With just a few minutes to go until my first water audit, I was nervous. I wondered if I was underdressed, or overdressed. Was the coffee OK? Was the ice water cold enough? Was my kitchen table clean, or at least devoid of various school papers and art projects?
I knew none of these details would matter. Blue Water Baltimore's Dana Puzey was not coming over to judge me — she was coming to size up my yard and my stormwater runoff. I was trying to make a good impression, because I worried my yard would not.
Like many people, I'd let my yard get away from me. Two kids, a full-time job and a pesky allergic reaction to a lot of sun will do that to you. I hadn't weeded as much as I had hoped, or really, much at all. The vegetable garden I'd been meaning to plant remained unplanted. The invasive plants I'd been meaning to remove were still climbing all over my retaining wall and up several of my trees. Let's just say that, if our neighborhood had a "Yard of the Month" award, we would not win it.
There were more out-of-sight problems, too. In the front of our house, rain rolled down the slate roof shingles, entered the gutters, then flowed out into the street. On the back, the water met asphalt shingle on the roof and a hard patio on the ground.
I'd been writing about the Chesapeake Bay long enough to know that my house was contributing to a major problem: a combined sewer system that mixed stormwater and treated sewage before discharging both of them into the rivers around Baltimore. I knew that Baltimore City was spending nearly $1 billion to fix the system, but in the meantime, it still overflowed a few times a year.
My efforts to keep my home's runoff out of the system were not going to save the Bay, but they could be a drop in the bucket. Plus, my 6-year-old daughter has a keen interest in science, and I thought it would be fun to undertake this project with her. And, like many other things in my life, water management was something I'd meant to get around to doing. Many people I knew had done it years ago. As a Bay writer, I was a bit embarrassed I hadn't set a better example.
Puzey, the program manager for Blue Water Baltimore, arrived right on time. She wasn't interested in the coffee or the ice water. She got right to business, frowning at the sight of my overgrown ivy. The ivy was outcompeting the native plants, and it would win in the long run if I didn't do something. She talked about fun with machetes, a phrase not usually uttered around the mom of a 10-month-old. She told me to remove all of it, especially the ivy climbing up the trees.
"This is going to be a huge project, so just be ready for it," she said.
The news got better as she surveyed my front and back yard.
"You actually have one of the most ideal situations I've seen in a long time," she said.
That may have been the nicest thing anyone's said about my yard. Unfortunately, she just meant that the downspout was in an excellent place to be cut for a rain barrel.
I elected to buy a rain barrel for about $100, and Blue Water Baltimore installed it the next week for free. I could have chosen a cheaper model, and they would have installed it for free. I could have also purchased one from a different vendor, and they would have also put that in free of charge.
As it turns out, I am one of about 500 homeowners in Baltimore that Puzey and her staff of three have visited since 2009, when the water audits began as a pilot program. The first year, Blue Water conducted about 50 audits in the neighborhood of Mayfield, which is near the Jones Falls. Now, the program is available to all homeowners in the Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls, Herring Run and Harbor watersheds.
In the beginning, Puzey said, about half of the homeowners followed her staff's recommendations. Now, she said, it's closer to 75 percent.
"People signing up now are much more committed than the people signing up in the beginning," Puzey said. "It's very exciting. It shows people are really paying attention and have more knowledge about the problems, and they want to do something."
Blue Water Baltimore, which formed two years ago when five small watershed groups merged, has been able to offer the water audits thanks to a $450,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The grant expires at the end of this year, and the staff has reapplied.
The NFWF money also subsidizes rain garden design and the implementation and installation of rain barrels. Puzey said Blue Water staff found that people often bought the barrels or made them at workshops, but then left them in their garage.
Water audits are gaining popularity in the Chesapeake region, with several cities starting programs or considering doing so in the future. In Washington, DC, the nonprofit DC Greenworks is in its fourth year of installing rain barrels. So far, it has put in 1,808 barrels, with 1,000 of those done the last year. DC Greenworks has partnered with the District of Columbia's Department of the Environment, which conducts the audits. In the past, the barrel — plus installation — cost $30. Now, it will cost $45.
"During the audits, the department staff gives a quick overview of why we're doing this," said DC Greenworks Program Manager Andrew Benanati. "We have gotten a lot of positive response. People are very receptive."
In Lancaster, another nonprofit, Live Green Lancaster, has spent the last four years installing hundreds of rain barrels and teaching residents how to use compost tumblers. But after attending a stormwater workshop and listening to the successes in Baltimore and DC, its program director, Fritz Schroeder, wondered if they could do more.
Last summer, he assigned an intern to put together a plan for the water audits. His goal for this year was to do six; he has already conducted three.
The water audits in Lancaster are more complicated than installing rain barrels. The homeowners who have contacted Schroeder are interested in removing impervious driveways and alleyways, as well as re-routing downspouts into catchment basins so that nothing discharges into the street.
Schroeder has advised them, collected measurements and then connected the homeowners with contractors that can execute their project. He is now trying to decide how to continue the program — either under a fee-for-service model or a grant-based model. With no money or dedicated staff yet, Schroeder is trying to fit his audits into an already busy schedule.
Schroeder acknowledges that not every homeowner is going to be able to afford these solutions. But he says that just using a rain barrel, if homeowners empty them before major storms, is helpful. Lancaster is undertaking a green infrastructure initiative that will cost the city more than $140 million and includes installing green roofs and porous pavement as well as planting more trees. Those solutions, like the rain barrels, are one-at-a-time strategies that will, cumulatively, make a difference.
"I think the rain barrel is a gateway technology. Will they have an impact? Absolutely. Imagine if we could get every homeowner to use one," he said. "There are lots of people who want to do the right thing, but they don't know what to do. And providing them with a rain barrel is a very good first step."
In the two months since my audit, I've been using my rain barrel to water the plants in my front yard. When neighbors ask about it, I explain how it collects stormwater otherwise destined for the street. I've shown my daughter how the dirty water inside is but a symptom of what ails the Bay, as millions of downspouts carry that water out into the streams. I've cleared a lot of the English Ivy and tried to weed more, and I've hired a gardener to take care of the places I can't get. With help from friends, we planted a decent-size vegetable garden in May.
Puzey was glad to hear about my progress. And, she said, my house wasn't the worst one she'd seen.
"Almost every place I go, there can be improvements made.
"In most places, it's not that they're doing it on purpose. It's just that contractors have had the same philosophy for years, which is just pipe it into the street," she said. "Without individuals making changes to their property, we're never going to see improvement in water quality. So, it's imperative that these projects happen."
Blue Water Baltimore offers stormwater audits to homeowners in the Gwynns and Jones Falls watersheds as well as the Direct Harbor Watershed. For more information, call 410-254-1577 or visit www.bluewaterbaltimore.org.