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Making Waves: Episode 29 (June 24, 2009)


That beep you hear is a radio receiver. Allison Castellan and Christa Rabenold are trying to find an Eastern box turtle fitted with a small radio transmitter. The turtle lives in Otter Point Creek along the Chesapeake Bay north of Baltimore. Because of urbanization, road building, and pet collection in the region, there aren't too many of these small reptiles left. So the two NOAA volunteers are helping out for the day with an ongoing study to track the range and populations of the turtles.

This isn't part of Alison and Christa's normal duties in the Office of Coastal Resource Management back at NOAA Headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. It's one of many activities of the sixth annual NOAA Restoration Day.

Despite torrential rains and powerful thunderstorms, scores of NOAA employees joined up with state and local community volunteers on June 18th at locations in Maryland and Virginia for a day-long event to help out with activities ranging from weeding to planting underwater grass to tracking box turtles.

Today, we take you on-scene to Otter Point Creek.

It's Wednesday, July 8th, 2009, and those stories are coming up on this episode of Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.

Each year in June, hundreds of NOAA employees, along with state and local partners, get away from their offices for a day of hard work along the Chesapeake Bay. The volunteers tackle projects that help restore the Bay and surrounding areas to more healthy states.

Restoration Day 2009 was in two locations this year. The main restoration activities were held near Abington, Maryland at a place called Otter Point Creek, part of the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. And farther South, a smaller group gathered at First Landing State Park near Virginia Beach.

We caught up with Alison Hammer at Otter Point Creek the morning of the event after she finished getting all of the teams off to their working areas. Alison is the chief of the coastal resources assessment branch in the National Ocean Service's special projects office,. She was part of the NOAA team that started Restoration Day six years ago, and she's been in charge of putting it together every year since.

"This event is so popular that we have a waiting list. We went from the first event, probably was 50 people, and now we're at 150 here. Another the way the event has grown is now we have a complementary event in VA in another part of the Chesapeake Bay run by the NOAA Ch. Bay office down there, and there's 50 volunteers doing other activities at First Landing State Park (near Norfolk). So that's about 250 people if you think about, including all the partners and helpers we work with, all working together on one day for NOAA Restoration."

Alison said she was very happy with how many volunteers made it to the event, because the weather wasn't very cooperative this year.

"Today we woke up with a major thunderstorms and torrential downpours, we knew the weather looked like it was going to be rainy, but never saw rain like this before, so I am so pleased to see how many people did show up, and they are doing all the activities so far, except we probably will limit the canoeing around looking for native grasses underwater, because the water is cloudy from all the rain."

While teams won't be able to see much in the cloudy water, they will be planting new native underwater grasses that were actually grown indoors in 22 different NOAA offices over the past four months. She explains:

"So here we're planting two types: one is wild celery and one is water star grass, so it's more freshwater because we're North in the Bay. We'll plant them as seeds or little sprouts, and they grow for three months in the offices themselves. So we have a big tub with water filled up… we actually use kitty litter trays with soil and sand in it, and then it's filled with water in a big black tub, and it's all throughout our office buildings at NOAA, and it has a real positive effect, it's a real water cooler kind of thing – people come by and check and say 'oh these grasses are helping the Bay, and there's a learning component, so it's really useful for people to learn about it."

As we left Alison to get back to the task of keeping the ongoing activities flowing smoothly, we ran into Shauna Jay, park manager at Otter Point Creek's Anita C. Leight Estuary Center. We ducked inside to avoid a light drizzle to talk about the Center and the activities of the day.

"We're known as the best kept secret in Hartford County, one of three sites that make up the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve of Maryland… We sit on the Northern part of the Chesapeake Bay. We're owned and operated by Hartford County, but we have more than just a Parks and Recreation mission. We do research and monitoring … but we also do all kinds of fun environmental education, so we do canoeing, pontooning, kayaking, hiking, kids programs, summer camps – you name it we do it – just to get the community out to learn about the environment and Chesapeake Bay.

She gave us a quick rundown of the activities for the day:

"Well, today is a big restoration day, and as you know, centers like mine need lots and lots of help. We have about 75 active volunteers, but there's only so much we can do. So when NOAA offered to come out and have the restoration day here, I was excited because there's and endless amount of activities we need help with."

"So today folks are helping to repair a pond, it's a working pond that helps with the water quality in the Chesapeake, they are pulling out invasive plants, they are looking for trash and planting trees and searching for turtles, so they're learning a little bit about our telemetry program, which is some research we do here. They are working in my native gardens pulling weeds – bless you – in the rain. And there are a variety of other things too, so there are some NOAA-driven initiatives. They're looking for bench marks and burying bench marks, and all kinds of cool stuff."

Before we left Shauna to get back to work, we also asked her to explain one more thing: what exactly is an estuary, anyway?

"That's the number one question: what is an estuary? An estuary is a body of water where the river meets the sea, basically. So it's a bay, but not every bay is actually an estuary. So the Chesapeake Bay is an estuary and it meets the Atlantic ocean and all of the rivers over six states all come together and meet in one area, so an estuary is a brackish water environment, which means it's a mix of salt and fresh, which produces wonderful habitat for tons of species, so it's very, very species rich, and there are species that live in estuaries that don't live in salt water or in fresh water so it's its own unique habitat. They're very important buffers for the health of all our rivers and it's an amazing, amazing place where you find lots of wetlands."

Back outside, Eric Schwab, the Deputy Secretary of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, was also on hand to volunteer for the day with restoration efforts. Since about half of Chesapeake Bay lies within the state of Maryland, the health and productivity of this giant estuary is one of the big focuses of the state. He said that while it would be preferable to be focus on conservation -- to help prevent problems from developing in the first place – most of the challenges faced by the Bay today are restoration challenges.

"It's restoring water quality, it's restoring important biological features like submerged grasses and oysters, and it's restoring populations of fish like shad that at one time migrated in and out of the Bay in great numbers and frankly today are represented by a fraction of their former selves. So a lot of the challenges are restoration challenges and those challenges move inland too. When you look at the Bay and many of its problems, you can't help but look at the impacts that have occurred terrestrially around the watershed, so going back and retrofitting things like parking lots, going back and restoring riparian buffers, going back and restoring the integrity of freshwater systems that feed the Bay, are important parts of this challenge as well."

He also talked about the importance of the Bay to the state and the region.

"Well when you look at Maryland, you can't help but think of anything but the Chesapeake Bay – I mean it is really, not only the physiographic center, but our cultural heart and soul, as well, And I think people in Maryland relate to the Bay in ways that probably environmentally very few other people around the country have the opportunity to connect with such an important natural feature. It's important to us economically, we still have tremendous seafood resources that come from the Bay, it's important to us socially and recreationally, as people flock to the Bay on a regular basis to boat and fish and swim. And we just take great pride in the Bay, we're a little sad at the condition we've allowed it to get into but we're bound and determined to correct that."

Correcting that – bringing the Bay back to a more healthy state – is also now a higher federal priority. In May, President Obama signed an executive order for protection and restoration of the Bay that lays out a new and larger federal role and leadership in this effort. NOAA's role in this will be to work with the Department of the Interior to develop three important reports: one on climate change and adaptation, one about the relationship of habitat and living resources in the area, and one that focuses on improving monitoring to help us get a system-wide perspective on the health of the bay. Once completed, these reports will be rolled in with reports about the Bay generated by other federal agencies, and all of this will be pieced together to form one unified strategy in partnership with the states to protect the Bay.

One of the main people involved in this new initiative is Sean Corson, deputy director of the NOAA Chesapeake Bay office. We spoke with Corson at the event about how an event like Restoration Day plays into the bigger picture about protecting the Bay:

"There's a clear recognition that we need to do more to benefit the health of the bay. A lot of that starts in small tributaries like the one we're on here today on Otter Point Creek. There's nearly 17 million people that live in this watershed, and they live in and around these little nooks and crannies that all drain down into the main stem of the bay, and many of our every day activities that are in our backyards, runoff from parking lots, and agricultural practices have a dramatic impact on the Bay every day. So efforts like this help connect people to what those impacts are and what we can do to correct them."

He added that he's found that most people who come to work for NOAA do so because they want to be involved in protection and restoration efforts, and because they're interested in environmental issues and want to get engaged. Restoration Day is one of the few chances each year that most employees get to connect with the work they're doing day in and day out.

"Every day, people work in a whole range of different scenarios, but they don't often get out and have a hands on experience we're they're really working on an actual restoration project where they can see the results of their labor at the end of the day. And this helps connect people to the reason why they're going to work every day. So I think that's important, in addition, the bay restoration effort has been going on for a long time and it's going to require federal and state and county initiatives – big programmatic initiatives – to get off the ground, but it's also going to rely heavily on just individual commitment. People need to come out here and spend the time to work in their back yard. Between those two, it's ultimately how we're going to provide the appropriate amount of protection for the Bay. "

Cora Johnson is one of the NOAA employees who braved the thunder and heavy rain to come out for the day. Cora is an administrative officer for the office of habitat conservation in the restoration center of NOAA's Marine Fisheries Office. She was assigned to a team that dove into the bushes and trees of a large native garden in front of Otter Point Creek's Anita C. Leight Estuary Center to pull out weeds and invasive species to clear the way for native plants to flourish. It was her first time taking part in Restoration Day.

"We found lots of interesting animals like spiders and crawling creatures. That's been interesting, but it's been real fun. I have a wonderful group that I'm working with. My job is mostly sitting at the desk pushing numbers, papers, and calling people on the phone. I wanted to come out and see what we are representing. The restoration center, their job is to restore things back to its natural state, so this is what we're doing to this land- we're restoring this garden to what it really looked like when they first created it. "

If you want to see some pictures taken at this year's Restoration Day at Otter Point Creek and get links to some of the offices and programs we talked about today, head over to our Web site at and check out our Weekly News section.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States and is one of the most productive bodies of water in the world. Otter Point Creek is one part of the Chesapeake Bay national estuarine research Reserve in Maryland, and it's one of 27 reserves that protect over 1.3 million acres of estuarine land around the country. It's called the National Estuarine Research Reserve System and it's managed by NOAA in partnership with coastal states. You can learn more at

We'd like to thank the many people who spoke with us for this episode.

And that's all for this week. If you questions about this week's podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean, visit us online, or send us an email at

Now let's bring in the ocean....

This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.