Bay Ecosystem: Fishery Managers Consider Cuts in Bay Crab Harvest

Chesapeake Bay crabbers will likely face some harvest restriction this season to protect future generations of the iconic crustacean, a move managers say is necessary because of the low population of juveniles.

Fishery managers for Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission all say they are considering shortening the season and imposing stricter limits on the harvest of female crabs. They are not proposing changes in male crab catches.

News of harvest cuts surprised some crabbers at Maryland’s Blue Crab Industry Advisory Committee last week. The latest winter dredge survey results released in April showed the highest number of female crabs in the 28-year history of the annual count. Female crabs clocked in at 254 million, a 31 percent increase over last year.

But the Baywide survey, which counts the crabs in more than 1,000 locations as they burrow in the mud, estimated there were 125 million juvenile crabs in the Chesapeake, a 54 percent decrease from the 271 million found in 2016. That is the lowest tally since 2013 — a year when crabbers also had their catch curtailed — and one of the five lowest estimates since 1990, managers said.

As a result, managers are expecting a robust harvest for the first half of this year, fueled by the large number of adults now in the Bay. But catches of the Chesapeake’s most valuable seafood will need to be curtailed later in the year to protect the smaller number of juvenile crabs as they reach market size.

Maryland and Virginia are both expected to decide by the end of June on harvest restrictions, which will take effect for the remainder of the 2017 season. The Potomac River commission will discuss its plan at its June 1 meeting, executive secretary Martin Gary said.

Maryland crabbers had expected status quo, at least, and possibly some easing of catch limits based on news reports quoting a Department of Natural Resources press release saying the survey had found the Bay’s crab population “resilient and steady,” with a record number of spawning females. They came to the meeting Thursday night hoping to maintain last year’s longer season and perhaps even secure more concessions. Last year’s survey results were so good that both Maryland and Virginia extended the season for about three weeks.

Instead, Mike Luisi, assistant director of fisheries and boating services with the Maryland DNR, talked about a return to 2013, when the season closed on Nov. 10. Last year, the season extended to Nov. 30. “We had 54 percent less juveniles this year than last year. To come into here thinking that we’re going to have status quo is unrealistic,” he said.

As with this year’s survey, the 2013 crab canvass showed a robust population of females and low abundance of juveniles, which are 2.4 inches across or smaller yet can be expected to grow to market size by next year. Maryland responded then by tightening bushel limits and shortening the season, aiming to cut the harvest 20– 40 percent. The move worked, Luisi said, as the population rebounded enough to relax the limits and extend the season for 2015.

If the department were to follow 2013’s lead, the season would close Nov. 10 and many crabbers, depending on the type of license they held, would take between three and seven bushels less; some would take no decrease at all. Daily catch limits vary over the season, but last September, for example, they ranged from 19 bushels for a crabber fishing 300 pots to 35 bushels for a crabber with up to 900 pots.

The 2013 cuts show what works for a sustainable fishery, Luisi said. But he and Fisheries Director Dave Blazer told the crabbers they were open to other suggestions, such as an even earlier season closure paired with a smaller reduction in the daily bushel limits.

But not every crab scientist approves of how management has reacted to the year-over-year changes in the notoriously boom-and-bust blue crab species. Tom Miller, a crab specialist who directs the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said it’s hard to evaluate the population’s long-term stability and the harvest it can withstand if management reacts seasonally. Crabs live between one and three years and can reproduce furiously, or not much at all. After being spawned near the mouth of the Bay, their offspring hitch a ride on ocean currents back into the Chesapeake. Some years, many return; some years, many don’t.

“I am not convinced that we need to change management,” Miller said. “One of my concerns has been that managers have been too responsive to individual winter dredge survey results. The reference points are meant to be long-term responses of the crab population under constant conditions — and as a result, frequent changes to the management regime makes evaluation of this problematical.”

Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, didn’t like the choices facing watermen at the meeting: “You either shoot yourself in the head, or you shoot yourself in the foot.”

Though George O’Donnell, DNR’s liaison to the watermen’s community, said he’d been traveling around the state warning that a cut was coming, Brown and most of the watermen were expecting better news.

“Everybody came here tonight thinking we would get an increase. There’s more crabs than we’ve seen in years,” said Thomas “Bubby” Powley, a Dorchester County trotliner. “They’re telling me they’re not there? The proof is in the pudding,” he said, holding up a cell phone photo of small crabs he’d caught and had to throw back.

Added his brother, Larry “Boo” Powley: “The boys are coming in with their limit at 10:30, 11 a.m.”

Despite the managers’ admonition that harvest restrictions are needed to sustain the crab population, the Powleys also asked Luisi and Blazer to let watermen in their part of the Bay catch more 5-inch male crabs.

Under rules in effect since 2001, the smallest crab that can be caught legally increases in mid-July from 5 inches across to 5.25 inches. The midseason increase was set to give male crabs more time in the water to mate with females and enhance reproduction. Miller, the UM crab scientist, has said that seemingly small annual change in catch regulations helps sustain the Bay’s crab population.

Some Dorchester County watermen, including the Powleys, began pushing two years ago to delay the increase in minimum catchable size. They sell those smaller crabs to picking houses, and complained the crustaceans in their part of the Bay don’t grow to the larger sizes that Baltimore and Southern Maryland crabbers see.

The department has resisted, and Luisi again told the group that such a change was not realistic, as the winter survey found male crabs had decreased 16 percent since last year and are only about half the abundance that scientists observed in the early 1990s.

The fight over the 5-inch crab apparently cost DNR’s crab manager, Brenda Davis, her job after 28 years with the department. Davis did not make the decision against relaxing the minimum catchable size; she merely delivered it. But several watermen met with Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and his deputy chief of staff, Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, to complain about the catch restriction and accused Davis of not being flexible enough about the rule. The Hogan administration fired her shortly after the meeting and has refused since to give a reason, saying it is a personnel matter.

The Maryland DNR will decide what, if any, changes to make in crabbing regulations in consultation with its Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission. No meeting date has been set. Once the department decides, it will put out a notice for the change, to take effect 48 hours later.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission will likely make a decision at its June 27 meeting. Commissioner John M.R. Bull said he expected to take some action, and that repeating last season’s late closing on Dec. 15 and this year’s early opening on March 1 would not be possible, given the drop in juvenile numbers.

“This year’s babies are next year’s mamas,” Bull said. “We want less of them to be harvested in the fall, so they will be able to be next year’s mamas. There was a warning sign and a blinking light that went on with the juvenile numbers; that means we have to be cautious in how we handle the spring fishery. I’m not exactly sure what it will be, but we need to do the right thing in light of the low levels of juveniles, for the health of this fishery.”

One option that is not likely to pass muster at the commission is the reopening of the winter dredge fishery, where crabbers take pregnant females who are burrowed in the mud. Virginia closed the fishery in 2008 after that year’s winter survey found the crab population had hit a historic low. Every year since, crabbers have lobbied to reopen the winter dredge fishery to provide a winter income and allocate the pain of cuts fairly among all crabbing sectors. But the commission has declined. The reopening is on the agenda again for the commission’s June meeting, but Bull said the low juvenile numbers “seem to preclude the re-opening” of that fishery.

by Rona Kobell

Bay Journal staff writer Rona Kobell is a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun.

Maryland-based Company Moves Forward on Nation’s First Large-scale Offshore Wind Project.

Baltimore, Md – Today, Maryland-based US Wind, Inc. took another step forward in its plan to bring the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind project to Maryland. US Wind formally accepted all conditions the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) included in its May 11 approval of US Wind’s Maryland offshore wind project. Officials from US Wind say they are moving forward on their plans to make Maryland the East Coast hub of a vibrant new industry.

In a letter to the PSC, US Wind indicated its “acceptance of all conditions of approval set forth in Appendix A of the Order.” US Wind also provided its 20-year price schedule for the Offshore Wind Renewable Energy Credits (ORECs).

“This is one more step forward on the path to bring renewable energy, jobs and infrastructure improvements to Maryland,” said Paul Rich, director of project development. “We continue our outreach to partners in business, labor and state and local governments to ensure this project provides the maximum benefit for all Marylanders.”

The PSC’s decision awarded 913,845 offshore wind renewable energy credits (ORECs) to US Wind on May 11, 2017. This corresponded with the company’s request to support a 248 Megawatt project planned 12 to 17 miles off the coast of Ocean City, Md. Ultimately, US Wind plans to construct up to 187 turbines and produce power for more than 500,000 homes.

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US Wind, Inc was founded in 2011 and is headquartered in Baltimore, Md. US Wind is owned by Renexia S.p.A., a leader in renewable energy development in Italy and a subsidiary of Toto Holding Group. Toto Holding Group has more than 40 years of experience specializing in large infrastructure construction projects, rail transportation, and aviation. Visit US Wind Website .

Riverkeepers Seek Volunteer Creekwatchers

Creekwatcher Dick Bemis uses a YSI meter to measure water quality parameters.

Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy (MRC) is seeking volunteers to join our Creekwatchers program on the Wye River, Cox Creek, Crab Alley, and Harris Creek. Creekwatcher teams conduct water quality monitoring at approximately 115 sites on nine rivers and Eastern Bay. Volunteers measure salinity, temperature, water clarity, and dissolved oxygen, and test for nitrogen, phosphorus, and chlorophyll a concentrations. MRC provides all equipment and training necessary for volunteers to collect the samples. The only requirement of volunteers is access to a boat.

Data collected by Creekwatchers is a vital component in producing MRC’s annual State of the Midshore Rivers Report Card. The data is also shared with other agencies to help monitor trends in water quality.

Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy is a non-profit organization dedicated to the restoration, protection, and celebration of the waterways that comprise the Choptank River, Eastern Bay, Miles River, and Wye River watersheds. For more information, visit midshoreriverkeeper.org.

Interested Creekwatcher volunteers may contact Tasha at keitasha@midshoreriverkeeper.org or call 443-385-0511 to learn more about the program.

Stewards for Streams Seeks Volunteers for Cambridge Church Planting

Waugh Chapel in Cambridge also worked with Stewards for Streams to plant a native rain garden.

Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy and St. Luke United Methodist Church in Cambridge are seeking volunteers to help plant over 400 native flowers and grasses on Tuesday, May 30 from 8:30-11:30 a.m. Volunteers will be helping to plant a sloped ditched called a bio-swale that collects rain water draining into our rivers. Native species help filter and clean rain water, thus reducing pollution before it reaches our rivers, all the while beautifying the church grounds. Native species to be planted include black-eyed Susans, seashore mallow, and switchgrass. St. Luke is planting their bio-swale as a part of the Stewards for Streams: Faith Based Conservation program, funded by the Chesapeake Bay Trust. Stewards for Streams works with congregations of any denomination to connect faith with environmental stewardship action.St. Luke is located at 712 Bradley Avenue. If you would like to volunteer please contact Suzanne at Suzanne@midshoreriverkeeper.org or call 443-385-0511. Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy is also looking for more congregations to join the Stewards for Streams movement and spread environmental stewardship actions throughout local communities. Please contact Suzanne if you would like to get your congregation involved.

Bay Ecosystem: PA Drinking Water Systems On of Nation’s Worst Violators

Millions of people in the Bay watershed and nationwide are drinking water from systems that have violated federal safe drinking water standards, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Pennsylvania had the worst performance in the Bay region, and the third highest number of total violations of any state nationwide, according to the NRDC. That finding came on the heels of a recent warning from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection is so understaffed it can’t provide adequate oversight of drinking water systems in the state.

“America is facing a nationwide drinking water crisis that goes well beyond lead contamination,” said Erik Olson, the NRDC health program director and a report co-author. “The problem is two-fold: There’s no cop on the beat enforcing our drinking water laws, and we’re living on borrowed time with our ancient, deteriorating water infrastructure. We take it for granted that when we turn on our kitchen tap, the water will be safe and healthy, but we have a long way to go before that is reality across our country.”

The environmental group’s review was based on records from the EPA and found that across the nation, state regulators often failed to penalize or even take note of the violations in many cases.

Federal oversight of state regulators is also spotty, according to the NRDC report. Olson warned it could be worse if Congress goes along with the Trump administration’s proposal to slash the EPA’s budget by 31 percent.“ Huge cuts to drinking water programs will reduce EPA enforcement further,” Olson said, “causing less safe water.”

About 44 percent of Pennsylvania’s 12 million residents who depend on public water supplies were served by water systems with some kind of administrative, procedural or health-related violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the NRDC report said. When it zeroed in on the subset of violations that specifically impact public health, such as excessive levels of fecal coliform, nitrites and disinfectant byproducts, the state ranked 13th nationwide, with 700,000 people affected.

Neil Shader, the DEP’s spokesman, said the report’s data seemed accurate, but called the presentation misleading in some cases. For example, Shader pointed out, the Philadelphia Water Department had a single violation of monitoring and reporting requirements. But because the utility has 1.6 million customers, the NRDC report “gives the indication of a problem where one might not exist,” he said in an email.

Other Bay states with high rankings in drinking water violations include Maryland, which ranks fourth in terms of population served by water systems with health-related violations.

Maryland’s Department of the Environment had a similar criticism of the report. The 1.8 million customers of the Baltimore City water system had one violation of a health-based rule in 2015 — for an excessive level of a disinfectant byproduct — though fewer than 89,000 people on the system were affected, said Jay Apperson, spokesperson for MDE. If the numbers were adjusted for that, Maryland would fall out of the top 10 of systems with violations, he said.

“Safe drinking water is such a critical public health issue that the department acts assertively to see that the vast majority of Safe Drinking Water Act violations that do occur are corrected immediately,” Apperson said.

In Pennsylvania, steep budget cuts that have contributed to setbacks in its Bay cleanup efforts have also contributed to a growing number of drinking water problems. The EPA said in a letter to the DEP last December that the number of unaddressed violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act had nearly doubled in the last five years.

“This increased risk to public health is of concern to EPA,” the letter said. If the DEP cannot meet federal minimum standards, EPA warned it may take over management of the state’s drinking water program — which means relieving the state of some federal funding as well.

The DEP has experienced repeated budget cuts over the last decade, totaling roughly 40 percent. Department staffing is down 800 people, according to David Hess, former DEP secretary and now a political consultant.

Shader, the DEP spokesman, said state regulators plan to bolster their oversight of drinking water systems. “DEP is working to ensure that we have the resources necessary in our Safe Drinking Water Program to ensure that we are finding and preventing violations which jeopardize public health,” he said, “and [we] will propose a regulation package shortly which increases funding for this program.”

The DEP plans to raise permit fees and enact new annual fees on community water systems to come up with the $7.5 million needed to hire 33 new inspectors, Shader said. The fee proposal will be presented May 17 to the state Environmental Quality Board, a 20-member independent body that must approve DEP regulations. Each inspector in the department’s Safe Drinking Water Program is now overseeing 158 public water systems — more than twice the national average of 67, according to the National Association of State Drinking Water Administrators.

The EPA letter welcomed Pennsylvania’s plan to hire more inspectors, but said the process to create a rule to raise fees and hire and train the new staff could take up to two years, which the federal agency said is too long to risk public health. The agency said that the DEP should find a temporary source of funds to get the hiring process moving.

The EPA is charged with overseeing federal safety standards that the states carry out, and the agency regulates about 100 out of 1,000 known contaminants that could cause everything from a stomach ache to cancer. Nationally, 19.5 million people get sick annually from just one class of contaminants — waterborne pathogens — according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

John Brosious, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association, said his 2,600 members understand the DEP’s need to raise money for the program, but some are suffering sticker shock at proposed permit fee increase and a new annual fee.

Under DEP’s proposal, annual fees could range from $250 to $40,000 per water supplier; when passed on to consumers, they would raise rates from 35 cents to $10 per person per year.

Brosious questioned the fairness of making water system customers pay for DEP staff and programs that once were underwritten for by all taxpayers. “I think it’s fair to say that hiring 33 new inspectors is the bare minimum to meet federal requirements, he said. “The winnowing away of general fund money is forcing the agency to get money from elsewhere to do the same work.”

The state’s general fund once paid for most of the Safe Drinking Water Program. Now, a little more than half, $7.7 million, comes from the general fund. The DEP is counting on the $7.5 million in new fees charged to water operators to make up the budget shortfall.

“The question I see posed for government is: At what point does the general fund fill in the gap?” Brosious said. “Another question is: Do we still have a program that gives us a level of confidence that we are meeting our SDWA standards?”

By Donna Morelli

Bay Journal staff writer Donna Morelli is based in Harrisburg. She is the former director of the Pennsylvania office of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Pickering Creek Audubon Hosts Toast & Taste at Historic Harleigh

On Saturday, June 10 Pickering Creek Audubon Center’s Tour, Toast & Taste will be held at Chip and Sally Akridge’s Harleigh on Oxford Rd. The event will afford guests a rare look inside Harleigh and a great opportunity to socialize and add culinary adventures to their social calendars for the upcoming year.

Each year, Pickering Creek selects one of Easton’s finest estates to host its largest fundraiser of the year. The event includes a home tour, food, drink, entertainment, live and silent auction and an opportunity to purchase seats at unique events held throughout the year. In 2017, the Tour, Toast & Taste committee is extremely excited to have Harleigh join the list of other magnificent properties to have hosted this spectacular event including Hope House, Forrest Landing, Myrtle Grove, Wye House, and Knightly.

Fronting a tranquil Eastern Shore tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, the property’s original clapboard farmhouse dates to the mid-1800s. But it wasn’t until 2007, that the couple initiated an extensive renovation with the Baltimore architectural and design firm Johnson/Berman.

The team lavished equal attention on the estate’s grounds, which swelled as the Akridges acquired surrounding agricultural parcels that had been destined for high-density residential development. These days, a stroll around the property reveals areas of horticultural identity that are distinct and yet expertly play off of each other to create one of the most enchanting residential gardens of the Chesapeake region.

Under Sally’s direction, the English-style formal garden the beds are resplendent with hostas, roses, and stunning ornamental onion blooms that suggest an explosion of purple summertime fireworks. “This whole place is a canvas for almost any kind of expression,” Sally says. “We like to honor those who were here before us, because we’re just custodians for a while.”

On the opposite side of the house, Chip has modeled a huge kitchen garden and perennial bed after the ones tended by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Starting uphill and sloping toward the water, twenty-nine raised beds sprout strawberries, sweet peas, collards, okra, heirloom tomatoes, and Chip’s favorite—popping corn. “When I was growing up, my grandparents were big garden folks,” Chip says. “We always canned vegetables and it stayed with me.”

Beyond the vegetables are swaths of red poppies and chamomile in four small wildflower meadows, a transitional zone to the estate’s less-manicured environs. The Akridges have turned two-thirds of the commercial agricultural acreage back into wildlife habitat, providing terrific food and shelter for ducks, geese, songbirds, wild turkeys and quail, and bird watching opportunities for local wildlife enthusiasts.

Chip & Sally’s appreciation for wildlife and the need to improve habitat, which they have demonstrated along Oxford Road makes Harleigh a terrific location to celebrate Pickering Creek Audubon Center’s work to reconnect people with nature and their own role in stewarding the Chesapeake regions natural resources.

The evening of June 10th will begin with a guided first floor tour of the home, where docents will discuss the history of the home and the notable renovations and improvements the Akridges have made to make it the outstanding place it is today. Both Chip and Sally will be on hand to answer questions.

At the conclusion of the tour, guests will move to the spacious green behind the home overlooking the Tred Avon River to enjoy cocktails and heavy hors d’oeuvres while signing up and purchasing seats at a wide variety of dinners and events that will be held throughout the year. Dinners and events ranging from gourmet meals to themed ethnic dinners, local and historical specialty dinners, brunches, and Crab Feasts will be available for purchase. There is something for everyone, and they all benefit the conservation education conducted daily at Pickering Creek.

Naturalist and friend of the Center, Mike Callahan will conclude the evening with a special presentation of live raptors of Maryland. Callahan is an expert on barn owls and raptors and introduces the public to them through his work with Southern Maryland Audubon Society and Charles County Public Schools. Guests will have an opportunity to learn about the birds and see them up close.

This year’s Tour, Toast and Taste is generously sponsored by Chip and Sally Akridge, the Dock Street Foundation, the Frederick Richmond Foundation, Shore Bancshares, The Wilford Nagel Group at Morgan Stanley, Bruce Wiltsie and Bill Davenport, Chesapeake Audubon Society, Bill and Mary Griffin, Cheryl Tritt and Philip Walker, Richard and Beverly Tilghman, Jo Storey, the Star Democrat, Colin Walsh and Carolyn Williams, Bartlett, Griffin and Vermilye, The Hill Group at Morgan Stanley, Clay Railey and Don Wooters, George and Cemmy Peterson, Wye Gardens, LLC, Wayne and Jodi Shaner, and many others.

For over 30 years, Pickering Creek Audubon Center has provided environmental education opportunities to students of the Eastern Shore, moving them from awareness of their watershed to conservation action in their communities. Since establishing a well-reputed elementary education program in partnership with Talbot County Public Schools 25 years ago, Audubon has added meaningful watershed experiences for middle and high school students to our continuum of education along with community outreach education about our regions unique saltmarshes. Pickering Creek reaches the people of the Eastern Shore throughout their academic careers outdoor learning experiences that encourage them to continue interacting with the outdoors frequently.
Tickets can be purchased online and more information can be found at www.pcacevents.org. For more information call the Center at 410-822-4903.

For more information:
Mark Scallion
410-822-4903
mscallion@audubon.org
For more information on the event:
www.pcacevents.org

Grading the Choptank’s Health with Riverkeeper Matt Pluta

Around this time every year, there is a certain amount of excitement and anxiety as the Mid-Shore Riverkeeper Conservancy (MRC) publishes its annual report card on the environmental condition of the Choptank, Miles, and Wye Rivers water quality status. And one of those individuals who is perhaps more anxious than most is Matt Pluta, the Riverkeeper for the Choptank.

His interest in the Choptank goes beyond the mere fact that it is by far one of the most complex parts of the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem. The Choptank also has the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted, if not the most polluted, river in the entire region.

But as Matt points out in his interview with the Spy to discuss this year’s scores, the Choptank is really two very distinct spheres. And this year the organization made a decision to evaluate the Upper Choptank in the Lower Choptank as separate systems. The rationale being that each section news its water quality strategies as a result of the different ways that the water system is used.

The Spy talk to Matt last week about the overall health of the Choptank and what he anticipates to be the best approach to achieving better scores in the years ahead.

This video is approximately four minutes in length. For more information about the Mid-Shore Riverkeeper Conservancy please go here.

David Reager and John Seidel Join CBMM Board

David W. Reager, Esquire, and John L. Seidel, Ph.D., recently joined the Board of Governors of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md.

David W. Reager, Esquire

John L. Seidel, Ph.D.

Reager is a founding and managing partner of the law firm Reager & Adler, PC, in Camp Hill, Pa., supervising the real estate, business law, and estate planning practice areas. He formed the firm in 1979 after serving as an assistant attorney general with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for five years. His education includes a BS and MBA from Pennsylvania State University and a JD from Temple University School of Law.

Reager was chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Fredricksen Library and currently serves on the Board of the Center for Independent Living of Central Pennsylvania and the Camp Hill Community Foundation. When not working, he enjoys sailing, painting and gardening.

Seidel is the Center for Environment & Society Director and the Lammot du Pont Copeland Associate Professor of Anthropology & Environmental Studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. Prior to joining the faculty of Washington College in 1998, he worked in the private sector as the lead underwater archaeologist for R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates, one of the largest cultural resource management firms in the nation. He also taught at Rutgers University and the University of Maryland College Park, and his work has taken him from the U.S. to the Middle East and Central and South America. His current research focuses on the relationships between humans and their environments in the Chesapeake Bay region and the development of an environmental model for archaeological site locations on the Eastern Shore.

Seidel is a past president of the Maritime Archaeological & Historical Society, and has served on the Chestertown Historic District Commission and Maryland Historical Trust Board of Trustees. He lives in Chestertown with his wife, Liz, and enjoys boating, SCUBA diving, travel, reading, and music.

 

 

 

 

Tracey

‘Envision the Choptank’ Offers Free BMP Workshop for Talbot County Residents

Live in the town of Easton, St. Michaels, or McDaniel and interested in the health of the Chesapeake Bay? If you answered “YES”, then the Envision the Choptank initiative has an opportunity for you!

Come to the Eastern Shore Conservation Center (114 South Washington St., Easton) on May 17 or May 22 from 5:30-7:30pm for an informational workshop and walking tour to learn how to reduce flooding and control runoff in your own backyard. Refreshments will be provided as residents learn a little bit about some best management techniques for your home.

Those in attendance will also go on a short walking tour to see techniques first hand and speak with homeowners who are already helping to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. Everyone who attends will get a free soil test and recommendations for lawn care. A rain barrel will also be raffled off each night.

Please RSVP by e-mail to Nicole Barth (nbarth@eslc.org) or by phone to Michelle Funches 410-690-4603 ext. 169 by May 15!

Envision the Choptank is a collaborative initiative that engages communities, nonprofits, and government agencies in developing joint solutions to improve the health and productivity of native oysters and support a fishable, swimmable Choptank.

EPA Letter to Chesapeake Bay States Spells Out Cleanup Expectations

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has high expectations for Bay cleanup efforts in the coming years. Earlier this year it sent states a 10-page letter outlining what agency officials believe must happen to deliver on the decades-old promise of bringing back clear, healthy Chesapeake Bay water—in which underwater plants thrive, fish and shellfish have plenty of oxygen, and waterfowl can graze on abundant food.

The “expectations letter,” as officials call it, outlines what assurances the District of Columbia and six watershed states need to provide in their next-generation cleanup plans to demonstrate they have enough funding and adequate programs to reduce farm and stormwater runoff and do everything else that needs to be in place by 2025 to restore the Bay’s health.

Chesapeake watershed residents have gotten a glimpse in recent years of what a restored Bay would look like; some areas have seen the clearest water in decades, underwater grass beds have expanded, and oxygen-starved “dead zones” have been nearly nonexistent. Those gains stemmed at least in part from drier-than-normal weather, which flushed fewer water-fouling nutrients and sediment off the land and into the Bay. Nonetheless, it was, officials say, real-world evidence that reaching nutrient reduction goals will produce the greatly improved water quality they’ve promised since cleanup work began in 1983.

To maintain those conditions over time, the EPA letter emphasizes the need for ramped-up efforts to engage local officials in the cleanup and to establish quantifiable “local area goals” that support nutrient and sediment control efforts. It also says states will need to offset impacts of growth, as well as the potential negative impacts of climate change and the nutrient and sediment buildup behind Conowingo Dam, which could make cleanup efforts more difficult.

But the letter leaves the door open for states to adjust planned pollution reductions from various sources, and even watersheds, if it accomplishes local and Bay water quality goals more effectively — and potentially more rapidly as well.

Accountability framework

The expectations letter is part of what the EPA and the watershed states had agreed to in the “accountability framework” of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TDML), the cleanup plan that was approved in December 2010.

Nutrients and sediment — the “daily load” in question” — have long been recognized as pollutants that foul the Bay’s water, but past cleanup goals, set for 2000 and 2010, were missed by a wide mark.

The TDML, or Bay pollution diet, was intended to keep that from happening again. Like earlier plans, it set pollution limits for states and major river basins aimed at reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution to levels that would bring back a healthy Bay.

Unlike earlier efforts, though, the pollution diet includes safeguards intended to keep the cleanup effort on target. First, the states must write detailed watershed implementation plans, or WIPs, that outline the actions and policies needed to reach goals. Then states set two-year “milestones” so progress in following the WIPs can be incrementally tracked and publicly reported.

The Bay TMDL also included a “midpoint assessment” to be completed by the end of this year. At that point, states are to have taken actions sufficient to get 60 percent of the nutrient pollution reductions needed by 2025.

The results to date are mixed: Based on progress through 2015, the EPA has said it expects that Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia would meet their interim goals for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reductions. Meanwhile, New York was expected to miss some goals for all three pollutants, and Pennsylvania, while meeting its phosphorus goal, will miss its sediment and its nitrogen goals, the latter by a huge margin.

Under the accountability framework, if states are falling well short of their cleanup goals and not building the programs necessary to achieve them, the EPA can withhold federal grant funding, prescribe how that money is used or take other measures. In the past, for instance, it has temporarily withheld grants from Pennsylvania because of poor performance.

But even those states on pace to meet their goals are not necessarily on track to meet goals from all pollution sources; stormwater reductions, for example, were falling short almost everywhere. Nor were the states on track to meet cleanup goals for all major river basins.

Drawing on new information from updated computer models and new science developed for the midpoint assessment, the states next year must craft new “Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans” describing how they will reach the 2025 finish line.

According to the EPA’s expectations letter, states must not only show where pollution reductions will come from, but also demonstrate that they have programs adequate to achieve those goals, and on time.

The types of specific issues states need to address include: Are the regulatory programs robust enough, with enough staff and oversight, to ensure regulated dischargers will meet goals? Do unregulated pollution sources have adequate incentive funding to persuade landowners to install pollution controls, and is there enough technical assistance available to help them?

If the EPA isn’t convinced that the strategies will do the job when they review the WIPs late next year, the agency has the authority under the Clean Water Act to step in and demand additional actions, such as requiring greater reductions from regulated sources — wastewater treatment plants, for instance — to make up for cleanup shortfalls from largely unregulated sources.

Local goals & involvement

This time around, the EPA is stressing the need to involve local decision makers — whether they be local governments, soil and water conservation districts, regional planning districts, nonprofit groups or others — in the development and execution of the watershed implementation plans.

The “local buy-in” concept has long been seen as critical to Bay nutrient and sediment reduction efforts, since decisions about land use and stormwater management, as well as the promotion of farm runoff control practices, are typically made at the local level.

Local goals have been tried before. After the Bay TMDL was rolled out, the states developed Phase II WIPs in 2011 that were intended to establish local nutrient reduction targets throughout the watershed. That effort was ultimately walked back, though, as projections from the Bay Program’s computer models failed to match what was actually happening on the ground locally.

Now, EPA officials are confident that revised models with dramatically overhauled information — based on aerial photography, with 1-meter resolution across the entire six-state, 64,000-square-mile watershed — will produce much sharper estimates of local land uses.

Still, when the EPA released a draft of its expectations letter a year ago calling for “local area targets,” it was met by a firestorm of criticism from many local and state officials who feared it would lead to new, enforceable requirements on local governments. The National Association of Counties even approved a resolution opposing any effort by the EPA to set local numeric targets in the Bay watershed.

“There was this perception that because of the word target, the idea was that the EPA was going to tell local governments — or have the states tell local governments — that you must achieve this local allocation, which was not the intent,” says Lisa Schaefer, director of government relations for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
During much of last year, Schaefer co-chaired a task force aimed at working with state, local and federal officials to resolve the issue.

Their recommendations, which were incorporated into a revised expectations letter, call for “local planning goals” but leave it up to the states to determine the size of the areas that would be expected to meet them. They only have to be smaller than a major river basin within a state.

While the EPA letter says goals do not “establish any new requirements or rights for those local and regional partners,” the goals nevertheless have to be measurable in some way. They could involve setting numeric targets for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, or thresholds for installing best management practices on specific land uses. Or, they could aim for retaining a certain amount of runoff on the landscape, among other measurable options.

EPA officials say the local goals are not intended as a regulatory tool, but rather a set of quantifiable objectives to work toward, which could help promote local planning and implementation. The ultimate accountability, they say, rests on states.

“We don’t have the authority to take a federal action against a local government or another local partner, nor do we have the desire to do so,” says Lucinda Power, an EPA representative on the task force.

Even though the new WIPs won’t be completed until late next year, the EPA wants local engagement efforts to start now. The agency’s letter calls for states to explain in their plans how local and regional “partners” will remain involved through 2025.

Officials in the states say they have either begun, or will soon begin, initial meetings with local governments and organizations. But most say they are still months away from deciding what the appropriate scale should be for local goals in their states, and want to get local input first.

Beth McGee, senior water quality scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says having some type of measurable goal is critical for meaningful participation at local levels. “How can you lose weight if you don’t know how much weight you have to lose?” she asks.

While McGee said she would like to have seen more detail in EPA’s letter about how local goals will be tied to meaningful actions, she added that simply including the local element in the correspondence “was a good marker to get out there.”

Refining river basin caps

The Bay and its tidal tributaries are divided into 92 separate segments spread across Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia. The goal of the Bay TMDL is to achieve water quality standards in each of those segments. To get there, the Bay TMDL set pollution limits for each major tributary, which, in turn, were divided among the states along each river. Those goals were further subdivided by the source of pollution, such as wastewater, agriculture and stormwater.

While most states are on track to meet overall 2017 goals, they are not necessarily on track in all river basins or with all types of pollution, which could affect their ability to meet water quality goals everywhere.

“Where you make the reductions does matter, particularly in Maryland and Virginia,” says Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA Bay Program Office. “Whether you are taking pollution load-reducing actions on the Eastern Shore or the Western Shore, for example, makes a big difference in cleaning up local tidal waters, as well as the Bay itself.”

Overall, pollution reductions from wastewater treatment plants or from power plants and other sources of air emissions have accounted for the majority of the nitrogen reductions. But hitting cleanup goals in all of the Bay segments will require more progress from areas, and sources, that have underperformed so far, Batiuk says.

The EPA is offering states flexibility using new computer models developed by the Bay Program to shift prescribed pollution reductions from one source to another, and even to another river basin, as long as overall water quality goals are met both in the Bay and the tidal portions of its rivers. In some cases, states may be able to reduce more of one nutrient, such as nitrogen, and less of another, such as phosphorus, if overall goals are met.

Likewise, states may want to make greater reductions from certain sources — such as wastewater — because they are more easily or cheaply attained. Or, they may want to promote additional management actions in places where they would provide additional local benefits, such as flood control or habitat improvement. Those, and other, considerations may contribute to states wanting to shift where they’re targeting cleanup actions, Batiuk says.

Accounting for growth

The Bay TMDL not only requires pollution reductions to meet nutrient and sediment goals, it also requires additional reductions to offset population growth and development, which increase runoff and discharges. Pollution could increase from more people, more farm animals, more cropland, more development, lost forests or other changes in the watershed.

States have tried to account for population growth and make adjustments in the past, but there is no set methodology about how that should be done. In recent years, using methods agreed upon by the states, the Bay Program has provided them with short-term growth projections that include population, cropland and farm animals, as well as changes in land use.

As states have set new two-year cleanup milestones, they have sought to offset any increases in pollution from growth while progressing toward their overall nutrient and sediment reduction goals.

The region could stay with that incremental approach to adjusting for growth. But in its expectations letter, the EPA said it would prefer to project land and population changes through 2025, giving the states an upfront estimate about how much increased nutrient and sediment pollution would need to be offset, and where it is likely to originate. New WIPs would have to aim for those offsets, though every two years the projections would be adjusted — either up or down — as new information becomes available at the local and state scales.

“This gives all of our partners a reasonable target to shoot for to offset growth,” says Matt Johnston, a data analyst with the University of Maryland who works at the Bay Program Office.

The EPA’s proposal not only gives states a fuller picture of what needs to be offset, it could also provide a new incentive for conserving ecologically valuable lands. That is, states could get credit by protecting land from development, thereby preventing the predicted increase in nutrient runoff. “This is the best way to incentivize protection of existing natural lands,” Johnston says.

The Bay Program partnership is expected to make a decision about how to account for growth in Phase III WIPs later this year.

Conowingo & climate change

The expectations letter also says that the WIPs will have to address impacts from climate change and additional pollution stemming from the filling of the Conowingo Dam reservoir on the Susquehanna River with nutrient-laden sediment.

The filling of the Conowingo reservoir has meant that more nutrients and sediment are flowing into the Bay than previously thought. And preliminary computer modeling suggests that climate change is also sending slightly more nutrients into the Bay than previously realized, especially via altered precipitation patterns.

Addressing those issues will likely mean more pollution reduction actions are needed, but the exact impacts may vary from place to place.

The letter does not say how the impacts will be dealt with. The state-federal Bay Program partnership doesn’t expect to make final decisions on them until later this year, when it has updated computer modeling available. The expectations letter will be updated at that time, after state and federal officials reach agreement on how each of these issues should be addressed in Phase III WIPs.

The full text of the interim expectations letter is on the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay TMDL website: epa.gov/chesapeake-bay-tmdl.

By Karl Blankenship

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991.