New leaf collection program set to curb nutrient pollution

Posted 11/3/21

The City of Cambridge has issued 2021 guidelines for a revamped city-wide leaf collection program that will protect the Choptank River and local waterways from excess nutrient pollution. As a coastal …

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New leaf collection program set to curb nutrient pollution

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The City of Cambridge has issued 2021 guidelines for a revamped city-wide leaf collection program that will protect the Choptank River and local waterways from excess nutrient pollution. As a coastal community, water quality is important to Cambridge. Nutrient runoff from urban areas is greater in the fall season and can cause algal blooms, dead zones and otherwise poor water quality conditions in local waterways. Cambridge’s 2021 guidelines for leaf collection are designed to protect local water quality and implement best practices for keeping nutrients out of the river and protecting against local flood conditions.

Cambridge offers leaf collection service for city residents during the fall months as tree foliage changes color and leaves fall to the ground. The preferred and most eco-friendly method for leaf management is mulching or composting, but there’s an inevitable need for a city-organized leaf removal program.

The Cambridge Clean Water Advisory Committee advised the city that decaying organic materials like leaf litter can release excess nutrients into local creeks and streams, and that when and how leaves are picked up can greatly prevent nutrient pollution from reaching local waterways.

A 2016 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that 56% of the total phosphorus load in urban stormwater is delivered to local waterways during the two to three months when leaves are falling from trees. The study validates that a well-coordinated leaf collection program with the timely (at least weekly, and before forecasted rain events) removal of leaves from streets and storm drains can reduce 80% of that phosphorus load — a significant decrease in the overall nutrient load that comes from an urban area.

Cambridge’s revised leaf collection program incorporates strategically chosen guidelines based on the recommendations from the study, such as when residents can expect leaf pick-up to occur in their neighborhood, and how and where to properly stage leaves for pick-up. 

Residents who live in Wards 1, 2, and 3 can expect pick-up on Mondays, and those in Wards 4 and 5 will be picked up on Tuesdays. Residents are encouraged to call the city’s Department of Public Works at 410-228-1955 to be placed on the list for the next pick-up and to check what city ward they live in. City wards can also be located by visiting the interactive map of the city’s election districts.

Program guidelines also stipulate where residents should stage their leaves prior to their scheduled pick-up day. Leaves must be bagged and piled above the curb and not in the road. In fact, the 2021 guidelines cite the city ordinance (Sec. 16-9) that declares it unlawful to place leaves or other lawn debris in gutters or streets throughout the city. 

Loose leaves that are left in the street during major rain events contribute significantly to the nutrient pollution that the program is designed to reduce. When placed in the street, the decaying matter on the leaves gets picked up by rainwater as it drains to local waterways like Cambridge Creek and ultimately to the Choptank River.

Leaves in the street also cover and clog storm drains, ditches and other stormwater conveyance areas, increasing conditions that cause localized flooding. Piling leaves above the curb means less nutrient-rich decaying matter will wash into local waterways and less debris will accumulate on top of storm drains.

The 2021 program guidelines spell out exactly what type of bag residents can purchase that will be accepted, including biodegradable, compostable or otherwise paper bags. Plastic, non-biodegradable bags are discouraged and won’t be picked up by the leaf collection program.

Materials other than leaves, including sticks, grass clippings and other lawn debris left along the curb, will also not be picked up as part of the leaf collection program.

Maryland is working aggressively toward meeting the nutrient reduction goals of the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint, and locally the Cambridge Clean Water Advisory Committee is dedicated to reducing nutrient pollution in the City of Cambridge. The committee’s 10-year plan, titled “Working Toward Clean Water,” identifies six strategies for reducing polluted runoff, one of which is developing an urban nutrient management plan for the city.