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News, notes and observations from the Bay Journal staff.

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Southern Maryland county puts aquaculture restriction on hold

A controversial proposal to temporarily restrict the expansion of some types of oyster farming in St. Mary’s County, MD, has been tabled for now, as county officials lobby the state to give more weight to local wishes in the permitting of aquaculture.

The St. Mary’s Board of County Commissioners decided on Tuesday, Sept. 11, to extend the public comment period until Dec. 4 on a proposed ordinance that would impose an 18-month moratorium on the use of commercial docks to support new state-approved leases for growing oysters in cages or floats.

The decision — reached by a 4-0 vote, with one commissioner absent — comes two weeks after a well-attended public hearing in Leonardtown, where more people spoke in opposition to the proposed moratorium than spoke in favor. 

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Time will reveal July storm’s impact on Chesapeake water quality, ecosystem

The persistent storms that pounded the Mid-Atlantic region in late July could have lingering impacts on the Chesapeake Bay, though it will take weeks, if not months, of monitoring for scientists to fully assess the potential damage.

The deluge, which dumped 7 inches or more of rain on much of the Bay watershed over a 5-day span beginning July 21, could be a temporary setback for Bay recovery efforts, where underwater grasses and dissolved oxygen levels have shown signs of recovery in recent years.    

Karl Blankenship and Jeremy Cox

FERC approves ‘Potomac pipeline’ that would carry gas from Pennsylvania to West Virginia

​Over objections from environmentalists, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has given the green light to building a hotly disputed natural gas pipeline through western Maryland and under the Potomac River.

With one of its five commissioners voting no and another dissenting in part, the five-member commission approved the Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project, a 3.5-mile pipeline proposed by Columbia Gas Transmission that would carry gas from Pennsylvania to West Virginia.

Timothy B. Wheeler

Army Corps commander retires from Baltimore District with a legacy of oyster and island restoration

By his own admission, Col. Edward P. Chamberlayne didn’t know that much about oysters or what it took to get a permit for an oyster farm when he assumed command three years ago of the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

He proved to be a quick study, though. Maryland oyster farmers were hopping mad then about government red tape and delays they said were holding back the state’s fledgling aquaculture industry, and the Corps’ Baltimore District shared the blame for it.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Maryland invites input on next phase of Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan

Maryland officials are seeking public feedback as they draft the state’s next steps in the long-running effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

Earlier this week, officials with the state departments of the Environment and Agriculture briefed local officials, nonprofit leaders and others about the cleanup progress to date and the tough issues still to be faced.  While water quality is improving, the Bay’s oxygen-starved “dead zone” is shrinking and underwater grasses are rebounding to record levels, they said more needs to be done to fully restore the Chesapeake — and keep it that way.

Timothy B. Wheeler

After dodging hurricanes, Harriet the osprey last heard from in Puerto Rico

Some Bay Journal readers have wondered what became of Harriet, an osprey nesting in Masonville Cove in Baltimore that last summer was fitted with a transmitter allowing biologists to track her movements.

Karl Blankenship
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Long-buried oyster shells show how the Bay sustained early Americans

What can a bunch of old oyster shells tell you about the Chesapeake Bay’s past, and maybe its future? More than you’d think, according to Alex Jansen, a researcher with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

For several years, Jansen has been working with other researchers poking around on both shores of the Bay, digging up “shell middens,” primitive landfills holding ancient debris and other castoff artifacts. Around the Chesapeake, they mostly contain heaps of oyster shells, an indication of the dietary importance of the Bay’s bivalves to indigenous people long before European settlers arrived. 

Timothy B. Wheeler

Panel with Virginia governor will detail state’s opposition to offshore drilling

A coalition of Virginia officials now opposes federal leasing plans that would permit oil drilling in waters off the coast of the state. Gov. Ralph Northam — who has said he will use “every tool at his disposal” to derail the drilling plans — will share the specifics of his stance during a forum at Old Dominion University in Norfolk at 6:30 p.m. on March 5.

Northam will return to the Tidewater region that he once represented in the state senate to participate in a panel about the risks that offshore drilling poses to the region’s environment, economy and military. The event is part of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Blue Planet Forum at ODU’s Ted Constant Convocation Center.

Whitney Pipkin

Two members of MD fisheries panel replaced who'd questioned crab regulator's firing

The replacement of the chair and another member of a key Maryland fishery advisory body has surprised some observers and led others to question whether it’s political fallout from the firing a year ago of the state’s veteran blue crab fishery regulator.

Billy Rice, a widely respected Charles County waterman who since 2011 had been chairman of the Department of Natural Resources Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission, learned last week that he’d been replaced.

And Rachel Dean, who with her husband runs a fishing business in Calvert County, learned in late December that she would not be reappointed to the commission, either. They were the only two seeking reappointment who were replaced on the 16-member panel, which advises the department on regulations and issues involving crabbing, oystering and other tidal fisheries.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Hogan urges U.S. Senate to reject curb on EPA role in Bay cleanup

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan this week sent a letter urging Senate leaders to oppose a House-passed measure that would strip the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of its power to act against any Bay watershed state that fails to meet its Chesapeake pollution reduction goals.

Hogan -- who chairs the Chesapeake Executive Council, which guides Bay restoration policy -- voiced his “strong opposition” to a pending spending bill provision put forward by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA. The House approved it last September by a vote of 213 to 197, but whether it takes effect depends on congressional budget negotiations to be completed by next month.

Hogan said Goodlatte's amendment would harm Bay restoration efforts by preventing the EPA from enforcing “policies and procedures that are necessary for achieving pollution reductions in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.”

Karl Blankenship
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Winter brings waterfowl bonanza to Bay

If you think you’ve been seeing more ducks, geese and swans around the Chesapeake Bay this winter than usual, you’re onto something.

Recent aerial surveys have tallied more than one million waterfowl of all types along Maryland’s coasts and shoreline, the state Department of Natural Resources announced Thursday. That’s 25 percent more than were seen last year and about 20 percent above the average for the last five years.

Timothy B. Wheeler

High Tide in Dorchester: A new documentary from the Bay Journal

Though it begins with aerial shots of the seemingly endless tidal marshes in Maryland’s Dorchester County, the latest Bay Journal documentary is about a fast-approaching future in which that landscape could be entirely underwater.

High Tide in Dorchester is the second collaboration between Bay Journal columnist Tom Horton, Bay Journal photographer and videographer Dave Harp and environmental filmmaker Sandy Cannon-Brown. The same crew produced the documentary Beautiful Swimmers Revisited in 2015, also sponsored by the Bay Journal.

Whitney Pipkin

Baltimore harbor cleanup effort spotlighted on MPT

Baltimore’s harbor is one of the most polluted sites in the Chesapeake Bay – with water that's often unsafe for swimming and for eating many of the fish that local anglers can catch.

An ambitious effort is under way to turn centuries of abuse around, and make the harbor safe for swimming and fishing by 2020. It's one of the stiffest local challenges in the entire Chesapeake Bay restoration effort. A team of students at American University undertook a film to document the harbor’s condition and the status of the cleanup effort. 

Timothy B. Wheeler

Pruitt says EPA reconsidering Bay Journal grant decision

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt told a Senate committee on Tuesday that his agency’s decision to terminate a six-year grant that partially funds the Bay Journal was “under reconsideration.”

Pruitt, appearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, was questioned by Sen. Ben Cardin and Sen. Chris van Hollen, both Maryland Democrats, about the agency’s decision last summer to end the six-year grant after just two years of funding.

and Staff Reportand Karl Blankenship

Proposed gas pipeline under Potomac draws fire

As pipelines go, the Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project isn’t much. It would run just 3.5 miles, north to south, traversing one of the narrowest parts of western Maryland.

But there’s no small controversy around this project. It would involve tunneling deep under the Potomac River — drinking water source for the Washington metropolitan area and other smaller communities upriver — to carry natural gas from Pennsylvania to growing communities in West Virginia.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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MD leaders pledge support for environmental protections amid Trump rollback

Maryland’s legislative leaders delighted environmental advocates Thursday by vowing to strengthen the state’s forest conservation law, increase renewable energy and pass other green initiatives, while resisting environmental rollbacks by the Trump administration. It remains to be seen whether election-year politics will help those prospects.  

The 23rd annual environmental legislative summit in Annapolis drew a standing room only crowd to hear pitches — and pledges of support — for green groups’ top priorities during the 90-day General Assembly session that began Jan. 10.

“We’re going to make us the most environmentally friendly state in America,” House Speaker Michael Busch declared, to enthusiastic applause. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller voiced similar sentiment, predicting that amid upcoming debates over taxes, spending and other tough issues, “the one thing we’re going to agree on is the environment.”

Timothy B. Wheeler

Bay Barometer finds things keep looking up

The wintry weather outside may be frightful, but the latest Bay Barometer is pointing in a generally positive direction.

The annual report released by the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program trumpeted continued gains the long-running effort to restore the estuary, with new highs reached last year in fish passage, water quality and blue crab and underwater grass abundance.

Timothy B. Wheeler

Bay water quality nears record high mark

Water quality in a little more than 39 percent of the Chesapeake was good enough during the last three years to support Bay creatures, from worms to crabs to fish, figures released Thursday show.

That was the second-best extent of good water quality seen in any three-year period since coordinated Chesapeake monitoring efforts began in 1985, according to the state-federal Bay Program partnership.  

Karl Blankenship

Environmental groups say Conowingo operator can afford to help restore Bay

Exelon Corp. could help restore the lower Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay by changing the way it generates electricity at Conowingo Dam, and still make a “healthy” profit, a pair of environmental groups said Tuesday.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and The Nature Conservancy released a study they jointly commissioned that finds that the Chicago-based energy company could easily afford to mitigate the impacts Conowingo is having on downriver fish habitat and water quality.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Hellbender step closer to being PA clean-water mascot

The Eastern hellbender is one step closer to becoming Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian after the Senate voted 47 to 2 Wednesday to pass a bill calling for its designation. The hellbender is North America’s largest salamander and only lives in pristine mountain streams, so environmental advocates want to make it a sort of clean-water mascot.

Donna Morelli
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Striped bass reproduction in Bay a bit above average, surveys show

Striped bass reproduction in the Chesapeake Bay slightly exceeded the long-term average this year, annual surveys show, offering hope that the population is rebounding from low levels that led to coastwide fishing restrictions three years ago.

In Maryland — where reproduction has historically been an accurate predictor of future coastwide populations — the annual juvenile index has been above average for two of the past three years.

That’s an improvement from the previous seven-year span when the index had been below average in all but one year. That reproductive drought spurred the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates the harvest of migratory fish, to impose a coastwide catch reduction in 2014, including a 20 percent cut in the Chesapeake.

Karl Blankenship
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MD presses case for dredging oyster shells from popular fishing reef

The Hogan administration is pressing ahead with its bid to dredge old oyster shells from the largest remaining deposit in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay — a move backed by watermen but widely opposed by conservationists and recreational anglers.

The state Department of the Environment has declared its support for the plan to mine 5 million bushels of shells from Man-O-War Shoals, near the mouth of the Patapsco River. The MDE issued a public notice Nov. 1 recommending that the state Board of Public Works grant the Department of Natural Resources a tidal wetlands license, which is needed to do the dredging.

The plan still needs federal approval, but if given the green light, DNR officials say the old shells would be used to replenish reefs in waters open to commercial harvest, help private oyster growers and restore reefs in sanctuary areas.

Timothy B. Wheeler

A few rays of hope - and another major setback for VA pipeline opponents

The multi-billion-dollar Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas conduit that has been proposed to cross environmentally sensitive areas in Virginia, continues to move through the regulatory process, though several new developments offer environmentalists and private landowners cause for cautious optimism.

On Oct. 13, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave formal approval to Dominion Energy’s request to build the pipeline, which will involve the legally sanctioned seizure of private property from unwilling landowners.

William H. Funk
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Key to stream restoration success: location, location, location

With millions of dollars being poured into urban and suburban stream restoration projects across the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a recent study suggests location matters when trying to assess how effective those efforts have been.

After surveying 13 Baltimore highly degraded suburban streams that had undergone makeovers, a pair of researchers found that aquatic insect populations were larger and more diverse in isolated headwaters than in larger downstream reaches.

Timothy B. Wheeler

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