Author Archive

20 Rain Gardens in 10 Days

Thursday, November 18th, 2010
Rain garden installation

Workers install a rain garden in Leo and Marie Dodge's yard in Howard County.

Just in time. I watched as the contractors finished their work on the rain garden in Marie and Leo Dodge’s yard. It was just hours before for heavy rains fell on September 30, 2010. I had heard that flash flooding was in the forecast. That night, the oval rain garden with its high soil berm and newly planted native plants would be put to the test.

When Marie Dodge first heard about the “Win a Rain Garden” program in her Howard County neighborhood, she was intrigued. She told me that she and her husband Leo, both retirees, are avid gardeners who take a serious interest in their landscaping.  She’d heard of rain gardens but wasn’t exactly sure what they were or how they functioned.  But if the rain coursing down her backyard provided any clue, she suspected that her property might be well suited for one.

Leo Dodge recounted the story of the property downhill from them. When the new house was constructed in the early 1990s, he said, developers filled in the stormwater collection pond on the adjacent property.  Ever since, whenever it rains, water races down the Dodge’s hill toward their neighbor’s house, flooding their basement and forcing the sump pump to work overtime.

In May 2010, the Dodges joined dozens of other Howard County residents at a free seminar. They’d received a letter in the mail inviting them to attend. The seminar — a Rain Garden 101 of sorts — was hosted by watershed restoration specialist Amanda Rockler, who works with Maryland Sea Grant Extension, along with representatives from Howard County and the Center for Watershed Protection. At the seminar, residents learned about how rain gardens capture and retain stormwater that would otherwise run off their roofs and driveways, preventing it from carrying pollutants, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment, into nearby Red Hill Branch, and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay beyond.

The following weekend, the Dodges watched as contractors installed a demonstration rain garden at the nearby GlenMar United Methodist Church. They saw what would be involved in the installation. They saw the finished product.

Along with 82 other residents in the Red Hill Branch subwatershed of Ellicott City, the Dodges then applied to win a free rain garden for their property. The “Win a Rain Garden” program is one that Rockler developed in partnership with Howard County, with funding from both from the county and the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays 2010 Trust Fund.  She was tasked with developing an outreach effort that both educated the community about best management practices (BMPs) for stormwater, like rain gardens, and also got the BMPs in the ground. The outreach piece is part of a more than one million dollar effort to make a big impact in a small area, a project that includes stormwater retrofits, bioretention cells, and stream restoration projects in a subwatershed of the Patuxent River. The contest would be perfect, a chance to educate the public and to get rain gardens planted.

As Rockler explained it to me, the program “offered a chance to roll outreach, education, and implementation into one — a window of opportunity to seize.”

Howard County had funding for 20 rain gardens. It would be tough to get all of sites selected and the gardens planted before the end of the sensitive fall planting window, but Rockler and her collaborators were determined.

Rockler, along with Howard County engineers and the Center for Watershed Protection, completed site inspections of all 83 properties, along with owner and designer Linda Luke from Village Gardeners, the contracting company that would install the rain gardens.  At each site, they assessed the grade of the lawn and looked for “pinch points,” places where rainwater would naturally pool on the property.  They assessed whether a rain garden could play a significant role in trapping runoff, based on the topography and proximity to storm drains or to the stream itself. They also considered whether the applicants would be effective stewards of a rain garden and whether they would likely set a good example among their neighbors.

Once the winners were selected, things moved fast. Village Gardeners installed two rain gardens a day, weather permitting, over an intensive two-to-three-week window.  It was tough work.  Most of the gardens needed to be dug to a depth of roughly two feet over a 12-by-8-feet area.  Once dug, each garden needed to be filled with amended soil and planted with dozens of native plants.

The contractors functioned like a well-oiled machine.  Four men, working with hand tools, could get a garden dug and fully planted in less than three hours.

The contractors from Village Gardeners had just finished cleaning up the site when the first raindrops begin to fall.  I stand with Rockler and the Dodges out the rain, surveying their completed garden and planning additional landscaping they want to put in along the soil berm.  Leo Dodge sees planting evening primrose — which produces a beautiful yellow flower — along the berm.  Already, they can’t wait to see the rain garden bloom in the spring and they’re looking forward to showing it off at the garden tour that Rockler is planning to promote the project.

Now they are ready for the rain.

– Erica Goldman

Watch this time lapse video of workers installing the Dodge’s rain garden. Video by Joe King for Maryland Sea Grant.

The Siren Song of Story

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Skip Brown

Stories seduce you. They draw you in and keep you –– curled up with a book on a couch or sunk deep in an upholstered chair in a darkened theater.

Fiction writers craft stories, weaving them from threads of the imagination. These authors may be shaped by their times, but are free to make up details and plot, imbuing their writing with the richness of inner creativity.

Nonfiction writers find stories in the factual.  They are no lesser artisans, but their cloth begins with carefully reported facts and details.  The stories that they craft emerge from the constructed retelling of true events, glimpses into scenes and characters of daily life, resonant with the emotional truth of what’s real.

What is it about stories that makes them so gripping? Narrative arcs? Rhythm and resonance? Conflict and resolution? According to practitioners of the art, it’s all of these. And more.

At a conference on the Power of Narrative, held at Boston University this past weekend, the legendary nonfiction writer Gay Talese told the audience about the stories he overheard in his parents’ shop as a child and how they seduced him. A tailor’s wife and a seamstress in her own right, his mother drew into their shop women at the heart of his hometown of Ocean City, NJ.  There they lingered. And talked. Through their banter, Talese watched the stories of his era unfold.  These were the small stories, he explained.  The daily lives of the world’s supporting characters. To him these women offered a lens through which to glimpse the storyline of an entire generation.

As a writer, Talese devoted himself to the telling of true stories.  He observed with an eagle eye. He kept meticulous notes, archiving every letter, note, or scrap of paper he ever gathered.  He absorbed detail, the stuff that makes a picture rich and real.  He talked to people. And then he stepped back. He watched and listened.

What happens when we watch and listen? What stories emerge? Who are the main and supporting characters? Who are the protagonists? What are the essential conflicts?

Take the Chesapeake Bay. Each of the Bay’s rivers has a story to tell. A time of glory, followed by a great fall. In some cases, a return to grace. The Bay has heroes. Scientists who’ve devoted their lives to understanding how essential processes work –– their drive and path to discovery. Advocates who’ve championed the causes of restoration. Watermen who’ve become stewards of the resource. Citizens who’ve helped clean up their backyard creek or made a choice to lessen their own environmental impact.

But this list barely scratches the surface. If we watch and listen, we see and hear stories everywhere.

There are big stories. A sewage treatment plant helps radically decreases the amount of pollution in the Bay. In a creek or river, underwater grasses begin resurging with a vengeance.

There are small stories. The retired teacher who’s made removing trash from creeks the single-minded focus of her golden years. The student for whom the thrill of early discovery set in motion a career devoted to the science of restoring the estuary.

Telling these stories, with an unwavering mind to factual accuracy and detail, enhances their truth and power. Why? By drawing us in, developing characters, building suspense, stories make us part of something in a way that straight facts usually do not.

Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the conference organizer, put it well when she said, “Storytelling is as old as fire.” Maybe this ancient medium is what will help us navigate the brave new world of multimedia and social networks, of information overload and saturation. Maybe it is what will bind us together, helping us find truth and purpose in our work.

Every person and place has a story to tell. I, for one, will be watching and listening.

A Matter of State

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Anacostia mud flatMarsh or mudflat? Clear water and underwater grasses or brown turbid water and blooms of harmful algae?  Comb jellies or or stinging sea nettles? Each ecological “state” has persisted in the Chesapeake Bay to varying degrees, in varying locations, at various points in history.

As humans, we have clear preferences for one state over another. The activities that we associate with the Bay –– fishing, boating, swimming –– all rely on our favorite spot being in a particular state at a particular time.  Our efforts to restore the Bay hinge on a human desire to shape the state of the Bay’s ecology.

But ecological systems have a momentum of their own.

Picture a roller coaster. Once the cars crest the top of a hill, there’s little that can stop a rapid descent to the bottom.  Without an engine, the cars will rock up and down the inclines, ultimately settling in a trough.  Climbing the hill to recovery takes momentum in one direction –– a concerted push, sustained over time, until feedbacks kick in like an engine to give the uphill climb a boost.

Restoration is our human attempt to push an ecosystem into a preferred state of health.  But this is no easy task. At Kingman Marsh in the Anacostia River, diverse groups, including scientists, government, and non-governmental organizations, have come together to return a freshwater marsh to a part of the river that had “flipped” into a mudflat state after decades of environmental insult (see Marsh in the City).  This is a massive undertaking, a huge push more than a decade in the making. It required substantial dredging, followed by the planting of some 700,000 new plants –– at a cost of $6 million.

But in the case of Kingman Marsh, the uphill push of restoration efforts has faced a strong downhill counterforce.  A hungry flock of resident Canada geese seems determined to eat every last palatable shoot from the marsh, pushing the area toward a persistent state of mudflat. Because of this, the fate of the whole restoration effort hangs in the balance.

In other parts of the Bay, the return to a desirable state has come more decisively. Take Gunston Cove for example. In this tidal embayment of the Potomac River, once dominated by noxious algal blooms, clear waters have returned. It took a while.  For decades, the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant had discharged large amounts of phosphorus into the river, causing eutrophication — the result of too many nutrients.  But even after treatment upgrades reduced the discharge of phosphorus, the waters saw little change.  Not until some two decades later, did Gunston Cove suddenly experience a rapid improvement –– presumably reflecting the time that phosphorus “lagged” behind in the system.

Late last fall, as I struggled to trudge, with borrowed hip waders, through the thick ooze of Kingman Marsh, I marveled at the uphill struggle underway to restore marshland to a small part of this ruined river. I was doing my best to keep pace with U.S. Geological Survey biologist Cairn Krafft as she surveyed the extensive damage done to the marsh by Canada geese. The devastation was pretty incredible. In the battle between the states of marsh and mudflat, the geese seem determined to make mud prevail.

How can we use ideas about ecological states to inform restoration efforts? How can we encourage ecological systems to work for us, not to fight our best intentions?

Here’s where it seems to me that lessons from history can provide valuable insights. By looking to the past, we can see how and where ecological states have flipped before, and where they would be likely to flip in the future. Such an effort would require the diverse expertise of different disciplines.  We need scientists analyzing long-term data sets for evidence of changes in state –– data reflecting trends in fisheries, water quality, and more. We need modelers and statisticians to work on understanding transitions from one state to another, where thresholds for recovery might help set a regime change in motion. And we need synthetic thinkers to help translate from the academic realm to decisions on the ground.

It’s a steep hill to climb, but the potential gains for restoring the Bay are worth it.  Aren’t they?

Remembering a Fall Morning at Avalon Farm

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

Pelczar-gardenOn a crisp autumn day almost exactly two years ago, we drove down the long, oyster shell driveway that leads to Avalon Farm. Flanked on either side by fields of wheat-colored grass, Jack Greer and I made our way down the gravel road toward an old farmhouse perched on the shore of Kent Narrows.

Michael Pelczar greeted us at the kitchen door, holding it open to usher two Chesapeake Bay retrievers out before welcoming us in. We entered a warm, cheery kitchen and sat down with a cup of coffee.

For Jack, it was a reunion. He’d known Michael for years, but hadn’t seen him for a while. For me, it was an introduction –– a chance to talk with a man so central to the history of Maryland Sea Grant, the University of Maryland, and to the discipline of microbiology (“Microbes to Mute Swans”).

As we talked, I glimpsed a unique lens on the passage of time. Here was a formidable scientist and passionate steward of the Chesapeake Bay who’d watched his beloved estuary change from the same vantage point on Avalon Farm over the course of more than 40 years.

He knew right from the start that it would take the expertise of various disciplines working together to promote conservation and restoration of the Bay. This was prescient –– a way of approaching the study of science that would still be struggling to be fulfilled years later.

My encounter with Michael Pelczar was only a brief morning over a cup of coffee, but it touched me deeply. Here was the very embodiment of a life fulfilled. A rich legacy of a long professional and academic career and an even richer legacy of family. His office was filled with pictures of his six children and dozens of grand- and great-grandchildren. That morning, his daughter Ann was with him at the farm, helping make us feel at home.

Upon publication of the article about Michael Pelczar in Chesapeake Quarterly, we received notes from our readers. One stood out in particular. Norman Hines was an undergraduate student under Dr. Pelczar in 1960-1961. He wrote that he still has Pelczar’s textbook, Microbiology (written in 1958), on the bookshelf in his office. He wanted to know how to contact him. He wanted to let Dr. Pelczar know that he’d left an enduring impression, and maybe even to stop by the farm when next out to visit a cousin on Kent Island.

Michael Pelczar passed away on October 13, 2009, just a few months short of his 94th birthday. His textbook Microbiology has recently been republished in India, with promises of more sales than ever. He had only weeks ago hosted a visit with his Indian colleagues who’d led the effort to bring his book up-to-date.

Michael Pelczar presented me with an autographed copy of Microbiology before I left Avalon Farm that day. When I heard of his passing, I took the book off the shelf and looked again at the quote by microbiologist Louis Pasteur in the Preface.

“Messieurs, c’est les microbes qui auront le dernier mot.”
“The microbes will have the last word.”

That was his favorite quote, he’d explained. I think it resonated so deeply for him because of his sense for the interconnectedness and intricacy of the natural world, with humans only a part of a vast ecosystem.

When we’d finished talking in the kitchen, Michael took us outside to see his elaborate garden. His peppers were ripe and Jack and I both went home with a bag full of miniature purples, yellows and reds.

From there, we wandered down the shore of the Bay. Though leaning heavily on a cane, Michael Pelczar was surefooted and strong. I will treasure the memory of that crisp, autumn morning, of a singular opportunity to meet a man with such conviction of mind and spirit, grounded by his roots on Avalon Farm and his love for the Chesapeake Bay.

Learning the Lessons of History

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Aerial view of the Chesapeake BayH.G. Well’s quote that “history is a race between education and catastrophe” resonates clearly in the Chesapeake Bay. Natural history and observational science have formed the cornerstone of our understanding how the Bay has changed over time –– tracking periods of abundance and decline, holding clues to the future. But moving forward, the question still remains as to whether an understanding of history will prevent us from repeating past mistakes.

Long-term data streams abound in the Bay region. Fisheries harvest data tell the tale of declining oyster populations, of the crash and recovery of the striped bass. Some of these go back more than 100 years. Mud samples taken from the bottom of the Bay show how the abundance and diversity of bottom-dwelling creatures has changed over time, a data set that extends back some 25 years. Field sampling annual aircraft surveys of phytoplankton and aerial surveys of underwater grasses paint a long term picture of the Bay’s change in state –– declines in underwater grasses followed by recurrent population explosions of algae.

There are comparatively fewer long-term natural history data sets, rich information records that document the ebb and flow of populations of organisms over time. But like Ohio University biologist Willem Roosenburg, featured in the latest Chesapeake Quarterly, several other natural historians have helped contribute a long-term record of life and change in the Bay. Vernon Stotts, with the Maryland Wildlife Administration, studied the change in waterfowl populations for more than two decades. He was among the first to note the decline of underwater grasses in the early 1970s, when he realized that many birds had begun feeding off plants in farm fields instead of in the water. Dave Cargo, who worked at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, created a long-term record of sea nettle abundance through a daily census off the lab’s dock on the Patuxent River. Beginning in 1960, this data collection continued after Cargo’s death and now holds more than 40 years of information on population abundance, data that has provided clues to changing predator-prey relationships in the Bay.

Long-term data records of water quality, climate, river flow, and temperature also provide key information on how the Bay has changed over time. Since the creation of the E.P.A. Chesapeake Bay Program in 1984, detailed monitoring efforts have kept track of estuarine variables for water quality, such as turbidity, algal species, oxygen, anoxia, nitrogen, and phosphorus. Watershed variables, such as nutrient and sediment loading, land use, and impervious surface cover provide the raw material for making the link between human activities on land and in the water and changes in the estuary.

But will what we know about the Chesapeake’s past, guide the Chesapeake’s future? The Bay seems well poised to learn from the lessons of history, but sometimes it is hard for scientists to slow down frenetic pace of research to look back to the past for clues to the future. One of the primary recommendations from a conference on Thresholds in the Recovery of Eutrophic Coastal Ecosystems, held in 2007 and jointly sponsored by Maryland Sea Grant and the Chesapeake Bay Program Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee, was to tap into the wealth of historical data that already exists to predict how the Bay will respond to restoration efforts in the future. This means rigorously studying and synthesizing the past, while simultaneously monitoring the environmental conditions of the present. Standing on the shoulders of the vigilant natural historians and field scientists who have kept a close eye on the Bay for all of these years, maybe the time has come to take a closer look across systems, to seek signs of concurrent trends from different organisms, different time series. Only by understanding where the Bay has been, will we be able to shape where it is going.

Troubled waters around the world

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

The opening session sounded like a meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Through headsets, we listened to the simultaneous translation of the opening address in English, Chinese, and Japanese. Such a convergence of nationalities –– eminent scientists from around the world, distinguished leaders in environmental affairs –– bespoke the grave significance of the problems at hand.

At the 2008 Environmental Management of Enclosed Coastal Seas meeting (EMECS-8) in Shanghai, China last week, scientists from around the globe came to report on the state of their coastal waters and to discuss national and regional attempts to correct problems of pollution, nutrient overload, and rapid development that put intense pressure on rivers and inland seas.

The messages we heard were sobering. What we face in our Chesapeake Bay is happening across the globe – from China to Japan to Iran to Europe to India to Bangladesh. Our struggles with restoration, with the implementation of ecosystem-based approaches to management, with the coordination between local and regional governance resound from country-to-country. Signs of damaged ecosystems also appear everywhere. Jellyfish have grown abundant, where fisheries have declined – such as in the Seto Inland Sea in Japan. And some coastal waters such as Tokyo Bay and Hong Kong Harbor may have already passed the point of no return, according to one study of ports and harbors in the Asian South Pacific.

Climate change will only make matters worse, scientists say. And if we don’t plan for the effects of rising temperatures and rising sea levels as we continue to develop the coastal zone, global water resources and human health could be severely compromised.

Ironically, even as we clean up the water, the legacy of contaminated sediments will live on, according to another study.  Salt marshes, which are so important for trapping sediment and reducing the impact of development-induced erosion, offer conditions that may encourage the accumulation of methyl mercury in the food chain. Methyl mercury, a toxic compound that originates with coal-fired emissions from power plants, is metabolized by sulfur-oxidizing bacteria that are prolific in salt marshes, providing an entry point into an aquatic food web that culminates with our food fish resources.

Unfortunately, walking the streets of Shanghai did little to dispel the messages I was hearing inside the conference venue –– a sense of mounting global environmental doom.  Here, in a city of 18 million people and growing, the environment seems stretched to a breaking point. Air pollution, poor water quality, lack of green space, mind-boggling traffic, and an infrastructure bursting at the seams. This city, so proud of its recent economic surge, appears balanced at a precipice. If growth continues at the current rate, it seems impossible that the environment will be able sustain the resource needs of its burgeoning population.  Sobering indeed.

Though global environmental problems loom large, the EMECS conference was not without a silver lining. The note of optimism comes from the common chord on how restoring the environment should be approached.  The idea of treating the whole system, not just constituent parts, resounded widely. The term “ecosystem-based management,” new not so long ago, had clearly become well entrenched in the dialogue of scientists and managers throughout the world. The dedication of conference organizers and participants, including the articulate and passionate student delegation, offered a beacon of hope. With political will and motivated leaders, the path to ecosystem recovery does lie within our grasp

The Chesapeake region will host the next EMECS conference in 2011, planned for Baltimore, Maryland. When this globally diverse group of talented researchers and managers next meets, I hope that we will hear reports of notable strides toward a more sustainable future for our coastal zones.





Thursday, June 19th, 2008

When I called Charlene Pinkney back to double check some facts for A Tree Grows on Bruce Street in the latest issue of Chesapeake QuarterlyRenewing an Urban Watershed, I asked about her garden. It was early spring when I’d first visited — trees had just started to blossom. With all of May’s rain behind us, everything must have really taken off by now.

It has. And her lawn mower is still broken, which has made caring for the lush grass a challenging proposition. Her grass had gotten so tall recently that fearing a citation from the city, she got out there with a pair of hedge clippers and started whacking it by hand. But her real struggle has been with the rats, she told me. They’ve become bold, brazen. She says they’ve built a network of tunnels through her yard. She’s considering trying to fill the tunnel openings with shards of glass, of which there’s no scarcity on littered Bruce Street.

Meanwhile, she’s going door-to-door on her troubled block to get signatures to petition the city to come out and place traps. She needs to engage the whole block in the eradication effort. What Pinkney is facing in her garden is the stuff bad dreams are made of.

West Baltimore has serious problems. Drugs, crime, homelessness, unemployment, and poverty. I deliberately waited until I finished writing this story to get Season 1 of The Wire, the gritty HBO police drama set on these streets, from Netflix. I’d learned that most of the series had been filmed on street corners and alleys I would now recognize. But I didn’t want the dramatized streets to cloud my impressions of the efforts in the 72-block radius defined as Watershed 263.

What struck me is that this pilot project in Watershed 263 is the real deal. The pipes beneath these city streets carry some of dirtiest water in the Chesapeake watershed and life aboveground faces some of the toughest odds. Improving water quality through community greening practices seems a nearly Sisyphean charge. Against this backdrop of big problems in Baltimore, each hard-won vacant lot turned rain garden requires tremendous effort, community input, and funding. And, according to plan, it will take 107 such projects to see a measurable impact on stormwater from only 25 percent of the watershed.

Watershed 263 evokes a parallel for me to the BALTIMORE BELIEVE campaign. The campaign was an attempt by then mayor Martin O’Malley to “light a fuse of popular will” to change the mindset of the city with regard to the drugs. The idea is that if everyone does at least one thing to fight drugs, acting alone or together, then the community can prevail.

I lived in Baltimore in 2002 when the BELIEVE campaign was beginning to gain traction. I remember puzzling at the stark black signs with the white letters that read simply, “BELIEVE.” No context. No explanation. I didn’t know what I was supposed to believe in. At first I was vaguely annoyed. I didn’t get it.

That feeling didn’t last long. Those signs got under my skin. I’m not sure that I ever embraced the message specific to the drug problem in Baltimore. But I would drive down the streets and register a prickle of hope, like what you’d experience walking out of a feel-good movie.

The same goes for Watershed 263. The odds still seem stacked against success. Juxtaposed with personal safety, unemployment, and drugs, the effect of urban stormwater on the Chesapeake Bay ranks low on the list of concerns of most watershed residents. But for some, growing green space in neighborhoods and improving the quality of outdoor life is rising to the top. The people I met value their gardens and embrace the idea that turning empty lots into safe green havens can benefit their health and improve the quality of their daily lives.

BELIEVE in green. The people of Watershed 263 do. And just maybe, if everyone does at least one thing to green his/her local community, healthier waters downstream will prevail.