It all begins with a single, innocuous raindrop.
Instead of splattering onto soil and oozing into the ground, as it would have done a half-millennium ago, the droplet lands on a roof, road or parking lot. From there, it zips along one hard surface to another. Until this tiny traveler finds a larger body of water — a ditch, a creek, the Potomac River — it is fair game for any pollutant that wants to tag along.
And that’s why, as far as the Chesapeake Bay is concerned, cities and towns are vast pollution factories, said Kelley Oklesson, a landscape architect based in Hyattsville, MD.
“Water moves downhill, so as it moves, it picks up a lot of things … that can go with it, like heavy metals, oil and trash,” she said. “And then it just continues to go to the low point, and that’s our Bay.”
For Oklesson, it isn’t enough for a client’s yard to look pretty. It must also be designed to prevent raindrops from destroying the fragile health of the largest U.S. estuary. So, she incorporates into her designs things from nature to capture and filter stormwater before it leaves the yard or garden.
Where did Oklesson gain the knowledge and skills to pull off such Bay-friendly projects? Not from her college degree, or even from a decade of experience in the landscaping industry. It mostly came, she said, from the Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional certification program, which provides training for designers, installers and maintenance personnel in the landscaping field.
Since its inception in 2016, the program has certified more than 800 professionals in Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia. The first class in Delaware began meeting earlier this year.
Reducing pollution from urban and suburban stormwater is one of the most important and ambitious aims of the multistate and federal Bay restoration effort. The training program’s leaders say they work to ensure that a qualified workforce is available across the 64,000-square-mile watershed to help carry out that objective.
“It’s a living system you’re installing,” said Joyce Kelley, a landscape designer and one of the program’s instructors. “There’s nothing worse than these projects that go in that [cost] several hundred thousand dollars that look terrible in five years or get mowed over.”
In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a “pollution diet,” officially called the total maximum daily load, aimed at making states more successful and accountable in the regional effort to clean up the Bay. The TMDL outlines limits for the amounts of pollutants each jurisdiction could send downstream. That set into motion a renewed cleanup effort with a 2025 deadline.
The Chesapeake Bay Program, a federal-state partnership that oversees the effort, recognizes more than 400 pollution controls, known as best management practices or BMPs, that landowners can use to reduce water pollution. They can take many shapes and sizes — rain gardens, pervious pavers and bioswales are just some examples — but the general idea is the same: slowing drainage toward the Bay, giving pollutants like nutrients and sediment the means and the time to separate from the water.
Installing a BMP, though, is only the first step. Each state is required to track the BMPs and verify that they’re achieving their pollution-reduction goals. That means they must be maintained properly throughout their life cycle to continue receiving credit toward the cleanup.
The maintenance responsibility falls to whoever owns the property — whether it’s a hospital, public school system, town government, private landowner or homeowners association.
A 2012 study commissioned by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission found evidence of tens of millions of dollars worth of BMPs already installed on private properties in Virginia — but nothing to indicate whether those practices were installed properly or are being maintained.
The study led to a statewide summit of industry, environmental, governmental and academic leaders. One of their top recommendations was to “build an effective and integrated network of powerful water quality and stormwater experts and advocates.” Afterward, members of the Virginia-based group Wetlands Watch, the author of the BMP study, began building financial and technical support to launch what became the Bay Landscape Professional program.
“Early on,” said Shereen Hughes, assistant director of Wetlands Watch and the Virginia coordinator of the landscape training program, “we saw that these stormwater practices were being implemented across the watershed to meet the TMDL. But when you look at those practices, they’re not always being maintained.”
It was not a problem confined to Virginia. In 2014, the Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee, whose members include local officials from around the watershed, said that increasing the pool of qualified employees and contractors to carry out restoration and protection projects was one of its top priorities.
“There’s a disconnect in the maintenance,” said Beth Ginter, executive director of the Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council, which co-manages the program with Wetlands Watch. She said she has too often seen property owners receive hefty grants to install a BMP, only to allow it to fall into disrepair because they lack the funding and expertise to maintain it.
Brent Jett, a senior project engineer with the firm George, Miles and Buhr, said some of his own projects have deteriorated across the Delmarva Peninsula for lack of proper care.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “You understand budget constraints and man hours. You hope for the best. But at the end of the day, it’s not your money and it’s not your land.”
An education in dry ponds
On a sunny and chilly February morning, Jett guided a group of about a dozen maintenance professionals on a driving tour in and around Seaford, DE, a former manufacturing hub in the southwest corner of the state. Once known as the “Nylon Capital of the World,” Seaford these days derives most of its economic vigor from its community hospital, a Walmart and a recently opened Amazon distribution center.
None of those institutions were on the tour. Instead, the itinerary included stops at a bioretention pond and bioswale outside a Catholic church, a fenced-in pond behind a government services building, and a “submerged gravel wetland” beside a medical office complex, which turned out to be a rock-strewn low spot tucked into a narrow strip between a parking lot and a dam-widened pond.
Clad in a black windbreaker outside a second medical complex, Jett steered the group toward a BMP with an oxymoronic name: a “dry pond.” It consisted of a shallow bunker rimmed with shrubs. As the moniker suggests, it’s intended to be dry most of the time, gathering water only after heavy rains, he said.
Local regulations require such ponds to handle stormwater during 10-year rain events, downpours that have a 10% chance of occurring in a given year. That equates to 5.6 inches of rainfall during a single event. But Jett said he routinely designs the ponds to store more water — up to 7 inches of falling rain — because climate change is triggering heavier cloudbursts.
“It literally rains differently now,” he told the group. “When we get 2 inches in a half-hour, it just blows everything out.”
Trailing along with the clipboard-carrying pack was Lisa Wool, executive director of the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance. This class — Delaware’s first — grew out of her concern that the region lacked the technical expertise to implement the new stormwater controls.
She acknowledged that the new methods involve more work and time. For example, workers may need to pull weeds with their hands instead of spraying an herbicide, which might kill desirable native plants, Wool said.
“A lot of these guys want to weed-whack, spray and then get out,” she said.
Wool directed grant money from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to bring the Bay Landscape Professional Program to the state. Initially, she and other organizers struggled to attract participants. So, they also used the money to fund scholarships, and the slots quickly filled up.
Rob Mason, who owns a landscape maintenance company based in West Ocean City, MD, said he hopes that the program can be a gateway to a new line of business. “There are not a lot of landscapers in this field,” he said as he leaned against his truck at the end of the Seaford tour.
He added that the program’s advice sometimes conflicts with his landscaper’s instincts to keep grass trimmed low and to avoid messiness at all costs. His new outlook: “Let it do what it’s supposed to do.”
Designing with nature
To become certified, participants must pass a final exam with a score of 75% or higher. The program offers a Level I certification, which emphases maintenance practices. Level II is available to graduates of the first level and provides an advanced course in design and installation.
Classes typically take place December to March and June to September to avoid landscapers’ busy seasons in the spring and fall.
Another early realization, Ginter said, was that there was no textbook for the region’s landscape professionals looking to green up their practices. So, with funding support from the DC Department of Energy and Environment, program officials wrote an 83-page Sustainable Landscape Maintenance Manual.
During the pandemic, organizers moved some of the education online and purchased equipment to make in-person interactions safer. But the health crisis did little to stem the program’s growth. Last fall, instructors integrated the curriculum — previously only available to working adults — with a class at a high school in Portsmouth, VA, and repeated the project this spring at a school in Gloucester. Some of the program’s partners are working to develop a Spanish language version.
Oklesson, the Hyattsville landscape architect, is certified in both levels.
She now tries to incorporate BMPs into her work even if they aren’t required by local regulations.
“Nature has had it figured out for so long,” she said. “We have so much to learn ourselves with how to design with nature.”
For information about Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional training, visit cblpro.org.