Creek sediment flows from Annapolis park project

Changes to stadium area take a toll on waterway

August 08, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

The last time Annapolis resident Evan Belaga took a swim in Weems Creek, he marveled at the clear green color of the water.

Just last week -- after torrential rains pounded the region -- Belaga looked out his window and was alarmed to see a murky plume traveling down the creek, turning the water opaque in its path. Belaga, president of the Weems Creek Conservancy and board member of the Annapolis environmental commission, immediately recognized the plume as sediment.

"This unbelievable cloud of it came gushing into the system," Belaga said. "And I had a front-row seat."

It was not only the color of the sediment that alarmed him; it was the source. The sediment, which Belaga said always flows into the creek after a rainstorm, was coming from Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. There, the Naval Academy -- in collaboration with city and state officials -- is nearing completion of a $1.2 million project to transform the area surrounding the 35,000-seat stadium.

Begun in the spring of last year, the project (part of a $40 million overhaul of the stadium) will create a public park filled with trees, a walking trail and two grassy fields on what was once a gravel parking lot.

Although community residents and environmental groups praise the project as a major boon for Annapolis, some are concerned that the site was not equipped to handle this summer's heavy rains, causing regular sediment flows into nearby Weems Creek. The Maryland Department of the Environment warned the academy and the city last month about the sediment flow problem but said the project has since met requirements.

"This will be a magnificent project," Belaga said. "And we understand that there is a temporary cost to a long-term outcome ... but after every rainstorm, more sediment from that site is flowing into the creek."

Belaga added that he and other concerned residents hope the project leaders will act quickly to temper the flow, serving as an example for future construction projects.

"The people involved in this are model citizens, and we want them to act quickly to encourage others to take steps to prevent this," he said.

Sediment acts as what some environmentalists call "black mayonnaise," flowing into bodies of water and creating a blanket of material that suffocates marine life. The city officials and Naval Academy representatives involved in the project say they are aware of the sediment flow and are doing everything possible to control it.

"We could not be more proud at the academy of the incredible commitment we've made to the community, to the neighborhood and to the bay," said Chet Gladchuk, athletic director of the Naval Academy Athletic Association. "We've done everything by the book."

Gladchuk said project engineers constructed bio-retention ponds that are efficiently trapping sediment flow, but, he added, heavy rains have challenged the capacity of the ponds.

City officials agree that the weather created unanticipated problems for the field, where contractors have planted tall Bermuda grasses that will soon grow and trap the runoff.

"We've been working closely with the state and storm engineers," said Michael Mallinoff, director of neighborhood and environmental problems for Annapolis. "Unfortunately, there have been some pretty torrential downpours that have created some challenges."

After last month, which brought 9 inches of rain, the site experienced a larger-than-expected amount of sediment pooling, some of which made its way into Weems Creek. Because of this, officials at the Department of the Environment issued a warning to the academy and city July 15, according to department spokesman Richard J. McIntire.

"We've been to the site at least four times in recent weeks, and it is stable," he said. "They have done everything they can do."

Some environmental groups monitoring the project remain concerned -- particularly as rain remains in the forecast.

John Surrick, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called the sediment runoff a serious concern.

"They are rolling the dice that it won't rain too much more, but they are losing every time," said Surrick, who said the sediment is already collecting on oyster bars in the creek and causing fish to "gasp for air."

Gladchuk said that with the project scheduled for completion in three weeks, he hopes the community will forgive what he called a small amount of sediment runoff and instead enjoy the park.

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