Dog Owners' Role in Improving Water Quality

Ed Murtagh - February 22, 2012

One simple way to help us green Wheaton and help improve the water quality of our streams is to pick up after your dog and dispose of the bagged dog waste in the trash.

Why is picking up your dog waste important? High levels of disease-causing bacteria (E. coli, giardia, and salmonella) are a problem in our local streams (Sligo and Rock Creeks and the Northwest Branch). These bacteria grow in the digestive tracts of mammals and get intoour streams through their waste.

Two major sources of disease-causing bacteria in our streams are pet waste and wildlife. In natural areas the bacteria is absorbed into the soil and filtered out. In Wheaton and the surrounding communities, so much of our land is covered with hard surfaces like roads, driveways, roofs, etc. that when it rains, the disease-causing bacteria gets flushed into our streams instead. In fact during and immediately following rainy weather, bacteria levels in our streams can be very high.

Another major source of bacteria is deteriorating sanitary sewer lines. Sanitary sewer lines are located near our streams. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) sewer mains are cracking and frequently leak raw sewage into our streams. From time to time, there are also sanitary sewer overflows.

With disease-causing bacteria in our streams, is it safe for people to wade (or for children to play) in our streams? I would not recommend going into streams during rainy weather for safety reasons in addition to the elevated bacteria levels.

According a county official with the Department of Environmental Protection, there are several common sense precautions if you are wading or playing in our creeks including:

If you are interested in the complete correspondence on this issue, visit this page on the Friends of Sligo Creek website Other simple ways to help your local stream can be found here: This link shows the bacteria levels that have been found at Sligo Creek

While picking up after your dog is a simple way to help our streams, repairing our leaky sanitary sewer lines will be much more difficult. As noted above, in addition to dog waste, leaky sanitary sewer lines are also a major source of disease-carrying bacteria in our streams.

WSSC has recently begun the process of making major repairs that will soon be seen in both Rock Creek and Sligo Creek Parks. In 2011 contractors working for WSSC were surveying Sligo Creek Park to create an inventory of our largest trees in preparation for major sewer repair work to start next year. This work is required as part of a 2005 consent decree that followed a lawsuit against WSSC for violations of the Clean Water Act.

Lot of work will be needed to clean up our streams, but by working together, we can make our streams clean and safe for recreation.

Interested in learning more about common sense ways you can help your local stream and community? Come to the Community Clean Water Summit on Saturday, March 3, 2012 from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (snow date Saturday, March 11, 2012). The Summit will take place at the Silver Spring Civic Building located at 1 Veterans Place, Silver Spring, MD, near public transportation.

Meet people just like you working to make Montgomery County a cleaner and healthier place. Interact with community organizations involved in the conservation of local streams. Learn how you can make a difference, make new friends, and have fun!

Register for this free event at, space is limited. Door prizes include: an REI 3 season tent, rain barrels and more! (must be present to win).

The goal of the summit is to make people aware of their impact on water quality and stream health as well as what is being done to improve it. There will also be plenty of volunteer opportunities for residents to get involved in too. We want people to walk away knowing more about their environment and that by just changing a few habits they can make a big difference in improving the health of our streams and drinking water.

You can register for the event by clicking on this link: