Summer's here and watershed rangers aren't playing games

Almost anywhere rain falls, from the Baltimore Beltway near Towson into southern Pennsylvania, that water will probably end up in the Loch Raven Reservoir.

Likewise, if a cigarette hits the ground, or motor oil is spilled, it'll join the runoff water bound for the reservoir.

Watershed rangers, who patrol the reservoir for the Baltimore City Department of Public Works, can no more stop pollution than they can make it rain, but they do their best to protect the reservoirs themselves and the forest buffers surrounding them.

Officials say the summer season — when young people are out of school, families are looking for day trips and the reservoir beckons a respite near home — is a particularly challenging time.

Loch Raven Reservoir, like Liberty and Prettyboy reservoirs, is owned by the city and maintained by the city's Department of Public Works. The reservoirs provide water for people in Baltimore and Baltimore County, as well as parts of Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

The property around Loch Raven Reservoir is irresistible to fisherman, nature lovers, bikers and families looking to enjoy the outdoors; and for people seeking nearby refuge from the traffic, chaos, noise and pace of metropolitan life.

Still, the reservoir is not a park. It's a water supply for 1.8 million people.

"The dirtier the water is, the more it costs the customer to make that water clean," said Celeste Amato, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Public Works. "We do allow some recreation, but we're very restrictive."

The reservoir can't function like a park because the Department of Public Works is required by law to protect the drinking water, and overuse leads to erosion and damages plant life, Amato said.

"All the trees and plants on that property make the water cleaner," she said.

Enter the watershed rangers.

"We call them rangers, but they are police officers," Amato said. "They have real handcuffs — and they'll take you to a real jail if they have to."

'I'm not a park ranger'

Currently the city employs seven rangers, shared among its reservoirs, and hopes to hire about five more.

One of them is Ranger Janos, who declined to provide a first name. Janos used to be a Baltimore City police officer.

Janos wears a Kevlar vest and a utility belt with a Taser, pepper spray and a 9mm handgun. He unholstered the gun to show a visitor the magazine, fully loaded with 16 rounds.

"I'm not a park ranger," Janos said. "I'm not handing out maps and waving to people."

On his small police boat, Janos constantly scans the water and shoreline. He says the job is, "99 percent environmental: to protect the water supply."

His binoculars are almost always at his eyes, looking at a boat or at fishermen to see that no one's drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana or littering.

On a day last week, after leaving the dock at the reservoir dam, Janos slowed the boat near Loch Raven Reservoir's famous cliff, which is off limits to the public.

"There's at least 12 'No Trespassing' signs up there," he said.

But rocks are covered in graffiti in places, and when the rangers visit the cliffs, they find "trash, beer — just crap — everywhere," Janos said.

Across the reservoir, near a bend, something purple is floating in the shade at the water's edge.

"I hope that's not a body," Janos said.

He pulled closer and found it was an inflatable raft. Nearby, were plastic bags and other garbage. That's what really irks Janos.

"I've seen ducks swimming around with fishing line wrapped around their beak and their head," he said. "That really chafes my [expletive]."

Yet, while looking for people breaking the law, Janos also takes note of people who go out of their way to help the reservoir.

"There are people that walk around here all day and do nothing but pick trash up," he said.

Danger on the water

Certified as a "wilderness first-responder," Janos can do a lot for certain broken bones and injuries incurred by people who visit the reservoir, but there's nothing he can do for someone who has died — and that's why the city stresses the prohibition against swimming.

The waters, Janos said, are deceptively dangerous.

"You could be in 6 inches of water here, step off a ledge, and it goes down 40 feet," Janos said.

The ranger has a depth-finder on his police boat and said he's found spots that are deeper than 100 feet.

"It's incredibly dangerous," Amato said.

When the Gunpowder River was dammed, it flooded a valley. It's hard to know what all is under the water; and "there's a lot of stuff, rubble, rocks," Amato said.

Additionally, the reservoir has little surface area relative to the volume of water, allowing the water to stay pretty cold year-round.

Last week, the thermometer in Janos' boat said the water was 81.8 degrees at the surface.

"If you go down 12 feet, it drops 20 degrees," he said.

The cold water is numbing and weakening, much more quickly than people think, Amato said.

Janos said Loch Raven Reservoir had two drownings last year, and Liberty had one. The victims aren't usually children, but adults in their early 20s.

People drown almost yearly because they think, "I'm just going to jump in and cool off," Amato said.

There's a current below the surface because it's being constantly fed by streams and it's also feeding pipelines that lead to treatment plants.

"A number of our drowning victims, we know they could swim," Amato said.

"It is a terrible, terrible thing to be out there with a family while they wait to recover somebody," she said.

Back at the purple raft Janos found, he said he'd actually found two swimmers recently in that same location.

"I caught two naked guys swimming over here," he said.

Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works, said swimming fines can range from $250 up to $1,000 and even jail.

If a person is just swimming, the fine might be $250, but if that person is also diving off cliffs, destroying property, or disobeying a Watershed Ranger, "they can really add up," Kocher said of the fines.

"The idea isn't to collect money," he said. "The idea is to keep people safe and protect the water supply."

Natural attraction

Approaching the first bridge, Janos gunned it, and the boat lifted on a plane. Janos kept the speed up passing under the bridge. There, Janos found his first target of the day: a boat of fishermen.

"Looks like no beer," he said, looking through the binoculars.

Then two more boats. He again slowed down and looked through the binoculars. This time, it was two small boats with children and parents.

"They all got their lifejackets on," Janos said, so he sped on.

The day was a relatively slow one on the reservoir, with overcast skies and a forecast of rain.

"On Saturday, there's 75 boats out here," Janos said.

Later, he pulled near another fishing boat. "This boat here, they got a 50-50 chance (of having alcohol)," Janos said.

He pulled up alongside the boat, which contained three men in their 20s fishing. He asked everyone for fishing licenses. One of the men admitted he was playing hooky from work, and Owings Mills resident Chad Buckland told Janos "you stopped me before."

Janos smiled, "everybody says that, 'You stopped me yesterday.' " The fishermen laughed.

Janos is friendly, but he doesn't switch off. When speaking to members of the public, he smiles but enunciates like a nail-gun, ensuring no one forgets what he's doing there.

Janos made a beeline for another boat, this one with two young men fishing. Cockeysville resident Stuart Waesche, 21; and Hunt Valley resident Justin Ostendarp, 21, both had fishing licenses and no alcohol.

Ostendarp said they'd just arrived on the reservoir and hadn't caught anything. He fishes other reservoirs, but his boat is stored near Loch Raven, so he fishes there three times a week "and I like Loch Raven," he said.

After a bit of friendly chatting, Janos was again ripping across the smooth water at high speed. He approached another boat, this one with three middle-age men. Janos spotted a can of beer from a distance and pulled up alongside, asking first for fishing licenses, all three of which were presented.

Coolers were opened, and there was no beer aside from the two open ones. Janos reminded the men that alcohol isn't allowed in the reservoir property.

He could have fined them $100 each for the violation, but they were cooperative and respectful, and didn't seem to know the rules. Janos had them pour out the beers, then he asked them to pull out the rental agreement for the boat, which was rented at the far end of the reservoir. He had one of the men read aloud a certain part of the rental agreement, the part about no alcohol.

No butts about it

Janos reiterates his prime focus on the environment.

"It takes 30 years, I think, for a cigarette butt to decay," he said. When he sees people smoking on a boat and they don't have some sort of receptacle, he knows where the butts end up.

Janos then spotted three men on the shore fishing.

"See that? That's illegal," Janos said, noting a fishing line coming off a spool rather than a pole.

When people fish without a pole, they often just cut the line and leave it at the end of fishing, Janos said.

Janos was stern with the three, none of whom had a license, but he let them off with a warning. In Maryland, a license to fish in nontidal freshwater costs $20.50, whereas a fine for fishing without a license costs $60, he said.

"If you're honest with me, I'm not going to write everything I can," Janos said.

Janos was a surveyor for an engineering company before he was a police officer. He changed careers around age 40.

"I always wanted to be a cop," he said.

On this day, he started his shift at 2 p.m. and would patrol the Loch Raven Reservoir property, both on water and land, until midnight. During that time, he might run into anything from illegal campfires to drugs.

"A lot of pills — Xanax, lorazepam, can't always pin it on them," he said.

When on duty, Janos is usually the only ranger at the reservoir. He can call for backup, but that would have to be the Baltimore County Police Department and they might take 10 minutes to get to his location. He does have another option for backup, though: Air-1, the county police helicopter.

While out on the water, Janos pointed out some wildlife.

"There's osprey, there's bald eagles," Janos said.

Not far away, a doe stood near the water's edge.

Later, he pointed out, "That's a great blue heron over there, two of them."

Wildlife is a large part of what attracts so many to the reservoir.

Janos said he can relate. He joined the watershed rangers about a year ago and said he made the change because, "who the heck wouldn't want to work out here?"

The Loch Raven Fishing Center, at 12101 Dulaney Valley Road, on the shores of the reservoir, offers services for anglers and visitors, including boat rentals, fishing licenses, bait and launching permits. For information regarding recreation in other areas of the reservoir, call Baltimore City Bureau of Water at 410-795-6150.

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