Return to nature

May 18, 2006

Peering down at the creek running northwest of Cromwell Park Drive in Anne Arundel County, you can glimpse what appears to be a lovely bit of nature that somehow escaped the industrial park dreariness that surrounds it.

The sleepy little stream meanders beneath a lush canopy of trees, its waters animated by 11 species of fish and accompanied by the chirp of migrating birds.

In fact, this pastoral vista is mostly man-made, part of a $20 million restoration project to repair damage to the Sawmill Creek watershed caused largely by stormwater running off the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Over the years, rushing water cut deeply into natural waterways, destroying trees and plants on their banks and speeding polluting sediment many miles downstream.

Welcome to the front lines of the battle to save the Chesapeake Bay, a hard-slogging campaign fought inch by inch, foot by foot. Reclaiming urban and suburban waterways such as Muddy Bridge Branch is among the most complicated and costly challenges of the three-decade-long cleanup crusade.

Their restoration to a more natural state is also generally unglamorous work that hasn't yet captured the fancy of enough political leaders to ensure it will ever get done. Yet in Anne Arundel, which has more shoreline than any other county in Maryland, election-year pressure is beginning to separate those genuinely committed to protecting the environment from those who just claim to be.

One way to tell the difference is whether candidates for county office support a $5 monthly fee on homeowners to finance a $400 million backlog of stream restoration work. History teaches that the repair work can't compete with other budget priorities, and needs its own funding source.

The problem is, streams and creeks that flowed through woodlands before they were cleared for farms or development have for generations since been used as handy channels to speed stormwater away. In the worst cases, cement culverts were constructed to rush the water away even faster.

A practice born of ignorance, this channelization destroyed nature's ability to filter water by absorbing it into the soil, and caused massive erosion that plucked trees out of the earth by their roots. What's worse, people continue to dump all manner of junk into such waterways, making them toxic as well as trashy.

Developers of new projects are now required to better manage storm drainage with plants, stones and grasses to minimize the runoff.

The Chesapeake Bay Trust, a nonprofit agency financed in part by the sale of license plates, awards grants for volunteer repair work on waterways in older communities. But the job is huge, and the cost is high: an average of $200 per linear foot.

County Executive Janet S. Owens, now running for state comptroller, chose not to get involved in the impact fee debate this year. Voters should demand greater leadership of the several candidates vying to succeed her.

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