The litter appears as the last house slips away around a curve in the rearview mirror. Beer bottles, water bottles, soda cans and fast-food waste dot the wooded bank of burbling Ballenger Creek for nearly half a mile, tossed by travelers on Elmer Derr Road just south of Frederick, MD. A hard rain would wash much of it into the creek, which flows into the Monocacy River, a tributary of the Potomac.
Last year, volunteers removed nearly 218 tons of trash from the Potomac River watershed in a single day. Now the group that sponsors the annual cleanup has a new objective: a trash-free Potomac by 2013.
It’s an ambitious goal, but the Alice Ferguson Foundation has some big-name partners. The World Bank, which provides financial and technical assistance to developing countries, is joining with the Ferguson Foundation, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Exxon-Mobil Corp. and the American Chemistry Council in pressing every municipality in the Potomac’s four-state watershed to help banish litter from “the nation’s river.”
Four Maryland counties—Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s—have already signed the Potomac Trash Treaty, along with the District of Columbia. Fairfax County, VA, and the Virginia cities of Arlington and Alexandria. Frederick County, MD, were expected to sign Feb. 23.
The foundation expects more local governments and elected officials to be on board by March 16, when a Trash Summit will take place at the World Bank’s Washington headquarters.
“We have taken the first step toward achieving our trash-free Potomac goal by getting our leaders to agree that the region does have a significant trash problem,” said Tracy Bowen, executive director of the Alice Ferguson Foundation in Accokeek, MD. By signing the treaty, they are pledging to do something about it, she said.
Viki Betancourt, the World Bank’s community outreach manager, said the project enables her institution to share some of its environmental problem-
solving expertise with its neighbors in the national capital area.
“Obviously, taking care of the Potomac watershed is really critical for this community in a lot of different respects,” she said.
One challenge is the sheer size of the watershed. It spans nearly 14,700 square miles in parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Colombia. About 4.6 million people live in the watershed, including 3.7 million in the Washington area.
Another complication is the lack of research on the amount of trash generated in the region. A draft action plan for the Trash-Free Potomac Watershed Initiative starts by requiring each jurisdiction to provide data on solid waste, storm-water management, recycling and anti-litter successes.
“We’d like to analyze what’s happening in the region,” said Wende Pearson, manager of the Ferguson Foundation’s annual cleanup, set this year for April 8.
The general plan is to reduce waste and increase recycling, using practices that have worked well elsewhere. Two Yale University graduate students are studying U.S. projects to use as models, Betancourt and Pearson said.
The organizers hope to foster awareness of the issue through a public education campaign funded by public and private sources. In addition to the 40 or more governmental units in the watershed, organizers aim to persuade at least 6,000 citizens, 250 businesses and 50 nonprofit organizations to sign the Trash Treaty.
Pearson acknowledged that trash isn’t the biggest environmental problem in the Chesapeake Bay, which receives water from the Potomac. But she said it’s something people can understand more easily than sedimentation or nutrient overloading.
“If people don’t realize that the trash in their front yards is making it to the Potomac, they certainly don’t realize that the fertilizers or pesticides on their lawns are making it to the Potomac,” she said.
18th Annual Potomac Watershed Cleanup
The Alice Ferguson Foundation needs site leaders and volunteers to pick up trash during the 18th Annual Potomac Watershed Cleanup, 9 a.m. to noon April 8, at more than 300 sites in Maryland, Virginia, Washington West Virginia and the District of Columbia.
For information, call the foundation at 301-292-5665 or visit www.potomaccleanup.org.