Slow and easy

August 15, 2006

Stony Run is about to get ugly, and it's a good thing, too. Over the past several years, sampling by Baltimore's Department of Public Works found that this unassuming and untended urban stream was carrying a far greater load of sediment and phosphorus into the harbor and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay than anyone had imagined. Bill Stack, chief of the water quality section, calls it a "Eureka" moment. The department's response is to reconstruct the stream along almost all of its 3.3 miles, creating step pools and a flood plain to put the brakes on the flow of water and slow the erosion.

The backhoes have already been at work on the northern end, stripping out one of the banks. Burlap covers one shore, right up to the bright orange plastic fencing. Early next month, the crews will move to the section south of Wyndhurst Lane, which is the most devastated by erosion and probably the most fiercely defended by its admirers. The whole $15 million project should be done by next year or a little later, and then it's on to Maiden's Choice Run and Moore's Run and Western Run. People who haven't been paying attention are going to hate it. They shouldn't.

It's not quite right to say the city is restoring Stony Run. Because of the huge increase in storm runoff from all the pavement in its watershed, it can't be restored. It's a different, bigger stream today. The city is essentially building a new Stony Run, with gentler banks, weirs and a system of stone vanes that should slow the water down and direct the strongest flow away from the sides of the channel. Less erosion means less pollution, and it should also mean, when it's all over, a more attractive stream. It won't be natural, but it will mimic nature.

A lot of trees will be coming down for this to happen, upsetting some neighbors. "But doing nothing is not a way of saving the trees," says Michael Beer, a retired professor who lives next to the stream and is one of the biggest proponents of the project. Erosion, which has cut the banks 8 feet deep in places, will get them if the chain saws don't.

Mr. Beer uses an outdoor bulletin board to post notices about the work. Some of the responses are angry and anonymous, others thoughtful and signed. It's a low-tech yet effective way to carry on a useful and informative debate. Other neighborhoods should watch what happens at Stony Run - because sooner or later, the restoration crews will be showing up at a stream near you.

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