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At the city of Laurel’s Riverfest this year, a new group, Laurel Friends of the River Patuxent, made its first splash in the public’s eye with an interactive booth featuring a demonstration on creating a rain barrel, children’s activities and free seeds for a pollinator garden.

A week later, members of the group were out again, cutting vines along the Patuxent River in an attempt to clear out the invasive species that choked the native plants.

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“We want to be an active group, not just meetings,” said Mike McLaughlin, co-founder of the environmental advocacy group along with Brian Coyle, both of Laurel. “Our primary motivation is the river, to be better stewards of the river.”

The two met five years ago, McLaughlin said, when both were invited to be part of the city’s environmental affairs committee. While Coyle’s full-time job prevented him from accepting, McLaughlin was able to join.

“I tried working within to see what we could get done for about four years,” McLaughlin said. “We decided we could get more done as a supplement to what the city can do. Big organizations get bogged down.”

“There all kinds of things we can do to educate people,” Coyle said. “Just talking to people about they can do to make changes."

In May, Coyle and McLaughlin held the first meeting of Laurel Friends of the River Patuxent at the Laurel Branch library. Monthly meetings followed.

“It was really well attended and by some key people, too, like the mayor,” McLaughlin said. “People interested in the river hear about us and want to participate.”

Stanley “Stosh” Comisiak, of Laurel, is a lover of the environment and of the river. He is also a big supporter of the group and its mission.

“At the local level, you can make a big difference because you can reach local politicians, like the mayor,” Comisiak said. “There is so much to do. We have good dedicated people.”

Comisiak envisions a river where residents can enjoy numerous outdoor activities.

Laurel City Council member Carl DeWalt, left, and Dennis Proctor team up to remove a non-native plant along a riverbank at an event put on by the Laurel Friends of the River Patuxent.
Laurel City Council member Carl DeWalt, left, and Dennis Proctor team up to remove a non-native plant along a riverbank at an event put on by the Laurel Friends of the River Patuxent. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

“If we clear out stuff ... there could be hiking trails along the river and people could canoe and kayak,” Comisiak said. “People could then stop here and have lunch and shop.”

Keeping the river clean will involve more than just clearing out vines and debris, McLaughlin said.

“I think right now treated sewer water goes back into the water cleaner than what comes off the roads,” McLaughlin said. “That goes right into the river untreated.”

McLaughlin would like all driveways to have permeable surfaces to help absorb runoff. Roofs, too, need to be addressed, he said.

Prince George’s County does offer a rain check rebate program for homeowners, businesses and nonprofits that improve their stormwater management practices through various approved methods — from installing a cistern, a green roof or permeable pavement to planting a rain garden or tree canopy. Successful applicants to the program recoup some of the costs for their efforts.

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McLaughlin applauds the initiative, but it needs to be “taken advantage of more" he believes.

“Laurel is here because of the river,” McLaughlin said. “This is where we should put our efforts.”

Laurel is a Tree City, McLaughlin said, a title given by the Arbor Day Foundation for meeting four standards — having a a tree board, a tree care ordinance, a forestry program and an Arbor Day observance and proclamation ceremony.

Laurel Friends of the River Patuxent plan to recognize that title by planting more trees using grants to fund them. The group is also working with Laurel High School to help start a composting program.

“Thirty to 40 percent of landfills is food waste,” Coyle said. “People can make a difference by composting.”

At Riverfest, the group made an extra effort to reach out to children. Member Cheryl Dyer organized leaf rubbings, a river mural featuring native creatures drawn by participants and had messages about the environment written on bark that were later released in the river.

“So many people stopped by to see what we were doing,” Dyer said. “We had a huge number of children make leaf rubbings and I did leaf identification with them.”

“We are not doing this for us, but for the next generation,” McLaughlin said. “We really need younger folks.”

To bring even more attention to the group at Riverfest, McLaughlin demonstrated how to create a rain barrel that was then awarded as a raffle prize.

“I think Brian and Mike are amazing,” said Ruth Walls, who was helping at Riverfest. “They get things done. They both are brilliant and very proactive.”

Coyle and McLaughlin are applying for various grants and plan to collaborate with other organizations. With elections on the horizon, they are hoping to persuade candidates to think of the environment. The two are also looking into getting nonprofit status.

“It’s important," Coyle said. “There are no shortages of solutions.”

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