The City of Fairfax celebrated Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week with a city council proclamation issued on May 22, but for students in the city’s public schools, work on restoring the estuary is not confined to seven days per year.
Designated with legislation enacted in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week takes place annually on the second week of June to encourage “citizens and groups to hold events that educate, inspire, and increase enthusiasm and support among residents of the watershed for restoring the Bay,” according to the Chesapeake Bay Commission’s 2016 legislative summary.
While this year’s Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week occurs from June 2 to 9, Fairfax City’s Fairfax High School, Lanier Middle School, Daniels Run Elementary School, and Providence Run Elementary School all offer education, activities, and programs related to the bay for students throughout the academic year.
“We all as global citizens have a responsibility to our community, and the Bay is part of our community,” City of Fairfax Schools Superintendent Phyllis Pajardo said. “The work with the Chesapeake Bay furthers us to be more conscious about our water supply as well as our plant and life supply.”
The Chesapeake Bay itself encompasses 200 miles from Havre de Grace, Md., to Norfolk, but the larger watershed stretches about 64,000 square miles across six states and Washington, D.C., as it connects more than 100,000 rivers and streams to the Atlantic Ocean, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an independent conservation organization dedicated to the bay’s protection and restoration.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed is the U.S.’s largest estuary, a body of water formed where freshwater meets salt water, and the third largest in the world. It helps filter and protect drinking water for 75 percent of the 10 million people who live along or near the bay.
In addition to supporting surrounding communities of people, the Chesapeake Bay contains more than 3,600 different plant and animal species, including 348 species of fin fish and 173 species of shellfish, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation indicated in its 2016 State of the Bay report that the Chesapeake has made notable progress in recent years with improvements in pollution, habitat health, and its four fisheries, where blue crabs saw a particularly dramatic increase in their population from 2014.
However, the bay and its surrounding watershed continue to face numerous challenges, including pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus, habitat destruction due to human development, and climate change, which has already produced warmer temperatures and rising sea levels.
Fixing these problems will take a lot of work from all communities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but students, faculty, and staff in the City of Fairfax Schools have been contributing for at least the past 10 years.
With a 2017 enrollment of 4,851 students, Fairfax City schools conducted a year-long study of the health of Daniels Run, a stream that originates at the center of Fairfax City and flows northeast into Accotink Creek. The study was incorporated in the school system’s regular science curriculum.
Lanier Middle School earth science teacher Faiza Alam ties a required unit about understanding the environment directly into the Chesapeake Bay, educating students about watersheds, runoff, and how conductivity, acidity, temperature, and other factors determine the quality of water.
In addition to having students build small fish tanks to replicate an aquatic ecosystem, Alam takes students to the Cub Run creek in Chantilly so that they can conduct real-world water quality testing and study the area’s topography and biodiversity.
“I can deliver the content as much as I want, but if I don’t make that connection outside, kids at this age, if you don’t answer the why, it’s irrelevant to them,” Alam, who runs Lanier’s eco club, said. “The best way to answer the why is to make them do that and to see it.”
For students that show a particular passion for environmental science, Alam organizes yearly boat trips on the Anacostia River where students work with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to collect and analyze water samples and to see how urban activity affects the river’s aquatic life.
Students at Lanier Middle School have also participated in the Caring for Our Watersheds competitions hosted annually at George Mason University since 2013.
Launched in Alberta, Canada, in 2007, the Caring for Our Watersheds program challenges students to develop proposals that could help solve an environmental concern in their local watershed.
Past Caring for Our Watersheds projects designed by Lanier students include a study of the harmfulness of plastic bottles that led the school to install 10 water bottle filling stations and the construction of a bio-retention cell on school grounds that collects rain water before it erodes the soil and carries sediment down storm drains.
As mandated by the federal Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act, Fairfax City maintains a Chesapeake Bay Preservation Appendix as part of its comprehensive plan. The appendix guides the city’s programs, regulations, and resources for protecting the bay.
The city is also preparing to undertake a $1.3 million restoration project to remove watershed disturbances and install stabilizing structures and vegetation along approximately 1,900 linear feet along a tributary of Accotink Creek.
According to the project description on Fairfax City’s website, stream restoration minimizes flooding, protects natural floodplains, prevents erosion of personal property, reduces water pollutants, and improves ecological functions, including by creating a healthy habitat for plants and animals.
The City of Fairfax sweeps streets from March to November in order to remove harmful pollutants like litter and sand that results from snow removal activities before they can find their way into the watershed.
Like Fairfax County, Fairfax City partners with the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District to host annual rain barrel workshops for residents. Rain barrels are placed under building downspouts to capture runoff, which can then be saved to water plants.
“By decreasing the volume of storm runoff, rain barrels…help moderate stream erosion and the resulting pollution that is impairing the Chesapeake Bay,” the NVSWCD page on Fairfax County’s website says.
For community members interested in assisting efforts to protect Chesapeake Bay, Kupka recommends that they pick up waste left behind by their pets since it contains harmful nutrients and bacteria that can pollute waterways.
They should avoid releasing toxic substances or hazardous materials like paints and preservatives down storm drains, which lead directly into streams and waterways rather than going through a treatment plant like sewers.
Planting native trees and shrubs helps prevent soil erosion that goes into the bay while also filtering water as it runs on the ground surface. Residents can also make their lawns more environmentally friendly by reducing or eliminating the use of fertilizer, chemical herbicides, and pesticides.
In addition, the City of Fairfax’s partnership with the NVSWCD has also resulted in a Virginia Conservation Assistance Program that provides financial and educational assistance to property owners who install rain gardens, constructed wetlands, green roofs, and other conservation practices in their yards.
The program reimburses up to 75 percent of the entire project cost depending on the project and applicant type.
“These projects would help reduce storm water runoff and intensity, therefore helping protect our streams,” Kupka said. “This is a really great program, because it gives up to a 75 percent rebate for these projects, so it’s a really nice incentive for folks to install those storm water projects on their property.”