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As Gov. Jim Gilmore vows to make water quality a top priority, the fate of vital underwater grasses hangs in the balance. Meanwhile, local volunteers give Mother Nature a jump start she needs. 

Grassroots Revival

Watching grass grow might not sound exciting to most, but to Chuck Epes, it's like waiting for striped bass to bite.

For Epes, Virginia communications coordinator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the anticipation that swells his chest is just as momentous. And if nature grows his way, there'll be new green acres of wild celery plants to prove it. Meadows of underwater grasses do more than excite Epes: They keep the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries like the James River healthy. Still, they seem of little consequence to many who view Virginia's waters only from bridges, boats and banks. From such distances, it's hard to see that aquatic life below the surface of brackish waters struggles to survive.

While the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the state's Department of Natural Resources spar over a land-use provision in the new Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, Gov. Gilmore takes a closer look and now determines water quality is a driving concern for his administration.

A Gallup Poll released last week reports that four out of five Americans claim to support programs like recycling and improving water quality, but when issues like education and crime cry louder, environmental concerns fall to low priority. The poll's results distill what conservationists like Epes fear nearly as much as depleted habitats: that the public today is less likely to get involved in environmental issues than it was 10 years ago. And while 30 years of Earth Days seemingly have done little to provoke long-term citizen action, the Environmental Protection Agency wrestles more than ever with states over acceptable levels of water quality and who should regulate it.

All the while, bays and rivers grow murky, plants die, and fish and waterfowl are forced to find new places to live.

It's no wonder Epes is excited. A proponent of the theory that everyone can make a difference, he's got a solution planted in lasagna trays and submerged in 78-degree water under grow lights. It's a cumbersome kit that takes up the better portion of his office. But Epes hopes the payoff for lost space and time spent checking water temperature and algae levels will be worth it. So do the 29 other volunteers. The wild celery they grow and plan to replant in the James River this June will help restore nutrient levels, clear the water of sediment, provide food and shelter for aquatic life and prevent soil erosion. It's the second year that underwater bay grasses have gotten a human nudge.

Last year, nine volunteers attended a workshop by the local office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and spent 10 weeks incubating wild celery plants in large plastic tubs in their homes or offices. The project helped successfully plant hundreds of wild celery plants in areas of the James River just south of Richmond. This year, the project's goal is more ambitious. "We have 29 volunteers growing the plants with 15 people on a waiting list," says Nina Luxmoore, a bay foundation grassroots assistant. Epes and Luxmoore are pleased — and relieved — that participation is good, especially since each kit hopes to yield between 50 to 100 of the clustered plants, with tentaclelike fronds stretching 6 feet when they mature. And the kits aren't cheap: Each costs the CBF more than $100. Still, it's only a few weeks into the project. For some volunteers like Ralph White, manager and naturalist with the James River Parks System, the grasses haven't yet started to grow.

"It's not as easy as it seems," concedes White, explaining that his seeds got a late start because he and his wife couldn't agree on where to keep the intrusive kit. But the hassle, says White, is worth it. "We seem to be in a free-fall, and it's a frightening view of the environment. Here is an example of how we can take control, upgrade and restore nature."

It's this restoration that's crucial to areas of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries — and to the 15 million people who depend on the bay's resources.

"We give the bay a grade each year, and we use the grasses to see how the bay is doing," says Epes. This year, it's slightly up from last year with 12 percent of the bay's original 600,000 acres of underwater grasses remaining. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently set a goal to restore 225,000 acres of underwater grasses by 2005 — a goal that will require many more than 29 volunteers to reach — and at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars per acre.

The problem is, according to Epes, there's not enough sunlight getting through to underwater grasses. "It's a vicious cycle," says the bay foundation's Luxmoore. "The plants need enough light to take nutrients, and if you don't have grass you don't have nutrients and sediments coming through." Waters such as the James are too cloudy to promote the vital growth of underwater grasses. Ballooning construction adds runoff, fertilizers pollute by dumping excess nitrogen and phosphorous, and the growth of algae blooms overwhelms the grasses. "Anytime it rains," says Epes, "[the river] looks like a milkshake. If there's a culprit, it's us."

Epes and Luxmoore have faith that the wild celery experiment will engage the volunteers and educate them about the importance of underwater grasses. On June 3, they'll unhook grow lamps and water heaters and remove aluminum trays of sand and soil containing clusters of ribbonlike plants. Then, they'll make a trip to near the Benjamin Harrison Bridge — an area found to be in desperate need of new grasses — just south of Richmond with Epes and Luxmoore where they will watch as a group of divers plant the grasses in the James River. Then they'll wait and cross their fingers. So far, there have been a few cases where seeds have failed to germinate and the volunteers have either quit or had to start over.

But not White. With more than 20 years experience in wildlife and natural habitats, he's not about to give up. Besides, says White, the real success of the project comes much later.

"I'll see it when I can take a boat trip and see the expansion of grasses, more waterfowl and animals expanding into newly returned vegetated habitats. Now all of a sudden your whole life has changed," adds White, explaining the effect similar experiments have had on his life. "You're participating in projects, giving money, and it all ends up helping the environment. And just think: Putting a few seeds in an undersized bathtub has all these
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