A Shorline Transformation
College Creek, which borders the northern edge of the St. John's College campus, has always been a valuable asset for the college. Novice Johnnie crew members favor the quiet creek for practice, students take canoes and kayaks out on the water, and on a beautiful day students love to settle on a blanket in the grass and enjoy the view.
The creek is also an important part of the academic program. Students at St. John's take three years of laboratory classes, and the first half of freshman laboratory focuses on careful observation of the natural world. Students read works by ancient thinkers such as Theophrastus, Aristotle, and Galen, and conduct laboratory experiments drawn from such readings. Every fall, students head down to the creek with seine nets and buckets and carry back fish and other creek creatures to tanks in the science labs. "Students catch minnows, jellyfish, even the occasional eel or crab," says Mark Daly, laboratory director. "Life in the marsh is pretty varied: sticklebacks, gobies, pipefish, and a variety of different kinds of minnows. Students observe whatever they collect, and then they bring them back to the creek." In addition, Daly noted, faculty and students use the creek for independent study projects.
This year, St. John's students return to a dramatically transformed shoreline along College Creek, one intended to nurture a healthier and more diverse variety of plant and animal life. Along the College Creek shoreline, which was once a bulkheaded seawall, there is now a sloping, ecologically-restored wetland protected from erosion with bio-logs and native species of marsh grass. The 885-foot shoreline restoration, completed this summer, is one of the largest projects of its kind along the Chesapeake Bay. It also showcases St. John's role as environmental citizen, educator, and partner with regional environmental organizations.
Thanks to support from several foundations, a volunteer corps including students and local residents (many of them Chesapeake Bay Foundation members) provided several work days to help restore the area to a more natural state. On July 8, more than 100 volunteers spent the day working at the site. Ron Schnabel, Watershed Restoration Scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is one of the CBF staff members who has donated time and expertise to the project. "I am thankful that St. John's College was willing to lead by example, and allow CBF to hold workshops on campus highlighting the benefit of a 'living shoreline,'" says Schnabel. "In September we will plant oysters within the rock two feet below mean low water and we will be planting the trees and shrubs along the shoreline above high tide. When all is done, the project will have all the zones of a living shoreline-an upland riparian buffer of trees and shrubs, tidal wetlands, an oyster reef and underwater grasses. This will be a great demonstration project for shoreline landowners throughout the Bay."
The College Creek shoreline is an ideal site for ecological restoration because of minimal boat traffic, currents, wind and wave action, according to Don Jackson, St. John's director of operations. "We've known since the late 1960s how valuable the marsh is," says Jackson, who worked in environmental conservation before joining the college. "However, support and funding for the project were bolstered by development of new techniques for successfully restoring them."
About 50 years ago, the bulkhead was installed on College Creek to keep harmful sediment from reaching the Chesapeake Bay. "For many years, bulkheading and stone rip-rap have been used on shorelines for two reasons: to prevent erosion and to replace wetlands with stable, buildable land. Up until the late 1960s, the ecological value of marshes and wetlands were not well understood, and they were often though of as insect-breeding wetlands," explains Mr. Jackson. "As a result, bulkheading was often installed along the shoreline and back-filled with earth to create more useable land."
In the past 10 years there has been an environmental movement to curb erosion and look for ways to stabilize the shoreline without using bulkhead and rip-rap. "We realize now that edges are vital to the ecosystem, marsh, water, wetlands and food web of the bay," he says. Seven years ago the shoreline restoration was begun as a pilot project to restore 125 feet between the boathouse and King George Street. The project involved grading the shoreline to a natural slope and planting native species, such as spartina, bayberry and bulrush, on a prepared planting terrace constructed on sand and dirt fill imported to the site. The terrace is held in place with bio-logs, rolls of natural fiber material that act as a buffer and allow vegetation to take hold. The pilot project won an award from the Annapolis Preservation Trust and has served as a model for similar restoration programs.
Planning and design for the second phase of the project began two years ago, thanks to a $200,000 challenge grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. This past spring the college received the funding to match it, and in June began restoring the remaining 760 feet of structural bulkhead. Contributors and partners include the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the Maryland Department of the Environment, FishAmerica Foundation and the Vernal W. and Florence H. Bates Foundation.
St. John's hopes the project inspires other property owners to follow this example. College Creek has for a long time been considered a prime candidate for shoreline restoration. It is largely undeveloped and completely within the Annapolis city limits. The significant amount of institutional ownership along the creek offers large expanses of restoration opportunities. And the creek's proximity to state legislative offices provides legislators with a readily accessible "living shoreline" demonstration site.
"This project sets a precedent for doing this kind of project on a large scale," says Jackson. "The pilot project has been very successful and our hope is that success with the larger project will serve as an example for others to try shoreline restoration rather than traditional shoreline protection." CBF's Ron Schanbel agrees, "It is critical that private landowners consider a 'living shoreline' project as opposed to bulkheading or stone revetments if we want to clean up the creeks of Annapolis and increase fish and wildlife habitat. 'Living shoreline' projects, on the average, cost half as much as shoreline hardening and the benefits to the landowner and the community as a whole are many, from filtering runoff, increasing fish and wildlife habitat, reducing erosion and improving aesthetics."
The pilot project has increased the number and variety of wildlife habitats. Seining in the vicinity of the restored marsh has yielded invertebrates such as blue crabs, fiddler crabs, and grass shrimp, as well as coelenterates and ctenophores. Many species of fish have been caught. Notable among these have been juvenile striped bass, blue fish, croaker, long-nosed gar, yellow perch, and white perch. The restored shoreline has also restored a sense of community pride among those who use it. "I was happy that my whole family, my wife Sarah and two kids Emmett, 5, and Lauren, 9, helped with the planting of the tidal wetland," says Schnabel. "My son Emmett often calls the creek 'his' creek."