Science Serving Maryland's Coasts

One Stream at a Time (podcast)

July 10, 2013
two men working in a creek

Graduates from Three Academies in Maryland Are Working at Home for Cleaner Water

Across Maryland, volunteers are wading into streams, digging through soil, and planting trees and flowers to help improve the quality of water in their communities and in the Chesapeake Bay. Many have been helped by the state’s Watershed Stewards Academies. These programs, aided by Maryland Sea Grant Extension, train men and women to be leaders in their communities and to clean up their local streams. And when it comes to doing just that, Maryland’s watershed stewards are proving that every little bit helps — even if that means tackling some awfully big pieces of trash. Daniel Strain brings us more in this podcast.

Transcript header

(Sounds of volunteers doing stream cleanup work)

DANIEL STRAIN: Paul Hlavinka and his friends care about clean water. You can tell because it’s early in the morning on a Saturday in January. It’s cold, and these volunteers — there are six in all — are wading up to their shins in Muddy Branch Creek.

Muddy Branch is a small tributary of the Potomac River that starts up near Gaithersburg, Maryland, just north of Washington, D.C. And despite the cold, this crew, who belong to a group called the Muddy Branch Alliance, are out here picking up trash. And something a lot heavier than a sandwich wrapper.

PAUL HLAVINKA: Today we’re going to try to remove something a citizen reported as — looks like a refrigerator. We’re not sure what it is.

DS: That’s Hlavinka. And, yes, he said refrigerator. Or something. It’s big, metal, and was dumped in the creek a long time ago, judging by the mud. Which begs the question:

DS (on site): How on Earth do you get a refrigerator out?

PH: We’ll see. Creativity. We’re going to use creativity and a little elbow grease.

DS: And it turns out, a metal winch anchored to a tree.

(Volunteers working)

DS: The job looks tough, and Hlavinka’s not sure they can get the fridge out. But he’s holding out hope. This environmental steward and resident of Gaithersburg knows his stuff. Two years ago, he graduated from a special training program called the National Capital Watershed Stewards Academy. There are three such academies in Maryland: in Anne Arundel and Howard counties and the third in the Washington area. The number keeps growing.

The stewards academies train men and women like Hlavinka to get out and work with their neighbors to improve the quality of water in their communities. And since local steams like the Muddy Branch wind toward the Chesapeake Bay, these stewards are working to clean up that body of water, too.

To graduate from a Stewards Academy, you must attend weekly classes for around six months. It’s not for the un-motivated, says Amanda Rockler.

AMANDA ROCKLER: And then the classes every week run from how to get involved in your community to being a good steward and leader in your community; to stormwater science; to watersheds and the Bay; history and health; GIS work. So it runs the gamut.

DS: Rockler is a watershed restoration specialist with Maryland Sea Grant Extension, a program at the University of Maryland. She helped to advise and teach classes in the watershed stewards academy program when it was started up in Anne Arundel about five years ago. She also helped to launch similar programs in the D.C. area and in Howard County.

Restoring watersheds is complicated stuff, Rockler says. Sure, academy graduates pick up their share of trash. But there are many ways to clean up a steam. Stewards academy students also learn about the environmental damage done by urban stormwater. This water pools on roads and in parking lots during big storms. And it also carries excess nitrogen and phosphorus. Those nutrients have been blamed for creating the Chesapeake Bay’s famous “dead zones.”

(Sounds of classroom activity)

DS: Miles away from the Muddy Branch in the Kenilworth neighborhood of Washington, class is getting started. About 15 students are gathered this evening for the National Capital Watershed Stewards Academy. The class is meeting in the Center for Green Urbanism. Zandra Chestnut helps to run the center, which is part green business promoter and part art gallery. She’s giving me a tour. Photographs line the center’s walls, part of an exhibit called “Cuba y Puerto Rico.”

Zandra Chestnut: And then I like those old cars. You know that’s Cuba. You can tell Cuba by the old cars. They really recycle, see.

DS: Chestnut isn’t just here tonight for the center. She’s also a student. As a 40-year resident of Kenilworth, she decided to become a master watershed steward, partly  because she’s seen how closely her neighborhood is tied to the water. The Anacostia River is only a few blocks away.

ZC: This area, Ward 7, is in a flood plain. And my home, which is about six blocks away, before we got our sump pumps, our basement would be a little swimming pool anytime we got over two inches of water.

DS: Chestnut’s spotted one spot in her neighborhood where a lot of water seems to be pooling up. She’d like to build a rain garden there — that’s a type of garden that can sop up water like a sponge. And also trap some pollutants. It’s just one of the tools of the watershed steward’s trade. Chestnut will have help, too. More than 150 stewards have already graduated from Maryland’s three academies. Among those graduates are Chestnut’s husband and daughter.

ZC: That what we’re here to do. I’m going to be a team — we’re going to be a team. A three-member team in my household.

(Volunteers working)

DS: Back on the Muddy Branch, another team — this one led by Hlavinka — is almost there. The stream crew has managed to tilt the refrigerator up and scoop out all the mud. Although, on closer inspection, the contraption seems to be an industrial incubator, not a fridge. Either way, it may seem like the day’s work is only a small step in cleaning up this creek. But when you get more people to care about water, the effect of small steps can multiply, Hlavinka says.

PH: So just being the catalyst that allows people to come together is a huge deal. It doesn’t seem like you’re doing a lot but, in essence, you’re multiplying whatever you can do by — we’ve got what five, six people helping us today. So, yeah, every little bit helps.

DS: The crew lifts the big piece of trash out of the stream and onto the bank. Later today, a truck will come by to haul it away. And that’s how you make streams cleaner, Hlavinka says: one oversized piece of junk at a time.

This podcast was produced by Maryland Sea Grant, part of the University of Maryland. We support scientific research, education, and public policy to enhance the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay and the businesses and jobs that depend on it.

To learn more about Maryland’s Watershed Stewards Academies, visit our web page.

— Daniel Strain, strain@mdsg.umd.edu