If you’ve ever watched a solitary ant explore your countertop, you might have marveled at its tiny size. You also might have questioned how something seemingly insignificant can be such a nuisance in your aspiringly sterile kitchen. Then you remember what your tiny pioneer heralds — the impending arrival of thousands of her sisters — and she suddenly seems like a more formidable adversary.
At a few millimeters short of a typical carpenter ant, microplastics are another case of both extreme smallness and overwhelming magnitude. Microplastics are the fragments, pellets, sheets, fibers, microbeads and polystyrene that begin as improperly discarded plastic bottles and trash that get washed into our waterways. At less than five millimeters in length, they are nearly imperceptible. But plastic doesn’t degrade like most organic material, meaning the total amount of plastic in the environment doesn’t really change as it breaks down, allowing microplastics to persist in most surface waters around the globe, including the Chesapeake Bay.
University of Maryland Professor Dr. Lance Yonkos is the primary author on a study of microplastics collected from four tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay — the Patapsco, Magothy, Rhode, and Corsica Rivers. Of the 60 samples taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Marine Debris Program, all but one contained microplastics.
To Yonkos, it’s not really a surprise there are microplastics in the Bay.
“We have many of the prime sources for creating and introducing microplastics to aquatic environments,” Yonkos said. Roads are a main contributor because they promote physical degradation of plastics and provide easy transport via storm drains to Bay tributaries. Yonkos listed wastewater treatment plant effluent and substantial shipping traffic.
As plastic fragments become smaller, a greater number of animals are able to swallow them—as exemplified by the recent case of a whale killed by a shard from a DVD case. When these materials break down enough reach the level of microplastics, even filter feeders like oysters can consume them.
Smaller pieces also mean more surface area, Yonkos said, which could mean more leaching, either of chemicals from the plastic itself or of the environmental contaminants that cling to its surface.
“In this way, microplastics might serve as a vehicle for introducing bioaccumulative contaminants to the food chain,” Yonkos said. The concentration of such toxic contaminants can become magnified at higher levels of the food web.
But, the science isn’t clear yet on whether microplastics represent a serious environmental or human health concern.
“Since we don’t really know yet, it is a little disconcerting to think that most of the plastics we have created over the past 70 years are still in the environment,” Yonkos said.
And microplastics are here to stay. With no feasible method for removing microplastics that are already in the environment, measures like improved recycling and decreased use of offending products — like those that include microbeads, which would be banned by the state of Maryland according to legislation passed recently — could improve the situation going forward.
“The take home message is prevention,” Yonkos said. “If we want to reduce microplastics in the oceans we need to limit their release at the source.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
For the uninitiated, paddling the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., provides an opportunity to discover a hidden natural gem. Paddling away from the riverbank on an early fall evening, we quickly begin to slide past egrets hunting in the shallows and turtles diving deep to avoid our canoe. Joining them is a kingfisher, chattering as it circles before landing on a branch, and a bald eagle, following the course of the river upstream and disappearing around a bend. Moments like this are why the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) hosts free paddle nights like the one at Kenilworth Park in D.C. — to change perceptions of a river with a reputation of being heavily polluted.
“From the perspective of someone who’s heard about the river but never been there, I think the most surprising thing is that there’s a whole lot of nature,” says Lee Cain, Director of Recreation at AWS. “When you get out there, there’s some places where you’re there and you think, ‘Am I in the middle of West Virginia?’”
Cain says he heard many negative stories about the Anacostia River before visiting it for the first time, but his perceptions changed after experiencing it up close. The Anacostia is indeed still plagued by trash, sewage, toxins and runoff. But it is also a place where Cain has seen fox and deer swimming across the river, where egrets aggregate by the dozens at nighttime, and where bald eagles and osprey lay their eggs in March so their fledglings can feed on shad. In June, the 9-mile Anacostia Water Trail officially opened, featuring many natural areas and recreation sites along the river.
“You’re probably going to see a higher density of wildlife on this river than you might in even the Jug Bay wetlands,” says Cain.
Cain says the Anacostia is better than it was 25 years ago, when cars, refrigerators and tires were the big items being pulled from the river. Positive signs of change have come in the form of a plastic bag fee passed by the D.C. Council in 2009, and a ban on plastic-foam food containers that passed in June. A group called Groundwork Anacostia River DC has implemented litter traps in several tributaries, and AWS operates a trash trap study as well. The Anacostia Revitalization Fund, established in 2012, has provided funding for local initiatives aimed at restoring the river’s health. DC Water’s $2.6 billion Clean River Project will remove 98 percent of combined sewer overflows to the Anacostia by 2022, keeping 1.5 billion gallons of diluted sewage from entering the Anacostia every year. And the Pepco Benning Road Power Plant, which ran on coal then oil for over a century, sits quietly near the Anacostia, shuttered since 2012 and slated for demolition.
“If [the power plant] has some source of PCB contamination then at least that source is gone and now, when we clean out the soil, we’ll have a pretty clean space,” says Cain.
He says it has been a big year for toxins in the river, with the District of Columbia taking core samples along the river to assess what is down there and what it will cost for removal.
“One thing that’s encouraging is that it took us a couple centuries to sort of destroy this river, and then it’s only taken us about 25 years to get it to where it is now,” says Cain. “So you can imagine in another 25 years where it will be.”
In the meantime, AWS will continue working toward the goal of a fishable and swimmable Anacostia by 2025. Getting people on the Anacostia on paddle nights is just one effort to let people see firsthand what it already has to offer. The hope is that some of those visitors might become volunteers with AWS’ or their partners’ trash, stewardship, education and other programs.
“There’s a lot of the Anacostia that’s not exactly accessible to people, and in order to have all of these things and these efforts continue we need the support of the public,” says Cain. “We need people to recognize that this is a resource worth saving.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
At the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an object as small as a piece of Styrofoam poses a big problem. Because whether it can be held in a volunteer’s hand or just fits into the bed of a truck, litter is at the center of the non-profit organization’s work.
Founded in 1954, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has an office in Washington, D.C., and an historic farmhouse-turned-workspace in southern Maryland. Whether it is through teacher trainings, field studies or volunteer clean-ups, the organization works to promote the sustainability of the Potomac River watershed. And one of the biggest issues facing the Potomac River is trash.
Most of what the Alice Ferguson Foundation does touches on litter: its danger is discussed with students on field studies; programs, events and meetings are often trash-free; and the office culture is one of low- to no-waste. You won’t find disposable plates or cups in the kitchen, and cloth napkins are washed, dried and reused on-site. Food waste is given to the pigs on Hard Bargain Farm, and bathrooms are equipped with hand-dryers. Clara Elias, Program Manager for the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative, puts it simply: “We’re committed to reducing trash.”
Image courtesy kryn13/Flickr
In the Potomac River watershed, there are two kinds of trash. First, Elias explained, there is the new litter that is generated on a regular basis, like the plastic bags, cigarette butts and beverage bottles found on streets and sidewalks. Second, there is the legacy litter left behind long ago at a particular site, like a pile of old tires sitting on the edge of a parking lot. Across the watershed, trash is both an urban and rural issue, although it differs between regions. While bottles and cans often float down the river from urban centers, rural areas that are without strong recycling programs face issues with illegal dumping of appliances, cars and even deer carcasses.
Over the 26 years that the Alice Ferguson Foundation has hosted the Potomac River Watershed Clean Up, the trash in the Potomac has changed. Volunteers used to pick up a lot of plastic bags, but after bag fees were passed in the District of Columbia, plastic bags in District waters dropped 50 percent. Similar legislation passed in Montgomery County caused this number to drop 70 percent. There was a change, too, in the plastic bags themselves, as volunteers now find more pet waste and newspaper bags than the shopping bags that carry the five-cent fee. Even so, Elias noted that at least half of the trash picked up along the Potomac is recyclable, which indicates more must be done to slow the flow of pollution into our rivers and streams.
“In American culture, we’re so used to having so many disposable things. We’re not taught how much energy it takes to dispose of [all of] it,” Elias said. So the Alice Ferguson Foundation teaches people just that.
On a Bridging the Watershed field study, students play a game of Trash Tag and learn about street sweepers, trash traps and other litter-reducing best management practices. On the Hard Bargain Farm, students sprinkle a shower curtain with food coloring, sand and pieces of paper. When the curtain gets wet, the pretend fertilizer, sediment and trash are washed downstream. And before their visit to the site, students are given a guide to packing a trash-free lunch. After their meal, students weigh the paper napkins, straw wrappers and other leftover trash and compete with other school groups to produce the least amount.
In addition to its field studies, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has also had success with its Trash Free Schools initiative, which helps students teach their peers, lead their own cleanups and change their school’s culture to produce less waste.
Trash is “tangible and physical, unlike energy or [stormwater] runoff, which are things you can’t see or touch or smell,” Elias said. “It builds momentum among students. Trash is a great issue for students to learn about.”
On a cold day in January, I found myself driving down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Unlike thousands of others, I wasn’t traveling into the District to celebrate our president on Inauguration Day, but to honor another great American: Martin Luther King, Jr., whose work we now commemorate with a national Day of Service. Because while Martin Luther King Day is a national holiday, it is also a day “on”—not a day “off.” And on that day, two conservation organizations—the Sierra Club and the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC)—were sponsoring a small stream cleanup at Pope Branch Park.
Pope Branch is a unique stream. According to Sierra Club field organizer and cleanup host Irv Sheffey, it is the only stream whose headwaters originate in the District and drain into the Anacostia River. So, local District residents have a greater incentive to clean up the waterway—and more control over what goes in it.
The first time I joined a cleanup at Pope Branch was five years ago, with my daughter, who is now in college in Florida. In 2008, we removed massive amounts of trash from the streambed—old appliances, couches, car parts and more—most of it a result of dumping. This time, there was still a fair amount of trash, but most of it was plastic bottles, soda and beer cans and food wrappings, all consequences of stormwater runoff. Local community organizers saw this reduced trash load as a positive sign of progress, and I did, too. But even as the residents who stopped to thank us for our work said they were pleased with the progress that had been made, they reminded us that there is still more work to do.
That same message resonates for both the Anacostia River and the Chesapeake Bay: progress is being made, but there is a lot more work to do. So let’s continue to look for opportunities to help local organizations—like the Sierra Club, the ECC or the countless others across the watershed—in their ongoing restoration efforts. We can do this, but to truly succeed, we must all do our part to once again have clean streams, healthy rivers and a restored Bay.
A year or two ago, the newest addition to a southeast Washington, D.C., stream was not nesting mallards or spring peeper frogs, but cars – abandoned in the creek at the approximate rate of one vehicle per week.
Illegal dumping was just one problem for Watts Branch: the largest D.C. tributary to the Anacostia River, which flows through the District to the Potomac River and into the Chesapeake Bay. Broken sewer lines running through the stream leaked bacteria into the water. During storms, fast-moving water cut into the stream's banks, leaving Watts Branch looking more like a trench than a backyard creek.
When water cuts into stream banks, it carries sediment (dirt) into the stream. Sediment clouds the water, preventing sunlight from reaching important aquatic life, such as amphibians and bay grasses.
This combination of bacteria and sediment pollution left Watts Branch virtually devoid of life. The creek – just blocks away from Marvin Gaye's childhood home – was beginning to mimic the music legend's environmental concerns, expressed most explicitly in his 1971 single Mercy Mercy Me. ("Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas/Fish full of mercury/Oh, mercy mercy me/Oh, things ain't what they used to be.")
Today, dumped cars are a rare sight, and spring peepers splash into the water as I walk along the banks of Watts Branch. A stream restoration project completed in fall 2011 by the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) not only corrected the dumping problem, but repaired sewer lines, installed native plants, and transformed the trench into a meandering stream that can healthily withstand storm events.
Slowing down fast moving water
"The project is designed to keep the channel relatively stable," explains Peter Hill, branch chief for DDOE's Planning and Restoration Division. "Before, the stormwater and all the runoff would come rushing through here very quickly. The banks were steep; there was not a lot of biological activity."
In one 2008 storm event, the stream’s water level rose from zero to four feet in just two hours.
(Image courtesy DDOE)
Like all stream restoration projects, the Watts Branch project aimed to slow down stormwater flowing into the stream. When water moves slower, it does not cut into and erode stream banks, carrying sediment into the water. This allows plants and wildlife to flourish both on the banks and in the stream.
"Now, when we have a storm, water will rise up, but it will tend to fall back into the center of the stream... this basically relieves the pressure from the stream banks so you don’t get erosion," explains Hill. "The water falls over stones, (in the center of the creek) as opposed to tearing up this bank."
In addition to redirecting stream flows, DDOE and Anacostia Riverkeeper installed a floating trash collecting device in the water. Groundwork Anacostia empties the device every two weeks, preventing trash from floating downstream.
Parks and People Foundation and other volunteer groups helped install native plants and aquatic grasses, which will help to keep soil on the stream banks in place.
Watts Branch was chosen for restoration because of its severe water quality impairments from sediment and bacteria. But there are hundreds of streams just like it across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In Northwest D.C., Milkhouse Ford, a tributary to Rock Creek, also suffered from high volumes of fast-moving stormwater flowing from a nearby residential neighborhood. Today, rocks separate the stream into small pools where tadpoles are hatching, and newly planted trees dot the stream banks. The DDOE and National Park Service project was completed in fall 2011.
"Each pool is a foot drop in elevation," explains project manager and DDOE Environmental Protection Specialist Stephen Reiling. "It's just one way of slowing the stormwater down and letting sediment settle in these pools. That's the simple idea: just slowing the water down."
The pools allow the stormwater to sit long enough to seep into the ground water. This allows many of the pollutants found in stormwater runoff (such as lawn fertilizer, automobile exhaust and bacteria from pet waste) to soak into the ground, instead of making their way into the Chesapeake Bay.
"We have a very impervious residential watershed up here (above the stream), so associated with that, there’s grease and oil from vehicles, sediment, and any kind of fertilizer residents put on their lawns," explains Reiling. "So we’d like to slow that down, and hopefully keep it here before it gets to the bay."
Milkhouse Ford is surrounded by the forests of Rock Creek Park, trees that the project team managed to keep intact. Preserving nearby vegetation is difficult in many stream engineering projects, which require large and heavy equipment to build up banks or replace soils.
"This is pretty unique in terms of how small the footprint is," says Hill.
Rock Creek Conservancy and other volunteer groups planted native trees and shrubs along the banks, which will hold the soil in place and prevent the stream's banks from eroding.
The stormwater story
Since streams, storms and stormwater are natural parts of the water cycle, it may seem strange that stormwater is degrading our streams and contributing to sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. But in many places, stormwater from driveways and lawns flows into a sewer on the street, which connects to a local creek. The problem? These creeks were not meant to hold stormwater from the entire neighborhood – only the water that naturally flowed into them. When too much water flows in at once, the banks wash away, bringing tons of sediment as well.
"When many of these houses (in southeast D.C.) were built, they saw stormwater as a problem, so they piped it out from the streets and sent it to the nearby stream," explains Hill.
While this infrastructure can't be entirely corrected, ensuring that the streams remain stable during storm events will improve water quality in the stream, as well as in the Chesapeake Bay.
Another way to ease pressure on our streams is to keep stormwater onsite. This means reducing runoff from your property by using rain barrels, rain gardens and native plants. In the Bay watershed, local programs such as River Star Homes (Norfolk, Virginia) and River Smart Homes (Washington, D.C.) help local residents implement runoff-reducing practices in their backyards.
More than a stream
Stream restoration project leaders like Hill and Reiling are beginning to notice an unexpected, less measurable outcome of their projects: residents have developed a sense of pride and stewardship for their newly restored neighborhood creeks.
When Watts Branch was transformed from a steep, cloudy channel littered with cars into a meandering creek with sprouting saplings, residents began to spend more time along the streamside pedestrian trail, and dumping stalled.
“Watts Branch was chosen for restoration because...it was an eyesore to the community," says Hill. "The community didn’t see it as an asset, and being D.C.’s largest tributary to the Anacostia, we wanted to fix it up.”
Neighborhoods along the 1.7 mile stretch of restored stream have seen a reduction in crime since the project’s completion, according to Hill.
“Most recently, an older gentleman brought his grandkids here and they were hanging out near the stream; he wanted to show them where he grew up,” explains Hill. “It was really nice that someone would be proud of this, so much that they want to show it to their grandkids.”
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.
Back when I went to college, and my friends and I thought about spring break, it was mainly to figure out where we could go to have the most fun while spending the least amount of our hard-earned money. Going to school in the northeast, Florida was usually our destination of choice. Our two main challenges were to determine whose car could make the drive back and forth without breaking down and finding the cheapest one-bedroom hotel room that could fit six guys!
But a few weeks ago, I participated in an Anacostia River watershed cleanup event that changed my view of spring break forever. The Washington, D.C.-based Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) and some of its local partners hosted more than 250 college students from an organization called Students Today Leaders Forever (STLF). The students spent their spring break driving across the country to do service work in various locations. They clearly had more meaningful challenges in mind than my friends and I did during our college years!
One of their last stops was in the Washington, D.C. area to partner with the ECC and other local watershed organizations to help clean up one of the Anacostia River’s tributaries – the Lower Beaverdam Creek in Cheverly, Maryland. I was fortunate to have a chance to welcome them, along with the mayors of Cheverly and nearby Bladensburg. (I openly admitted that my spring break activities were quite a bit different than theirs!) I also thanked them for their service to the residents of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Then, I worked with them and the Friends of Lower Beaverdam Creek for a few hours to try to make the Anacostia and one of its creeks cleaner.
On that day alone, the enthusiastic STLF members (in their bright orange t-shirts) and other volunteers collected 257 bags of trash, 152 tires, 30 water cooler jugs, and an endless pile of furniture, metal and wood scrap. But this was not a one-time effort for these students – in fact, it was the seventh year in a row that STLF members have worked with the ECC in the Anacostia watershed. More than 3,000 STLF members have taken part in this work over that time period.
These young people have much to be proud of for how they have spent their spring breaks. They will surely have lifelong memories of their experiences…certainly far better memories than mine!
Now it’s time for me (and you!) to make new memories this spring by volunteering for a cleanup event in your part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. There are lots of opportunities coming up over the next few weeks, such as Project Clean Stream and Earth Day activities in communities across the Bay watershed.
When a tornado hit John Long's home in June 2009, the last thing on his mind was the Chesapeake Bay. He lost the entire back half of his home, as well as ten trees on his property. After a few weeks of waiting for insurance proceedings, Long was permitted to pick up the debris scattered across his backyard, which just so happened to border Bread and Cheese Creek, a tributary of the Back River in Dundalk, Maryland.
When Long ventured down to the creek to gather the pieces of his broken home, he found more than he was expecting.
"Beneath my shingles and siding was several years of shopping carts, fast food trash, and just about anything else you can imagine," Long explains.
(Image courtesy Michael Wuyek/Flickr)
The trash wasn’t limited to Long’s property. "As I walked through more of the stream, I discovered it was the same everywhere. I was saddened because the beautiful little stream I remembered from my childhood was gone."
Long transformed his devastation into action. He contacted Baltimore County officials, who repeatedly told him that there was no money for a cleanup operation. But he didn't let that stop him. Eventually, the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability loaned him a dumpster, trash bags and a small crew. Clean Bread and Cheese Creek was born.
At the group’s first-ever cleanup, Long and 40 volunteers roamed a small portion of the creek, using their own tools to clear brush and their own bags to collect trash. Long’s parents grilled hamburgers and hot dogs for the hungry workers.
"Since then we have grown to generally draw about 140 people each cleanup, but we are still entirely funded through donations and staffed entirely by volunteers," explains Long.
Clean Bread and Cheese Creek's goal is as simple as its name states. However, funding the cleanups and enforcing illegal dumping policies isn’t quite as easy.
"Garbage bags, tools, first aid kits, flyers, posters, gloves, bottle water, food and other supplies are all from donations," Long explains. "We have the volunteers and the will, but the resources keep becoming more difficult to come by."
The group’s biggest source of funding is bake sales, courtesy of Michelle Barth, the group’s treasure and an acclaimed baker. Gold’s Gym has also been the group’s biggest sponsor, donating bottled water and advertising for cleanups.
While bottled water and bake sale profits may seem insufficient, Long explains that his “Type A thriftiness” allows a little go a long way.
“If I’m not at a cleanup, I’m at a flea market or yard sale, picking up supplies. You can buy shovels for five bucks, instead of thirty at the Home Depot.”
One may think that witnessing the overwhelming amount of trash in Bread and Cheese Creek (and often hauling it up stream banks) would change Long's view of his neighbors. But he does not speak of Dundalk residents as inconsiderate, lazy or lacking in environmental stewardship. Rather, he says that his volunteers' hard work outweighs the illegal dumping activities of others.
(Image courtesy Thomas Schwab/Flickr)
"I have volunteered at other cleanups throughout the state and you will never find people more dedicated and proud of their community," Long says. "I have worked with these people in the heat, the cold, and in the rain and they continue to laugh and joke while digging out shopping carts or pulling plastic bags from briars."
Of course, there’s only so much volunteers can do by themselves. A challenge occurs when the group hauls tires and shopping carts out of a section of the creek on Saturday, only to find a washer and dryer in their place on Sunday.
In addition to cleaning up after dumping events, Clean Bread and Cheese Creek is working to prevent them. "The illegal dumping we encounter seems to be from contractors and businesses more than individuals," Long says. "This dumping occurs primarily at night and behind business bordering the creek. We are currently working with businesses to have cameras installed in areas where the dumping occurs."
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
Another challenge to Bread and Cheese Creek is Dundalk’s stormwater management system. When rain falls on lawns, parking lots, shopping centers and other paved surfaces, it carries trash and toxins (such as oil, gas, antifreeze, pesticides and fertilizer) directly into Bread and Cheese Creek.
"The only way to stop this from occurring is for there to be a complete overhaul of the stormwater managements systems in the Dundalk area so we can meet modern standards," Long says. Sustainable stormwater management techniques such as rain gardens allow stormwater to soak into the soil, rather than running off into streams.
"Unfortunately, every time this problem is addressed with Baltimore County, we are told there is no money for this. However, how much will this cost everyone in our efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay?”
The Bread and Cheese Creek of Long's childhood was rarely affected by litter; but its pristine condition in the early 1800s is unimaginable today. British and American troops camped along the creek's banks during the War of 1812's Battle of North Point. The creek got its unusual name from these soldiers, who would sit by the stream as they ate their rations of bread and cheese.
The creek is perhaps best known for the heroic sacrifice of two young American soldiers. In 1814, Daniel Wells (age 19) and Henry McComas (age 18) waded through the stream to sneak up on British General Robert Ross. They shot and killed the general, but were killed with the British's return fire.
"American soldiers died along this creek defending our county in our nation’s second war for independence," explains Long. "This important part of our history should not be left the eyesore it currently is."
Long sees honoring the creek’s past as one way to create hope for the future. To commemorate the stream's significance in the War of 1812, Long and volunteers are attempting to clean the entire length of Bread and Cheese Creek by 2014, just in time for the War of 1812 Bicentennial Celebration.
Because the creek played such a significant role shaping America's history, it will be added to the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail.
Since Long organized the first cleanup in 2009, 608 volunteers have removed a total of 52 tons of trash, including some odd and "vintage" items like bathtubs, part of a tombstone and an unopened bottle of Pepsi from the 1980s.
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
From these numbers, it may seem like Long and his team must work 40 hours a week collecting trash. But like all Clean Bread and Cheese Creek members, Long has a day job.
Clean Bread and Cheese Creek understands that other commitments may prevent residents from thinking they can offer any help.
"Everything makes a difference, no matter how small," Long says. "We have volunteers who call on the phone and say 'I can only volunteer for an hour, is that okay?’ We are happy to have their help for fifteen minutes! During those fifteen minutes they are picking up trash someone else would need to clean up!"
The smallest efforts add up; over the last three years, streamside residents have noticed a significant improvement in Break and Cheese Creek.
"Minnows, crayfish and frogs which were once abundant in the stream are coming back – at night we can hear the bullfrogs singing again," Long testifies.
As wildlife reappears along the creek and eyesore trash is removed, Dundalk residents have come to appreciate the group that tramples through their backyard creek on Saturday mornings. This community support has led Long to transform what was initially a simple cleanup effort into an official 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Long is completing the process in the next few months, and is eager to acquire a label that will enable him to apply for grants.
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
With this potential for additional funding, Long will expand the group’s effort beyond trash pickup. Invasive plant removal and native planting projects are at the top of his list. Such projects will help enhance wildlife habitat and protect water quality along Bread and Cheese Creek.
If you live in the Dundalk area, you’ve probably already seen signs along Merritt Boulevard advertising Clean Bread and Cheese Creek’s April 14th cleanup. If you can’t make that event, the group has several other upcoming cleanups and fundraising events listed on its website.
Don’t want to get dirty? Don’t sweat it. There’s plenty of ways businesses, schools, groups and individuals can help.
If you’re not sure what you’re getting yourself into, be sure to check out Long’s extensive photo library of volunteers, trash and the creek.
From old box springs to blown-out tires, we’ve all had “problem waste” that’s too big and bulky for curbside disposal. The next option is usually to borrow a friends’ pickup truck and drop off your awkward, heavy or disgusting objects at the local dump. But if you live in Fairfax County, Va., there are only two places where you can legally dump your trash (4618 West Ox Road, Fairfax, and 9850 Furnace Road, Lorton).
(Image courtesy Let’s Do It, Virginia)
Maybe it’s the inconvenience of driving across the county to get rid of “problem waste,” or maybe it’s the fee residents must pay to properly dispose of their trash ($6 for five 32-gallon bags, $9 for six to 10). Whatever the case, some residents are illegally dumping their unwanted appliances, shoes, baby clothes and car parts along Accotink Creek, a 25-mile-long Potomac River tributary.
Friends of Accotink Creek is a Fairfax-based volunteer group dedicated to battling illegal dumping. On weekends from March 31 to April 28, Friends of Accotink Creek will be cleaning different sections of the creek as a part of the greater Potomac Watershed Cleanup. The cleanups are much needed: since April 2007, there have been 166 reported illegal dumping acts in the county, and countless others remain unreported. Students, community members, religious organizations, neighbors and nature lovers will come together to drag abandoned dryers up hills and pull embedded tires out of streams. Interested in helping out? Be sure to bring your muscles!
Who knows – someone else’s trash may become your treasure. Volunteer Olivier Giron is building his master’s thesis around taking photographs of the trash – not because he thinks it’s beautiful, but because he believes the dismal juxtaposition of greenery and rusted metal will help influence people’s dumping behaviors. His website, Let’s Do It, Virginia, shows photos of the discarded trash and encourages other organizations to get involved in World Clean Up 2012.
(Image courtesy Friends of Accotink Creek)
Illegal dumping is one of the largest problems that Friends of Accotink Creek tackles. But the group also has its hands in a variety of environmental projects to restore and protect Accotink Creek.
Klub Kudzu is Friends of Accotink Creek’s invasive weed removal project. On Wednesdays, volunteers help remove kudzu, a climbing and coiling vine native to Asia. Kudzu has no predators to control its spread in the United States; as a result, it grows quickly, climbing over trees and shrubs and killing them by blocking out sunlight. If you’re free, join Friends of Accotink Creek to help save the creek’s native plants from this invader!
Volunteers monitor Accotink Creek for macroinvertebrates: worms, clams and other small creatures that live at the bottom of streams. Macroinvertebrate populations indicate the health of streams like Accotink Creek. Join other critter counters at Lake Accotink Park on the second Saturday of March, June, September and December.
(Image courtesy Friends of Accotink Creek)
Friends of Accotink Creek relies on volunteers like you to keep these restoration activities running. So contact the organization today and volunteer your time to a good cause. You can also stay in touch with Friends of Accotink Creek on Facebook.
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!
On a hot, late July morning in Southeast Washington, D.C., I joined about 50 other volunteers to clean up the banks of the Anacostia River for the third annual “Green Up Day,” hosted by the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation, the Earth Conservation Corps and other partners.
The river cleanup was held at Diamond Teague Park, located in the shadow of Nationals Stadium and adjacent to the ECC’s old “pump house” headquarters. The ECC is a grassroots organization that works to empower Washington’s endangered youth to reclaim the Anacostia, their communities and their lives. I was pleased on this hot day to see volunteers from the EPA and other organizations working at the cleanup – wearing waders, boots and gloves and filing up bags of trash to keeping the waste from flowing into the Anacostia.
I have been involved with many ECC cleanups such as this over the past decade as part of the EPA’s mentoring program with the ECC. But this one was especially significant to many of us because it was at the “new” Diamond Teague Park. I asked a few of the volunteers if they knew who “Diamond Teague” was – one of them even thought Diamond was a baseball diamond! But no, Diamond Teague was a very special ECC Corps member who was an enthusiastic participant in the EPA/ECC mentoring program about eight years ago. He truly stood out among his peers that year of the mentoring program. He had recently completed his GED and was looking forward to going to college after completing his ECC tour. Then one night while standing in front of his house, he became a needless victim of a drive-by shooting. A bright light snuffed out way too soon and a loss to the ECC and all who knew and loved him.
So back then, we decided to take an abandoned plot near the ECC pump house and turn it into a small neighborhood park. We named it Diamond Teague Park. Building it was a labor of love by ECC members, EPA mentors (including me) and other volunteers. And then the new stadium came and covered the original Diamond Teague Park with left centerfield grass in Nationals Park. But the Nationals were kind enough to create a new Diamond Teague Park adjacent to the ECC pump house along the banks of the Anacostia.
And so, it brings us back to today and the voluntary cleanup effort that will help D.C. meet the Anacostia trash TMDL (a “pollution diet” for trash in the river) and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. Because in the end, it’s about cleaning up the local streams, creeks and rivers that lead to the Chesapeake Bay that is going to make the Bay restoration effort a success. One stream at a time, one river at a time and, indeed, one person at a time.
There are more than 17 million people living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and each of us needs to do our part. One person can make a difference – just like Diamond Teague did. Now it’s your turn – and mine too.
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!
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) along with the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia have announced a new Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) or “pollution diet” for trash in the impaired Anacostia River as directed by the federal Clean Water Act. The TMDL will require the capture or removal of more than 600 tons of trash from the Anacostia watershed each year, making the Anacostia the first interstate river in the country with a Clean Water Act limit on trash.
Officials believe limiting the amount of trash in the Anacostia watershed will be a step in the right direction toward a “fishable and swimmable” Anacostia River by the year 2032. Every year, hundreds of tons of trash and debris make their way to the Anacostia River either through illegal dumping or stormwater runoff carrying it into the river. This trash then flows downstream to the Potomac River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.
"This precedent-setting 'trash TMDL' is a multi-regional commitment to finally attack the trash traveling through our storm drain systems," said Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson. "Trash has for too long been a problem in our waterways and communities – reducing trash and stormwater runoff is key to restoring the Anacostia River, the Potomac River and the Bay."
The Anacostia River was placed on both Maryland and the District’s impaired waters lists in 2006 due to this excessive amount of trash pollution.
The new pollution diet will also contribute to the five-year-old Trash-Free Potomac Watershed initiative, which the Alice Ferguson Foundation celebrated by holding its fifth annual Potomac Watershed Trash Summit this week. The summit included a ceremonial signing of the Potomac Watershed Trash Treaty as well as roundtables and exhibits on enforcement, composting, public education and regulation.
The initiative is working to have a trash-free Potomac by the year 2013, with a campaign using public education and market-based approaches, including the District’s 5-cent tax on plastic bags.
Trash in our rivers is not only unappealing from an aesthetic standpoint, making our natural areas more difficult to enjoy, but it can also cause serious damage to wildlife and habitats. The health of our local waterways, including the reduction of trash flowing to them, is vital to the health and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. The Bay cannot be fully restored if its tributaries are unhealthy and plagued by pollution.
A TMDL, as required by the Clean Water Act, establishes the amount of a given pollutant that a water body can take without compromising water quality standards. The state and District’s new stormwater regulations will work in coordination with the TMDL to reduce the amount of trash entering the Anacostia River.
The District of Columbia Council has unanimously approved a bill that will help clean up the Anacostia River by placing a fee on disposable bags.
The Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act of 2009 will charge a 5-cent fee on disposable paper and plastic carryout bags at grocery stores, restaurants, convenience stores, food vendors and other shops in the city. Most of the money collected will go towards a newly created Anacostia River Cleanup Fund, which will target environmental cleanup, reclamation and restoration efforts on the Anacostia River.
“This landmark law brings the District of Columbia to the forefront of addressing pollution caused by disposable bags and takes much-needed action to clean the Anacostia River,” said D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells, sponsor of the bill and chair of the Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee.
According to a recent report by the D.C. Department of the Environment, plastic bags, bottles, wrappers and Styrofoam make up 85 percent of the trash in the Anacostia River, a tributary of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. In the river’s tributaries, such as Watts Branch, nearly 50 percent of the trash is plastic bags.
The report stated that placing a small fee on disposable bags could eliminate up to 21 percent of the trash in the Anacostia and 47 percent of the trash in its tributaries.
The legislation also creates a new Anacostia River vehicle license plate and an income tax donation option. Proceeds from both will go to the Anacostia River Cleanup Fund.
For more information about the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act of 2009 and the Anacostia River Cleanup Fund, visit trashfreeanacostia.com.
What You Can Do: Reduce the Amount of Plastic Bags You Use and Reduce Plastic Trash in the Anacostia River, the Chesapeake Bay and Your Local Waterways
Learn about more ways you can help the Bay.
In tiny Occoquan, Virginia, located just minutes away from bustling Interstate 95 in Prince William County, Germán and Renate Vanegas anticipate their upcoming fall Occoquan River cleanup with a concern that many other small nonprofits only ever dream of: they may have too many volunteers.
At a time when many popular environmental initiatives — such as minimizing backyard fertilizer use and implementing “smart growth” development — target white, middle-class residents, the family-run Friends of the Occoquan (FOTO) has instead directed its efforts toward the Hispanic community: a fast-growing segment of the Bay region's population that's often overlooked by environmental groups.
Using a combination of outreach, education and on-the-ground conservation, FOTO has successfully engaged Spanish-speaking residents throughout Northern Virginia in protecting their local river and becoming stewards of the Chesapeake Bay.
FOTO's work is concentrated on the Occoquan River, which splits Fairfax and Prince William counties and flows into the Potomac River.
“When we first moved here about seventeen or eighteen years ago, the river was so polluted,” said Renate. “We began cleaning up the small area in front of our property. About four years ago, we decided to get some help.”
“Some help” came in the form of about 100 community volunteers, who spent one Saturday removing trash from the banks of the river at four local parks. FOTO has since hosted two cleanups per year, attracting hundreds of volunteers to remove bicycles, mattresses, appliances, dozens of tires and several tons of debris from the river, which supplies drinking water to the area's growing population.
FOTO began concentrating on the Hispanic community after the Vanegases met with local park rangers, who had observed many Hispanic families leaving their trash on the ground. When the rangers would ask the families to pick up their trash, they found that many did not understand English.
It's not that Hispanic residents do not care about the environment, explains Renate, but that environmental awareness is not a part of many Hispanic cultures.
To help the local Spanish-speaking community understand the importance of picking up trash, FOTO created and installed bilingual signs at parks in the Occoquan River watershed. “NO LITTERING: Drains to River / NO BOTE BASURA: Va al Rio,” the signs read, with the international “no” symbol of a circle with a red slash over a picture of a person throwing trash into the water.
FOTO has also reached out to the area's Hispanic youths by speaking at local middle and high schools. The Vanegases hope that young people will grow up to respect the Occoquan River if they learn about its history, geography and importance to Northern Virginia's residents.
FOTO's outreach and education efforts have been met with measurable success. At their last cleanup, the Vanegases estimated that about 80 percent of the volunteers were Hispanic. Many of them were the same students the Vanegases spoke to at the local schools.
Last year, FOTO completed one of its largest projects to date when it helped produce a bilingual education video that teaches viewers about the link between human actions and the health of the Occoquan River and the Chesapeake Bay. “Saving Our Watersheds: Beyond the Occoquan,” has been shown on public access channels throughout Northern Virginia. FOTO is now working with other local networks so more people can learn about the importance of protecting the river.
The work has been difficult at times. But FOTO has managed to connect with a large and important part of the Bay watershed's population that may otherwise have been neglected.
As they prepare for October's cleanup — and the potential of having more volunteers than trash to pick up — the Vanegases look back on their mobilization efforts with enthusiasm.
“One thing we have learned over the years is that you have to be persistent,” said Germán.
“Yes,” Renate added with a smile. “Persistence is key.”