No respect for city streams Cleanup: Who's to blame for the mess in Herring Run near Morgan State?

On The Bay

November 13, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IN FAIRNESS TO MORGAN State University, you need to look at a bigger picture than just the horrid mess it's made of Herring and Chinquapin runs where the streams flow past its campus.

But first the mess, for which both the university and state environmental agencies that permitted it ought to be embarrassed.

I walked the area last week with Rich Hersey, executive director of the Herring Run Watershed Association, who called it to my attention.

River of destruction

For hundreds of feet, steep stream-side slopes have been shorn of trees and shrubbery, with the result that tons of eroding soil are overwhelming sediment -- control fences -- where they exist.

Big gaps lie between the fences; and a large portion of the denuded stream banks are so steep you wouldn't even bother trying to stop erosion.

The university's contractor, IA Construction, was recommended for penalties by inspectors from the Maryland Department of Environment (who responded after Mr. Hersey's citizens' group complained last summer). Penalties are under review.

The big picture is more complex.

We're not talking pristine brooks aswirl with trout here -- not even the sturdier herring (whose spawning runs gave Herring Run its name) have ventured upstream here from Back River in living memory.

Rising in Baltimore County, Herring Run is an urban waterway, one of Baltimore City's three major stream arteries, along with the Gwynns and Jones falls. Fed by Chinquapin Run and other streams, it drains 45 square miles, from Putty Hill Park and Goucher College, to Parkville, Overlea, Glendale, Govans, Armistead Gardens and Highlandtown.

Storm water and sewage overflows from huge interceptor pipes laid beneath Herring Run's bed pollute the stream; but the worst trauma, year in and year out, comes from the huge amount of its watershed that no longer functions naturally.

Urban landscape adds ills

Studies are showing that when as little as 10 percent of any stream's watershed lands are rendered impervious by development (roofs, driveways, streets, parking lots, etc.), measureable degradation shows up in its aquatic life.

Ten percent imperviousness is relatively light development, roughly equivalent to single-family homes on two-acre lots throughout the watershed. An urban watershed like Herring Run is several times more paved over than that.

Where forest and other natural lands no longer exist to absorb rainfall, two things happen. So little water soaks into the ground, nothing seeps back out to recharge the urban stream through its bed and banks during dry weather.

Conversely, so much rain runs off so fast when it does rain, the high-velocity flows wreck any semblance of a normal, healthy aquatic environment and can cause huge erosion problems.

Thus Morgan State, downstream from dozens of square miles of impervious watershed, is periodically threatened with destabilization of the stream banks that edge close to major campus buildings. Shoring up the banks is the university's current construction project.

The upstream problem has worsened in recent decades as Baltimore County has developed, with too little attention to the effect that development has downstream.

It has gotten to the point that a 1992 Sun article was headlined "One of last wooded lots along Herring Run to be taken by development." (Tree cutting hasn't occurred yet, but the zoning is in place, and "the county is eager for it," says a spokesman for Security Management, the developer.)

Problem larger than school

So give Morgan State this: It is dealing with a problem larger than itself; with a stream that goes from trickle to raging flood each time it storms; with an urban campus that makes environmentally sensitive construction tougher.

But for all that, and accepting at face value the vow to eventually "remediate all construction damage" from Richard Schointuch, MSU's director of design and construction, what's happening there remains unacceptable.

Why? Go back nearly 20 years, to April 1979, when crowds of citizens watched state and city and Morgan officials celebrate the release of trout into Herring Run where it ran through the MSU campus.

The trout would soon be caught or dead; but it was the symbolic cap to a decade of huge citizen and government effort to reverse Herring Run's decline.

By an act of the legislature in the early 1970s, Herring Run had become one of the nation's first metropolitan stream valleys targeted for comprehensive restoration.

The current mess is unacceptable because it begs this question: How many more decades and messes and pledges to restore and remediate do we tolerate?

In April 1997, a "Memorandum of Understanding" was signed by Morgan State and Maryland's Departments of Natural Resources and Environment.

It speaks of "providing a significant positive impact on the quality of environmental education at Morgan State University." Looking Herring Run, that reads like so much smoke.

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