Brent Walls pulled over on the side of the country road and started loosening the straps holding down his canoe. He was headed for a place on a nearby stream that was reportedly under assault by a herd of cattle.
It’s a common problem in the Potomac’s upper watershed: unrestrained cattle not only not befoul streams with their waste, but also trample the shoreline, causing erosion and sedimentation.
As the upper river manager of Potomac Riverkeeper conservation group, Wells’ mission was to check out the problem and hopefully find a solution.
The cattle operation was small, less than 25 head, and it was far upstream from our area. But Walls says he has found that pollution from these fiercely independent small-time meat producers is harder to control than the mega-scale fowl factories that get most of the press. And of course, whatever happens in a river upstream eventually shows up downstream.
Walls recounted this incident at a recent meeting of Potomac River bass fishermen. He wouldn’t be talking about fish, he warned at the beginning of his presentation. In fact, Walls said that he didn’t know much about fishing. Instead he talked about things such as “total maximum daily load” (a permissible pollution level), how metals drop out of acidified stream water, and the looming threat of hydraulic fracturing.
But the fishermen devoured these things like a bass inhaling a crayfish. For Walls, the fishermen and many others, the river is a part of our lives. When the river feels good, we feel good; when it hurts, we hurt.
Most of the time, Potomac Riverkeeper solves problems through the gentle art of persuasion and diplomacy.
When diplomacy fails to get polluters to follow the law, Potomac Riverkeeper sues. Backing up the group is a growing cadre of lawyers and other experts who contribute over $1 million annually in pro-bono to the cause of clean water.
Walls best likes working outside: “ground-hogging” erosion violations at construction sites, examining submerged automobiles, or paddling a canoe laden with trash. But mostly he's stuck indoors, often in government offices.
“I studied environmental science, so I know what goes on in aquatic water systems,” he said. “But a lot of what I do is checking permits against the water quality laws.”
Sharp eyes needed
Potomac Riverkeeper has a staff of only seven, so Walls says he depends on local organizations and individuals to extend the group’s reach.
For example, the more than 300 volunteers in the group’s Riverwatcher Program take pictures of whatever pollution they see―in a drain along a street, in a stream by a hiking path, or in the river itself―and pass them along. The group’s Get the Dirt Out Program takes specific aim at muddy runoff from construction sites.
If pollution snooping is not your thing, you can learn to monitor water quality by getting to know the tiny but telltale creatures that live in our streams. The presence or absence of certain species can point to progress in improving water quality, or warn of danger.
Montgomery County’s own Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) offers excellent classes for leaning to identify the aquatic stages of mayflies, dragonflies, caddisflies and the many other humble creatures that most people don’t even realize exist. Students go on to participate in hands-on monitoring expeditions.
The state also has a stream-monitoring program called Stream Waders. As with the ANS program, volunteers receive training and then participate in actual monitoring.
At the end of his talk, Walls did show the fishermen one picture of a smallmouth bass to make up for his non-fish-centric presentation. Many in the room smiled in appreciation.