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In The Country

April Showers 2.0

Tim Iverson

(4/2016) The proverbial mantra of the month is "April showers bring May flowers." Weíre thawing out and wresting ourselves from the icy bondage of winterís grasp to turn our thoughts to warmer days and blooming bulbs. The story of the spring season is one of rebirth. Just like seasons, our water has a story to tell. The question is, will it be one of a spring rebirth or of a winterís demise?

The Monocacy is in our local backyard, and is likely the river we are most directly associated and familiar with. In fact, Frederick County derives its water from this source and Lake Linganore. The Potomac Conservancy, a regional clean water advocacy group, completed assessments from 2010 - 2013 on the Monocacy River. These assessments rated the health of the Monocacy River as "POOR." Frederick County is currently the 3rd fastest growing county in the state with a population hovering near 240,000. That is expected to increase by approximately 44% within the next 25 years. The county has largely ignored state anti-sprawl laws and developed upon farm and forested lands. Following a 2013 assessment The State of Maryland officially confirmed that 50% of the stream was degraded and impaired from high levels of sediment and nutrient runoff. Of course, this doesnít just stop at our borders. What happens upstream affects downstream.

The Potomac River is sometimes referred to as "The Nationís River." While that may be true, itís in our regional neighborhood so itís not just a national river but our river. As recently as 2011 the Potomac River was classified with a ĎDí grade. American Rivers, another clean water advocacy group, listed the Potomac as the nationís "Most Endangered River" in 2012. There has been some progress though, and the Potomac Conservancy upgraded the state of the Potomac from a ĎDí to a ĎCí in 2013. For 2014 they decided to ditch the simplistic letter grade report card system and focus on big picture concepts instead. The takeaways from the 2014 report were loss of forested buffer zones, growing urban sprawl, and aging sewer infrastructure. The confluence of these issues with a projected population boom of potentially 2.3 million new residents in the DC metro region over the next 20 years makes the case for smart growth imperative. Restoration of the sewer infrastructure is under way in much of the metro region, but failure to reforest or repair buffer zones will hamper long term progress.

While all roads lead to Rome, our regional rivers lead to the Chesapeake Bay - the largest and most productive estuary in the United States. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation releases an updated report every two years based on fisheries populations (crabs, Rockfish, and oysters primarily), acreage of bay grasses, total poundage of estimated pollution emptied into the bay and its tributary waterways. The most recent report, released in 2014, denotes the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay at a ĎD+í grade. Restoration is costly, but failure to do so would be catastrophic.

There is a path to restoration called the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. This is a provision of the Clean Water Act enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2010, the EPA began to legally enforce the "Total Maximum Daily Load" (TMDL) which is a scientifically derived basis of the acceptable amount of total pollutants the water system can handle while still being productive and meet water quality standards. Six states (Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, W. Virginia) and the District of Columbia are now required to incrementally reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution over two year periods through 2025. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment are the top three pollutants contaminating the bay. Farms and agribusiness are responsible for 41% of the polluted runoff, but urban and suburban areas are responsible for 15% of the total deposited amount.

Contaminant laden runoff full of toxic chemicals, excess nutrients, and sediment coming from urban areas will only grow with our projected population rise. However, with effective development and citizen participation we can limit and offset the effect this rise will create. The Potomac Conservancy reported that just last year Frederick County students planted over 5,000 native trees in the county. Reforesting areas, specifically along stream sides, will greatly reduce runoff spilling into the Monocacy and other tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay. Citizens canít prevent rain, but they can prevent run off. Collecting rain in rain barrels or by constructing rain gardens you can strategically utilize rain, reduce runoff, and save on your utility bill. Rain barrels are inexpensive and collected water can be used for anything. All you need is a 50 - 60 gallon drum (sold at hardware and outdoor stores), PVC coupling to connect to downspouts or roof drainage areas, screening to keep insects and debris out of the barrel, and a hose is optional. For many homeowners up to 40% of summer water usage is dedicated to watering gardens and lawns, this can help to reduce that number and your water bills. A slightly more ambitious do it yourself project would be to plant a rain garden.

The EPA advocates for rain gardens saying, "A rain garden is a depressed area in the landscape that collects rainwater from a roof, driveway or street and allows it to soak into the ground. Planted with grasses and flowering perennials, rain gardens can be a cost effective and beautiful way to reduce runoff from your property. Rain gardens can also help filter out pollutants in runoff and provide food and shelter for butterflies, songbirds and other wildlife." Excessive water that is directed into storm drains can overwhelm the system causing toxic backflows, rain gardens can help prevent this by absorbing the water. This has the added benefit to increasing groundwater recharge for the water table. When considering a rain garden, or any other garden, it is important to remember to utilize native plants. Native plants are best equipped to handle local variable weather conditions, are most suitable for wildlife, and prevent the spread of potentially harmful invasive species.

Frederick County has championed what is called the "Green Homes Challenge." This challenge provides incentives and guides for participants who complete three challenges. There is funding available for participants from state and federal resources, and interested parties may find more information by contacting Frederick County Office of Sustainability and Environmental Resources or viewing their website. Aside from initiatives right here at home, the Chesapeake Bay has made serious progress recently as well. Early in March 2016 the Supreme Court decided against hearing a challenge to the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Effectively they upheld the legality of the plan and states will need to continue to implement measures to reduce pollution contaminating the bay. State and Federal officials recently established the largest man-made oyster reef, which covers more acreage than the National Mall, located in Harris Creek on the eastern shore. Oyster populations have been in decline for decades from overfishing and disease. This is huge news for reviving the troubled populations, but even more so because they are massive filtration organisms. The plan is to create 10 of these reefs with over 1 million oysters in no fishing zones. This will allow for the reestablishment of the species thatís a filtering machine.

There could be storm clouds on the horizon. With smart planning and participation from state and local officials alongside citizens those clouds could be the April showers signaling a spring rebirth for our waterways. Runoff accounts for 15% of the annual total of pollution that ends up in the bay. Planting rain gardens to beautify the landscape and filter groundwater, reforesting buffer zones, utilizing rain barrels to create less of a burden on the infrastructure, and participating in programs that ultimately reduce utility bills are effective and practical solutions to make the 15% difference. In the western United States water is in short supply, letís make the effort to take care of ours so itíll always be on tap.

Read other articles by Tim Iverson