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In preparing for the 2012 Maryland Legislative session, the memories of largely unproductive sessions for the environment in 2010 and 2011 were very fresh.   The combined environmental community – the Clean Water, Healthy Families coalition – resolved to be more focused and to pursue a direct request of legislators, and to focus on goals that would have a measurable impact on improving water quality.  Those goals were:

•    Finish upgrading the wastewater treatment plants that Maryland has already committed to upgrade.
•    Ensure that local governments have resources to reduce polluted stormwater runoff and implement their local clean water plans.
•    Reduce pollution from poorly planned development – including limiting new septic systems.
•    Require that all wastewater discharges, including septic systems, are treated at the highest levels to protect public health and ensure clean water. 

The first two goals were explicitly stated in Maryland’s Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) and comprised the core funding strategies for the state’s efforts to address pollution from its central urban and suburban corridor.  The last two were focused on ensuring that we don’t erase any gains we make via the first two by developing in a way that creates a staggering amount of new pollution.  

As the clock ran down on the legislative session yesterday, the future of the Chesapeake and Maryland’s rivers hung in the balance.  Early in the day, legislation to double the Bay Restoration Fund (or “flush fee” as it is commonly known) passed, followed by bill aimed at limiting sprawling growth by restricting where septic-served subdivisions can be located.  The debate on a bill to require the 10 largest jurisdictions in the state to create dedicated stormwater restoration fees carried late into the evening, with opponents, largely from the eastern shore and western Maryland, attempting to filibuster until the end of session, at midnight.

At one point, the floor leader for the bill, Senator Paul Pinsky, asked the opponents, many of whom had invented, and then promulgated, the notion of a “war on rural Maryland,” why – when they opposed additional water quality regulations on farms on the grounds agriculture wasn’t the only source of pollution to the bay – they opposed a bill whose impacts fell most heavily on the densest areas of the state.  The opponents fell back to a line of defense that can only be characterized as diversionary.  They argued that Maryland’s overall pollution contribution was insignificant compared to the contribution of other states, that the cost of compliance was too expensive, and that the Chesapeake Bay TMDL was in litigation, so there was no need to rush to address it.  Nevermind the fact that the bill was aimed at jurisdictions with an MS4 stormwater permit, that has conditions and requirements which exist independent of the TMDL.    Eventually though, the filibuster was shut down, those in favor of the bill in the Senate prevailed, and the bill was sent back to House and passed with 10 minutes to spare in the session.  

The community still intends to pursue, through regulations, a requirement that all new septic systems be built using the best available technology, but we ended the evening with three of our four goals in hand, and a strong commitment to address the fourth.  There can be little doubt that the 2012 session will go down in Maryland lore as the “Session of the Bay,” despite the fact that it was tumultuous in many other respects.  

And, with the close of the 2012, Maryland’s cities, towns, and suburban enclaves are well positioned to meet their pollution reduction goals going forward. They have developed their plans and now have been given the tools to implement them in a timely fashion.  There still remains important work to be done in other sectors though, with Maryland’s nutrient management regulations still under consideration and an agricultural community that is divided over its willingness to be a full player in the recovery of Maryland’s most valuable natural resource.  The session has ended, but the journey to restoration has just begun.

Chain Pickerel

Recently on the headwaters of Broad Creek, I came face to face with a living fossil of sorts - the chain pickerel.  It was early March and he had probably just completed spawning, and was extremely hungry as a result.  His toothy ancestors - pikes - first arrived on the Maryland coast around 30 million years ago, right around the time that the Chesapeake Bay was formed into its current shape.   By comparison, American bass, perch, and sunfish species are said to have differentiated from each other just during the last 15 or 16 million years.  The chain pickerel may in fact be the South River's original apex predator.  So what do chain pickerel do, and why does it matter?

Chain pickerel are closer relatives to the pikes (northern pike, muskellunge) than they are other "pickerels."  Their flat, wide head is a very ancient design for catching large prey in shallow water, and in fact, there are very few species of the Pike/chain pickerel genus still in existance throughout the world.  Luckily, the chain pickerel is well designed to hunt and survive in our waters.  They are fairly tolerant of pollution and are stealthy hunters....but aggressive killers who will leave the shadows just long enough to inhale injured fish, swimming frogs, and water-treading mice. 

 Chain Pickerel Head

The chain pickerel prefers shallow, vegetated beds of tidal rivers and small stormwater ponds that have shallow, flooded zones full of fallen trees or living vegetation.  Chain pickerel are happiest in water bodies with a minimal amount of flow, which means they are frequent visitors to flooded wetlands, beaver dam impoundments, and man-made lakes and ponds.   As South River populations of other large predators (striped bass, largemouth bass) continue to be suppressed due to persistent water pollution issues, the chain pickerel may continue to grow in range and population.   Look for them in vegetated heads of creeks, small natural and man-made impoundments like beaver swamps and stormwater ponds, and even larger impoundments like Annapolis Waterworks Park.

 Pickerel Habitat

The chain pickerel isn't going anywhere, and it has a will to survive - nothing but ospreys or bald eagles will pursue the adult fish.  but that doesn't mean they aren't worth targeting on a fishing outing - the voracious predators are very difficult to hook and at 18-20", they are sure a handful.  Recommended lures are inline spinners, rubber grubs, spoons, and honestly, anything you'd use to catch their close relative the Northern Pike, or alternately, a lot of the lures you might use to catch one of the South River's few largemouth bass.   Good luck tangling with this dinosaur!

(Note: the fish in the images above was released immediately after photographing)

Last week, Robins returned to the South River watershed.  They are on fields, in highway medians, and in lawns. Perhaps you've seen one, making a fast dash north from its wintering grounds?


Nope.  Wrong Robin.

 American Robin, Courtesy of Dreambirding.blogspot.com

This Robin.  The American Robin.   Referred to as a "harbinger of Spring" in the Mid-Atlantic states, the American Robin has a highly variable migration pattern that is largely based on upon balancing caloric needs and food availability.  The Robin is a tough, adaptable bird, which is one reason we can see so many in an area like the South River watershed.  By songbird standards, the Robin is a "big bird" (actually, North America's largest thrush), and it's comfortable in agricultural, suburban, and forest habitats, and can eat almost anything you'd call "bird food."  So why do they migrate south at all?

Like many ducks and shorebirds in the Atlantic flyway, "our" Robins only migrate south when they feel they have no other choice.   What forces that choice? Songbirds like the American Robin uses between 40-80% of their (winter) calorie intake simply to maintain body temperature.   Once a few hard frosts have hit their habitat, their favorite food (soft-bodied insects, worms, and arthropods) become inactive and harder to find.  Robins then shift their diet to berries and seeds, which have higher carbohydrates but less protein than live food, and also require significantly more calories to eat and digest than live, soft food items like earthworms, grubs, and millipedes.   As the available seed supply starts to thin, the number of Robins in the South River watershed start to thin out - even though a few may stay through the winter.

It's the Robin's migration back north that captivates people.   An old farmers' tale is that Robins migrate north when the night and day temperatures average 36 degrees - and observations generally bear this out.  However, a little closer inspection tells us that it's not the slightly warmer air itself, but what that particular temperature does to the Robin's favorite food item - earthworms.

In the fall months, earthworms migrate downward through the soil to avoid freezing temperatures.  They seem conscious of where the frost line lies, and can often hibernate in large groups right below that important depth.  However, as the spring returns and the soil temperature bounces from 34 to 36 degrees near the surface, the earthworm's internal organs begin functioning again - including their respiration (breathing) apparatus in their skin.  Unfortunately for the earthworms, around this time, snow and ice begin to melt and spring rains begin, all of which fill soil pores with water instead of air.  The newly active earthworms have no choice but to climb to the surface to breathe, where new flocks of Robins are patiently waiting for them (like in the image below).

 Image Courtesy of Slugyard.com

So much for "bird brains" - the American Robin has it all figured out.

When Glenn and Jane Amsbaugh moved from York, PA back to Jane’s hometown along the South River, there was one thing they knew they wanted to continue: gardening.  Mr. Amsbaugh knew he would have some work ahead of him since the South River does not have the rich fertile soils like York, PA which is in the heart of Amish County.   With a low-lying property along the South River, he had to battle higher salinity levels and poorer soil.

Having composted for over 15 years, the Amsbaughs knew this eco-friendly practice would help to improve the soil quality in the garden.  Every year,  they get nearly five wheel barrels full of compost  to enrich the soil in their garden.  According to Mrs. Amsbaugh, making composting easy is the key to making this a continued practice.  She keeps an attractive, small, stainless steel odor reducing composting pail next to her sink.  When that becomes full, she simply takes it to a larger bucket outside.  When the weather is nice, they take the compost down to the compost pile near the edge of their property. 

Why compost?  Well, why not? Like the Amsbaughs said, there is no sense in wasting left-over food – especially when it benefits the garden so much. If you create a simple routine and make composting easy, you will be more likely to stick with it in the long run. 

Mr. Amsbaugh has gone beyond only composting to improve his garden.  Originally, Mr. Amsbaugh used old dock boards to create a series of raised bed gardens.  When he noticed that his crops seemed to be doing better, he decided to raise the beds even higher to give the vegetables a greater depth of richer soil and to further separate them from the higher salinity soil.  On the beautiful warm January day when I went to interview him, he and a friend were already out laying the boards preparing for spring!   In addition to composting and creating raised beds, Mr. Amsbaugh waters his garden via irrigation piping connected to a large 1,200 gallon cistern that collects rain water from his roof.

Gardening is a wonderful way to connect with nature and get delicious vegetables right from your own back yard.  The Amsbaughs get almost 20 different vegetables  from their garden from April through November and definitely encourage others to considering both gardening and composting.  Mr. Amsbaugh does have advice for others wanting to do the same.  His first words of advice?  Simply, “do it!”  Carefully select the most appropriate site on your property for a garden.  Make sure you have convenient access to water or an easy way to water the garden.  Begin your soil preparation early and start composting today!

Curious to know what the Amsbaughs grow in their garden? They have been able to grow: asparagus, spinach, pumpkin, corn, tomatoes, onion, peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, radish, swiss chard, beans, red beets, lettuce, eggplant, herbs, and cantaloupe.

A special thank you to Glenn and Jane Amsbaugh for inviting us to their home and sharing their yard with us! Go green at your home? Tell us about it and you could be the next South River Federation’s “Go Green Project of the Month!”