Bay Journal

July-August 2016 - Volume 26 - Number 5

You know spring is around the corner when…

Although the vernal equinox — the official first day of spring — occurs on March 20, changes in our natural world are already heralding the end of winter. These changes are erupting on the land, in the sky and in waterways, as quiet, gray days begin to burst with color and song.

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Norfolk’s Lafayette River close to meeting oyster restoration goal

Kalie Johnson didn’t plan it this way, but she’s helping to restore oysters in one of the most challenging places in Virginia.

[Kalie Johnson (left), owner of Colonial Oyster Company, Jackie Shannon of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and volunteer Clark Dewing knock oysters off overgrown cages retrieved from mouth of York River. (Dave Harp)] Three years ago, the Williamsburg native launched her own aquaculture business, Colonial Oyster Company, which raises hatchery-bred bivalves at the mouth of the York River. It’s been a good spot for cultivating shellfish, but shortly after she started, nature threw her a curve. Eighteen of her 250 cages became so heavily overgrown with wild-spawned oysters that she couldn’t get them aboard her skiff to clean off the hitchhikers.

Figuring that portion of her stock was lost, the 27-year-old oyster grower offered to donate everything in and on those cages to the Lafayette River in Norfolk, if she could only get help salvaging her gear.

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Virginia lawmakers keep coal ash recycling on the table, feds try to loosen regs

Virginia requirements for the disposal of ash produced by coal-burning power plants could soon be more stringent than rules set by the federal government.

The General Assembly approved a bill at the end of session last week that requires companies with coal ash pits in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to take another step toward recycling their contents, though the measure stopped short of requiring recycling. The bill forces companies such as Dominion Energy, which maintains nearly a dozen coal ash pits in the state, to seek proposals from contractors to recycle coal ash into concrete or other construction materials and to compile the costs into a report for lawmakers to consider by the end of the year.

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A growing respect: Plain Sect become more involved in Bay conversation

A small stream flows out of the mountains in Lancaster County, PA, near the Berks County border, with water as clear as a freshly wiped window pane. It winds through woods and over stones, shaded by trees and embraced by undeveloped land.

Downstream, where the trees give way to farmland, the stream flows through an enclave of Amish farms, first through Benuel Zook’s pasture and then through Raymond King’s.

As recently as 2012, the stream ran brown once it hit pasture. It was often lined with up to 250 cows, from the first pasture to the last, about 40 from each farm. Their manure, combined with soil from eroding banks, entered the stream.

But then farmers began to make some changes — and delivered a chain of conservation actions with collective results.

Project Clean Stream collects future stewards as well as trash

Every year between March and the first week of June, tens of thousands of volunteers come together to clean up their local communities as a part of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s Project Clean Stream — the largest trash cleanup initiative in the Chesapeake Bay region. 

For more than 15 years, the support provided by project has sustained the cleanup efforts of volunteers and groups, both big and small, throughout the watershed. Cleanup events receive support with free gloves, trash bags, first aid kits, safety vests, signage and assistance coordinating the project’s logistics.

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How close to perfect must Bay water quality be to achieve goal?

States in the Chesapeake Bay region are spending billions of dollars to stem the flow of nutrients that foul the Bay’s water — but just how “clean” must the Bay be to declare victory?

The answer is a complex mix involving a lot of science topped off with some policy decisions, as well as one that could be subject to debate in coming months. 

In fact, a handful of places around the Bay were always likely to fall short of prescribed cleanup goals even if all of the actions to support the Bay’s “pollution diet” were fully enacted. Those places were given variances that allowed their dissolved oxygen levels, at specific times and locations, to fall short of established minimum levels.

New computer model projections show that some of those areas may no longer need such variances if current pollution reduction goals are met. But the deepest area in Maryland’s portion of the Bay, between the Bay Bridge and the mouth of the Patuxent River — a segment known as “CB4” — may be even more problematic.

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Congress faces deadline for Bay funding, EPA authority decisions

Congress faces deadlines this month to determine how much authority the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will have to enforce Bay cleanup efforts — and how much money it will have to spend on that work during this fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

A year ago, President Trump proposed eliminating funding for the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, which coordinates regional restoration efforts, monitoring and computer modeling programs, as well as makes grants to states and local governments to help cleanup efforts.

Congress isn’t planning to go along with Trump, but the actual amount the Bay Program will receive has been in limbo for months as lawmakers have passed a series of short-term continuing resolutions rather than a full-year spending plan. 

MDE must rethink lease of 46 years for Conowingo

The Maryland Department of the Environment public comment period for the Conowingo Dam Water Quality Certification renewal closed on Jan 15. The MDE certification is mandatory before Exelon reapplies for federal relicensing. (They have requested a 46-year lease term without any significant changes in how they operate.) This will set a precedent for the federal relicensing process. Here are our concerns:

We own and operate commercial oyster aquaculture operations in the Upper and Middle Bay regions, respectively. Through careful record-keeping, and discussions with those most knowledgeable with the dam’s operation, we feel its openings and closures have a direct and profound effect on our businesses and the aquaculture industry, as well as the public oyster fishery.

Waterfowl break winter silence at VA wildlife refuge

Laid bare of its sound-absorbing foliage, the forest of lanky hardwoods becomes a cacophony of sound. On this cool morning, the leaves crunch underfoot and rustle nearby as a squirrel digs for hidden treasure. 

The din of a waterfowl gathering in the Great Marsh, though still a hundred yards away, swells quickly as we walk toward the Potomac River through the woody peninsula. From a sturdy overlook, the geese, swans and ducks come into view. Their quacking, honking and flapping are all we can hear. 

Scientists digging up the dirt for clues to disappearing nitrogen

Call it the case of the missing nitrogen.

For decades, scientists have wondered what happens to the nitrogen that farmers apply to fields. On the farm, levels of the nutrient are high. But downstream, they’re lower — sometimes only half as much. In an attempt to figure out where it went, scientists have undertaken “mass balance studies” to solve the mystery.

Booming wood pellet production inching toward watershed forests

A growing industry that’s harvesting “woody biomass” from forests for energy generation could gain a toehold soon in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Like virtually every other form of energy, it’s also generating intense debate about its environmental impact.

Biomass from trees is already used to generate a small amount of power in the United States; wood chips generate electricity at several small plants owned by Dominion, the Virginia-based energy company. (The term “biomass” generally refers to any plant material used for fuel. Woody biomass is made from trees.)

The big demand for pellets made from woody biomass, though, comes from utilities in Europe and the United Kingdom that are trying to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. This is driving the harvesting of low-value trees and “slash,” or debris left by logging, in the Southeastern United States, from just south of the Bay watershed to the state of Mississippi.

Biologists alarmed over lack of young Atlantic sturgeon in surveys

Biologists have been surprised in recent years about how many big Atlantic sturgeon they are finding around the Chesapeake Bay. But rather than celebrating, they have become increasingly alarmed about what they are not seeing: a new generation of young sturgeon.

While finding more adults is certainly good news, biologists say they have seen little evidence those sturgeon have successfully produced significant numbers of offspring in recent years that would be critical if the endangered species is to make a comeback in the Chesapeake.

Farm sites along upper Choptank to help measure BMPs’ efficiency

Thomas Fisher hiked carefully down a slope and into the water at South Forge, a small, barely there waterway that includes a culvert running under a busy Caroline County road.

Fisher, an ecologist with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, took a sample of the murky water and pondered its contents. He noted the depth, the flow conditions and the location in the stream. Then, he capped the clear plastic jar and stored it with more than a dozen other samples in a gray bin about the size of a municipal garbage can, for later analysis in a laboratory.

This routine, repeated multiple times a month over five years in four different spots in the Choptank River watershed, will help to answer a vexing question in Chesapeake Bay restoration work: Which farm runoff control measures work the best, and how can it be ensured that farmers are doing them correctly?

PA’s ‘reboot’ strategy to improve water quality off to slow start

The Wolf administration’s plan to “reboot” Pennsylvania’s badly lagging Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts could be in need of its own kick-start.

Since unveiling the strategy in January, state environmental leaders have grappled with resistance to their plan for increasing oversight of farms in the watershed. And they have yet to line up major new sources of funding to make good on their pledge to plant more stream buffers and take a host of other actions to improve local and Bay water quality.

Vive l’huitre! Chesapeake oyster aquaculture has roots in France

J. Carter Fox had heard the stories of the once-robust Chesapeake Bay oyster grounds. But in four decades of summers at his family place in Reedville, VA, the longtime paper executive rarely saw anyone working the bottom. Local fishermen told him there hadn’t been oysters in those Northern Neck waters for ages. All they could do, they said, was hope the diseases killing the bivalves went away and the species came back.

Fox might have bought that explanation — except in 1998, he and his wife, Carol, bought a summer home in Ile de Re, an island off the west coast of France. The view there was similar to the one from the window in Reedville — except it was filled with oyster growers.

Trawlers suspected in disappearance of shad, herring offshore

Mid-Atlantic fisheries regulators are weighing whether to take additional steps to protect American shad and river herring as they migrate along the East Coast, as some new research suggests significant numbers of herring may be accidentally netted by offshore trawlers.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is scheduled to receive a staff-written white paper in August reviewing whether to move toward imposing tighter limits on the amount of shad and river herring that could be caught by offshore fleets pursuing another species, Atlantic mackerel.

Can what’s good for the Chesapeake reap benefits for farms?

If Trey Hill ever gets bored managing more than 10,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and a range of cover crops, he can cue up footage of the farm’s resident ospreys on his MacBook Pro.

Hill did just that as he entered his sparsely decorated office during a recent visit, more proud of the birds’ presence than of the million-dollar machinery just outside. The webcam provides real-time views of the nest’s newest hatchling against a familiar backdrop: the Chester River and Chesapeake Bay, which frame the farm Hill’s family has been running on Maryland’s Eastern Neck since the early 1900s.

Dolphins more common in Potomac than previously thought

A waterfront house on Virginia’s Northern Neck promised to be a getaway for Janet Mann from three decades of studying dolphins, primarily in Australia’s Shark Bay.

But the day after Mann and her husband closed on the place in Ophelia, VA, four years ago, she spied an all-too-familiar sight from the shore where the Potomac River joins the Chesapeake Bay.

“I said, ‘Oh, look, dolphins!’ And then I thought, ‘Oh, no,’” Mann recalled. “I think we’ve given up on getting me away from my work.”

MD Natural Resources Police face increasing duties without budget to match

Brandon Davis doesn’t like something about the boat cruising through Kent Narrows.

The Maryland Natural Resources Police Officer First Class has noticed the small craft has no fishing gear on board. It’s a cloudy, on-and-off rain day. The only other boats out are fishing charter parties, commercial crabbers and tankers. The three men on board, all young, are not wearing life jackets, and he can’t see any on board from his vantage point at the dock’s parking lot.

“Any time I have the opportunity to make contact with a boater, there’s always the chance it might lead to something more,” Davis said, “And that something, that enforcement, might save a person’s life.”

More sturgeon turn up in Bay, raising new questions – and worry

For years, scientists thought there might not be any native Atlantic sturgeon in the Chesapeake Bay. That idea changed in recent years, as biologists began netting hundreds of adults in the James River, and others began turning up in other tributaries.

Now, genetic analyses show the Chesapeake is home to at least two — and possibly more — distinct populations of the endangered fish. DNA analysis shows that James River sturgeon and those recently found spawning next door in the Pamunkey River — a tributary of the York River — are not even particularly closely related, despite their geographic proximity.

Bay grasses make a comeback but annual survey is in jeopardy

It is still early, but scientists’ hopes are high that this year will produce a bumper crop of underwater meadows in the Chesapeake Bay.

After last year’s aerial survey documented a record 91,631 acres of submerged grasses spread over the Bay bottom, many think a new record for one of the estuary’s most critical habitats is likely, given early reports this spring of surprisingly clear water in parts of the Bay.

But Bob Orth is not so sure.

Crabbers, scientists seeing more, larger blue crabs this spring

C. J. Canby nosed his dead-rise, the Miss Paula, from its berth in Bodkin Creek toward the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Even though it had rained for almost three weeks, the water was like glass. In a few hours, he would touch seahorses. In a couple of days, he would see a baby crab — fairly unusual for such a northern stretch of water.

“It’s definitely looking like it’s going to be a pretty good year,” said Canby, who fishes 525 pots in the area around Annapolis with his crew of three mates. “It’s been a real good start.”

University of Maryland Law


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