More Chesapeake Bay good news this week. Following reports a few weeks ago that the Bay’s blue crab population is up for the second year in a row comes word from EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program that the Bay’s underwater grass beds grew by 12 percent from 2008 to 2009.
Last year’s survey of the submerged grasses found nearly 86,000 acres, the most since 2002. Increases were noted in all three parts of the Bay -- upper, middle, and lower – and in important species like eel grass.
Bay Program officials credited the uptick to ongoing efforts to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution from farms and wastewater treatment plants.
Much of the increase is also likely due to drier weather in 2009. Typically, years with less precipitation mean less runoff pollution going into the Bay, which means clearer water, which means more underwater grass. While it’s good there were more Bay grasses last year, ultimately we must reduce pollution sufficiently so that the Bay is healthy and resilient enough to withstand the vagaries of weather and produce abundant underwater grasses year in and year out.
There is little debate that too much pollution is causing big problems for the Bay’s underwater grasses. Bay grasses – more than a dozen species of saltwater, brackish, and freshwater varieties grow in the Bay watershed – require sunlight to survive, just as land plants do. To get sunlight, the submerged plants need clean, clear water that allows the sun’s rays to penetrate down to the bottom where the grasses are anchored.
Today’s badly polluted Bay, however, is often murky from excessive sediment and algae fueled by too much nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. Take a look at the satellite photograph of the Bay (right) and note the yellowish plumes of silt coming down many of the Bay’s rivers, the result of pollution running off the land when it rains in Bay country. All that murky water blocks sunlight, preventing it from nurturing Bay grasses. No sunlight, no grasses.
And while the recent increase in grass beds is heartening, last year’s 86,000 acres is but a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of acres thought to have once thrived in the Bay when water clarity was much better. Those vast meadows of underwater grasses help oxygenate the water, hold the bottom in place against violent storm waves, absorb pollution, and provide vital food and homes for a vast array of Bay critters, from blue crabs to finfish to sea horses to turtles and ducks. Consider how important plants are to life on terra firma; Bay grasses are just as critical for life beneath the water. There is a very real correlation between the health of Bay grasses and the health of crabs, fish, waterfowl, and other Bay flora and fauna.
More good news: CBF’s “Grasses for the Masses” volunteer grass restoration program in Virginia continues to grow in popularity. This year some 200 volunteers participated, growing wild celery, a freshwater Bay grass, from seeds planted in water-filled plastic tubs in their homes, schools, or offices. The volunteers have been nurturing their underwater grass babies since the winter, and now that it’s springtime, their leafy green sprouts are ready for transplanting into the Potomac and James rivers.
On Thursday more than a dozen volunteers waded into the low-tide shallows of Belmont Bay at Virginia’s Mason Neck State Park in Fairfax County to plant their wild celery in the river bottom. As they scooped out handfuls of roots and leaves and put them in the water, they were watched from above by circling bald eagles and ospreys.
Some of the volunteers were first-time grass growers. Chris Ros, a biology teacher at Alexandria Country Day School, began the project with students this year as a service-learning activity and a way to reinforce concepts he teaches in seventh- and eighth-grade science classes.
“It’s a great project,” he said, noting it ties in with his existing curriculum and enables students to make a difference “right in their own back yard.” He stationed two grass-growing tubs in classrooms and two in a school hallway so more students and teachers could see the project.
Seventh-graders Ava Scott and Charlotte Simmons accompanied Ros Thursday to help plant. They said they enjoyed setting up the tub systems at school, planting the seeds, and watching them grow, but missing school on a warm spring day to transplant them in the river certainly was another plus.
This was the second year for Grasses for the Masses volunteer Mary Clock-Rust, an EPA biologist who was taking a day off to plant her grasses in the river. Perhaps her veteran experience paid off; her trays spilled over with long, lush leaves of wild celery. A long-time CBF member, Clock-Rust said she’ll grow grasses again next year, too.
The grasses grown by volunteers are planted in specially permitted areas of the rivers where water quality is thought to be good enough to allow them to survive and reproduce. CBF has been planting grasses in Belmont Bay for several years. The wild grass shoots sprouting from the river bottom is proof previous years’ efforts are literally taking root, says Libby Norris, CBF restoration scientist overseeing Thursday’s planting.
If you’d like to become a Grasses for the Masses volunteer and help restore underwater grasses to the Bay, learn more about what’s involved and sign up online at www.cbf.org/grasses . It’s a great way to make a difference, one sprout at a time, and help create more good news for the Bay.
By Chuck Epes