There has been much controversy surrounding the restoration of Harris Creek. Waterman have argued that Harris Creek represented some of the best oystering ground. Additionally, many have balked at the $26 million price tag which funded the 2 billion oysters planted on the 350 acre sanctuary. 

Most of us are probably familiar with the Harris Creek oyster restoration project that came about as a result of the 2014 Maryland Watershed Agreement. Harris Creek was the first of five Maryland tributaries selected under the plan to become an oyster sanctuary. 10 total tributaries are slated to be restored by 2025. 

Now, some more results are in that have scientists applauding the effort and hopeful for the future. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) have completed a new study that uses an innovative web-based computer model to estimate the nutrient removal and water filtration capacity of Harris Creek. Funding for the study came from The Nature Conservancy, the Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

What has everyone excited is that the study found that the restored reefs are able to filter the full volume of Harris Creek in less than 10 days during the summer months. Additionally, the data estimates that the restored reefs will be able to remove one million pounds of nitrogen from the Bay over a ten-year period. VIMS researchers Lisa Kellogg and Mark Brush and UMCES researcher Jeff Cornwell headed the project and used Brush’s estuarine ecosystem model as a foundation for the Harris Creek Model, which computes restoration effects in a measurable way by analyzing how the water masses, nutrients and suspended particles move into and through the waterway. 

“Our model,” says Brush, “is available online for anyone to use—restoration practitioners, planners, educators, scientists, or members of the public—but our primary goal was to get this type of decision-support tool directly into the hands of resource managers. That is extremely rare and has great potential for application around the Bay and in other estuaries.” 

The model runs on an annual cycle and factors in data for forced water temperature, salinity, and boundary data from the Chesapeake Bay Program from 2010-16 as well as using water quality data for the same years gathered by UMCES, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy (now Shore Rivers) and monthly watershed loading from the CBP Phase V watershed model for 1985-2005.

The model also factors in the impact of mussels and tunicates, “sea squirts,”which also remove particles from the water. These organisms contribute more than 40% of the total filtration so it is important to take them into consideration when evaluating the effects of restoration efforts. 

ORP Executive Director, Stephan Abel, says, “This study demonstrates that we can achieve the filtration levels needed to bring our tributaries back to a healthy, balanced state.”

Although the financial outlay has been great, I believe that if the restoration of polluted waterways is being achieved, then we must continue in our pursuit of restoration. We need a healthy, functioning Bay and oysters play an essential role in that goal. My hope is that we will see many more tributaries like Harris Creek with oyster reefs and ecosystems that allow for fast and efficient filtration of the water, as they were created to do.