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This 3-part series examines the health of the Cheasapeake Bay. The Capital's staff writer, E.B. Furguson III looks at not only the problem, but also some solutions.


Ravaged by runoff: Paving funnels pollution, silt into bay

By E.B. FURGURSON III, Staff Writer
First in a three-part series.

The song is true: They've paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Water-absorbing woodlands in Anne Arundel County have been replaced by hardened surfaces that gush water and pollutants into our waterways and ruin filtering wetlands.

The resulting volume of water spewing from parking lots, streets, residences, farms and commercial buildings during rainstorms has caused untold damage that would cost at least $400 million to repair.

Multiply that volume over a century of intense development and you find what county residents now confront - eroded gullies, silted streams and clogged waterways where boats once passed with ease.

Storm water, carrying sediment and contaminated by nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants, has choked bay grasses, killed once plentiful crabs and oysters and spawned algae blooms that suck life-supporting oxygen from the Chesapeake.

That result was highlighted last week when the Chesapeake Bay Program monitoring revealed nearly a third of the bay is a dead zone, too low in oxygen to support life.

"Historically, we have been unwilling to change the way we design and build structures," said developer Michael Furbish, whose projects have included green roofs and living walls that use plants to absorb indoor pollution. "(We) have tried to manage the resulting problem by building expensive, and doomed-for-failure, infrastructures . . . Culverts, underground pipe systems, retention ponds have merely created expensive upkeep of systems that cannot be scaled to address the ever-growing problem. Now those chickens are coming home to roost."

The boom of the 20th century, especially after World War II, brought large tracts of homes and the roads to access them, then shopping centers and the parking lots to feed them. Every rooftop, driveway or patch of concrete road or parking lot exacerbated the problem.

Those impervious surfaces, so called because they prevent the ground from absorbing rainwater, help create a rush of water that experts call "flashiness," like in flash flood.

A recent study by the Chesapeake Bay Program found impervious surfaces in the entire Chesapeake watershed exploded by more than 40 percent, from 611,017 acres in 1990 to 860,004 acres in 2000.

That's the equivalent of paving an area the size of Anne Arundel County in the past 10 years.

Today, 17 percent of Anne Arundel is covered by impervious surfaces, according to the county's estimates. Many of those surfaces are near the county's rivers or directly on the waterfront.

"And there is a rule of thumb," said Jim Miller, county land-use officer. "Once there is 10 percent impervious surface in a given watershed, then you are no longer able to restore the pristine conditions of the free-flowing parts of the stream. All you can do is mitigate the impacts of that development." Some scientists think hitting 20 percent is the point of no return for a watershed.

Long-term damage

Repairing the hole gouged in Allan Kreider's back yard in Arden on the Severn will take four months and cost $1.2 million.

The project is on the county's list of priority watershed restorations set to begin next year with $450,000 from the county and more from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, state and federal sources.

Mr. Kreider's property is the low spot in the neighborhood, which sits above a stream valley that spills into the Severn River.

There were no drainage pipes in the community, nor any county storm water management regulations in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes hit. Torrents of water from the community's rooftops, roads and driveways tore through the yard and carved a gully in the hillside.

Later, the county installed drainage pipes in the neighborhood that connected to a large pipe erected across the gouge. It ended up making matters worse.

"That pipe failed and it started digging a deeper hole," Mr. Kreider said. He peered over the edge, where 30 feet below crumbled concrete and a broken section of pipe sat in the bottom of the hole.

The valley below, called Cypress Branch, was once thick with Atlantic white cedar trees.

That species was a sign of a healthy, working bog - a natural ecologic filter that once lined the shores of the bay and its tributaries, absorbing sediments that leeched from rain-absorbing forests, before waters washed into the bay.

There are but seven cedars remaining in Cypress Branch. The tall, dead hulks of others lean on the abundance of non-native trees, or lie in the foot-thick sediment washed into the valley on the way to the river.

The planned project will repair the erode hillside with a series of catch basins, then restore Cypress Branch to a functioning bog ecosystem.

'Solution is dilution'

When the county enacted storm water regulations in 1982, the engineering rule was to get storm water off the land, into pipes to carry it away. Where? Into the bay.

In the county's increasingly urban environment, that water, heated by pavement in summer, also carries oil, mercury, antifreeze and other spoils.

"The theory was - the solution to pollution is dilution," said the county's chief environmental engineer, Merril Plait. "We have learned that was a bad idea."

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, urban storm water is the largest source of targeted pollutants, like nitrogen and phosphorous, dumped into the bay from our area. In the Lower Western Shore Tributary area, stretching from the Patapsco River, through much of the county and then along a sliver of Calvert County, some 54 percent of the phosphorus and 37 percent of nitrogen entering the bay comes from urban runoff.

Sewage plants and septic tanks, the target of recent state legislation, contribute only slightly more nitrogen than rainwater rolling off our roofs, driveways, streets and parking lots.

Now the Environmental Protection Agency is beginning to study the impact of the sediments themselves, outside of the chemicals that hitch a ride with them.

County Soil Conservation District chief Jeff Opel is the only non-scientist on the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Sediment Workgroup panel studying that issue. The group is trying to determine how sediment folds into the overall bay strategy.

But he is cautious about labeling all sediment as bad.

"The movement of sediment and exchange of nutrients is crucial for the environment, it is needed," he said. The problem is the amount of sediment and nutrients generated by urban environments is more than the eco-system can take.

"It is out of balance."


Prevention practices may hold hope for ailing estuary

By E.B. FURGURSON III, Staff Writer
Second in a three-part series.

Wildflowers grow where Evan Belaga's 150-foot driveway once wound around an asphalt tennis court.

Large goldfish swim in a 30-foot pond on a third of that court. A tree grows in a raised stone planter in the middle of the remaining hard surface, where fading service lines are still visible amid mounds of topsoil sprouting hostas.

His nontraditional landscaping has a purpose: reducing the amount of water that would otherwise rush into nearby Weems Creek.

Mr. Belaga is one of a small but growing number of people in Anne Arundel who realize they can do something to slow the flow of storm water, a primary contributor to the problems plaguing the Chesapeake Bay.

Homeowners can run their downspouts into deeply dug gardens or hook them up to rain barrels that collect the first, and most damaging, inch of rain. Businesses can build rain gardens in parking lots, or even green roofs.

The county is encouraging such home remedies as part of a three-pronged approach to repair or prevent more damage to the world's largest estuary and its tributaries.

It has spent millions of dollars on projects restoring watersheds and since 2001 also has been pushing new storm water management techniques that put the earth to work absorbing the rain, rather than merely pushing it and the sediment it carries downstream and onto future generations.

"There are three rules: infiltrate, infiltrate, infiltrate," county Public Works Director Ron Bowen said.

The county's first set of storm water management regulations in 1982 called for construction of increasingly complicated piping, holding tanks and retention ponds for developments. To this day, they dump chemical- and sediment-laden water into streams and erode the earth.

Landscape architect Keith Underwood's company has perfected one of the cures, though he insists it's not all his handiwork.

"It takes the cooperation of a lot of people," he said standing amid a just-completed project he designed and shepherded along a tributary of Church Creek

It took help from state and county funding, neighborhood cooperation and hundreds of Anne Arundel County schoolchildren who grew, then planted rare Atlantic white cedar trees and other native species in the Wilelinor community off Route 2 south of Annapolis.

In a few years, a living, functioning sand and peat bog will begin to mature to fix that ailing waterway.

Several more such projects in the restoration pipeline are awaiting funding for the Underwood touch.

But those just scratch the surface of what is needed. Mr. Bowen estimates 700 more sub-watersheds in the county need similar attention.

Restoration man

Mr. Underwood's technique is simple in theory, complicated to execute.

What he does is create an environment where storm water is slowed, cooled and used to the advantage of the flora planted in place of the non-native species that occupy, then multiply, as sub-watersheds decline.

At his first major restoration at Howard's Branch, between The Downs and Sherwood Forest along the Severn River, what was once an invasive plant-infested, sludge-filled channel is now a working bog.

On a recent tour of the site, Mr. Underwood stopped to examine an emerging purple pitcher plant poised to gobble insects, to coo over a patch of spagnum moss creeping into a pool, or point to the cedar trees growing well out of the protective wire cages they were planted in four years ago.

With $378,000 from the Maryland departments of the Environment and Natural Resources, county Public Works and the Bay Program, he created two channels on the outside of the valley floor with a series of slightly elevated ponds, connected by stone weirs in the middle.

In a major storm, water will rise over the banks of the side channels into the ponds, slowing its flow.

Other water in the channels is slowly absorbed by the tons of sand between channel and pond. The sands cleanse the water, siphoning off chemicals and other sediments. That water then slowly trickles in to the ponds cleaner than when it fell as rain.

But what of the chemicals and nutrients? That's where the plants come in. Atlantic cedar gobbles up nitrogen and phosphorus and traps many other sediments in the peat that its roots and falling needles produce.

"In Howard's Branch what he (Mr. Underwood) did was create a system to remove the flashiness of the runoff, the quick impact of a storm," said Anne Arundel Soil Conservation chief Jeff Opel. "He created a buffer. There is no less water going into it, but he changed the way it moves. . . The same amount of sediment comes in, but Mother Nature is distributing it and using it."

Since Howard's Branch, Mr. Underwood has put together four other such projects, including the last one at Wilelinor. Most of the bog-creating projects take about three months and some $500,000 to complete.

Low-tech solutions

The operative term for the county these days is infiltration, directing rainwater into the ground, if soils allow, to slow the damaging peak flow sheeting off parking lots, roads and roofs.

The parking lot of the county office complex on Riva Road offers examples of some of the new methods:

Bioretention pits that collect storm water and send it into soil planted with trees and shrubs that in turn absorb nutrients.

Sand filters that absorb metals and chemicals that leach from automobiles. They are usually topped by soil and plants.

Infiltration trenches that capture runoff and over a period of hours, or days, let the water soak into the earth through a deep chamber of gravel and sand.

But county planners have yet to push those techniques as the primary storm-water tool for developers. Instead, the county encourages them by granting the builders credits reducing the amount of storm water they would have to account for.

Tom Pilon, Development Director for MIE Properties was at first worried about getting as much landscaping value in a site using bio-retention techniques.

The company's office and business park development off Riva Road utilizes many of the new methods.

"But it ended up looking good, we got some nice landscaping out of (that project)," Mr. Pilon said.

He said in general the techniques work well, and the company has used new infiltration methods, to varying degrees, in six other projects.

The county is watching such projects.

"Being innovative, these methods are, by their nature, new. So we don't have a long track record of how successfully they will work in the long term. As time goes by and we see more of these in place and functioning, they will become higher on the list." said Betty Dixon, the county's environment and land-use administrator. "There are a lot of variables like soils, site conditions to consider," she said.

The best scenario is not creating huge regional storm water facilities in the first place.

"We have to get in the mind-set to think of solutions on a small scale, where the problem is, rather than trying to channel things into large, centralized, complex systems," said local developer and green technique promoter Michael Furbish.

Historically those systems and their holding ponds get overburdened, filled with silt, and fail. The failure could range from merely ceasing to function effectively or a breach of a retaining pond that causes major destruction downstream.

There are more than 1,500 of those ponds in the county.

Though he has been leading the county's push for more modern storm water management, Mr. Bowen insists ponds still work: "If built to requirements, designed and built correctly, they are not a bad thing."

But the new methods are the wave of the future and the hope for our waterways, he says.

Dr. Ted Graham, water resources program director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, agreed. He used to run Montgomery County's environmental department.

"Those methods are all heading in the right direction. They are evolving technologies . . . there is a lot of art to them as well as solid engineering."

Home remedies

The county and local conservationists also are encouraging homeowners to take steps to reduce the runoff pouring from roofs, driveways and other impervious surfaces.

A rain garden is as much math as science: Homeowners measure the footprint of their home in square footage then divide by the number of downspouts, then divide again, by three for normal soils or five for sandy soils, to determine the size of the garden.

With that settled, they dig a few inches deep, level the bottom and spread hummus or other soil complements before planting. The downspouts are directed to run into the garden, where that first - and most damaging - inch of rainfall is absorbed.

Mr. Belaga has reduced impervious surface on his Weems Creek property by more than 5,000 square feet, he said while walking through purple coneflowers, daisies and other flowering plants taking root where a 200-foot driveway once circled through.

Another option for homeowners is a rain barrel, or two, connected to downspouts. The collected rain can later be used to water the garden or squirt off the dog.

Stephen Barry, who runs the county school system's outdoor education program at Arlington Echo Education Center in Millersville, has built and distributed more than 800 barrels over the past three years.

"We make them to order now," he said. "We can't keep them in stock."

He has sold barrels, mostly built from recycled 50-gallon plastic Coca-Cola and Pepsi containers, to people coming from Silver Spring and Takoma Park. "But I get the least response from waterfront communities, and they are the ones who should do it the most."

A more difficult and expensive method to capturing rainfall is a green roof, planted with flowers and other plants.

The county's new Southern District police station in Edgewater has one. So does the Edgewater office building owned by the Brick Companies, where CEO Lex Birney preaches about changes commercial enterprises can make to reduce their impact on the environment.

"The execution is difficult. .. but we are looking for lots of this, and a lot less of that," he said, pointing first to his planted roof then to the mass of blacktop and the flat roof of the Market at South River Colony, part of a 1,400-acre multi-use development.


Should homeowners pay the cleanup cost?

By E.B. FURGURSON III, Staff Writer
Third in a three-part series.

The bottom line to fixing the county's damaged shorelines and waterways is green - and it doesn't grow on trees.

With a growing backlog of $400 million in restoration work needed, county officials and environmental interests are quietly talking about charging property owners an annual fee that would average about $60 per household.

But getting that done politically in a fiscally conservative county could be as big a task as stopping the tons of polluted sediment washing every year into the Chesapeake Bay.

The county currently spends about $11.5 million a year to repair the ravages of storm water on Anne Arundel's watersheds. The proposed homeowner fee would raise an additional $20 million per year.

But the problem for those supporting the fee is finding a politician willing to carry the water.

County Executive Janet S. Owens says it's not something that will get done during her tenure and no County Council member has come forward publicly to sponsor such a bill.

As the debate goes on behind the scenes, the damage to local waterways continues.

Ten percent of Anne Arundel County's 1,239 miles of freshwater rivers and streams need immediate restoration to slow the effects of sediment pollution.

"It will take a public education campaign," said Ron Bowen, the county's director of public works. "We have to establish a process so people recognize the fairness (of such a plan)."

Mr. Bowen said there is precedent for attempting to create a specific fund to address a county-wide problem.

"Years ago our wastewater infrastructure was underfunded, but we were able to create an enterprise fund, a dedicated funding stream, to pay for it," he said of the county sewer system. "Today we have turned it around."

Ideas gel

Several years ago, Ms. Owens OK'd a plan by county officials to research similar storm-water funding mechanisms nationwide to find what works and what doesn't.

The consensus is pointing to a fee based on the amount of hardened surface on a property, like driveways and rooftops, also called impervious surfaces.

The money would be spent only on watershed restoration projects and related storm-water work like dredging projects and maintaining county-owned storm-water ponds.

The storm-water fund would charge property owners an annual fee, roughly $5 per month, based on an "impervious surface runoff unit." That would be determined by finding the amount of impervious surface for an average county home's roof and driveway. The current working figure is about 2,400 square feet.

Commercial properties would be charged at that rate for their total impervious area in multiples of 2,400. That scenario would raise some $20 million per year.

But property owners could also earn a credit, possibly up to 50 percent, for installing rain gardens, using porous pavers in lieu of asphalt drives, or using other techniques that allow rainwater to infiltrate into the soil.

But Mr. Bowen realizes whatever is done it must generate enough money to do the job.

"Is $60 a year enough?" he said. "We need to demonstrate results. The question is will we be able to demonstrate results to maintain the support of those folks who are paying into the fund."

'One Happy Meal'

"Would you be willing to pay $5 a month, per household, to see our water improved to clean the bay? That is about one Happy Meal a month." said Anne Pearson, who founded the Anne Arundel Watershed Network.

She is one of several people who have been meeting with community organizations around the county to kick off a discussion about the issues involved.

"If people think about it, we spend money on things that are a bit frivolous, not necessary. This $5 will contribute to the long-term health of the bay, and ourselves," she added.

So far they have talked to some 40 organizations and the response has been generally positive.

Even some business groups are supporting it.

"The home building industry is supportive of a storm-water utility fee for Anne Arundel County," said Susan Stroud Parker of the Home Builders Association of Maryland in a statement. "Unlike new residential communities or those about to come online, a majority of older neighborhoods in this county have little or no storm-water management. Because of the expense of retrofitting older neighborhoods, new development is always asked to mitigate runoff from adjacent communities. That cost is borne by the new home purchaser."

Several civic associations including the Weems Creek Conservancy, Generals Highway Council of Civic Associations, Annapolis Neck Peninsula Federation, Belle Grove Improvement Association have voted to support a storm-water fund.

Robert MacWilliams, a project manager for McCrone Inc., one of the area's primary engineering firms, said the fund is a good idea. He thinks new storm-water management techniques should be made mandatory.

"If your plumbing is broken, you need a plumber to fix it now," he said. "Well, our ecological plumbing is broken. We spend public money on infrastructure (roads, water systems). We need to take care of our ecological infrastructure, too."

Leaders balk

But county leaders are not ready to push for yet another fee after the so-called flush tax, a $60-per-year charge intended to pay for sewage treatment upgrades to reduce nitrogen in the bay was implemented this year.

"Faced with unfunded mandates for non-source point discharge and the daunting task of correcting the storm water management practices of the previous generations, it's important to begin looking at funding alternatives now," Ms. Owens said. "However, without all the facts on alternative funding sources, moving forward with legislation for a dedicated storm-water utility fund would be premature. This is not legislation that my administration will be able to see to fruition."

At least one councilman is not ready to take the leap either, especially going into in an election year.

"I will be very happy to discuss it," said Councilman Ed Reilly, R-Crofton. "But I need a groundswell of citizen support before I take that step."

He said adding a new fee could be difficult in a county where the conservative base won't even discuss removing the tax cap. It limits the amount of revenue the county can raise to the rate of inflation or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

"I don't know if it will get legs in the general population . . . Right now I see no interest on the part of the council to take such action."

The county's five riverkeepers, who advocate on behalf of the Severn, South, Rhode, West Patapsco and Patuxent rivers, brought the subject up at the July 18 County Council meeting.

South Riverkeeper Drew Koslow spoke about the presentation. "The growth and development throughout the county has had a huge impact on our streams and contributed a large part to sediment pollution. We have all contributed to the problem. The only way to get these done is to create a specific source to pay for them."

Conservationist John Flood points to another reason to act: "We owe it to the next generation. We should not rob our children of their natural heritage. And that is what we do when we do not control storm water," he said after climbing out of his skiff loaded with bay grasses for a shoreline restoration project.

"We owe our kids blue water and lush grasses like we had when we were kids."


 

 

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