Bay Journal


News, notes and observations from the Bay Journal staff.

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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

MD senators call on EPA to reverse Bay Journal decision

Warning that its decision to cut grant funding for the Bay Journal sets a “dangerous nationwide precedent,” Maryland’s two U.S. senators asked Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to reverse his agency’s action in a letter Wednesday.

Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen said the Bay Journal has “done a sterling job of delivering returns on investments,” and that there was “no legitimate cause to deprive the residents of the Chesapeake Bay watershed of such a vital source of information.”

Karl Blankenship
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Judge approves disputed plan to fix Baltimore's sewage overflows

Brushing aside an environmental group’s objection, a federal judge has given the city of Baltimore another 13 years to eliminate the chronic sewage overflows that frequently render local streams and the harbor unsafe for recreation.

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz approved a consent decree on Thursday spelling out a new plan for overhauling Baltimore’s aged, leaky sewer system. It modifies the initial agreement reached in 2002 with federal and state regulators, which had given the city until January 2016 to fix its problems. Despite spending nearly $1 billion on repairs over that time, by city officials’ estimates, the overflows continue.

Timothy B. Wheeler

Virginia endowment honors Bay Journal Media

Bay Journal Media was one of 22 organizations recognized as one of the Virginia Environmental Endowment’s “Partners in Excellence” during its 40th anniversary celebration in Richmond on Oct. 5.

The VEE said the Bay Journal, the organization’s primary publication, “is recognized as the media voice for news about the Chesapeake Bay.” The endowment has provided financial support for increased coverage of Virginia issues in the Bay Journal, and has helped launch its recent Local Government Edition, which provides Bay-related information to local officials throughout the watershed.

Karl Blankenship
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Virginia board to hear pipeline arguments over four days in December

The fate of two sprawling pipeline projects in Virginia will be decided by the State Water Control Board at a pair of meetings in December, each expected to last two days.

The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, which would carry natural gas across portions of West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina have faced steep opposition from citizens and environmental groups. The projects are undergoing review by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which has pledged to apply several “regulatory tools…to ensure that Virginia’s water quality is protected” should the projects be approved.

Whitney Pipkin
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Oyster season opens on a down note

The public oyster harvest season began Monday, with Chesapeake Bay watermen no doubt hoping for a better haul this fall and winter than last. For Maryland watermen, though, there isn’t a lot of room for optimism.

Despite mild weather last winter, Maryland’s 2016-2017 harvest from public oyster bars was off nearly 42 percent from the year before, a steep drop from the modest decline seen the previous two years. Last season, 1,086 licensed watermen harvested 224,609 bushels of bivalves, down from a 384,000-bushel catch in 2015-2016, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Documentary delves into rising sea level’s toll on culture, habitat

What happens when land that has been farmed or built upon for more than 300 years, and hunted and fished for thousands of years before that, becomes open water? What happens when nuisance flooding becomes prevalent and undermines roads to such an extent that the cost of fixing them cannot be justified by local government? What happens when one of the most popular national wildlife refuges in the country turns from marsh and upland — beneficial to migratory birds and many native species — to open water with barren bottom?

High Tide in Dorchester, a new Bay Journal documentary film about the cultural and ecological effects of rising sea level in Chesapeake Bay, will seek to answer these and other questions

David Harp


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