Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Environment

Transit


Calculate your commuting emissions with Metro's new tool

Earlier this fall, WMATA's sustainability team developed a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions savings calculator and have launched a draft version on their blog, PlanItMetro. You can use it to compare their carbon footprint when taking transit or driving.


Photo by Leonski Oh Leonski on Flickr.

The tool is simple and intuitive to use, similar to WMATA's trip planner. Enter your origin and destination and the calculator will give you options for how to arrive at your destination via transit or by driving, and will tell you the total amount of CO2 emissions for each option. If your trip involves walking, the calculator will even give you an estimate of the calories you expended in the process.

Check out a sample entry I did for a trip I used to make from my old place in College Park as a student at the University of Maryland to the Coalition for Smarter Growth office near Union Station. By taking the Metro rather than driving, I reduced my carbon footprint by 61% and burned over 90 calories in the process.


Metro's carbon footprint calculator.


A map of transit versus driving routes.

The transit emissions the tool calculates represent your slice of the total emissions pie of Metro's fleet divided by all Metrorail or Metrobus riders. Since we have already invested in these transit systems, every additional person who boards a bus or train improves the efficiency of the overall system, while avoiding the emissions they would generate by driving.

But it's also instructive to see the significant emissions our transit vehicles emit. Reducing transportation emissions by using cleaner fuels for Metrobus and Metrorail should be a goal for our transit system as well. Public concerns over natural gas have been increasing, given the devastating environmental impacts of fracking. Recent studies suggest that natural gas' net climate impact may be even worse than coal.

Metro wants to move from using traditional diesel or natural gas vehicles to diesel hybrid buses. Today, the bus fleet consists of 41% hybrids, which will rise to 62% by 2018.

The emissions figures from riding Metrorail are based on the amount of electricity the system uses from Maryland's and Virginia's electricity grids. Maryland and Virginia currently both generate over half of their electricity from fossil fuels.

Maryland must generate 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, and passed a major offshore wind bill last year. Virginia is lagging behind Maryland, having only adopted a voluntary renewable portfolio standard. Someday, if we have a clean grid, Metro could also consider running trolley buses on clean energy like in Seattle and San Francisco.

If we are to lower emissions at the rate and degree scientists say is necessary to avert climate disaster, we will have to find a way to dramatically reduce our transportation emissions, which make up 30% of the Washington DC region's carbon emissions. Tools like WMATA's offer the opportunity for individuals to understand the environmental impact of their commutes and the benefits of walking, bicycling, and transit use.

Still, behavior change is difficult, and studies have found that carbon calculators tend to reach a limited and self-selecting audience. So how can WMATA improve the tool to maximize its impact?

One idea would be to illustrate the meaning of "kilograms of CO2" in easily understandable ways by comparing it to gallons of gas, the cost of gas, or home energy use. WMATA could potentially use data from this tool from the EPA, which compares kilograms of CO2 to a wide variety of everyday energy uses.

It would also be great if the tool incorporated more options, especially biking to transit stations. In testing WMATA's calculator, we also found that it didn't offer biking or bikeshare as options where those appear to be a convenient alternative.

In addition, the emissions savings from one trip may not be a huge motivator, but what if you could see the impact of riding transit and ditching your car for a whole year? Driving represents by far the biggest share of the typical American's carbon footprint, so switching to other modes over the long term is one of the most important actions an individual can make to fight climate change. The following chart shows the major contributors to the average household's carbon footprint.


Graph from NRDC and UC Berkeley.

Finally, WMATA's tool could work in concert with the Housing + Transportation Cost Calculator pioneered by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and adopted by the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities to show how transit-accessible neighborhoods can not only reduce your carbon footprint, but your living expenses as well.

What ideas do you have to improve WMATA's greenhouse gas tool? Let us know in the comments.

Roads


Montgomery passes on transit alternative to M-83 highway

Of all six alternatives for M-83, a proposed highway between Clarksburg and Gaithersburg in Montgomery County, Alternative 9 is the most expensive, environmentally harmful, and the one highway planners most want to build. Despite mounting opposition, the Planning Board rushed to vote in favor of it last Thursday.


M-83 opponents gather before the hearing. Photo by the author.

The decision went against recommendations from planning staff that the board ask the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) to consider transit as well. Staff detailed Alternative 9's potential environmental impacts, including damage to parkland and the county's Agricultural Reserve.

MCDOT deputy director Edgar Gonzalez cautioned against any delay in choosing an alignment, but admitted that MCDOT has not yet received their permits indicating that Alternative 9 will even pass federal environmental review. Comments from the Environmental Protection Agency indicate that Alternative 9's path through wetlands and stream valleys mean it may not pass Clean Water Act standards.

EPA, one of six federal agencies that will review M-83, also known as Midcounty Highway Extended, released their comments about it the following day, identifying "several areas of concern." To comply with the Clean Water Act, MCDOT would have to evaluate all "practicable alternatives" before choosing the Least Environmentally Damaging Preferred Alternative, which EPA officials feel hasn't occurred.

"While we recognize the importance of the County's Master Plan (Alternative 9) to this project and to the County," reads their response, "for the purposes of the Clean Water Act Section 404 the Corps must evaluate a suite of practicable alternatives based on the overall project purpose and associated impacts regardless of the vision presented in the Master Plan."

Public opposition to M-83 is high. The vast majority of speakers at Thursday night's hearing came from people opposing the new highway and advocating for a transit alternative. Over the summer, the Board received 237 comments from the public, 228 of which were opposed to the highway.

That's not to say there is no support for the highway. Some supporters live along Alignment 4, which would be equally destructive, and they would rather see the road go somewhere else. Others live in transit-poor Clarksburg and are convinced a new road would solve their commuting frustration.


Alternative routes being studied for Midcounty Highway. Image from MCDOT.

Following four hours of staff and public discussion, the Planning Board had 20 minutes left. Chair Françoise Carrier asked the other board members if they wanted to start deliberations that night. Amy Presley, board member from Clarksburg, insisted they start. It quickly became clear that she had two other votes on her side to approve Alternative 9.

Over objections from the chair and Casey Anderson, she insisted on making a motion to ignore planning staff and the public and vote in Alternative 9 as the Board's preferred alignment.

Everyone appeared stunned by the outcome and speed of the decision. Typically, the Planning Board takes much longer to decide, especially when there's a major disagreement or they are going squarely against staff recommendations and the public. It's equally surprising that they acted without seeing comments from the federal environmental review of the highway, which Gonzalez said he had not brought with him.

M-83 has been in Montgomery County's master plan for 50 years, and MCDOT has been conducting its most recent study for 10 years. Why the rush now?

The primary reason seems to be the drive to "fix" development problems in Clarksburg and make it up to some residents who feel like many undelivered promises have been made. This marks the second time in two months that the Planning Board has disregarded the recommendations of its staff about Clarksburg, the first time being recommendations to protect Ten Mile Creek from new development.

But for an estimated cost of $350 million, M-83 is likely to be an expensive band-aid for Clarksburg's congestion woes. MCDOT itself predicts that there will be more congestion if M-83 is built than if it were to make minor improvements to Route 355.

Clarksburg was built to be a transit-oriented community, but its promised frequent transit service never materialized. For $350 million, the county could make needed improvements to 355 and get their Bus Rapid Tansit system moving on that corridor, which the County Council is likely to approve today. This would provide a much longer-lasting way out of congestion for Clarksburg residents.

Gonzalez and MCDOT created a sense of urgency that the board must vote to keep M-83 "on track" with their hopeful schedule, and not slow down to study transit or other less destructive alternatives. We'll find out this spring if the County Executive and County Council will do the same when they decide whether to include the road in their next budget.

If you live in Montgomery County and would like to urge your elected officials to reconsider this highway, you can send them an email here.

Events


Events roundup: It's getting warmer

The federal government is still closed, but this week you can still talk about how climate change affects your health, get updates on the Purple Line, explore the changing character of Brookland, and help to make Florida Avenue safer at events across the region.

Update on the Purple Line: Tomorrow, the Action Committee for Transit hosts Mike Madden of the Maryland Transit Administration for the latest news on the Purple Line at its monthly meeting. Governor Martin O'Malley recently announced that the state will seek a public-private partnership to build and operate the line, which could start construction as early as 2015 if it gets federal approval this fall.

The meeting will be at 7:30pm on Tuesday, October 8 at the Silver Spring Civic Building, located at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street, just a few blocks from the Silver Spring Metro. For more info, visit ACT's website.

Brookland: Old and New Again: Join CSG for a walking tour to learn about the changes happening around DC's Brookland neighborhood this Saturday, October 12th, starting at 10am outside the Brookland-CUA Metro station. Learn about the impact that new construction and renovation of vacant buildings is having on residents and visitors, and what other changes are coming soon. To stretch your legs and learn more about this evolving neighborhood, RSVP for the tour here.

It's finally Florida Avenue's time: The District Department of Transportation will hold the second of three meetings on the Florida Avenue Multimodal Transportation Study next Thursday from 7 to 9pm at the Jordan Student Academic Center at Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Avenue NE. The purpose of the study and plan is to ensure the corridor is safe for all users including people who walk, bicycle, drive, and use transit. For more information, visit DDOT's website.

Climate change and your health: Join award-winning science and health journalist Linda Marsa and Bob Deans, Director of Communications at the Natural Resources Defense Council, for a conversation about the public health implications of climate change. Marsa will discuss her new book, Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health - And How We Can Save Ourselves, along with topics including green infrastructure and setting limits on pollution.

The event will take place at 6:30pm tonight at Busboys and Poets, 1025 5th Street NW in Mount Vernon Square. For more information, visit the event's website.

Sustainability


Divestment helps local governments fight climate change

Climate change is real and happening faster than scientists ever predicted, posing devastating impacts for our low-lying and vulnerable region. So how are local governments responding to the crisis?


A simulation of extreme flooding from 1936 Potomac flood. Screenshot from Vimeo.

Activists want DC to divest, or take its money out of fossil fuel stocks as one way to demonstrate its commitment to urgent action. Tomorrow, DC Divest will hold an event to educate people about local climate impacts and the local movement for divestment.

The scientific consensus around climate change has been strengthening over the past two decades, while forecasts have only worsened. For the DC region, a 2008 report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments predicts sea-level rise up to a foot by 2030 and over three feet by 2095.

As if our summers weren't hot enough for local farmers or our already-struggling Metro infrastructure, scientists predict temperatures will continue to rise up to 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2095. While we narrowly missed the worst of the path of Superstorm Sandy, various studies indicate more extreme weather events like last summer's derecho storm will only become more frequent and intense.

In addition, a recent report from the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin predicts climate change could cut water flows in the river by 35% by 2040. The Potomac currently supplies 75% of the region's drinking water.

Summary of climate impacts for the DC region from MWCOG 2008 report.
Summary of climate impacts in the DC region from MWCOG's 2008 report.

Needless to say, climate change poses a major threat to our region's ability to provide very basic necessities like fresh drinking water, protection from flooding and disasters, and access to fresh, local food. Despite the scientific community's certainty and frightening predictions, a mixture of climate denialism, vested special interests, and inertia have combined to stall practically any action on Capitol Hill thus far.

However, the story at the local and regional level tends to be brighter. Local governments, which face less pressure from the fossil fuel lobby, are making some important steps towards lowering emissions from their energy, transportation, and land use sectors. DC recently completed its Sustainable DC Plan, with a goal of making DC the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States.

Earlier this year, the District got started by signing a contract to use wind power for 100 percent of the city's electricity needs. Meanwhile, Governor O'Malley recently announced several ambitious goals for Maryland, including reducing emissions 25% by the year 2020.

Across the river in Virginia, action has been slower. But just a few days ago, mayors fed up with their gubernatorial candidates debating the very existence of climate change gathered to tell them to stop debating and start taking action to protect the state's many low-lying communities. "The fact of the matter is, we've got rising waters," said Republican state senator John Watkins. "We've got recurrent flooding. There are more 100-year storms in the last 15 years than we've ever seen."

While local activists applaud local and state jurisdictions' climate plans, it's clear that we are still doing too little, too slowly to truly address a crisis of this magnitude. So in addition to the very practical and important solutions proposed thus far, local activists have begun encouraging local elected officials and institutions to take a moral stand and "put their money where their mouth is" by taking their investments out of any holdings in fossil fuel companies.

The strategy harkens back to the successful campaigns to end apartheid in South Africa and to urge universities and institutions to divest from the tobacco industry when it became clear smoking was killing people.

Fossil fuel divestment advocates around the nation argue we shouldn't be investing in companies with business plans that rely on wrecking our planet, and that divestment sends a signal that if fossil fuel companies won't get serious about climate change, it's time to leave the industry behind. Here in our region, advocates in DC and Montgomery County have recently started serious campaigns to encourage their elected officials to divest.

Activists in the District are still working to get full disclosure on the amount of the city's retirement funds, General Fund, and Health and Annuity Trust invested in fossil fuel companies. They already know that about 3.3% of the Health and Annuity Trust is invested in fossil fuels. Research shows that that moving the District's modest investments in fossil fuel companies to more socially responsible funds is a very low-risk proposition, and could actually be more profitable.

So far, several DC councilmembers have given DC Divest organizers a warm response. Just a few days ago, Phil Mendelson introduced the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act of 2013 with several co-sponsors.

We need to move swiftly to cut emissions locally if we want a chance at maintaining a livable and competitive region. This includes shifting to wind and solar, and energy efficient buildings. It also includes many of the ideas frequently discussed in this blog, including investing in transit, not more highways, and in the compact, walkable, bikeable, and transit-oriented neighborhoods that all contribute to reducing transportation emissions.

If local governments have already committed to these principles and to action on climate change, investing in fossil fuels runs directly counter to their stated goals. Given the negligible fiscal impact, divestment ought to be a no-brainer for local governments and institutions eager to preserve a hospitable region for future generations.

To learn more about climate change's impact to our region, and the movement to divest from fossil fuels, visit DC Divest and attend their upcoming "Draw the Line DC" event tomorrow at 2pm at Lincoln Park in Capitol Hill. Organizers will have displays illustrating future sea-level rise along the DC waterfront and other impacts we will face if we fail to act.

Kelly Blynn was a co-founder of 350.org and is currently the Next Generation of Transit Campaign Manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. However, the views expressed here are her own.

Development


Clarksburg residents call to protect environment, add transit

The 1994 Clarksburg Master Plan envisioned a "transit- and pedestrian-oriented community" in upper Montgomery County with comprehensive transit service, a bustling town center, and phased development to protect the environment. 20 years later, many residents feel the promises have been broken.


Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

Instead, Clarksburg has little transit, no town center, and children who are bused across the street to school. Residents have formed a new organization, the Liveable Clarksburg Coalition, to influence the process for the final stage of development, which they call "our last chance to get it right." Their first meeting on May 26 drew a standing-room only crowd of 250 people.

The Liveable Clarksburg Coalition wants to halt further development until the plan's promises are fulfilled. And they warn against any development that might put pristine, environmentally-sensitive Ten Mile Creek at risk.

A town without a center, TOD without the T

The Master Plan called for 4 stages of development. Property owners in some areas could not build until adequate sewer infrastructure, some roads, and parts of the town center were in place. Meanwhile, safeguards tried to protect the health of Ten Mile Creek, called the county's "last, best creek."


Map of Clarksburg showing each of the 4 stages along with existing and proposed transit. Click on the image to see an interactive map.

The first stage was Clarksburg Town Center, which broke ground in 2000. Stage 2, including the Clarksburg Village and Arora Hills developments, started around 2003. And work began on the third stage, Cabin Branch, last year. The continuing construction suggests that development has gone smoothly. But actually, the opposite is true.

In 2004, residents discovered hundreds of site plan violations, a scandal that led to the resignation of the Planning Board chairman. The town center that was supposed to come first never got built; instead of stores, a supermarket, and a library, there are 17 acres of vacant land.


A man walks through Clarksburg's future town center. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

For Clarksburg to get its first supermarket, set to open in Clarksburg Village this year, the County Council had to pass a limited amendment waiving the master plan's requirement that commercial development happen in the town center first.

Meanwhile, the promised "comprehensive transit system" has turned out to mean 2 Ride On routes: the 75, which runs every 30 minutes on weekdays between the Germantown Transit Center and the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, and the 79, which runs non-express every 30 minutes during rush hour between Clarksburg and Shady Grove.

The Corridor Cities Transitway was supposed to stop in Clarksburg at Comsat, 2 miles south of Town Center and across I-270 from Cabin Branch. Now, the Maryland Transit Administration plans for the still-unfunded line to end at Metropolitan Grove in Gaithersburg, 9 miles south.

And as for pedestrian-friendly roads: children in the Gateway Commons neighborhood take the bus to a school across the street because it's unsafe for them to cross on foot. There will be a crosswalk and traffic signal after a bypass of Route 355 is built, as the master plan calls for. However, the bypass would go through the school.

Plan requires more evaluation before developing around Ten Mile Creek

The fourth and final stage of Clarksburg development is on the east side of Ten Mile Creek. Because the creek is environmentally sensitive, the master plan requires the County Council to evaluate its water quality before Stage 4 can begin.


Photo by Dan Reed.

If the water quality is worse, they must decide whether to require property owners in Stage 4 to take extra measures to improve the creek, study the water quality further, make changes to Stage 4 to prevent additional deterioration, or just let Stage 4 go forward anyway. In 2009, the Department of Environmental Protection completed the required evaluation and found that construction in Town Center had degraded the water quality in the Ten Mile Creek watershed.

The Planning Board recommended that the County Council amend the master plan to change Stage 4. Instead, the council appointed a water quality working group to study whether planned development could occur without harming the watershed.

The working group's recommendations split along predictable lines. Consultants felt that development could continue without problems thanks to more stringent requirements for stormwater management and sediment control.

However, the majority of the group, including county government staff, a Clarksburg resident, and a member of an environmental group, felt that the planned development could not happen without harming the Ten Mile Creek watershed. They cited studies that show urbanization at any level degrades water quality, as well as the way construction at Town Center had already degraded one Ten Mile Creek subwatershed.

This majority recommended changing the master plan for Stage 4, and last October, the County Council asked the Planning Department to prepare a limited amendment to the plan.

The stakes are high

On June 20, the Planning Board will hold a worksession to present and discuss the proposed amendment. A public hearing will follow in September. If the Planning Board votes to endorse the amendment, it will then go to the County Council for a final vote that will determine how Stage 4 development will proceed.

Groups including the Sierra Club, Audubon Naturalist Society, and the Liveable Clarksburg Coalition are calling for changes to the Clarksburg Master Plan to protect Ten Mile Creek and support the vision of Clarksburg as a transit- and pedestrian-oriented town.

However, the two major developers in the watershed are pressuring the county to let Stage 4 proceed without major changes. Pulte Homes owns 538 acres in the Ten Mile Creek watershed and says they've spent $70 million preparing for the 1,000-unit development they're already advertising. And the Peterson Companies want to build a Tanger Outlet Center on a 98-acre property in the creek's watershed east of I-270.

Councilmember Craig Rice, whose district includes Clarksburg, has introduced 2 bills that would let projects with pervious pavers include more paved surface area than the Master Plan's limits would otherwise allow. Planners say that these bills "propose a solution to a problem that does not exist, and would create new problems."

For nearly a generation, development in Clarksburg has been a history of missteps, mistakes, empty words, and broken promises. Instead of a transit- and pedestrian-oriented town, the first 3 stages of the Clarksburg Master Plan have produced a car-dependent, transit-less sprawl. With the master plan amendment on Ten Mile Creek, Montgomery County has one last chance to get development in Clarksburg right.

Events


Get parking right and many more events

Spring is here (or maybe it's just an early summer), and that means there's lots to do both inside and outside! Next week is an exciting Coalition for Smarter Growth forum on parking with guest Jeff Tumlin, and CSG has many great walking tours through June.


Photo by elgringospain on Flickr.

You can learn about DC's civil war forts, celebrate Earth Day on April 20 itself or at fairs before or after, go to happy hours and hear speakers on public space.

And if you can't wait to do something, tonight is a public meeting on the Union Station-Georgetown streetcar segment. DDOT will brief the public on its analysis of "premium transit" (i.e. streetcar) through downtown to Georgetown. DDOT director Terry Bellamy has also promised to update people on wireless technologies which can preserve clear viewsheds.

The meeting is tonight, Thursday, April 11 (or last night for those reading the daily email), 6-8 pm at the Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square, L'Enfant Map Room.

Learn about forts: BF Cooling and Gary Thompson, founders of an effort to preserve DC's civil war circle of forts, will give a talk about the forts and their history on Monday, April 15, 7-8:45 pm at the Tenley-Friendship Library.

Get parking right: Next Wednesday, the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) is hosting national parking expert Jeff Tumlin to talk about ways cities are fix parking policy to match supply and demand and build a system that works better for everyone. Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT planning head, will talk about how DC might use Tumlin's ideas.

The forum is April 17 at the Center for American Progress, 1333 H St. NW. There are refreshments at 6 and then the program from 6:30-8:30. RSVP here before it fills up!

Be green around Earth Day: Saturday, April 20 is Earth Day, and there are a lot of great events to celebrate and learn more about how to help the environment. The Anacostia Watershed Society is having a cleanup and celebration, first helping clean up the river at 20 sites from 9 am to noon, followed by a celebration at Bladensburg Waterfront Park.

The Town of Vienna is having a Green Expo on Thursday, April 18, 6:30-9 pm to show off ways to make your own home and life more sustainable, while Loudoun is having a festival on Sunday, April 28th.

Be happy in Arlington: CSG and the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization are cosponsoring a happy hour in Arlington on Monday, April 22 from 6:30-8:30 pm at William Jeffrey's Tavern, 2301 Columbia Pike. Ask questions about what's going on down the Pike or just meet people and have fun!

Improve the public realm: That same day, NCPC is hosting a speaker from London, Helen Marriage, to discuss ways that city is making its public spaces better. A panel afterward will talk about how some of the ideas could come to DC. That's also 6:30-8:30 pm on Monday, April 22 at NCPC, 401 9th Street NW, Suite 500 North.

The RAC is listening: The WMATA Riders' Advisory Council wants to hear from more riders, especially about how upcoming Silver Line service and changes to buses and trains will affect riders. To that end, they're holding listening sessions outside WMATA HQ, starting with one on April 24, 6:30 pm in the Charles Houston Rec Center, 901 Wythe Street in Alexandria near Braddock Road Metro.

Walk and tour: CSG's spring walking tour series kicks off April 27 with a tour of White Flint, followed by 14th Street, Fairfax's Route 1, Wheaton, and Fort Totten in May and June. Space is limited, so RSVP for your favorite tour now!

Sustainability


Appreciate our furry ecosystem engineers

The DC area's beaver population has boomed in the past 20 years, and that's a great thing.


Beaver at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Photo by Glyn Lowe Photoworks on Flickr.

It's a sign that our region's waterways, having suffered from decades of channelization, pollution, neglect and mismanagement, are starting to regain their ecological health, though much work remains to be done.

The industrious creatures' presence brings challenges when their work conflicts with human activity, but beavers, which biologists recognize as a keystone species, benefit the environment far more than many people realize.

There are many tools for coexisting with beavers and the other creatures their ponds attract, even in highly developed areas. The alternatives to coexistence tend to be inhumane, ineffectual and shortsighted.

The beaver, North America's largest native semiaquatic rodent, is often misunderstood and greatly under-appreciated. Yes, they do cut down trees and build dams that can flood parts of low-lying areas. But these activities bring a host of benefits for ecosystem health, biodiversity, other wildlife, and for water quality, erosion abatement, flood control, and even act as carbon sinks that take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

Beavers abounded throughout North America prior to Europeans' arrival, and they were almost certainly abundant in our region, which boasted a great deal of marshland and a plethora of streams, some of which humans have built over or removed by human activity.

Beavers were hunted and trapped nearly to extinction by the turn of the 20th century, mainly for their fur. But one of the greatest success stories of the modern wildlife conservation ethic has seen the industrious rodents return to almost all of their historic range.

At the same time, efforts to allow native vegetation to grow along stream beds in urban and suburban areas to improve water quality has recreated attractive habitat for beavers. They have come to inhabit creeks and streams in urban and suburban areas across the US, where their activity has at times come into conflict with human desires.


Sign at Lake Artemesia in College Park. Photos by the author.

Nature's engineers now inhabit a number of waterways in our region, including Rock Creek, the Anacostia River and its tributaries (including Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens), Lake Artemesia in College Park, Roaches Run Pond in Arlington, and Lake Accotink in Springfield, just to name a few.

Stories of trouble stemming from beavers' handiwork have appeared with regularity in the Washington-area press in the past two decades. In some cases, such as when beavers felled some of the beloved cherry trees along the Tidal Basin in 1999, trapping and removal of the beavers is unavoidable (luckily, this particular colony was able to be relocated to a more favorable site in the area). But in others, humans have harassed or killed beavers and destroyed their dams for no good reason.

One such incident occurred in Hyattsville's Magruder Park (located, aptly enough, on Beaver Dam Park Road) in the spring of 2011. One or more beavers dammed up the small stream draining into the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia on the park's west end, creating a small pond, which also covered a small portion of the adjacent parking lot. This did not seem to present a significant inconvenience to park visitors, and park managers cut a hole in the dam in attempt to let some water drain while retaining the beavers. But sadly, the dam was found broken up one morning in April along with the carcass of its architect.


This beaver-created pond still stands at Magruder Park in Hyattsville. Photo by the author.

The trouble with exterminating beavers is that, as long as the habitat in question remains reasonably healthy, other beavers are likely to come to the same spot. Each year, beaver parents evict their one or two-year-old offspring from their lodge and they go in search of new homes. And no matter how many times humans destroy a beaver dam, beavers will keep rebuilding it.

So in places like Magruder Park, unless park managers were to remove all the vegetation around the stream and keep the area clearwhich would be undesirableto keep removing beavers each time they show up is to fight a losing, and ecologically foolish, battle.

It is far better for people to learn to coexist with their wild neighbors. In cases where flooding or high water levels are the issue, several devices exist to regulate water levels while leaving beaver dams intact and tricking beavers so that they do not seek to raise the water level.

Trees can be protected by wrapping their trunks in cylindrical cages, and a low fence will keep beavers away from a particular group of trees. Beavers tend to fell fast-growing tree species that have little commercial value, and this culling makes room for more, bushier growth the next spring, restoring a more diverse mix of flora to the wetland area over time. Beavers largely subsist on seaweed, clover, and land and aquatic plants other than trees.

Beaver ponds attract and sustain other wetland-dependent creaturessuch as turtles, herons, otters, ducks, and many types of birds and fish. They also do a good job of retaining stormwater runoff, allowing pollutants to settle out before the water moves downstream. Beavers have also become a unique cultural asset to cities and towns: they are local celebrities in places like the Bronx River in New York and Chicago's Lincoln Park.

But perhaps the best-known "downtown beaver" success story comes from Martinez, California, a Bay Area city that rehabilitated part of the creek that runs through the center of town. When a beaver colony established itself there in 2008, the local government threatened to have them removed. But citizens' organization Worth a Dam rose to the creatures' defense, and the city has come to celebrate its newfound furry, feathered and finned denizens, which have even attracted visitors from around the country and overseas (many of whom arrive on Amtrak).

The challenge of coming to terms with beavers in urban areas is a microcosm for the necessary large-scale work of reconciling human needs and desires with the natural systems that sustain all life. In our region, we can and should find ways to allow, and even help, beavers to do what they do best: maintain healthy wetlands. In return, we will enjoy cleaner water, better regulated stream flows, less severe flash floods, and the chance to interact with a wide array of wild creatures.

Sustainability


Barry: "Have courage" and pass the Maryland bag fee

Yesterday morning, DC Councilmembers Marion Barry and Tommy Wells went to Annapolis together to brief the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus on the success of DC's 5¢ disposable bag fee, and ask them to support a similar proposal currently before the Maryland General Assembly.


Photo by the author.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act (HB1086/SB576) would mirror the District's Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act and Montgomery County's bag law, which impose a 5¢ charge on all disposable plastic and paper bags retailers give out.

As in DC and Montgomery County, the bill intends to reduce the number of disposable bags shoppers use, and thus reduce litter and water pollution. Grocery stores report giving out 70% fewer bags since the fees took effect.

Delegate Michael Summers (D-Prince George's), a lead sponsor of the bill, introduced Barry as "everybody's mayor," and caucus members and the audience responded with a standing ovation. Barry went on to explain how Councilmember Tommy Wells had convinced him of the need for the bill by taking Barry out to the banks of the Anacostia River and showing just how much plastic bags pollute the river.

Wells provided context and rationale for the bag fee, and called it the "most successful environmental initiative in DC." He described how discount grocery stores like Aldi and Save-a-Lot have never given bags away for free, as part of their commitment to keeping prices as low as possible.

Barry concluded the briefing by urging his Maryland counterparts to "have courage," noting that the "community benefits are worth far more than five cents." After the meeting, Barry committed to further supporting the effort. "We have to do more to educate them," he said.

While the Anacostia River has seen significant reductions in plastic bag pollution, more than half of the river's watershed is in Prince George's County, which does not yet have a bag fee.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act was heard by the Senate's Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The next public hearing, before the House Environmental Matters Committee, is scheduled for March 8. In addition to Summers, the bill's sponsors are Delegate Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City), Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery), and Senator Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery).

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