In Baltimore, Helping Congregations Prepare for a Stormier Future

Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake helps religious groups “green” their properties to reduce stormwater runoff and the pollutants it carries with it.

Vehicles washed into a pile behind a building in historic Ellicott City as flood waters raged through its streets following torrential thunderstorms in Ellicott City, Maryland on May 27, 2018. Credit: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Vehicles washed into a pile behind a building in historic Ellicott City as flood waters raged through its streets following torrential thunderstorms in Ellicott City, Maryland on May 27, 2018. Credit: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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BALTIMORE, Maryland—Tikkun olam is a principle of Reconstructionist Judaism that translates to “repair of the world,” and it guides the work of Bonnie Sorak.

While some people do their part by working with food banks, donating clothing or helping out in emergencies, Sorak said, “I just channel mine into environmentalism.”

Sorak is the outreach manager for Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, a nonprofit group made up of diverse faith communities that works to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which encompasses portions of six states and the nation’s capital and supports more than 18 million people.

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Sorak joined Interfaith Partners in 2014, just after Maryland elevated its standards for treating stormwater runoff in an effort to reduce the amount of pollutants carried into the Chesapeake Bay. The interfaith group aims to help as many as possible of the region’s more than 19,000 religious congregations produce safer stormwater runoff by planting trees, creating gardens and other projects that reduce the amount of pollutants or slow the flow of water.

“Our measure of success is how many green teams we get started,” Sorak said. The teams, also called creation care ministries, are made up of congregation members responsible for taking on such environmental projects.

The state’s revised stormwater runoff rules have caused enormous controversy, because of the fees they impose on private property owners with so-called impervious surfaces, such as roofs, sidewalks and driveways that are unable to retain water.

More than 45 percent of Baltimore is covered by asphalt, concrete, brick and other such materials that don’t suck up rain. During the worst downpours, water glides off them and amasses into a torrent, rushing toward low-lying areas. But there is more to the danger posed by stormwater runoff than its sheer quantity—quality matters, too.

Fresh stormwater carries with it ground pollutants that are swept along, including trash, bacteria and chemical fertilizer. In the Baltimore area, the runoff eventually flows into local waterways, including the Chesapeake Bay, which supports more than 3,600 species of plant and animal life. Climate change has only worsened this state of affairs: Precipitation from 2011 through 2020 was 24 percent greater than from 1981 through 1990. Storm intensity also has increased.

Although houses of worship may convene only once a week, their large roofs and parking lots still create runoff year-round. Interfaith Partners wants to help “make them aware of how they can make their ground more hospitable to all of God’s creatures,” she said. “You have a moral imperative to help to offset the pollution that you’re creating.”

A Controversial ‘Rain Tax’

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency established limits on the three major pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay—nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. The areas responsible for the pollution—Maryland, five other states and Washington, D.C.—have until 2025 to meet their reduction goals.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Maryland, for its part, ordered the state’s 10 most populous jurisdictions to restore “impervious surface areas that have little or no stormwater treatment with green infrastructure and other techniques.” Part of the solution, the state decided, was to charge private property owners for the runoff they were responsible for, and to put the collected funds toward further stormwater infrastructure projects, like installing permeable pavements.

“The anti-stormwater remediation fee folks ended up calling that the ‘rain tax,’” Sorak said. And, she added, “the faith community kind of balked at it, saying, ‘We are tax exempt and we shouldn’t have to pay this fee.’”

Gov. Larry Hogan promised to eliminate the tax during his 2014 election campaign. The fee was never fully repealed, but a bill passed by the Maryland General Assembly the following year made it optional, as long as jurisdictions could finance the new federal stormwater management requirements through some other means. Some places, like Baltimore County, shelved the fee, while Baltimore City has continued its use.

Property owners in Baltimore City, including congregations, can earn some of their money back if they take part in organized cleanups or remediate their runoff. Hundreds of congregations looking to do so have reached out to Interfaith Partners for help.

Not every congregation owns its own building, however, with some borrowing storefronts or renting property to conduct worship. Regardless of where it takes place, Interfaith Partners’ wants congregations to become role models for their members and wider communities.

It wouldn’t be the first time religious groups have been leaders on environmental issues in the mid-Atlantic region. Sorak said that faith institutions were also at the forefront of pushing Baltimore’s ban on styrofoam and the single-use plastic bag ban that went into effect in October of last year.

In Baltimore, Interfaith Partners works with Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit group dedicated to cleaning the area’s waterways, to do stormwater site assessments of houses of worship in the city. Remediation methods vary by location and situation, but some of the more common ones include installing cisterns to catch excessive rainwater, which is then slowly released after a storm has passed.

“Baltimore’s aging infrastructure is overwhelmed by these stronger and stronger storms that we’re having because of climate change,” Sorak said.

Another frequent project is the rain garden, which uses deeply rooted plants to absorb runoff and filter out pollutants. And for local animal species, “It’s not only treating stormwater, it also provides habitat and food,” Sorak said.

In some instances, the best tool to handle stormwater is with one that occurs naturally. “We call trees ‘God’s cure all,’” Sorak said. To that end, Interfaith Partners organizes events for volunteers to plant trees throughout the city.

So does Blue Water Baltimore, which plants from 750 to 2,000 trees a year. Leanna Powell, the group’s director of development and communications, described trees as a vital part of green stormwater infrastructure.

“​​They’re great at slowing down, storing and releasing water back into the environment in a more sustainable way,” Powell said. “A mature oak tree can retain, drink and hold up to 100 gallons of water,” after a heavy downpour.

Because Baltimore is notorious as a city heat island, planting trees also has the benefit of providing shade.

“We look at this problem as an environmental and social justice issue, because the communities that are most affected by polluted stormwater are the underserved communities and poor communities that suffer from lack of tree canopy,” Sorak said.

Powell added, “Our primary responsibility in tree planting is to the community where we’re planting them. And so we see trees as a really big piece of the overlap between water quality and quality of life.”

Two Storms, Two Cities’ Responses

Sorak has experienced firsthand how devastating unmitigated stormwater can be.

In 2016, her family car was one of the scores totaled during a flash flood in Ellicott City, Maryland. In the span of two hours, the 1,000-year storm dumped more than six inches of rain on the well-to-do community, transforming its downtown into a river and sending patrons scurrying to higher ground. Then, just two years later, the area was hit again by another historic flood, this one even worse than the last.

After the 2018 storm, “[Ellicott City’s] plan got developed and the funding is in place. And they’re starting to do the work already,” Sorak said about repairing and preventing future flood damage, which included an early flood warning alarm. 

But in West Baltimore, a section of the city that was inundated by both storms, as well—an area beset by countless other difficulties, such as lingering lead paint, and separated from Ellicott City by only a few miles—“we’re still talking about what the solutions are,” she said.

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Although Baltimore has been slow to implement new stormwater runoff measures, it’s faring better than some other places.

Jennifer Cotting, the director of the University of Maryland’s Environmental Finance Center, helps communities obtain and maintain funding for stormwater projects. She said that Baltimore’s stormwater fees provide the city with a steady income stream that can be used to borrow state money at below-market-rates for stormwater projects. Cotting also said that the fees were “equitable” because they’re “directly tied to how much runoff is coming from their property.”

But this is far from the case with smaller jurisdictions, she said, which often rely on their general funds for such endeavors. Grants are available, but they normally don’t address maintenance over time.

She added: “Some towns are very small” and don’t have a lot of staff. “Or they don’t necessarily have the knowledge in their public works department about how to take care of certain types of green infrastructure,” she said.

Amanda Rockler is a regional watershed restoration specialist at the University of Maryland’s Sea Grant Extension Watershed Program, and her work tries to address many of these problems. To tackle the issue of upkeep, for instance, she helps train community members to become “citizen leaders in stormwater” management.

More broadly, Rockler envisions a holistic approach for tackling stormwater pollution, one that takes into account health, wellbeing, aesthetics and plant and animal habitats. But, she said, “putting in these practices in ultra-urban spaces is very expensive, in terms of pound-per-dollar [of stormwater] reduced. And so, it’s got to be an investment that makes sense.”

Whatever solutions are chosen, Cotting said, new considerations regarding climate change should guide them.

“What kinds of changes do we need to make in our planning for what kind of infrastructure we’re going to put in the ground, whether it’s gray or green?” she said. “What are the places that are going to be inundated with flooding as we get more frequent and more intense storms?”

As Sorak knows, some of those places will be the exact same communities that, like West Baltimore, have already been flooding for decades.

“It just starts a whole cycle of disinvestment,” Sorak said. “People can only withstand that kind of trauma for so long before they’re gonna leave.”