Cleaning Up the Bay from Way Up

By Tom Temin

Satellite images are now being used as part of an effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. A group of federal scientists has teamed with Maryland’s Department of Agriculture and area farmers to see if the technology, in conjunction with the use of winter cover farming, can help upgrade the status of the Bay.

Q: First of all, what does winter farming have to do with keeping the bay clean?

A: It turns out that when farmers plant what are called winter cover crops, these plants absorb leftover fertilizers and other nutrients that otherwise would run off into the bay. Such runoff has been a key contributor to bay pollution. It causes too much algae and grasses to grow. The problem is, it is hard to tell if the winter planting covers enough area and whether it is in fact soaking up the harmful chemicals in sufficient quantities.


Q: So what is the government doing?

A: Scientists from the Agriculture Research Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have devised a method of correlating satellite pictures of the bay and surrounding areas with field information submitted by farmers enrolled in the state’s cover crop cost-share program. The satellite pictures give an unmistakable view of the coverage of the winter crops and if in fact they are taking up sufficient fertilizer where they are planted.

Q: What changes has Maryland made as a result?

A: It has doubled its budget to help farmers with the costs of winter cover crops to $18 million. Not a big sum, but it will ensure that 387,000 acres get winter cover crops to mop up leftover fertilizer and keep it out of the Chesapeake.

More information can be found at the USDA’s website: Satellites Help Keep Chesapeake Bay Clean

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