Of the many ways downpours disrupt the small town of North Brentwood, Maryland—from flooded basements to sodden front yards—one in particular is surprising: the walk to school. One of Prince George’s County’s oldest and lowest-lying towns along the Anacostia River is often overwhelmed by rain, with water pooling on roads and sidewalks, leaving children’s socks and shoes squishy as they head to class.
“There is water in areas we just don’t anticipate,” said Mayor Petrella Robinson. “It builds so fast and moves swiftly. It’s a problem for North Brentwood, but also for places all along the Anacostia watershed and demands action. It’s climate change, so we must change.”
A pilot project administered by UMD’s Environmental Finance Center (EFC) is helping towns across Prince George’s County like North Brentwood keep the waters at bay through “conservation landscapes”—water-thirsty trees, shrubs and plantings that offer a line of defense in flood-prone areas.
Created in partnership with Maryland Black Mayors, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Anacostia Watershed Society, the project is an outgrowth of the center’s 12-week stormwater education series to equip elected officials and staff in small Maryland municipalities with resources to manage stormwater impacts in their communities.
The bureaucratic process of managing stormwater can be as murky as the water itself, particularly for smaller jurisdictions, said Jacqueline Goodall, past president of Maryland Black Mayors, who first reached out to the EFC about creating an education outreach initiative for the group in 2018. Climate change, urbanization and antiquated infrastructure, she said, have created a perfect storm; small municipalities, particularly underinvested communities of color, are no match for the now-regular flood events.
“For many of these towns, it’s just the mayor and a handful of part-time staff. We need to meet them where they’re at and start those conversations,” she said.
Through technical courses and workshops, the stormwater series helped staff from six municipalities draft stormwater action plans that targeted issues like high-flood areas. Action planning templates, information on grants and opportunities, and networking with service providers—presented like “speed dating for stormwater”—helped municipalities identify new projects. The idea for a pilot conservation landscape planting program came after elected officials repeatedly voiced a vexing challenge: How do we incentivize our residents to care about stormwater?
“These towns don’t have a lot of public space to retrofit with stormwater mitigation interventions, like rain gardens,” said EFC Program Manager Natalia Sanchez. “They needed something to galvanize residents, but also move the needle while bigger infrastructure projects are planned and funded.”
The free conservation landscape pilot, which wraps up this month, outfitted 30 flood-prone properties identified by municipalities with rain barrels and either trees or conservation landscapes.
Forest Heights homeowner Troy Lilly has seen the insidious impact of stormwater in his own backyard; in the winter, stormwater runoff transforms the bottom of his driveway into an ice rink and has fractured the asphalt. As one of the pilot properties, he received a river birch tree, a species native to Maryland that will soak up excess water and requires little maintenance. The program’s impact, he said, has motivated neighbors and friends to follow suit and spurred the town to explore other opportunities for expanding its tree canopy.
“It’s a small step, but it builds momentum,” said Lilly, who is also town council president. “I think participating in this program has opened our eyes to where else we can impact environmental issues like stormwater and heat island effects. It’s important to Forest Heights, so this is just the beginning,”
Virtual workshops that took place in the spring and summer educated other homeowners on the benefits of native plantings for stormwater management and offered information on cost-fee programs they could apply on their own properties.
“This is a highly replicable initiative that can work across geographies,” said Sanchez. “I think there is an appetite for these types of partnerships. As long as there is a need, the EFC will be on the ground working in communities.”