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What's Up Magazine

Watershed Moments of Restoration

Nov 04, 2018 01:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo

By Gary Jobson

The horrific images of water drowning Ellicott City in May brought into sharp focus the dangers of under-regulated development. This was the historic city’s second “1000-year flood” in two years. Paving over wetlands and formerly pervious areas, like fields and woods upstream from downtown Ellicott City, was a major cause of the problem since every tree soaks up one hundred gallons of water. Unfortunately, in areas without trees and grasslands water just runs off impervious surfaces. We are seeing too much water in our system, whether it’s surface runoff like in Ellicott City or water rising from waterways. City Dock on Annapolis’ waterfront is flooded 50 days per year. Antarctica is melting at an alarming rate—three times faster than was predicted just a few years ago. The inevitable sea level rise is having an effect here in Annapolis and around the world. Yes, climate change is real. These and other catastrophes are going to happen at an accelerating rate if action is not taken. 

Paying attention to how we can improve our environment must be a high priority for all of us. For example, the air we breathe here in Maryland is affected by coal-fired plants in distant Ohio. Prevailing Westerly winds bring with them toxic nitrogen oxide as it rains down on the bay, and in our back yards. 

This photo and opposite: Commercial watermen harvest striped bass under strict protocols and limits, which have helped the bass population rebound to sustainable levels since 1990s.

Photo by Jay Fleming

The Environmental Protection Agency has been rolling back environmental regulations that will result in debilitating consequences for generations. How many young people will develop asthma from coal plant pollution? The topic is depressing, but there is some good news. Over the past few months, there have been reports that our beloved Chesapeake Bay is getting cleaner. Growing numbers of people are becoming acutely aware that every initiative we collectively take is a step in the right direction. Addressing simple issues can be as helpful as taking on significant problems. It all adds up. 

As a Board member of the Chesapeake Bay Trust, I have witnessed firsthand how grants funding environmental projects have made an encouraging difference. Many neighborhood groups, businesses, and environmental organizations in 2018 are using about $13 million that the CB Trust is awarding to fund worthy projects. I had an opportunity to spend some time recently with the CB Trust’s Executive Director, Dr. Jana Davis, to talk about the state of our environment, what can be done, and how every person can make a difference. Dr. Davis is a Yale University graduate and earned her doctorate at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. She manages a 16-person staff based in Annapolis. 

The CB Trust was set up by the Maryland General Assembly in 1985. Over this period, more than $100 million has been awarded for environmental projects. The Trust has received the highest rating from the Charity Navigator. Over 90 percent of the funds go directly to its mission. This is not an advocacy group; the purpose is to get people involved to restore the bay and the region. In 2017, over 150,000 students, teachers, and volunteers participated in the programs. The emphasis is on changing behavior, removing trash, planting trees, removing and treating impervious surfaces, and restoring acres of our habitat. One can support the CB Trust by buying a special license plate for your car or checking off a box supporting the Trust on your state tax return. And, of course, donations of any amount are welcome.

 Consider these statistics from 2017 alone.

• Grants totaling $11.6 million were issued to over 400 applicants

• 154,176 trees, marsh grasses, and other plants were installed

• 4,637 linear feet of shoreline was created

• 90 acres of stream-bed buffers and vital wetlands restored

• 15 acres of invasive species were removed

• 266 acres of impervious surface was treated

• 10 acres of impervious surface was removed

• 6 acres of rain and pollinator gardens were created

• 349 rain barrels were installed 

• 105,000 pounds of trash were removed

• 500 storm drains were stenciled

I asked Davis if the good news on the improvement in the Chesapeake is a watershed moment. She replied: “Restoration of the bay is not a linear process. We have to work on it for a long time. Over the course of 15–20 years, you can see progress. The improvement we are now seeing is very exciting. But we can’t take our foot off the gas pedal.” 

Davis says the wet weather during the spring is a major cause of bay pollution. “If an extraordinary amount of plankton starts to grow and eventually decomposes that sucks up the oxygen in the water and creates dead zones,” she explains. “The result is there are no nutrients available in the water to help fish survive. Sea grass is great for fish and crabs. We see a record high in the amount of sea grass in the bay. The sea grass provides the structure. Everything we do is connected. For example, better gas mileage of cars helps the bay with less pollution. Garbage running into the bay has a devastating effect on water quality.”

For the past 37 years that I have lived just off Spa Creek, I see a noticeable change in the water quality. When you step in the water you can look at your feet. How’s that for a scientific observation? In the last few years, there has been a dramatic increase of paddle boarders, kayaks, and sailboats that are sailing on the creek. 

"Restoration of the bay is not a linear process. We have to work on it for a long time. Over the course of 15–20 years, you can see progress. The improvement we are now seeing is very exciting. But we can’t take our foot off the gas pedal."

Most water enthusiasts are probably not aware that Spa Creek receives a tremendous amount of rain run-off from as far away as the malls in Parole and surrounding neighborhoods. Little things can keep the creek cleaner like sweeping up grass cuttings instead of letting it run into the creek. Pumping out sewage tanks on boats should be an absolute no-no. At one island off New England, the harbor master drops a pellet into a boat’s sewage system when every boat arrives. If the waste is flushed into the water the pellet creates a purple ring around the boat. It is mighty embarrassing, and there is a fine involved.

In 2004, local resident Mel Wilkins led a project for the Spa Creek Conservancy that was a major success. At the end of Lincoln Drive, near the headwaters of Spa Creek, there was a massive amount of impervious surface. Wilkins and his many volunteers worked to create ground drains to suck up the rain water before it reached storm drains. The practice of collecting water while it is going downhill is a tremendous help in keeping the creek cleaner. Remember, it was unchecked rain water run-off that had such a disastrous effect on Ellicott City. Davis credits a few car dealerships on West Street for embracing storm water run-off protocols. 

The Environmental Protection Agency has been reported to be rolling back environmental regulations at an alarming rate. The EPA manages nine regions. The Chesapeake Bay is in Region 3. Davis reports that funding for our region has been spared by Congress. She says the Region 3 administrator, Cosmo Servidio, is strong and has been an effective advocate for maintaining funding for the bay. The CB Trust receives substantial funding each year from the EPA distributed for projects led by the community groups and local governments on the ground.

The Clean Water Act created a system for measuring pollution called the TMDL—Total Maximum Daily Load. This is a quota each state is given to keep pollution under a designated threshold. It defines the maximum amount of pollution that a body of water can receive while meeting water quality standards. As one might imagine, creating targets and standards can vary from one river, bay or stream to the next. The TMDL does help local authorities understand the targets that must be reached.

About 35 years ago, rockfish seemed to die off in the Chesapeake. In 1985, a moratorium postponing fishing was mandated for the bay. It was controversial at the time, but necessary if the species had any chance of surviving and making a comeback. In an interesting coincidence during the moratorium, there was a shift in the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). This is a weather phenomenon that stretches from Iceland all the way to the Azores. It controls the intensity and direction of the prevailing westerlies. It also effects water temperatures and, naturally, fish. When the moratorium was instituted, the NAO was very favorable to the fish on the Chesapeake. To this day it is unclear if the NAO or the Rockfish Moratorium was responsible for the comeback of the fish, but either way, Rockfish have been abundant ever since.

I found an example of how to address water problems in my own backyard. About three years ago I was having a major problem with run-off from uphill neighbors, and my yard’s run-off was effecting neighbors downhill from me. It seemed every time we had a heavy rain my garage would fill up with water and mud. The grass was constantly being killed. I contracted the McHale Landscape Design Company to propose a solution. The first step was to fix my own yard before asking others to address their water issues. McHale dug up my back yard and placed a few feet of pebbles about four feet under the grass surface. The water that runs into the yard is absorbed by the grass, and rain garden under the surface. Step one accomplished. The next step was to build a wall along the side of our yard to prevent a deluge of water running downhill. We strategically placed seep holes with the blessing of the downhill neighbors. So far so good. We made sure that more than 50 percent of my property was pervious land. From this point, it took some diplomacy to explain to the uphill neighbors the effect their water run-off was having on all of us downhill. Storm drains were added, new grass was planted, and rain gardens were created. I am happy to report that several big rain storms this summer have not caused any of the issues we experienced in the past.

My suggestion to everyone in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is to do just two things: work to make sure your own property is environmentally sound and help just one improvement project in your neighborhood.