SWOOPE — We think of the Chesapeake Bay as some distant body of water all the way across the state, but the beginnings of one of North America’s greatest estuaries bubbles up right in our backyards here in the Shenandoah Valley. The Bay, nearly 65,000 square miles, is actually the catch basin for thousands of rivers and streams from parts of six states (New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia).
For a number of years now the first week in June has been set aside as Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week to celebrate the majesty and fragility of this precious natural resource. On Tuesday, about 70 conservation-minded folks gathered on the banks of the Middle River in Swoope to learn more about what can be done to protect and clean up the Bay.
And it all starts in our backyards, the crowd was told. Many people do not realize that no water flows into Augusta County — it all arises here from springs and flows out of the county through streams and rivers that eventually become the Shenandoah River or the James River. The waters from these two storied rivers wind up in the Chesapeake Bay.
The longest river in Augusta, the Middle River, arises six miles south of the Swoope farm where the group gathered Tuesday. It meanders north for 70 miles until it joins with the South and North Rivers and becomes the South Fork of the Shenandoah at Port Republic in Rockingham County. From there it flows north to Front Royal where it meets up with the North Fork of the Shenandoah. At Harpers Ferry the Shenandoah merges into the Potomac and flows east through Washington, D.C., and then eventually ends up in the Bay.
Tuesday’s gathering, hosted by the husband-wife farming team of Bobby Whitescarver and Jeanne Hoffman, together with Virginia Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mt. Solon, a member of the tri-state Chesapeake Bay Commission, focused on the Middle River, a half-mile of which runs through the farm where the event was held. Fifteen years ago, Hoffman and Whitescarver worked together to fence livestock out of the stream and allow a riparian buffer of trees and native plants to grow up along the banks of the river.
A decade and a half later, the success of the project is obvious. Although the Middle River seems like it would be far away from pollution, it is actually in real danger. Livestock poops in the river and their hoofs tear up already denuded stream banks and send choking sediment downstream. The result is that the overheated waters are contaminated with bacteria, and the chocolate-milk looking river creates a toxic environment to fish and other aquatic life.
Middle River is an impaired waterway, but when landowners do what this farm couple has done — fence the livestock out and restore the trees and other plants, Mother Nature can get to work and fix the habitat.
“Before meeting Bobby I had no idea that what I did on the farm affected anyone else downstream,” explained Hoffman regarding her conversations with the USDA soil scientist who would become her husband.
Eventually the two found that they could improve the farm and the environment by implementing best management practices such as were on display to the group visiting their farm. Whitescarver describes the couple’s farming “love story” as well as his lifetime of conservation service in his new book, Swoope Almanac: Stories of love, land, and water in Virginian’s Shenandoah Valley.
As a result of their decision to create a riparian buffer, guests Tuesday could sit under native trees, such as walnut, sycamore, and willow, which were planted by Mother Nature. “We have been able to reduce the fecal coliform (bacteria from animal waste) in our stretch of the river by 55 percent,” said Whitescarver. Much of that success is because the cattle are away from the river and the trees drop leaves into the stream to feed the aquatic ecosystem.
“Today our farm produces great food, great wildlife habitat, and clean water,” he exclaimed.
A number of other conservationists also spoke to the assembled group about the importance of restoring the Bay. Hanger, who has served on the Chesapeake Bay Commission since 2003, noted the “remarkable recovery” that the estuary is making as well as the need to do more. “There has been a tremendous effort in this region with the ag community and the conservation community joining in their voluntary efforts,” he said.
Amy Johnson, an ornithologist representing Virginia Working Landscapes, talked about a “biodiversity crisis” and the need to restore and connect more native habitats on privately-owned properties such as the ones in Swoope.
“Our future relies on us being able to connect habitats and create a corridor for the wildlife,” she said. After the official program, she led guests along the riparian buffer, looking for and listening for birds. “Let’s pause and listen to all the birds who would not be here except for this riparian buffer. These native species of trees are the epicenters for the breakfast, lunch, and dinner for birds because of the native insects that they attract,” she added.
All of the speakers for the day agreed that the success found on this 40-acre tract needed to be replicated far and wide.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Friends of the Middle River chairman Dave Mangun, noting that 20 percent of the streams in Augusta and Rockingham have been buffered and had livestock removed. The number needs to be 80 percent. “We fully support increased efforts in learning to do this better and doing more of it,” he added.
But successes like those found on this one Swoope farm are to be celebrated, especially during Chesapeake Bay Awareness week.
“One day, hopefully in my lifetime, we are going to be able to stock this stream with brook trout,” said Whitescarver.