Most people understand, intuitively, that the ability to clean up the Chesapeake Bay is dependent on what we accomplish in its 64,000-square-mile watershed. The watershed is the primary focus for the improvements (best management practices) that make up the complex strategies that government agencies are using to reduce pollution from the land and our use of it.
It is also a fitting analogy to compare the Bay to the living, beating heart of this landscape and its ecosystem. The hundreds of thousands of miles of streams and rivers in the watershed are the “blood vessels” that carry the water and valuable organic nutrients that have nourished the Bay for eons. Indeed, a healthy Bay relies on the health of this circulatory system.
Faced with cardiac issues in our own lives, a doctor would say that the recipe for better health and long life revolves around changing our lifestyle, giving up bad habits and exercising and eating in ways that build up the health and function of our circulatory systems. Sure, we can take aspirin or another medication to help with one symptom or another, but the only way to achieve the goal of cardiac health is to strengthen the resilience of the whole system.
So it is with the Chesapeake.
Over our long history of living and working in this watershed, we have been pretty hard on the health of many of our streams.
In urban areas, most streams no longer function properly as a result of the extreme floods and droughts that are the hallmark of less forest and more paved surfaces. In agricultural areas, centuries of straightening, ditching, diverting and grazing have dramatically changed many forested streams into exposed and eroded channels that can no longer support biological life.
The Chesapeake Bay Program and its partners have used a stream health indicator that is based on an assessment of benthic (bottom-dwelling) macroinvertebrate health. This data collected by various partners is incorporated into an Index of Biotic Integrity that rates stream health across the watershed. This approach is being refined and strengthened as part of the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement goals. But looking at data assembled during the last assessment does not present a very pretty picture. Nearly 60 percent of the streams in the Bay watershed were in very poor or poor health, less than 25 percent were rated good or excellent.
Because a stream is intricately connected to the corridor in which it flows, our definition of what influences stream health must expand. These riparian corridors directly influence the chemical, physical and biological health of the stream and help to determine its resilience, or how well it can bounce back from floods or other extreme events.
There are some hopeful signs.
In urban areas, where we have wreaked havoc on the physical condition of streams, new restoration techniques, such as “regenerative stormwater conveyance,” are working to create stable environments in unstable streams where some biology and resilience can be revived while reducing chemical pollution issues. As new stormwater regulations try to address water quality and runoff volume, renewed interest in reconstructing streams and floodplains to mimic natural functions are becoming more commonplace.
The Alliance will be working with St. Luke’s Church in Annapolis on one such approach. By looking at the function of the entire stream corridor, these efforts may sometimes be more expensive yet are more likely to produce long-lasting benefits.
On agricultural lands, farmers may be our best partners and perhaps the biggest opportunity to restore stream health in the watershed. For thousands of miles of long disturbed streams, especially on lands where livestock grazing has been a part of the landscape for centuries, healthy streams are rare. Streams flowing through cultivated fields can be conduits for fertilizer and pesticides.
But unlike in urban areas, these streams are neither plagued by extensive stormwater runoff nor confined by buildings and roads. Many farmers in the watershed have committed to projects that are restoring streams and planting new forests. The Alliance has a waiting list of farmers who are ready to restore the health of their streams through their Healthy Streams Farm Stewardship program. Farmers could be our greatest partners in restoring the circulatory system that the Bay is depending on while they improve the health of their land as well.
Yet, healthy streams as an outcome does not appear to be sufficiently considered in Bay cleanup plans or on the radar of some of our most important government agencies.
The important focus on getting the most nutrient and sediment reductions for every dollar spent can lead to the implementation of BMPs that do not adequately address the Bay circulatory system — its streams. Resources are limited, so we need to get more than one benefit from each dollar spent and look to solutions that achieve multiple goals and restore long-lasting natural processes. When we focus only on the dollars per pound of pollution reduced, we may miss the “forest for the trees.”
Stream health is so critical to the successful restoration of the Bay’s health, and the chemical water quality that most BMPs only focus on this part of this equation. Much more attention is needed on the restoration of “healthy streams.”
Given the huge opportunity to work with farmers, it is surprising that achieving the outcome of healthy streams on agricultural lands is not an expressed focus of U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies. In 2015, the Chesapeake Bay Commission produced and the Executive Council delivered a comprehensive report on livestock fencing to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cows are not a part of the stream ecosystem and this report rightly calls for their removal from streams. This report not only points out the benefits of livestock exclusion but recognizes that fencing alone is not enough.
The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and its partners worked for 14 months with all of the Bay states, federal and state agencies and stakeholders, to identify barriers to restoring the riparian forests along streams as buffers – a key aspect of achieving stream health. These findings and recommendations were also presented to the USDA through the Executive Council.
The USDA has committed nearly half a billion dollars to various programs such as the Conservation Resource Enhancement Program that are aimed at planting buffers, but these programs are not being implemented aggressively or in a way that focuses on achieving the outcome of healthy streams. Are we getting our money’s worth? These programs need reform, performance goals and less red tape, but, so far, little has changed.
We know the critical benefits of a healthy circulatory system for the heart of our restoration efforts. We know the critical role that healthy streams play in achieving the goal of a healthy Chesapeake Bay. If we are to build solutions that last, rather than just implement BMPs, we need to work smarter and think quite a bit more about what it will take to have healthy streams.
Let’s make this year the first in a renaissance of attention on achieving healthy streams.
The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.