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.

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.

Environmental Concern Holds 18th Annual Spring Native Plant Sale

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More and more homeowners are planting rain gardens, butterfly gardens and stormwater management gardens. Home gardeners are reaping the benefits by reconnecting with nature and bringing the practice of planting native into their own backyards.

The 18th Annual Spring Plant Sale at Environmental Concern’s Campus in St. Michaels is the perfect place to get inspired, and to pick up native plants grown in EC’s nursery. This year’s sale takes place on Mother’s Day weekend, Friday, May 11th and Saturday, May 12th   from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Garden lovers will find new species, and the popular favorites that have made this event an annual tradition for Eastern Shore gardeners for nearly 2 decades. Growing more than 100 species of shrubs and herbaceous plants for over 46 years, Environmental Concern hosts one of the largest native plant sales on the Eastern Shore.

In addition to the plant sale, EC will host workshops that will inspire and educate customers. “Milkweeds for Monarchs” will be held from 10:00 – 11:00 a.m. each day. Participants will learn about the Monarch butterfly, and the dependence of the Monarch caterpillars on native milkweed for survival. Recommendations for plant selection and habitat creation techniques will encourage even first time gardeners to dig in, and get wet and muddy – and don’t forget to shop for the perfect Mother’s day plant. Our experts will be on hand to help you with your plant selection.

There will be a large selection of flowering herbaceous perennials and hardy shrubs. Highlights include colorful red columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) with red and yellow showy, drooping, bell-like flowers, and the Joe pye weed (Eupatorium dubium) which is very attractive to beneficial pollinators. Additional offerings include the Swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), Blue flag iris (Iris versicolor), and the Northern sea oat (Chasmanthium latifolium), known for its interesting flat foliage and unique seed heads.

Visit Environmental Concern’s Nursery in historic St. Michaels at 201 Boundary Lane. Watch for signs along St. Michaels Road. For more information, call 410-745-9620.

Environmental Concern is a 501(c)3 public not-for-profit organization. All proceeds from the plant sale will help fund EC’s mission to improve water quality and enhance native habitat in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

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.

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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Horn Point’s Chesapeake Champion Jerry Harris Takes a Bow

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For the 6th year in a row, the folks from Horn Point Laboratory gathered at Waterfowl Festival Headquarters on Harrison Street last Friday to once again celebrate the achievements of a special individual from the Mid-Shore who had made a substantial contribution to the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay.

This year, Jerry Harris, former businessman and now farm owner in Dorchester, received the award for his work in working with Horn Point and Ducks Unlimited (where he serves on the national Board of Directors) to host educational programs for students wishing to become wildlife managers.

Harris joins an extraordinary list of conservation leaders as a Chesapeake Champion They include Amy Haines of Out of the Fire Restaurant; Chip Akridge, owner of Harleigh Farms; Albert Pritchett of the Waterfowl Festival and Waterfowl Chesapeake; Jordan and Alice Lloyd of the Bartlett Pear; and Jim Brighton of the Maryland Biodiversity Project.

The Spy was there to capture some of the evenings best moments as Horn Point Director Mike Roman hosted the gathering of two hundred guests.

This video is approximately four minutes in length. For more information about the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory please go here

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.

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

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Photo by Dave Harp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Skinny Bay

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

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

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

Wet

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

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

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

Ask yourself, WWBD — what would beavers do?

Edges

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

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

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

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

Ecosystem Services

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

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

And One Last Favorite: Horseshoe Crabs

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

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