Bay Journal

April 2018 - Volume 28 - Number 2
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First sewage-storing tunnel comes online in DC

The Anacostia River, which has for decades functioned as the polluted washbasin of an urban watershed, may now have less bacteria than the Potomac River during rainfall.

In mid-March, DC Water opened the floodgate on a 2.3-mile section of concrete tunnel that’s been under construction since 2005. With the rolling away of a concrete slab, about 80 percent of the polluted sewage and stormwater runoff that has for decades flowed into the Anacostia will be diverted into this underground tunnel.

In this first of several sections of tunnel under construction, approximatetly 100 million gallons of polluted water can be stored in the bowels of the city until the utility’s wastewater treatment plant can fully treat and release it into the Potomac.

New Bay Program director has worked on water quality, Bay issues for decades

When Dana Aunkst grew up in Northcentral Pennsylvania, he didn’t have to look far from home to see water quality problems.

He grew up in Watsontown, a small community along the West Branch of the Susquehanna, one of the state’s most troubled waterways, with vast stretches rendered largely lifeless by a legacy of acid mine drainage.

Watsontown wasn’t near the worst of the problems. Still, Aunkst recalled, “the fishing at that time was limited to what we called trash fish — carp and warmwater types of fish that were pollution-tolerant.”

MDE taking fewer enforcement actions against water pollution

Maryland regulators have been taking significantly fewer enforcement actions for water pollution violations lately, a drop that environmentalists call part of a worsening nationwide trend. State officials, though, say the decrease reflects an increased effort to work with violators and prevent minor infractions from becoming major ones.

In a report submitted earlier this year to lawmakers, the Maryland Department of the Environment said that in fiscal year 2017, its water and science administration took 771 enforcement actions. That’s a 46 percent decline from the number reported the previous year, and the fewest since fiscal year 2008.

Solar power’s new look: more landscape-friendly siting

For decades, the old municipal landfill west of Annapolis, MD, sat — closed, capped and carefully monitored to ensure that the buried refuse wasn’t generating air or water pollution. Now, the once-grassy hilltop is covered with row upon row of thousands of shiny photovoltaic panels. In April, they’re scheduled to begin generating power — up to 16.8 megawatts on each sunny day.

The Annapolis Renewable Energy Park, as it’s known, stands out because of its location: The project’s developers say it’s the largest landfill-based solar electricity project in the United States. Some say it’s a model for resolving a growing conflict over how to transition to a more climate-friendly energy future without sacrificing precious farmland and scenic rural vistas. Whether it’s the first of many such installations, or an anomaly, remains to be seen.

States will have to account for climate change in cleanup plans

States in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have agreed to write plans later this year that will acknowledge the extent to which climate change will require significantly more work in the future to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

In December, state and federal officials in the Chesapeake Bay Program had agreed that the scheduled updates to state-specific cleanup plans would outline ways to address the impact of climate change. But they stopped short of requiring that the plans acknowledge the magnitude of the impact: The Bay Program’s computer models show that states will need to reduce an additional 9 million pounds of nitrogen and 500,000 pounds of phosphorus to offset the impacts of climate change on Bay water quality.

States to collaborate on implementation plan for Conowingo

For years, the 94-foot-high Conowingo Dam was considered a “time bomb” looming over Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, as it would begin spilling more water-fouling nutrients downstream when its 14-mile-long reservoir stopped trapping pollution.

But that was always considered a problem for the future. So, the challenge of defusing the “bomb,” located on the Susquehanna River in Maryland just 10 miles from the Chesapeake, was punted to the future as well.

“We faced a problem that we didn’t have a solution to at the time,” said Lee Currey, director of the Maryland Department of the Environment Water and Science Administration. 

Money doesn’t grow on trees, so small town found ways to turn its streets green

Straddling the northeast branch of the Anacostia River just outside of Washington, DC, is a half-square-mile patch of green called Edmonston. It’s a tiny Maryland town where, despite its distance from the Chesapeake Bay, the residents seem to understand that what they do here affects what happens there.

What started in the early 2000s as an effort to ameliorate flooding on the town’s main thoroughfare has snowballed into a series of water quality-minded projects that are sprucing up streets, filling empty lots with community gardens and reducing the amount of polluted stormwater flowing into the Anacostia River. 

Managed grazing cultivates new believers among watershed farmers

A Maryland dairyman felt like a lone wolf when he started down the decade-long path to nourishing his animals and his land differently. A Virginia cattleman said his neighbors laughed at him, and a Pennsylvania rancher agreed.
No other farmer they knew was using grazing techniques this way. 

“Now,” said Mike Phillips, a farmer in Rockingham County, VA, “the ones who laughed are asking how we’re doing it.”

Phillips was at a Regional Grazing Conference in Maryland early this year, where 170 farmers and landowners from across the Chesapeake Bay region gathered to learn about growing grasses, crops and livestock in a way that benefits the soil as much as their bottom lines.

Brunner Island power plant to convert from coal to natural gas

The Brunner Island power plant near Harrisburg — blamed for being one of the most polluting plants in the nation, as well as for several Susquehanna River fish kills — will convert from using coal to natural gas by the end of 2028.

The 56-year-old facility, which rises from the west shore of the river between York and Lancaster counties, has long been criticized by residents, environmental groups and nearby states for polluting the air and water.

The agreement was brokered as a settlement between Talen Energy, the plant’s Allentown, PA-based owner, and the Sierra Club, a nationwide environmental group.

States lagging badly in planting streamside trees

For all of the recent good news about the Chesapeake Bay, including declines in nutrient pollution and the resurgence of underwater grasses, there’s one trend that’s far from positive. For the last decade or so, the federal-state restoration effort has missed its targets — badly and consistently — for planting new forests along streams and rivers throughout the Bay watershed.

Why does that matter, when the Chesapeake seems to be recovering? Because without the pollution-cleansing power of more streamside forests, the Bay cleanup could falter, short of its goal of all but eliminating oxygen-starved dead zones where fish, crabs and oysters struggle to breathe. Many of the watershed’s degraded streams and rivers won’t regain their health, either. 

Nutrient reductions credited for resurgence in Bay’s underwater grasses

Nutrient reductions over the last 30 years are the primary factor behind the resurgence of underwater grasses in the Chesapeake — something that scientists cite in a new study as tangible evidence that efforts to improve Bay water quality are paying off.

Seagrass beds are in decline globally, but the Chesapeake Bay is one of the few places — and the largest example — where that trend has been successfully reversed, according to an article that published in March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That’s good news for the Bay as underwater grasses provide important habitat for fish, crabs and waterfowl. The scientists who led the study also said that the recovery likely foreshadows a broader comeback in the estuary’s health.

After outpouring of support, Bay Journal’s EPA grant restored

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on March 1 announced plans to restore grant funding to the Bay Journal, ending a six-month controversy over the agency’s abrupt decision last fall to terminate the paper’s support.

“We are pleased that the EPA has recognized the contribution the Bay Journal has made for more than 27 years in informing the public about the Chesapeake Bay,” said Bay Journal editor Karl Blankenship.

The publication has received agency funding through the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office since its inception in 1991 to help inform the public about issues related to the Bay.

“The outpouring of support we have received over the last six months from across the political spectrum speaks to the credibility of our work,” Blankenship said. “We look forward to being able to return our full attention to doing just that — covering the issues that affect the Chesapeake and its resources.”

New federal budget keeps funds for Bay Program at steady level

​Congress rejected the Trump administration’s call to eliminate funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program — or make other steep environmental cuts — and instead voted to maintain steady funding levels for the state-federal partnership.

The spending plan, approved by Congress and signed by the president March 23, funds the government for rest of the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. It includes $73 million for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Bay Program office, which coordinates the regional restoration effort and provides grants to states, local governments and nonprofits to support Bay-related activities.

Trumpeter swans add flourish to Patuxent Refuge’s winter

As the days get longer, spring approaches. Before winter ends, though, it’s worth taking note of some infrequently seen avian visitors to Maryland this season – trumpeter swans.

With a wingspan up to 7 feet and a standing height of about 4 feet, the trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) is the largest waterfowl in North America. So named because of their deep, sonorous bugling, trumpeters aren’t a common sight around the Chesapeake Bay. But several have been reported since December in and around the Patuxent Research Refuge between Washington, DC, and Baltimore. Multiple birds have also been sighted as recently as this week in southern Anne Arundel County.

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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