At the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., a diminutive Japanese white pine tree rests unassumingly on an outdoor table, its vibrant green leaves belying its age. The 390-year-old tree, first cultivated in 1625, was a mere 320 years old when it survived the atomic blast that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II. And the tree is gaining renown this week as it is honored to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the bombing. As part of the permanent collection at the arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, it helps form a tiny flourishing forest.
The museum’s three pavilions, housing about 150 plants, are part of the 446 acres of lush fields, forests and gardens making up the arboretum. Home to one of the largest bonsai and penjing collections in North America, the museum was established in 1976, while the arboretum dates to 1927.
The arboretum’s research program in ornamental horticulture and plant exhibits draw more than 500,000 visitors each year, allowing the staff to showcase a repertoire of educational programs, workshops and demonstrations about horticulture, agriculture and forestry.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Faith plays an influential role in the lives of billions of people in the world, with about 84 percent identifying with a religious group. As Ramadan, a month-long ritual focused on self-purification and refocusing attention to faith, comes to an end for roughly 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, it is a good time to reflect on the intersection between conviction and nature.
Green Muslims, a Washington, D.C., based organization with the mission of helping their community live in the environmental spirit of Islam, began with a conversation between a group of friends about how to ‘green’ their Ramadan. At first they took small measures, like switching to reusable plates and having zero-trash iftars, or evening meals, when they could break their fasts. Those simple actions set off a chain reaction of stewardship within the community that led to the formal establishment of Green Muslims as a volunteer organization in 2007.
The nonprofit works with a number of different Muslim communities in the D.C. area, but serves as a national resource for those across the country that are looking to tie their faith back to the natural world. “There is really a passion and a yearning for learning more about what our tradition is amongst the Muslim community everywhere, and we hope to provide those resources and incubate that energy to take it to the next level,” said Colin Christopher, Executive Director of Green Muslims.
With many youths spending an increasing amount of time indoors, exposure to and connections with the natural world are lost, often times leading to rises in health problems like allergies and obesity. In a push to alleviate nature deficit disorder, Green Muslims launched the ‘Our Deen is Green’ Youth Outdoor Education Program this year. The program offers a wide range of field trips to places like the Chesapeake Bay, farms and conserved lands to demonstrate real life examples of how Islam and the environment are intertwined.
Each trip offers themed lessons that cover subjects such as, water, food waste and renewable energy. The goal of the program is to reconnect the participants with outdoor spaces and encourage healthy behavior changes, like wiser food choices and increased awareness about human impacts on the planet. “In Islam, we understand that God has an amount of trust in us as Khalifas, or stewards of the Earth. We really see our responsibility as people who need to conserve and protect the natural environment; we are called to do so, it’s our responsibility,” said Christopher.
The final trip of the year was to Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., where the kids toured the historic Peirce Mill and learned how the Earth’s natural processes like water flow and wind create energy that can be harnessed with minimal negative impacts to the environment. Prior to touring the mill, all eight kids sat contently in a circle making windmills out of paper and pencils while discussing where their energy comes from. “Why are we always talking about water?” asks a young boy. “Because we are made of water,” replies Christopher. A look of awe falls over the children’s faces. The importance of water is a theme that weaves through all lessons taught during the program.
The Qur’an has hundreds of verses that talk about water, animals, wind and the sun, and Sharia, or Islamic law, directly translates into ‘the pathway to the water source’—meaning that protecting water is of utmost importance in the tradition of Islam. “Every part of our natural environment is integral to the greater whole. In Islam, we talk about, if you have one limb that is unhealthy then the entire body is unhealthy and sick. So, the Chesapeake Bay is a really integral part of that entire ecosystem and we can’t afford to neglect the Bay or other parts of our ecosystem," explained Christopher.
Although the organization aims to spread awareness about the link between Islam and the environment, Christopher believes that diversity is the backbone of the Muslim community and welcomes anyone, regardless of faith, to volunteer and participate in Green Muslim events. “I think that the challenges we face relate to education. There is a lot of misinformation about Islam and what Islam is,” noted Christopher. “We are trying to bring back the teachings of our traditions within our community and explain that conservation, moderation and love for creation are core components of our tradition.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
Text by Jenna Valente
Rapid population growth and development remain the top threats to the health of the Potomac River Watershed, according to the Potomac Conservancy’s eighth annual State of the Nation’s River report. But the advocacy group hopes implementing smart growth strategies will help the waterway withstand pressure from a growing community.
Despite being listed as the nation’s most endangered river by American Rivers in 2012, the Potomac River’s overall health has improved in recent years. In 2013, the Potomac Conservancy raised the waterway’s grade to a “C” after giving it a “D” grade in 2011. Now, with an estimated 2.3 million new residents expected to move into the communities along its shores by 2040, the Conservancy fears a rapidly changing landscape could undo years of progress toward restoring the Potomac.
“Population growth is likely to bring positive changes to our region including more jobs, higher home values, and a more robust local tax base,” the report states. “But, left unplanned, that growth could also spell disaster for the health of our lands, waterways, and drinking water sources.”
With the region facing forest loss, polluted rivers and streams and an aging water infrastructure, the report offers a range of “smart planning opportunities” as strategies to meet the needs of a growing population without further harming local waters. The Conservancy hopes approaches including forest buffers, mixed-use communities and rain gardens, along with a focus on redevelopment in existing areas rather than new development on untouched lands, will allow for the continued improvement of the Potomac River’s health.
Eight of the top 10 U.S. cities that have seen an increase in “nuisance flooding” alongside rising seas are on the East Coast, according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Four of the top 10 cities are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Annapolis and Baltimore lead the list with a 925 and 920 percent increase in their average number of nuisance floods since 1960. Washington, D.C., has seen a 373 percent increase, while Norfolk has seen a 325 percent increase.
According to the report, nuisance flooding—or minor flooding that closes roads, overwhelms storm drains and compromises infrastructure never designed to withstand inundation or saltwater exposure—will worsen as sea level rise accelerates. Indeed, nuisance flooding has become “more noticeable and widespread” because of rising seas, sinking land and the loss of natural flood barriers.
“As relative sea level increases, it no longer takes a strong storm or a hurricane to cause flooding,” said William Sweet, oceanographer and lead author of the report, in a media release. “Flooding now occurs with high tides.”
Image courtesy rwillia533/Flickr
The study was conducted by scientists at the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, who compared data from 45 tide gauges with reports of nuisance floods; whether or not a nuisance flood has taken place is determined at the local level by a National Weather Service threshold. It is hoped the findings will “heighten awareness of a growing problem” and “encourage resiliency efforts in response to” sea level rise.
An understanding of where floods are occurring is integral to building climate resiliency. Once coastal communities know where environmental threats and vulnerabilities lie, they can take steps to move growth and development away from the coast, enhance preparedness efforts to protect human health and protect and restore wetlands, buffers and barrier islands that might shield the shoreline from strong wind and waves.
The Chesapeake Bay Program has set a goal to increase the climate resiliency of the watershed’s living resources and public infrastructure, using monitoring, assessment and adaptation to ensure the region withstands the impacts of a changing climate.
Four organizations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will receive more than $230,000 to restore portions of the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers.
Image courtesy Tommy Wells/Flickr
In the District of Columbia, two organizations will connect students to the Anacostia in an effort to boost local stewardship. Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region will put third and fifth graders onto canoes, kayaks and an educational vessel, while the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum will turn at-risk high school students into citizen scientists to monitor water quality along Watts Branch.
In College Park, the University of Maryland will design low-impact development solutions to lower the amount of polluted stormwater running off of schools and into the Anacostia. And in Baltimore, the University of Baltimore will monitor fecal bacteria in a portion of a Patapsco River tributary to help two blue collar neighborhoods reduce pet waste and prioritize infrastructure repairs.
Image courtesy Zach Karpinski/Flickr
The funding has been granted through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Urban Waters Small Grants program, which supports the restoration of urban rivers and streams in 18 geographic regions.
Healthy and accessible urban waters can improve economic, educational, recreational and social opportunities in nearby communities.
“People, buildings and businesses are all concentrated in urban areas, making it even more important to protect waterways from pollution,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a media release. “These communities will receive grants, allowing them to help turn these waterways into centerpieces of urban renewal, spurring economic development and job creation.”
In addition to the four projects inside the Bay watershed, the Urban Waters Small Grants program will fund 32 projects in 15 other states and Puerto Rico.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to more than 17 million people, each of whom is reliant on water. But as populations grow and communities expand, we send pollutants into our rivers and streams, affecting every drop of water in the region. How, then, do so many of us still have access to clean water? The answer lies within wastewater treatment plants.
One plant, in particular, plays a pivotal role in the region’s water quality. Located in Washington, D.C., the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant has served the D.C. metropolitan area since 1983. The plant receives 40 percent of its flow from Maryland, 40 percent from the District and 20 percent from Virginia. With the capacity to treat 370 million gallons of sewage each day, it is the largest wastewater treatment plant in the world and the only one in the nation to serve multiple states.
Recently, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority—also known as DC Water—made technological upgrades to Blue Plains. Evidence shows these upgrades have already accounted for reductions in nutrient pollution and a resurgence in the upper Potomac River’s bay grass beds. Indeed, putting new wastewater treatment technology in place is a critical step toward meeting the pollution limits established in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load. As of 2012, 45 percent of the watershed's 467 wastewater treatment plants had limits in place that met water quality standards.
Because of spatial constraints, many of upgrades planned for Blue Plains will focus on intensifying the wastewater treatment process. According to Sudhir Muthy, innovation chief for DC Water, the more concentrated the purification process is, the more energy efficient the plant can be.
For decades, the philosophy behind wastewater treatment plants has been to imitate those clean water processes that you might see in natural systems. Lately, there has been a shift in thinking about how wastewater is treated. Murthy explains: “Now, more attention is given to using the energy created within the treatment process to run the plant. [For example,] carbon has a lot of energy and is created during the treatment process. We are trying to harness [carbon’s] energy to help the plant run in a more energy-efficient way. We are now asking: How do we optimize the use of energy within the wastewater treatment process?”
Blue Plains hopes to become energy neutral in 10 to 15 years, and upgrades to reduce pollution and save energy will continue for years to come. A new tunnel will allow both sewage and wastewater to flow from the District to the plant, where it will be treated to reduce the flow of polluted runoff into the Potomac River. And a new process will recycle “waste” heat to “steam explode” bacterial sludge, turning it into a biosolid that can be mixed with soil, used as fertilizer and generate extra revenue.
“All processes use energy,” Muthy said. “But if you can find ways to offset or recycle that energy use, then you can move towards being more efficient.”
Restoring urban streams can help restore urban communities, according to a new analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
In a report released last week, the USGS documents the contributions that the restoration of an Anacostia River tributary made to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, from the creation of jobs to the creation of open space for residents. The yearlong restoration of a 1.8 mile stretch of Watts Branch is one in a series of case studies highlighting the economic impacts of restoration projects supported by the Department of the Interior.
Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region
Completed in 2011, the efforts to restore Watts Branch included the restoration of an eroded stream channel and the relocation and improvement of streamside sewer lines. The work—a collaboration between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the District Department of the Environment, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and others—reduced erosion, improved water quality and wildlife habitat, and provided local residents with an urban sanctuary where green space is otherwise limited.
The restoration project also accounted for 45 jobs, $2.6 million in local labor income and $3.4 million in value added to the District of Columbia and 20 counties in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.
According to the EPA, $3.7 million in project implementation costs were funded by multiple agencies and organizations, including the EPA and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Read more about Restoring a Stream, Restoring a Community.
Tumor rates among catfish in the Anacostia River are down, according to a new report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Biologists with the agency’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office have studied the brown bullhead catfish for decades as an indicator of habitat status and the success of cleanup efforts. The bottom-dwelling fish is sensitive to contaminants that accumulate in the mud in which it finds its food, often developing liver and skin tumors after exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.
Image courtesy USDA/Wikimedia Commons
Brown bullheads in the Anacostia River once had the highest rates of liver tumors in North America, but recent USFWS surveys show that tumors in the fish have dropped. While the rate is still higher than the Bay-wide average, this improvement could indicate that exposure to chemical contaminants is on the decline.
Liver tumors in fish are caused by exposure to sediment that is contaminated with polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. PAHs can be found in coal, oil and gasoline, and enter rivers and streams from stormwater runoff, waste sites and the atmosphere.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) have coordinated a number of recent cleanup efforts to lower PAH contamination in the watershed, from improved stormwater management and more frequent street sweeping to the targeted inspection of local automobile repair shops to lower loadings of oil and grease.
Read more about Tumors in Brown Bullhead Catfish in the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers.
The District of Columbia has outlined the steps it will take to become the healthiest, greenest and most livable city in the United States.
The Sustainable DC Plan, released this week by the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) and Office of Planning (OE), sets forth more than 100 actions that are meant to improve the District’s energy consumption, waste generation, stormwater management and access to open spaces, clean water and fresh, local food—all in just two decades.
At an event that celebrated the release of the plan, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent C. Gray called Washington, D.C., a “model” of sustainability for cities across the nation and around the world.
“Things are changing. Times are changing. And we are changing,” Gray said.
In recent years, the District has become a leader in planting trees, installing green roofs, boosting public transportation and curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Sustainable DC Plan will build on these actions with ambitious goals to clean up local land, water and the Chesapeake Bay. The District will ensure, for instance, that all residents live within a 10-minute walk of parks or natural spaces; that 40 percent of the city is covered with a healthy tree canopy; and that all of the District’s waterways—including the long-polluted Anacostia River—are made fishable and swimmable by 2032.
Read more about the Sustainable DC Plan.
On a cold day in January, I found myself driving down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Unlike thousands of others, I wasn’t traveling into the District to celebrate our president on Inauguration Day, but to honor another great American: Martin Luther King, Jr., whose work we now commemorate with a national Day of Service. Because while Martin Luther King Day is a national holiday, it is also a day “on”—not a day “off.” And on that day, two conservation organizations—the Sierra Club and the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC)—were sponsoring a small stream cleanup at Pope Branch Park.
Pope Branch is a unique stream. According to Sierra Club field organizer and cleanup host Irv Sheffey, it is the only stream whose headwaters originate in the District and drain into the Anacostia River. So, local District residents have a greater incentive to clean up the waterway—and more control over what goes in it.
The first time I joined a cleanup at Pope Branch was five years ago, with my daughter, who is now in college in Florida. In 2008, we removed massive amounts of trash from the streambed—old appliances, couches, car parts and more—most of it a result of dumping. This time, there was still a fair amount of trash, but most of it was plastic bottles, soda and beer cans and food wrappings, all consequences of stormwater runoff. Local community organizers saw this reduced trash load as a positive sign of progress, and I did, too. But even as the residents who stopped to thank us for our work said they were pleased with the progress that had been made, they reminded us that there is still more work to do.
That same message resonates for both the Anacostia River and the Chesapeake Bay: progress is being made, but there is a lot more work to do. So let’s continue to look for opportunities to help local organizations—like the Sierra Club, the ECC or the countless others across the watershed—in their ongoing restoration efforts. We can do this, but to truly succeed, we must all do our part to once again have clean streams, healthy rivers and a restored Bay.
Autumn leaves are crumpling underfoot and winter coats are coming out of storage. It might be cold, but for one after-school enrichment provider, the onset of winter doesn’t mean we have to stay inside. In fact, their love of winter is what sets Elements apart!
Image courtesy Elements
Staff-members at Elements lead students through the Washington, D.C., wintertime woods, where a lot of layers keep kids warm on these educational afternoons. Running along trails and climbing up hills, students learn that even an hour spent outside can invigorate us.
Elements’ philosophy follows a growing body of research that points to the benefits of being outside. So what are you waiting for? Grab some gloves and get out there!
A yearlong survey of anglers along the Anacostia River has confirmed that many fishermen are catching, sharing and consuming contaminated fish.
While fishing advisories in Maryland and Washington, D.C., have been in place for more than two decades, these warnings are often not seen, understood or listened to—and as many as 17,000 residents could be consuming fish caught in the Anacostia.
Image courtesy Len Matthews/Flickr
Located less than one mile from the nation’s capital, the Anacostia River has long suffered environmental degradation. Polluted runoff from urban streets and hazardous waste sites has caused toxic chemicals to build up in the water and in the bodies of fish, which could cause disease or development disorders in those who consume them.
According to the results of a survey that studied the social behavior of Anacostia anglers, a complex set of factors is driving the sharing and consuming of locally caught and potentially contaminated fish: past experience and present beliefs, a lack of awareness of the health risks involved and an overriding desire to share their catch with those who might otherwise go hungry.
Image courtesy LilySusie/Flickr
Research conducted through hundreds of interviews along fishing “hotspots” and a community survey that canvassed the lower Anacostia watershed found that 40 percent of fishermen had never heard that fish from the Anacostia could make them sick. Some anglers thought visual cues—like obvious lesions, cloudiness in the eyes or the color of a fish’s blood—would help them determine the health of a fish, or that related illnesses would soon be apparent rather than chronic or long-term. If a fisherman had not fallen ill from a meal of fish before, then he might perceive the fish to be healthy or think that his preparation methods made it clean.
Research also found that current advisories do not resonate among diverse anglers. Just 11 percent of fishermen had seen a sign or poster, and even fewer had received warning material with a fishing license or reviewed related information online. And English-only outreach is not effective among a population in which one-quarter speaks a language other than English at home.
Image courtesy 35millipead/Flickr
But how can Anacostia anglers be reached?
"The answer to this problem will be far more complex than simply telling anglers not to share their catch,” said Steve Raabe, principal of the Maryland-based research firm that conducted the survey.
The Anacostia Watershed Society, among the partners behind the survey, agrees. While the non-profit’s director of public policy acknowledged this study is not a “silver bullet solution,” he hopes it will bring about positive change.
“We are hoping [the study] will be the catalyst to engage all stakeholders—federal and local governments, food security and hunger organizations, environmental and health organizations, as well as residents—to come up with answers,” Brent Bolin said.
“Through this research effort, we have already begun identifying potential solutions,” Bolin continued, from directing better messaging to affected populations to expanding urban gardens, farmers markets and other programs that will address the long-term challenges of clean water, food security and human health.
The above 1913 photograph depicts rows of American lindens planted along Washington D.C.’s Massachusetts Avenue, west of Dupont Circle. The “double rows” of trees were planted in the 1880s, but many disappeared as the street was developed, new embassies were built, and utility lines installed. As a street that has historically been an international relations hub (it is home to major embassies), the loss of trees along Massachusetts Avenue seemed to represent the worldwide preference of commercialism over nature.
(Image courtesy Restore Mass Ave/Washingtoniana MLK Library)
Today, the climate has shifted, and politicians jump at the chance to get their photo taken in front of a newly planted tree; but long before the diplomats grabbed their shovels (and press staff), Deborah Shapley was walking up and down Massachusetts Avenue, knocking on her neighbors’ doors, and asking them how far their hoses could stretch to water parched trees in the sidewalk.
Washington’s D.C.'s Department of Transportation's Urban Forestry Administration has taken the important step of planting trees along streets throughout the city, but it did not have the resources to water them. For young trees, lack of water lowers their chances of survival in Washington’s hot summers. Instead of complaining, Deborah encouraged her neighbors to take on the responsibility of watering their nearest city sidewalk tree as if it were their own.
“I started Restore Mass.Ave to be a model of how to get local property owners excited about taking care of the city trees near them.”
But convincing property owners to take care of a tree that isn’t technically in their yard is not so easy.
“People tend not to care about the landscape that is more than a house or two away,” explains Deborah. “So the cry for them to take care of trees beyond a certain distance, that’s just not practical to them.”
But since Deborah began Restore Mass Ave in 2007, more and more residents and embassies along the street have come to understand that these trees are dually beautifying their community and helping to absorb stormwater runoff.
(Image courtesy Restore Mass Ave)
In addition to caring for the 100 sidewalk trees installed by the city, Restore Mass has worked with Casey Trees to plant 125 new trees since 2007. Most of the 225 total trees are large shade trees, which absorb stormwater and lessen pressure on the neighborhood's combined sewer system.
Like most of downtown Washington D.C., Massachusetts Avenue has a combined sewer system (css), which collects water from both stormwater runoff and household’s sanitary sewage. The CSS conveys this to treatment plants to be cleaned before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
But during heavy rain events, the combined sewer system often overflows; the stormwater and sanitary wastes flow directly into the Anacostia or Potomac River. This can cause an excess of bacteria and other pollutants in Washington D.C.’s tributaries, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
While it is always important to find ways to decrease the amount of stormwater runoff flowing into storm drains, it is particularly crucial in neighborhoods with combined sewer overflows (roughly one-third of the District of Columbia).
“The city is under requirements from the EPA to rebuild the underground tunnels and pipes” associated with the combined overflow system, explains Deborah. “They’re only able to do a certain amount per year of underground infrastructure. But large trees naturally conduct precipitation down into the soil and lowers the burden the underground pipes.”’
Stormwater will instead be absorbed by trees, and help to recharge the groundwater so more plants can grow.
“If you have a continuous line of shade trees alongside of a gutter, less water flows into that storm drain, and less water is barreling around in the tunnels of the combined stormwater system,” Deborah says.
While trees help to absorb stormwater during rain events, they do need to be watered when it is not raining. Droughts and heat waves make it difficult for young trees to survive on their own. Luckily, Restore Mass Ave’s volunteers, known as “Treekeepers,” make sure care is given to every sidewalk tree.
Since roughly one-third of Mass Ave properties are foreign-owned, the organization works with embassies to plant trees on their grounds.
While it was once typical for embassies’ groundskeepers to maintain flowers the colors of the nations’ flags, it is now popular for embassies to also maintain the surrounding trees. Governments relate the activity to their climate change agendas. Groundskeepers become, in effect, "Treekeepers."
“They have a sense of ownership that they didn’t have before,” says Deborah. “When you give people who care for plants the chance to grow nearby sidewalk trees, they are delighted.”
As Restore Mass Ave encourages private homeowners and embassy staffs to care for trees in public space, the sense of shared community and stewardship multiplies.
“As in many neighborhoods, we found that the embassies don’t often talk to each other, but when you point out the common trees, and you engage all the staff, it becomes their common garden,” explains Deborah.
While Restore Mass Ave may have found a way to create a sense of an international environmental stewardship, Deborah, founder and president of the all-volunteer organization, concedes that the nonprofit would like to expand its influence, but not its area.
“The idea is to not take over a bigger and bigger area, but to get other people to start their own groups, such as Restore Georgia Avenue or Restore Connecticut Avenue. Only as more people here understand the importance and fun of growing trees, will DC become the ‘City of Trees’ as it was known a century ago."
(Image courtesy Restore Mass Ave)
For more information on how you can get involved with Restore Mass Ave or start your own “Restore” on your street, visit the Restore Mass Ave Volunteer page.
Restore Mass Ave is trying to spread the word, via their Tree Care Blog (http://blog.restoremassave.org) and their Facebook and Twitter (#restoremassave).
A year or two ago, the newest addition to a southeast Washington, D.C., stream was not nesting mallards or spring peeper frogs, but cars – abandoned in the creek at the approximate rate of one vehicle per week.
Illegal dumping was just one problem for Watts Branch: the largest D.C. tributary to the Anacostia River, which flows through the District to the Potomac River and into the Chesapeake Bay. Broken sewer lines running through the stream leaked bacteria into the water. During storms, fast-moving water cut into the stream's banks, leaving Watts Branch looking more like a trench than a backyard creek.
When water cuts into stream banks, it carries sediment (dirt) into the stream. Sediment clouds the water, preventing sunlight from reaching important aquatic life, such as amphibians and bay grasses.
This combination of bacteria and sediment pollution left Watts Branch virtually devoid of life. The creek – just blocks away from Marvin Gaye's childhood home – was beginning to mimic the music legend's environmental concerns, expressed most explicitly in his 1971 single Mercy Mercy Me. ("Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas/Fish full of mercury/Oh, mercy mercy me/Oh, things ain't what they used to be.")
Today, dumped cars are a rare sight, and spring peepers splash into the water as I walk along the banks of Watts Branch. A stream restoration project completed in fall 2011 by the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) not only corrected the dumping problem, but repaired sewer lines, installed native plants, and transformed the trench into a meandering stream that can healthily withstand storm events.
Slowing down fast moving water
"The project is designed to keep the channel relatively stable," explains Peter Hill, branch chief for DDOE's Planning and Restoration Division. "Before, the stormwater and all the runoff would come rushing through here very quickly. The banks were steep; there was not a lot of biological activity."
In one 2008 storm event, the stream’s water level rose from zero to four feet in just two hours.
(Image courtesy DDOE)
Like all stream restoration projects, the Watts Branch project aimed to slow down stormwater flowing into the stream. When water moves slower, it does not cut into and erode stream banks, carrying sediment into the water. This allows plants and wildlife to flourish both on the banks and in the stream.
"Now, when we have a storm, water will rise up, but it will tend to fall back into the center of the stream... this basically relieves the pressure from the stream banks so you don’t get erosion," explains Hill. "The water falls over stones, (in the center of the creek) as opposed to tearing up this bank."
In addition to redirecting stream flows, DDOE and Anacostia Riverkeeper installed a floating trash collecting device in the water. Groundwork Anacostia empties the device every two weeks, preventing trash from floating downstream.
Parks and People Foundation and other volunteer groups helped install native plants and aquatic grasses, which will help to keep soil on the stream banks in place.
Watts Branch was chosen for restoration because of its severe water quality impairments from sediment and bacteria. But there are hundreds of streams just like it across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In Northwest D.C., Milkhouse Ford, a tributary to Rock Creek, also suffered from high volumes of fast-moving stormwater flowing from a nearby residential neighborhood. Today, rocks separate the stream into small pools where tadpoles are hatching, and newly planted trees dot the stream banks. The DDOE and National Park Service project was completed in fall 2011.
"Each pool is a foot drop in elevation," explains project manager and DDOE Environmental Protection Specialist Stephen Reiling. "It's just one way of slowing the stormwater down and letting sediment settle in these pools. That's the simple idea: just slowing the water down."
The pools allow the stormwater to sit long enough to seep into the ground water. This allows many of the pollutants found in stormwater runoff (such as lawn fertilizer, automobile exhaust and bacteria from pet waste) to soak into the ground, instead of making their way into the Chesapeake Bay.
"We have a very impervious residential watershed up here (above the stream), so associated with that, there’s grease and oil from vehicles, sediment, and any kind of fertilizer residents put on their lawns," explains Reiling. "So we’d like to slow that down, and hopefully keep it here before it gets to the bay."
Milkhouse Ford is surrounded by the forests of Rock Creek Park, trees that the project team managed to keep intact. Preserving nearby vegetation is difficult in many stream engineering projects, which require large and heavy equipment to build up banks or replace soils.
"This is pretty unique in terms of how small the footprint is," says Hill.
Rock Creek Conservancy and other volunteer groups planted native trees and shrubs along the banks, which will hold the soil in place and prevent the stream's banks from eroding.
The stormwater story
Since streams, storms and stormwater are natural parts of the water cycle, it may seem strange that stormwater is degrading our streams and contributing to sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. But in many places, stormwater from driveways and lawns flows into a sewer on the street, which connects to a local creek. The problem? These creeks were not meant to hold stormwater from the entire neighborhood – only the water that naturally flowed into them. When too much water flows in at once, the banks wash away, bringing tons of sediment as well.
"When many of these houses (in southeast D.C.) were built, they saw stormwater as a problem, so they piped it out from the streets and sent it to the nearby stream," explains Hill.
While this infrastructure can't be entirely corrected, ensuring that the streams remain stable during storm events will improve water quality in the stream, as well as in the Chesapeake Bay.
Another way to ease pressure on our streams is to keep stormwater onsite. This means reducing runoff from your property by using rain barrels, rain gardens and native plants. In the Bay watershed, local programs such as River Star Homes (Norfolk, Virginia) and River Smart Homes (Washington, D.C.) help local residents implement runoff-reducing practices in their backyards.
More than a stream
Stream restoration project leaders like Hill and Reiling are beginning to notice an unexpected, less measurable outcome of their projects: residents have developed a sense of pride and stewardship for their newly restored neighborhood creeks.
When Watts Branch was transformed from a steep, cloudy channel littered with cars into a meandering creek with sprouting saplings, residents began to spend more time along the streamside pedestrian trail, and dumping stalled.
“Watts Branch was chosen for restoration because...it was an eyesore to the community," says Hill. "The community didn’t see it as an asset, and being D.C.’s largest tributary to the Anacostia, we wanted to fix it up.”
Neighborhoods along the 1.7 mile stretch of restored stream have seen a reduction in crime since the project’s completion, according to Hill.
“Most recently, an older gentleman brought his grandkids here and they were hanging out near the stream; he wanted to show them where he grew up,” explains Hill. “It was really nice that someone would be proud of this, so much that they want to show it to their grandkids.”