Op-Ed: Talbot County Ditches Can Help Save the Bay by Alan Girard

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It seems the lowly roadside ditch can have a higher purpose in life – saving the Bay.

Talbot County, and much of the Eastern Shore, is replete with roadside trenches. They are so prevalent along Talbot’s 370 miles of rural roads you hardly notice them. They have a humble purpose. They simply channel runoff from roads and farm fields into nearby creeks. But sometimes it’s the humble among us who have the greatest promise.

A recent article in the Chesapeake Bay Journal said parts of the Midwest have similar ditches. But in Indiana, Ohio, and other states people have discovered great potential in these otherwise ordinary gullies. The Nature Conservancy, local soil conservation districts, and local governments have discovered the ditches can help clean up storm runoff, not just flush it wholesale into creeks. With a few relatively simple tweaks, the trenches can become “wastewater treatment plants for farms,” as one Midwest environmentalist called them.

In one county in Indiana, 11 farmers have reduced nitrate flowing out of their ditches by 31 percent, and phosphorus by 50 percent. Similar projects are underway in 21 counties in Indiana alone.

If only we could do this on the Eastern Shore, the Journal article suggested. Well, guess what? We can. And we are.

The Nature Conservancy, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and other groups are working with the Talbot County government on pilot programs to modify roadside ditches, so they filter out pollutants that run off roadways and nearby farms.

The Talbot County Council has the opportunity to turn these experimental projects into a full-blown program. That’s exciting. Talbot County could be a pioneer on the Shore in this promising, cost-effective method for cleaning up local creeks and rivers. The county is currently eligible to apply for a low-interest loan of about $3 million to do over 150 ditch projects at targeted locations over the coming years. The loan would be paid off in relatively small increments over 30 years. And county staff have estimated that using ditches in this way could save county taxpayers tens of millions of dollars over alternative pollution controls over the long term.

Converting a roadside ditch into a filtration system can be a pretty simple thing. One strategy is to widen the upper portion of the ditch and seed that shoulder area with native grasses and wetland plants. When it rains, water coming off the road spreads up onto the shoulder and soaks in, instead of gushing straight into nearby creeks. The modified ditch is called a “two-stage” ditch.

On a recent day, Talbot farmer John Swaine watched as a backhoe carefully created 400 feet of two-stage ditch along one of his fields adjacent to Bellevue Road in Royal Oak. Swaine, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors of the Talbot Soil Conservation District, agreed to the pilot ditch project on this property because he values clean water. He said he had watched for too many years as brown, muddy water flushed off his fields after a rain storm into the county ditches, and eventually into a creek near his home.

Also watching the construction at Swaine’s farm was Talbot County Engineer Ray Clarke. He has proposed to the County Council that this sort of work could easily be underway throughout the county.

“We are in a position where we can make things happen,” Clarke said.

The expanded ditch program won’t be a “silver bullet,” for clean creeks, Clarke said. The county will still need to potentially hook some failing septic systems to sewer lines, continue to upgrade sewage treatment, and take other steps. But simply turning ditches into filtration systems could be one of the more innovative, and cheaper strategies, he said.

The 150 potential ditch improvement sites have been carefully selected as current “hotspots” of high pollution flow. This means the dirtiest water will be cleaned up first. The Nature Conservancy used topographic imagery technology to map the hotspots. That’s smart.

The pilot ditch projects suggest a broader program also would create jobs. Dan Kramer, the owner of Sweet Bay Watershed Conservation, the general contractor on the Swaine pilot project, said six men were working on the job. Think of the job creation if the Council approves over 150 projects. That’s also smart.

But the Council’s view of the proposed ditch program is uncertain. It likely will decide by April 14 whether to include the program in next year’s budget.

We urge the Council to undertake this program. It is relatively cheap compared to other strategies for cleaning our water. It is effective. And it will show Talbot is willing to do its share to reduce pollution.

All counties in Maryland have been asked to contribute to meeting the state’s goals under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. That’s the plan to make the Chesapeake once again safe for swimming and fishing, with all strategies in place by 2025. But in some Shore counties like Talbot, efforts have been lagging. The Council’s approval of the ditch program could help motivate the entire Eastern Shore to do its share for clean water.

Alan Girard is the manager of the Eastern Shore Office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

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