Roadside Ditch Retrofits Reduce Pollution in Talbot County

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Native plants in roadside ditches like this one protect local waterways by slowing down, soaking up, and filtering polluted stormwater that runs off the road during rain storms.

Photo Credit: Kathy Bosin

Since 2013, the Talbot County Ditch Retrofit Project—a collaboration between the county's Department of Public Works (DPW), CBF, and The Nature Conservancy—has been working on an innovative program that will help Talbot County achieve an estimated 17 percent of its urban nitrogen pollution goal.

The fact is, roadside ditch retrofits are one of the easiest and most cost-effective means of reducing pollution from Talbot County's roads, developed areas, and farmland.

They may not look like much. But with a little gentle engineering, roadside ditches can provide a significant answer to water pollution problems. Talbot County has over 370 miles of county roads, many with roadside ditches. The ditches drain polluted runoff from farms, suburban landscapes, and streets, runoff that goes straight into local creeks and rivers. At strategic points in the system, ditches can be re-contoured and planted with native vegetation to slow down, soak up, and filter the runoff. These sorts of roadside man-made wetlands cost far less to implement than other pollution reduction techniques.

How It Works

Using high-resolution topographic maps, the DPW can now

  • pinpoint precisely where rain water drains from the landscape into the roadside ditch system and
  • rank the level of pollution risk to local water ways each location carries.

Using this data, DPW can identify high-priority locations where roadside ditches can be redesigned and retrofitted to achieve the greatest pollution reduction with minimal impacts to local farms and at the lowest cost. Scientists estimate that projects installed at 150 prioritized ditch locations can reduce nitrogen pollution entering local waterways by 8,000 pounds per year from developed land and 30,000 pounds per year from agricultural lands. Cost savings from retrofits in developed areas alone total more than $1.5 million over other standard practices.

Not only will the program help maintain property values associated with clean water, it will support local engineering and construction jobs that would put projects on the ground across the county.

The Talbot County Ditch Retrofit Project partnership brings science and management together to filter polluted runoff and help Talbot get back on track to meet its federally mandated pollution-reduction targets.

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