Spy Moment: Adkins Arboretum Plays in the Meadow

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The weather gods were watching out for Adkins Arboretum last Saturday night for its annual Magic in the Meadow gala; an event far more dependent on good weather than most, given it celebrates the 400-acre native garden and preserve.

The gift of a perfect, cool evening was awarded that evening as guests enjoyed the hoop dance performance by Baltimore artist Melissa Newman and the jazz of the Peter Revell Band, while Adkins friends and supporters lined up for hiking trails, tours, plant shopping, and auction bidding all accompanied by a Piazza-sponsored dinner and wine selection.

The Spy was there with a camera to capture this reconnaissance video.

This video is approximately one minute in length. For more information about Adkins Arboretum please go here.

 

Ballerinas, Tights, and the Myth of the Conowingo Boogeyman by William Herb

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Motherhood, apple pie, and the Clean Chesapeake Coalition! What kind of curmudgeon could possibly find fault with such righteous-sounding institutions? But as Neal Hagburg writes in his song, If it ain’t you: “You ain’t a ballerina just because you like to wear tights when you dance”. Wearing the mantle of a clean Chesapeake doesn’t automatically make you a protector of the Bay.

The Clean Chesapeake Coalition (CCC), organized in 2012, comprises Caroline, Cecil, Carroll, Dorchester, Kent, and Queen Anne’s Counties. Membership consists entirely of government officials from these six counties. CCC’s stated objective is “to pursue improvements to the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay in the most prudent and fiscally responsible manner-through research, coordination, and advocacy.”

I just viewed the latest video produced by the CCC. While I wholeheartedly agree with their purported desire to have a clean Bay, I find that the video is quite misleading, and serves mainly to promote the hidden CCC agenda of reducing pollution-management efforts (but not pollution) in its member counties, while continually raising the specter of the mythical Conowingo Boogeyman. This is “whataboutism” writ environmentally. You know: “Yes, we do pollute our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, but what about (insert Conowingo or your own favorite villain here)?” The parochial CCC view seems to be that preventing pollution locally is a waste of money, but it is money well spent if someone else foots the bill, regardless of culpability.

If the video is to be taken at face value, the only resource in danger in the Bay is the oyster, and watermen who harvest that particular bi-valve are the only stakeholders damaged by the Bay’s condition. Perhaps it is only Commissioner Fithian’s biases speaking. Yet he and the other Kent County Commissioners are willing to spend $25,000 per year of our tax dollars to promote such bogus ideas while, at the same time, proposing to eliminate fines for certain Critical Area violations. A clean Chesapeake, indeed!

The subject video is misleadingly entitled “The Conowingo Factor”, when in fact it should be titled “The Pennsylvania (and maybe New York) Factor”. I will admit that the new title doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but accuracy should count for something even in a time when truth isn’t truth. At the very end of the slick propaganda piece, after the talking heads are blessedly silenced, a text box does grudgingly grant that Pennsylvania is not doing enough to clean up the river before it reaches the Bay. Even that admission is prefaced by a cheap shot at Exelon for not taking part in a pilot dredging study begun by Maryland; a study with some promise, but one also fraught with pitfalls.

The Susquehanna River –the main tributary and source of the Chesapeake Bay–runs through New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland before emptying into the northern, top end of the Chesapeake Bay.     Map courtesy of Bay Journal

Let’s face it. Pennsylvania’s and New York’s contaminants are horrendous problems, and the CCC deserves props for pointing that out, as well as for flagging EPA’s blunder in failing to recognize the future impact of zero sediment trap efficiency of the Conowingo Dam and pond.

On the other hand, review the past tributary and Bay health scorecards and you will see that we residents along the Bay have not covered ourselves in glory when it comes to pollution. The best water in the Bay is just downstream from the mouth of the Susquehanna River. This relatively good quality owes no thanks to efforts by upstream states to cut sediment, nutrients, and other pollution, but rather is a testament to the free remediation that has been provided by the Conowingo Dam and pond for the past 8 decades. It seems that the CCC and many others simply want to disregard this happy coincidence. The power generation facility does not require clean water, but, as a by-product of its design, it has remediated the upstream mess for 80 years at no cost to the upstream polluters or the downstream beneficial users.

The same scorecards will reveal that when the relatively clean water enters the Bay, we Marylanders, including the residents of the six CCC Counties (C4), immediately begin to degrade it, and Virginians and DC residents are no better. Most of the contamination from the C4 is caused by agriculture, which does not have enforceable discharge limits (but which offers the most cost-effective way to reduce sediment and nutrient TMDLs). The Bay score stays low until the waterbody experiences flushing from the ocean via tides. Once again, a free remediation (natural, this time) helps clean up our misdeeds. We are all to blame for the quality of water in the Bay, and it is unconscionable to deflect the blame to others while trying to avoid our own responsibilities.

“The Susquehanna River, the Bay’s largest tributary, carries nutrient and sediment pollution from Pennsylvania and New York. Efforts to curtail a key nutrient, nitrogen, have fallen behind because of lagging cleanup progress in those two states, EPA says.” (Photo with caption from  Bay Journal article June 2016)

There are 3 major contaminants coming down the Susquehanna and all the other Bay tributaries: sediment, phosphorus, and nitrogen. These are produced by processes and activities (natural or human) in the watersheds. Human activities predominate as causes of the contamination.

Assuming that cleaning up our own act here in Maryland makes sense, how should we view what is going to be happening in the near future when the Conowingo Dam and pond will no longer trap sediment as they have in the past? Let’s look at energy production as well as sediment and nutrient delivery to the Bay.

It is doubtful that there will be a significant impact on energy production. In a “run of the river” system such as Conowingo, energy production depends on the head (elevation) of water above the turbines, not on the scant amount of water stored behind the dam. Also, as previously noted, nutrients do not affect electricity production. So cleanup of other people’s pollution is not a driving economic factor for the owner and operator of Conowingo or for its customers and shareholders.

A reduction of nutrients in Bay waters will help promote the long-term increase in underwater grasses, which support fish, crabs, and waterfowl. (Photo by Dave Harp,  Courtesy of Bay Journal)

Nitrogen, which should be controlled at its upstream sources, is largely in solution, so the presence of the dam and pond have had no significant impact on delivery to the Bay, and if the dam’s sediment trap efficiency is reduced to zero, that will not change the situation.

Sediment is a huge problem. But the source of the problem is in the production of sediment in Pennsylvania and New York, and not a problem inherent in the dam and pond. The CCC makes much of the highly visible plume of sediment that passed through the dam following Tropical Storm Lee, but they conveniently neglect to mention that that plume would have been there without the dam or even if the dam had the trap efficiency of its heyday. Those extremely fine silts and clays pass through the Conowingo pond and dam like crap through a goose and remain suspended for miles downstream due to basic physics.

CCC also emphasizes the fact that 4 million tons of sediment were scoured out of the pond in Lee, but minimizes the fact that an additional 15 million tons came down from Pennsylvania and New York in the same flood event. They also tend to ignore the fact that 4 million tons of scour restored some of the sediment trapping capacity for future storms.

Phosphorus, which should be controlled at its upstream sources, is carried on the surface of sediments, and will be delivered to the Bay in increasing amounts if nothing happens at the dam. But the impact will look almost exactly like what would happen if no dam were in place at all. During its previous history of free remediation, the Conowingo Dam and pond captured about 40 per cent of the phosphorus coming down the Susquehanna.

The proposed pilot dredging study may provide some useful information. However, there are a number of questions that must be answered before large-scale dredging should be considered as a viable solution. Is there a beneficial use for 280 million tons of sediment contaminated with phosphorus, coal, PCBs, radio-nuclides from Three Mile Island, heavy metals, and other potentially hazardous materials? Is there any place, within practical distance, that will accept the materials? Will any beneficial uses offset the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers estimate of $4 billion for complete dredging?

If these questions can be positively answered, and the cost is considered to be acceptable, the question is: who should pay for the dredging? Is it billed to the potentially responsible parties in Pennsylvania and New York, the beneficiaries of the cleanup in Maryland (including the C4) and Virginia, the Federal Government (good luck taking money from the 1-percenters in the current political climate!), or a corporation whose main environmental crimes seems to be having deep pockets and tone-deaf ears to public sentiment?

The Boogeyman that we really need to address is the reduction of pollution from Pennsylvania and New York. That should be addressed and funded by those states (while we continue to do our share). Perhaps dredging is a viable solution. Perhaps Exelon should be a better corporate citizen. But I do not see where we, the public, should depend upon the largesse of private corporations to take care of what are public problems.

Likewise, I object to my county tax dollars being spent tilting at windmills, especially when CCC can’t even pick the right windmill. Furthermore, I object to my county tax dollars supporting what I consider quasi-extortion in squeezing funding from Exelon through threats from the State of Maryland by Governor Hogan and MDE Secretary Grumbles, aided and abetted by the CCC. And to my everlasting dismay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an organization which I greatly admire, seems quite willing to trade its scientific integrity for a handful of silver.

Well, I guess $172 million a year to the Bay cleanup is quite a few handfuls; at least we know their integrity doesn’t come cheap). Of course, the 35,000 Pennsylvania farms in the Susquehanna basin could contribute about $4,900 each, or each resident of the basin could kick in a paltry $38 to raise the same amount. But it is much more politically expedient to deflect the blame to a corporation.

I can almost see the movie scene in my head. An Exelon executive is waking up one morning and finds a bloodied and beheaded American shad in his bed, along with a note saying: “Nice hydropower license you have there. It would be a shame if something happened to it.”

Come to think of it, if the penalty imposed on Exelon for not cleaning up the problems caused by the polluters in Pennsylvania and New York is $172,000,000 per year, perhaps Exelon should consider sending a bill to Maryland and Virginia (maybe Pennsylvania and New York, too) for reimbursement for its gratis efforts over the past 80 years. Fourteen billion dollars would be a tidy sum that could be “donated” to Bay cleanup efforts.

William Herb has B.S. (Forestry) and M.S. degrees (Forest Hydrology) from the Pennsylvania State University and did additional graduate school studies in the Environmental Engineering program at Johns Hopkins. He was a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in College Park and Towson, Maryland, where he specialized in sediment studies, including sediment trap efficiency and sediment production in urbanizing areas. He relocated with the USGS to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and worked on projects characterizing the hydrology and water chemistry in bituminous coal mining areas and statistical hydrology.  He moved on to Texas and supervised a team of about a dozen hydrologists and technicians in extensive hydrologic data-collection programs.

Bill then returned to Maryland as the USGS liaison to the Army Environmental Command (AEC) at Aberdeen Proving Ground.  He managed several divisions within the AEC, and also served as the Chief of the Army’s Northern Regional Environmental Office and the Department of Defense Regional Environmental Coordinator for Federal Region V.  After retirement from the USGS, he joined Booz Allen Hamilton and supported AEC and the Installation Management Command (IMCOM) in managing the testing of Army environmental software and took a lead role in hiring computer scientists and related staff for the newly formed Information Management Division of IMCOM.

 

Upper Eastern Shore Location to Provide Environmental and Recreation Benefits

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The Board of Public Works today unanimously approved the Maryland Department of Natural Resources acquisition of 1,172 acres in Queen Anne’s County for the development of a new Wildlife Management Area that will provide conservation, habitat and recreation benefits, including birding, hiking, hunting and trapping.

The department worked in cooperation with the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) on the acquisition. The new area will be managed by the Wildlife and Heritage Service.

The acquisition near Church Hill will permanently protect agricultural fields, mature forested uplands, and stream corridors that currently provide excellent water quality protection. The property functions as a headwater catch basin that drains into Brown’s Branch, a tributary of Southeast Creek on the Chester River.

“This acquisition is an exciting win for both conservation advocates as well as outdoor enthusiasts,” Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton said. “This large and incredibly beautiful property on the Upper Eastern Shore will protect ecologically-sensitive habitat while providing the public an excellent location for outdoor recreation, especially hunting or trapping.”

The Program Open Space acquisition will protect the uncommonly high diversity of fauna and flora found in the upland areas of the property, which provide essential habitat for migratory songbirds, pollinators and small mammals.

“This farm has been one of our highest priorities for conservation for more than two decades,“ ESLC President Rob Etgen said. “It includes a huge area of prime farmland, and the streams are the largest remaining chunk of unprotected habitat for several endangered wildlife species. I am incredibly excited about this farm and grateful to the Hogan Administration for their support and stewardship.”

For more information, please contact ESLC’s Director of Communications, David Ferraris, at dferraris@eslc.org or 410.690.4603 x165.

Eastern Shore Land Conservancy

Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit land conservation organization committed to preserving and sustaining the vibrant communities of the Eastern Shore and the lands and waters that connect them. More at www.eslc.org.

FERC Approves PA-to-WV Pipeline

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Over objections from environmentalists, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has given its green light to building a hotly disputed natural gas pipeline through western Maryland and under the Potomac River.

With one of its five commissioners voting no and another dissenting in part, the five-member commission approved the Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project. The 3.5-mile pipeline, proposed by Columbia Gas Transmission, would carry gas from Pennsylvania to West Virginia, passing through Maryland just west of Hancock.

Environmental groups and some western Maryland residents have waged a lengthy campaign against the “Potomac Pipeline,” as they call it, staging repeated protest demonstrations and garnering several local-government resolutions against the project. Opponents argue that the project’s construction risks harm to the river and drinking water supplies, both near the underground crossing and downriver. They also contend that it will accelerate climate change by encouraging more natural gas production and consumption.

Photo: The Potomac River just upstream of Hancock, MD, where TransCanada’s Eastern Panhandle Expansion pipeline would pass under the river into West Virginia. (Royalty-free photo by Aude, via Creative Commons)

In its 53-page order, the commission majority brushed aside those concerns, saying the company’s plan for tunneling beneath the Potomac addressed the risks and potential impacts of a leak or blowout.

Environmentalists had asked the commission to require Columbia Gas, a subsidiary of TransCanada, to follow a lengthy list of conditions for tunneling beneath the river that the Maryland Department of the Environment had proposed in approving a state permit for the project. But the federal panel declined to do so, saying it would encourage but not require the company to adhere to the state conditions.

The panel’s majority also dismissed contentions that the pipeline would stimulate more gas production using hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), a controversial technique blamed for instances of drinking water well contamination and other problems. They likewise said they lacked information to determine whether the pipeline could significantly exacerbate climate change by allowing for more gas to be produced and consumed, as environmentalists contended.

But two of the five panel members took issue with the majority on those last two points. Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur concurred with the majority in approving the pipeline, but she disagreed with its decision to ignore the project’s climate-change impacts. Commissioner Richard Glick opposed the project, arguing that the commission had abrogated its legal responsibility by refusing to consider those impacts.

“Climate change poses an existential threat to our security, economy, environment and, ultimately, the health of individual citizens,” Glick wrote. He said the majority “goes out of its way to avoid seriously addressing the project’s impact from climate change” by disregarding the potential emissions of carbon dioxide and methane that might result from increased gas production and consumption.

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network issued a statement decrying the FERC decision. Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls said the group is “considering all of our legal options in response to this unfortunate decision.” He vowed to continue rallying opposition to the pipeline and called on Gov. Larry Hogan to deny Columbia Gas the easements it still needs to build the project through western Maryland.

By Tim Wheeler, Bay Journal News Service

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.

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.

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.

C+ Grade for the Chester River

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The Chester Packet Boat gliding smoothly along on the Chester River. Photo by Tyler Campbell

The Chester River earned a grade of C+ for 2017, according to ShoreRivers, the Riverkeeper organization for the mid-Shore area.

That was the key announcement at the annual State of the Chester meeting Thursday, April 26 at Washington College’s Hynson Lounge. The standing-room-only meeting was cosponsored by the college’s Center for the Environment and Society.

Isabel Hardesty, Regional Director for the Chester and Sassafras Rivers, acted as MC for the evening, which began with light hors d’ouvres featuring Orchard Point oysters from the Chester River and an open bar.

She began by introducing various ShoreRivers staff members, followed by Michael Hardesty, program administrator for the Chesapeake Bay Semester of the Center for Environment and Society – and also, as it happens, Isabel’s husband. Michael Hardesty gave a summary of the CES’s environmental programs, with a focus on the “pressing environmental issues and opportunities” currently facing the two organizations.

Isabel Hardesty, ShoreRivers regional director for the Chester and Sassafras Rivers

He noted the many organizations monitoring the health of the rivers and the surrounding environment, including the Sultana Education Foundation, Echo Hill Outdoor School, Sassafras Environmental Education Center, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Ducks Unlimited, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, and many others. “We reinforce each other in very powerful ways,” he said.

Washington College is committed to teaching the liberal arts and sciences with the goal of preparing its graduates to become “citizen leaders.” During the CES’s comparatively brief existence – it was founded in 1990 – it has become a national leader in undergraduate study of the environment, he said. It now has 26 full-time staff members and an endowment of some $10 million. And its students receive “real-world experience” aboard its research vessels and other facilities.

The college’s new environmental center, to be built on its riverside property beginning this fall, will make available an array of laboratories and classrooms to enhance the students’ learning experience. The building itself will be designed to “Living Building” standards, with solar panels and geothermal wells that produce 105 percent of the energy needed to operate the building. Any extra energy generated will be sold back to the grid, thus lowering the center’s costs and providing energy for other members of the community.

Another important ingredient of the CES’s mission is Chino Farms, where the college has operated several field stations for a number of years. Recently the farm’s owner, Dr. Harry Sears, decided he wanted “to see the students on the land for the next 100 years,” and gave the land outright to the college for its environmental programs. Among the environmental programs on the farm are a bird observation station that bands and records hundreds of birds annually, and the restored prairie that has become home to the highest concentration of the bob-white quail in Maryland. In addition, the prairie contributes to the quality of water entering the river by filtering rainwater runoff and serves as a reservoir of indigenous plant and animal species.

Hardesty concluded by recognizing the Chester Testers, who sample the water of the river and its tributaries, many of whom are alumni of the college. They “understand what it means to be a citizen in harmony with a place. George Washington would approve,” he concluded.

Chester River Riverkeeper Tim Trumbauer

Chester Riverkeeper Tim Trumbauer then delivered the annual report on the state of the river. He began with a slide show – “The Good, the Bad, the ?,” alternating photos of positive aspects of the river, negative impacts including algae blooms, stormwater runoff, and unhealthy development, and photos of ShoreRivers volunteer Tom Pearson – with the audience urged to cheer the good, boo the bad, and shout “Ahoy, Tom!” They responded enthusiastically!

Trumbauer said the heart of the program is the water quality monitoring, which measures several variables including temperature, acidity, clarity, and the presence of nutrients, sediment and algae. There are more than 60 Chester Testers, sampling water at sites around Kent and Queen Anne’s counties using equipment supplied by the Lamotte Company and testing facilities at Washington College. Volunteers come from Heron Point, Kent School, Gunston School and other local organizations.

The three key points arise from the testing results, Trumbauer said.  One–there is pollution in the river.  Two–it derives from local sources; and three–restoration works to improve water quality. He noted that the Baltimore sewer system and the Conowingo dam are not significant contributors to the state of the river, whereas agricultural practices, residential lawn care and stormwater runoff from the towns in the two counties are major sources of the current pollution. But the water in the river and its tributaries has improved from a D+ grade 10 years ago to a C+ the last several years, largely due to restoration practices. Nitrogen and phosphorus have been reduced, and water clarity is noticeably improved. In another 10 years, he said, we can hope to see the grade improved to B+.

Trumbauer said there are 77 ongoing restoration projects in the Chester River watershed, which together have resulted in a reduction of pollution entering the river by 31,000 pounds of nitrogen pollution, 10,000 pounds of phosphorus, and 1.3 million pounds of sediment.

Slide from the presentation showed happy swimmers enjoying the river.

It can be safe to swim in the river, he said, as long as it is not within 48 hours of a heavy rainfall and the swimmer has no open wounds. However, swimmers should shower after leaving the river.  He also recommended checking out the current state of a river at the SwimGuide website.  This site covers water quality for over 7,000 freshwater and marine beaches and popular swimming areas in Canada, the USA, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, and the Bahamas.  They even have a free downloadable app for your phone!

To do their part for the health of the river, he said, farmers need to study and implement best practices for fertilizing their crops and for using pesticides. Homeowners should also reduce the amount of fertilizer they use, and introduce native plants into their lawns and gardens. “And tell your neighbors and support us,” he concluded.

Emily Harris, ShoreRivers watershed manager, followed up with hints for homeowners on making their lawns and gardens river-friendly. Reducing the use of turf grasses and fertilizers, and putting the emphasis on native plants – especially in rain gardens and buffers– can make a big difference, she said. ShoreRivers sponsors a series of yard workshops, conducted by master gardeners, that can help individual homeowners arrive at a plan that fits their own property.

A lively question-and-answer period concluded the evening.  It was clear from both the number and the detail of the questions asked that the audience members were well-informed and very concerned about the state of our waterways.

This meeting was one of five “State of the Rivers” series across the area. The final presentation which will cover the Wye and Chester Rivers and the Eastern Bay will be held at 5:30 pm on Wednesday, May 16 at the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, 600 Discover Lane, in Graysonville.  Speakers there will include the Miles-Wye Riverkeeper Elle Bassett and the Chester Riverkeeper Tim Trumbauer.

ShoreRivers has a large cohort of volunteers–citizen scientists, river testers, and others who help to gather data and work on the various projects.  Anyone interested in becoming a member, donating or volunteering for a project should visit the ShoreRivers website or contact Kristan Droter at kdroter@shorerivers.org or 443.385.0511.

Volunteers regularly take samples of the river water and vegetation. The compiled data helps in monitoring water quality and tracking any changes in the river or the surrounding flora and fauna.

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Mid-Shore Authors: The Unexpected Environmentalist J.I. Rodale with Andrew Case

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It’s pretty clear that J.I. Rodale did not set off in life to be what we now call an “environmentalist.” The godfather of the “natural food” lifestyle, founder of Prevention magazine, and advocate of organic farming, Rodale saw himself first and foremost as a publisher.

That’s one of the many takeaways from Washington College professor Andrew Case’s new book, “The Organic Profit:
Rodale and the Making of Marketplace Environmentalism,” (University of Washington Press) which chronicles Rodale’s unique role in building a marketplace for organic products and supplements.

Nonetheless, Rodale began a movement that eventually led to the popularity of organic products, the awareness of the dangers of pesticides, and the importance for taking care of one’s own body and what it consumes. All which encompass the fundamentals of our current environmental movement in this country.

All of this proved to be irresistible to Case whose scholarship has focused on the history of environmentalism and consumer culture. He began to document Rodale’s rise after World War II, the rapid success of the Rodale Press, and a family business that has left a permanent legacy in the annals of the American environmental history.

The Spy sat down with the author at Cromwell Hall on Washington College’s campus to talk about the overarching themes found in Organic Profit and the fascinating profile of one of America’s great entrepreneurs.

This video is approximately five minutes in length. Please go here for more information on “The Organic Profit:
Rodale and the Making of Marketplace Environmentalism.”