Carroll landowner's active lobbying pays off in help for streams

County, agencies to help check erosion and curb existing damage

May 06, 2001|By Jamie Manfuso | By Jamie Manfuso,SUN STAFF

When Sher Horosko moved to a 25-acre farm in Carroll County five years ago, she didn't know the first thing about storm water management or stream bank erosion. They were distant concepts better left to bureaucrats.

Then, after seeing her backyard stream swell from inches in depth to several feet during heavy rains, washing pieces of the fragile banks downstream, the terms took on real meaning.

"I watched the water pour through here and the width [of the stream] just double" over several years, she said.

For the past three years, Horosko, 45, has struggled to bring the stream, at the headwaters of Little Pipe Creek, under control. After investing her money and labor, working with local businesses and lobbying government officials to lend a hand, she might be on the cusp of a breakthrough.

County officials are designing a series of dams upstream from her property to slow the water and put a brake on erosion.

Through the struggle, she has learned how difficult it can be to restore the health of a stream - even a small unnamed one in her yard. And she has learned that negotiating with different authorities is as important as planting trees or cleaning up trash.

As one of the founders of a fledgling environmental group, the Friends of Carroll County Streams, Horosko is taking these hard-won lessons to the rest of the county's 600 miles of streams.

The group, the first of its kind in Carroll, will face a challenge. According to a statewide stream survey by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Carroll's streams are among the state's poorest in several categories.

They have the highest nitrate and nitrogen levels of any county, according to DNR. Coming from fertilizer and other sources, nitrogen and nitrates fuel algal blooms downstream. When algae decomposes, it robs fish and crabs of the oxygen they need to survive.

Also, Carroll is the least forested county in the state, with less than 24 percent coverage, according to DNR. That means it has fewer trees to filter pollutants from runoff entering streams and less shade to keep water cool for aquatic life.

And 70 percent of Carroll streams have unstable banks that can be washed away, sending more sediment toward the Chesapeake.

That last statistic is obvious on Horosko's property, an 1851 farm bordering Westminster's city limits.

The stream is fed by two smaller branches that merge just before reaching her property. One snakes down a hill from the direction of a nearby subdivision. The other, a straight channel lined with rocks that runs parallel to Maryland Midland Railway Co. tracks, catches water from pavement and roofs in downtown Westminster.

In this channel, the force of the current in a downpour is enough to whisk bicycles into downed tree limbs and carve a 10-foot-deep ditch next to the tracks.

The velocity of the current has turned back Horosko's efforts to stem erosion. In March 1999, she stood in the stream's icy waters and planted 200 willow stakes along the banks. Sledgehammer in hand, she pounded a metal rod a foot into the earth, then placed the plants in the holes. When she was done, her hands were purple and blistered.

She had hoped the fast-growing plants would spread their roots in the loose soil, holding the banks together and preventing further erosion. But the rushing water has, by her estimates, washed all but 25 of the young willows downstream.

"If we can't slow the velocity of this water, this is for nothing," she said. "Eventually, all of these willows are going to fall into the stream over time."

To slow erosion, she had to win business and government to her side. In the summer of 1998, she and 13 others - from the railroad, the Army Corps of Engineers, the city of Westminster, and the county's environmental and storm water management offices - stood on the tracks near her home. Looking at the eroded stream banks next to the tracks, she asked them what could be done.

They shrugged.

Horosko pressed on. After years of lobbying at all levels, she helped get officials from various agencies to agree to designing a series of dams to slow the water's velocity.

The railroad also has an interest in solving the problem because stream bank erosion has threatened to undercut the tracks near Horosko's farm. But officials say the project probably wouldn't have happened without her initiative.

"She had a big input on it," said Richard Owings, county director of development review. "I think her interest sparked it."

The dams, made of rocks, will create a series of pools that are designed to catch silt as it flows downstream. They will also channel the water to the center of the stream, to keep the runoff from eating away at the stream banks.

Martin Covington, a storm water management program engineer with the county who is designing the dams, said the dams should help stem erosion. Similar dams are in place outside of the county office building, Covington said.

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