By ZOE READ
The Capital of Annapolis
PASADENA, Md. (AP) — For Bill Flohr, it was great to grow up on Rock Creek in the 1960s.
He would go out early in the morning, swim and fish in the clear water of the Pasadena creek all day and return at night with enough crabs for a family dinner.
“Your parents let you out when you wanted to go out,” Flohr said. “You were out all day until your mother shouted your name.”
Today, Rock Creek has changed. Parts are considered unsafe because of a long-standing risk of bacterial infection, and a lack of oxygen is killing off the crabs and fish.
“The sunfish have entirely disappeared from the creek. There used to be a lot of croaker. If you came down on a typical day you would be lucky if you found two people crabbing,” Flohr said.
Flohr was one of many people who turned out Saturday for an event hosted by local environmentalists to share information about projects aimed at cleaning up the creek. There are efforts to grow oysters from private piers to filter the water, rebuild an aging aeration system and even target erosion problems with funds from the planned county stormwater control fee.
Environmentalists, government officials and scientists agree they are all good ideas, but acknowledge that finding solutions to the pollution of Rock Creek could take as long as 20 years.
“The creek didn’t get polluted quickly. And it will take a long time to clean it up,” said Caryn Canfield of Restore Rock Creek, a group she helped create three years ago.
“Can you continually make incremental steps? Absolutely . It’s a matter of getting all those steps together and we’ll reach a tipping point where nature will heal itself. It’s not going to be something that can be done overnight.”
Figuring out where to start is where environmental scientist Matthew Hickey of CSI Environmental comes into the picture. The Riviera Beach resident has teamed up with Restore Rock Creek to test the water and pinpoint the largest sources of pollution.
He and other volunteers tried to create an overall picture of the creek, looked at its physical features and decided where they can find the best information. Using a system that reads multiple conditions in real time, Hickey will collect a series of samples over the next year to find some answers.
“It’s like you’re taking a physical with your doctor, and what we’re going to do is identify where our strengths and weaknesses are and what our solution will be going forward for either maintaining or improving the quality of the creek,” he said.
It will be the first time such in-depth data has ever been collected on Rock Creek. Hickey and others hope the results may reveal what changes could reverse the creek’s decline.
Health warnings against swimming and wading have been in place on a section of Rock Creek, from its headwaters to Wall and White’s coves, for decades. Technically, the last time the warning was issued was last year, when the Anne Arundel County Department of Health found the same high bacteria levels.
“In 2013, the Recreational Water Quality Monitoring Program discontinued sampling the `limited use’ locations. Because sampling has discontinued, the limited use advisories are no longer in effect,” said Elin Jones, department spokeswoman.
However, the department warns all swimmers that creeks and other bodies of water can contain bacteria, viruses or other harmful microorganisms, she said.
Common problems associated with swimming in contaminated water are ear, eye and skin infections. Diarrhea and other water-related illnesses can occur from accidentally swallowing contaminated water. Disease-causing microorganisms can also enter the body through cuts and scrapes.
Closer to the mouth of the creek, the county installed an aeration system in 1988 to ease a persistent smell of rotten eggs blamed on the low oxygen levels in the water.
Last year, the county conducted a study to determine if it was worth replacing the system. Researchers took test samples when the aerator was working, and when it was turned off.
The results were clear. When the system was off, the oxygen starvation returned, along with hydrogen sulfide and a distinct odor. The conditions stimulated algal growth, which consumed more oxygen in the water, conditions that can suffocated crabs and fish.
The Department of Public Works plans to install a new aeration system starting next year, a project that will that will cost $578,000.
“We needed to replace it with something more modern and efficient, and operate it in a manner that would be more cost effective,” said Janis Marcusic of the department’s Watershed Ecosystem and Restoration Services Division.
In an ideal world, the aeration system would not be needed, Canfield said, and the creek would function on its own. But in order for that to happen, there needs to be a lot of improvements to other related conditions.
Restore Rock Creek is working in partnership with the county to make sure stormwater fees collected under legislation pending before the County Council are spent on projects that will have measurable effects, Canfield said.
She said there is a significant amount of erosion and runoff into the streams that feed into the creek. Stormwater runoff and erosion are considered major sources of pollution.
“It’s going to take working with the government because for many years, we have been damaging the environment and letting people pollute at no costs,” she said.
There are other potential sources, too. A previous study by Salisbury University identified failing septic systems on the southern banks of the creek as a source of bacteria, and sewer spills upstream along the Patapsco River like the one in Baltimore County last year can dump huge amounts of pollution into the waterway.
“The biggest problem is the overflow from the pumping plants during the storm,” Flohr said. “The stormwater floods the system out. You will have a spill up here of 100 million gallons, and it leaks out.”
Area residents are starting to get more involved. When Canfield started Restore Rock Creek three years ago, it was a one-woman show. Now there are several people who run the organization.
Hundreds of people showed up to the event on Saturday to learn more about Restore Rock Creek’s programs. One of the programs highlighted was its oyster program. It already involves 70 households on the creek.
Residents grow oysters off their piers using larval oysters provided by the state. When they reach maturity, they will distributed to a reef in the Patapsco to clean up its waters.
This is the second attempt at the oyster program. It failed last year when all the oysters died while in the water. The organization is hoping for better results this time.
“A single adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day. It will then allow the water to become clear. When the water isn’t clear, it prevents a lot of the sea grass to come back to the bay,” said Chris Wallis program director for the oyster program.
“Once we can clean up the water, that will allow for more grass to grow. If the grass grows it creates a habitat for a bunch of organisms.”
What’s at stake is the ability for area residents to spend time on the creek without worrying about the health risks, Canfield said.
“We love the environment and we love where we live. We want to enjoy the waterways. And if the waterways are filled with algae it’s not nearly as enjoyable as if it was swimmable,” Canfield said.
“The aquatic life, we want them to survive. We have to provide a habitat for them where they can live.”
Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md., http://capitalgazette.com
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)