Bay Journal

January 2014 - Volume 23 - Number 1

A walk in the woods with a different kind of forester

It’s a chill November morning, the rising sun sloshing light on the tree tops. Larry Walton and I are about a half-mile into the woods that line the Nanticoke River near Vienna, MD, when he wraps his arms around a great old Atlantic white cedar.

The species once shaded thousands of acres of Delmarva Peninsula swamps with its dense, evergreen canopies, before rampant logging and wetlands destruction made cedars relatively rare. Today, you seldom see specimens like this.

I’m about to kid my friend Larry, a career commercial forester, that he’s become a tree hugger as he approaches retirement at age 65. But he’s just measuring the massive, columnar trunk to see how much wood the cedar’s added since he was here some years ago. 

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Environmental groups file legal challenges to VA pipeline

A coalition of environmental groups and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have each appealed a state board’s decision to approve the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the largest of two controversial natural gas projects, for which Dominion Energy is seeking approval to build across Virginia.

The Bay Foundation and the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of more than a dozen environmental groups, each filed their appeals on Friday, the last day they could do so after the State Water Control Board’s Dec. 12 decision.

The board voted 4–3 that day to approve the pipeline after a tense, two-day public meeting in Richmond. Opponents of the pipeline initially claimed the approval as a partial victory, arguing that it was contingent on the state releasing more information about environmental impacts. But they later realized that merely submitting the information — with or without getting the board’s approval of its contents — would satisfy the requirements and allow the project to go forward.

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Invasive spotted lanternfly threatens Chesapeake’s crops, hardwoods

They are asleep for the winter in ugly little egg cases that look like splotches of dried mud plastered on all manner of smooth outdoor surfaces. They are found on trees, park benches, decks, walls, cars and rocks.

Experts believe that the latter, stone shipped from somewhere in its native China, was the vehicle on which the invasive spotted lanternfly first hitched a ride to Pennsylvania a little more than three years ago.

Since the lanternfly’s arrival, agricultural agencies and extension offices have been sounding the alarm and asking for help in reporting it and killing it, hoping to stave off its spread to other states in the Bay watershed. Important crops in the region at risk include apples, peaches and grape vines, as well as hardwoods such as maples, walnuts and some pine.

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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.”

Save the date(s) for 2018!

Celebrate the Chesapeake year-round! Get out your 2018 calendar and save these dates that mark activities and resources to help you get the most out of living near the Bay.

EPA lifts ban on pesticide known to cause brain damage in children

Science tells us that nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment are the systemic pollutants of the Bay and its tributaries. The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint seeks to reduce those pollutants to sustainable levels.

It is working. Water quality is improving, dead zones are diminishing and underwater grasses are at levels not seen in 30 years.

But these are not the only pollutants of concern. A recent decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will reverse a prior agency decision to ban the use of a chemical pesticide, chlorpyrifos, which is acutely toxic to Bay life and has been found to cause brain damage in children.

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Is organic farming good for the Chesapeake?

Organic agriculture is the fastest growing sector of the food industry in the United States, and its footprint in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is growing in kind.

The brand of agriculture that eschews the use of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and genetically engineered ingredients now makes up 20 percent of Perdue Farms’ poultry production on the Delmarva Peninsula, where the company is headquartered.

Smaller poultry producers in the region also are growing their organic operations at a steady clip: Bell & Evans, which is based in Fredericksburg, PA, and sells its chicken meat to high-end retailers such as Whole Foods Market, launched its line of organic products in 2009 and opened a certified organic hatchery this year. Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley Organic opened its first processing facility in Harrisonburg in 2014, providing contract growers interested in making the switch with an alternative buyer in that region.

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How big was last year’s dead zone? It depends on when you ask

It was quite a surprise: Two reports on Chesapeake Bay dissolved oxygen levels in 2017 came to starkly different conclusions. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported improvements and a vastly reduced dead zone. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science found oxygen conditions at their worst since 2014.

Scientists at both organizations were caught off guard last fall when the seemingly contradictory findings were released within a few weeks of each other and sent them scrambling to analyze the cause. 

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Trauma center provides creature comforts for injured, ailing animals

Tucked away on the outskirts of sleepy Waynesboro, VA, there’s a bustling trauma center for sick and injured wildlife. Think “M*A*S*H” with feathers and fur, featuring the tough triage decisions doctors have to make upon admitting new patients. But here, the patient list is wildly diverse: On any given day, the Wildlife Center of Virginia might see a listless bear cub brought in sick from eating rat poison, a bald eagle dying from ingesting lead bullet fragments in a deer carcass, and a king snake run over by a lawnmower. And that’s just before noon.

Draft of next Bay agreement omits toxics goal, mention of climate change

Next year, 20 years after approving a strategy that called for a “Bay free of toxics,” the Chesapeake Executive Council might settle for something else: a Bay agreement free of any reference to toxics.

Controlling toxic pollution has been an issue for the Chesapeake since the EPA released the results of its multi-year Bay study in 1983 that identified toxic pollution as one of the factors in the Bay’s decline.

Yet last fall, new toxics goals were struck from the latest draft of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the first new regional strategy for Bay restoration since the Chesapeake 2000 agreement was signed 14 years ago.

Conservation service returns to its roots – soil health

The Natural Resources Conservation Service is reviving its focus on the conservation concern that led to its creation after the Dust Bowl: soil health. The service that provides federal and state technical conservation assistance on farms throughout the Chesapeake watershed is recasting its message of conservation to focus on this key ingredient to improved water quality, farm production and sustainability.

The service under the U.S. Department of Agriculture was originally called the Soil Conservation Service. It was established in the 1930s to prevent the soil erosion on U.S. farmland that led to the Dust Bowl.

Public-private partnership to certify youth corps for restoration work

Beyond political will or ecological know-how, restoring the Chesapeake Bay and other impaired waters across the country requires a good deal of manpower.

It takes workers and “waders in the water,” as one firm puts it, to physically return rivers, streams and wetlands to a more natural state.

It’s work that Trout Headwaters, Inc., a private water restoration company, has been doing nationwide for nearly 20 years — and work that the company, through a new partnership with The Corps Network, now plans to equip youth corps nationwide to do.

Invasive insects lead to increased pesticide use, at least at first

A tiny fly that lays its eggs in still-ripening fruit has begun to wreak havoc on small fruit crops in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, leaving growers few options beyond additional pesticides for controlling it.

The newcomer is the spotted wing drosophila (Drosophila suzukii). Originating in Asia, the fly made its way into the United States in 2009. It has traveled up both the West and East coasts, and appeared in Virginia in the summer of 2011. It has since showed up in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.

Bioreactor chips away at nitrogen running off farm fields

Several farmers in the Chesapeake Bay region are testing a new conservation practice that can reduce nitrogen coming off farm fields’ drainage systems.

The practice is called a bioreactor. Instead of surface water from the fields collecting in a drain or ditch and discharging to streams and rivers, the collected water flows through a pipe that takes it to a buried trench filled with wood chips. The wood chips are a substrate for bacteria that digest the nitrogen. Then, the denitrified water continues flowing out the other side of the wood chip “box.” Thus, what ultimately runs off the farm fields has much less nitrogen in it.

River bottoms offer watermen new lease on life

As a young waterman, Mike Lindemon dreamed of having his own oyster lease. He wanted to work his own bottom, plant his own shell, set his own hours. For a man who fell off scaffolding while working at a nuclear power plant and still nurses the injuries 40 years later, the dream did not seem unreasonable. But it was painfully out of reach.

The Nanticoke River, where Lindemon had property, had been the base of operations for H. B. Kennerly and Sons, one of the state’s most successful oyster companies. Kennerly had thousands of acres under lease, making it next to impossible for a waterman to obtain one if he didn’t work under contract for Kennerly. And Lindemon had no luck obtaining a lease elsewhere. For more than a century, nearly every other waterfront county in the state outlawed private leases.

Project helping a living shoreline to emerge on shore VA creek

Occohannock on the Bay, a United Methodist camp and retreat center, sits modestly on the rise above Occohannock Creek, its cabins and beaches quiet among tall Virginia pines. A breeze out of the northwest is tinged with the promise of the coming winter storms that will soon buffet the shoreline of the creek in Belle Haven, VA.

Where campers splashed in the water and jigged for crabs just a month ago, a front-end loader is poised to pinch a 1,000-pound granite rock from a mammoth rock pile. The operator swings the arm out over the water and drops the rock just so between two PVC pipes that mark the linear “sill” of rocks, a mostly submerged jetty being built parallel to and about 50 feet from the shoreline.

Proposed natural gas line threatens trout stream, drinking water

A proposed natural gas pipeline in the Gunpowder River watershed is raising alarms among environmentalists, who worry that its construction would disrupt one of the East Coast’s finest trout rivers as well as drinking water for the Baltimore metropolitan region.

Columbia Gas, a subsidiary of Texas-based energy giant NiSource, wants to build a 21.5 mile gas line that would extend from Owings Mills in Baltimore County to Rutledge in Harford County. The 26-inch natural gas line would follow Columbia’s existing pipeline for 16.5 miles, then extend an additional five miles. Per a request from the Department of Natural Resources, it will go around Gunpowder Falls State Park instead of through it, which is one reason it needs the extension.

Living shoreline summit highlights emerging science, practices

“We are on a journey through the unknown,” said Evamaria Koch, a Brazilian-born scientist, who came to Maryland for her doctoral work and became captivated by the Chesapeake’s shorelines and submerged aquatic vegetation.

Speaking in Cambridge, MD, on the second day of the Mid-Atlantic Living Shoreline Summit, she was referring to her research on the effects of shoreline structures on SAVs and to the wider question of the effectiveness of shoreline defense strategies.

Koch could have been talking about any scientific inquiry, but her statement had special resonance for the more than 300 attendees who had braved snow and ice to spend a couple of days sharing knowledge and building community in support of living shorelines — one of the most promising tools that has emerged for protecting coastal properties from sealevel rise while enhancing habitat and ecological systems.

Conservation practices find fertile ground at VA farming conference

Conserving water, soil and farmland in the Chesapeake Bay watershed were all part of the discussion at the second annual Virginia Farm-to-Table conference in December.

The conference focused on growing the local “foodshed” — a term coined in 1916 by a New Yorker encouraging residents to protect their food resources and infrastructure like they would access to clean water.

Based on surveys taken after the first conference in 2012, Eric Bendfeldt with the Virginia Cooperative Extension said attendees “wanted to hear more about soil health and its impact on human health.”

Pollution reduction efforts make strides, but Bay water quality slow to react

The Bay Program’s latest effort to answer the perennial question — how is the Bay doing? — offers a decidedly mixed view of the efforts taken to help restore the Chesapeake and its watershed.

While it shows pollution reductions proceeding ahead of schedule, it shows most of the Bay and the streams that feed it are still in poor health. And while good strides are being made on some efforts such as fish passages and public access, other important goals — such as planting stream forest buffers — are coming up far short.

Judge rejects suit challenging legality of nutrient trading programs

A federal judge in December dismissed on procedural grounds a suit brought by two environmental groups that challenged the legality of nutrient trading programs, which are touted as a way to reduce the cost of implementing the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras of the District of Columbia granted the EPA’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Food & Water Watch and Friends of the Earth in October 2012.

Ancient ocean water discovered half mile beneath the Chesapeake

Scientists have discovered ocean water that dates to the time of dinosaurs trapped more than half a mile underneath the Chesapeake Bay.

Scientists believe the water, which they estimate to be between 100 million to 145 million years old, was trapped when a meteorite or comet hit the Earth near what is now the mouth of the Bay.

It is the oldest sizable body of seawater to be identified in the world, providing a unique window on the past.

No matter who gets a local LID prize, the Bay comes out a winner

In 2005, Dov Weitman, chief of the nonpoint source control branch at the EPA, returned to Washington, DC, from “an amazing consciousness-raising process” and wanted to share the experience with his colleagues.

Weitman had just served on the jury of the Houston Low Impact Development Competition, a contest that challenged development professionals to find new, low-impact ways to handle stormwater.

In a memo to his staff, he said the competition caused developers, civil engineers, architects and landscape architects to think differently — and more creatively — about stormwater, and he was convinced similar competitions — and benefits — could be replicated nationwide.

Air regs have helped water quality more than previously thought

The Chesapeake Bay may have reaped greater benefits from air pollution reductions over the last two decades than previously estimated, new research suggests.

Emissions of nitrogen oxides, or NOX, have declined sharply since the late 1990s as a result of increasingly stringent regulations aimed primarily at reducing acid rain and ground-level ozone, or smog. When those pollutants fall to the ground, they also contribute nitrogen pollution to the Bay.

But until now, it’s been thought that the water quality benefits to the Chesapeake from air pollution controls were relatively modest, largely because the greatest reductions in nitrogen deposition took place in the heavily forested western edge of the watershed, which is downwind of large Midwestern power plants.

Living Waters Summit starts key conversation between faith, conservation groups

Drum circles, interfaith songs and a baptismal-like bowl of water all had a place at the first Living Waters Interfaith Summit, hosted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Richmond on Tuesday.

But these were mostly props, intended to set the tone for an event that was both reverent and reflective in its efforts to engage Virginia’s faith-based and environmental communities in much-needed conversation.

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