- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — 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 yesterday.

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. Grass beds either were smothered by the toxic wash, or they were uprooted by Tropical Storm Isabel in September 2003.

Yesterday’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 taken from August to October of last year, they were thrilled to see patches of grass growing in the 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 (DNR) 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, according to the report. For about the past decade, grasses in the mouth of the Bay averaged about 23,000 acres. Yesterday’s report showed they have declined to about 17,000 acres. Their forecast for 2005 calls for a modest rise.

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.

A sprawling grass bed, now about four square miles, in the Susquehanna flats has become an inspiration to scientists in Maryland and Virginia who have been struggling to find ways to restore the devastated grasses. They are 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 DNR have begun a project to restore as much as 150 acres of grasses in the lower Patuxent, lower Potomac, Little Choptank and Piankatank rivers. They are 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 fortunes of grass beds 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.”

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.

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