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Racing to save the bay

The days of planting bay grass by hand may be coming to an end.

In a strange contest of machine vs. man, scientists are pitting a Florida farmer's experimental planting boat against a team of experienced divers in a race to restore underwater vegetation in tributaries in Baltimore and Harford counties.

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But bay advocates are hoping this competition will have a slightly different outcome than the legendary tale of John Henry, who defeated a steam engine in a man vs. machine race to lay railroad track, then died in his moment of victory.

"We need to find some kind of mechanical way of planting," said Bill Street, a watershed restoration scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We're a long way from our goals. If this works, we'll be able to plant much more. This really is an important test."

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Underwater grasses are crucial to the health and cleanliness of the bay, scientists say. They filter the water, generate oxygen, reduce erosion and provide shelter for fish and blue crabs. But after decades of pollution and nutrient runoff, hundreds of thousands of acres of grass have disappeared. Environmental groups and state agencies are trying to restore them, but planting by hand underwater is a slow and tedious process.

That's why Street and other scientists from the foundation, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are spending this week watching Jim Anderson at work on a boat that looks like it came from an eccentric inventor's lab.

The 53-year-old Anderson - who makes most of his living from a sod farm he owns near Tampa - said he was inspired to invent the boat when some of his favorite Florida fishing areas were closed after boat propellers had ravaged their underwater grasses. Seeing how long it took to replant by hand, he tinkered until he built something he thought was faster - a boat that works like a piece of underwater farm equipment.

Named J.E.B. for "Jim's Environmental Boat," the 25-foot vessel supports a pair of parallel wheels, each 9 feet in diameter, that extend into the water through the bottom. The wheels are studded with cylinders that hold grass seedlings.

Anderson stands on a raised platform in the bow, guiding the boat on a straight line, like a tractor depositing a row of seeds on a field. In the waters of the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center near Abingdon, the crop is not corn or soybeans, but tiny wild celery plants. As Anderson inches along, two helpers sit behind the wheels, clipping plant after plant to them.

In areas with hard bottoms, the plants are forced off the spokes and into the sediment with pressure from a water hose. But this sediment is soft muck, and the plants - which are held to the wheels by magnets - slide off easily and settle into the bottom. In five minutes, the boat drops 100 plants in two neat 150-foot rows.

"It's taken a lot of adjustments to get this boat just right," said Anderson, who has spent about $68,000 on the J.E.B. His fledgling company, Seagrass Recovery, has 11 boats and has won contracts for underwater aquatic recovery efforts in Texas and Florida.

Anderson's boat doesn't eliminate people entirely. Tiny plants need to be grown and prepared, which is why a dozen volunteers, such as 15-year-old Kiley Ford of Ruxton, sat at picnic tables yesterday on the shore of the center. They packed inch-tall wild celery plants and roots into peat pod wraps, tightly twisting rubber bands around them.

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"After a while, you get a rhythm, and it becomes fun," said Kiley. "I know this is really helping the bay."

Nina Luxmoore, a training coordinator with the foundation's Virginia office, said the plants will quickly break through the peat wraps and set roots. Had the spring been warmer, efforts to grow plants directly in the peat pods at local nurseries might have been more successful, she said, reducing the need for packing thousands by hand.

As Anderson deposited the bay grasses, Peter Bergstrom, a fishing biologist with NOAA, sat in a boat keeping time. Bergstrom is overseeing this week's $20,000 test - funded by $15,000 from NOAA and a $5,000 contribution of time and equipment from Anderson. The growth will be checked several times this summer and next year.

After the boat finished its work, divers were set to jump in and plant rows, allowing for a side-by-side evaluation. "We'll be doing a John Henry competition," Bergstrom said. "Even after all these years, the question is which will be faster and better, man or machine?"

This week's plantings off the Leight Estuary and Rocky Point Park in Essex mark the foundation's second test - two years ago, a similar one was tried on Virginia's Rappahannock River.

Many of the Virginia plants are still growing. "They did fairly well, but we think this experiment will be a more controlled situation," said Jill Bieri, an underwater grasses scientist with the foundation.

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The foundation would like to see 185,000 acres of grasses in the bay by 2010, compared with 85,000 acres in a 2001 survey. Planting would restore only a tiny fraction of those acres but could spark growth in other areas, scientists say.

Should the trial find that Anderson's boat is quicker and just as effective as human divers, foundation President William C. Baker said he hopes to make it part of the restoration process: "If we can demonstrate this boat works, perhaps we could purchase a boat and put it on the bay full time, while demonstrating to the states of Maryland and Virginia that they should become involved.

"Even with one boat full time it would still be a pilot project," he said. "Our goal is to demonstrate solutions, and then encourage government to get involved and ramp up the process."

For the record

Because of an editing error, the occupation of folk legend John Henry was incorrectly described in a July 16 article on restoring Chesapeake Bay grass. Henry did not lay railroad track, as the article implied, but instead cleared the way for track layers in cuts and tunnels by driving metal stakes into rock barriers. Those stakes created holes that were filled with explosives to loosen the rock. The Sun regrets the error.


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