Bay Communities Look to Forests to Mitigate Floods, Fires of Climate Change
On the lower Eastern Shore, just south of Snow Hill, they’re cutting down trees to try to resurrect historical swamps that were drained hundreds of years ago to create farm fields and tree plantations.
Those trees are slowly being replaced by Atlantic White Cedar, a tree that once thrived in the swamp. Draining the swamp led to floods and fires. But replacing the original trees will help restore the swamp, explains Deborah Landau, a conservation ecologist with the Nature Conservancy.
“When we get these catastrophic rain events the water will be captured by the swamp instead of just running off the top of the land,” she says. “And when we have these larger, longer drought events, because we've restored the swamps, they'll be able to withstand the longer drought periods as well.”
The project at the conservancy’s Nassawango Creek Preserve just south of Snow Hill, came about because of an accidental meeting 10 years ago with officials at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
“Just the year where we had prepped this site and it was ready to go, The National Aquarium planting site had fallen through,” Landau recounted. “And they had all these kids with thousands of little Atlantic White Cedars without a place to plant it.
The Aquarium has a program funded by the Chesapeake Bay Trust that teaches students from Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset Counties, near the preserve, how to grow and then plant the saplings. They learned how their trees keep water in the Nassawango and out of nearby neighborhoods. And, Landaus says, there hasn’t been a major fire since the program began.
The Trust gets money for grants for bay restoration projects from drivers who display those “Treasure the Chesapeake” Maryland tags on their cars. The drivers pay an extra $20 for their tags and the state sends half of that to the Trust.
For 10 years, the aquarium has been one recipient of those grants to run its tree-planting project with the Eastern Shore students that helps communities become more resilient to climate change.
It’s just one of several tree and forest projects throughout the Chesapeake region.
In Virginia Beach, city officials from the Princess Anne District met with The Nature Conservancy about using forests to stem flooding. Their biggest concern was southerly storms that not only create storm water, but also a domino effect that pushes water from sounds to bays to tributaries and into low-lying neighborhoods.
Barbara Henley, a farmer and city councilwoman whose family goes back generations in the area, says flooding in her lifetime has been getting worse with climate change.
“We're a part of the Albemarle Watershed, so we have wind tides instead of the lunar tides that the Chesapeake Bay watershed area has,” she explains. “And when we get a prolonged southern wind we get all this water pushed up here and it can't get out until the winds shift to the north.”
Henley says city officials want to consider solutions beyond stricter development regulation and expensive infrastructure flood controls like levees and tide gates. And that led them to trees.
“One aspect that we discovered is that we've got a lot of really neat forest land,” she says. “I learned how to say evapotranspiration because they taught me this process that the trees take up a lot more water than they need and it goes into the air and it can be a component in our flooding strategies.”
Daniel McLaughlin, a scientist at Virginia Tech is locating forests and lands that work the hardest to reduce the risk and severity of flooding. He plans to devise a tool city officials can use to identify the best areas for reforestation and conserve forests that already sop up water.
“We're also getting evapotranspiration (data) for unforested land uses, so we can also compare the difference in what an urban system is doing - which is not much in terms of evapotranspiration,” he says.
That's why urban areas like Baltimore, where there are far more roads, buildings and parking lots than trees, are referred to as heat islands.
Think of walking across an asphalt parking lot on a hot summer day to get into a building. The lot can't release all that heat by evaporating water like a green space with trees and bushes can.
“It’s just like you put a jacket on to take a run,” McLaughlin says. “You can't perspire, you can't cool yourself off.
Virginia Beach officials have had clashes with residents over more controversial solutions such as pumping water away from neighborhoods back into tributaries. But Councilwoman Henley says there’s “no silver bullet” to solve this problem.
“One thing is not going to do everything and this idea of using trees or looking at trees is just one aspect of it,” she says. “It's all a part of getting these potential tools examined.”
Meanwhile in Baltimore, trees already are part of the city’s climate change resilience plan. The city is one of the few nationally to increase its canopy.
Last year, through TreeBaltimore, the city spent $800,000 planting about 2,000 adult trees and gave another $300,000 worth of trees to residents and non-profits to counteract heat islands and to help absorb storm water.