Bay Journal

July-August 2016 - Volume 26 - Number 5

Politics, Schmolitics—We All Want a Healthy Planet

A depressing myth about “the American people” has been debunked consistently in surveys among actual Americans.

The myth portrays U.S. citizens as pitted acrimoniously right against left, with no common ground between us and no interest in finding some.

Worse, it depicts Americans as hostile to our own homeland — happy to wreck our ecosystems, obliterate wildlife populations, public lands and water supplies; and eager to hand our fragile public coastal habitats over to destructive private drilling operations.

Eagle provides a ‘golden’ moment to crown a day of birding

We had just finished a wonderful three hours enjoying the avian bounty of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Cambridge, MD. Our animated discussion about winter waterfowl was slammed to a halt as a huge raptor flew right in front of us and disappeared into the trees bordering Key Wallace Drive.

The bird was only in view for a few seconds, but the identification was unmistakable. Huge, powerful, dark brown and wearing an elegant golden scarf — it was a golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), and we were momentarily speechless.

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DiPasquale’s legacy is leaving a better Chesapeake than the one he inherited

While kayaking in a couple of Chesapeake Bay tributaries last fall, Nick DiPasquale experienced some good news firsthand — by nearly getting stuck.

“The grass beds were so thick you basically got hung up in them,” he recalled of his excursions to the Mattawoman and Gunpowder rivers. “It was almost like being on land.”

As DiPasquale wrapped up his 6.5-year tenure at the helm of the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program partnership, the Bay has had some of its best water quality in years. Underwater grass beds have surged to their highest level in decades.

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PA’s Environmental Rights Amendment grows some teeth

For all of its natural bounty, Pennsylvania has environmental woes aplenty. Take your pick — 19,000 miles of impaired streams, 5,500 of them from abandoned coal mines; state environmental agencies and programs starved of funds as Pennsylvania fails to do its part to maintain safe drinking water and clean up the Chesapeake Bay; and state forests carved up by drilling pads and pipelines.

But the state does have an Environmental Rights Amendment. Since 1971, Pennsylvania’s constitution has guaranteed that the people have a right to clean air, pure water and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. 

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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.”

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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.

Other actions needed before rushing to address climate’s effect on nutrients

I was among the first and have been among the most persistent scientific advocates for addressing climate change in our efforts to restore the Bay. Even so, I think that the recent decision of the Bay Program's Principal Staff Committee not to increase, at this time, the nutrient loads that must be reduced by 2025 to accommodate the effects of climate change is appropriate. 

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Trump proposes slashing EPA Bay funding 90 percent

The Trump Administration is proposing to spend $7.3 million on the Chesapeake Bay Program next year.

That’s $7.3 million more than it proposed in last year’s budget, when it called for eliminating it and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's other regional water quality programs. But it’s 10 percent of what the Bay restoration program has been receiving — and significantly less than Congress is poised to approve for 2018.

It’s part of a broader budget proposal released Monday that calls for an overall 23 percent cut for the EPA in the 2019 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Finding enchantment in our theater of grace

Fairies are nesting in my trees. Right there in my front lawn, at the very top of my tulip poplars.

In the wintertime I can see them cleverly posing as seed clusters perched at the end of the trees’ highest branches. Sometimes they look like golden chalices, or crowns, or stiffened gowns hung upside-down. When the wind is right you can hear them whispering, as if conspiring about the next mischief they will play on the deer.

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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