Steady stream of data Study: Researchers studying the Gunpowder River Watershed gauge the flow of pollutants to learn how to predict changes in water quality.

March 11, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The slimy, green crane fly nymph, wriggling in the grasp of tweezers, could not look less appealing. But this is a bug with a destiny.

Plucked from a cold northern Baltimore County stream to meet its demise in a jar of alcohol, the nymph will become a small piece of evidence in the largest study made of the streams that supply drinking water to 1.5 million area residents.

"He's a really big one," says researcher Kate Nicodemus, her enthusiasm tinged with disgust.

Dressed in green rubber boots to their knees, Nicodemus and other researchers count stone flies, midge flies, crane flies, snails and leeches as part of a nearly $750,000 study of the Gunpowder River Watershed, which feeds the Loch Raven and Prettyboy reservoirs.

The two-year investigation, combining the efforts of federal, state, county and Baltimore agencies and volunteer groups such as Save Our Streams, will measure pollutants flowing into the reservoirs and develop models to predict changes in water quality.

"We're going to know more, to manage better," says George G. Perdikakis, director of the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management. "Not just how to manage development, but every aspect of the watershed."

The investigation, which began with a proposal to study the degradation of Piney Run in northern Baltimore County, could become a national model for assessing the quality of a watershed.

With the county environmental staff providing much of the labor, researchers are testing for the presence of metals, chemicals and microscopic organisms such as giardia and cryptosporidium. They are mapping the bottoms of the reservoirs and taking core samples to measure sediment accumulation. They also are recording the location of possible toxic sites near the watershed.

On a recent day, Nicodemus, Baltimore County natural resources specialist Steven L. Stewart and researchers Kim Hinds and Fred Lease arrive at Mingo Branch in northern Baltimore County just as the sun is beginning to dispel the chill in the air.

Crows cry overhead as the researchers trudge through the thickets, toting buckets, gauges and specimen bottles for the morning's work. The job requires the knowledge to review computer printouts and electronic measurements, as well as the stamina to wade over slippery rocks in fast-moving streams and take legible notes in a downpour.

Nicodemus and Hinds step into the ankle-deep water and stretch a tape measure across the stream. Nicodemus measures the water's velocity using a pole-like meter and calls out the findings to Hinds, who writes them in a note pad.

The small stream is flowing at 422 gallons a minute as it rushes toward the Gunpowder River and eventually to Loch Raven Reservoir more than 10 miles away.

Hinds measures the air temperature, 45.3 degrees, and the temperature of the water, 41.9 degrees.

Not bad as their working conditions go. Nicodemus and Hinds have stood in the sleet and driving rain in the middle of the night measuring rising streams.

"Sometimes it gets a little scary when we're out here in the woods in the dark," says Nicodemus.

Stewart tracks the weather each day and dispatches researchers to collect data in both calm and storms.

When the study began last summer, he recalls, "We would chase every cloud we could find." But this winter, the researchers have struggled to find enough rain-free days that will provide a sense of normal water flows.

On this clear day in Gunpowder Falls State Park, the water in Mingo Branch is flowing slightly above normal. After noting stream conditions, Lease, Nicodemus and Hinds set about gathering biological samples that will provide clues to water quality.

They scoop sediment from the stream and spread the muck on a mesh net marked with grids. Choosing a grid at random, they begin to sort through the mud covering the square, searching for anything that moves.

One by one, they pick the creatures from the mud, counting as they deposit them in a specimen jar of alcohol.

The multitailed mayflies and stoneflies are found in streams with good water quality. The wormlike midge fly larvae can tolerate pollution.

After 90 minutes, the researchers have collected 151 insects and are pleased the midge flies aren't overly abundant.

"Anytime you have stoneflies, you're in pretty good shape," Lease says.

But Stewart is concerned about unexpected amounts of sediment that he observes in the branch, though it is one of Baltimore County's most pristine streams.

"There is more erosion than I would find in a typical forested watershed," he says.

The health of another northern Baltimore County stream prompted the study. Residents feared Piney Run was becoming polluted from storm water runoff and a wastewater treatment plant in Carroll County.

Baltimore County officials proposed studying the stream, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment decided to make a broader study of the entire Gunpowder River watershed, which extends into Carroll and Harford counties and Pennsylvania.

"The idea is to create a national model of watershed assessment and planning through close coordination of both federal, state and local government and citizens," says Patricia Gleason, chief of the Maryland-D.C. branch of the EPA's watershed office.

The study won't be completed until December 1999, but researchers know there won't be one solution to improving the area's water quality. Agricultural runoff, development, auto emissions and recreation contribute to the degradation of the water supply, Stewart says.

"We all have a part to play in the impact, and if we are going to fix things, we need everyone to be fixing their portion," he says.

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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