Anne Arundel Marshes Bog Down Erosion, Cleanse Waste

Aacc Professor's Wetlands Dot Severn

March 24, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

Stephen Ailstock believes the world could always use another marsh.

So he's been planting them. With help of students and Navy Seabees, the Anne Arundel Community College associate biology professor has been working to put marshes to work for the good of people, the environment, wildlife.

Ailstock is one of a number of scientists who say it's time the marsh got more respect.

The marsh -- once scorned as an unsightly breeding ground for mosquitoes, disease, evil spirits and all manner of crawling things -- has come a long way in the popular and the scientific view. Biologists who once counseled homeowners on how to kill marsh grasses now advise farmers, businesses, government and military agencies to consider planting them to stem erosion, clean water, filter industrial wastes and act as sewage-treatment systems.

"When you look at swamps and marshes," Ailstock said, "those ecological benefits are also benefits that meet the needs of business and industry."

Ailstock was among the scientists invited to present papers at an international conference on wetlands construction three years ago in Chattanooga, Tenn. Another is planned for next year. The conferences aim to promote the idea of using marshland to solve environmental problems.

The paper he presented described work done at the Nevamar Corp. plastics manufacturing plant in Odenton. In 1985, the college created a wetlands plant nursery next to Nevamar. The nursery is used to help cool water heated in the manufacturing process before it is discharged into a tributary of the Severn River.

The revisionist view of the marsh has come so far, Ailstock said, that "you can start putting dollar figures on the marshes" as they serve specialized purposes.

As an example, Ailstock points to the work done by the school's Environmental Center at the Navy's David Taylor Research Center, located on a point of land at the mouth of the Severn River. The Navy had knocked on Ailstock's door three years ago with a problem: shoreline erosion.

"The easiest thing to do would be to do the standard Navy contract, blow in the bulkhead, drink your beer and go home," Ailstock said.

Instead, he credits Lt. Chris Decker, former chief of the Seabee unit at the David Taylor station, and Joseph Hautzenroder, a Navy natural resources manager based in Washington, for trying an unconventional approach. It worked and saved a load of money. Ailstock figures it would have cost the Navy $500,000 to $700,000 to construct a bulkhead on 2,000 feet of shoreline. The work of clearing land, installing a recycled concrete breakwater, and planting a marsh alongthe shore ran about $50,000 -- $100,000 if you add what the free labor provided bystudents and the Seabees would have cost.

Erosion control, Ailstock said, can also save the cost of dredging.

The Navypeople got the idea to call Ailstock after seeing the experimental project the school had done about a half mile up the Severn River fromthe Taylor site. There, Ailstock and a crew of students planted a marsh along 1,000 feet of river-front property owned by a community college instructor. Again, the problem was shoreline erosion.

The Taylor job, in turn, led to two more Navy projects for the college. Ailstock and company have been asked to create a marsh for wildlife habitat on Greenbury Point, a Navy radio tower site just east of Taylor. Ailstock said much of the wildlife habitat was destroyed when the tower site was developed in the 1940s.

In Norfolk, Va., the community college is designing a marsh for filtering water as it emerges from the Naval Air Station's storm-water drainage system.

"When you think of the Navy you think of a strong engineering mentality," Ailstock said. "And when you think of a strong engineering mentality you tend to think of a lack of sensitivity to environmental concerns. That has not been the case."

The Norfolk project illustrates how marsh canbe used as an alternative to mechanical or chemical water-treatment systems.

The approach is being used successfully for treating sewage from homes in Mayo, in South County.

Anne Arundel County in 1989opened a 117-acre wetland in Edgewater made up of sand filters, peatbogs, bull rushes and cattails. The $58 million system -- which willserve up to 2,300 homes when completed next year -- contains none ofthe giant tanks or mechanical equipment associated with conventionaltreatment plants. The highest technology in the system is ultraviolet light, used as a disinfectant instead of chlorine.

The plant "looks like a big park," said Jody Vollmar, spokesman for the county Department of Utilities. Vollmar said the water discharged into the bayfrom the plant has failed to meet the state water quality standard only twice since it opened in March 1989. The discharged water has on occasion met the standard for drinking water.

The trade-off on thecost of computers, mechanical equipment and personnel is the amount of land these systems require. Vollmar said the Mayo plant is more than four times the size of any other sewage treatment site in the county.

Ailstock is encouraged by the Navy and county efforts.

"It's a matter of perception," he said, "communicating these multiple roles" for wetlands.

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