Patapsco Heritage Greenway's new pet project targets animal waste in Elkridge stream valley

The Baltimore Sun

Patapsco Heritage Greenway is preparing to pilot a behavior-change campaign in Elkridge to convince more dog owners to clean up after their pets.

The nonprofit – known for sponsoring stream clean-ups and tree plantings in the Patapsco River Valley – wants dog owners to know the bacteria from pet waste left on the ground is carried by stormwater runoff into local streams, the Patapsco River and the Chesapeake Bay.

Through its new campaign, “we’ll be doing visual counts of pet waste to determine which areas are having a problem and to figure out what the barriers are” to cleaning it up and disposing of it properly, said Hannah Zinnert, Patapsco Heritage Greenway’s program manager.

The organization’s goal is to eventually expand its public awareness campaign across Howard County.

“This is a different project than what we typically do,” Zinnert said, “and people have not been complaining to us about pet waste for that reason.”

But the organization has begun monitoring online community boards such as nextdoor.com, where people are commenting on excess pet waste in public spaces.

“Some people are really angry about the issue,” Zinnert said. She noted that unattended pet waste is also a problem on private property, where it may only be cleaned up by homeowners once or twice a week and can wash into storm drains after it rains.

Zinnert will train interested volunteers to be Waste Watchers in a 90-minute program at 6:30 p.m. May 8 at the Elkridge Library. Advance registration is required at patapsco.org.

The nonprofit got the idea to apply to the Chesapeake Bay Trust for the $50,000 grant after meetings with the county last summer, Zinnert said.

The funding for the grant is drawn from the annual stormwater fees collected from county property owners, said Jim Caldwell, director of the Howard County Office of Community Sustainability.

Caldwell said the county recommended Elkridge for the pilot program because the state has issued what amounts to an excessive-pollutant warning at the Deep Run tributary, which feeds into the Patapsco and eventually into the bay.

Called a Total Maximum Daily Load, the figure is a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant allowed to enter a body of water before it fails to meet water quality standards, according to the website of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Anytime the state gives us a TMDL we know a stream is degraded and that it’s a potential area of concern,” Caldwell said, adding there are TMDLs in other parts of the county as well.

“We figured if we’re going to do this — and this will be our first endeavor into the issue of pet waste — then Elkridge would be a good place to start,” he said.

Zinnert said the nonprofit’s pilot program is being modeled after a successful community-based social marketing campaign undertaken by the Anne Arundel County Watershed Stewards Academy.

She estimated the project will last two years.

“The first year is for collecting baseline data and initial target audience surveys, developing social marketing outreach tools and beginning the outreach phase,” Zinnert said. “The second year will continue with this outreach using the tools we developed, as well as an evaluation phase to determine if the program helped with the pet waste issue.”

Zinnert said some people think cleanup is not a big issue when they’re out in nature since deer, raccoons and geese leave their droppings outdoors.

But dog waste is another matter.

“Unlike the dung of many wild animals, the waste of dogs contains many more bacteria and parasites,” up to 23 million bacteria in one gram, Zinnert said.

“When it rains, pet waste can wash off into streams and creeks … and [this] can encourage surplus weed and algae growth,” she said.

Caldwell said the issue of excessive pet waste “is not really a suburbia thing; it’s an urban thing.”

That means the county may be facing an uphill battle in getting residents to understand that pet waste is increasingly becoming a problem in Howard and that each person’s actions can help restore water health, he said.

Zinnert said the majority of dog owners pick up their pets’ waste, but there’s a gap between cleaning up and proper disposal.

Steve Wachs, a Patapsco Heritage Greenway board member who lives off Landing Road in Elkridge and owns a rescue dog, said it’s frustrating that some dog owners are collecting the droppings, but leaving their bags in the park or along the side of the road.

“I’m anxious to see what PHG will come up with” to put a stop to the problem, he said, adding he will probably volunteer to help with the project.

“I’m hoping we can have some impact,” Wachs said.

Audrey Suhr, who lives in the Lawyers Hill Road area of Elkridge, said people don’t understand failing to dispose of pet waste properly annoys others who want to enjoy the outdoors.

“It makes me angry that people who leave bags along the trail think they’re helping,” Suhr said. “It’s an easy thing to put the bag in a trash can, so why not do that?”

Zinnert said the ultimate method of disposal is to take the bag of pet waste home and dump it into a toilet.

“In an ideal world, that would happen, but for the most part that’s a hard sell,” she said.

For now, the nonprofit will try multiple strategies to help people become responsible stewards of the environment, perhaps re-using a slogan on the Anne Arundel County Watershed Stewards Academy website: “Scoop it, bag it, trash it – It’s the American way!”

“Our task is to make a connection and to understand dog owners’ views,” Zinnert said. “Then we can work on making behavioral changes.”

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