It is often said that the environment is dying a death by a thousand cuts. No single development, no act of an individual or organization or business causes a big negative impact; but collectively these developments and actions represent a significant impact on the environment. Left unchecked or unaltered, the ultimate fate is clearly predictable.
Thankfully, throughout the watershed, more and more small organizations and businesses are working with local governments to uproot pavement and concrete and replace it with gardens and natural areas. These pollution-reducing conservation practices at churches, schools, libraries, car dealerships, marinas, and, yes, even local brew pubs are healing some of the thousand cuts, as they absorb runoff from buildings and parking lots and reduce pollution flowing off the land and into local streams and creeks. Most of these projects are the result of a few dedicated and talented local citizens and organizations. Recently, the Spa Creek Conservancy, working with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Watershed Stewards Academy, with funding support from state and local agencies, installed rain gardens and infiltration basins at the Cecil Memorial Methodist and Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Churches in Annapolis, Maryland.
Remarkably, these beautiful gardens now catch and absorb virtually all of the polluted stormwater runoff that previously flowed off the property, untreated, and into nearby Spa Creek. While controlling polluted runoff was important to the leadership and congregations of these inner-city churches, so too was the sense of pride that they had in beautifying their houses of worship, with flowering native plants in the rain gardens and these community improvements.
So, how do we stop the death of a thousand cuts from which nature is suffering? By healing those cuts one at a time, through small projects like these that also lift our hearts and our souls and restore that sense of pride in our communities. How glorious and uplifting it will be for members of these churches to attend services and witness these plants in full bloom and know that they are honoring and paying tribute to creation.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
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.
If someone were to ask you what an average twenty-something would be doing before noon on a Saturday morning, what would you say? I’m going to guess sleeping. Well, I am proud to say that a few Saturdays ago, some of my co-workers and I broke this mold.
When I started working for the Chesapeake Bay Program about two months ago and moved from just north of D.C. to Annapolis, a former co-worker recommended I look into attending St. Martin’s Lutheran Church. On my first Sunday there, I noticed a write-up in the bulletin about a rain garden planting that would be taking place a few months down the road, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to get involved.
St. Martin’s received a $109,000 Small Watershed Grant from the Bay Program and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to plant 23 rain gardens and 23 trees on its property. One rain garden and all 23 trees were to be planted on a Saturday in November, while the rest of the project was to be finished in the spring. The Spa Creek Conservancy, which is responsible for managing the grant, predicts that the new trees and rain gardens will reduce runoff from the property by 97 percent. The church’s day school plans on incorporating the plantings into its lesson plans and engaging the young students as much as possible in local environmental issues.
Most of the volunteers that arrived that Saturday were either senior members of the church community or children who attend the day school. This made the job of planting the 23 trees and rain garden seem like much more of a challenge. But I was surprised to find that everyone found a task to complete and the group finished the plantings on time.
I remember looking up from the tree we were planting and seeing all of the volunteers working together on this early Saturday morning. I thought that if everyone planted a rain garden, or even a tree, what a difference it would make for the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Many of my co-workers who joined me at the planting used the event for certain projects that they were working on for the Bay Program. Members of our communications team took pictures and video to post on our website, while other staffers were interested in learning more from the Spa Creek Conservancy about similar projects. Although we each came with our own agenda, in the end, our biggest accomplishment was that we did something positive for the Bay.
Sometimes when you work for an environmental program, like the Chesapeake Bay, you forget what it really takes to make a change. Sure, making policy or informational videos and collecting data have a large impact, but what is really going to save the Chesapeake Bay are voluntary actions made by people in communities around the watershed. That Saturday at St. Martin’s, we were actually practicing what we preached, and I think that was the best message of all. A Saturday morning well spent.
A new campaign is urging Anne Arundel County, Md., residents to find “beautiful solutions to water pollution” by installing rain gardens, rain barrels and other methods of absorbing polluted runoff before it makes its way into the Bay.
The RainScaping Campaign, which kicked off this Earth Day, is a social marketing effort supported by more than 30 organizations throughout Maryland. The purpose of the campaign is to help reduce the fastest-growing source of pollution to the Bay: the dirt, oil, fertilizers and pesticides that run off residents’ lawns, decks and driveways when it rains.
Hundreds of years ago, the Chesapeake watershed was covered by vast swaths of forests, which slowly absorbed and filtered rain water before returning it to groundwater and nearby streams. RainScaping methods attempt to replicate the natural flow of water in today’s environment, in which much of those forests have been converted to cities, towns and subdivisions that are dominated by paved, hardened surfaces.
“Though we’ve lost a big piece of the natural forest, there are ways we can replicate it” through RainScaping techniques, said Jeff Horan with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, one of the campaign partners.
The campaign is centered around a website that contains detailed information about RainScaping, including directions on how to build a rain garden, lists and photos of plants native to the Chesapeake region, and where to order a rain barrel. The website also asks visitors to take the “RainScaping Challenge” by registering their RainScaping projects.
The rain gardens, native plants and permeable pavers promoted by the RainScaping campaign are on display at the Chesapeake Ecology Center in Annapolis. The site boasts 24 native demonstration gardens that absorb and filter polluted runoff while providing a colorful garden setting on the banks of College Creek, a tributary of the Bay.
To learn how you can RainScape to “slow it down, spread it out and soak it in,” visit RainScaping.org.
I couldn’t pass up the recent chance to join colleagues from the Chesapeake Bay Program for a short road trip to witness the art of the possible.
Just down the road from Fort Meade in Maryland is an office building that is incorporating the latest in green construction techniques.
It’s called the EnviroCenter, and for good reason. It’s a showcase for ways to protect the environment by harnessing nature – from drawing the energy of the sun to reusing the rain from a storm.
The first clue that innovation was afoot at this converted 1905 farmhouse was the lack of puddles as we pulled into the driveway on a miserably rainy day. A downspout from its green roof was feeding stormwater directly into a lineup of storage containers, and rain was being sucked up by the property’s absorbent surfaces.
With expansion plans in the works that will add a range of new environmental features, the EnviroCenter will even be able to capture stormwater gushing down the highway in front of the building – doing more than its share to corral one of the biggest nemeses of the Chesapeake Bay.
Stormwater carries pollutants and dirt from hard surfaces directly into streams and rivers, fouling the water and the habitat needed by fish and other Bay-dwellers.
The Bay Program is about to launch something called the “No Runoff Challenge” to promote no stormwater runoff from properties. The EnviroCenter is expected to do it one better and actually achieve negative runoff.
Stan Sersen, architect and owner of the EnviroCenter, gave us gawkers a tour of the facility, highlighting the practice-what-we-preach aspects of the construction. He also showed us plans for an attached 7,000-square-foot greenhouse that will allow office tenants to grow their own organic fruits and veggies.
If you have the time, check out the EnviroCenter and its non-profit Green Building Institute to learn about sustainable building practices.
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:
Here at the American Society of Civil Engineers International Low-Impact Development (LID) Conference in Seattle, I’m swept up body and spirit by the growing throng of several hundred enthusiastic devotees to the cause of polluted runoff (a.k.a. “stormwater”) reduction. As a non-engineer EPA bureaucrat, I’m a first-time participant in this biennial LID pilgrimage. But after three days of PowerPoint presentations and an all-day field trip to Portland, Oregon, which is the other “LID Mecca,” I’m just about ready to compose my own rap tune out of cool LID lingo and design “treatment trains” (combinations of multiple LID techniques) in my sleep. When I get home I’ll definitely take a new look at my own roof downspouts and concrete driveway, and think about how much reinforcement my carport will need before I can put a vegetable garden on the roof!
I used to be an engineer when I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of hilly central Connecticut. One of my favorite activities was building snow dams in the street gutter when the rain finally came and melted the snow on our particularly steep hill. It was great fun to pack the snow into a big ice dam and then, when the call came to go inside for dinner – invariably at 5:00 sharp – kick the dam open and send a big slushy gusher down the street. Down at the bottom of the hill it always flooded out of the street and into the Perraults’ front yard. (Maybe that’s why I felt guilty when I saw them at Sunday Mass.)
Of course at that time, I didn’t see any connection between that phenomenon – the runoff gusher – and the fact that we could always catch trout in the Quinnipiac River upstream of the city but never caught any downstream. Or why we never found any oysters when we went way downstream to tromp through the mud in Long Island Sound, even though my grandfather and uncles told great stories of burlap sacks full.
From what I’ve learned thus far, the “treatment train” at a house like mine would go something like this:
By that point, you should have pretty well mimicked what the Chesapeake Bay watershed used to be: a beautiful hardwood forest with clean waters in healthy streams. With this LID “treatment train,” now we can all be engineers! Choo Choo!