Diana Muller has one word for the gouged muddy lot of a partially built home in the South River watershed: hideous.
"There's no gravel, no straw. The sediment fence is broken away. When the rain hits, this is going to get really nasty," she said.
Muller is the South Riverkeeper, a full-time advocate for a Maryland river that flows directly into the Chesapeake Bay. She's looking forward to a new program called Get the Dirt Out-a citizen-based effort to correct problems like these, which wash sediment from construction sites into local waterways and the Bay itself.
Those problems are everywhere. Exposed earth at construction sites, combined with graded slopes and the removal of trees and grassy areas, create ideal conditions for muddy stormwater runoff.
State laws require builders to use a host of techniques that catch water and sediment on site. Thick gravel at the site entrance, for example, traps water flow and helps it sink into the ground. The gravel also catches dirt attached to the tires of construction vehicles. Straw and seed on flat surfaces reduces sheet runoff. Sediment fences, with their signature black plastic wrapping, should be anchored below ground to withstand and capture pools of water and sediment.
Responsible builders and contractors follow the rules, but others do not. Even responsible builders can have temporary problems when construction activities disturb fencing or surface covers.
Left unchecked, the rate of erosion at on construction sites spikes enormously compared to land covered with vegetation. Michele Merkel, Chesapeake regional coordinator for the Waterkeeper Alliance, said that polluted runoff from construction sites sends approximately 80 million tons of sediment into the nation's water bodies each year.
"Stormwater runoff is one the biggest problems for the Bay region and nationwide," Merkel said. "It carries high levels of nutrients, sediment and oil into the Bay and its tributaries. The impact is only exacerbated by growth."
Sediment in stormwater runoff clouds the water, blocking sunlight for plants and smothering aquatic habitats. Muck coats underwater surfaces, making life hard for fish and the insects they eat. Spawning grounds are ruined and eggs smothered.
According to the Waterkeeper Alliance, stormwater runoff in the Bay region has damaged more than 1,570 miles of rivers and 44 square miles of estuarine waters.
Along the South River, Muller said that stormwater management practices are often left to site supervisors who don't understand their importance or don't follow through on instructions.
Inspectors can also be overwhelmed by the number of sites they supervise. In Maryland, for example, active construction sites should be inspected roughly once every two weeks. Because of staff limitations, the Maryland Department of the Environment recently reported the ability to visit only 18 percent of the sites under their jurisdiction. Local agencies are often equally short on resources.
As a result, a large number of individual violations can add up to major problems for the Bay's tributaries.
During rounds on a drizzling December day, Muller pointed out five new home construction sites in a three-block radius, each with different stormwater issues and different builders. "We need more eyes. I can't be everywhere," Muller said.
Get the Dirt Out will help meet that need. Sponsored by the Waterkeeper Alliance, the program trains citizen volunteers to spot, document and report violations of stormwater management requirements on construction sites.
Get the Dirt Out has already scored success in Georgia and North Carolina. Now, the 16 Chesapeake Waterkeepers are launching the program in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Some have already recruited volunteers and conducted training.
Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Michael Helfrich, Shenandoah Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble, and Potomac Riverkeeper Ed Merrifield are among those leading the way. More will follow in 2009.
"Anyone can do it," Merrifield said. "I like to say, all you really need is a camera and an umbrella."
Volunteers begin by learning the rules that govern sediment and erosion control in their specific area. Photographs are emphasized.
"We won't make you into an inspector," Merrifield said. "But if you see a hole in a silt fence, you'll know that's not right. And if you have pictures, no one can argue with that."
Field guides with checklists and sample photos travel with volunteers, to prompt them for details of the problems they might encounter. Depending on the situation, volunteers may report the problem directly to their inspecting agency or refer the problem to their Waterkeeper. They may also make repeat visits to the site to see if the problems are corrected.
Materials for Get the Dirt Out are being developed in consultation with both legal experts and local agencies. "We're working with the local governments so that if they receive a report from our volunteers, they'll recognize it and have the information they need to act," Merkel said. "They'll also know it came from a person trained and educated in what to look for."
The reaction of inspectors to the full program remains to be seen. Merkel sees it as a chance to develop relationships.
"These citizens do their homework, and they are very interested in seeing that inspectors get the resources they need," Merkel said. "If you have a number of problems, and inspectors are only able to get to a small percentage of them, that's important information to take to the legislature."
The data might also support change that reaches beyond local watersheds.
"Once we have a collective picture, the data will help us to improve permits, look at trends in enforcement, and introduce litigation if necessary," Merkel said.
For Merrifield, it's important to hit the ground running. A recent report card from the Potomac Conservancy graded the river with a D+, based largely on the burgeoning problem of stormwater runoff in the middle Potomac.
"There are a lot of great developers and contractors who do the right thing, but others are who know they can get away with less because no one's watching," Merrifield said. "Now, there will be a lot more people watching."