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Baltimore Takes Its Rain by Storm

Mary Rose Madden
Bio-engineers hope large rocks will help prevent the stream from further erosion

Does it seem like every time you hear rain falling, you hear a flash flood warning?

Flooding is growing more and more common - and there are a few reasons for that.  A big one is that rain isn’t being absorbed - it falls on rooftops and streets, then gushes through the pipes and bursts into the streams like a fire hose.

The rain flows with such force and such volume that the stream beds erode, leaving even less earth to absorb the water.  The water levels in the Jones Falls, The Gwynns Falls, Herring Run, and the Inner Harbor rise and rise and eventually overflow the banks.

Houses flood, streets collapse and the city’s waterways and the Chesapeake Bay become more polluted. All this connected to storm water, scientists and engineers say.  

It’s a problem with a multi-billion dollar price tag that environmental advocates and lawmakers have known about for years. But now, money is flowing--in the form of the storm water utility fee—to try to fix the problem. In the waning moments of its 2012 session, the General Assembly passed a bill requiring Baltimore and the state’s 9 largest counties to begin collecting a storm water utility fee.

Critics called it a “rain tax,” but advocates say it’s a critical pot of money to pay for a wide range of projects to meet a federal mandate to clean up the Bay.  They can be divided into “upland” projects and “downstream” projects.

Baltimore is fairly built out with a hundred year old infrastructure, says Jeffrey Raymond, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works. The pipes have cracks and leaks. And they carry all kinds of polluted runoff from our streets that eventually winds up in the Bay.

“This is all very much inter-connected,” Raymond points out.  

Think back to the 2012 sinkhole on Monument Street.  According to the city’s Department of Public Works, the sinkhole was the result of a collapsed culvert and a burst storm water pipe—too much water flowing too rapidly.

Until recently, the cost of storm water infrastructure repair work had to come out of the city’s general fund. And often, there wasn’t enough money. But the storm water fee, which went into effect in July 2013, has created a pot of money for that work. And the city is evaluating requests for proposals on work that needs to be done.   Raymond says they’re “just now starting to build up a reserve in our special funds.”

He says DPW expects crews to complete five major storm drain projects--pipes and culverts--by June 30th.  That round of projects will cost almost $9 million.

While those kinds of projects cost big money, there are smaller projects that can get people involved and that don’t cost much.

“We can’t just rely on the city to put in big projects,” says Ashley Traut with Blue Water Baltimore, a local advocacy group that represents the city’s four watersheds.

Traut says the problem cannot be fixed without the efforts from everyday Baltimoreans.

“Every single one of us is going to need to make some effort to restore our streams, our harbor, and the bay,” he said. “If each person plants a tree in their yard or putting rain barrels or a rain garden on their property – these little things cumulatively will add up to a big difference.”

On a recent sunny fall day at The Herring Run Nursery folks filled the rear deck of an all-terrain vehicle with trees and drove through the woods then loaded them into their cars. 

Elyse Victoria, also from Blue Water Baltimore, was giving away trees donated by Tree Baltimore. She matched up people with trees.   Live in a row home?  She’ll send you off with a smaller red bud.  But if you have the yard, she’ll suggest a nice big oak.  A mature tree can absorb up to five hundred gallons of water a year.  Victoria says, “They soak up as much of the runoff as possible.   The willow oak is a top choice because it really does a great job of absorbing runoff and filtering off the pollutants.” 

But Barbara Metz and her friend, Jackie Serfling, have their hearts set on a black gum tree and some native grasses for the meditation garden at their church, St. Matthew’s in Northeast Baltimore.  After they sign a few papers, the tree is theirs.

The storm water treatments for their church don’t stop there.  They plan on ripping up some of the concrete in the parking lot and replacing it with pervious pavers to allow the water to soak into the soil. 

So, that’s all “upland.”  As for downstream projects, DPW says it will spend a little more than $6 million by June 30th on stream restoration projects alone, like the one they’re finishing in Leakin Park.

DPW and an engineering design firm called KCI – restored more than 1500 feet of a stream near the Fairmount neighborhood.  The restoration aimed to stop the stream from eroding further, to slow the flow of the rain, and to remove the silt that would eventually flow into The Chesapeake Bay and kill essential grasses.

This is what they call bio-engineering - where science informs design.  They’ve laid big rocks at the point where the pipes spit out into the stream.  They’ve built water cascades with stone – trying to trap the storm water and slow it down.  Rainwater hits each step, and loses some of its force along the way.

They’ve made long mounds of coconut fiber and staked it with 2x2s and native plants.  They hope this will stabilize the steep slope and absorb moisture.   They’ve made brush mattresses of willow and dogwood clippings – again, hoping these plants will root, absorb water, and stop further erosion. 

As the crew is checking over the work they’ve recently completed, they notice signs that deer have come back to this forest – a good indication that this stream restoration project is on the right track.

But there are dozens of streams around the city that need these kinds of treatments.     And this project cost almost a million dollars.

If the storm water utility fee does goes towards what it’s supposed to – Baltimoreans could see fewer floods and significantly less pollution - bringing what many call this “urban ecosystem” back to life.

correction: an earlier version of this story stated that the stormwater utility fee applied to Baltimore and the state's ten largest counties.   It applies to Baltimore and the state's nine largest counties.