Residents pool efforts with Blue Water Baltimore to help Towson save the bay
By By Barbara Pash
May 12, 2015 | 6:00 AM
You can't see the steam from the street. To get to it, you have to find the break in the shrubs behind the Orokawa Family Center Y on West Chesapeake Avenue. The break opens to a steeply sloped path that leads to the dirt trail that parallels the stream.
Last month, on a bright, sunny Saturday morning, Becky Galloway led a group of 38 volunteers in the West Towson Neighborhood Association's first-ever stream cleanup, a half-mile stretch of Towson Run.
The Y provided coffee. Galloway brought doughnuts. Towson University's Theta Chi fraternity sent 20 "big, strong guys," said Galloway, who removed chunks of concrete that had found their way into the stream. Blue Water Baltimore, an environmental nonprofit, contributed planning, training and equipment like gloves and trash bags.
In the end, the stream cleanup yielded 12 large trash bags of refuse, including a road sign, two wallets (empty), a safe (also empty), a broken table, a case of beer (unopened), 62 plastic bottles and innumerable cigarette butts.
"Blue Water Baltimore was instrumental. We did the stream cleanup under their direction," said Wendy Jacobs, chair of West Towson Neighborhood Association's greening committee who recruited Galloway, a Towson resident and association member, to supervise the stream cleanup.
The West Towson Neighborhood Association began working with Blue Water Baltimore two years ago. "We wanted to make our community more environmentally healthy," said Jacobs, whose initial collaboration was tree planting.
Last fall and this spring, the neighborhood group and Blue Water Baltimore planted 86 trees along the street, in private yards, in Mt. Olive Baptist Church cemetery and the small business district on West Pennsylvania Avenue. Blue Water Baltimore provided the oaks, elms and maples to replace dead trees and also handled the required permitting process.
The collaboration has expanded to water quality, like the stream cleanup and water monitoring. Last year, at West Towson Neighborhood Association's request, Blue Water's test of part of Towson Run found evidence of sewage discharge, a condition that was reported to Baltimore County.
Blue Water Baltimore is strictly local, and not part of a national organization. Founded in 2010, 20 staff members work out of an office on Belair Road. Its $4.5 million annual budget comes from federal and state grants and donors, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Baltimore Community Fund.
According to Elise Bruner, a Blue Water Baltimore community organizer, the focus is on protecting and restoring water quality in four city-county watersheds and their tributaries: Gwynns Falls, Jones Falls, Herring Run and the Baltimore Harbor. Towson Run is a tributary of the Jones Falls.
The three main pollutant problems Blue Water Baltimore encounter are trash; sediment, or dirt from eroding streams; and bacteria, from the cross contamination of old sewage pipes and storm drains.
These problems are not unique to Baltimore, Bruner said. They are found in other cities. The difference is, the Chesapeake Bay.
"Everything in the watersheds ends up in the Chesapeake Bay via storm drains, including trash, pesticides, garbage and dog waste," said Bruner, a Loch Raven native who lives in Loch Raven Village with husband, Will Bruner.
As a community organizer, Bruner spends much of her time out of the office. She rotates among community groups, schools and religious organizations, talking about environmental concerns and the programs Blue Water Baltimore offers to address them.
"Each neighborhood is unique. I find out what their issues are and equip them with the knowledge to make their community healthier," she said.
While Blue Water Baltimore operates in the city and county, Councilman David Marks has seen an uptick in activity in Towson. "A lot of community associations work with them, especially West Towson and Ridgeleigh," said Marks, who represents Towson and Perry Hall.
"When they do tree plantings with the communities, they pick the right locations and show how to maintain the trees," he said. "They're a great group."
Cathy Bevins, 6th District Baltimore County Councilwoman, agreed. At the behest of the Loch Raven Village Community Association, she got involved in a dispute with the county administration.
The county announced that it would locate a salt dome, a storage shed for salt for winter conditions, to an existing small maintenance facility on the grounds of the Loch Raven Technical Academy, a Baltimore County Public School on LaSalle Road. Bevins was surprised.
"It was close to Loch Raven Village. There would be a lot of truck traffic when it snowed. It was not an ideal situation for residents," she said.
The Loch Raven Village Community Association agreed. "We met with Blue Water Baltimore, which showed us that this was not just a local issue but had a broader environmental impact. They educated us on the [possible] consequences [to nearby Herring Run]. Blue Water joined us in opposing the dome," said Jason Garber, Loch Raven Village Community Association president.
The association's subsequent "Halt the Salt" campaign led to talks with Marks, a meeting with Bevins and, in the end, Garber believes, the announcement at the April 20 County Council meeting that the salt dome was a dead deal.
"The administration withdrew the proposal," Bevins said. "It was a big win for the community. They articulated their concerns."
Said Garber, "Blue Water Baltimore has been a great friend to our community. The work they do is invaluable and it has long-term consequences."
Blue Water Baltimore is involved in other projects in the Towson area. At St. Pius X Parish, for example, Blue Water Baltimore is funding and overseeing a bioretention garden for the church and school on York Road.
The St. Pius X project is one of a handful of projects Blue Water Baltimore is undertaking thanks to a $50,000 grant for stormwater management in faith-based communities.
Jenny Michalak, coordinator of environmental stewardship at St. Pius X, said the project concerns the large parking lot behind the church where runoff from the impervious surface is excessive.
"The volume of water is so great that we needed more than a rain garden," she said of the bioretention garden, a system of underground pipes, sand filter and specific plants that is being installed this summer under Blue Water Baltimore's supervision.
Since its partnership with Blue Water Baltimore in 2007, Stoneleigh Community Association has planted more than 200 trees. Ridgeleigh Community Association began its partnership in 2011. It has since planted more than 75 trees and become involved in water matters as well.
"They do presentations about water quality at our meetings. They'll come to your home and do a water audit, then suggest ways you can improve the runoff with a rain garden or rain barrels," said Bill Deysher, Ridgeleigh Community Association vice president.