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.

ShoreRivers Hosts “State of the Rivers” Series Across the Shore

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ShoreRivers is pleased to invite the community to a series of five State of the Rivers presentations during April and May (offered at different locations for the convenience of our public). ShoreRivers will unveil its 2017 Report Cards for the Choptank, Chester, Miles, Wye, and Sassafras Rivers, as well as Eastern Bay, and lead informative discussions about the results. River Report Cards analyze the data from our extensive water quality monitoring during 2017. Admission to each event is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.

Our Report Cards reflect data collected at hundreds of sites by our scientists, Riverkeepers, and dozens of trained volunteers. The presentations will provide an opportunity for the community to learn about the health, trends, and challenges of our local waterways and how the most recent grades compare to those from previous years.Distinguished keynote speakers will enhance the programs. Our Riverkeepers and staff will also discuss new initiatives being undertaken in 2018, including the new RiverWatch real-time water quality online platform.

STATE OF THE RIVERS SERIES . . .

MILES, WYE AND CHOPTANK RIVERS—Saint Michaels
Keynote Speaker: Senator Chris Van Hollen
April 20, 5:00pm
Sponsored by the Inn at Perry Cabin by Belmond
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Small Boat Shed
213 N. Talbot Street

CHOPTANK RIVER—Cambridge
Keynote Speaker: Jay Lazar, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
April 26, 5:30pm
Robbins Heritage Center, 1003 Greenway Drive

CHESTER RIVER—Chestertown
Keynote Speaker: John Seidel, Director of Center for Environment & Society
April 26, 5:15pm
Washington College, Hynson Lounge, 300 Washington Avenue

SASSAFRAS RIVER—Cecilton
Keynote Speaker: Nick DiPasquale, former EPA Director of Chesapeake Bay Program
May 3, 7:00pm
Cecilton Fire Department, 110 E. Main Street

WYE AND CHESTER RIVERS AND EASTERN BAY—Grasonville
Speakers: Miles-Wye Riverkeeper Elle Bassett and Chester Riverkeeper Tim Trumbauer
May 16, 5:30pm
Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, 600 Discover Lane

For more information, visit shorerivers.org or contact Eleanor Nelson at 443.385.0511 or eleanor@shorerivers.org.

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

Bay Ecosystem: A Hunter and Conservationist Who is “Giving Back”

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We are strolling with Jerry Harris on his 230-acre farm, Mallard Haven, when a group of ducks suddenly takes off from their marsh hiding spot. Harris, a committed conservationist and hunter, has created the perfect marshland habitat for migrating waterfowl for just this moment.

“Watching the birds come in, how they treat the marsh, how they fly around it, how they call—that whole symphony is quite intriguing to me,” Harris said. “I never tire of that.”

Harris, now 75, fell in love with waterfowl as a young boy when he started hunting, but has long seen the value of conservation over sport. On his farm, you shoot only what you can eat, and not one more. Those values were instilled in him from his first days hunting with his grandfather, Burr Love, at a family hunting cabin in the San Francisco Bay area.

”The first year when I was 11 or so, they felt I was too young to hunt, and so I got to pick the ducks. The second year, I got to wash the dishes, do the cooking, and pick the ducks, and the third year, I got to finally hunt.”

Over the years, Harris hunted with two other men who influenced his values about hunting and conservation: Louis Rapp, an old-time duck hunter and friend of his great uncle, and Ray Lewis, who taught him about the soil management technique Harris uses on his farm today.

“Over a period of 30 to 40 years, I hunted and gained extensive knowledge from all three of these people,” Harris said. “I was extraordinarily lucky to be able to partner with them over my lifetime.”

Living in New York in the early 1970s, Harris would visit Maryland’s eastern shore to hunt geese, and he recognized the area’s bountiful appeal to waterfowl. And to him. Harris, his wife, Bobbi, and their three retrievers, Maddie, Rusty, and Bo, now spend their winters on their eastern shore farmland before flying west to spend summers in Montana.

Even before he retired, Harris decided to devote much of his time to wetland conservation. He has been a member of Ducks Unlimited ever since he started a new Ducks Unlimited chapter as a student at University of California, Berkeley, and he has reached out to a variety of organizations, including Delta Waterfowl, Waterfowl Chesapeake, Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, and of course, Ducks Unlimited to determine how to best use the funds from the family foundation he and Bobbi set up. Wanting to preserve vital marshlands and “to give back some,” Bobbi and Jerry created a family foundation that dedicates most of its funding to wetland conservation, with a smaller portion going to secondary education.

We’re trying to demonstrate how collectively we can all make this a better place and preserve some of the rich heritage the Eastern Shore—Maryland, Delaware, Virginia—has had from a waterfowl standpoint.

All the lessons Harris absorbed from his hunting friends and experiences have turned him into a teacher for new generations of conservation managers. He thinks of Mallard Haven as a demonstration farm to teach others how they can use their properties to attract more waterfowl and how his moist soil management system attracts waterfowl and feeds their nutritional needs.

The farm is a natural maze of dirt paths, cornfields, wetlands, and a long trench that serves as freshwater storage. Depending on the time of year, it might look like another grain farm in the countryside, but when he wants to beckon ducks, Harris and his farm manager, Sam LaCompte, will flood pockets of his farmland, or impoundments as he calls them. At the end of the season slowly draining the water encourages the growth of smart weeds that provide a diverse, appetizing food source to migrating waterfowl.

“We’re trying to demonstrate how collectively we can all make this a better place and preserve some of the rich heritage the Eastern Shore—Maryland, Delaware, Virginia—has had from a waterfowl standpoint,” he said.

Harris is also helping facilitate a course that shows wildlife managers and leaders how hunting can balance with conservation. He was impressed with a course on the West Coast that UC Davis conducted with Ducks Unlimited and a local waterfowl conservation group, so this past winter, Harris and Dr. Chris Williams, wildlife ecology professor at the University of Delaware, developed and ran a similar course for the East Coast on Jerry’s Dorchester farms.

The first class, which included 10 students, recently ended and Harris considers it a success.

“None had experienced waterfowl hunting or shooting and over that three-day period, they went from 0 to 60 miles per hour. We’ve just seen their review of the program, and it was very exciting to read their comments and how it had changed their perception to the role hunting plays in wildlife conservation,” Harris said. “And that’s our goal—to make sure the future managers and leaders understand the role that hunting plays.”

Harris hopes to keep offering the course, serving as long as he can as a mentor to others, much as he was guided throughout his life.

This year, Horn Point Laboratory will honor Jerry Harris with its 2018 Chesapeake Champion award for his vision and leadership in marshland restoration and conservation. “We could not find a more fitting partner in our efforts to ensure our marshlands are preserved for wildlife habitat and coastal sustainability,” said Mike Roman, Director of Horn Point Laboratory. We are delighted to honor our good friend and devoted educator, Jerry Harris.”

The Chesapeake Champion celebration will be held Friday, April 27th, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Waterfowl Armory, Easton. Tickets are $50, sponsorships are available, and can be purchased online or by contacting Carin Starr at 410-221-8408.

Proceeds from this year’s event will be used to launch a new Marsh Ecology and Restoration Laboratory at Horn Point Laboratory. The new Lab will conduct vital research into the role marshes play in: providing critical habitat for waterfowl, birds, plants and animals; providing green infrastructure to mitigate erosion and flooding; and, filtering pollutants to improve water quality.

Jerry Harris, the Horn Point Laboratory 2018 Chesapeake Champion, talks about running a Dorchester County farm, which, with careful planning and management, turns marshland into a paradise for migrating ducks.

Kristi Moor is the Digital Communications Manager for University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science UMCES.

 

New Federal Budget Does Not Contain Funds to Build Oyster Reefs in Maryland

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The federal budget recently passed by Congress failed to provide any dedicated money to continue reef construction in either Maryland or Virginia, putting in doubt the future of oyster restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been building oyster reefs in the Bay for more than 20 years, and in recent years it has been a major partner in the state-federal initiative to restore oyster habitat and populations in 10 of the Bay’s tributaries by 2025.

But the omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2018 — approved March 23 and signed the same day by President Trump — marks the second year in a row with no specific appropriation for the Corps to continue reef restoration in the Bay.

The omission threatens to stall work already under way in Maryland’s Tred Avon River. It also jeopardizes future projects in both Maryland and Virginia where the federal government had been expected to take the lead.

Supporters of the oyster restoration effort say they hope the Army Corps can still put some money toward it this year from a $1 billion pot of discretionary funds Congress approved for the Corps’ construction program.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, explained to a group of Bay advocates Thursday that he and others were unable to designate money for oyster restoration in the appropriations bill because congressional rules forbid earmarking funds for anything not proposed in President Trump’s budget.

But he noted that Congress approved more construction funding for the Corps than the Trump administration proposed. Eugene Pawlik, a Corps spokesman, said the total was about double the requested amount.

Cardin expressed optimism that the extra money will prompt Corps leaders to allocate some of those funds toward the effort this year.

The omnibus spending bill did urge the Corps to request funds for Bay restoration in future budgets.

After meeting Thursday with senior Corps leaders for a tour of Poplar Island, a restoration project using dredged material from the Bay, Cardin said that he is “pretty confident” some of the extra money put in the Corps budget will go for oyster restoration.

It won’t be known until perhaps May 22 if that gambit paid off. That’s the deadline for the Corps to submit its work plan to Congress. The plan, due 60 days after the omnibus bill’s passage, will lay out planned expenditures on projects specifically listed in the legislation. The Corps can add some of its extra funds to those projects, as well as spread some money among projects not designated for funding.

Cardin acknowledged that it’s still possible, given the nationwide competition for federal public works funding, that the Corps won’t designate any money for oyster restoration. Before being submitted to Congress, he noted, its work plan must be reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which also may have a say in the matter.

Bay advocates said that the uncertainty surrounding oyster restoration funding has roots in a controversy two years ago, when Maryland officials put a hold on the Tred Avon project after watermen objected to the Corps’ use of granite to build the reefs there.

“Now, we’re sort of reaping the consequences of those delays and those challenges to the Corps’ efforts, in the fact that there’s no appropriation,” said Allison Colden, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

From the mid-1990s through fiscal year 2016, the Corps had received annual funding for oyster reef construction in the Bay, with the Baltimore District getting a cumulative total of $28.8 million and the Norfolk District $22.1 million, according to figures supplied by Cardin’s office.

In 2014, in recognition of the ecological value of oysters and their reefs to the overall health of the Chesapeake, the Bay watershed states and federal government jointly pledged to restore native oyster habitat and populations by 2025 in five tributaries each in Maryland and Virginia.

The annual funding stream ended two years ago, when then-President Barack Obama requested no money in the Corps’ fiscal year 2017 budget for Bay oyster restoration. That came shortly after the Hogan administration had called on the Corps’ Baltimore District to halt work in the Tred Avon — a request prompted by small group of watermen, who complained to Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford about the cost and efficacy of the restoration effort, particularly the methods and materials used.

Watermen objected to the use of granite to build reefs in the Tred Avon and in an earlier restoration project in Harris Creek, another Choptank River tributary. They contended that the stone reefs snagged fishing gear and damaged boats, and that oyster shells are the best surface on which spat, or baby oysters, grow best. Scientists countered that oyster spat will do well on any hard surface in the water, and monitoring on Harris Creek reefs later that year found a much higher density of new oysters growing on granite than on shells.

At the time, Cardin warned that the stoppage could threaten future federal funding for oyster restoration in Maryland. It had immediate impact, as the Baltimore District shifted $1 million it had for that purpose to the Norfolk District. With that extra money, and no major reef construction planned this year in Virginia, the Norfolk District is not yet as strapped.

A spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources called the Tred Avon stoppage then a “pause” until the DNR could complete an internal review of the state’s oyster management.

The Hogan administration lifted its hold on the federally funded project, and work resumed in the Tred Avon in April 2017, more than a year after it had been interrupted. Even then, the state insisted that the Corps not use any more granite in constructing reefs. The Corps opted to build the reefs with clam shells from a processing plant in New Jersey, but the contractor couldn’t get enough shells. Only six of the 10 acres of reefs planned to be built that year were completed.

In November 2017, Col. Edward Chamberlayne, the Baltimore District’s commander, made a personal appeal to the DNR’s Oyster Advisory Commission, warning that the Tred Avon project and future federal funding for oyster restoration were in jeopardy if the state did not relent in its opposition to use of stone in building reefs. Oyster shell is too scarce and expensive to be used for such large-scale construction projects, Chamberlayne explained, and there aren’t enough clam shells, either.

Delays and construction interruptions already had added $133,000 to the $11.4 million estimated cost of the Tred Avon project, Chamberlayne said. If forced to continue using only clam shells, he said, it could take another four to five years to finish the job — at that rate, he warned, Congress and Corps leadership may be unwilling to keep funding oyster restoration.

The DNR Oyster Advisory Commission responded by recommending that the Corps be allowed to use stone to finish the Tred Avon reefs. The four acres left from last year were finished in March, but 45 more acres of reefs are planned, and funding is now in question.

“We are still requesting funding through the Army Corps work plan,” said Sarah Gross, spokeswoman for the Corps’ Baltimore District. Officials there have estimated it will cost $3 million to $5 million to finish building reefs in the Tred Avon, after which they are to be seeded with hatchery-spawned baby oysters.

Stephen Schatz, communications director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the department “is very confident that there is currently adequate funding to continue advancing the state’s oyster restoration efforts and projects.”

“With roughly $7.25 million in state capital funding [for oyster restoration] available and federal funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Schatz continued, “the partners should have enough to complete the work in Tred Avon.”

Schatz furnished documents showing that the DNR had asked Congress to maintain NOAA’s current level of funding for habitat conservation and restoration, including $1 million for oyster habitat restoration. That money goes to seeding and monitoring reefs, not building them.

The Bay Foundation’s Colden said that while she’s hopeful the Corps will allot some money for reef construction this year, federal funding is no longer guaranteed.

“Now, the priority we place on oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay has to compete with Mississippi River flood control and dam operations in the Pacific Northwest,” Colden said. “Before, we had a dedicated pot of funding because it’s been recognized as such a significant project and significant priority.”

While Cardin expects Corps officials to put some of this year’s discretionary funds toward oyster restoration, given the extra money in their budget and a clear statement of congressional intent, he expressed dissatisfaction with having to go through such maneuvers.

“It’s not a very transparent way of doing things,” he said. And he noted that supporters in Congress will have to fight the same battle again later this year, because Trump’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 did not contain any money for Corps reef-building.

by Timothy B. Wheeler

Timothy B. Wheeler is associate editor and senior writer for the Bay Journal

Nutrient Reductions Credited for Remarkable Resurgence in Bay’s Underwater Grasses

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Nutrient reductions over the last 30 years are the primary factor behind the resurgence of underwater grasses in the Chesapeake — something that scientists cite in a new study as tangible evidence that efforts to improve Bay water quality are paying off.

Seagrass beds are in decline globally, but the Chesapeake Bay is one of the few places — and the largest example — where that trend has been successfully reversed, according to an article published in March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That’s good news for the Bay, as underwater grasses provide important habitat for fish, crabs and waterfowl. The scientists who led the study also said that the recovery likely foreshadows a broader comeback in the estuary’s health.

“We are thinking of the resurgence of the grasses as being the harbinger of things to come,” said Bill Dennison, vice president for science applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and a co-author of the study. “We are using them now as an early signal for the restoration of the Bay.”

The study, built upon an analysis of a wide variety of data collected over three decades, found that a 23 percent decline in nitrogen concentrations in the Bay and an 8 percent decline in phosphorus were the primary factors behind a nearly threefold increase in underwater grasses since 1984.

Like all plants, underwater grasses require sunlight to survive, and scientists have long known that algae blooms and sediment in the water can block light from reaching plants, causing them to die.

But the study found that nutrients play a “dominant role” in causing the loss of grass beds because they not only spur algae blooms, but also promote algae growth directly on the plants. That “epiphytic” growth, the study found, was three times more harmful to plants than the indirect effects of phytoplankton blooms in the water column.

“We show that nutrients are actually the primary control over these underwater grasses,” said Jonathan Lefcheck, the lead author of the report, who conducted this work while a post-doctoral student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. He now works at the Bigelow Institute of Marine Science in Maine.

The amount of underwater grasses still fluctuates from year to year, in large part because of weather — rainy years drive more water-fouling nutrients into the water than do dry ones. Nonetheless, while the amount of grasses has varied, their overall acreage has increased over time, from a low of 38,229 acres in 1984 to a high of 97,400 acres mapped in 2016.

“Beyond the noise of inter-annual variability, we’ve got the right trajectory, and we can link it to specifically the nutrient reductions,” Dennison said.

While nutrients are the driving force, other factors still play a role. Areas with several underwater grass species do better over time than those with a single species, the study found. The importance of diversity may explain, in part, why grass bed recovery in high-salinity areas, which has always been dominated by a single species — eelgrass — has been less robust than in other parts of the Bay.

It also offers a clue as to how to maintain comebacks in mid-salinity parts of the Bay, where widgeon grass dominates but its abundance often fluctuates greatly from year to year. The researchers said that Bay restoration efforts — which now focus only on water quality — should put more focus on restoring a mix of species in mid-salinity areas.

“When we look at those beds historically, we know diversity was important,” said Bob Orth, also of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who co-authored the study and has overseen the Bay’s annual underwater grass survey since its inception. “When you add one species, it has a significant effect on the stability of the meadow.”

The study has 14 co-authors representing universities and agencies from around the Bay region and the country. This team met five times over the course of two years in Annapolis, digging deep into the data. They compiled extensive datasets about land use, manure and fertilizer applications, wastewater treatment plant discharges and water quality, as well as the abundance, diversity and density of grass beds.

Using sophisticated new analytical techniques unavailable just a few years ago to analyze that data, the scientists were able to draw conclusions that sometimes challenged their assumptions about factors affecting the grasses.

For instance, while wastewater treatment may be locally critical for grass beds, actions on the landscape — such as changes in land use or fertilizer applications on farms — were more important to larger trends in grass bed acreage.

Similarly, while sediment in the water column may be locally important, it was a less important factor than nutrients in Baywide underwater grass abundance.

“With this multi-author, multi-partner synthesis type of science, you can bring in different types of expertise,” said Jennifer Keisman, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and co-author of the study. “It is really important.”

Further analyzing that data, the authors said, could provide new insights for managers and promote an additional comeback of grass beds. “This is not the end, but the end of the beginning for all of this work,” Orth said.

The Chesapeake is still far short of the goal to restore 185,000 acres of underwater grasses, but it is doing better than any other place on the planet, the article said.

Seagrasses have declined globally by 29 percent, largely because of nutrient and sediment runoff. While they have come back in places such as Tampa Bay and the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands, researchers found that the Chesapeake has seen a “greater total and proportional recovery.”

A continued comeback would be good news for the Bay. Grass beds are a critical component of its ecosystem. They pump oxygen into the water, trap sediments, buffer shorelines from wave action, provide food for waterfowl and shelter for fish and blue crabs.

That trajectory is likely to continue, at least for now. Orth said a preliminary review of data from last year suggests that the Bay’s underwater grasses will likely set yet another record.

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.

ESLC Offers New Culture, Climate, and Change Conference April 21

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The Eastern Shore remains the third most susceptible region to the effects of sea level rise in the entire nation. With this in mind, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy is following up their sold-out 2017 Unsinkable Shore conference with Culture, Climate, and Change: How social factors shape the climate dialogue, which will be held at Washington College on April 21, 2018 from 9am to 1pm. The event is sponsored in part by the College’s Center for Environment & Society.

”This conference promises to have participants walking away with the knowledge to speak effectively, accurately, and
confidently about climate change,” says ESLC Communications Manager David Ferraris.

Attendees should anticipate an in-depth exploration of the social factors that influence opinions, beliefs, and perceptions of climate change on the Shore. Participants will gain an appreciation for how our region’s rich cultural landscape shapes the dialogue – or lack thereof— about how we respond to climate risks.

The $20 admission fee includes a continental breakfast, and for the first 70 registrants, a complimentary copy of “How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate” by Andrew Hoffman, a professor of business and sustainability at the University of Michigan.

Registration is available online at www.eslc.org/events.