Community activists help neighborhood leaders police local water quality

A fledgling army of community activists dedicated itself yesterday to mounting a war against the urban habits that have made many of Baltimore's streams inhospitable for fish or even a leisurely walk along their banks.

Organizers for the non-profit group Save Our Streams shared tactics with about 50 neighborhood leaders who gathered for a planning session at the Liberty Medical Center. But, the organizers said, it will ultimately be up to the leaders to clean up the mud, tires and assorted debris that clog city streams.


It's a job, said community organizer Terence L. Moore, that ranges from convincing neighbors to stop throwing trash down storm drains to pressuring construction companies to limit the amount of mud flowing into streams from work sites.

"We like people to take action themselves," Mr. Moore said. "We're like the headquarters in a war."


In recent years, Save Our Streams has mobilized hundreds of volunteers across Baltimore County as guardians of water quality. They assess water quality at 100 points staggered up and down the streams -- watching for insects that serve as indicators of a stream's cleanliness -- and work with government to fight polluters.

Now, said Executive Director Barbara J. Taylor, the organization wants to spread the network into Baltimore, where the streams suffer from a much heavier assault of environmental insults.

"It's a big job, but it's not impossible," she said. The strategy, she said, will be to get neighborhood groups to start rescuing short stretches at a time, creating a domino effect that may someday result in rescue efforts up and down every stream and tributary flowing through Baltimore.

After hearing about the basics of stream ecology, members of community groups took a bus tour to two places that represent polar opposites of water quality.

In Baltimore County, where the Jones Falls flows near Greenspring Valley Road, the activists saw clear water cascading over polished stones beneath tall trees. Wearing hip boots, Mr. Moore waded into the stream and explained how the trees and underbrush supply a rich menu of organic matter for insects, which in turn provide sustenance for trout.

"Oh, here we go, a sandfly," he said, filtering the water with a circular screen. The sandfly, he explained, is extremely sensitive to pollution, so its presence was a sign of excellent water quality.

But inside the city, where the Jones Falls runs past the old Mount Washington Mill, the water was nearly opaque with mud, suds and assorted effluents. It contained tires and a shopping cart. One problem, Mr. Moore said, was that a concrete embankment had turned the stream into a storm sewer. The absence of earthen banks had robbed the stream of its natural filter.