The Potomac Conservancy has reported an improvement in the Potomac River’s health for the third year in a row, giving the waterway a “C” in its seventh annual State of the Nation’s River report.
The Potomac Conservancy, an advocacy group that fights for the health of the waterway, has an optimistic outlook for the river’s future. “After suffering the effects of historical overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction, it is no wonder that the Potomac River’s recovery is a slow one,” the report states. “We believe the river is on its way back to full health.”
In 2012, the Potomac topped American Rivers’ list of the nation’s most endangered waterways, the biggest threat a combination of agricultural and stormwater runoff. With continued population growth in the Washington, D.C., area, human development has increased the amount of impervious surfaces that cannot absorb polluted rainfall traveling across the land and into storm drains, rivers and streams.
“Going forward, when it comes to cleaning up the Potomac, public enemy number one is polluted runoff,” said Hedrick Belin, Potomac Conservancy president. “That is the single largest threat to the full recovery of the Potomac, in that it is the only source of pollution that we see growing.”
The Conservancy plans to take a “three-pronged” approach to reducing polluted runoff, strengthening regulatory frames at a local level, increasing funding for clean water programs and creating incentives and assistance programs for property owners to make it easier for them to contribute to a healthy waterway.
Belin stresses the importance of protecting both the river and the land that surrounds it. ”As we peek around the corner or over the horizon, we see some troubling trends if we don’t change how we treat the land that surrounds the Potomac,” he explained.
Seven cities and non-profit organizations are set to reduce stormwater runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, using green development to combat the fastest-growing source of pollution in the watershed.
Image courtesy Isaac Wedin/Flickr
Grant funding administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Chesapeake Bay Trust (CBT) through the Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns initiative will help cities transform impervious sidewalks, streets and parking lots into green corridors that will capture and filter polluted runoff before it can flow into storm drains, rivers and streams.
A total of $400,000 will go toward green development projects in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. The town of Cambridge, Md., for instance, will use $75,000 to turn a paved surface into a park, while the District will use $95,000 to install bioretention cells and treeboxes along O St. NW.
Stormwater runoff is a growing concern in urban and suburban areas, where rainfall picks up pollutants as it flows across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses. But certain practices—including green roofs, rain gardens and permeable pavement—can help stormwater trickle underground rather than into the Bay.
I bristle when I hear people refer to stormwater utility fees as a “rain tax.” In fact, these fees generate critical funding for green practices that mitigate the effects that roads, parking lots and rooftops have on our environment.
Businesses and residents have been adding impervious surfaces to the landscape for decades, preventing rain from percolating into the ground, where it would otherwise recharge groundwater and provide base flow for nearby streams. Instead, these impervious surfaces increase the volume and velocity of rainwater, causing flooding, damaging property and destroying local waterways. I am not trying to fix blame, but to inform folks about the problems associated with stormwater management and the best ways to correct them.
We are learning how to better manage stormwater by mimicking natural processes. We have found, for instance, that by directing rainwater from our roofs, sidewalks and parking lots into rain barrels or rain gardens, we can keep it out of our storm drains, reducing pressure on aging stormwater infrastructure. On large commercial and institutional properties, we can construct green roofs to absorb the rain so it doesn’t need to be discharged to a concrete system that is expensive to build and maintain. Green roofs can even increase the life of roofing systems and provide insulation, reducing heating and cooling costs.
Stormwater utility fees provide an equitable means for generating revenue based on the amount of impervious surface. The revenue can then be used to make these improvements. Most utilities also provide exemptions from these fees for homeowners or businesses that adopt these green practices. By promoting these practices, the costs of property damage associated with flooding are reduced, which can reduce the overall tax burden as well. Mother Nature teaches best and, in the end, it costs less.
Most of us who live in urban or suburban settings really don’t know what a healthy stream looks like. In some cases, we can’t even see the streams that run under our roads and shopping centers because they’ve been forced into pipes; out of sight, out of mind. The remnants of streams we can see have often been filled with sediment and other pollution, their ecology altered. The plants and animals that used to live there have long since departed, their habitat destroyed. This didn’t happen overnight. The environment is suffering “a death by a thousand cuts.”
I recently got the chance to visit the Cabin Branch stream restoration project, not far from my neighborhood in Annapolis, Md. The project is being undertaken by Underwood & Associates on behalf of the Severn Riverkeeper Program, and is one of many stream restoration projects taking place across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In 2005, a volunteer cleanup removed 40 tons of tires and debris from Cabin Branch. Image courtesy Severn Riverkeeper Program.
Cabin Branch discharges to the streams and wetlands of Saltworks Creek and the Severn River, which bring water into the Bay. Aerial photos taken after a modest rain are dramatic testament to a severely damaged ecosystem that causes the Severn to run the color of chocolate milk. This same phenomenon—one of sedimentation and stormwater runoff—is repeated in streams and rivers that run through thousands of communities throughout the watershed.
Image courtesy Severn Riverkeeper Program.
It was gratifying to see the Cabin Branch project firsthand—one of many efforts to heal the damage done unknowingly by many decades of development. Like many projects of this nature, the Severn Riverkeeper Program had to overcome some bureaucratic red tape to get the permits they needed, but their perseverance will be worth the impact in helping clean local waters and the Bay.
Image courtesy Tom Wenz/EPA CBPO.
Fortunately, we are learning better ways to manage stormwater runoff through low impact development and the use of green infrastructure, which help to mimic the cleansing functions of nature. It will take some time before this patient is restored to good health, but we are on the mend.
Plumes of sediment, floating trash and pathogens that make once-swimmable water unsafe: pollution of all kinds continues to plague the Potomac River, as populations grow, pavement expands and stormwater runoff pushes various hazards into the 405-mile long waterway.
But for the Potomac Conservancy, a boost in incentives, assistance and enforcement just might save the nation’s river.
Image courtesy kryn13/Flickr
According to the advocacy group’s sixth annual State of the Nation’s River report, “too many stretches of the Potomac River are still too polluted to allow you to safely swim, boat or fish, or to support healthy populations of fish and other aquatic life.”
The cause? A “pending storm” of population pressure and development, said Potomac Conservancy President Hedrick Belin.
For Belin, more people means more development. More development means more pavement. And more pavement means more stormwater runoff.
The fastest growing source of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, stormwater runoff is rainfall that picks up pollutants—in the Potomac River’s case, nutrients, sediment, pathogens and chemicals—as it flows across roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses. It carries these pollutants into storm drains and rivers and streams, posing a threat to marine life and human health.
But cities and towns throughout the Potomac River basin are curbing stormwater runoff by minimizing their disturbances to the land. And it is this local, land-based action—the installation of rain barrels and green roofs, the protection of forests and natural spaces, the passing of pollution permits in urban centers—that the Conservancy thinks will push the river in the right direction.
In the report, the Conservancy calls on state and local decision-makers to strengthen pollution regulations, increase clean water funding and improve pollution-reduction incentives and technical assistance.
“The Potomac Conservancy is advocating for river-friendly land-use policies and decisions, especially at the local level,” Belin said. “Because defending the river requires protecting the land that surrounds it.”
Learn more about Troubled Waters: State of the Nation’s River 2012.
Thanksgiving is the perfect time to express gratitude for the good in life. We have much to be thankful for—and so does the Chesapeake Bay! Here is a look at six moments from the past year that signaled good news for the watershed.
6. A sustainable blue crab population. The most recent report on the Bay’s blue crab stock reveals a population that has reached sustainable levels and is not overfished. Winter estimates place the adult female blue crab population at 97 million, based on a dredge survey taken at almost 1,500 sites throughout the Bay. The survey also measured more juveniles than have been counted in the past two decades. A stable blue crab population means a more stable Bay economy, with watermen employed, restaurants stocked and recreational crabbers (and crab-eaters!) happy.
Image courtesy Erickson Smith/Flickr
5. Additional American eels. American eel numbers are up in the headwater streams of Shenandoah National Park, following the removal of a large dam that once blocked eels from moving upstream. Other anadromous swimmers like shad, herring and striped bass—which must migrate from the ocean into rivers to spawn—are also using this reopened habitat. Our rivers are thankful to see the return of these important residents.
4. A huge boost in oyster restoration. This year, restoration partners in Maryland put more than 600 million oyster spat into the Chesapeake Bay in the largest targeted restoration effort the watershed has ever seen. While some of the oyster larvae went into the Upper Bay, most went into Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River that was declared an oyster sanctuary in 2010. While habitat loss, disease and historic overfishing have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster populations, planting “spat on shell” onto harvest-safe sanctuaries is one way to bring the water-filtering bivalves back.
3. A lot of living shorelines. When shorelines wash away, fish, crabs and other wildlife lose valuable habitat, and coastal landowners lose their lawns. To curb shoreline erosion, coastal property owners are turning toward living shorelines, which replace hardened bulkhead and riprap with grasses and trees. This summer, the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s Living Shorelines program awarded $800,000 to 16 homeowner associations, non-profit organizations and towns to install more than 6,800 feet of living shoreline and wetland habitat in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
2. Greater green infrastructure. With the implementation of green infrastructure, cities can use the natural environment to better manage stormwater runoff. Green roofs, rain gardens and pervious pavement, for instance, can absorb stormwater runoff before it flows into local rivers and streams. This year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) awarded $4 million to local governments for green infrastructure projects. But the environment is not the only one who will be thankful; green infrastructure can revitalize communities and produce cost benefits that can exceed those of traditional stormwater management methods. We are grateful that more towns will be greener in both color and concept!
1. Long-term improvements in Bay health. A number of Bay monitoring sites have shown long-term improvements in nutrient and sediment levels. According to an August report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), one-third of monitoring sites have shown improvement in sediment concentrations since 1985, two-thirds have shown improvement in nitrogen concentrations and almost all have shown improvement in phosphorous concentrations. These improvements in long-term trends indicate pollution-reduction efforts—from upgrades to wastewater treatment plants to cuts in fertilizer use on farms and suburban lawns—are working.
In Jefferson County, W.Va., shaded streams trickle down the Blue Ridge Mountains into what will become the Potomac or Shenandoah rivers. The ridge is named “blue” for its characteristic purple-blue haze. No, this isn’t some kind of rural smog, but isoprene, which the trees on the mountain release into the atmosphere.
Image courtesy Eoghann Irving/Flickr
Despite the pristine scenery found in this part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a visit to Jefferson County on a rainy day can expose a darker side. Thanks to aging infrastructure, the county has faced flooded roads and a river that carries an unknown amount of pollutants.
Residents knew they had to take action to ensure their mountain’s health. So, the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition was born. And in just over 18 months, the non-profit organization has arranged stream cleanups, showcased stormwater management practices and monitored water quality in a stretch of the Shenandoah River.
Why monitor water quality?
To monitor water quality, biologists take water samples from a stream or river and send them into a lab. There, the amount of pollutants in the water is measured. Monitoring a series of sites in a single waterway can tell us where these pollutants might be coming from.
Before the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition was formed, monitoring in the Shenandoah River was completed by a single Shenandoah University professor. Now, the college will train coalition volunteers to take water samples, as the coalition works to determine pollution sources and track the river’s long-term health.
“Our friends and neighbors on the mountain had very adamantly voiced that they wanted real facts as to what is in our lovely Shenandoah River,” explained Ronda Lehman, Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition Chair.
“We hope our river monitoring will help delineate whether our issues are born from our county’s farms, septic tanks or stormwater runoff, or a combination,” said Ronda.
Curbing runoff, preventing floods
Close to 17,000 commuters leave Jefferson County, W.Va., for Washington, D.C., each morning, and many of them travel on Route 9. But this road often floods, as it collects stormwater runoff from surrounding properties.
The Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition hopes to curb the amount of runoff coming from one of these properties—an old stone church now called the Mountain Community Center.
“A little calculating showed us that there are 1,400 gallons of water that run off the roof of the church during average rain events,” said Ronda.
The coalition will divert rainwater from the roof of the building into rain barrels and cisterns and curb the flow of sediment and stormwater with a filter installed at the end of the driveway.
“Incorporating different methods of mitigating that flow of water would give us an opportunity to showcase different practices for our neighbors to incorporate onto their own properties,” Ronda said.
If water quality monitoring and stormwater management seem too “scientific” for your tastes, then an old-fashioned trash cleanup could be for you! The Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition held its second annual cleanup in July.
The cleanup area is popular among the public, but has a history of being dirty.
The coalition hopes to amend this littering problem. “We will be purchasing banners to be placed at the busy ‘put ins’…to remind patrons to take their trash with them," said Ronda.
This month, the Clean Water Act celebrates four decades of safeguarding our waters. The landmark legislation has worked to keep streams, rivers, lakes and the Chesapeake Bay fishable, swimmable and drinkable.
Passed on October 18, 1972, the Clean Water Act set a new national goal “to restore and maintain the…integrity of the Nation’s waters.” A revision of the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Act, the Clean Water Act helps states establish water quality standards and gauge restoration success. It regulates the discharge of wastewater into rivers and streams and of dredged material into wetlands. And it helps states implement conservation practices to cut back on pollution from non-point sources like urban, suburban and agricultural runoff.
But what can YOU do to keep our water clean? Use this list as a guide, and take a look at our How To’s and Tips for more ideas.
Image courtesy Kratka Photography/Flickr
10. Dispose of unused medicines properly. To keep medicines out of our waterways, don’t pour unused or expired drugs down the sink or flush them down the toilet. While some medications can be thrown out with household trash, consumers should take precautions when doing so. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends removing the medication from its original container and mixing it with coffee grounds or cat litter to make it less appealing to children or pets. Place the fouled medication in a sealable bag to prevent it from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag. Or return unwanted medication to a consumer drug return location or community drug “take-back” program.
Image courtesy Jesse Dill/Flickr
9. Use non-toxic household cleaners. Substitute common household cleaners with safer alternatives. Warm water and baking soda can clean and deodorize kitchen and bathroom surfaces. Olive oil and lemon juice can polish furniture. And vinegar can soften hard water deposits.
Image courtesy Ann Althouse/Flickr
8. Take proper care of your car. Wash your car on grass or gravel rather than pavement so that wash-water loaded with soap and exhaust residues doesn’t run off of your property and into storm drains. Or, clean your car at a commercial carwash, where rinse-water is often recycled and reused and wash-water is often treated before it is released into the sewer system.
Image courtesy koocbor/Flickr
7. Take proper care of your lawn. Test your soil with an at-home kit or a mail-in test to determine how much fertilizer your lawn needs. If you decide to fertilize, do so in the fall; spring rains can wash fertilizer off of lawns and into storm drains. Avoid over-application and keep fertilizer off of sidewalks, driveways and other hard surfaces, where it can be washed into local waterways.
6. Pick up after your pet. Pet waste contains nutrients, bacteria, viruses and parasites that can wash into local waterways if left on the ground. Nutrients can promote the growth of algae blooms, which contribute to dead zones in the Bay. Bacteria, viruses and parasites can threaten the health of humans and wildlife alike. Use a plastic bag to pick up dog waste; tie the bag closed and place it in the trash. Double-bag cat litter and place it in the garbage.
Image courtesy Michigan State University Physical Plant/Flickr
5. Replace asphalt or concrete with pervious pavement. Porous materials like brick or stone pavers, pervious concrete or gravel allow water to drain through hard surfaces. A porous sidewalk or driveway, therefore, allows the ground to absorb stormwater runoff, reducing pollution into local waterways. Pervious pavement can also cool its surface better than its impervious counterpart, reducing on-site temperature and improving local air quality.
Image courtesy Will Merydith/Flickr
4. Collect rainwater with a rain barrel. A one-inch rainstorm on a 1,000 square-foot roof can result in 600 gallons of usable water. Install a rain barrel underneath your home’s downspout to capture it! A single rain barrel can collect up to 80 gallons of water, which can be reused to water your lawn and garden. Excess water can be stored in an additional barrel or diverted into a patch of plants that will soak it up before it can run off of your lawn.
3. Install a rain garden in your backyard. Designed to capture stormwater and allow it to soak into the ground, rain gardens are often filled with native plants able to withstand short bouts of flooding. But these bioretention cells do more than clean and curb stormwater. Rain gardens also provide insects and animals with valuable habitat and add aesthetic appeal to your yard.
Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District/Flickr
2. Grow oysters. Popular on dinner plates across the watershed, the eastern oyster is critical to clean water. A natural filter feeder, the oyster is capable of cleaning up to 50 gallons of water in one day. While historic populations could filter the entire Bay in one week, habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster numbers. Now, a host of organizations—including, for instance, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR)—have started at-home aquaculture programs for citizens with waterfront access. Participants raise oysters in floating cages and return the adults to be planted on a reef elsewhere in the Bay, where they will continue to grow, filter water and reproduce.
Image courtesy Jeff Turner/Flickr
1. Teach a child about the Clean Water Act. From science to civics, the Clean Water Act has a lot to teach a child. Teachers and parents alike can use online resources to explore the law, like a selection of water “sourcebooks” that cover drinking water, wastewater and wetlands or a lesson plan that links law-making to the outside world. Learn more about just how and why teachers should educate students about the Clean Water Act on Bay Backpack.
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.
Three Delaware towns have received grant funding and technical assistance to create habitat and improve water quality in Delaware's tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.
The towns of Greenwood, Laurel and Bethel, located along the Route 13 corridor in Sussex County, have set their sights on curbing stormwater runoff to reduce the flow of nutrients and sediment into the Nanticoke River and Broad Creek.
When rainfall runs across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses, it can pick up pollutants before washing down storm drains and into local waterways. By using best management practices—think rain barrels, green roofs or forested buffers along the shores of streams and rivers—to target the fastest growing source of pollution into the Bay, these Delaware towns can help position the state to meet its pollution reduction goals.
The Town of Greenwood, for instance, will restore a buffer of native vegetation along a tax ditch that drains into the Nanticoke River, establishing habitat and reducing stormwater runoff from two industrial buildings in the heart of the community.
The neighboring towns of Laurel and Bethel will develop plans to bring green infrastructure to Broad Creek, stabilizing stream banks, reducing stormwater discharge and eliminating local flooding. Bethel might even implement innovative practices in the oldest part of town, bringing permeable pavement and living shorelines to the town's historic district.
"The projects in Greenwood, Laurel and Bethel will improve the water quality of our local streams and rivers, reduce flooding and enhance the quality of life for local communities," said Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) Secretary Collin O'Mara. "By ... working together, we are securing resources necessary to ensure that our waterways are safe, swimmable and fishable for current and future generations."
Funding for the Greenwood project, totaling $35,000, was awarded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.Technical assistance for the initiatives in Laurel and Bethel, valued at $100,000, was awarded through NFWF's Local Government Capacity Building Initiative. To learn more about the projects, visit the DNREC website.
The University of Maryland has received close to $700,000 in federal funding to help communities reduce stormwater runoff.
Using a software program to pinpoint pollution hot spots and an innovative brand of social marketing to boost citizen engagement, the university will embark on a multi-year project to increase the adoption of conservation practices in two watershed communities: the Wilde Lake watershed in Howard County, Md., and the Watts Branch watershed in Washington, D.C., whose waters flow into the Patuxent and Anacostia rivers, respectively.
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 Chesapeake Bay. Best management practices can reduce the flow of stormwater into creeks, streams and rivers, from the green roofs that trap and filter stormwater to the permeable pavement that allows stormwater to trickle underground rather than rush into storm drains.
But best management practices cannot work without the citizens who put them into action.
"We need to work with communities, rather than take a top-down approach [to stormwater management]," said project lead and assistant professor Paul Leisnham. "For the long-term successful implementation of these practices ... we need communities to be involved."
The university has partnered with local schools, religious organizations and grassroots associations (among them the Maryland Sea Grant, the Anacostia Watershed Society and Groundwork Anacostia) in hopes of breaking down barriers to the adoption of best management practices and increasing community involvement—and thus, investment—in local, long-term environmental conservation.
From left, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, University of Maryland assistant professor Paul Leisnham and U.S. EPA Region 3 Administrator Shawn M. Garvin
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin commended the project at a Bladensburg Waterfront Park event as a creative and results-driven way to reduce stormwater runoff.
"It's going to allow us to make a difference in our [local] watershed, which will make a difference in the Chesapeake Bay," Cardin said.
The funding, which totaled $691,674, was awarded through the Sustainable Chesapeake Grant program administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
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.
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).
When I moved to Annapolis last August, I wanted to be located near water and close to where I work at the Bay Program’s Eastport office. I moved into an apartment adjacent to Truxtun Park on Spa Creek. I enjoy kayaking, and the park has a boat ramp. In pretty short order, I met several people from the Spa Creek Conservancy, a local volunteer group working to restore and protect the creek. The Conservancy may be small in numbers, but it is huge in heart and enthusiasm.
(Image courtesy Spa Creek Conservancy)
On Saturday, April 14, I had the opportunity to join with other Conservancy members in a Project Clean Stream cleanup. When we assembled at the Chesapeake Children’s Museum, we were joined by a troop of Daisy Scouts out for a day of learning about the environment. They were as energetic as a swarm of bumble bees buzzing around a patch of wildflowers.
Along with the water, coffee, donuts, gloves and plastic bags at the volunteer sign-in table, we also set up a great aerial photo of the Spa Creek watershed that showed our location and all the areas that drain into the creek. The world looks a lot different from that vantage point. It was interesting to see how much of the area was covered by roads, rooftops and parking lots. These hard surfaces prevent rainwater from soaking into the soil to recharge streams and groundwater supplies.
During the cleanup, there was evidence everywhere of our consumer-based economy: plastic bottles, aluminum cans, fast food wrappers, plastic shopping bags, certain unmentionables, and even an occasional tire or two. As Aldo Leopold, a noted naturalist and conservationist once said, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Those words are perhaps even more meaningful now than when he first spoke them more than 70 years ago.
What I’ve witnessed working with the incredible members of the Spa Creek Conservancy, the Watershed Stewards Academy, the South River Federation and other local, civic-minded environmental groups throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed is a strong desire to re-establish that sense of community where we live, work, play and pray – to think about how nature functions and why we need to find ways to live in harmony with it. We get lost in our own sense of self-importance as we travel at 60 miles per hour (or more) trying to get from one place to another. Often, we don’t allow ourselves to spend a few hours a week seeking to understand nature. To paraphrase another great thinker, “We don't value what we don't know; we don't protect what we don't value."
The Spa Creek cleanup was a good way to reconnect with nature and see firsthand how, perhaps unintentionally or unconsciously, we abuse it. Once we understand that, we will all be motivated to do something about it.
An unusual sequence of weather events, including a wet spring, a hot, dry summer, and two tropical storms, caused the Chesapeake Bay’s health to decline in 2011, according to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
(Image courtesy Chesapeake EcoCheck)
Scientists gave the Bay a D+ on the latest Chesapeake Bay Report Card, an annual assessment of the health of the Bay and its tidal rivers. The score of 38 percent was the second lowest since assessments began in 1986 and down from a C- in 2010.
Only two areas – the lower western shore and the Patapsco and Back rivers – improved last year. The rest of the Bay’s segments remained the same or got worse. Scientists recorded lower scores in the Patuxent River, Rappahannock River, James River, Tangier Sound, and the upper and middle Bay.
"The spring rains and hot, dry summer followed by Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Lee led to poor health throughout Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries," said Dr. Bill Dennison of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "While we have been making considerable progress in various restoration activities, these results indicate we still need to do much more to reduce the input of nutrients and sediments from stormwater runoff into the Bay."
The Bay’s health is largely affected by weather conditions. Rainfall carries pollution from farms, cities and suburbs to storm drains, streams and eventually the Bay. Even as the government, communities and citizens work to reduce pollution, an increase in stormwater runoff can mask the effects of these improvements.
Wet weather last spring washed more nutrient pollution into the water, fueling the growth of algae blooms that blocked sunlight from reaching bay grasses. Hot, dry weather allowed these algae blooms to persist through summer, leading to low-oxygen “dead zones” in the Bay’s bottom waters. In late summer, the Bay was slammed by the effects of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, both of which worsened water clarity.
"The report card clearly indicates that the Chesapeake Bay watershed is a dynamic ecosystem subject to severe weather events," said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale. “The silver lining is that the Hopkins-UMCES study of 60 years of water quality data concluded that a decrease in the frequency and severity of dead zones in the Bay is the direct result of implementing measures to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. We know what works; we just need to do more of it."
The Chesapeake Bay Report Card, produced by the EcoCheck partnership, offers a timely and geographically detailed assessment of the health of the Bay’s water quality and aquatic life. Visit EcoCheck’s website for more information about the report card, including region-specific data and downloadable graphics.
Despite improvements in some key areas, the Anacostia River’s health is still in very poor condition, according to a new report card released by the Anacostia Watershed Society.
(Image courtesy Mr. T in DC/Flickr)
Stormwater runoff is the largest source of pollution to the Anacostia River, which flows to the Potomac River, one of the Chesapeake Bay’s largest tributaries. Runoff carries dirt, oil, trash, fertilizer and other pollutants from the land into the Anacostia, where they smother underwater life and make the river unsafe for fishing and swimming.
The Anacostia River report card uses data on four water quality indicators – dissolved oxygen, water clarity, fecal bacteria and chlorophyll a (algae) – to determine the river’s health. Although this year’s report card showed improvements in fecal bacteria levels, the river’s water clarity is still extremely poor due to continued sediment runoff.
New legislation just passed in Maryland to enact a stormwater fee in the state’s largest counties, combined with funding from a similar District of Columbia fee, will help implement infrastructure repairs that reduce polluted runoff to the Anacostia and other waterways.
Visit the Anacostia Watershed Society’s website for more information about the river’s health and what you can do to help restore it.
Like many buildings in Northern Virginia, Fairfax County’s Herrity Building is surrounded by traffic and occupied by government workers. But Herrity also sports a landscaped pond that’s not just a parking lot decoration. It’s the headwaters of Difficult Run, a Potomac River tributary that winds through development-burdened Fairfax County before ending near Great Falls Park, where it’s enveloped in lush vegetation, dotted with boulders and surrounded by scenery that seems straight out of a time period from long ago.
(Image courtesy gawnesco/Flickr)
Difficult Run’s health fluctuates dramatically throughout its 15-mile run. In cities like Reston and Vienna, unsustainable land use practices have led to eroding stream banks and poor water quality. At 58 square miles wide, Difficult Run’s watershed is the largest in Fairfax County, which means the waterway is affected by development and pollution that happens very far away from its banks.
Luckily, in other places, forest buffers hug the stream’s edges, helping to keep soil in place, provide wildlife habitat, and shade and cool the water. These forested areas have become a favorite of locals who enjoy walking through the woods.
For an excellent weekend hike or bike ride, follow Difficult Run on a secluded 12-mile trail from Glade Drive in Reston to Great Falls Park. Will Difficult Run be difficult? Rumor has it that the trail is perfect for intermediate bikers and beginner hikers.
Perhaps the “difficulty” of Difficult Run lies in reversing the effects of development that has led to pollution in many parts of the stream. Fortunately, Fairfax County and others have begun work to restore this important local waterway. In 2008, the Herrity Building installed a green roof atop its parking garage. This colorful garden of native plants prevents stormwater runoff from carrying oil, trash, auto exhaust and other pollutants from the parking lot into Difficult Run.
Image courtesy Capitol Green Roofs
Along Difficult Run’s banks, the Virginia Department of Forestry has conducted streamside restoration projects and an outreach effort that now serves as a model for other local stream restoration initiatives in the state.
The tradition of making New Year's resolutions has existed since the ancient Babylonians. Each year, we challenge ourselves to improve some aspect of ourselves or our lives.
This year, we asked our Twitter followers how they will resolve to help the Chesapeake Bay in 2012. As individuals, we can do lots of things to protect the Bay and its rivers; not just for our own benefit, but for the good of everybody.
Here’s a list of eight great New Year’s resolutions that folks just like you are committing to in 2012!
(Image courtesy Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay/Flickr)
As the oldest of five siblings, my parents always made me clean up messes that I didn't make. When I was a kid, I argued that "this isn't fair." Perhaps this is the most difficult thing about trash pickups – it doesn't seem fair to clean up after other people when you weren't the one who did it. But as an adult, I realize that carelessly discarded trash all ends up in the same place: our waterways, where it damages ecosystems, harms wildlife and destroys the natural beauty of our region.
Stream cleanups are something we can participate in a few Saturday mornings a year. Volunteering for, or even organizing, regular cleanups in your neighborhood can bring your community together and make it more beautiful for everybody! To find a cleanup near you, contact your local watershed organization.
Sidewalks and driveways are typically paved, “impervious” surfaces that do not allow rainwater to soak into the ground. Instead, it runs off, picking up pollutants such as oil, fertilizer and dog waste on its way to the nearest stream or storm drain.
(Image courtesy reallyboring/Flickr)
Permeable surfaces, such as pavers, allow stormwater to slowly soak into the ground, reducing flooding and polluted runoff. Check with your local landscaping company; most offer porous paver options.
Remember, cleaning products go down the drain, too, eventually ending up in our streams and rivers. Of the 17,000 petroleum-based chemicals cleaners available for home use, only 30 percent have been tested for their effects on human health and the environment. Choosing a naturally based cleaner will lessen any potential risks to your health and our waterways. You can even make your own cleaning products (which would also help you achieve resolution #7!).
(Image courtesy scarlatti2004/Flickr)
If you paid attention to your neighborhood's curbside during the holiday season, you likely noticed a surprising amount of trash. (An extra million tons of waste is generated each week between Thanksgiving and New Year’s in the United States.) Sure, it's great to recycle all those boxes and bags, but recycling still takes energy and money. Why not consume less to begin with?
Fuel costs are soaring, you're weighed down by too many holiday treats, and you actually have to go back to work. Instead of hopping in your car, uncover that old Cannondale in the garage and get riding! Bike riding saves money and helps prevent pollution from vehicle exhaust from entering the Bay and its rivers.
(Image courtesy gzahnd/Flickr)
In some parts of the Bay region, like Baltimore and Washington, it may actually be quicker and more enjoyable to bike ride than to sit in traffic each day. In Washington, D.C., there’s even a Bikestation, where you can lock your bike and shower before heading into the office.
While they may be able to tell the difference between an iPod and an iPad, most children don't know how to identify the plants and animals in their own backyard. Growing up in a world of hand-held virtual realities, it’s no surprise that the younger generation has lost touch with the great outdoors.
(Image courtesy seemakk/Flickr)
Since Richard Louv's revolutionary book, Last Child in the Woods, concluded that children have developed social and physical health abnormalities as a result of "nature deficient disorder," a multitude of groups have formed to get kids outdoors. Join a nature play group near you to share your creative, kid-friendly outdoor adventures!
Why would you try to save something you didn’t care about it? From New York to West Virginia, there are thousands of opportunities to get outside and enjoy your piece of the Bay. Check out the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network for parks and natural areas near you. For water warriors, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Historic Trail will introduce you to historic and beautiful scenes only accessible via kayak, paddleboat or sailboat. Kids and adults alike enjoy geocaching, a fancy word for a treasure hunt using a GPS.
So, what’s your New Year’s resolution for the Bay? Tell us about it in the comments!
A $2.6 billion project in Washington, D.C., will nearly eliminate combined sewer overflows (CSOs) to Rock Creek and the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, helping to improve the Chesapeake Bay’s health.
The Clean Rivers Project, led by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), is the largest construction project in the District since Metro was built.
Combined sewer overflows occur during heavy rainstorms, when the mixture of sewage and stormwater cannot fit in the sewer pipes and overflows to the nearest water body. CSOs direct about 2.5 billion gallons of sewage and stormwater into Rock Creek and the Anacostia and Potomac rivers in an average year.
The Clean Rivers Project consists of massive underground tunnels to store the combined sewage during rainstorms, releasing it to the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant after the storms subside. The first, and largest, tunnel system will serve the Anacostia River.
Visit DC Water’s website for more information about the Clean Rivers Project.
Image courtesy Daniel Lobo/Flickr
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved new standards to control polluted stormwater runoff from roads, buildings and other developed areas in Washington, D.C.
The District’s renewed municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permit requires that redevelopment projects in the city install runoff-reducing practices to slow the flow of polluted stormwater to the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
The required practices include:
Roads, rooftops, parking lots and other hard surfaces channel stormwater directly into local rivers and streams, carrying pollution and eroding streambanks. The renewed permit will help the District in meeting its Bay pollution reduction goals and Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP).
Visit the EPA’s website to learn more about the new stormwater permit and standards.
The University of Maryland won top honors at the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 by designing, building and operating a solar-powered model house that helps reduce pollution to the Chesapeake Bay.
The house, named “WaterShed,” is a model of how development can help preserve the health of waterways like the Chesapeake Bay by managing stormwater runoff onsite, filtering pollution from greywater and minimizing overall water use. The house also includes solar features that make it less dependent on fossil fuels.
The Department of Energy deemed WaterShed the most cost-effective, attractive and energy-efficient house during the Solar Decathlon, held on the National Mall on Oct. 1.
The Solar Decathlon is a two-year project that challenges college students from around the world to design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are affordable, highly energy efficient, attractive and easy to live in.
Visit the WaterShed website to learn more about the winning house design.
Image courtesy Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon
As I strode to the front of Ms. Molly Moran's second grade class at Annapolis Elementary School one June morning, I was confident in my lesson plan, so elegantly simple that I didn't even need the 3X5 index card in my shirt pocket on which I had it drawn out.
My former boss at EPA's Wetlands Division, John Meagher, had invited me to talk about what I do in my work through the ReSET program he directs. ReSET is a D.C.-based non-profit volunteer organization that partners working and retired scientists, engineers and technicians with elementary school teachers to improve science motivation and literacy. ReSET's goal is to introduce children in the classroom to science, engineering and technology as being enjoyable and exciting (i.e., fun!).
John did his lesson first. I had scoped out his topic and identified a meaningful connection between his talk and mine. He was going to teach a hands-on, desk-top laboratory lesson about buoyancy, including a key vocabulary word: "gravity." (Did you know that a lacrosse ball sinks in fresh water but floats in salt water?)
I decided that was my link. The audience would be primed. I had decided on the audience participation approach, to put the pen into their little hands.
It was my turn. On the flip chart at the front of the class, I drew a hillside – a single black line – with wavy blue water at the bottom of the hill: the Bay, just like right outside the classroom window. A stick-figure person. A lolli-pop green tree. A cloud. A fish in the water. A swimmer. Rain.
I asked the class: "Where does the water go when it rains?"
The class: "Down to the Bay!"
One smart kid got it right: "Gravity!"
"How many of you have or know people who have dogs?" All the hands went up. Another volunteer drew a red dog on the hillside.
Then the clincher: "What do dogs do when you take them out to walk in the morning?"
The entire chorus: "THEY POOP!"
Ms. Moran interrupted: "Oh, Mr. Mike, you just got them to say their favorite word!" The audience, giggling, was wrapped. "Wait!" I said, fumbling around the front desk, "There's no brown marker!" Ms. Moran stopped the lesson until she could find one.
There was no shortage of volunteers to draw the little brown pile behind the dog. It was not exactly to scale.
"Where does that poop go when it rains?" "To the Bay" "Why?" "Gravity!"
"How do you think the fish and the swimmer feel about that?" "Yech!"
"What do you think you can do about that?" They knew that answer too.
And the lesson was over. I haven't had that much fun since the last time I caught a steelhead on a fly rod in a snowstorm.
Seriously, if you like kids half as much as I do and care about the future of the world, combine the two by volunteering with John for the ReSET program. John has the lesson plans; you and the kids have the fun.
Maryland will provide more than $29 million in grants to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and septic systems, improve sewer systems, and restore stream banks to reduce pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers.
As much as $8.9 million will go toward Bay Restoration Fund grants to upgrade septic systems with nitrogen-reducing technology. Traditional septic systems do not remove nitrogen, instead delivering about 30 pounds of the pollutant each year to groundwater. Upgraded septic systems reduce nitrogen pollution discharges by half.
The La Plata wastewater treatment plant and the Broadneck water reclamation facility will both receive Bay Restoration Fund grants to implement Enhanced Nutrient Removal. After the upgrades, the facilities will reduce their nitrogen discharge by 62.5 percent. The La Plata wastewater treatment plant will receive $8.8 million and the Broadneck water reclamation facility will receive $7.5 million.
Other funded projects include:
Ten Maryland communities have been awarded a total of more than $230,000 to design “green streets” that will reduce polluted stormwater runoff to the Chesapeake Bay and local rivers while creating green jobs in urban areas.
Baltimore City, Bladensburg, Capitol Heights, College Park, Colmar Manor, Cottage City, Edmonston, Hyattsville, Mount Rainier, University Park each received grants of $25,000-$35,000 to plan and design “green streets” in their communities.
A “green street” is a street that:
Communities can save $27 for every $1 invested in green infrastructure, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Green Streets-Green Jobs Initiative grants are funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Chesapeake Bay Trust. For more information, visit the Trust's website.
The Chesapeake Bay has received a C-minus on the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) 2010 Bay Health Report Card. The 2010 grade is a 4 percent decrease from 2009, when the Bay’s health received a C.
Higher rainfall – which led to increased stormwater runoff from the land – drove down scores for water quality and biological heath indicators. Researchers believe that two closely timed, large-scale weather events in winter 2010 played a role in the decrease.
The Bay’s health is affected by many factors, including human activities and natural variations in rainfall, which is the major driver of runoff from farms, cities and suburbs. Even as pollution is reduced, higher rainfall and associated runoff can mask the effects of these improvements.
“One of the main drivers of annual conditions in Chesapeake Bay is river flow related to weather patterns,” said UMCES-EcoCheck scientist Dr. Heath Kelsey. “While efforts to reduce pollution have been stepped up in recent years, nature overwhelmed those measures in 2010 and temporarily set the Bay back a bit.”
The declines are the first observed since 2003 and are on par with conditions observed in 2007. Annual weather-related variability in scores, even as more pollution-reduction measures are put into place, is to be expected in a highly complex ecosystem like the Bay, according to Dr. Kelsey.
Overall, the Lower Bay’s health score stayed relatively steady from 2009, while the Mid- and Upper Bay regions declined slightly. Results were fairly consistent in that declines were seen in most indicators.
The report card, based on data collected by state and federal agencies through the Chesapeake Bay Program, provides an independent analysis of Chesapeake Bay ecosystem health. It is expected that Bay Health Index scores will increase over time, as restoration and pollutant reduction activities are increased.
The report card analysis is conducted through the EcoCheck partnership between UMCES and the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office. In addition to the Bay-wide reportcard, UMCES works with local watershed organizations to develop river-specific report cards to give residents a creek-by-creek look at their local waters.
For more information about the 2010 Chesapeake Bay Health Report Card, including region-specific data, visit the Chesapeake EcoCheck website.
We've been getting a lot of rain in the Chesapeake Bay region this spring. One day after a rain storm a few weeks ago, we decided to go around the neighborhood to see what trash we could find on the street.
After an hour, we had picked up about half a garbage bag full of trash. Our route along an Annapolis street led us to a storm drain that was located directly above a small creek. All of the trash we picked up that day would eventually have gone into the storm drain and then into the creek it flows to. How? Rain!
Rain picks up trash and other pollutants and washes them into storm drains, which flow to our local streams, creeks and rivers. And our local waterways flow to the Chesapeake Bay. This is why you should always pick up your trash!
Welcome to the latest entry in our "Ask a Scientist" series! Each month, we take a question submitted through our website or Twitter (@chesbayprogram) and have a scientist from the Bay Program partnership answer it here on our blog.
Today’s reader question is about the effect of spring rainstorms on the Chesapeake Bay's health. We asked Scott Phillips, Peter Tango and Joel Blomquist, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and members of the Bay Program’s Nontidal Water Quality Workgroup, for their explanation on why heavy rains have such a big effect on the Bay and its local rivers.
They say April showers bring May flowers. But around the Chesapeake Bay, rainstorms bring a whole lot more.
The rain and snow that falls on the Bay watershed, an area of land that stretches from New York to Virginia, drains into local streams and rivers, which eventually flow to the Chesapeake Bay. About half of the water in the Bay comes from its rivers; the other half from the Atlantic Ocean.
The U.S. Geological Survey measures river flow throughout the Bay watershed and estimates the amount of fresh water that enters the Bay each month and year.Typically, 52 billion gallons of water drain into the Chesapeake Bay each day.
The river water that flows into the Bay has a significant impact on the Bay’s water quality, habitats, and fish and shellfish. Spring rains affect the amount of pollution going into the Bay. During periods of higher river flow, more nutrient and sediment pollution enters the Bay. During dry periods, fewer pollutants are washed into streams and carried into the Bay. In general, river flow into the Bay is highest during the spring, when there are more rain storms.
This past March started with noteworthy flooding across the watershed. River flows in March were some of the highest ever recorded. Field crews mobilized to collect nutrient and sediment samples that help determine the amount of pollution that washed into the Bay.
Too many nutrients and sediment contribute to pollution in the Bay and local streams. Elevated nutrient levels in the Bay tend to cause excessive algal growth. As algae decay, dissolved oxygen levels drop. This leads to unhealthy conditions for fish, crabs and other underwater life. Algae and sediment also block out sunlight that underwater grasses need. For these reasons, Chesapeake Bay Program partners are working to reduce these pollutants.
River flow also affects the salinity, or amount of salt, in the Bay’s water. The Bay’s salinity ranges from fresh water near the top of the Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland, to ocean water near Norfolk, Virginia. In dry years, there is less river flow so saltier water moves further up the Bay. During wet springs, more fresh water enters the Bay, pushing salty water farther south.
Changes in salinity affect fish, oysters and underwater bay grasses. For example, some underwater grasses cannot survive if the water is too salty, while others can only survive in fresh water. Diseases spread to more oysters in saltier waters. Finally, sea nettles are more common in saltier water. So salinity and river flow influence our choice of places to swim to avoid frequent and painful jellyfish stings!
Early March's heavy rains and snow melt caused a flood of nutrients and sediment to flow into the Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna River, according to scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
This heavy runoff, which resulted in record poor water clarity in many areas, could harm bay grasses and cause more algae blooms to form in the Bay this spring and summer, especially if the wet weather continues.
Two days after a very heavy rainstorm that doused the region with 2+ inches of rain, the U.S. Geological Survey recorded a peak flow of 485,000 cubic feet/second (cfs) from the Susquehanna River at Conowingo Dam. This was well above the March average of 75,000 cfs and the highest average daily flow rate observed at the dam since September 2004, when floodwaters from Tropical Storm Ivan passed through.
Large amounts of fresh water flowing from the Bay’s rivers can erode stream banks and bring polluted runoff from the land into the Bay. Late winter and early spring are critical times for many of the Bay’s aquatic species. Bay grasses are just beginning to grow and many fish are starting to spawn.
Maryland DNR will continue to monitor water conditions to assess any short- or long-term storm effects of the wet weather.
For more information, visit Maryland DNR's website.
The second annual Choose Clean Water Conference was my destination last Tuesday. The conference had some interesting trips planned around the D.C. area to showcase urban development. Being a baseball fan, I naturally went on a tour of the Washington Nationals stadium.
The first thing to note about the ballpark is that it is located right on the Anacostia River. Because of this, the tour guide informed us, the stadium engineers focused greatly on limiting stormwater runoff. The stadium has a filtration system “that separates water used for cleaning the ballpark from rainwater falling on the ballpark.” Both sources of water are treated before they are released to local sewer and stormwater systems.
The ballpark also uses many water-conserving features, such as dual-flush toilets. According to our tour guide, these features save an estimated 3.6 million gallons of water per year and reduce overall water consumption by 30 percent.
In addition to saving water and reducing pollution, the ballpark conserves energy by using special light fixtures. The ballpark uses a projected 21 percent less energy than typical baseball field lighting.
The ballpark also has a small but impressive green roof just over the fence in left field.
As we toured the facility, it was obvious that our tour guide was just as proud of the stadium’s greening techniques as I am to be a Yankees fan. Nationals Stadium became the first LEED Certified Silver ballpark upon completion in 2008.
One last thing that I thought was pretty cool is that they actually offer a bicycle valet. You can cruise in on your bike, drop it off at the valet, then pick it back up after the game.
After we finished the tour, we walked over to Yards Park, a new waterfront park just a couple of blocks from the stadium. On the way to the park, we passed a few swales in the sidewalk. These grassy areas were intentionally lowered to allow stormwater to be absorbed more easily.
Yards Park is definitely one of the coolest places I have been in D.C. It has a modern design and offers open air in an urban environment. You can see some of the vegetation by the riverbank in the slideshow.
If you would like more information about Nationals Park’s sustainable approaches, visit the team’s official website to view a diagram.
Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week, we take a question submitted on the Chesapeake Bay Program website or a frequently asked question and answer it here for all to read.
This week’s question comes from Peg: “We have a second home on a creek in Virginia. While there last week, I noticed an unusual quality in the water. The water appeared unusually murky and quiet and there was a large ribbon of a reddish brown color, very distinct, stretching through our cove. Contrary to normal situations there was a period of time where there were no fish noticeably jumping or swimming and no birds fishing. Could this have been some sort of red tide or algae bloom and what does that mean as far as water quality?”
Each spring and summer in the Chesapeake Bay region, low-oxygen “dead zones” and harmful algae blooms appear in various parts of the Bay and its creeks and rivers. The size and severity of algae blooms and dead zones in the Bay depend on the amount of water that flows into the Bay. That water brings excess nutrients and sediment from the land. Combined with high temperatures, the excess pollutants can fuel the growth of algae blooms and cause the water to become clouded and discolored.
The water condition Peg may have observed is called a mahogany tide, which can cause the water to appear reddish brown. Mahogany tides may also deplete the water of oxygen, which may be why Peg did not see fish in the water as she normally does. Algae blooms make conditions difficult for much of the aquatic life in the Chesapeake Bay.
Algae blooms can be very detrimental to the health of the Bay. Some are considered harmful algae blooms (HABs) and can be toxic to aquatic life such as fish, oysters and crabs. They can also cause skin irritation or other sickness to people who come into contact with them.
Even if algae blooms aren’t toxic, they can still be harmful to the Bay. When algae blooms get dense enough, they block sunlight from reaching bay grasses growing at the bottom of the Bay. Of course, bay grasses are vital to the Bay's health, so when fewer bay grasses grow, the cycle of poor Bay health continues. When algae blooms die they create more problems, as the decomposition process sucks up most of the oxygen that fish, oysters and crabs needs to survive.
Since algae blooms are fueled by excess nutrients, you can do your part to help prevent algae blooms in your local waterway by taking small steps to decrease polluted runoff. Small steps such as not fertilizing your lawn, picking up your pet's waste and planting more trees in your yard can make a difference.
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week! You can also ask us a question via Twitter by sending a reply to @chesbayprogram! Be sure to follow us there for all the latest in Bay news and events
Richmond, Virginia’s Capitol Square is about to become one of the most environmentally friendly capitols in the nation, with a series of green construction projects set to begin this summer.
The projects, including a retrofit of the capitol grounds and select streets and alleys, aim to reduce polluted stormwater runoff to the James River, a major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
The “Greening Virginia’s Capitol” project was developed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the Virginia Department of General Services (DGS), the City of Richmond and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. The project, in the works for several years but put on hold due to budget cuts, is being funded by a $798,988 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Program and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
A major goal of the project is to let stormwater slowly infiltrate into the ground, rather than flowing freely across pavement and directly into the James River. Rain gardens and pervious pavement will absorb and filter runoff, cleaning it before it can reach groundwater supplies.
All phases of the project are anticipated to be completed by spring 2011, when experts estimate that overall stormwater runoff from Capitol Square will be reduced by 64 percent. Phosphorus runoff will be reduced by 69 percent and nitrogen will be reduced by 70 percent.
The first phase of the project is to “green” of alleys at 5th and 12th streets. Other phases will include:
The Greening Virginia’s Capitol project be used by Virginia DCR as a model of how to reduce stormwater runoff in an urban setting.
The project will also show citizens and officials throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed how simple changes can make a huge difference in the amount of polluted runoff that reaches the Bay and its streams, creeks and rivers.
Greening Virginia’s Capitol has also been selected as one of the first landscapes to participate in the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), a new program testing the nation’s first rating system for green landscape design, construction and maintenance.
To learn more about the Greening Virginia’s Capitol project, visit www.greenvacapitol.org.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland have announced a new draft “pollution diet” for trash in the impaired Anacostia River, only the second river in the country to get a daily trash limit.
Stormwater runoff, the fastest growing source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers, delivers hundreds of tons of trash to the Anacostia each year. The amount of trash in the river is not only aesthetically unappealing, but it also endangers the river’s wildlife, which may eat or get tangled in the trash.
The draft pollution diet was developed in response to the federal Clean Water Act’s directions to develop Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) for polluted water bodies like the Anacostia. A TMDL establishes the amount of a given pollutant that a water body can take without compromising water quality standards.
The Anacostia River was added to Maryland and the District of Columbia’s impaired waters lists in 2006 due to excessive trash and polluted water. New stormwater regulations in Maryland and the District of Columbia will work in coordination with the TMDL to reduce the amount of trash entering the Anacostia.
The District Department of the Environment and the Maryland Department of the Environment, along with members of several non-governmental organizations, have worked collaboratively with the EPA to develop this draft trash TMDL.
The three agencies will hold a public meeting on the draft TMDL on May 6, 2010, in Washington, D.C., and take public comments on the plan through May 18, 2010. Visit the Maryland Department of the Environment’s website or the District Department of the Environment’s website for the full draft TMDL.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a draft permit to the District of Columbia requiring the District to continue improving its Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) program for controlling stormwater runoff.
“This permit can serve as a model to other municipalities for preventing runoff from washing harmful pollutants into streams and rivers in the Bay watershed,” said Shawn M. Garvin, the EPA’s mid-Atlantic regional administrator.
Medium and large MS4s such as the District’s are required by federal law to have permits covering their discharges. The permit announced today requires the District to take progressive steps that were not required by the old permit issued in 2004, including:
The new permit conditions are necessary because large portions of impervious surfaces such as roads, rooftops and parking lots in the District channel stormwater directly into local streams and rivers. Improperly managed stormwater runoff can damage streams, cause significant erosion and carry excessive pollutants downstream and into the Chesapeake Bay.
The EPA is accepting public comments on the permit through June 4, 2010 and expects to finalize the permit within three months of the close of public review.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued guidance to help federal agencies reduce polluted stormwater runoff from federal development projects to nearby water bodies.
Stormwater runoff is the fastest-growing source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. As rain falls and runs across roads, yards, golf courses, parking lots and construction sites, it picks up harmful pollutants such as nutrients, sediment and chemical contaminants. This polluted runoff travels into storm drains and local waterways that eventually flow to the Bay.
Under the new guidance, federal agencies must minimize stormwater runoff from development projects at federal facilities by using low-impact development practices, such as pervious pavement, green roofs and rain gardens. These runoff-reducing practices slow, absorb and filter rain water before it flows into storm drains and local waterways.
“By taking these steps to create more sustainable facilities, federal agencies can lead by example in reducing impacts in the local watershed,” said Peter S. Silva, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water.
At its own facilities, the EPA has installed a 3,000-square-foot green roof and uses rain gardens and cisterns to capture and reuse stormwater.
Learn more about the new federal stormwater requirements at the EPA.
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 Roshni, who asked, “How does water become polluted when automobiles are used for transportation?”
The most important thing to understand is that almost everything we do as residents of the Bay watershed has an effect on the Chesapeake in the long run. With the movement of people from city centers to more suburban areas, we have had to rely more on traveling by car, which has led to the creation of more hardened “impervious” surfaces such as highways and parking lots.
Transportation and the roads, parking lots and driveways that facilitate it account for 55 to 75 percent of all paving in cities and towns. These lands used to be forested, and when they are paved over, there are fewer habitats for wildlife and fewer filters for Bay-bound pollution. Transportation infrastructure has also caused the land across the Bay watershed to become more fragmented over the past few decades, making it even harder for animals to find habitat or complete their migration routes. (Learn more about forest fragmentation.)
The act of driving vehicles also emits pollution into our air. The pollution from these emissions eventually falls back to the earth and is transported by runoff and groundwater into streams and rivers.
Stormwater runoff is a massive problem due to the ever-increasing amount of paved surfaces in the Bay watershed. Instead of rainwater being filtered and absorbed into the ground, it simply runs off hardened areas into nearby streams and rivers, eventually carrying the pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. In fact, stormwater runoff is the fastest growing pollutant to the Bay.
Remember, everything we do affects the Chesapeake Bay, beginning with your local creek or stream. But every little change helps! So help the Bay by starting a carpool with your coworkers or using public transportation to lessen the number of cars on the road and the amount of pollution being released into the air during your commute.
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Please send it to us through our web comment form. Your question might be chosen for our next BayBlog Question of the Week!
Virginia has approved new stormwater rules that will help reduce polluted runoff – the fastest-growing source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay – to the streams, creeks and rivers that feed the Bay.
The new rules will reduce by 38 percent the amount of phosphorus that flows from new development and redevelopment projects in the Chesapeake Bay watershed portion of Virginia – about 60 percent of the state. Developers would have to install runoff-reducing practices, such as retention ponds and rain gardens that allow more water to soak into the ground. These practices reduce the amount of rain water that runs off roads and parking lots, picking up pollutants on its way into storm drains and local waterways.
Because of extensive changes to the regulations originally proposed, an additional public comment period will take place from Oct. 26 to Nov. 25. The Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board plans to put the rules into place on or around Dec. 9.
“I am confident that, once finally adopted and implemented, these regulations will provide real benefits to the quality of our waters across the state and bring us closer to the elusive goal of a restored Chesapeake Bay,” said Preston Bryant, Virginia’s secretary of natural resources.
Get more information about the approved changes to Virginia’s stormwater regulations at the Virginia Association of Counties’ website.
The governors of the six Chesapeake Bay states, the mayor of Washington, D.C., and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission have submitted a letter to the U.S. Congress to include in the reauthorized Federal Surface Transportation Act a policy to reduce polluted stormwater runoff from federal highway construction and reconstruction projects.
Nationwide, roads and related infrastructure make up at least two-thirds of all paved, impervious surfaces, according to the letter. These areas promote runoff because they do not allow water to naturally soak into the ground. When it rains, pollutants from tailpipe emissions, fluid leaks, break linings and tire wear are picked up in runoff and carried to the nearest sewer or waterway.
The letter points to a 2002 study in Maryland that showed highways in the state accounted for 22 percent of nitrogen and 32 percent of phosphorus coming from urban areas. The study showed that highways and mobile sources annually contribute 36 million pounds of nitrogen that pollute Maryland’s land, air and water. By comparison, wastewater treatment plants contribute 17 million pounds of nitrogen per year.
Most federally funded highways were constructed without the stormwater runoff controls needed to protect the health of local streams, creeks and rivers. As a result, 66 percent of the waterways listed on the national Clean Water Act 303(d) list of impaired waters are polluted because of highway runoff.
Today, the green infrastructure techniques that relieve these impacts are well-known and, according to the letter, should be included in the reauthorized Federal Surface Transportation Act.
The letter was addressed to Reps. James L. Oberstar (D-MN) and John L. Mica (R-FL), who serve as chair and ranking member, respectively, of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
For more information, read the full letter to Congress.
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.
The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) is adopting new regulations to help combat polluted stormwater runoff, the fastest-growing source of pollution to the Bay and its rivers.
The Stormwater Management Act of 2007 will require developers to use state-of-the-art Environmental Site Design practices wherever possible to control runoff and pollution from both new development and redevelopment. Environmental Site Design practices include a combination of:
In addition, local governments must adopt appropriate ordinances to ensure the new stormwater practices are implemented and enforced. Also, redevelopment projects will need to reduce at least 50 percent of an existing site’s impervious area.
“Cleaning up polluted stormwater runoff reduces threats to public health and improves our access to clean rivers, streams, and the coastal and Chesapeake Bays,” said MDE Director of Water Management Jay Sakai.
Stormwater that flows across roads, yards, farms, golf courses, parking lots and construction sites contributes a significant amount of pollution to the Bay. Seventeen percent of phosphorus, 11 percent of nitrogen and 9 percent of sediment loads to the Bay come from stormwater runoff.
Every time we drive our cars, fertilize our lawns, leave pet waste on the ground or forget to fix car leaks, we contribute to pollution in our local rivers, streams and the Bay. You can help reduce polluted runoff to the Bay and local rivers by:
We've all read the stories about the Bay's “dead zones”—areas of the Bay that become devoid of oxygen during the Chesapeake's hot summer months and cannot support most forms of life. But how do parts of the Bay get that way?
Dissolved oxygen, or DO, refers to the amount of oxygen that is present in a given quantity of water. We measure it as a concentration using units of mg/l (i.e., the milligrams of oxygen dissolved in a liter of water). Keeping track of the Bay's oxygen levels is important because everything that swims or crawls in the Bay—from prized striped bass to the worms crawling at the bottom—requires oxygen to live.
Temperature determines the amount of dissolved oxygen that water can hold. Yet, even at the warmest temperatures that we typically see in the Bay—around 91 degrees Fahrenheit—the water is still capable of having DO concentrations of about 6 to 7 mg/l, which is enough oxygen for striped bass and most other Bay species to survive.
On average, the Bay area experiences the warmest weather of the year between mid-July and early August. But high temperatures are only a small part of the reason why oxygen levels drop in parts of the Bay's mainstem each summer.
The causes of the Bay's low DO begin on the land and in the air.
Residents of the Bay watershed can help give the Bay's crabs, fish and other critters some relief from low DO by taking simple actions to reduce nutrient pollution, including driving less, picking up pet waste and reducing the use of lawn fertilizers.
Centuries of population growth and landscape changes have taken their toll on the Bay's water quality, according to the recently released Chesapeake Bay 2006 Health and Restoration Assessment.
Part Two of the assessment, Restoration Efforts, explains that “progress” toward the Bay Program's goal to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution from urban/suburban lands and septic systems is negative due to the rapid rate of population growth in the watershed—and the residential and commercial development that has come with it. About 16.6 million people are estimated to live in the Bay watershed, with an additional 170,000 people moving in each year.
The pollution increases associated with land development—such as converting farms and forests to urban and suburban developments—have surpassed the gains achieved from improved landscape design and stormwater management practices. Pollution from urban and suburban lands is now the only pollution sector in the Bay watershed that is still growing.
Population growth and related commercial and residential developments cause significant amounts of nutrients, sediment and chemical contaminants to make their way into the Bay and its rivers, degrading water quality.
Homes, roads, parking lots and shopping centers cover once-natural lands with impervious—or hardened—surfaces, which prevent water from entering the ground. During the 1990s, the amount of impervious surface in the Bay watershed grew by 41 percent—but the population during that same time period only grew by about 8 percent.
When it rains or snows, stormwater runs across roads, rooftops and other hardened surfaces, carrying with it the harmful pollutants we contribute to the environment—from driving our cars to fertilizing our lawns to not picking up pet waste. All of this is washed into our nearest stormwater drain or stream, and eventually to the Bay.
Once in the water, excess nutrients fuel the growth of algae, which deplete the water of oxygen that all of the Bay's living things need to survive.
Excess nutrients and sediments also cloud the water, which decreases the amount of sunlight that reaches bay grasses. These underwater grass beds provide vital food and habitat for fish, birds, blue crabs and other Bay creatures, and also help oxygenate the water.
Scientists estimate that one-quarter to one-third of the nitrogen reaching the Bay and its rivers comes through the air. One of the primary sources of air pollution are mobile sources, which include vehicles, construction equipment and gas-powered lawn tools. Pollutants released into the air eventually fall onto water surfaces and the land, where they can be washed into local waterways.
Everything we do on the land has an impact on the Bay and the creatures that live in it. By making small changes in the way we live our lives , the Bay watershed's ever-growing population can take part in the Bay restoration effort, helping to reverse the trend of declining water quality to protect all that live in the Bay and preserve the nation's largest estuary for generations to come.
Scientists with the Bay Program have found little damage to underwater grass beds in the upper Bay and tidal Potomac River during their initial trips to assess the impacts of the major rainstorms and flooding that took place in the Bay watershed during the end of June.
Intense rainfall events affect water quality by carrying excessive loads of sediments, nutrients and contaminants into the Bay. This runoff has become more intense in recent years, due to the increase in impervious surfaces (such as paved roads, driveways and parking lots) in the Bay watershed. Instead of being absorbed into the ground, the rain flows rapidly and intensely across these surfaces into streams, causing streambank erosion and an excess flow of dirt and pollutants into the water.
The excess flow can cause losses of clams, oysters, underwater grasses and other living resources by blocking sunlight, burying them in sediment or creating oxygen-deprived “dead zones.” The beginning of summer is an especially critical time of the year, because shellfish are spawning and young grasses are trying to grow.
While the flow into the Bay after the June rain event was high, it was not unprecedented. Flows this high or higher occur about once every three years. The flow from Hurricane Agnes, which hit the Bay region in June 1972, was three times higher than this June's rainfall event. However, a flow this high during the early summer period is unusual; 1972 was the only other year this has occurred in June since 1968.
Scientists with the Bay Program will continue to take extra steps to monitor the health of the Bay this summer, including:
Additional cruises and flyovers to track water quality conditions. These will show scientists the effects of excess nutrients and sediment on water clarity, and allow them to see if harmful algal blooms are forming. Visits to oyster beds and underwater grass meadows, which are vulnerable to the excess flow of nutrients, sediment and contaminants caused by the rainfall. Using increased technology to pinpoint where excess sediments end up in the Bay.
An immediate concern with the rainfall is the potential for high bacteria counts in some water bodies. People should not swim in the Bay's rivers, creeks and any other area that is not regularly monitored for bacteria. The Bay's swimming beaches are regularly monitored, and swimming there will be restricted if high bacteria levels are found.
For updates on Bay conditions this summer, visit the Bay Program Web site; also, conditions in the Maryland portion of the Bay will be posted at Eyes on the Bay.