Middle River watershed at a crossroads Consultant says drastic action is needed to save the waterway.

February 25, 1992|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Staff Writer

Bob Christopher pointed to a spot in Vandermast Cove where last summer a couple of dozen scattered water grasses had poked through the surface of the water.

Vandermast Cove is a little inlet of Sue Creek, part of the Middle River watershed.

Just 15 years ago, the water grasses were so thick that they covered most of Sue Creek, and a channel of water snaked its way through the center. The vegetation provided food and hiding places for peeler crabs, rockfish, pike and waterfowl.

TC "You could walk out into Sue Creek and in 15 minutes haul in a bushel of clams," said Mr. Christopher, a 32-year resident of the Sue Creek area. "Even in the deepest part of the creek, you could look down into the water and see the bottom."

Today, Sue Creek is a murky waterway with swirling silt. A lack of oxygen in the water, caused by pollution, is one problem. Another is that the mouth of the creek is too narrow, preventing tidal waters from Chesapeake Bay from flushing out pollutants. The result was destruction of the water vegetation, and with the grasses went most of the fish and waterfowl.

The wild celery and sedge grass that suddenly appeared last summer in Vandermast Cove is one of the few signs that Sue Creek and the rest of the Middle River watershed are still salvageable.

Richard D. Klein, an environmental consultant hired by the community to study the watershed, reports that Middle River and its tributaries are at a critical crossroads. If the county does not act now, he said, it will be almost impossible to save the waterway.

Middle River is one of the main waterways that empties into Chesapeake Bay along eastern Baltimore County's shoreline, so its health will ultimately affect the environmental condition of the bay itself.

Among the consultant's findings:

* The Middle River waterways have high levels of nitrogen, phosphorous, fecal matter, toxic metals and other pollutants primarily as a result of storm water runoff. That occurred because there were virtually no storm drains and sediment ponds during the development boom years of the 1960s and 1970s, and rain simply washed pollutants into the waterway.

* There are more boats on the Middle River than any other waterway in Maryland. More than 3,000 of the 5,000 boats registered in Baltimore County are moored there.

With the lack of water grasses to anchor the clay bottom of the waterways, congested boat traffic keeps the clay silt churned up. And murky water prevents sunlight from penetrating the surface and giving much-needed oxygen to all forms of water life.

Mr. Klein says reversing the decline "will be expensive."

He recommends that development in the Middle River watershed be slowed by changing the zoning designation in the undeveloped land in the Back River Neck and Bowleys Quarters peninsulas to limit the number of houses. In addition, he said, tracts of land that drain into the watershed should not be developed at all.

He also recommends installing storm water management devices, such as storm drains, in the older residential and commercial areas in the watershed. He supports a moratorium on marina development or expansion to keep in check the ever-increasing number of boats that use the waterway.

Mr. Klein also suggests opening up the causeway at the mouth of Sue Creek, the most endangered of the Middle River tributaries. The causeway blocks part of the opening where Sue Creek empties into Middle River, preventing water from being adequately flushed from the creek.

The causeway was built in the 1940s to link the tip of Back River Neck peninsula with Sue Island, at the mouth of Sue Creek, which is the location of the Baltimore Yacht Club.

The Back River Neck Peninsula Community Association Inc., which hired Mr. Klein, is holding a community meeting tomorrow night to try to get public support for the consultant's recommendations. Representatives of local government have been invited to the meeting.

"We want to demonstrate that we have an army of citizens prepared to do what is necessary, as positively as we can, to see that the waters of Middle River are restored," said Mr. Christopher, president of the Back River Neck organization.

County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, D-5th, who represents the district, said he supports much of what the community wants to have done to save the watershed. He has submitted legislation to give the county more enforcement power to limit new marinas in residential areas and to stop people from building piers on their own property and mooring the boats of family and friends there.

"But to go back and retrofit storm water management and do it right, you're talking about not only in the immediate watershed but along all the runs and streams that feed the watershed," said Mr. Gardina. "You're talking hundreds of millions of dollars here, and I don't know when the county will ever have that kind of money."

Mr. Christopher said he'd be willing to pay a special fee to help finance efforts to bring the watershed, and especially Sue Creek, back to its former environmental condition.

Riding around the Sue Creek watershed in his van, adorned with a blue and white SAVE SUE CREEK bumper sticker, Mr. Christopher points out all of the illegal marinas and four-story boat racks that line the creek's shoreline.

Once an avid boatsman and fisherman, Mr. Christopher sold his boat several years ago. He has only a rowboat now and rarely ventures out on the water.

"It's no fun anymore," he said. "Too many boats, and nothing to really fish for anymore."

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