Striking Out

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Facing a big, fat softball tossed right over the plate, the Virginia State Water Control Board today struck out without even swinging the bat.

In play was the renewal of a Virginia general permit regulating the state’s largest confined dairy, cattle, swine, and poultry farms -- generally those farms with more than 300 animal units.

Current permit requirements, which expire in November and are being updated and renewed by the board for another 10 years, do not require these farms to fence their animals out of streams and rivers in order to keep their waste from fouling public waters.

For many months, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and other conservation stakeholders have asked the board to include a requirement for stream fencing in the permit. Excluding farm animals from streams is demonstrably a cost-effective way to reduce erosion, bacteria, and nutrient pollution in rural streams, as well as to prevent disease in livestock.

Of course, reducing nutrient and sediment pollution in state waterways is the primary goal of the state’s Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, Virginia’s plan to restore the Bay and its rivers to good health. The Blueprint calls for all of the Bay restoration partners to reach 60 percent of their pollution reduction goals by 2017 and to have 100% of their pollution controls in place by 2025.

So given an opportunity to substantially cut runoff pollution from animal farms with this permit, you’d think Virginia would jump at the chance. You’d be wrong.

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Feds Move to Protect Streams and Wetlands from Pollution

Stream Blair SeitzMore than half of the miles of streams in the United States only have water flowing in them after it rains.  But these intermittent creeks can contribute a significant amount of water pollution to rivers, lakes, and bays downstream, including the Chesapeake.   So it is important that these smaller waterways be covered by the federal Clean Water Act, so that wildlife, outdoor recreation, and drinking water supplies are protected.

Unfortunately, murky U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006  -- and subsequent interpretations by the Bush Administration -– effectively stripped Clean Water Act protections from not only many intermittent streams, but also isolated lakes, ponds, and wetlands.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers sought to clear up the confusion about what waterways are protected by the law. Under proposed new regulations, most seasonal and rain-dependent streams will be protected, as well as wetlands that are near streams and rivers, according to EPA.

“We are clarifying protection for the upstream waters that are absolutely vital to downstream communities,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “Clean water is essential to every single American, from families who rely on safe places to swim and healthy fish to eat, to farmers who need abundant and reliable sources of water to grow their crops, to hunters and fishermen who depend on healthy waters for recreation and their work, and to businesses that need a steady supply of water for operations.”

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Police Use High-Tech Cameras and Helicopters to Crack Down on Poachers

Natural Resource Police in helicopterMaryland state police recently used a helicopter as a surveillance platform to catch and arrest four watermen for dredging oysters from a sanctuary on the Eastern Shore, in Somerset County.

The March 14 arrests of the watermen was the most recent example of heightened campaigns in both Marlyand and Virginia to crack down on illegal harvest of oysters. Widespread poaching has been a significant barrier to oyster restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay.

“On the water, from the air and on land, Natural Resource Police officers are making it clear that oyster poaching will not be tolerated,” said Governor Martin O’Malley. “Poaching oysters not only robs Maryland citizens and law abiding watermen of this important resource, it hampers our efforts to restore the health of our Bay.”

Police in Maryland are using a $5.6 million, high-tech system of nine cameras linked to computers called MLEIN (Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network) to crack down on poachers, according to a recent article in the Bay Journal.

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Fewer Trees = More Pollution

MattaponiJust when nearly everyone agrees the Chesapeake Bay region should use one of its most powerful weapons in the fight to Save the Bay, the region seems to be waving a white flag and walking away.

Bay scientists and policy makers have known for decades that forested riparian buffers – trees planted in 35-foot strips along the banks of streams – are among the most cost-effective pollution-reduction tools around.

Streamside trees trap and filter some of the Bay’s most problematic pollutants -- nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment – before they can run off into the water and cause havoc. The trees and their roots literally buffer the waterways from pollution, filtering out as much as 60 percent of nitrogen, 40 percent of phosphorus, and nearly half of sediment in runoff. The trees also help reduce erosion, provide shade, cool water temperatures, and provide critical food and shelter for wildlife.

No wonder then that Chesapeake Bay restoration partners have made replanting streamside trees among their top priorities for returning the Bay and its rivers to good health.

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New Osprey Tracking Project Lets Students Follow Migrating Birds Online

Osprey Dennis RaulinA fish hawk wheels out of the gray sky as a rainy wind blows against the shore the Chesapeake Bay south of Annapolis. The white headed bird with hooked claws –- an osprey -- circles above the leafless trees and bent reeds before landing on a nest of sticks.

Soon a second osprey appears with a fish in its claws.  It circles, then lands beside its mate on the platform atop a telephone pole. The two are among the first osprey to return to the Chesapeake Bay this spring after an epic migration of more than two thousand miles from South America.

 “Spring, after a dreadful winter for some, is finally here," said Don Baugh, Vice President for Education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  "The osprey are more of a harbinger of spring than Saint Patrick’s Day, more of a harbinger perhaps than the Equinox.”

Suddenly, a great blue heron swoops low over the nest.  An osprey leaps into the air and attacks the much larger bird.  The osprey dive-bombs the back of the  heron, with the osprey's claws outstretched as weapons to fight off the intruder.

“Whoa!" said Baugh, as he watched the aerial confrontation. "The osprey is basically taking its territory and saying, 'No!'  Wow!  What a wonderful site that was.”

Osprey are powerful, majestic, and globe-trotting birds.  To better understand the species, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently organized a global osprey tracking project

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Will a New Bay Agreement Be Toothless…Again?

DSC_0105If you give a rip about the Chesapeake Bay, you’ll give a rip about a proposed new Chesapeake Bay Agreement, the latest Bay restoration plan now being crafted by federal and Bay state officials.

The agreement, still in development but available here for review, seeks to lay out consensus goals, outcomes, and strategies for restoring the troubled estuary and its tributaries over the next several years.

The authors of the new agreement are the partners in the Chesapeake Bay Program -- the six Bay watershed states of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, and Virginia; the District of the Columbia; EPA and a host of other federal agencies; and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a state legislative group.

This, of course, is not the first time the partners have produced a Bay Agreement. The first agreement was signed in 1983, putting a national spotlight on the Chesapeake Bay and initiating what has become one of the most ambitious estuarine restoration efforts in the nation, if not the world.

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Southern Maryland County Sells Out Forested Lands to Development Lobby

Development  Tom Zolper CBFIt is shortsighted to pave the Chesapeake region’s farms and forests for quick cash. But that, tragically, is where the road is heading in Southern Maryland -– to a landscape with more Taco Bells than tobacco barns, and more strip malls than streams full of yellow perch.

Development interests in Charles County formed a  cynically-named lobbying group called the “Balanced Growth Initiative” that has gained political influence over a slim majority of the Board of Charles County Commissioners.

On Tuesday, that majority voted 3-2 to approve a planning map that shifts 9,000 acres out of a conservation area and into a classification for future development.  The vote defied the opinions of  a clear majority of county residents and opens the door for more sprawling development across the County’s forest lands.

“This sends the absolute worst message imaginable,” Commissioner Ken Robinson said, according to a report in the (Southern Maryland) Independent.

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Farm and Conservation Sense

GarberVirginia dairy farmer Gerald Garber is a big advocate of farm conservation practices, but not necessarily because he’s a committed environmentalist. He’s a believer because soil and water conservation practices produce healthier dairy cows and a leaner, cleaner farm operation.

“Everybody’s got a different reason for fencing the streams (to prevent livestock from fouling water quality), but with us, it started out about animal health,” Garber says in this month’s The Progressive Farmer magazine.

“People have farm ponds to water cattle, and we discovered they were disgusting. Heifers would get sick from being in them in hot weather, contracting mastitis.”

Mastitis is the single most costly disease to the dairy industry. It causes decreased milk production and quality, increased treatment costs, shortened lactations, and in some cases animal death. One type of mastitis is most easily controlled by keeping animal surroundings as clean and dry as possible, minimizing contact with manure, polluted water, and mud.

So using a variety of federal and state conservation cost-share programs and technical assistance from now-retired USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service expert Bobby Whitescarver, Garber excluded all his livestock from farm ponds. He eventually fenced off six miles of streams on Cave View Farms, the 2,000-acre spread he owns with partners Keith and Paul Wilson in Augusta County, Va.

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Governor's Proposed Budget Undermines Critical Land Preservation Program

Open space beside Bay Roberta ZapfIn 1969, Maryland lawmakers created a simple but ingenious system that protects at least a portion of the state’s forests and fields as suburbia rolls like a tide across the landscape.

Lawmakers approved a real estate transfer tax.  A half of one percent of any real-estate transaction is directed into a special fund that, by law, must be spent buying land to create parks and nature sanctuaries. The fund also protects family farms through conservation easements, and pays for urban playgrounds and recreation.

Program Open Space, as it is called, makes logical sense.  Environmental harm from real estate development helps pay for environmental protection.  About 6,100 parks and wilderness areas across Maryland exist today because of the real estate transfer tax, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.  About 19 percent of the state’s land has been protected, while about 20 percent has been developed. 

But over the last three decades, governors and lawmakers have diverted money from this so-called “dedicated fund,” often just to pay for the general operations of government during budget crises.  So far, state officials have diverted more than a billion dollars that should have been used for parks and land preservation, according to Partners for Open Space, an advocacy organization.

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MD Lawmakers Ask for Federal Help to Solve Dam Problem

Conowingo dam UMCESA resolution in the Maryland General Assembly urging the federal government to help solve the problem of sediment buildup behind the Conowingo Dam was recently passed unanimously by the Senate Education, Health, and Environment Committee.

The dam is located about 10 miles north of the Chesapeake’s Bay northern end on the Susquehanna River, the largest source of fresh water into the Bay.  For decades, the dam has been trapping some dirt and pollutants flowing down the river, thus helping to reduce the pollution in the Bay.  But now the reservoir behind the dam is filling up with sediment.  This poses a serious problem, because large storms flush large amounts of sediment and phosphorus pollution  from behind the dam, mudding the nation’s largest estuary.

A resolution proposed by state Delegate Steve Schuh of Gibson Island and state Senator Bryan Simonaire of Pasadena urges Congress to approve a plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge sediment from behind the dam.   The full Senate is expected to vote on the resolution soon, and the House is also expected to take action.

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