"Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them."
- Albert Einstein
Actions by local governments, schools, homeowners and builders show how local leadership can address the growing problem of polluted runoff and declining water quality of our streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
Stormwater is the runoff resulting from precipitation. It is also commonly referred to as polluted runoff because of the pollutants that are picked up from our roofs, streets, driveways, lawns and other impervious surfaces. The pollutants in stormwater include gas and oil products from the cars we drive; fertilizers and pesticides from the lawns we maintain; salt and sand from our walkways, driveways and roads; and bacteria from pet waste.
In addition to the pollutants causing water quality issues, the increased volume and intense flow of stormwater also causes serious erosion problems and "scour away" the natural critters that help make our streams and rivers healthy.
This polluted storm water runoff, prompted by growth and development associated with the 17 million residents of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, is having an increasingly negative effect on the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. From 1990-2000, while the population grew by 8 percent, the area of impervious surface grew by more than 40 percent. These impervious surfaces include rooftops, patios, driveways, parking lots and lawns that do not allow the rainwater to infiltrate back into the ground as it once did. Community-based projects are combating this problem head on throughout the watershed.
As I walked around my neighborhood, in Chevy Chase, MD, recently, I was struck by the number of residents who have replaced their typical grass lawns with an array of plants and trees, creating rain gardens.
Using nature as inspiration, rain gardens are both aesthetically pleasing and functional. These gardens act like oversize sponges, soaking up excess rainwater and slowly releasing it back into the ground.
These natural landscapes also have the advantage of significant cost and time savings for residents because they do not require mowing and use less or even no fertilizers and pesticides. An additional local benefit includes curtailed flooding during heavy rainfall because rainwater is captured and retained in the soil.
Schools in Montgomery County, MD, where my children attend, are jumping on the runoff reduction bandwagon.
At Eastern Middle School, students have installed eight rain barrels, three rain gardens and informational signage explaining their value.
Northwood High School boasts the first green roof at a school in Maryland as well as permeable pavement and rain gardens. These schools display low-impact development for community members to see 24/7, rain or shine-but hopefully when it's raining.
Local watershed organizations, such as the Friends of Sligo Creek in Montgomery County, are also vital players in community-based outreach and education. They are helping their local stream by bringing solutions to the front lawns of local residents. They are currently working on cutting the costs associated with constructing rain gardens by bundling multiple projects together with one contractor.
Working with Northwood High School and the University of Maryland, Friends of Sligo Creek also hopes to support the high school's effort to survey the area and identify ways to "green" the local Wheaton redevelopment process. By educating civic associations, schools, community groups and neighbors, groups like Friends of Sligo Creek are reducing runoff one household at a time.
Montgomery County's RainScapes Program is teaching residents solutions to their stormwater problem. These residents have discovered that rainwater can be an asset instead of a source of pollution. They have identified a way of using all this water to their advantage. Residents have rediscovered the value of rain barrels and have learned how to keep nearly all the stormwater that falls onto their property on site using a combination of rain barrels and rain gardens.
The town of Chevy Chase also stepped up to the plate by developing a Water Drainage Ordinance in 2005. This ordinance requires new construction and significant additions, more than 700 square feet, to minimize stormwater drainage onto neighboring properties and streets.
Farther down the watershed, large construction projects are also dealing with stormwater issues.
The Washington National's new ballpark, Nationals Park, boasts a 6,300-square-foot green roof located above the concession area behind left field. Groundwater and stormwater filtration systems were also constructed to reduce runoff into the Anacostia River from the impervious surfaces on stadium grounds. These features and others have allowed this stadium to become the first in the United States to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, receiving 33 points toward certification.
The aforementioned projects are ever pushing the bar higher when it comes to remediating stormwater, but we should continue to raise the bar even higher toward eliminating runoff.
The concept of eliminating runoff really struck me one Sunday as I walked through a new house for sale. (Admit it now... we have all been that nosy neighbor who occasionally tours those open houses.) I was intrigued because the builder had installed an infiltration basin in the backyard to collect the rainwater from most of the downspouts and allow it to percolate back into the ground slowly over time. The few downspouts in the front of the house allowed the rainwater to spread naturally over the yard.
The changes to the landscaping of this house aim at the goal of eliminating runoff. Contrast this with a new house just a few blocks away, where the builder connected all of the downspouts to pipes that led directly to the street. In this case, all of the runoff from the house was sent rushing to the street and then to the nearby stream, thus exacerbating the runoff issue.
So what is the difference between these two houses? Both are large, each with an impervious footprint of 2,500 square feet, which might generate approximately 1,500 gallons of runoff from a 1-inch rainstorm. In the first case, the house might produce very little, if any, runoff because water is absorbed into the ground through the infiltration basin. At the second house, virtually all 1,500 gallons might leave the home site as runoff because all of the rainwater is diverted directly to the storm drain.
These two designs represent both ends of the spectrum, one with no stormwater management plan and one with a management plan aimed at eliminating runoff.
From individuals to progressive builders, to citizen-based projects, to entire communities, we all have our place as citizens of the Chesapeake. From our backyards to our ballparks, we can utilize low-impact development and even "no" impact development to lessen our footprint on the watershed.
By using rain barrels, natural landscapes, rain gardens, green roofs and disconnecting downspouts to irrigate plants and gardens, local citizens can capture a large percentage of their stormwater on-site and move toward eliminating stormwater runoff.
We now know that solutions are out there; we just need to take advantage of these resources. Individuals across the watershed are already taking restoration into their own hands and making a difference in their backyards. Aligned in spirit, purpose and method, we can all contribute to reducing the impact of polluted runoff to our streams, rivers and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.