A local water quality watchdog group earned key financial backing this week in its effort to solve a bacteria problem plaguing community beaches throughout Anne Arundel County.
The West/Rhode Riverkeeper organization was awarded a $30,000 grant through the Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns initiative by the Chesapeake Bay Trust and Environmental Protection Agency. The grant will fund a stormwater mitigation effort at the Holly Hill Harbor Community Park in Edgewater.
The "green grants" are awarded annually to local governments and nonprofits to promote environmentally friendly projects throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Of 43 applicants, 15 were selected this year.
Grant recipients, announced in a ceremony in Baltimore on Tuesday, include a project for educational workshops in Prince George's County, installation of pervious streetscapes in Virginia and plantings to benefit the tree canopy in Baltimore City.
"Adding green elements to projects has a lot of really positive benefits, certainly for stormwater but also for livability and economics and reduction of crime and increased happiness," said Jana Davis, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Trust. "There's a lot of really positive community benefits to having green neighborhoods."
The West/Rhode Riverkeeper group will put the grant toward the planning of a series of gravel wetlands to capture and treat stormwater in Holly Hill Harbor Park.
Residents of Holly Hill Harbor — like those living near dozens of other community beaches in Anne Arundel County — are subject to constant advisories warning them against swimming.
Bacteria found in stormwater runoff can present serious health risks to people and animals, and community beaches in Anne Arundel County are routinely closed after rain storms due to high levels of bacteria.
All Anne Arundel County beaches are under "no swimming" and "no direct water contact" advisories from the county health department for at least 48 hours after rainfall due to bacteria levels.
The problem is particularly acute at Holly Hill Harbor, one of the 14 community beaches that the West/Rhone Riverkeepers tests on a weekly basis for the enterococci bacteria. A water sample taken June 3 showed bacteria levels that were 13 times higher than the EPA's recommended limit for safe swimming.
"Over the years, we've noticed this one particular beach, Holly Hills Harbor, has been a hot spot for bacteria," said Jeff Holland, official riverkeeper and executive director of the West/Rhone Riverkeeper organization. "Of all of the sites that we monitor, this one has the most consistent, most frequent spikes of bacteria counts."
Last December, Holland and his colleagues put together a plan to tackle water quality problems and presented their ideas to the Holly Hill Civic Association. He said the community was enthusiastic from the start. Both the association and the Anne Arundel County Department of Public Works wrote letters to the Chesapeake Bay Trust in support of the stormwater project.
"Buy-in from the community is a huge factor [in the grant application review process] because we do these projects for the community," Davis said. "We want the community to want the project, and to take care of it, and to see the benefits."
Holland views Holly Hill Harbor as the pilot project for a much larger campaign. If remediation efforts prove successful, community beaches throughout the county can copy the plan and implement the same methods to improve their own local waters.
"Here is a community where we can create a demonstration project that other communities having similar problems can look at and see whether it works or not, and see that a stormwater treatment to their community's common area can actually enhance the beauty of the site," Holland said.
Once the planning process is completed, the West/Rhode Riverkeepers will likely apply for funding for the implementation from the county's Department of Public Works or seek additional grants to complete the work.
Holland hopes that once installed, the Holly Hill Harbor project will become the prototype for communities across the county.
"We want to be a model so we can bring other community leaders to the site and say: 'Look at this. We can do the same thing in your communities as well.'"