Loophole allows 1,680 acres of VA wetlands to be drained

A loophole in federal regulations has allowed developers and landowners to drain up to 1,680 acres of wetlands in Chesapeake, VA, reported the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk. Federal officials say another 4,300 acres of Chesapeake wetlands might be drained in the near future.

The loophole stems from a June decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that allowed property owners to cut ditches and drain nontidal wetlands without permits or oversight from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Nontidal wetlands, often found at the edge of low-lying farmland, are covered with water only seasonally, usually in the winter and spring. Tidal wetlands, those perennially wet, cattail-dotted marshes along creeks and rivers, remain under strict regulation of the Corps.

The court ruling basically scrapped the “Tulloch Rule,” a 1993 policy named for an Army colonel that gave the Corps the right to regulate sand mining, land clearing and ditching in nontidal wetlands. [See “Builders groups challenge plan to protect ‘isolated’ wetlands,” Bay Journal, March 1999]

Some builders and developers applauded the decision. “Finally, we have a chance to recover the value of our land that the federal government has taken away,” said Chesapeake businessman and landowner Jim Thorpe.

The ruling has been blamed for the rapid ditching of as many as 10,000 acres of wetlands in coastal North Carolina, mostly around Wilmington, according to experts and state officials. North Carolina moved to close the loophole and since March 1 has required state approval for such ditching. Virginia has not taken such action.

As drainage work expands on the wetlands-rich coastal plain, environmentalists say a disaster is looming unless Gov. Jim Gilmore or the federal government step in. “This is probably one of the most significant threats to wetlands, and to water quality in the Bay, in the last 20 or 30 years,” said Ann Jennings, staff scientist and wetlands expert with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Virginia.

According to the Chesapeake Public Works Department, Tulloch ditching is occurring at four sites, affecting 984 acres. The Corps counts six wetlands sites under way or completed, affecting 1,680 acres.

William Hester, a biologist with the regional office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the ecological effect of so much draining could alter the water table within the Great Dismal Swamp. That would destroy habitat for migratory birds and amphibians and increase the potential for flooding.

“This is a national issue playing out right here in our back yard,” he said. “And really, until Congress or somebody does something, our hands are tied.”

Del. Tayloe Murphy to retire

Virginia Delegate W. Tayloe Murphy, author of the 1988 Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act and often considered a “legend” among Virginia environmentalists, has announced he is retiring after 18 years in the state House of Delegates.

The 1988 act imposes state oversight on land use in Virginia’s coastal plain to limit runoff pollution from real estate development, farmland and septic tanks.

Murphy considered his single greatest personal achievement to be this session’s passage of a bill he authored that places the state’s poultry growers under state pollution regulations. “My overall philosophy is conservatism,” he said. “I believe the conservation of natural resources is a conservative point of view.”

Murphy is a long-time member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory panel that represent the legislatures of the Bay states. “He has been a cornerstone of the conservation community. … He has provided leadership and a steady pace toward the restoration of the Bay — without that, we will suffer,” said Ann Swanson, the commission’s executive director.

VA rejects horseshoe crab quotas

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission in February voted not to set harvest quotas on horseshoe crabs, disap pointing conservation groups and raising fears that overfishing will lead to dramatic decreases in species that depend on the crabs and their eggs.

Capturing horseshoe crabs for bait and medical uses has led to declining crab numbers. New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware have limited the catch in recent years. But fishermen from those states have been able to circumvent catch limits by landing their crabs in Virginia, which some call the “loophole state.”

In 1998, Virginia’s horseshoe crab landings increased an estimated 20 times the 1997 number. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages multistate fish populations, has not set coastwide limits.

In an effort to close the loophole, environmentalists launched a campaign to persuade the VMRC to adopt limits. But it opted only to require the monitoring of the horseshoe crab take and to prohibit the hand-catching of crabs near the shore during their five-week spawning season.

VMRC officials said the commission needs to collect more data on horseshoe crab stocks before it can set landing quotas. The seafood industry, which uses crabs for bait, said that last year’s catch in Virginia, though large, did not make up for the up to 80 percent reduction in harvest by other states.

Some worry that falling horseshoe crab numbers will further threaten shorebird and turtle species. Delaware Bay is the second-largest shorebird migration staging area in the world, hosting dozens of bird species, some of which travel from the southern tip of South America to the Arctic. Many of the species, such as the endangered red knot, time their migrations to the crab’s spawning so they can refuel off of crab eggs in the bay. The threatened loggerhead sea turtle also depends on the crabs as a food source.

Pfiesteria found in 5 MD rivers

Researchers found the microbe Pfiesteria piscicida in sediment samples from five Maryland waterways, bolstering suspicions that it is widespread, but not always in a potentially harmful, toxic form.

The microbe has been found in the bottom muck of several waterways where it had not been found before, said pfiesteria expert JoAnn Burkholder.

David Goshorn of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said, “We have suspected all along that pfiesteria is pretty widespread, and what she has done is to confirm our suspicion.”

Pfiesteria, found in coastal waters from New Jersey to Georgia, only turns toxic when conditions are just right.

Pfiesteria “is probably all over the Bay,” said Burkholder, who presented preliminary findings to Maryland officials at a scientific meeting of pfiesteria experts in February. She said the latest findings suggest that the Chesapeake Bay is not ideal for the microbe to become toxic.

In October and November, DNR workers took 100 sediment samples from 12 rivers. In the first 30 samples, Burkholder found pfiesteria in concentrations high enough to kill fish in the Big Annemessex, Chicamacomico, Pocomoke and St. Martin. The microbe was also was found in the Wicomico, but did not kill fish in the laboratory.

Experts think unusual weather patterns, combined with high nutrient levels, helped to trigger outbreaks blamed for killing or sickening fish in the Pocomoke River and two other Eastern Shore waterways in 1997, resulting in river closures and illnesses in 13 people.

The latest findings are part of a study for the DNR, which is trying to map the extent of pfiesteria in Maryland waters.

Aid sought for preservation in PA

A coalition of 21 environmental groups is urging the Pennsylvania General Assembly to add more than $1 billion to state programs ranging from the preservation of natural resources to aiding public libraries.

The proposal, dubbed the Heritage 21 Funding Initiative, is designed to work with Gov. Tom Ridge’s proposed $1.4 billion Growing Greener program, said Robert Griffith of the Pennsylvania recreation and Park Society and chairman of the Heritage 21 Alliance.

In a letter delivered to lawmakers, the alliance expressed support for the Growing Greener program, which proposes to redirect $1.3 billion in existing money to environmental needs. But, they said, more needs to be done. Their funding recommendations included $200 million for mine reclamation and well protection; $229 million to fix up public lands, such as state parks; $375 million to save farmland; and $151 million to preserve native plants and animals.

The alliance proposes issuing bonds to raise the money, but officials said they are open to other financing ideas.

Ridge spokesman Tom Charles said the governor wants to find ways to fund environmental programs with existing money.

Worth noting:

  • Hog ban. The Frederick County Commission in March enacted Maryland’s first moratorium on large-scale hog farms. The one-year ban gives county officials time to draft zoning laws to limit concentrated animal feeding operations.

  • DNR Fish Chief retires. Robert Bachman, head of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service, will retire in April. He had served six years as director of freshwater fisheries and three years as head of the Fish, Heritage and Wildlife Administration.

  • WV Watchdog. A national public employees group wants to help West Virginia mine inspectors, conservation officers and air permit writers do more to save the environment. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, has hired Wendy Radcliff, former environmental advocate for the Division of Environmental Protection, to head the state office. PEER is a nonprofit alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals including scientists, land managers and law enforcement officers.

  • Ashes to sand. In an effort to persuade mourners not to strew the ashes of their dearly departed on Maryland’s public beaches, the State Board of Morticians this spring will distribute a pamphlet to funeral directors with suggestions on how to store the remains at home or in a mausoleum. Residents of Venice, MD said the ritual was getting out of hand when a man was observed dumping five gallons of ashes — the remains of five bodies — on a beach.