Until last year, a thicket of trees, trash, weeds and vines just a few feet from busy West Street in Annapolis was home to a modern urban monster: a degraded stream.
Much of the rainwater running off the parking lots of nearby Parole Plaza flowed into this area. Over the years, the periodic torrents of storm water cut a chasm 5 feet wide and 20 feet deep in the soil. Three thousand feet away, this unseen beast was doing serious damage to Weems Creek, a tidal estuary in the heart of Annapolis.
"All that dirt from the banks of the creek was carried straight into Weems Creek. This one stream was contributing to the sedimentation problems, and nobody really paid attention to it," said Jim Gracie, an environmental design consultant from Ellicott City.
Gracie tamed the West Street tributary this year. Following his design, construction crews contracted by Anne Arundel County rerouted the waterway. The narrow slot where water once rushed through is gone, replaced by a meandering channel through the woods behind the offices of the Annapolis Capital newspaper. Artfully placed rocks, logs and tree stumps slow down the water and reduce erosion by about 95 percent, according to Gracie.
The West Street tributary is just one small sign of the growing movement in Anne Arundel and in Maryland to control storm-water runoff into the Chesapeake Bay using so-called "soft engineering" techniques. Rather than using concrete to channel water, this new breed of designers creates creek beds that replicate naturally flowing water and the natural features of land.
In the past three years, the county has spent $1.7 million on ecological restoration projects. Four have been completed. The Jabez Branch, which flows into the Severn River near Routes 2 and 32, was restored in 1997. Before that, it was home only to eels. Now it has nine kinds of fish.
Next year, the county will spend $1.8 million on stream restoration. Eight more degraded stream beds are scheduled to be restored by 2001, according to county spokesman John Morris. In addition, the county recently completed a survey of the South River watershed that will be used to identify runoff water sources carrying sediment into the bay. Next year, the county will begin examining the Severn River watershed with the same goal.
At the same time, the Maryland Department of the Environment recently issued a new draft manual for storm-water management techniques, and the final version is supposed to be released by the end of September. The state is also in the process of implementing new storm-water regulations.
"It's a whole new paradigm," said Ken Penzel, a program manager for the state's water management administration. "We are incorporating 15 years of experience and observation. The beauty of it is that we're getting a whole new level of protection at the same time that we're giving developers and property owners new flexibility in how they achieve it."
"It's a good step forward," said Mary Marsh, legislative chair for the state chapter of the Sierra Club. "We are holding people to a higher standard, but we are also explaining it much more clearly."
Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties are the state leaders in adopting new practices, according to county officials.
Tom Andrews, land use environment officer for Anne Arundel's Planning and Code Enforcement department, said he began pushing creek bed restoration projects five years ago to improve water quality and save money.
"If we contain the sediment upstream, we don't have to dredge it downstream," Andrews said. The county now spends $2.6 million annually to dredge at 10 sites along the county's 527 miles of coastline.
County Executive Janet S. Owens (D) earlier this week toured a finished restoration project at the Sawmill branch tributary near Interstate 97 near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The rush of traffic and the whine of planes faded as Owens walked along a clear creek, with lush vegetation and fish darting in placid pools.
"This is just astounding," Owens said. "To say that we can reduce the erosion by 95 percent and save on our dredging costs is something we have to do more of."