Some Good News: Chesapeake Underwater Grasses up 8%; Acreage Highest in Decades

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Underwater grasses, one of the most closely watched indicators of Chesapeake Bay health, surged to the highest levels seen in decades, according to survey results for 2016. This is the second straight year that grasses have set a record.

Nearly 100,000 acres of the Bay’s and its tidal tributaries were covered by the underwater meadows, which provide habitat for juvenile fish and blue crabs, as well as food for waterfowl.

That was an 8 percent increase over 2015, and more than twice what was in the Bay just four years ago. “It was an impressive year following a previously impressive year and we are at numbers that we’ve not seen — ever,” said Bob Orth, an underwater grass expert with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who oversees the annual aerial survey, which began 33 years ago.

Like all green plants, submerged grasses need sunlight to survive, and the clearer the water, the more sun they get. Because of the link to water clarity, the annual survey of Bay grasses — often referred to by scientists as SAV, for submerged aquatic vegetation — is considered a key indicator of how the Bay is doing.

In their own right, grass beds are also a critical component of the Bay ecosystem. In addition to providing food for waterfowl and shelter for fish and crabs, they also pump oxygen into the water and trap sediments.

Restoring underwater grass beds is one of the goals of the nutrient and sediment reductions aimed at cleaning up the Bay, as water clouded by sediment or nutrient-fueled algae blooms can be lethal to grass beds.

The Bay’s underwater grasses were knocked back to 48,195 acres by the one-two punch of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in late summer 2011, which sent a flood of nutrients and sediment into the Chesapeake.

But relatively dry conditions since then, which reduced the flow of nutrients and sediments into the Bay, have helped the grasses recover. The result has been unusually clear water in many areas. In fact, some grass beds are becoming so large and robust that they may be able to withstand at least some severe weather events, scientists said.

Water has been so clear in places like the Upper Bay’s Susquehanna Flats, that scientists reported dense grass beds extending into deeper areas where they had disappeared in the wake of Tropical Storm Lee.

Brooke Landry, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and chair of the Bay Program’s SAV work group, said that when she visited the flats on a field trip to train citizen scientists last summer, the beds were not only expanding but included an “incredible diversity” of species — at least 11.

“It was beautiful,” she said of the bed, which reached 5,993 acres last year. “We definitely saw grasses deeper than I would have expected, and the water was crystal clear.”

Overall, the survey mapped 97,433 acres in 2016. That was an 8 percent increase over the 92,315 acres observed the previous year.

But in 2016, the aerial survey was not able to map some areas due to a mix of weather and security restrictions near the District of Columbia and the Patuxent Naval Air Station. Specifically, parts of the Potomac and St. Mary’s rivers, including Piscataway Creek, were not surveyed in 2016, although they had been mapped the year before.

If those areas had the same amount of grass beds as in 2015, last year’s acreage would have increased by nearly 2,000 acres for a Baywide total of about 99,400, said David Wilcox, a VIMS analyst who works on the survey. But even that number is conservative, Wilcox said, because grass beds near the unmapped areas also appeared to have expanded last year.

Last year’s mapped acreage represented 53 percent of the Baywide goal of 185,000 acres, and it exceeded an interim target of 90,000 acres set for 2017 under the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.

One caveat is that much of the recovery is in the moderate-salinity areas of the Mid Bay, a region dominated by widgeon grass, which is a notorious “boom and bust” species that can disappear as rapidly as it pops up. More than half of all underwater grasses in the Bay are found in that area, and it accounted for most of last year’s increase as well.

“In 2003, we lost about half of the widgeon grass,” Wilcox cautioned. “If that were to happen next year, our story would be very different, because there’s so much widgeon grass out there.”

But scientists said they were encouraged that, at least in some places, they were starting to see other underwater species mix with the widgeon grass, which may help make the beds more durable over time.

“We’re starting to observe additional species in beds that were just widgeon grass, like redhead grass and sago pondweed, which is a great sign,” Landry said. “So if widgeon grass does crash, in some areas at least, these other species will continue to provide those ecosystem services Bay grasses are so important for.”

Though grasses improved Baywide, the survey found that trends varied in different salinity zones around the Bay (the following numbers compare acreages only for areas that could be mapped in both 2015 and 2016):

• The tidal freshwaters at the head of the Bay and in the uppermost tidal reaches of most tributaries, saw a 9 percent increase over 2015, to 17,319 acres.

• The slightly salty “oligohaline” waters that occupy a relatively small portion of the Upper Bay and tidal tributaries, experienced a 16 percent decrease, to 8,503 acres.

• The moderately salty “mesohaline” waters — the largest area of underwater grass habitat, stretching from near Baltimore south to the Rappahannock River and Tangier Island and including large sections of most tidal rivers — had an increase of 20 percent, covering 57,380 acres.

• The very salty “polyhaline” waters in the Lower Bay — from the mouth of the Rappahannock and Tangier Island south, including the lower York and James rivers — had 14,226 acres, which was a 15 percent decrease.

Scientists said it was unclear why grasses declined in some parts of the oligohaline zone. But observations suggested that, at least in some places, the decline was in hydrilla, a nonnative species that is often quick to colonize unvegetated areas. But hydrilla is also sensitive to higher salinities, and scientists said drier conditions (and therefore higher salinity) in some rivers might have caused localized diebacks.

Normally, declines in polyhaline waters are from diebacks of eelgrass, the dominant species in that region — which is always a concern because eelgrass can be slow to recover after setbacks. In fact, it’s been generally declining since the early 1990s. But based on limited observations, Orth said the overall declines in that area last year seemed to be caused by a loss of widgeon grass, even though that species had greatly expanded in other parts of the Bay.

“Widgeon grass has always been one of these dynamic species that comes and goes,” he said.

Except for 1988, the survey has been conducted annually in the Bay since 1984, when just 38,229 acres were observed — the lowest ever seen. The Bay’s 185,000-acre goal is based on actual acreages that could be observed in historical photographs of the Bay, taken for other purposes during the early and mid-1990s.

Details about the survey, including aerial photos of grass beds from around the Bay, are at vims.edu/bio/sav.

By Karl Blankenship

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

An Introvert Attends the Science March by Marita Wilson

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I’m a scientist by trade. Unsurprisingly, I’m also an introvert. I love sitting at home with my cat, drinking tea and listening to the birds outside. But in moving to Chestertown, I’ve placed myself in the proximity of Washington, DC, which means my home is now a perfect stop-over for friends on their way to political marches. This is very good for me, because I love seeing my friends—but also because it gets me off my behind. When your friend emails you to discuss her plans for staying at your house to go to a march, it’s not really an option to stay back!

This past weekend, many introverts like me left their quiet offices and humming labs to march on our nation’s capital. And as a former researcher and high school biology teacher, I was glad to be counted among them.

The winding path that got me to the Science March begins back in January, when my friend Laura came down from upstate New York and bravely led me into the crackling, crowded Women’s March. At the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It turned out that I was getting myself into one of the most positive, uplifting political experiences I’ve ever had.

But even that positive experience didn’t stop me from worrying. Would the trip, the hassle, be worth it? Would I be prepared? But mainly, why was I even going?

I knew I felt dissatisfied with our current government’s treatment of science, both in its proposed policies and its dismissive, distrustful language. But it took me days to distill those feelings into thoughts that could be verbally expressed, into ideas that were strong enough to march behind.

Mainly, I wanted two things: I wanted people to trust science again, not as the ultimate authority but as a tool for finding the truth. And I wanted people to come together and recognize each other’s value in our increasingly divided society.

The Friday before the march, my friend Laura, her husband, and one of her coworkers swung through Chestertown to pick me up, and we drove into DC. As usual, I had a blast taking the newbies across the Bay Bridge. My aunt and uncle have an apartment within walking distance of the Mall, and they’d agreed to let us crash with them the night before the march. In their basement at midnight, we wrote our signs. Protest signs, I realized, are the original tweets: use as few letters as possible to say as much as you can.

We are all CONNECTED: To each other, BIOLOGICALLY. To the earth, CHEMICALLY. To the universe, ATOMICALLY. – Neil deGrasse Tyson

SCIENTISTS SEEK TRUTH, even when we don’t like the answer

DON’T DRAIN SWAMS: RESTORE WETLANDS

VOTE 2018! Don’t forget!

THE OCEANS ARE RISING AND SO ARE WE

The morning of the march was cloudy, and the rain started as soon as we headed towards the Mall. I had refused my Aunt’s offer for an umbrella multiple times that morning, fearing that with my short stature, I was bound to take out someone’s eye in the crowd. But as we got off the subway along with hundreds of other sing-wielding marchers, I began to wonder if she had been the wiser of us. My raincoat was doing its job, but it couldn’t protect my sign, which was starting to bleed; or my glasses, which quickly became spattered; or my phone, which I had been intending to take pictures with. The phone stayed safely in my leather purse. Though my raincoat didn’t protect that, either.

Soon we were standing by the Washington Monument, listening as Bill Nye gave a two-minute speech of inspiration. My toes were damp and my fingers soon turned into frozen, sign-pinching claws. But I still felt encouraged as I looked over the umbrella-mosaicked crowd. Marches, I’ve learned, are not only about making a statement. They are about coming together. When we sit at home in front of our screens and read the news, there is little to feel but loneliness and despair. Even when we seek out our friends, politeness often dictates we steer away from political discourse. But at a march, you hold your views high, and people smile, take pictures, and gather closely around. (Though not too closely, at a march for introverts!) Even in the driving rain, the energy warmed us.

Coming together around a cause does not mean agreeing on everything. The signs at the Science March, like the signs at the Women’s March, reflected a variety of concerns. As I watched the crowds, the one thing that saddened me was knowing that the march had been slow to open its arms to those championing the cause of minority and female scientists. I was glad to see, despite the mixed messages the march organizers had sent, that there were still people on the ground supporting diversity in our field. While we were all marching under a theme, there are many variations on that theme. At a march like this, there is plenty of room for all of us.

As we took a break for lunch, my hands clutched around a warm mocha, my aunt and uncle and I discussed sexual assault and how the perpetrators should be held accountable. This wasn’t part of the march’s platform at all, but marches tend to be catalysts for all kinds of conversations people might not otherwise have. Because when else do introverts talk about controversial things, in person, face to face, without fear that the topic is inappropriate?

Back out into the cold and rain we went. We caught up with the front of the march at Constitution and 10th street and folded our way into the crowd. Chants would start: “Science is real, despite what you feel!” “Fund us all, not the wall!” But they always stopped after three or four repetitions, as introverts don’t love yelling. Nearby, a lorax marched, speaking for the trees. There were little children, cozy and dry in their strollers, and dogs, too, including one in a trash bag coat with a hole for its tail. As we turned down 3rd street and passed in front of the capitol, someone knelt down and proposed to his girlfriend. The march organizer got on the microphone and shouted, “Somebody just got engaged!” We all cheered.

Later, on Facebook, I saw that several of my friends from my teaching program and my lab had also come to DC, but of course I’d missed them in the crowd. I’d also missed a spontaneous dance party and a polar bear costume, apparently. But I had seen propeller bird garden statues, and the Trump Hotel across the street from the EPA, and lots of great science puns. I had gotten my feet wet, literally. And I left feeling hopeful about our country’s future for the first time since… well, the last time I’d marched.

Maybe introverts can enjoy being activists after all.

Marita Wilson is a former high school biology teacher, lab researcher, and an aspiring fiction writer. She lives in Kingstown.

Maryland Could Host the Nation’s Largest Offshore Wind Farm

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The Maryland Public Service Commission is considering two proposals for offshore turbines off the coast of Ocean City, giving Maryland the potential to host the nation’s largest offshore wind farm.

The companies — US Wind and Deepwater Wind — plan to build turbines off the coast, using wind to generate clean energy. The turbines are connected to transmission lines that travel underground, carrying the energy to substations to be stored, distributed and used.

The approval of just one farm would put Maryland on the map with the largest, but the commission could potentially approve both proposals as long as both projects would not exceed an established price and fee increase for ratepayers, according to the Maryland Public Service Commission’s Communications Director Tori Leonard.

Maryland is required to produced a certain amount of renewable energy through its renewable energy portfolio standard. If Maryland is not able to produce that amount within the state, they can purchase energy credits known as ORECs from out-of-state vendors, and vice versa. An OREC, or Offshore Wind Renewable Energy Credit, is a way of bundling and selling the clean electricity produced by wind farms.

Maryland’s current standard has a specific carve-out for offshore wind energy of up to 2.5 percent per year. Until an offshore wind project is approved and running, the 2.5 percent of renewable energy is being fulfilled by other fuels, like solar or geothermal energy.

The cost of the credits is capped, so a residential ratepayer would not pay more than $1.50 per month more, and a non-residential rate payer, like a small business owner, would not pay more than 1.5 percent more per month.

“For less than a cup of coffee (per month for homeowners), we can produce cleaner energy,” said Liz Burdock, executive director of the Business Network for Offshore Wind, calling the decision a no-brainer.

If the commission approves both projects, the estimated non-residential rate would increase per bill by 1.39 percent, with US Wind’s totaling 0.96 percent and Deepwater Wind’s totaling 0.43 percent. The estimated monthly residential rate would increase by $1.44, with US Wind’s being $0.99 per month and $0.45 per month, according to a March 21 report from Levitan and Associates, a contractor that provides documents and analysis on the offshore wind projects.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, signed into law the Offshore Wind Act of 2013. This law set the parameters for wind farms in Maryland, clarifying where they could be located, requiring the commission’s approval, and authorizing the state to provide and purchase energy credits from these wind farms.

The Democrat-controlled legislature overrode Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of the 2016 Clean Energy Jobs Act during the 2017 General Assembly session. Under the law, which the governor argued passed along too many additional costs to ratepayers, the state’s requirement for renewable-energy sourced electricity increased from 20 percent by the year 2022 to 25 percent by the year 2020.

Those who support Maryland offshore wind believe the farms will produce clean air, bring jobs to the state, and put Maryland on the map for clean energy.

Opponents are concerned about the costs, and how the visual impact of the turbines would affect tourism and the possible negative affect it could have on the community.

Delegate Robbyn Lewis, D-Baltimore, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service she believes a wind farm could help Maryland reach its renewable energy goal. “Given the fact that the state of Maryland has made commitments to expand renewable energy, this is a perfect time to do it,” Lewis said.

Lewis said while she does not have any comment on which proposal she prefers, it would be a disappointment if the commission did not approve either project.

“I hope the Public Service Commission decides to go forward with this,” Lewis said earlier this month. “I look forward to the possibility of creating more jobs, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and having clean air.”

On Nov. 22, the Public Service Commission announced it was considering the two offshore wind farm proposals, one by US Wind Inc., a subsidiary of Toto Holding SpA, and the other by Skipjack Offshore Energy LLC, a subsidiary of Deepwater Wind Holdings, LLC.

The US Wind project occupies a Maryland leasing area, while the Deepwater Wind farm is projected to be built in a Delaware leasing area. Both projects will bring clean energy to Maryland.

Clint Plummer, vice president of development for Deepwater Wind, said he believes his company’s project would benefit Maryland in a manageable way, with a strategy to develop the project in different phases.

“We’re the most experienced developer and we’ve proposed a smaller project with an aggressive price,” Plummer said, comparing his company’s proposal to the competing US Wind project.

Deepwater Wind’s Skipjack project would consist of 15 wind turbines about 19.5 miles off the coast, Plummer said. “It will be a 120 megawatt project, which is enough to power about 35,000 houses in the state of Maryland,” Plummer said.

The Skipjack project is planned to be built 26 miles away from the Ocean City Pier, according to Plummer, minimizing visualization. It is expected to be completed by 2022, according to the company’s website.

The US Wind farm proposal includes 187 turbines, which would create up to 750 megawatts of power, enough to power 500,000 homes in Maryland, according to Paul Rich, the director of project development for US Wind.

The company expects to have the project built by 2020, Rich told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. US Wind anticipates its project would create hundreds of engineering, construction and operating jobs.

There are reportedly about 2 million households in the state, according to the U.S. Census. Maryland gets its energy from coal, hydroelectricity, natural gas, nuclear, solar and wind.

While the US Wind project is closer to shore, expected to be built 12 to 17 miles off the coast, there are reports from Europe that the view attracts tourists, according to Rich. “They’ll be seen, although minuscule. I think the upshot is that there are people who want to see them; people see them as a bright side of the future,” Rich said.

Rich said they have reached out to the Public Service Commission to discuss the potential for the US Wind project to be moved five miles further from the coast to address visual concerns. If this happened, the current layout for the farm would change. Rich confirmed this move is not definite, but is a discussion he hopes to engage in.

Lars Thaaning, the co-CEO of Vineyard Wind, a company under Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners that has managed and invested in European offshore wind farms, spoke at an April 20 Business Network for Offshore Wind Conference about the differences between building in Europe versus building in Maryland.

Thaaning said the industry in the United States is still new and developing while the industry in Europe has been established. America needs more infrastructure investment, according to Thaaning. “There will not be a long-term market (for offshore wind in America) if we do not establish a supply chain,” Thaaning said.

The Public Service Commission held two public hearings — March 25 in Berlin, Maryland, and March 30 in Annapolis — where legislators and constituents testified on the proposals.

Don Murphy, a Catonsville, Maryland, resident who said he plans to retire in Ocean City, testified against the wind farm proposals at the hearing in Berlin.

Murphy said the project proposals made him feel outraged, horrified and speechless.

“The decisions you make could have an adverse impact on Maryland’s greatest economic engine, Ocean City,” Murphy said. The sight of the wind turbines could impact tourism in Ocean City, according to Murphy.

Murphy proposed that Maryland hold off building these wind farms until the industry is more established, with the fear that they would make headway on the project and regret doing so without proper research.

“It’s said that the early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese,” Murphy said. “Why rush into this venture when you can wait long enough to just (receive) the benefits?”

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan acknowledged Murphy’s concerns during his testimony. “I am concerned about our community and about, as I said, 26,000 property owners and over 8 million visitors that come to Ocean City every year,” Meehan said. Meehan reiterated Murphy’s point that the commission shouldn’t rush into a decision.

“I believe we should more forward, but we only have one chance to get this right,” Murphy said. “…We ought to make sure that we’re not asking questions later that we didn’t have the answers to in the beginning. I can assure you, once this starts, there will be questions.”

Multiple people who gave testimony in Annapolis addressed the concerns from those opposed for aesthetic reasons. One man testifying asked those in the room to raise their hands if they found turbines aesthetically beautiful, to which many people responded in favor.

James McGarry, the Maryland and D.C. policy director for Chesapeake Climate Action Network, urged the Public Service Commission to take action and be the leader for offshore wind. “Maryland is one of the most vulnerable (states) in the country from climate change with sea level rises,” McGarry said.

“Maryland can be a central hub,” he said, during his March 30 testimony.

Morgan Folger, an environment and health fellow for Environment Maryland, testified March 30 that she believed the United States as a whole was behind the curve when it comes to wind energy and that Maryland should take the steps to expand the industry in the country.

“We all breathe the same air and we all drink the same water,” Folger said. “We’re all equally impacted by the pollution.”

Leonard confirmed the last date for the commission to decide to approve one or both projects is May 17.

By Cara Newcomer

Chester River Gets a High C+

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The Chester River got a C+ on its annual report card from the Chester River Association.

CRA Staff Proudly Display Rivers C+

CRA staff and musicians proudly display the river’s C+.  Kneeling – Paul Spies & Emily Harris Standing L-R – Tom Anthony, Isabel Junkin Hardesty, Tim Trumbauer, Anna Walgast, Tom McHugh

The CRA announced the grade – which watershed manager Tim Trumbaurer said was “a rounding error away from a B-“ – April 19 at its annual “State of the Chester” meeting, held this year in Washington College’s Hynson Lounge. The Washington College Center for the Environment and Society co-sponsored the meeting.

The evening began with wine, cheese and raw oysters from Scott Budden’s Orchard Point aquaculture operation near the mouth of the Chester River – a concrete example of the benefits of clean water.

Following the reception, CRA executive director Anna Wolgast, Chester Riverkeeper Isabel Junkin Hardesty, agricultural specialist Paul Spies, and Trumbaurer each delivered a portion of the report.

Wolgast opened the proceedings by recognizing all the volunteers and staff members whose work went into the report. Some 10,000 data points were compiled and analyzed for the report, which she characterized as “not subjective, but based on scientifically derived facts.” It is “the foundation for the best solution for cleaning up the Chester River,” she said.

“I can’t remember a more important time to fight for the environment,” said Wolgast. She thanked the CRA members present for their support of the group’s efforts to ensure the health of the river.

Trumbauer then took over, starting with a “year in pictures” slide show that might have been subtitled “The Good, the Bad and Bob,” the latter referring to CRA Vice President Bob Ingersoll, who is an energetic volunteer for the organization. The audience was encouraged to cheer for good images such as volunteers recycling, boo bad ones like sediment in a stream, and say “Ahoy Bob” when Ingersoll appeared.  The audience participated enthusiastically, cheering, booing, and “ahoying,” making it a fun introduction to the report itself.

Trumbauer then turned to the hard statistics on the river’s watershed, which comprises nearly 700 square miles, about two-thirds of which is in crop agriculture. That is the highest proportion of farmland in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, he said,

Because of the large agricultural component, the impact of runoff from the agricultural lands is more significant than in more urban areas. The nitrogen and phosphorus contained in fertilizers can put the river water out of balance when rainstorms wash them into it.

To monitor the levels of those nutrients and of sediment, 50 volunteer Chester Testers measure the water in 27 sites all over the watershed twice a month, year round. The testers accumulate some 1,300 volunteer hours annually. Equipment and chemicals supplied by the LaMotte Company allow precise determinations of the quantities of pollutants present in the water.

According to these tests, the majority of the pollution in the river comes from within its own watershed, not from the Chesapeake Bay, Trumbauer said. That is evident from the fact that the levels increase with distance from the mouth of the river. The sites showing the greatest pollution are Centreville wharf, Morgan Creek and Duck Neck, he said.  The latter two are upriver from Chestertown

The overall trend, over the ten years the CRA has been testing, is toward improved clarity. (The river’s initial grade, in 2007, was a D+.) “People are snorkeling in the river,” Trumbauer said – something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. And, except for the 24-hour period after a major rainfall, the river is safe to swim in. The CRA website (www.chesterriverassociation.org) gives updates on water safety, for those who want to be certain before plunging in, he said.

Trumbauer gave several suggestions on how property owners in the watershed can help improve the water quality. Reducing the area of turf grass lawns and the amount of fertilizer used can both help. So can planting native flowers and trees. Maintaining septic systems is also crucial. Residents should also let elected officials know their concern for the health of the environment. Call and write your local, state, and federal representatives. And, of course, joining and supporting organizations like the CRA goes a long way.

Hardesty gave a summary of the CRA’s programs that contribute to the health of the river. Among them are the wetlands restoration on Kent County High School land and Worton Park, a similar project at Gunston School, and the Natural Lands Project in collaboration with the Center for Environment and Society.

Spies gave an overview of the CRA’s work with the agricultural community, introducing new techniques to improve crop yield while minimizing fertilizer loss. For example, the GreenSeeker program allows a farmer to selectively apply fertilizer to the parts of a field that most need it. That reduces the amount that gets washed away in rains from fields where fertilizer is spread evenly across the whole field.

Similarly, Spies said, the use of cover crops and no-till agriculture saves soil that could otherwise wash away. Many farmers in Kent and Queen Anne’s are adopting these methods, and the river’s improved report card owes a good deal to them.

The presentations were followed by a question and answer session. David Sobers, a member of the Chestertown Environmental Committee, asked if the CRA planned to hold any meetings in Centreville. He also asked if the CRA is making use of drones to monitor water clarity and to spot possible sources of pollution.

Trumbauer replied that the CRA will hold its State of the Chester meeting in Centreville next year.

Junkin said the CRA has partnered with the Chesapeake Conservance Geographic Information System laboratory to investigate the use of drones in its programs. She said a test program on Ingersoll’s farm had given useful results.

Another audience member asked what other factors contributed to the improved results in 2016.

Trumbauer said the absence of hurricanes or other extreme rainfall was a large factor. Also, a cool spring inhibited the growth of algae in the river.

At the end of the question period, artist and writer Marcie Dunn Ramsey said a good way to introduce friends to the CRA’s program was to bring them to the Summer Solstice Gala, June 24 in Chestertown’s Wilmer Park. There, in addition to cocktails, dinner, live music by the High and Wides, and an auction to benefit the CRA, they can meet staff and learn about the organization and its programs.

As an added treat, the evening concluded with a well-received set of songs on Chesapeake Bay themes by Tom McHugh and Tom Anthony. The selections ranged from lyrical ballads to “Slow Train,” a harmonica solo by McHugh incorporating the sounds of a chugging locomotive and train whistles. McHugh interspersed jokes and anecdotes of the waterman’s life between songs.

It was a fitting conclusion to an important progress report from the Chester River Association.

The CRA Sets Date for Report on The Chester River

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The Chester River Association will release the 2016 Report Card at the Second Annual State of the Chester. The event, co-sponsored by the Center for Environment & Society, will be hosted in Hynson Lounge at Washington College on Wednesday, April 19th from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Join us for beer and wine, appetizers, and oysters from Orchard Point Oyster Company from 5:30 to 6 p.m. The program will start at six with a review of the 2016 Chester River grade, water quality results for the year, and a programmatic update from CRA staff. A question and answer session will follow the presentation.

The Chester River Association’s sampling methods and grade calculations are based on the Mid-Atlantic Tributary Assessment Coalition’s (MTAC) guidelines. The 2016 Report Card will show grades for the entire watershed, as well as grades for each of the tidal and non-tidal tributaries where CRA staff and Chester Tester volunteers collect samples.

Tom McHugh and Tom Anthony will end the night with a musical performance celebrating the Chester River. This will be a night full of food, fun, and science that you won’t want to miss! The event is free and open to the public.

Spy Profiles: Chesapeake Harvest with Deena Deese Kilmon

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There seems to be a good bit of nostalgia about the traditional family farm on the Eastern Shore as of late.  Going back centuries, the idea of a self-sufficient, agricultural enterprise that’s focused on locally grown produce has had a minor renaissance as consumers continue to seek out healthy alternatives to commercial grown “fresh” fruit and vegetable sections.

That’s the good news. The not so good news is that in order for those local farmers to be competitive they are increasingly asked to certify their agricultural practices in order to qualify in the wholesale and retail markets.

This is not an easy undertaking. And that is why the work of the Chesapeake Harvest project formed by the Easton Economic Development Corporation is so critical to this important transition.

With the help of a federal grant, Chesapeake Harvest has made it its goal to work with 30 of these family farmers over the next three years to prepare them for USDA gap certification, the most common and well respected endorsement, while at the same time branding and marketing the notion of being “Bay-friendly” through the adoption of these production conservation standards.

Leading this marketing and outreach effort for Chesapeake Harvest is Deena Deese Kilmon who has not only had the invaluable background of coming from a family farm background, spent time in the wholesale food world but also owned restaurant in St. Michaels before joining the organization.

We caught up with Deena in Kent County a few weeks ago before she and her team of volunteers worked with the local farmer to do a risk assessment of that farm’s practices and make recommendations that will move that farm into a gap certified agricultural center.

This video is approximately three minutes in length. For more information about Chesapeake Harvest please go here

Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Hangs it Up for Politics

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There has been a change of the guard for the Lower Susquehanna River. Michael Helfrich, the first Riverkeeper for the bottom half of the Chesapeake Bay’s largest tributary, is leaving after 12 years, to pursue a career in politics.

Already a part-time York, PA, city councilman and president of the five-member municipal governing body, Helfrich vacated his full-time Riverkeeper post on April 1 to run for mayor of his hometown.

“After nearly 12 years of having my focus and energy spread out over 9,215 square miles of Lower Susquehanna issues — and issues of the Chesapeake Bay — I’m now going to focus my energy on the 5.2 square miles of York City,” Helfrich says.

Helfrich, 47, says he’d rather not identify his successor until the Riverkeeper board of directors signs off on a work contract. But a photograph posted on his Facebook page from his going-away party in late March shows Helfrich exchanging chugs from a jug of Susquehanna River water with Ted Evgeniadis, current treasurer of the organization, avid fisherman and a veteran of many watershed improvement activities. Also, Evgeniadis confirmed that he’ll be the new riverkeeper.

“He’s passing me the torch,” Evgeniadis says. “And I’m going to run with it to support all of the efforts and accomplishments that Mike has made over the past 12 years.” Evgeniadis and Helfrich have worked together on water quality issues in York since 2011.

Helfrich founded the Codorus Creek Improvement Partnership in 2001. It organized citizens around a section of the creek, once known as the Inky Stinky, which flows through the community of nearly 44,000 people, according to the 2010 Census.
During the organization’s first three years, volunteers and partners formed waterway pollution patrols, removed more than 150 tons of trash from the creek, and brought attention — and legal actions — against polluters. The Codorus does not stink as much anymore, partially as a result of a 2001 settlement of a lawsuit filed by York city residents against York-based paper company P.H. Glatfelter Co. to clean up effluent from its paper mill upstream from the city. Following the lawsuit, Helfrich worked with Glatfelter on Codorus Creek improvement projects.

In 2005 Helfrich set his sights on bigger waters — the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay — when he founded the group Stewards of the Susquehanna and became a licensed Riverkeeper. Since then, he’s spent countless hours surveying the river from the back roads of south central Pennsylvania and paddling in it and its tributaries. When not in his clunky Subaru station wagon or his kayak, Helfrich was in Harrisburg or Washington, D.C., lobbying someone to do something, or in some policy meeting with state officials. Depending on a person’s position, Helfrich was seen as either an annoyance or a strong voice at these meetings. Either way, he was always a gadfly.

“The work of a Riverkeeper is not for the faint of heart,” says Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “The hours are long, the work is endless, and there is strife and conflict at many turns. . . . Michael Helfrich has been fighting for his river for twelve years — and has pushed back against a host of different pollution sources.”

Sometimes the struggle brings results. Helfrich joined other groups pressuring PPL Electric Utilities and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to investigate thermal pollution from an electric utility linked to several large fish kills in 2006. After a lengthy process and pressure, PPL agreed to invest $120 million in upgrades to the Brunner Island steam electricity plant on the Susquehanna between York and Lancaster counties. The utility installed a system that lowers the temperature of water used to cool equipment in the plant before releasing it into the Susquehanna. The project reduced the temperature spike in the river caused by the 600-million-gallon daily discharge, and eased the thermal shock experienced by fish in the area.

The upgrade of Brunner Island is one of two accomplishments of which Helfrich is most proud. The second, albeit not as neatly resolved, involves addressing the millions of tons of sediment trapped behind Conowingo Dam. Responding to concerns raised by him and others, a multi-year, federal and state study has documented that the dam is at capacity for storage of nutrient–laden sediment, and that it could have impacts on restoring water quality in the upper Bay. But there’s no agreement yet on how — or even whether — to deal with it. Some are pushing for dredging and removing the sediment, while others argue that the long-term solution lies in curtailing the runoff of sediment and nutrients upriver in the Susquehanna’s watershed.

Helfrich isn’t done with riverkeeping completely. If his mayoral bid is successful, he won’t start his new job until January 2018. He is committed to another nine months of mentoring Evgeniadis and keeping an eye on the watershed.

“We worked hard with [the U.S. Geological Survey] and others to get Conowingo on the map,” Helfrich says. “Eleven years later, and we still don’t know what to do. I’m going to stick around for a while and help the new Riverkeeper keep Conowingo on the radar.”

By Donna Morelli

Donna Morelli is a staff writer for the Bay Journal based in Harrisburg. She’s a former staffer for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Ecosystem Long Form: Author John Englander on Rising Sea Levels at the Chesapeake Bay

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As John Englander, noted oceanographer and author of High Tide on Main Street and more recently, Rising Seas and Shifting Shorelines, recently noted in his keynote address sponsored by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy last Saturday morning, one sometimes needs to say something seven times to make sure your audience gets your most important point. In John’s case, it is undoubtedly the under-reported consequences of rising sea levels on rural communities.

As part of the ESLC’s ongoing conversation about the impact of climate change on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the author was invited to give a summary of the research and increasingly grim data has been collected in recent years that points to the Chesapeake experiencing from three to six feet in sea levels over the next one hundred years as opposed to the one to two feet forecast currently being used by local and state government and other policy organizations as they anticipate this severe environmental event.

The Spy was at the Eastern Shore Conservation Center for John’s remarks and present them in their entirety.

This video is approximately twenty-nine minutes in length. For more information on ESLC please go here 

 

 

Ecosystem: Lawmakers Blast Trump Budget that would Cut Chesapeake Bay Cleanup

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Lawmakers from states surrounding the Chesapeake Bay on Wednesday expressed bipartisan criticism of President Donald Trump’s proposal to end federal support for cleaning up Chesapeake Bay.

“The president’s budget that would zero out the Chesapeake Bay Program is outrageous,” Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, said at a Capitol Hill meeting with members of the Choose Clean Water Coalition. “It’s dead on arrival.”

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said cutting investments for the bay clean up will not help the economy.

“Our Chesapeake Bay is an economic engine and the cleaner it is the more it produces economically,” he said.

The nonprofit coalition hosted its fifth annual lobbying day, centered around saving the federally funded Chesapeake Bay Program after Trump last month proposed a “skinny budget” that would eliminate the $73 million bay restoration project.

The Environmental Protection Agency provides the program with monetary support to restore the bay’s ecosystem and reduce pollution.

Started in 1983, the program is conducted under a six-state partnership with Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and the District of Columbia.

Advocates from each state attended the meeting with lawmakers.

“We know how important the Chesapeake Bay is for the entire region,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md. “We are going to fight harder and harder and harder.”

Ruppersberger said the bay generates more than $1 trillion annually and the restoration of oysters, tributaries and streams is a project that needs to be continued.

The bay is a source of drinking water for 75 percent of the region’s 17 million residents, according to the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

The Chesapeake also is the largest estuary in the United States serving as a place for recreational water activities, as well as a workplace for the commercial fishing and crabbing industry.

Made up of 225 local, state, and national groups, the Choose Clean Water Coalition has been advocating for a healthy Chesapeake watershed since 2009.

“The Coalition will work to continue to push back on the president’s proposed budget, and secure the essential funding that is necessary to return clean water to the Chesapeake Bay,” coalition spokeswoman Kristin Reilly said in a statement Wednesday.

Members of the House and Senate said they were pleased to have bipartisan support for clean water.

“The Chesapeake Bay is the perfect thing to come together around and serve energetically,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, last year’s Democratic vice presidential nominee.

He said everyone has to work together to make sure checks and balances are implemented.

“We have an EPA administrator who doesn’t accept science. If you don’t accept climate science, it’s a fair question to ask if you accept science,” Kaine said, referring to Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA.

Trump signed an executive order last week to shut down the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a program aimed at reducing climate change by cutting carbon emissions from power plants.

“We are faced with a tough budget battle, but an attitude from the EPA that says we can ignore science,” Kaine said.

The bay is a valuable natural resource and if Trump wants more jobs, then he should work to rehabilitate the bay, Wittman said.

The congressman said he was deeply concerned about Trump’s budget plan and wrote a letter to the administration asking to restore resources to the bay.

Wittman wants more money to help revitalize wetlands.

“Our wetlands are the nursery for everything that lives in those ecosystems…mother nature is the sponge that absorbs what man puts in it,” he said.

By Briana Thomas