Initiative to Certify Conservation Landscape Designers

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Tom and Judy Boyd knew they had landscaping and drainage problems at their home in Charlottesville, VA. And even though Judy is an avid gardener and knows her fair share about the importance of native plants, they didn’t know as much about how their yard could contribute to capturing and treating rainfall.

 That is, until they hooked up with Virginia Rockwell, a horticulturist and landscape designer from Orange, VA, who is one of a growing breed of professionals who marry traditional landscaping with stormwater management techniques.
Throughout the Bay watershed, local governments, watershed groups and their partners are installing small-scale rain gardens, pervious pavers and bioswales to reduce nonpoint source pollution from stormwater and meet Bay cleanup goals. But they need help in making sure their investments are built right to begin with and maintained correctly over the long haul.
To meet the growing demand for qualified professionals, the Chesapeake Conservation Landscape Council and partners (University of Maryland Sea Grant Extension, Wetlands Watch, and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Habitat Partners) is spearheading an initiative to certify professionals in the design, installation and maintenance of these landscape practices.
This consortium has engaged landscape and horticulture industry representatives, state and local government leaders, watershed groups, and educators and workforce development specialists to develop the certification program.
Their goal is to have the program established by 2016 in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, and expanded Baywide in 2017.
They are planning a program that will include a standardized evaluation of the skills and knowledge of landscape contractors in three tracks: design, installation and maintenance. The certification program will also have an online database to help consumers connect with trusted, credentialed professionals.
The Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee, which consists of local elected officials from around the watershed, said that increasing the pool of qualified employees and contractors to carry out restoration and protection projects was a top priority in 2014.
Local governments are in the front line to make sure measurable goals are met for the reduction of nutrient and sediment pollution from urban and suburban stormwater.
Often, stormwater management practices installed at parks, schools and municipal buildings are the easiest way for local governments to get reductions. But this can be expensive — and in many cases, there are not enough opportunities on public lands to meet the stormwater reduction goals.
Thus the need for more residents, like the Boyds, to reduce pollution from their properties.
Christin Jolicoeur, a watershed planner for Arlington County, VA, who serves on the consortium’s certification committee, said that the county cannot meet its pollution reduction goals by installing practices on county-owned land. “We’re hoping that a large portion will be done voluntarily by homeowners and businesses.”
But stormwater management techniques like bioswales, rain gardens and green roofs — practices that combine infiltration with vegetation — must be designed and installed properly to improve water quality and reduce runoff. The Chesapeake Bay Program’s recent verification protocols, crafted to ensure that management practices are actually achieving these goals, offer up to five years of credit to local governments counting the best management practices toward their pollution reduction targets.
There is evidence that not all of these stormwater practices are working properly. Almost half — 48 percent — of a 2012 survey of rain gardens in the Severn River watershed failed to protect water quality. A 2008 survey in Fairfax County showed that 65 percent of the BMPs surveyed lacked adequate pond depth to capture stormwater effectively, and three out of the 20 surveyed didn’t infiltrate at all.
Donna Morelli, Pennsylvania director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, said that she’s seen BMPs installed as recently as 2010 and 2011 that are failing and need to be retrofitted to work properly. The Alliance works with local governments, homeowners and other nonprofits to install stormwater BMPS — often as part of grant-funded demonstration projects designed to encourage homeowners to adopt the practices.
“We’ve worked with some great landscape designers and engineers, but sometimes the installers didn’t understand the principals, Morelli said. “They didn’t follow the designs, or thought that substituting materials and plants was OK.”
The most common problem she’s seen is rain gardens that are convex instead of concave. “People are still used to the idea of mounding soil and compost for drainage away from a planting site.”
Having a certification program will help define and provide consistency in the best practices for small-scale infiltration BMPs, Jolicoeur said.
“Ten years ago, many installations were ‘experimental,’ for lack of a better word,” Jolicoeur said, adding that the science of bioretention is better now and standards are being developed in conjunction with state stormwater regulations and for credit in the Bay model.
Amanda Rockler, regional watershed restoration specialist with Maryland Sea Grant, one of the partners in the certification initiative, said it was also important that rain gardens and bioswales not fail aesthetically. “We need the citizens engaged in putting in these small-scale projects, but if they are hard to maintain or don’t look good, we’re not going to get widespread adoption by homeowners.”
Many homeowners do want to do their part in cleaning up their local rivers and the Bay, according to studies by the Hampton Roads nonprofit, Wetlands Watch, a partner of the certification initiative.
“We’ve conducted surveys in our area to help local governments understand the barriers that homeowners have to conservation landscaping,” said Wetland Watch’s Shereen Hughes, who is coordinating the initiative in Virginia. “Most homeowners said they just didn’t know how to do it.”
Tom Schueler, executive director of the Chesapeake Stormwater Network, said that stormwater utilities are offering incentives for homeowners to install rain gardens or other stormwater controls. Because few homeowners build the controls themselves, the demand for qualified professionals has increased, he said.
Landscape professionals are looking forward to the certification, too, as evidenced by the number of landscape and horticulture associations that have joined the certification partnership.
Both the Maryland and Pennsylvania Nursery and Landscape Associations are members of the certification consortium, even though they already offer conservation landscaping certification. The Baywide certification would complement these existing programs.
Rockwell, who is advising the Boyds and is a member of the Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association board, said having a Baywide certification program can enhance existing programs. “People from the industry say they are not hesitant at all about having another program, “ she said. “They are asking, ‘Where can I get the best training?’ ”
Having consistent guidelines across the Bay jurisdictions will also help developers, builders and engineers who work across political boundaries.
Growers, too, will benefit from the certification, said Leslie Cario, chair of Chesapeake Conservation Landscape Council. While running a large native plant nursery for 14 years, Cario saw growers shift from nonnative ornamentals to a wide selection of native plants and cultivars She expects the trend to continue as demand increases.
The multistate certification program will have to dovetail with existing programs and certifications, including those offered by trade associations, state-mandated pesticide and nutrient management requirements, and stormwater regulations.
There are regional differences that will need to be accommodated. Working in Tidewater Virginia is different from working in Fairfax County, said Sara Felker, coordinator of the RiverStar program for the Elizabeth River Project. “We have a high water table and sandy soils, so we’re going to be designing rain gardens differently and using different grasses.”
But the principles are the same, she said, pointing to the council’s eight principles of conservation landscaping (See box on this page).
Wetlands Watch’s Hughes said the consortium was able to draw on “some really strong work that has already been done in this area.” Anne Arundel County, MD’s, Watershed Stewardship Academy, the Alliance’s RiverWise program in Virginia, and the homeowner BMP manual developed by the Chesapeake Stormwater Network are examples of the many programs.
“We’re on the tipping point of conservation landscaping becoming mainstream,” Cario said. “With such broad support within the watershed community, we’re feeling strongly that this is going to happen.”
If successful, the certification program will be a key component of meeting Chesapeake Bay cleanup by supporting, in the words of the 2009 Chesapeake Bay Executive Order, “a dramatic increase in the number of citizen stewards — of every age — who support and carry out local conservation and restoration.”
There are numerous resources for homeowners and local governments who need help implementing conservation landscaping. A user-friendly guide that includes templates for planning and links to native plant nurseries and watershed service providers is found here:
By Leslie Middleton

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