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, gro.asenull@retseLL

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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 gro.asenull@retsell. 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