Going against the flow

Water: A Fulton man blames a nearby housing development for sediment that is choking the life out his pond.

October 27, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

What sold Clarence Carvell on his land in southern Howard County was the pretty little pond. Now it looks ugly and dead.

The fish are no more, the herons flew away and the water is muddy brown, clogged by sediment carried by the stream that feeds it. "It just keeps getting worse," the Fulton resident said.

To Carvell, it is obvious that the subdivision upstream is the source of the sediment that ruined his homestead. As he is finding, however, it is usually difficult for aggrieved homeowners to prove that someone else should be held accountable for runoff damage to their land.

Storm water runoff is a phenomenon that cannot be completely controlled, a force that can erode soil and send it on an inexorable path that recognizes no property lines - and it happens whether or not a subdivision is going in nearby.

But there is more dirt for rain to wash from a construction site. Sediment controls hold back no more than 80 percent of the silt, clay and sand washing along, according to soil specialists, which means a good bit escapes from even the best-planned projects.

Usually, most of what gets by is extra-fine clay that can turn water brown for several days, eventually settling at the bottom of a stream bed or pond. With it come nutrients that can cause algae blooms harmful to aquatic ecosystems. Sometimes the damage is worse.

Carvell said mud and muck have covered the bottom of his pond, killing it, and it could not have come from anyplace but the 100-acre Pindell Woods subdivision upstream.

It frustrates him that county inspectors do not see it that way.

They do not issue violation notices to developers based on muddy messes in nearby homeowners' yards. Inspectors simply check to see whether the silt fences and other sediment controls at the building site are working properly, and all were last week at Pindell Woods.

"We found nothing wrong," said Tom Butler, chief of the county Department of Public Works' construction inspection division.

But Dale Thompson, who is developing the subdivision, said he intends to pump out Carvell's pond and take away whatever settled there since construction began a year and a half ago, because technically not at fault is not the same as actually not at fault.

"There is some stuff in there that came from me," said Thompson, president of a Columbia custom-home building company that bears his name. "I'd like to be as good a neighbor as possible."

Carvell, 65, a retired contractor turned photographer, is not mollified. He said he first got a promise of repairs the summer of last year, when the trouble started, and he is talking to an attorney.

Thompson insists he is not trying to wiggle out of his commitment. He said he wanted to wait until grass took hold in the subdivision to reduce the chance of more sediment getting by, and now is a better time.

The soft-spoken Carvell feels strongly about his pond. Five years ago, he scrapped plans to build a house in Sykesville - on land he had bought - when he happened by this green place for the first time.

He and his wife designed their house to give them an unimpeded view of the water.

From their kitchen and dining room they can see the old farm pond, which covers about a quarter-acre, and a bigger, younger pond - largely on the next-door neighbors' property - that connects to it.

Once, his pond was full of largemouth bass and sunfish, a haven for kingfishers and herons, he said. Walking down to the water about a week ago, just after a big rain, Carvell showed off what used to be his favorite spot to photograph.

It looked as if someone had sucked out the water and replaced it with coffee.

The fish are gone, either to the bigger pond or to the big pond in the sky. Thick grasses popped up in their place, feeding on nutrients from the clay.

"That's the runoff," Carvell said, standing over the murky water. He said the subdivision has sent so much sediment that it raised the bottom of his pond 2 or 3 feet. "It was literally pure mud coming down the stream" one day last year, he said.

Thompson is doubtful that his subdivision could have contributed that much muck because all the runoff on his property is first piped into a forebay to trap sediment before it hits the stream.

When he pumps out the pond, he said, he will have a biologist sift through the bottom to determine how much is a couple of years old and how much has been sitting there for decades.

"I don't mind overdoing the reparations beyond what I really caused - to a point," Thompson said. "I don't know how long that's been collecting sediment."

Stream-fed ponds like Carvell's can pick up plenty of mud without the aid of construction-site runoff, county officials note.

"The problem is, every time it rains ... there's always a natural movement of sediments in the streams, even when things aren't [being] built on the property," said James M. Irvin, the county's public works director.

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