Susquehanna grasses weathered storms

The Baltimore Sun

A bit of good news - the vast, grassy Susquehanna Flats apparently weathered Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in good shape.

Scientists conducting their annual checkup of the bay's underwater grasses found the lush bed at the mouth of the Susquehanna River largely intact when they examined aerial photos taken in late November.

Researchers had feared for upper bay grasses, and the Flats especially, after seeing the heavy rains and flooding produced by Irene in late August followed by Lee in early September.  After Lee in particular, the raging Susquehanna flushed an estimated four million tons of sediment out into the bay from behind Conowingo Dam.  Some predicted the storms would deal a serious setback to the bay's health, just as it was showing some signs of improvement.

The aerial photos did show some declines along the edges of the big Flats grass bed, according to Robert Orth of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who leads the annual grass survey.  To see for yourself, check out the side-by-side photos here.

With such limited loss, Orth said his "gut feeling says next year should be ok for grass beds up there.  And the fact we are now seeing overwintering waterfowl in our photographs is a good sign that lots of food is available there."

The bay's grasses provide food and shelter for waterfowl, fish and crabs. Affected by nutrient and sediment pollution as well as other factors, they died back dramatically in the 1970s and '80s and have been gradually recovering since - though with some backsliding in places and at times.

Scientists say their report on the overall health of the bay grasses won't be ready for a few more months. This has been an especially challenging year for the bay, one of extreme weather, from heavy spring rains to blistering summer heat and then the storms.  The full impact of those stresses on all aspects of this vast, complex ecosystem may not manifest themselves until well into next year.

But Richard Batiuk, associate director for science at the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program office in Annapolis, said he takes heart from the durability  of the Susquehanna Flats, which he called "an indicator of the Bay's resilience."

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