Standing at the edge of the Jones Falls, amid polystyrene coffee cups and plastic soda bottles, dwarfed by vibrant graffiti on the surrounding concrete walls, it’s almost possible to hear the rush of water over the noise of the nearby interstate and train tracks. It’s a mild January morning, and Alice Volpitta and Rose Dunn—armed with sensors and sampling bottles—are carefully perched on boulders next to the water.
The two are with Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit that once a month monitors water quality at sites along the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls, two streams that run through the heart of Baltimore City. Today, Volpitta, Water Quality Manager, and Dunn, her volunteer monitoring intern, are visiting five sites along the downstream portion of the Jones Falls. It’s one less than the typical six, because a locked gate is blocking the path to one of the monitoring sites.
“There’s hardly any access to the water,” explains Volpitta. “It’s tough to actually get to it.”
Locked gates aren’t the only obstacle: at various points along the five-stop route, the pair’s progress is slowed by steep, gravelly inclines; thick, viscous mud; and concrete barriers. “This is what I mean by lack of access,” Volpitta laughs at one site, as she and Dunn climb over the wooden railing of a staircase to get down to the water’s edge.
It’s the perfect illustration of how far-removed Baltimore can feel from the water. Apart from the tidal Patapsco River—which makes up the city’s Inner Harbor—Charm City seems mostly paved over. But amidst, and often beneath, the pavement sits a tangled network of streams, including the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls.
“We’re only going to five sites, but you will see more of Baltimore streams today than most people will ever see,” says Volpitta.
It’s what’s unseen in the water that Blue Water Baltimore is concerned with. The organization tracks a variety of measurements typical of water monitoring programs: nutrient and sediment pollution, dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature and conductivity. They also track levels of fecal bacteria, which waterways in the Baltimore region are infamous for—especially after a rainfall, and it had just rained the night before.
This means that, even if you find your way to the water’s edge, it can be best to adhere to a “look, don’t touch” policy.
“We never touch the water directly,” Volpitta explains. Each time they gather their sampling supplies and head down to a monitoring site, she and Dunn pull on pairs of disposable nitrile gloves.
Bacteria can reach the water in a few different ways. When rain falls on non-porous surfaces like roads, sidewalks or buildings, it’s unable to soak into the ground. Instead, it flushes away whatever it can from the surface—from leaking motor oil to pet waste—and rushes it to the nearest waterway. And with as much pavement as a city like Baltimore has, that can add up to a lot of pollution-laden water.
“There’s so much impervious surface in the city that every time it rains it just flash floods, basically,” says Volpitta. At one site, the cover of a sewer manhole had shifted, revealing an opening a few inches wide. The movement seems slight, but it was the result of hundreds of pounds of metal being lifted just by the force of rushing water.
Aside from polluted runoff, Baltimore’s aging water infrastructure plays a role in the presence of fecal bacteria in the Jones Falls. When it was first put in place, the city’s sewer system was state-of-the-art. But when rainfall overwhelms the now 110-year-old system, sewage can be directly discharged into the Jones Falls and other waterways.
The City of Baltimore is actively making repairs and upgrades to the system, but with more than 3,000 miles of sewer lines—some of which are cracked, clogged or simply too small to accommodate the necessary amount of water—progress has been slower than some had hoped for.
In 2002, repeated sewer overflows led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Maryland Department of the Environment to sue the City of Baltimore. As part of a settlement, the city agreed to fix the sewer system by 2016. Last year, this agreement was revised, giving the city until 2021 to stop its sewage discharges into the Jones Falls and until 2030 to complete all repairs the sewer system requires.
At one monitoring station—near Lake Roland, a former Baltimore City reservoir—it’s easy to forget how close you are to downtown. The loudest noise is the piercing rattle of a belted kingfisher as it flits from tree to tree, followed by the soft murmurs of visitors walking their dogs along the wooded pathway. It’s almost serene enough to persuade you that the water seems less polluted.
But that day, the fecal bacteria count at the Lake Roland site was 260 colonies per 100 milliliters of water. For reference, 151 is considered safe for limited contact with the water, and 61 is considered the safe threshold for full-body contact with the water.
Due in part to the rainfall the night before, none of the sites sampled that day had safe levels for human contact.
All of the monitoring data collected by Blue Water Baltimore undergoes a quality control check before being posted on Harbor Alert, which offers the most recent monitoring data for each site. Data is run through an algorithm to see if it’s safe to swim in the water, and each site is given a red, yellow or green indication of safe contact. In 2015, none of the sampling sites along the Jones Falls or Gwynns Falls were safe for swimming more than 60 percent of the time.
Each year, all the data collected is rolled up into the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor report card, which last year gave Baltimore’s streams a grade of D-minus (the Inner Harbor and other tidal waters received an F).
Although plenty of work lies ahead, Volpitta and her colleagues remain focused on the long-term goal: healthy Baltimore waterways.
“I think it’s safe to say that Blue Water Baltimore, and for myself personally, we all are really looking forward to a future where we have swimmable and fishable waterways,” Volpitta says. “Sometimes people think that that term ‘swimmable and fishable’ is a pie in the sky, it’s never going to be attainable. But that’s a phrase directly from the Clean Water Act. So if our legislators thought it was good enough for the Clean Water Act, I think it’s good enough for Baltimore City.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Video, images and captions by Will Parson
On a warm day last September, Julie Lawson, Director of Trash Free Maryland, sat on a boat, motoring from a dock in Annapolis. She was surrounded by guests she had invited, and as she spoke to them, a mason jar full of algae-thick water sloshed in her hand with every gesture.
Looking more closely at the jar, several small flecks of white floated at the surface, occasionally sticking to the side of the glass. They were pieces of microplastic—degraded bits of waste less than five millimeters in size. Microplastic is a potential threat to marine life, which can mistake pieces of waste for food. It can also absorb and release harmful chemicals.
“It's funny, I actually started out by caring about trash in the water, and most of the time now all I do is talk about neighborhoods,” Lawson said.
The previous fall, Lawson had collected several similar samples from the Chesapeake Bay with grant support by the Chesapeake Bay Trust and with the help of Stiv Wilson, Campaign Director of The Story of Stuff Project. The result was a visual demonstration of what happens when trash on land gets washed into streams, rivers, and ultimately the Bay and the ocean.
Returning to the water after winning a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Lawson, Wilson and Dr. Chelsea Rochman, an ecotoxicologist and postdoctoral fellow with the University of California, Davis, included more sites from throughout the Bay, in order to obtain 60 samples. Half of the samples would be sent to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lab for scientific analysis.
The process, in a protocol developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), uses what’s called a manta trawl with a 20x60-centimeter opening and a 333-micron mesh net to skim the water surface for exactly 15 minutes at a time.
"Then I sampled wastewater that drains into the bay from from urban runoff, agricultural runoff and wastewater treatment plants to see if there was microplastic in these sources—and if the type and shape matched with what we saw in the Bay," said Rochman, who also sampled oysters last summer.
The manta trawl samples include everything from underwater grasses and fish eggs to a pair of sunglasses and a lighter. Pulling on plastic gloves that day in September, Lawson fought her nerves while handling a jellyfish that ended up in one jar. She didn’t get stung.
Lawson said the research will help determine how much plastic is in the Chesapeake Bay, which would set a baseline to help determine if the level of pollution is going up or down. They also want to know the types of plastic, which would provide insight into where that plastic is coming from.
“Is it film? Is it microbeads?” Lawson said. “What kind of chemical is it contaminated with?”
Lawson expects to have lab results from the trawl later this year. The last phase of their study will examine the digestive tracts of fish species frequently caught by fishermen, in order to determine how much plastic the animals are consuming.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Video, photos and text by Will Parson
When cold weather arrives, blue crabs up and down the Chesapeake Bay stop their scurrying. The summertime rush of food-hunting and mate-finding is over, and the crustaceans will spend the winter months buried in sand and sediment. It is at this moment that researchers in Maryland and Virginia must strike: to count the crabs while they are still.
Known as the winter dredge survey, this annual count of the Bay’s blue crab population is a critical part of blue crab management. Without an accurate estimate of blue crab abundance, fisheries managers cannot set harvest limits for the season ahead.
“The winter dredge survey is the most vital tool that we have in crab management,” said Chris Walstrum, a natural resources biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “This is the best chance we have to assess the [blue crab] population, because the crabs are stationary.”
Walstrum and his team are responsible for counting crabs in Maryland waters; the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) conducts the winter dredge survey in the Virginia portion of the Bay. Between the two agencies, a total of 1,500 Bay sites are visited over the course of three and a half months before the numbers are crunched and fisheries managers can make recommendations on how blue crab harvests should or shouldn’t change.
On a warmer-than-normal January morning, Walstrum is aboard a boat in Broad Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The DNR vessel has been captained for more than a decade by Roger Morris, a fifth-generation waterman who used to dredge for crabs commercially and whose skills are invaluable to the success of the survey.
“Whether people like it or not, the winter dredge survey is the whole basis for our [blue crab harvest] limits,” Morris said. “That’s why I try to do the best I can do at it. It takes experience. You just can’t walk on a crab dredge boat and expect to catch crabs.”
At each survey site—six of them in this particular waterway—Morris will line up his boat and drop its so-called Virginia crab dredge into the water. The metal dredge is towed along the bottom for one minute before it is hoisted back on board, where the newly caught contents of its mesh liner are dumped out and sorted through. In each catch, there are brown leaves, oyster shells, little fish and, more often than not, a collection of blue crabs.
Each crab is weighed, measured and sexed before it is tossed back into the water. This provides an accurate picture of the blue crab population, as researchers track the number of young crabs that will form the backbone of the fishery next fall and the number of females that will produce the next generation of blue crab stock.
“The winter dredge survey provides us with a cornerstone piece of data from which to operate our [blue crab] management,” said Brenda Davis, chief of the DNR Blue Crab Program.
“It’s a long-running survey, and it’s been consistently accurate,” Davis said. “It gives us a good, static picture of the number of crabs in the Bay.”
Video produced by Steve Droter.
When Marcus Moody hears the term “rain garden,” he will smile. Not because those colorful patches of flood-tolerant plants capture stormwater and allow it to gradually sink into the ground, but because he survived seven weeks of planting 27 rain gardens in Howard County, Md., during the hottest summer on record.
For Marcus and the 29 other 16 to 25-year-olds that participated in the Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth program this summer, also known as READY, rain gardens are no longer an intangible concept or an idea to read about in guides to “going green.” Instead, rain gardens are dirty, wet and empowering endeavors that prove that a group of focused youth can make visible, lasting change. And in most cases, rain gardens are a lot of fun to create.
“We all became friends,” said Moody. “The actual experience of … getting to know new people and working in teams with different personalities—that was great.”
READY’s participants included graduate students, fashion design majors and high school seniors looking to fund their college careers. The program provided them with a resume-building career experience, a few extra dollars and a new network of friends.
Working with people from different backgrounds toward a common goal made the summer experience stand out for Afua Boateng, who moved to Maryland from Ghana six years ago.
"Sometimes I find myself thinking about things that I feel like no one in my age group thinks about, because [in Ghana] we are trained to grow up faster. Learning to work with people that have the same interest and that are willing to work together to save something we should all care about—I really love that,” Boateng said.
Image courtesy READY/Facebook
READY was conceived with two goals in mind: first, to provide jobs for young people. Second, to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff entering the Chesapeake Bay.
Stormwater runoff, or rainfall that picks up pollutants as it flows across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses, is the fastest growing source of pollution into the Bay. But rain gardens and other so-called best management practices can reduce the flow of stormwater into creeks, streams and rivers.
For Amanda Tritinger, building rain gardens brought her studies about stormwater to life.
"I studied hydrology and hydraulics as a course in school, but the theoretical doesn't stick with me at all and I don't really get it,” Tritinger said. “Seeing all this stuff hands-on was so valuable for me.”
Image courtesy READY/Facebook
READY is the brain child of People Acting Together in Howard (PATH), a coalition of faith-based organizations in Howard County, Md. READY is funded through a grant from the Howard County government administered by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
Like any program in its inaugural year, the leaders behind READY have learned lessons for next summer, with a number of suggestions coming from the participants themselves.
For Nabil Morad, who is enrolled in the Environmental Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, working in an environment where his feedback was valued was highly encouraging. It was also the last thing he expected from a program with the words "developing youth" in its title.
"I was a little worried we were going to be treated like kindergarteners," Nabil said. "But this feels like it's an actual job."
After working in an industry where his age and experience meant his suggestions were not welcome, Nabil said that READY's willingness to listen to its participants is refreshing.
“Here, respect travels both ways in the system. I could make a suggestion to [program manager] Don [Tsusaki], and if the day comes, he'll put it into action,” Nabil added. “Everybody here is developing toward the same goal together, which is really nice.”
That goal—curbing stormwater pollution—will become more attainable if READY continues in Howard County, and if similar programs are established elsewhere in the Bay watershed.
"We have a waiting list of people who want rain gardens for next year," said PATH administrator Guy Moody. "That's a good problem to have."
Image courtesy READY/Facebook
How do rain gardens help the Chesapeake Bay?
When rainfall hits impervious surfaces like sidewalks, roofs or driveways, or when it falls onto grass lawns, it is not absorbed into the ground. Instead, it runs off into a storm drain, collecting fertilizer, pesticides, pet waste, litter and other pollutants on its way.
Rain gardens are shallow depressions planted with sedges, rushes and other flood-tolerant vegetation that capture rainfall and allow it to soak slowly into the ground.
To learn how to install a rain garden on your property, visit Anne Arundel County’s Rainscaping page.
Plant forests, issue stormwater permits, install trash traps: the list of things we can do to improve water quality seems to grow each day. And as eager environmentalists, we would love to do all of them as soon as we can. But with worsening water and shrinking budgets, perhaps we should first find out which actions would make the biggest environmental difference.
In order to determine which pollution-reduction solution might work best for ourselves and our community, we must first pinpoint our water problems. Do our waterways contain too much sediment? Too much nitrogen? Once we know these answers, we can determine where to focus our efforts—whether on residential rain gardens that curb stormwater runoff, on upgrades to wastewater treatment plants or on something else entirely.
Finding out what is in our water—or monitoring water quality—provides us with a baseline. After we install a rain garden or restore a forest buffer or complete another restoration project, we can monitor water quality once again to determine whether or not the project has been effective.
How do we monitor water quality?
There are multiple ways to monitor water quality. We chose to highlight the method that involves going out on a boat during the summer!
There are two steps: first, biologists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) collect water samples from a number of selected sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay. Then, the samples are analyzed for nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES).
This analysis paints a vivid picture for scientists, allowing them to see where pollutants come from and how they might be mitigated.
What’s in the water right now?
Due to the lack of rain this year, monitoring teams found fewer nitrates, nutrients that run off into Bay tributaries from fertilizers and soil.
With fewer nitrates, algal blooms were less able to grow and resulting “dead zones” were less able to form. A dead zone is an area that does not contain any oxygen, leaving fish, shellfish and other critters struggling to breathe. This year’s dead zone was nearly half the size of last year’s.
“Nitrates and ammonias… If you have too much of these, it leads to algal blooms, which can lead to dead zones in the Bay,” explains Carl Zimmerman, Manager of the Nutrient Analytical Service Lab at UMCES.
The UMCES lab has multiple ways of analyzing nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon in water samples it receives from field crews.
“We’re looking for changes in the nutrient concentrations. If a best management practice has been implemented, will it improve water quality? Will upgrades in sewage treatment plants reduce the amount of nutrients that come into the Bay? These [answers] can only be accomplished by looking at our water tables,” says Zimmerman.
The DNR monitoring program Eyes on the Bay has a website on which the public can track water quality at each of the Bay’s monitoring sites.
“We want to let the public know how we’re doing as a government in cleaning up the Bay,” explains Mark Trice, Program Chief of DNR's Water Quality Informatics Program.
“We all want a clean Bay and the quality of life that comes with clean water,” says Trice.
Image courtesy Eric Vance/US EPA
More about water quality monitoring:
Learn what simple changes you can make to decrease your biggest pollutant (whether it’s nitrogen, phosphorous or sediment), all from your own backyard!
Luke Brubaker lives in the house his father bought in 1929. His grandchildren play in the same creeks he played in as a child, and he farms the same land that his father farmed. But Luke's land in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has changed drastically since the days of his father; it is under pressure from higher rates of development (the large housing development at the edge of his property is one example); there is an increased use of pesticides, auto exhaust, and other chemicals that can leak into his groundwater; and a decrease in the amount of forested land allows nutrients from soil and bacteria from animal manure to easily run off into waterways instead of being absorbed by trees.
As Brubaker's land has changed, so has the agriculture industry; soaring energy and production costs and a plethora of environmental regulations mean that selling a gallon of milk isn't as easy as it used to be.
Nevertheless, Luke treats his land in a way that recognizes its vulnerability, farming it in a way that ensures it will be fertile in the future. His mindful practices have awarded him with productive land and healthy cattle, as well as a U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award, a Center for Advanced Energy Studies/Idaho National Laboratory Award for “Outstanding Achievement in Energy," and recognition as 2011 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year.
"I hope that this land will not only be preserved for farming," explains Luke, "but that the soils will be preserved on the land so that my grandkids can farm this, so that this can be food for the future."
Luke has grown his father's 18-cow dairy farm to a 900-cow operation, and hopes to keep the business in the family. Because he cares about the longevity of his land, he is concerned less with the quantity of milk he produces, and is instead concentrated on the reuse of energy and the quality of his products.
And while many farmers say that new regulations threaten their financial stability, Luke insists that following and exceeding these guidelines have helped him save money and keep his land in good health for future generations.
"It's an economic value to keep the water on the field, and keep the nutrients on the field, so it only makes sense to do good conservation practices," explains Luke. "This is what’s so important: that farmers realize the economic value of conservation practices, rather than doing it because they have to do it. And sometimes over the years, it has taken me time to realize that some of the old ways that we used to have aren’t the best ways."
On my tour of Brubaker Farm, the relationship between Luke's conservation ethic and economic good sense becomes obvious; the farm reuses everything and anything possible, especially cow manure!
"The more land that we can preserve and farm properly, the more soil we're going to have; we're going to be able to grow the food of our nation. That's very important to me," says Luke. "There's a great livelihood that can be achieved from good agricultural practices."
But what are "good" agricultural practices? Here are a few that are being implemented on Brubaker Farm:
Power in poop
At Brubaker Farm, the cows are kept in an open-air, temperature-controlled, shelter where they are able to roam from building to building. Their bedding is replaced regularly to keep them comfortable, and their feed, most of which is grown on the farm, is calculated to the tee.
"Our cows are fed probably better than some of our families are fed because we measure and weigh every bit of feed so they get the right nutrition," says Luke.
The cow's manure is swept away from the shelter every few hours. This differs from "free range" farms, where cattle are permitted to roam (and even sometimes, poop) where they please. The advantage of keeping the cattle in a controlled environment is that cows can remain cool in the summertime (they prefer cooler temperatures), and their manure is not laying around somewhere in the grass, or even worse, in a stream.
In fact, Brubaker understands his cow's manure to be just as valuable as the milk they produce. After an automatic cleaner collects manure from the cattle shelters, the manure goes into a machine called a "digester," which converts manure into methane gas that can be used (and sold) as an energy source.
On the Brubaker Farm, the solid manure wastes are converted into bedding for the cows. After it goes through the digester, it is pathogen free, making it the perfect, safe option for keeping cows comfortable.
The liquid manure is converted into electricity. Luke sells enough electricity to power 200 homes. The rest he reclaims as energy to fuel his farm's operations; the electricity is used to heat and pasteurize the milk before it is taken off the property, and to clean the cows’ towels (each cow gets his or her own cleaning towel!)
Luke is in the process is making a solar hot water system so he can make his own hot water from the farm's solar panels, which now provide electricity to 100 homes at peak sun.
The Brubaker's creative use of excess poop/energy has opened a whole new market to the family; in a recent year, they generated more profit from selling electricity than from selling milk!
No till farming
In his 1943 book, Plowman's Folly, Edward H. Faulkner said, "the truth is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reasoning for plowing." Yet, tilling soil is still protocol for many farms.
Traditionally, soil is loosened by a plow, or tilled, so that oxygen, water, and nutrients can reach the area where a crop's roots grow. Today, tilling requires the use of heavy machinery, which requires both fuel and labor to operate.
When the soil is left in place, it is able to maintain its structure and better hold water. Not tilling the soil cuts back on fuel and labor costs. It also means that the soil is not loosened, and is therefore not as prone to erosion.
"After you no till for a couple of years, your soil gets roots," explains Luke. "It’s kind of like a sponge, and it allows the water to permeate into that sponge and holds it there. If you have a dry year, you’re going to have a better crop, because it holds that moisture there just like a sponge."
"Cover crops" are vegetation that holds the soil in place with its roots, preventing erosion even when a commercial crop is not being grown.
Cover crops shade the soil, preventing sunlight from fueling fast-growing weeds, and keeping the soil cool. Cover crops also discharge excess organic materials into the soil through their roots. These materials provide food for soil microbes and replenish nutrients that a future commercial crop, will benefit from.
If a field is fertilized heavily, cover crops can take up any excess fertilizer that was not used by a commercial crop; this will decrease the amount of nutrient pollution leaching into the groundwater and nearby streams.
A stream on Brubaker's property is a favorite swimming hole for his grandchildren, and a favorite habitat for brook trout. Luke usually keeps his cattle in a controlled environment because keeping cattle away from this stream minimizes the sediment and bacteria pollution going into the waterway.
"One of the best things that small farms can do is to keep their cattle out of the streams," says Luke. "If the cattle have access to the whole stream and banks, they have a tendency to break the shores down, and that’s what causes sediment (pollution). We have fences to keep the cattle out so they aren’t breaking the banks of the stream."
Stream bank fencing also prevents rainwater, and the nutrients it carries, from ending up in waterways. Keeping these products on the field, instead of in the waterways, is not only beneficial to wildlife and plants, but to the farmer himself- it means more nutrients and water stay in place to fuel crop growth!
On Brubaker's farms, streamside trees (known as forest buffers) shade the stream, keeping it cool enough for trout. The tree's roots that stabilize stream banks and absorb any nutrients before they end up in the stream.
"It’s important for somebody else that the streams are clean, but it’s important for us (farmers) that our nutrients and water are on our fields," says Luke. "We know that when we have a clean stream, we know that our nutrients and our water are staying on our fields like they’re supposed to.
Learn more about sustainable agriculture in the Chesapeake Bay watershed:
The mention of Lancaster, Pennsylvania evokes images of cows trampling through streams, laundry hanging on the line, whoopie pies, and an agricultural way of life that has been forgotten in most places of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. While tourists flock to the southeastern Pennsylvania county popularly known as "Pennsylvania Dutch Country," the City of Lancaster may soon hold its own claim to fame as a green urban center.
Vegetation overflows from rooftops, follows sidewalks, and decorates parking lots that were once neighborhood eyesores: this is how city officials envision Lancaster twenty-five years from now.
These greening projects, the first of which began construction this year, not only give red brick-clad Lancaster a sharp, aesthetically pleasing color contrast; they are part of the city’s twenty-five year plan to prevent its 750 million gallons of annual stormwater runoff from entering the Conestoga River, an impaired Susquehanna River tributary.
While stormwater runoff may appear to be “just rainwater,” as it moves through parking lots, lawns, and roadways, it picks up pollutants. These pollutants and the water that carries them are often not treated or filtered before being conveyed into local tributaries.
But in Lancaster, tree trenches along parking lots absorb stormwater; rain gardens are filled with plants that are able to absorb a large amount of water at a time. Such vegetation allows the stormwater to seep slowly into the ground before running off onto roadways, parking lots, and other “impervious” surfaces. These “hard” surfaces make it easy for water to pick up automobile chemicals, pet waste, litter, and other pollutants on its way into local storm drains and tributaries.
In places where vegetation cannot thrive, like parking lots and alleyways, concrete and asphalt are replaced by permeable pavement. This type of pavement allows water to pass through into the ground, instead of acting as a seal and forcing water to form puddles or run off into the storm drains.
"The ground will naturally absorb the sediments, the phosphorus, and the nitrogen," explains Charlotte Katzenmoyer, Director of Public Works for the City of Lancaster. "The bacteria in the soil will use this for their feeding purposes. You're actually using the ground to clean that stormwater."
Using what is already there is saving Lancaster money – lots of money. With enough vegetation and permeable pavement, Lancaster will be able to keep its stormwater on site and use the natural environment to clean it. And it will do so for less than half the amount of money it would take to manage stormwater with man-made systems.
Going green means cutting costs
In the late 1990s, Lancaster developed a plan to prevent untreated stormwater from overflowing into the Conestoga: build a 300 million dollar underground storage tank, and spend $750,000 each year to treat the storm flow passing through the tank. (This method of stormwater control, known as “grey infrastructure,” relies on man-made technologies to capture, filter, and convey stormwater.)
It would work, but it would be expensive.
"When the Environmental Protection Agency started coming to us, and asking us when we were going to build these storage tanks, that's when we took another look,” says Katzenmoyer. “We asked if we could more cost effectively achieve the same goals with green infrastructure."
"Green infrastructure" keeps stormwater onsite using natural processes and nature-inspired technologies. Plants in rain gardens and tree trenches absorb stormwater quickly in heavy rain events, preventing it from running off into storm drains. Permeable pavement, although not natural, imitates this characteristic, and allows water to infiltrate into the ground.
Lancaster's new, green infrastructure plan cut their costs dramatically; the city is able to manage its 750 million gallons of storm water per year for less than 140 million dollars total. This was less than half the amount of money required just to build the underground storage tank.
Lancaster's green infrastructure plan was born out of the Environmental Protection Agency's request that all municipalities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed detail how they plan to reduce pollution in their local Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
"As much as we are motivated to restore the natural environment and do the right thing, ultimately, this is something that the federal government, the Environmental Protection Agency, is telling us we need to address," explains Fritz Schroeder, Director of the Lancaster-based non-profit Live Green, which has been working with the City of Lancaster to educate the community on clean water issues.
"The city, with great vision and foresight, I believe, is choosing to do it in a very creative fashion, utilizing green infrastructure instead of a traditional grey infrastructure piping system,” says Schroeder. “This will help set our community apart and serve as a platform for creating a wonderful place for us to call home for years to come."
Green: the new grey?
While this stormwater management technique imitates the way the natural world manages stormwater, it is a revolutionary concept for city planners.
Most cities were built to get stormwater off site as quickly as possible, hence the storm drains that convey water into local tributaries. These stormwater systems flood in severe rain events, carrying pollutants such as automobile exhaust, bacteria from pet waste, and lawn fertilizer, directly into our rivers at high speeds. When water moves at high speeds, it often takes dirt from stream banks with it. This sediment pollution clouds the water and makes it difficult for bay grasses and other life to flourish.
Following the water: roofs, alleys, and lots
No matter which way the stormwater flows through Lancaster’s public parking lots, it will be absorbed by a garden, tree, or permeable pavement.
“The idea is that as all the stormwater comes from uphill, moving through the parking lot, one technology or another will capture the water, and then infiltrate it back into the natural environment,” explains Schroeder.
While tree trenches and rain gardens capture stormwater, shaded parking lots also reduce the heat island effect, the concept that large, developed areas heat up quickly and increase the temperature of surrounding, undeveloped areas. A reduced heat island effect reduces air conditioning costs in the summer and improves air quality.
A green roof, constructed on Graff Family Funeral Home as a project of Lancaster County Planning Commission, reduces the heat island effect on the formerly black rubber roof and has cut the building's air conditioning costs.
"Traditionally on a black rubber roof like this, you will have temperatures that are 60 to 70 degrees hotter in the summer," explains Schroeder.
The plants also absorb stormwater falling on the roof, reducing the amount that flows into the city's combined sewer system.
"As (the sedums) continue to fill in and cover all the bare spots of this roof, the roots will spread and serve as a sponge that takes up this water," says Schroeder. "We believe we're capturing and retaining between 50 and 70 percent of the rain flow that falls on the roof."
Other technologies include colorfully painted rain barrels that capture rain coming off of roofs, as well as disconnected downspouts that direct stormwater into rain gardens.
With a green infrastructure approach, all of these nature-inspired technologies work together to absorb stormwater, preventing it, and the pollutants it carries, from entering local tributaries.
Greening your yard
While Lancaster is completing 100 stormwater management projects in 2012, all are on city-owned properties. In order for stormwater flows to be reduced, private property owners also need to consider installing rain gardens and rain barrels.
The City of Lancaster works with Live Green, a non-profit whose “Save It” campaign encourages residents to install rain gardens, disconnect their downspouts, and conserve water in their homes.
“We’re reaching out to homeowners; we're meeting with them and touring their property,” explains Schroeder. “We're making suggestions on how they could capture more stormwater using rain barrels and by disconnecting downspouts from the combined sewer and running them into green space or rain gardens around their home.”
The organization has distributed over 500 rain barrels in the last five years, held multiple stormwater workshops, and distributed native trees.
Cities that have implemented green infrastructure projects have similar residential “greening” programs. In the Washington D.C. area, RiverSmart Homes offers incentives to residents who reduce runoff from their properties. In Richmond, Va., Greening Virginia’s Capitol walks residents through installing rain barrels and rain gardens.
But these green technologies don’t just improve the water quality in the Little Conestoga and Conestoga Rivers, they improve the quality of life. Increased public green space fosters a sense of stewardship for the natural world, and colorful rain gardens increase property values.
“There's a lot of data and research about the impacts on crime, the impacts on property value, the impacts on retail sales, all from implementing a program like this. But it’s just something that feels good,” says Schroeder.
“Ultimately, the big vision is livability. It's about creating a home that we're all proud of living in, that we're all comfortable living in and all take pride in restoring and growing.”
For a more thorough look at stormwater runoff in Lancaster, check out this video from Save It Lancaster.
Natural Resources Specialist Paul Carlson reaches up a red oak tree, his eyes fixated on the 3-inch-diameter vine that has wrapped itself around the oak’s trunk.
The vine is known as Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and its effect on the red oak is comparable to a boa constrictor’s on a human: it strangles the tree and prevents the bark from receiving sunlight, which all trees need to survive. Sometimes the bittersweet vine’s weight will even uproot the tree.
In other words, if this vine is left alone, it’s very likely that the red oak will die. Along with it will disappear the wildlife habitat, forest cover, carbon absorption, erosion control, shade and other important benefits the tree provides.
“Once you recognize it, you’ll see it everywhere,” Carlson says, in reference to the bittersweet vine. He pulls out a pruner and a folding saw and slashes away at the bittersweet. I can almost hear the red oak take a breath.
You may not realize it, but not all plants are good. Oriental bittersweet is one of dozens of non-native weeds, trees, shrubs and grasses that are aggressively invading the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s delicate ecosystems.
As their name suggests, non-native weeds are not originally from this region. Therefore, they do not have any predators, parasites or pathogens here to limit their spread. Invasive weeds:
It’s estimated that invasive weed damage and control costs the United States $138 billion annually.
Ecologists, conservationists, gardeners and park maintenance staff across the Chesapeake Bay watershed are constantly looking for cost-effective ways to control these plant invaders.
Carlson and Montgomery County Parks Forest Ecologist Carole Bergmann – who can provide the name and origin of any plant I point to without consulting a field guide or iPhone app – have found an economically feasible and environmentally effective solution to the non-native weed invasion in Montgomery County, Maryland.
It’s called “Weed Warriors”: a county parks volunteer program that trains and certifies volunteers to identify and remove invasive weeds. Since the program began in 1999, Montgomery County’s Weed Warriors have put in more than 40,000 hours of volunteer service.
As the forest ecologist for all 36,000 acres of parks in Montgomery County, Bergmann realized she needed volunteers if she wanted to make a dent in the problem. “I knew that I couldn’t possibly do all the things I wanted to do without getting more people involved and giving them more responsibility and control.”
Last month, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay named Bergmann a 2011 “Chesapeake Forest Champion” for her work engaging more than 800 volunteers through the program.
At the final Weed Warrior training of the year in early November, volunteers follow Bergmann and Carlson through the forest surrounding Rockville’s Meadowside Nature Center, where the program is headquartered. Bergmann instructs her new volunteers to focus on vines during the winter season, and Carlson wrestles with the fall foliage to demonstrate correct vine removal tactics. The group passes around each vine and shrub, touching the bark, counting leaf lobes, and even smelling berries. It’s essential for Weed Warriors to correctly identify these plants.
“If you don’t know, don’t pull,” Bergmann implores. A plant may look like an invasive weed at first glance, but it could be an important native species that birds and squirrels depend on.
While removing all of the invasive weeds in Montgomery County is not feasible, Bergmann insists that isn’t her goal.
“The benefit of Weed Warriors isn’t just technical assistance. It’s that these volunteers understand enough to tell their neighbors, ‘Don’t buy English ivy.’”
The aggressive nature of invasive weeds requires that entire communities get on board with their extermination. In high-traffic and urban areas, such as Montgomery County, seeds of invasive plants such as kudzu and Japanese barberry often enter parks on the soles and bike tires of families and recreationists. Home owners are usually unaware that the exotic ornamental plants in their yard can invade parks and forests, overwhelming native vegetation and wildlife habitat.
“What’s really important is getting people to understand these things,” Bergmann says. “And in a way, to love the natural world.”
Bergmann knows that a sense of attachment to the natural world is what drives many Weed Warriors to volunteer. She has designed her program to foster this connection. Once volunteers complete a one-hour interactive computer training and attend a two-hour field workshop, the new Weed Warriors receive leather gloves, a hat and a “green card” that allows them to remove weeds at any Montgomery County park, whenever they want.
“People don’t always want to work in a group on the third Saturday of the month in a park across the county from where they live,” Bergmann explains. “They want to work in their park, the park that they watch their kid play baseball in every Saturday.”
Vincent Bradley of McKenney Hills decided to become a Weed Warrior after he participated in his neighborhood’s biannual cleanup this fall.
“At the cleanup, I saw this plant, porcelainberry, just taking over all of the others,” Bradley recalls.
Like many other invasive weeds, porcelainberry was planted by millions of unknowing gardeners because of its pleasant, ornamental beauty: berries ranging in color from deep purple to brilliant turquoise. But to Bradley, the plant’s destruction in his neighborhood park was anything but beautiful.
Bradley began to pull on the bittersweet vines that elevated the porcelainberry. One day, a cleanup supervisor stopped him to explain that he was using the wrong technique: tugging on the vines instead of simply cutting them. Bradley decided he had more to learn if he wanted to make a difference.
“I always appreciated nature,” he says. “My father taught me about trees when I was a kid, and ever since, I’ve been interested.”
Bergmann advises Bradley and other Weed Warrior volunteers to maintain this sense of curiosity. “Come back every season,” she says. “You need to keep learning about your surroundings. It will make you happier.”
As invasive weeds continue to spread, policies are catching on. Many invasive plants are no longer sold in garden stores. Some municipalities, cities – even entire nations – are enacting legislation to limit their distribution.
For example, England has outlawed the cultivation of Japanese knotweed since 1981. In 1990, the UK classified the plant as a “controlled waste,” meaning that even the soil that once contained the plant must be disposed of at a licensed landfill.
Bergmann has some simple advice for all Weed Warriors, certified or not.
Want to get involved?
You can help stop the spread of invasive plants by signing up to become a Weed Warrior. Training takes place on the last Wednesday of the month from April to October. If you can’t make the commitment to become a certified Weed Warrior, you can still make a difference. Special Project Weed Warrior events offer community members the chance to learn about and remove invasive plants in their local county parks.
No matter where you live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, you can still help stop the spread of invasive weeds. Here are a few invasive plant resources that can help you do your part:
(Porcelainberry image courtesy Steve Guttman/Flickr)