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8Chesapeake Bay Grasses Recover in North

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  • Elden Wayne Hawkes Junior
    May 29 9:10 PM
      By 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
      reported Thursday.

      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
      185,000-acre goal.

      "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
      erosion.