• May 22, 2015

Restoring the Chesapeake - The Star Democrat - Easton, Maryland: Chesapeake Bay

Restoring the Chesapeake

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Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2014 3:30 am | Updated: 10:06 am, Thu Feb 27, 2014.

The diagnosis for the health of the Chesapeake Bay is rooted in the science that determines whether policy and regulations have been effective in combating the three big issues facing the region: the excess of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment.

However, nutrient enrichment and sediment overload lead to other problems that are not necessarily solved by simply reducing the input of those factors; restoring the Bay and its surrounding watershed area to its former productivity and beauty will take extra efforts, and there are myriad groups stepping up to the challenge.

Restoration projects abound from the Bay waters to its shoreline, its tributaries and the land encompassed within the 64,000 square miles of its watershed area. Because of the vast numbers of projects, as well as the numerous groups, foundations, nonprofits and programs involved in the efforts, it would be impossible to even begin to cover them all in such a limited space — even just the projects focused on the Eastern Shore region.

Due to that fact, several projects have been chosen randomly to demonstrate the diverse ideas and opportunities that currently exist. Many of these use volunteer efforts and public support, and have an educational component meant to help the next generation appreciate the area as it was, as it is and as it could be.

In the Water

Sweeping the waters of the Chesapeake is a new trend to replenish the populations of shellfish, fish and crabs. Increased sedimentation, overharvesting and nutrient enrichment have led to a decline in the availability of economically viable species and numerous initiatives exist to reverse this loss.

On the Eastern Shore, several groups, along with volunteer help, have come together to develop and implement artificial reef structures composed of reef balls through the Department of Natural Resources Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative (MARI).

MARI supports 21 projects in the Bay area, said Erik Zlokovitz, coordinator of reef projects for the DNR, and many of these projects have been in existence since 1968. The goal of the projects, he said, is to restore shellfish, crab and sport fish populations in the Chesapeake Bay and its surrounding tributary waters.

Formed from concrete with pocked surfaces mimicking the natural hard substrates of coral reefs, “reef balls” are ideal man-made structures for the development of oyster populations and also provide a habitat for crabs and other aquatic organisms. A resurgence of reef ecosystems would, in turn, bring larger fish that feed on those organisms, increasing those populations, as well.

In October, an artificial reef was completed in the Choptank River, located off the western side of the Bill Burton Fishing Pier, a popular recreational location in Cambridge. Using reef balls constructed by volunteers such as the Dorchester County chapter of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association, the reef was a cooperative effort between MARI, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy and Horn Point Laboratory. This new substrate, once complete, includes 300 precisely placed reef balls, and was seeded with larval oysters, called spat.

Large-scale reef projects do more than just repopulate the ecosystem, however. According to Bess Trout, grassroots field specialist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, oysters are one of nature’s best water filters and remove high volumes of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment from the water column, beneficial to all organisms living in the Choptank. The implementation of artificial oyster reefs have reduced pollution and decreased dead zones, not only in the river, but in the Bay, as water is filtered through a reef system before reaching the Chesapeake.

“This reef is an example of what it will take to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries,” said Alan Girard, director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Eastern Shore office. “It’s all about cooperation. Work together and we all benefit.”

For the Farms

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources released a report in 2012 titled “Choptank, Little Choptank and Honga Rivers Water Quality and Habitat Assessment,” which cited agricultural activities as the largest contributor of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment to the watershed.

This fact increased attention to developing ways for farmers to reduce their impact on the Bay area watershed. While there are many ways farms on the Eastern Shore are combating runoff issues, new innovations are being created that not only will reduce agriculture’s effect on the Bay, but also alleviate economic complications for farmers.

The Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy (MRC) currently is working to bring a new technology, proven effective in the Midwest, to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Through a collaborative effort of MRC, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Maryland Department of Agriculture and Caroline County Soil Conservation, two woodchip bioreactors and denitrification walls have been implemented at participating farms.

According to MRC, woodchip bioreactors are ideal for farms with a drainage tile system, and using an inline water control structure, diverts low flows to a trench filled with woodchips. The trench then provides an environment for nitrogen uptake while the woodchips create a home and food for bacteria that eat nitrate.

“Woodchip bioreactors can be installed on any farm that has a drainage tile system,” said Tim Rosen, watershed scientist with MRC. “This varies from county to county on the Shore, with Caroline County having the most extensive drainage tiling in the Mid-Shore.”

Denitrification walls are similar in their function to the bioreactors — a trench at the edge of a field is filled with sawdust and soil and intercepts groundwater, treating the water as it passes through the mixture. “To install a denitrification wall,” said Rosen, “there first needs to be a hydrogeologic study to determine where groundwater is moving.”

While both of these systems efficiently remove nitrates from water sources, the most important benefit for farmers, said Rosen, is that “these practices do not take land out of production, thus not impacting the farmer economically.”

Midshore Riverkeepers also offers help securing funding to assess a farmer’s situation and determine the best practice for their agricultural fields and drainage systems, as well as actual implementation of a denitrification technology.

“These projects,” Rosen said, “once approved through the Chesapeake Bay Program, will be given credit as part of the county Watershed Implementation Plan.”

On the Land

As evidenced by the various issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay — namely nutrient enrichment and increased sedimentation rates, it is all too apparent that the activities on land are interconnected with the effects on the water.

With few resources and a lack of supplies coming from Europe, the earliest settlers in the Chesapeake region had to learn to farm or starve. Wooded land was clear cut to make way for the crops that would feed the increasing numbers of settlers and their American offspring. As population continued to grow throughout the centuries, so did the demand for food, and thus, the need for farmable acreage.

The loss of wooded area to cropland and urbanization, especially along tributary shorelines, became a detrimental problem for the Bay. Forest buffer zones provide a variety of functions within a watershed, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program website, including sediment erosion protection, nutrient uptake by the trees and plants, as well as providing a natural habitat for wildlife, and shade to open water, which in turn, helps keep water temperatures at an optimal level for aquatic organisms.

The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy’s Sassafras Environmental Education Center (SEEC) has been working to replace forest buffers around the Turner’s Creek and Sassafras River areas. As a part of the Governor’s Stream Restoration Challenge, SEEC received a $50,000 grant to plant 8,000 trees along the banks of the aforementioned Bay tributaries.

According to Wayne Gilchrest, educational programs director for SEEC and former U.S. Congressman, at the time of publication, 4,000 trees already have been planted by more than 400 kids who have participated in educational outreach programs sponsored by the group.

Third- through ninth-graders, as well as Boy Scout groups, go to the center and hike the woods to learn about what the area would have been like before European settlers came and how forest buffer zones will help restore those areas to maintain a healthy environment.

“We walk through the woods as Native Americans,” said Gilchrest, and the kids are able to envision how much the area has changed after settlers, farming, and urbanization. “The impact of human activity is much greater than before.”

They plant trees in areas designated by the Department of Natural Resources and return weeks or months later to learn about the results of their efforts. “They can see the impact downstream of what they’re doing upstream,” said Gilchrest. The students not only learn about how much excess nutrients and sediment erosion the trees will protect from reaching the waters, but also about what the trees return to the environment such as oxygen and wildlife habitat.

When students return to the area, they will have the chance to analyze their trees for evidence of deer browsing, insect infestation and, said Gilchrest, “The benefit is that they can return and monitor the changes for the next hundred years.”

Another 4,000 trees will be planted this April, Gilchrest said, which will complete the project under the Governor’s Challenge, but Gilchrest does not plan to quit there. The SEEC expects to continue with the project and begin again in the fall, with hopes to plant several thousand more trees.

Gilchrest also intends to continue inviting school groups to participate in this work and hopes to expand the program to include kindergarteners through high school seniors. Students are able to experience this type of hands-on outdoor learning for free, as the educational programs are completely funded by the leasing of 350 acres of the land to a local farmer.

“That’s one of the keys to Bay restoration,” Gilchrest said, “Passing information and knowledge, and how to use that knowledge, to the next generation.”

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