Bay Journal

March 2012 - Volume 22 - Number 1

Atlantic sturgeon officially listed as endangered

Atlantic sturgeon, an ancient species that co-existed with dinosaurs, has fared less well sharing coastal and river habitats with humans. As a result, they will be officially protected as an endangered species beginning April 6.

The decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service means it believes the sturgeon, the largest fish native to the Chesapeake - historically they reached lengths of 14 feet - is likely to become extinct in the foreseeable future without additional protection.

The NMFS, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has not yet stated what new actions it will take to protect sturgeon, which are already subject to a coastwide fishing moratorium.

But its decision issued Feb. 6 said that sturgeon are taken as bycatch in other fisheries, killed by ship strikes, squeezed out of historic habitat by poor water quality and face other problems - all of which may be targeted for future protection efforts or regulations.

The decision by the NMFS came after a review sparked by a 2009 petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council that argued existing measures were not protecting the giant fish.

Study confirms arsenic in chicken feed enters water as poison

A new report has concluded that arsenic added to chicken feed does run off into local waterways after chicken manure is applied to fields as fertilizer, renewing efforts in Maryland to ban the feed additive.

The University of Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology commissioned the report with the hope of synthesizing the available data on the properties of Roxarsone, an additive that some chicken companies place in feed to keep the birds healthy and give the meat its pinkish color. Although some chicken companies may use other arsenicals as additives, Roxarsone, which is manufactured by Alpharma, is the main one used in Maryland's chicken industry and therefore was the report's focus.

The report concluded that the arsenic concentrations in the poultry manure are organic when the litter is first applied. But the longer the litter sits on the ground, the more rapidly it converts to the more harmful inorganic form of arsenic. Soils in Maryland and Delaware where farmers have applied poultry litter for several decades exceed the states' standards for acceptable levels of arsenic.

The report also stated that arsenic from the Roxarsone does leach into groundwater, especially in shallow aquifers, and can run off into streams during rain. When that happens, it runs off as inorganic arsenic. Fish in the sampled areas were above the state's limit for arsenic.

Inorganic arsenic is a known human carcinogen that has also been...

Greenway partnership links health of PA towns to that of Susquehanna

The borough of Shickshinny, located along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania's Luzerne County, might be considered "the little town that could." Over the years, Shickshinny has endured many floods, most recently when Tropical Storm Lee led the river to overtake its banks last September.

"It devastated 75 percent of my town," said Shickshinny Mayor Beverly Moore. "I don't see the flood threat leveling off unless something more is done."

As Moore and other Shickshinny residents know, rivers rise and fall with the season, higher after spring rains; lower after summer drought. Sometimes rivers swell to reclaim their entire floodplain, leading to loss of life, property and clean, drinking water.

Protecting natural areas from flooding and enhancing green space along the Susquehanna River is a big reason why the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership was formed 10 years ago. Since then, the organization has been helping Susquehanna River towns grow and develop in sync with the Susquehanna's ebbs and flows instead of counter to its natural path.

"We can't stop natural flooding," said Trish Carothers, the partnership's program director. "But we can implement practices to mitigate future damage while revitalizing many of Pennsylvania's charming and historic river towns."

The Susquehanna Greenway Partnership's efforts also impact the Chesapeake Bay. Although Pennsylvania does not border the Bay, the...

Panel says blue catfish may pose threat to native Bay species

The numbers of blue catfish in some Bay tributaries are nearly unfathomable and, with some individuals reaching weights of more than 100 pounds, they've become a lure for trophy anglers from across the nation.

But their large populations and big sizes have drawn a warning from a Bay Program committee that in December adopted a policy warning that the introduced species "could be posing a threat to native species in all major Chesapeake Bay river systems in Virginia and Maryland."

The Executive Committee of the Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, which includes state and federal fishery officials from around the Bay, warned in its new policy that blue catfish, along with the related flathead catfish, could threaten efforts to restore native fish such as shad and river herring.

The policy says "the potential risk posed by blue catfish and flathead catfish on native species warrants action to examine potential measures to reduce densities and limit range expansion, and to evaluate possible negative ecological impacts."

It pledges to coordinate research efforts to better estimate catfish populations, their impacts on other species, and actions that could control populations while supporting recreational fisheries. Other work will include examining contaminant buildups in the fish, and building public awareness among anglers to prevent further introductions.

"We are not simply standing by to see what might...

WIPs for Pennsylvania, Virginia found wanting in EPA review

The EPA gave generally high marks to the latest state plans to clean up the Chesapeake, but remained critical of portions of the submissions from Pennsylvania and Virginia.

And, it provided a hint that it will act against states that fail to live up to expectations. The agency withheld hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant money from New York, which didn't submit its draft Phase II Watershed Implementation Plan until Jan. 31. It was due Dec. 15.

"From an overall standpoint, we're pleased, but some jurisdictions clearly did a better job than others," said Jim Edward, deputy director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office.

The agency publicly released its evaluations of the draft plans Feb. 17. The evaluations showed that Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia continued to provide the strongest, most detailed plans.

The EPA also praised West Virginia for "significant improvements."

Some plans need work

Virginia's plan, while improved, still had shortcomings which could lead to federal actions. Pennsylvania's plan needed the most work, according to the EPA's review.

If shortcomings in the Virginia and Pennsylvania plans are not fixed in final plans due March 30, the EPA may exert "enhanced oversight" over some programs, including such actions as a greater federal role in monitoring and enforcing permits.

EPA officials had not completed a review of New...

Scientists set standards to define a ‘successful’ oyster reef

Scientists and agencies have struggled for decades to restore oyster reefs around the Bay, often with few signs of success.

In part, that's because no one ever agreed on what "success" would look like.

To some, it might be a towering reef that stands above waves at low tide, like those seen by Capt. John Smith more than 400 years ago. To others, a successful project might be one that manages to hang on by catching a good spat set every few years, even though the oysters never survive to market size.

That's about to change, at least on paper. State and federal fishery managers in December signed off on new quantitative methods to determine whether oyster reefs - and eventually entire tributaries - can be considered recovered.

What does success look like?

An oyster reef needs to have live oysters covering a minimum of 30 percent of the reef, and within that area a minimum of 15 adult oysters per square meter - or their equivalent weight in small oysters. Preferably, oysters would number at least 50 per meter.

An entire tributary could be considered successful if those reef-scale goals were met on 50-100 percent of the river's restorable oyster bottom.

Fifteen 3-inch oysters per meter might not be what John Smith was looking at when he described oysters that "lay thick as stones" in the Chesapeake, but that number was derived from the minimal populations that appeared on self-sustaining bars...

Corps invites public to meetings on plans to restore native oysters

In April, the Army Corps of Engineers will be the host of three public meetings - two in Maryland and one in Virginia - to discuss a master plan to restore the population of native oysters in both states' tributaries.

The Native Oyster Restoration Master Plan is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' plan for large-scale, science-based oyster restoration throughout the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

The meetings will be an opportunity for the public to ask questions and provide feedback. Members of the Norfolk and Baltimore district's oyster teams will be present at all meetings.

Public meeting dates and locations are:

Annapolis, MD: 3-8 p.m. April 10 at the The Philip Merrill Environmental Center (Chesapeake Bay Foundation) at 6 Herndon Ave. Wye Mills, MD: 3-8 p.m. April 19 at Chesapeake College, 1000 College Circle. Hampton, VA: 4-9 p.m. April 17 at Thomas Nelson Community College, 99 Thomas Nelson Drive. Questions posed will be discussed at the public meetings and responses will be posted on the native oyster restoration Facebook page: www.facebook.com/NAOonFB.

People can also e-mail questions and comments prior to any meetings at: NativeOysterRestMasterPlan@usace.army.mil.

The master plan examines and evaluates the problems and opportunities related to oyster restoration and formulates plans for implementing large-scale Baywide restoration.

Restoration efforts recommended by the...

New Bay Program website designed to better meet users’ needs

The Chesapeake Bay Program recently launched a new, improved version of its website which provides students, educators and members of the public with the latest information about Bay science, wildlife, pollution pressures and restoration efforts.

The redesign is intended to better reflect the needs of site visitors based on information gleaned from users over the last 13 years, said Mike Land of the National Park Service, who was project leader for the web design. Guy Stephens, of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, was the lead developer for the site.

Although a host of Bay Program material is available on the site, including notices of upcoming events and meeting materials going back more than a decade, the site is now better arranged to help visitors look for information more relevant to them, such as the health of the Bay and status of restoration efforts.

Some of the new and improved features to include:

More than 20 "issue" pages that detail the major topics and problems facing the Bay and its watershed. Each issue page includes background information, frequently asked questions, photos and videos, and the latest scientific data on that topic. The "Learn the Issues" section is alphabetized for easy browsing. Issues include agriculture, Bay grasses, blue crabs, nutrients and population growth. A Chesapeake Bay blog, frequently updated with Bay-related news. The blog includes several features such...

PA to charge gas drillers impact fee, takes away local governments’ right to restrict sites

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed legislation in February that would charge natural gas drillers an impact fee that would help pay for mitigation and environmental programs. But the measure also takes away local governments' rights to restrict drilling if they accept the money.

The fee would raise about $180.5 million in 2011 and $211.1 million in 2012, according to projections reported in Pennsylvania Environmental Digest. The gas industry supported the bills.

The fee would fluctuate with the price of natural gas, but would start at $40,000 per well. Beneficiaries of the fee would include counties, municipalities and state funds, such as Growing Greener, that are focused on environmental protection.

The legislation also establishes setbacks for wells from water supplies, streams and wetlands, although the state's Department of Environmental Protection can grant a variance if the driller asks for it. It requires the restoration of well-drilling pads within nine months, although the company can take up to two years under certain conditions, such as unfavorable weather. It also requires well operators to keep records going back five years of the number of gallons of wastewater produced during drilling, how they were transported and disposed of, and who disposed of them. The bills require companies to disclose chemicals in the fracking fluids, but have exemptions on that requirement to protect trade secrets.

The bills...

VA reconsidering membership in Potomac commissions

It has been a rocky couple of months for the two commissions that oversee the Potomac River basin. Earlier this year, Virginia officials indicated they might not fund the Potomac River Fisheries Commission and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin because of tough fiscal circumstances.

MD to revise recently released nutrient, sediment rules

Maryland agriculture officials are continuing to work on regulations that will keep more manure and sediment out of waterways, but they have no timetable for when they'll get the job done.

The state's Department of Agriculture introduced new, stricter nutrient management guidelines in the fall, earning praise from environmentalists and criticism from farmers. The environmental community generally applauded across-the-board measures such as restricting the application of manure in the fall, banning it altogether in the winter and putting more cropland in buffer areas — even as some groups advocated for tighter regulations. But the farmers excoriated the department for not consulting a key advisory committee, applying a one-size-fits-all plan to farms with different soil types and crop needs, and forcing farmers to take fertile land out of production to protect the environment.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley asked the department to pull the guidelines from the Maryland Register and rework them in light of the criticisms.

"The purpose was to iron out changes that would make the regulations effective at protecting water quality and easy to implement," said Maryland Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Julie Oberg. "There is no set time frame."

Oberg thought it was unlikely that new regulations would be out in the near future; the governor has an ambitious environmental agenda in the legislative...

Methane digester helps dairy farmer convert manure into moolah

The anaerobic digester that Steve Reinford installed on his Pennsylvania dairy farm three years ago cost a million dollars, but he can already count the ways it pays for itself.

Energy from the digester, which turns cow manure into methane, powers about 100 homes in the Central Pennsylvania valley where Reinford raises his 500 dairy cows. While the rest of us pay the power company, Reinford doesn't; they send him a check every year.

He's able to use his digester and its many byproducts to heat his home and milk house, make bedding for his cows, fertilize his fields, dry his corn and pasteurize the milk he feeds his calves - saving him money and making him feel like the environmental steward he had always hoped to be.

"Six years ago, people said, 'there's no way you're going to get electricity out of cow manure,'" Reinford said. "But we're doing it, and we're doing very well."

The digester technology is fairly straightforward: Billions of tiny bacteria consume the waste and turn it into methane, which then can be a source of power. In addition to the gas, the process leaves a farmer with liquid manure for his fields and a solid that can be used for cow bedding and landscaping. And digesters are hardly new; Pennsylvania alone has two dozen of them, the first of which was installed more than 30 years ago in response to the Arab oil embargo.

But now the humble digester - and similar...

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