Rainstorm runoff from construction of a new private golf course in northwest Baltimore County has smothered a natural trout stream under a thick layer of mud and silt, renewing debate over how well the county is protecting its waterways from abuse by development.
County officials have ordered the firm building the Caves Valley Club, Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., to restore the stream, a meandering unnamed tributary of the north branch of the Jones Falls.
Robert W. Sheesley, county director of environmental protection, blamed heavy summer rains and the developer's failure to maintain sediment and erosion controls for six to eight inches of mud that blanketed nearly a half mile of the stream.
The stream is a spawning and nursery ground for brown trout and brook trout, two species highly prized by anglers but also very sensitive to pollution and disturbance. The silt from the golf course construction covered the gravel bottom that trout need to lay their eggs.
Willard Hackerman, president of Whiting-Turner, one of the state's largest construction firms, referred questions about the incident to Leslie B. Disharoon, a retired insurance executive overseeing the $32 million project.
Disharoon also refused to discuss the stream damage or anything else about the golf course, which is being built amid affluent neighborhoods on rolling, wooded land along Park Heights Avenue. The club was conceived by executives of some of Baltimore's biggest businesses and law firms as an economic development tool.
But Sheesley said the damage to the stream appeared to be easily correctable by removing the silt. Whiting-Turner has hired a firm specializing in stream restoration, Brightwater Consulting Services, to suction the mud from the stream bottom. That work is expected to be finished this weekend, said James W. Gracie, Brightwater's president.
If successful, the restoration would be just in time, because trout begin spawning at the end of October. Female fish lay their BB-size eggs on gravelly bottoms of cold, fast-flowing streams in the fall, and inch-long hatchlings emerge from the rocks in early spring.
Baltimore County has more trout streams than any other jurisdiction in the state, and county officials say they have the toughest development rules for protecting them as well. County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen, in fact, is to be honored this weekend by Maryland Save Our Streams, an environmental group working with county and state governments to restore waterways.
But Caves Valley residents and some environmentalists say the mud pollution and other problems at the club site raise questions about whether the county's stringent stream-side development curbs are tough enough for more than a dozen private and public golf courses that have been proposed in Baltimore County, some of them on similarly sensitive trout runs.
"This golf course should never have been built where it is," contends William Pistell, a retired business executive and former local president of Trout Unlimited who lives nearby.
Pistell blamed the stream damage on extensive land-clearing for the golf course, which bared a total of 174 acres. Gas and power line construction across the stream, in one case performed illegally without a permit, also contributed sediment to the stream bottom, Pistell said.
County inspectors were "overwhelmed" by the scale of work going on at the site, Pistell contended. He noted that the county unwittingly let the developer carve a sediment "trap" out of a federally protected freshwater wetland, an incursion the county ordered Whiting-Turner to restore after Pistell reported it.
"Caves Valley is supposed to be the cat's meow of golf courses, environmentally," said Richard Klein, an environmental consultant for community groups fighting development. He found in a survey last year that several existing county golf courses have degraded the streams that flow through them.
"The reality is that the county's ability to monitor golf courses is extremely limited," Klein said.
"Golf courses just have not had a very good track record with regard to trout streams," said Robert Bachman, freshwater fisheries director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But the damage often doesn't show up until years after the golf course goes in.
"Old trout streams don't die, they just fade away," he said.
Charles Gougeon, a DNR biologist, said the Caves Valley stream's recovery may be short-lived unless the county can keep any more mud from washing into it.
Gracie, also a Trout Unlimited member, praised the county's development controls, but said he thought mud from the construction site might have been easier to control if less land had been cleared at once. He also said the county gives developers too much time -- up to two weeks -- to seed and stabilize topsoil after they have bared it.
Sheesley defended the county's performance. The Caves Valley site has "state-of-the-art" mud-pollution controls, he said, but they were overwhelmed by downpours in mid-July and early August. The problem was aggravated, he said, by the builder's failure to clean out mud that built up behind plastic "fences" erected to keep sediment out of the streams.
Sheesley said the county could not keep golf courses away from trout streams, but officials are considering requiring even larger ponds to trap runoff on future golf course projects.
"Caves Valley . . . allowed us to modify some of our standards, to improve them even more," he said. "I never went into this thinking that on such a large project there wouldn't be problems."