Meet the Extension Agent Kelsey Brooks

Kelsey Brooks in her element — the outdoors. Photograph, Nicole Lehming
Kelsey Brooks in her element — the outdoors. Photograph, Nicole Lehming

Kelsey Brooks spent the early part of her career writing stormwater permits for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s largest jurisdictions. All that time inside convinced her she’d rather be on the other side: out in the field, helping nonprofits, county governments, and cities implement their own practices to reduce pollution. So last year, she joined Maryland Sea Grant as a watershed specialist. Brooks works with a team across Maryland, though she is based in northern Baltimore County and responsible for projects there as well as in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Carroll County.

“I prefer the carrots to the sticks, and this position is pretty much all carrots,” Brooks said.

In order to receive their stormwater permits, the largest jurisdictions (major metropolitan counties and Baltimore City) must show they are reducing pollution. Their permits have specific limits as to how much jurisdictions must reduce, but they don’t dictate the means by which they go about it. That’s where Brooks comes in. Working with a team of specialists, she can recommend a rain garden, rain barrel project, tree planting effort, stream restoration, or other green infrastructure features that will filter the water when it runs off streets and slow it down, reducing the amount that enters streams or the Chesapeake Bay.

In short order, Brooks helped develop the Harford Watershed Stewards Academy, which trains volunteers to be leaders in reducing pollution in their watersheds, and led master gardener training sessions. These watershed stewards are working on a floating wetlands project at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Baltimore County, which brings in thousands of visitors a year. The academy’s projects are visible, and its graduates become leaders for more green infrastructure projects in the community. It is an outgrowth of the successful program in Anne Arundel County, and Brooks is hoping to keep the program growing.

Brooks graduated from Princeton University in 2011 with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. She earned her master’s in city and regional planning, with an environmental focus, from Rutgers University and intended to work on making brownfield sites suitable for reuse. But then, she said, “Hurricanes Irene and Sandy hit New Jersey, and pretty much everyone became interested in water issues.” That brought her to stormwater management just at the time that many public entities were beginning to understand its importance, and as residents were beginning to resist having to pay for yet another thing.

With the four other watershed specialists at Maryland Sea Grant, Brooks is working to break down that resistance. The more communities can see the benefits of rain gardens, rain barrels, disconnecting downspouts to reduce the flow of runoff into sewers, and building pervious parking lots that absorb water, the more they will want to do. The more carrots Brooks and her colleagues can offer, the better the environment and the Chesapeake Bay can be.

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series about Maryland Sea Grant’s Extension agents in the field.

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