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The Storm
Over Drains


Twilight for a Tributary

A Stormwater Primer

Bend in the River

How to Slow the Flow

The RIver's Keeper


The rising tide of stormwater tops the list of sources for nitrogen and phosphorus inputs in Anne Arundel County (right, by Jack Greer). This runoff can wash sediment directly into the Bay's waterways, threatening underwater grasses and oysters, like those grown by Irene Hantman and her neighbors (below, by Skip Brown).

Oysters grown by Irene Hantman - Photo by Skip Brown
Who'll Stop the Rain?
The Challenge of Managing Stormwater

By Jack Greer

storm drain in Anne Arundel County - photo by Jack Greer

From the waters of Beards Creek Irene Hantman pulls a dripping line tied to the end of her community dock. At the other end floats a plastic crate full of oyster shells, and on those shells lie pale white juvenile oysters (or spat), about the size and shape of a fingernail, and almost as translucent. Hantman and a neighbor examine the spat's growth, but when Hantman pokes each developing shell, none of them close. Though the weather has remained relatively mild this year, she can see that the diminutive oysters have died. All of them.

Oysters have a tough time in Beards Creek. Salinity can drop fast here, when rainfall sends fresh water pouring in from the watershed, bad news for salt-loving oysters. But they've done well in other creeks nearby, and Hantman says that she has a gut-level intuition that there's something else that's making it hard for oysters to survive in Beards Creek.

For almost five years now Hantman and her neighbors have watched the creek's waters change color, especially just after a rain. Brown plumes work their way out from storm drain outlets on both sides of their community — from a pipe right by the community pier and from a marshy outlet to the south, where stormwater finds its way from neighborhood streets and roads and, increasingly, from construction sites.

Hantman and her neighbors believe that this fine cloud of clay and silt has killed their oysters and hurt the creek — they are well aware that scientists have fingered cloudy waters as a prime suspect in the disappearance of underwater grasses. And they know that sediment can cover and smother oyster bars.

What they don't know is exactly to what degree this is happening in their creek, and to what extent the development that has exploded in their Edgewater community has caused any ecological damage. Most of all, they don't know what to do about it.

Hantman and her neighbors believe that this fine cloud of clay and silt has killed their oysters and hurt the creek.

What the Rain Brings

Stormwater runoff has become a new scourge on the Chesapeake landscape. In 2001, the Chesapeake Bay Program's Executive Council, including the governors of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, issued a directive blaming stormwater for poor water quality in over 1,570 miles of streams in the Bay's watershed. According to that directive, "the vast majority of land developed prior to the early 1980s in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has no stormwater quality controls."

As a result, stormwater from urban, suburban, commercial, and residential development carries about 15 percent of the phosphorus, 14 percent of the nitrogen, and 9 percent of the sediment that annually enters Bay waters, according to estimates from the computerized watershed model used by the Chesapeake Bay Program. While agricultural runoff brings in greater loads (more than 40 percent of nitrogen and phosphorus and more than 60 percent of sediment entering the Bay), agricultural acreage is declining, while developed acreage is growing. And in rapidly urbanizing counties like Anne Arundel, stormwater, not agriculture, has already become the dominant source of both sediment and nutrients.

In the 2001 directive the leaders of the Bay states and the federal government agreed to implement innovative stormwater controls on state and federal lands, whether developing or already developed. This voluntary effort transcends existing regulation and serves as a model for municipalities and developers throughout the watershed.

But as Hantman began to learn, a wide ditch separates policy statements and even laws on the books from what may happen on a particular construction site at a particular time. Or in a particular creek.

An Accidental Expert

Hantman is not, as they say, from around here. She grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in Montgomery County. Like so many others, she moved by the Bay to find a more pleasant life, and to be near the region's premiere natural asset.

Hantman is brown-haired, short in stature, and long on energy. With her eyeglasses and her intense intellectual curiosity, there is something almost scholarly about her, and she seems to take her nature seriously. She moved near Beards Creek in the fall of 2001. When she arrived with her husband Todd and their three-month-old daughter Fern, it never occurred to her that she would soon become a citizen expert in zoning ordinances and stormwater issues. All she knew of Beards Creek was that it lies on the southern shore of the South River and that their two-story wooden house in a modest neighborhood was only a two-block walk away from water.

Hantman has not lived in southern Anne Arundel County long enough to see the gradual changes that preceded her. The old draw bridge across the South River replaced by a fifty-three-foot-high fixed span. Bigger, more expensive waterfront homes sprouting up along the river shore. The arrival of South River Colony along Route 2, a large development bankrolled by a subsidiary of Exxon Corporation, with 900 homes and a shopping center anchored by a K-Mart two football fields long.

Beards Creek is only one of more than a dozen deep-water creeks branching gracefully off the South River that have seen the effects of changes in the watershed. For now, its marshy headwaters remain a haven for wildlife and a buffer for nutrients while development creeps closer — including a county highway facility constructed right on the edge of the wetland. The sounds of growling motorcycles and roaring cars and trucks on routes 2 and 214 have become the creek's new anthems.

Hantman began her unexpected foray into runoff and the affairs of the creek when a wave of development broke directly on her doorstep.

The angry phone calls and e-mails came in the spring of 2002, not long after she agreed to serve as secretary of her community association. An ugly brown plume had poured into the creek, something unusual for this quiet tributary, and neighbors were upset.

As a recent transplant to the region, Hantman was initially caught off-guard by her neighbors' emotional response. "It took about five e-mails before I finally began to get it," Hantman says.

The plume came from a construction site for Johnson's Lumber, a long-time Annapolis business recently relocated in Edgewater not far from Hantman's house. In an effort to be a good neighbor, the lumber company entered into a set of formal agreements, or covenants, with the community association, promising to minimize the impact of lighting, noise, and commercial access to neighborhood roads. But on the Friday evening of Memorial Day weekend, according to Hantman, contractors decided to empty a temporary stormwater pond used during construction. A filter was supposed to keep sediment from escaping, but fine silt washed directly down the community's storm system and into the creek.

The brown plume, the first of many to arrive from a number of different construction sites, drew Hantman into the world of sediment control and the bureaucratic labyrinths of stormwater management.

Hantman's first inquiries brought her to the Anne Arundel County Department of Inspections and Permits, the office in charge of permitting construction sites. They told her that in the case of Johnson's Lumber everything was being done according to county regulations. They would later tell her the same about other construction projects. And yet ugly plumes continued to darken the creek.

Some runoff during construction was inevitable, they said. Besides, she was told, there were several different issues here: one was the construction permit, another was the issue of sediment control, and yet another was the condition of the community's own stormwater system.

Hantman just wanted to stop the flow of silt into the creek, but she found no one at the county level who seemed to share her concern. "I was incredibly frustrated with the county," Hantman says.

Her association board asked Bea Poulin, a county-appointed community liaison, to attend one of their meetings. Poulin suggested that Hantman and her neighbors contact the county's Public Works Department to find out just what to do about their stormwater problem.

Hantman and other members headed to the Public Works office with a raft of questions. She had heard that new construction was supposed to maintain "predevelopment" runoff levels, but who determines exactly what "predevelopment" means? Who inspects the site before, during, and after construction? What role, if any, do local communities and homeowner associations have? Who would really be there when it started to rain?


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