Friday, January 6, 2012

Watersheds and Water

Baltimore City has the very esteemed position of being located in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The Chesapeake Bay, known to most and loved by all here locally, is a treasure amongst bodies of water. It is what is called an estuary, and it is the largest one in the United States.The Chesapeake Bay is home to delicious and beautiful flora and fauna alike, including our special Blue Crab - helper to all chefs creating crab cakes!

But the Chesapeake Bay has been singing a sad song in our recent history. Due to pollution from stormwater runoff from the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and a warming climate, the Bay is suffering dead spots and species that call it home are struggling. Pollution contributes to what are called
Marine Dead Zones. These are areas where there is so little oxygen that plants and animals have a difficult time surviving. Pollution runoff feeds the plant Algae that lives in the water causing it to have a surge in growth. Algal Blooms then occur, which use up all of the oxygen and prevent sunlight from reaching the bottom of the Bay to feed other plants and animals. An ecosystem is a delicate and balanced structure - a food chain that depends on the right amount of particular species in order to continue. If one plant or animal has a surge in growth, such as the algae, it throws off the balance of the rest of the ecosystem.

But back up - what is the "Chesapeake Bay Watershed" anyway? What is a watershed?

A watershed is a Drainage Basin - an area of land where all of the rainfall and snow melt collect to a point where it joins a larger body of water such as a river, bay, or ocean. There are smaller watersheds, or drainage basins, inside larger ones, inside larger ones! In fact, one single storm drain in your neighborhood serves as a drainage basin for surrounding area - it is where the rain that falls on your front porch or street drains into. We call the water that runs off your roof and down the sidewalk and streets and into a storm drain storm water runoff.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed is important as we try to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay. All of the stormwater runoff from Washington D.C. and parts of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York drains into the Chesapeake Bay, eventually.

So what's the Chesapeake Bay Watershed got to do with us? As I said before - larger watersheds contain smaller watersheds, too. Baltimore City has four separate watersheds.

The Gwynns Falls, Jones Falls, Herring Run Back River, and Harbor Watersheds all make up the water system of Baltimore. And, all four watersheds feed directly into the Baltimore Harbor. Because Baltimore is contained by the larger Chesapeake Bay Watershed, everything that happens to our water here contributes to what happens in the Chesapeake Bay.

So what happens in a watershed? As water from rain or snowfall runs over impervious surfaces such as pavement, asphalt, heavily compacted soil, etc., it collects all the pollutants existing on those surfaces. This includes trash, chemicals, and other matter. So, for example, if there is a vacant lot in your neighborhood that always has trash on it, every time it rains the water runs over the trash collecting pollutants, then flows easily over the compacted soil of the vacant lot, then flows over the paved sidewalk, and into the storm drain, depositing all the trash, chemicals and pollutants it picked up with it.

It can be easy to forget the path that water takes when you look at the rain or drink water from the tap in your kitchen or take a shower. Most of journey water takes in cities happens underground in a complex system of pipes that humans built to separate our drinking and cleaning water from our waste water. Baltimore City has a 3-pipe system - one pipe for storm water, one pipe for sewage, and one pipe for clean drinking and bathing water.

Unfortunately, our pipes are decades old and starting to wear down. Our storm drain pipes and sewage pipes are leaking and many have tree roots grown into them, blocking the flow of the water. However, large pieces of trash, pollutants, and chemicals still make their way into our storm drains and through our pipes in large quantities. And those storm drains empty out into the Baltimore Harbor.

What do we do?!? If we are more mindful of ourselves and of our environment we can do a whole lot to help preserve and promote the health of our water and the health of the Chesapeake Bay. By not littering, and encouraging others not to litter, we reduce the amount of trash that is carried away and into our bodies of water. By gardening and promoting depaving of our communities and schools we contribute to the amount of rain water that gets absorbed into the soil instead of washed away through streets and down storm drains. By cleaning up our communities and making them beautiful, we are helping to keep our Bay, and all of our water, beautiful and clean.

Most things on Earth need water to survive - us included - and every little drop counts!

To take solid steps towards protecting our watershed, you can contact Blue Water Baltimore, the Non-Profit Organization that works in Baltimore City and County to clean water in Baltimore's rivers, streams, and harbor. They always have great tips such as this page to help you learn how to reduce storm water pollution. They also have a Water Audit program - completely free! If you sign up someone from Blue Water Baltimore will come to your home and give you educated suggestions on ways to improve any negative storm drain runoff from your property. Sign up Here to receive more information.

And remember that greening in your neighborhood helps! Find out about depaving, starting a community green space, starting a garden, or volunteering to help others do these things at any of the following organizations and agencies,

The Parks & People Foundation,
The Community Greening Resource Network,
Baltimore Green Space,
Civic Works,
Power in Dirt,
Baltimore Recreation and Parks,
Department of Public Works (Cleanups),
Department of Transportation (Depaving)

All images provided by Blue Water Baltimore (Thanks, friends!). Please visit their website for even more information on watersheds, Baltimore's water system, and what you can do to help!

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