Residents request help to stop Patapsco flooding


During the torrential storms a few weeks ago, the Carroll County residents of Patapsco watched the rain-swollen Wildcat Creek rise up to 8 feet, flooding roads and forming lakes in their driveways.

The rushing waters, carrying large rocks and debris, washed out a guard rail and shoulder along the creek, which feeds into the West Branch of the Patapsco River.

Storm water has ravaged properties in this rural valley near Finksburg since Hurricane Agnes hit in 1972.

"This is not a new problem. This has been happening for 35 years," fifth-generation resident Worth Bateman told county and state officials, who recently accessed the problem on Patapsco Road. "There's an enormous flood coming out of those hills up above our house. It's like Niagara Falls."

The area is part of the fragile Upper Patapsco River watershed, nearly 15,000 acres that travel from Finksburg to Westminster to Hampstead, flowing into Liberty Reservoir along the Baltimore County line.

Though labeled a conservation area, residential and commercial development along Route 140 has exacerbated the storm water problem for years, residents said.

To ameliorate the situation, the county hopes to build a large storm water collection pond somewhere among the hamlets of Patapsco's 500-acre drainage area.

But they want greater support from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources on the costly and lengthy project of restoring the stream.

"We're losing the road up here," Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said during the tour of Patapsco Road. "The sooner, the better. Suppose we have another storm soon. That's the problem."

Up the hill from Patapsco Road, the storm water gushes down from the nearby Evergreen Hills subdivision and from the newer Royal Farms store on Route 140 and Bethel Road.

The Evergreen homes were constructed decades before the state adopted more stringent storm water requirements in 2000 and the county in 2004. To curb the erosion and property damage along the creek that feeds the West Branch of the Patapsco, "first we have to manage the flows," said Tom Devilbiss, head of the county's resource management bureau. "We don't want to go restore the stream, and then have one of those blasters wash everything out."

Storm water management alone could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Devilbiss, who reluctantly assumed control of the project last week.

Streams like Wildcat Creek were noticeably damaged when residents barricaded the flow with boulders and old, concrete pipes to impede the flooding during Hurricane Agnes and other storms, said Mitch Keiler, who manages watershed restoration projects for natural resources.

"They've compounded the problem," Keiler said. "It's constricted the stream, increased its velocity. It becomes even stronger when the floods surge."

"It not only delivers water to the stream faster, it also delivers pathogens," Keiler said. "The fertilizers, the pesticides, the chemicals dripping from cars all move into the system faster. All of this is delivered into the reservoir's drinking water system."

But trying to secure state funding for watershed restoration is a messy process that could take years, Keiler told county officials. Every county is fighting for a piece of the shrinking pie, he said.

He recommended they piece together Maryland Department of Environment and State Highway Administration funds, but both require county matching grants.

The county could also tap into hazard mitigation funds, Public Safety Administrator Scott R. Campbell told the commissioners Thursday.

Stream restoration can cost $50 to $150 per linear foot in agricultural areas, Keiler said, more in urban areas. He questioned Devilbiss' assertion that Patapsco is uniformly agricultural.

All agreed that many factors are to blame for the flooding: the county's 40-year-old drainage pipe there, lax state and county storm water requirements in the past and the anti-erosion efforts of residents.

"The bottom line is: Who's ultimately responsible for the sins of our past, and how do we get it fixed?" Devilbiss asked during the Patapsco tour.

Pressure to develop the area's remaining farms in the watershed along Route 140 should only intensify, county officials have said.

But new construction, such as the Church of the Nazarene to be built on Bethel Road, is subject to more stringent storm water requirements, said Steven C. Horn, the county's director of planning.

In the pastures farther up Patapsco Road, a rickety bridge is all that protects Charles Blum's driveway from the Wildcat Creek when it rains. When the stream swelled on July 5, it was the only barrier protecting Blum's house and Bateman's farmhouse across the street. Bateman's family built Blum's house on their property in 1953.

The bridge won't last forever, Bateman said.

Two years ago, when the stream flooded, Bateman and Blum said they had the same conversation with the county.

"I'm hoping now that we're on the same page so we'll actually go somewhere this time," Blum said.

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