September 3, 2008

Can 3 Polluted Local Creeks Be Saved?


EDITOR'S NOTE: The Maryland Gazette spent months probing the reasons behind decades of chronic pollution in Furnace, Marley and Rock creeks. In today's conclusion of two-part story, we explore the possibility of a cure.


The grim truth about local creeks closed by dangerously high levels of bacteria is that there is no easy solution.

Decades of pollution in Furnace, Marley and Rock creeks have many sources, failing septic tanks, stormwater runoff and an overstretched sewer system.

Ron Bowen, county director of public works, said the complicated cleanup will take initiatives both large and small.

There are things only government initiative cab take care of, such as multimillion dollar stream restorations and upgrades to the sewer system. But there are things that can be done on a smaller scale, things that a homeowner can do in the back yard or a small business owner can try in its parking lot.

"Humans introduce pollutants and we need a change in human behavior," Mr. Bowen said.

The three creeks, all tributaries of the Patapsco River, have been closed to human touch for almost 30 years. Dangerously high levels of enterococci, a bacteria that comes from human and animal waste, have kept them under a "limited use advisory." Health officials warn any contact with the water can make you sick.

Getting the bacteria out of the water is the most difficult challenge facing any cleanup effort.

Mr. Bowen called it almost impossible.

"In essence what you need to do is let it take its natural course," he said.

Instead, he said the key to cleanup efforts is preventing more bacteria from getting into the water.

Around Rock Creek, where thousands of leaking septic systems are a source of bacteria and nitrogen pollution, the answer may be the costly construction of a public sewer system. That will require an initiative by area homeowners.

"The only way we extend service is through petition. That's the only way we currently extend public sewer," Mr. Bowen said. "We aren't currently in a position were we can go to communities and tell them we are extending service to them."

Many of the communities around Rock Creek are in the county's master plan for future public sewer. For those outside the planned service area, the county recommends converting septic systems to a nitrogen removal system.

Nitrogen, which promotes the growth of algae, is a major Chesapeake Bay pollutant.

The problem, as always, is money. In most cases, the cost of public sewers is borne by homeowners. There is usually help available, as there is for conversion to nitrogen removal systems.

"In the perfect world we would be to hook to public systems and for those outside we would hook them up to nitrogen removal systems," Mr. Bowen said.

Stormwater control

Along Marley and Furnace creeks, the source of the pollution is widely believed to be stormwater runoff. Many communities around the creeks are highly developed, with rain water washing bacteria, chemicals, trash and other pollutants right off of parking lots and streets into the creeks.

Fixing that source will also require a heavy investment in rebuilding natural systems that can filter out the pollution. A full restoration costs about $2.3 million per half mile, according to county estimates.

"The biggest cost is the sand," said Keith Underwood, a stream restoration expert who grew up in Glen Burnie.

"But this way is cheaper than replacing (stormwater) pipes."

Mr. Underwood works with the Department of Public Works on restoration projects across the county, including one in 2007 that involved hundreds of school children on Marley Creek behind Marley Station mall.

On a recent trip to the site, Mr. Underwood pointed out a cardinal flower growing in the reconstructed stream bed.

"If that isn't a sign that this is healthy, I don't know what is," said Mr. Underwood.

"I think a lot of people don't know we have the tools to fix this."

His design for stream restoration is multifaceted.

First, the area is dug out and filled with a sand and peat mixture. This helps filter the water, and predatory bacteria in the sand that help eat up enterococci.

Boulders and smaller stones are added to create "step pools" and force the water to go through several stages of filtration giving it every chance to go back into the ground. This prevents flashes of warm, polluted water from rushing into the main waterways. It also exposes the water to a maximum amount of sun light, another major killer of bacteria, Mr. Underwood said.

Woody debris is then added to the streams to provide habitat for animals. It's also essential to removing carbon from the water. Finally, native plants native are added around the restored stream.

"We've been following one of the U.S. Geological Survey, groundwater-monitoring wells on the Magothy since 1973. The ground water tables there have dropped some 15 feet thanks to our mismanagement ... Projects like the one at Marley Station mall are trying to reverse that trend and raise them to appropriate levels," Mr. Underwood said.

A team from the University of Maryland, Center for Environmental Sciences, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory is studying stream restoration models to determine which are best at reducing nitrogen and sediment pollution.

The lab conducted a study of eight county streams, six of which have been restored. Data collected so far shows only two projects, Howard's Branch on Severn Run in Millersville and the Wilelinor Stream Valley outside Annapolis, have reduced nitrogen. Both are Mr. Underwood's projects.

"Another question we have is trying to determine if restoring streams that are close to the headwaters is better than restoring streams that are close to the tidal area," said Dr. Solange Filoso, a leader of the study.

"One conclusion I can make is we need to do both because these systems can get saturated. After a while the system won't be able to process it. Restoring downstream is good for now as long as we stop degradation upstream."

Smaller fixes

Tom Filip grew up in Baltimore County, and looks back fondly on his days spent crabbing and fishing with his brothers. He continues that tradition at his home on Stoney Creek.

"That's how we got through college and grad school," the retired Army Corps of Engineers employee said during a mid-summer visit. "I've been a crabber and fishermen on the bay my entire life."

Mr. Filip is the chairman of the Patapsco/Back Tributary Team, a volunteer group that coordinates environmental awareness efforts for the area.

He takes extra measures with his property to make sure his stormwater runoff does little to disturb Stoney Creek. Although the creek sits squarely between Marley Creek and Rock creek, it doesn't have the pollution problems that have closed those waterways.

It isn't surrounded by urban development like Marley and Furnace creeks, and doesn't suffer from a high concentration of leaking septic tanks.

His land is angled so the front yard is higher than the back yard, located on the creek bank. Pipes connect his gutter spout to hoses that snake it through his garden, easing the water into the ground slowly. He also uses rain barrels designed to collect rain and allow it to slowly leak out into the ground.

Trees and shrubs have been planted on the side of his property to capture runoff.

Mr. Filip's setup is relatively expensive, and while it won't break the bank for many homeowners it represents a commitment. He predicted a $200 to $300 addition to a homeowners' normal landscaping costs.

"The water gets polished before it goes into the creek," said Mr. Filip.

Similar small scale ideas could be a solution on commercial properties. Most were built when there was no stormwater management rules.

"That's how America grew in an era when people wanted to collect water and pipe it to streams as quickly as possible," said Mr. Bowen.

But retrofits are possible. By cutting a hole in the asphalt right before a storm water drain, a business owner can create a good place for water retention. The hole should be filled with a number of different plants that will absorb the water and help it evaporate.

Mr. Bowen said that simple step would help clear most of the toxins that come from cars.

Although there are a multitude of possible steps to reversing the pollution, many of those familiar with the problem say it will take a public effort to curb the damage to local creeks.

Mr. Underwood remained optimistic. He said that if everyone were do take some steps, the situation could be reversed.

"By the end of the next decade we can have Caribbean clear water in the Chesapeake. We can get it back," said Mr. Underwood. {Corrections:} {Status:}

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