September 15, 2008

This Weeks Take: The Corsica River: A Template for Restoration?


Two years ago, the Our Bay section in The Capital featured the Corsica River and posed the question: "Can This River be Saved?"

While a science-based answer will take more time to formulate, the people living here believe more than ever that it can be done. Much has been accomplished and much has been learned.

Perhaps the greatest lesson is that it takes a watershed to save a river. Communities and their local governments must be fully engaged and cooperating with state and federal programs in order to make it happen.

As our new millennium began, the Corsica River was in an increasingly degraded condition. Like many of the Chesapeake Bay's tributaries, the river looked wonderful, but it had become a surface beauty with severe underlying problems.

The river had documented impairments. The Town of Centreville was seeing significant growth, but depended on an aging sewage plant. Subsequent problems at the plant brought negative publicity, but also heightened awareness to the deteriorated condition of the river.

Showing considerable foresight, the town applied for a grant to develop a Watershed Restoration Action Strategy. This strategy was developed over two years through a group of stakeholders with support from the state. A final report was issued in September 2004 with specific and measurable recommendations. It drew accolades as one of the best in the nation.

Also at this time, a partnership was formed among concerned citizens, the town, Queen Anne's County and the state to begin a water testing program on the Corsica to establish a baseline of water quality data. This program gave birth to the Corsica River Conservancy, a volunteer group dedicated to the restoration and conservation of the Corsica watershed.

These developments set the stage. What happened next was as much fortuitous as it was proof of the Boy Scout adage to "Be prepared!"

The state, looking for a watershed of the appropriate size, condition, potential and commitment, "targeted" the Corsica for an intense, ecosystem-wide approach to restoration. In September 2005, then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and other officials came to the Corsica to announce the restoration project and the commitment of nearly $20 million over five years. It did not go unnoticed that on this gorgeous day and momentous occasion, a major fish kill was occurring out on the river.

Now with continued state support, the restoration project is in its third year - But what has occurred?

There were no fish kills in the past two years.

A new Centreville sewage plant is in operation. Now, effluent is sprayed onto an irrigation field rather than released directly into the water.

The Town of Centreville and Queen Anne's County passed ordinances to improve water quality and continue to engineer stormwater management improvements. The town has a full-time watershed manager and an environmental advisory committee.

Significant stretches of shoreline have been restored, wetlands constructed and hundreds of critical acres of land protected. More than 100 rain gardens curb runoff, and more are in the works.

Community awareness and involvement continues to build. Corsica Watershed Awareness Day in 2007 drew more than 500 attendees and the river conservancy has 425 members.

The cover crop program for farmers continues to grow.

Acres of tree-lined buffer strips have been planted. Educational programs have been started with local schools and groups.

The two oyster bars on the river have been seeded with millions of spat and are state sanctuaries.

The conservancy's volunteer water testing program is in its fourth season. Dissolved oxygen problems crop up and clarity is less than what's needed to support underwater grasses. However, bacteria problems are mostly restricted to times following significant rains. Volunteer data is supplemented by three automated monitoring systems.

These are real and measurable results that track remarkably to those planned in the 2004 report.

But the most significant development of the restoration is the teamwork that has evolved among the town, county, community groups and residents and supported by the state agencies and with state funding.

Indeed, this community is learning that what is at stake here is not just the Corsica River or its 26,000 acres of watershed, but the whole quality of life that we enjoy. The health of the watershed is being increasingly seen as a barometer of the quality of life in the community.

The Corsica is providing a lesson for all in how to save a watershed and a river. We are showing what it takes to get it done and that, in fact, it can be done. The restoration began with a belief that an ecosystem-wide approach was necessary.

Indeed, the resources and guidance of the Department of Natural Resources Ecosystem Restoration Center have been vital, along with other state agencies. But we have learned that along with ecosystem changes must come changes in community expectations and practices in the processes of their local governments.

I believe the key to restoring the Chesapeake is through restoring its watersheds in an ecosystem- and community-based manner.

It is not just adding funding initiatives; it is changing the way communities relate to their watersheds. We must change the processes that exist in the basic everyday functions that meet the needs of a community, in a way that also meets the needs of the watershed ecosystem.

We must plan, govern, manage and live with constant awareness of the health of our watersheds in mind if we are to restore successfully.

Frank DiGialleonardo is president of the Corsica River Conservancy. Learn more during the Corsica Watershed Awareness Day from noon until 4 p.m. on Sept. 20 at Bloomfield Farm just north of Centreville on Route 213. {Corrections:} {Status:}

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