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Restoration Spotlight: Maryland farmer develops solution for agriculture runoff

The word “pollution” tends to bring to mind images of dark smoke billowing out of smokestacks or fluorescent-colored water spilling out of pipes. But there are other types of pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay region and they come from a somewhat unexpected place: agriculture.

Agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay region. Nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, feed algal blooms that create harmful conditions for the Bay’s fish. Too much sediment can cloud the water and smother bottom-dwelling animals. These pollutants are difficult to control because, instead of spilling out of pipes, they run off of large fields when it rains. Sam Owings, a farmer in Chestertown, Maryland, knew the challenges of controlling agricultural runoff, so he decided to develop his own solution.

Owings knows farming, and he knows stormwater. He grew up on a farm where he worked until he was 30 years old, after which he started a site development contracting business. “I learned a lot about soil erosion and soil conservation in agriculture,” he said, “and then I learned about stormwater control in site development.”

After returning to farming 15 years ago, he combined that knowledge to develop what he calls the “cascading system.” The system, which he built and tested on his farm, is a strip of four 40 by 140 foot trenches in a grass waterway between two of his fields. The grass waterway is an area where rainwater—and farm runoff—naturally collect from over 100 acres of surrounding land and are funneled toward a nearby creek.

“The idea behind it is to reduce stormwater flows from the land into state waters,” Owing said. It’s designed to slow down the flow of water by having it run through the strip of basins, filling up each one before allowing any water to discharge into the creek. After the rain stops, the remaining water sits in the basins to either evaporate or absorb back into the ground. Owings specifically placed the basins in an area that receives concentrated runoff from a large area of over 100 acres.

After receiving a research grant from Maryland Industrial Partnerships, Owings teamed up with University of Maryland professor Dr. Allen Davis to conduct a two year study of the system. The results Davis got were telling: of the water that entered the cascading system, 56 percent was not released out the other end and into the creek. The system also captured 65 percent of sediment and over half the nutrients.

Sam Owings, a farmer in Queen Anne's County, Md., stands near a year-old stormwater runoff project he installed on his farm. Owings calls the design a chain filter, and says it captures runoff from a portion of his property. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Even with the apparent success of the cascading system, Owings isn’t done. He developed a “chain system,” or what he described as a “filter strip on steroids.” Unlike the cascading system, which was designed for concentrated, high-flow areas, the point of the chain system is to collect regular runoff from fields. “The concept is simple,” he said about both of his systems. “You can take an existing filter strip and retrofit it into these.”

The suitability to existing farms is one of the advantages Owings sees in both of his systems. “With many environmental programs, [farmers] have to give up tillable land,” he explained. But since the cascading and chain systems are in grass waterways, which are generally not utilized by farmers, “you’re just making the land more efficient.”

All in all, the project seems to be working for Owings. Now, he’s working with Earth Data to try and get his cascading system certified as a best management practice, a designation that means it is an efficient and effective practice to combat agricultural runoff.

When asked why he developed these systems, Owings’ answer was straightforward: “Farmers are inherently problem-solvers. Agriculture pollution is a problem, and so why not work on a solution?”

Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Video and photo by Will Parson

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About Joan Smedinghoff - Joan is the Communications Office Staffer at the Chesapeake Bay Program. Originally from Chicago, she was introduced to the Chesapeake Bay region through the streams of central Pennsylvania. She received her Bachelor's in Environmental Studies from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where she first discovered her passion for storytelling.


Va. governor signs bill banning lawn fertilizer containing phosphorus

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has signed into law a bill that prohibits the sale, use and distribution of lawn fertilizer containing phosphorus. The legislation will go into effect on Dec. 31, 2013.

The law also prohibits the sale of deicers containing urea, nitrogen or phosphorus. Additionally, golf courses must implement nutrient management plans by 2017.

Phosphorus is one of the two main types of nutrients that pollute the Bay and its local waterways. Too much phosphorus runoff leads to algae blooms and low-oxygen “dead zones” where underwater life cannot survive.


Maryland passes law to reduce pollution from lawn fertilizer

Maryland has passed a law that will reduce pollution from lawn fertilizer applied to homes, golf courses and businesses.

The Chesapeake Bay Commission, whose members introduced the legislation, estimates that the Fertilizer Use Act of 2011 will reduce phosphorus pollution from urban sources by 15 percent compared to 2009 levels. This equates to 20 percent of the phosphorus reduction Maryland needs to achieve its pollution reduction goals for the Chesapeake Bay TMDL.

Turf grass is now the largest “crop” in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, exceeding the amount of acres planted in corn and fast approaching all row crops combined. As the amount of lawns in the region increases, so does fertilizer use.

The legislation limits the amount of nutrients in fertilizer used by homeowners and lawn care professionals. Nitrogen will be limited and phosphorus will be banned in most types of lawn fertilizer.

Additionally, professional fertilizer applicators will have to be trained and certified in proper fertilizer application, such as keeping fertilizer off paved surfaces and not applying before heavy rain or when the ground is frozen. Areas along waterways, drainage ditches and near storm drains will be designated as “no-fertilizer zones.” (Read a full list of the lawn fertilizer bill provisions.)

The commission worked with soil scientists, environmental groups, fertilizer manufacturers, the Maryland Department of Agriculture, and associations representing lawn care professionals and golf courses to develop the provisions. Similar legislation passed in Virginia this winter, and is expected to be introduced in Pennsylvania this year.

Calling this bill “one of the nation’s most comprehensive and protective standards for lawn fertilizer content and use,” Chris Wible, director of environmental stewardship for the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, pledged to work with Bay groups to teach homeowners about protecting the Bay from their own backyards.

Another important part of the legislation is increasing and improving homeowner outreach. Within one year, the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the University of Maryland will develop and distribute consumer guidelines to help homeowners better understand how to reduce pollution from lawn fertilizer.

For more information about the lawn fertilizer legislation, visit the Chesapeake Bay Commission's website or read the Maryland General Assembly’s bill summary.


Five ways you might be hurting the Chesapeake Bay - without even knowing it

Many residents of the Chesapeake Bay region know that what they do on land has a direct effect on the Bay's health. But what lots of people don't know is that some of their everyday actions are actually major contributors of pollution.

The good news is that small changes in your daily activities can make a big difference. Consider the amount of people who live in our region. If each of the nearly 17 million Chesapeake Bay watershed residents changed one of the behaviors listed below, imagine how much it could help the Bay's health!

Here are five ways you may be hurting the Chesapeake Bay, and not even know it.

1. Over-fertilizing your lawn

There is an unspoken competition in almost every neighborhood to have the best yard on the block. Everyone wants to hear their neighbors say, "Your flowers look so beautiful!" or ask, "How did your get your grass so green?" People often use large amounts of fertilizer and pest control products to get these results, ignoring the instructions provided on the packaging.

Excess fertilizer doesn't make your lawn extra green. It just gets washed off the grass during rain storms. This polluted runoff makes its way to the nearest storm drain, and then into your local creek or river, which eventually empties into the Bay. Fertilizer and pest control products contribute to "dead zones" that form in the Bay each summer: large areas of the Bay where fish, crabs and other life are unable to exist.

To reduce your yard's impact, limit fertilizing your yard to the fall months, when fewer rain storms allow fertilizer to stay on your lawn. Also, carefully follow product instructions so you don't apply more fertilizer than you need. Finally, pick plants that are native to your area; they require little to no fertilizer or pest control.

For more tips, check out the Plant More Plants campaign.

2. Not picking up after your pets (even in your own backyard)

The one thing that most dog owners can agree on is how much they dislike picking up after their pets. Although most people hold their noses and pick up the waste, some give a few glances around them to see if anyone is watching and keep on walking. They may not know the harm they are doing to their local waterway and the Chesapeake Bay.

In addition to the risk of people stepping in the ignored waste (yuck!), another issue is that pet waste contains harmful nutrients, bacteria (like salmonella) and parasites (like roundworms). Just like fertilizer, runoff can pickup these harmful pollutants and send them straight into storm drains and local streams. Bacteria from pet waste can collect in water bodies, potentially causing infections and bacterial diseases in the people and animals that swim there. Who wants to eat a fish or crab that has been swimming in fecal matter?

Pet waste should be thrown away, flushed, or put in a pet waste composter. Do your part and pick up after your pet. It stinks, but we all need to do it for a clean Bay.

3. Washing your car

Spring is just around the corner, which means it is time to wash off all the salt and grime your car picked up during the harsh winter months. I bet many of you will think, "What a beautiful spring day. "I'm going to wash my car in the driveway." Think again! Washing your car the old-fashioned way, with a hose and bucket, can actually be very harmful to the environment.

Homeowners use an average of 116 gallons of water to clean their cars, while commercial carwashes use about 60 percent less. Additionally, you may think you are simply removing dirt and bird droppings, but motor oil, exhaust residue, heavy metals from rust and other possibly toxic substances will come off in your car wash. All of this, plus the soap you are using, will flow untreated down your street or driveway into the storm drain.

One way to reduce your impact and still have a clean car is to take it to a professional car wash. There, water is reused several times before it is sent to a treatment plant to be cleaned.

You can still wash you car at home, too. If you do, make sure to use a biodegradable, phosphate-free detergent. Also, wash your car on gravel or grass instead of on pavement. This gives water a chance to be absorbed and naturally filtered through the soil. And be sure to empty your wash bucket into a sink or toilet.

For more information on washing your car the Bay-friendly way, check out this pamphlet from the Environmental Protection Agency.

4. Using plastic bags

Remember when you used to be asked, "Paper or plastic?" at the grocery store? Well, we have a third option for you: reusable! Plastic bags are a huge source of trash pollution in the Chesapeake Bay's local rivers and streams. Most bags are used only once to carry purchases from one location to another, and then they are thrown away.

Not only is plastic bag trash unsightly, but the bags can harm animals who try to eat them or get trapped inside of them. And even if you throw them away, plastic bags can take 1,000 years to break down in the environment.

A number of cities and states have passed or are considering fees for plastic bag use. The most well-know is the District of Columbia, which launched its Skip the Bag, Save the River campaign to help clean up the Anacostia River. Maryland may create a similar law that would charge residents for each plastic bag they use.

So why not be ahead of the curve and start using reusable bags? They come in all sizes and colors. Many can even fold down to fit in a purse or glove compartment, making it easy for you to stash them away for your next trip to the store.

If you forget your reusable bags and have to use plastic, make sure you recycle your bags. Most local grocery stores have plastic bag recycling stations, as well as reusable bags for sale.

5. Driving too much

People have been told many reasons why they need to reduce the amount of time they spend behind the wheel. "You will get more exercise if you walk." "It will save you money on gas." But what about saving the Chesapeake Bay?

Pollution from air accounts for nearly one-third of the nitrogen pollution in the Bay, and vehicles are a large part of that. Like anything else released into the air, exhaust pollution will eventually come back down to the ground. Exhaust from cars also produces polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. When these toxic chemicals make their way into the water, they attach to sediment particles and can harm oysters, plankton and some species of fish. PAHs are thought cause cancerous tumors in catfish and other bottom-dwelling fish. Learn more about chemical contaminants here.

So help the health of animals and humans living in our region by driving less. Carpool to work, use public transportation or combine shopping trips.

For more ways to help, read our How To's and Tips page.

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About Kristen Foringer - Need some text


Report details effects of pollution from lawn fertilizer on Chesapeake Bay

A new report by Environment Maryland details the harmful effects of lawn fertilizer on the Chesapeake Bay and explains the steps that should be taken to reduce this pollutant and clean up local waterways.

Lawn fertilizer contains the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, which are major sources of pollution in the Bay and its rivers. When homeowners apply too much fertilizer to their lawns, the nutrients can run off into local storm drains when it rains. Excess nutrients can also seep into groundwater, which eventually makes its way into the Bay's streams and rivers.

Turf grass is now the largest crop in Maryland. In 2009, 1.3 million acres were planted with turf, compared with 1.5 million acres for all other crops combined. While farmers are required to develop nutrient management plans and control polluted runoff on their land, there are few rules for homeowners and lawn care companies to follow for fertilizer applications.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture reports that “nonfarm use” of fertilizer is quickly catching up with farm fertilizer sales. Estimates suggest that Maryland landowners apply approximately 86 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizer to their lawns each year. According to the report, researchers monitoring one suburban stream near Baltimore found that 56 percent of the nutrients in the water came from lawn fertilizer.

The report concludes that to reduce pollution for lawn fertilizer, lawmakers need to take two broad steps: limit the amount and type of nutrients in the fertilizer itself, and ensure that homeowners and lawn care companies apply less fertilizer to the ground.

For more information, download the full lawn fertilizer report, “Urban Fertilizers and the Chesapeake Bay: An Opportunity for Major Pollution Reduction.


Virginia to ban lawn fertilizer containing phosphorus

Virginia is poised to pass a law banning the sale of fertilizer containing phosphorus, a major pollutant in the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers.

Lawns, parks, golf courses and other grass-covered areas cover 3.8 million acres of the Bay watershed. Most established lawns do not need phosphorus, but the majority of commonly used lawn fertilizers include phosphorus in their nutrient mix.

Once it goes into effect in 2013, the law will reduce an estimated 230,000 pounds of phosphorus pollution from reaching the Bay and Virginia rivers each year. This is 22 percent of Virginia's 2017 phosphorus reduction goal.

The law will also:

  • Require lawn service companies to apply fertilizer according to nutrient management standards.
  • Require that lawn fertilizer packages are clearly labeled with information on how to properly fertilize and reduce polluted runoff.
  • Bar the use of de-icers containing nitrogen.

A variety of groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, James River Association, Home Builders Association of Virginia and Virginia Association for Commercial Real Estate, supported the legislation.

The legislation was passed by the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates. It now awaits Gov. Bob McDonnell's signature.

When passed, Virginia will become one of nine states that restrict the use or sale of phosphorus in lawn fertilizer. Maryland and Pennsylvania are considering similar legislation.


Question of the Week: Is it safe to use an organic fertilizer?

Welcome to this week’s installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week we'll take a question submitted through the Chesapeake Bay Program website and answer it here for all to read.

This week’s question comes from Tom: I recently purchased a house on the Potomac near the Chesapeake Bay and I want to fertilize the lawn this fall.  Is it safe to use an organic fertilizer?

Fertilizing your lawn in the fall rather than in the spring is a great step toward protecting the Bay. Many people believe the spring is the best time to fertilize, but heavy seasonal rainfall can actually wash fertilizers off your lawn and carry them into your local creek or stream. This polluted runoff, which contains nitrogen and phosphorus, fuels the growth of algae in the Chesapeake Bay. Algae blooms are harmful to fish, crabs, oysters and other species that call the Bay home.

Organic fertilizers are a safer choice to use on your lawn because they tend to release nutrients more slowly than regular fertilizers, thus reducing the pollution that could run off your lawn. A variety of organic fertilizers are available, made from all sorts of natural materials. Check out The Organic Gardener for more information.

One of the easiest ways to naturally fertilize your lawn is to recycle your grass clippings and compost the leaves that fall from your trees this time of year.

  • After mowing your lawn, instead of bagging up the clippings, leave them on the grass. The clippings will slowly break down and release up to half of your lawn’s nitrogen needs.
  • In autumn, as leaves cover your yard in a blanket of reds and oranges, consider mulching them with a lawn mower instead of raking and bagging them. Using leaves as a natural mulch for your lawn and garden will not only reduce nutrient pollution from fertilizer, but will cut back on the waste generated from lawn and leaf bags.

Visit our Help the Bay in Your Backyard page for more tips on how to fertilize your lawn for a healthy Bay.

Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose it for our Question of the Week!


Annapolis Bans Use of Lawn Fertilizer Containing Phosphorus

To help reduce pollution flowing to the Chesapeake Bay, the city of Annapolis, Md., has banned the use and sale of residential lawn fertilizers containing phosphorus.

The new fertilizer law is intended to reduce the amount of phosphorus -- an algae-forming nutrient -- that enters area waters. Nutrients are the main cause of the Bay’s poor health, and residential fertilizer use is a notable source of phosphorus loads to the Bay and its rivers.

According to the city of Annapolis, the new law applies to all land located in the city limits and all land owned by the city. City businesses will not be allowed to stock phosphorus-containing lawn fertilizers on their shelves beginning January 1, 2010.

Annapolis is believed to be the first jurisdiction in the Bay watershed to limit the use and sale of residential lawn fertilizer to help restore the Bay. Several states and municipalities in the Great Lakes region have banned phosphorus in lawn fertilizer to help limit pollution to their local waters.

Residents throughout the Bay region are encouraged to reduce or eliminate their use of lawn fertilizers to help clean up the Bay and its rivers. (Learn more about how you can help the Bay by reducing or eliminating lawn fertilizer use.)

Visit the city of Annapolis’ website for more information about the new phosphorus-free lawn fertilizer law.

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New Online Calculator Assesses Your Nitrogen Footprint

Ever wonder how much pollution you contribute to the Bay and its rivers? The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) has launched a new online tool to help you find out.

The Bay Foundation’s Nitrogen Calculator uses information about your home to assess how much algae-producing nitrogen your family sends each year to the Bay or your local river. As you enter details about your sewer system, electricity use, and travel and lawn care habits, the calculator comes up with a yearly “nitrogen footprint” for you and your family.

“We hope this new tool will encourage people to think about the choices they make and take actions that will reduce nitrogen pollution across the watershed,” said CBF Senior Scientist Dr. Beth McGee.

One way Maryland residents that use septic systems can help reduce pollution to the Bay is to upgrade their system to one that removes more nitrogen. The Maryland Department of the Environment is currently offering free upgrades to nitrogen-removing systems.

Here’s some other ways you can help reduce nitrogen pollution to the Bay:

  • Don’t fertilize your lawn.
  • Plant trees and shrubs, which absorb airborne nitrogen and slow polluted runoff from your yard.
  • Pick up after your pet.
  • Reduce the amount of miles you drive.
  • Install a rain garden or rain barrels to capture runoff from your downspout


Light-hearted Chesapeake Club Brings Conservation Message to Virginia

Residents of Hampton Roads and the Greater Richmond area are learning how to “Save the Crabs, then Eat ‘Em” this spring with the return of Chesapeake Club, a multi-media campaign that educates residents about the Bay's nutrient pollution problem in a humorous way.

The Chesapeake Club campaign urges Bay watershed residents to hold off on fertilizing their lawns until the fall, when rainstorms are less frequent and the ground is better able to absorb nutrients contained in fertilizer. This helps protect the Bay's remaining blue crab population, which has been declining in recent years.

There are more than five million lawns in the Bay watershed, each potentially contributing fertilizer, pesticides and other harmful chemicals to the Bay via runoff into streams and storm water drains . Excess nutrients in the Bay cause algal blooms, which block sunlight from reaching bay grasses and deplete the water of oxygen needed to support all aquatic life.

Blue crabs use bay grasses as a nursery and molting area because the grasses protect the crabs from predators. Bay scientists have found that 30 times more juvenile crabs live in bay grasses than in areas without grasses.

Why should we care about the crabs? Because they're the main ingredient in those famous, delicious Chesapeake crab cakes, of course!

To help save the seafood, Chesapeake Club offers yard care tips so you can create a blue crab-friendly lawn. And if you'd rather leave it up to the professionals, there are a growing number of lawn care providers offering the Chesapeake Club standard of yard care.

Think of all the things you could do this spring instead of fertilizing your lawn: Go on a day trip to one of the Bay watershed's many natural or historic areas. Take a romantic getaway to a Bay island. Try a great new recipe for crab soup. Or eat out at an area restaurant that supports the Chesapeake Club.

So skip the lawn fertilizer this spring. Because is the grass really greener if all the blue crabs are gone?

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