High Flows to Chesapeake Continued in July, Triggering Large Dead Zone

The Susquehanna exceeds its banks at Port Deposit during a high flow period in September 2018. Bay Journal photo by Dave Harp

The Bay continued to be on the receiving end of high river flows in July. The flows have been higher than normal for 13 out of the last 15 months, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The pollution carried into the Bay during that span has led to worse than normal water quality and last month triggered a large oxygen-starved “dead zone” in the Bay.

In July, the USGS reported that the estimated cumulative flow into the Bay from its nine largest rivers — which account for more than 95% of the freshwater entering the Bay — averaged 54,000 cubic feet per second. That was the 15th highest flow on record for the month since the agency began tracking river flows into the Bay in 1936.

So far this year, the flows were above normal in five of the first seven months of the year. That followed an eight-month period from May through December last year when flows were above normal every month.

The USGS considers a flow to be above normal if it is among the top 25% for a given month.

The data is available on a new USGS web page.

High freshwater flows are typically bad news for Bay water quality because they carry large amounts of water-fouling nutrients and sediments, which are flushed off the landscape and into the Chesapeake.

In the Bay, nutrients fuel algae blooms that cloud the water. As the blooms die and decompose, they are consumed by bacteria in a process that depletes water of oxygen. Sediment also clouds the water and smothers bottom habitats.

Scientists have been worried that the protracted period of high flows will lead to a decline in underwater grass beds, which need sunlight to survive. Earlier this year they predicted that the huge influx of nutrients would lead to a greatly expanded dead zone.

Indeed, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported that the area of low oxygen, or hypoxic, water was significantly worse than average during its two July water quality monitoring surveys.

In early July, the DNR reported a dead zone of 1.92 cubic miles in the Maryland portion of the Bay, compared with an average of 1.36 cubic miles. In late July, scientists found 2.01 cubic miles of low-oxygen water, compared with the late July average of 1.34 cubic miles.

Along with pollution, high flows added a surge of freshwater to the Bay that kept salinity low near the surface, causing strong stratification between the surface and higher salinity bottom waters. That essentially traps oxygen-starved water on the bottom and prevents it from mixing with the oxygen-rich surface.

DNR scientists said conditions also were aggravated by temperatures that warmed Bay waters to nearly 90 degrees. Warmer water holds less oxygen than cool water.

The department’s monitoring reports are available here.

By Karl Blankenship

Leave it to Beavers by Bay Journal’s Tom Horton

Notes to myself on preparing to teach my Chesapeake Bay course at Salisbury University for the 10th year:

A pair of young beavers perch atop their lodge in a Nanticoke River wetland. Bay Journal photo by Dave Harp

Teach oysters? Always, but this time I’m also going bigger, with beavers. Both are “keystone” species, and Castor canadensis, aka the North American beaver, is potentially the more important, even if restoring bivalves gets more press.

Sewage treatment? Can’t ever ignore 17 million toilet flushers, but as with beavers over oysters, I’m moving inland, traveling upslope, emphasizing the lands of the Bay’s watershed vs. the Bay itself.

And that word, “watershed,” let’s reimagine it — it only entered the language around 1800, by which time we’d already eliminated most beavers and their dams and ponds throughout the Chesapeake region. And, that fundamentally altered and accelerated the way water moved off the landscape.

So what’s a better word — waterkeep? Waterseep? Waterooze? Waterhold? …Something to get us back conceptually to the way it was when the Bay was healthy, its lands more fiercely retentive of life (water equals life).

You want to tell students everything you know. But when you have just 16 three-hour classes a semester, and you’re trying to spend four or five of those sessions outside with watermen and farmers and scientists, or paddling through climate-changed landscapes, you have to choose.

Land use most of the ballgame

Recently, my choices have moved upslope, come ashore, for a couple of reasons.

Land use is most of the ballgame in our estuary, more so than almost any other on Earth. The watershed/waterkeep is about 16 times the area of the tidal waters into which it drains. And the Bay is so shallow that there’s astoundingly little volume of water given its long, broad surface — clearly too little to dilute the runoff from 48 million acres.

The other reason is that the advanced sewage treatment and air pollution control technologies that have carried the Bay restoration to its current, modest success don’t have enough juice left to get us to our 2025 cleanup goals.

This is especially so in light of a growing population — and in light of no population-control policies at any level of government, or even among most environmental groups.

Success by 2025 is going to depend more and more on how well we can halt pollution running from the land — specifically the land that our population radically alters wherever it goes.

Stormwater controls from developed landscapes are better designed than ever, but expensive. It’s uncertain they will be deployed, maintained, inspected and enforced anywhere near 100%. Sediment control, for example, decades after it became law in places like Maryland, remains inadequate.

Farming

Agriculture, a far larger pollution source, is moving in some good directions with a new phosphorus-based manure control mandate in Maryland and the increasing use of winter cover crops that suck up fertilizers from groundwater before it carries them to the Bay.

But this is not happening everywhere, particularly not in Pennsylvania; and even where it is happening, we still don’t have convincing evidence that we’ll get big enough pollution reductions from the intensive row cropping and concentrations of animals that typify modern farming.

Add to this the real possibility that national policy may soon call for greater use of corn-based ethanol in gasoline. It saves little or no energy and would likely result in clearing more acres around the Bay for more corn.

There are promising programs to counteract polluted runoff, such as planting thousands of miles of vegetated buffers along rivers and streams. But those efforts are far behind schedule, and they don’t specifically call for the vegetation to be forest, the best buffer.

When beavers ruled

And while such greening of the Bay’s lands is good, we know that far better would be green and wet; and that’s where we need to reconsider and actively restore the beaver.

No creature on Earth, save for modern humans, has more capacity to transform a landscape; and in designing a landscape that produces excellent water quality, the beaver has no equal.

Beavers ruled the hydrology of North America for a million years or more, until just the last few centuries, when fur trapping reduced populations from an estimated 100 million or more to less than half a million. In the Chesapeake, from millions to thousands is a fair estimate.

Through damming and ponding, beavers stanched the shedding of water from the watershed, cleansed it, filtered it, held back floods, let rain soak in to keep water tables high and streams running even in drought. They created luxurious habitats for a stunning variety of amphibians, fish, waterfowl and mammals.

In recent decades, beavers have come back to the point where a solid body of science in Canada and the United States confirms they were this continent’s most important keystone species — a species whose functioning underpins a whole ecosystem.

My class this year listened to a young man in the stream-restoration business say that in many cases, the work that his company does might be done as well or better by just releasing beavers.

But it is illegal to do that, he said.

That’s a mindset that needs to change. It will take education to overcome prevailing views of beavers as tree-chewing, property-flooding nuisances. They can be, but there are technologies to help us coexist — piping that keeps beaver ponds deep enough for the animals without flooding, for example.

You will hear more about beavers in my future columns — and in the news, I hope. A good place to start: Should the Chesapeake restoration effort include a beaver goal?

In the meantime, we must emulate the animal any way we can, creating wetlands throughout the landscape wherever there is opportunity, moving rapidly toward a “slower” watershed, one that sheds water only grudgingly.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.

Proposal to Aerate Bay: Breath of Fresh Air or Pipe Dream?

Dan Sheer, founder and president emeritus of a Maryland water resources consulting firm, guides his sailboat up Rock Creek, where aerators have been used since 1988. They successfully dealt with low-oxygen conditions there that generated a rotten egg odor. Bay Journal photo by Timothy Wheeler

What if the dead zone that plagues the Chesapeake Bay could be eliminated now, not years down the road — and at a fraction of the billions being spent annually on restoring the troubled estuary?

Fanciful as it sounds, Dan Sheer figures it’s technically doable. Whether it’s the right thing to do is another question. Bay scientists are wary of potential pitfalls, but some still think it’s worth taking a closer look.

Sheer, founder and president emeritus of HydroLogics, a Maryland-based water resource consulting firm, has suggested that the oxygen-starved area down the center of the Bay could become a thing of the past if enough air could be pumped into the depths and be allowed to bubble up through the water.

“It pretty much gets rid of the problem,” he said during a recent presentation to scientists at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. And it’s not just him saying that. The federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program ran his oxygen-bubbling calculations through the computer model it uses to simulate water quality in the Bay, and the preliminary results appear to back him up.

Algae blooms produce dead zone

The dead zone, as it’s called, is produced when algae blooms fed by excessive nutrients in the water die and decay, consuming the dissolved oxygen that fish, crabs and shellfish need to live. This zone of low to no oxygen forms near the bottom in the deep trough down the center of the Bay every spring and grows through summer, until finally receding in fall when algae growth ends.

The Bay Program has been laboring since the 1980s to reduce nutrient pollution and raise dissolved oxygen levels enough to eliminate the dead zone, but the effort has been costly and challenging.

The region missed two earlier cleanup deadlines and is now working toward another target date of 2025, when all projects and programs needed to meet nutrient reduction goals should be in place. That’s looking increasingly unrealistic as well.

Aerating the Bay would be quicker, Sheer contends, and potentially less expensive. His idea: Lay 16 pipes across the deepest part of the Chesapeake at 5-mile intervals from Maryland’s Bay Bridge to the Potomac River, with a series of openings in them to release streams of tiny air bubbles. The oxygen in the bubbles would dissolve into the water and help sustain aquatic life.

Not a new proposal

Sheer isn’t the first to suggest bubbling the Bay like an aquarium. It’s been brought up repeatedly over the last 30 years, only to be dismissed as unworkable and inordinately expensive — harebrained, even.

In the late 1980s, Maryland tested floating aerators in a cove off the Patuxent River, but gave up after they produced a barely detectable change in oxygen near the bottom.

In 2011, the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore, in partnership with a consulting firm, placed a small aerator in Baltimore’s harbor, with similar results.

Aeration has been used with some success elsewhere in freshwater lakes and reservoirs that suffer from nutrient pollution. And, it has helped water quality in some rivers, such as the Thames in the United Kingdom.

Pumping air into big open bodies of tidal water is more problematic. Scientists in Sweden and Finland have looked at and tested aeration as a possible remedy for severe algae blooms in the Baltic Sea. But they’ve held back from trying it on a large scale, in part because of uncertainty about its costs and effectiveness.

Given that history, reaction to Sheer’s proposal has been mixed.

Lot of questions

“I’m enthusiastic about the idea in a lot of ways, but there are a lot of questions,” said Bill Ball, director of the Chesapeake Research Consortium, a nonprofit that coordinates Bay studies among seven universities and labs in the region.

Sheer, who holds a doctorate in environmental engineering from Johns Hopkins University, said the idea of aerating the Bay mainstem came to him about 18 months ago while listening to a presentation at UMBC about the costs and complications of the federal-state restoration effort. When he stood up and asked why not try bubbling the dead zone away, he said others in attendance ticked off a litany of flaws they saw in his proposal.

“The room sort of turned into a shooting gallery,” he recalled, “and I was the target. I had lots of objections … ‘you’re fixing the symptoms and not the problem,’ ‘you can’t possibly pump enough air,’ ‘it’s way too expensive, takes too much energy’” and more.

After that, Sheer set out to see if his critics were right.

“It looks like it really will work,” he said.

Working at Rock Creek

 

Sheer pointed out that aeration has long been in use in one small corner of the Bay watershed, where he happens to keep his sailboat.

Rock Creek, a tributary of the Patapsco River near Baltimore, has had aerators since 1988. They were put there in response to complaints about the rotten-egg odor given off by the creek in summer.

A 2014 study by researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science rated the Rock Creek aerators a success. They raised oxygen levels near the bottom enough to stop hydrogen sulfide from bubbling out of the sediments — another byproduct of low-oxygen conditions.

“The aerators were incredibly effective at restoring dissolved oxygen to the creek,” said Lora Harris, an associate professor at the UMCES Chesapeake Biological Laboratory and lead author of the study. Water quality improved even downstream, she said, nearly to the mouth of the tidally influenced creek.

Rock Creek is relatively shallow and small, compared to the water bodies where aeration has been tested before. The aerators there also were placed on the bottom, rather than floating on the surface.

Aeration has successfully treated low-oxygen conditions in Maryland’s Rock Creek, where they caused a rotten egg odor and prompted complaints from local residents. Anne Arundel County is currently replacing the original aerators at a cost of approximately $1 million. Bay Journal photo by Timothy Wheeler

The Rock Creek aerators cost $285,000 to install and about $7,000 a year to run, according to Janis Markusic, a planner with Anne Arundel County’s watershed restoration office. The county is now replacing the original aerators, she said, to the tune of $1 million.

Might cost $10-20 million

Doing it in the Bay mainstem would likely cost much more. Working with scientific colleagues, Sheer has estimated that it would cost $10 million–$20 million to install the piping network, bubble diffusers, air compressors, oxygen generators and other equipment. To run it would take another $11 million a year, by their estimates, with much of that spent on electricity to power the air compressors, pumps and other equipment.

While not cheap, that’s far less expensive than the current Bay cleanup tab, Sheer pointed out. In fiscal year 2017 alone, the six Bay watershed states and federal government spent nearly $2 billion on the restoration effort, according to Bay Program figures.

Sheer said the Bay Program model runs showed his aeration proposal would do just as much to raise oxygen levels in the Bay’s depths as the last round of nutrient-reducing cleanup plans drawn up by the watershed states and the District of Columbia.

The model also indicated aeration would actually outperform the Bay pollution diet in another, important way. Artificially increasing oxygen levels would reduce the release of algae-fueling phosphorus and nitrogen back into the water from bottom sediments where they had built up over time. That recycling of nutrients from the sediments has long been viewed by scientists as a potential hindrance to the Bay restoration.

A lot we don’t know

Scientists with whom Sheer has consulted — and Sheer himself — are quick to point out that his proposal relies on some unproven assumptions and could have unintended negative consequences, what engineers and scientists call “revenge effects.”

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” Sheer said. “There’s a lot we think we know that might be wrong.”

Ball, an environmental engineering professor at Johns Hopkins, said that from his experience with aeration in wastewater treatment plants, he’s not sure how well bubblers will work at raising oxygen levels in the Bay’s depths.

“He’s relying a lot on the sloshing of the tides,” Ball said, adding that “there’s a lot more work to do to figure this out.”

Jeremy Testa, an assistant professor at the UMCES lab, called the Bay Program model results “intriguing,” particularly in regard to limiting the flux of nutrients back into the water from sediments. But there are potentially significant downsides, he said.

One is that if the current rate of nutrient pollution isn’t reduced, he said, the phosphorus and nitrogen may simply continue to build up in the sediments, and then pour out into the water in one huge algae-blooming pulse if the bubblers ever shut down, even for a short spell.

That’s what Lora Harris said that she, Testa and other colleagues found at Rock Creek. They also found that the creek was emitting significantly more nitrous oxide — a climate-warming greenhouse gas — than other comparable water bodies.

There’s even a possibility, Harris noted, that pumping oxygen into nutrient-enriched waters could increase the formation of toxic methylmercury, which can build up in fish and is already one of the top two causes for fish consumption advisories in the Bay.

There’s also some concern that a series of aerators would create “bubble curtains” in the water that would impede fish movement.

“You never know what’s going to happen when you start manipulating the environment,” Testa said.

Treating the symptoms

Others say that even if technically feasible, aeration is just treating one of the symptoms of a distressed Chesapeake without fixing the causes of its woes.

While aeration could engineer a remedy for low dissolved oxygen, Testa warned that if nutrient pollution isn’t reduced, “we’re still going to have problems” with algae blooms, sediment-clouded water and important habitat like sea grasses not getting enough light to grow.

“Frankly, from a policy perspective, I think it’s a horrible idea,’’ said Beth McGee, director of science and agriculture policy with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. It would “let people off the hook,” she contended, weakening public and political pressure to make pollution reductions that would benefit the whole Bay watershed, including its rivers and streams — not just the dead zone.

Indeed, the 2014 Bay Watershed Agreement lays out 10 different goals that go beyond improving water quality to seeking such things as sustainable populations of fish, shellfish and black ducks, increased conservation of land and enhanced public access to the Bay and its tributaries.

‘Horrible idea’ or worth a try?

Sheer acknowledges that aeration is not a substitute for the nutrient and sediment reductions states are having to make under the Baywide Total Maximum Daily Load set in 2010 by the EPA. But rather than sap public interest in saving the Bay, he suggested that it could actually boost it. “If you have a big success,” he said, “maybe you’ll increase momentum to finish the job.”

Lewis Linker, acting associate director of the EPA’s Bay Program office, said that model runs testing Sheer’s proposal are very preliminary and need much more study. But he said “no way, no how” would he see aeration replacing the restoration effort’s current multi-goal approach.

At best, Linker suggested, aeriation might serve as an “add-on,” after all needed pollution reductions have been made, to help maintain healthy oxygen levels in the Bay’s mainstem even under extreme weather conditions.

The only way to find out if aeration can help, Sheer said, is to test the idea someplace in the Bay, with a pilot project costing around $2 million.

“This is not ripe to go out and do,” Sheer said, “but it is ripe, really ripe to go out and do a pilot. … I really think what we need to do next is put a station out there and see what the hell happens.”

Some of the scientists with whom Sheer has consulted agree that for all its potential pitfalls, it’s still worth further study.

“It’s not necessarily the complete solution,” Harris said, to the Bay’s nutrient overenrichment. But, she said, “It’s potentially nudging one of the symptoms that we do care about. …We have an obligation to think about all sides.”

By Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler (twheeler@bayjournal.com)is associate editor of  Bay Journal, published by Bay Journal Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, to inform the public about issues that affect the Chesapeake Bay. 

Eastern Neck Refuge Spared from Closure, but Funding Crunch Continues

The Tubby Point boardwalk at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. (Richard Pos, US Fish & Wildlife Service)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is hiring a new manager at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, sparing a natural area popular with hunters, anglers and birdwatchers from at least partial closure.

The refuge, located in Maryland on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, was left without a full-time manager in September 2017 when that official took a job elsewhere in the Fish and Wildlife Service. Lacking funds to hire a replacement, agency officials began warning Eastern Neck supporters this summer that public access to the refuge was in jeopardy.

Although the agency hasn’t received any additional money, it announced in August that Eastern Neck will remain open to the public. That decision came about three weeks after the Bay Journal reported on the potential closure and the growing outcry from user groups and elected officials.

The refuge consists of a 2,200-acre island at the confluence of the Chester River and Chesapeake Bay. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, about 70,000 people visit each year to catch glimpses of tundra swans and more than 200 other bird species, hunt deer and turkeys, and hike among the island’s pine trees and saltwater marsh.

“We’re very excited [about the decision],” said Melissa Baile, president of the Friends of Eastern Neck, a support group for the refuge. “I think they did not realize how much the refuge meant to the constituency and the country in general.”

Baile added that her group’s work isn’t over. Federal funding has been shrinking for the refuge system during this decade. If Eastern Neck supporters don’t stand guard, they could be facing another closure threat within a few years, she said.

To pay for the new staff member, the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, a branch of the service that oversees the region’s refuges, will have to reallocate funds it had reserved for other causes, said Terri Edwards, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman. So far, no timeframe has been set for making the new hire.

In July, Marcia Pradines, the Chesapeake Marshlands’ project leader, told the Bay Journal there was a possibility of a full shutdown at Eastern Neck and a gate turning back visitors at the entrance. “It’s not something we want to happen,” she said at the time. “In the end, it’s a budget reality.”

The staffing decisions wouldn’t have affected access to the county road that traverses the island, Pradines said. It would have remained open to Bogles Wharf, home to a county-maintained boat ramp and small pier.

By early August, Fish and Wildlife officials softened the potential blow. The entrance gate would remain open, allowing hunting, fishing, birdwatching and “other wildlife dependent uses,” regardless of staffing decisions, they said in a message posted to the refuge’s website.
The fate of the visitor center, along with the five walking trails, two boardwalks and maintenance activities, remained in limbo.

As the agency pondered its next step, employees from the Marshlands complex’s headquarters in Dorchester County shared the refuge’s administrative work — and the four-hour roundtrip drive that accompanies it.

The all-volunteer Friends of Eastern Neck has stepped in to complete other chores. In addition to their longtime responsibility of managing the visitor center, members are helping to conduct special events and performing countless hours of repairs and upkeep across the island. At times, the island is devoid of paid or volunteer staff, save for a lone volunteer clerk manning the front desk, said Phil Cicconi, vice president of the Friends group.

The Friends group, Baile said, wrote letters and emails to elected officials and Fish and Wildlife staff to keep their beloved refuge open. They lined up a growing list of allies in the fight, including the Kent County Commissioners, the Patuxent Bird Club and the Friends of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

The movement attracted the help of Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, among others. In December, he wrote a letter to Fish and Wildlife’s parent agency, the Interior Department, calling for the position to be filled in light of Eastern Neck’s importance to Kent’s economy.

Van Hollen applauded the move to keep the refuge open. But like Baile, he counseled vigilance. “Filling this position will help the Refuge better serve visitors, the local community, and area wildlife,” he said. “I will continue working to ensure our state has the federal resources necessary to support our economy and our environment.”

Eastern Neck’s supporters also looked to Rep. Andy Harris, the Maryland Republican who represents the Eastern Shore. He is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and belongs to the controlling party. Harris said in a statement that earmarking funding specifically for Eastern Neck would violate congressional rules, but that he was actively seeking other solutions.

Eastern Neck is not alone in its budget challenge. Accounting for inflation and fixed costs, the nation’s network of more than 560 refuges receives nearly $100 million less funding today than in 2010, according to the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement, a coalition of wildlife, sporting and conservation groups. The funding crunch has led the Fish and Wildlife Service to leave 488 refuge jobs unfilled, a loss of one out of seven positions.

“It’s a nationwide system problem. What’s happening in Eastern Neck is happening all across the United States,” said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs with the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “You can limp along for a few years, tightening your belt and no travel and, whenever somebody retires, you don’t fill the position. But at a point, you can’t do anymore.”

Over the last 15 years, national refuges across the country have been forced to shut down visitor centers or cut back on the number of days they’re open. The popular J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, for example, was forced to close its visitor center two days a week after it lost two park rangers to budget cuts.

In Rhode Island, the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge visitor center was closed for three consecutive winters. Supporters raised money to install solar panels, cutting costs enough to allow it to open for the winter of 2008–09.

The Trump administration requested $473 million in funding for the refuge system in fiscal 2019, a 2.7 percent decrease from current spending. An Interior Department appropriations bill approved by the Republican-controlled House along party lines in July sets aside nearly $489 million, a rise of less than 1 percent. The Senate passed its own version, sending the legislation to a conference committee to hash out the differences.

“You have to understand that you can berate the administration as much as you want, but ultimately it comes down to the legislative branch — Congress — to appropriate the money,” Sorenson-Groves said.

By Jeremy Cox

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Salisbury, MD, where he also teaches communications courses at Salisbury University.

Supporters Rally to save Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge from Closing

Photo by Dave Harp

A national wildlife refuge that attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year to the Chesapeake Bay may be forced to close to the public soon.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering shuttering the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge because it lacks the funding to hire a new refuge manager, said Marcia Pradines, project leader at the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, a branch of the service that oversees the Chesapeake region’s national refuges.

“If the position isn’t filled, that’s a possibility,” Pradines said, “It’s not something we want to happen. In the end, it’s a budget reality.”

The refuge consists of a 2,200-acre island lying on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where the Chester River meets the Chesapeake. About 70,000 people visit each year to catch glimpses of tundra swans and more than 200 other bird species, to hunt deer and turkeys, and to hike among the island’s pine trees and saltwater marsh, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“People just like to drive down there sometimes,” said Melissa Baile, president of the Friends of Eastern Neck, a support group for the refuge. “You just feel the peacefulness. It’s just easy to get away when you go down there.”

The manager position has been empty since last September, when Cindy Beemiller left for a refuge on Long Island, NY. The financially strapped Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t have the funding to fill the position, Pradines said. Beemiller was one of two paid employees assigned to the property; the other, a maintenance worker, is the only one who remains.

If Congress doesn’t appropriate significantly more money for the refuge system for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Eastern Neck may have to close to the public, she said, adding that it’s unclear when Fish & Wildlife will make that call.

The extent of the shutdown would depend on funding availability, Pradines said. The county road that traverses the island would remain open as far as Bogles Wharf Road, at the end of which are a county-maintained boat ramp and two small piers. But the road leading further south on the island would be closed, barring access to the visitor center and to the five walking trails and two boardwalks. It’s also possible that trail maintenance and other activities would cease, Pradines added.

As the agency ponders its next step, employees from the Marshlands complex’s headquarters in Dorchester County have been sharing the refuge’s administrative work — and the four-hour roundtrip drive that accompanies it.

The all-volunteer Friends of Eastern Neck has stepped in to cover other chores. In addition to their longtime responsibility of managing the visitor center, members are helping to conduct special events and performing countless hours of repairs and upkeep across the island.

At times, the island is devoid of personnel support, save for a lone volunteer manning the front desk, said Phil Cicconi, vice president of the Friends group. Although refuge staff installed a panic button, many of the older, female volunteers feel unsafe.

Shutting down the refuge, he said, would cause it to fall into disrepair and potentially attract relic-hunters who operate “like ninjas in the night.” The island is a trove of Native American artifacts. Cicconi worries that thieves might strip anything of value from the visitor center building, a renovated 1930s-era hunting lodge.

The island was one of the first English settlements in Maryland. In 1650, Maj. Joseph Wickes received a grant for 800 acres of land and constructed a mansion that has since disappeared. Eastern Neck became Kent County’s seat; Wickes, its chief justice.

The Friends group’s latest task, Baile said, is writing letters and emails to elected officials and Fish and Wildlife staff, urging them to keep their beloved refuge open. They have lined up a growing list of allies in the fight, including the Kent County Commissioners, Patuxent Bird Club and Friends of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

The Friends group also has partnered with their counterparts at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge to create a website to fan public support: friendsofblackwater.org/help-eastern-neck.html. “We’ve done everything we think we can do,” she said.

But it may not be enough. Eastern Neck is the latest refuge in a growing list that has faced cutbacks and potential closure because of a lack of federal investment, said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs with the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

Accounting for inflation and fixed costs, the nation’s network of more than 560 refuges receives nearly $100 million less funding today than in 2010, according to the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement, a coalition of wildlife, sporting and conservation groups. The funding crunch has led the Fish and Wildlife Service to leave 488 refuge jobs unfilled, a loss of one out of seven positions.

“It’s a nationwide system problem. What’s happening in Eastern Neck is happening all across the United States,” Sorenson-Groves said. “You can limp along for a few years, tightening your belt and no travel and, whenever somebody retires, you don’t fill the position. But at a point, you can’t do anymore.”

Across the country, many refuges over the past 15 years have been forced to shut down visitor centers or cut back on the number of days they’re open, she said. The popular J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, for example, was forced to close its visitor center two days a week after it lost two park rangers to budget cuts. In Rhode Island, the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge visitor center was closed for three consecutive winters. Supporters raised money to install solar panels, cutting costs enough to allow it to open for the winter of 2008-2009.

The Trump administration requested $473 million in funding for the refuge system in fiscal 2019, a 2.7 percent decrease from current spending. An Interior Department appropriations bill approved in July by the House of Representatives sets aside nearly $489 million, a rise of less than 1 percent. That slight increase, if passed in the Senate, would have little effect on the refuge system’s staffing and maintenance woes, Sorenson-Groves said.

“You have to understand that you can berate the administration as much as you want, but ultimately it comes down to the legislative branch — Congress — to appropriate the money,” she said.

Eastern Neck’s supporters look to Rep. Andy Harris, the Maryland Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, as their best hope for action. He is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and belongs to the controlling party.

But Harris said his hands are largely tied. “The Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge is a valuable resource in Maryland’s first district,” he said in a statement. “While an amendment earmarking funding specifically for Eastern Neck would violate congressional rules, I am actively investigating this issue and exploring solutions that will allow the refuge to continue providing services to Marylanders.”

For her part, Baile said she hopes to find a sympathetic ear when the refuge system’s Northeast district head, Scott Kahan, visits Eastern Neck during his annual field trip toward the end of August.

“People love this refuge. We have good visitation. It services not only our local community but also people from all over the country,” Baile said. “You’re willing to close down a whole refuge over $25,000 or $30,000? It’s a question of him prioritizing other things over us.”

By Jeremy Cox

Bay Journal staff writer Jeremy Cox is based in Salisbury, MD.

FERC Approves PA-to-WV Pipeline

Over objections from environmentalists, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has given its green light to building a hotly disputed natural gas pipeline through western Maryland and under the Potomac River.

With one of its five commissioners voting no and another dissenting in part, the five-member commission approved the Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project. The 3.5-mile pipeline, proposed by Columbia Gas Transmission, would carry gas from Pennsylvania to West Virginia, passing through Maryland just west of Hancock.

Environmental groups and some western Maryland residents have waged a lengthy campaign against the “Potomac Pipeline,” as they call it, staging repeated protest demonstrations and garnering several local-government resolutions against the project. Opponents argue that the project’s construction risks harm to the river and drinking water supplies, both near the underground crossing and downriver. They also contend that it will accelerate climate change by encouraging more natural gas production and consumption.

Photo: The Potomac River just upstream of Hancock, MD, where TransCanada’s Eastern Panhandle Expansion pipeline would pass under the river into West Virginia. (Royalty-free photo by Aude, via Creative Commons)

In its 53-page order, the commission majority brushed aside those concerns, saying the company’s plan for tunneling beneath the Potomac addressed the risks and potential impacts of a leak or blowout.

Environmentalists had asked the commission to require Columbia Gas, a subsidiary of TransCanada, to follow a lengthy list of conditions for tunneling beneath the river that the Maryland Department of the Environment had proposed in approving a state permit for the project. But the federal panel declined to do so, saying it would encourage but not require the company to adhere to the state conditions.

The panel’s majority also dismissed contentions that the pipeline would stimulate more gas production using hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), a controversial technique blamed for instances of drinking water well contamination and other problems. They likewise said they lacked information to determine whether the pipeline could significantly exacerbate climate change by allowing for more gas to be produced and consumed, as environmentalists contended.

But two of the five panel members took issue with the majority on those last two points. Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur concurred with the majority in approving the pipeline, but she disagreed with its decision to ignore the project’s climate-change impacts. Commissioner Richard Glick opposed the project, arguing that the commission had abrogated its legal responsibility by refusing to consider those impacts.

“Climate change poses an existential threat to our security, economy, environment and, ultimately, the health of individual citizens,” Glick wrote. He said the majority “goes out of its way to avoid seriously addressing the project’s impact from climate change” by disregarding the potential emissions of carbon dioxide and methane that might result from increased gas production and consumption.

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network issued a statement decrying the FERC decision. Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls said the group is “considering all of our legal options in response to this unfortunate decision.” He vowed to continue rallying opposition to the pipeline and called on Gov. Larry Hogan to deny Columbia Gas the easements it still needs to build the project through western Maryland.

By Tim Wheeler, Bay Journal News Service

Life on the Disappearing Edge by Tom Horton

 “Hey there, thanks for making my property worth even less!” You get calls and emails like that when you make a movie that raises public awareness of climate change, rising sea levels and worsening erosion.
The collateral damage of such efforts is they don’t exactly boost housing values for those already living along the low-lying edges of the Chesapeake.
“High Tide in Dorchester,” the Bay Journal film I just finished with photographer Dave Harp and producer Sandy Cannon Brown, shows how Maryland’s fourth largest county by land area could shrink to 14th (of 23) by 2100 if we don’t get serious about mitigating climate change.

“Kathy Blake in Hoopersville, MD. (Photo by Dave Harp)

Kathy Blake of Hoopersville in lower Dorchester County, the latest “fan” who called, didn’t need our film to raise her awareness. She and her husband, John, have lost six cars to high tides in their yard in the last 15 years, not to mention several bicycles. “If it’s at ground level here, sooner or later it floats away,” she told me during an interview in her yard near the Honga River.

Kathy and John grew up in the Washington suburb of Bladensburg, which received ocean-going vessels coming up what is now the Anacostia River until around 1835. By 1898, a writer noted that only a canoe could still navigate to the “port” of Bladensburg, filled in by sediment from tree clearing and poor farming practices.
When I visited their current 1890s two-story home on Hoopersville Road, it was easy to see how they fell in love with the place in 1996. Across a breathtaking sweep of saltmarsh and Bay, I could see Solomons Island and Calvert Cliffs, highlighted by the morning sun on the Western Shore.
“It was so peaceful, so safe and quiet, a playground for our kids,” Kathy said. Only later would the Blakes learn that they had moved to a place where the tide carries greater implications than the mere ebb and flow of water in and out of the Bay every six and a quarter hours.
Her first memorable high-water experience seemed more of a nuisance than anything — a couple of inches of water across the road as she took the kids to the school bus. “This is nothing,” the bus driver told her, and all morning it kept coming, up the front steps, to the front door sill, into the living room. “Oh well, we bought the house,” she said.
Kathy has long been in the habit of moving their vehicles across the street to slightly higher ground when she knows high water is coming, but sometimes there’s no warning. Last February on a bitter cold morning, she came downstairs to find the house surrounded by glistening water. “There was six inches in the Toyota Highlander . . . a total loss.”
She hauled her five-year-old granddaughter to the bus in a canoe that day. The water didn’t make it into the house, “but it was so close I knew if a truck came by, the wave from it would swamp the living room.”
The “big tide” — the biggest in recorded history for many parts of the Chesapeake — came in 2003 with the remnants of Hurricane Isabel. The Blakes had five feet of water in their home and evacuated in a hurry. “I left without even a pair of clean underwear,” Kathy said.
Uninsured, they put more than $70,000 of their own money into restoring their home, this atop the nearly $30,000 they’d already put into the place.
“I stopped being emotionally attached here after Isabel, we lost so much,” Kathy said. Even now, treasured pictures are leaned up, not attached to the walls, “so I can throw ’em in a box quick if I have to get out.”
And Kathy does want out. She called me because our High Tide film mentioned the need for governments to consider buying out homes vulnerable to rising seas and erosion. Governments in other locations have been buying out properties for decades along floodplains of streams and rivers — it’s cheaper in the long run than setting people back up for future disasters after flooding.
They could move anywhere; Kathy’s a semi-retired grant writer and John’s a plumber working on the Western Shore, coming back on weekends. But they can’t afford to sell. A hunt club might pay a little for their six-and-a-half acres, much of it saltmarsh, “but nobody else in their right mind would buy here.”
Anna Sierra, director of emergency services for Dorchester County, said officials are looking into possible federal-state grants for a “demonstration buyout” that would include the Blakes’ home and another in the Neck District west of Cambridge. The latter home might be moved to a vacant lot in Cambridge and its land used for public water access. “But this is all very preliminary,” Sierra stressed.
The two properties are just the tip of the iceberg, not only for Dorchester County, but for all of the nation’s coastlines; seas are expected to rise up to six feet in the next century, simultaneously threatening and devaluing properties.
Another concern for Hoopersville: The long bridge and causeway connecting the tiny community to the mainland is showing serious damage from storms and needs around $16 million in repairs — several times what it cost to build it in 1980. Neither state nor county road budgets have money for that.
Kathy’s plan B? “Hit the Powerball [lottery],” she said. “Or . . . it’s horrible to think this, but we’re insured now for flooding. The rates just went from $1,600 to $2,000 annually. If another Isabel hit, I could just take the money and leave.”
She wouldn’t go far from tidewater, though. “I love the Bay,” she said. “I just don’t love sharing my house and cars with it.”
Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

 

Back home on their Range: Quail find Refuge on Restored Grassland by Tim Wheeler

Dan Small, field ecologist for Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society, coordinates the Natural Lands Project, which works with private landowners to re-create Eastern Shore grassland habitat. (Dave Harp)

It’s a little past dawn on a foggy spring morning, but already the field on Maryland’s Upper Eastern Shore is wide awake. From the cover of tall grass and a few shrubs, a multilingual chorus of birds greets the new day with a cacophony of chirps, warbles and whistles, like a symphony tuning up before the concert.

Then, amid the familiar trills of red-winged blackbirds and other feathered regulars, comes a call rarely heard any more in these parts — bob-white! Down a lane across the field, the black-and-white striped head of a Northern bobwhite quail pokes out of some short grass.

Once commonly heard, if not seen, in brushy meadows and hedgerows, quail have become scarce in Maryland and elsewhere as farming practices have changed, eliminating much of the ground-dwelling birds’ habitat. This 228-acre prairie along the Chester River — part of sprawling Chino Farms in Queen Anne’s County — has become a refuge for quail since it was converted from cropland nearly 20 years ago.

“You really can’t go many places on the Shore and hear this many [quail],” said Daniel Small, an ecologist with Washington College, the private liberal arts college in Chestertown that uses the tract as a research station and outdoor classroom.

Bill Harvey, game bird section leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, agrees, calling the number of quail there “unbelievable.”

“It used to be that just about everywhere was quail habitat,” Harvey said. But in the interests of cultivating crops more efficiently, modern farming has removed the fencerows that once segmented the land into small fields, along with shrubbery and weeds along the edge of croplands — all of which provided shelter for grassland birds.

“As time has gone on,” Harvey added, “the acreage has shrunk to the point where a lot of [the habitat’s that’s left] is not connected in a way that quail can use it.”

But at the college’s Chester River Field Station, switchgrass and waist-high bunches of broomsedge bluestem wave in the gentle breeze, an uncommon sight in a rural landscape dominated by vast uninterrupted fields of corn and soybeans, the staples of Shore agriculture.

A quail takes flight from the grasslands at Washington College’s Chester River Field Research Station on Chino Farms. (Dave Harp)

Quail use the cover of the tall grass and occasional shrubs to forage on the ground for seeds, leaves and insects. During mating season in spring, they call to one another with their trademark whistle and a series of other sounds. In the winter, the birds huddle together for shelter in groups called coveys.

Small, who lives in a house on the tract, said it’s not clear just how many quail inhabit the grassland, which occupies just a sliver of the 5,000-acre Chino Farms — owned by Dr. Harry Sears, a retired physician who’s on the college’s governing board. But “calling counts” conducted on a portion of the tract have tallied about 35 male birds in that immediate area.

Though the grassland looks wild and even a tad unkempt to the untrained eye, it’s actually managed to stay that way. In a rotation intended to sustain the grasses but vary their height across the tract, blocks of land are periodically mowed, sprayed with herbicide and set ablaze with controlled burns. Otherwise, shrubs and eventually trees would take over. While that would be a natural succession, the aim in this case is to retain a haven for wildlife that thrive only in prairie-type landscapes.

Though quail — a once-popular game bird — may be the most charismatic denizen of the Chester River tract, they’re not the only avian species that have a stake in the success of the grassland restoration. In essence, according to Small, they’re an “umbrella” species for lots of other birds that need similar habitat, such as the grasshopper sparrow and field sparrow.

Like quail, a number of other grassland birds are in decline across Maryland, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. At one time, as many as 80 nesting grasshopper sparrow pairs were spotted on the Chester River tract, Small said, but their numbers have slowly dropped over the years. On that spring morning, he said, he hadn’t heard a single call.

For the past few years, the college, through its Center for Environment & Society, has been working to persuade other Shore landowners to follow suit and re-establish some of the grassland habitat that’s been lost over the decades, in hopes of reversing those declines.
In 2015, the school teamed up with Shore Rivers, a nonprofit advocacy group, to launch the Natural Lands Project, a bid to make some of the region’s farmland more wildlife friendly while also enhancing water quality by establishing grassy runoff buffers and wetlands along streams and rivers.

With the help of a $700,000 grant from the state DNR, the project team has enlisted 27 landowners in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. By the end of the year, it hopes to have converted 375 acres into grasslands, as well as another 36 acres into wetlands. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has kicked in $499,000 to create another 275 acres of upland habitat and 27 acres of wetlands, extending farther south into Talbot County.

“It’s not going to be for everyone, and we’re not trying to twist landowners’ or farmers’ arms to do this,” Small explained. “They have to want to create that change on the property.” But if someone has marginal cropland they’re willing to convert, he said, they can be compensated for taking the land out of production by signing up for one of the federal farmland conservation programs, with the project’s grant funding to help make up any difference.

Small said the team is most interested in working with landowners willing to convert at least 40–50 acres at a time, otherwise the habitat isn’t large enough to be really helpful. “You can’t expect to make a change in quail populations by doing five or 10 acres at a time,” he said. The project further attempts to create habitat on adjoining or at least nearby tracts, to create a corridor where quail can spread. The birds do not migrate or fly long distances.

Small said hunters are among the most receptive audience for the project’s habitat restoration pitch. They’d like to see Maryland’s small quail population grow and become more sustainable for hunting. New Jersey has banned quail hunting except on private game reserves, but it’s still legal to shoot wild quail in Maryland — if you can find them.

Harvey, the DNR game bird leader, said that while quail hunting has been restricted on public lands, wildlife managers have been reluctant to do likewise on private property because they believe it would undercut efforts to preserve and restore habitat.

“Just like Chino Farms and Dr. Sears,” Harvey pointed out, “a lot of the people interested and willing to take land out of production and spend the money it takes to manage for quail [are] at least somewhat interested in hunting for quail.”

Rob Leigh said that he and his wife Linda are still waiting to hear that distinctive “bob-white!” call on the 35 acres of farmland in Betterton that they turned into grassland and wildflowers 2.5 years ago.

Leigh, a retired dentist, recalls hearing the birds all the time when he was growing up on the Shore, and it’s what prompted him to place a portion of their 114-acre farm in the Natural Lands Project. He believes it’s only a matter of time until the birds take up residence there, as quail have been sighted just a few miles away.

Leigh said he was a little nervous at first about converting the cropland, which they’d been renting to a neighboring farmer to grow corn and soybeans. But the farmer found other land not far away, and Leigh said the lost rental income is covered by federal and grant funds.

Even without any quail yet, he added, they’re enjoying the sights and sounds of other wildlife on the converted cropland. “We see an immense array of different birds, of a variety I’ve never seen before,” he said. “The swallows and bluebirds, they just swoop up and down, they’re so fun to watch.” The patch of wildflowers planted in the center of the grassland has proven to be an insect magnet — drawing butterflies and so many bees that Leigh said they generate an audible buzz that carries across the field.

“I feel like we planted a prairie almost, it’s very lovely,” he said, calling the field “a kaleidoscope of color” in spring, first awash in yellow blooms and then hues of purple. “My wife loves it. She thinks it’s the best thing going.”

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

Washington’s Mount Vernon opposes Dominion Energy’s Planned Gas Facility along Potomac River

The guardians of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, who have preserved the historic Virginia estate on the Potomac River since before the Civil War, are rallying against a present-day foe — one they say could mar a Potomac River view that’s been untarnished for centuries.

Across the river in Charles County, MD, not far from a shoreline that looks much as it did when Washington took in the vista, Dominion Energy is planning to build a natural gas compressor station. The company says the facility will help deliver fuel to a planned power plant nearby that’s intended to supply electricity to portions of both states — and that it will be out of sight from Mount Vernon.

But the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which claims to be first national historic preservation organization in the United States, warns that the compressor station might in fact be visible and ruin the unspoiled panorama across the Potomac from the first president’s home. The association hosted a press conference last week to raise the alarm, supported by a dozen preservation, environmental and community groups from both sides of the river.

The project is also opposed by residents who live in the wooded areas surrounding the planned facility — including more than 400 properties that are themselves barred from certain types of development because they are next to a national park that was established to protect Mount Vernon’s view.

The Charles County residents also are concerned that the compressor station’s emissions could could diminish local air quality, pose a fire or explosion risk and negatively impact the surrounding wetlands and forests. Local environmental groups are beginning to track the project, too, concerned that it could also impact local water quality.

Charles County officials denied the project a special-use permit to build on a 50-acre parcel zoned for rural conservation uses, but Dominion has sued the county. The company says a waiver from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission overrides the county’s zoning ordinances.

Despite their environmental and safety issues, residents seem to think their best bet for stopping the project lies across the river, in the hands of the well-funded estate that has officially set its sights on stopping the station.

“Dominion Energy can move their compressor station. We can’t move Mount Vernon,” Doug Bradburn, president and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the name of the nonprofit run by the ladies’ association, said Tuesday at a press conference on the estate’s lawn.

The crux of the conflict with Mount Vernon comes down to the height of two exhaust stacks that would emit carbon monoxide and potentially ozone-forming gases that are byproducts of the power-generating turbines burning natural gas. The higher the stacks, the more likely they are to be visible at Mount Vernon. But stacks that are too low could deliver more air pollutants to the communities and forested areas surrounding the site on the Maryland side.

Dominion spokesman Karl Neddenien said neither the Charles Station compressor’s buildings nor its emissions stacks would be visible from Mount Vernon, pointing to a sightline study conducted by the Chesapeake Conservancy that found 50-foot stacks would be hidden behind a bluff of trees.

But Mount Vernon advocates say those plans could change, and they note that a far taller stack height of more than 113 feet is mentioned as a “best practice” in permitting documents. The facility’s air quality permit is currently being reviewed by the Maryland Department of the Environment, which could have a say in the height of the stacks.

Uncertainties about the height of the stacks is one of the reasons the Chesapeake Conservancy, after completing the sightline study for Mount Vernon, joined the effort to oppose it.

“Higher stacks would lessen the local air quality impacts, but would likely negatively affect the historic view,” said Susan Shingledecker, vice president and director of programs for the Chesapeake Conservancy. “Lower stacks would remain shielded by tree canopy, but could mean increased harmful environmental health conditions for surrounding communities. This is not a tradeoff we can accept.”

Preservation advocates also fear the construction could lead to more industrial development in a portion of Maryland they’ve worked hard to keep forested.

“Their promises to us are not binding,” Bradburn said. “They cannot guarantee that the industrial development will not have a long-term negative impact on the forest canopy that protects that view.”

A dozen organizations from both sides of the river — including the Chesapeake Conservancy, the Alice Ferguson Foundation and groups representing Maryland residents near the planned facility — have joined the campaign to “Save George Washington’s View.”

Also last week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the Mount Vernon estate and Piscataway Park to its annual list of the most endangered historic places in the United States, along with Annapolis’ City Dock, a move intended to galvanize national support for ongoing preservation.

Behind the effort is the educational and fund-raising prowess of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ group, a nonprofit that raises almost $50 million annually to manage the estate’s $250 million in assets, according to Charity Navigator.

Sarah Miller Coulson, regent of the Ladies’ Association, which has maintained Mount Vernon for 160 years, said the group’s members considers it their “sacred and moral responsibility” to protect Washington’s home, tomb and viewshed from projects like the one Dominion has planned. And they have a record of doing so.

In the 1950s, the organization stopped an oil refining company from buying hundreds of acres across the river in Maryland. A decade later, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission planned to use eminent domain to build a three-story sewage treatment plant across from Mount Vernon, intending to soften the blow to the view by making the plant a replica of the estate. A congresswoman who was also a member of the Ladies’ Association helped redirect those plans.

“We won’t stop until we’re successful,” Coulson said of their latest campaign.

At Mount Vernon, efforts to protect the property’s view culminated in the 1960s with the creation of Piscataway Park on the banks of the Potomac in Maryland. The group also had a hand in hundreds of conservation agreements with landowners that limit the height of buildings and how many trees can be removed.

Piscataway “was the first park in the nation created to protect the viewshed” of another property, said Lori Arguelles, president and CEO of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an environmental nonprofit based across the river from Mount Vernon in Accokeek, MD. Dominion’s compressor station would be within 50 feet of the park.

Dominion officials say environmental concerns about the project will be addressed through the local and state permitting process, which is underway now. Dominion has been expanding its network of energy infrastructure across the region with a growing focus on natural gas as an alternative to burning coal for power. Dominion says the Charles County compressor station would connect to existing underground pipelines to pump new natural gas supplies to the Panda Mattawoman Energy Project, which is planned to be built in Prince George’s County, MD.

The compressor station is part of a project that Dominion says on its website “will bring much-needed new natural gas supplies” to the region that includes Charles County, MD, and Mount Vernon, which Bradburn said is heated by a mix of electricity and natural gas.

Dominion has won at least one other battle over whether it can place energy infrastructure within sight of historic properties. On a portion of the James River near Williamsburg, an effort last summer fell short in protecting a trio of historic sites from the view of a power line spanning the river. Despite opposition from historic preservation groups — that portion of the river landed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of endangered places in 2013 — the project received final federal approval. Lawsuits from preservation groups are pending.

Coulson said the Ladies’ Association had been meeting with Dominion officials as recently as the day before the press conference and wants to help the utility find an alternative location for the compressor station.

But Dominion’s Neddenien seemed befuddled by the press conference at Mount Vernon and the rallying cry to stop the project.

“We have worked with Mount Vernon officials since the initial stages of planning for this project about two years ago. We designed our facility to minimize visuals at Mount Vernon,” he said.

For Mount Vernon, those visuals are of paramount importance to their mission of preserving the estate and its historic vista. Several U.S. presidents are among the more than 87 million people that have visited Mount Vernon over the years, the most recent being President and First Lady Trump.

Bradburn stood with the Trumps on Mount Vernon’s piazza during the April visit of French President Emmanuel Macron — and brought up with Trump the risk of a pair of exhaust stacks appearing on the horizon.

“The president said, ‘This should be preserved. This is fantastic,’” Bradburn said.

by Whitney Pipkin

Bay Journal staff writer Whitney Pipkin covers food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

Facing a Finite Future, Smith Islanders put Their Faith in Jetties and God By Jeremy Cox

Only in a place like Smith Island would someone get choked up about a jetty, a man-made wall of stones that functions like a bulwark against waves and water currents.

Eddie Somers, a civic activist and native of the island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, delivered remarks at a recent press conference called by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to mark a milestone in the construction of two jetties off its western flank. He was close to finishing when he suddenly stopped, holding back tears — tears of joy.

“Those barrier islands were in danger of breaching in a couple places, and when that happens, you’re one hurricane away from losing your home,” he said when asked later about the moment. “So, for a lot of people, it’s emotional — not just me.”


Two men in a small boat motor toward the community of Ewell, on the north end of Smith Island. (Jeremy Cox)

On Smith Island, Maryland’s only inhabited island with no bridge connection to the mainland, residents prize self-reliance. But for more than two decades, Somers and his neighbors had been pushing for outside help to save their low-lying island properties from slipping away into the surrounding Bay.

Now, they’ve gotten it. Since 2015, federal, state and local sources have invested about $18.3 million in three separate projects on and around Smith Island, adding about two miles of reconstructed shoreline, several acres of newly planted salt marshes and hundreds of feet of jetties.

That money may buy a lot of jetty stones and sprigs of cordgrass, but all it can really buy is time, according to climate researchers and Army Corps officials.

As seas rise and erosion takes its toll — and the population shrinks — some homes have been abandoned on low-lying Smith Island, including this two-story house in the community of Rhodes Point. (Jeremy Cox)

Smith Island is an archipelago, with a population spread across three small communities: Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton. Since 1850, erosion and rising sea levels have put about one-third of the islands underwater. By 2100, the Bay is expected to rise by at least 3 more feet – bad news for a land that’s mostly less than 3 feet above current sea level.

Clad in fatigues, Col. Ed Chamberlayne, head of the Army Corps’ Baltimore District office, boarded the Maryland Department of Natural Resources research boat, Kerhin, after the press conference to tour the new jetties with an entourage of state and local officials. He described the $6.9 million project, which also includes dredging a boat channel and using the fill to restore about 5 acres of nearby wetlands, as a temporary fix.

“How long this will last is an obvious question,” Chamberlayne said. “As far as what this does to Smith Island long-term, this is not a cure-all.”

Col. Ed Chamberlayne, Baltimore district commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, speaks with Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton on a ferry ride to Smith Island June 21 to view the completed jetties. (Jeremy Cox)

Nor are any of the other projects. So, with each inch of sea level rise and dollar spent fighting it, an old question gains more urgency: To what lengths should society go to defend Smith Island and other places believed to be highly vulnerable to climate change? Facing land losses of their own, coastal communities in Alaska and Louisiana are getting ready to relocate to new homes farther inland.

A similar debate hit Tangier Island, about 10 miles south of Smith Island in Virginia waters, after a 2015 Army Corps study declared that its residents may be among the first “climate refugees” in the continental United States. In the wake of a CNN report about the shrinking island last year, President Donald Trump, who has referred to global warming as a “hoax,” called its mayor to assure him he has nothing to worry about.

In a view shared by many on the boat, State Sen. Jim Mathias expressed confidence that the island would be around for a long while. “It’s man’s hand intervening,” said Mathias, a Democrat who represents the lower Eastern Shore. “We have the top engineers working for us. We’ll figure it out.”

When the final phase of the jetty project is completed this fall — channel dredging and marsh restoration remain — it will mark the end of a chapter in the community’s history that started with, as some residents interpreted it, its proposed destruction.

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy walloped the New Jersey coast and flooded lower Manhattan in New York City, and in Maryland caused extensive flooding in Crisfield and along the Bay shore in Somerset County. Smith Island suffered relatively little damage by comparison.

Still, state officials, conscious of the long-term threat to Smith posed by rising seas, set aside $2 million in federal relief money to buy out voluntary sellers. Plans called for homes or businesses acquired by the state to be torn down and future development to be banned on the properties.

“The people didn’t want to be bought out, and they were sort of insulted by it,” said Randy Laird, president of the Board of County Commissioners in Somerset County, which includes Smith island. “They felt like they (state officials) were trying to close down the island.”
The buyouts would have created a domino effect, Mathias said.

“Once it starts, it doesn’t stop,” he said. “It goes from one parcel to another parcel. And another family falls on hard times, and the state shows up with a check.”

Enter Smith Island United

The archipelago has lost nearly half its population since 2000. Among the fewer than 200 who remain, one-third are age 65 or older. Most young people leave after finishing high school for lack of jobs on the island. “We didn’t really have a voice in government,” Somers said.

To push back against the buyouts, residents formed a civic group and began hosting regular community meetings. Those talks turned into Smith Island United. Somers, a part-time resident and captain of a state icebreaker boat, was installed as its president.

Soon, the organization persuaded the state to drop its buyout offer in favor of a “visioning” study. The report, finalized in 2016, outlined several possible actions for reversing the downward course, ranging from creating a seafood industry apprenticeship program to providing more public restrooms for island visitors.

That same year, Maryland named Smith Island a “sustainable community,” giving the community access to a suite of revitalization initiatives from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and grant programs. The island received a $25,000 grant last year to fix store facades because of the program.

In the meantime, long-stalled plans to shore up Smith Island’s marshy coastline began to materialize. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service built a $9 million “living shoreline” in the Glenn Martin National Wildlife Refuge, a marshy island that protects Smith’s north side from erosion. Then came a $4.5 million county project, completed in late 2017, that created another living shoreline on the island’s west side near Rhodes Point, the smallest of the island’s three communities and its most endangered spot.

The Army Corps complemented that work with the construction of two jetties earlier this year, one on either side of an inlet called Sheep Pen Gut. Workers are expected to return in the fall to dredge the channel, deepening it from 3 feet to 6 feet. That will restore vessel passage through the island, eliminating the circuitous, gas-wasting journey to the open Bay that some watermen have had to take since the inlet became too shallow.

Everett Landon caught a glimpse of the construction while standing on the second-floor balcony of a home still under construction. “It looks very good,” said Landon, a Rhodes Point native who last year took over as pastor of the island’s three churches. “With the erosion we’ve been facing, people have been wondering how long until it makes them move away.”

The Rhodes Point jetty project had been on the books at the Army Corps since the mid-1990s. Some residents had all but given up hope that it would ever get built. “You get a community that struggles a lot, and you get a project like this — it puts the wind in your sails. It just shows persistence,” Landon said.

He added that the help is especially welcome in Rhodes Point, where the 40 or so remaining residents live on an ever-shrinking strip of high ground. For his part, Landon measures that loss in the gradual disappearance of a beach once visible — high and dry — beyond the marsh that fringes Rhodes Point. “My grandmother told me that when she was younger, she could sit on the second floor of her home and all she could see was sand,” he said. “When I was growing up, it was just a narrow strip and then marsh. When my kids came along, it was just gone.”

Most Smith Island residents have incomes tied to the seafood industry, from the crabs they catch or pick or the oysters they dredge. Support for Trump was near-unanimous on the island in 2016, and most share his skepticism toward human-caused climate change. They concede that their island is vanishing, but they prefer to speak of it in terms of erosion instead of sea level rise.

Marianna Wehnes moved to Smith Island in 2011 to live with her boyfriend, and she quickly fell in love – with the island. After her relationship with the man ended, Wehnes moved back to the mainland on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but soon returned. She missed the community’s tranquil way of life and knowing her neighbors. She now works in one of Ewell’s gift shops, where it is considered a busy day if eight customers walk through the door.

The new jetties and restored marsh will help keep the island above water for a while, Wehnes agreed. Beyond that, she added, Smith Island’s fate will be up to a higher power. “It’s been here 400 years, and it’s going to be here for 400 years. The only reason it won’t be is if the good Lord tells it to go.”

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer and a communications instructor at Salisbury University in Salisbury, MD, where he is based.

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