8Chesapeake Bay Grasses Recover in North
- May 29 9:10 PMBy GRETCHEN PARKER, Associated Press Writer Thu May 26, 9:04 PM ET
ANNAPOLIS, Md. - The underwater grasses that are crucial to filtering
polluted Chesapeake Bay waters are recovering in the upper portion of
the estuary, while other vast tracts continue to struggle, scientists
Last year's annual report from the Chesapeake Bay Program, a federal
and state partnership, was dismal. Bay experts said heavy rains had
pushed extra pollutants into the bay, killing off a record 30 percent
of underwater grasses. Grassbeds were either smothered by the toxic
wash, or they were uprooted by Tropical Storm Isabel in September 2003.
Thursday's news was brighter. Scientists are encouraged by the hardy
grasses that are beginning to recover from the turmoil of the rain and
storms. Examining aerial photographs shot from August to October of
last year, they were thrilled to see throngs of grasses growing in the
upper portion of the bay north of the Susquehanna River.
Baywide, scientists estimate that grass acreage has increased 14
percent to about 73,000 acres.
Grasses in some pockets of the bay's tributaries are thriving,
including the middle Patuxent, where blades are so tall that boaters
are calling the state Department of Natural Resources and asking for
grass removal. (Scientists usually take those calls, and explain why
the grasses are valuable and should be left alone.)
Still, grasses in the lower bay continue to decline. They are at their
lowest levels recorded since 1987, the report showed. For about the
last decade, grasses in the mouth of the bay averaged about 23,000
acres. Thursday's report showed they have declined to about 17,000
acres. Their forecast for 2005 calls for a modest uptick.
Scientists have acknowledged they likely won't meet the 2010 goals
that governors of the watershed states agreed to in 2000. The acres
now covered by grasses represent only about 39 percent of the
"The efforts in place now are going to have to be substantially
increased," said William Dennison of the University of Maryland Center
for Environmental Science. "It's going to be a tough road ahead."
A sprawling grassbed, now about 4 square miles, in the Susquehanna
flats has become an inspiration to scientists in Maryland and Virginia
who have been struggling to find ways of restoring the devastated
grasses. They're looking for ways to plant grasses hardy enough to
survive the higher salinity water that fills the middle and lower
portions of the bay, where grasses continue to struggle.
Specialists at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources have begun
a project to restore up to 150 acres of grasses in the lower Patuxent,
lower Potomac, little Choptank and Piankatank rivers. They're dropping
bags of grass shoots, filled with seeds, that sprout on their own. The
new method spares workers the traditional labor of harvesting and
transplanting mature grasses by hand.
But even the new methods are not enough to reverse the fortune of
grassbeds in the middle and lower areas of the bay, DNR scientists say.
"There is no way we're going to be able to plant our way to
restoration," said Thomas Parham, a leader of the project in Maryland.
"We're trying to identify areas with good water quality and no plants,
establish plants and hope they spread."
For grassbeds to take hold and spread, they need good water quality.
The pollution flowing into the bay from sewage pipes, farm fields and
parking lots is the main obstruction for healthy grasses, experts say.
The underwater grasses once grew in abundance, covering 200,000 acres
along the shorelines of the Chesapeake. The beds are a critical
habitat for marine life, help restore oxygen to the water and prevent