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Raining Millions

Apr 22, 2014 10:30AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Lara Lutz // Photography by Michael Land and Tony Lewis, Jr.

A “danger” sign stands along the wooded trail where people walk dogs and students stroll home from school. They walk on a raised bed of earth, where railroad tracks once carried vacationers to a waterfront resort in Bay Ridge. But the tracks are long gone and, in this spot, the soil is literally washing away under their feet.
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The trail sits on the crest of the old railroad embankment with water on either side. It acts like a dam, with an eighteen inch pipe burrowed at its base. The pipe was installed to let water wash through. But there’s a problem. A series of problems, in fact.

Dave Bastion lives in the community of Annapolis Roads, where the defunct railroad bed becomes Old Bay Ridge Road. On a wet day, with rain dripping from the branches overhead, Bastion edged his way down the slope to point at a small dark hole on the upstream side of the embankment. Water drifted slowly into the hole, its edges choked with leaves and woody debris.

“That’s where the water flows in,” Bastion says. “There’s 125 acres of stormwater runoff here, basically going through a straw.”

The pipe exits more visibly on the other side, flowing into Lake Ogleton and the mouth of the Severn River. During storms, the force of the water moving through the pipe ruptured its joints and began washing away soil from the inside out. The trail began to sink and developed a hole.

“It was like a cavity in a tooth,” Bastion says. “At one point, neighbors would throw saplings over it so no kids or dogs would fall in.”

Bastion has been working to solve the problem since 2006, when a strong storm caused the water to rise about 10 feet on the upstream side of the pipe. Water flooded a nearby house, and the owner contacted Bastion because of his background as a civil engineer.

“The structural integrity of that bank is no longer there,” Bastion explains. “Sooner or later, with all these heavy rain events, it will collapse and send tons of dirt into Lake Ogleton.”

Bastion contacted Anne Arundel County. There was no record of the pipe, which could easily date back to the railroad’s origins in 1886. It also sits at the confluence of several private properties, raising questions about who should fix it and how.

Bastion suggests that the pipe has been overwhelmed by development permitted by the county, making it a shared burden. “The county induced the flooding with all of the development that surrounds us and all the water running off these roofs, driveways, and roads,” he says.

But the bigger problem was money. The county had an enormous backlog of similar problems, without funds to fix them.

Now, after seven years of effort with the county, state, and even the U.S. Corp of Engineers, Bastion can put his cause to rest—not because he’s given up, but because the county’s new stormwater fee has generated money for repairs.

“They did the survey and now they’re working on the design,” Bastion says. Work is expected to start in the fall.
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Problems like the one near Annapolis Roads are common in Anne Arundel County and throughout the state. Development has added an ever-increasing amount of hard surfaces to the landscape, with fewer natural surfaces to slow and absorb stormwater. When it rains, the increased flow causes floods and property damage. It also sends pollutants like dirt, pet waste, septic tank overflows, oil, and chemicals rushing into local waterways.

The problem has become so serious that the state of Maryland now requires its ten largest jurisdictions—including Anne Arundel County—to collect a fee to fund long neglected updates and repairs.
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Anne Arundel County established its program and fee in 2013, officially named the Watershed Protection and Restoration Program and Fee. Property owners pay the fee through their real property tax. The amount depends on whether the property is residential, commercial, or nonprofit, and the amount of hard or “impervious surface” it contains. Credits are available for qualifying property owners who use approved stormwater management practices on their property.

The program has raised about $12.5 million to date. The county is now planning a suite of projects to address stormwater ponds, outfall repairs, stream restoration, and failing culverts under roadways.

Until the fee was in place, the county was able to tackle only a handful of stormwater projects each year. Nonprofit organizations like the Severn Riverkeeper and South River Federation often led the charge on other projects, with grant money to help fund them.

Keith Underwood, founder of Underwood & Associates in Annapolis, specializes in solving stormwater problems through ecological restoration. “There has never been enough money, even with robust grant programs, to make a dent in what needs to happen,” Underwood says.

In 2013, Underwood worked with the Severn Riverkeeper on a radical makeover for a section of Cabin Branch that receives stormwater runoff from the Annapolis Mall, Annapolis Bowl, and number of other local businesses. “It’s amazing how much grime and pollution comes off these parking lots,” Underwood says.

In the past, a “dry pond” had been installed just beyond the Annapolis Bowl parking lot—a “dry” pond because it was designed to collect stormwater and flush it out quickly. That’s typical of older designs when development was not as dense and the volume of stormwater less. In a time with less people and more open land, such systems apparently made sense. But a better understanding of local hydrology and its effects on our water ways has led to improved stormwater management practices. Today, Underwood says, the aim is to “slow it down, spread it out, and soak it back into the landscape.”
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The dry pond was replaced with a series of step pools that collect the water but reduce the damaging force of its flow, as it drops one level at a time through small waterfalls. As the water settles into the heart of the stream valley, it meanders among trees in braided channels, working its way to the Severn River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

Underwood calls this a “seepage system,” and to him it’s a win-win situation. Pollutants are filtered from the water and the seepage conditions return life to a damaged ecosystem. “All of our high quality ecosystems depend on seepage areas,” he says.

It’s also a lovely place, especially on a misty afternoon with plank-style footbridges to carry you through the emerging wetlands. Underwood visits often, anxious to check the growth of Atlantic white cedar, cranberry plants, skunk cabbage, and hopefully the appearance of pitcher plants and orchids, too.

Underwood hopes to see more projects like these on county streams. Erik Michelsen, newly-appointed director of the county’s stormwater program, agrees. Although not every setting will call for the extensive work at Cabin Branch or exactly the same techniques, Michelsen says the restoration of natural features is a better way to manage stormwater flow and improves water quality at the same time.

All 12 of the county’s major water bodies are impaired by two or more pollutants and fail to meet standards in the federal Clean Water Act. So Michelsen is anxious to get started. Luckily, the county already has a detailed inventory of potential projects that was developed through watershed assessments over the past decade. “It’s going to be a roadmap for the program,” Michelsen says.
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For instance, the Magothy River includes some high priority areas, especially along its urbanized southern shore and the Route 2 corridor. In Herald Harbor, stormwater runoff has blown out an aging outfall that enters Fox Creek and then the Severn River.

Michelsen says the first projects will likely be those that can be designed and permitted most quickly. More complicated projects, like stream restoration, will come later. In all, he estimates that the county will undertake approximately 91 clustered projects over the next six years, involving about 314 ponds, 873 outfalls, and 124,000 linear feet of streams.

“The request for assistance always far outstripped the ability of the county and local nonprofits to provide the resources,” Michelsen says. “But now we’re finally ready to attack the backlog.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first of several articles in a series that details our county and state’s Watershed Protection and Restoration Program. Look for more articles on this subject to appear in future issues of What’s Up? Annapolis.