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Does the prospect of marking another Earth Day leave you feeling frustrated and a little cynical?

Well, that annual reminder of our environment's many crises arrives April 22 this year. But by now, thereare many other reminders that our growing human numbers -- there will be 16 million of us in the Chesapeake Bay watershed by the year 2020 -- are testing the planet's ability to support our demands of it.

There are recycling boxes on the curb and emissions tests for cars. Grocery stores offer reusable cloth bags. In horticulture, the so-called experts no longer snicker when the subject of organic gardening comes up. Garden centers are beginning to emphasize low pesticide use, "beneficial" insects, and drought-tolerant plants. Trees can't get planted quickly enough.

These are some things we can feel positive about on Earth Day.

It's happening slowly, but the environmental awareness that the first Earth Day sought to foster is evolving into practical solutions that gardeners can implement. Techniques that were often characterized as "out in left field," are now accepted as common sense.

In a February symposium at Howard Community College, experts explained methods for protecting ground water, home wells andseptic systems, and lawns. The seminar was sponsored by the MarylandInstitute for Agricultural and Natural Resources/University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.

Here is a sampling of how we, in Howard County, mess up the water recycling process so necessary to our existence.

First, toxins and disease-carrying organisms from septic systems and landfills move directly to the underground water table, and many surface-applied fertilizers and pesticides show up there, too. Reports of contaminated wells are increasing. Some ground water makes it to the bay.

Second, by covering the landscape with paved and compacted surfaces, and with buildings, we lessen the amount of water entering the ground water system. Water runs off impervious surfaces quickly, sidestepping the water table's "recharging" process,and lowering the water table.

Third, the rushing water erodes gullies and streams, eventually transporting to the bay fertilizers, valuable top soil and toxins, such as motor oil and pesticides. The excess nitrogen and phosphorus is overwhelming the bay, causing oxygen-gobbling algae growth that suffocates fish and other plant life. The tons of soil sediment not only carry toxins, but choke and smother bay-floor life, such as clams and oysters.

Our area's high rate of newconstruction is increasing soil-erosion problems, said speaker Jack Helm, of the Howard County Soil Conservation Service. Acres of disturbed soil are at risk, especially during the spring and summer months when construction activity and violent rainstorms coincide. He outlined fairly stringent specifications that construction companies must now meet to minimize runoff. They include straw or plastic silt barriers, holding ponds, and limited entry to construction sites to keep trucks from tracking soil onto paved highways. There also are many regulations pertaining to storm water runoff in new developments.

Another phenomenon affecting the water cycle is loss of freshwater wetlands to development -- not just swamps, but any land that at one time of year or another holds and filters water before it enters area waterways.

The problems are daunting, but the session gave listeners some diverse ideas for individual action.

The tactics were aimed at protecting one's source of drinking

water and at improving, or at least holding the line on, water quality communitywide. Suggestions ranged from installing composting toilets -- a kind of modern-day privy -- to using environmentally safe household cleaners.

Scott Aker,a former county agriculture agent, talked about landscape design andplanting techniques that save water and minimize runoff.

His pointers included aerating compacted soil and controlling runoff from sloped areas. Water from roof gutters can be "trapped" by diverting it to sodded or mulched areas. Choosing landscape plants that are naturally tolerant of our climate's water limitations and local pests and diseases also saves on water and pesticide use.

"Landscaping with drought-resistant plants doesn't limit you to cactus and rocks," said Tom Ford, Carroll County Horticulture Consultant. "Xeriscaping" -- landscaping for minimal water consumption -- is a concept now popular inwestern states, and should be taken more seriously here.

A coordinated xeriscape plan can reduce water use by 30 percent to 60 percentover conventional landscaping. And, he pointed out, even fancy-drip or trickle irrigation systems will not save thirsty plants when the county limits all outdoor watering as it has in the past.

Among theplants he recommends are ajuga, ornamental grasses and junipers for ground covers, and shrubs such as butterfly bush, spirea "Van Houten"and Scotch broom.

Shade in the landscape may reduce temperatures by 37 degrees for underlying plants. Adding lots of organic matter tothe soil will increase its water-holding capacity. In addition, 2-inch-thick pine bark mulch on top of the soil will prevent erosion and reduce moisture evaporation.

Ray Bosmans, regional specialist at the Home and Garden Information Center, rounded out the session by discussing Integrated Pest Management, an approach to pest and disease control emphasizing the least-toxic treatment for individual plant problems. There are alternatives to traditional chemical pesticides, including horticultural oil, insecticidal soaps and predatory insects. Using disease-resistant plant varieties and avoiding plants that are prone to cultural, insect or disease difficulties in our area -- like rhododendron -- also helps.

The bad news and good news, environmentally, is that we as individuals play a role in water-related problems and solutions. Obviously, there are countless other ecological problems to deal with.

We must hope it is not overly optimistic to believe that our cooperative efforts are not too little, too late.

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