Watershed group spurs grass-roots effort to tidy up community and Herring Run Planting the seeds for a cleaner neighborhood

September 22, 2006|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

Herring no longer swim in the stream that bears their name, and haven't for nearly a century. Over the years, the water's been polluted by trash and worse.

But Herring Run is making a comeback, in part because a group committed to protecting the stream has raised more than half a million dollars to help it along.

Last year, the Herring Run Watershed Association recruited 1,721 volunteers to plant more than 1,000 trees, which slow soil erosion, absorb air pollution and help keep storm water out of the stream. Other volunteers police the stream and its banks to try to keep them free of litter.

And the group just got a $48,000 grant to plant hundreds more trees throughout the 44-square-mile watershed, an area that stretches from the entrance of Herring Run Park in Northeast Baltimore to county communities including Towson and Rosedale.

Meanwhile, the city completed repairs to nearby pipes in the sewage system, helping to avert spills. The result is that these days, the water at Herring Run is often so clear that passers-by can see the pebbles at the bottom.

"These people have worked on shoestrings to get the citizens involved. They've spent evenings and weekends trying to keep the stewardship of Herring Run alive," said David O'Neill, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which gave the watershed association its tree-planting grant. "When they set out to do something, they get it accomplished."

It would have been easy for Herring Run to slip away, like so many trash-strewn Baltimore streams. In a city often consumed by crime and poverty woes, environmental advocates have long had trouble raising money and rallying support for local waterways.

Though Johns Hopkins once had a summer home in nearby Clifton Park, the neighborhoods around Herring Run Park are now mostly working- and middle-class - not exactly full of the deep-pocket donors that often help the Chesapeake Bay Foundation or the Nature Conservancy.

Yet the watershed group has raised $20,000 from neighbors - much of it in small amounts - to help pay for a rowhouse watershed center at Belair Road and Pelham Avenue. The association has increased its operating budget from $70,000 three years ago to more than $300,000 today, allowing for a staff of four.

Part of the drive, O'Neill and others say, comes from Mary Sloan Roby, who became the group's executive director in 2003. It was a gloomy time for the organization, which was grappling with major sewage spills that had so fouled the stream that many of its regular walkers stopped coming.

The city had been upgrading manholes and pipes at Herring Run when two back-to-back storms hit, causing 35 million gallons of sewage to flow into the stream. Since the problem was fixed three years ago, there have only been a few minor spills in the area, said Baltimore public works spokesman Kurt Kocher.

Roby turned the group's focus, in part, to raising funds for education and outreach.

She took on the task of building the watershed center in the worn, 3,000-square foot building that once housed the Pelham Bakery. Plans call for a roof made out of native plants and an innovative storm-water runoff system that will reduce the amount of pollution flowing into area waterways.

Roby is also guiding plans for a geothermal heating system, a composting toilet and solar panels - features that will put costs for the finished product in the neighborhood of $500,000, more than half of which has been raised.

"You can't be a watershed group without embracing all these great things," Roby said. "When this is finished, we will be the only truly urban environmental center in Baltimore."

Roby plans some displays but said visitors should not expect the Maryland Science Center. Instead, the point will be to get people to plant trees in neighborhoods such as Albert Lawson's.

Lawson, a retired furniture deliveryman, has lived for nine years on Chesterfield Avenue, a tidy street lined with brick houses in Baltimore's Belair-Edison neighborhood. This year, Herring Run volunteers planted a beautiful green ash in front of his house.

But a few weeks ago, a well-intentioned gardener poured weed-killer onto the sidewalk, and it got into the tree, which has been barren ever since, Lawson told Roby and Herring Run watershed program manager Darin Crew when they walked by recently.

"It was nice to have it. The birds came on it. And just now, the woodpecker was there," Lawson said. "It was just planted in February of last year."

Before he left, Crew scraped the tree with his pocketknife and found that it was still green on the inside. It might come back in the spring. If it doesn't, Crew said, he will get help planting another one.

In the park, Roby and Crew have planted more saplings. Even after a big party the weekend before, the park remained fairly clean, in part because the regulars pitch in.

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