenhouse gas reduction goals as strong as Maryland’s.

The state is on track to meet a goal set in 2009 of reducing climate-altering emissions 25 percent by 2020, and is working on a plan to reduce emissions even further — by 40 percent by 2030.

Hogan’s pledge to join the Climate Alliance drew a mixed reaction from environmentalists, who are continuing to press for even stronger climate action in Maryland.

Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, applauded the Hogan administration’s decisions to address climate change as the federal government balks. But she added that Maryland can “continue to lead on climate” by increasing renewable energy production in the state even more.

Mike Tidwell, executive director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, saw nothing to praise, arguing that Hogan should have joined the alliance months ago. “Why did it take so long?” he asked. “What evidence was he weighing?”

Tidwell charged that Hogan had been similarly slow to publicly criticize the Trump administration’s move to withdraw the Clean Power Plan. “[Hogan] has never embraced the single-most powerful tool for reducing carbon pollution in the state — the renewable portfolio standard,” Tidwell said. That standard, adopted in some form by 30 states, requires electricity generators to produce a portion of their power from renewable sources.

In 2016, Hogan vetoed legislation that increased Maryland’s renewable energy requirement from 20 percent to 25 percent by 2020, saying it would force citizens to pay for “overly expensive” solar and wind energy credits. The Democrat-dominated General Assembly overrode that veto last year.

New legislation is being introduced this year that, if passed, would raise the goal to 50 percent renewable power by 2030. Environmental activists rallied at the State House Wednesday in support of that bill.

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for the Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

Bay Ecosystem: Annapolis Lawmakers face Continuing Bay Debates in 2018 by Tim Wheeler

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As they return to their chambers this month, state legislators across the Chesapeake watershed face some of the same Bay-centric environmental issues they’ve seen before.

In Maryland, they’ll debate what more should be done, if anything, to conserve the state’s forestland from development and whether air pollution from chicken houses deserves a closer look. In Virginia, lawmakers will revisit what should be done with vast quantities of potentially toxic coal ash now stored in unlined pits at power plants. And in Pennsylvania, a proposal to regulate lawn fertilizer use, to keep it from fouling local streams and the Bay, is likely to rear its head again.

Legislators in all three jurisdictions will also tackle the annual challenge of scraping together the funds needed to meet their Chesapeake restoration obligations — made even tougher this year as support wanes in Washington for federal-state cleanup programs.

Adding to the mix, politics will play a bigger role than usual in how these and other issues play out. State legislative elections loom in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and their governors — Republican and Democrat, respectively — are seeking second terms. In Virginia, the newly elected Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, takes office with a legislature more evenly balanced between the parties than it’s been in ages, which could change how debates play out.

MARYLAND

Forest Conservation: Lawmakers in Annapolis are being pressed by environmental groups to take another look at tightening the state’s 27-year-old forest conservation law.

Since the 1960s, Maryland has lost more than 450,000 acres of forest, and before 2008 it was losing up to 8,600 acres each year, according to a November report by the state Department of Legislative Services.

As originally passed in 1991, the Forest Conservation Act regulates the removal of large numbers of trees for development and requires either that new ones be planted elsewhere or that the developer pay into a local government fund for later plantings.

In March, using highly detailed land cover data from 2013, the nonprofit Chesapeake Conservancy estimated that Maryland had nearly 2.5 million acres of forestland, covering almost 40 percent of the state’s land.
But based on data reported by Maryland counties, activists said, the state experienced a net loss of 14,500 acres through the Forest Conservation Act from 2009 through 2016. And they contend that the 1991 law has been particularly ineffective at saving the largest and most ecologically valuable woodlands.

A study published last year found that while tree cover has increased in residential subdivisions in suburban Baltimore County since the forest conservation law passed, the most heavily forested tracts in the county continued to be carved up.

“When there’s intact forest ecology, that’s basically the most important kind of forest, and that’s the forest the [law] is doing the least to benefit,” said Elaine Lutz, a staff attorney with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Last year, advocates pushed a bill that would have required one-for-one replacement of every acre of woodland mowed down for development. But it ran into fierce opposition from local officials and real estate interests, and failed to get out of committee. This year, green groups are crafting a more targeted bill that would tighten protections just on those woodland tracts deemed most ecologically important.

Lutz said the current law is “wishy-washy” on defining what types of forestland are most important to preserve and what kind of protection they should get. She and other activists want to see greater emphasis in the law on keeping those tracts untouched, rather than letting them be cut down in favor of trees being planted elsewhere.

“An existing mature forest is a lot more ecologically valuable than saplings in the ground,” she pointed out. Forests in the Bay’s watershed soak up nutrients in the air and in runoff from rainfall, and the Bay states have agreed that it’s critical to the restoration effort to maintain and expand forestlands.

Local government officials remain wary of tightening the law, but say they’d like to have more flexibility in where trees must be replanted and how they can spend funds paid by developers in lieu of replanting removed trees. But real estate interests argue the law is working and does not need a major overhaul.

“The Forest Conservation Act was never meant to be a no-net-loss policy,” said Lori Graf, chief executive officer of the Maryland Building Industry Association. The law is just one of several laws and programs aimed at halting the loss of the state’s forestland, she said, and recent data indicate the goal of maintaining the state’s overall forest acreage is being met.

While minor tweaks might be warranted to provide more flexibility for replanting, Graf concluded, “We feel like there are better ways to save the Bay.”

Renewable Energy: Last year, the legislature’s Democratic majority overrode Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which increased Maryland’s renewable energy goal to 25 percent by 2020. This year, advocates hope to ratchet up the goal even more, with competing bills that would require 50 percent renewables by 2030, or even 100 percent by 2035. “It’s ambitious, but we think, especially given the federal climate right now, that the states really have to step up,” said Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

Environmentalists also want to stop treating “dirty” energy generators, such as those that burn municipal waste, as “clean” energy under the state’s law.
Rural Air Quality: Another returnee is the Community Healthy Air Act, a bill that would study whether rural Marylanders’ health is threatened by air emissions from the large-scale poultry growing operations concentrated on the Eastern Shore.

Chicken waste emits ammonia, which is currently unregulated, and it adds nitrogen pollution in the Bay when rainfall washes it from the air. The bill would require the Maryland Department of the Environment to collect and report data on chicken house emissions. The poultry industry successfully opposed the bill last year, arguing it should be left to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has been studying it without action for more than a dozen years.

VIRGINIA

Environmental groups focused on Bay priorities have an uncharted political landscape to navigate in Virginia’s general assembly this session. Democratic victories in the November election chipped away at the House of Delegates’ once invulnerable Republican majority and — following the surprising outcome of a late-December recount, and ultimately a name pulled from a hat — leaving Republicans with the slimmest majority possible: 51-49.

“With the recent elections, lots of things changed,” said Pat Calvert, a policy and campaigns manager for the Virginia Conservation Network, which represents the conservation interests of 120 partner organizations.

Budget: Near the top of environmentalists’ wish lists this year is funding to help the state meet its water quality goals. Outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe included in his proposed budget, released in December, $42.5 million over two years to help farmers implement nutrient control systems and practices. That falls short of the $62 million that Bay groups would like to see from the state. At the completion of a year-long study by a legislative committee, advocates expect a bill to be presented that would help stabilize future funding for agricultural conservation practices.

“We really need to focus on ensuring that cleaning up polluting farms, and getting them to the level of our best operating farms, is a priority,” Calvert said.

McAuliffe also left out funding for a second straight year for the state’s Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which helps localities fund projects to reduce polluted stormwater runoff. Environmental groups are asking legislators to add $50 million for those programs into future versions of the budget.

Sewer Overflows: The city of Alexandria is seeking state funding to help pay for costly wastewater system upgrades to curtail overflows of raw sewage whenever it rains — an effort the legislature declared last year was not moving quickly enough. McAuliffe’s proposed budget includes $20 million for the Northern Virginia city.

Coal Ash: The permanent disposal of coal ash is likely to be the subject of another bill this session. To comply with a 2017 bill, Dominion Energy presented an 800-page report in December defending its plans for keeping the ash, a byproduct of burning coal for power, in covered pits at four of the company’s power plants near Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said he’ll present a bill that would encourage the company to consider excavating or recycling the coal ash into concrete and other products, as North Carolina legislators have required.

PENNSYLVANIA

Funding bills loom as the commonwealth’s year-round legislature reconvenes in January, but there’s also a measure to regulate lawn fertilizer that would bring the state in line with others in the Bay watershed.

Bay Cleanup: The Senate was expected to vote on the Clean Water Procurement bill on Jan. 2, the lawmakers’ first day back. The bill would establish a $50 million annual fund with contributions from the state’s many municipalities that are required to reduce polluted runoff from their streets and parking lots. Instead of investing in costly taxpayer-funded stormwater remediation projects, proponents say, municipalities can meet their nutrient reduction obligations in a more cost-efficient way — by paying to help farmers deal with their animal manure, an even larger source of nutrient pollution.

In return, the local governments would be absolved from their mandates, according to the bill. The financing would be awarded to private industry to build large manure-processing systems. Municipal associations and some environmental groups are opposed to the bill, partially because it was written and promoted heavily by Bion Environmental Technologies, whose subsidiary BionPA1 is in default of a $7.8 million state loan on a pilot manure-to-energy project.

Harrisburg has seen several iterations of the bill pitched in the last four years. The measure has yet to be addressed in the House.

Lawn Fertilizer: Lawmakers will be asked again to approve a bill requiring lawn care and landscaping companies in Pennsylvania to train and certify employees before they can apply fertilizer to turf grass. The bill, introduced by Sen. Richard Alloway (R-Adams), also limits application rates to reduce the likelihood of fertilizer washing off and polluting nearby streams and the Bay with unused nutrients for grass. The bill is a priority of the interstate Chesapeake Bay Commission, which has succeeded in getting similar legislation passed in Maryland and Virginia.

Water Fee: A study report is expected on a bill that’s been stalled in a House committee since last May, which would raise about $250 million a year for water-related programs. The bill, introduced by Rep. Michael Sturla (D-Lancaster), one of five Pennsylvania lawmakers on the Bay Commission, would levy a 0.01 cent per gallon fee on commercial and industrial water withdrawals of more than 10,000 gallons.

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets. Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. Donna Morelli, based in Harrisburg, PA., is a staff writer for the Bay Journal. She’s the former director of the Pennsylvania office of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.