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Chesapeake Born: The Grand Experiment

IMG_0409Photo by Emmy Nicklin/CBF Staff.

I have enjoyed the Chesapeake Bay for more than 60 years and written about it for nearly 40. Early in my reporting career, I realized I was covering more than pollution or the vicissitudes of fish and crabs.

I had a front row seat to a grand experiment. We had taken a world-class ecosystem and screwed it up big time, then begun an unprecedented effort to restore it, even as millions more people moved into the watershed.

For better or for worse, we were going to learn some lessons; important for the whole planet. Could an affluent, technologically sophisticated society forge a healthy and sustainable relationship with the rest of nature?

No one thought it would be easy or quick. Yet few thought we’d get this far with restoration still so far away, with so little certainty of meeting already postponed goals.

Much has gone in the right direction, offsetting somewhat the increased environmental pressures from a watershed-wide population that has doubled since I was a kid.

And looking at what’s worked suggests common threads.

Air pollution, a big source of Bay pollution, has decreased. Sewage treatment technology has improved to remove dramatically more nitrogen and phosphorus from waste.

Striped bass rebounded handsomely from dangerously low levels, and it seems within our grasp to operate blue crab harvests sustainably.

Lessons learned? The federal Clean Air Act has real teeth and good science behind it, and pretty good enforcement by the Environmental Protection Agency across state boundaries. The federal Clean Water Act has enough authority over sewage treatment to prod polluting municipalities, with the water and sewer bills users pay providing reliable funding.

With striped bass, strong federal oversight was critical to a species that mostly spawned in the Chesapeake but was overfished throughout its multistate migratory range.

With bass and blue crabs, funding good science that included excellent long-term monitoring provided politicians with the backing they needed to make controversial decisions to curtail harvests.

So fund the science, collect the data, strengthen regulatory agencies and federal oversight, then set real deadlines with real penalties. Next election, ask your candidates where they stand on those issues.

More regulation isn’t the sole key to Bay progress. Across the watershed, 20 percent of all land has been protected as open space using tools ranging from voluntary easements that give up development rights to outright purchase.

There’s also room for using market forces to protect the environment. Removing subsidies that encourage polluting behavior would work—and save money. Assigning economic value to nature’s services that purify air and water would send the correct (higher) price signals to pavers and deforesters.

When Bay restoration began, we heard a lot about “win-win”—what was good for the Bay would also prove good for the bottom line.

But the pushback from two of the biggest Bay problem areas—agriculture and sprawl development—has blown away such easy assumptions. The development industry and its allies continue to own local decision-making bodies where most land-use decisions are made—and made badly for the public interest.

Farmers, who contribute the most pollution to the Bay—and the most cost-effective pollution to curtail—enjoy a good-guy image with the voting public. Most really are good guys who have done many good things for the environment, although too often these are not well-targeted at Bay restoration.

To both sprawl and farm runoff we have workable and affordable solutions but not the politics or laws that are up to the task.

More straight talk to the public and farmers is in order. There’s a disconnect between the great deal the science says needs remedying and the “mission accomplished” one often hears from agricultural bureaucracies.

But, in the fourth decade of Bay-saving, we are at least working on almost all of the pieces of the puzzle, from pollution to overfishing to protecting habitat.

The bad news is that governments and environmental groups in the watershed continue treating growth—indefinitely expanding both the human economy and population—as an “uncontrollable” environmental impact, which can only be accommodated, never rethought.

Is the grand experiment then doomed? I’m not wise enough to say.

I have grown wise enough to spend every moment I can outside exploring this still marvelous region from Cooperstown, N.Y., to the Virginia capes. If readers get one thing from these columns, I would hope for this: Get outdoors, explore and learn what it would mean to live sustainably in this place.

—Tom Horton

The above "Chesapeake Born" column appears monthly in the Bay Journal News Service. Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

Photo of the Week: Santa's Reindeer?

ChesapeakeSantaPhoto courtesy of Cheryl Jaffe.

"This is a photo my daughter took. Santa was greeting the Bay Bridge drivers last weekend!" 

Cheryl Jaffe 

Do you have a favorite Bay photo you'd like to submit to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Photo of the Week contest? Send your digital images to CBF's E-Communications Manager, Emmy Nicklin, at enicklin [at sign], along with a brief description of where and when you took the photo and what the Chesapeake Bay means to you. Please also join our Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Flickr group and post your pics to our Facebook page. We look forward to seeing your photos!

Another reason to fence your cattle: Make your customers happy!

The following appeared on field conservationist Bobby Whitescarver's blog, For more information, please visit his website.

DAVIS_100628_6512Photo by Nikki Davis.

Monday I went to see a farmer that was interested in fencing his cattle out of a stream on his farm. He operates one of those down-home, “buy your local meats here” farms. They raise beef cattle, “free range” turkeys, and hogs. They sell all kinds of meats, from bacon and sausage to whole fresh turkeys to steaks. It’s all local, all natural, all organic.

The farmer and I walked out into the front pasture where the stream flows through the middle of one of his larger fields. His cattle have access to the whole stream, probably a quarter of a mile of stream. That’s where they get their water and you have to drive right across the stream to get to the office where he sells his meats. He wanted to fence the whole thing out which would create four grazing units. We talked about all the different scenarios for watering the cows once he successfully fenced them out of the stream.

I asked him the same question I ask everybody that gets into a stream exclusion project, “What compelled you to fence the cows out of the stream?” His answer surprised me. 

He said, “A lot of my customers ask me why I don’t have my cattle fenced out of the stream." He went on to say that he thought fencing them out would help his marketing and image as a farmer of “all natural” products.

So here’s the lesson. It’s okay as a customer to demand environmental stewardship. I guarantee the American farmer will produce what the customer wants. After all, we really do vote with our wallets. So the next time you buy that local chicken or rib-eye steakm, be sure you ask the farmer why he hasn't fenced his cattle out of the stream.

—Bobby Whitescarver  

Whitescarver is a recently retired USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservationist who spent more than 30 years working with farmers on conservation practices. He now has his own private consulting business where he helps landowners create an overall vision and plan for their land. He also works with CBF to help famers install more Best Managment Practices (BMPs) in the Shenandoah Valley. He is the recipient of a CBF Conservationist of the Year award. For more information, visit his website

Ask a Scientist: Q&A with David Wise

DaveWise2CBF's David Wise, second from left, receiving his Chesapeake Forest Champion award at October's 2011 Chesapeake Watershed Forum. Photo by Adam Wickline/CBF Staff.


In October, CBF's Pennsylvania Watershed Restoration Manager David Wise was recognized as a Chesapeake Forest Champion with the "greatest on-the-ground impact" award. Wise has been a tremendous leader in restoring riparian forest buffers throughout the state with the Pennsylvania Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) partnership. Since 2000, Pennsylvania CREP has restored more than 22,000 acres of forest buffers—more than all the other Chesapeake Bay states combined. We recently sat down with Wise to learn about the importance of this restoration work. 

What is the most significant role of trees?
For streams, the key role of trees is to create the conditions that maximize the good that streams can do. In the eastern U.S., streams are adapted to forested conditions. The life in streams is at its peak with the temperatures, light levels, food types, and physical conditions created by forests. For example, forested portions of streams have five times more living things and remove two to nine times more nitrogen pollution than portions of the same streams running through healthy grass buffers. Streams purify water for our society at no cost, but to do their best work, they need optimal conditions—they need trees.

How did you get involved in CREP and the effort to restore forested buffers? 
In 1998, a group of conservation professionals, both government agencies and NGOs were developing a proposal for a Pennsylvania CREP, and as a new CBF staffer, I was invited to be part of the process.

Is there a stream that you have worked on that exhibited substantial improvement through the restoration/buffer process?
Two streams come to mind. Valley Creek on the Chester/Lancaster County border has had cows fenced out and buffers restored on about five of seven total farms. About seven years later the populations of pollution-sensitive stream insects (the canary in the mineshaft) has tripled. The researcher examining the data gave the technical answer—"it's working."

The other stream is Lititz Run in northern Lancaster County. It has benefitted from buffers and much more work by a long list of local players, including some hardworking trout enthusiasts. It starts in the center of town by a big factory, runs through an industrial area, past sprawl, the sewer plant and then farms. Through all of this, the stream holds onto life. With lots of work, a few years ago brown trout successfully spawned on the site of the oldest forest buffer I know of, one where CBF helped the Donegal Trout Unlimited group. When I heard this, it gave me goosebumps. There’s a lot of resilience in nature—a lot of forgiveness.

—CBF Staff

Learn more about CBF's work on the CREP program.

Photo of the Week: Santa's Reindeer and the Surfer

ByAlButzerPhoto by Al Butzer/

"This photo was taken in Virginia Beach. 'Santa's Reindeer and the Surfer' pulls together a Southern Chesapeake Virginia Beach Christmas.

I first fell in love with the Chesapeake when we moved to Fairfax, Virginia, and had our boat shipped from Chicago to Parrish Creek off the West River. For 13 years, we sailed the northern Bay and anchored in countless beautiful creeks, among them, Harness Creek, Dividing Creek, Mill Creek, Gibson Island off the Magothy River, St. Michaels, La Trappe Creek near Oxford, and of course, Spa Creek.

In 2007, we relocated to Norfolk, Virginia and sailed our boat south to Hampton, Virginia, where we are still exploring the wonders of the southern Bay. Every day on the way to and from work, I drive across the Lesner Bridge in Virginia Beach and have a beautiful view of the Bay, with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in the distance. Sometimes the Bay is as smooth as a baby's bottom, and at other times it is a kick in the pants. Every day is different, and every day is a joy and a blessing!"

—Al Butzer (as told to Emmy Nicklin)

Do you have a favorite Bay photo you'd like to submit to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Photo of the Week contest? We're looking for Holiday-themed photos! Send your digital images to CBF's E-Communications Manager, Emmy Nicklin, at enicklin [at sign], along with a brief description of where and when you took the photo and what the Chesapeake Bay means to you. Please also join our Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Flickr group and post your pics to our Facebook page. We look forward to seeing your photos!

A new year, a new start! Five resolutions you can make in 2012 to help Save the Bay...

IMG_5776Photo by Miriam Nicklin.

It’s that time of year again…time to make your New Year’s Resolutions! (And hopefully this time, you’ll keep ’em!) Here are 5 resolutions we’re making to Save the Bay in 2012…won’t you join us?

  1. Write your representatives and tell them how important the Bay pollution limits are to ensuring we and future generations have clean water!
  2. Use less fertilizer on your lawn and garden and learn about CBF’s eight steps to ensuring a healthy, beautiful, Bay-friendly yard. Take the Gardeners for the Bay pledge.
  3. Upgrade your septic system to reduce the amount of nitrogen pollution leaking into the Bay. Better yet, live somewhere where you’re connected to a sewer system instead of a septic system. (Did you know the average home on a septic system produces 10 times the amount of pollution than a home on a quarter acre lot connected to the sewer system?! Ten times! Yikes!)  
  4. Get in shape! Bike more, drive less. Take the Cyclist for the Bay pledge.
  5. Last, but not least, become a CBF member, if you have not done so already! Join an important group of individuals dedicated to restoring the health and productivity of our national treasure, the Chesapeake Bay. 

—Emmy Nicklin

Men at work: Recreating what nature used to do

Parkwood living shoreline sills construction 014Like so many streets in Annapolis, Parkwood Avenue terminates at a creek. But something unusual is happening where Parkway meets Back Creek. An indication of that is the sight of a Hitachi earth excavator piling up boulders just off the shore.  

The residents of Parkwood Civic Association, a community of modest homes and tree-lined streets that slope to Back Creek, have decided to build a “living shoreline” along their waterfront. This means they are returning their shoreline to something similar to its natural state with lots of native vegetation. The man-made wetlands will do what nature used to do cheaply and effectively: prevent erosion and filter water. The boulders, or sills, will help disperse storm waves, but won’t interfere with the ecological functions of the new wetlands.

Traditionally, many property owners around the Bay cut down trees along the waterfront, and then built walls of various sorts to keep stormwater off. The walls prevent erosion from the Bay for a while, but eventually they break down. Those structures also often fill in tidal wetlands and shallow water habitat in their attempt to hold the land in place. Also, the walls do nothing to slow down and filter polluted runoff, one of the major causes of the Bay’s degraded condition.

Living shorelines are good at both preventing erosion from wave action and also slowing and filtering rainwater that picks up contaminants from lawns, streets, roofs, and other surfaces. So when it came time for the Parkwood residents to decide what to do about the eroding bank and deteriorating rip-rap along their 640 feet of waterfront, they opted for a living shoreline.

I visited the site Tuesday, Dec. 13. The project is well underway. The sills are nearly halfway done. The contractor, Wes Matheu, maneuvered his excavator right at creek edge, swinging the boom and bucket of the machine to carefully create the sills. Matheu is the owner of Shoreline Design L.L.C. of Edgewater, Maryland. His brother Raymon assisted. The sills will be done in about two weeks, Raymon said.

In late spring of 2012, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), which is coordinating the project, will organize Parkwood residents and other volunteers to plant a few thousand native grasses to create the wetlands. CBF also will host a workshop to teach others about living shorelines, and what it takes to build one. Stay tuned... 

Parkwood living shoreline sills construction 036Rob Schnabel, a restoration expert with CBF, said some communities assume they can’t do a living shoreline because they have docks or piers. Parkwood had three different docks, but that doesn’t prevent construction of a natural shoreline, Schnabel said. Click here to view Shoreline Design’s planning document for the project.

To further slow and treat stormwater, the project will also include two bioretention basins at the foot of Parkwood Avenue. Such structures again use a combination of vegetation and human engineering. Schnabel said the residents of Parkwood took a serious interest in reducing the amount of pollution going into Back Creek from stormwater. The community kayak rack and docks testify to the residents’ stake in clean water.

“The community led the charge on that. We just pulled together the funding,” Schnabel said.

Stormwater is a hot topic these days because both county and state officials are considering ways to finance necessary improvements in the stormwater management systems around the state, many of them neglected and in disrepair even as Maryland tries to meet new Bay pollution limits to help save the Chesapeake.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Maryland Department of Environment, Restore America’s Estuaries, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources funded the Parkwood living shoreline. The Chesapeake Bay Trust funded the two bioretention basins.

And speaking of money, living shorelines, bioretention basins, and other projects installed to better manage stormwater are job creators, providing a good jobs-per-dollars-spent ratio compared to other public projects. Raymon said he is a graphic designer by trade, but business went slack over the past 10 years. His brother’s work building living shorelines and stormwater retrofit projects, meanwhile, was picking up. Raymon grabbed a shovel—and a pay check.

 —Tom Zolper

This blog also appeared on the Clean Water Healthy Families site.

Photo of the Week: Dreaming of a White Christmas

Snow2Photo by Ally Cassorla.

"I live only a block away from the Chesapeake Bay, between the Lesner Bridge and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in Virginia Beach. It is a gem of a location which I enjoy each day with long walks on the beach. I have been taking a series of photos over the past year of water, sky, sea life, and people that I see on these walks. This image was taken in January of 2010.

I am so lucky to enjoy the beauty and camaraderie of living so close to this living, breathing estuary . . . I am very protective of OUR Bay and speak out about conservation as often as someone will listen." 

—Ally Cassorla (as told to Emmy Nicklin)

Do you have a favorite Bay photo you'd like to submit to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Photo of the Week contest? We're looking for Holiday-themed photos! Send them to CBF's E-Communications Manager, Emmy Nicklin, at enicklin [at sign], along with a brief description of where and when you took the photo and what the Chesapeake Bay means to you. Please also join our Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Flickr group and post your pics to our Facebook page. We look forward to seeing your photos!

'Tis the season to be green!

DSC_0012.JPGPhoto by CBF Staff.

Just because it’s the holidays, doesn’t mean it’s time to give up on your ultra-green lifestyle (and we know you have one). In fact, there’s no better season to show your love for the natural world than the season of giving. Here are five tips to help you do just that:

  1. Save some energy, save some money! Decorate your tree with energy-saving LED lights and save up to 90 percent less energy than regular holiday lights. Plus, they sure are purdy! Reducing your energy consumption will also reduce the amount of energy that needs to be generated by fossil-fueled power plants, thereby cutting back on the nutrients and chemicals that can enter our waters and Bay through air pollution.
  2. Nothing says “I love you” like a Sunday-comics-wrapped gift. For serious, it’s whimsical, recycled, and free! So go ahead, make your own wrapping paper.
  3. Cook your holiday feasts with local foods like those found at our own Clagett Farm. It’s really a no brainer…local foods taste better, are safer, and support our local economy.  
  4. Is there anything better than the real thing? Ummm…No. So get a real Christmas tree, instead of buying a fake. Not only do they smell good, real Christmas trees are more easily recycled and support local agriculture.    
  5. You know we had to put this one in here…Give the ultimate gift—Save the Bay!

—Emmy Nicklin

A Turning Point for Menhaden, Part Four

Video by Chris Moore/CBF Staff.

Just a few weeks ago, in an historic vote, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) decided it was time to set new standards for how it manages menhaden, an essential fish to the entire coastal ecosystem. But due to overfishing in 32 of the past 54 years, menhaden’s population had fallen to a mere 8 percent of what it once was–its lowest point on record!

After thousands of letters and e-mails (including 1,036 from CBF advocates) as well as comments at public ASMFC hearings, it became clear just how important this fish is not only to our waters, but to the human community it supports.

Bill Goldsborough, CBF’s Director of Fisheries, fought for years for the protection of this fish, which up until now had hardly been managed at all. His persistence was instrumental in bringing about this landmark decision to establish a healthy population of menhaden for all of us. Check out the video above for Goldsborough's reactions to the vote just moments after it happened.

—Emmy Nicklin

Read the full menhaden story. View parts One, Two, and Three of this menhaden blog series.