Investing in Resilience: Trust Fund Shores Up a Successful Decade
For decades, environmental advocates have been working to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Recognizing the detrimental impact of impervious surface and forest loss on the watershed, this group of passionate scientists, engineers, fishermen, and others pulled together shoestring budgets and devoted hours to lay the groundwork for a restoration economy in Maryland. They worked to improve water quality and create better habitat for brookies. They worked to ensure future watermen and recreational anglers have a sustainable resource. They worked to save the largest and most productive estuary in the nation.
Following the advent of the Total Maximum Daily Load in 2008, Maryland’s General Assembly took a bold step to create the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund—a dedicated fund with the purpose of reducing nutrient and sediment loads to the mainstem of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Coastal Bays. Following the lead of those pioneers, Maryland’s restoration industry boomed with an influx of funding and a hyper-focus on environmental outcomes.
For more than 10 years, the fund has been a foundation for financial support across state, local, and non-governmental efforts to restore streams, wetlands, and forests and create better systems for stormwater management. The fund has supported strategic monitoring efforts to learn about restoration efficacy, invested seed capital into innovative technology businesses and supported conservation-minded farmers through soil conservation district assistance and cost-share programs. But the fund is only as successful as the people doing the work. The strength of the fund is the huge collaboration of people across government, non-profit and private sectors working to meet local and statewide goals by forging diverse partnerships and identifying the most effective and efficient projects.
Investing more than a half-billion dollars through 2020, the fund’s more than 3,000 project sites are the result of hardworking cross-sector staff knocking on doors, educating communities, balancing priorities, and delivering on fund expectations. The department has found success in administering these funds only because of the diligent partners focused on achieving shared goals.
And these partners are at the forefront of ever-evolving restoration science. The Chesapeake Bay region and its 18 million residents benefit from the leading scientists, advocates, and engineers who are applying the latest science, monitoring for results, and iterating their approach to ensure outcomes. And it’s working. Overall bay health has shown a significantly improved trend from 1986–2018, even including the extreme precipitation in 2018.
The trust fund has been a large part of that vigilant effort. Distributing the funds through competitive processes to the greatest extent possible, the fund has restored 4,982 acres of wet-land, 206,765 linear feet of stream, and 1,200 acres of riparian forest, all while engaging 36,500 students and volunteers. These best management practices not only improve water quality but are creating resilience for Maryland in the face of a changing climate.
The department is working with the Chesapeake Bay Program, sister bay agencies, and the bay community to improve its grant-making processes to meet a myriad of co-benefits in the fund’s next ten years. Strategically leveraging funds, engaging a more diverse population in the effort, and better incorporating resiliency into the projects will become key components moving forward.
While improving our outcomes, the goal remains steadfast–protecting and restoring the bay watershed for future generations, who will benefit from the bay’s resiliency in the face of a changing climate.
The tidal wetland complex adjacent to the Assateague State Park boat ramp facility has been actively eroding at a rate of three feet a year. The project to reduce erosion through nature-based restoration techniques was developed by a team of partners. The project involved 700 linear feet of living shoreline restoration materials including 0.46 acres of tidal wetland restoration and 0.14 acres of non-tidal wetland enhancement, using natural materials such as large boulders, cobble, clean sand fill, and native wetland vegetation to build a series of ten vegetated headland breakwaters.
Baltimore Tree Trust
Baltimore Tree Trust is working to transform Baltimore by planting trees along city streets and in open spaces. Through grants supported by the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund program, these efforts have resulted in an increase in the city’s ability to manage stormwater and reduce nutrient loadings while greening city streets, and engaging citizens in the planting and maintenance of urban trees.
Bacon Ridge Natural Area
This 900-acre site in the headwaters of the South River is a natural gem, with expansive marshes, mature forests, and Bacon Ridge Branch, its namesake creek, at the center. Owned and managed by the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks, Bacon Ridge is protected by a conservation easement co-held by Scenic Rivers and the Maryland Environmental Trust. This site was eroding rapidly and the undercutting stream channel was draining the valley’s wetlands, converting them to uplands. The eroding channels were restored using wooden log jams and coastal plain grade controls. This innovative use of wooden material in the restoration maximized the amount of stream that could be restored with finite finances. The effort resulted in estimated yearly pollutant reductions of 231 pounds of nitrogen, 38 pounds per year of phosphorus, and 69,000 pounds of total suspended solids.
Healthy Forests, Healthy Waters
For years, the Maryland Forestry Foundation has collaborated with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Maryland Forest Service to implement upland tree plantings and riparian forest buffer projects on private rural and agricultural lands within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Trust Fund grants to date have helped plant 265 acres of trees in 16 counties. Foresters work with landowners to select the appropriate native species, set up a forest management plan, and provide information on tree maintenance. Initial establishment is funded through the grant, followed by long term maintenance from the landowner.
Sassafras Natural Resources Management Area
Washington College’s Natural Lands Project converted cropped land to 83 acres of native grassland and trails to enhance both water quality and public uses. Hunting opportunities will improve markedly. And if quail populations rebound, then birders, hikers, and hunters alike will enjoy the iconic whistle and flight of this once common native bird. Trails will be strategically located throughout the grassland habitat with large vistas of native grasses and wildflowers, evoking a wild landscape that celebrates a stewardship of natural places. Several thousand school children visit the site annually, learning about the importance of grassland and early successional habitat to wildlife species.
Pocomoke River Watershed
The Pocomoke River and many of the streams that feed into the river were heavily channelized in the mid-20th century by the Civilian Conservation Corps and state agencies to reduce flooding in low-lying agricultural fields. To return the Pocomoke River watershed to a more natural state, The Nature Conservancy partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Geological Survey, and local contractors to restore more than 3,000 acres of wetlands and associated forested buffers. Reconnection was achieved by excavating breaches in the levees to the elevation of the historic floodplain. The Nature Conservancy also restored hundreds of acres of forested headwater wetlands and forested uplands acting as buffers to the wetlands. All together, the project is estimated to remove yearly totals of 71,000 pounds of nitrogen, 7,600 pounds of phosphorous, and 47,500 pounds of total suspended solids.
The north branch of Muddy Creek, a tributary of the Rhode River, has been monitored by Smithsonian Environmental Research Center scientists since the early 1970s. The branch was in poor condition and disconnected from the floodplain. Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund funds helped restore this system to its historical conditions as a forested stream/wetland complex, reducing storm erosion and improving water quality and habitat.
Dairy manure and fertilizers are typically applied to the surface of cropland where nutrients are vulnerable to washing from the land into streams when it rains. Sustainable Chesapeake, the Catoctin-Frederick Soil Conservation District, Shore Rivers, and the University of Maryland Extension partnered with custom manure applicators and Maryland dairy farmers to expand the adoption of injecting manure below the surface, placing nutrients right in the plant root zone and reducing the loss of nitrogen and phosphorus. With funding from the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bay Trust Fund, project partners were able to reduce the risk associated with investing in new equipment and adopting a new practice. Since the start of the project in fall 2016, more than 65 Maryland dairy farmers have injected manure on nearly 17,000 acres.
Gabe Cohee manages the Center for Restoration Finance for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Article appears in Vol. 23, No. 1 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, spring 2020.