(June 21, 2013) Anyone who’s driven through an Ocean City rainstorm is familiar with the sheets of water that cover roadways, making navigating the main strip risky business at best.
What is less obvious is the cause underlying the deluge.
Development along the narrow barrier island has swapped natural landscapes for impermeable roads, sidewalks, parking lots and roofs. Water flows across these surfaces, gathering pollutants along the way, and the entire soup eventually enters local waterways.
“Everything we put down drains, everything we put on our lawns … goes out into the bay,” said Gail Blazer, environmental engineer for Ocean City’s Department of Engineering.
The department is combatting the problem of stormwater runoff with a pilot project aimed to reduce runoff downtown.
Blazer and her team conduct water quality assessments of residential and business properties and then suggest mitigating efforts, known in the field as BMPs or best management practices, ranging from rain barrels and rain gardens to alternative, permeable surfaces.
The goal is to increased pervious surfaces exposed to the elements, allowing water to seep rather than run.
“What we’re trying to do is slow the flow down, infiltrate some of the water and decrease nutrients” carried into local waterways, Blazer said.
Nutrients, namely nitrogen and phosphorus, are listed on the Clean Water Act’s pollutants of concern because they contribute to algae blooms, she said. Algae need them to grow, but too many nutrients create an overabundance of the stuff, contributing to problems like toxic blooms and “dead zones” of oxygen-depleted water.
Nitrogen and phosphorus come from sources that include fertilizers, vehicle emissions and sewage effluent.
Bacteria also enter waterways with runoff and, in high enough doses, can cause problems from skin rashes and infections to hepatitis and dysentery.
Pollutants threaten human and ecosystem health as well as Ocean City’s economy, Blazer said.
“Tourism is our No. 1 industry here and they’re not going to come here if the water’s not clean,” she said.
The Engineering Department has helped carry out around 800 BMP projects since the early 2000s. By its former intern Jenelle Irwin’s estimates, they have reduced Ocean City’s phosphorus output by almost 8,000 pounds.
The projects have made a clear difference at Pyramid Condominiums, where four large filtering chambers were installed to catch rainwater about a year ago, said General Manager Robert Paroda.
In addition to remedying flooding in the complex’s parking lots after storms, the BMPs help slow the flow of water and keep it clear of pollutants that would otherwise gather as it flowed across impermeable roads.
“It’s just a clean way to get water back into the ground, where nature intended it,” Paroda said.
Yet, despite sending out hundreds of letters to homeowners in May, few people have solicited Blazer’s help, likely failing to see the benefits of BMPs, she said.
“Ninety percent of people would do the right thing, if they knew what the right thing was,” Blazer said.
“I think that’s the biggest hurdle — trying to get people interested,” said Department of Engineering intern Micki Ruppert, who is helping with the project during summer break Penn State University, where she is earning a bachelor’s degree in community environment development.
Both agreed that more outreach is the key.
Blazer called the benefits of BMP projects two-fold: As home and business owners use landscaping and gardens to reduce runoff, they also increase their curb appeal. The living landscapes benefit birds and other animals, too.
Longtime resident of Montego Bay, Marcy Hightower, recently installed a rain barrel with Blazer’s help.
“It’s truly going to help” reduce problems with runoff, Hightower said, and “it’s not complicated to put together.” She plans to use the collected rain to water her garden.
“There is a win-win here,” Blazer said.
Some of the costs of BMPs downtown are carried by Engineering Department funds and a matching grant by the Storm Water Management Rebate Cost Share Program.
Though the pilot project focuses on the area south of 18th Street, Blazer encouraged anyone interested in BMPs to contact her.
For more information or to set up an assessment, contact Blazer at gblazer@ oceancitymd.gov or 410-289-8825.