Concerned residents have recently cleared the Back River and its tributaries of more than 10 tons of debris and are urging officials to address continuing problems with trash flowing into the eastern Baltimore County creeks.
The same group, striving to clean up the waterway's image, has adopted a new slogan - "Scenic Back River -- Discover the Hidden Treasure." While that caption will soon appear on nearby bridges and roadways, group members say the waterway still needs much polishing before it achieves gem status.
"Back River is carrying too much load," Nancy Pentz, a researcher in the county's department of environmental protection and resource management, told an audience of about 125 gathered last week in Essex for an update on water quality. "It needs a diet."
Improvements will require more citizen participation, as well as government efforts to reduce trash, encourage recycling and restore aquatic life, she said.
Recent community cleanup efforts have cleared debris from feeder creeks and the area known as the mud flats, but residents insist that more work must be done to halt the flow of trash and silt into the river.
"This effort will require capital projects and citizen restoration efforts," said Jonas Jacobson, director of environmental protection and resource management.
Residents participated in the session at the Back River Treatment Facility on Eastern Avenue, the second in a series of meetings organized to develop strategies to improve water quality in Back River and to safeguard its 73-mile watershed from further pollution. The watershed stretches from urban and suburban areas of the county into the northeastern quadrant of Baltimore City. Feeder streams include the Herring, Red House and Stemmers runs.
Members of the environmental department suggested methods of halting pollution, such as limiting use of fertilizers, planting native trees and using rain barrels to capture runoff.
"You understand the significance of this effort and are willing to play a role in a project that will leave an environmental legacy to future generations," Jacobson said.
The football team from Eastern Vo-Tech helped in a recent cleanup, a sign that the next generation is getting involved, according to Councilman John Olszewski, who represents the area. Recently, he helped to haul more than 300 tires from Bread and Cheese Creek, a river tributary.
"This river is a treasure we all have to maintain," he said. "Water can't flow properly because of dams of debris."
Officials are at a loss to explain the persistent dumping, particularly when a landfill is nearby. Anything discarded on the land will eventually work its way into the water. A cleanup last month removed 34 shopping carts - several from stores that have long been out of business - two motorcycles, six bikes, several bowling balls and a bathtub.
"We have to work to change people's behaviors," said County Executive James T. Smith Jr. "We have free landfills. We have curbside recycling. There is no justification to discard plastic bottles into our waterways."
The county plans to install a trash boom in the spring. The pilot program should capture large amounts of debris, officials said. Residents are also participating in devising a Small Watershed Action Plan.
"This restoration really is a roller coaster ride with no stopping point," said Brian Schilpp, a member of the Back River Restoration Committee. "There is still a tremendous amount of debris out there, but we can handle it."