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Input sought on Loch Raven Reservoir North watershed goals

Charlie Conklin, president of Gunpowder Valley Conservancy, at one of the tree planting locations by the Loch Raven Skeet and Trap Center in Phoenix on Monday, Sept. 22.
Charlie Conklin, president of Gunpowder Valley Conservancy, at one of the tree planting locations by the Loch Raven Skeet and Trap Center in Phoenix on Monday, Sept. 22. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Charlie Conklin isn't talking about multi-million chicken farms, a problem on the Eastern Shore. He isn't referring to residential developments being built in once-rural areas, another problem. Instead, Conklin, president of the Gunpowder Valley Conservancy, is concerned about small farms, horse operations and privately owned land that impact the Loch Raven Reservoir watershed.

Next week, on Mon. Sept. 29, Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability and the nonprofit conservancy will introduce the Small Watershed Action Plan (SWAP) for Loch Raven Reservoir North to the public.

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"Baltimore County has certain pollution reduction goals it has to meet," said Conklin, referring the the federal Environmental Protection Agency's "pollution diet," the colloquial name for mandated pollution limits.

"There is a voluntary side and a regulatory side," he said of Baltimore County's SWAPs, which are part of a larger state and ultimately, federal picture.

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Under the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, the EPA was given responsibility for regulating discharges and pollutants into the "waters of the U.S." and to overseeing quality standards for surface water, that is, streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, as opposed to ground water.

In 2010, a lawsuit by environmental groups including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, successfully argued that voluntary efforts to reduce pollution weren't working. The EPA then issued a mandate to six Chesapeake Bay watershed states — Maryland among them — that sets pollution limits, a time frame and an enforcement mechanism.

Baltimore County has completed 23 SWAPs. The few watershed action plans that remain will be done by the EPA-mandated date of 2017. The county watershed plans will be rolled into the state-required TMDL — or total maximum daily load — to meet the EPA's pollution diet.

Loch Raven Reservoir is the "Grand Canyon" of Baltimore County reservoirs, supplying water to 1.8 million people in the Baltimorea area. Its watershed and tributaries occupy a large swath of the central county along with parts of western Harford County and Pennsylvania's southern York County.

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So big is the reservoir watershed area that for environmental purposes, it has been divided into five separate watershed action plans: Beaverdam Run, Oregon Branch and Baisman Run were done in 2011; Loch Raven East, in 2014; Loch Raven South, now in progress; Loch Raven West, planned for 2016.

The September public meeting kicks off the Loch Raven North SWAP process, although its land-use issues are the same as the other reservoir watershed action plan areas, said Erin Wisnieksi, natural resource specialist with the county environmental department and watershed manager for the Loch Raven Reservoir.

The EPA's pollution diet addresses the three main sources of Bay pollution: nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment. In a fresh water ecosystem like the Loch Raven Reservoir, Wisnieski said, the culprits are phosphorous, bacteria, mercury and sediment.

Wastewater/septic systems and stormwater runoff are linked to nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous in the water. Nutrients result in algae blooms that kill fish and other aquatic life. Algae bloom also creates sediment that clouds the water and reduces sunlight, killing underwater grasses and oyster beds and filling in channels.

A 1997 county reservoir watershed management plan details how to identify problems like pollutant loads and stream stability and how to fix them. "It shows the issues and opportunities for restoration," Wisnieski said.

A 32-member steering committee has been meeting since last spring on the Loch Raven North SWAP. Its proposed goals will be presented at the Sept. 29 public meeting.

Committee members run the gamut of stakeholders. They include Gunpowder Riverkeeper, North County Preservation, Sparks Glencoe Community Planning Council, The Manor Conservancy, Valleys Planning Council, Baltimore County Farm Bureau and individual farmers, and state and federal fisheries, land preservation and parks departments.

"We went beyond the EPA in looking at Loch Raven Reservoir," said Nancy Pentz, Gunpowder Valley Conservancy's representative on the committee. "We looked at local issues like water temperature and trout habitat."

Among the proposed goals are: reducing annual average phosphorous loads by 50 percent; sediment loads by 25 percent; and bacteria presence by 77 percent. Reducing salt usage on roads, stabilizing steam banks and promoting a healthy forest habitat are listed as well.

While the Loch Raven North SWAP appears to focus on land preservation and agricultural practices, it doesn't apply only to farmers. In an area known for large estates on vast acreage, private homeowners cannot be left out of the equation.

Conklin and Pentz emphasize voluntary action. The watershed action plan "is not a regulatory document but a strategy to meet the goals," Pentz said.

Conklin agreed: "Regulations will not achieve the total objectives of the plan without contributions from the voluntary side."

Nonetheless, if voluntary action isn't enough, the question becomes what regulations exist and who enforces them. "That is the challenge," Pentz said.

The enforcement agencies are on the state level, primarily the Department of Agriculture but the Department of the Environment, as well. Regulations on best management practices, including run-off from fertilizer, exist for farmers.

Unless the residential homeowner's land is part of forest buffer records or is under a conservation easement, there does not appear to be similar oversight as the property goes through the county's permitting process.

To achieve the watershed action plan goals, Conklin talks about putting land in the Loch Raven area into an agricultural protection category. He talks about more county funding for conservation easements and watershed grants. Wisnieski mentions forming work groups with the agricultural community.

"SWAP implementation involves many groups," Conklin said. "The county will never meet its pollution goals if they're not shared by all."

The Loch Raven North SWAP meeting will be held on Mon. Sept. 29 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Hereford High School, 17301 York Road. The public is encouraged to attend.

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