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.

Man-Made Oyster Reef Near Key Bridge is Thriving

A man-made oyster reef finished a year ago next to Fort Carroll in the middle of the Patapsco River is in excellent condition. Recent monitoring results found most of the three million young oysters surviving and growing rapidly. The results are another encouraging milestone in an effort to return oysters to Baltimore waters, and throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

“Oysters are resilient creatures. If we give them the habitat they need they will settle down and form a community, begin filtering our water, and provide a home for other marine life,” said Dr. Allison Colden, Maryland Senior Fisheries Scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). “Baltimore is demonstrating it can be a flourishing home for underwater life.”

CBF is a member of the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance, a multi-year, collaborative effort to add 10 billion new oysters by 2025 in Virginia and Maryland waters. The Alliance is designed to spark governmental action, public attention, and funding to accelerate ongoing oyster recovery efforts in the Chesapeake Bay.

Photo credit: Michael Eversmier

To that end, the oyster reef was planted last spring next to Fort Carroll, the Civil War fort built on an island near the Key Bridge. Chunks of granite were used as a bed for the reef. Tons of old oyster shell were piled on top of the stone. On each shell was attached an average of 12 juvenile oyster “spat” barely visible to the eye. The spat were set on the oyster shells at CBF’s Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side, and placed on the reef by the organization’s restoration vessel, the Patricia Campbell.

A year later, about 75 percent of those baby oysters have survived their first winter, and have grown to an average of more than an inch and a half in size, some to nearly three inches. Another encouraging sign, divers found the oysters thriving despite silt in the river. In fact, the reef was filled with large clumps of oysters growing vertically above the silt.

The construction, seeding, and monitoring of the 1.1 acre reef was supported by the Maryland Department of Transportation Port Administration, Maryland Environmental Service, and the Abell Foundation.

Baltimore was once a hub of the commercial oyster industry in Maryland. Oysters also were known to grow in the Patapsco, at least near the mouth. But the oyster population is now a fraction of its historic size, a victim of overfishing, disease, and pollution.

Knowing that history, what divers observed at the Fort Carroll reef and recorded with underwater photography was all the more exciting. Live oysters were feeding and growing. And the reef already was attracting other marine life, such as anemone, barnacles, mussels, mud crabs, and grass shrimp. In all, at least 13 different species were observed living on the new reef. This relative abundance of life demonstrates what scientists have known for years: oysters are a “keystone species” in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem; their reefs act as primary building blocks of the food chain.

The new reef, a little more than an acre, is near to a companion reef started in 1995. That older reef has been gradually built over the years, with about 150,000 oysters being added each of the past few years through the Great Baltimore Oyster Partnership and the Living Classrooms Foundation. Business representatives, students, and other volunteers grow oysters in cages at various sites around the Inner Harbor, and then deploy the juvenile oysters at the companion reef. The Partnership aims to have at least 5 million oysters added total to both reefs by 2020. CBF and the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore’s Healthy Harbor Initiative are founding members of the group.

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.

Chesapeake Bay’s Dead Zone to Grow this Summer; Breaks with Wave of Good News

The Chesapeake Bay’s infamous “dead zone” will be larger than average this summer, scientists suggest in a new forecast that breaks with a wave of encouraging signs about the estuary’s health.

If their prediction is correct, 2018 will be the fourth year in a row that the size of the Bay’s oxygen-starved area has increased. The forecasted expansion can be chalked up to nutrients flushed into the Bay during the spring’s heavy rains, according to researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan.

“The size is going to go up and down every year depending on the weather,” said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan aquatic ecologist and one of the report’s authors.

A “dead zone” is a popular term for waters that have very little oxygen (hypoxic) or none at all (anoxic). Fish tend to flee, and any marine life that can’t escape — usually shellfish — could suffocate.

New evidence seems to arrive almost daily suggesting that humans are turning the tide against the Chesapeake Bay’s many woes. Bay grasses are flourishing. Waters are less murky. Despite a harsh winter, the blue crab population’s rebound appears undaunted. Officials and scientists at a press conference on June 15 celebrated the Bay’s ability to maintain moderately healthy conditions in 2017 for the third year in a row.

But the dead zone has remained persistently large over the years, though it has been disappearing slightly earlier at the end of the summer.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, higher than average spring rains brought more than 85 million pounds of nitrogen into the Bay from the Susquehanna River, the primary source of nutrient pollution in the main portion of the Chesapeake. The Potomac River delivered another 30 million pounds to the Bay.

As a result, the dead zone is expected to be an average of 1.9 cubic miles this summer, a 5 percent increase over 2017, according to the forecast. That area of “hypoxic,” or low oxygen, water represents about 15 percent of the Bay’s total volume. Those numbers haven’t changed much over the years, said UMCES researcher Jeremy Testa, a co-author of the report.

Dead zone conditions already appeared to be forming in May, according to water quality-tracking by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The DNR Eyes on the Bay website showed that dissolved oxygen levels measured in early June had dipped into the danger zone for fish and shellfish from the Baltimore Harbor south to (and extending into) the Patuxent River. Along the Eastern Shore, the north-south boundaries are rougly the same — from Tolchester Beach in Kent County south to Dorchester County, across from the Patuxent.

Dead zones form are caused by excessive nutrients in the water, which cause algae to bloom. Ultimately, the algae die and sink to the bottom, where they are consumed by bacteria in a process that uses up the oxygen in the water. Low-oxygen waters are found throughout the world, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Baltic Sea.

The Chesapeake’s dead zone has ballooned since recordkeeping began in the 1950s as growing cities and farm fields shunted more nitrogen into the Bay, researchers say. One of the main goals of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay restoration program is to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads — and shrink the dead zone.

The typical summer dead zone has measured about 1.7 cubic miles of water since 1985, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. The largest recorded was 2.7 cubic miles in 2011.

While hypoxic water remains stubbornly abundant, anoxic conditions — the very worst areas where there is virtually no oxygen — are gradually improving, Testa said. This year’s anoxic portion of the Bay is expected to be 0.43 cubic miles.

Testa attributes the improved anoxic conditions to gradual reductions in the Susquehanna’s nitrogen concentration that began in the 1980s. Scavia said this year’s forecasted expansion isn’t too concerning because rain appears to be the main culprit.

“It’s the long-term trend that really matters,” he said.

by Jeremy Cox

Bay Journal staff writer Jeremy Cox teaches communications at Maryland’s Salisbury University. He has written for daily newspapers since 2002, most recently as an environment reporter for the Daily Times in Salisbury, where he is based.

Chesapeake Region Unlikely to Meet 2025 Bay Cleanup Goals, Unless it Picks up Pace

The Chesapeake Bay is getting healthier, but its recovery is “fragile” unless state and federal governments pick up the pace of their actions, environmental groups warned Wednesday.

As the halfway point toward the 2025 cleanup deadline approaches, the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation reported that the region is generally on track toward meeting pollution reduction goals for phosphorus and sediment but is far off pace for nitrogen.

The nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus create algal blooms that cloud the water and lead to oxygen-starved “dead zones” in the Bay. Nutrients, the Bay’s primary pollutant, enter the Bay and its rivers largely through sewage, fertilizers and animal waste.

Regional Bay cleanup efforts have been under way since the 1980s. They intensified in 2010 when the federal government put the Bay under a Total Maximum Daily Load [TDML], often called a “pollution diet,” that requires state actions to meet federal clean water standards.

Those efforts have spurred improvements in the Bay’s health, but CBF President Will Baker cautioned against too much optimism, noting that Lake Erie was declared recovered decades ago but is now “worse than ever.”

“Unless the states and their federal partners expand their efforts and push harder, the Bay and its rivers and streams may never be saved,” Baker said. He expressed concern that the states and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might back off on their commitments to take all needed cleanup actions by the end of 2025. “CBF, and I imagine others, will use every means available, including possible litigation, to oppose any attempt to delay the deadline,” he said.

The possibility of allowing a delay has been floated behind the scenes, but officials familiar with the conversations say they expect that the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program will ultimately keep the original deadline.

The Bay Program failed to meet two previous cleanup deadlines, which led the EPA to impose the TMDL as a more enforceable cleanup program that set established pollution limits for each state and river draining into the Bay.

This summer is roughly the halfway point between the 2010 establishment of the TMDL and the 2025 cleanup deadline.

States were supposed to achieve 60 percent of their assigned pollution reduction actions by the end of 2017. But the Bay Foundation, using preliminary computer model estimates from the Bay Program, said the region as a whole has achieved only about 40 percent of its nitrogen goals, though it has met the mark for phosphorus and sediment.

The CBF and Choose Clean Water — a coalition of 240 regional groups working on water issues that jointly released the analysis — credited pollution reductions for recent improvements in the Bay’s health. Underwater grass beds, a key Bay habitat, reached record levels last year, the Bay’s “dead zone” has been shrinking, and the population of important species like oysters and blue crabs have shown encouraging signs.

“We are at a critical point in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. We are seeing some incredible progress,” said Chante Coleman, director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

But the environmentalists warned that the Bay’s health was still in jeopardy and that pollution reduction efforts among the four jurisdictions it examined — Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia — were uneven.

Pennsylvania, which contributes the largest amount of nutrients to the Bay, is far behind in its nitrogen reduction goals, largely because of the nitrogen generated by its large agricultural sector. Pennsylvania accounts for the lion’s share of the regionwide shortfall for nitrogen reduction.

All four jurisdictions met or exceeded their goals for reducing pollution from wastewater treatment plans. Because wastewater accounts for a large portion of the nutrients from Maryland and Virginia, those efforts helped offset shortfalls in controlling runoff from farmland and stormwater in those states.

Because most treatment plants in the region have been upgraded, the majority of pollution reductions in coming years must come from farms and developed lands, where reductions have been harder to achieve.

“As the clock ticks down to 2025, we know the second half is going to be more difficult,” Baker said. Further, he noted, new problems — such the filling of the reservoir at Conowingo Dam, which was once an important trap for nutrients and sediment — are making the cleanup job harder. The region’s changing climate is an added challenge, too, increasing the amount and intensity of rainfall that washes greater amounts of pollutants into the water.

Baker said that efforts were also threatened by the Trump administration, which “regularly releases new plans to undercut clean air and clean water nationwide. Those plans, if implemented, would have adverse impacts on the Bay.” In particular, he expressed concern about multiple efforts to roll back air pollution controls. Air pollution is a significant contributor of nitrogen to the Bay.

The EPA is expected to release its own midpoint analysis of the cleanup in July. It will evaluate the progress of individual states, which could result in actions against those that have fallen behind in their cleanup schedules, either statewide or in particular sectors, such as stormwater or agriculture.

Environmental groups are split over what action the EPA should take, though, particularly in Pennsylvania.

Baker called for the EPA to exercise its “backstop” authority under the TMDL, which allows it to impose sanctions against states that fall behind. Such sanctions could include withholding grant money or exercising more oversight for new discharge permits.

“At the very least, the EPA needs to exert its authority in Pennsylvania while also putting Virginia and Maryland on notice that pollution from urban and rural runoff must be addressed more effectively,” Baker said.

But Coleman said many of the coalition’s members would oppose taking backstop actions against Pennsylvania, especially if they involve withholding funds. “Pennsylvania is so far behind in the cleanup that taking away money at this point would be quite detrimental to the cleanup as a whole,” she said.

She said there were other actions that could help meet goals, including efforts by senators from the region to bring more support for farmers as Congress considers a new Farm Bill.

“There is a golden opportunity as the Farm Bill moves through Congress to increase funding in the Chesapeake region for conservation practices on farmlands,” she said.

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

Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Population Remains Stable

Blue crab abundance has decreased from 2017 but remains near its long-term average level, according to results from a closely watched survey released on April 9.

The annual winter dredge survey showed that the total number of crabs and the number of spawning-age females are down from last year, while the number of juveniles has ticked upward.

Results would have been better, scientists said, had it not been for the lethal toll extracted by a cold winter. They estimated that cold conditions killed 16 percent of the adult crabs in Maryland and 8 percent in Virginia — where most of the crustaceans overwinter.

Managers in both states said that continued cool temperatures through the spring would likely result in a slow start to the harvest season, but catches would likely pick up later in the year.
Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton said the population “remains healthy, resilient and sustainable.”

Virginia Natural Resources Secretary Matthew Strickler credited management improvements over the last decade with “allowing sustainable harvests even in years with challenging environmental conditions.”

The 2018 dredge survey estimated that the Bay has:

• 371 million crabs of all sizes, down from 455 million last year, but still ranking sixteenth highest in the 29-year history of the survey.

• 254 million juvenile crabs, up from 168 million last year, ranking twentieth in the survey’s history.

• 147 million adult female crabs, a decrease from 254 million last year, but the ninth highest in the survey’s history.

The number of females remained below the 215 million target set by fishery managers, but was still more than double the 70 million minimum deemed necessary by scientists to maintain a healthy stock.

Overall, the survey results were “well within the normal variation” for the stock, according to Robert O’Reilly, chief of fisheries management with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Blue crab populations can vary widely from year to year because the species is heavily influenced by climate conditions — juveniles spend the first several weeks of their lives drifting in the ocean after they are spawned during the summer and fall, and weather conditions at that time of year greatly affect the number that return to the Bay.

To boost the number of crabs after a decade of low survey numbers, management agencies since 2008 have imposed regulations offering greater protection to female crabs, in the hope that more would survive and reproduce. Although numbers have fluctuated, the overall abundance has trended generally upward since then.

Chris Moore, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said those fishery management efforts are paying off. “Despite this winter’s cold temperatures, the Bay’s blue crab population remains healthy,” he said.

The winter dredge survey has been conducted annually since 1990 by scientists in Maryland and Virginia, who tally crabs dredged from the bottom at 1,500 sites across the Bay from December through March — when they are buried in mud and stationary.

Historically, the survey has provided an accurate snapshot of crab abundance and is the primary tool for assessing the health of the crab stock.

by Karl Blankenship

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

Environmental Concern Holds 18th Annual Spring Native Plant Sale

More and more homeowners are planting rain gardens, butterfly gardens and stormwater management gardens. Home gardeners are reaping the benefits by reconnecting with nature and bringing the practice of planting native into their own backyards.

The 18th Annual Spring Plant Sale at Environmental Concern’s Campus in St. Michaels is the perfect place to get inspired, and to pick up native plants grown in EC’s nursery. This year’s sale takes place on Mother’s Day weekend, Friday, May 11th and Saturday, May 12th   from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Garden lovers will find new species, and the popular favorites that have made this event an annual tradition for Eastern Shore gardeners for nearly 2 decades. Growing more than 100 species of shrubs and herbaceous plants for over 46 years, Environmental Concern hosts one of the largest native plant sales on the Eastern Shore.

In addition to the plant sale, EC will host workshops that will inspire and educate customers. “Milkweeds for Monarchs” will be held from 10:00 – 11:00 a.m. each day. Participants will learn about the Monarch butterfly, and the dependence of the Monarch caterpillars on native milkweed for survival. Recommendations for plant selection and habitat creation techniques will encourage even first time gardeners to dig in, and get wet and muddy – and don’t forget to shop for the perfect Mother’s day plant. Our experts will be on hand to help you with your plant selection.

There will be a large selection of flowering herbaceous perennials and hardy shrubs. Highlights include colorful red columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) with red and yellow showy, drooping, bell-like flowers, and the Joe pye weed (Eupatorium dubium) which is very attractive to beneficial pollinators. Additional offerings include the Swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), Blue flag iris (Iris versicolor), and the Northern sea oat (Chasmanthium latifolium), known for its interesting flat foliage and unique seed heads.

Visit Environmental Concern’s Nursery in historic St. Michaels at 201 Boundary Lane. Watch for signs along St. Michaels Road. For more information, call 410-745-9620.

Environmental Concern is a 501(c)3 public not-for-profit organization. All proceeds from the plant sale will help fund EC’s mission to improve water quality and enhance native habitat in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

Lake Bonnie’s Once-owner Wins Legal Point, Not Damages in Court

It took eight years, but Gail Litz finally got her day in court — three weeks, actually.

Gail Litz

Gail Litz said she’s not sorry for bringing the case. “I think people need to know what went on and how our state handles these things,” she said.

Along the way, she won a potentially important legal ruling for enforcing water quality in Maryland. But she fell short in her quest for damages from the state and an Eastern Shore town for their failure to fix pollution that she contended caused the loss of her family’s campground business and property.

“I got my day in court,” acknowledged Litz , who now lives in Orlando, FL. “But I don’t feel we were allowed to admit a lot of things [into evidence] that I thought explained better the process.”

Litz filed suit in 2010, claiming that Lake Bonnie, the prime attraction of her family’s campground in Caroline County, had been rendered unfit for swimming by sewage seeping into the water from failing septic systems in the nearby town of Goldsboro. She said she’d been forced to close the campground because of declining business and was on the verge of losing the property to foreclosure.

Septic systems in Goldsboro had been leaking for decades when the state Department of the Environment issued a consent order in 1996 requiring the town to fix the problem or face fines. Fourteen years later, when Litz filed suit, there was no remedy in sight, and no fines had been collected. Litz wanted an injunction to force a cleanup, and she wanted damages from Goldsboro and the state for costing her the campground business — and property — through inaction.

Litz’s lawyers went to the Maryland Court of Appeals twice to ask for her case to be heard. In 2016, the state’s highest court paved the way by ruling that a citizen could sue the state for damages when it fails to fulfill its legal duty to act — which her lawyers say should prompt officials to take environmental enforcement more seriously.

Litz then won a pretrial ruling that confirmed the state had a duty to enforce the 1996 consent order. And at the end of the three-week trial in March, a Caroline County Circuit Court jury found the state had breached that duty.

But Litz came away empty-handed; the jury also concluded that she and her lawyers had failed to prove the unaddressed septic pollution caused her to lose the campground.

Philip Hoon, one of Litz’s lawyers, called the outcome “bittersweet.”

“We won on the legal point, a very significant legal point, but it’s pyrrhic in that this lady lost her property,” Hoon said.

Litz’s lawyers argued that she lost the property through an “inverse condemnation” by the state and town for their failure to remedy the pollution.

Government agencies normally take private land for public purposes by filing a lawsuit to condemn it and offering the owners compensation. An inverse condemnation occurs when government takes land without filing a lawsuit for it — say, by adopting legislation or regulations that render the property worthless.

What made Litz’s case unusual, explained G. Macy Nelson, another of her lawyers, is that they argued government inaction, rather than a decision or action, could lead to a taking.

Long after Gail Litz is gone, Nelson said, “people are going to be suing the state of Maryland and using this case as a roadmap.”

At the time Litz filed suit, an MDE spokesperson said the agency had nearly 200 active consent orders, decrees or agreements, 55 of which called for cleaning up water pollution. Another MDE spokesperson had said that, because of limited staff and funding, the department prioritized its efforts to cases threatening public health. MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said there are 83 water-related consent agreements now; he declined to comment on the Lake Bonnie case.

Lawyers for MDE contended that it had no legal duty to act and that state regulators have the discretion to enforce consent orders or not. After courts rebuffed those arguments, the MDE lawyers challenged the evidence that Litz lost her property because of the septic pollution, arguing that the lake might be polluted instead by animal waste from nearby farms.

They and the town’s lawyers succeeded in getting the judge to exclude statements by a county health official and from a health department report stating that the town’s leaking septics were a source of the fecal bacteria in the lake. The defendants also persuaded the judge to prevent a Johns Hopkins University environmental engineering professor from testifying to the linkage.

The state lawyers further suggested Litz lost the property because of poor business decisions. She took out a loan against the campground, for instance, to make improvements to her home, but Litz contends the improvements were made to accommodate health challenges that made it hard for her to climb stairs.

Litz said it irked her that the state’s lawyers questioned why she hadn’t tested the water herself to verify it was polluted by septic waste.

“They tried to throw the blame on me,” she said. “I felt as though it was their responsibility, as the state environmental agency, to figure out what was going on.”

MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles had said last year that he’d like to settle the case, and Nelson said Litz’s lawyers tried in vain to reach an agreement.

Nelson expressed bitterness that the state had then gone to such lengths to oppose her claim for damage after letting the problem fester for so many years.

“You challenge their inaction, and the moment you challenge their inaction, they bring unlimited resources to beat back the challenge,” Nelson said. “[If] they would have spent 1 percent of the defense energy on addressing the environmental problem, there never would have been a problem.”

But Attorney General Brian Frosh said settling Litz’s case would have done nothing more than “put money in Mrs. Litz’s pocket,” something he called “a very ugly principle.”

Frosh disagreed with Nelson that the court ruling would make state regulators more accountable. Instead, he argued that the court’s ruling could actually be a disincentive for the MDE to use consent orders to enforce cleanups.

“If [MDE] is liable for the failure to enforce, maybe a less courageous secretary will be less likely to try to reach a consent order,” he said.

Nichole Nesbitt, one of Goldsboro’s lawyers, issued a statement saying town officials never disputed that residents were having trouble maintaining their septic systems because of poor soil conditions.

But the town’s lawyers argued that residents, not the town, were responsible for solutions. Efforts to fund a new wastewater treatment plant failed — until after the lawsuit was filed.

“The town and the state made extraordinary efforts to secure funding that would bring a public water and sewer system to the town,” Nesbitt said.

Three years ago, construction began on a new wastewater treatment plant in the neighboring town of Greensboro that will also process Goldsboro sewage. Homes began hooking up to the sewer line earlier this year.

Litz said she’s not sorry for bringing the case, and praised her lawyers, who represented her for free.

“I think people need to know what went on and how our state handles these things,” she said. “If a consent order is issued from the state, I think it has to be enforced. It shouldn’t be at MDE’s discretion.”

Despite the verdict, Litz may still get another day in court. On April 19, her lawyers filed a motion for a new trial, contending that Circuit Court Judge Sidney S. Campen, Jr., erred in rulings that limited their ability to gather and present evidence to support her claim. A ruling on that motion is pending.

By Tim Wheeler

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.

Horn Point’s Chesapeake Champion Jerry Harris Takes a Bow

For the 6th year in a row, the folks from Horn Point Laboratory gathered at Waterfowl Festival Headquarters on Harrison Street last Friday to once again celebrate the achievements of a special individual from the Mid-Shore who had made a substantial contribution to the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay.

This year, Jerry Harris, former businessman and now farm owner in Dorchester, received the award for his work in working with Horn Point and Ducks Unlimited (where he serves on the national Board of Directors) to host educational programs for students wishing to become wildlife managers.

Harris joins an extraordinary list of conservation leaders as a Chesapeake Champion They include Amy Haines of Out of the Fire Restaurant; Chip Akridge, owner of Harleigh Farms; Albert Pritchett of the Waterfowl Festival and Waterfowl Chesapeake; Jordan and Alice Lloyd of the Bartlett Pear; and Jim Brighton of the Maryland Biodiversity Project.

The Spy was there to capture some of the evenings best moments as Horn Point Director Mike Roman hosted the gathering of two hundred guests.

This video is approximately four minutes in length. For more information about the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory please go here

The Best Kind of News: The Bay’s Underwater Grasses Surge Beyond 100,000 Acres for First Time in Ages

The Chesapeake’s underwater grasses — critical havens for everything from blue crabs to waterfowl — surged to a new record high last year, surpassing 100,000 acres for the first time in recent history.

“I never thought we would ever see that,” said Bob Orth, a researcher with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who has overseen the annual Baywide underwater grass survey since it began in 1984. “But things are changing.”

It was the third straight year that acreage of these underwater meadows has set a new Baywide record. The 2017 survey results, released in late April, came on the heels of a scientific study published in March that credited nutrient reductions in the Bay for a sustained long-term comeback of the grasses over the last three decades — even as those habitats are in decline globally.

“Seeing record growth in underwater grasses for the past three years just reinforces that our efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its local tributaries is working,” said Jim Edward, acting director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a state-federal partnership.

The need to restore underwater grasses is one reason that the Bay cleanup effort aims to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution; water clouded by sediment or nutrient-fueled algae blooms can be lethal to the nearly two dozen species of underwater grasses found in the Bay. Like all green plants, submerged grasses need sunlight to survive, and they receive more sunlight through clear water. Because of the link to water clarity, the status of submerged aquatic vegetation — or SAV — is considered a key indicator of the Bay’s health.

Grass beds are also a critical component of the Bay ecosystem in their own right. In addition to providing food for waterfowl and shelter for fish and crabs, they also pump oxygen into the water, trap sediment and buffer shorelines from the erosive impact of waves.

Overall, results from the 2017 survey showed that the Bay had 104,843 acres of underwater grasses, a 5 percent increase from the previous year. That exceeds an interim 2017 goal of 90,000 acres, and it was 57 percent of the ultimate 185,000-acre Baywide goal for 2025.

When the survey began in 1984, fewer than 40,000 acres of SAV were observed in the Bay. Since then, the total amount has generally increased, though the amount in a given year may fluctuate widely depending on the weather: Big storms drive huge amounts of nutrients and sediment into the Bay that tend to cause significant losses, while very hot summers cause die-offs of eelgrass, a dominant species in high-salinity areas of the Lower Bay.

Most recently, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in late summer 2011 knocked grasses back to 48,195 acres in the 2012 survey, the lowest in recent years.

But after that, the beds continued their long-term recovery, with Baywide coverage increasing for five consecutive years — the longest period of uninterrupted expansion in the history of the survey — and setting records in the last three. “There have up and downs in places, but the overall picture since 2012 has been up, up, up,” Orth said. “It’s not going down.”

The recent paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, written by a team of 14 scientists, credited the overall recovery to improved water quality, largely brought about by a 23 percent decline in nitrogen concentrations in the Bay and an 8 percent decline in phosphorus since the mid-1980s.

“We don’t need miracles,” said Brooke Landry, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and chair of the Bay Program SAV Workgroup and, along with Orth, one of the co-authors of the paper. “We just need a sustained effort.”

Environmental advocates said the underwater grass record was evidence that cleanup efforts are working — and need to be maintained. “Pollution is going down, the dead zone is getting smaller, and oysters are making a recovery. This progress is extraordinary,” said Beth McGee, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “But the recovery is fragile and proposed rollbacks to federal environmental protection regulations threaten future progress.”

Good news last year was heralded at the top of the Bay, where underwater grass beds in the Susquehanna Flats, historically a critical waterfowl habitat, continued their comeback after being halved in the wake of Irene and Lee. They reached 9,084 acres last year, about three-quarters of their level before those storms.

It is no longer the area of the Bay with the most grass, though. That honor goes to a huge 21,507 acre expanse of underwater grasses that extend from near Tangier Island to the Honga River, along the Eastern Shore.

Closer to the mouth of the Bay, beds have stabilized after a heat-wave caused a dieback of temperature-sensitive eelgrass beds — important habitats for juvenile blue crabs — in 2012. “It looks like eelgrass is basically stabilizing, with some increases,” Orth said. Eelgrass is of particular concern as it is one of the two primary species found in high-salinity areas; the other is widgeon grass.

Grasses are also turning up in places where they haven’t been seen in decades — if ever. In the York River, Orth said he hasn’t seen underwater grasses above Gloucester Point, near the mouth of the river, since 1972. But last year they found substantial bed of widgeon grass there, he said. “It’s the first time ever in the survey that we saw any grass above Gloucester Point.”

A large widgeon grass bed also popped up in the Patuxent River outside the Chesapeake Biological Lab in Solomons, MD, where it had not been previously mapped.

Although the overall trend is upward, the magnitude of the changes from 2016 to 2017 varied by salinity zone, each of which hosts a slightly different mix of grass species:

• In the tidal fresh zone, at the head of the Bay and in the uppermost tidal reaches of most tributaries, underwater grass beds increased by 2,462 acres to 19,880 acres, a 14.1 percent increase.

• The slightly salty oligohaline zone that occupies a relatively small portion of the Upper Bay and tidal tributaries, lost 190 acres, dropping to 8,398 acres, a 2.2 percent decrease.

• The moderately salty mesohaline zone — the largest area of underwater grass habitat, stretching from near Baltimore south to the Rappahannock River and Tangier Island and including large sections of most tidal rivers — had the greatest increase by acreage, gaining 4,140 acres to 61,331 acres, an increase of 7.2 percent.

• The very salty polyhaline zone — from the mouth of the Rappahannock and Tangier Island south, including the lower York and James rivers — increased 763 acres, to 15,234 acres, an increase of 5.3 percent.

While grass beds are expanding or holding their own in much of the Bay, much of the recovery hinges on the mesohaline zone in the midsection of the Bay. Widgeon grass is by far the dominant species there, and its acreage has nearly tripled in just the last five years, from less than 20,000 acres in 2010 to more than 57,000 acres last year. But widgeon grass is notorious for its boom and bust cycles, as it can disappear quickly if conditions turn bad. In 2003, that area lost half of its underwater grass coverage after severe storms muddied the waters.

But, Orth said, widgeon grass likes warm water and might be benefitting from gradually warming Bay temperatures. In the event of another setback, he said, those beds may be better poised for a comeback than in the past because they have become so large and dense, and are producing prodigious amounts of seeds.

Also, Landry said, inspections of some beds last year showed that, in some places, other species are starting to appear along with widgeon grass, giving beds diversity that could help them better withstand severe events.

“I think these plants can withstand bad weather and storm events and things like that if the system itself is healthy,” she said. “So if we keep up with our nutrient reduction plans and our sediment reduction plans, and we set the stage for a thriving environment, these beds will be more likely to withstand stressful events. They can’t withstand long-term chronic stress.”

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