Monday, August 31, 2009

USDA's new green roof, as explained by ED!

My good friend and fellow volunteer, Ed, has just become a YouTube star.

Ed is famous in Montgomery County for being the go-to-guy on green roofs and stormwater. Now he's in a video that explains the impetus behind the USDA's new green roof in downtown DC.

Very cool!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Monarch caterpillars have "arrived" in the garden

Every year around the end of August, we find large numbers of monarch caterpillars in our garden. The butterflies come and go all summer, but we only see the caterpillars at the end of the season.

I always wonder if the ones we are seeing are heading off on the long journey southward. I always intend to research it a bit, read more on the topic. According to some of what I've read, it is possible. I would need to read more to be able to say that with more authority. But every year school starts and the butterfly reading gets lost in the shuffle.

I know that monarchs hatch all summer, but only the final brood or instar will head south on the long migration. Hard to know if this is the final brood in my garden , though, and I'm always left wondering why we only see the caterpillars now and not earlier in the year, too.

We never forget to watch for them, though, and their arrival is a big deal in my house. We climb out through our fake meadow (which is no more than a few feet across)... over the air conditioning compressor fan... around the basement window wells to the area where the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is allowed to grow free and tall. We watch them eat, we witness their growth, we search for their chrysalises elsewhere in the yard.

Finding one of those jewel-like sacs hanging upside down from a place like the coiled up garden hose is a bit like finding an Easter egg. I can't help but yell to the rest of the family with excitement.

Yesterday was the first day we saw the caterpillars out there, crawling around gorging themselves on the milky leaves. So far we've seen only three. We'll keep monitoring it, hoping to break the record of 2005, when we saw more than thirty in one day.

It never stops amazing me that our little city yard can host so much wildlife. I like to think that the monarchs will grow wings and head south. I like to imagine them floating up over Georgia Avenue, over the beltway, and across the streets of DC. I like to think of them months from now, hanging like garland from the branches of Mexican trees. Worth hoping for, anyway.
(Note: the photo above is a monarch, but the insect is not hanging from common milkweed.)

The Scourge of Styrofoam

I was at a big public event recently where styrofoam plates and cups were being used. The guy next to me in the food line saw me looking at my plate and exclaimed, "When are they finally gonna make it illegal to manufacture this stuff? We all know its bad."

I was thinking of that guy and the styrofoam when I read this week's Science News, where a story appeared about new research on just how bad styrofoam pollution has become in the Pacific Ocean. The most discouraging quote came from Bill Henry of the Long Marine Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Plastics are a contaminant that goes beyond the visual,” he states. Yes, but the visuals are pretty bad, too. A photo accompanying the story shows a boy on the beach in Japan standing next to a huge thing that looks like a white boulder, which turns out to be a big blob of styrofoam. (The product breaks down in sea water, floats around, and then washes up again on the beach.)

When are we going to get around to banning that stuff???

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Working toward better butterfly habitats at McKee-Besher's park

An interesting email has been floating around on some of the Montgomery County environmental listservs this month. I asked the original author/poster of the message, Dick Smith, if I could put his stuff on my blog.

Those of us working on environmental issues put a lot of effort towards the preservation of trees in this county. What is interesting about Dick's thoughts, below, is that he proposes that we need to also remember to preserve all kinds of habitats, not just forested areas.

Dick has been involved in butterfly study and state and federally contracted surveys and conservation projects for butterflies for the past 30 years. He writes that he is not a professional entomologist, but as an amateur he has gained a lot of field knowledge and experience. He's an officer (Secretary) in the Maryland Entomological Society and takes the lead in their conservation projects.

I can't speak with any authority about his stuff on McKee-Beshers. I've only hiked there a couple of times. But I post it here because I think this is an important discussion to be having right now as environmentalists in a county blessed with green space and cursed by rapid growth.

In his email, Dick wrote:

"Thanks for cueing me in on the McKee-Beshers WMA discussion. This was a former hotspot for butterflies not far from DC and just north of the Potomac Riv. in southwestern Montgomery Co., MD. Phil Kean (MD Ent. Soc. VP) and I composed a list of butterflies from this area from our own and other local lepidopterists' records for the period from the early 1970's through the 1980's. The list appears on pp. 118-119 in Jeff Glassbergs's original 1993 book, "Butterflies Through Binoculars, A Field Guide to Butterflies in the Boston-New York-Washington Region." We listed 81 known species (make that 84 now because we didn't know then about Harry Pavulaan's Hickory Hairstreak, Baltimore Checkerspot, and Summer Azure
record there).

Today unfortunately, many of the less common species no longer occur there. As far as I know, the missing species include:

1. Giant Swallowtail

2. Palamedes Swallowtail (most likely a stray)

3. Checkered White

4. Little Yellow

5. American Copper

6. Bronze Copper

7. Coral Hairstreak

8. Banded Hairstreak

9. Hickory Hairstreak

10. Eastern Pine Elfin

11. Henry's Elfin

12. White M Hairstreak
13. Spring Azure
14. Regal Fritillary (gone from most of East Coast too)15. Meadow Fritillary16. Silver-bordered Fritillary
17. Silvery Checkerspot
18. Baltimore Checkerspot
19. Long-tailed Skipper (as immigrant)
20. Hoary Edge
21. Southern Cloudywing
22. Northern Cloudywing
23. Sleepy Duskywing
24. Swarthy Skipper
25. European Skipper
26. Two-spotted Skipper

Clearly, this represents a loss of approximately 30% of the butterfly fauna from this area within the past 20 years. (Please drop me an e-mail if anyone has seen any of these species at McKee-Beshers in the last 10 years, and I will gladly drop them from the "missing" species list.) The loss is not an exception either. Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in Westchester, NY, also written up in Glassberg's book (pp. 105-106), has suffered an almost similar fate (see Rick Cech's NY Times article, "Fluttering into Oblivion").

Why has this happened at McKee-Beshers? It has certainly not been anyone's intention, but my own observations lay the blame to management decisions and practices in the past 20 years that have been perhaps favorable to game species, hunting, and local farmers but detrimental to butterflies.

I see two primary factors:

1.) Ditching and draining of many open seep areas and wet meadowlands and replacement with dry-field croplands, apparently rented to local farmers. This is particularly obvious in several areas south of Hunting Quarter Road. Also, ditching, draining, and frequent vegetative clearances of large acreages of former wet meadowlands for hunting dog training areas. These are evident south of Hughes Hollow and also west of Sycamore Landing Road. Dogbane, milkweed species, Joe Pye, NY Ironweed, wild sunflower, and Mints were abundant and thrived in these areas before the conversions.

2.) Allowing all remaining formerly wet meadowlands to succeed to dense woodland.Restoring such areas for a wider range of wildlife, including butterflies, is however occurring in several areas along the East Coast. The Albany Pine Bush has been managed for Karner Blues for almost 20 years now.

A restoration project is underway in the Concord, NH area - see .
Ward Pound Ridge itself is undergoing restoration -see
Restoration of butterfly habitat is among the primary restoration goals at the Buckshutem WMA in Cumberland Co., New Jersey - see

We butterfly advocates in the DC area obviously need to get on the bandwagon. I am not aware of any remnant open wet meadowlands left at McKee-Beshers anymore. If anyone finds any, they need to be conserved and managed with butterflies in mind this time. If none exist, we obviously need to have some trees cleared out and let some open meadow wetlands develop over time in some of the existing wetland treed areas. Abundant plantings of native butterfly larval host and adult nectar plants would then also surely help.

Dick Smith

Conservation Projects Manager, Maryland Entomological Society."
(Special thanks to Patricia Durkin for letting me use the awesome pic of the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Clicking with Dog Day Cicadas

Seems like some of my best nature encounters happen in the early morning when I'm out walking the dog. This morning was no different; the dog placed her nose upon a large, live, cicada resting in the grass at the park. The cicada clicked, my dog sneezed, and I saw my chance to grab it and bring it home for some up close loud science.

The thing clicked and clicked over and over again as we ran home. I put it into our Big Bad Booming Bugs jar, so we could all take a close look. It peered out at us and waited. The clicking stopped. No one had the guts to put the head phones on... too afraid if it clicked we'd go deaf. Those things make some of the loudest sounds in nature.

The insect books came out and my kids hooted with laughter when I read that these bugs are called Dog Day Cicadas, due to the fact that they peak at this time of year. Found by a dog, on a dog day of summer....The dog days of summer have nothing to do with dogs or cicadas actually; the name comes from connections with astrology and the dog star, Sirius. '

We saved it in the jar with some leaves until one our best friends came by to play. Once she'd had a look and we'd all marvelled at the monster bug's oddness, we took it out of the jar and held it up to the sun. Then the clicking really started. We screamed, the bug levitated off my hand and we watched it join the hundreds of other cicadas up, up in the trees already clicking away in the heat.

(Read more about cicadas here, in an old edition of the Silver Spring Voice.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Not THAT kind of Town Hall Meeting...

Realizing that no man – or woman – or garden -- is an island, I headed off to a town hall meeting on Tuesday night in Annapolis. This town hall meeting was not about healthcare reform, but it did involve some Obama administration officials and loads of unhappy people. No one chanted or threw chairs, but there were lots of reporters and lots of interesting things were said by citizens from all over the state.

The meeting was held to highlight an upcoming deadline. President Obama has asked his new top officials on the Chesapeake to draft a work plan for the Bay. The plan is to be submitted on September 9. Advocates had hoped that a town meeting would 1) give the EPA a chance to hear from locals and, 2) highlight the importance of submitting comments to the EPA now, before the draft plan is complete. A lot of the people who organized and promoted the meeting were saying it this way: what happens now could determine the work done on the Bay for the next decade or more.

I have to tell you that my hopes were not high for this event. Its August and in Washington, which is kind of like a political dead zone. Hypoxia for humans. There’s lots of stuff floating around out there in the political waters, but nothing is really happening. Its dead. Parking lots are empty, roads are clear for driving and there are a lot more seats available on the Metro. People aren’t really interested in starting new projects. Mostly, everyone counts the days till they get to go to the beach and people wait for Congress to get started again in the fall.

It was also hotter than the hinges of hell on Tuesday, a real scorcher of an afternoon. Emails were flying back and forth here in Silver Spring; a lot of people were wondering if anyone was going to show in Annapolis, and would it be worth the long trek over there at rush hour? It had been a long, hot day and maybe the whole thing would be a waste.

Well, turns out a lot of people have been waiting for a long time to talk about what exactly is wrong with the Bay and its recovery plan. A long time. Like, eight years. Now, we’ve got a president who might, I emphasize MIGHT, be interested in reversing some of the environmental damage that has occurred during the Bush years. People obviously came to find out just what Obama’s team intends to do. It was anything but a waste.

There was a real sense of urgency in the crowd, of feeling that someone upstairs needed to hear what the locals were saying and seeing. A lot of people there seemed to feel that we are fiddling while Rome burns, and that forty years of recovery don’t really mean much if the local governments are not held accountable, and that we might not know everything about forging ahead with a large scale recovery but we owe it to future generations to try.

The meeting was hosted by Environment Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and was held in a medium-sized church in the suburbs on Bestgate Road. This wasn’t a sleepy August meeting. Car upon car pulled into the lot, then they began to fill the field behind the church, then they began to line the streets in adjoining subdivisions. (I haven’t seen that many Priuses in one parking lot ever before.) And the people just kept on coming. The whole church hall was filled to capacity and then some. The church ran out of folding chairs, but people said, okay, we’ll stand. Then the room was so full there was no room to even stand, so big speakers were put up in the hallway and people sat out the hall, and up the steps, listening intently to what was being said inside. (The Baltimore Sun later reported that more 350 people were there.)

It was so hot in the main room that it radiated heat like a bread oven. But almost everyone stayed for the whole two hours, heat be damned. People turned their environmental flyers into fans, opened windows and sat like parishoners at an old home tent revival. If you build it, they will come. And come then did.

There was a whole team of people who seemed to be Eastern Shore farmers, wearing shirts that said NO FARMS, NO FOOD. There were guys in Docksider shoes who looked like everyone’s dad from the neighborhood I knew as a kid in Baltimore. There were sailing advocates, and guys wearing those “Retired Navy” baseball caps. There were surfer girl types, and animal rights activists. There were seniors citizens, and a girl in a bright pink sparkly skirt and her high school friends. There were activists from the urban heart of DC, and a whole slew of people in suits who looked like they were going to drown in the heat. There were college students wanting to make a difference, and loads of people with t-shirts saying they were with one creek group or another. (I was kicking myself for not wearing my Friends of Sligo Creek t-shirt, or my Anacostia Watershed Society tee which I saved from the 2005 clean up. Oh well.)

By the time the program started some on stage mumbled, “Man, it looks like the 80s tonite,” making reference to the years when Bay activism seemed to peak.

From that moment on, the energy in the room seemed to change somehow. It was almost as if people realized that the Bay might be dying, but interest in the Bay had only hibernated and gone local for a while. The people who love the Bay and want to change it have not died. The more they talked about their local activism and recovery efforts, the more the sense of purpose in the room seemed to coalesce. In light of the fact that the Federal government hadn’t been too keen on doing much for the Bay, people had been hard at work in their own little streams and towns. Now, they wanted to see if the Fed would step up the plate to help them.

The meeting was called to officially highlight two important things. President Obama has ordered the EPA and other federal agencies to draft plans by Sept. 9 to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Towards that goal, the president has named Chuck Fox as a special advisor on the issue. Mr. Fox was introduced to the crowd and after all the speeches were over, questions were taken from the floor.

The organizers had sent out emails asking people to come voice their concerns this way: “We want to be able to fish and swim throughout our Bay. We want marine life to thrive any time of the year. We want our blue crabs, oysters and rockfish back to healthy, plentiful levels. We need to unite our voices to overcome the big developers and chicken companies that are trying to drown us out.” Other notices had implored readers to “make sure Mr. Fox gets the message loud and clear.”

To start off the presentation, Don Boesch was asked to give a science update on the health of the Chesapeake. Dr. Boesch is the president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

As someone who writes regularly about the science of ecology, I was so glad to have him on the docket to kind of frame the evening. I want science to be the compass in this fight. I understand the need to be guided by empirical evidence and the need to avoid making random guesses about where to go next. As a good scientist, he of course presented the crowd with a sense of objectivity. I listened with great interest to his “state of the Bay’s science” description.

The thing is, science’s uncertainty never goes over well with political crowds. People come to these meetings wanting definitive answers and solutions. It is a conflict that has occurred time and time again, not just in the Chesapeake Bay but anywhere in the world where science, culture and policymakers meet.

So it was no surprise that as Dr. Boesch explained that “the ugly truth is, we really don’t know if what we do is helping or hurting,” I could hear some of the people behind me groan. Nonetheless, I understood his message. We don’t know much about how to recover large ecosystems. We have to do better, we have to do more, but we have to check ourselves from time to time to see what is working and what is not.

It was the next part of his speech that seemed to resonate the most with a lot of people, though. Up till now, he pointed out, we’ve been relying mostly on voluntary measures to help the Bay. And one thing we do know: there are not many examples of times when strictly voluntary measures have netted results. Voluntary measures don’t cut it.

Mandates, strong mandates are much more effective. And although they may seem initially expensive, they can net positive social impacts. Farmers in Denmark, for example, have gained a great deal from incentives and requirements involving the reduction of nitrogen in that country, causing a 50% reduction in the country’s nitrogen run-off. We could learn from these kinds of examples.

After Dr. Boesch, a preacher from a small Methodist church on Smith Island named Reverend Edmund talked for a while. It was unclear (even to the minister himself) why he had been asked to talk. But as he described life in his small Bay town and how the livelihoods of the people there were disappearing, it became evident that he had been asked to paint a picture of the people who have lived on the Bay for decades and depended on its bounty to sustain themselves and their families.

As the heat continued to radiate from the room, no one left.

Will Baker, President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation took the stage next and gave the advocates’ point of view. There’s good news, and there’s bad news. The good news: green is in and we have O’Malley (MD’s governor) and O’Bama both saying they want to do more for the Bay. We do see some small improvements in the Bay. Mostly, he said, modest adjustments in the predictions made about dead zones created by the abundance of nitrogen in the water. Things aren’t as bad as we thought they’d be at this point.

The bad news, though, is of course the bigger deal. We certainly can’t declare victory. The Bay, its rivers and streams are still terribly polluted, he told the crowd. The fish are dying and getting strange growths. Infections are on the rise among those who fish and swim. The state of “The National Estuary” ought to make everyone ashamed.

Baker then outlined his ideas for change. State officials, he said, have said the Federal government needs to do more to support and enforce the legislation that is already out there. The EPA, he added, is far too much of an entrenched bureaucracy. They need to pick one permit in MD, VA, DE and PA and say they are going to enforce it throughout. And then do it consistently and well.

After Baker’s presentation, Chuck Fox the aforementioned new EPA Senior Advisor on the Chesapeake, gave his remarks.

“We have to look at a game changing solution,” Fox said. What has been done hasn’t worked so far. We have to bring down the numbers on nitrogen and phosphorus.

“I believe,” he continued, “that we can get there, or frankly I wouldn’t have taken this job.”

According to Fox, urban and suburban developments present one of the biggest areas for change and difference. Run-off from such areas are one of the only pollutants that are increasing in the Bay.

We have made big differences in agriculture, he explained, and there’s lots of enthusiasm in this sector for improving water quality. Agriculture also presents some of the most cost-effective controls that can be put in place. Changing what happens on farms can make a quick improvement.

Then: finally, finally, finally. The crowd was able to voice their concerns. People from watermen’s associations and neighborhood associations talked about sewage treatment being one of the biggest issues. Untreated sewage could be seen in the Bay regularly, people said. Why was this not addressed by anyone on stage, they asked.

A man from one of the local river groups discussed his own river’s struggles to deal with sediment left from sloppy home construction practices along the banks. He pleaded with those on stage to “give some of those millions you spend on studies to groups like ours, so we can go out there and do the work to solve these problems?”
(I personally found this last comment very disheartening. While I understand that man's frustration level, I also know that science funding has been cut to the quick lately, and it seems to me that one reason we don't know much about how to help the Bay is that we just don't fund enough really good science monitoring programs. Every time we get gauges set up out there we lose the funding we need to maintain them. I want more science funding AND funding to those working on the local level on solutions. But hey, I wanted a pony for Christmas once, too. So there you go.)

A woman who described herself as an environmental justice advocate from Bowie in Prince Georges County gave an impassioned, short speech that drew lots of applause from the crowd. There is no relationship, she said, between the local entities and these land use issues you discuss. No one at the local level is being made to abide by federal regulations. “Local interests,” she said, “are diametrically opposed to what the state and federal laws demand.” Such interests are far more worried about increasing their tax base than they are about the environment.

Another man who called himself a farmer and a retired engineer from the Conowingo area said people in his area were not so much canaries in the coal mines as they were people seeing “buzzards on the back fence.” He talked about the problems locals were seeing which were being ignored by those on the federal and state level. It would only take one really bad storm to make the dam a real disaster.

Another man pointed to the weakness of the stormwater permits in the Bay area, which seemed puzzling. Septic systems need to be addressed, said another speaker.

One man who said he was from a group working on the Magothy River talked about what his group had done and asked the simple question: “Where are you guys?” Pointing to Chuck Fox he pleaded: “Why don’t you come down to the river sometime? Down to the local level? See what is happening. We see it every day. We need you to enforce the federal laws.”

A woman who said she was from southeast DC took the mic and was incredibly eloquent and to the point. “I just want everyone to remember,” she said calmly. “The Chesapeake Bay includes the Anacostia.” All the pollution, all the problems….You can’t solve the Bay’s worries, she said, without solving the problems of that river. (I whooped in agreement with that, by the way. It is really weird that a lot of people don’t even know the Anacostia is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.)
There were tons of other comments. Some were kind of wacky, of course. Some sounded downright conspiracy theory-like. Some were just not relevant. But it was great to see such energy and enthusiasm, and find out there are loads of people who are working on their creek, their river, their spot on the watershed so hard.

As the evening closed down, it was amazing to see that the majority of those 350 people stayed through almost the entire event.
At the end, the Environment Maryland team reminded everyone that they should submit comments to the EPA now.

To read more about the upcoming deadline visit the Chesapeake Bay Program website:

You can also visit the Environment Maryland website:

And to read more about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, go to:

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Carol Kaesuk Yoon: What's the big deal about Taxonomy?

I think this may be one of the best pieces of writing I've read in a long, long time: Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World by Carol Kaesuk Yoon. Almost like reading a letter from a dear, intelligent friend. She ties in science, the need to relate to nature, and the need to make sure our kids get outside. And it is fun. I was reading this while eating alone in a restaurant and laughed outloud, prompting my waitress to do a double take. Only a truly great writer could make a story about the dying craft of taxonomy funny.

If you need something interesting to read because you are in an August state of mind, this is the ticket. Do not be afraid: you need not be a scientist to understand the big deal here.

Bravo, Carol.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What's Blooming: Cardinal Flower

This is it, the high season for nectar-rich native plants in the mid-Atlantic region. August. When the butterflies drink constantly and the hummingbirds are gearing up for the long haul southward.

The diva of the show is Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), with its brilliant red spires that reach out of the shady or wet areas of the forest like cathedrals. The hummingbirds can't resist this one. They fight over the flowers at the side of my porch all day long.

A lot of people think that lobelia is hard to grow in average urban gardens. The trick is in the shade to moisture ratio; the more sun you have, the more water this plant will demand. If you have dense shade with very rich dry soil, you can grow this plant. If you have wet sunny areas, you might be able to grow a small amount, but the soil would need to be wet constantly to the point where the plant would have wet feet almost year round.

In my yard, this one grows near a down spout, where the soil is rich and loamy but dry. No sun ever shines in this spot. The cardinal flower sits and waits all summer until its moment of glory arrives with the dog days of August. And then, wow, sit back and enjoy the fireworks and the hummingbirds.

One more note: anyone who lives in the Sligo Creek area of Montgomery County, MD can see some of this in bloom near the manufactured wetland area near the intersection of Forest Glen Road and Sligo Creek Parkway. On the hiker biker path, near the small playground north of Forest Glen, go over the bridge and look to your right. Incredible. (By the way, those wetlands on the left hold a surprising abundance of wildlife --- we've been watching snapping turtles there all year.)

Coffee and climate change

This is a bit off topic for this blog, but I happened to read today on Reuters that climate change could encourage rampant problems for those of us that need a strong cup of coffee in the morning. Scientists report that rising temperatures in the tropics due to climate change are likely to encourage the proliferation of the coffee berry borer, one of the crop's most devastating pests. Ugh. Talk about a great reason to go green as soon as possible....

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Irvine Native Plant Sale on Aug 29

Fall is the best time to plant, and Irvine Natural Science Center in Baltimore makes it easy to go native by offering one of the best native plant sales of the season during the last weekend of August.

A dozen great nurseries will participate this year. Some of them are not generally open to the retail public the rest of the year, so it is worth the trek up 95 and across 695 (the Baltimore Beltway) to get there and do some shopping. Don't worry, as driving goes it is a pretty straight shot and relatively easy from the DC area.

The sale takes place on August 29 from 9-4. For more information you can visit their website at or by calling 443-738-9200.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Clamming Up about Toxics in the Anacostia

Last Thursday I went to a fantastic lecture at the Anacostia Watershed Society headquarters in Bladensburg. It featured a unique and lively talk given by Harriette Phelps. Dr. Phelps, who is a professor Emeritus at the University of the District of Columbia, has been using small Asian clams to do some detective work in DC. She puts the bivalves to the task of finding out where the most toxic hot spots are along the river and its tributary streams.

Dr. Phelps thinks she may be the only person using clams this way in the US, although internationally many other scientists are doing this kind of investigation. She also thinks she may be the only person looking at toxics in Washington’s “other river.”

Before listening to Dr. Phelps I had no idea that the biggest pollution problems in the Anacostia may stem from what are known as “legacy” issues. These may include dumps of old chemicals under road beds during highway construction which are now seeping out into buried stream beds, causing horrible pollution on a slow, constant basis.

And although I had heard of the pollutants which line the bed of the Hudson River in New York, I had very little info on the details of similar problems along the Anacostia. Much of what was used in the past remains with us along the riverbed, even those chemicals which have long been banned from production and use, such as Chlordane. Dredging tends to stir up the problems, and debate remains about how to best handle their remediation and possible removal.

Sitting and listening to Dr. Phelps last night made me kind of realize that in many ways, the problems of toxics along watershed have become passé to both the general public and to us as environmentalists. Although info on drinking water pollutants and stormwater runoff is plentiful these days in the news, the idea of tracking and deciding how to manage toxics in urban streams and rivers gets almost no press. But even if the topic of toxics is no longer the “in” thing to cover, the problem itself remains as fresh and new -- and horrible -- as it was in the past.

In the midst of such horror, though, I always find the AWS’ efforts to revive the big, old industrialized river are inspiring. At last night’s meeting, people talked of walking along waterways encased in concrete which run between truck stops and industrial parks, under highways, past Metro stations – all to gather info and figure out exactly who is putting what kinds of crap into the river. You realize that these people really love the city where they work in a way that others can’t even imagine. They have a unique relationship with their environment. One man talked of what he had seen while coaching a crew team of local high school students. Another described working with kids to gather samples along the banks. Still others had biked everywhere trying to figure the river out. And talking with both Dr. Phelps and AWS staff members like Jim Connolly gave me lots of food for thought about the need to balance urgency with optimism, education with advocacy, and science with security concerns. You can love a river and know it has huge problems. You can know a place and understand its warts.

Upstream here in the Sligo, where my home base is located, we sometimes think that maybe the problems could be solved if we began to reconfigure our relationship with our own yards. In much of the lower Anacostia, however, the relationships may rely more on how industry, government and those who live far from the actual banks of the river treat their environment. Changing how we think of water running through our cities has to happen if we are going to improve the Chesapeake and all of our estuaries. That means that even those who only ever see the Anacostia as they drive by on the way to work need to change how they perceive it. They have to stop thinking it is hopeless, but have to simultaneously understand that its problems are huge and fixing them should be a priority for the greater good of the entire city.

Dr. Phelps hopes to speak again this year, maybe in January at a Friends of Sligo Creek meeting. In the meantime, I hope to find out more about her work and write about it soon.

The AWS plans to host more lectures this summer. If you go, be sure to get there early so you can check out both the refurbished building and their fantastic new raingardens, in the courtyards outside. Love those eight foot tall perennial sunflowers!