When the state of Delaware wanted to restore underwater grass beds in the Indian River, officials eyed some lush grass beds to the south as a potential source.
Perhaps, they thought, Virginia would be willing to give up some of its lush grasses in Chincoteague Bay. But they dropped their request after talking to Virginia officials, who were in the process of strengthening protections for the very same grass beds.
“We have been very active with protection in Chincoteague because we have had grasses coming back in areas that have been vacant for a long time,” explained Wilford Kale, a spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Virginia is not alone; Maryland was also unwilling to provide grass.
The case illustrates a paradox that is also playing out in the Chesapeake Bay with increased frequency as interest grows in underwater grass restoration: Establishing new beds often means digging up part of healthy, existing grass beds to get the plants.
At a time when state agencies are cracking down on commercial fishing and other activities that disturb underwater grasses, officials are reluctant to grant permission to groups that want to extract plants, even for restoration.
But an old sand and gravel mine along the James River may offer a new way around the problem.
The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay plans to convert the cove-like site into a massive grass bed that will ultimately provide a plant source for restoration projects in nearby rivers and streams.
The hope is that local watershed groups can launch grass restoration efforts by using it as a “donor” bed. Like modern-day Johnny Appleseeds, those groups would gather the plants and place them in other areas, jump-starting the return of beds which — in many cases — vanished decades ago.
Right now, those groups — often with small or no staffs — face increasingly strict regulations in Maryland and Virginia about gathering plants. By using the donor site, the groups could bypass that part of the regulatory process, although they would still need a permit to plant the grasses.
“This provides a site that makes it easier for a watershed organization to legally do this,” said Bob Murphy, the Alliance’s project manager.
The donor site, supported by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will be at the Shirley Plantation on the James River. The owner, Charles Carter — whose brother, Randy, is an active volunteer monitor — made the cove area available to the Alliance.
It is ideal because the 10-acre cove was created as a byproduct of a sand and gravel mining operation that operated from the 1940s through the 1960s. As a result, Virginia doesn’t consider the area to be state-owned bottom; any plants can be removed without a permit from the VMRC.
Murphy got the donor bed idea from the Severn River in Maryland, where a failed bulkhead created a calm backwater site where people began planting grasses. The plants thrived, and soon people were going back to that site for grasses to transplant elsewhere.
In the James, Murphy hopes to make that work on a larger scale. If successful, he would like to see similar donor sites established Baywide.
Next spring, the cove will be planted with about 3,000 plants purchased mostly from laboratories that grow the plants.
It’s hoped that the near-ideal water quality in the backwater, where they will also be protected from human disturbance, will allow those initial plantings to rapidly expand. “They’ll self-propagate a lot better here,” Murphy said. “If grasses takes well to an area, that same year you can have 100 percent coverage.”
By 2003, it’s hoped that donor bed plants will be ready to be moved to other areas for restoration projects. The Alliance is already working to help local groups gear up for that step.
“We’re going to concentrate on getting all of the watershed associations that are nearby to come to a training workshop to let them know about it, so two years from now, they can all arrange to do some selective harvesting,” said Stacey Moulds, the Alliance’s volunteer water quality monitoring coordinator.
The site is being used to propagate freshwater species, such as wild celery. But Murphy said the technique may be especially useful for eel grass, which is the dominant grass in high salinity portions of the Bay, but has not been successfully grown in laboratories. As a result, all eel grass used in restoration projects must be dug from healthy grass beds.
The donor bed concept has won support from state officials because they don’t have to regulate the removal of the plants.
“We wouldn’t have a problem with people doing that because you are establishing donor beds on areas that are not state property,” said Jay Woodward, an environmental engineer with the VMRC’s Habitat Management Division.
In fact, Woodward said the idea may hold promise as a tool to help mitigate impacts on grass beds. Right now, when someone is required to plant grasses because they are harming an established beds, they usually have to dig plants out of existing beds for the mitigation project.
“That’s been the problem all along with SAV mitigation — where are you going to get this material to offset impacts?” Woodward said. “You have to get it from other areas of state resources. You are kind of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.”
The focus of the new donor bed,though, will be to provide plant supplies to local watershed groups, although it may offer plants for mitigation projects as well. Murphy said that “preference will be given to restoration over mitigation.”
It’s hard to say exactly how many projects the donor bed will spawn. But by avoiding some regulatory hurdles and helping more local groups take restoration projects into their own hands, there should eventually be plenty of plants to make a difference for many local waterways. Said Moulds, “It’s a pretty big cove.”