A year or two ago, the newest addition to a southeast Washington, D.C., stream was not nesting mallards or spring peeper frogs, but cars – abandoned in the creek at the approximate rate of one vehicle per week.
Illegal dumping was just one problem for Watts Branch: the largest D.C. tributary to the Anacostia River, which flows through the District to the Potomac River and into the Chesapeake Bay. Broken sewer lines running through the stream leaked bacteria into the water. During storms, fast-moving water cut into the stream's banks, leaving Watts Branch looking more like a trench than a backyard creek.
When water cuts into stream banks, it carries sediment (dirt) into the stream. Sediment clouds the water, preventing sunlight from reaching important aquatic life, such as amphibians and bay grasses.
This combination of bacteria and sediment pollution left Watts Branch virtually devoid of life. The creek – just blocks away from Marvin Gaye's childhood home – was beginning to mimic the music legend's environmental concerns, expressed most explicitly in his 1971 single Mercy Mercy Me. ("Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas/Fish full of mercury/Oh, mercy mercy me/Oh, things ain't what they used to be.")
Today, dumped cars are a rare sight, and spring peepers splash into the water as I walk along the banks of Watts Branch. A stream restoration project completed in fall 2011 by the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) not only corrected the dumping problem, but repaired sewer lines, installed native plants, and transformed the trench into a meandering stream that can healthily withstand storm events.
Slowing down fast moving water
"The project is designed to keep the channel relatively stable," explains Peter Hill, branch chief for DDOE's Planning and Restoration Division. "Before, the stormwater and all the runoff would come rushing through here very quickly. The banks were steep; there was not a lot of biological activity."
In one 2008 storm event, the stream’s water level rose from zero to four feet in just two hours.
(Image courtesy DDOE)
Like all stream restoration projects, the Watts Branch project aimed to slow down stormwater flowing into the stream. When water moves slower, it does not cut into and erode stream banks, carrying sediment into the water. This allows plants and wildlife to flourish both on the banks and in the stream.
"Now, when we have a storm, water will rise up, but it will tend to fall back into the center of the stream... this basically relieves the pressure from the stream banks so you don’t get erosion," explains Hill. "The water falls over stones, (in the center of the creek) as opposed to tearing up this bank."
In addition to redirecting stream flows, DDOE and Anacostia Riverkeeper installed a floating trash collecting device in the water. Groundwork Anacostia empties the device every two weeks, preventing trash from floating downstream.
Parks and People Foundation and other volunteer groups helped install native plants and aquatic grasses, which will help to keep soil on the stream banks in place.
Watts Branch was chosen for restoration because of its severe water quality impairments from sediment and bacteria. But there are hundreds of streams just like it across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In Northwest D.C., Milkhouse Ford, a tributary to Rock Creek, also suffered from high volumes of fast-moving stormwater flowing from a nearby residential neighborhood. Today, rocks separate the stream into small pools where tadpoles are hatching, and newly planted trees dot the stream banks. The DDOE and National Park Service project was completed in fall 2011.
"Each pool is a foot drop in elevation," explains project manager and DDOE Environmental Protection Specialist Stephen Reiling. "It's just one way of slowing the stormwater down and letting sediment settle in these pools. That's the simple idea: just slowing the water down."
The pools allow the stormwater to sit long enough to seep into the ground water. This allows many of the pollutants found in stormwater runoff (such as lawn fertilizer, automobile exhaust and bacteria from pet waste) to soak into the ground, instead of making their way into the Chesapeake Bay.
"We have a very impervious residential watershed up here (above the stream), so associated with that, there’s grease and oil from vehicles, sediment, and any kind of fertilizer residents put on their lawns," explains Reiling. "So we’d like to slow that down, and hopefully keep it here before it gets to the bay."
Milkhouse Ford is surrounded by the forests of Rock Creek Park, trees that the project team managed to keep intact. Preserving nearby vegetation is difficult in many stream engineering projects, which require large and heavy equipment to build up banks or replace soils.
"This is pretty unique in terms of how small the footprint is," says Hill.
Rock Creek Conservancy and other volunteer groups planted native trees and shrubs along the banks, which will hold the soil in place and prevent the stream's banks from eroding.
The stormwater story
Since streams, storms and stormwater are natural parts of the water cycle, it may seem strange that stormwater is degrading our streams and contributing to sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. But in many places, stormwater from driveways and lawns flows into a sewer on the street, which connects to a local creek. The problem? These creeks were not meant to hold stormwater from the entire neighborhood – only the water that naturally flowed into them. When too much water flows in at once, the banks wash away, bringing tons of sediment as well.
"When many of these houses (in southeast D.C.) were built, they saw stormwater as a problem, so they piped it out from the streets and sent it to the nearby stream," explains Hill.
While this infrastructure can't be entirely corrected, ensuring that the streams remain stable during storm events will improve water quality in the stream, as well as in the Chesapeake Bay.
Another way to ease pressure on our streams is to keep stormwater onsite. This means reducing runoff from your property by using rain barrels, rain gardens and native plants. In the Bay watershed, local programs such as River Star Homes (Norfolk, Virginia) and River Smart Homes (Washington, D.C.) help local residents implement runoff-reducing practices in their backyards.
More than a stream
Stream restoration project leaders like Hill and Reiling are beginning to notice an unexpected, less measurable outcome of their projects: residents have developed a sense of pride and stewardship for their newly restored neighborhood creeks.
When Watts Branch was transformed from a steep, cloudy channel littered with cars into a meandering creek with sprouting saplings, residents began to spend more time along the streamside pedestrian trail, and dumping stalled.
“Watts Branch was chosen for restoration because...it was an eyesore to the community," says Hill. "The community didn’t see it as an asset, and being D.C.’s largest tributary to the Anacostia, we wanted to fix it up.”
Neighborhoods along the 1.7 mile stretch of restored stream have seen a reduction in crime since the project’s completion, according to Hill.
“Most recently, an older gentleman brought his grandkids here and they were hanging out near the stream; he wanted to show them where he grew up,” explains Hill. “It was really nice that someone would be proud of this, so much that they want to show it to their grandkids.”
The Chesapeake Bay was among the first regions settled by European explorers, and at one point, much of it was up for grabs. In the 1650s, Dutch conquistadors wanted to extend their rule of New Amsterdam (New York) into Maryland. They sent a man named Augustine Herrman to Maryland’s colonial capital, St. Mary’s City, to present their case to the governor. Herrman’s expedition left from New Castle, Delaware, and sailed down the modern day Bohemia River, to the Elk River, and then into the Chesapeake Bay. Although Herrman and his team weren’t able to convince the Maryland governor to allow the Dutch to move east, Herrman was so impressed with the region’s beauty that he himself decided to settle there.
(Image courtesy William Johns/Flickr)
After striking a deal with Maryland leaders, Herrman received 4,000 acres in northeast Maryland, between the Elk River and the Bohemia River (formerly named the Oppoquermine River). Since Herrman was a native of Prague, which was then Bohemia, he named his new home “Bohemia Manor” and renamed the river.
As part of the deal, Herrman agreed to create a map of the Chesapeake Bay. The detailed account of the region was used throughout the next century.
(Image courtesy Maps of Pennsylvania)
Herrman and his surveying crew predicted the concept of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, constructed nearly 150 years later. In 1661, he wrote, “the Mingaskil and aforesaid Bohemia River run there within a league [3 miles] from each other from where we shall in time have communication with each other by water."
As Herrman’s reputation and importance grew, he convinced Maryland leaders to make northeastern Maryland its own county; as a result, Cecil County was born, and the region was separated from Baltimore County.
Although the Bohemia was navigable in Herrman’s time, today, the 5-mile tributary to the Elk River in southwestern Delaware and northeastern Maryland has since filled with sediment from agricultural operations, rendering it unsuitable for boat navigation.
A drawbridge, known as the “Bohemia River Bridge,” allowed people and farm goods to cross the Bohemia until the late 1990s, when it was demolished. Today, Maryland Route 213 crosses the river in its place, providing gorgeous views of the meandering river.
More from the Bohemia River:
A trip through the forested hills of Allegany County, Maryland may take you back to a time before interstate highways and blog posts like this one. Nestled between the largely uninterrupted landscapes of western Maryland, the Evergreen Heritage Center (EHC) honors the region’s past while showcasing environmental efforts of the future.
(Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Trust)
The Evergreen Museum features the foundation of a home built by an early settler in the late 1700s, and the Evergreen Coal Trail traces the path of coal cars from the early 1900s.
The center’s environmental education programs encourage students to get outside and explore, rather than sit in front of their television or computer. Through partnerships with Allegany County Board of Education, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Maryland teachers can attend workshops that introduce ways to involve their students in interdisciplinary environmental activities. Also, students can participate in on-the-ground learning projects.
The center is also working with 300 students and experts to develop a “green” site project plan that integrates outdoor learning stations, gardens, trails, nature play spaces and wildlife habitats into EHC’s 130-acre campus.
To learn more about Evergreen Heritage Center, read this blog post by EHC’s environmental education coordinator on the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s blog.
Finally – school’s out and warm weather is here! We know you’re eager to get away to your nearest beach and bury yourself in the sand with a new book. But did you know there are dozens of beautiful parks and natural areas on the way to major beaches such as Rehoboth Beach, Virginia Beach and Ocean City? Here are eight places you can enjoy the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers along the way to your summer destination. After all, some of life's greatest joys are in the journey, not in the destination!
1. Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve (Portsmouth, Va.)
Just 20 minutes west of Virginia Beach, Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve provides urban wildlife in the Norfolk/Portsmouth metro region with 142 acres of tidal and non-tidal habitat. Expect to encounter foxes, river otters, oysters and crabs along the preserve's trails. Before you go, check out Hoffler Creek’s events listings for specialties like sunset kayak tours, night owl kayak paddles by moonlight, and early morning bird walks!
2. Dutch Gap Conservation Area (Chester Va.)
(Image courtesy John.Murden/Flickr)
Just south of Richmond, Dutch Gap Conservation Area surrounds Henricus, the second successful English settlement in Virginia. Bordered by the James River, the 810-acre area contains a blue heron rookery and has been described as a "birder's dream." A diversity of habitats attract a range of flying friends: in wetlands, look for pintails and kingfishers; in meadows, you'll find goldfinches, indigo buntings and kingbirds; and in forests, expect to see scarlet tanagers and red-eye vireo. Hike or bike the 4.5 mile Dutch Gap Trail, which circumnavigates a tidal lagoon. Kayak or canoe the Lagoon Water Trail (perfect for beginner paddlers), or schedule a night to camp under the stars at the area's primitive camp site.
3. Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge (Cape Charles, Va.)
(Image courtesy Xavier de Jauréguiberry/Flickr)
Drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Bay Tunnel near Virginia Beach to arrive at the southernmost tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. Here, nearly 1,300 acres of tidal wetlands and hiking trails sport colorful views of sunsets and sunrises; enjoy being surrounded by water on three sides! The area is one of the most important avian migration funnels in the country, meaning it provides vital stopover habitat for birds and butterflies migrating south for the winter and north for the summer. Return in the winter for a trip to Fisherman Island, a remote island home to sensitive bird species and untouched shoreline.
4. Nassawango Creek Preserve of the Nature Conservancy and Furnace Town (Snow Hill, Md.)
Just south of Salisbury, Maryland, one of the northernmost stands of bald cypress trees leak tannins into the Nassawango Creek, giving this pristine Chesapeake Bay tributary a deceptive tea-like color. Bald cypress trees grow completely in the water, and are most abundant in swamps in the deep southeast United States. Visitors to the 15,000-acre Nassawango Creek Preserve can paddle among these green giants or explore upland forest habitat on the preserve's many trails. Expect to see rare plants like indian pipe and pink lady slipper, and migratory birds such as scarlet tanagers and prothonotary warblers.
Along the edge of the preserve, hidden in the Pocomoke State Forest, a brick structure stands tall among the trees. It is the remnants of an iron furnace that at one time attracted hundreds of people – miners, firemen, bargemen and sawyers – to the area. From 1831 to 1850, village residents gathered iron ore from the bogs surrounding Nassawango Creek and loaded iron bars onto barges that were floated down the creek to the Pocomoke River and the Chesapeake Bay. Today, you can get a glimpse of what life was like in the 1830s mining village by visiting the Living Heritage Museum.
5. Pickering Creek Audubon Center (Easton, Md.)
(Image courtesy Pickering Creek Audubon Center)
If you're driving to Ocean City or Assateague Island, you'll likely pass hundreds of cornfields, strawberry fields and trucks full of chickens. Farming is a significant part of the heritage of Maryland's Eastern Shore, but the agricultural industry is often blamed for polluting the Chesapeake Bay.
At Pickering Creek Audubon Center in Easton, 270 acres are farmed according to "best management practices" that reduce the amount of animal bacteria, chemicals and pesticides that end up in the bay. Visitors can learn the past and future of farming in the region, or hike through hardwood forests, fresh and brackish marshes, meadows and wetlands. A Children's Imagination Garden will let your little ones connect to nature, and a display of live reptiles allows them to get up close and personal with our scaly friends!
6. Trap Pond State Park (Laurel, Del.)
Trap Pond was created in the late 1700s to power a sawmill during the harvesting of bald cypress trees from these southwestern Delaware freshwater wetlands. Fortunately, not all of the trees were harvested, and today, Trap Pond provides a home for the northernmost stand of bald cypress trees in the United States. The thick bald cypress marsh envelops visitors in a blanket of shade, making this park the perfect destination for a hot summer day.
Within the park, Trussum Pond is the best place to view the largest of these trees. Biking, camping, boating and disc golf are just some of the recreational opportunities available at the 2,700 acre park.
7. James Branch Nature Preserve and Water Trail (Laurel, Del.)
Unlike Trap Pond, which, as a state park, exists primarily for recreational purposes, James Branch Nature Preserve's first priority is protecting and enhancing a delicate ecosystem for future generations. As the largest of the state's nature preserves, James Branch's 685 acres are mostly composed of bald cypress trees – the oldest-growth in the state! Visitors can canoe and kayak the James Branch Water Trail. Since there is the chance of encountering downed trees, low-hanging branches, and floating and submerged logs, the trail is only recommended for intermediate to advanced paddlers.
8. Adkins Arboretum (Ridgely, Md.)
For some people, it's difficult to imagine your garden untouched by invasive, exotic weeds aggressively overtaking native vegetation. But at Adkins Arboretum, you can explore 400 acres of native plant gardens and wildflower meadows. Adkins is the only public garden or arboretum that focuses solely on plants native to the mid-Atlantic coastal plain. Located at the intersection of the piedmont and coastal plain, and the junction of the north and south, Adkins supports more than 600 species of native shrubs, trees, wildflowers and grasses. Visitors can understand nature through the lens of art and history; an ongoing art exhibit features natural themes by regional artists, and Adkins describes nature's relationship to the Underground Railroad throughout the region. Before you visit, be sure you check the arboretum’s list of programs and guided walks.