Getting SMART about Clean Water
Online tool tracks where Marylanders are working to manage stormwater
Rain barrel. Credit: Amanda Rockler
SMART Tool map showing an area in Howard County
Decorative and functional, this rain barrel (left) helps homeowners to collect the stormwater flowing from their downspouts. When Maryland residents enter practices like this into the SMART tool site, they show up as red pins on a map (above). Green pins show the practices that have been verified by trained watershed stewards. Photograph, Amanda Rockler; map, SMART Tool map showing an area in Howard County

PEOPLE USE ONLINE MAPS for a lot of different tasks: to plot out their road trips or find a late-night pizza place. Now, a group from Maryland has created a site for mapping how Marylanders are working toward cleaning up their local waterways. It's called the Stormwater Management and Restoration Tracker (SMART) tool.

Local government officials in Maryland are hopeful that this new tool will help them meet the goals set out by a federal and state effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay — by giving counties a way to count some of the small-scale efforts to improve water quality that might normally be overlooked.

Watershed restoration specialists in the Maryland Sea Grant Extension program are spearheading the effort, which is in its pilot-testing phase. They work with communities across the state to help them target a big problem in the region: stormwater runoff. During rainstorms, water runs off roofs and gushes down driveways, carrying nutrients and sediments toward small streams within the Bay watershed. That steady flow can worsen the health of local waterways and eventually trickles down to the Chesapeake itself.

Scientists, engineers, and landscape professionals have developed a number of practices for containing and controlling this runoff. These practices allow communities to capture stormwater before it ever reaches a brook or a creek. Rain barrels, for instance, are small cisterns that collect the water streaming out of home downspouts. Rain gardens are specialized plant beds that are designed to sop up stormwater like a piece of bread dipped in soup.

Many homeowners around Maryland have already started installing practices like these in their front yards, says Jacqueline Takacs, a watershed restoration specialist at Maryland Sea Grant Extension who serves the southern Maryland region. The problem is that no record exists of where or when such efforts have been put into place. That's important, she and her colleagues argue. Marylanders want to help out with efforts to clean up the Bay, but they also ask "who is using my data?"

That's where the SMART tool comes in. Just as Google maps lets you see all of the pizza-by-the-slice places in your neighborhood, this tool maps out where Marylanders have installed rain gardens and similar stormwater management practices around the state. The team developed the tool in collaboration with experts in geographic information systems at the Center for GIS at Towson University in Maryland.

And it's easy to use: residents go to the tool's website and type in details about the sorts of stormwater management practices they've implemented at home. There are 11 different practices to choose from, including rain barrels and gardens.

The Maryland Sea Grant team will train volunteers to travel out to these homes to certify that the practices have been implemented correctly — that rain gardens, for instance, have been dug deep enough and are located where they can absorb the most stormwater. In the end, each home with a practice in place is marked on an online map with a colored pin.

Anyone in the region can use the tool, but the team is currently only verifying practices located in Howard County, Maryland. The site has already received around 400 submissions, and the team plans to expand the program to the entire state by late 2015.

It could also become an important piece of the multi-state effort to clean up the Bay called the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load. In 2014, the Chesapeake Bay Program, which oversees this effort, approved procedures that will allow local governments to include practices entered into the SMART tool toward meeting their cleanup goals. That could save Maryland counties money. And it would show homeowners that their efforts were contributing to a larger goal.

"Even 100 rain gardens may be a teeny-tiny piece" of what's needed to clean up the Bay, Takacs says. "But it's still a piece."

In addition to managing the SMART tool project, specialists with the Maryland Sea Grant Extension program have worked to combat stormwater runoff in a number of different arenas. They helped to launch four watershed steward academies in the state that train volunteers to carry out stormwater management projects. They also support a local green jobs program called the Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth (READY) program.

The specialists are working to develop a certification program for landscape contractors who install stormwater management practices called the Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional Certification Program. They also designed the Maryland Watershed Restoration Assistance Directory, an online database of organizations that fund efforts to slow down runoff.

To learn more about the SMART tool or how Maryland Sea Grant Extension's watershed restoration experts can help your community visit:

At the end of March, a new blog called On the Bay was launched as a service from Maryland Sea Grant and Chesapeake Quarterly magazine. Posts will include short essays, slide shows, podcasts, occasional videos, and frequent reporting on marine and environmental issues. From time to time we will carry guest-written posts contributed by those with Bay memories to share and by those engaged in studying, managing, or protecting the Chesapeake Bay's ecosystem.
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