Conservation Efforts Support Healthier Farms, Cleaner Water

The following first appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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Before a farm restoration project was completed with cost-share funding. Photo by CBF Staff.

Until last year, cattle would wade into streams and ponds to cool off on David Surratt's farm in the Shenandoah Valley. Unfortunately, this led to a host of problems. Trampled streambanks muddied the waters, while manure would flow downstream to the Shenandoah River. Calves would pick up infections from bacteria in the water, and two cows died after being stuck in the mud.

But all that has changed since Surratt placed three miles of fencing along the streams and ponds on Meadowdale Farm in Fishersville last year, a project supported by Virginia's agricultural cost-share program. Thirsty livestock now drink from several new watering stations across the farm installed as part of the project. The fences keep cattle out of the waterways, so water in the streams is now much cleaner. Importantly for Surratt, all calves were free of infections last year.

"It's really a win-win deal for us as well as the cattle," Surratt said. "Farmers have a responsibility to keep their cattle out of the streams and improve the water quality." State funding was key to making the project a reality. "There is no way I could have done it without the program funds, especially with cattle prices the way they are today," he said.

Addressing pollution from farms is the most cost-effective way to improve the health of local streams and rivers, as well as downstream in the Chesapeake Bay. It is also a key part of Virginia's plan to clean up the region's waterways under a federal-state partnership called the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. The state cost-share program funds a variety of conservation practices that lead to cleaner waterways, from cattle fencing to planting trees along streams to protecting soil with cover crops.

But in order to maintain progress, Virginia's farmers need robust and stable state investment in both the agricultural cost-share program and technical assistance from the local Soil and Water Conservation District staff who help implement these projects. In recent years, funding for the program has seesawed dramatically.

Providing ample and predictable levels of funding helps give farmers greater confidence when they consider adding conservation projects. It also gives local Soil and Water Conservation Districts the infrastructure and resources to put practices on the ground. Consistency ensures the program is carried out as effectively and efficiently as possible.

This month Virginia's legislators are making funding decisions that will decide the future of farm conservation efforts. The Virginia Senate is proposing a total investment of $46 million in agricultural cost-share. While a decrease from last year, that level that would still lead to continued success.

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After a farm restoration project was completed with cost-share funding. Photo by CBF Staff.

A separate proposal being considered would bring together a group of stakeholders to determine how to best ensure consistent and reliable funding for agricultural cost-share. This common-sense next step is sorely needed in the face of significant funding fluctuations.

Without continued state support for agricultural practices, Virginia will not be able to meet goals it has set for reducing pollution to waterways by 2025 under the Clean Water Blueprint. While Surratt's project is already making a difference in local streams, the impact grows as more farms do their part. "This project would really work great if all the farmers pull together on this," Surratt said.

However, though many farmers are eager to participate, they need state support to install these projects. In fact, two years ago so many farmers signed up that Virginia is still working through the backlog. Without funding, these farmers will be left waiting another year to install conservation practices.

It is important that Virginia live up to the commitments made to both healthy waterways and its farmers. But the heart of the matter is the fate of our rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay.

Our waters have been slowly and steadily improving, thanks to a host of efforts. People all across Virginia are starting to benefit.

Good farm practices could lead to native brook trout returning to streams in the Shenandoah Valley. In Richmond, locals and visitors enjoy swimming, fishing, and paddling on the James River since it has become much healthier in recent years. In Hampton Roads, efforts to reduce bacteria levels have allowed for the resurgence of the oyster industry in places like the Lynnhaven River.

But this recovery can easily be reversed. Supporting farm practices that reduce pollution will maintain momentum. Let your legislator know that the decisions being made now will help ensure successful farms and clean water for future generations.

—Rebecca LePrell, CBF's Virginia Executive Director & Kendal Tyree, Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts Executive Director

Virginian legislators are meeting this week to discuss investing in these critical clean water programs. Take action now to ask them to make the necessary investment in programs that keep the Bay cleanup on target.


Speaking up for Clean Water

Just eleven years after Captain John Smith led the original exploration of the Chesapeake Bay, the Western Hemisphere's oldest legislative body was founded when Virginia's House of Burgesses met in 1619. Much has changed over the subsequent centuries, including the waning health of the Bay and its rivers and streams. The recent 2016 State of the Bay Report reveals the Bay is improving, but much work remains.

Approaching the quadricentennial of House of Burgesses, on February 9 over 50 people descended upon Virginia's Capitol in Richmond to advocate for clean water in Virginia's General Assembly. A crucial week in the legislative session, CBF partnered with the James River Association and Lynnhaven River NOW to bring Virginians from all over the Commonwealth to meet with their Senators and Delegates. They were gracious enough to share with us some thoughts on their experience.

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Brian Vincent Farmville, VA

"I'm a kayaker, I'm a kayak fisherman, I'm a canoeist. … You've got to protect the waterways in order for there to be areas that are worth recreating in."

"I think it's important for us to get out and actively engage in the process. That's what it's about. I'm tired of shying away from it and thinking I'll let other people take care of it."

 

 

 

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Carolyn O'Neal
Ivy, VA

"I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay in Norfolk. Over my lifetime, I'm 60, I've seen the Bay go from not so bad to really bad to better now and so I care a lot about it."

"Today I met my state senator and I spoke with the assistant of our state delegate and I feel so much more empowered. I can just go to their office and talk about it. They are human beings."

 

 

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Claire Neubert Hampton, VA

"We swim in the water, we boat in the water, we enjoy looking at the water, and we get a lot of sustenance from the water."

"This is the first time lobbying, but I always say that my passion puts me in some uncomfortable places."

 

 

 

 

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Liz Worsham Northumberland County

"We are concerned about clean water because we like to swim in our creek, for starters, and kayak, and fish. … It's really important for the businesses in the area and for the watermen."

"This is a great opportunity to have an impact and express my views to my representatives."

 

 

 

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Brad Worsham Northumberland County

"We love to eat crabs and oysters and we enjoy the ducks and the rockfish."

"It's nice to hear that our representatives are welcoming for us to visit them...We're cracking open the shell and perhaps we hope it fosters a more active relationship with our legislators in the future."

 

 

 

  —Kenny Fletcher, CBF's Virginia Communications Coordinator

Couldn't make it to lobby day? Not to fear! Virginian legislators are meeting this week to discuss investing in these critical clean water programs. Take action now to ask them to make the necessary investment in programs that keep the Bay cleanup on target.


Five Important Advocacy Actions You Can Do Right Now

KarineAigner_iLCPPhoto by Karine Aigner/iLCP.

The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is working. By all metrics, we are seeing progress. Citizens, businesses, and governments are rolling up their sleeves to reduce pollution. And it is working.

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Bay Report card issued last spring, our 2016 State of the Bay report, and the Bay Program's Bay Barometer all document improvements. Bay grasses and crabs are up, and the dead zone is trending smaller. But the recovery is fragile, and many clean water advocates are wondering what they can do to help progress continue.

In these uncertain times, it is more important than ever that citizens let their elected officials know that clean water should be an important priority. That cleaning up local rivers and streams will reduce risks to human health, create jobs, and benefit local economies.

It is very important that our state legislators make the needed investments to reduce pollution. That our governors speak up for the Blueprint. And that our federal representatives ensure EPA's full participation in guiding and implementing the Blueprint.

Help ensure the Bay and its rivers and streams remain a priority. Do these five important things right now to Save the Bay:

  1. Find out who represents you by clicking here

  2. Call your state representatives and urge them to support investments in clean water restoration and saving the Bay.

  3. Call your governor and urge him or her to support investments in clean water restoration and saving the Bay.

  4. Call your federal representatives and urge them to seek federal investments for clean water restoration and saving the Bay.

  5. Contact your friends and neighbors and urge them to do the same.

Bonus Action: One of the most effective ways to influence a politician is a personal visit to their office or a town hall meeting. While that takes time and might be out of your comfort zone, they will take note. And we'd be happy to help you plan a visit to their local office. Just click here and shoot us an e-mail.

Done the right way, citizens can have an impact. Elected officials do listen to their constituents. When contacting your representatives, be sure to explain why clean water is important to you. If they have supported clean water efforts, thank them and ask for their continued support. If they haven't been supporters, encourage them to do so in the future.

In these uncertain times, there is one thing that is certain, you can make a difference. Speak up and save the Bay.

 —Chesapeake Bay Foundation


Three Examples Show How Ripples Can Become Waves to Save the Bay

The following first appeared in the Bay Journal.

The saying goes: "It takes a village." To fully implement the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint, governments, businesses, and citizens all must do their part. Every day, I meet people working to reduce pollution and restore local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake. What I have learned is that Bay's village is huge. Few get the credit they deserve. As we enter the new year, I would like to share three stories. There are many thousands more.

Brad Seeley

Chesapeake Bay technician Brady Seeley is on the frontline, conducting farm inspections in Cumberland County as part of Pennsylvania's renewed effort to get pollution reduction back on track. The state Department of Environmental Protection asked conservation districts to inspect 10 percent of farms in Pennsylvania's portion of the Bay watershed for the required manure management and erosion and sediment plans.

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Technician Brady Seeley’s familiarity with farmers and his experience growing up on a small dairy farm serves him well during his farm inspections in Cumberland County, PA.

Some conservation districts opted not to do inspections, fearing they might strain relations with farmers.

But the process has gone smoothly in the Cumberland County Conservation District, thanks to Seeley's familiarity with farmers and his experience growing up on a small dairy farm in the Keystone State. He has been with the district nearly three years.

He is finding areas that need to be improved. After meeting with one farmer, Seely said, "He had a conservation plan but not a manure management plan and agreed to seek technical assistance to get it written. You can go out and tell the farmer he is in violation and then it's not hard in the next sentence to tell the farmer let us help you get those plans."

Mark Foster

Mark Foster is the founder and executive director of Second Chance, Inc. in Baltimore. His nonprofit aims for a "triple bottom line." It strives to give people, material, and the environment a second chance at new life. Second Chance provides green collar jobs to some of the city's residents who find job seeking most difficult, including those coming out of prison and those recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. The workforce deconstructs houses and salvages materials for sale at a Ridgely Street warehouse near M&T Bank Stadium.

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Mark Foster, founder and executive director of Second Chance, Inc., hires those whose past makes it difficult to find a job. They deconstruct houses to save materials from going into landfills.

Foster started Second Chance 13 years ago. He was a homeowner trying to refurbish a house built in 1902. He found it difficult to find replacement pieces and parts. Most old homes were simply demolished, and the remains dumped in landfills. Now, Second Chance workers demolish more than 200 homes a year, saving nearly everything for resale and have kept 10,502,118 pounds of post-construction waste out of landfills so far in 2016.

Foster is determined that Second Chance stretch its environmentalism even more. Next year, Second Chance plans to install rain gardens in its parking lot and solar panels on its roof. Inspired, in part, by volunteering with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation when he was in high school, Foster said that he wants to help the Chesapeake get a second chance.

The Carcamo Family

In Richmond, Efrain Carcamo and his three children walk the banks of the James River several times a month to hunt litter. On each trip, they fill bags with beer cans, plastic bottles, and other trash. For years, Carcamo has repeated this routine in a personal effort to clean up the river.

Growing up on a farm in El Salvador, Carcamo learned to respect the environment. Since moving to the United States as a teen, he's been drawn to restoring the rivers and streams that flow to the Bay.

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In Richmond, Efrain Carcamo, a single father, has passed on his love of nature to his children (l-r), Elysha, Emaya and Eljah, who pick up trash along the James River.

Carcamo's contribution to clean water stretches beyond the untold amount of trash he has removed from the James. He's inspiring others to take action. That starts with his three young children, who eagerly join in efforts to fight pollution.

By being out regularly along heavily used stretches of the river, he's also an example to the many people who see him cleaning up. "I meet a lot of people from different backgrounds out here, from all levels of society, different races," he said. After speaking with him, some follow in his footsteps. "When they realize there is someone doing it, they get courage and they start doing it themselves," Carcamo said.

We all know that the Bay's problems are larger than trash or inadequate manure management. Nonetheless, these individuals are demonstrating the difference they can make and the good they can create. They are Chesapeake Bay stewards.

As we reach the midpoint of the Clean Water Blueprint, we are seeing progress. The water is clearer, the dead zone is getting smaller and Bay grass populations are up significantly. But there is much more work that needs to be done.

In 2017, it will be more important than ever that our elected officials know that we value our rivers, streams and the Bay. So please contact them to let them know that clean water is not a luxury, it is a right.

—Will Baker, CBF President


Clean Water Remains a Priority

The following first appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.

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Polluted runoff cannot be ignored if we are to clean up Virginia's rivers and streams. Photo by Krista Schyler/iLCP.

If you talk to longtime residents of Hampton Roads, you will hear stories about how waterways are starting to show signs that they may be on the mend.

On the Lynnhaven River, a newly burgeoning oyster industry is made possible by the removal of unsafe levels of bacteria that for years led the river to be off-limits to harvest.

The Lafayette River was once a dumping ground for the region's stormwater, but was recently taken off Virginia's list of bacteria-impaired waters.

Out in the Chesapeake Bay, there is a resurgence in underwater grasses and locals report seeing the clearest water in a long time.

Our region is literally defined by water, and we are just beginning to experience how cleaner water improves the economy and quality of life where we swim, fish and live. All of this good news is reflected in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's State of the Bay report released last month, which gave the Bay the highest marks since the report began in 1998.

But the C- score the Bay received is still nowhere near what it needs to be to support economic growth and additional recreational opportunities.

As The Pilot noted in a recent editorial on the State of the Bay, "any improvement is noteworthy, if only to show how much further we have to go." We definitely have a long way to go.

The advances so far are the result of decades of hard work. In recent years, a state-federal partnership to reduce pollution called the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint has led to progress. But the recovery is fragile, and can easily reverse course if we don't keep up momentum.

This month, state legislators are making key funding decisions that will determine whether Virginia stays on track to meet goals for cutting pollution. Now is the time to let legislators know how important it is to fund these critical clean water programs.

Here in Hampton Roads, a lot of work still needs to be done. With so many buildings, streets and parking lots, every rainfall washes a destructive mix of oil, dirt, litter, fertilizers, pet waste and more off hard surfaces and directly into local creeks and rivers.

Cities across Virginia are working to implement projects to control this runoff. Fortunately, a state program called the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund provides matching grants to help localities install stream and wetland restoration projects, permeable pavement, rain gardens, and other pollution-control measures.

These projects effectively treat polluted runoff by allowing excess water to filter into the earth naturally rather than surge into local creeks and rivers. This has the added benefit of reducing localized flooding, another problem with which all of us in this region are familiar.

The Stormwater Local Assistance Fund is already making a difference in Hampton Roads. So far 12 projects have been funded in Norfolk, with another three in Virginia Beach and three more in Chesapeake. On the Peninsula, another 27 projects have been funded.

But this program is under threat right now. With budgets tightening, funding could very well be eliminated in this General Assembly session unless legislators hear enough support for this program.

Cities in the region don't want to see these grants dry up. In fact, officials from many of the localities in Hampton Roads have written legislators and the governor urging continued support for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund.

While the Bay and rivers such as the Lafayette, Elizabeth, and the Lynnhaven are getting better, the recovery can easily be reversed unless we keep up the momentum.

All of us who believe we should leave a legacy of cleaner water and more recreational and economic opportunities for future generations can take a small but important step today by contacting elected officials in support of the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund. The fate of our waters is on the line.

—Harry Lester, Chairman, CBF Board of Trustees

Urge your legislators right now to support clean water initiatives, such as the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, that are integral to a healthy Virginia economy, environment, and way of life!


Photo of the Week: Late January Snow Along the Bay

Snowy Tree 2017
[Taken just after late January's snowfall in Huntingtown, Maryland.]

Almost every day I walk down to the beach and take pictures of the amazing sunrise. On this day the snowfall was so beautiful and had stuck to everything . . . which made this weeping willow even more beautiful.

I simply LOVE living on the Bay and sharing the beauty with everyone.

—Eve Shoemaker

Ensure that Eve and future generations continue to enjoy extraordinary sights and places like these along the Chesapeake. Support the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint—the plan to Save the Bay and its waters! 

Do you have a favorite Chesapeake photo you'd like to submit to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Photo of the Week contest? Send your digital images to CBF's Director of Digital Media, Emmy Nicklin, at enicklin [at sign] cbf.org, along with a brief description of where and when you took the photo, and what the Chesapeake Bay means to you. We look forward to seeing your photos!


Photo of the Week: Winter on the Chesapeake

Christopher Riedel

McDaniel, Maryland, on January 7. 

The Bay has always been a part of who I am. I grew up on boats and have been to many marinas. I love interacting with the Bay through fishing, crabbing, boating, kayaking, and just observing wildlife and the environment around me.

—Chris Riedel

Ensure that Chris and future generations continue to enjoy extraordinary sights and places like these along the Chesapeake. Support the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint—the plan to Save the Bay and its waters! 

Do you have a favorite Chesapeake photo you'd like to submit to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Photo of the Week contest? Send your digital images to CBF's Director of Digital Media, Emmy Nicklin, at enicklin [at sign] cbf.org, along with a brief description of where and when you took the photo, and what the Chesapeake Bay means to you. We look forward to seeing your photos!


Infrastructure Innovation

The following first appeared in CBF's 2016 State of the Bay Report.

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The urban and suburban polluted runoff challenge is great, but many solutions reduce pollution and create good jobs. Art by Charles Hazard.

Don't Dump: Chesapeake Bay Drainage! When these words started showing up painted on storm drains in the early 1990s, it was easy to visualize the effects of oil and trash rushing directly down drain pipes to Bay tributaries. For many, those messages were the beginning of awareness that urban and suburban polluted runoff (stormwater) could hurt our beloved waterways. Much less obvious, though, is toxic dust and fluids from automobile brake pads, tailpipes, and engines; forgotten pet poop; or excess lawn fertilizer. These things can make us sick and destroy animal habitat. Rain flowing downhill across impervious (non-porous) surfaces like rooftops, parking lots, and roadways gathers speed carrying material to drain pipes that lead directly to our rivers, streams, and ultimately the Bay.

Contrast that scenario with the way rainwater fell on the Chesapeake's 64,000-square-mile watershed 400 years ago, when this land was 95 percent old-growth forest. Trees broke the fall of that rain. Water soaked into the soil below, which slowly filtered it as it moved underground to streams, creeks, rivers, and the Bay. We sometimes refer to that process as the Great Green Filter. We have developed much of our land in the intervening centuries, changing the Great Green Filter to the Gray Funnel in many cases. Today, runoff pollution from impervious surfaces continues to increase, while thanks to major efforts by municipalities and farmers, pollution from wastewater plants and agriculture is decreasing.

Restoring the Chesapeake's entire Great Green Filter is obviously not an option, but engineers, landscape architects, contractors, municipal officials, and private landowners are devoting genuinely creative thinking to rebuilding infrastructure that allows rainwater to filter through natural systems, while local and regional governments work out ways to finance the work. DC Water is an example of applying innovative solutions and financing to help address polluted runoff in Washington, D.C. While the challenge is great, many of these solutions create jobs. It's imperative that we find and implement these types of solutions if we want a healthy Chesapeake.


Slowing the Flow: Miles of Streams Renewed in Fairfax County

How Virginia is Stopping Polluted Runoff with the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund

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A restored stream in Banks Neighborhood Park.

Given that more than 1 million people call Fairfax County home, there are plenty of homes, roads, and parking lots in this suburban Northern Virginia county. Rain washes pollution off all of these hard surfaces during storms, creating polluted runoff that fills streams that flow to the Potomac River.

Fortunately, Fairfax County has been a leader in Virginia when it comes to tackling the polluted runoff problem, thanks in part to 13 different grants it has received under the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund (SLAF). Altogether, these projects are restoring more than three miles of stream channel and converting three dry stormwater ponds into wetlands.

The grants have allowed Fairfax County to tackle many stream restorations that would have otherwise been put on hold, according to Emma Gutzler of the County's Stormwater Planning Division. With 12 of the projects now complete, the County is seeing results. Recent efforts at Wakefield Park and the Banks Neighborhood Park are just two examples of successful SLAF-funded projects in Fairfax County.

Raising a Stream at Wakefield Park

Right alongside the ever-present traffic on the Capital Beltway, Accotink Creek flows through a concrete culvert under the highway and enters Wakefield Park, a beloved popular spot for locals. But until recently, the stream was in bad shape. The force of the heavy runoff from all of the development upstream wreaked havoc, scouring a deep stream channel through the park. This led to steep, eroding, streambanks with undercut trees in danger of falling over.

But SLAF-funded restoration efforts resulted in radical improvements. The deep channels were filled with soil, raising the streambed and reconnecting it with the original forested floodplain. Right in front of the culvert, a series of rocky pools now slow down the water where it is needed most to prevent erosion. "Because of this culvert that we have, the water is going to be flying," said Jason Beeler of contractor Wetland Studies and Solutions. "When it hits the pools, it has a chance to spin around in circles. The roughness of the bottom of the pool and the sides will be able to dissipate its energy."

The raised streambanks were replanted with native plants and trees. Now these areas are developing into wetlands and vernal pools, which not only help filter out pollutants, but also provide homes and breeding areas for wildlife like native frogs.

People who recreate in Wakefield Park are also seeing the benefits. Officials planning the restoration sought feedback from local hikers, joggers, and mountain bikers who use the park. As part of the project, they installed a new bridge across the stream for hikers and runners. For mountain bikers, in two different places a series of large flat boulders cross the stream. 

"The completion of the Stream Restoration Projects provided both an aesthetically pleasing and natural environment as well as functional stream crossings for all trail users to enjoy," said Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts President Ernie Rodriguez, who heads the mountain biking club that gave input on the project. "The trails within Wakefield Park provide great opportunities for our communities to enjoy outdoor recreation and to become involved with environmental responsibility."

All in all, about 2,700 linear feet of stream channel was restored within Wakefield Park along two tributary streams. The project began construction in October 2015 and was largely completed in August 2016.

Returning to Nature on the Banks Neighborhood Park

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Before the project began.

Just a few years ago, it would have been easy to overlook the stream flowing through the small park in southern Fairfax County known as the Banks Neighborhood Park. That's because about 600 feet of the waterway was trapped in deteriorating pipes underground and channels lined with rip rap and concrete. Further downstream within the project's reach, heavily eroded streambanks transported excess sediment downstream and exposed a water line. It wasn't the prettiest sight.

But since late 2014, the stream has been returned to a more natural state. The pipe and concrete have been removed along 600 feet of stream, and 500 feet of heavily eroded stream channel has been restored. The project began construction in February 2014 and was completed in November 2014

Banks After 2-1200
After the project was completed.

Lush grasses and vibrant Black-eyed Susan flowers now brighten up the streamside. Altogether, about 450 native trees and over 1,700 shrubs were planted alongside the waterway. These plants help slow down runoff and filter out pollution. What's more, locals are observing songbird species that they hadn't ever seen before in the park.

The Wakefield Park and Banks Neighborhood Park projects have made a big difference to the health of local waterways. They are just two of the 13 SLAF projects Fairfax County has implemented in recent years, making it a model for what can be done with state support for efforts by localities to reduce polluted runoff.

The Numbers

 
Number of Projects:
13
Total Linear Feet of Stream Channel Restored: 16,790
Pounds of Phosphorus Pollution Reduced per Year:   1,133
Total Amount of SLAF Grants: $8,620,359


Stay tuned for more stories of how innovative projects like these can help Virginia stop harmful polluted runoff from entering our rivers, streams, and Bay!
 

—Kenny Fletcher, CBF's Virginia Communications Coordinator

Click here to read our full "Slowing the Flow" polluted runoff series.

Above photos courtesy of Fairfax County Government.


Streams and Students in Pennsylvania

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SWEEP students enjoy the opportunity to paddle a canoe and investigate the health of local waterways through a variety of hands-on activities like up-close studies of the bugs and other species living in the water.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation educators Tom Parke and Emily Thorpe took advantage of an unseasonably warm winter day in Pennsylvania, to wash life vests, check canoes for needed repairs, and reflect on the Susquehanna Watershed Environmental Education Program's (SWEEP) 26th year of connecting students with their local waterways.

SWEEP guides students in grades 6 to 12, college level groups, and teachers through a series of water quality experiences designed to reinforce in-class lessons and emphasize the importance of clean water.

Parke, Thorpe, and their fleet of ten canoes floated over 1,700 students across waters in Pennsylvania's portion of the Bay watershed during the spring and fall seasons in 2016. During the summer months, they hosted about 75 teachers at workshops and courses.

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SWEEP students enjoy the water and do their part to collect macro-invertebrates.

Since it began, SWEEP has conducted over 2,000 programs and involved about 45,000 participants in its spring and fall Environmental Education Days.

Thorpe says SWEEP's core purpose is to, "connect kids and people in general with their local rivers and streams, emphasize the importance that it has in their daily lives. It's this sometimes invisible system that we all rely on. The importance of watersheds is one of the big things they learn," she adds. "Everyone has an impact on that watershed and is affected by its health."

"We get out to a wide geography. Our goal is to connect people to their local rivers and streams and the mission of the organization to 'Save the Bay,'" Parke says. He has been with CBF for eight years. "That isn't going to happen unless you work throughout the entire watershed. You can't have a clean Bay without clean local streams."

Students enjoy the opportunity to paddle a canoe and investigate the health of local waterways through a variety of hands-on activities like up-close studies of the bugs and other species living in the water. They study the physical characteristics of the waterway, the shoreline, and adjoining lands. They use water chemistry tests to determine quality and use maps to orient themselves with their specific watershed.

Because of changing conditions, flexibility is important, even with a set curriculum. Low water levels across the Commonwealth contributed to the SWEEP lesson plans in 2016.

"The drought really made for a different canoe experience, sometimes not in good ways with having to get out and drag boats over rocks and things," Thorpe says. She will be with CBF for two-and-a-half years in the spring. "Sometimes it was cool and interesting that the river stayed really clear. Kids could see into the grass beds and see fish swimming all around in the river."

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SWEEP students take water measurements.

The outdoor learning environment brings out a different side of the students. "Students who are more problematic in the classroom, that may have difficulties keeping it all together in the classroom, are on task the entire time when they are outside, and teachers are always surprised by that," Thorpe says. "The students want to be outside or be more physically engaged doing something. All of the problems that may arise for the student in the classroom disappear once they are outside and engaged."

"You get city students completely out of their comfort zone," Parke says of their time on the water. "We go to western PA, northern Cambria County, these kids come out in camo and muck boots, every student in the group. Compared to your average Joe, these are outdoors students." 

Students learn and form their opinions from the discoveries they make. "Some kids have never held a fish or didn't know there were bugs that live in the water," Thorpe says. "So when they see that quantity of life, they might think that the water quality is really good. Maybe all we're catching are shiners or water striders, and Tom and I are thinking 'not such a good day on the creek.' But to that kid maybe it is showing them there is life out there that they didn't know about previously."

Critters are important to the curriculum. "It's like asking the locals," Parke says. "The life in the water lives there 24/7, so you use the life to gain a long-term perspective of what's happening in the water."

"It's a little easier to connect with critters than it is to data," Thorpe adds. "Living things are a little more charismatic. The more questions you can ask about it the more excited students get about it. If it has a funny mouth shape or funny color, they are gonna latch onto something about it and ask questions."

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Braving a rainy day, students react to an impromptu lesson on stream critters, given by CBF educator Tom Parke.

"Amphibians are always so important," Parke says. "Things like salamanders, because they respirate through their skin and are so vulnerable to their surroundings. They are fun critters to catch, hold, and see. The important thing is we are finding them. They are here for a reason."

"Brook trout are always exciting," Thorpe adds. "Even if the kids don't know what one is. We found one with the Steam Academy in York in this tiny tributary of Lake Redman and so it was very cool to see them there. We didn't know they were there."

In this outdoor classroom, size matters. "Get a 14-inch crappie and people are gonna be excited," Parke says. "Big hellgrammites and big crawfish. Big and dramatic."

Parke wants the takeaway for the thousands of SWEEP students should be "that water quality is determined by runoff and what's happening on the land, so they are thinking about the connection to the land and how it affects the water."

In SWEEP, fun is an important tool for connecting young people with water quality. "We're always pushing enjoyment when on the water and that's where we see the connection take place," Parke adds. "If they enjoy it, they want to protect it."

SWEEP's fleet of canoes will shove off again in March.

—B.J. Small, CBF's Pennsylvania Media and Communications Coordinator