Two weeks ago, a group of dedicated Virginia Tech students chose to spend their spring break learning about and restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Below is an excerpt from their experience on a farm in the early part of their Alternative Spring Break adventure with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
CBF’s stream restoration biologist, Rob Schnabel, explains how cover cropping can fix excess nitrogen. Photo by Johnny Haworth.
Some perceive the image of the Chesapeake Bay as a sun-tanned waterman hauling oysters and blue crabs into his boat as the sun peaks over the horizon. However, the Chesapeake Bay community extends beyond this common image. In fact, the community extends beyond the realm of saltwater and infiltrates into the areas of small freshwater streams. Many of which run through agricultural lands.
As new agricultural land is highly limited in availability, farms have increased intensive margins to meet growing food demand. Such efforts include increased fertilizers, pesticides, and technology. Streams that run through farms have been overloaded with excess nitrogen and phosphorous in recent decades. This excess produces abnormally large algal blooms, which ecosystems cannot compensate for. Once the blooms die, bacteria decompose them, using up a large percentage of dissolved oxygen. Thus, these nutrients are virtually “choking” the bay.
In order to understand these challenges, and how Best Management Practices (BMPs) offer solutions, students went to Frederick, MD to learn from CBF’s stream restoration biologist, Rob Schnabel. CBF helps organize farmers and educates them on BMP options available to them, such as the establishment of riparian buffer zones. Rob works to establish such practices with local farmers.
Rob had the students remove tree shelters from various red maples, tulip poplars, and river birches. The trees bioengineer a riparian buffer zone by absorbing and filtering excess nutrients from the farm as they pass into the local stream. Rob then gave a guided tour along the farm’s stream to discuss other BMPs and stream dynamics. Other practices include cover crops of nitrogen-fixing clover, rotational grazing, and well-structured fencing from streams.
Historically the Chesapeake Bay was assisted by extensive wetlands to filter such nutrients as they came from all over the watershed. Tragically, Maryland has lost more than 75 percent of wetlands, 90 percent of bay grasses, and 50 percent of forest buffers. Efforts to reestablish such natural filters are a necessity to bay quality.
Establishment of natural buffer zones, cover crops, nutrient management plans, and other pollution controls offer cost-effective methods to meet TMDL requirements. However, not enough producers have knowledge of such methods, or deter from them due to conflicting values. Organizations such as CBF play a key role in successfully working with producers of differing values so they may understand the economic, ecological, and social value of protecting water quality.
—John Haworth, Virginia Tech Student
To read more about Virginia Tech's Alternative Spring Break with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, visit their website!
The 2012 Virginia Tech Alternative Spring Break participants on day three of their experience with CBF. Photo by Johnny Haworth.