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‘Two conservancies’ team up to produce handbook for protecting the Potomac.

Everything flows downhill.

Stephanie Flack of the Nature Conservancy spends her days trying to remind people of that. Not just water but also fertilizer, lawn chemicals, liquid car wax, and basketballs left in driveways on rainy afternoons. Downhill means, sooner or later, into the Potomac River and then to the Chesapeake Bay.

A rain garden can help. Rain gardens are placed in low-lying areas and specially designed to capture water runoff from paved surfaces and absorb it into the ground. Pollutants are naturally filtered by the soil before reaching the river system. Rain gardens can be attractive, easy to establish and require less maintenance than typical gardens.

Flack, Potomac Gorge project director for the Nature Conservancy, has many such suggestions, enough to fill a small book. So in 2003, she and Matt Beres, then a program manager for the Potomac Conservancy, began writing one.

The result is the “Good Neighbor Handbook: Tips and Tools for River-Friendly Living in the Middle Potomac Region,” which appeared last spring.

The 42-page book suggests simple and inexpensive measures that homeowners near the Potomac can take to protect the river and the rare ecosystems that it supports.

“We tried to think about what are the full range of topics we could put into a user-friendly and accessible guide,” said Flack. “We tried to make it visually engaging.”

The free handbook, produced with funding from the National Park Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, was mailed to homeowners adjacent to the Potomac River and is posted on the “two conservancies’” Web sites.

THE HANDBOODK has 10 chapters on topics such as controlling invasive plant species, landscaping with native plants, minimizing light pollution, and creating backyard wildlife habitats.

Most of the suggestions are simple; some are as simple as giving chipmunks a place to take cover by chucking your old Christmas tree behind the house rather than to the curb.

“We talk about simple stuff like make sure you don’t overfertilize your lawn. Maybe you can make a garden with native plants,” said Heather Montgomery, conservation program assistant for the Potomac Conservancy. “They’re simple choices. As simple as turning off lights at nighttime.”

BEGINNING NEXT week, representatives from the Potomac and Nature Conservancies will lead four public presentations about the handbook and the practices it outlines.

The first meeting will be March 8 at the Clara Barton Community Center in Cabin John, followed by meetings in Washington, D.C., Arlington, and McLean later this month.

The groups hope that the four initial meetings will spark interest among homeowners’ associations and civic organizations, which can arrange their own presentations.

The conservancies have already trained four volunteers to give future presentations about the handbook, Flack said.

“We’ve gotten a lot of interest in it even beyond the immediate Potomac Gorge area,” Flack said.

That’s good news: The handbook’s overarching goal is to encourage a large number of people to make one or two small changes at home, not to cause a small number of people to become eco-warriors.

“Rather than feeling, ‘What difference does my little decision make?’ consider the cumulative effect of the 4 or 5 million people who live in this region,” Flack said. “It’s the sum of the parts.”

FIND OUT MORE

To download a free copy of the 42-page Good Neighbor Handbook, visit the Potomac Conservancy’s Web site at www.potomac.org and click the link on the right side or visit The Nature Conservancy's handbook Web site at www.nature.org/goodneighbor.

To request a printed copy, contact the Nature Conservancy’s Nitza Deane at ndeane@tnc.org or 301-897-8570.

Civic and community groups may arrange free presentations. Experts from the Potomac Conservancy and Nature Conservancy and specially trained volunteers will give the presentations. Call the Potomac Conservancy’s Heather Montgomery at 301-608-1188 x 207.