Streaming with devotion

Commitment: For 10 years, a Howard County couple has religiously checked the health of a Little Patuxent stream. They are one of 50 teams who patrol the streams of the county.

May 21, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Mike and Chris Shelby are ankle-deep in fast-running water, coaxing out the macroinvertabrates while their children splash joyfully nearby.

It's time for a monthly health checkup in this branch of the Little Patuxent River, a slice of wooded buggy bliss surrounded by townhouses, near a supermarket and a stroll from a car dealership.

Across suburban settings and countryside, volunteers recruited for Howard County's "stream team" are -- like the Shelbys -- acting as water-quality police by walking into brooks and counting the creatures that end up in their nets.

But the Shelbys stand out. So attached are they to this stream in North Laurel that they've stuck with it through 10 years, two moves and two kids. They wed a year into the enduring project.

"I don't really want anyone else doing it," explained Mike Shelby, 34, grinning at the thought of how this stream has wended its way into their lives. "It's like it's ours."

Susan Muller, who coordinates the stream team program for the county Department of Recreation and Parks, appreciates the devotion: Experienced volunteers produce good data, giving the county an early warning when streams take a turn for the worse.

Monthly reports from Howard's 50 stream teams have helped her find a sewage leak, track down dumpers and determine when construction is sending sediment into the water.

"Let's face it, the county's growing; the more development, the more impact on your local streams," Muller said. "We want to know what condition our water is in."

The Shelbys were assigned a portion of the Hammond Branch of the Little Patuxent, which runs through one of the most densely developed areas of Howard County -- a landscape crisscrossed with houses, businesses and major roads.

But they have surprising news to report about their stream. Despite all the bad influences around it, the small section they've tested April through October, year after year, is doing very well -- probably because it has a protective buffer of trees.

Every time they pull their net out of the water, the Shelbys find hundreds of larvae, beetles and clams. That's 5-year-old Marissa's favorite part about trekking to the stream, now 15 minutes away since the family moved to Elkridge.

"I like the bugs," she announced on the way there after dinner last week. "The ones that roll up in a ball."

"The one with the pinchers?" her father asked, maneuvering down Interstate 95.

He told her the name of the pollution-intolerant creatures, which are excellent indicators of how a stream is doing. She sounded it out: "Cad-dis-flies."

Off U.S. 1, past the new gas station, offices and townhouses, they parked on a quiet residential road and slipped over a guardrail into a place apart.

Trees decked in spring greenery arched over the stream, blocking out man-made views and cooling the moss-scented air. Underneath, water gurgled swiftly over dark-green rocks. A symphony of frogs croaked in surround sound, punctuated by the whine of mosquitoes.

Chris and Mike Shelby helped their children wade across to the rocky bank on the other side and unfurled their net.

"Hey, Marissa," Mike Shelby exclaimed a minute later, "we've got two fish! We've got to put them back quick."

Soon the whole family bent over the net, 2-year-old Bennett included. Among the creatures they found: stonefly nymphs (more than 100), tiny freshwater clams (between 10 and 99) and Marissa's favorite, the six-legged caddisfly larvae (a handful).

Because a stream's health can be measured by its inhabitants, the county assigns point values for different macroinvertabrates. That evening, their stream earned a 21 -- "good" water quality, almost "excellent."

The Shelbys want to make sure it stays that way. When construction sent sediment into the water in the early years of their project, they alerted the builders. When they found a bike lying in the streambed, Mike Shelby hauled it out. When they noticed wet paper pulp on the bridge overhead, he called Muller in a panic -- what if someone dumped trash into the water, too?

Muller did not find any evidence of that. The Shelbys were relieved.

"We have this protective feeling, it's true," said Mike Shelby, who works for the National Ocean Service in Silver Spring.

It's also true that when they moved to Elkridge not quite a year ago, they thought about finding a closer stream. Another beckoned, within walking distance.

But they could not bring themselves to switch. They have been parenting their stream twice as long as they have parented their kids.

"I want to know what happens to it," said Chris Shelby, 34.

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