Creating a softer stream bank


Restoration: A St. John's College project to replace hard bulkheads on College Creek with natural marsh is showing the way for others.

November 02, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

MINNOWS SWIRL and crickets chirp amid the fecund dishabille of bayberry and hibiscus, cattails and spartina grasses, all gone to seed and collapsing back into the mud of the creek shore as autumn advances.

It's the merest patch of freshwater marsh, about 85 feet long by 30 feet wide, infinitesimal amid the Chesapeake Bay's thousands of miles of tidal shoreline.

Still, its creation made lots of people nervous in 1998, when St. John's College dismantled a bit of its tidy, walled, or bulkheaded, shoreline along College Creek in Annapolis, and let natural vegetation flourish for the first time in half a century.

Even the state's Department of Natural Resources was at first loath to go completely natural, recalls Steve Linhard, assistant treasurer at St. John's and the guiding force behind the pilot project to soften College Creek's hard edge.

"It has proven so successful [state officials] bring people here to use this as a demonstration and teaching tool," Linhard says. "We even have our own resident muskrat."

It is a tribute to Linhard and St. John's, and important for the bay that they are moving ahead with plans to remove the remaining 800 feet of sheer bulkhead between Rowe Boulevard and King George Street. They intend to replace it with the superior natural habitat of a tidal marsh.

It's a trend that needs to accelerate baywide, to counter the "hardening" of the tidal shoreline as waterfront owners armor ever more miles to counter erosion.

Virginia estimates more than 500 miles of its tidal shoreline have been hardened. In the last decade, the rate of hardening has averaged 15 miles a year (some is on the Atlantic side, but most is on the Chesapeake).

The only good news is that "riprap," the placement of stone along shorelines, is about three times as common as sheer walls, or bulkheads.

The former provides somewhat better habitat as marine organisms use the niches provided by the irregular rocks of the riprap.

In Maryland, we have been hardening about 20 miles a year during the last five years, the great bulk of it in riprap as opposed to bulkheading (the state discourages the latter by making permits harder to get).

The "soft" alternative, which receives some financial incentive from state and federal funds, accounts in Maryland for only a few miles of shoreline a year.

While the best soft alternative, planting marshes, won't work on shore fronts that are deep or have high wave energy, measures like stone breakwaters placed just offshore are underutilized.

These can break the erosive force of waves without destroying the natural habitats of the shoreline and adjacent shallows, as riprap and bulkheads do.

The College Creek project shows the value of not hardening shoreline in the first place, as St. John's did in the 1950s to level and extend its athletic fields.

The cost to "resoften" the first patch, at the foot of the King George Street bridge, ran more than $500 a foot, money that came from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the state Department of Natural Resources and Ducks Unlimited. The projected removal of the other 800 feet will cost about $400,000.

The good news is that the project is sparking renewed interest in a wider plan to enhance College Creek, whose drainage begins around West Street and Taylor Avenue and includes polluting storm-water runoff from the Naval Academy's stadium and parking lot.

Another marsh has been restored this year where the creek's headwaters border Annapolis's Clay Street community, a largely black neighborhood.

As recently as the 1960s, black oystermen operated out of these headwaters, traveling downstream to the Severn River and the bay.

"In their heyday, there were probably 30 boats working out of there," says Vincent O. Leggett, president of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation.

Linhard says a small oyster bar surviving in the mouth of College Creek was found recently, and more than 2,500 bushels of shell and seed (small oysters) have been placed there to revive it.

This is more for habitat restoration than oyster production. Watermen's boats can't get down College Creek anymore. Newer bridges are too low to admit anything but a skiff or paddle craft.

Then there are the realities of restoring an urban creek. Plans for a rowing club and for small boat access around the headwaters of College Creek have raised more concerns than approval from the Clay Street community.

Residents, many of whom live in public housing, fear a "backdoor plan to move them out" by gentrifying the creek, says Kirby McKinney, who grew up there and directs a local community center.

Linhard says there's an irony in a former watermen's community fearing access to the water; but he says that "clearly there's a huge disconnect, culturally, between the different communities along the creek. What makes perfect sense to some of us is just 180 degrees from others' point of view."

Residents around College Creek have gotten used to using St. John's bulkhead as a crabbing spot.

To continue providing crabbing access, the marsh restoration will include a series of large stepping stones placed among the vegetation.

With all its complications and costs, the trend toward a softer tidal edge is the right one.

Now it's time for the Naval Academy, which has hardened most of the lower creek shore, to follow the St. John's example.

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