ShoreRivers Adds Three to Staff

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ShoreRivers is pleased to announce three new additions to its staff.

Josh Biddle is ShoreRivers’s new Agricultural Specialist. Biddle is an Eastern Shore native who grew up on a farm between Denton and Ridgely, where for the last 15 years, he has worked in his family’s greenhouses growing flowers. He received a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Salisbury University. For the past two years, he has been employed as a Soil Conservation Technician at the Talbot County Soil Conservation District working with a number of state and federal conservation programs, and assisting in the planning, design, and installation of a variety of best management practices throughout the county. Biddle will be working with state, federal, academic, and farm partners to apply agricultural conservation projects within Eastern Shore watersheds. Along with Director of Agriculture and Restoration Tim Rosen and Restoration Specialist Josh Thompson, Biddle will assist in ShoreRivers’ expanding agricultural project work, including conducting outreach within the agricultural community to promote conservation programs and encourage responsible and river-friendly farming all across the Eastern Shore.

Julia Erbe has joined ShoreRivers as Development and Events Coordinator. A lifelong Marylander, Erbe attended Washington College and went on to earn her Master’s Degree in Environmental Studies from Goucher College. “Ever since my time studying at Washington College, the Eastern Shore has been my place of solitude and comfort,” she says. “It makes perfect sense that I would find myself back here, working for such an amazing organization that I respect so highly. I am honored to join this passionate, hard-working group of like-minded individuals, and I am eager to contribute to their important work.”

Josh Biddle, Agricultural Specialist; Julia Erbe, Development and Events Coordinator; Rachel Plescha, 2018-2019 Chesapeake Conservation Corps Volunteer

Erbe will be working on many events throughout the region to help educate local communities and raise funds to support ShoreRivers’ programs and mission. Her local ties, environmental background, and experience will bring tremendous help to support the organization’s mission throughout the region.

Rachel Plescha is the new 2018-2019 ShoreRivers Chesapeake Conservation Corps (CCC) Volunteer. A native of Oviedo, Florida, she recently graduated from the College of William and Mary with a Bachelor’s Degree in International Environmental Policy with a minor in Economics. She will take the place of the 2017-2018 CCC Volunteer, Rebecca Murphy, who is staying on with ShoreRivers as Education and Outreach Coordinator.

ShoreRivers has participated in the CCC program since 2012, hosting 11 volunteers, several of whom have become permanent staff members. The CCC program is funded through the Chesapeake Bay Trust. Plescha made ShoreRivers her first choice from over 70 other competing nonprofits in the Bay area. She explains, “I am looking forward to learning about how the community plays a role in shaping positive outcomes for environmental health. I am most excited to work with the agricultural and community outreach programs. I have always been interested in the connection between the food we eat and our environment, so much so that I even worked on an organic farm for a few months! I am excited to meet new people and help them realize their connection to the land around them. I cannot wait to move to the Eastern Shore and experience the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay in person!”

ShoreRivers Executive Director Jeff Horstman says, “With ShoreRivers’ expanding role and growth, these talented and passionate young people will bring energy and enthusiasm to our efforts toward healthy waterways across Maryland’s Eastern Shore. We are happy to welcome Josh, Julia, and Rachel to our team!”

ShoreRivers protects and restores Eastern Shore waterways through science-based advocacy, restoration, and education. We work collaboratively with our community yet maintain an uncompromising and independent voice for clean rivers and the living resources they support.

shorerivers.org

ShoreRivers Awarded 2.2 Million Dollar Grant

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At the end of June, ShoreRivers was awarded a $2.2 million dollar grant from the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to support ShoreRivers’ regional agricultural restoration work. The grant will fund projects in the watersheds of the Bohemia, Sassafras, Wye, and Choptank Rivers. Together these projects will prevent over 14,200 lbs. of nitrogen, 740 lbs. of phosphorus, and almost 270 tons of sediment from entering Eastern Shore waterways.

A treatment wetlands system helps maximizes nutrient removal.

The new grant funds will pay the construction costs for:

• An ecologically engineered design that will stabilize excessive gully erosion that has resulted in a ravine adjacent to Kings Creek in Talbot County; it will create a wetland and grassed buffers, and restore 1380 linear feet of stream and agricultural ditch.

• A treatment wetland system and stormwater retention ponds at the bottom of four agricultural drainages and above a natural stream. The project is designed to maximize nutrient removal at the top of the watershed of Little Bohemia Creek in Cecil County and it will create almost six acres of wetland and three acres of stormwater ponds.

• Stormwater ponds and over eight acres of lined treatment wetland to treat 33 acres of dairy farm operations and several hundred acres of row crop land that is irrigated with lagoon effluent from a Kent County dairy in the Sassafras watershed.

• Completing restoration of a 1,000-linear-foot traditional agricultural ditch into a two-stage ditch with wetland benches on a grain farm on the Wye River in Talbot County.

This grant signals the effectiveness of ShoreRivers’ new combined capacity to implement regional projects on a large scale throughout the Delmarva peninsula. ShoreRivers is a certified Technical Service Provider for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and is engineering and implementing innovative pollution reduction projects cooperatively with the agricultural sector to restore and protect Eastern Shore rivers.

ShoreRivers is honored that the Department of Natural Resources supports the pollution- reducing projects that ShoreRivers is implementing in communities across the Eastern Shore. Other traditional bay funders and strong community support enables ShoreRivers to attract this type of significant outside grant funding for clean water.

For more information, visit shorerivers.org or contact Director of Agriculture & Restoration Tim Rosen at 443.385.0511 or trosen@shorerivers.org.

ShoreRivers protects and restores Eastern Shore waterways through science-based advocacy, restoration, and education. We work collaboratively with our community yet maintain an uncompromising and independent voice for clean rivers and the living resources they support.

shorerivers.org

Back home on their Range: Quail find Refuge on Restored Grassland by Tim Wheeler

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Dan Small, field ecologist for Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society, coordinates the Natural Lands Project, which works with private landowners to re-create Eastern Shore grassland habitat. (Dave Harp)

It’s a little past dawn on a foggy spring morning, but already the field on Maryland’s Upper Eastern Shore is wide awake. From the cover of tall grass and a few shrubs, a multilingual chorus of birds greets the new day with a cacophony of chirps, warbles and whistles, like a symphony tuning up before the concert.

Then, amid the familiar trills of red-winged blackbirds and other feathered regulars, comes a call rarely heard any more in these parts — bob-white! Down a lane across the field, the black-and-white striped head of a Northern bobwhite quail pokes out of some short grass.

Once commonly heard, if not seen, in brushy meadows and hedgerows, quail have become scarce in Maryland and elsewhere as farming practices have changed, eliminating much of the ground-dwelling birds’ habitat. This 228-acre prairie along the Chester River — part of sprawling Chino Farms in Queen Anne’s County — has become a refuge for quail since it was converted from cropland nearly 20 years ago.

“You really can’t go many places on the Shore and hear this many [quail],” said Daniel Small, an ecologist with Washington College, the private liberal arts college in Chestertown that uses the tract as a research station and outdoor classroom.

Bill Harvey, game bird section leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, agrees, calling the number of quail there “unbelievable.”

“It used to be that just about everywhere was quail habitat,” Harvey said. But in the interests of cultivating crops more efficiently, modern farming has removed the fencerows that once segmented the land into small fields, along with shrubbery and weeds along the edge of croplands — all of which provided shelter for grassland birds.

“As time has gone on,” Harvey added, “the acreage has shrunk to the point where a lot of [the habitat’s that’s left] is not connected in a way that quail can use it.”

But at the college’s Chester River Field Station, switchgrass and waist-high bunches of broomsedge bluestem wave in the gentle breeze, an uncommon sight in a rural landscape dominated by vast uninterrupted fields of corn and soybeans, the staples of Shore agriculture.

A quail takes flight from the grasslands at Washington College’s Chester River Field Research Station on Chino Farms. (Dave Harp)

Quail use the cover of the tall grass and occasional shrubs to forage on the ground for seeds, leaves and insects. During mating season in spring, they call to one another with their trademark whistle and a series of other sounds. In the winter, the birds huddle together for shelter in groups called coveys.

Small, who lives in a house on the tract, said it’s not clear just how many quail inhabit the grassland, which occupies just a sliver of the 5,000-acre Chino Farms — owned by Dr. Harry Sears, a retired physician who’s on the college’s governing board. But “calling counts” conducted on a portion of the tract have tallied about 35 male birds in that immediate area.

Though the grassland looks wild and even a tad unkempt to the untrained eye, it’s actually managed to stay that way. In a rotation intended to sustain the grasses but vary their height across the tract, blocks of land are periodically mowed, sprayed with herbicide and set ablaze with controlled burns. Otherwise, shrubs and eventually trees would take over. While that would be a natural succession, the aim in this case is to retain a haven for wildlife that thrive only in prairie-type landscapes.

Though quail — a once-popular game bird — may be the most charismatic denizen of the Chester River tract, they’re not the only avian species that have a stake in the success of the grassland restoration. In essence, according to Small, they’re an “umbrella” species for lots of other birds that need similar habitat, such as the grasshopper sparrow and field sparrow.

Like quail, a number of other grassland birds are in decline across Maryland, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. At one time, as many as 80 nesting grasshopper sparrow pairs were spotted on the Chester River tract, Small said, but their numbers have slowly dropped over the years. On that spring morning, he said, he hadn’t heard a single call.

For the past few years, the college, through its Center for Environment & Society, has been working to persuade other Shore landowners to follow suit and re-establish some of the grassland habitat that’s been lost over the decades, in hopes of reversing those declines.
In 2015, the school teamed up with Shore Rivers, a nonprofit advocacy group, to launch the Natural Lands Project, a bid to make some of the region’s farmland more wildlife friendly while also enhancing water quality by establishing grassy runoff buffers and wetlands along streams and rivers.

With the help of a $700,000 grant from the state DNR, the project team has enlisted 27 landowners in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. By the end of the year, it hopes to have converted 375 acres into grasslands, as well as another 36 acres into wetlands. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has kicked in $499,000 to create another 275 acres of upland habitat and 27 acres of wetlands, extending farther south into Talbot County.

“It’s not going to be for everyone, and we’re not trying to twist landowners’ or farmers’ arms to do this,” Small explained. “They have to want to create that change on the property.” But if someone has marginal cropland they’re willing to convert, he said, they can be compensated for taking the land out of production by signing up for one of the federal farmland conservation programs, with the project’s grant funding to help make up any difference.

Small said the team is most interested in working with landowners willing to convert at least 40–50 acres at a time, otherwise the habitat isn’t large enough to be really helpful. “You can’t expect to make a change in quail populations by doing five or 10 acres at a time,” he said. The project further attempts to create habitat on adjoining or at least nearby tracts, to create a corridor where quail can spread. The birds do not migrate or fly long distances.

Small said hunters are among the most receptive audience for the project’s habitat restoration pitch. They’d like to see Maryland’s small quail population grow and become more sustainable for hunting. New Jersey has banned quail hunting except on private game reserves, but it’s still legal to shoot wild quail in Maryland — if you can find them.

Harvey, the DNR game bird leader, said that while quail hunting has been restricted on public lands, wildlife managers have been reluctant to do likewise on private property because they believe it would undercut efforts to preserve and restore habitat.

“Just like Chino Farms and Dr. Sears,” Harvey pointed out, “a lot of the people interested and willing to take land out of production and spend the money it takes to manage for quail [are] at least somewhat interested in hunting for quail.”

Rob Leigh said that he and his wife Linda are still waiting to hear that distinctive “bob-white!” call on the 35 acres of farmland in Betterton that they turned into grassland and wildflowers 2.5 years ago.

Leigh, a retired dentist, recalls hearing the birds all the time when he was growing up on the Shore, and it’s what prompted him to place a portion of their 114-acre farm in the Natural Lands Project. He believes it’s only a matter of time until the birds take up residence there, as quail have been sighted just a few miles away.

Leigh said he was a little nervous at first about converting the cropland, which they’d been renting to a neighboring farmer to grow corn and soybeans. But the farmer found other land not far away, and Leigh said the lost rental income is covered by federal and grant funds.

Even without any quail yet, he added, they’re enjoying the sights and sounds of other wildlife on the converted cropland. “We see an immense array of different birds, of a variety I’ve never seen before,” he said. “The swallows and bluebirds, they just swoop up and down, they’re so fun to watch.” The patch of wildflowers planted in the center of the grassland has proven to be an insect magnet — drawing butterflies and so many bees that Leigh said they generate an audible buzz that carries across the field.

“I feel like we planted a prairie almost, it’s very lovely,” he said, calling the field “a kaleidoscope of color” in spring, first awash in yellow blooms and then hues of purple. “My wife loves it. She thinks it’s the best thing going.”

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.

Man-Made Oyster Reef Near Key Bridge is Thriving

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A man-made oyster reef finished a year ago next to Fort Carroll in the middle of the Patapsco River is in excellent condition. Recent monitoring results found most of the three million young oysters surviving and growing rapidly. The results are another encouraging milestone in an effort to return oysters to Baltimore waters, and throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

“Oysters are resilient creatures. If we give them the habitat they need they will settle down and form a community, begin filtering our water, and provide a home for other marine life,” said Dr. Allison Colden, Maryland Senior Fisheries Scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). “Baltimore is demonstrating it can be a flourishing home for underwater life.”

CBF is a member of the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance, a multi-year, collaborative effort to add 10 billion new oysters by 2025 in Virginia and Maryland waters. The Alliance is designed to spark governmental action, public attention, and funding to accelerate ongoing oyster recovery efforts in the Chesapeake Bay.

Photo credit: Michael Eversmier

To that end, the oyster reef was planted last spring next to Fort Carroll, the Civil War fort built on an island near the Key Bridge. Chunks of granite were used as a bed for the reef. Tons of old oyster shell were piled on top of the stone. On each shell was attached an average of 12 juvenile oyster “spat” barely visible to the eye. The spat were set on the oyster shells at CBF’s Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side, and placed on the reef by the organization’s restoration vessel, the Patricia Campbell.

A year later, about 75 percent of those baby oysters have survived their first winter, and have grown to an average of more than an inch and a half in size, some to nearly three inches. Another encouraging sign, divers found the oysters thriving despite silt in the river. In fact, the reef was filled with large clumps of oysters growing vertically above the silt.

The construction, seeding, and monitoring of the 1.1 acre reef was supported by the Maryland Department of Transportation Port Administration, Maryland Environmental Service, and the Abell Foundation.

Baltimore was once a hub of the commercial oyster industry in Maryland. Oysters also were known to grow in the Patapsco, at least near the mouth. But the oyster population is now a fraction of its historic size, a victim of overfishing, disease, and pollution.

Knowing that history, what divers observed at the Fort Carroll reef and recorded with underwater photography was all the more exciting. Live oysters were feeding and growing. And the reef already was attracting other marine life, such as anemone, barnacles, mussels, mud crabs, and grass shrimp. In all, at least 13 different species were observed living on the new reef. This relative abundance of life demonstrates what scientists have known for years: oysters are a “keystone species” in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem; their reefs act as primary building blocks of the food chain.

The new reef, a little more than an acre, is near to a companion reef started in 1995. That older reef has been gradually built over the years, with about 150,000 oysters being added each of the past few years through the Great Baltimore Oyster Partnership and the Living Classrooms Foundation. Business representatives, students, and other volunteers grow oysters in cages at various sites around the Inner Harbor, and then deploy the juvenile oysters at the companion reef. The Partnership aims to have at least 5 million oysters added total to both reefs by 2020. CBF and the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore’s Healthy Harbor Initiative are founding members of the group.

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.

Are Our Waters Safe for Swimming?

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After regretfully canceling the inaugural Maryland Freedom Swim on the Choptank River in May, ShoreRivers is continuing to work toward swimmable rivers that are regularly monitored for harmful bacteria. In addition to the 15 existing sites being monitored on the Chester and Sassafras Rivers, ShoreRivers has added four new monitoring sites on the Choptank, Miles, and Wye Rivers.

The strain of bacteria sampled, Enterococci, indicates pathogens that may cause human illness. This bacteria can originate from a variety of sources, including failing septic systems, sewer overflows or leaks, poultry, livestock, and pet waste. During significant rainfalls, the possibility always exists for elevated and unsafe bacteria levels. As a general precaution, be sure to avoid water contact for 48 hours after profuse rain events or any time if you have an open cut or wound. Always shower after swimming.

ShoreRivers works toward swimmable rivers by regularly monitoring for harmful bacteria. Photo credit: Sam Morse

ShoreRivers monitored sites include:

Choptank River
• Bill Burton Fishing Pier
• Oxford Strand on the Tred Avon River

Wye River
• Drum Point Beach on Wye Island

Miles River
• Miles River Yacht Club

Chester River
• Duck Neck
• Morgan Creek
• Rosin Creek
• Chestertown at High Street
• Chester River Yacht and Country Club
• Rolphs Wharf
• Camp Pecometh
• Langford Bay
• Grays Inn Creek
• Conquest Beach
• Corsica River Yacht Club
• Centreville Wharf

Sassafras River
• Georgetown Bridge
• Dyer Creek
• Indian Acres

ShoreRivers will test these sites weekly throughout the swimming season until Labor Day. Results will be posted on SwimGuide, a website (theswimguide.org) and smart phone app that allows users across the Chesapeake Bay region to check the health of local swimming beaches. Additionally, Shorerivers’ Riverkeepers will post the bacteria results on their social media pages for local beaches. Follow the Chester Riverkeeper, Choptank Riverkeeper, Miles-Wye Riverkeeper, and Sassafras Riverkeeper on Facebook for updates. You can also follow the hashtag SwimmableShoreRivers.

For more information, please visit shorerivers.org or call 443-385-0511. Here’s to a great, safe summer enjoying our rivers!

ShoreRivers protects and restores Eastern Shore waterways through science-based advocacy, restoration, and education. We work collaboratively with our community yet maintain an uncompromising and independent voice for clean rivers and the living resources they support.

WC Environmental Science Students Embark on Collaborative Groundwater Study

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Most people think of sea level rise as something visible, but in Rebecca Fox’s field methods in environmental science class at Washington College, students have begun long-term research into an invisible potential effect—saltwater intrusion into agricultural fields on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. And, they’re collaborating with students from the University of Maryland, learning what it’s like to work with fellow researchers who aren’t even in the same county, let alone on the same campus.

Fox, assistant professor of environmental science and studies, came up with the idea with her friend and collaborator Kate Tully, assistant professor of agroecology at UMD’s Department of Plant Science & Landscape Architecture. To jump-start the project, the pair applied for and received funding through MADE CLEAR, which is funded through the National Science Foundation’s Climate Change Education Project.

Fox used her portion ($5,000) to establish a permanent research station on a farm on the lower Chester River, where she and students installed eight groundwater wells equipped with instruments that can gather a variety of data about the groundwater.

“The data loggers collect information every 15 minutes to half an hour, data on groundwater temperature, how high the groundwater is, and the salinity of the groundwater,” Fox says. “We’re hoping we can use this data that will be collected over the next five to ten years to monitor whether saltwater is intruding into the farm fields. The goal is to bring our classes together every fall to the farm to do this research project and to look at the data… And we’ll have this long-term dataset so we can do some analyses, and there’s no reason we can’t use it for research and publish it.”

Ben Nelson ’18, an environmental science major and biology minor, was among the WC students who worked on the project last fall.

“We can look at the data and see what is going on over time, because that’s what is important,” he says. “Looking at things short-term is great, but we have to look at the bigger picture, and this research opportunity allows us to see what’s going to occur over time. We’re going to have to mitigate these issues or adapt to these changes.”

Last fall, the two groups of students met once at the site, where they spoke with the landowner about changes he has seen already, and examined how the groundwater wells work. Though looking at the same data, the classes are approaching the research from slightly different perspectives. The UMD agroecology students are focused on agriculture and food production, but also on soil health and the entire agricultural system, while the WC students, with their focus in environmental science, are thinking more broadly and about other aspects than just traditional agriculture.

“The intention is to get the students together, get them to talk, get them to look at this data, and then at the end of the class we have them come up with a plan to produce collaborative podcasts,” Fox says. “Half the podcast team was at College Park, half the team was here, and they had to figure out how to put a podcast together from different locations. So much science is collaborative, and you aren’t always in the same location as the people you’re working with. The hope was that the students would get this experience of remote collaboration and see how different it is when you have to cooperate remotely, and how clearly you have to communicate.”

Nelson says this real-world collaboration was one of the trickiest but most valuable parts of the project.

“These are people who are over an hour away, and this is when we rely on technology to communicate. And that was good practice,” he says. “It really made you plan and consider others… In the beginning when we first started communications with them we were a little bit hesitant on both ends…. But as we progressed through the project I think we realized the only way we were going to get this done is to learn and adapt.

“We could interact with people of different backgrounds and further expand our collaborative skills,” he says. “This will definitely be helpful in the workplace, because you don’t just work with the same five people every day.”

In the upcoming year, the WC students will also have the opportunity to travel to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, where Tully’s side of the research is examining how different cover crops can sequester carbon dioxide.

“For that lab, instead of coming here and looking at saltwater intrusion, we’re going to look at the ability of cover crops to mitigate climate change,” Fox says. “They have all of these long- term experimental plots where they’re trying different types of cover crops, and so it’s very much more an agricultural perspective, but it’s looking at how we can diversify our crops to maybe make a difference in terms of how much carbon dioxide we’re putting into the atmosphere.”

About Washington College

Founded in 1782, Washington College is the tenth oldest college in the nation and the first chartered under the new Republic. It enrolls approximately 1,450 undergraduates from more than 35 states and a dozen nations. With an emphasis on hands-on, experiential learning in the arts and sciences, and more than 40 multidisciplinary areas of study, the College is home to nationally recognized academic centers in the environment, history, and writing. Learn more at washcoll.edu.

Maryland Governor Hogan Proclaims 2018 the Year of the Bird

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Governor Larry Hogan proclaimed 2018 as the Year of the Bird in Maryland. The declaration celebrates native and migratory birds making their way through Maryland, as well as the Free State’s remarkable landscapes and water resources that support them.

“Maryland is home to some of the most beautiful and iconic birds in the world – from the majestic Great Blue Heron on the Chesapeake Bay to our state bird, the Baltimore Oriole,” said Governor Larry Hogan. “The Year of the Bird is an opportunity for Maryland citizens and tourists alike to celebrate the educational and recreational role of birds that live and migrate through our state, as well as a great reminder of the importance of conserving our natural resources. I want to thank the National Audubon Society for their efforts to protect birds and their habitats in Maryland and beyond.”

Governor Hogan’s Deputy Chief of Staff Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio delivered the proclamation to more than 200 guests at Pickering Creek Audubon Center’s “Annual Tour, Toast and Taste” fundraiser. Held at Lombardy Estate in Easton, MD, this event helps raise funds for Audubon’s efforts to further environmental education for school-aged students.

Photo: Audubon’s Dr. David Curson, David O’Neill, Governors Hogan’s Deputy Chief of Staff Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Audubon’s Mark Scallion, Jaime Bunting and Southern Maryland Audubon Society’s Mike Callahan with a Red-tailed Hawk with Governor Hogan’s Year of the Bird Proclamation.

Audubon is proud to work with a host of state and federal agencies on important bird area protection, environmental literacy and sea level rise adaptation, including the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland State Department of Education on Governor Hogan’s Project Green Classrooms.

Maryland is home to 42 Important Bird Areas, more than 400 observed species and the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which serves as an important breeding and stopover area for millions of migratory birds each year. The Governor’s declaration recognizes that Maryland’s natural resources provide important habitat for birds.

People around the world are celebrating 2018 as Year of the Bird to mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), one of the oldest wildlife protection laws in the United States. In honor of this milestone, National Geographic, Audubon, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BirdLife International, and dozens of other partners around the world joined forces to celebrate 2018 as the Year of the Bird.

“Year of the Bird is an easy way people can take small everyday actions to help birds along their journeys,” said David Yarnold, president and CEO for National Audubon Society. “Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay provides wintering grounds for approximately one-third of the Atlantic coast’s migratory population, including iconic waterfowl species like the Tundra Swan, Canada Goose, Northern Pintail and Green-winged Teal for centuries. We’d like to thank Governor Hogan for declaring 2018 as Year of the Bird and recognizing the importance of birds and the places we share.”

Many conservation organizations, agencies, businesses and academics have been instrumental in protecting birds and the places they need in Maryland. In celebrating 2018 as the Year of the Bird, there is great appreciation for the efforts of many organizations, including local Audubon chapters and centers, the Maryland Ornithological Society, the Department of Natural Resources, waterfowl associations and duck clubs, and many others.

To learn more about Year of the Bird, visit: https://www.audubon.org/yearofthebird.

About Audubon:

The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow. Audubon works throughout the Americas using, science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. State programs, nature centers, chapters, and partners give Audubon an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire, and unite diverse communities in conservation action. A nonprofit conservation organization since 1905, Audubon believes in a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Learn more and how to help at www.audubon.org and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @audubonsociety.