Pipe dreams

July 03, 2008|By Erica Goldman

Near the Interstate 95 on-ramp just beneath the intersection of Bush and Russell streets in Baltimore, the outfall of Pipe 263 inspires little optimism. Trash bobs in sickly green water. Plastic bags hang from drooping trees on the riverbank. Here, stormwater flows untreated from a 72-block underground watershed, a network of storm drains that channels water beneath the streets of West Baltimore into the Patapsco River and into Baltimore Harbor beyond. Ultimately, this dirty water ---- laden with organic matter, toxics, nitrogen and phosphorus ---- heads for the Chesapeake Bay.

Aboveground feels pretty bleak too. Abandoned houses checkerboard the 12 neighborhoods that make up Watershed 263, defined by the hydrology of underground pipes. Asphalt and other impervious surfaces cover 75 percent of the watershed's area. Much of the green space here comes in the form of vacant, littered lots.

Watershed 263 faces big problems. But when I toured these neighborhoods with Guy Hager from the Parks and People Foundation, he convinced me that at least some of them could be tackled in bite-size bits. Mr. Hager helps to lead an ambitious Watershed 263 pilot project, aimed at improving water quality and the quality of urban life by greening West Baltimore.

Since 2004, this partnership among the nonprofit Parks and People Foundation, the Center for Watershed Protection and the Baltimore Department of Public Works has overseen the planting of 800 trees, the restoration of 200 vacant lots and the removal of 14 acres of asphalt. Green space - consciously designed to intercept pollutants before they reach the city's stormwater - has begun to spread through a maze of gray streets. And constant water-quality monitoring through the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a long-term effort funded by the National Science Foundation, provides a steady stream of data to show how well it's working.

Ultimately, old stormwater systems in urban centers throughout the bay region are in desperate need of retrofitting - an expensive proposition. Estimates for fixing these structures top $16 billion, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. Costs for agriculture cleanup, on the other hand, are closer to $3 billion. The bay program estimates that while agricultural lands contribute more than 40 percent of the bay's nitrogen load, farm programs represent only 6 percent of the total cost for bay cleanup. This explains why, in the context of the whole bay restoration effort, urban stormwater ranks low on the list of priorities.

For those struggling to improve urban stormwater, it would be easy to lose hope. But a little green can go a long way, not just for water quality downstream but for the local environment too. It's the intangibles of efforts such as Watershed 263 in West Baltimore that add up: community stakeholders engaged in decision-making about how to use public funds; watershed residents making the connection between the trash that flows in underground pipes and crabs in a faraway bay; children becoming stewards of their schoolyards; a growing outdoor culture for pedestrians and bicycles; and individuals committed to their backyard gardens in ways that can brighten a whole block.

The price tag for the 107 strategic greening projects selected to have a significant impact on stormwater quality in Watershed 263 falls on the order of $7 million. It's an investment worth making. The small projects in this urban watershed have taken on a catalytic quality - such as a 6-mile greenway planned to link to a 15-mile network of trails, or a green schoolyard that once baked under an acre of asphalt and is now home to a watershed ecology center for Baltimore youths. These are the kinds of returns that could ripple throughout the watershed.

The Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund, seeded at $25 million by the Maryland legislature this year, went into effect Tuesday. Groups such as Watershed 263 will compete for this funding for stormwater management and other non-point-source pollution controls.

The new law makes an important policy statement. Fixing stormwater may not be the most cost-effective way to save the Chesapeake Bay in terms of nutrient control, but without curtailing the flood of nitrogen, phosphorous, organic matter and other contaminants from developed areas upstream, restoration success downstream may remain at a standstill.

Erica Goldman is a writer for the Maryland Sea Grant College and the author of "Renewing an Urban Watershed" in the latest issue of Chesapeake Quarterly (mdsg.umd.edu/cq). Her e-mail is goldman@mdsg.edu.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.