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December 2012
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February 2013

Bay's Health Showing Real Progress

The following op-ed appeared in Maryland Community News Online late last week.

SOTB_2012CoverThis is a historic moment in time for the Chesapeake Bay and all the rivers and streams throughout its entire six-state, 64,000-square-mile watershed. In fact, this is the moment in time for the Chesapeake. Never before have the stars aligned so well for the Bay's future. While there has been some squabbling, and even lawsuits, by extremists on both sides, cooperation between individuals, businesses and government has led to real progress. The state of the Bay is improving.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's State of the Bay health index, the first such Bay report card and the longest running, shows a 14 percent improvement since 2008. Cooperation and sound science have overcome the narrow interests of opposition. We can clearly see a saved Bay in our generation.

But make no mistake, the Bay is not yet saved. A D+ is not a grade my parents, at least, would ever accept ("Report: Slight uptick in Bay’s health," Jan. 4). The Bay is still dangerously out of balance.

Overall, our State of the Bay Report shows that five of the 13 indicators are up, seven are unchanged, and only Bay grasses are down. In the last two-year reporting period, the levels of phosphorous pollution have declined, the amount of land permanently protected in conservation has increased, blue crabs have increased, and dissolved oxygen levels have increased. All of this shows a Bay fighting for survival, and the fact that the dissolved oxygen levels have actually improved during a period of high storm events may be a strong indication that the Bay's legendary resilience is returning.

Ironically, we worry that the good news, albeit modest, may breed a certain level of complacency among the public and even our elected officials. This would be a huge mistake, as the gains have been modest, incremental, and the system is still fragile. If we have learned anything over the years at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, it is the fact that the Bay is a study in contrasts, even contradictions.

Consider the one down indicator of the 13 in our report card—underwater grasses. Upper Bay grasses on the Susquehanna Flats tripled over the past 20 years, but declined in the last two-year reporting period. Grass beds in the Severn River are abundant, but in much of Virginia, grasses decreased, a victim of high water temperatures.

Going forward, here is what we all want for the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers: clean and safe water, abundant seafood and healthy habitat. Over the centuries, all three have been thrown out of balance. Now, thanks to good science informing good policy, supported and implemented by a broad base of cooperation, each is starting to show signs of improvement.

That some are lobbying Congress and suing in federal court to stop the progress is not only tragic, it is mind-boggling. All of us who value the Chesapeake and are determined to see a better future for our children and grandchildren must let our voices be heard. It is time to finish the job.

—William C. Baker
President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Learn more about our Save the Bay efforts through the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

Photo of the Week: Afternoon Mist on the Patuxent River

P1000553Photo by Cliff Charland.

"[This] photo was taken on January 13, 2013, in the afternoon mist of a freshwater tidal marsh on the Patuxent RiverMerkle Wildlife Sanctuary, Croom, Maryland.

My father had an old deadrise, docked near Deale, Maryland, back in the 1960s, when I was a youngster. Back then, I thought the Bay was the greatest place in the world. I still think soit is history, natural resource, culture, people, and one of the most unique and beautiful places I know of."

—Cliff Charland

Ensure that Cliff and future generations continue to enjoy these misty afternoons along the Chesapeake. Support the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint! 

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. We look forward to seeing your photos!


Tales of Tangier

IMG_1963As a child, I learned that hearts and lips were very different parts, but the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's recent public enrichment event, "Tales of Tangier," led me to question that notion.

On January 19, Tangier natives Charles and Cindy Parks, Lonnie Moore, Mayor "Ooker" Eskridge, and CBF's own MC Don Baugh (AKA CBF's Vice President of Education) gathered amidst a smiling and eager crowd at the Barrier Island Center, a facility steeped in local Eastern Shore heritage and whose walls have immeasurable stories to tell themselves. Audience members were excited to share their perspectives as well, asking thoughtful questions and even sharing some of their own Tangier-inspired poetry! The evening was flanked with the salty musical stylings of The Turkey Pen Pickers, a local bluegrass band that transported our toetappin' to a simpler time that none of us would have minded going back to.

Storytelling is vital to culture because it connects us with the minds and hearts of those who have something to share. Storytelling is often referred to as "spinning a yarn," which makes sense. A good storyteller weaves wit and wisdom to create a beautiful tapestry that is poised to be passed down through  generations. The Bay, whose story is much older than words, was blessed to have the voice of the tellers of that evening. They told tales of abundance that once was, a way of life to be embraced, an island in need, an island they could never dream of leaving, and their hopes for the future of our Bay, our children, and their home. The stories they shared showed that Tangier is more than an island; it is a community whose lifestyles, unfamiliar to most of us, are completely entrenched in rich culture wholly dependent on the success of our Bay's restoration, bounty, and resilience.

The event was a huge success, and one that begs to be repeated. Many attendees were happy to stand, even in adjacent rooms, just to catch a glimpse into the powerful perspectives of our distinctive neighbors. The audience left feeling a broad swath of emotions. We laughed, we cried, we danced a little, and we all took something very special away with us that night: The privileged glimpse into something worth saving, right in our own backyards. "Tales of Tangier" was much like an electrifying excavation and it lead us all to see a new reality, as experienced by those who live it, and feel that not all treasure is buried.

Experiencing "Tales of Tangier" confirmed that saving the Bay is about more than just the Bay itself. It's about heritage, reverence, hope for the future, and something stirring that courses through our blood; Saving the Bay is about saving ourselves.

 —Tatum Sumners Ford
CBF Eastern Shore of Virginia Grassroots Field Specialist

Check out our Facebook photo album of this vibrant evening on the Shore!

Please visit our website to learn more about our Save the Bay efforts, including the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Find out how YOU can get involved!

IMG_2007The Turkey Pen Pickers at CBF's "Tales of Tangier" event on Jan. 19. All photos by Hali Plourde-Rogers.

Photo of the Week: Brownie's Beach

186Photo by Stephanie Watson.

"This photograph was taken at Brownie's Beach in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. I find the Bay to be very relaxing and will take many trips up there just to unwind and listen to the waves. Chesapeake Beach was a recent find for me, and I never tire of the simple beauty the Bay offers when I visit." 

—Stephanie Watson

Ensure that Stephanie and future generations continue to enjoy these rejuvenating places along the Chesapeake. Support the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint! 

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. We look forward to seeing your photos!


Grasses for the Masses: We're Looking for Volunteers!

4601757205_0016fb1591_bThis spring hundreds of volunteers will be wading out into the James and Potomac Rivers, planting underwater grasses, and helping to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams!

These Grasses for the Masses volunteers first will have participated in a CBF workshop this winter before growing wild celery grass from seeds planted in water-filled plastic tubs in their homes, schools, or offices. Wild celery is not only fun and easy to grow, but it is also a vital part of the Bay's ecosystem, improving water quality, reducing erosion, and offering safe haven for native critters.

And it's not too late to join in the fun! Registration for our Grasses for the Masses program is now open. But hurry, spots are filling up quick for this hands-on and rewarding activity, and we'd love to have you join us!

—Emmy Nicklin 

Check out this Facebook photo album from underwater grass plantings of years past.



Photo of the Week: Blackwater NWR, We Have Lift-Off!

Lift-Off%20Blackwater-2.NWR.%28Manalo2011%29hqwcPhoto by DJ Manalo.

"As a sea kayaker, the real beauty and true value of the Chesapeake Bay is fully appreciated atop her very waters, especially during the spring and fall migrations. This season especially becomes visibly alive with tens of thousands of winter migrants throughout the Chesapeake, as she provides her Artic visitors a vital resource of nourishment and shelter. Of course, one of the most visible and audible natural spectacles that can be witnessed, are when tens of thousands of snow geese perform their spontaneous and synchronized behavior called 'lift-off' in mass, such as this photo at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. It's an incredible experience to witness in person. Perhaps they're just celebrating with me that they've found a perfect winter retreat along the Chesapeake."

—DJ Manalo

Ensure that DJ and future generations continue to enjoy extraordinary sights like these "lift-offs." Support the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint! 

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. We look forward to seeing your photos!


Few Budget Choices Are as Critical as Clean Water

The following op-ed appeared in The Richmond-Times Dispatch yesterday.

IMG_9388It is hard to overstate the importance of wastewater treatment plants in protecting the environment and public health. These clean-water factories take raw sewage and clean it up to meet state and federal water quality standards before discharging it back into our streams and rivers.

Because of wastewater treatment's critical importance to all of us, a coalition of public and private stakeholders have worked together to advocate for government funding for mandated upgrades and improvements. In Virginia, those stakeholders include the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Virginia Manufacturers Association, as well as other conservation, local government, industry and public utility groups.

In recent years, wastewater treatment plants have played a key role in helping restore the Chesapeake Bay. Plants all across the bay watershed have made it a top priority to modernize and install nutrient reduction technology that cuts the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in wastewater to just a few parts per million. That's important because nitrogen and phosphorus are among the most serious pollutants affecting the bay's health.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are 483 significant (large or critically located) wastewater treatment plants in the Chesapeake Bay region. Most are publicly owned and operated; 81 belong to private industry. Together, they discharge more than 3 billion gallons of treated wastewater a day into the bay watershed.

EPA calculates that between 1985 and 2009, ongoing upgrades at wastewater plants reduced nitrogen and phosphorus pollution going to the bay by 44 percent and 67 percent, respectively—this despite an additional 3.5 million people moving into the watershed during the same period.

But the upgrades are expensive. From 2007 to 2010, nearly $2 billion in taxes was invested in upgrading wastewater treatment facilities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed; more than a half-billion dollars was appropriated by the Virginia legislature alone. Millions more in upstream technology investments have been made by private industry to reduce its impact on these facilities as well.

But the job is far from finished. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality lists 32 wastewater treatment plants, including four in the Richmond area and one in Hopewell, that are now upgrading so that Virginia can achieve its 2017 bay cleanup benchmarks. Many more plants will be added to the list as the state and region fully implement the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint by 2025.

General Assembly funding of the state's share of these upgrade costs not only will ameliorate local rate increases to citizens; it also will benefit all Virginians by helping restore the bay, a national treasure, recreation and tourism magnet, and a job-creating economic engine.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Virginia Manufacturers Association call upon the 2013 General Assembly to continue state funding for these critical wastewater plant upgrades. We applaud Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposal to invest an additional $106 million in state bonds over the next three years for this purpose and urge the legislature to approve them.

Our state legislators have many difficult funding choices to make. But few are more important than clean water—for neighborhood creeks, the bay, public health, recreation and our economy. Please encourage your legislator to help keep sewer rates affordable, invest in clean water and support the governor’s budget.

—Ann Jennings and Brett Vassey

Ann Jennings is Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. She can be reached at

Brett Vassey is president and chief executive officer of the Virginia Manufacturers Association. He can be contacted at

Photo by Emmy Nicklin/CBF Staff.

Wanted: Funding for Clean Water

The following op-ed appeared on The Virginian-Pilot yesterday.

Bill Portlock, VA Sewage Treatment PLantsHampton Roads residents expect that when they flush their toilets or drain their bathtubs, the wastewater goes to a sewage treatment plant to be treated and cleaned before it is discharged to our waterways.

As the operator of local treatment plants, the Hampton Roads Sanitation District takes pride in ensuring that the complex network of pipes, plants and related systems works safely, effectively and efficiently. The district is proud to operate some of the most modern wastewater treatment systems available.

That's important from a public health standpoint, but it's also critical to anyone who loves a creek, a river, the Chesapeake Bay and the beauty and economic bounty that our waterways provide.

Many people know that farm animal manure is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. That's why it makes good fertilizer when applied appropriately.

Human waste also contains nitrogen and phosphorus. In such massive quantitiessome 1.7 million people flush toilets every day in Hampton Roads alonethis human-generated nutrient pollution has contributed to the familiar problems plaguing the bay and its rivers: cloudy water, algal blooms, oxygen-starved dead zones, and fish kills.

When HRSD treatment plants were built, nitrogen and phosphorus were not a focus of wastewater treatment, and removal of these nutrients was not required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or by Virginia. Only in more recent years has removal of nitrogen and phosphorus become a focus of wastewater treatment.

HRSD and other wastewater treatment authorities across the Bay region have made it a priority to upgrade and install modern nutrient-removal technology. The technology allows wastewater nitrogen and phosphorus to be reduced to just minute parts per million.

The EPA estimates that treatment plant upgrades kept a whopping 39 million pounds of nitrogen pollution and 6 million pounds of phosphorus pollution from getting into the bay between 1985 and 2009, a reduction of 44 percent and 67 percent respectively. These reductions are producing dramatic and positive results in the health of local streams, rivers, and the bay. While very effective, these upgrades are also expensive.

Recognizing the effectiveness of nutrient-removal technology in restoring the bay, the Virginia General Assembly has generously provided more than a half-billion dollars in grants to local sewage authorities across the state since 2005.

HRSD has been a benefactor of these funds, receiving over $100 million in grant funding toward nutrient removal upgrades at five plants. These grants have eased utility rate increases for citizens and businesses of Hampton Roads while helping provide cleaner water to local streams and rivers. They also have provided needed local jobs.

But there is still a long way to go. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality lists 32 wastewater treatment plants, including two HRSD plants, that are now upgrading in order for Virginia to achieve its 2017 bay cleanup benchmarks.

Fully funding the state's share of the cost will limit rate increases necessary to support these projects and benefit all Virginians by implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint and restoring the bay, a national treasure.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and HRSD join with other conservation, local government, industry, and public utility groupsand, we hope, the region's residentsin calling upon the General Assembly to continue state funding for wastewater plant upgrades.

We applaud Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposal to invest an additional $101 million in state bonds over the next three years for this purpose.

Virginia has many important and competing fiscal needs. Few are more critical, however, than clean water for the bay, public health, recreation, our economy and children's future. We hope the region's residents agree and will encourage their state representatives to fund this important clean water need.

—Christy Everett and Ted Henifin

Christy Everett is Hampton Roads director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Ted Henifin is general manager of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District.

  Photo: A Virginia sewage treatment plant. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.

Photo of the Week: A Little Slice of Heaven

RonLandon1Photo by Ron Landon.

"This picture was taken at sunrise on Swan Creek, Rock Hall in late Fall when the Canada geese returned. We have lived on the shores of the gorgeous Chesapeake Bay from May through October for some 20 years now. The Bay means everything to us: a semi-annual home, beautiful scenery, a peaceful way of life in retirement and our little 'slice of heaven.'"

—Ron Landon

Ensure that Ron and future generations continue to enjoy extraordinary places like Swan Creek. Support the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint!

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. We look forward to seeing your photos!

Positive News on a Smelly Subject: New Technologies, Policies Improve the Septic Tank

The below article originally appeared in the Bay Journal News Service last week.

Septic-tankWe who make our living lamenting the lack of progress on improving the environment must applaud when it does rear its head, even as we refrain from clapping too hard.

A decade ago there wasn't much of anything hopeful to say about septic tanks from the bay's standpoint: "outhouse technology in the 21st century," I called them; "a 50-year-old grossly polluting waste system…"

Septic tanks had mostly fulfilled their original purpose of protecting human health where central sewers weren't available by filtering bacteria in household waste through the soil.

But this very process ensures that bay-polluting nitrogen in wastes passes into groundwater and thence to streams, rivers and the Chesapeake.

So for bay water quality, there was no such thing as a failing septic tank. They were all failing, all of the time.

Septic tanks also served as a crude substitute for zoning to protect rural lands from development. Significant acreages in most counties were too steep, rocky or soggy to pass soil percolation tests required to site homes on septic.

But still there was sprawl—development that used large lots and prime farm soils to enable developers to pass 'perc' tests.

The septic story had little prospect of changing, I wrote in 2002.

But now, for the first time since outhouse days, the septic tank as we have known it is on the run. In Maryland, the government finally decided that restricting septics is critical to both water quality and anti-sprawl goals. That's a powerful linkage.

In 2011, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed essentially ending development that used septic systems—restricting all but minor subdivisions of a few homes. His proposal closely followed what Worcester County on the lower Eastern Shore has been doing successfully to protect its farmland.

Fierce opposition resulted in a weaker, but still restrictive law. It's estimated the law will eliminate about 50,000 of 116,000 new lots that otherwise would have developed using septic systems in the next couple of decades.

Also, beginning in January, all septic tanks that will still be installed must use a new, more expensive technology that cuts nitrogen pollution in half. Virginia is considering the same technology.

No good deed goes unpunished, and pushback has already begun, part of a broader agenda by several counties that allege restoring the Chesapeake amounts to a "war on rural Maryland."

1000 Friends of Maryland, an environmental land use group, reports several counties are working already on ways to avoid restricting rural development.

Some of the most worrisome are Charles, Cecil and Queen Anne's counties, the group says, as all are under substantial growth pressure.

The law allows counties to designate a portion of their lands outside areas planned for sewer systems where continued sprawl development on septic tanks can continue. This is where some jurisdictions will try to get away with murder, while others will be responsible.

The state's Department of Planning can jawbone against this, and require additional public hearings. The law also precludes septic-based sprawl in areas "dominated" by forestland and agriculture; although the precise meaning of "dominated" was left vague.

The bottom line is that unchecked, several counties probably can and clearly will try to keep on sprawling and polluting.

But just as clearly, the new law affords a footing for citizens who care about farms, forests and the bay to fight back; to engage in a war FOR rural Maryland.

Here's why it's critical. While the progress with septic tanks is remarkable given the last half century of no progress, it's still far from the progress the bay needs.

Both with water pollution and sprawl, the new septic requirements only slow the rate at which things will get worse.

The less-polluting technology will apply mostly to new construction, not to most of the 400,000 septic tanks that already exist across Maryland. (A program to replace failing septics with new technology has done less than 1 percent of existing septic tanks.)

And while new and improved septic tanks cut pollution by about half compared with older versions, they still produce several times as much pollution, per capita, as a modern sewage treatment plant.

"The total (nitrogen) load will not go down from all this…just grow more slowly," said Jay Prager, an expert on septic tanks for the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE).

Meanwhile, he said, to meet its 2025 federal bay cleanup goals, Maryland must actually reduce septic pollution by nearly 40 percent.

Similarly, while the state's recent restriction on the development of rural lots using septic systems is bona fide and dramatic progress on combating sprawl, it still allows thousands of such new homes a year.

"What we've done is a real game changer," said Richard Hall, Maryland's Secretary of Planning. "At the same time it still means we're just digging ourselves into a hole slower. What we need is to quit digging the hole."

—Tom Horton
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.