This month, the Clean Water Act celebrates four decades of safeguarding our waters. The landmark legislation has worked to keep streams, rivers, lakes and the Chesapeake Bay fishable, swimmable and drinkable.
Passed on October 18, 1972, the Clean Water Act set a new national goal “to restore and maintain the…integrity of the Nation’s waters.” A revision of the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Act, the Clean Water Act helps states establish water quality standards and gauge restoration success. It regulates the discharge of wastewater into rivers and streams and of dredged material into wetlands. And it helps states implement conservation practices to cut back on pollution from non-point sources like urban, suburban and agricultural runoff.
But what can YOU do to keep our water clean? Use this list as a guide, and take a look at our How To’s and Tips for more ideas.
Image courtesy Kratka Photography/Flickr
10. Dispose of unused medicines properly. To keep medicines out of our waterways, don’t pour unused or expired drugs down the sink or flush them down the toilet. While some medications can be thrown out with household trash, consumers should take precautions when doing so. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends removing the medication from its original container and mixing it with coffee grounds or cat litter to make it less appealing to children or pets. Place the fouled medication in a sealable bag to prevent it from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag. Or return unwanted medication to a consumer drug return location or community drug “take-back” program.
Image courtesy Jesse Dill/Flickr
9. Use non-toxic household cleaners. Substitute common household cleaners with safer alternatives. Warm water and baking soda can clean and deodorize kitchen and bathroom surfaces. Olive oil and lemon juice can polish furniture. And vinegar can soften hard water deposits.
Image courtesy Ann Althouse/Flickr
8. Take proper care of your car. Wash your car on grass or gravel rather than pavement so that wash-water loaded with soap and exhaust residues doesn’t run off of your property and into storm drains. Or, clean your car at a commercial carwash, where rinse-water is often recycled and reused and wash-water is often treated before it is released into the sewer system.
Image courtesy koocbor/Flickr
7. Take proper care of your lawn. Test your soil with an at-home kit or a mail-in test to determine how much fertilizer your lawn needs. If you decide to fertilize, do so in the fall; spring rains can wash fertilizer off of lawns and into storm drains. Avoid over-application and keep fertilizer off of sidewalks, driveways and other hard surfaces, where it can be washed into local waterways.
6. Pick up after your pet. Pet waste contains nutrients, bacteria, viruses and parasites that can wash into local waterways if left on the ground. Nutrients can promote the growth of algae blooms, which contribute to dead zones in the Bay. Bacteria, viruses and parasites can threaten the health of humans and wildlife alike. Use a plastic bag to pick up dog waste; tie the bag closed and place it in the trash. Double-bag cat litter and place it in the garbage.
Image courtesy Michigan State University Physical Plant/Flickr
5. Replace asphalt or concrete with pervious pavement. Porous materials like brick or stone pavers, pervious concrete or gravel allow water to drain through hard surfaces. A porous sidewalk or driveway, therefore, allows the ground to absorb stormwater runoff, reducing pollution into local waterways. Pervious pavement can also cool its surface better than its impervious counterpart, reducing on-site temperature and improving local air quality.
Image courtesy Will Merydith/Flickr
4. Collect rainwater with a rain barrel. A one-inch rainstorm on a 1,000 square-foot roof can result in 600 gallons of usable water. Install a rain barrel underneath your home’s downspout to capture it! A single rain barrel can collect up to 80 gallons of water, which can be reused to water your lawn and garden. Excess water can be stored in an additional barrel or diverted into a patch of plants that will soak it up before it can run off of your lawn.
3. Install a rain garden in your backyard. Designed to capture stormwater and allow it to soak into the ground, rain gardens are often filled with native plants able to withstand short bouts of flooding. But these bioretention cells do more than clean and curb stormwater. Rain gardens also provide insects and animals with valuable habitat and add aesthetic appeal to your yard.
Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District/Flickr
2. Grow oysters. Popular on dinner plates across the watershed, the eastern oyster is critical to clean water. A natural filter feeder, the oyster is capable of cleaning up to 50 gallons of water in one day. While historic populations could filter the entire Bay in one week, habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster numbers. Now, a host of organizations—including, for instance, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR)—have started at-home aquaculture programs for citizens with waterfront access. Participants raise oysters in floating cages and return the adults to be planted on a reef elsewhere in the Bay, where they will continue to grow, filter water and reproduce.
Image courtesy Jeff Turner/Flickr
1. Teach a child about the Clean Water Act. From science to civics, the Clean Water Act has a lot to teach a child. Teachers and parents alike can use online resources to explore the law, like a selection of water “sourcebooks” that cover drinking water, wastewater and wetlands or a lesson plan that links law-making to the outside world. Learn more about just how and why teachers should educate students about the Clean Water Act on Bay Backpack.
Striped bass spawning success is at an all-time low in the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy Eddie Welker/Flickr
To track striped bass reproduction rates, biologists take a series of summer seine net samples at more than 20 sites in four striped bass spawning areas. This year, the average number of juvenile striped bass caught in each sample was 0.9. Last year’s juvenile striped bass index was 34.58; the long-term average is 12.
Biologists have blamed unfavorable weather for the decline.
“Generally, warm winters and dry springs are unfavorable conditions for fish that return to freshwater to spawn,” said DNR Striped Bass Survey Project Leader Eric Durrell. Like the striped bass, white perch, river herring and other anadromous fish also experienced low reproductive success this year.
But biologists “do not view this low value as an imminent problem,” said DNR Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell. “Three consecutive years of poor reproduction would be necessary to trigger mandatory conservation measures.”
According to the 2011 Striped Bass Stock Assessment released by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, striped bass along the Atlantic coast are not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.
This Halloween, thrill-seeking river rats can take a trip to a graveyard—a ship graveyard! Mallows Bay, located on the Maryland shore of the Potomac River, contains the largest known shipwrecked fleet in the Western Hemisphere. A quick search on Google Maps or a look at this image from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) shows the fleet’s massive imprint on the waterway.
This steamship fleet was intended to be used during World War I. But faulty construction and the war's end rendered the fleet useless. The steamship vessels, totaling more than 200, were towed to Mallows Bay, where they were packed together so tightly that you could, according to reports, walk for a mile without touching the water.
Local watermen protested, afraid that such a high concentration of “garbage” would affect their livelihoods. Some vessels were burned, but many others were left to sink and rot.
Today, many are visible above water, but some 140 more lurk beneath the Potomac’s surface.
The above-water steamships are now home to non-human inhabitants. Great egrets can be found nesting on the decks, while vegetation peeks out from beneath the rust. On some vessels, trees as high as 50 feet tall have sprouted!
Perhaps the “haunting” nature of Mallows Bay is not one of humans that have been left behind, but resources that have been ill-disposed and forgotten.
Want to see this ghost fleet for yourself? Launch a canoe or kayak at Charles County’s Mallows Bay Park to explore the ships up close!
Sometimes, even a single tree can make a difference. And it helps when that tree is a big one.
For six seasons, Baltimore County has held a Big Trees sale in an effort to put big, native trees in Maryland backyards. Since its inception in 2009, the program has sold more than 750 trees to Maryland residents, augmenting the state’s existing forests and moving Baltimore County closer to its pollution reduction goals.
Big trees are integral to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Forests clean polluted air and water and offer food, shelter and rest stops to a range of wildlife.
But big trees can be hard to find. To provide homeowners with the native trees that have high habitat value and the heft that is needed to trap polluted runoff, species like pin oak, sugar maple and pitch pine are grown in a Middle River, Md., reforestation nursery. The one-acre nursery, managed by Baltimore County’s Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability (EPS), began as a staging ground for large-scale plantings but soon expanded to meet a noticeable residential need.
“We used to give incentives to homeowners to buy large trees at retail nurseries,” said Katie Beechem, Environmental Projects Worker with the EPS Forest Sustainability Program. “But we found that homeowners were buying smaller species—flowering dogwood, crape myrtle—that didn’t achieve the same benefits…that large native trees like oaks and maples and river birch can provide. We were able to fill this big tree niche.”
Emails, signs and word-of-mouth spread news of the sale to homeowners. Some travel from the next town over, while others come from as far as Gettysburg, Pa., to walk among rows of seedlings in black plastic pots.
Staff like Jon-Michael Moore, who supervises the Baltimore County Community Reforestation Program, help residents choose a tree based on growth rate and root pattern, soil drainage and sunlight, and even “urban tolerance”—a tree’s resistance to air pollution, drought, heat, soil compaction and road salt.
One Maryland resident picked up 15 trees to line a fence and replace a few that had fallen. Another purchased two trees to soak up stormwater in his one-acre space. And another chose a chestnut oak simply because she had one when she was a kid.
Out of the 12 tree species that are up for sale, oaks remain the favorite.
Whether red, black, white or pin, oaks are often celebrated as the best big tree. Oaks thrive in a range of soils, drop acorns that feed squirrels, woodpeckers and raccoons and create a home for thousands of insects.
Discussing the oak, Moore mentions University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy. The entomologist once wrote that a single oak tree can support more than 500 species of caterpillars, which will in turn feed countless insect-loving animals.
But can one big tree make a difference for the Bay? Moore nodded: “Every little bit helps.”