Bay Journal

Chesapeake Notebook

News, notes and observations from the Bay Journal staff.

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House panel proposes $60 million in federal funding for Bay restoration

The Chesapeake Bay restoration effort stands to get $60 million in federal funds next year under a bill acted on this week by a U.S. House subcommittee. That’s a significant cut from this year’s spending level, but a clear rejection of President Donald Trump’s proposal to completely de-fund the cleanup.

The House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee included that amount for the Environmental Protection Agency’s federal-state Bay Program in a bill it reported Wednesday, according to Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-MD, a member of the full committee. Of that total, $10 million would be allocated to grant programs to be spent for on-the-ground restoration projects in the six-state watershed.

Timothy B. Wheeler

Dinner with a side of Bay 101

There are plenty of places where diners in Washington, DC, can find a decent surf and turf. But, instead of steaks, one chef chose to serve his recent six-course seafood dinner with a side of education — and far more than would fit in the small font on a menu.

At a pop-up dinner in a warehouse-like event space this month, Mackenzie Kitburi of Capital Taste Food Group invited Bay experts to talk about water quality, federal regulations and invasive species while guests consumed a half-dozen types of fish they’re not likely to find on many local menus.

Whitney Pipkin
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Tangier mayor hopes that Trump call leads to a seawall

Tangier Island sits like a fishhook in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, a fishing village known for its distinct local accent and eroding shoreline. Every now and again, it makes the news for a quirky event, like when the mayor found some oysters attached to a crab, or a tragic one, as when a longtime resident drowned.

That changed in June, when President Donald Trump called Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. The president, who has suggested in the past that climate change is a hoax, told Eskridge not to worry about rising sea levels. “Your island has been there for hundreds of years,” he told Eskridge, “and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more."

Rona Kobell
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EPA moves to rescind controversial Clean Water rule

It came as no surprise, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it is moving to withdraw the so-called Clean Water Rule, potentially making it easier for farmers, builders and others to disturb some streams or wetlands.

The regulation, also known as the “Waters of the United States” rule, had been targeted for rollback since February, when President Trump issued an executive order instructing his administration to begin work on the “elimination of this very destructive and horrible rule.”

It had been adopted in 2015 by the Obama administration, but drew intense opposition from the American Farm Bureau, National Association of Home Builders and other agricultural and industry interests. 

Timothy B. Wheeler and Rona Kobell
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Washington diplomats plant grasses in the Potomac, earn bragging rights 

Representatives from about a dozen nations got a lot more than their feet wet recently when they waded into the Potomac River to plant Bay grasses they had personally cultivated. But after a six-month competition only one country got to claim the esteemed prize for raising the “best grass.”

Those bragging rights went to China in a friendly contest to see who could grow the longest, thickest and overall best batch of underwater grasses, which participants transplanted into the river earlier this month during an event at Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, VA. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation helped organize the planting through its Grasses for the Masses program.

Whitney Pipkin
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Bay's 'dead zone' expected to be bigger than average this summer

A year after experiencing its best water quality in decades, the Chesapeake Bay is expected to have a larger than average “dead zone” this summer, where fish, crabs and shellfish will struggle to breathe.

Researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the University of Michigan are forecasting that the volume of oxygen-starved water in the Bay will grow to 1.9 cubic miles, enough to nearly fill 3.2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Trump administration pledges to do more with less for U.S. aquaculture

"Aquaculture is not the future of oyster harvests. It's the present," said Mark Luckenbach - Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Luckenbach, based at the VIMS lab at Wachapreague, told me those words 11 years ago, when I wrote my first story about oyster aquaculture. Since then, I’ve written more than 100 stories on the topic, and someday, I hope, I’ll write a book. One thing is sure: the present has taken a long time to arrive - not just in the Chesapeake Bay, but all over the country.

Rona Kobell
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Algae blooms sprout lawsuit over polluted Virginia river

Four conservation groups have filed suit accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of failing to address pollution from agricultural runoff afflicting the Shenandoah River. The groups contend that the EPA is letting Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality classify the river as “unimpaired,” which they say is a violation of the Clean Water Act.

In a complaint filed May 30 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the groups allege that runoff from livestock and poultry operations “has caused algae blooms so severe they have been linked to major fish die-offs, severe decline of underwater aquatic plants, and conditions so unsightly and odorous that some visitors have turned away rather than use the Shenandoah River for swimming, boating, and fishing.”

William H. Funk
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Baltimore harbor safer for swimming in places, but still badly degraded

The outer reaches of Baltimore’s harbor were somewhat safer to swim in last year, but overall water quality in the harbor and the streams that feed into it continues to post failing or near-failing grades, according to the latest annual assessment.

The Healthy Harbor campaign's report card for 2016 found that fecal bacteria levels, which are indicative of the presence of raw sewage, were low enough in the Patapsco River off Fort McHenry to be safe for swimming nearly 90 percent of the time, and 70 percent of the time along the popular Canton waterfront, based on federal criteria. That’s an improvement over the 2015 report card, which found no place in the harbor met the safe swimming standard even 60 percent of the time. 

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Bay health gained slightly in 2016, assessment finds

The Chesapeake Bay’s ecological health improved slightly last year, according to a new assessment, with three of the estuary’s key fish populations in their best shape in decades.

For the fifth straight year, the Bay’s condition in 2016 earned a C grade on the annual report card produced by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. The overall score — combining measures of water quality, habitat and fish abundance — ticked upward to 54 percent, a 1 percent gain over 2015.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Virginians back Bay cleanup, want feds to stick with it, poll finds

Virginians strongly support the multi-state effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and oppose efforts to roll back federal clean air and water laws, according to a new survey.

The poll of registered voters also found that people see the state’s environment getting better, overall. They graded its overall environmental health at a “B,” the highest mark given since the question was first asked in a 1997 survey, when the state’s environment rated a “C.”

 

Karl Blankenship
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Virginia lawmakers act on Alexandria sewage overflows, coal ash

Virginia’s General Assembly took final action on two measures that could impact water quality in the Chesapeake Bay during a one-day veto session on Wednesday.

In response to several amendments Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed to bills passed earlier this year, Virginia lawmakers refused to give the city of Alexandria more time to reduce polluted overflows from its sewer system and agreed to a moratorium on new coal ash-related permits until further study can be conducted.

After rejecting McAuliffe’s proposed amendments to give the city of Alexandria three additional years to reduce overflows from a combined sewer system, Virginia senators voted to pass the bill as originally written, potentially giving the city a compliance deadline of 2025. But the measure did not get enough votes in the Senate to pass it over a potential gubernatorial veto.  

Whitney Pipkin
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Oyster sanctuaries to be left alone for now under new Maryland law

Maryland’s oyster sanctuaries will continue to provide a refuge from harvest, at least through next year, after Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday allowed legislation barring any changes in the protected areas to become law without his signature.

The Hogan administration had sided with the state’s watermen in opposing the measure, which passed late last month. But the General Assembly, heeding pleas from environmentalists, gave the sanctuary protection bill enough votes to override the governor’s veto had he chosen to exercise it. Legislative leaders put it on Hogan’s desk March 29, and legislation becomes law after six days when there is no action by the governor.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper hangs it up for politics

The Lower Susquehanna River is getting a new watchdog. Michael Helfrich, the first Riverkeeper for the bottom half of the Chesapeake Bay’s largest tributary, is leaving after 12 years, to pursue a career in politics.

Already a part-time York, PA, city councilman and president of the five-member municipal governing body, Helfrich is vacating his full-time Riverkeeper post on April 1 to run for mayor of his hometown.

“After nearly 12 years of having my focus and energy spread out over 9,215 square miles of Lower Susquehanna issues — and issues of the Chesapeake Bay — I’m now going to focus my energy on the 5.2 square miles of York City,” Helfrich said.

Donna Morelli
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Governor proposes giving Alexandria more time to fix sewage overflows

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has proposed giving the city of Alexandria three additional years to fix its chronic sewage overflows into the Potomac River. 

The Northern Virginia city has been working for several years to reduce the amount of rain-diluted waste that pours untreated from its antiquated combined sewer system, but environmentalists have complained that local officials weren’t moving fast enough. State lawmakers got involved this year and passed legislation that would require Alexandria to greatly reduce overflows from the system by 2024, a deadline that city engineers contend would be nearly impossible to meet.

Whitney Pipkin
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MD House passes cownose ray fishing contest moratorium

Maryland is getting closer to at least a temporary moratorium on the killing of cownose rays in bowfishing contests, a summer pastime that has angered animal-rights groups and as well as many fishermen.

By a vote of 119 to 21, Maryland’s House of Delegates passed HB 211 Wednesday, which would impose a moratorium on such contests until July 1, 2019, and require the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to prepare a fisheries management plan by Dec. 31, 2018.

The House action comes a month after the state Senate voted, 46-0, to pass SB 268, which would bar bowfishing contests for rays through July 1, 2018, and require the DNR to develop its management plan a year earlier than called for under the House bill.

Rona Kobell
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MD House approves fracking ban, stormwater funding plan

Maryland’s House of Delegates voted Friday to ban hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, while also approving a Hogan administration bill that would let the state invest in potentially less costly ways of reducing stormwater pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay.

The fracking ban, approved on a 97 to 40 vote, comes after a six-year debate over whether to allow the controversial energy extraction technique in the state. More than a dozen counties and cities adopted local ordinances or resolutions to ban fracking, and opponents have staged several rallies in Annapolis since the legislative session began in January.

 

Timothy B. Wheeler
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MD Natural Resources Police fights to keep its eyes in the sky

Last Thanksgiving, the Maryland Natural Resources Police got something for which they could truly be thankful: A helicopter.

After seven years with no eyes in the sky, the NRP got its 1972 Bell Jet Ranger back.  The police aviation unit, founded nearly 70 years ago, had been eliminated by the previous administration in a cost-cutting move in 2009, and the helicopter was transferred to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office.

But restoring the NRP’s aerial mobility was a priority of Mark Belton, the current natural resources secretary. So he reacquired the copter and had it refurbished for $158,000, according to NRP spokeswoman Candy Thomson. Named Natural 1, it was pressed into service almost immediately, helping the NRP catch oyster and deer poachers and assisting with search-and-rescue missions.

Now, though, after just four months, the NRP, an arm of DNR, is in jeopardy of losing its helicopter again.

Rona Kobell
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Trump budget plan would slam Bay

The Chesapeake Bay Program and other federal initiatives that could impact the Bay have been targeted for steep cuts in preliminary Trump administration budget plans sent to federal agencies, prompting alarm from conservation groups and lawmakers alike.

According to a report in The Washington Post, a budget blueprint for the 2018 federal fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, would cut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by nearly a quarter, from $8.2 billion to $6.1 billion, and slash its workforce from 15,000 to 12,000.

Karl Blankenship
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Lawmakers urge Trump to maintain Bay funding

A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants President Trump to maintain the current funding level for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts when the administration releases its first budget blueprint.

While the EPA is widely expected to be hit by potentially deep budget cuts when the administration releases a budget outline in a few weeks, five Republicans and 12 Democrats from the House of Representatives signed a letter last week asking that funding for the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program be kept at $73 million.

Karl Blankenship
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MD lawmaker denounces crab fishery manager's firing, calls for her reinstatement

One of the Maryland General Assembly’s leading environmental advocates denounced the Hogan administration Friday for firing the long-time state employee who oversaw the blue crab fishery after some watermen complained to the governor about a catch restriction they could not get lifted.

Speaking at the end of the legislature’s Friday session, Sen. Paul Pinsky charged that Brenda Davis was “summarily fired’ over watermen’s unhappiness with a policy that was set by higher-ups at the Department of Natural Resources.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Fracking debate nears crossroads in Maryland

Maryland’s “fracking” debate begins in earnest this week in Annapolis. With a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas scheduled to end Oct. 1, lawmakers are under increasing pressure to decide whether to ban the practice permanently, punt it to the voters or let drilling proceed under disputed regulations that have yet to be finalized. Emotions are running high, and legislators appear nearly evenly split.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Maryland's seafood marketing headed back to where it came from

If the Hogan Administration has its way, Maryland’s seafood marketing will go back to its roots — at the state’s agriculture department.

The administration has introduced a bill that, if passed, would shift responsibility and resources for promoting Maryland’s seafood from its current home at the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture, where it was housed six years ago.

Rona Kobell
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Bay 'Barometer' shows restoration progress, but forest buffers, wetlands lag

The Chesapeake Bay is showing signs that decades of work are starting to pump new life into the nation’s largest estuary, according to a new report, though it also showed worrisome trends for forest buffers and wetlands – two elements considered critical to any long-term recovery.

The Bay Barometer, released Wednesday by the state-federal Bay Program partnership, largely echoed the positive movement shown in recent report cards from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, suggesting that cleanup efforts were starting to pay off with expanded underwater grass beds, clearer water, and a smaller oxygen-starved “dead zone.”

Karl Blankenship

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