Category Archives: Wetlands

Climate Change, Wetlands & Mitigation: A Workshop at Stetson University

Last week I traveled to St. Petersburg, Florida for the first time and walked along the beach in the dark. Moonlight sparkled on the waves, which I couldn’t see because it was pitch-black. The strange sound of chirping birds at my feet caught me off guard because I couldn’t see them; I spun around shining the Assistive Light app on my smartphone to light my path through the dark sand.

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Ed Thomas spoke about climate change adaptation and flood mitigation in a wetlands context

The Environmental Law Institute partnered with Stetson University College of Law to hold a workshop on the legal and scientific responses to a Supreme Court case known as Koontz. Nearly 70 people attended the workshop. For a local radio coverage of the workshop, click here.  I posted live Tweets for @ELI_Wetlands throughout the workshop, while the speakers, including renown wetlands ecologist, Dr. William Mitsch, Director of the Everglades Wetlands Research Park in Florida, and Ed Thomas, President of the National Hazard Mitigation Association, led the discussion. Royal Gardner, a professor of environmental law at Stetson and author of the book, Lawyers, Swamps and Money, framed the issues. (I’m reading his book now, thanks to Ed!) A series of panel discussions rounded out the day, ending with a pool-side reception, where the conversation about wetlands continued. It was a lively discussion enriched by student and audience participation during the small group break-out sessions. In my group, a number of participants discussed the NGO perspective of wetlands implications of the Koontz case. For more information about the Koontz case, see this SCOTUS blog post. (Supreme Court blog)

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Visiting the U.S. Botanic Garden for the National Wetlands Awards Ceremony

Last week I started my new job as Editor of the National Wetlands Newsletter, a bi-monthly publication of the Environmental Law Institute, based in Washington, D.C. It was the first time I visited Washington as an adult (not counting changing planes at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA). My grandfather, Rufus Stetson, brought me to Washington when I was 13 and we stayed at his “club” and visited the Washington Zoo. Bebop, as I called him, was a U.S. tax attorney for the federal government (Justice Department, U.S. Treasury, etc.) in the 1950s and ’60s, and so it seemed fitting to me that I would begin this new role at the Environmental Law Institute while walking in his old stomping grounds in the NW quarter.

I stayed on E Street, a few blocks from the Smithsonian museums–although I worked until after 6pm most evenings, and the museums closed at 5:30pm (except for Fridays and weekends) so I didn’t get a chance to see any of the Smithsonian museums during this trip. On May 9th, I attended the National Wetlands Awards ceremony at the U.S. Botanic Garden, which I loved exploring. Severe allergies gripped me as soon as I arrived in D.C. on Sunday evening, and I couldn’t breathe well most of the week. As I walked around the exhibits of various ecosystems in the Botanic Garden, I breathed easiest in the “Hawaii” exhibit.  I confess that I went to “Hawaii” every chance I got (a few times) throughout the evening’s activities en route to the ladies’ room or just to catch my breath. The ceremony recognized seven leaders in wetland categories, e.g. State/Tribal Program Management, Community Leadership, Education/Outreach. ELI’s President John Cruden gave the keynote address and all of the speakers, including the presenters and the award winners, inspired us with stories about protecting and restoring wetlands. Starting in a couple of weeks, I will become the Manager of the National Wetlands Awards program.  I’ll be responsible for planning the ceremony for May 2014, the program’s 25th anniversary.

If I don’t write much in this blog for the next few weeks, it’s only because I’ve taken the helm at the National Wetlands Newsletter, and I’m focused on setting up my new office. I will also be working on the two new websites for the National Wetlands Newsletter and the National Wetlands Awards in the coming weeks. If you’re an avid reader of the NWN, please reach out to me with feedback or suggestions as I work on the new website and summer issue.

Healthy Waters Coalition – What’s on Our Minds, In Our Hearts

At my Healthy Waters Coalition meeting tonight, where we discussed the value of accurate, balanced information about oil spill prevention, I accidentally spilled pink lemonade across the agenda.  (From now on, the incident will be remembered as the “pink spill,” and it can be added to a long list of funny things I have done while leading coalition meetings.) I began to think about what’s really motivating our efforts to inform and educate Sebago Lakes Region citizens and local businesses about watershed issues.

We are a water-based economy here in this part of southern Maine. Boat rentals and recreation-based businesses, real estate and restaurants, florists and landscaping contractors, summer camps for children and accommodations (think: Inn by the Pond), not to mention waterfront property in towns–and property taxes paid to Towns–all bring in millions of dollars in annual revenue for the Sebago Lakes Region. The State of Maine tracks the annual revenue for freshwater fishing and accommodations for several Lakes Region towns. Wetlands are valued for their ecological services, too, and that translates to dollars. Real dollars. Wetlands attenuate flooding and aid in filtering waters to provide good water quality in our groundwater, which produces the drinking water for those who have private wells.  All of the headwater streams (94-100% of streams) in the region are located in Source Water Protection Areas (SPAs), meaning that they directly feed into a public drinking water system. In our region, that system is Sebago Lake, which is so clean, it’s exempt from the federal filtration requirement, an expensive option if ever it were to become necessary for the Portland Water District to put in place.

I want to reach out to other groups engaged in an open dialogue about the possible transportation of oil sands through New England and the importance of protecting our local watersheds, local economy–as the two are interconnected.  While the HWC already has members in 8 Lakes Region towns, representatives from local government boards and committees, watershed organizations, local businesses and other interests, such as Saint Joseph’s College, and we have partnered with some fantastic environmental and conservation-oriented nonprofit organizations already, I’d like to connect the Healthy Waters Coalition with a broader network.  I’m interested in connecting with folks at ConservAmerica, town and city revitalization committees, regional Chambers of Commerce, and the business community. We have so much invested in our waters. While pondering this, I scribbled some thoughts and turned it into this info-graphic (below). I like how it came out. Let me know what you think.

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The State(s) of Sea Level Rise Science

Peaks Island, Maine

Peaks Island, Maine

In early April, I read an issue of a Peaks Island, Maine newspaper. On the front page, a story’s headline caught my eye:  “Sea level rise not caused by climate change, scientists confirm.” At first I assumed it was an April Fool’s joke, but the date was not April 1st. Then I got upset. I read. It seems that the journalist had (mis)interpreted a report on sea levels in Casco Bay that affirmed the sea level has risen for much longer than most people have known about global climate change. In fact, the State of Maine has over 100 years worth of sea level rise data because the City of Portland has tracked sea level in Portland harbor since 1901. That’s valuable data. The University of Southern Maine has conducted a series of studies on sea level rise, sustainability and the economics involved with planning for adaptation. According to the Environmental Finance Center at the Muskie School (USM), “at least 100 coastal New England towns will be impacted by sea level rise and increased storm surge from climate change.” Read about their COAST and Climate Ready Estuary projects here.

The State of Maine published its climate change action plan in 2004. It identified sea level rise adaptation planning as a necessity. In particular, the Maine Geological Survey conducted several pilot projects that assessed coastal wetland migration. The state’s coastal zoning laws and management practices changed several years ago to reflect sea level rise. Read the 2010 report, “People and Nature: Adapting to a Changing Climate, Charting Maine’s Course.” A great list of collaborators contributed to the development of “People and Nature,” including Natural Resources Council of Maine, several state agencies, several cities and Maine Coast Heritage Trust. It’s hard to find on the state’s website because the State Planning Office’s website was moved and merged with those of other departments.

Meanwhile, adaptation planning has moved to the forefront of climate change science in recent years. Sea level rise scientists at NASA, USGS and other agencies engaged in an online chat session about the state of the science for sea level rise and adaptation planning in early April 2013. (You can listen to the discussion after-the-fact.) What I found interesting is that salt marsh ecology and wetlands play such a vital role in our understanding of sea level rise and its implications for coastal systems. Over the past 6 years, I’ve done some research on sea level rise and learned of sea level rise tools and adaptation planning efforts underway all over the country. A hotspot for sea level rise research is the East coast of the United States, where sea level rise is occurring at a faster rate between Cape Cod and the coast of North Carolina—faster than anywhere else in the world.

Leah Stetson photo

Leah Stetson photo

Several other states have begun to plan for sea level rise. Click on the links below to learn more about what states are doing about sea level rise and adapting natural resource management strategies for climate change. In most cases, it’s a collaborative effort.

MA: Mass Fish & Game Adaptation Planning       MA sea level rise planning maps
MA: Climate Change Adaptation Advisory Committee
NY: New York Sea Level Rise Planning        NY Sea Level Rise Task Force Report 2010
CT: Connecticut Climate Change Adaptation Reports
RI: Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council Sea Level Rise Planning
NJ: New Jersey Coastal Management Program Sea Level Rise Planning
NJ: Sea Level Rise in New Jersey, New Jersey Geological Survey Report, 1998
NJ, DE, PA, NY: Delaware River Basin Commission Climate Change Hydrology Report, 2013
DE: Delaware Sea Level Rise Planning & Adaptation
MD: Living Shorelines Program (Chesapeake Bay Trust)
MD: A Sea Level Response Strategy for Maryland (2000)
VA: Planning for Sea Level Rise, Virginia Institute for Marine Science
VA Sea Level Rise Maps
VA: Sea Level Rise Planning at Local Government Level in Virginia
VA: Government Plan for Development of Land Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise
GA: University of Georgia, Sea Grant – Sea Level Rise Planning & Research
FL: Florida’s Resilient Coasts: State Policy Framework for Adaptation (PDF)
FL: Multidisciplinary Review of Current Sea Level Rise Research in Florida  (University of Florida)
MS & AL: Mississippi and Alabama Sea Grant Consortium – Resilience in Coastal Communities
Gulf of Mexico States: Climate Community of Practice: Sea Level Rise Planning
LA: Coastal Protection & Restoration – Recommendations for Sea Level Rise Planning (Includes Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan)
CA: California’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Water Resources (2012)
CA: State Resources on Sea Level Rise and Adaptation Planning
CA: Adapting to Sea Level Rise Report (2012)
CA, OR, WA: Sea-Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon and Washington (2012)
OR: A Strategy for Adapting to Impacts of Climate Change on the Oregon Coast (2009)
OR: LiDAR Sea Level Rise Research (NOAA Digital Services)
WA: Addressing Sea Level Rise in Shoreline Master Programs (Guidance) (2007)
WA: Sea Level Rise Assessment: Impacts of Climate Change on the Coast (2007)
AK: Alaska’s Melting Permafrost and Melting Sea Ice (national research)
AK: Climate change impacts in Alaska (EPA)
NC: North Carolina Coastal Federation – Sea Level Rise

A note about North Carolina: Several state agencies, including the Departments of Environment & Natural Resources, Transportation and Commerce, all identified threats and risks from sea level rise in 2010. At the time, the state’s Governor signed a letter confirming this. Two years later, North Carolina’s State Senate passed a law that banned sea level rise adaptation planning based on the current science. The House of Representatives rejected the bill, but a compromised version of the bill called for a new study on sea level rise for North Carolina and a ban on exponential sea level rise predictions in modeling. Read this Scientific American article on NC and sea level rise, and the 2012 USGS study that found increasing sea level rise impacts on the coast between Cape Cod and the Carolinas. See “More unwanted national attention for North Carolina on sea level rise” (2013).

If you’re interested in a good summary of sea level rise policy in states, see this 2012 legislative report by Kristin Miller, et. al. (Connecticut General Assembly). It includes an analysis of sea level rise related policy in ten states (Louisiana, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia.)

Update: Check out Nickolay Lamm’s Sea Level Rise Images Depict What U.S. Cities Could Look Like In Future (PHOTOS) – click here. 

Convergence: Where Streams & Stories Connect

Eighteen years ago, my brother and I eloped with our mother to Kaua’i. I say “eloped” because the trip was a romantic surprise after my step-dad proposed over the phone. He was already there—on Kaua’i. It was February, 1995, my senior year of high school, and the end of February school vacation. I turned 18 during the 23 hour plane ride to the Big Island of Hawai’i. My parents—my mother and step-dad, married at the point of convergence, where two streams met before emptying into the Pacific. Waterfalls peeled like tropical fruit through the rainforest. Two fed these streams. Neither my brother nor I had ever experienced swimming in the Pacific Ocean, let alone kayaking through a jungle. One day we hiked to a massive 40-foot waterfall, which we learned had been featured in one of the King Kong movies. I slipped behind the falls into a cave, sprayed by its awesome force. Those streams created our new family.

Flash forward to 2013:  A small perennial stream meanders through my black ash seep, past a vernal pool and flows into the pond. It’s not dramatic. It’s barely audible. The nor’easter that took everyone on the East coast by surprise yesterday dropped over a foot of snow. It’s that light fluffy stuff perfect for a snowshoe hike. Everything’s quiet, cold and white. Yet the stream trickles, melting the snow on either side. It persists. This stream is one of many, many streams in Maine that flow either perennially, intermittently or ephemerally—that is, after storms. Streams criss-cross and converge, form major tributaries like Panther Run, feed creeks and rivers, such as the Crooked River, emptying into lakes, picturesque waters such as Panther Pond, and wetlands throughout the Sebago Lakes Region of southern Maine. Most of the residents in this region depend on the groundwater for their drinking water. Those residents in the Portland Water District get their drinking water from Sebago Lake. Either way, the streams that flow and converge throughout the state—even beyond this watershed—play an integral part of life as we know it.

In thinking about the importance of headwater streams, it’s useful to see streams in a larger watershed context. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched a great online tool with a headwater stream index for the entire United States. Maps showing stream data are available for 48 states (Alaska and Hawai’i are not available at the time of this post). EPA has published the summaries of findings from a 2009 study on intermittent, ephemeral and headwater streams. There’s information about public drinking water systems in the U.S., too. Local drinking waterinformation is also available by state.

What I found interesting in looking at stream data for the State of Maine is that I live in an area where 94-100% of stream miles are contained in Source Protection Areas (SPAs). An SPA is an area “upstream from a drinking water source or intake that contributes surface water flow to the drinking water intake within a 24-hour period.” (EPA, Office of Water) That means that most of, if not all of, the intermittent, headwater and ephemeral streams in those areas support public drinking water systems.

It makes sense. I live in a town that’s home to the “landlocked salmon” in Sebago Lake. The lake is one of the few lakes in the country that receives a Filtration Avoidance Waiver from the EPA. This waiver saves the communities in the region $125 million in construction and operation costs—since there is no need for a water treatment facility. I recently learned that if the Portland Water District had to invest in such a water treatment system, it would cost over $100 million. Currently, the cost-savings come from the convergence of headwater, intermittent and ephemeral streams throughout the Sebago Lakes Region watershed.  We also know that area wetlands are equally valuable for their ecological services, including flood attenuation and protecting water quality in those very streams. It is my hope as a local conservation official, and through volunteering with small watershed groups, like the Healthy Waters Coalition in the Sebago Lakes Region, we can inform and educate municipal decision-makers on the value of protecting headwater streams.

Meanwhile, the Maine Association of Wetland Scientists is holding its annual meeting on March 25th. This year’s meeting focuses on rivers and streams.

For further reading, check out these related blogs:

Streams Take Me By Surprise, by Travis Loop, EPA blog

Rivanna streams not safe for swimming and boating? Find out more on Thurs, March 21
Rivanna River Basin Commission (Charlottesville, VA)

Managing Municipal Stormwater: Protecting Water Quality, Streams and Communities
Penn State Extension Blog

Rivers, Streams, Water Falls, Food and More, by Bill Trussell, Fishing Through Life

For further information about streams, click here.

The Love Lives of Horseshoe Crabs, Not Cannibals

Amidst the studies on Hurricane Sandy’s impacts on coastal communities—which affected the lives of people, most notably—some recent studies have examined the impacts on the lives of a strange ancient creature: horseshoe crabs. Distant relatives of scorpions and spiders, horseshoe crabs are not true crabs, or crustaceans. They’ve been around for over 1 billion years and lived alongside dinosaurs. See “The Life and Times of the Earliest Horseshoe Crabs,” (Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum). Unlike a scorpion, crab or spider, horseshoe crabs don’t bite, sting or pinch. And unlike cannibalistic crustaceans, adult horseshoe crabs do not congregate (except to spawn seasonally), which is possibly a way to avoid large crabs attacking smaller horseshoe crabs—thus, avoiding cannibalistic behavior as a species. (Sekiguchi, Shuster, Jr., 1999) Their anatomy is interesting, as illustrated below.

Each spring, horseshoe crabs spawn along creek-mouth beaches and shoals. They like sandy beaches. Naturally, these coastal areas, rich in wetlands, peat bogs and saltwater marsh, were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. What’s more, sea level rise has eroded certain coastal beaches where horseshoe crabs used to spawn, decreasing the habitat suitable for spawning. See Sea Level Rise and the Significance of Marginal Beaches for Horseshoe Crab Spawning (Botton and Loveland, 2011).

In the Delaware Bay, for example, the American Littoral Society, along with the Wetlands Institute, the New Jersey Department of Environment Protection and New Jersey Audubon, have assessed the impacts of Hurricane Sandy on horseshoe crab populations in the Bay. Watch this video of horseshoe crab spawning in Delaware. Read Hurricane Sandy Race To Restore Horseshoe Crab Spawning Grounds (March 2013). Videos depict horseshoe crabs spawning, swimming upside down and righting themselves.

In a joint report by the Wetlands Institute, NJ Audubon Society and NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife (“Damage from Superstorm Sandy to Horseshoe Crab Breeding and Shorebird Stopover Habitat on Delaware Bay,” December 2012), wetlands did well overall, despite some “wash over” during storm surges of Hurricane Sandy, according to Lenore Tedesco, Ph.D. Director of Research at the Wetlands Institute. Yet a major finding was a 70% decrease in suitable breeding habitat for horseshoe crabs. In addition, there was about the same amount of increase in unsuitable habitat for horseshoe crab spawning. Specifically, the scientists classified the types of habitat into five categories:

  1. Optimal: undisturbed sand beach;
  2. Suitable: sand beach with only small areas of peat and/or backed by development
  3. Less Suitable: exposed peat in lower/middle intertidal zone;
    sand present in upper intertidal;
  4. Avoided habitat:  exposed peat or active salt marsh fringing the shoreline;
    no sand present
  5. Disturbed due to beach fill, riprap or bulkheading.
    (Niles, Tedesco, Sellers, et. al. 2012)

In areas where the habitat is less suitable, with exposed peat, there is less sand for the horseshoe crabs to lay their eggs. The full report includes recommendations for habitat restoration. For more information about post-Sandy restoration recommendations, visit the Wetlands Institute’s website here.

Many years ago, I learned that horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) lay at the heart of some medical advances in immunology research. Apparently, horseshoe crab blood and immunology can serve scientists with a model to develop treatments for patients with HIV, AIDS or other immune deficiency disorders. Its “blue blood” contains Limulus Amebocyte Lysate, which allows medical researchers to detect bacterial toxins. In ecological projects, the spawning and genetic diversity of horseshoe crabs is the focus, or the relationship between horseshoe crabs and fisheries. For an overview of various research projects on horseshoe crabs happening in 18 states and two countries, see these project summaries. There’s some fascinating research underway.

The Wetland Institute has a number of publications on its website related to horseshoe crab research and conservation. There’s also an “Adopt a Horseshoe Crab” program and horseshoe crab census data available from 1999-2009. In May, the Institute holds festival activities, including teaching tank/aquarium talks on saltmarsh ecology, shorebirds and horseshoe crabs. For more information about the Horseshoe Crab Festival in May,click here.

More videos:

See horseshoe crab counting (Washington Post video, June 2012)
NATURE program on horseshoe crabs (PBS, 2008)
Horseshoe crab documentary (Nick Baker, Science Channel)

For more on horseshoe crab biology and ecology, see this National Park Service webpage and materials developed by the Mid-Atlantic Sea Grant and NOAA joint programs on horseshoe crab research. Finally, check outhttp://horseshoecrab.org/ which houses an online warehouse of information on the biology, conservation and research of horseshoe crabs.

Wetland Ferns Webinar

February is one of my favorite months. Some may dislike “dreary February” but I am biased; it’s my birthday month. As a special treat, I participated in an afternoon “Swamp Seminar” to learn how to identify northeastern wetland ferns. The webinar is part of an online training series offered by Swamp School. After the training, I earned a certificate.  Since I’ve written about ferns a few times for this blog, I thought I better brush up on fern morphology, before I made a fern faux pas. And as it happens, I was wrong about one plant: sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) is a member of the heath family, not a true fern.

The “Swamp Seminar” on wetland ferns started with the parts of a fern. Prior to this class, I knew to refer to the frond, which is the whole fern leaf, and I understood that rhizomes are the roots, but the rest of a fern’s morphology was new information. It was fascinating to learn that a fern might be identified based on whether it is once, twice or thrice pinnate–meaning, the number of cuts on the pinna, or leaflet. Lady Fern, a common fern that grows throughout the northeast, is three-times pinnate with a rough-edged leaflet, making it look lacy. Several ferns have similarly feminine names like Venus Hair Fern (Adiantum capillus‐veneris) and Northern Maiden-Hair Fern (Adiantum pedatum), or Maiden-Hair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), which grows near waterfalls and is said to be “good for the spleen.”

For wetland professionals, the training addressed whether each fern is an Obligate Wetland species, meaning that it always occurs in a wetland, also known as a hydrophyte (loves water); a Facultative Wetland species, which means that the fern usually shows up in a wetland, but can also be found in upland areas; or, thirdly, it may be a Facultative species, commonly occurring in both wetland and upland areas. Ferns that fit this last category–facultative, are still important to know because they may help someone identify the edge of a wetland.

Identifying wetland plants is fairly complex. See this USDA page on wetland indicator information, for a more specific explanation. Last fall, the National Wetland Plant List was updated and published by the Army Corps of Engineers. ASWM offered a training session on how to use the NWP List website (see this recorded presentation).  Several publications are also available that aid in using this plant list, including A Field Guide to the National Wetland Plant List: Wetland Ratings for Plants of the United States by Steve Chadde, 2012.

Among the many types of ferns covered in the Swamp Seminar, participants learned how to identify Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), Fragile fern (Cystopteris fragilis) and Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana), which has a distinctive shape. The Swamp School webinar included access to an online tool kit, which allows participants to reference handouts. The website and webinar training are well-organized and condensed to relay a great deal of knowledge. It’s suitable for intermediate and advanced levels—and ideal for wetlandkeepers. Swamp School also offers classes on wetland delineation–in both classroom, field and webinar formats with live, interactive training.  For more information, visit SwampSchool.org.

Update: Hydric Soil Indicators Webinar March 20, 2013. For more information, visitSwampSchool.org