Jabez swimming back to health Number of young trout exceeds expectations

March 24, 1996|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN STAFF

Dozens of newly hatched trout are darting about the Jabez Branch, swimming proof that a stream can be brought back to life.

Astounded state biologists counted 61 swim-up fry, or recently hatched trout, last week, the result of a large effort to repair environmental damage in a stream where the wild trout population disappeared six years ago.

The figure is more than three times the number of fry biologists saw a year ago and confirmation that environmental rescue measures by the State Highway Administration (SHA) and Department of Natural Resources are working in the Gambrills stream.

"This is the only one that I know of where we actually saw the population disappear before our eyes and knew what the cause was and fixed it," said Robert Bachman, deputy director of fisheries at the Department of Natural Resources.

The implications are far-reaching, experts say. Of the 14,000 miles of streams and rivers in the state, nearly one-third are meandering brooks like the Jabez. Protecting them from such dangers as erosion and toxins is considered crucial to the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

The SHA spent more than $40,000 to send 800 engineers and planners on daylong Chesapeake Bay Foundation study trips on Whitehall Creek during two years.

John Page Williams of the foundation said it wasn't trying to preach to anyone, only to show the SHA employees that their improvements in environmental protection techniques had made a difference and to thank them.

"What you do can really have a positive effect," he said.

The SHA, the largest developer in the state, is applying what it learned from the Jabez repairs to prevent similar damage elsewhere, highway officials said.

"As a result of this project and the things we learned on this project ... we have adopted a policy where we provide extra measures of protection and treatment for what we define as sensitive watershed," said Kirk G. McClelland, acting chief of the highway design division.

SHA contractors are using two rows of silt fences and extra erosion control around marshes, and they are monitoring runoff from construction on Route 100.

The additional efforts have increased the cost of that project by 5 percent to 7 percent but also have resulted in highway work with little erosion, said Linda A. Kelbaugh, chief of the environmental programs division.

The Jabez was the last natural brook trout stream in the Maryland coastal plain, the southern-most wild trout creek in the state and the darling of local conservationists in the 1980s.

By 1990, however, the fish had vanished, victims of runoff from the construction of Interstate 97, work on Route 32 and nearby development.

In the late 1980s, when the trout population started dropping ominously, state biologists searched for the cause and worked with the SHA to undo the damage.

They discovered that the borrow pit the SHA had dug to collect rainwater and control erosion in the median of Route 3 south of I-97 had exposed highly acidic clays. Water flowing from outfall pipes into the Jabez was "hot sulfuric acid water. That will do a number on your scales if you are a trout," Mr. Bachman said.

Highway officials sealed off the pond in 1987. It is treated with lime periodically, Mr. McClelland said.

Biologists also found that summer rains sent cascades of hot water running off the highway into the Jabez, making it turbid and too hot for the trout.

"They cooked them," Mr. Bachman said.

The runoff is now collected in four large water-retention ponds, which allow water to evaporate and seep slowly into the ground. There are 14 check-dams, which are piles of rocks in ditches to trap sediment and slow the movement of water, and seven infiltration structures, which are rock-lined dugouts that control and filter the runoff.

The upgrading of Route 32 in that area included 26 small ponds, highway officials said.

All water-control devices were built for storms that result in an inch of runoff, even though the SHA is legally required to control only the first half-inch.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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