Since 1970, Americans have set aside one day per year, April 22, to rally and make noise on behalf of the environment. First inspired by a California oil spill, Earth Day has always been about calling attention to problems and advocating for action. Much of it has been directed at government — federal, state and local — to regulate pollution, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to protect natural resources and on and on.
Here in Maryland, we have often viewed the environmental cause primarily in terms of government policy, too. Most recently, Gov. Larry Hogan drew considerable attention for calling for an end to the "rain tax" — the fee that had been required in Baltimore and nine counties to pay for federally-mandated stormwater remediation — and making that repeal a top priority. Yet even he acknowledged that the goal of reducing pollution that is swept off our rooftops, lawns and streets after it rains was worthwhile. The fee pays for remedies like sediment ponds, upgraded drainage systems, street sweeping, nutrient-absorbing plantings and other strategies to slow the runoff with its sediments, pet waste, motor oil and other common pollutants and allow them to naturally filter through the ground rather than poison local waterways.
We've criticized Mr. Hogan for this crusade but the outcome in the recent General Assembly session, with the governor's blessing, turned out surprisingly well — the same jurisdictions will still be held to tough standards and with greater accountability. Exactly how they collect money to pay for projects will be left up to them. But the whole kerfuffle has also raised a question: What steps might residents of this state take voluntarily to achieve the same outcome — a reduction in the flow of polluted stormwater into the Chesapeake Bay and its network of streams and rivers?
As it happens, organizations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to advocacy groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have been urging such voluntary actions for years. Yet Earth Day offers a unique opportunity to highlight those recommendations and remind our readers of how the health of the nation's largest estuary relies as much on each of us taking these simple and often inexpensive steps toward personal responsibility for our behavior as anything offered by our public servants in Annapolis, Washington or anywhere else:
•Create a rain garden. Planting and maintaining appropriate vegetation where rain water naturally collects may be one of the easiest yet most productive backyard remedies. Layers of mulch and plantings can remove as much as 95 percent of pollutants.
•Upgrade downspouts. Redirecting or slowing the water that comes off your home's gutters with something as simple as gravel or stone blocks can make a big difference. The best choice might be to install a rain barrel to collect the runoff, which can then be used to water plants or wash cars.
•Cut out pesticides. Consider killing weeds or ant hills with boiling water. If you must use such toxic chemicals, do so responsibly. Clean up spills with paper towels or sawdust rather than hosing them down the drain. Dispose of other toxic waste, including paint and paint thinners, appropriately, too.
•Install porous surfaces. The more impervious blacktop and sidewalk surfaces you maintain around your home, the more potential problems you are creating for fast-moving runoff. Consider gravel and pavers instead of concrete and asphalt.
•Plant native trees, shrubs and good cover plants, particularly on bare ground, but use fertilizer and water sparingly. A soil test is a good way to tell exactly what your lawn needs in terms of nutrients while drip irrigation is a better way to keep plants healthy.
•Maintain your septic system. Pumping a tank out every three to five years can not only reduce the chances of a clog or spill but extend the life of your system.
•Compost, compost, compost. Not only grass clippings and leaves but kitchen scraps can be recycled in an earth-friendly manner. The practice not only spares landfill space but also offers the homeowner a rich soil additive that takes the place of chemical fertilizers.
For many property owners, much of this may seem like common sense, but such efforts, when practiced broadly, can have a powerful effect. According to the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program, stormwater runoff has been the single fastest growing source of pollution into the bay. Reversing that particular tide will require more than mere regulations but a personal investment in one's home and community.
That cleanup may start in the backyard, but it can also extend to one's church or perhaps the vacant lot down the street. It's easy to become desensitized to water pollution when it's not coming from a big factory — or when viewed solely as a responsibility of government. Earth Day is as good a time as any to be more personally invested in the future of not only the Chesapeake but the planet as well.