Neighbors wary of plan to prevent flooding Consultant to recommend re-creating stream channel

August 02, 1993|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff Writer

Eleven years ago, Anne Arundel County promised John Agro and his Fern Glen Manor neighbors that their flooding problems were over.

But experts say they are at more risk now.

The stream bed that the county converted into a stone gutter to carry away storm water has filled with tons of dirt, debris and vegetation, said James Gracie, a Columbia-based environmental consultant.

"If a 100-year storm came tomorrow, the stream would probably flood worse than if the county had never done this," Mr. Gracie said.

Mr. Agro and 17 other Fern Glen families who live along Muddy Bridge Branch have demanded the county Department of Public Works dig the debris out of the channel and restore its ability to move storm water away quickly. They say officials promised to keep the channel clear when they deeded portions of their property to the county for the storm water management project.

But county and state officials say the answer is not that simple.

Not only have environmental science and storm water regulations changed since 1982, but the status of Muddy Bridge Branch has changed as well. It is a tributary of Sawmill Creek, one of four streams targeted by the state in an experimental program that could lead to the restoration of hundreds of miles of lifeless streams statewide.

Before 1982, engineers designed storm water controls to move water downstream as fast as possible through concrete gutters and drains, said Larry Lubbers, chief of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources watershed impact evaluation program. But straightening and paving over stream channels have contributed significantly to the decline in the health of the Chesapeake Bay, he said.

"There is a lot more emphasis now on protecting and restoring streams," which provide life support for the small fish and bugs that make up the bottom of the bay's food chain, Mr. Lubbers said. Stream valleys, including the plants that grow there, also provide food for land animals and neutralize pollutants running off parking lots and lawns, he said.

Through the Maryland Targeted Watershed program, the state plans to spend $1 million during the next year restoring the headwaters of Muddy Bridge Branch, which flows east from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Fern Glen. The project is being financed in part by the State Highway Administration to ameliorate the environmental damage caused by the extension of Route 100 from Interstate 97 to Interstate 95.

All of which means that the county will not get the permits it needs to clear the storm-water channel behind Longwood Avenue without first developing a long-term plan to prevent it from clogging again, said Tom Andrews, the county's chief environmental officer.

Mr. Andrews said the county is preparing a permit application to dredge the channel later this summer, and it has hired Mr. Gracie to design a new "self-cleaning" channel.

Mr. Gracie said he will propose the county rip out the 24-foot wide stone culvert and re-create a meandering stream channel. The goal is to mimic nature by running the water through a series of "S" curves and reinforcing the banks with tree roots, boulders and other natural materials, he said.

Mr. Agro and many of his neighbors say they fear the study may work against them, requiring them to give up additional land to the county, possibly only to re-create the flooding that prompted the channel's construction in the first place.

"If they want to put the thing back the way it was, they can buy my house," Mr. Agro said. "I don't want to be sand-bagging my back door."

Carolyn Stallings, another Longwood Avenue resident, said, "We don't need any long-term studies. We just need it cleaned out."

Muddy Bridge Branch, once only 3 feet wide, meandered harmlessly through the back yards of 18 Longwood Avenue homes for nearly three decades, residents recall.

Then, in 1979, a combination of Tropical Storm David, construction of new roads, houses and shopping centers and expansion of BWI overwhelmed the tiny gully. Torrents of water washing off the new pavement and rooftops flowed over its banks and consumed entire yards.

Engineers with the county Department of Public Works responded in 1982 by filling in the stream and diverting the water into a shallow, 24-foot-wide culvert lined with stones held in wire baskets called gabions.

"It worked pretty well" until the channel began filling with sediment from construction sites and eroding banks upstream, said Martin Smith, who moved to Longwood Avenue in 1961.

The county cleaned the debris out twice -- illegally and without permits -- in 1981 and 1986, said county spokeswoman Lisa Ritter. Residents have pressed the county to clean it out again, but the county cannot get permits, she said.

Residents say they do not understand the delay.

"The [officials] say they are interested in the environment, but they are still taking down trees to put up more parking lots, more shopping centers, more homes," Mrs. Stallings fumed. "They are putting more and more pressure on the stream and we're at the bottom. We're the ones who are affected."

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