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Howard watershed 'academy' seeks recruits to carry message of bay protection

It all comes down to slowing the flow.

By training residents to be savvy environmental leaders who can inspire their neighbors to take action, a nonprofit organization hopes to reduce the flow of polluted stormwater runoff that eventually empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Howard County Watershed Stewards Academy — which just graduated its first class two months ago — is recruiting for a second class of volunteers interested in learning how to improve the water quality of local streams and rivers, which ultimately impacts the bay's health.

"Slow the flow" is the popular mantra among those who are passionate about helping people understand the positive impact they can have on the bay, said Sylvia Huestis, a master watershed steward and member of the nonprofit's advisory committee.

And there is a lot of water flowing into the Chesapeake. Approximately 51 billion gallons empty into the bay each day from its freshwater tributaries, according to the group's website.

There are currently eight stewards in the county, and organizers are hoping to more than triple that number starting Feb. 7, when a 15-session intensive course begins. Applications, which can be completed online at howardwsa.org, are due Jan. 28.

The Howard County group joins other watershed stewards academies in the area — one in Anne Arundel County, on which Howard's is modeled, and another that covers Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Washington.

Training enables certified stewards to teach other residents how to protect the county's watersheds, which are areas of land that drain into specific bodies of water.

Designing rain gardens to absorb and filter groundwater is one example of a homeowner project that can help keep runoff — and the chemicals, nutrients and pollutants it contains — out of local rivers and streams.

Such measures are not new to the county. The Columbia Association began applying best management practices to its 20 sub-watersheds after the Columbia Watershed Management Plan was completed in 2009.

What is new is the establishment of an organization dedicated solely to educating residents who can pass on what they learn to their communities, Huestis said.

"One of the things that has made watershed work difficult is that there is no volunteer group dedicated to our specific watersheds," said Huestis, who is 70 and a retired Howard County science teacher.

Patapsco Heritage Greenway volunteers are known in the area for holding frequent stream cleanups and designing other projects to preserve and protect the Patapsco Valley, she said. But the valley lies mostly in Baltimore County, so much of Howard isn't under the group's jurisdiction, she noted.

Howard's advisory committee members are especially excited about the benefits that disseminating knowledge will bring to protecting the watersheds of the Middle Patuxent, Little Patuxent and Patapsco rivers.

The Howard County academy works side by side with the Columbia Association's watershed manager, John McCoy, and consults with the county's Office of Environmental Sustainability. The county awarded the group a $10,000 grant for fiscal year 2014 that will cover costs of in-the-ground projects required of watershed stewards to complete their certification.

The organization's advisory committee also includes the University of Maryland Extension in Howard County, the Center for Watershed Protection and the Howard County Legacy Leadership Institute for the Environment.

Another impetus for starting the academy is the fact that many people aren't aware of the direct connection between their properties' stormwater runoff and the bay, Huestis said.

Neighborhood storm drains, which control localized flooding from runoff, are often dumping sites for things like used motor oil, she said. And many people don't realize the pesticides and fertilizers they use can run off plants and lawns after a rainstorm and end up in those drains.

Rachel Beebe, stormwater aide in the county's environmental sustainability office, said the instruction really makes a deep impression on people.

"Once they get educated, they don't want to [apply fertilizers and pesticides] anymore," she said. "They learn they can tolerate a bug or two."

Beebe is also working with the county's "relatively new" residential watershed protection credit and reimbursement program for installing rain management techniques, she said. Eligible homeowners can apply for a one-time, lump-sum payment of up to 50 percent of their expenses, or for a 20 percent credit against the annual watershed protection fee.

The 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed — into which local sub-watersheds eventually empty — is the largest on the Atlantic seaboard and includes much of Virginia and Maryland, according to the group's website. It also includes parts of West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York, as well as all of Washington.

The Howard County Watershed Stewards Academy follows a five-step program that starts with identification of pollution sources. Subsequent steps range from creating pollution reduction strategies to installing projects that curb the stormwater volume infiltrating streams.

Terry Matthews, who was hired in December as part-time coordinator for the academy, said he will focus on finding grant money to accomplish the group's goals, and on helping the advisory committee build capacity.

"Howard County, in my mind, has done its homework," said Matthews, a Baltimore County resident. "Now we need citizens to step up because we can't do it without them."

Huestis agreed, saying, "The success of this effort depends on individual people taking responsibility."

Chesapeake Bay talk

The Howard County Watershed Stewards Academy will host an evening with Nicholas DiPasquale, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Jan. 30 at the Howard County Conservancy, 10520 Old Frederick Road, Woodstock.

He will speak on what residents can do to clean their water, and there be opportunities to ask questions and voice concerns.

Admission is free, but attendance is limited to the first 100 registrants at howardwsa.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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