Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Flood Warning

When I attended the Lake Lariat Preservation Committee meeting earlier this month, I was told that I should become a member of the committee in order to have legitimacy in the eyes of the HOA. However, I am not sure that lake preservation is what I want to advocate. What about doing away with the lake and letting Mill Creek be what it was 60 some odd years ago? Would removing the Lake Lariat dam eventually lead to cleaner water flowing into the Chesapeake Bay? This is a question any community with a dam should ask about their own watershed.
Photo by Anders Sandberg

Aside from the water quality question, dams can lead to rampant destruction and loss of life, as South Carolina learned in the wake of floods last year causing 36 dam failures! Not all dam failures cause loss of life, but 81 of 336 dams in Maryland (including Lake Lariat) are high risk hazards by virtue of the potential consequences of a failure. Thirty-six dam failures in one state weighed against 71 dam failures nationwide in the five years prior points to a possible tipping point. If it is, three factors can be blamed for placing many at higher risk of flooding catastrophes: more extreme rainfall, more development, i.e. impervious surface, and aging of dams.

Dams have been built over the last 100 years or so with liberal safety factors for maximum probable precipitation. Aging of those dams beyond their 50 year design life makes them vulnerable to rainfall extremes even under their designed capabilities. Add to that the furious climate-driven increase in rainfall in the Eastern U.S. and you get catastrophes like South Carolina's.

We are in the middle of one of those rain spells here in Maryland. After a 4" rain last week, we have totaled almost 5" in the last two days, with lots more to come in the next few days. Rivers are predicted to flood. Hurricane Matthew may drop more rain here next week. I doubt if our dams would be able to hold it all. If you live downstream of one, don't be like one of the 17 people killed by dam failure in South Carolina last year. Take any flash flood warning very seriously.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Maps for Every Occasion

It wasn't too many years ago that everywhere we went, one of the first things we bought was a street map. Years before I needed those, I was always sending off in the mail for topographic maps, as a good Boy Scout, to plan and carry out hikes wherever I happened to be living. With our lives these days being so digitized, it's a relief that cartographic resources are so freely available to us through personal computers. The kind of maps that I am able to pull up through my county's geographic information system (GIS) portal may be the truest reflection of local geospatial reality in all of cyberspace.

The type of map that has recently been most beneficial to me is a combined street, topographic, and property map. I printed a collage of these showing every house in the area around Lake Lariat at a scale convenient to paste on a foldable piece of cardboard, which I can carry wherever needed. The resultant map allows me to plan my bike rides in search of dog walkers and to track where I have found allies in my quest to improve our poop scooping score.

My foldable map also helped me to locate and size up a particular private property that is a prospect for limiting runoff into the lake through work that I hope to do as part of my Watershed Stewards Academy capstone project. After contacting the owner, I found out that the area where I hope to work is also part of an easement, which my street/topo/property map does not show. There may be other links or layers available that could have shown me this, but I suspect that there are still significant datasets that are not yet loaded into the county's GIS.

In planning this capstone project, another GIS, the Web Soil Survey, will be helpful in knowing how to treat the soil for all the plants we will be putting in, though soil tests will be performed to corroborate and refine that information.

Once the project is complete, we can apply yet another map-based tool, the Stormwater Management and Restoration Tracker (SMART), to claim credit for how much this project will help the watershed. Anybody can use SMART to claim credit for particular stormwater practices that have been installed on their property. In my case, that includes four rain barrels, a rain garden, and conservation landscaping. A good way for a watershed steward to get to know how in-tune people are to stormwater management is to do a local survey in order to populate SMART for those households. This would also be a way for organizations such as the Lake Lariat Preservation Committee to track and map work done in the lake watershed to improve water quality and reduce runoff and to reach out to constituents in order to raise issues related to lake preservation.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Recruiting a Coalition of the Willing

Every person I speak with about the need to clean up dog mess is a likely convert. That is, according to an EPA survey, 56% of dog walkers are likely not to be intransigent poop polluters. However, it may take the threat of fines, or at least awareness of the law, to bring all of the 56% around. In the two encounters I've had with my excursions around Lake Lariat this week, the responses were not supportive. I heard versions of, "I don't leave it where it would offend anyone" and, "Other people are worse offenders than me." This doesn't mean that these two fellows won't eventually come around.

Getting dog walkers equipped needs to be the first step in changing their habits. I'm going to request a grant for buying portable poop bag dispensers that people can carry on their dog leashes. These could be handed out to walkers, giving them one less excuse. Other than that, a plastic grocery bag would be helpful to hold full poop bags until they can find a trash receptacle. I've gotten into the practice of tying this outer bag onto the loop of the leash. It doesn't smell and if a breach were to occur, it would be clear of my clothing. Some poop bag dispensers come with a point of attachment for dangling filled bags. These serve the same purpose as tying it to the leash and would be a way to encourage new converts to show off their compliance.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Taking it to the Street

It dawned on me today that to get dog waste picked up around Lake Lariat, it just takes about 13 of me walking my dog with roughly equidistant spacing all around the lake critical area. The best way to evoke behavioral change is with living examples. If I can get full coverage by at least one regular dog-walker throughout the critical area, then the visible example of them picking up after their pets will spread to others in their neighborhoods until it becomes the norm.

No need to spend time preparing signs, announcements, or information booths. The way to directly deal with this is to find people in the act of walking their dogs in their various haunts around the lake and simply walk with them and tell them what I'm trying to accomplish, look for signs of conviction, and obtain commitment. I want to be prepared to offer ideas and tools, if needed, for helping them to make cleaning up after their dog a part of their daily walks.

It will probably take more than 12 others to get full coverage, since I usually walk my dog daily about 0.75 miles and others may not be so regular or wide-ranging, but my initial goal is one in each sector. It looks like I'm in for some walking adventures in the coming months, gaining adherents and monitoring progress.
The Goal: One Dozen Poop Conscious Dog Walkers (Photo by Michael Coghlan)

Friday, September 16, 2016

You Too Can Be A Poop Scooping Pro

My newspaper-lined poop pickup bag method is working fine, but I will admit that, though it works great on a pile of dog biscuits, a fresh specimen of the real McCoy will often deter the most enthusiastic of composters. A day of drying can bring the less manageable nuggets to a condition firm enough to retrieve. Sometimes, when walking Gretchen, I will take a temporary pass on her pungent product and find a firmer one left from another canine in the recent past. It is easy to find these replacements because there are some well known dog latrines on all of our frequent walking routes. In other cases, Gretchen locates them for me.

Leaving my dog's feces on public property, e.g. the right-of-way, is an illegal act punishable by a fine, according to the county animal control regulations, so I would not do this in the public eye. However, if I make a practice of always removing at least one neglected stool from the roadside, I feel like a good citizen. Fines for leaving dog crap lying around in public seem severe, but you could be fined even more (or imprisoned!) for allowing it to accumulate in your yard. I don't know whether these laws have ever been enforced here, but maybe they should.  According to Mr. Dog Poop, the problem warrants even stricter law enforcement.

In order to ensure that I am prepared for my dog walk sanitation responsibilities, I have a kit that should be standard issue for every dog owner. It is easy to assemble, but an enterprising business person could possibly get them out in retail stores, also. The centerpiece is a fanny pack. In it are all of the items that my cleanup method requires. After each walk, I replenish it with the consumable items such as newspaper or bags, as needed. It beats stuffing my pockets with this and that each time I take Gretchen out. With this kit, it's just a quick grab and go.
My dog poop clean up kit includes poop bags, torn newspaper pages, grocery bags, and hand cleaner. A small garden spade or toy plastic beach shovel is also recommended for the impossible grabs.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Saving the Bay, One Turd at a Time

I ran into local award-winning environmentalist, +Nancy Radcliffe and shared with her my new resolve for picking up any of my dog's droppings that might cause problems for the watershed. Nancy, who is a leader in the movement to ban plastic bags, suggested that I use newspaper instead of the dog poop pickup bags so freely available. I told her I would do that, so here is the method I came up with. Easier to grasp this idea through demonstration, so a 3 minute video was made. You can tell I'm a little nervous at first, but my voice slows down to a normal timbre at the end.

I jumped on Nancy's suggestion of newspaper as a collection device because it enables easier composting and doesn't waste plastic bags. It is possible to dump a dog turd from a poop bag into a compost bin, but the newspaper allows it to drop out easily and, if you are careful, the poop pickup bag can be used repeatedly.

In an effort to further reduce plastic bag use, I plan to transition to using paper bags to hold the newsprint protected poop. It's just a matter of being particular where I shop and making sure they offer paper bags. I might have to start buying wine by the bottle :).

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Picking up Phosphorus Grenades

It has been shown that the microcystis aeruginosa bacteria that is associated with algal blooms occurring in Lake Lariat (among many other lakes in the U.S.) is responsive to reductions in phosphorus, but not to efforts targeted at nitrogen reduction. Since dog and cat feces contain more than the usual amount of phosphorus (compared to cow manure, for example), and dogs and cats produce manure close to their own body weight every month, there is probably about 20,000 lbs of manure and about 300 lbs of phosphorus being spread by dogs and cats around the "critical area" of Lake Lariat every month, assuming owners are already sending half of their pets' manure to the landfill. That comes close to 2 tons of phosphorus every year. Unlike nitrogen, phosphorus gets consumed slowly in the soil, so it is more likely to end up in the Lake, where it may accumulate to trigger algal blooms.
Photo by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
One thing to note about picking up dog crap in one's yard is that it should be done frequently, but at least prior to rain events. Letting it dry for a day or so is OK, if no rain is forecast. I like to time my pile pick-up rounds to coincide with rain-barrel draining when a storm is due the next day. As for dog walking, I've learned to take a couple of poop pickup bags and to have a plastic grocery bag to drop those into. The bigger bag gets tied on my belt until I can dump the contents in a trash can. I would consider composting these, but dog poop bags on the market aren't made for compost piles. Even the vegetable-based bags don't break down quickly or thoroughly enough. (Exceptions exist, e.g. Bio Bag)

For cat owners, the eco-opportunity is greater since cats are often given to going in a litter box. The key is finding a compostable litter. The late Gene Logsdon addressed this idea in chapter 3 of Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind. A great odor absorbing material to mix into the litter is ground up biochar. It is not going to break down much in the composting process, but it should enhance composting temperature and time. I'm thinking about hosting an Amazon giveaway with Logsdon's book as the prize. It could be a way to get agriculturally oriented people in my community thinking about manure composting.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Clean Yard, Clean Lake

While septic systems are the major contributor to water pollution in this area, we humanure machines also have dogs that contribute in a more distributed fashion. Normally considered an urban problem due to runoff often being quickly shunted to stormwater drains rather than directed onto the landscape for infiltration, it also warrants attention in suburban settings with less impervious surface.

Taking the Maryland fertilizer law single application limit for lawns as a reference point, a dog contributes about 0.75 pounds per day, so every 25 days or so will drop enough manure to exceed the 1,000 square feet nitrogen and phosphorus limits in the fertilizer law. Nobody fertilizes that frequently, so leaving dog waste to decompose in one's yard violates the principle of the fertilizer law (aside from the fact that it makes a mess out of your lawn). However, when a person walks their dog instead of leaving it in a yard all the time, a lot of their pet's droppings get distributed over an area much greater than 1,000 square feet, so it's probably not excessive and needn't be collected, except in urban areas, or where it is clearly destined to be washed into a storm drain, or when required by rules.

If the fertilizer law is valid, nowhere is it more so than in the critical area, to include around inland lakes and streams. I traced out a line 1,000 feet from Lake Lariat on a topographic map and found that my house is inside that self-imposed buffer. Fortunately, I already collect and compost my dog's waste. Using that compost in a project that can demonstrate its efficacy is going to be one way that I gradually accustom others in my area to the idea of humanure compost. I think the project will be a conservation landscape in front of my house.

Part of my campaign could be spent encouraging dog owners in the target area to pick up the dog shit in their yards, especially from November 15th to March 1st when no fertilization of lawns is allowed. Dog poop will tend to wash into runoff more during those months because the ground is less pervious due to freezing.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Lassoing Lake Lariat

It's hard to believe that the tiny floating tufts of vegetation in the photo here are capable of doing the work of about an acre of wetland shoreline in cleaning up pollution in a lake. These are artificial floating islands mimicking those in northern lakes. They actually do a great job in reducing nutrient and other pollution in Lake Lariat, Maryland. Since Lake Lariat covers 90 acres, a 90:1 ratio of wetland buffer to water surface seems like it wouldn't make that much difference, but the lake was significantly less polluted a year after these floating islands were introduced. 

Two small man-made floating islands are just off the point on the left.
The technology for these floating islands is described on the Maryland distributor's website. They employ a proprietary soil mix, which I can't help but wonder if it could be further enhanced by including biochar. Cycling of pollutants is principally through all the slime that accumulates on the plastic fibers and submerged roots of plants growing on the platform. 

The Lake Preservation Committee was interested in getting more of these islands, last I heard. With the latest blue-green algae bloom episode, we need to, but proactive measures to reduce runoff and seepage from septic systems would be necessary to eliminate the problem altogether. If we target a buffer zone of 1000 feet all around the lake, our campaign would probably include that many homes. I think cleaning up a lake is even more vital than cleaning up a major tidal waterbody, such as the Chesapeake Bay. For one thing, this lake flows through a dam into a bay tributary, so it is a point source of pollution. Another thing is that people living and playing in and around the lake are subjected to more risk because pollutants accumulate there, are confined to a much smaller volume, and may seep into aquifers.

Since all of Maryland's 100 lakes are man-made, using man-made islands to bring balance to those ecosystems seems like a natural fit. They can have other purposes, as well, including creating a causeway, artificial shorelines, hunting blinds, and biogas supplies. My own idea is to park them near the waterfront of property owned by anyone who balks at repairing a failed septic system and put warning signs to swimmers and fisherfolk to avoid that part of the lake. I hope it never has to come to that.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Blue-Green Waters of Lake Lariat

My approach to finding a good inspector for my septic system has resulted in disappointment. In my area, all of the inspectors on the state's list are not in the business anymore, not available at their listed number, or decided to ignore the training they got in order to do their inspections cheaply.

One of the people I called lives in my neighborhood, but never offered inspections. His name got on the list because he used to work for the county in some capacity dealing with sanitation and had taken the inspector training decades ago. It turned out I knew him from some events we had worked together in our community. I also saw him out on his run this morning - not unusual for this geriatric trackster.

Though my friend couldn't inspect my septic system, we continued to converse and he mentioned that the Lake (Lariat) Preservation Committee, which he serves on, had been considering soliciting residents along the lakeshore to have their septic systems inspected for a highly discounted group rate of $180. The inspection company offering the deal has a camera probe which would be one way to properly inspect components downstream of the tank.
Lake Lariat Beach - it's empty for a reason

The Lake Preservation Committee is interested in checking septic systems which could be contributing to a recent blue-green algal bloom of unknown origin. These blooms are associated with a bacteria that can harm the liver, so signs have been posted recently to discourage swimming.

This problem may be my opportunity - not only to tackle it as a part of my Watershed Steward Academy capstone project, but also to hire a well-equipped inspector for my own system. I don't know if the Lake Preservation Committee considered soliciting homeowners not on the lake to join in the deal, but I would open it up to as many homes in the community that want their system tested, with priority to those homes in the "critical area" of the Lake Lariat watershed. At the 14 September Lake Preservation Committee meeting, I will talk this up and try to get them to leverage SepticSmart week as an outreach platform.

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