Watermen have no restaurants that can buy their catches. Help for farmers who want to install runoff controls has been sharply curtailed. Streams throughout the region are missing their annual spring cleaning. And many students are losing their chance to experience the Chesapeake Bay firsthand.

Trash collected during an Ancostia cleanup

Cancellations and postponements of spring stream cleanups are among the many impacts the coronavirus is having on environmental stewardship activities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 

The impact of the novel coronavirus, barely on the radar only a few months ago, is rippling through the Chesapeake Bay region, with impacts felt from Pennsylvania farm fields to Eastern Shore oyster grounds. While some impacts are minor, such as the postponement of meetings and cleanup events, others could become significant if the COVID-19 crisis lingers, potentially creating another setback for Bay pollution control initiatives.

While some point to slivers of positive news — air pollution is down — the near-shutdown of business activity is likely to slam state budgets in coming months, and possibly years, at a time when they had hoped to significantly increase spending on the Bay cleanup.

“There’s obviously going to be a delay in any new plans and conservation work,” said Lindsay Thompson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Conservation Districts. In a sentiment reflected by many, she added, “Right now, it’s really just [about] trying to keep the wheels rolling and keep everyone safe.”

Delays & cancellations

Tree plantings, school field trips, citizen oyster restoration activities and the region’s largest litter cleanup event are all being postponed or altered as environmental groups struggle with the sweeping disruptions.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Willy Agee, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, as his group, as well as the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, have been forced to delay environmental field work.

The immobilizing of construction contractors as a nonessential service was affecting many on-the-ground conservation projects while the need to keep volunteers at home is hamstringing others. The 10 Million Tree Partnership in Pennsylvania, which can often draw 50 to 100 volunteers to a planting event, is still undertaking projects this spring — but often with a single person and a shovel.

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has been forced to postpone Project Clean Stream, the largest network of stream cleanups in the Bay watershed, to this fall.

Likewise, the Alice Ferguson Foundation, which has coordinated spring cleanups throughout the Potomac River watershed for 32 years, has had to postpone or cancel this year’s events. Last year, more than 9,500 volunteers participated in 267 cleanups coordinated by the nonprofit, collecting 346,000 pounds of trash in portions of Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia and West Virginia.

Theresa Cullen, Alice Ferguson’s executive director, said she remained hopeful the cleanups could take place later this year.

In the meantime, individuals can still help the Bay and their local rivers by picking up trash in their neighborhoods or planting native plants in their gardens, said Marissa Spratley, an Alliance spokeswoman. “We’re encouraging folks to remain positive because this, too, will pass.”

Other volunteer efforts are also being hit. CBF’s oyster gardening programs in Virginia and Maryland are expected to be significantly reduced because of the lack of volunteers. Managers of the community-supported agriculture project on CBF’s Clagett Farm, which provides fresh produce and meals to food banks and people living in poverty in and around Washington, DC, will have to find a way to distribute food other than through large gatherings.

Groups are trying to find creative ways to stimulate environmental involvement during a time of year that is usually bursting with related events and activities, leading up to Earth Day on April 22.

This year, hands-on opportunities are more limited. The Alliance is encouraging people to crowdsource and share knowledge on its Chesapeake Network and stormwater and native plants websites. The Chesapeake Conservancy is highlighting opportunities to take “virtual tours” of the region’s rivers and other sites around the region.

Also eliminated are spring outdoor field trips for students. The Bay Foundation’s Agee said he expects such excursions will be lost for the spring, and perhaps the remainder of the school year, removing a curriculum mainstay for hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

CBF canoe field trip

Outdoor field trips for students in the Chesapeake region may be cancelled for the rest of the school year due to the coronavirus. 

Although the nonprofit had canceled all programming indefinitely, it is examining ways to continue engaging with the public, such as through digital learning, said spokesman A.J. Metcalf.

Cullen, of The Alice Ferguson Foundation, which typically hosts students at the nonprofit’s farm for educational outings in the spring, said some of that programming will be available online.

“We’re working on videos that can be useful for parents and teachers teaching about environmental topics,” she said. “There’s always something happening at the farm, even if they can’t visit.”

Farmer assistance at risk

Of particular concern for Chesapeake restoration is the impact on efforts to reach out to farmers and support them in conservation efforts. All of the states in the region are relying on a massive ramp up in efforts to control farm runoff to meet 2025 nutrient reduction goals aimed at clearing the Bay’s murky water and ending its summertime oxygen-starved “dead zone.”

But those efforts rely heavily on technical assistance providers from agencies or nonprofit groups working one-on-one with farmers to plan and install various farm conservation practices, such as stream buffers or manure storage facilities.

Most county conservation districts and Natural Resource Conservation Service offices, which provide most of those services to farmers, are either closed with staff working remotely or open with a single staffer to answer phones.

In Maryland, the state was no longer processing applications for new conservation infrastructure, such as manure sheds, because officials began limiting site visits to ongoing construction projects and emergencies, said Lindsay Thompson, of the Maryland Association of Conservation Districts.

Manure storage shed

Technical assistance for farmers working on conservation projects has been slowed or stopped in order to lessen the spread of the coronavirus. The long-term impact on conservation cost-share programs for farmers is also a concern. 

“If this is lifted in a month or six weeks, maybe it won’t be all that much of a backlog,” Thompson said. “The magnitude will be determined by how long it goes on.”

In Virginia, farmers seeking technical assistance with conservation projects were still able to get it as of late March. Kendall Tyree, executive director of the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, said most districts were still doing site visits “as long as the farmer is comfortable keeping a safe distance.”

The slowdown is a concern because Virginia conservation districts have to spend funding for the current fiscal year by June 30. Those expenditures require approval from district boards — but the boards aren’t meeting because of health concerns, and it is unclear under state law whether they could legally approve those projects through online meetings.

“Right now, unless a meeting prevents irrevocable public harm, districts are not able to have electronic meetings,” Tyree said. “We have reached out [to the state Attorney General] to find out if cost-share and conservation projects would fall into that category and have not yet received that opinion.”

In Pennsylvania, Christopher Thompson, head of the Lancaster County Conservation District — the county with the most farms in the Bay watershed — said that, as of March 20, no staff would be working in the field with farmers. The timing is especially bad, he noted, because the recent influx of federal grant money to help Chesapeake Bay conservation work has to be spent by the end of September or the money has to be reallocated.

While conservation district staff around the region are trying to provide technical assistance to farmers remotely, Mark Dubin, agriculture coordinator with the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program, cautioned that such efforts have their limits because farmers in rural areas are often hampered by poor internet connections. He operates his own farm on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border in an area where he described service as “minimal.”

“There are definitely going to be more challenges here,” he said. “It is inevitably going to cause some delays.”

Also, most conservation funders require farmers to share in the cost of the projects. But farmers have been suffering financially for several years from collapsing dairy prices, tariffs and other economic hardships. The coronavirus crisis adds a new layer of financial uncertainty.

“If you are trying to survive,” Dubin said, “the last thing that is on the list is going to be implementing some new practice while you’re trying to pay the bills.”

Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which includes state legislators from across the region, worries that the faltering economy will mean trouble for the future funding of conservation programs.

Most conservation improvements come from programs with dedicated funding tied to tax revenue at the state or federal level, she said. “When the going gets rough and cash gets limited, often those dedicated funds get raided,” Swanson said. “So not only are we looking at budget shortfalls but also at potential raids of those dedicated funds. It’s not a pretty picture.”

Watermen hit on multiple fronts

In the Bay, as is the case all along the coast, the closure of restaurants has hit the fishing industry hard. “It killed the last two weeks of oyster season. There’s been no market,” said Robert T. Brown, Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.

Patent tonging near mouth of Nanticoke River 2015

Watermen and oyster farmers are taking an economic hit as the coronovirus closes restaurants across the Chesapeake Bay region. 

And it’s not clear the situation will get better with the opening of crab season, which began March 17 in Virginia and begins April 1 in Maryland. With the foreign workers essential for crab meat-processing being forced to stay home, the region’s seafood industry is entering rough waters.

To protect its staff from the coronavirus, the State Department announced on March 18 a halt to processing most temporary work visas in its Mexico offices. Mexico is one of the biggest suppliers of labor to the Chesapeake’s crab-picking houses.

The industry was already facing a shortage of temporary work visas because employer demand nationwide far outstrips the number that the government releases. On Hooper’s Island, the epicenter of Maryland’s crab-picking operations, six out of the nine processors did not receive visas this year before the virus-induced interruption.

For watermen, Brown said, “It’s wait and see, pretty much, how bad it’s going to be — not how good, how bad.”

Air pollution reductions

All of the economic and social disruption wrought by the coronavirus could contain a silver lining: a sharp — if temporary — decrease in emissions of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants as people drive less, flights are grounded and the economy slows.

NASA and the European Space Agency recorded substantial drops in pollution concentrations over Italy and China as those countries sought to lock down their populations. Such measures were only beginning to trickle into American life in March, but there were already signs that they might be having an environmental effect.

“Trends aren’t entirely clear yet,” said Virginia Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Greg Bilyeu, “but if traffic and commerce follow patterns we’ve seen elsewhere, we expect pollution to decrease more markedly. We have started noticing some potential difference in areas that typically experience more traffic.”

Levels of nitrogen oxide and fine particulate matter, which are tied to soot from diesel trucks, were down along many busy highways, according to DEQ’s air-monitoring sensors.

Climate scientists caution, though, that if history is any guide, the emissions will likely return once the virus runs its course. Meanwhile, some industries have already begun lobbying against climate regulations, arguing that they can’t bear the costs along with the slowdown caused by the pandemic.

Concerns over new rules

A number of organizations, from conservative think tanks to labor unions to environmental groups, have asked the Trump administration to alter its rule-making process while the president's national emergency declaration, issued March 13, remains in effect.

The groups argue that many stakeholder organizations have been forced to close their doors to prevent exposure to COVID-19, which hinders their ability to develop meaningful comments to agencies at a time when a number of proposals that would impact environmental regulations are under review.

In a letter to the White House, CBF said interested citizens may lack the technology needed to weigh in remotely or may be unable to attend meetings or collaborate with others to comment on proposals, such as changes to coal ash regulations, which are under consideration by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Perhaps most importantly,” CBF wrote, “many will be consumed with taking care of themselves, their businesses, families, communities, and neighbors.”

“For EPA and some other agencies to insist on proceeding with business as usual is unacceptable,” said Jason Rano, CBF’s federal executive director.

As of late March, the EPA had declined to delay its rule-making, with officials noting that its regulatory website was fully functional and able to receive comments.

Changes in & out of homes

The large number of people staying home has raised special issues, too.

Wastewater treatment plant operators are worried that people confronted with a shortage of toilet paper will begin flushing wipes, paper towels and other materials. Those materials can clog sewer pipes and cause backups or damage treatment plants.

The Maryland Department of the Environment is conducting a “No Wipes in the Pipes” campaign while others are launching similar public awareness efforts.

If people become stir-crazy after being homebound, they will find many state and national parks and wildlife refuges open, though visitor centers, bathrooms and campgrounds are closed.

But some of those areas are in danger of being overcrowded: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy was urging people to stay off the trail, sections of which were becoming too crowded to practice social distancing.

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