Washington’s Mount Vernon opposes Dominion Energy’s Planned Gas Facility along Potomac River

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The guardians of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, who have preserved the historic Virginia estate on the Potomac River since before the Civil War, are rallying against a present-day foe — one they say could mar a Potomac River view that’s been untarnished for centuries.

Across the river in Charles County, MD, not far from a shoreline that looks much as it did when Washington took in the vista, Dominion Energy is planning to build a natural gas compressor station. The company says the facility will help deliver fuel to a planned power plant nearby that’s intended to supply electricity to portions of both states — and that it will be out of sight from Mount Vernon.

But the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which claims to be first national historic preservation organization in the United States, warns that the compressor station might in fact be visible and ruin the unspoiled panorama across the Potomac from the first president’s home. The association hosted a press conference last week to raise the alarm, supported by a dozen preservation, environmental and community groups from both sides of the river.

The project is also opposed by residents who live in the wooded areas surrounding the planned facility — including more than 400 properties that are themselves barred from certain types of development because they are next to a national park that was established to protect Mount Vernon’s view.

The Charles County residents also are concerned that the compressor station’s emissions could could diminish local air quality, pose a fire or explosion risk and negatively impact the surrounding wetlands and forests. Local environmental groups are beginning to track the project, too, concerned that it could also impact local water quality.

Charles County officials denied the project a special-use permit to build on a 50-acre parcel zoned for rural conservation uses, but Dominion has sued the county. The company says a waiver from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission overrides the county’s zoning ordinances.

Despite their environmental and safety issues, residents seem to think their best bet for stopping the project lies across the river, in the hands of the well-funded estate that has officially set its sights on stopping the station.

“Dominion Energy can move their compressor station. We can’t move Mount Vernon,” Doug Bradburn, president and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the name of the nonprofit run by the ladies’ association, said Tuesday at a press conference on the estate’s lawn.

The crux of the conflict with Mount Vernon comes down to the height of two exhaust stacks that would emit carbon monoxide and potentially ozone-forming gases that are byproducts of the power-generating turbines burning natural gas. The higher the stacks, the more likely they are to be visible at Mount Vernon. But stacks that are too low could deliver more air pollutants to the communities and forested areas surrounding the site on the Maryland side.

Dominion spokesman Karl Neddenien said neither the Charles Station compressor’s buildings nor its emissions stacks would be visible from Mount Vernon, pointing to a sightline study conducted by the Chesapeake Conservancy that found 50-foot stacks would be hidden behind a bluff of trees.

But Mount Vernon advocates say those plans could change, and they note that a far taller stack height of more than 113 feet is mentioned as a “best practice” in permitting documents. The facility’s air quality permit is currently being reviewed by the Maryland Department of the Environment, which could have a say in the height of the stacks.

Uncertainties about the height of the stacks is one of the reasons the Chesapeake Conservancy, after completing the sightline study for Mount Vernon, joined the effort to oppose it.

“Higher stacks would lessen the local air quality impacts, but would likely negatively affect the historic view,” said Susan Shingledecker, vice president and director of programs for the Chesapeake Conservancy. “Lower stacks would remain shielded by tree canopy, but could mean increased harmful environmental health conditions for surrounding communities. This is not a tradeoff we can accept.”

Preservation advocates also fear the construction could lead to more industrial development in a portion of Maryland they’ve worked hard to keep forested.

“Their promises to us are not binding,” Bradburn said. “They cannot guarantee that the industrial development will not have a long-term negative impact on the forest canopy that protects that view.”

A dozen organizations from both sides of the river — including the Chesapeake Conservancy, the Alice Ferguson Foundation and groups representing Maryland residents near the planned facility — have joined the campaign to “Save George Washington’s View.”

Also last week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the Mount Vernon estate and Piscataway Park to its annual list of the most endangered historic places in the United States, along with Annapolis’ City Dock, a move intended to galvanize national support for ongoing preservation.

Behind the effort is the educational and fund-raising prowess of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ group, a nonprofit that raises almost $50 million annually to manage the estate’s $250 million in assets, according to Charity Navigator.

Sarah Miller Coulson, regent of the Ladies’ Association, which has maintained Mount Vernon for 160 years, said the group’s members considers it their “sacred and moral responsibility” to protect Washington’s home, tomb and viewshed from projects like the one Dominion has planned. And they have a record of doing so.

In the 1950s, the organization stopped an oil refining company from buying hundreds of acres across the river in Maryland. A decade later, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission planned to use eminent domain to build a three-story sewage treatment plant across from Mount Vernon, intending to soften the blow to the view by making the plant a replica of the estate. A congresswoman who was also a member of the Ladies’ Association helped redirect those plans.

“We won’t stop until we’re successful,” Coulson said of their latest campaign.

At Mount Vernon, efforts to protect the property’s view culminated in the 1960s with the creation of Piscataway Park on the banks of the Potomac in Maryland. The group also had a hand in hundreds of conservation agreements with landowners that limit the height of buildings and how many trees can be removed.

Piscataway “was the first park in the nation created to protect the viewshed” of another property, said Lori Arguelles, president and CEO of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an environmental nonprofit based across the river from Mount Vernon in Accokeek, MD. Dominion’s compressor station would be within 50 feet of the park.

Dominion officials say environmental concerns about the project will be addressed through the local and state permitting process, which is underway now. Dominion has been expanding its network of energy infrastructure across the region with a growing focus on natural gas as an alternative to burning coal for power. Dominion says the Charles County compressor station would connect to existing underground pipelines to pump new natural gas supplies to the Panda Mattawoman Energy Project, which is planned to be built in Prince George’s County, MD.

The compressor station is part of a project that Dominion says on its website “will bring much-needed new natural gas supplies” to the region that includes Charles County, MD, and Mount Vernon, which Bradburn said is heated by a mix of electricity and natural gas.

Dominion has won at least one other battle over whether it can place energy infrastructure within sight of historic properties. On a portion of the James River near Williamsburg, an effort last summer fell short in protecting a trio of historic sites from the view of a power line spanning the river. Despite opposition from historic preservation groups — that portion of the river landed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of endangered places in 2013 — the project received final federal approval. Lawsuits from preservation groups are pending.

Coulson said the Ladies’ Association had been meeting with Dominion officials as recently as the day before the press conference and wants to help the utility find an alternative location for the compressor station.

But Dominion’s Neddenien seemed befuddled by the press conference at Mount Vernon and the rallying cry to stop the project.

“We have worked with Mount Vernon officials since the initial stages of planning for this project about two years ago. We designed our facility to minimize visuals at Mount Vernon,” he said.

For Mount Vernon, those visuals are of paramount importance to their mission of preserving the estate and its historic vista. Several U.S. presidents are among the more than 87 million people that have visited Mount Vernon over the years, the most recent being President and First Lady Trump.

Bradburn stood with the Trumps on Mount Vernon’s piazza during the April visit of French President Emmanuel Macron — and brought up with Trump the risk of a pair of exhaust stacks appearing on the horizon.

“The president said, ‘This should be preserved. This is fantastic,’” Bradburn said.

by Whitney Pipkin

Bay Journal staff writer Whitney Pipkin covers 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.

Facing a Finite Future, Smith Islanders put Their Faith in Jetties and God By Jeremy Cox

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Only in a place like Smith Island would someone get choked up about a jetty, a man-made wall of stones that functions like a bulwark against waves and water currents.

Eddie Somers, a civic activist and native of the island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, delivered remarks at a recent press conference called by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to mark a milestone in the construction of two jetties off its western flank. He was close to finishing when he suddenly stopped, holding back tears — tears of joy.

“Those barrier islands were in danger of breaching in a couple places, and when that happens, you’re one hurricane away from losing your home,” he said when asked later about the moment. “So, for a lot of people, it’s emotional — not just me.”


Two men in a small boat motor toward the community of Ewell, on the north end of Smith Island. (Jeremy Cox)

On Smith Island, Maryland’s only inhabited island with no bridge connection to the mainland, residents prize self-reliance. But for more than two decades, Somers and his neighbors had been pushing for outside help to save their low-lying island properties from slipping away into the surrounding Bay.

Now, they’ve gotten it. Since 2015, federal, state and local sources have invested about $18.3 million in three separate projects on and around Smith Island, adding about two miles of reconstructed shoreline, several acres of newly planted salt marshes and hundreds of feet of jetties.

That money may buy a lot of jetty stones and sprigs of cordgrass, but all it can really buy is time, according to climate researchers and Army Corps officials.

As seas rise and erosion takes its toll — and the population shrinks — some homes have been abandoned on low-lying Smith Island, including this two-story house in the community of Rhodes Point. (Jeremy Cox)

Smith Island is an archipelago, with a population spread across three small communities: Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton. Since 1850, erosion and rising sea levels have put about one-third of the islands underwater. By 2100, the Bay is expected to rise by at least 3 more feet – bad news for a land that’s mostly less than 3 feet above current sea level.

Clad in fatigues, Col. Ed Chamberlayne, head of the Army Corps’ Baltimore District office, boarded the Maryland Department of Natural Resources research boat, Kerhin, after the press conference to tour the new jetties with an entourage of state and local officials. He described the $6.9 million project, which also includes dredging a boat channel and using the fill to restore about 5 acres of nearby wetlands, as a temporary fix.

“How long this will last is an obvious question,” Chamberlayne said. “As far as what this does to Smith Island long-term, this is not a cure-all.”

Col. Ed Chamberlayne, Baltimore district commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, speaks with Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton on a ferry ride to Smith Island June 21 to view the completed jetties. (Jeremy Cox)

Nor are any of the other projects. So, with each inch of sea level rise and dollar spent fighting it, an old question gains more urgency: To what lengths should society go to defend Smith Island and other places believed to be highly vulnerable to climate change? Facing land losses of their own, coastal communities in Alaska and Louisiana are getting ready to relocate to new homes farther inland.

A similar debate hit Tangier Island, about 10 miles south of Smith Island in Virginia waters, after a 2015 Army Corps study declared that its residents may be among the first “climate refugees” in the continental United States. In the wake of a CNN report about the shrinking island last year, President Donald Trump, who has referred to global warming as a “hoax,” called its mayor to assure him he has nothing to worry about.

In a view shared by many on the boat, State Sen. Jim Mathias expressed confidence that the island would be around for a long while. “It’s man’s hand intervening,” said Mathias, a Democrat who represents the lower Eastern Shore. “We have the top engineers working for us. We’ll figure it out.”

When the final phase of the jetty project is completed this fall — channel dredging and marsh restoration remain — it will mark the end of a chapter in the community’s history that started with, as some residents interpreted it, its proposed destruction.

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy walloped the New Jersey coast and flooded lower Manhattan in New York City, and in Maryland caused extensive flooding in Crisfield and along the Bay shore in Somerset County. Smith Island suffered relatively little damage by comparison.

Still, state officials, conscious of the long-term threat to Smith posed by rising seas, set aside $2 million in federal relief money to buy out voluntary sellers. Plans called for homes or businesses acquired by the state to be torn down and future development to be banned on the properties.

“The people didn’t want to be bought out, and they were sort of insulted by it,” said Randy Laird, president of the Board of County Commissioners in Somerset County, which includes Smith island. “They felt like they (state officials) were trying to close down the island.”
The buyouts would have created a domino effect, Mathias said.

“Once it starts, it doesn’t stop,” he said. “It goes from one parcel to another parcel. And another family falls on hard times, and the state shows up with a check.”

Enter Smith Island United

The archipelago has lost nearly half its population since 2000. Among the fewer than 200 who remain, one-third are age 65 or older. Most young people leave after finishing high school for lack of jobs on the island. “We didn’t really have a voice in government,” Somers said.

To push back against the buyouts, residents formed a civic group and began hosting regular community meetings. Those talks turned into Smith Island United. Somers, a part-time resident and captain of a state icebreaker boat, was installed as its president.

Soon, the organization persuaded the state to drop its buyout offer in favor of a “visioning” study. The report, finalized in 2016, outlined several possible actions for reversing the downward course, ranging from creating a seafood industry apprenticeship program to providing more public restrooms for island visitors.

That same year, Maryland named Smith Island a “sustainable community,” giving the community access to a suite of revitalization initiatives from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and grant programs. The island received a $25,000 grant last year to fix store facades because of the program.

In the meantime, long-stalled plans to shore up Smith Island’s marshy coastline began to materialize. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service built a $9 million “living shoreline” in the Glenn Martin National Wildlife Refuge, a marshy island that protects Smith’s north side from erosion. Then came a $4.5 million county project, completed in late 2017, that created another living shoreline on the island’s west side near Rhodes Point, the smallest of the island’s three communities and its most endangered spot.

The Army Corps complemented that work with the construction of two jetties earlier this year, one on either side of an inlet called Sheep Pen Gut. Workers are expected to return in the fall to dredge the channel, deepening it from 3 feet to 6 feet. That will restore vessel passage through the island, eliminating the circuitous, gas-wasting journey to the open Bay that some watermen have had to take since the inlet became too shallow.

Everett Landon caught a glimpse of the construction while standing on the second-floor balcony of a home still under construction. “It looks very good,” said Landon, a Rhodes Point native who last year took over as pastor of the island’s three churches. “With the erosion we’ve been facing, people have been wondering how long until it makes them move away.”

The Rhodes Point jetty project had been on the books at the Army Corps since the mid-1990s. Some residents had all but given up hope that it would ever get built. “You get a community that struggles a lot, and you get a project like this — it puts the wind in your sails. It just shows persistence,” Landon said.

He added that the help is especially welcome in Rhodes Point, where the 40 or so remaining residents live on an ever-shrinking strip of high ground. For his part, Landon measures that loss in the gradual disappearance of a beach once visible — high and dry — beyond the marsh that fringes Rhodes Point. “My grandmother told me that when she was younger, she could sit on the second floor of her home and all she could see was sand,” he said. “When I was growing up, it was just a narrow strip and then marsh. When my kids came along, it was just gone.”

Most Smith Island residents have incomes tied to the seafood industry, from the crabs they catch or pick or the oysters they dredge. Support for Trump was near-unanimous on the island in 2016, and most share his skepticism toward human-caused climate change. They concede that their island is vanishing, but they prefer to speak of it in terms of erosion instead of sea level rise.

Marianna Wehnes moved to Smith Island in 2011 to live with her boyfriend, and she quickly fell in love – with the island. After her relationship with the man ended, Wehnes moved back to the mainland on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but soon returned. She missed the community’s tranquil way of life and knowing her neighbors. She now works in one of Ewell’s gift shops, where it is considered a busy day if eight customers walk through the door.

The new jetties and restored marsh will help keep the island above water for a while, Wehnes agreed. Beyond that, she added, Smith Island’s fate will be up to a higher power. “It’s been here 400 years, and it’s going to be here for 400 years. The only reason it won’t be is if the good Lord tells it to go.”

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer and a communications instructor at Salisbury University in Salisbury, MD, where he is based.

Chesapeake Bay’s Dead Zone to Grow this Summer; Breaks with Wave of Good News

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The Chesapeake Bay’s infamous “dead zone” will be larger than average this summer, scientists suggest in a new forecast that breaks with a wave of encouraging signs about the estuary’s health.

If their prediction is correct, 2018 will be the fourth year in a row that the size of the Bay’s oxygen-starved area has increased. The forecasted expansion can be chalked up to nutrients flushed into the Bay during the spring’s heavy rains, according to researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan.

“The size is going to go up and down every year depending on the weather,” said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan aquatic ecologist and one of the report’s authors.

A “dead zone” is a popular term for waters that have very little oxygen (hypoxic) or none at all (anoxic). Fish tend to flee, and any marine life that can’t escape — usually shellfish — could suffocate.

New evidence seems to arrive almost daily suggesting that humans are turning the tide against the Chesapeake Bay’s many woes. Bay grasses are flourishing. Waters are less murky. Despite a harsh winter, the blue crab population’s rebound appears undaunted. Officials and scientists at a press conference on June 15 celebrated the Bay’s ability to maintain moderately healthy conditions in 2017 for the third year in a row.

But the dead zone has remained persistently large over the years, though it has been disappearing slightly earlier at the end of the summer.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, higher than average spring rains brought more than 85 million pounds of nitrogen into the Bay from the Susquehanna River, the primary source of nutrient pollution in the main portion of the Chesapeake. The Potomac River delivered another 30 million pounds to the Bay.

As a result, the dead zone is expected to be an average of 1.9 cubic miles this summer, a 5 percent increase over 2017, according to the forecast. That area of “hypoxic,” or low oxygen, water represents about 15 percent of the Bay’s total volume. Those numbers haven’t changed much over the years, said UMCES researcher Jeremy Testa, a co-author of the report.

Dead zone conditions already appeared to be forming in May, according to water quality-tracking by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The DNR Eyes on the Bay website showed that dissolved oxygen levels measured in early June had dipped into the danger zone for fish and shellfish from the Baltimore Harbor south to (and extending into) the Patuxent River. Along the Eastern Shore, the north-south boundaries are rougly the same — from Tolchester Beach in Kent County south to Dorchester County, across from the Patuxent.

Dead zones form are caused by excessive nutrients in the water, which cause algae to bloom. Ultimately, the algae die and sink to the bottom, where they are consumed by bacteria in a process that uses up the oxygen in the water. Low-oxygen waters are found throughout the world, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Baltic Sea.

The Chesapeake’s dead zone has ballooned since recordkeeping began in the 1950s as growing cities and farm fields shunted more nitrogen into the Bay, researchers say. One of the main goals of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay restoration program is to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads — and shrink the dead zone.

The typical summer dead zone has measured about 1.7 cubic miles of water since 1985, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. The largest recorded was 2.7 cubic miles in 2011.

While hypoxic water remains stubbornly abundant, anoxic conditions — the very worst areas where there is virtually no oxygen — are gradually improving, Testa said. This year’s anoxic portion of the Bay is expected to be 0.43 cubic miles.

Testa attributes the improved anoxic conditions to gradual reductions in the Susquehanna’s nitrogen concentration that began in the 1980s. Scavia said this year’s forecasted expansion isn’t too concerning because rain appears to be the main culprit.

“It’s the long-term trend that really matters,” he said.

by Jeremy Cox

Bay Journal staff writer Jeremy Cox teaches communications at Maryland’s Salisbury University. He has written for daily newspapers since 2002, most recently as an environment reporter for the Daily Times in Salisbury, where he is based.

You can Own the Chesapeake without Property by Tom Horton

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I grew up middle class but land rich: roaming hundreds of acres of woods and marsh, hunting properties owned by my dad’s poultry company and his best friend. And I always dreamed that someday I’d be wealthy enough to afford my own wonderful, big chunk of Chesapeake, a dream that receded after I chose newspapering over chicken moguldom.

But there are a lot of ways to “own” land, as it has turned out — and many ways to become “rich.”

The most obvious way is to know and support the lands you, as a citizen, already own — your nearby national treasures, which for me include Assateague National Seashore and the Chincoteague and Blackwater national wildlife refuges.

Despite the millions who visit its beaches, Assateague’s remote, hike-in or paddle-in campsites are underused, partly because so many people focus only on summertime visits, when the sites are deadly buggy. Cool and cold weather adventuring is a taste easily acquired and opens up all sorts of territory.

I’m as road-averse as any greenie, but the need to access lands for logging and fire control means our region’s forestlands are full of roadways. Most are off limits to cars, but accessible for walkers, horseback riders and bicyclists (if the latter are willing to ditch those skinny racing tires). With Google Earth and similar mapping apps, and some ground-truthing to determine which of the mapped woodland roads are really there — or, conversely, are there but don’t show on the apps — I’ve been able to “acquire” thousands of acres of land around the Delmarva Peninsula where I live.

Farther afield, there’s massive back country access in Pennsylvania’s state forests — Michaux in southcentral Pennsylvania is one beloved by off-road bikers. Its 85,000 acres sprawl through several counties and are convenient to central Marylanders.

Many off-the-beaten paths also traverse private lands, or lands owned by private nonprofits like The Nature Conservancy. I find most aren’t often used by their owners, with the major exception of firearms deer season, which in most places occupies only a few weeks per year. Similarly, those who paddle marshways may want to know when it is duck season.

As a Salisbury University professor who runs a lot of field trips, I’ve several times driven up to a private landowner’s place and asked permission to explore or camp. Many have been quite cooperative. I now have “anytime access” to a wonderful patch of riverine forest where you can see what Eastern Shore woods might have been like hundreds of years ago.

Last year, I decided to explore the Chesapeake shoreline of Virginia’s rural Accomack County, simply turning onto every little road that ran west toward the Bay. There are a lot of those, and to my surprise I found more public access to little beaches, scenic views and launch spots for paddlecraft than most any other tidewater county I know of in Maryland or Virginia.

As my ecological comprehension of the region has grown, I’ve come to “own” the landscape wherever I travel. Riding through farmland, I notice the deep drainage ditching that makes agriculture possible. I know also that here, pre-drainage, a great cedar-cypress swamp once covered 60,000 acres, and beyond that I know the underlying wetland soils would immediately revert to swampiness if we could plug those ditches.

And while I favor swamps, I can appreciate where a green gloss on winter cornfields means the farmer is using cover crops to stop nitrogen fertilizer from running into the Bay. I also notice where farmers are plowing on the contour, installing grass swales and natural buffers to keep soil and nutrients out of the water.

Beware though: A keen appreciation for the land also risks heartbreak whenever you see the pipes and survey markers that mean field and forest will soon be stripped and paved for development.

Lately, I’ve been looking at the big power lines and gas pipeline right-of-ways that arrow across the landscape and wondering why we can’t make these do double duty as hiking-biking corridors.

The possibilities came home to me after some happy weeks roaming the Netherlands with lifelong Dutch friends. While that people-dense nation hasn’t 1 percent of the untrammeled landscapes of the United States, it is so interlaced with trails that there is scarcely a single citizen who cannot quickly hop onto a trail network that connects them to everywhere in the country.

Even where access is restricted, there are ways to push the edge. A friend of mine, who loves fishing and progging the remote seaside edges of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, has outfitted his skiff with a foldout platform so he can pitch a tent on the bow while anchored alongside barrier islands that are off limits to overnight stays. Last year, he took a whole high school class along for a week with tents lashed to a barge.

I suppose if I’d gotten rich, I’d own more land than the tenth of an acre behind my home. But think how much time acquiring that wealth might have taken away from a lifetime spent roaming the Chesapeake.

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 those of the Bay Journal.

Chesapeake Region Unlikely to Meet 2025 Bay Cleanup Goals, Unless it Picks up Pace

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The Chesapeake Bay is getting healthier, but its recovery is “fragile” unless state and federal governments pick up the pace of their actions, environmental groups warned Wednesday.

As the halfway point toward the 2025 cleanup deadline approaches, the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation reported that the region is generally on track toward meeting pollution reduction goals for phosphorus and sediment but is far off pace for nitrogen.

The nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus create algal blooms that cloud the water and lead to oxygen-starved “dead zones” in the Bay. Nutrients, the Bay’s primary pollutant, enter the Bay and its rivers largely through sewage, fertilizers and animal waste.

Regional Bay cleanup efforts have been under way since the 1980s. They intensified in 2010 when the federal government put the Bay under a Total Maximum Daily Load [TDML], often called a “pollution diet,” that requires state actions to meet federal clean water standards.

Those efforts have spurred improvements in the Bay’s health, but CBF President Will Baker cautioned against too much optimism, noting that Lake Erie was declared recovered decades ago but is now “worse than ever.”

“Unless the states and their federal partners expand their efforts and push harder, the Bay and its rivers and streams may never be saved,” Baker said. He expressed concern that the states and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might back off on their commitments to take all needed cleanup actions by the end of 2025. “CBF, and I imagine others, will use every means available, including possible litigation, to oppose any attempt to delay the deadline,” he said.

The possibility of allowing a delay has been floated behind the scenes, but officials familiar with the conversations say they expect that the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program will ultimately keep the original deadline.

The Bay Program failed to meet two previous cleanup deadlines, which led the EPA to impose the TMDL as a more enforceable cleanup program that set established pollution limits for each state and river draining into the Bay.

This summer is roughly the halfway point between the 2010 establishment of the TMDL and the 2025 cleanup deadline.

States were supposed to achieve 60 percent of their assigned pollution reduction actions by the end of 2017. But the Bay Foundation, using preliminary computer model estimates from the Bay Program, said the region as a whole has achieved only about 40 percent of its nitrogen goals, though it has met the mark for phosphorus and sediment.

The CBF and Choose Clean Water — a coalition of 240 regional groups working on water issues that jointly released the analysis — credited pollution reductions for recent improvements in the Bay’s health. Underwater grass beds, a key Bay habitat, reached record levels last year, the Bay’s “dead zone” has been shrinking, and the population of important species like oysters and blue crabs have shown encouraging signs.

“We are at a critical point in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. We are seeing some incredible progress,” said Chante Coleman, director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

But the environmentalists warned that the Bay’s health was still in jeopardy and that pollution reduction efforts among the four jurisdictions it examined — Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia — were uneven.

Pennsylvania, which contributes the largest amount of nutrients to the Bay, is far behind in its nitrogen reduction goals, largely because of the nitrogen generated by its large agricultural sector. Pennsylvania accounts for the lion’s share of the regionwide shortfall for nitrogen reduction.

All four jurisdictions met or exceeded their goals for reducing pollution from wastewater treatment plans. Because wastewater accounts for a large portion of the nutrients from Maryland and Virginia, those efforts helped offset shortfalls in controlling runoff from farmland and stormwater in those states.

Because most treatment plants in the region have been upgraded, the majority of pollution reductions in coming years must come from farms and developed lands, where reductions have been harder to achieve.

“As the clock ticks down to 2025, we know the second half is going to be more difficult,” Baker said. Further, he noted, new problems — such the filling of the reservoir at Conowingo Dam, which was once an important trap for nutrients and sediment — are making the cleanup job harder. The region’s changing climate is an added challenge, too, increasing the amount and intensity of rainfall that washes greater amounts of pollutants into the water.

Baker said that efforts were also threatened by the Trump administration, which “regularly releases new plans to undercut clean air and clean water nationwide. Those plans, if implemented, would have adverse impacts on the Bay.” In particular, he expressed concern about multiple efforts to roll back air pollution controls. Air pollution is a significant contributor of nitrogen to the Bay.

The EPA is expected to release its own midpoint analysis of the cleanup in July. It will evaluate the progress of individual states, which could result in actions against those that have fallen behind in their cleanup schedules, either statewide or in particular sectors, such as stormwater or agriculture.

Environmental groups are split over what action the EPA should take, though, particularly in Pennsylvania.

Baker called for the EPA to exercise its “backstop” authority under the TMDL, which allows it to impose sanctions against states that fall behind. Such sanctions could include withholding grant money or exercising more oversight for new discharge permits.

“At the very least, the EPA needs to exert its authority in Pennsylvania while also putting Virginia and Maryland on notice that pollution from urban and rural runoff must be addressed more effectively,” Baker said.

But Coleman said many of the coalition’s members would oppose taking backstop actions against Pennsylvania, especially if they involve withholding funds. “Pennsylvania is so far behind in the cleanup that taking away money at this point would be quite detrimental to the cleanup as a whole,” she said.

She said there were other actions that could help meet goals, including efforts by senators from the region to bring more support for farmers as Congress considers a new Farm Bill.

“There is a golden opportunity as the Farm Bill moves through Congress to increase funding in the Chesapeake region for conservation practices on farmlands,” she said.

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.

Solar Fields in Place of Cornfields: A Win-Win if There Ever Was One by Doug Boucher

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In a recent article in the Bay Journal, the Chesapeake’s monthly environmental newspaper, senior writer Timothy B. Wheeler speculated that that the growth of large-scale solar collection fields on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, at the expense of cornfields, might have “unforeseen consequences on land use, local economies, wildlife habitat and maybe even water quality.” (“Solar Power’s New Look: More Landscape-Friendly Siting,” April 2018.)

In fact, we have enough scientific knowledge to foresee quite a few of those consequences — and they would be positive ones. For example: Cornfields are dominated by a single crop species, while the vegetation under solar fields is much more varied (native grasses, goldenrod, etc.) and thus more biodiverse. Because of these differences, the vegetation under and between solar panels provides much better habitat for wildlife — particularly for early-successional bird species, whose populations have been declining at alarming rates.

Similarly, solar fields provide much better resources than cornfields for pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies.

Cornfields are annual row crops and, of course, farmers try to keep the growth of weeds between those rows to a minimum. This means that they have considerable amounts of bare ground and thus substantial losses of soil to erosion, together with the runoff of the nutrients that spur eutrophication, a major cause of the Bay’s dead zones.

On the other hand, the meadow vegetation under solar fields is perennial, not annual, and thus provides year-round cover. So it reduces erosion and nutrient runoff significantly. This is true even compared to well-managed row crop rotations using no-till management and winter cover crops.

Unlike cornfields, solar fields don’t require the use of insecticides, fungicides, tillage or irrigation. Nor do they require fertilizer, whether synthetically or from manure, both of which lead to water pollution.

Solar fields provide substantially more revenue to rural landowners, with much lower costs as well as less risk. The income they generate is dependable over the long term because typical solar leases are for periods of 20 years or more.

This makes it possible for farmers to keep their land instead of having to sell it in the face of suburban sprawl. Moreover, the benefits of converting cornfields to solar reach far beyond the farm. By reducing global warming, they slow down the rising sea levels and extreme storms that threaten communities along the Bay and far beyond.

They also cut down on the air pollution from coal-fired electric power plants, gasoline-burning cars and natural-gas-heated offices. In this way they reduce one of the most important threats plaguing public health, manifested in such illnesses as asthma, toxic chemicals such as mercury, and smog.

Like a cornfield, a solar farm uses land and the sun’s energy to produce something that people vitally need. But it does it with a much more positive impact on the environment — locally, across the Bay’s watershed and around the world.

And, just as important, it makes possible the transition to an economy powered by 100 percent renewable energy — the critical environmental need of the 21st century.

Ecologist Doug Boucher is with the Climate and Energy Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal or the Spy. 

Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Population Remains Stable

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Blue crab abundance has decreased from 2017 but remains near its long-term average level, according to results from a closely watched survey released on April 9.

The annual winter dredge survey showed that the total number of crabs and the number of spawning-age females are down from last year, while the number of juveniles has ticked upward.

Results would have been better, scientists said, had it not been for the lethal toll extracted by a cold winter. They estimated that cold conditions killed 16 percent of the adult crabs in Maryland and 8 percent in Virginia — where most of the crustaceans overwinter.

Managers in both states said that continued cool temperatures through the spring would likely result in a slow start to the harvest season, but catches would likely pick up later in the year.
Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton said the population “remains healthy, resilient and sustainable.”

Virginia Natural Resources Secretary Matthew Strickler credited management improvements over the last decade with “allowing sustainable harvests even in years with challenging environmental conditions.”

The 2018 dredge survey estimated that the Bay has:

• 371 million crabs of all sizes, down from 455 million last year, but still ranking sixteenth highest in the 29-year history of the survey.

• 254 million juvenile crabs, up from 168 million last year, ranking twentieth in the survey’s history.

• 147 million adult female crabs, a decrease from 254 million last year, but the ninth highest in the survey’s history.

The number of females remained below the 215 million target set by fishery managers, but was still more than double the 70 million minimum deemed necessary by scientists to maintain a healthy stock.

Overall, the survey results were “well within the normal variation” for the stock, according to Robert O’Reilly, chief of fisheries management with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Blue crab populations can vary widely from year to year because the species is heavily influenced by climate conditions — juveniles spend the first several weeks of their lives drifting in the ocean after they are spawned during the summer and fall, and weather conditions at that time of year greatly affect the number that return to the Bay.

To boost the number of crabs after a decade of low survey numbers, management agencies since 2008 have imposed regulations offering greater protection to female crabs, in the hope that more would survive and reproduce. Although numbers have fluctuated, the overall abundance has trended generally upward since then.

Chris Moore, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said those fishery management efforts are paying off. “Despite this winter’s cold temperatures, the Bay’s blue crab population remains healthy,” he said.

The winter dredge survey has been conducted annually since 1990 by scientists in Maryland and Virginia, who tally crabs dredged from the bottom at 1,500 sites across the Bay from December through March — when they are buried in mud and stationary.

Historically, the survey has provided an accurate snapshot of crab abundance and is the primary tool for assessing the health of the crab stock.

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.

Lake Bonnie’s Once-owner Wins Legal Point, Not Damages in Court

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It took eight years, but Gail Litz finally got her day in court — three weeks, actually.

Gail Litz

Gail Litz said she’s not sorry for bringing the case. “I think people need to know what went on and how our state handles these things,” she said.

Along the way, she won a potentially important legal ruling for enforcing water quality in Maryland. But she fell short in her quest for damages from the state and an Eastern Shore town for their failure to fix pollution that she contended caused the loss of her family’s campground business and property.

“I got my day in court,” acknowledged Litz , who now lives in Orlando, FL. “But I don’t feel we were allowed to admit a lot of things [into evidence] that I thought explained better the process.”

Litz filed suit in 2010, claiming that Lake Bonnie, the prime attraction of her family’s campground in Caroline County, had been rendered unfit for swimming by sewage seeping into the water from failing septic systems in the nearby town of Goldsboro. She said she’d been forced to close the campground because of declining business and was on the verge of losing the property to foreclosure.

Septic systems in Goldsboro had been leaking for decades when the state Department of the Environment issued a consent order in 1996 requiring the town to fix the problem or face fines. Fourteen years later, when Litz filed suit, there was no remedy in sight, and no fines had been collected. Litz wanted an injunction to force a cleanup, and she wanted damages from Goldsboro and the state for costing her the campground business — and property — through inaction.

Litz’s lawyers went to the Maryland Court of Appeals twice to ask for her case to be heard. In 2016, the state’s highest court paved the way by ruling that a citizen could sue the state for damages when it fails to fulfill its legal duty to act — which her lawyers say should prompt officials to take environmental enforcement more seriously.

Litz then won a pretrial ruling that confirmed the state had a duty to enforce the 1996 consent order. And at the end of the three-week trial in March, a Caroline County Circuit Court jury found the state had breached that duty.

But Litz came away empty-handed; the jury also concluded that she and her lawyers had failed to prove the unaddressed septic pollution caused her to lose the campground.

Philip Hoon, one of Litz’s lawyers, called the outcome “bittersweet.”

“We won on the legal point, a very significant legal point, but it’s pyrrhic in that this lady lost her property,” Hoon said.

Litz’s lawyers argued that she lost the property through an “inverse condemnation” by the state and town for their failure to remedy the pollution.

Government agencies normally take private land for public purposes by filing a lawsuit to condemn it and offering the owners compensation. An inverse condemnation occurs when government takes land without filing a lawsuit for it — say, by adopting legislation or regulations that render the property worthless.

What made Litz’s case unusual, explained G. Macy Nelson, another of her lawyers, is that they argued government inaction, rather than a decision or action, could lead to a taking.

Long after Gail Litz is gone, Nelson said, “people are going to be suing the state of Maryland and using this case as a roadmap.”

At the time Litz filed suit, an MDE spokesperson said the agency had nearly 200 active consent orders, decrees or agreements, 55 of which called for cleaning up water pollution. Another MDE spokesperson had said that, because of limited staff and funding, the department prioritized its efforts to cases threatening public health. MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said there are 83 water-related consent agreements now; he declined to comment on the Lake Bonnie case.

Lawyers for MDE contended that it had no legal duty to act and that state regulators have the discretion to enforce consent orders or not. After courts rebuffed those arguments, the MDE lawyers challenged the evidence that Litz lost her property because of the septic pollution, arguing that the lake might be polluted instead by animal waste from nearby farms.

They and the town’s lawyers succeeded in getting the judge to exclude statements by a county health official and from a health department report stating that the town’s leaking septics were a source of the fecal bacteria in the lake. The defendants also persuaded the judge to prevent a Johns Hopkins University environmental engineering professor from testifying to the linkage.

The state lawyers further suggested Litz lost the property because of poor business decisions. She took out a loan against the campground, for instance, to make improvements to her home, but Litz contends the improvements were made to accommodate health challenges that made it hard for her to climb stairs.

Litz said it irked her that the state’s lawyers questioned why she hadn’t tested the water herself to verify it was polluted by septic waste.

“They tried to throw the blame on me,” she said. “I felt as though it was their responsibility, as the state environmental agency, to figure out what was going on.”

MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles had said last year that he’d like to settle the case, and Nelson said Litz’s lawyers tried in vain to reach an agreement.

Nelson expressed bitterness that the state had then gone to such lengths to oppose her claim for damage after letting the problem fester for so many years.

“You challenge their inaction, and the moment you challenge their inaction, they bring unlimited resources to beat back the challenge,” Nelson said. “[If] they would have spent 1 percent of the defense energy on addressing the environmental problem, there never would have been a problem.”

But Attorney General Brian Frosh said settling Litz’s case would have done nothing more than “put money in Mrs. Litz’s pocket,” something he called “a very ugly principle.”

Frosh disagreed with Nelson that the court ruling would make state regulators more accountable. Instead, he argued that the court’s ruling could actually be a disincentive for the MDE to use consent orders to enforce cleanups.

“If [MDE] is liable for the failure to enforce, maybe a less courageous secretary will be less likely to try to reach a consent order,” he said.

Nichole Nesbitt, one of Goldsboro’s lawyers, issued a statement saying town officials never disputed that residents were having trouble maintaining their septic systems because of poor soil conditions.

But the town’s lawyers argued that residents, not the town, were responsible for solutions. Efforts to fund a new wastewater treatment plant failed — until after the lawsuit was filed.

“The town and the state made extraordinary efforts to secure funding that would bring a public water and sewer system to the town,” Nesbitt said.

Three years ago, construction began on a new wastewater treatment plant in the neighboring town of Greensboro that will also process Goldsboro sewage. Homes began hooking up to the sewer line earlier this year.

Litz said she’s not sorry for bringing the case, and praised her lawyers, who represented her for free.

“I think people need to know what went on and how our state handles these things,” she said. “If a consent order is issued from the state, I think it has to be enforced. It shouldn’t be at MDE’s discretion.”

Despite the verdict, Litz may still get another day in court. On April 19, her lawyers filed a motion for a new trial, contending that Circuit Court Judge Sidney S. Campen, Jr., erred in rulings that limited their ability to gather and present evidence to support her claim. A ruling on that motion is pending.

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.

The Best Kind of News: The Bay’s Underwater Grasses Surge Beyond 100,000 Acres for First Time in Ages

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The Chesapeake’s underwater grasses — critical havens for everything from blue crabs to waterfowl — surged to a new record high last year, surpassing 100,000 acres for the first time in recent history.

“I never thought we would ever see that,” said Bob Orth, a researcher with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who has overseen the annual Baywide underwater grass survey since it began in 1984. “But things are changing.”

It was the third straight year that acreage of these underwater meadows has set a new Baywide record. The 2017 survey results, released in late April, came on the heels of a scientific study published in March that credited nutrient reductions in the Bay for a sustained long-term comeback of the grasses over the last three decades — even as those habitats are in decline globally.

“Seeing record growth in underwater grasses for the past three years just reinforces that our efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its local tributaries is working,” said Jim Edward, acting director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a state-federal partnership.

The need to restore underwater grasses is one reason that the Bay cleanup effort aims to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution; water clouded by sediment or nutrient-fueled algae blooms can be lethal to the nearly two dozen species of underwater grasses found in the Bay. Like all green plants, submerged grasses need sunlight to survive, and they receive more sunlight through clear water. Because of the link to water clarity, the status of submerged aquatic vegetation — or SAV — is considered a key indicator of the Bay’s health.

Grass beds are also a critical component of the Bay ecosystem in their own right. In addition to providing food for waterfowl and shelter for fish and crabs, they also pump oxygen into the water, trap sediment and buffer shorelines from the erosive impact of waves.

Overall, results from the 2017 survey showed that the Bay had 104,843 acres of underwater grasses, a 5 percent increase from the previous year. That exceeds an interim 2017 goal of 90,000 acres, and it was 57 percent of the ultimate 185,000-acre Baywide goal for 2025.

When the survey began in 1984, fewer than 40,000 acres of SAV were observed in the Bay. Since then, the total amount has generally increased, though the amount in a given year may fluctuate widely depending on the weather: Big storms drive huge amounts of nutrients and sediment into the Bay that tend to cause significant losses, while very hot summers cause die-offs of eelgrass, a dominant species in high-salinity areas of the Lower Bay.

Most recently, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in late summer 2011 knocked grasses back to 48,195 acres in the 2012 survey, the lowest in recent years.

But after that, the beds continued their long-term recovery, with Baywide coverage increasing for five consecutive years — the longest period of uninterrupted expansion in the history of the survey — and setting records in the last three. “There have up and downs in places, but the overall picture since 2012 has been up, up, up,” Orth said. “It’s not going down.”

The recent paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, written by a team of 14 scientists, credited the overall recovery to improved water quality, largely brought about by a 23 percent decline in nitrogen concentrations in the Bay and an 8 percent decline in phosphorus since the mid-1980s.

“We don’t need miracles,” said Brooke Landry, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and chair of the Bay Program SAV Workgroup and, along with Orth, one of the co-authors of the paper. “We just need a sustained effort.”

Environmental advocates said the underwater grass record was evidence that cleanup efforts are working — and need to be maintained. “Pollution is going down, the dead zone is getting smaller, and oysters are making a recovery. This progress is extraordinary,” said Beth McGee, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “But the recovery is fragile and proposed rollbacks to federal environmental protection regulations threaten future progress.”

Good news last year was heralded at the top of the Bay, where underwater grass beds in the Susquehanna Flats, historically a critical waterfowl habitat, continued their comeback after being halved in the wake of Irene and Lee. They reached 9,084 acres last year, about three-quarters of their level before those storms.

It is no longer the area of the Bay with the most grass, though. That honor goes to a huge 21,507 acre expanse of underwater grasses that extend from near Tangier Island to the Honga River, along the Eastern Shore.

Closer to the mouth of the Bay, beds have stabilized after a heat-wave caused a dieback of temperature-sensitive eelgrass beds — important habitats for juvenile blue crabs — in 2012. “It looks like eelgrass is basically stabilizing, with some increases,” Orth said. Eelgrass is of particular concern as it is one of the two primary species found in high-salinity areas; the other is widgeon grass.

Grasses are also turning up in places where they haven’t been seen in decades — if ever. In the York River, Orth said he hasn’t seen underwater grasses above Gloucester Point, near the mouth of the river, since 1972. But last year they found substantial bed of widgeon grass there, he said. “It’s the first time ever in the survey that we saw any grass above Gloucester Point.”

A large widgeon grass bed also popped up in the Patuxent River outside the Chesapeake Biological Lab in Solomons, MD, where it had not been previously mapped.

Although the overall trend is upward, the magnitude of the changes from 2016 to 2017 varied by salinity zone, each of which hosts a slightly different mix of grass species:

• In the tidal fresh zone, at the head of the Bay and in the uppermost tidal reaches of most tributaries, underwater grass beds increased by 2,462 acres to 19,880 acres, a 14.1 percent increase.

• The slightly salty oligohaline zone that occupies a relatively small portion of the Upper Bay and tidal tributaries, lost 190 acres, dropping to 8,398 acres, a 2.2 percent decrease.

• The moderately salty mesohaline zone — 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 the greatest increase by acreage, gaining 4,140 acres to 61,331 acres, an increase of 7.2 percent.

• The very salty polyhaline zone — from the mouth of the Rappahannock and Tangier Island south, including the lower York and James rivers — increased 763 acres, to 15,234 acres, an increase of 5.3 percent.

While grass beds are expanding or holding their own in much of the Bay, much of the recovery hinges on the mesohaline zone in the midsection of the Bay. Widgeon grass is by far the dominant species there, and its acreage has nearly tripled in just the last five years, from less than 20,000 acres in 2010 to more than 57,000 acres last year. But widgeon grass is notorious for its boom and bust cycles, as it can disappear quickly if conditions turn bad. In 2003, that area lost half of its underwater grass coverage after severe storms muddied the waters.

But, Orth said, widgeon grass likes warm water and might be benefitting from gradually warming Bay temperatures. In the event of another setback, he said, those beds may be better poised for a comeback than in the past because they have become so large and dense, and are producing prodigious amounts of seeds.

Also, Landry said, inspections of some beds last year showed that, in some places, other species are starting to appear along with widgeon grass, giving beds diversity that could help them better withstand severe events.

“I think these plants can withstand bad weather and storm events and things like that if the system itself is healthy,” she said. “So if we keep up with our nutrient reduction plans and our sediment reduction plans, and we set the stage for a thriving environment, these beds will be more likely to withstand stressful events. They can’t withstand long-term chronic stress.”

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.