Most area streams in moderate health, study says Pollution, erosion cited as problems

November 07, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

From Red Run in Owings Mills to Back River in Essex, pollution and erosion at least moderately degrade three-quarters Baltimore County's streams and creeks, an environmental group reported yesterday.

But the positive news collected by volunteers for Save Our Streams is that the rest of the county's 1,000 miles of waterways seem to be in relatively good health, despite the townhouses, shopping malls and office parks that ring Baltimore City.

Barbara Taylor, executive director of Save Our Streams, said she hoped government, citizens and businesses will use the survey -- dubbed "Project Heartbeat" -- in deciding how to protect the county's remaining healthy streams and to restore the badly impaired ones.

"We can't know how to solve our problems unless we know the state of our waters," she told about 90 volunteers and government officials attending a conference at McDonogh School in Owings Mills.

Using methods recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the group's volunteers have been sampling 100 sites along county streams with nets every spring, summer and fall for nearly four years, tallying the number and types of mayflies and other aquatic bugs they find beneath the water's surface. Such insects, which are favored food of trout and other fish, need cold, clean water to survive.

The survey techniques are still being perfected, but the summer sampling results so far are reliable enough to provide at least a general "snapshot" of the condition of most county streams, said Dr. Carl Weber, a biologist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who is analyzing the sampling data.

About 10 percent of the county's waters are so severely impaired by industrial, commercial and residential development as to be practically lifeless. They include:

* Dead Run, which passes through industrial parks and the Social Security office complex in Woodlawn, earns its name.

* Herbert Run, encased in concrete as it flows through Arbutus, and Bird River, clogged by silt from extensive sand and gravel mining in the White Marsh area, are two other badly degraded streams.

About 20 percent of the streams -- primarily those in the rural northern end of the county -- still have plenty of the aquatic insects that signify healthy water, the survey showed. Among those are the Little Falls of the Gunpowder River and the streams that drain into Prettyboy Reservoir.

But about two-thirds of the county's streams are only moderately degraded, the survey shows. They include major portions of the Lower Gunpowder and Little Gunpowder falls, lower Patapsco River, Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls and some of the creeks draining into Loch Raven Reservoir.

"That doesn't mean they're all the way dead," Dr. Weber said, but they are far from being as healthy as those in the northern end of the county, where much of the land is still forested or farmed.

"The ones I care about are the ones in the middle," he said, adding that he and other residents hope to spare them from further degradation by development and perhaps even to restore them.

Save Our Streams expanded its stream monitoring into Baltimore City last year and hopes to organize similar efforts in other parts of the state next year, said Abby Markowitz, the project's coordinator.

State and county officials, who pay Save Our Streams $120,000 a year to conduct the stream monitoring and other environmental projects, praised the effort.

"People take care of things that they know about," said Torrey C. Brown, Maryland's secretary of natural resources.

"Nobody likes to go out in a stream, spend their Saturdays and keep kicking and finding nothing, but we need that information," said Donald Outen, chief of water resources for Baltimore County's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management.

For at least one of the volunteers, yesterday's session helped sustain his enthusiasm. "Despite the terrible impoverished nature of some of the sites, I still got hooked on doing it," said Don Poole, who looked for bugs in Essex area streams.

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