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What's Up Magazine

A Windfall for Our Waters

Mar 01, 2018 07:00PM ● By Brian Saucedo

The Watershed Protection and Restoration Program has been a floodgate of controversy, but has it been an effective means to a healthier watershed?

By Jennifer Ginn
Photography by Michael Land & Tony Lewis, Jr. 

Whether you’ve been kayaking, crabbing, sailing, or waterskiing, chances are your experience has been on the Chesapeake Bay or on one of its many tributaries. More than 18 million people make their homes near the Bay along with 3,000 species of animals and plants. In addition to its beauty, the Bay’s treasures have a significant impact on tourism and the economy. While it’s a state gem for certain, decision-making about our waters has not always been tranquil and what lies beneath the glimmering waves has rankled recreational users, watermen, environmental watch groups, and politicians alike. 

Years with recurring reports of dwindling oyster, blue crab, and fish populations were a clear sign that the Bay was suffering. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, gave Maryland its marching orders to reduce storm water runoff into the Bay and restore the health of our local waters. Introduced in 2012 by Governor Martin O’Malley, put in place in 2013, then repealed when Governor Larry Hogan took office in 2015, the Watershed Protection and Restoration Program has certainly created a lot of chatter. Celebrated by the environmentally-conscious and dubbed by its detractors as the rain tax, the program relies on residents and businesses to help fund efforts to restore the waters. 

The fee initially targeted the nine largest counties in Maryland (Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Charles, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, and Prince George’s) and Baltimore City. When it was repealed, each jurisdiction was given the liberty to develop a financial assurance plan to deal with the costs of storm water runoff. Anne Arundel County opted to keep the initial program in place. The resident fees sit at $34, $85, or $170 annually and are based on the impervious surface area of a property. Essentially, if water can’t be absorbed into earth, you’ve got an impervious surface (think driveways, sidewalks, and roofs). When rainwater runs over these hard surfaces, it picks up sediment, debris, pollutants, and chemicals that choke our waters. 

In 2017, the Watershed Protection and Restoration Program brought roughly $21 million into Anne
Arundel County alone. The money funds projects tackled by the Department of Public Works and is also funneled to organizations (through the Chesapeake Bay Trust) that are committed to cleaning up the Chesapeake and its tributaries. 

The county and private contractors alike focus on three main strategies  to help reduce the storm water pollution that runs into our rivers. They conduct storm water pond retrofits, where previously constructed ponds and basins are upgraded and are made more efficient. They repair storm water outfalls (or large drains) enabling them to handle more water, and they are tackling stream restoration to prevent further erosion.

Since the fund was put in place, the county has completed close to 300 projects many of which have benefitted the South, Severn, Magothy, Little Patuxent, and Patapsco Rivers.

One of the county’s recently completed projects required the retrofitting of the scenic pond that neighbors the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market at Annapolis Harbour Center. The pond was initially constructed in the early 1990s before current regulations were imposed, so it was reworked to be more hospitable to native species. The bottom of the pond was excavated to allow for additional water storage and wetland benches were installed to provide habitat for wildlife. According to county statistics, this single pond will remove 177 pounds of nitrogen, 27 pounds of phosphorus, and 8.7 tons of sediment per year. These excess nutrients deplete oxygen levels and create dead zones in the water. Something to consider when you are bustling by with your shopping bags.

Another key provider of ecosystem restoration is Underwood & Associates, Inc. The company’s founder, Keith Underwood, found his footing in the field more than 30 years ago and also developed patent-pending sand seepage wetland and stream restoration techniques.

While the company has taken on many projects over the last three decades, their Howards Branch Wetland Restoration and Atlantic White Cedar Recovery project in Annapolis is perhaps their most impactful. The project centered on a stream bed that had experienced considerable storm water flow and resulting erosion. It tested Underwood’s sand seepage wetland techniques for the first time and the results were an incredible success. So much so, that the resulting planting effort that ensued at Howards Branch was listed by the Environmental News Network as the 11th most significant Earth Day project worldwide in 2001. 

According to Underwood, today the site supports a vibrant, healthy, and sustainable population of the globally-threatened Atlantic white cedar trees. In fact, it is the only known reproducing stand of Atlantic white cedar in the state of Maryland. The white cedar, along with large cranberry and low-bush blueberry, helps control sediment and reduce nitrate and phosphate quantities. The stream now supports a variety of habitats including fish, ducks, and three different species of frogs.

On a nearby shore, Severn Riverkeeper Fred Kelly contends that the Severn has been one of the big beneficiaries from the watershed protection and restoration funding. A Severn River resident and enthusiast, Fred says he got fed up with the kids swimming in dirty water and decided to take a stand. Since taking the helm on the Severn 15 years ago, he reports that the river is now beginning to reap the rewards from the funding. 

 Stream restoration projects that employ sand seepage wetland techniques developed by Keith Underwood slow down the flow of storm water, allowing it to spread out and seep into the water table below. The Watershed Protection and Restoration Program has funded many such projects throughout Annapolis and Anne Arundel County. Photography by Michael Land.

“Without the restoration fund, the Severn River and the other county waterways would deteriorate to the point where there would be few fish, few crabs, and it would be totally unsafe for swimming and recreation,” Kelly explains. “The only real protection that these waterways, particularly the Severn, have received in decades is through the watershed fund. It has enabled the restoration folks and the county to start to put in projects that stop the runoff, which is the major killer of the waterways.”

When asked if the public perception of the fund has changed Kelly contends that most people don’t think about the tax anymore. He does believe that as people begin to see improvements, they will appreciate the impact. “People who live on the water will see it first and public perception is already greatly improved already by those who know and care about the water.”

Kelly also finds that fishermen are now noticing improved oxygen levels in the Severn after several restoration projects were put in place. “The river is carrying fresh oxygenated water rather than sediment and debris, and we are starting to see a return of fish in greater numbers,” he affirms. 

Over on the neighboring South River, the waters are in the capable hands of Jesse Iliff and crew, who run the South River Federation. An avid boater and former environmental lawyer, Jesse says that they have seen a minor fluctuation in dissolved oxygen and turbidity (or clarity) levels river wide. “The bigger, sexier story is about the fresh water streams leading to the river. There are big dramatic differences in our streams,” Iliff says, likening them previously to chocolate milk where today there is clarity in the water. “In the Bay, we are seeing a reemergence of underwater grasses and diminished dead zones.” 

Iliff credits the dedicated funding source that has come through the program and the restoration projects that the fund has enabled. “We are seeing a lot less land coming into the river as a direct result of restoration projects so having a dedicated funding source is vital,” he contends.

Another entity in action keeping the waters clean is the Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy. With 188 trained Master Watershed Stewards across the county, the organization takes on hundreds of projects annually reducing pollution to river and streams. Restoration projects, plantings, rain barrel installations, and the removal of invasive species are among the group’s top undertakings. 

Executive Director Suzanne Etgen says people can really see the difference since the watershed protection program was put in place. “Projects are going into the ground and there is funding
to support them,” she contends. “The majority of the projects are on privately held land with homes or churches where the county has no jurisdiction. This is where Watershed Stewards come in to help people on their own private property.” 

Etgen cites a large-scale project that the organization tackled with parishioners at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Eastport. The $1.3 million undertaking overhauled a storm water system that is now instrumental in slowly filtering rain whereas previously it spilled straight into the water.

Engaging community members in the effort not only brings together those with a vested interest in preserving our waters but it also stretches the state’s funds. Where contractors were once paid large sums to haul and install bulkheads along the water, non-paid volunteers are now stepping in to create living shorelines with native plants and stone.

In the Twin Harbors community on the Magothy River in Arnold, more than 30 residents rallied at the beach to plant indigenous bay grasses, install truckloads of sand, and create a series of rock formations to slow down waves and protect the shoreline from erosion. An entire ecosystem now replaces an eroding cliff. “Today we are seeing snakes, turtles, ducks, horseshoe crabs, and even clams,” comments Chris Seiger, who serves as the Beach Chair for the community.

Waterfront homeowner and What’s Up? Media Publisher Veronica Tovey contracted Keith Underwood to construct a storm water outfall on her property along Church Creek, which feeds into the South River. The project sucessfully mitigates storm water runoff that otherwise would spill into the watershed. Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.

For those with homes on the waterfront, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources provides a free consultation service for property owners with erosion issues. The department also provides complimentary guidance on creating or improving living shorelines. With countless people, organizations, and government entities involved, the commitment to cleaner waters is clear and it’s making an impact. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), dissolved oxygen conditions in the Bay were much better than average last summer. 

Regardless of where you fall on the fee, the Watershed Protection and Restoration Program is turning the tides for our shorelines and slowly restoring the aquatic riches back to our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.