Charcoaling manure and greening neighborhoods: ecological approaches to cleaner water in the Chesapeake Bay watershed

ESA 100th Annual Meeting, August 9-14, 2015 in Baltimore, Md.
Ecological Science at the Frontier

Ecological science at the frontier: Centennial logoFOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Contact: Liza Lester, 202-833-8773 ext. 211,

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When ecologists gather in Baltimore, Md., this August for the 100th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America, special attention will fall on the local Chesapeake Bay watershed, with field trips and research presentations exploring its rich wildlife and social history. At symposia, poster exhibits, and site visits, ecologists will have opportunities to discuss the latest research and experiences working with stakeholders in the region to improve the health of the nation’s largest estuary.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed and major river basins. Credit, US Geological Survey.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed and major river basins. Credit, US Geological Survey.

Chesapeake Bay bears a heavy pollution burden from the growing metropolitan centers and vibrant agricultural activity in the watershed. In the last fifty years, too many nutrients have poured into the watershed, causing large fish kills and habitat damage in the bay.

Nitrogen and phosphorus draining from farm fields, livestock manure, sewage treatment plants, industry, and car exhaust are powerful fertilizers that feed blooms of algae in the bay. Sudden population explosions of algae pull oxygen from the water in the bay and change its acidity, which stresses aquatic animals and can even lead to “dead zones” empty of economically valuable fish and shellfish. Murky water can block enough sunlight to harm or kill native aquatic plants, destroying critical habitat for Chesapeake Bay fish and other aquatic animals. Some algae are toxic, presenting a direct threat to the health of people and wildlife.

Roughly 100,000 streams and 50 major creeks and rivers drain into the bay form the enormous 64,000-square-mile watershed, flowing through agricultural lands, industrial centers, and some of the oldest and densest municipalities in the United States, including Washington, Baltimore, and Richmond. Encompassing parts of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington D.C., the Chesapeake watershed is home to 27 million residents.

On December 29, 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, acting under the authority of the Clean Water Act, instituted a comprehensive “pollution diet” to address the slow progress on water quality problems in the watershed. The Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) sets pollution limits for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment loads entering water bodies and includes accountability measures.

Manure from the many poultry farms in the Chesapeake watershed is a major source of excess nitrogen entering the bay. Maryland alone has 574 large-scale operations, each concentrating 37,500 or more birds in one place. Many are on the Eastern Shore. Disposing of all that chicken waste is a big problem for the farms; nearly one in five large operations has been fined by the State of Maryland recently for violating reporting requirements.

Nutrient solutions for agriculture: engaging rural residents and farmers

Cooking chicken manure into charcoal, or biochar, can turn a pollution problem into a potential farming resource. Biochar is an organic fertilizer that retains nitrogen in soil longer than inorganic nitrogen fertilizers and also captures the carbon in the manure in a stable form, returning it to the soil.

Rebecca Ryals of Brown University has compared plant growth and nutrient retention agricultural fields fertilized with biochar, raw manure, composted manure, and inorganic nitrogen fertilizer (urea). Her presentation is part of an organized session of talks about “Putting agroecology to work: from science to practice and policy,” on Wednesday morning, August 12. Farmers are often willing to try new methods that improve ecological outcomes, but need economic and logistical support to make implementation practical. Ryals will also talk about the opportunities and barriers to implementing biochar use in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Mari-Vaughn Johnson, an agronomist at the US Department of Agriculture’s Blackland Research and Extension Center in Temple, Texas, will follow Ryals with a USDA National Resources Conservation Service case study report on conservation gains through voluntary actions by private land owners in the Chesapeake Bay region.

EPA regulations on TDMLs of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment in Chesapeake waterways are powerful tools for encouraging land use practices based on ecological science. But unequal pressures to adopt Best Management Practices have often left the agricultural community feeling unfairly blamed for nutrient pollution problems in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  On Monday afternoon, Kalla Kvalnes of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science will talk about outreach events engaging farmers and residents in rural Chesapeake Bay communities to better understand the stumbling blocks to adoption of Best Management Practices.

Ryal’s colleague, Amy Teller, will present further data on the biochar project at a poster session on sustainable agriculture and forestry on Wednesday afternoon. Maya Almaraz, also of Brown University, will report on seasonal effects on nitrogen and nitrous oxide gas emissions from the experimental farm fields Ryal treated with different fertilizers during a Monday afternoon session on new paradigms in nutrient cycling in a variety of ecosystems.

A true color composite image of Chesapeake Bay, created from Provisional Surface Reflectance data collected by the USGS satellite Landsat 8 in the fall of 2014. Sediment suspended in the water along the coast and in the rivers of the Chesapeake watershed appears light blue or green. Baltimore, Md., and Washington, D.C., and the I95 corridor are bright grey stars to the left of the Bay. Credit, US Geological Survey.

A true color composite image of Chesapeake Bay, created from Provisional Surface Reflectance data collected by the USGS satellite Landsat 8 in the fall of 2014. Sediment appears light blue or green, suspended in the water along the coast and in the rivers of the Chesapeake watershed. Baltimore, Md., and Washington, D.C., and the I95 corridor are bright grey stars to the left of the Bay. Credit, US Geological Survey.


Revitalizing urban neighborhoods

Simple urban improvements like replacing the concrete of an empty lot with greenery have the potential to improve the health and happiness of neighborhood residents as well as the quality of the water draining from these urban surfaces, and ultimately into the bay.

The Parks & People Foundation in Baltimore has a long history of fostering partnerships between academics, government agencies, and citizens to improve the city’s open spaces. On Sunday, August 9, Alan Berkowitz and Bess Caplan of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Christina Bradley from Parks & People, and Morgan Grove with the USDA Forest Service will co-lead a field trip on Sunday, August 9, to the site of an urban Long Term Ecological Research project investigating the connections between social and ecological revitalization in storm sewer watershed 263 (WS263), a “sewershed” in Baltimore encompassing 11 neighborhoods housing 28,214 people. The group will discuss approaches to environmental education while visiting bio-infiltration projects, lot renovations, and other green infrastructure features in WS263.

ESA’s Applied Ecology Section will also be visiting parts of WS263 on Sunday for its annual Urban Bioblitz, approaching from the Middle Branch Trail on the Patapsco River. The group will observe the diversity of plants, birds, insects, and aquatic invertebrates resident in the watershed while discussing the land planning, management, and maintenance.

Improving the health of the Bay can only come about with active participation from residents of the watershed. Amina Mohamed worked with 20 students from environmental clubs at two high schools in the Anacostia and Patuxent River watersheds (part of the larger Chesapeake watershed) to better understand community attitudes about the health of their environment. Through the participatory program Photovoice, originally developed for public engagement in public health, students photographed local environmental issues, choosing 10 photos to further describe in brief narratives. 

Mohamed analyzed the photo sets and texts for themes reflecting the perceptions and priorities of the student participants and their communities. Images of the Anacostia study area featured pollution and trash more prominently, while the Patuxent images indicated more community awareness of connections to the greater Bay region. She will present the results of her study in a poster session dedicated to ecological education on Friday morning.


Other meeting sessions related to water quality in the Chesapeake watershed:

Field Trips

ESA invites press and institutional public information officers to attend the Annual Meeting for free. To apply, please contact ESA Communications Officer Liza Lester at Please visit our conference website for details on press credentials and pressroom operation. Walk-in registration will be available during the meeting.

The complete conference program, including abstracts for oral and poster presentations, is available on the conference website.

Meeting abstracts are not embargoed.


The Ecological Society of America (ESA), founded in 1915, is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge, committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes six journals and a membership bulletin and broadly shares ecological information through policy, media outreach, and education initiatives. The Society’s Annual Meeting attracts 4,000 attendees and features the most recent advances in ecological science. Visit the ESA website at

Ecology in Agricultural Landscapes: seeking solutions for food, water, wildlife

A compendium of agro-ecology sessions at the 2013 annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America

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Media advisory

For Immediate Release:  Tuesday, 23 July 2013
Contact: Liza Lester (202) 833-8773 x 211;


Agriculture alters the landscape more than any other human activity, with trickle-down effects on water, soil, climate, plant and wildlife diversity, wildfire, and human health. Crop and rangeland occupies nearly 40 percent of earth’s ice-free land, and mountains and deserts make much of the remaining surface unwelcoming to agriculture. Our increasing population applies constant pressure for further conversion of wild lands to agricultural production. With yields plateauing in many parts of the world, managers, both private and public, are looking for new ideas to get the most out of agricultural lands, sustain production into the future, and protect natural resources.

Multiple sessions will address the ecological study of agricultural systems at the Ecological Society of America’s 98th Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 4 – 9.

Presenting scientists will examine routes to improved soil, water, and nutrient retention, pollinator support, and pest suppression by natural enemies. They will discuss opportunities to increase biodiversity in agricultural areas and mitigate runoff.


Land sharing

Soil erosion….or not. STRIPs project - LIsa Schulte Moore presents at the Aster Cafe on Wednesday August 7 at 5:30pm

Soil erosion….or not. Even small amounts of perennials can have a dramatic impact on the environmental benefits provided by row-cropped agricultural lands. This image depicts the ability of native prairie to keep soil in farm fields, where it can produce crops, as opposed to allowing it to move into streams, where it becomes a serious pollutant.
Lisa Schulte Moore won the inaugural ESA2013 Science Cafe Prize with her vision for change in modern agriculture based on ecological knowledge and experimentation. Schulte Moore, a professor of landscape ecology at Iowa State University, will speak at a public event at the Aster Cafe on the riverfront in Minneapolis, at 5:30pm on Wednesday August 7. Photo, Dave Williams.

OOS 23: Bridging The Public-Private Land Divide – Supporting Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Services By Tapping The Ingenuity In Social-Ecological Systems.
Thursday, August 8, 2013: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, room 101A

For much of the world, high-intensity industrial farming produces food with high efficiency, but puts the squeeze on other plant and animal life. Wildlife is mostly sequestered on preserves. But is this the best way to maximize food and biodiversity? Or are there other configurations that might improve mobility of wildlife and benefit other ecosystem services without cost (and possibly with benefit) to private land owners?

“We are probably not going to be able to achieve landscape conservation goals for soil, water, and wildlife, specifically grasslands and birds, working on publically-owned lands alone. We will need to incorporate private lands,” said session moderator Chris Woodson, a private lands biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Missouri.

Conservation biologists are looking for conservation-supportive practices that have potential to augment protected areas on public lands and aid existing programs. Private landowners and entrepreneurs are looking for contributions that they can make to conservation and still make a living.

This session brings together managers, scientists, private land owners, and entrepreneurs to discuss ideas, pilot projects, and existing public-private partnerships, and seek areas of mission overlap and opportunities for collective action.

“Lower case c conservation is what we want to see happen,” said session co-organizer Paul Charland, a wildland firefighter with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Capital C Conservation is official business; it’s the movement as an organizational process. Lower case conservation is all efforts to keep native species. We want to provide a mechanism for everyone to do that.”


Organizers:         Patrica Heglund (; Paul Charland (; Carol Williams; Chris Woodson   (



Connecting the global to the local – agricultural landscapes from field to orbit

SYMP 20: Integrating Agro-Ecological Research Across Spatial and Temporal Scales
Thursday, August 8, 2013: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM

Kate Brauman integrating eco-agro research scales ESA2013

Collage assembled by Kate Brauman. Image Credits – Globe: Reto Stöckli, Robert Simmon, MODIS teams, NASA. Satellite images: shrimp aquaculture in Honduras, Landsat 7, 1999, Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory. Small photos: Kate Brauman.

Big changes in agriculture are visible on the global scale – changes in crop yields, dietary choices, water use, fertilizer application, soil retention, and nutrient pollution. In some parts of the world, yield lags, revealing opportunities to get more out of land already in production. In others, crop production has sagged or plateaued. Will yields keep increasing as they have in the past? It’s hard to see trajectories without local context, said session organizer Kate Brauman of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Site-specific field work fills in details.

“Agronomy has been working very successfully for a long time, and it’s been focused on practitioners,” said Brauman. “And global analysis can be hard for someone in the field to interpret. How can we take insights from the local to the global scale and make them useful?”

Ecology has great scientists studying the very local, applied art and science of getting more yield out of our crops and the local ecological effects of agriculture, and great scientists studying global trends, said Bauman. It does not have much of a history of cross-pollination between the groups. This session aims to bridge gulfs of scientific culture and of scale, connecting the satellite’s eye view of global change to the view from the field; computational modeling to on-the-ground experimentation; and snapshot observations to daily, seasonal, annual, and decadal change.


Organizer: Kate Brauman (



Resilient future

Two “Ignite” sessions offer a series of 5-minute introductions to ideas for the future interdependency of conservation and agriculture, from plant breeding and field design, to farm policy.




  • PS-29: Agriculture            Tuesday, August 6, 2013: 4:30 PM-6:30 PM, Exhibit Hall B
    (Poster session)
  • COS 1: Agriculture I         Monday, August 5, 2013: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM, room L100I
    Grasslands, coffee, excess nitrogen fertilizer
  • COS 18: Agriculture II      Tuesday, August 6, 2013: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, room 101C
    Biodiversity, weeds, spatial organization
  • COS 80: Soil Ecology        Wednesday, August 7, 2013: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM, room M100GD
    Includes soybean symbiosis, prairie grazing gradients, and bioenergy constraints.
  • COS 77: Land-Use And Land-Use History               Wednesday, August 7, 2013: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM, room L100H
    Consequences of armed conflict, restoration ecology, and shifting away from beef(?).
  • OOS 24: Managing Belowground Processes In Agroecosystems  Thursday, August 8, 2013: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, room 101B
    The invisible world of roots, fungi, insects, arthropods, microbes, and decomposing plants matter matter very much to crop success and environmental health. This session will evaluate the state of the science and “alternative” agro-ecological systems, and discuss management opportunities.
  • COS 126: Pollination        Friday, August 9, 2013: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, room L100G
    Cranberries, blueberries, and parasitoid wasps.



Press Registration for the Annual Meeting, August 4 – 9, 2013:

We waive registration fees for reporters with a recognized press card and for current members of the National Association of Science Writers, the Canadian Science Writers Association, the International Science Writers Association and the Society of Environmental Journalists. Email Liza Lester,

Meeting abstracts are not embargoed.


The Ecological Society of America is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge. ESA is committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes five journals, convenes an annual scientific conference, and broadly shares ecological information through policy and media outreach and education initiatives. Visit the ESA website at


To subscribe to ESA press releases, contact Liza Lester at

Zeal to ensure clean leafy greens takes bite out of riverside habitat in California

Perceived food safety risk from wildlife drives expensive and unnecessary habitat destruction around farm fields


Media Advisory

For release: Monday, May 6th, 2013, 12:01 am EDT
Contact: Liza Lester (202) 833-8773 x 211;



Field buffers: vegetation loss likely due to food safety measures. From Figure 3 of the paper.

Farm-field buffers: vegetation loss likely due to food safety measures. From Figure 3 of the paper.

Meticulous attention to food safety is a good thing. As consumers, we like to hear that produce growers and distributers go above and beyond food safety mandates to ensure that healthy fresh fruits and vegetables do not carry bacteria or viruses that can make us sick.

But in California’s Salinas Valley, some more vigorous interventions are cutting into the last corners of wildlife habitat and potentially threatening water quality, without evidence of food safety benefits. These policies create tensions between wildlife preservation and food safety where none need exist, say scientists for The Nature Conservancy, writing in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The study will be published online ahead of print on Monday, May 6th, 2013.

“Farming practices for food safety that target wildlife are damaging valuable ecological systems despite low risk from these animals,” said lead author Sasha Gennet.

Check the back of your bag of spinach or prepackaged salad greens, and you’ll probably find that they came from the Salinas Valley. Salad is big business in California.

In the aftermath of a deadly 2006 Escherichia coli serotype O157:H7 outbreak traced to California spinach, growers and distributers of leafy greens came together to create the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA) on best practices for the industry, enforced by third-party auditors and inspectors. The LGMA established standards for farm work hygiene, produce processing and transport, and proximity to livestock. About 99 percent of California leafy greens now come from participating farms.

But produce farmers in the Salinas Valley report pressure from some powerful buyers to take additional precautions not mandated by government or industry standards. These buyers insist that swathes of bare ground wider than a football field is long separate the leafy greens from rivers, wetlands and other wildlife habitat.  

Other precautions include treating irrigation water with chemicals toxic to fish and amphibians, and setting poisoned bait for rodents.

“The California Leafy Green Hander agreement is transparent, flexible and science-based,” said Gennet. “Going above and beyond it just creates costs for farmers and doesn’t improve safety.”

It also creates costs for wildlife. Although scant evidence exists of risk of food-borne disease spread by wildlife, the risk of rejection of produce by major buyers is too much for most growers to bear, say Gennet and her co-authors. They measured changes in wetlands and riverside habitat in the Salinas Valley between 2005 and 2009, finding 13.3 percent converted to bare ground, crops or otherwise diminished. Widespread introduction of fencing blocked wildlife corridors. Low barriers even kept out the frogs.

Unlike the LGMA standards, individual corporate requirements for farm produce are generally not transparent to the public. But in surveys, farmers report pressure from auditors to implement fences and bare ground buffers around spinach, lettuce, and other leafy greens.

Such pressures have set back years of collaboration between growers and environmental advocates to make farm edges slim sanctuaries for wildlife, as well as buffers between agricultural fields and waterways. Fallow strips along streams and rivers provide corridors for migrating animals and birds.

“This is an area that is already 95 percent altered – the habitat that remains is critical,” said Gennet. “Removing 13 percent of what is already heavily-impacted habitat and cutting off wildlife corridors is a significant loss.”

The Salinas River and its tributaries are an important rest stop on the Pacific Flyway, a major migration route for neotropical songbirds, and home to raptors and shorebirds. The waterways are also corridors for deer and other big animals moving between the high country of the Diablo Range and coastal Big Sur mountains that flank the valley.

Wetlands and buffers of trees, grasses, and shrubs help to keep runoff from fields out of the waterways, slowing erosion of soil and blooms of algae downstream. An overabundance of fertilizer has created problems for domestic drinking water as well as the ecosystems of the Salinas River watershed and its outlet, Monterey Bay.

“California has a big problem with concentrated nutrients in waterways, and there is a lot of pressure on growers to reduce those inputs – so to the extent that riverside wildlife habitat could be a benefit all around, a coordinated approach to agricultural management and policy makes the most sense,” said Gennet.

“The policies that these distributors are forming are very narrow,” said Lisa Schulte Moore, an agricultural ecologist at Iowa State University who is not affiliated with the Nature Conservancy study. Nervous distributers are looking at specific risks in isolation, she said, and not asking “does the food system create a healthy human environment?”

Schulte Moore works with Iowa farmers to incorporate native grassland habitat alongside corn and soy fields. Her experiments look for native grass mixtures that don’t tend to invade the crops and are highly attractive to beneficial native insects, including the natural enemies of agricultural pests. “If we design the systems right there could be substantial benefits to the agricultural system as a whole,” she said.

The key word, Gennet says, is “co-management.” As a community, we need to approach food health, wildlife health, and water health in the Salinas Valley as parts of an integrated system. She would like to see California growers, buyers, and consumers rely on standards like the LGMA. “We think it’s been a good process, using the newest science and trying to take a constructive approach.  If everybody stuck to those standards, that would be a good outcome,” said Gennet.


Farm practices for food safety: an emerging threat to floodplain and riparian ecosystems. (2013) Sasha Gennet, Jeanette Howard, Jeff Langholz, Kathryn Andrews, Mark D Reynolds, and Scott A Morrison. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (e-View 05/06/2013; print publication June 2013) doi:10.1890/120243




Outside source:

Lisa Schulte Moore

Associate Professor of Landscape Ecology, Iowa State University




The Ecological Society of America is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge. ESA is committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes five journals, convenes an annual scientific conference, and broadly shares ecological information through policy and media outreach and education initiatives. Visit the ESA website at