Standing at the edge of the Jones Falls, amid polystyrene coffee cups and plastic soda bottles, dwarfed by vibrant graffiti on the surrounding concrete walls, it’s almost possible to hear the rush of water over the noise of the nearby interstate and train tracks. It’s a mild January morning, and Alice Volpitta and Rose Dunn—armed with sensors and sampling bottles—are carefully perched on boulders next to the water.
The two are with Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit that once a month monitors water quality at sites along the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls, two streams that run through the heart of Baltimore City. Today, Volpitta, Water Quality Manager, and Dunn, her volunteer monitoring intern, are visiting five sites along the downstream portion of the Jones Falls. It’s one less than the typical six, because a locked gate is blocking the path to one of the monitoring sites.
“There’s hardly any access to the water,” explains Volpitta. “It’s tough to actually get to it.”
Locked gates aren’t the only obstacle: at various points along the five-stop route, the pair’s progress is slowed by steep, gravelly inclines; thick, viscous mud; and concrete barriers. “This is what I mean by lack of access,” Volpitta laughs at one site, as she and Dunn climb over the wooden railing of a staircase to get down to the water’s edge.
It’s the perfect illustration of how far-removed Baltimore can feel from the water. Apart from the tidal Patapsco River—which makes up the city’s Inner Harbor—Charm City seems mostly paved over. But amidst, and often beneath, the pavement sits a tangled network of streams, including the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls.
“We’re only going to five sites, but you will see more of Baltimore streams today than most people will ever see,” says Volpitta.
It’s what’s unseen in the water that Blue Water Baltimore is concerned with. The organization tracks a variety of measurements typical of water monitoring programs: nutrient and sediment pollution, dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature and conductivity. They also track levels of fecal bacteria, which waterways in the Baltimore region are infamous for—especially after a rainfall, and it had just rained the night before.
This means that, even if you find your way to the water’s edge, it can be best to adhere to a “look, don’t touch” policy.
“We never touch the water directly,” Volpitta explains. Each time they gather their sampling supplies and head down to a monitoring site, she and Dunn pull on pairs of disposable nitrile gloves.
Bacteria can reach the water in a few different ways. When rain falls on non-porous surfaces like roads, sidewalks or buildings, it’s unable to soak into the ground. Instead, it flushes away whatever it can from the surface—from leaking motor oil to pet waste—and rushes it to the nearest waterway. And with as much pavement as a city like Baltimore has, that can add up to a lot of pollution-laden water.
“There’s so much impervious surface in the city that every time it rains it just flash floods, basically,” says Volpitta. At one site, the cover of a sewer manhole had shifted, revealing an opening a few inches wide. The movement seems slight, but it was the result of hundreds of pounds of metal being lifted just by the force of rushing water.
Aside from polluted runoff, Baltimore’s aging water infrastructure plays a role in the presence of fecal bacteria in the Jones Falls. When it was first put in place, the city’s sewer system was state-of-the-art. But when rainfall overwhelms the now 110-year-old system, sewage can be directly discharged into the Jones Falls and other waterways.
The City of Baltimore is actively making repairs and upgrades to the system, but with more than 3,000 miles of sewer lines—some of which are cracked, clogged or simply too small to accommodate the necessary amount of water—progress has been slower than some had hoped for.
In 2002, repeated sewer overflows led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Maryland Department of the Environment to sue the City of Baltimore. As part of a settlement, the city agreed to fix the sewer system by 2016. Last year, this agreement was revised, giving the city until 2021 to stop its sewage discharges into the Jones Falls and until 2030 to complete all repairs the sewer system requires.
At one monitoring station—near Lake Roland, a former Baltimore City reservoir—it’s easy to forget how close you are to downtown. The loudest noise is the piercing rattle of a belted kingfisher as it flits from tree to tree, followed by the soft murmurs of visitors walking their dogs along the wooded pathway. It’s almost serene enough to persuade you that the water seems less polluted.
But that day, the fecal bacteria count at the Lake Roland site was 260 colonies per 100 milliliters of water. For reference, 151 is considered safe for limited contact with the water, and 61 is considered the safe threshold for full-body contact with the water.
Due in part to the rainfall the night before, none of the sites sampled that day had safe levels for human contact.
All of the monitoring data collected by Blue Water Baltimore undergoes a quality control check before being posted on Harbor Alert, which offers the most recent monitoring data for each site. Data is run through an algorithm to see if it’s safe to swim in the water, and each site is given a red, yellow or green indication of safe contact. In 2015, none of the sampling sites along the Jones Falls or Gwynns Falls were safe for swimming more than 60 percent of the time.
Each year, all the data collected is rolled up into the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor report card, which last year gave Baltimore’s streams a grade of D-minus (the Inner Harbor and other tidal waters received an F).
Although plenty of work lies ahead, Volpitta and her colleagues remain focused on the long-term goal: healthy Baltimore waterways.
“I think it’s safe to say that Blue Water Baltimore, and for myself personally, we all are really looking forward to a future where we have swimmable and fishable waterways,” Volpitta says. “Sometimes people think that that term ‘swimmable and fishable’ is a pie in the sky, it’s never going to be attainable. But that’s a phrase directly from the Clean Water Act. So if our legislators thought it was good enough for the Clean Water Act, I think it’s good enough for Baltimore City.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Video, images and captions by Will Parson
For 117 years, the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count has seen thousands of birders organize for what is the oldest citizen science project in the country. It began in 1900 as a proposed alternative to winter hunting traditions. Today, the data helps Audubon and other organizations monitor the health of bird populations and inform conservation work.
At the ground level, it involves small groups of volunteers undertaking count circles that are 15 miles in diameter and making a note of every single bird they see or hear. Often starting in the pre-dawn hours, participants are out almost all day, with tallies compiled in the afternoon. This winter, the count was conducted from December 14th through January 5th. The tally is still moving upward, but last year’s total for the United States was about 54 million birds.
Along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay near Deale, Maryland, Marcia Watson and Gene Scarpulla began counting gulls and other shorebirds at a private harbor where they had secured permission ahead of time.
“This area is a little tough because it's mostly private property; there's very little public access,” said Watson, a retired professor and college administrator.
While scanning the water, Watson described how she and other birders have observed pelicans farther up the Bay this year, possibly because of below-average rainfall letting saltwater come farther north.
Watson said she has observed another change in the various counts she and Scarpulla have participated in—fewer birds in general. For example, she said the Chesapeake Bay region used to host huge mixed flocks including common grackles, red-winged blackbirds, European starlings, and brown-headed cowbirds.
“I remember counting twenty-some years ago in Cecil County, standing in one spot from about 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., and counting continuous streams of blackbirds coming in to roost,” Watson said. “They numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Now, you might see one or two flocks numbering in the hundreds.”
At another count circle in Baltimore County, Kevin Graff left his vehicle near the bank of the Back River and started making sound by forcing air through his teeth, spotting a chickadee and a few song sparrows while scanning some trees.
“It’s a trick that bird watchers use when they want to bring some more of them in, so they can see them,” said Peter Webb, a member, along with Graff, of the Baltimore Bird Club.
Webb said the pishing sound resembles the noise that Carolina wrens make when scolding, which attracts a lot of small birds.
Graff and Webb, like Watson and Scarpulla, have also had issues with public access during the count.
“We actually used to do it including the harbor in downtown Baltimore, but most of the places we had access to we lost access to,” Webb said. “Gradually more and more places got industrialized and ‘no trespassing’ signs came up on fences all over the place.”
Webb said it got to the point where it wasn’t worth doing the count there anymore, and they moved to the new circle about five years ago.
But on this count, which happened to fall on New Year’s Eve, Graff and Webb came away with a satisfying list of birds. Among the species they spotted or heard calling were bald eagles, red shouldered hawks, American black ducks, winter wrens, several kinds of woodpecker, greater and lesser scaup, red breasted mergansers, vultures, a kingfisher, a kestrel and a rusty blackbird.
Not much further into the new year, Audubon returns with the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), happening from February 17th through the 20th. While the Christmas Bird Count is an all-day affair, the GBBC makes it even easier for everyday folks to participate. People of any age can count birds for as little as 15 minutes and report their findings using an app called eBird. And, as you might guess, they don’t have to leave their backyard.
Photos and text by Will Parson
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page
Flying low over the Chesapeake Bay, it’s not actually the water that draws your attention—except for the sporadic glint of sunlight reflected off of its calm surface. Instead, it’s the patchwork landscape and the rate at which a quiet farm field gives way to grids of streets or wriggling stretches of wetlands.
And there’s another reason to pay attention to all that land: because the Chesapeake Bay is so shallow—its average depth is just 21 feet—and because so much land area feeds into it, the health of the Bay depends greatly on how the land is treated.
With the support of a volunteer pilot from the nonprofit organization LightHawk, we took a look around the northern edges of the Chesapeake Bay to see some of the ways the land has been shaped by the people living there.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
Photographs and text by Will Parson
On a June morning at Baltimore’s Middle Branch Park, a few steps from the Patapsco River, Molly Gallant addresses a group of eighth graders like a drill sergeant in a life vest.
“Hands up if this is your first time in a kayak, ever,” said Gallant, the high sun irradiating her tanned, freckled shoulders and red hair. Gallant, an Outdoor Recreation Programmer with Baltimore City Recreation and Parks, counted aloud six raised hands.
“For those of you that have not been out before, the secret to kayaking is pressing your knees to the sides, okay?” Gallant said. “And you let your hips rock with the water and your upper body stay straight.”
The few dozen students had come that morning from Collington Square Elementary School, located roughly two miles northeast of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, for a program called Kids in Kayaks. In its first year, roughly 500 Baltimore students have taken part in the program, funded by the National Park Service and the Baltimore National Heritage Area. It has given many children their first experience on the water that has defined their hometown.
The program began with in-classroom orientation by staff from the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay Office.
“We went out to the schools beforehand to talk to students about what was going to happen,” said Kate Marks of the National Park Service. Marks said the overview also included discussion of “the history of the region and human impact on the landscape over the past 400 years.”
Participating schools then made two trips—in fall and spring—to the 150-acre park for entry-level kayak lessons taught by Gallant and other Recreation and Parks staff as well as on-land activities hosted by various partners including the National Park Service, the Maryland Zoo, the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, and Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.
“Every organization has their own mission, their own reason why they’re doing this,” Gallant said. “I think the common interest for all of us is that it’s really, really important to start engaging urban populations in the natural resources that are available to them.”
During the primer on water safety and paddling, expressions on the students’ faces ranged from giggles to frightened anticipation. A boy asked if there were any animals in the water.
“There is nothing the water that is going to eat you,” Gallant said, sensing the boy’s concern.
Gallant first talked with the National Park Service about the idea for Kids in Kayaks as an outdoor recreation program in order to get Baltimore children engaged in the historical, cultural, and ecological heritage of their hometown.
She said the environmental aspect is the first one the children pick up on.
“It’s this secret way of developing stewardship where you cannot go out on the water and have a good time and not start forming those connections,” Gallant said. “It makes you think twice about throwing litter on the ground.”
“You get to look out there and see this big massive green area that is Ft. McHenry—you get to see the flag flying out there,” Gallant said. “You get to see why this is important to Baltimore, why Baltimore was developed as a port town, why we are where we are.”
That day, as half of the children took to the water, the other half followed Peter Martin, a Naturalist at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, for a guided nature walk to learn about some of the animals and insects living at Middle Branch Park.
“We’ll see those same things out on the water,” Gallant said. “So it’s really very complementary.”
The trips are intended to be entry-level kayaking lessons, but Gallant has also seen a lot of personal growth in the children—something that was never written into the program.
“One of the young ladies that had come to us this spring was extremely fearful,” Gallant said. “It took us about 20 minutes to even get her in the boat. Tears. Anxiety. She just did not think that she could do it. So by the end of the trip, not only was she able to do it, she was actually towards the front of the pack. So that second trip for her—no hesitation.”
The newcomers from Collington Square struck a similar chord of confidence on the water.
“It happens in different variations on a lot of different levels with a lot of different kids,” Gallant said.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Video, photos and text by Will Parson
Nestled squarely in the middle of a shipping terminal, a construction material company, a highway and the Patapsco River, the Masonville Cove Education Campus is a hidden gem in industrial southern Baltimore. Once the site of an illicit dump, Masonville Cove has been transformed into a place for residents to connect with nature thanks to almost a decade of restoration work funded by the Maryland Port Authority (MPA), a state agency whose goals are closely aligned with the stewardship of Maryland’s natural resources and well-being of neighboring communities.
Masonville Cove’s once-neglected waterfront is now home to more than 50 acres of conserved land, including wetlands, trails and a bird sanctuary. In the southwestern part of the property, the deceptively large “near zero, net energy” education center is powered in part by solar and geothermal energy. It contains a gathering room on its first floor, two classroom laboratories in the basement and a winding mural depicting the Port of Baltimore on the staircase between the two.
It’s a cool Wednesday morning in late March, and a bus full of students pulls up outside of the campus’ environmental center. These fourth-graders from Federal Hill Preparatory School are participating in the last day of the School Leadership in Urban Runoff Reduction Project (SLURRP) with Living Classrooms Foundation, which works to inspire young people through hands-on education and job training. SLURRP was originally funded by NOAA, whose grant program supports the Chesapeake Bay Program’s commitment to give every student in the region a meaningful watershed educational experience. Today’s trip was provided at no cost to the school, with support from MPA.
As part of SLURRP, Living Classrooms instructors have been visiting the students at Federal Hill one Friday a month for the past five month, teaching them about water quality issues, stormwater runoff, watersheds and much more, focusing on the Baltimore area. Today’s field trip to Masonville Cove is the capstone event of the fourth-graders’ SLURRP education.
In the morning, the gathering room was full of fourth-graders, but they were quickly split into two groups for activities. One group went to the laboratories to play trash-sorting games while learning about plastics in waterways, and the other headed outside to collect water data on the Patapsco River.
It’s a cool day, but clear and comfortable—great for outside learning. As the water quality group heads over to the river, they cross over a stormwater outflow pipe, and Living Classrooms instructor Michelle Koehler stops the kids. “Every time [our staff] come[s] out to classrooms, we talk about runoff and runoff pollution,” she says. “It just so happens that in this neighborhood where Masonville Cove is, any storm drain empties out right here,” she explains, gesturing toward the water flowing out from under their feet.
Koehler continues walking with the kids towards the Patapsco, where they collect a bucket of water from the river and measure its temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen levels, trying out scientific testing kits and tools like refractometers.
In the afternoon, the kids again spent time both outside and inside. In the laboratory, students used microscopes to identify types of plankton in samples from the river. Outside, students used iPads to observe and document evidence of animals in the area, searching for signs such as prints, fur and feathers.
For the students, this field trip may mark the end of five months of learning about the Chesapeake Bay—but it’s far from the end of their learning about the watershed and the roles they play within it. Multiple students said that their favorite part of the day was testing water. “I like to see how the scientists work,” said Abigail Bayard, while another student, Alex Dixon, commented that he wants to go home and test the water in his house. After instructors brought out a diamondback terrapin for them to observe, Henry Lentz, watching calmly but intently, remarked, “I’ve never seen a turtle that close.” From turtles to tracks, Living Classrooms brought the Chesapeake Bay watershed to life.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Photos and captions by Will Parson
With the presence of historic places like Cross Street Market, it is no wonder why Baltimore is lauded as ‘Charm City.’ Nestled into the heart of Federal Hill and just blocks away from the Inner Harbor, the market is a favorite of visitors and locals alike. One restaurant in particular, Nick’s Oyster Bar, can be found brimming with purple-clad fans on Raven’s game days, drinking beer and slurping down oysters that are served up with a smile by local personality and shucking pro, George Hastings.
Standing amidst the hustle and bustle of the market is Hastings, a cheery man in a flat cap, greeting passersby with a warm smile on his face and a hearty laugh. As he interacts with customers, it quickly becomes clear that this man is a cherished local celebrity.
Hastings, a decorated oyster shucker, grew up in Southwest Baltimore, learning his craft at the age of 14 from his neighbor, a native to the Northern Neck of Virginia along the Rappahannock River who brought his skills to Baltimore during the Great Depression when he came looking for work. “I would come to Cross Street Market with my neighbor to pick up oysters to take to different venues,” Hastings said. “At that time, Nick’s was not here and the seafood part of the market was owned by someone else until 1971. Mr. Nick had three sons that were all in my age group – I got to be friends with them and started shucking oysters for them once the restaurant opened.”
After years honing his skills at oyster roasts and other catering events, he began participating in and exceling at local shucking competitions. “I entered a few shucking contests and was fortunate enough to win those,” explained Hastings, “I also entered the National Oyster Shucking Contest and won that twice – and for that I got to represent the United States at the International Oyster Festival in Galway, Ireland.”
The National Oyster Shucking Contest is held in Saint Mary’s County, Md., every year during the third weekend in October. The festival has been around for 49 years with 2016 marking the 50th anniversary. “It’s going to be a big time,” said Hastings in reference to the 50th anniversary celebration. “Lord willing, I will be there. I have to keep the young guys honest,” he continued.
Shucking competitions are based on speed and presentation, participants are timed on how long it takes to open two dozen oysters. “There is a lot of anticipation, there is a countdown then you just go into a frenzy of opening two dozen oysters as fast and furious as you can. When you’re finished you put your hands up and nine out of ten shuckers will be shaking from the adrenaline,” said Hastings
At that time, three watermen judges grade the shucker’s handiwork, adding penalty seconds for every infraction that they find. They are looking for the oysters to be whole, uncut, not punctured and severed loose from the shell with no dirt, grit or mud particles in them.
Just like most things, perfecting a shucking technique takes time and dedication. “The old saying is, ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice,’” said Hastings. When competing, he aims to shuck a dozen oysters per minute as clean and as fast as he can. “I hope not to get any more than a minute in penalty seconds. You can win with a [total] time of three minutes or less,” he explained.
There are many ways to shuck an oyster, and in Hasting’s opinion, any way that you can open it – whether with a knife, screwdriver or hammer – is just fine. His preferred method, however, is a traditional mid-Atlantic stabbing style as opposed another popular method of opening the bivalve by its hinge. Both styles can be viewed in the tutorial below.
For those working to perfect their form, Hastings recommends wearing gloves and proceeding with caution as the shells are very sharp and often cut more people than the knives do. Additionally, for those that enjoy eating oysters, “don’t put the shell in your mouth,” he warns. “Slurp it up off the top like kissing or pick it up with a fork. If there is bacteria in and around that oyster, it will be on the outside of the shell, not the inside. It’s the silt and stuff that is on the outside that could be detrimental to you.”
In addition to shucking, Hastings also gives back to the cause by partnering with the Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP) to help with shell recycling, restoration events and fundraisers. “A very dear friend of mine, Vernon P. Johnson Jr., and I contacted ORP about looking to restaurants for recycled shells. ORP was looking for shells at the time to put spat on to grow oysters and we noticed that there were a lot of restaurants and caterers that would throw the shells away. We thought that if they [the shells] could be captured, it would be a great way to collect shells – and that’s the idea that started the Shell Recycling Alliance,” explained Hastings.
One oyster can filter up to 60 gallons of water per day and can play a big role in improving water quality, which is why restoration efforts aim to restore populations to healthy levels in the Chesapeake Bay. “It’s a sustainable thing, we plant oysters, we can eat them, we save the shells, we plant more oysters and continue with the cycle,” said Hastings. “My wish is for the Bay to be as healthy as it was prior to the industrial revolution. That’s the biggest thing that knocked the Bay into the weeds – so to say,” he continued. “I think we can come back from that now, but we must remember that it took us 100 years to get here, restoration is not going to happen overnight. It could very well take another 100 plus years to get back to that.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
Along the developed waterfront of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor sits a 16-acre marina complex known as Lighthouse Point. The Canton business rents slips to hundreds of people each year, and has become a hub for eco-conscious boaters who want to dock their craft with a staff who works hard for clean water.
Lighthouse Point is managed by Baltimore Marine Centers, which operates four other marinas in one of the busiest harbors in the Chesapeake Bay. Each of their facilities is a certified Clean Marina, and the business has worked to promote green practices throughout Baltimore.
Lighthouse Point was named a 2012 Clean Marina of the Year as part of a Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) initiative that recognizes marinas that adopt pollution prevention practices. From picking up trash along shorelines to containing dust and debris from boat repair and maintenance, close to 25 percent of the state’s 600 marinas are practicing Clean Marinas or Clean Marina Partners, and the designation has borne benefits for businesses and the Bay alike.
According to the DNR, a number of Clean Marina operators have experienced reduced insurance rates, improved relationships with inspectors and an ability to attract customers and charge competitive rates for slips and other services.
“[The Clean Marina program] is not only good for the environment. It’s a great marketing tool,” said Jessica Bowling, Director of Sales for Baltimore Marine Centers. “Boaters that value clean water and responsible businesses can come here, and we take pride in that.”
Baltimore Marine Centers hopes that taking part in the Clean Marina program will help spread this Bay-friendly mindset among its customers. Educating boaters in clean boating practices is a critical component of Clean Marina certification, and a responsibility the business looks forward to fulfilling.
“We have to educate boaters,” Bowling said. “We see that as a responsibility. [We have] to say, these things aren’t right, you shouldn’t be doing them. If you care about our water, you need to take care of it.”
So Baltimore Marine Centers shares clean boating tips in its electronic newsletter, which is sent to 6,000 boaters each week. And at Lighthouse Point, staff make their pollution prevention practices known.
On a recent tour of the marina, marina manager Kevin McGuire showed us what the business has done to protect clean water. He pointed out the fuel absorbencies that boaters use while pumping their gas and the pump-out facilities that ensure waste ends up at local treatment plants rather than in rivers and streams. He showed us the large recycling cans that are emptied up to three times each week and the signs that encourage boaters to pick up after their pets. He told us that staff scoop litter out of the water each morning and encourage boaters to avoid tossing their soda cans, snack packaging and other trash overboard. And he pointed out the shorelines that could soon be home to wetland plants, which would turn an empty space into a beneficial one.
“You don’t want a dirty marina,” McGuire said. “You want a green and clean facility.”
Bowling agreed. “Boaters love to be on their boats,” she said. “But they want swimmable water, too. And they recognize that they play a role in making that happen.”
Images by Jenna Valente
Baltimore Harbor scored a C- on its latest water quality report card, marking a modest improvement from the previous year’s failing grade. According to the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore and Blue Water Baltimore, who released the Healthy Harbor Report Card earlier this month, the Harbor met water quality standards 40 percent of the time in 2012.
Image courtesy Affordable Memories Photography of Fredericksburg/Flickr
While the spring of 2012 brought an algae bloom, a fish kill and a sewage spill to the Harbor, the summer saw little rainfall and a drop in the amount of polluted runoff being pushed off of streets and into the urban waterway.
The nonprofits behind the release of the report card hope to make the Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020, and have embarked on a number of environmental initiatives to achieve this goal. More than 50 floating wetlands continue to capture stormwater runoff, absorb excess nutrients and provide habitat to water-filtering invertebrates after being installed along the Harbor’s shoreline. And students from five Baltimore City public schools have formed Green Teams to boost local awareness about the region’s persistent trash problem.
Learn more about the Healthy Harbor Report Card.
Impaired by trash, rated poor for nutrient pollution and listed as unsafe for human contact much of the time, Baltimore Harbor scored a failing grade on its most recent Healthy Harbor Report Card.
Image courtesy Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore
While community engagement in conservation is on the rise—volunteers have planted trees, picked up trash and even painted murals around storm drains to make a connection between streets and streams—algae blooms, dead zones and fish kills remain a problem for the urban watershed.
According to the Healthy Harbor Report Card, water quality in Baltimore Harbor did not improve in 2011, when spring and fall rains pushed pollutants into the water.
From a spring shower to a fall hurricane, the flow of pollutants into Baltimore Harbor is closely tied to regional rainfall. The amount of litter collected in the Harbor in 2011, for instance, spiked when water flow was at its highest after Tropical Storm Lee. Sewage overflows, too, were linked to large storms, when rainwater seeped into sewer pipes and pushed harmful bacteria into the Harbor.
Image courtesy Blue Water Baltimore/Flickr
To combat these problems, the non-profits behind the Healthy Harbor Report Card have engaged students and citizens in a mission to make the Harbor swimmable and fishable within the next decade. Blue Water Baltimore, for instance, has curbed stormwater runoff on school grounds and helped Clean Water Communities develop plans for cleaning and greening their neighborhoods. And the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore has published a Healthy Harbor Plan to provide Baltimoreans with a roadmap for Harbor clean-up.
Learn more about the Healthy Harbor Report Card.
Sometimes, even a single tree can make a difference. And it helps when that tree is a big one.
For six seasons, Baltimore County has held a Big Trees sale in an effort to put big, native trees in Maryland backyards. Since its inception in 2009, the program has sold more than 750 trees to Maryland residents, augmenting the state’s existing forests and moving Baltimore County closer to its pollution reduction goals.
Big trees are integral to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Forests clean polluted air and water and offer food, shelter and rest stops to a range of wildlife.
But big trees can be hard to find. To provide homeowners with the native trees that have high habitat value and the heft that is needed to trap polluted runoff, species like pin oak, sugar maple and pitch pine are grown in a Middle River, Md., reforestation nursery. The one-acre nursery, managed by Baltimore County’s Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability (EPS), began as a staging ground for large-scale plantings but soon expanded to meet a noticeable residential need.
“We used to give incentives to homeowners to buy large trees at retail nurseries,” said Katie Beechem, Environmental Projects Worker with the EPS Forest Sustainability Program. “But we found that homeowners were buying smaller species—flowering dogwood, crape myrtle—that didn’t achieve the same benefits…that large native trees like oaks and maples and river birch can provide. We were able to fill this big tree niche.”
Emails, signs and word-of-mouth spread news of the sale to homeowners. Some travel from the next town over, while others come from as far as Gettysburg, Pa., to walk among rows of seedlings in black plastic pots.
Staff like Jon-Michael Moore, who supervises the Baltimore County Community Reforestation Program, help residents choose a tree based on growth rate and root pattern, soil drainage and sunlight, and even “urban tolerance”—a tree’s resistance to air pollution, drought, heat, soil compaction and road salt.
One Maryland resident picked up 15 trees to line a fence and replace a few that had fallen. Another purchased two trees to soak up stormwater in his one-acre space. And another chose a chestnut oak simply because she had one when she was a kid.
Out of the 12 tree species that are up for sale, oaks remain the favorite.
Whether red, black, white or pin, oaks are often celebrated as the best big tree. Oaks thrive in a range of soils, drop acorns that feed squirrels, woodpeckers and raccoons and create a home for thousands of insects.
Discussing the oak, Moore mentions University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy. The entomologist once wrote that a single oak tree can support more than 500 species of caterpillars, which will in turn feed countless insect-loving animals.
But can one big tree make a difference for the Bay? Moore nodded: “Every little bit helps.”
When a tornado hit John Long's home in June 2009, the last thing on his mind was the Chesapeake Bay. He lost the entire back half of his home, as well as ten trees on his property. After a few weeks of waiting for insurance proceedings, Long was permitted to pick up the debris scattered across his backyard, which just so happened to border Bread and Cheese Creek, a tributary of the Back River in Dundalk, Maryland.
When Long ventured down to the creek to gather the pieces of his broken home, he found more than he was expecting.
"Beneath my shingles and siding was several years of shopping carts, fast food trash, and just about anything else you can imagine," Long explains.
(Image courtesy Michael Wuyek/Flickr)
The trash wasn’t limited to Long’s property. "As I walked through more of the stream, I discovered it was the same everywhere. I was saddened because the beautiful little stream I remembered from my childhood was gone."
Long transformed his devastation into action. He contacted Baltimore County officials, who repeatedly told him that there was no money for a cleanup operation. But he didn't let that stop him. Eventually, the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability loaned him a dumpster, trash bags and a small crew. Clean Bread and Cheese Creek was born.
At the group’s first-ever cleanup, Long and 40 volunteers roamed a small portion of the creek, using their own tools to clear brush and their own bags to collect trash. Long’s parents grilled hamburgers and hot dogs for the hungry workers.
"Since then we have grown to generally draw about 140 people each cleanup, but we are still entirely funded through donations and staffed entirely by volunteers," explains Long.
Clean Bread and Cheese Creek's goal is as simple as its name states. However, funding the cleanups and enforcing illegal dumping policies isn’t quite as easy.
"Garbage bags, tools, first aid kits, flyers, posters, gloves, bottle water, food and other supplies are all from donations," Long explains. "We have the volunteers and the will, but the resources keep becoming more difficult to come by."
The group’s biggest source of funding is bake sales, courtesy of Michelle Barth, the group’s treasure and an acclaimed baker. Gold’s Gym has also been the group’s biggest sponsor, donating bottled water and advertising for cleanups.
While bottled water and bake sale profits may seem insufficient, Long explains that his “Type A thriftiness” allows a little go a long way.
“If I’m not at a cleanup, I’m at a flea market or yard sale, picking up supplies. You can buy shovels for five bucks, instead of thirty at the Home Depot.”
One may think that witnessing the overwhelming amount of trash in Bread and Cheese Creek (and often hauling it up stream banks) would change Long's view of his neighbors. But he does not speak of Dundalk residents as inconsiderate, lazy or lacking in environmental stewardship. Rather, he says that his volunteers' hard work outweighs the illegal dumping activities of others.
(Image courtesy Thomas Schwab/Flickr)
"I have volunteered at other cleanups throughout the state and you will never find people more dedicated and proud of their community," Long says. "I have worked with these people in the heat, the cold, and in the rain and they continue to laugh and joke while digging out shopping carts or pulling plastic bags from briars."
Of course, there’s only so much volunteers can do by themselves. A challenge occurs when the group hauls tires and shopping carts out of a section of the creek on Saturday, only to find a washer and dryer in their place on Sunday.
In addition to cleaning up after dumping events, Clean Bread and Cheese Creek is working to prevent them. "The illegal dumping we encounter seems to be from contractors and businesses more than individuals," Long says. "This dumping occurs primarily at night and behind business bordering the creek. We are currently working with businesses to have cameras installed in areas where the dumping occurs."
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
Another challenge to Bread and Cheese Creek is Dundalk’s stormwater management system. When rain falls on lawns, parking lots, shopping centers and other paved surfaces, it carries trash and toxins (such as oil, gas, antifreeze, pesticides and fertilizer) directly into Bread and Cheese Creek.
"The only way to stop this from occurring is for there to be a complete overhaul of the stormwater managements systems in the Dundalk area so we can meet modern standards," Long says. Sustainable stormwater management techniques such as rain gardens allow stormwater to soak into the soil, rather than running off into streams.
"Unfortunately, every time this problem is addressed with Baltimore County, we are told there is no money for this. However, how much will this cost everyone in our efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay?”
The Bread and Cheese Creek of Long's childhood was rarely affected by litter; but its pristine condition in the early 1800s is unimaginable today. British and American troops camped along the creek's banks during the War of 1812's Battle of North Point. The creek got its unusual name from these soldiers, who would sit by the stream as they ate their rations of bread and cheese.
The creek is perhaps best known for the heroic sacrifice of two young American soldiers. In 1814, Daniel Wells (age 19) and Henry McComas (age 18) waded through the stream to sneak up on British General Robert Ross. They shot and killed the general, but were killed with the British's return fire.
"American soldiers died along this creek defending our county in our nation’s second war for independence," explains Long. "This important part of our history should not be left the eyesore it currently is."
Long sees honoring the creek’s past as one way to create hope for the future. To commemorate the stream's significance in the War of 1812, Long and volunteers are attempting to clean the entire length of Bread and Cheese Creek by 2014, just in time for the War of 1812 Bicentennial Celebration.
Because the creek played such a significant role shaping America's history, it will be added to the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail.
Since Long organized the first cleanup in 2009, 608 volunteers have removed a total of 52 tons of trash, including some odd and "vintage" items like bathtubs, part of a tombstone and an unopened bottle of Pepsi from the 1980s.
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
From these numbers, it may seem like Long and his team must work 40 hours a week collecting trash. But like all Clean Bread and Cheese Creek members, Long has a day job.
Clean Bread and Cheese Creek understands that other commitments may prevent residents from thinking they can offer any help.
"Everything makes a difference, no matter how small," Long says. "We have volunteers who call on the phone and say 'I can only volunteer for an hour, is that okay?’ We are happy to have their help for fifteen minutes! During those fifteen minutes they are picking up trash someone else would need to clean up!"
The smallest efforts add up; over the last three years, streamside residents have noticed a significant improvement in Break and Cheese Creek.
"Minnows, crayfish and frogs which were once abundant in the stream are coming back – at night we can hear the bullfrogs singing again," Long testifies.
As wildlife reappears along the creek and eyesore trash is removed, Dundalk residents have come to appreciate the group that tramples through their backyard creek on Saturday mornings. This community support has led Long to transform what was initially a simple cleanup effort into an official 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Long is completing the process in the next few months, and is eager to acquire a label that will enable him to apply for grants.
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
With this potential for additional funding, Long will expand the group’s effort beyond trash pickup. Invasive plant removal and native planting projects are at the top of his list. Such projects will help enhance wildlife habitat and protect water quality along Bread and Cheese Creek.
If you live in the Dundalk area, you’ve probably already seen signs along Merritt Boulevard advertising Clean Bread and Cheese Creek’s April 14th cleanup. If you can’t make that event, the group has several other upcoming cleanups and fundraising events listed on its website.
Don’t want to get dirty? Don’t sweat it. There’s plenty of ways businesses, schools, groups and individuals can help.
If you’re not sure what you’re getting yourself into, be sure to check out Long’s extensive photo library of volunteers, trash and the creek.
Don’t go chasing waterfalls along Gwynns “Falls,” the 25-mile-long stream that originates in Reisterstown, Maryland, and empties into the Patapsco River in Baltimore City. You won’t find any. Despite the stream’s name, there are no natural waterfalls along Gwynns Falls’ course.
(Image courtesy Jim Carson/Flickr)
The term “falls” was first used by Captain John Smith, the first known Englishman to navigate the stream. Smith wrote how the stream tumbled over “felles,” or large rocks and boulders. This confusing reference to rocky streams as “falls” was also applied to Baltimore’s Jones Falls and Gunpowder Falls, neither of which have natural waterfalls.
Although Gwynns Falls’ rocky bottom prevented the stream from being used for navigational purposes, its fast-flowing waters powered 26 mills that boosted Baltimore’s industry into the 20th century. Perhaps the most successful of these mill operators was the Ellicott family, which built a series of millraces and a dam that diverted more water towards their mills. Several historic mill sites are located along the Gwynns Falls Trail, one of the largest urban wilderness parks on the East Coast. The 15-mile-long greenway connects 30 Baltimore neighborhoods and transverses five public parks.
(Image courtesy Jim Carson/Flickr)
An afternoon along the Gwynns Falls Trail is a lesson in both history and nature. Go back in time as you explore the site of the historic Windsor Mill; awe at the miniature railroad and Crimea mansion at Leakin Park; look for a waterwheel that pumped water to the Crimea mansion; and walk among tulip poplars, sycamores and sweetgum trees. It’s all just a few miles from the Inner Harbor, but you’ll feel worlds away from urban life.
Gwynns Falls also cuts through Owings Mills, an area that has experienced a high rate of development in recent years. Fortunately, additional public land holdings have allowed a portion of this area to remain forested. Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area consists of 1,900 acres of unique serpentine habitat that protects rare insects and endangered wildflowers. Soldiers Delight’s seven miles of trails are open to hikers and hunters most of the year.
More to see and learn about Gwynns Falls: