After months of effort, Frank Digialleonardo in February finally succeeded in getting workers with a backhoe to rip up a perfectly good septic system in his front yard.
They replaced it with one that's more expensive to install and costs more to maintain. Perhaps not surprisingly, relatively few of his neighbors are lining up to follow his lead.
"I was just committed to doing it," Digialleonardo said. "I had been an advocate for that particular program for years."
As the past president of the Corsica River Conservancy, and former chair of Maryland's Upper Eastern Shore Tributary Team, he supported programs that encourage the replacement of traditional septic systems with advanced ones that remove much of the nitrogen from the waste.
Even though the Maryland Department of the Environment is footing the entire bill, Digialleonardo is the first resident in the Corsica watershed to have an advanced septic system installed using Bay Restoration Fund money since former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich singled out the Eastern Shore river in September 2005 for an all-out cleanup effort.
Ehrlich called the project a "grand experiment" that would funnel nearly $20 million into the 38-square-mile watershed over five years to see if the river could be removed from the EPA's "impaired waters" list. As if to underscore the problem, 50,000 fish died on the river days after the announcement.
The "do-it-all" plan called for replacing septic systems, creating rain gardens on lawns, upgrading the wastewater treatment plant, restoring streams and wetlands, establishing stream buffers and planting cover crops on farms, as well as new ordinances to protect water quality.
But three and a half years later, state officials and local advocates are learning that cleaning up waterways requires more than money and a plan.
"What the Corsica needs is more public participation," said John McCoy, director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Ecosystem Restoration Center, who coordinates state activities in the watershed. "What it takes to get that, we haven't figured out yet."
Many Bay cleanup boosters, whether in advocacy groups or agencies, have cited lack of money as a major factor in the failure to achieve greater Bay cleanup progress. But the Corsica has been relatively well-funded.
"Money is not the issue," McCoy said. "It would make life easier if it were."
Rather, he and others say many watershed residents have not bought into restoration efforts. In fact, many appear to be unaware of the targeted effort, despite mailings that have gone to every household, information packets sent to new residents and other outreach efforts.
"I've gone out and given dozens of lectures to local citizens groups, and usually what I find out is that these people are really unaware of what is going on," said Jim Malaro, current president of the river conservancy. "I've had people ask me, 'Where is the river?' That is telling."
The conservancy sponsors an annual Corsica River Awareness Day each fall, which draws nearly 700 people-an impressive showing for a watershed with about 3,700 residents. But, Malaro said, "we spend a lot of time preaching to the choir."
The Corsica is a tributary of the Chester River on the Eastern Shore. Like the Bay and many other tributaries, excess nutrient and sediment runoff is the primary culprit degrading water quality.
With cleanup efforts seemingly lagging across the Bay watershed, the Corsica River Project grew out of a desire to show that a concentrated focus on implementation could yield measurable water quality improvements. Ultimately, it was intended to improve oxygen levels and reduce algae blooms-which lead to periodic fish kills-to the point where the Corsica could be removed from the EPA's list of impaired waters.
In 2004, the town of Centreville, the only municipality in the watershed, drafted a cleanup plan with stakeholder input that identified more than a dozen actions that became the basis for the focused cleanup effort.
For the most part, the greatest progress to date has come from government actions, or projects such as wetland restoration, that take place on government property. "If we own or control the land, we get stuff done," McCoy said.
The town of Centreville has passed ordinances that require people to clean up pet waste, as well as promote and preserve tree canopy cover. It has hired an watershed manager and created an environmental advisory committee. The town's wastewater treatment plant has been upgraded with a state-of-the-art nutrient removal system. It only discharges into the river three months of the year. The rest of the time the effluent is recycled for spray irrigation.
Queen Anne's County now requires any new home built in the critical area-a 1,000-foot-wide swath adjacent to tidal waters-to have advanced septic systems that remove nitrogen. It has also approved regulations that require other septic systems to be pumped out at least once every five years. The county has built several large demonstration rain gardens at public sites in town.
But, as is the case throughout the Bay watershed, the vast majority of land in the Corsica watershed is privately owned.
While the free installation of rain gardens has been a hit-and easily on pace to meet the goal of 214 watershedwide-most other efforts are lagging. The plan called for replacing 30 septic systems with state-of-the-art ones, but so far Digialleonardo is the only homeowner to have one installed. None of the 3-mile stream restoration goal has been achieved, and only a fraction of the forest buffer goal has been met.
On farmland in the watershed, only about a third of the 6,000 acres of cover crops called for in the plan have been planted. Only about a tenth of the goal of enrolling 100 acres in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive lands out of production and restore them, has been met. Efforts to implement horse pasture management are also lagging.
An extensive monitoring system has been set up throughout the watershed to track progress. "You name it," McCoy said, "and we've got a straw in it."
So far, there is no hint of improvement in the Corsica's water quality-last September, another 9,000 fish died, apparently from a toxic algae bloom.
But many say that is not a fair evaluation of the program. "I think that is a bogus measure because it may be a long time before the results of our efforts show up as measurable changes in the river," Malaro said.
Ken Staver, a scientist with the University of Maryland's Wye Research and Education Center, has monitored soil in farmland and found a sharp decrease in nitrogen under lands planted with cover crops. But because it takes years for nitrogen to work its way through the groundwater, that improvement won't be felt in the Corsica anytime soon.
Even then, he said, the impact may be hard to detect unless participation increases. It's a simple matter of math: If cover crops reduce nitrogen 50 percent, but are planted on only 30 percent of the acres, the potential nitrogen reduction to the stream is only 15 percent-a change difficult to detect because of other factors that influence nitrogen levels, such as rainfall.
"Sooner or later it is going to make a difference," Staver said, "but it is not going to be easy to pick up. Small changes just don't jump off the page at you. It takes a long time, and a lot of reduction over a lot of area to see a very strong signal."
Whether that will happen is uncertain. Planting cover crops after harvest in the fall is highly effective at absorbing excess nutrients, but fall is also one of the busiest times for farmers. Although the cover crop program has been fully funded in the watershed, and paid farmers up to $85 an acre, it's not a money maker for producers.
Part of the problem, said John Rhoderick, administrator for resource conservation operations with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, is that information used to develop goals was not current. When the 6,000-acre cover crop goal was set, it was thought the watershed had between 12,000 and 15,000 acres of cropland.
The actual amount was closer to 10,000 acres. As a result, Rhoderick said, "there was a lot less opportunity to do conservation."
To make the job more manageable, the department has divided the Corsica basin into three subwatersheds, and identified where the greatest sources of nutrients are coming from. That information is being used to more effectively reach individual farmers.
One year, an attempt was made to reach every farmer in the watershed. But one problem is that many felt they were never part of the original plan development. "You have to have buy-in to start a process," Rhoderick said. "It needs to come from the ground up."
Other lessons are being learned from the Corsica as well.
One problem, Malaro said, is that many people do not identify with the river. "There is very little public access to the water," he said. "If people can't get to the water and use it, it is much more difficult to get them interested in the health of the river."
That could change. The town has acquired the old wharf area along the river where steamboats once docked. But it has not been determined whether the site will become a public park, or be developed to produce tax revenue. "I'm hoping they will turn it into a public area," Malaro said.
Malaro said educational efforts probably need to be more basic than what has been done in the past-the conservancy is starting to place roadside signs that mark the boundary of the watershed, so people know where they are.
The conservancy is launching a new educational campaign to persuade people to apply lawn fertilizer in the fall, if they are going to apply it at all. Lawns typically don't need to be fertilized in the spring, and nutrients are more likely to run off at that time of year.
But rather than focusing just on what people can do for the river, the message emphasizes benefits to homeowners: Why spend your time and money applying fertilizer that you don't need?
Another lesson, he said, is keep it simple. The rain garden program has been very popular. It's also simple to join. Residents sign up, a contractor visits and offers several design options and then installs the garden. A grant program pays the cost.
In contrast, even though the septic program was fully subsidized, many found it onerous. Residents had questions that couldn't immediately be answered-such as whether the state grant for the new septic would be considered taxable income. Unlike some other parts of the state, the septic program was not administered locally, leaving the job to the Maryland Department of the Environment. The state requires a competitive bid process, and it has sometimes been difficult to get installers to visit individual homes to give bids.
On top of that, people have to have their lawns dug up, and for homes along the river, septic systems are often in the front yard.
"It's been a struggle," said John Boris, who oversees the septic system program for MDE.
"It's like any good conservation program that is out there, buy-in, and having people understand is important," he said. "People understand soft shorelines, people understand rain barrels and rain gardens. How many people understand what a septic system is? It's out of sight, and out of mind."
Nonetheless, Boris said, an estimated 1 million pounds of nitrogen statewide makes it into tidal waters from septic systems located in the critical area. "If that was one single treatment plant," he said, "people would be freaking out about it."
Just as the Department of Agriculture hopes monitoring information from subwatersheds will promote stepped-up participation by farmers, Boris said that he hopes information from Digialleonardo's project will boost the septic program in the watershed.
Digialleonardo has allowed a series of monitoring wells that track water movement from the new septic system in the front yard, to the river in his back yard. By comparing that with data from the old system, he's hoping other residents will recognize their impact and take action.
He is inviting people to visit, and "see and sniff and do whatever they need to do to get comfortable with it."
To Digialleonardo, one of the early advocates for the restoration plan, that will be another sign of success. While he acknowledges that progress has been slower than many thought, he thinks institutional decisions made by town and county agencies have set the stage for individual landowners to begin stepping up to the plate. But, he said, one of the lessons learned is that it takes patience to get people to change their ways.
"We would like to see, obviously, more cover crops. We would like to see more on-site septic systems converted," he said.
"Progress is being made, across the board, but we're a long way from being done."