Riverkeepers: Watershed projects for families

Photo of Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection staff and family during a trash pick-up retreat.
March 5, 2013
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My sons have fond memories of splashing and exploring in nearby Sligo Creek during their early childhood. Excitement for our creek picnics grew as we set out through the neighborhood and found the big rock and “sandy beach” in the middle of a wide expanse of creek. The kids skimmed rocks and made up games exploring miniature islands and “elf hideouts” (the large roots of trees overhanging the bank).

The bubbling creek was a cool oasis of multicolored rocks, curving roots, dragonflies and minnows. Each year, we visited the creek to see if the mallard duck couples returned and anticipated the day when their baby ducks will hatch. The kids were amazed to hear that the water flowing past us, and all that it contains, connects us to neighborhoods up and downstream and to the Anacostia, Potomac and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

Image of girls playing by a stream.

Although the experiences were idyllic, we were very careful to remind our children to never dunk their heads underwater, to always wear rain boots or water shoes and do an immediate hose rinse-off upon our return home. We also were careful to explore the creek only when it had not rained for a while due to accumulated trash and storm runoff toxicity. Fortunate to live near a stream routinely cleaned up by dedicated Friends of Sligo Creek volunteers, we only rarely found scattered discarded grocery bags, bottles and wrappers to clean up during our creek exploration.


Do You Know Your Watershed?

Bull Run, Spout Run, Quincy Run, Hidden Pond, Bryan Branch, Four Mile Creek, Little River, Captain Hickory Run, Pimmit Run, Daniels Run, Huntley Meadows, Sligo Creek, Turkey Run, Cabin John Creek, Paint Branch, Northwest Branch, Rock Creek, Long Branch, Seneca, Holmes Run, Oxon Run, Accokeek Creek, Nash Run, Anacostia, Little Falls, Great Falls, Occoquan, Potomac, Chesapeake …. that’s only a partial list of Virginia, D.C. and Maryland areas where neighborhoods are connected by a stream, tributary, estuary or river to the bay. Named in honor of Native Americans and early settlers, these waterways give our region its sense of place, unique identity and recreation opportunities-while the water gives us life. Most of our homes are located within walking distance of local watershed connections. The D.C. metro area is also known as the Middle Potomac Watershed, where 70 percent of the total Potomac watershed population resides.

Turn on the faucet, flush the toilet, water your garden and wash your car. Eighty to 90 percent of our household water passes through the Potomac watershed at some point. That is the same water we all drink. Walk out your door on a rainy day; water is flowing down from your gutters, from your garden beds, down your street, through storm drains, into nearby streams and creeks, and then flowing through the watershed into the Potomac and eventually back into our water supply. In that rain storm, water and wind also pick up and carry any trash or debris along the way. The creeks become laden with litter―plastic bags and bottles, broken implements, cigarette butts, and tires. These items disintegrate and leach their chemical makeup into our water supply.

The Potomac Conservancy data estimates that in the next 20 years the Middle Potomac Watershed population will increase by more than 1 million more residents. This will substantially increase threats to watershed health.


So How Can We Protect This Essential Resource?

Engage in Your Watershed

Discover what watershed you live in and start exploring by water or on land! The Anacostia Watershed Society has an interactive Google map link for you to identify the watershed you are connected to. The society also coordinates kayak or canoe recreational paddling nights and paddling clinics. For families with very small children, Seneca Creek, Jug Bay and other parks on waterways offer pontoon boat tours as a low-cost way to explore the water as a family.

Image of people studying aquatic life by a stream.

Kids studying aquatic life with Department of Environmental Protection staff.

“Water connects us all. Everything we do has some impact on our watershed. Parents can ask questions that help their children understand this connection. It is always great to see the ‘light bulbs’ go off when kids and parents realize how connected we are to the water and how the water connects us to each other,” says Henry Coppola, streams and park clean up coordinator for Montgomery Parks, Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Jennifer Chambers is with Hiking Along, an organization in Silver Spring that leads children, ages preschool through high school, on hikes througout the D.C. Metropolitan area. She is author of the children’s book, Watershed Adventures of Water Bottle (Tate Publishing, 2013) and she recommends that parents and children explore the water around them together. “Children introduced to safe, positive outdoor experiences in nature near their home develop a relationship with that place that inspires them to protect it and be its steward,” she says. “This later translates to their sense of preserving the greater natural world.” We are fortunate that a majority of our waterways in this region are in parks with trails to explore and to observe the dynamic force of water on the ecosystem.

In all of these adventures, parents can ask questions and observe with children the signs of life indicative of a healthy stream or river, such as number and types of wildlife and clear running water. In comparison, children can identify areas that need help, such as where there is trash, overgrowth of algae and few wildlife sightings. For additional ways to engage, contact your local watershed conservancy, county and national parks nature centers. The Environmental Protection Agency also has a searchable database of 70 citizen-watershed groups in our area. This and other resource links are listed in the sidebar.


Stop Littering at its Source and Remove Existing Trash

Oscar Mujica-Martorell, a 16-year-old volunteer participating in a Rock Creek Conservancy clean up earlier this year in Silver Spring, was shocked at the amount and types of trash he and his team of parent and family volunteers discovered. “We collected so many objects, mattresses, TVs, tires, shattered glass, plastic bottles and bottle caps. So many bottle caps, every time I found one bottle cap, there was another, and next to that a handful more and then a larger amount, and so on. This is where they all end up ruining a beautiful place.”

It was this same realization, shared by other youth 25 years ago, when participating in an Environmental Education program at the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Hard Bargain Farm on the banks of the Potomac River in Prince George’s County. The farm (located at a bend in the river) was a spot where trash from the city piled up along the shore. The students and their instructors inspired the first Trash-Free Potomac Clean Up. Today, it is the largest regional clean up and awareness event of its kind involving four states and the District of Columbia.

On April 6 during the Potomac River Watershed Clean Up 25th Anniversary, families can join approximately 15,000 volunteers throughout D.C., Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia at one of the 700 sites in cleaning up the Potomac Watershed and raising awareness of how littering affects our water supply. Find a volunteer site near you. Events are organized by local watershed conservation groups like the Anacostia Conservancy, Rock Creek Conservancy and Trash Free Virginia and Maryland Alliances, National Park Service, county governments and other citizen-based organizations. Lori Arguelles, executive director of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, welcomes families to participate on April 6 and year round. “We also encourage families to do their part in their own households to eliminate the sources of trash through reduce, reuse, rethink and recycle,” she says. “When they participate on April 6 they can play a role in cleaning up the Potomac watershed and also track data year round through Visible Trash Monitoring.” Monitoring involves counting visible trash along a 200-foot length of a body of water, road or land within the confines of the Potomac River watershed, and it requires approximately an hour of time per site commitment to surveying the area quarterly. In addition, Alena Rosen, communications associate of Alice Ferguson Foundation, adds, “Families can eliminate sources of trash by keeping a lid on their cans, using no or fewer plastic bags, using reusable water bottles and packing trash-free lunches for school or outings.”

Image of volunteers building a rain garden.

Volunteers helped to built a rain garden at the Geneva Day School.

Make Changes in Your Own Backyard

The population in the Chesapeake region is expanding rapidly and increasing sediments, sewage, manure, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and motor oil that can all be carried into the Bay from local streams and waterways in heavy rains. Kit Gage, founding member of the Watershed Stewards Academy and sustainable gardening consultant, says that through sustainable gardening, “families can fairly easily modify their yards and gardens to absorb rainwater better, and understand why this is important to do.”

Working with children to plant a butterfly garden and/ or rain garden with native plants is an opportunity to engage them in understanding how their efforts connect to the nearby stream or park they play in. Asking them how they think the native plants’ deep root systems might help the earth absorb rainwater can lead to simple conversations about how storm water carries chemicals, excess mulch and litter into the watershed. Another question to explore is how native plants help gardeners use less water. (Answer: They are suited to the local climate and often drought tolerant.) Creating vegetable gardens teaches children to eat local while emphasizing composting and not using chemicals. The Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council has developed “Eight Essential Elements” as a guide for making your yard more watershed friendly. Prior to getting started in your own garden, take your children on tour of watershed-friendly gardens in Virginia, Maryland or D.C.

You will discover how your family can enjoy and protect the essential natural resources of our watershed!


Written for Washington Parent Magazine – March 2013 by Mary Phillips

Mary Phillips’ is a writer, management consultant, outdoor educator and sustainable gardener. In 2009, she was inspired to launch theabundantbackyard.com with the vision that children and families engaged in nature and local heritage will develop a lifetime commitment to protecting our region’s natural resources. She lives in Silver Spring with her husband and two sons. 

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