WAY is a coalition of stakeholders being innovative leaders encouraging watershed-based planning, restoration and protection in York County, Pennsylvania, and beyond.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Bay Today

Although most of the attention on Congress over the past two years has been focused on major legislation like health care and financial reform, a number of bills that could impact the water industry have been struggling through the legislative process. Given that Congress is on recess in August and will likely be focused on re-election this fall, most of the more than 90 pieces of legislation that have a water component will fall by the wayside.  Reauthorization of the State Revolving Fund programs for drinking water and wastewater appeared to have at least a chance of passage.

The House has already passed the Water Quality Financing Act of 2009. Also, the Energy and Commerce Committee has moved legislation to reauthorize the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund out of their committee. The Senate has also moved legislation to reauthorize both the Clean Water SRF and the Drinking Water SRF out of the Environmental and Public Works Committee. Still, the path from committee approval to actually being signed into law is both long and difficult -- especially in an election year.

Also related to water infrastructure funding, a congressional briefing was held in late July to discuss the need for a Clean Water Trust Fund to protect sources of drinking water and fragile watersheds. The briefing focused on why a Clean Water Trust Fund, outlined by Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon in the Water Protection and Reinvestment Act (HR 3202), is needed to fund the nation's water infrastructure and water quality challenges.

Another measure that has seen action recently was The Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act (S. 1816), authored by Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Senate Water and Wildlife Subcommittee. It was approved June 30 by a voice vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee after significant concessions were made to Republican opponents.

Health officials are taking the unusual step of reminding Marylanders that they can get sick by swimming at local beaches and eating raw seafood. The concern is the vibrio bacteria, which is rare but can cause serious complications. The bacteria thrives in hot weather, and health officials are issuing the warning as the Chesapeake Bay region suffers through yet another heat wave. "We thought it would be helpful to let people know the steps they can take," said Frances B. Phillips, a deputy state health secretary for public health.
Crabs in the Chesapeake Bay this year are plentiful, and Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials said it's turning out to be the best year since the 1990s. "We've had a 60 percent increase in crabs this past year," said DNR spokesman Thomas O'Connell.Crabbers said the current crop is plentiful and tasty.

Somerset County watermen are protesting a state plan to create oyster sanctuaries in the Manokin and Nanticoke rivers -- a measure that would ban them from working the productive oyster bottoms."It's one of the areas where we can finally make a living on," said Danny Webster of Deal Island. "It's frustrating." The two rivers were not originally set aside as sanctuaries under an oyster restoration plan announced by Gov. Martin O'Malley in December, but were created to take the place of one near Smith Island, said Frank Dawson, an assistant secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources.

When the plan was introduced, watermen objected to the sanctuary proposed for the highly productive area near the island, so DNR officials swapped it for areas in the Manokin and Nanticoke, Dawson said. But at a recent public hearing on the state oyster plan, some watermen expressed interest in going back to the original proposal to place the sanctuary in the Tangier Sound, he said. DNR officials are open to going back to the original proposal for a sanctuary off Smith Island, if that's what watermen want, said Tom O'Connell, DNR's director of fisheries.

Since January, DNR has held public meetings throughout the state to gather input from watermen and other stakeholders on the plan, which uses a three-prong approach for oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to creating sanctuaries, the plan includes opening part of the bay for commercial aquaculture and maintaining 167,720 acres of oyster bars for harvest by watermen.

In the lull between passing downpours, it is raining oyster shells in St. Mary's County. And those doing much of the work are prison inmates who are finishing up their time in a nearby pre-release facility. "The only thought I ever gave to oysters was eating them," said Orsie Hayes-El, inmate. At a state hatchery at Piney Point, inmates have helped clean old shells. And in the lab, biologists have raised microscopic oyster larvae, which go into the tanks and set as spat on the shells. "I really didn't know nothing about an oyster until I came out here, you know the spat and all that stuff, how they stick to the shells, and it's really amazing," said David Alfaro, inmate.  Besides working with oysters, Maryland inmates have also been taking on other environmental jobs like planting trees and marsh grasses for wetlands.

Two USDA scientists have created new maps of Chesapeake Bay forested wetlands that are about 30 percent more accurate than existing maps. ARS soil scientists and USDA ecologists did this by merging two remote sensing devices: an airborne LiDAR (light detection and ranging) laser sensor with an advanced "synthetic aperture radar" (SAR) satellite sensor. Wetlands are critical to the health of bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay. But many wetlands are forested, and it can be hard to see the wetlands on aerial photography because the view is blocked by the trees. Also, maps drawn from aerial photographs are subjective, causing more loss of accuracy. With the combined data from the two types of remote sensing devices, the scientists can see whether water flows without filtration into the Bay, or whether it flows first through a forested wetland that might filter out possible pollutants. The maps show previously unknown connections between some wetlands, drainage ditches, intermittent streams and ponds. Because forested wetlands had been thought to be isolated from each other and the Bay, the Clean Water Act did not offer them the same regulatory protections as other wetlands. The maps also show changes in wetlands caused by drainage ditches, other construction, farming and weather. The maps can be used to predict flooding and effects of climate change.

Earlier this week, thousands of juvenile menhaden died in Cobbs Creek, a tributary of the Piankatank River. Hundreds of lifeless croaker were spotted floating near the Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Scientists can't say for sure what the cause is. But they suspect it's a lack of oxygen, a condition created by decomposing algae, or mahogany tides.  The algae covers significant parts of the lower Bay, a stretch from Norfolk to Mathews County and beyond.

Remember the telephone game? Most of us played this game as children. We sat in a circle and whispered a phrase into the ear of the person seated next to us — by the time the phrase made it around the circle, the result was so unrecognizable from the original that hysterical giggles ensued. But the game isn't so funny when adults unwittingly repeat what they've been told. It would be funny like the telephone game if the water quality in the Susquehanna River and the health of the Chesapeake Bay were not at stake.