Rock solid: Oysters Abound on Restored Reefs in Harris Creek

You may not be able to get blood from a stone, but it appears you can get a lot of oysters.

Biologists checking reefs restored in 2013 in Maryland’s Harris Creek found the vast majority crowded with oysters, according to a new report. And those reefs built by piling granite rocks on the creek’s bottom had four times as many oysters clinging to them, on average, as did any of the other reefs that had been treated.

The report, released this week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (NOAA) provides further evidence that the controversial effort to restore oysters in Harris Creek is meeting advocates’ expectations, at least for the time being.

Of 30 reefs surveyed last fall, all but one had at least the minimum hoped-for density of oysters growing on them, while 80 percent reached or surpassed the restoration goal of hosting 50 or more bivalves per square meter, the NOAA report said. Densities among reefs varied, but those built with stone bases had the most by far, averaging more than 200 oysters per square meter.

“You’re looking at densities there that the Maryland part of the Bay has not seen since there have been oyster harvests,” said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. He called it a “spectacular demonstration” of the viability of alternative materials for rebuilding reefs when oyster shells are not available.

Harris Creek, a tidal offshoot of the Choptank River, was one of the first areas selected for large-scale restoration in Maryland, and work was finished there in 2015. Restoration is under way on two other Maryland rivers, the Tred Avon and Little Choptank, as well as in the Lafayette, Piankatank and Lynnhaven rivers in Virginia. The 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement calls for rebuilding oyster populations in 10 tributaries by 2025.

Harris Creek is the largest project so far. About 2 billion hatchery-spawned baby oysters were planted on 350 acres’ worth of reefs in Harris Creek, an area covering roughly 8 percent of the tributary’s bottom.

“Restoration at this scale just hasn’t happened before,” noted Sean Corson, acting head of NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay office.

Corson said that monitoring done by NOAA and other partners in the Harris Creek project offers preliminary evidence the experiment is working. The results reported this week echo findings by NOAA last year that all of the initial batch of reefs built in the creek, which had been seeded in 2012, had the minimum density of shellfish established by scientists. Half of those reefs had met or exceeded the target level of 50 bivalves per square meter.

“If your goal is to restore oysters in Harris Creek, it has been very successful,” Corson said.

But watermen and their supporters remain skeptical. They opposed Harris Creek’s designation as an oyster sanctuary in 2010, which deprived them of a once-productive harvest area. They insist that the restoration work there, which cost $26 million, has been a costly boondoggle, and they have questioned reports of abundant oyster growth on the rebuilt reefs.

They did so again Monday night, when the latest NOAA monitoring results were presented at a meeting of the state’s Oyster Advisory Commission.

Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said he and other oyster harvesters feel officials have hyped the benefits of oyster sanctuaries and of restoration projects like the one in Harris Creek.

“We were sold a bill of goods when these sanctuaries went in,” he said, contending that proponents had predicted that the restored reefs would produce enough oyster larvae to repopulate nearby waters. But he noted that Talbot County watermen saw no increase in spat settling on a reef just outside the Harris Creek sanctuary that they’d replenished with shell in hopes of benefiting from the restoration.

Others, though, pointed out that free-floating oyster larvae can drift dozens or even hundreds of miles from where they were spawned before settling to the bottom. There is no easy way to tell where a particular oyster was spawned.

Still, watermen and supporters on the oyster commission demanded further information about the NOAA report — particularly on the productivity of the granite reefs, which have been a focus of complaints.

Some of the stone-based reefs were built too high, they said, damaging vessels that hit them. Crabbers also have complained that the rocky underwater structures have interfered with their gear; one suggested Monday night that the manmade structures have attracted so many fish that crabs have been scared away.

“I just can’t get it in my head how anyone can look at this as a good project, as a successful project,” said Ron Fithian, a Kent County commissioner and former waterman.

Others have suggested there’s another, unstated reason for watermen’s hostility to stone reefs — they hope to be able to get back into some of the state’s sanctuaries, and oysters attached to rocks can’t be harvested using traditional gear.

While oyster shells are widely considered the best reef material, they are in short supply, and research has found that in the right circumstances, oyster larvae will attach themselves to almost any hard surface.

But Maryland officials, yielding to the watermen’s objections, have barred the use of any more granite stone on the federally funded restoration project in the Tred Avon River. The Army Corps of Engineers is attempting to build the rest of the planned reefs there using only clam shells, but had to pause work this summer on a 10-acre portion of the restoration project because the supply ran out.

A hiatus also looms on the Little Choptank River, Maryland’s third tributary getting restoration, which is state-funded. With work more than halfway done, the Department of Natural Resources initially asked that its request for a needed federal permit be put on hold so state officials could remove any mention of possibly using “alternate substrate” such as rocks or concrete, in building reefs.

Now, state officials say they are looking to make even more substantial revisions, tweaking the location of planned reefs to reduce the acreage to be built in shallower water. The changes could delay work there for months, possibly even a year or more, acknowledged Chris Judy, DNR’s shellfish program manager.

Watermen and their supporters insist that Maryland wouldn’t need to use alternative reef material if the Army Corps would just let the state dredge Man-O-War Shoal, a massive old reef near the mouth of the Patapsco River with millions of bushels of fossil shells and relatively few live oysters these days. The DNR applied without success years ago for federal permission to dredge up shells, and reapplied in 2015. State officials want to remove up to 5 million bushels of shells over five years for use in replenishing reefs in waters open to commercial harvest, for helping private oyster growers, and for restoring reefs in sanctuary areas.

But the state’s request for a federal permit to dredge shell from Man-O-War has drawn widespread opposition from environmentalists and recreational anglers, who say the shoal is a fish magnet and spawning area for striped bass. It is also opposed by some commercial watermen.

The Army Corps Baltimore District has yet to decide on the dredging request. But the federal project manager for the permit recently wrote the DNR spelling out a series of conditions that would be put on the work if it is allowed. Among other things, dredging would be off limits for 7 ½ months a year to protect fish spawning in the spring and to avoid disrupting natural oyster reproduction in summer. The DNR has until Aug. 22 to say whether it will accept the conditions. DNR’s Chris Judy said they did not seem too onerous.

But critics warn that even if dredging shell from Man-O-War is approved, it won’t be enough to meet the need. Restoration work planned in the Little Choptank alone, for instance, calls for constructing 118 acres of reefs. Building those to a height of one foot off the bottom, as done in other restoration projects, would require 4.1 million bushels of shells. That would appear to leave little for other uses, and none for reef construction in the other two tributaries that Maryland has pledged to target for large-scale oyster restoration under the Bay agreement.

“It would barely scratch the surface,” Allison Colden, fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said of the shells the DNR wants to dredge from Man-O-War Shoal.

The cost of acquiring widely available granite stone is roughly on par with estimates the DNR has made for dredging up the old oyster shells. But Colden, pointed out, “stone is outperforming other substrates by a wide margin.”

Colden warned that Maryland’s reluctance to use alternate materials threatens to stall or even kill the oyster restoration effort in the state.

“It’s this hump we have to get over,” she said, “if we’re going to move forward.”

By Timothy B. Wheeler

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for the Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

Spy Minute: Neighborhood Service Center’s Renovated Shelter

The Talbot County Neighborhood Service Center is beginning renovations to another shelter in the Easton area. The shelter will be home to 28 occupants, who will have access to programs set up by the Neighborhood Service Center to help them succeed with the next steps in their lives.

Marilyn Neal, Executive Director, sat down with the Spy to explain the future of the shelter on 36 West Street and her hopes for advancement with the Neighborhood Service Center.

This video is one minute in length. For more information on the Talbot County Neighborhood Service Center please click here

Catching Up on St. Michaels Plans with Commissioner Bill Boos

Bill Boos, the current president of the St. Michaels Board of Commissioners, came into his first elective office last year with minimal experience in local government but a tremendous amount in the private sector.

Most recently the owner and operator of Saint Michaels Yacht Sales, Bill settled in Talbot County after a long career in running both large and small companies, including the development of Radio Shack, Tandy Corporation, Blockbuster Video as well as the ownership of a number of golf courses.

With that kind of background, it is not surprising that Commissioner Boos would be focused on St. Michaels finances. And focus he did, by leading the charge for the first comprehensive “Repair and Replace” study of the municipality’s infrastructure needs over the next 30 years.

The results of that survey were sobering. The consulting firm’s report indicated that almost $18 million was required for the anticipated maintenance and improvement of the town’s buildings, sidewalks, streets and other essential capital projects to keep St. Michaels in tip-top shape.

The good news is that the town has over $7 million in reserves, thanks to St. Michaels selling its utility company to Choptank Electric a few years ago. The not so good news is that it will take some careful planning to use those funds responsibility without severely impacting tax rates in the future.

The report also called into question what the priorities would be for the town going forward. Did the residents want to start planning for an expensive plan to bury its powers lines underground or would it make more sense to replace the aging town offices and police station?

Those tough decisions have yet to be made, but in the Spy’s interview with Bill, he talks about the importance of financial planning as well as the Commissioners’ roadmap to reach a community consensus on how and what to plan for to keep St. Michaels one of the great gems of the Eastern Shore.

This video is approximately seven minutes in length

Maryland and Virginia Move to Trim Bay Crab Harvest

Crabbers in Maryland and Virginia face new harvest restrictions, a move that managers in both states have said is necessary because of the Chesapeake Bay’s low population of juvenile crustaceans.

Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced Tuesday that the commercial crab season will close Nov. 20, ten days earlier than it did last year. The state’s crabbers also face a cutback in the number of adult female crabs they can harvest. Those who fish 300 pots will be able to keep five bushels of females, as opposed to nine last year; those with a 600-pot license can keep 10, as opposed to 13 last year; and those with a 900-pot license can keep 15, as opposed to 30 last year.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) voted Tuesday to close its crabbing season Nov. 30 — twenty days earlier than last year. Virginia also instituted reduced bushel limits for its license holders for all of November. It will open its 2018 spring season March 17, instead of March 1 this year.

VMRC board chairman John M.R. Bull called the commission’s decision “prudent management of this species” and said the crabbers recognized they were taking a necessary step. “Crab management issues are always difficult, but we’ve seen tremendous improvements in the species over the past seven or eight years,” he said. “We have the largest number of adult female crabs. We have to protect the juveniles, though. This year’s babies are next year’s mamas.”

The harvest cuts come after the latest winter dredge survey results, released in April, showed that the highest number of female crabs in the 28-year history of the annual count. The tally for females was 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, showed a marked decrease in young crabs. It estimated that there were 125 million juveniles 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.

Catches of the Chesapeake’s most valuable seafood are being curtailed later in the year in an effort to protect the smaller population of juvenile crabs as they reach market size, so that they will be around to reproduce next year.

Maryland DNR’s Blue Crab Industry Advisory Committee and Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission approved the cuts in votes this week, DNR officials said. The DNR’s announcement came a day after the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, made up of federal and state fisheries officials, warned both states to take a “cautious, risk-averse approach” to managing blue crabs.

Billy Rice, chairman of the DNR Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission and a Southern Maryland crabber, said the department was doing just that with this decision.

“We’re taking a conservative approach. We’re not going whole hog. We tried to make the changes as liberal as possible, but we felt there had had to be a response,” he said. Other options included a shorter season and less of a bushel cut; Rice said it’s better for the population and the markets to have a longer season with a higher bushel limit.

By law, the Virginia commission must annually consider reopening that state’s winter dredge fishery for crabs, which would allow crabbers to take pregnant females that spend the cold months burrowed in the mud. The dredge fishery in Virginia closed a decade ago, a move researchers have credited with helping the Bay’s crab population recover from a crisis in 2008. This year, Bull said, no one asked for the fishery to be reopened.

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 told the Bay Journal in May. “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.”

No Maryland DNR fisheries managers were available to answer questions about the state’s new harvest limits, a department spokesman said.

In the past, the DNR’s longtime blue crab manager, Brenda Davis, would have explained changes in management to both the public and crabbers But Davis, a 28-year employee, lost her job in February after several Dorchester County watermen held a private meeting with Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and his deputy chief of staff, Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, an Eastern Shore native who is close to many watermen.

They accused Davis of not being flexible enough about rules on the legal size of crabs. Those rules have not been changed, though a small group of crabbers continue to push for it.

“When you fire your expert,” Billy Rice said, “it’s pretty tough [to provide information].”

By Rona Kobell

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

Pennsylvania Starts to Draft Plan to Address Bay Shortfall

Pennsylvania’s effort to write a more robust Bay cleanup strategy was launched last week in a packed hotel auditorium where more than 200 people gathered to offer their initial thoughts about what a new — and more implementable — plan would look like.

The state is so far behind its Bay cleanup obligations that it is jeopardizing Chesapeake restoration efforts as a whole. All states in the Bay drainage have to write new Watershed Implementation Plans in the next year and a half to guide cleanup their efforts through the 2025 cleanup deadline, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has singled out Pennsylvania’s plan-writing process for increased scrutiny because of its shortfall.

“The challenge is great, but we can do it together,” Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell told the gathering, noting that efforts to clean the Bay will also benefit state waterways.

It will indeed be a challenge. According to the EPA’s most recent review, Pennsylvania needs to control 34 million pounds of nitrogen runoff from 2016 through 2025 — about 70 percent of the total remaining nitrogen reduction for the entire Bay watershed.

Nutrient pollution spurs algae blooms in the Bay that clouds the water, blocking sunlight from critical underwater grass beds. When the algae die, they deplete water of the oxygen needed by fish, crabs and other species.

Because of its gaping shortfall, the EPA recently warned state officials in a letter that the agency was ramping up oversight of Pennsylvania’s cleanup efforts and could take further actions if the state doesn’t come up with a viable cleanup plan —one that specifies beefed-up regulations and new funding — in the next 18 months.

“I think everyone in the room is aware of the consequences of us not meeting our obligations,” McDonnell said. Those consequences could include more EPA inspections of farms and municipal stormwater systems, specific nutrient-reduction goals for large-scale animal feeding operations and stormwater dischargers, and mandatory upgrades of wastewater treatment plants, among other actions.

State officials anticipate — at least for now — that 80 percent of the needed nitrogen reduction will come from the more than 33,000 farms in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Chesapeake basin, which they acknowledge will be a challenge.

“I worry every day about the 80 percent and the pressure on agriculture to get this done,” Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said in an interview.

He said more of the nutrient reduction responsibility may ultimately have to be shifted to other sources. But that won’t happen unless the agricultural sector can show that farmers are stepping up.

As part of that, many county conservation districts, along with state agencies, have ramped up farm inspections since last fall to check that farmers have required conservation plans — and, ultimately, are implementing them. That effort is critical, Redding said, to showing others that the agricultural sector is addressing its challenge.

“You can’t have an intelligent conversation about changing [the 80 percent number] until you really get folks who have a current obligation to do the plan,” Redding said. But it’s a massive job, he said, noting that Lancaster County alone has 5,500 farms. Still, he added, farmers are beginning to accept the oversight, noting that complaints about the increased farm inspections have been fewer than expected.

“There hasn’t been hostility to that,” Redding said. “I’ve had one phone call out of the 1,194 visits that the farmer was really pushing back on why this is happening.”

For any program or new initiative, the key issue will be funding. The EPA, in its letter, said the state needs to show how it will come up with the funds needed to implement the updated Bay cleanup plan. Gov. Tom Wolf has called for $45 million in increased funding over the next three years to help support Bay efforts, but that’s well short of what is needed. EPA officials have estimated the state needs a $50 million to $80 million increase just its agricultural cost-share program.

McDonnell said the governor’s proposal was only a “down payment.” The legislature is considering several proposals that could generate more money for clean water projects, but the viability of those efforts is uncertain, and they are unlikely to be part of the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Funding for state environmental programs has declined over the last decade, and budget deadlocks between the legislature and the governor in recent years have made the situation even worse.

Ensuring that the General Assembly comes up with additional funding, said Cindy Dunn, secretary of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, will be a critical to making any new plan a reality. “Even as we sit here, across the river important decisions are going to be made that will affect our ability to carry out the aspirations of today,” Dunn said, referring to the ongoing General Assembly session in Harrisburg.

Leaders emphasized that while the need to meet Bay cleanup goals is driving action, state water quality will benefit from the work. “This is a clean local water plan for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” McDonnell said.

Indeed, Dunn said the state has enough woes of its own so that water quality conversations “don’t have to include the words Chesapeake Bay to be effective.”

Pennsylvania doesn’t touch the Bay itself, but half of the state, including all or parts of 43 of the state’s 67 counties, drains into the Chesapeake, primarily down the Susquehanna River.

“Tragically, on some of the hottest days of the summer, after a rainstorm, we have to close beaches at parks because the E. coli levels are too high,” Dunn said.

At the June 5 event, about 240 people gathered to share ideas, more than had attended any meetings during the development of earlier Bay cleanup plans developed in 2010 and 2011 — which many considered a top-down exercise that resulted in unrealistic plans.

Repeatedly, officials emphasized that the new plans had to be, in McDonnell’s words, “realistic and achievable and gets us where we ultimately need to go, which is cleaning up local water quality.”

The meeting drew representatives for agriculture, local government officials, conservation districts, watershed groups and others to present ideas — the type of inclusion state officials had hoped to see. So many people wanted to be part of the process that organizers had to turn away several requests to register, said Veronica Kasi, coordinator of the DEP’s Chesapeake Bay Office.

They met in small groups to discuss topics as varied as funding, roadside drainage management, local goal-setting, citizen science, messaging and new approaches to riparian forest buffers.

McDonnell said that participation by “everyone who’s partnered with us” on the plan will been necessary to make it a reality.

“Sometimes I walk into a room and conversation shuts down,” he said. “So engaging with conservation districts and engaging with some of the ag associations is essential in getting this done. The encouraging thing to me is that they’ve wanted to be actively engaged as a partner.”

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.

Chesapeake Bay’s ‘Dead Zone’ Expected to be Larger than Average this Summer

A year after experiencing its best water quality in decades, the Chesapeake Bay is expected to have a larger than average “dead zone” this summer, where fish, crabs and shellfish will struggle to breathe.

Researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the University of Michigan are forecasting that the volume of oxygen-starved water in the Bay will grow to 1.9 cubic miles, enough to fill nearly 3.2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.

“Dead zone” is the popular term for water that’s low in oxygen, or “hypoxic.” Fish often avoid or leave such areas, but if they’re trapped — or are immobile, like shellfish — they can suffocate.

“The forecast is a reminder that the improvements such as we saw last year are subject to reversal depending on weather conditions—two steps forward, one step back,” said UMCES President Donald F. Boesch.

Last year, dissolved oxygen concentrations in the Bay mainstem and the tidal portions of its rivers were the best they’ve been in three decades. Many areas maintained levels high enough to sustain fish and other aquatic life, and no place experienced “anoxic” conditions, in which there is virtually no oxygen in the water. The diminished dead zone came on the heels of a robust rebound of Bay grasses and improved water clarity in much of the Chesapeake.

But last year’s good conditions stemmed in part from below-average rainfall. This spring, scientists say, heavy rains fell in Pennsylvania and New York, flushing an above-average amount of nitrogen down the Susquehanna River.

Scientists expect an above-average volume of hypoxic water, while the smaller anoxic zone is expected to be average in size early in summer – 0.35 cubic miles — before it grows to slightly larger than average by late summer, at 0.49 cubic miles.

“Although the higher forecasts for this summer seem to buck a recent trend toward lower anoxic volumes in Chesapeake Bay, they are consistent with known links between high river flows and oxygen depletion,” said Jeremy Testa, assistant professor at the UMCES Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.

The Bay’s chief water-quality problem stems from nutrient pollution. Excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus from farm, urban and suburban runoff, and from sewage treatment plants, among other sources, feed massive algae blooms in the Bay and its tributaries. The algae then die and sink to the bottom, where their decomposition consumes oxygen in the water. Typically, a large area of hypoxic water forms each summer, stressing fish and shellfish, while a smaller area experiences anoxic conditions.

This spring’s heavy rains in Pennsylvania and New York delivered 81.4 million pounds of nitrogen to the Bay via the Susquehanna, a little more than the long-term average. The dead zone forecast is based on mathematical models developed with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and it relies on nutrient estimates provided by the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientists say that notwithstanding the return this summer of a worse-than-average dead zone, the Bay’s water quality does appear to be trending better overall.

“Despite this year’s forecast, we’ve made great strides in reducing nutrient pollution from various sources entering the Chesapeake Bay, and we are starting to see positive long-term signs,” said Rob Magnien, director of NOAA’s Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research. “However, more work needs to be done to address non-point nutrient pollution, from farms and other developed lands, to make the Bay cleaner for its communities and economic interests.”

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating federal funding next year for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program, in addition to deep cuts in other federal programs that contribute to the restoration effort.

Boesch said the forecast shows why the federal government can’t let up on the Bay restoration effort, which began in the early 1980s. After slow progress and repeatedly missed cleanup deadlines, the EPA imposed a “pollution diet” in 2010. The six states in the Chesapeake watershed and the District of Columbia have until 2025 to take all the steps needed to reduce nutrients and maintain good oxygen levels year-round — which in turn benefits the plants and animals that depend on that oxygen.

“This underscores the critical importance,” Boesch said, “of continued investments by federal agencies in science and monitoring as the states continue to implement the Bay’s pollution diet.”

by Tim Wheeler

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for the Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

Opioid Crisis Rural Maryland’s Worst Problem

DENTON — If there is one hopeful thing about Maryland’s opioid crisis, it’s that no one is denying the obvious.

“Very honestly nothing is working,” said Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins. “It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

For rural areas where communities are small and the stigma is large, opioids can be particularly insidious. The guy who jumped out of the moving ambulance after getting revived by naloxone might be an old high school classmate. The woman selling drugs at the hospital to fellow addicts could be the little sister of a good friend.

The epidemic is also a serious drag on government and medical resources in places where budgets are already stretched. Then there’s the psychic toll, especially on police, ambulance and hospital workers who slug it out on the front lines, often with the same addicts, day after day.

But while the opioid crisis appears to be kicking Maryland’s rural populations while they’re down, the silver lining might be in the size and inherent closeness of those communities, which are beginning to coordinate efforts to combat opioids in ways that simply aren’t possible in the state’s more populated counties.

Localizing the problem

“In our small area, opioids affect pretty much every family one way or another,” said Tommy Conneely, who runs the Lost Sheep Recovery Mission in Caroline County and said he has been seven years sober from alcohol.

Caroline, like other rural counties, is beginning to harmonize their anti-opioid efforts across a wide range of public, private and faith-based groups. The county’s drug and alcohol abuse council includes a diverse collection of law enforcement, education, substance abuse and mental health officials.

And people like Conneely, who, as an ex-cop now involved in faith-based recovery efforts, brings a wholly unique perspective.

The Caroline drug council is in the midst of a series of events hosted at volunteer fire departments, where the FBI documentary “Chasing the Dragon” is being shown, followed by a discussion initiated by former addicts and their parents.

“We found that we had a lot of family members (attend) who had loved ones in active addiction who needed support,” said Holly Ireland, executive director of Mid-Shore Behavioral Health, a referral and planning agency that receives some state funding and operates in Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties.

“What we haven’t quite figured out is how to tackle engaging the community that is addicted,” Ireland added.

In Harford County, which has one of the highest opioid-related per capita death rates in Maryland, the approach is also multifaceted. They’ve got drug education happening in elementary schools, a prescription return program, rehab for opioid-addicted mothers, a special opiate court and a host of other initiatives.

“We broke down barriers between the sheriff, the board of education, the health department and worked together to go into schools,” said County Executive Barry Glassman, R-Harford. “Our program was recognized by the National Association of Counties for the way it was opened up to the whole county to be part of it.”

And yet Harford’s opioid-related death rates have gone up in almost every category since 2014.

“We’re not gonna give up, but it’s gonna be one of those long-term struggles,” Glassman said. “It’s a generational thing that might take 20 years before we get a grip on it.”

Last August, Barry Ronan, president and CEO of Western Maryland Health System, joined an opioid task force that brought together a similarly wide cross-section of people in Allegany County.

It happened after Ronan was forced to ask that a police officer be stationed in Western Maryland’s emergency room from 3 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day to deal with the surge of sometimes violent addicts arriving for treatment.

“Our staff was being spit upon, assaulted, equipment was being broken,” he said.

In the past two years, Western Maryland Health has spent nearly $1.5 million in additional costs from opioid-related patient treatment.

“(The opioid crisis) eats up a lot of resources,” said Allegany County Sheriff Craig Robertson. “It takes away the ability for us to do normal law enforcement functions like checks on high-crime areas and speeding enforcement.”

The Allegany task force that includes Ronan and Robertson now meets monthly to coordinate efforts and share ideas.

“Trying to address this from a community perspective has paid off,” said Ronan, at least in terms of unifying the county’s approach. Ronan mentioned things like putting mental health professionals in ambulances as one of the efforts the group is now trying.

“Over the last few months, we’ve seen a slight decline in the OD numbers, which is encouraging,” Ronan said.

Emergency state

In 2016, there were 918 heroin-related deaths in Maryland through September according to the state’s health department, up 23 percent from the total in 2015 and up nearly 60 percent from 2014’s total.

Scarier still is the sudden rise in the use of fentanyl and carfentanil, synthetic opioids that can be more than 1,000 times stronger than morphine and are often mixed with heroin, to fatal effect. Fentanyl-related deaths increased nearly 120 percent between 2015 and the first nine months of 2016, to 738 statewide.

On March 1, Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency around the state’s opioid epidemic, committing $50 million over five years to the problem. It was the latest escalation in a series of his administration’s efforts to slow the state’s opioid death toll, which continued to rise in 2016, according to the latest reporting.

What Hogan’s emergency edict calls for is an action plan to be made and then implemented across a slew of state and local agencies throughout Maryland.

The effort is being led by Clay Stamp, the governor’s senior adviser for emergency management and the former director of emergency services for Talbot County, a rural area on the Eastern Shore.

“Education and prevention will move the needle,” said Stamp. “What it does is remove the demand from supply and demand.”

Stamp also said that public health will be the focus of the state’s plan, and likened the scale and approach of forthcoming efforts to those that were used for anti-smoking and HIV education in the past.

Some argue the state’s entire approach is misguided and destined to fail.

“The governor created a task force for heroin and it didn’t have a person in recovery on the task force,” said Mike Gimbel, the director of substance abuse for Baltimore County from 1980 to 2003. “They don’t understand heroin. They really think it’s like teen smoking. This isn’t drug prevention 101.”

According to Gimbel, there’s unlikely to be any headway made against the problem without a primary focus on long-term treatment and rehabilitation, not on naloxone, an anti-overdose drug, and vivitrol, which blocks opioid receptors in the brain for up to a month.

“We’re not going to medicate our way out of it. You don’t solve a drug problem with more drugs,” Gimbel said. “The model should be treatment on demand.”

Funding for Hogan’s state of emergency effort is authorized under the recently passed HOPE Act, which calls for a series of initiatives that revolve around reforming drug courts, naloxone distribution and hospital discharge procedures. The bill also calls for the establishment of “crisis treatment centers,” but requires only one to be up and running before June 2018 and mandates no others.

“It’s important that on the back side, there’s treatment,” said Stamp. “We have to beef up our ability to help people fighting addictions.”

A matter of faith

The inclusion of faith-based organizations on local drug councils is indicative of the all-hands approach in rural areas. What religious groups can bring to the opioid fight is significant in terms of manpower and a direct connection to the community.

“We’re a microcosm of what’s going on in the street,” said Pastor David Ziler of the Union Rescue Mission in Cumberland, a homeless shelter with 62 beds that serves about 200 meals a day. “If it’s happening, we’re going to see it before anyone else is seeing it.”

Ziler believes churches and religious organizations can provide what the government can’t.

“We’re throwing money at the problem, but we haven’t thrown people at the problem,” Ziler said. “(Religious organizations) are the biggest volunteer group in the world and we can offer more man hours than anyone.”

by J.F. Meils

Washington College Names Kurt M. Landgraf as Next President

CHESTERTOWN—The Washington College Board of Visitors and Governors today announced the appointment of Kurt M. Landgraf as the next President of the college. President-elect Landgraf, who was determined to be an exceptional and highly qualified candidate during the Board’s most recent national search in 2015, will begin his tenure July 1.

Kurt M. Landgraf – New President of Washington College

“Throughout his remarkable career, Kurt Landgraf has set himself apart from his peers as an exceptional leader and an exemplar of the values we seek to instill in our students, faculty, and community here at Washington College,” said Board Chair H. Lawrence Culp, Jr. “We believe his collaborative leadership style, his ability to craft ambitious and integrated strategies, and his operational experience will be an asset to Washington College.

“We are thrilled that such an exceptional candidate was available to lead our College in support of the groundbreaking work of our students and faculty,” Culp continued.

“I am deeply honored by the opportunity to join the Washington College community, and to continue the work of my predecessors in providing students with the best possible education,” said Landgraf. “To join the ranks of this storied and historic institution is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m certain that by working with the faculty, staff, student body, and board, as well as others in the community, we will be able to accomplish extraordinary things. And while new leadership always brings change, rest assured that President Sheila Bair’s exceptional work to address the national student debt crisis and to launch a comprehensive campaign will not only continue, but I hope will be energized and invigorated.”

Landgraf is well known to both the Washington College Board of Visitors and Governors and the most recent presidential search committee. In 2015, that search committee— proportionally comprised of faculty, senior staff, and board members—began its national search for a new president, considering nearly 400 candidates and seriously vetting nearly 60 contenders. During that process, Landgraf proved himself to be an outstanding candidate.

Landgraf comes to Washington College with a decades-long résumé as a senior executive with DuPont (including serving as Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chairman of DuPont Europe Middle East and Africa, Chairman and CEO of DuPont Pharmaceutical Company and CEO of DuPont Merck Company), and a 13-year tenure as President and CEO of ETS, one of the world’s leading providers of measurement programs and evaluations for schools, including both the K-12 and higher education communities.

Currently, Landgraf serves as a member of the boards of directors for Corning Incorporated and the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation. He has also served as President of the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, and was nominated, confirmed, and served as Vice Chairman of the Higher Education Commission for the State of New Jersey, the state’s governing body for higher education institutions.

“Kurt Landgraf’s vision of cooperative co-governance will be a strong foundation from which to work together as a campus, and he has already shown a willingness to embrace the Washington College strategic plan. I’m certain his leadership will lend our campus and community essential guidance, and assist us in every facet of operations, from helping fight the national student debt crisis, to accomplishing our unprecedented fundraising goals as part of our Forge a Legacy campaign,” said Jonathan McCollum, Chair of the Washington College Faculty Council and Chair of the Department of Music. “It is a pleasure to welcome President-elect Landgraf to campus, and I look forward to working with him to continue instilling in our students the core values of Washington College: critical thinking, effective communication and deep, abiding moral courage.”

“Kurt is an exceptional leader who has an impressive record of success in higher education and the corporate world. At ETS, he did a remarkable job advancing its social mission, reimagining the future of the organization, and building a strong organization and culture,” said Robert Murley, who served as Chair of the ETS Board of Directors for four years during President Landgraf’s tenure as CEO, and who has been an ETS board member for nearly 18 years. “As a result of his leadership and his commitment to diversity and to ensuring fairness and equity in assessment, promising students have been able to realize their dreams to attend college and graduate school regardless of their financial circumstances. Washington College is fortunate to have him as its next president.”

About Washington College

Founded in 1782, Washington College is the tenth oldest college in the nation and the first chartered under the new Republic. It enrolls approximately 1,450 undergraduates from more than 35 states and a dozen nations. With an emphasis on hands-on, experiential learning in the arts and sciences, and more than 40 multidisciplinary areas of study, the College is home to nationally recognized academic centers in the environment, history, and writing. Learn more at


Washington College Transition: Bair Resigns

The Washington College Board of Visitors and Governors today announced the resignation of President Sheila Bair.

“We are grateful to have had the opportunity to work with President Bair for these past two years, and wish her all the best in her future endeavors,” said Board Chair H. Lawrence Culp, Jr. “Her work on behalf of both this institution, and the nation’s undergraduate population as a whole, to diminish our national student debt crisis has been remarkable, and we both thank and commend President Bair for her dedication to improving access to high-quality education for all students.”

“It was my privilege and pleasure to serve as President of this historic college, and my time here is an experience I will treasure for the rest of my career and life,” said President Bair. “Being a part of an institution co-founded by our nation’s own Founding Father, George Washington, will be impossible to match, and I thank the students, faculty, staff, and Board of Visitors and Governors for their support these past two years, particularly for our access and affordability initiatives. Unfortunately, this job has required that I be away from my family quite a bit, and I underestimated the hardship that would create when I took up leadership of the college. I regret that I am not able to serve my full five-year term, but in many ways, thanks to the dedicated efforts of our hardworking campus community, we accomplished in two years what would have required five at other institutions.”

President Bair came to Washington College after serving as Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation from 2006 to 2011, where she played a key role in stabilizing the banking system during the financial crisis. She was officially appointed in May 2015, and served as the institution’s first female president in its 234-year history.

A native of Independence, Kansas, Bair earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Kansas in 1974 and a law degree from the University of Kansas School of Law in 1978. She began her career in public service as an aide to Kansas senator Bob Dole and later served as a commissioner of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a senior vice president for government relations at the New York Stock Exchange, and Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. For four years, she was the Dean’s Professor of Financial Regulatory Policy for the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Appointed to lead the FDIC by President George W. Bush in 2006, Bair was recognized for sound fiscal management and for raising employee morale. She was one of the first officials to warn about the damage the growing subprime mortgage crisis would pose to millions of homeowners and the economy at large. Consumer advocates praised her relentless efforts to represent the interests of homeowners, bank customers and taxpayers. She helped shape and implement the Dodd-Frank Act, which gave the FDIC expanded power to “wind down” rather than bail out a failing bank, and created the Advisory Committee on Economic Inclusion in an effort to bring banking services to underserved populations.

Bair chronicled her five years at the FDIC in Bull by the Horns: Fighting to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself, a New York Times bestseller published in September 2012. A prolific writer, she has been a regular contributor to Fortune and has written three books for children that offer lessons in financial literacy.

During her presidency at the college, she pioneered several student debt reduction programs, including a program to match scholarship dollars to every dollar spent out of a family’s 529 or Education Savings Account, and George’s Brigade, offering full scholarships to highly qualified, low-income students. In addition, she ushered in Fixedfor4, a tuition plan that guarantees entering students that their tuition will not go up during their four years at the College, bringing certainty to one of the largest expenditures a family makes.

Launched in the fall of 2016, the Brigade saw 14 first-generation students complete their freshmen year. Twenty new George’s Brigade scholars are expected to matriculate in the fall. Another affordability initiative, Dam the Debt, is a “back-end” scholarship that helps pay off the federal loans of graduating seniors. Since its inception, Washington College has dispersed a total of $659,000 to graduating seniors, reducing their overall debt by over 10 percent.

The College expects to continue the efforts that began under Bair’s leadership. Her contributions to the improvements in diversity, retention, advancement, and alumni participation are greatly appreciated, as is the contribution she made to help raise the public profile of the College

President Bair’s resignation will be effective June 30.

Talbot County High Schools Listed Nationally as “Most Challenging”

The Washington Post’s Education Columnist Jay Matthews has released his annual ranking of America’s Most Challenging Schools reflecting how well the nation’s top high schools challenge their students. Easton High School is ranked #1471 in the nation, and Saint Michaels High is #2245!

U.S. Department of Education statistics indicate that there are 26,407 public secondary schools and 10,693 private secondary schools across the United States. This means both Talbot County high schools fall in the top 6% of all high schools in the nation according to this ranking.

The ranking is determined through an index formula that’s a simple ratio: the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and/or Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year, divided by the number of seniors who graduated that year. According to Mr. Matthews, only about 12 percent of U.S. high schools qualify to be ranked.

“This is a tremendous accomplishment for both of our high schools,” said Dr. Helga Einhorn, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, “ and a direct result of the commitment of our district to give all of our students the opportunity to experience the rigor of college level courses before they graduate.”