On good days, the Tiber Hudson tributary of the Patapsco is a pleasant part of the scenery in Historic Ellicott City as it flows through a stone channel by Tonge Row, beneath Tiber Alley alongside Main Street and past the B&O; Railroad Museum before it spills into the river. It's a troubled waterway nonetheless, not considered able to support life, paved over in spots and surrounded by lots of asphalt.
The urban and suburban surroundings that drain into the Tiber Hudson — its "watershed" — will be inspected early in December by teams of consultants and volunteers as part of a continuing private, county and state effort to improve the streams and rivers that ultimately flow into the Chesapeake Bay. Focusing on areas some distance from its channel, the crew of about 15 will spend four days driving around, looking for possible pollution sources and ways to better protect the Tiber Hudson.
Technically, these two streams that converge in the historic district are the defining feature of a subwatershed, and not counted among Howard County's nine major Patapsco watersheds and not part of the Patuxent River system, a more prevalent part of the county's landscape. As a result, the Tiber Hudson can be overlooked, says Betsy McMillion, Stream Watch director and former executive director of Patapsco Heritage Greenway, a preservation group focused on the lower river valley.
"We get kind of pushed to the side," says McMillion, whose group recently won a $30,000 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, most of which will pay for the Tiber Hudson study.
On the other hand, the relatively small size of the watershed, roughly three square miles, makes it a "great scale" for those trying to size up what ails it and how to fix it, says Lori Lilly, a watershed ecologist and planner with the Center for Watershed Protection, an international nonprofit consultant based next to the Tiber Hudson in the historic district. The center will be doing the study and expects to hand a report to the county by March.
Lilly, McMillion and two county officials offered a presentation in Ellicott City this week on the Tiber Hudson and how it fits into a larger picture of watershed and bay preservation. Small as it is, the Tiber Hudson makes a good example of how, in these matters, lots of little things count.
The consultants won't be looking for big sources of industrial contamination, which don't exist in this case. They will mostly be looking for ways to better manage the contaminating effects of a common phenomenon: rain.
The rain that nourishes plants and animals also carries detritus from roads and walkways into storm drains, runoff that flows untreated into streams, which spill ultimately into rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. Oil from parking lots, pet waste, lawn chemicals, liquids leaking from trash bins (professionals call it "Dumpster juice") are all part of the flow and all part of the problem of cleaning up the bay.
"A lot of people don't get that connection: stream, river, Chesapeake Bay," McMillion says.
Rain dumps a lot of water and can do a lot of damage. As Jim Caldwell, the county's storm-water manager, wrote in a blog post last year: "Just imagine, a one-inch rain event falling on a one-acre parking lot generates more than 25,000 gallons of water — equivalent to emptying two backyard swimming pools!"
The trouble is not just the quantity and quality of the rainwater in any given storm, but also the pace at which it can spill into streams such as the Tiber Hudson. Without buffers of trees and grass and ponds to hold it, it can flow into streams too quickly and cause erosion, spilling sediment into waterways and worsening water quality.
Nature has ways to manage this. Trees, grassy banks of waterways and ponds — professionals call man-made ones "retention ponds" — did the job nicely before humans fouled things up. They constructed roads, parking lots, houses and shopping malls, and put buildings too close to bodies of water.
Watershed management, then, is in part a matter of figuring out how to restore nature's own devices and remove or curb potential contamination sources.
In this case, the crew from the Center for Watershed Protection will spend four days driving the uplands areas of the Tiber Hudson watershed looking for trouble spots and room for improvement.
"We'll be looking in storm drains, popping manholes, taking pictures," Lilly says. "We'll be trying not to trespass."
Specifically, they'll be looking for leaking Dumpsters, home rainspouts spilling onto paved surfaces, and businesses storing hazardous materials in leaking or aging containers.
They'll also be looking for things that are not there, but might be. That is, ways to better manage rainwater near homes and businesses built before 1985, when Maryland issued the first standards for storm-water management design.
That could mean looking for places to build ponds to hold the water and let it seep slowly into the soil and streams. It could mean recommending places where homeowners can install rain gardens, which are usually low-lying areas cultivated with plants that thrive on lots of water that can serve as small ponds to hold water that would otherwise spill into storm drains.
The Tiber Hudson project fits into a larger county effort to improve stormwater controls. The county has done studies of the streams and rivers — including the Tiber Hudson — and of a couple of other uplands watersheds, but not this one.
Earlier studies of the Tiber Hudson gave it a "poor" biological rating and found that it was not capable of supporting aquatic life. The study found that 28 percent of the watershed is paved, which helps to explain the poor water quality. In Ellicott City, officials presented a graph showing that the amount of paving and the quality of local streams is in inverse proportion.
The county's effort is part of a larger project by the state, which is under orders from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to control the Chesapeake Bay's "pollution diet." This is a matter of controlling the Total Maximum Daily Load, meaning the most pollution a body of water can receive and still meet state water quality standards.
Even before the EPA took that step in December 2010, the county had completed a years-long study of its major watersheds, culminating in a 77-page report with recommendations in 2006. Since then, County Executive Ken Ulman has more than tripled the amount the county spends annually on storm-water management projects from $3 million to $10 million, meaning the county has done more stream restorations and built more ponds.
Spending is likely to increase to $50 million to $100 million in the near future, Caldwell says, as the county complies with a new state law that requires cities and counties to establish fees for managing storm water. The fee — which must be set by July for jurisdictions of 100,000 people or more — will be based on how much paved surface a home or business has, including the rooftop.
The calculation hasn't been made yet for Howard County, but Caldwell says the figure is likely to be between $50 and $200 per year for every 500 square feet of paved surface, whether driveway or walkway or parking lot. It depends on how much the county expects to spend each year on watershed management projects, he says.
The big construction projects are part of the task, but Caldwell emphasizes that citizens play a key role as well. Every paved surface, every bit of lawn fertilizer, motor oil or dog droppings that runs into a storm drain counts.
"We all are the solution," he says. "Each individual watershed, like the Tiber Hudson, is going to be part of the solution."