Walking Virtually to Protect Chesapeake Bay

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, September 2020

By Dr. Emmanuel D'Silva

Lockdowns and other restrictions on account of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an explosion of human creativity. Walking the Watershed - virtually - was one such innovation crafted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) to help raise funds to protect a large water body in the eastern part of the United States. 

To get over “cabin fever” while being stuck in the US for over five months, I signed up for the walk and adventure. I formed a virtual team of 10 people comprising family, friends, and ex-colleagues from India, Germany, Australia, and the US. I called the team “Walk the Talk” in honour of Prabhakar Tamboli, Emeritus Professor of Agriculture at the University of Maryland (age 91) who often advised me to “walk the talk” on environment and conservation. Once a regular walker, he is no longer able to do it.

“Virtual walk” meant any one could walk anywhere, any time, at any pace. I started by setting a modest goal for the team of walking 200 miles and raising $200, but quickly revised the figures as miles and dollars accumulated. By June 30, we had walked 1,600 miles and raised $1,325. CBF called the walk a big success with 165 teams and 745 participants walking 30,900 miles in six countries, raising $173,000, and collecting 1,950 pieces of trash along the way.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Photo courtesy: Public Domain

My team members had various motivations for participating: concern for the environment, interest in walking, a desire to be a part of the solution or simply in support of my efforts. My friend, Narendra Jindal, was very creative in walking 3-4 miles a day in the basement of his house in Bhopal on account of the lockdown, summer heat, and medical condition. Naren had visited the Chesapeake Bay three years ago and was struck by its beauty and wanted to help in its protection. My nephew, Neil, remembered sailing in the bay while on a school break in Sydney; he made a donation. For my mother (aged 89) who had seen the bay only in pictures, the decision to walk inside her Mumbai flat was to support her son. Jessica Rubino, CBF Events Coordinator, said these examples left her speechless!  

The Chesapeake Bay, which juts into the Atlantic Ocean, covers 64,000 square miles and impacts 8 million people in six states and the capital, Washington, DC. The bay is considered the most studied water body on the planet, but this has not made clean-ups any easier. The biggest problem is the huge quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the bay, which results in algae blooms and reduces oxygen for fish and other living resources. Agricultural run-off and urban sewage disposal are the main culprits.

Prior to 1983, each state made its own decisions about the bay, with no unity in efforts. In 1987, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reached an agreement with the states to reduce nutrient pollution by 40 per cent - later raised to 60 per cent. An assessment in 2017 indicated that the states were on track to meet this goal by 2025, but reducing agricultural waste remained a challenge. It is estimated that 40 per cent of the bay is now clean. I have gone sailing, swimming and sight-seeing in these areas.

The bay is home to numerous birds that fly in or stay through the year. The most notable are ospreys, blue herons and bald eagles. While dolphins, sharks and sting rays come visiting, the bay is better known for blue crabs and oysters. Sadly, pollution and overfishing have reduced their numbers over the years. Maryland, the state with the largest share of the bay, once had 200,000 acres of oyster reefs; today it has about 36,000. Though volunteers like myself recently helped restore 6 million oysters, which are natural water filters, on eight acres - and the restoration of another eight acres is planned this year - it is clearly not enough. 

CBF, however, is optimistic. It reports that the blue crab population increased 60 per cent in 2019 over the previous year, but admits a decline in oyster population. It is working with dairy farmers to introduce conservation agriculture practices, which include rotational grazing. Scientists say rotational grazing by cows can reduce nutrient pollution by over 60 per cent and green house gases by 40 per cent. CBF has involved high school students in planting trees along rivers and creeks, grooming “oyster gardeners” and recently, walking the watershed.

CBF is a nonprofit organisation founded in 1967 to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay. It has hands-on education programmes for school children and takes up advocacy and litigation to protect the bay. Its restoration programmes aim to reverse declining oyster populations in the bay and plant millions of native trees in the watersheds. CBF also has a 200-acre farm that practices regenerative agriculture and provides fresh food to poor people in Washington, DC through a local food bank. I have participated in its oyster restoration programme.My long walk of 231 miles, with support from my team, gave me some ideas for the future. Why not initiate a virtual walk in India to motivate urbanites frustrated by the virus to walk for a larger cause? Like cleaning a beach or a lake, or planting trees on hills or in the plains? To put this idea in motion, I have decided to support a campaign titled “Walk with Janisha: Plant a Tree”.

If Naren can walk in his basement and my mother inside her flat, anybody should be able to do it. A walk can increase public awareness, raise funds for a cause, boost morale and do some good for the body and soul!

Dr. Emmanuel D’Silva is an Agriculture and Environment Scientist, writer and lecturer from Mumbai with three decades of work experience in converting waste into energy, conservation agriculture, and climate change. He previously worked at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC.

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