Bay Journal

September 2017 - Volume 27 - Number 6

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.

PA legislator’s bill to privatize cleanup gets mixed review

A Pennsylvania lawmaker wants Keystone state municipalities struggling with Chesapeake Bay mandates to let private industry take care of it. He says for-profit companies can get the job done more cheaply and better than government; others, though, are not so sure.

State Sen. Richard Alloway II, a member of Pennsylvania’s delegation to the Chesapeake Bay Commission, introduced the Clean Water Procurement Program bill in June. It would require 850 municipalities under orders to reduce their stormwater pollution to pay $500 million over 10 years into a state-managed fund. That fund would be used to pay private entities for making nutrient reductions to bring Pennsylvania into compliance with the federal “pollution diet” for the estuary.

Holy smoke! Sometimes a fire is just what a forest needs

On a bright spring morning, in the Mills Creek area of the George Washington National Forest, flames crept slowly up the far end of a mountain ridge.

The whitish smoke grew in volume and depth as the unseen fire, pushed by a slow but steady breeze, climbed steadily skyward.

U.S. Forest Service personnel watched the billowing smoke, but made no move to quell the spreading blaze — because the people who normally fight forest fires had set this one.

With no sign of recovery, VA to halt stocking shad in James

With little to show for more than two decades of effort, Virginia officials next year plan to suspend shad stocking efforts in the James River, conceding defeat for now in restoring what had once been a major spawning ground for the migratory fish.

“We’re not going to fund work next year to continue what we’ve been doing,” said Bob Greenlee, who oversees the program for the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Boesch navigated Bay’s stormier days, helped put cleanup on course

When Donald Boesch came to Maryland 27 years ago, the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort was struggling to make real progress. The research institution he’d come to lead faced challenges, too, just to survive intact.

Now, as Boesch prepares to step down this month as president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the Bay’s health appears to be improving, though it’s far from saved. And his institution has not only survived, but generated a growing body of research that’s helped guide the recovery.

Family farm suffers from upstream trailer park’s discharge

In the 1950s, newlyweds Mildred and Alan Quidas lucked into buying what seemed to be one of the best pieces of farmland in Maryland’s Caroline County: more than 300 acres of sandy loam backing to a creek that feeds into the Choptank River. They planted cucumbers, tomatoes and peas, and hoped to leave the place to their grandchildren.

Now, more than two decades after Alan died, Mildred and her daughter, Arlene Stevens, worry their land is becoming less valuable because of a sewage treatment plant built with state approval at a mobile home park just upstream. Prettyman Manor’s permit allows it to discharge up to 20,000 gallons of treated wastewater daily into Little Creek, a tributary lined with wildflowers that flows past the pond used to irrigate crops on the Quidas land.

Trump official’s flounder ruling clouds Atlantic coast fish conservation

No one considers summer flounder an iconic Bay species. But fishery managers and conservationists say the ripple effect of a controversial Trump administration decision to let more “fluke” be caught in New Jersey may impact how important species such as striped bass and menhaden are managed in the Chesapeake.

In the wake of an unprecedented decision by the U.S. Department of Commerce, some in Maryland are already calling on fishery managers to challenge how coastwide fishing restrictions are implemented in the Bay.

Scientists on the trail of a soft-crab killer

Patient Number 133 looked sturdy. Male. Blue. Admitted with all limbs.

On a warm July afternoon in a makeshift phlebotomy lab on Maryland's Tilghman Island, molecular biologist Eric Schott pressed a needle into 133’s squirming body, extracting a blood sample that he then placed into an ethanol solution. The blood would go back to his lab in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. And patient 133, Callinectes sapidus, otherwise known as the blue crab, was returned to his shedding tank.

Patient 133 is part of Schott’s decade-long quest to learn more about a virus that is killing “peelers,” the term for crabs that are about to shed their hard, outer shell and become some lucky diner’s delicious soft-shell crab meal.

Overhaul being weighed in Atlantic coast menhaden management

A major overhaul could be coming in how menhaden are managed along the East Coast — one that might, for the first time, try to account for the ecological role of the small and oily fish.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which oversees migratory fish along the coast, is preparing to update its menhaden management plan this fall. It’s looking to revisit how the catch is distributed among states and fisheries and may adjust the catch limit for the Chesapeake.

New federal regulation of blue catfish may be eased

Chesapeake Bay watermen and processors who handle blue catfish — an invader eating its way through the Potomac and several other major river systems — may face a less burdensome federal inspection process than they expected when a long-anticipated regulation goes into effect.

As of Sept. 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for inspecting all catfish. The regulation covers both the wild-caught marauder menacing the Chesapeake’s tributaries and the farm-raised varieties grown in Mississippi River ponds and imported from China and Vietnam.

VA town tries to move on 40 years after Kepone disaster

In the summer of 1975, the Vietnam War had just ended, the movie Jaws was hitting the big screen — and an environmental catastrophe was unfolding in Hopewell, VA, that would linger for decades in Chesapeake Bay waters.

More than two dozen workers at a plant producing a powdery, white insecticide called Kepone were hospitalized for involuntary tremors, later known as “the Kepone shakes.” These were the first of many troubling symptoms linked to heavy exposure to the chemical, including at least temporary sterility. It has since been classified as a likely carcinogen.

Pilot project planned to dredge Conowingo sediments

Declaring the sediment buildup behind Conowingo Dam a growing threat to the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday a pilot project to dredge up a tiny portion of the accumulated silt and sand.

Speaking at a press conference at the dam, Hogan said the state later this month would issue a request for proposals to dredge 25,000 cubic yards of sediment by next spring from the reservoir upstream of the hydroelectric facility on the Susquehanna River.

The intent, he said, is to pin down what it would cost to dredge massive quantities of sediment from the Conowingo “pond,” as the reservoir is called, and to find out if there are viable markets for reusing the material. He said that he hoped the project would help the state determine whether large-scale dredging is feasible - even though an ealier study concluded that dredging the built-up sediment would be costly and provide little overall benefit to the Bay.

Want a piece of the Potomac? He’s got an island (or 3) to sell to you

No man is an island. But, for less than $175,000, a man (or woman) could buy three of them in the Potomac River — if he or she acts fast.

Real estate agent Buzz Mackintosh said the islands, about seven miles upstream of Williamsport, MD, have garnered interest from a handful of prospective buyers since going on the market earlier this year, but no one has taken the leap. Now, the state of Maryland, which already owns and manages several nearby islands, is weighing purchasing them.

This chain of islands is not particularly rare; there are nearly 100 islands of varying sizes in the Potomac River, more than three-quarters of them named. But few of those islands are privately owned, and rarely do they change hands or come up for sale.

Teachers get hands wet to whet students’ interest in Bay

School’s out for the summer — unless you’re a teacher tasked with educating students about the Chesapeake Bay. Almost as soon as classes let out, 19 educators from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia volunteered for a weeklong summer session that would bring them up to speed on their backyard watershed.

This program, led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, was one of many environmental summer sessions offered to teachers by organizations in the Chesapeake region. For this group, it entailed boating on the Anacostia and Potomac rivers during a gorgeous day, testing the water they’ve been told is so dirty and touching some of the local fish described in their textbooks.

“We all chose to come,” said Dawn Buskey of John Champe High School in Loudoun County, VA.

Opposition grows to seismic testing for offshore oil reserves

Scientists are worried that an executive order issued by President Trump earlier this year that seeks to open large portions of the mid-Atlantic and other coastal areas to oil and gas exploration would harm the endangered North Atlantic right whale and other species that occasionally visit the Chesapeake Bay.

Trump’s order, issued April 28, would reverse a 2016 policy from the Obama administration that closed federal waters off portions of the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific coasts and the Gulf of Mexico to drilling as part of the administration’s effort to boost domestic energy production. The order also instructed federal agencies to streamline the permitting process to speed approval of seismic testing to locate oil and gas reserves in those areas.

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