Bedroom community under construction Trout shelters being built along Jabez Branch creek

September 02, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A construction project is under way along the wooded Jabez Branch near Gambrills. A backhoe snorts in the mud. Chain saws snarl. And the tank-like tracks of a bulldozer march along the banks.

But the developers here aren't building houses for people. They're making a bedroom community for brook trout.

At the site of the only remaining trout-breeding stream in Maryland south of Baltimore, Anne Arundel County and state workers are sinking tree roots into the water to act as fish shelters, repairing eroded stream banks and stopping the flow of hot and oily runoff from nearby highways.

They are marketing the idea that new techniques for restoring eroded streams -- using logs and soil instead of concrete and steel -- will allow wildlife to live even in the paved landscapes of suburbia.

To help protect these cul-de-sacs from the 78-home Holladay Park subdivision planned nearby, the county is negotiating to buy a 28-acre conservation easement along the stream. That would create a no-building zone along the creek, county land-use spokesman John Morris said.

"The larger issue we're looking into here is, how can we build homes and roads and still maintain the quality of our streams at the same time," said Robert Bachman, director of resources management for the fisheries service at the state Department of Natural Resources.

"We are really doing something unusual with the Jabez restoration project. And we are hoping that it will provide us with valuable insights into what we can to do protect trout and fish populations throughout the state and even in the Chesapeake Bay," Bachman said.

The Jabez has two branches that slither like a snake's split tongue from this lightly wooded area near the intersection of Interstate 97 and Route 3 past suburban yards to the Severn River.

The creek is only 5 feet wide in places and only inches deep. But it is a rare incubator for brook trout.

Every October, female trout wiggle their tails to dig nests in its gravel and lay hundreds of salmon-colored eggs the size of popcorn kernels. Inch-long "sac-fry" hatch quickly, hide in the gravel all winter as they eat their yolk sacs and emerge in the spring.

The Jabez is is the only remaining breeding stream for brook trout in the state south and east of Interstate 95, Bachman said. Brook trout still breed near Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County and in parts of Frederick County.

State environmental officials became worried about the Jabez in the 1980s when the state extended I-97 near the creek and built an interchange with Route 3. The new blacktop sent hot, oily and acidic water into the creek when it rained.

State marine biologists had been monitoring the trout in the stream for years, walking its course with electronic wands that stun fish so that scientists can count them.

But then their wands in December 1990 failed to perform their magic. They found no trout at all, said Mark Staley, a state marine biologist.

"Hot acid is not a good thing for trout," said Bachman.

The state restocked the stream in 1991 and 1992 but almost all the fish died. Finally, after a restocking in the spring of 1994, the trout started reproducing on their own, Staley said. A count last December found 60 trout.

Despite this tenuous climb back, the fish still were having trouble because the stream's eroding banks were dropping too much mud into the creek, said Dennis McMonigle, project manager for the county.

Mud suffocates the young fish as they hide in the gravel. It also encourages the growth of fungi that kill eggs, Bachman said.

So the county on Aug. 2 hired a pair of contractors for a $250,000 project to stop erosion along the stream. The state earlier plugged a storm water discharge pipe that was spewing polluted water.

The contractors, Environmental Quality Resources Inc. of Gaithersburg and Brightwater Inc. of Ellicott City, are digging snake-like curves into the stream and putting logs in the water to slow its flow.

They are also planting 276 trees and 124 bushes to stabilize the sides of the creek.

This is the first time Anne Arundel County has used all these techniques -- including the planting of tree roots as fish shelters. For years, the county used concrete or box-shaped steel baskets filled with rocks to strengthen eroding stream banks.

But steel baskets don't provide snug shelters for fishes, and sometimes contribute to erosion and leave tangles of wires when they decay.

Although the creek looks like a construction site today, the contractors hope the result will be a stream as healthy and natural-looking as it was before highways ripped through this part of the county.

Linda Kelbaugh, project manager for Brightwater Inc., squatted in the stream on a recent afternoon to show how she hopes fish will respond to the cleaner creek. She slipped her hand into the water and wiggled it like a trout nesting in the gravel.

"You see, they need these clean rocks to lay their eggs. They can't just nest in the mud," she said. "We really hope that what we're doing here will help them come back."

Pub Date: 9/02/97

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