'Rain Tax' Helps Fight Polluted Run-Off in County Streams

The following first appeared in the Howard County Times.

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Young girls swimming at Cascade Falls this past June. Cascade Falls was one of several locations throughout the watershed where bacteria was found at unsafe levels. Photo by Maryann Webb/CBF Intern.

Excrement in Howard County streams and rivers isn't just a problem after a deluge like we had July 30. Water testing this summer by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found extremely unhealthy bacteria levels in several streams after typical summer thunderstorms. Some of those test sites were swimming holes.

The tests were commissioned by CBF, and conducted by Hood College in Frederick. The partnership tested Columbia lakes in the summer of 2015, finding modestly elevated bacteria levels. This summer, tests were focused on streams feeding the Patapsco River.

People may think waste in our water is only a problem occasionally when sewer lines break in heavy storms, such as the leak that occurred after the July 30 floods, or a problem isolated to big cities such as Baltimore. Not so. CBF tested six Howard streams and rivers after rain storms of as little as a half inch or rain. CBF also tested several times during dry conditions.

The results were troubling. Most sites had unsafe readings even during dry weather, but those readings spiked after ordinary summer storms. Readings at the Cascade Falls swimming hole in Patapsco Valley State Park were up to 300 times above safety limits after a one-inch storm on July 5.

Levels at another popular swimming area on the Patapsco River near Henryton were up to 450 times too high after a 1.5-inch rain a few days before the tragic July 30 storm.

Scientists say water with such high amounts of fecal matter poses health risks to swimmers and others, who can get stomach and intestinal illnesses.

And unfortunately, these high readings at swimming holes weren't atypical. We also found extremely elevated bacteria levels in a small stream running through a residential neighborhood in Elkridge, at the Sucker Branch running past prayer stations at Our Lady's Center in Ellicott City, and at the Plumtree Branch at Dunloggin Middle School, among other sites.

CBF also conducted tests in four other Maryland counties, and in Baltimore City. Additional sites also were tested in Virginia and Pennsylvania. A map of the Howard and other sites can be found at www.cbf.org.

What does all this mean? It means Howard County continues to have a problem with polluted runoff. That's the term we use for water that runs off the land during storms, and picks up all types of contaminants, including possible human and animal waste from leaking sewer or septic systems, pet or livestock waste, and other pollution.

Many of Howard County's local waters, including the Middle Patuxent River, the Upper Patuxent, the Little Patuxent and the Patapsco River Lower North Branch, are considered "impaired" by the Maryland Department of the Environment. Polluted runoff is a major culprit in this problem.

The good news is Howard County leaders stayed strong and retained the county's stormwater fee. Sometimes derided as the "rain tax," this funding source is used to upgrade the county's neglected stormwater system. That work is now underway.

The risks of flooding also will decrease around the county as this work is completed, a major benefit in addition to water quality improvements.

These sorts of upgrades to the county's drainage system take years to undertake, and residents should be patient. But the tests this summer underscore the urgent need for the work.

While we wait, families might heed the rule-of-thumb guidance of MDE: wait 48 hours after a significant rain storm to swim or recreate in any natural waters of Maryland. That unfortunate directive is necessary because polluted runoff remains a major problem for much of the state.

At least Howard County has dedicated significant funds to reduce that pollution.

—Alison Prost, CBF's Maryland Executive Director


Photo of the Week: Wye River Morning

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Early September on the Wye River. 

Every sunrise brings a new, beautiful morning on the Chespeake Bay. Many memories [are captured] around the Bay, from land to sea. We need to preserve the Chesapeake Bay that was gifted to us.

—JoyAnn Line

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

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 Senior Manager 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!

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Photo of the Week: Bay Bridge Sunset

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This early August sunset photo of the Bay Bridge and the Chesapeake was taken from Hemingway's Restaurant.

The Chesapeake means a great deal to myself and family simply because it's a way of life . . . we need to protect it so we can continue to enjoy its beauty.

—Carly Anello

Ensure that Carly, her family, and future generations continue to enjoy extraordinary places like these along the Chesapeake. Support the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint—the plan to Save the Bay! 

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 Senior Manager 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!


What's in the Water? Part Two

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This summer, as an intern in the Communications Department at CBF, I helped with a bacteria-monitoring project to educate the public on the water quality in their own backyard rivers and streams and the harmful effect that polluted runoff has on them. When it rains, pollution pours off of yards, roads, farms, and other surfaces and flows into local creeks and rivers.

For the past few years, CBF staff and volunteers have collected water samples after heavy rains from popular swimming holes and urban rivers. The samples are tested for fecal bacteria. The project this year has grown from testing just a few sites in Maryland counties, to locations all across the region in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

6.22-8After heavy rainstorms when polluted runoff levels were at their peak, I collected water samples in six sites in Howard County, Maryland. All were on tributaries of the Patapsco River and were either popular watering holes where parents could take their kids on a hot summers day or located in residential areas:

  • Budd Run is located behind an apartment complex off Route 1.
  • Cascade Falls is a popular hiking and swimming area located in Patapsco National Park.
  • The Plumtree Branch is a small creek running behind Dunloggin Middle School.
  • The Tiber-Hudson Branch winds its way through a parking lot behind the cute shops of Ellicott City.
  • The Sucker Branch lies behind Our Lady's Center.
  • And the final site is a small section of the Patapsco where families come to swim, rope swing, and picnic.

All these locations provide a great respite from the concrete suburban world. But are they really the natural, healthy places we need when trying to get away from it all? I'd argue that for these sites to really fulfill our need for a getaway from the roads and buildings that surround us regularly, or provide a place to cool off during our hot and humid summers, they should be clean, at least to the point where water quality meets EPA's standards! Right now, that's not the case.

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Photo by Tom Zolper/CBF Staff.

Grappling with the desire for people to get outside and enjoy their natural surroundings and the need to educate them about what exactly they are swimming in or living next to was the hardest part of this project for me.

I first encountered this dilemma the first day of testing while visiting Cascade Falls. It was brutally hot on a late June day—a perfect place for lots of kids to come play in the cool waters of this beautiful waterfall. Or so it seemed. I myself enjoyed rock scrambling and wading in the waters. But the time came when I had to pull out my sampling bottle to collect water for the lab. Immediately someone asked me what I was doing, what I was collecting samples for. I turned to them, noticing the irony of what I was going to tell them while I myself was standing ankle deep in the water in flip flops. I explained CBF's project, telling this parent how we suspected the water to have incredibly high levels of bacteria and fecal matter as their kids splashed around nearby. Of course, he looked horrified and asked if there was anything he could do, any precautions he could take. I advised him to wait at least two days after a large rainstorm before swimming in his local waters as local health officials have said.

DSC_0399But what else can we do? We want to enjoy the outdoors and experience the respite of cool water these rivers and creeks provide. But how can we continue to do so knowing our waters are contaminated with high counts of bacteria and fecal matter? For now, we can each do our part to try and better the waters around us by reducing the amount of polluted runoff flowing into our rivers and streams. Cleaning up after your dog and properly maintaining a septic system are things homeowners can do to prevent fecal pollution. Farmers can also keep livestock away from streams. Other things we can do: picking up trash, installing rain gardens and rain barrels, and planting trees along streams. And remember to not swim for at least 48 hours after a heavy rainstorm.

CBF's bacteria-testing project is not designed to scare people away from enjoying our waters or to report water quality like the health department, but rather to educate and inspire us all to be vigilant stewards of our environment.

—Text and photos by Maryann Webb, CBF Communications Intern

Read Part One of our Bacteria Testing Blog Series here.

 


What's in the Water? Part One

It's for folks like Janet and Pete Terry that I thought CBF should start a water-monitoring program. They need information like the guys at the Alamo needed ammunition.

Our water testing project this summer also was for government leaders who need to better understand how polluted runoff is hurting people.

Pete and Janet are retired school teachers. Their lives now should be sweet and easy. They have a beautiful home on the Bird River in Baltimore County. They entertain family and friends on a terraced front deck with umbrella-shaded tables and a mini-bar. Grandchildren play in the river while grown-ups sip iced tea on shore.

 

But since they retired a year and a half ago the couple has been in a constant battle to save the Bird River and the life they planned there. You see, the Terrys and their neighbors are typical victims of upstream pollution.

After rainstorms, the Bird River turns reddish brown with mud. The dirt comes from upstream. It washes off construction sites, pours out of poorly maintained polluted runoff ponds built years ago at housing and commercial developments, and from eroded feeder streams. When Janet grew up on the river her father used to take the kids everywhere in his boat. Now, the river is so silted up, the Terrys can only launch for a few hours during high tide and only head downstream.

The remaining fish and other aquatic life in the river do much the same thing—search for deep water areas where they can survive the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from upstream that causes oxygen levels to drop.

A few years ago, the Terrys organized homeowners around the river. They call themselves the Bird River Restoration Campaign. They speak up at county council and other meetings, hoping their combined voices can limit at least some of the development that has paved over the upstream areas of the river.

They have achieved some remarkable success. For instance, in 2014, about 60 residents voluntarily patrolled construction sites after storms, and pressured the county to improve its own site compliance rates from 5 percent to 44 percent.

Still, Pete, Janet, and many of the residents feel they are David battling Goliath.

So I met with them over pizza. I asked if they would be willing to collect water samples this summer after rainstorms. CBF would pay for the samples to be tested for bacteria levels at a commercial laboratory in Dundalk. They wholeheartedly agreed.

Bacteria tests assess the amount of fecal material in the water. They can help alert people to leaking sewer or septic systems, or large amounts of pet waste, or in rural areas livestock manure getting into streams. The federal and state government set limits for how much bacteria can be in areas where people recreate, because fecal material can cause illness when ingested.

The Bird River bacteria results weren't good. Bacteria levels on the Bird and its tributaries spiked after average storms, according to the CBF tests. For instance, after dry weather readings in White Marsh Run near the Dugout Restaurant on Bird River Grove Road were only slightly above government safety levels for human recreation. Yet after a summer rain storm of less than an inch, readings at the site spiked to at least 400 times safety standards. Similar high readings the same day were found at other upstream sites. Clearly, poop was getting into the Bird upstream, and in unhealthy amounts during rainstorms.

More bad news for the downstream families: Now, in addition to losing their boating and fishing opportunities, the homeowners on the tidal portion of the Bird River worried their kids and grandkids weren't safe when they swam, kayaked and in other ways recreated on the water.  

"It's getting to the point where we are so very concerned when we have company or when we have children in the water. Now we are hesitant to allow them to go in," Janet said.

But CBF hopes the bacteria testing this summer will help drive home the seriousness of the problem of polluted runoff—not just to leaders in Baltimore County, but elsewhere. CBF organized volunteers to test in Frederick, Howard, Carroll, Baltimore, and Harford Counties, as well as Baltimore City. We made the results in all areas available to the public.

It's perhaps easy as an elected official to overlook dirty streams when you also are responsible for a host of other government services: education, police, roads, and more. But when you realize that dirty water can harm children, you might invest more energy and funds in clean water.

To date, several counties in our test area—Frederick, Carroll, Harford, and Baltimore—have opted not to collect a Polluted Runoff (or Stormwater) Fee to better fund projects to reduce polluted runoff. We hope that when folks like Janet and Pete Terry raise their voices, the cold calculations of government budgeting might include the value of the health of grandchildren who swim in the Bird River, and other streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay.  

—Tom Zolper
CBF's Assistant Director of Media Relations

Read Part Two of our Bacteria Testing Blog Series here.

 


This Week in the Watershed

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Maryland's oysters and Susquehanna's smallmouth bass are two critters desperately needing our attention. Photos by CBF Staff and Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

The lazy, dog days of summer might be upon us, but saving the Bay never stops. Despite the out of office messages and plentiful distractions summer brings, we need you now. A critical pillar in our approach to save the Bay is advocacy. Put simply, your voice matters. In a world where the squeaky wheel gets the grease, we need to make a lot of noise on several critical Bay issues.

We've said it many times—oysters are awesome. A water-filtering powerhouse, an adult oyster is capable of cleaning up to 50 gallons of water every day. Oysters also provide critical habitat for other Bay critters through the development of oyster reefs. Despite their numerous benefits, the Bay's oyster population is at less than one-percent of historical levels, after decades of disease, habitat destruction, and overharvesting. In efforts to save this precious bivalve, sanctuaries have been set aside, off-limits to harvest, to allow the oyster population to rebound. This week, Maryland's Oyster Advisory Committee to the Governor recommended continuing a small stretch of an oyster restoration project in Maryland's Tred Avon would benefit all stakeholders. A final decision by Governor Hogan is expected any moment. This good news comes with a grain of salt, however—a much larger stretch of this project still hangs in the balance, and even worse, there has been discussion on opening current oyster sanctuaries up to harvest. Stand up for Maryland's Oysters—TAKE ACTION NOW.

We've also said many times, as goes the Susquehanna, so goes the Chesapeake Bay. A critical economic resource and a bastion of cultural heritage in Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna River provides 50 percent of the Bay's freshwater. For several months now we have been petitioning for the Susquehanna River to be declared impaired. Since 2005, diseased and dying smallmouth bass have been found in the river. A recent study by Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection found that endocrine-disrupting compounds and herbicides, and pathogens and parasites are the most-likely causes of diseased and dying fish in the Lower Susquehanna. The state of the smallmouth bass fishery testifies to the devastating impact of pollution. An impaired listing for the Lower Susquehanna would allow the restoration process to begin in earnest, designating the river for additional study and new levels of investment in restoration. TAKE ACTION BY AUGUST 31, and help save the Susquehanna River and its vital smallmouth bass fishery for future generations.

These are just two of the major issues we're engaging in our fight to save the Bay. That's not to mention our work to stop sewage spills in Baltimore, maintain a sustainable harvest quota for menhaden, and protect critical habitat area for the Atlantic sturgeon. Saving the Bay never stops. Raise your voice now for the Bay and its critters. The Bay is a national treasure, and through the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint and with your help, we will save it for our children and grandchildren.

This Week in the Watershed: Filtering Bivalves, Sick Bass, and An Important Fish

  • CBF Pennsylvania Director Harry Campbell writes on how CBF is helping students chart a course for cleaner water. (York Daily Record—PA)
  • Regulators for menhaden, often called "the most important fish in the sea," tabled discussions of reevaluating quotas until an October meeting. (The Virginian-Pilot—VA) Bonus: CBF Statement
  • We couldn't agree more this editorial arguing that oyster sanctuaries remain restricted from harvest. (Baltimore Sun—MD)
  • A Maryland commission agreed to continue oyster restoration efforts on a small stretch of the Tred Avon, a tributary of the Choptank River. A hearing will take place on August 9, regarding the future of a much larger stretch of the Tred Avon project. (Bay Journal) Bonus: CBF Statement
  • Pollution is plaguing not only the Susquehanna River, but many of its tributaries, including those in York County. (York Daily Record—PA)
  • A report on Maryland's oyster population from the MD Department of Natural Resources reveals signs of revival in sanctuaries and decline in areas open to harvest. Troubling, the report leans towards recommending opening some sanctuaries to harvest, when the conclusions of the report indicate the opposite. (Washington Post—D.C.)
  • The 19th annual Paddle for the Bay in Norfolk was a hit, with hundreds of paddlers on the water. (The Virginian-Pilot—VA)
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection declined to list the Susquehanna River as impaired, despite decades of dismal pollution results, especially to the smallmouth bass fishery. (Bay Journal) Bonus: CBF Statement

What's Happening around the Watershed?

August 9

  • Easton, MD: Speak up for oysters! Restoration efforts in the Tred Avon oyster sanctuary are threatened and we need you to speak up for these amazing water-filtering bivalves. The work proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers includes both shallow water work on new sites and seeding on sites already in the project. The project and the public meeting are part of the Corps' future work planned for the Tred Avon oyster sanctuary. Click here for more details!

August 27

  • Wrightsville, PA: Join CBF, Heroes on the Water, and local Trout Unlimited chapters for a day of fishing, paddling, and fly-fishing lessons on the Susquehanna River as we celebrate our veterans and the value of clean waterways. Veterans, community members, paddlers, fishermen, friends, and family are welcome at Shank’s Mare Outfitters from 1 to 5 p.m., to discover and appreciate the Susquehanna. From 5 to 7 p.m., CBF will host a dinner and open bar with live music for all participants. There is a $5 entrance fee for dinner and drinks. Click here to register!

—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


Ditches for Clean Water

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Ditches, such as this one under construction in Talbot County, are an innovative and inexpensive way to reduce polluted runoff. Photo by Amy Jacobs.

The word "ditch" doesn't conjure up good feelings about water quality, wildlife habitat, or aesthetics. But a new kind of ditch is offering serious opportunity for the Eastern Shore's Talbot County to meet its nitrogen reduction goal under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. The goal is restoring fish, crab, and waterfowl habitat in waterways like the Choptank and Miles Rivers. 

For a long time, we humans designed "funnels"—stormwater pipes and U-shaped open ditches—to substitute for natural streams in moving rainwater quickly away from inconvenient places like roadways and farm fields. Trouble is, the folks who designed them didn't pay enough attention to the way natural streams "work" with rainfall, so over time, the pipe/ditch systems filled with sediment in some spots, eroded in others, and degraded the quality of the water that moved through them, picking up pollutants from the land and carrying them downstream.

Then some enterprising civil engineers in the Midwest had an idea. Suppose they designed two-stage ditches that mimicked nature by providing a small central channel sized to accommodate average natural (base) flow, with "benches" (floodplains) on either side for overflow. Plant the benches with native wetland grasses and they would allow the ditches to catch water from heavy storms, slow it, and let some of it percolate into the soil, where the grasses' root systems would catch sediment and soak up nitrogen, phosphorus, and even some toxic chemicals.

Sound intriguing? That's what CBF's Eastern Shore Office Director, Alan Girard, thought when Amy Jacobs of The Nature Conservancy's Maryland Chapter told him about the idea over coffee one morning. Jacobs was exploring the use of LIDAR (laser-based LIght Detection And Ranging) deployed from aircraft to plot drainage patterns on farm fields leading to Talbot's system of roadside ditches. Girard realized the system might offer a "two-fer" by catching and treating runoff from both the fields and the roadways. The widened ditches take some extra land from both farms and road rights-of-way, but LIDAR allows designers to focus strategically where the ditches provide the most benefit. In terms of cost per pound of nitrogen removed from county waterways, the two-stage ditches offered an attractive, inexpensive alternative to complex urban stormwater retrofits.

The concept is good, but what counts for restoring waterways is putting these ditches to work in the right places. Thus the effort had to blend technology with local politics and public administration. Siting and building them requires teamwork from two agencies, the Department of Public Works (for roadways) and the Talbot Conservation District (for farmland), plus funding. At this point, Alan Girard brought multiple players together to build that team and raise grants for several pilot projects. The discussions included County Council members, staffers from the two agencies and the two nonprofits, and—very important—farmers cultivating land adjacent to county roadways.

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Photo by Amy Jacobs.

The result of the discussions was a $100,000 capital budget item in the 2015 Talbot County budget, which allowed the pilot programs to begin. This year, the county set aside another $50,000 for more ditches and for monitoring their effectiveness. The major challenges now for the project partners are to refine and standardize the techniques, employ the County's funds as leverage for larger grants, and go to work on other priority ditches across the county. The Talbot Ditch Project is essentially about applying an agricultural Best Management Practice (BMP) to suburban stormwater runoff pollution. If early results continue, the two-stage ditch technique has great application for other counties and towns on the Eastern Shore, and in other rural areas of the region. "It's a cheap, simple, common-sense approach that doesn't take much land away from farms or roadways," concluded Girard.

Thought this story would be about crabs, rockfish, and Chesapeake science? Well, it is. Who knew that Saving the Bay would turn out to be about Midwestern engineering, ditches, lasers, excavators, and local government, all working together for clean water? That's the kind of creative partnership thinking that gets this job done.  

—John Page Williams, CBF's Senior Naturalist


Farmer Spotlight: Eco-City Farms

File-1Miles from the countryside, surrounded by townhomes and busy city streets in Prince George's County, Maryland, one organization is working to serve as a model for urban farming operations. Deborah Wren and the team at Eco-City Farms are working to prove that farming in urban environments is not only viable but is greatly needed in these areas. Wren, the lead farmer of Eco City Farms, draws on her experiences growing up on a dairy farm and studying anthropology in college as she connects people of various cultures, backgrounds, and classes to fresher food in the city. Wren works to ensure that Eco-City's motto of "growing great food, farms and farmers," spans across the organization's two farms in the county.

The Edmonston Farm, the first property Eco-City worked, was founded six years ago on 1.25 acres. The farm started with hoop houses and a small outdoor growing space in a highly residential area. The second property in Bladensburg is larger at 3.5 acres and is known for its permaculture, garden beds, and edible forest. Both properties are Certified Naturally Grown, which is "a practice managed by a farmer collective where farmers from around the world hold each other to certain standards."

PhotoFarmer Wren credits her passion for farming to her upbringing. As one of seven children she was often working outside, helping her mother in the garden or helping her father with the cows. In her undergraduate studies in anthropology she traveled to a number of developing countries. She began drawing comparisons between urban areas such as those in areas like Washington, D.C. and Prince George's County to those in developing countries. The shocking similarities—lack of resources, environmental issues, and lack of access to essential resources such as food—motivated her to make a change upon returning to the United States. Wren began her career with Eco-City Farms as an apprentice just five years ago and is now the lead farmer in her third growing season.

As one can imagine, farming techniques are different for urban agriculture. For example, tractors do not till the soil and extensive sprayers do not water the crops. A part of changing farming into urban spaces is adapting the growing practices as soil, water, and even temperature are all different in the city. Eco-City Farms works with these changes to provide fresh sustainably grown produce year-round to its local community.

PhotoAdjusting to the land is just one factor as Eco-City Farms also works to appeal to different cultures. Nearly 48 percent of its customers and volunteers are Spanish speaking. The organization has an education and outreach coordinator who is fluent in Spanish as the farms are located in what many locals call "Little Mexico." Addressing the cultural differences and unifying people through food is something they hope to achieve as they look to reach a broader audience.

Eco City Farms offers two-size CSA shares and allow members to apply and pay weekly, providing more flexibility to those in lower income communities. In addition to their CSA share, it sells fresh produce at the Riverdale Park Farmers Market on Thursdays and the Port Towns Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Eco-City Farms not only works to deliver food to those with limited access but also provides resources such as nutrition-based education, training programs such as the Beginner Farmer Rancher Training program, as well as hosting composting workshops, and beginner farmers for apprenticeships. Eco-City Farms is a model for the future of urban farming, led by people who want to reconnect people to fresh, healthy food, regardless of their culture, class, or location.

—Kellie Rogers; Photos courtesy of Deborah Wren

Learn more about how farmers across the watershed are working to improve both water quality and farm productivity in our Farmers' Success Stories series.

 


Photo of the Week: Summer Solstice on the Bay

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With more than 150 major rivers and streams flowing into the Chesapeake Bay, we travel by boat within Maryland from the northern Bay heading toward the majestic Chesapeake Bay Bridge, where aesthetically the bridge's design in and of itself is absolutely breathtaking!

This body of water is known for its beauty and bounty; home to an array of beautiful birds, blue crabs, fish, oysters; a passageway for many sailboats, powerboats, and other vessels; place of amazing sunsets and gorgeous sunrises.

—Stephanie Rosier Karas

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

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 Senior Manager 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!


Good News about Oysters

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3.2 million spat on shell were planted in the South River this July. Photo by Erika Nortemann.

Persuading microscopic oyster larvae to "set" on old shells is as simple as placing plenty of both into a large round tank of circulating Bay water and leaving them together for several days. Right?

Not hardly. This Chesapeake miracle is absolutely dependent on good water quality. Some years, successive sets die off, handcuffing restoration programs.

But not this year, at least so far. CBF's MD Oyster Restoration Center at Shady Side has been able to produce a record number of spat (i.e. baby oysters) on shell, the universal currency of restoration. "The spring and summer have been extremely kind to us," said Capt. Karl Willey as he deftly maneuvered Patricia Campbell, CBF's 60' oyster planter, around Thunder & Lightning, an oyster reef in the South River that is open to harvest by watermen wielding hand tongs. "The hatchery at the University of Maryland Horn Point Laboratory started producing larvae early—in April—and has continued. We've seen strong spat sets in our tanks since then. We've actually gotten ahead of schedule, with 31 million spat set on shell and placed on restoration reefs in the Little Choptank...Now we have July to work small projects with some of our partners. That's why you found Kate [South River Federation Executive Director Kate Fritz] and me counting spat on the dock this morning." 

Indeed, as Dan Johannes, Pat Beall, and intern Patrick McCabe loaded spat on shell into the large bins on either side of Patricia Campbell's long foredeck, Karl and Kate carefully examined a random sample of several dozen shells, counting the pinhead-sized spat on each. Eight-to-twenty spat on each shell allowed him and Kate to estimate how many spat the big boat would be planting on this day: 3.2 million. 

Loading and counting completed, the crew and several volunteers, including Kate's Board Chair, Kevin Green, climbed aboard for the one-hour run up to South River. We slowed briefly to watch a large pod of dolphins fishing in the river's mouth, then got down to work on a sanctuary reef 11-14' deep off Larrimore Point. As Kate and Kevin watched on the foredeck, Dan started up the hydraulic system that tilts the bins full of spat on shell inward to the conveyor belt that runs down the center of the foredeck. Pat and Patrick began to regulate the flow of 1.4 million spat on their shells into a steady stream on the belt, all moving forward to drop onto a rotating "planter wheel" at the bow that throws them out in a circle 10-12' in diameter. Meanwhile, a GPS antenna mounted beside the wheel sent a continuous signal of our track to the electronic display in front of Karl at the helm, recording the data on a memory card. This technology arms Karl with the data to know everywhere this program has planted since 2003.

We dropped another 0.5 million spat on shell on an 8' sanctuary reef tended by John Flood, an South River Federation Board member emeritus, and 0.3 million on another sanctuary off the mouth of Little Aberdeen Creek. Finally, we moved to Thunder & Lightning, to drop the last 1 million in 10-12' where local watermen partners would be able to harvest them once they grow out in two-to-three years.

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CBF's oyster planting boat, the Patricia Campbell. Photo by Erika Nortemann.

Tiny predators like mud crabs that live on the reefs eat spat, but survival from spawn to adult for these guys set in concentration in our tanks is higher than natural sets in the wild," Karl said. "The density at which we plant [5 million spat on shell per acre] produces dense clusters." 

At the end of the month, Patricia Campbell and her crew will partner with the Coastal Conservation Association/Maryland to set 72 concrete reef balls with spat and place them onto the MD DNR's Tilghman Island Artificial Reef, in 18-20' of water due west of the island. The reef balls themselves have a special story: they have all been built by high school students in masonry classes, expressly for this purpose.

After three decades of bad news about oysters, imagine being able to get ahead of schedule with good news. Here's hoping we can make it last...

—John Page Williams, CBF's Senior Naturalist