Saturday, February 27, 2010

Meeting on the State of the Streams

Big meeting next week. If you care about your Mo Co creek, this is one to go to and speak up:

DEP Seeks Public Input on State of the Streams
The Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will host a regional public meeting to discuss the state of the County’s streams. The public will be able to provide input on watershed-specific restoration plans that address stream pollution and meet new stormwater permit requirements. Residents are encouraged to attend the meeting that addresses plans for the watershed in which they are located. The meeting will be held on *Saturday, March 6 from **1 to 5 p.m. at Brookside Gardens (1800 Glenallan Avenue, Wheaton**)* to discuss plans for the Anacostia and Patuxent rivers and the Cabin John and Rock Creek watersheds.The public’s input is needed to assist DEP in devising plans to meet requirements. Read more at the DEP website.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Grass Might Seem Greener, but the Streams Aren't Always Cleaner

Every once a while you get a little piece of information that proves that even the glossier, more upscale neighborhoods struggle with environmental problems.

I got one of those earlier this week, from the Little Falls Watershed Association. The Little Falls is located right in the heart of Bethesda and Chevy Chase, where lovely luxurious homes border lush green streets and even the public school grounds look like private academy campuses to my eyes.

It would be easy to assume that the creeks there are very clean, if all you went on was the lack of litter or graffiti around the neighborhoods. I’m sure a lot of people do assume that the creeks there are completely clean, based only on such appearances.

But LFWA just got back the results from some water quality testing conducted by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission last September, revealing that upstream in the Little Falls, the measurement of Enterococci (fecal) bacteria was 435; downstream 237.

To put this in perspective, the state standards are as follows:

All Areas: 33
Frequent Full Body Contact Recreation: 61
Moderately Frequent Full Body Contact Recreation: 78
Occasional Frequent Full Body Contact Recreation: 107
Infrequent Full Body Contact Recreation: 151
(All numbers are counts per 100 milliliters)

This is waste we are talking about here. Poop. Doo doo. Dung. Call it whatever. Its gross and its in our streams in very high amounts. Some of it comes from wildlife, some from pets. But a lot is also from human waste. (Detailed percentage breakdowns are available for those who are interested.)

One resident who responded to the email that went out from the LWFA called the numbers shocking. Another cautioned that everyone should wash very well if they visit the creek. Someone else said he found it appalling that any sewage could be found in the creek whatsoever.

Of course the Little Falls numbers still pale in comparison those taken in my own beloved Sligo Creek, which test in the 800s both upstream and down. (Those involved with monitoring water quality caution that the numbers may not represent a continuous flow of fecal pollution; rather, the sites were tested on one day and these were the results. A second test seemed to put the Sligo upstream numbers in the 600s.)

In general, when people find out about fecal pollution, they want to know where it comes from, and why it is there. In aging urban neighborhoods sewer pipes can form one potential source. The pipes are sometimes next to or actually under the streams, and as they age they begin to leak.

I guess it is just one more example of the fact that we all live downstream, no matter what neighborhood we call home. Even the places that look really nice need stewardship and attention.

(To see a detailed break down of the creeks which were tested in Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties in Maryland, visit the Friends of Sligo Creek’s page on Water Quality monitoring at:

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Reading the Snow with My Dog

Walking with my dog in the snow is a bit like suddenly being able to read Braille, except instead of understanding the little dots that appear in a line on a page, I understand exactly why my dog stops at certain locations and has a long sniff.

There are, of course, the areas that have been stained yellow by some other dog, which are pretty gross. There are also lots of dog paw prints she stops to inspect.

But there’s this other, much more subtle information being gathered, too. Dogs have amazing sniffers, able to receive far more information from their olfactory receptors than humans. I’ve seen the evidence of this all week now, as my dog stops to contemplate the strangest of footprints. I find myself watching her, but I can only guess who might have left them.

We found, for instance, a surprising number of raccoon prints one morning right after the snow had stopped. Like tiny little human hand prints, it was as if we were seeing the marks of little elfin visitors near my neighbors trash cans. Did they get the trash that day, or just got out for a snowy inspection?

Another day we found prints left by my dog’s biggest nemesis, that silly albino cat that lives one street over and stays outside all the time. I only know that those prints came from that cat because we saw them outside the door of the house where White Cat always waits to pounce on my dog in the evenings. I saw my dog bristle, like someone reading angry graffiti when we passed that spot. She paused, scanned the immediate horizon for the cat, and then moved on in a bit of a huff.

The bird prints, strangely, don’t interest my canine companion. I wonder-- is it because birds don’t leave strong smells behind when they hop, or is it because they just are boring to a dog? I know she finds them interesting to watch in the yard. But she flips past the footprints like a tv viewer flipping the fast remote past reruns.

There was one time she found some bird evidence interesting, though. One afternoon late last week we stumbled on to what looked like a wildlife crime scene. Small feathers were spilled in a large circle all around the base of one of the evergreens in our backyard. I scanned the sky for the hawk, but she or he was long gone by this point. We’ve seen that bird of prey often enough the last few months. Once during the peak of the blizzard we even saw it land haphazardly along the chain link fence, trying to gain a talonhold in the blustery winds. Its feathers were magnificent against the white of the snow.

Some people really mind the predator-prey relationship hawks have with the songbirds. I see it as just another link in the food web. I like the hawks as much as the song birds, and more over I think both play a valuable role in the ecosystem. Still, I was curious to know exactly what bird we had lost to the fight this time. I bent close to the snow and tried to figure out what bird had been gobbled up. There was no telling since the feathers were mostly gray and tiny. Maybe it was a mourning dove. Or a titmouse. My dog came and stood next to me, sniffing, too. I longed to have her fill in the missing details, like a fellow detective. It was one of the few times our nonverbal communication seemed inadequate; most of the time we bond pretty well without the need for words. But I really felt as if she knew more about the scene of this crime than I did.

Another day, we came upon evidence that the squirrels had been digging up nuts. They had been in hiding for the first few days after the blizzards, but then had reappeared suddenly one afternoon when the sun began to shine warm again. We then found little brown spots, where the squirrels had dug down into shallower parts of the snow near the trees, where the root zones were bringing up warm geothermal heat and the snow was beginning to thin out. Somehow, despite the sameness of the white blanket that covered everything, those little animals had located their winter stashes and been able to dig them out of the saturated ground, evidence, it seemed to me, that things were beginning to thaw out and soften up a bit under all that snow. A hopeful sign.

Wildlife in the Northwest Branch

On March 2 The Neighbors of the Northwest Branch will host a talk by Robb Gibbs about wildlife in their stream valley. Here's their email notice:

Without actually going out into the mud and slush of a stream valley losing its coat of snow, you’ll get a chance to see the wildlife that makes our park its home. You’d be surprised at what a very observant observer can find right in the Northwest Branch forest and stream. Would you believe otters? and kingfishers? What birds, amphibians, and reptiles live there, do you suppose? Rob Gibbs, Natural Resources Manager for Montgomery County Parks Dept. of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, will show and tell all.

WHAT: Wildlife of the Northwest Branch Steam Valley Park (in pictures)
WHEN: Tuesday, March 2, 7:30 – 9:15 p.m.
WHO: Rob Gibbs, Natural Resources Manager, Montgomery County Parks Dept.
WHERE: White Oak Library, 11701 New Hampshire Avenue, Silver Spring

Details: Among other things, Rob supervises the Non-Native Invasive Plant Program and Deer Management Program in Montgomery County Parks. He has worked as a naturalist and wildlife ecologist in the county for almost 30 years. For this presentation he will use his own pictures and from other sources. He’ll reveal critters you really have to look for as well as some you’ve doubtless seen. And he’ll reveal some unique critters with a story to tell.

Please join NNWB March 2 at White Oak Library! Light refreshments will be available before the presentation while you socialize, and you can also mark your address with a little flag on our big watershed map.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Legislative Overview: What's In It for Our Watershed?

There’s a whole host of Bay-related action floating around out there this legislative season. Here’s a quick run down and some links for more info:

On the Federal level, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) have introduced the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act of 2009 (S. 1816, H.R. 3852 respectively). This proposed legislation been called “game-changing” many, many times. If passed, it would help strengthen the enforcement of pollution laws which already exist in the Bay region and make finalize what is loosely called the Bay’s pollution budget, which is also known as the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). States would have to create “Watershed Implementation Plans” to meet their TMDLs.

It is hoped that the Act would help to increase the regional approach to Bay pollution problems by increasing uniform enforcement measures. At one public meeting about the Bay in Annapolis this summer, for example, a citizen pointed out that if Maryland were to “stick its neck out and enforce the regulations already on the books,” they’d simply chase all the poultry producers next door to Delaware or Virginia. It is hoped that a regionally consistent approach would eliminate some of these problems. This law would likely also cause a shift from voluntary pollution reduction measures to mandatory ones, a shift that many say is desperately needed on all levels.

In a press release about the new bill last fall, Environment Maryland’s Tommy Landers explained it this way: “First, states would have to enforce limits on all polluters, including the developers and agribusinesses that account for the majority of the bay's pollution. Second, the EPA would have to withhold federal funding and finish the job themselves whenever polluters miss their marks.”


On the state level, Bay advocates are gearing up for a fight with developers which would also target pollution, but in a whole different way -- by reducing stormwater run-off and strengthening efforts to better contain it.

First, there are rumors afloat that the Stormwater Management Act of 2007 may face sudden challenges from developers. Although it went into effect in three years ago,
most of the real impact of its policy changes won’t take effect until about the middle of 2010.

The Act requires developers to use a Environmental Site Design (ESD) to the greatest extent possible in construction of both new and redevelopment projects. ESD includes:

- Optimizing conservation of natural features, such as drainage patterns, soils, and vegetation;
- Minimizing use of impervious surfaces, such as pavement, concrete channels, roofs, and pipes;
- Slowing down and holding runoff to maintain discharge timing, increase infiltration, and allow evapotranspiration; and
- Other nonstructural practices and innovative technologies (e.g., impervious surface disconnections, rain barrels, green roofs, rain gardens)

In a mean game of “spin” some in the pro-development camp are saying that the Act could cause more suburban sprawl because, they contend publicly, the cost of making stormwater improvements in existing communities would be too large. (As an example, you can check out this article the Wash Post ran earlier this month.)

Anything that looks like it would encourage sprawl has become unpopular with voters in many parts of Maryland, and that kind of negative press work might just take a foothold with those who are unfamiliar with what the actual Act says and does. But this kind of argument also begins to sound pretty suspicious when you realize that these same development groups fought Smart Growth proposals so strongly and deliberately only a few short years ago. It is odd to hear many of these same groups “lament” anything that might add to sprawl.

(To read about a bill that has been introduced which would directly hit at the Stormwater Act, you can check out this update from the Associated Press, as printed in the Washington Times.)

To counter this negative attack, environmental groups in the lower, more urban watersheds of Montgomery and Prince George’s County have gone on the counter offensive, pointing out that ignoring updates in the older neighborhoods could become an issue of environmental justice. Many of the more urbanized watershed areas are already the hardest hit by stormwater flooding and pollution which occurs when new developments are made upstream. Poorly designed redevelopment on their own streets will only add to such problems.

In response to the negative media and some anticipated attacks on the already established watershed Act, more than a dozen environmental organizations have also asked their members to contact their state legislators to say they support tough stormwater regulations. Such support, it is hoped, would cover any attempts to knock at the Stormwater Act of 2007 while also showing support for what has loosely labeled the “Good Stormwater Bill.”

This so-called “Good Stormwater Bill” is being championed by Senator Jamie Raskin (D- Montgomery County) and Delegates Tom Hucker (D- Montgomery County) and Jon Cardin (D-Baltimore County). Using a system similar to what is already in effect in Montgomery County and many smaller municipalities in the state, the new law would mandate that all counties in Maryland adopt an impervious surface fee. The money collected would then be used to address an estimated $20 billion dollar backlog of water-related infrastructure needs. It might also encourage a reduction in impervious surface, which has grown exponentially throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed in the last few decades.

I’ve already blogged in the past about the Bag Bill, which was introduced by Al Carr. There’s a similar bill now being worked through the Virginia legislature. Public support seems to be growing for particular idea of charging a fee for disposable shopping bags in my part of Montgomery County, although it is unclear to me how it will fare with leaders from other parts of the state and over in the Old Dominion.

A new litter bill has also been introduced this week by Al Carr, which would essentially make reporting litter violations easier. Several small watershed groups which have worked tirelessly on reducing trash in the Potomac and Anacostia watersheds immediately voiced support.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ever Worry about the Parks?

I have a little list of what I would call "worries" about my favorite parks in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Most of those worries involve funding, but some also involve priority setting. We have a responsibility, I believe, to keep those streams clean and healthy. Historic landmarks also deserve to be tended. Green open space needs to be protected and honored.

I guess I'd put it this way: I like to make sure that some of the less profitable but extremely important things don't get cut from the budgets each year, and I like to see that sports and roads don't override the entire system. I like sports just fine; a lot of the people in my family enjoy playing on many of MNCPPC's fields. But I don't want the system to ever forget that things like hiking, nature walks and trees are important, too.

It kind of set a twinge of worry through my head, for instance, to see that golf was so heavily emphasized at the MNCPPC booth at the MoCo county fair last year, for example. (I was hoping they'd emphasize some of the other stuff, like the great Nature Centers. But I guess golf makes more money than snakes and birds do.)

Anyway, that list of concerns sits around in my brain and often causes me to do things like write letters, make blog posts and attend public meetings. So the following email really got my attention:

"Come to a public meeting and help shape the future of Parks and Recreation in Montgomery County. The Department of Parks and the Department of Recreation are holding two public meetings in February to hear about your future needs and priorities over the next 20 years to help us develop a long term strategic plan and guide public spending in these tight fiscal times.

Meetings will be held: Downcounty- Tuesday February 23, 2010 from 7-8:30 pm in the MNCPPC Montgomery Regional Office (MRO) Auditorium at 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, MD 20910. . Upcounty- Wednesday February 24 from 7-8:30 pm in the large meeting room of the Up-County Government Center, 12900 Middlebrook Rd., Germantown, MD 20874. Please pass this notice on to others that you think may be interested. "

I plan to attend one of these meetings, with my little list of worries in hand.

If you plan to attend or have questions, don't send them to me. Send them to:

For additional information on Vision 2030, and in case of inclement weather, please visit:

Monday, February 15, 2010

Talk on Mapping Invasive Species this weekend

From the Sierra Club:

Since 1995, Jil Swearingen has worked as an Integrated Pest Management and Invasive Species Specialist for the National Park Service's National Capital Region, Center for Urban Ecology in Washington DC. Mapping is fundamental for planning control projects, tracking management efforts, and identifying new introductions. Nearly 300 invasive plant species occur in the mid-Atlantic region. Jil will talk about the new Early Detection Distribution Mapping System that helps invasive plant workers report and track invasive plant infestations.

The talk will be held on Sunday, Feb. 21 from 2pm-3:30pm at the Rockville Library, 21 Maryland Ave., Rockville.

Free and open to the public.

RSVP or 301-351-6985.

Directions and parking at

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The End of the Stormy Silence

Its done and gone now. The two big storms, which hit DC in a one-two wallop, have moved out to sea. I watched last night as those lovely, ever cheerful and somewhat silly forecasters on the Weather Channel said “bye-bye” to it like the infamous SNL flight attendant. They had even named it the February Fury. Bye bye February fury.

We are left now with mountains of snow. It took seven days for the plows to arrive in our little neighborhood, just as it did in most of the residential areas of metro DC. The first storm dumped 25 inches, and the second about 15. Once the trucks did come, they completely obliterated most of our sidewalk shoveling jobs, making huge peaks that are ten and fifteen feet high in some spots. It will take weeks and weeks for the snow in our yards to melt, as well.

I thought we would go crazy, being snowed in for so long. We were truly stuck in our houses for many days on end, able only to travel to our most immediate neighbors’ homes to say hi or hang out and eat junk food.

I thought we would go crazy the first time, and when the power went out I thought: this is not fun any more. When I could see my husband’s breath in the kitchen, I thought, this can’t last much longer.

It didn’t.

But I didn’t go crazy, either.

There was a lot of beauty in the storms.

For one thing, it was quiet. I mean really, truly quiet. The kind of quiet that you’ don’t often get to live inside of when you live inside of a city. The kind of quiet that enables you to hear the flakes touch down. The kind of quiet that offers you a chance to hear things before you see them, and lets your heart stop racing and your muscles relax. The kind of quiet that lets you think full, long thoughts, and drink them into your brain without interruption when you walk outside. The kind of quiet that nourishes you like good food.

When the roads were completely blocked and the plows couldn’t get anywhere near our house or even the surrounding main artery streets, there was a stillness that felt made it feel like we were swimming in a pool of white.

First of all, there was no tv. Phones kind of stopped, too. For a while we actually lost phone service on our land lines. But even when the service returned and the power went on, no one really called. They didn’t need to. What would they say? Yes, yes, we’re stuck too. After the first time you get that message, you just stop calling people. You go into wait mode. You don’t need to talk.

The helicopters stopped completely. I realized only then how much white noise they create in my daily life. The ever-present hum of traffic cams, hospital rescue flights, and even Camp David dignitary visits all add up to a lot of chopper noise, and they are loud. If M*A*S*H*’s Radar O’Reilly lived here, he’d go insane. You can even hear them inside, when you are tucked in behind double paned windows. (Once day a month ago I counted four, FOUR , helicopters within sight at one time while I was out in the backyard. I thought of the movie Grand Canyon.)

But once the heaviest snow kicked in, that all stopped completely. I felt as if I had been cured of a bad case of tinnitus.

The sirens, which are constant along the beltway and the big main roads nearby also stopped for about one day. (Sadly, these were the first to return once the snow stopped falling. Without back ground noise to cover their impact, each ambulance that wound its way around to the hospital could be heard clearly. Each one gave us a shudder. Thank God, we said to ourselves, none of us has to try to get out this mess in an ambulance. How could they get through the drifts? I fretted over friends with newborns and my elderly friends and neighbors; what if they needed medical care? )

The Capitol Beltway itself, which roars like a low, loud river in the distance where ever you go in this area, also stopped for about two days. No one drove anywhere, everything stopped, and no one went to work.

Even the train whistles on the Amtrak lines in Kensington – a sound which I really actually like – stopped.

The birds also went quiet, which I actually found eerie. On quick jaunts out with my snow-loving dog, I looked up at the trees and issued silent prayers, wondering where they and hoping that they had found good roosting spots while the flakes fell.

Those same birds have now returned in many mixed flocks. A huge murder of crows came to the park this morning with noisy abundance. Starlings, also, are back and in the trees. You can hear the chickadees, which I know are looking for nests this time of year, and about six or ten blue jays are also out and about, hunting in the ever greens for food and sounding like noisy, off-key flutists.

The mockingbirds greeted me noisily from the roof when I made my around in thirty six inches of snow to free up the red Ilex winterberries which had become buried in drifts. I had been watching from the kitchen as they had tried, unsuccessfully, to peck through the snow to get to that important food. I took pity and made the difficult trek to the remote spot in the garden. Within moments they descended and began to feast.

The beltway, the helicopters, the jet flights, the sirens, and all of the beep beep beeping of heavy equipment being used to clear snow can now be heard now when you step outside. You can hear the wheels of a big truck, as they spin out in frustration. I suspect our UPS truck driver is once again stuck down the street in his brown box truck.

The snow is turning grey, in those huge mountains. Smog, road gravel, salt… these are all accumulating in the packed up drifts on street corners. The melted stuff runs in slushy rivers towards the creek, and freezes up each night, making roads into skating rinks. The clean, crispness has worn off.

I wish I could keep it white and quiet for a while longer. I’m very glad to be plowed out, glad to be getting back to normal life, and glad that my day no longer resembles that of Ma in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter.

But I look over my photos of those first few hours after the snow stopped -- taken when the sun first came out and the sky was crystalline blue -- and mostly I remember the quiet silence, the peaceful cocoon of white which seemed clean and bright and free.

I wish I could capture that to keep in pictures, too.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Keeping the Sidewalks Clear Without Dirtying the Watershed

Well, the power is still on, for now. I have seen the lights flicker twice since this most recent storm started. We are expecting another 15 inches on top of the two and a half feet already out there. If the wind doesn't bring down the wires, I'm sure the weight of the snow on the branches will.

While the power holds, though, I’m damned glad to be doing something other than clearing snow away from the sidewalks, cars and roof. The last week has been a long blur, where every day we were working in some kind of snow mine. Dig, dig, and dig some more.

Digging is required by law in most places in Maryland, and generally speaking an important way to keep your neighbors happy. There are those that don’t shovel the walks in every neighborhood. I always wonder, what the hell are they thinking? And do they know what everyone else says about them for NOT shoveling?

(Of course, some can’t shovel due to health issues. I’m always glad to see my neighbors ban together and help out anyone who is in that situation. But then there are those that just never get AROUND to shoveling.... what the heck?)

Once the sidewalk is free of snow, you have to keep it free of ice, and that is when the *fun* really begins in Maryland, because we get that awful thaw-freeze situation after almost every storm. It never stays too cold for long here. We go above freezing after almost every storm, making every sidewalk a skating rink, and many streets a nightmare. When this happens, people inevitably turn to rock salt to melt the icy patches.

The problem is, salt is not really all that great for lots of reasons. For one thing, it can be a real pollution problem. I have been out with some of the Sligo water quality testing teams. They say that after a big storm you can see the problems caused by salt increases in the waterways. (Last year, for example, I followed Mike Smith out to sample and wrote about it for the Voice.)

Salt can also be very corrosive, and can kill the garden plants near your walk way. It can cause car trouble. It can cause roads and concrete to crack and break. It makes dogs limp and yelp in pain when it gets between their toe pads.

People also tend to over use salt. They dump a whole lot on the walk and then leave it there for weeks. It would be a lot less damaging, I think, if people used it to melt the ice and then swept up the leftovers once the ice has disappeared. This would save both money and the environment.

Sometimes, people turn to other products in an effort to melt the ice or at least provide traction on slippery spots.

Kitty litter is one of the most popular options. Although it does nothing to remove or reduce slippery patches, some think it can add traction. Years ago, I was told by an ecologist that using kitty litter on icy sidewalks as an alternative to salt was a bad idea, however, because it is often made from clay, which can cause sediment problems in local creeks. (You might think it stays on your walk, but at least some of it washes away in the stormwater.)

Kitty litter can also become an indoor pollutant; when tracked in on shoes it can be released as dust and very bad for those with asthma. According to some sources, kitty litter made of clay is also often strip mined, which means you might be saving yourself from falling at a huge cost to the planet.

The internet is also riddled with stories of kitty litter gone wrong; most of them end with someone saying something about how the kitty litter turned back into hardened clay after the snow melted, and caked up their tires and driveway and became an impossible mess.

Sand is often used on slippery sidewalks, and although it can give your shoes something to grip onto it will not melt the ice like salt. In fact, some cities put out big boxes of salt on the major street corners and invite pedestrians to be sort of vigilante about things; if someone walks along and finds a slippery spot, they just go to the box and help themselves to a scoop of sand.

The problem with sand is that it, too, can become an indoor pollutant. Once its tracked in on shoes it is almost impossible to remove from floors and rugs. And just like the sand at the beach, it is really hard to remove. It gets ground into hard wood and can cause a lot of damage quickly.

Maybe I’m being overly cautious here, but ever since my kids were little and we built a sandbox, I’ve also looked at construction sand with a wary eye, because all the play sand sold out there is labeled “Asbestos free!” This of course begs the question: some sand has asbestos???? Not really what I want tracked into my house. (You could, of course, buy a lot of play sand to use, but it is expensive and not so easy to find in winter.)

At one point people got desperate in Baltimore where I lived several years ago. A rock salt shortage during a year of big storms caused people to use things like fertilizer on the icy walks! Ugh! A pollution problem for sure.

The best solution, it seems, is to shovel diligently and as soon as possible after a storm. Get the walks clear and dry quickly. Shovel all the way to the edge of the walk so that as the snow melts the walk stays dry.

Okay, sure. But in a big storm like the one we just had, that is not always possible. You would have to be superhuman to get the walks completely clear and dry in my neighborhood right now. Everyone has made tiny passageways through the snowy walks. So ice formation seems inevitable once the melting begins.

And already this week I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff on the walkways, which I know is well-intentioned. Everyone's trying to keep the sidewalk safe. But at what cost to the creek, and the greater watershed? I wonder. Just like everything else that gets dumped on our sidewalks, whatever we put out will get washed to the creeks, the rivers, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

Perhaps the best answer is to shovel often, shovel well, and when you do use salt, do so sparingly.

If anyone else has better answers, I’d be glad to hear ‘em.

"That Ain't Chocolate, Wonka Fans"

Each second I type, I am convinced I will lose power once again as yet another storm rages on outside the windows. It is complete white-out out there right now. We've lost power once, for about 25 hours, and I'm sure we're set to lose it again.

In the meantime, I'm catching up on emails and work-related reading, and I came across this really dramatic photo, posted on the Bay Daily blog by Tom Pelton. Pelton's articles are always worth reading, and this entry is no exception. On February 2 he posted a dramatic picture of the pollution which has entered the bay recently.

As we struggle over six foot high snow drifts to reach the grocery store in the storm emergency here in DC this week, its easy to to forget that the excess of rain and snow we get each winter causes excessive run-off to the creeks. Life has become one long string of days where we decide which section of the sidewalk to shovel next, and complain about the lack of plowing on Montgomery County's streets. All our conversations with neighbors seem to focus on things like battery supplies, shoveling techniques, and wood piles. With Metro down, no one is headed to work.

(I think about stormwater pollution a lot, though, as I see what strange stuff people are putting out to keep the sidewalks passable. More about that a bit later in another posting, here, provided the power stays on.)

Meanwhile, as Pelton says, that aint chocolate, Wonka fans. "This is mud, fertilizers, and chemicals flushed by last week's heavy rains off of farm fields, construction sites, parking lots, and roads."

What a picture. Ugh.

Pelton makes reference to some important stormwater legislation which is currently under attack right now in Maryland. If my power holds, I'll try to post something about that, too!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Sligo Golf Course Task Force Finishes Its Work

The Montgomery County task force charged with deciding the future of the golf course which flanks Sligo Creek has finished its work, and the Sligo Creek Golf Association has posted both the county report and its own reaction to the report’s conclusions on its website this week.

Although some might question further spending on a golf course during such a tight budget year, the SGCA says that their analysis shows the course could be self sustaining without subsidy from the county. Importantly, the SGCA has also drawn up a plan which would require the dedication of “all non-golf course revenue generated on SCGC property to capital improvements at the course,” according to a press release put out last week by the organization.

I’m not sure I agree with all of the SGCA findings and recommendations. I’m still digesting many of them.

I do think, however, that a private operator would be a much better alternative for the management of this course. As the SGCA says, “The course and the community will be best served by a partner who is committed to the continuation of golf operations.”

(For those unfamiliar with the golf course debate, I guess I should explain that many question the sincerity of the entity known as the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, or MRCA. It seems to many observers that MRCA never wanted the Sligo Golf Course to succeed in the first place, and that it has a strangely vested interest in seeing it fail. Many also feel that MRCA never made any real effort to “partner” with the community in the management process.)

I suppose that in an ideal world it wouldn’t be just any private operator running the course, but rather one who would serve the real needs of the community where the golf course is located. I would especially LOVE to see an operator that is familiar with green golf course management, one that embraces modern, low-impact design and touts the benefits of conservation landscaping. That is, afterall, becoming common in the golf course world right now.

A private operator that advertised and actively marketed this course would also be wonderful. One that enhanced its beauty and environmental value would be even better. Best of all would be an operator that embraced the notion of urban golf course management, one that actively pursued educational and recreational partnerships local schools.

Besides, I think many of the local neighbors have found the MRCA’s obfuscation frustrating. A manager that focused on pleasing neighbors in order to ATTRACT them to play would be a real change for Sligo.

There would have to be some county oversight in this somewhat Eutopian vision I have for the course’s future. Without strict oversight, an outside manager could simply pave the entire place or make it a 24 hour mini-golf course. (Something like that almost happened under MRCA’s management!) Although such a place might make money, it certainly wouldn’t achieve any kind of sustainable vision for the greater Sligo watershed.

Let me interrupt myself here to acknowledge that it might seem odd that I care this much about this course. I have never played a single game of golf in my entire life.

But as I’ve written several times in the last few years, this situation is unique. Sligo Golf Course provides one of the few places downcounty where those who *do* golf can play a few holes without driving far. To me this amenity provides an important incentive for keeping a lot of local residents from moving to the sprawling outer suburbs where golf courses are plentiful. Such recreational amenities are essential to making smart growth and the Silver Spring revitalization a continued success.

And having a local course also prevents many dozens of small trips up 270 by golfers. We’ve been told again and again by urban planners that those small trips add up to lots of pollution and congestion, and the entire DC area has been advised more than once to work towards reducing such trips by increasing local amenities in the areas where people actually live and work.

Moreover and on a much more personal note, the course provides a green, open space that might other wise be gobbled up by developers in this already-too-dense location. That’s a whole other kind of “amenity” that all too often goes unrecognized in this area: an open vista not filled with buildings. I ride my bike by the course at least once a week all year long. I understand its value from an entirely different point of view.

There are, of course, ways the green could be improved. Those improvements would include reducing the nutrient load on the nearby creek by reducing fertilizer use, planting more natives and more trees in general along the edges of the course, and installing raingardens at the lowest sections to reduce run-off from the hilly, sloping greens. The course could also envelope or embrace other uses in the off season. The pro shop could sell bike and soccer supplies and snacks to trail users, too.

I continue to find it frustrating that the county is thinking in a very “old school” way about this course. Instead of investing in its future and its sustainability, the county keeps contemplating its demise in favor of fancier courses elsewhere. If the county truly believes in both a restored Sligo and a thriving Silver Spring/Wheaton area, then that kind of thinking has got to stop.