Maryland looks west for stream-rescue technique

A shadow beneath the rippling surface of Quail Creek caught the eye of James Gracie.

"There he is!" he exclaimed, wading knee-deep into a chilly pool overhung by a tree branch. A moment later, a small brook trout darted downstream.


The fish is a harbinger of new life in this narrow creek, which meanders through a sylvan patch of northern Baltimore County on its way to Gunpowder Falls. It also may be a glimmer of hope for some of the 5,000 miles of brooks, streams and rivers throughout Maryland that are barren of fish, or nearly so.

Three years ago, Quail Creek's headwaters were smothered under 120 tons of mud when an earthen dam built across the stream by a housing developer gave way. The silt filled in pools and riffles where trout had fed and spawned, and it triggered large-scale erosion of the stream's banks.


Today, few traces of that calamity remain. Tree roots, boulders and logs anchor the once-crumbling banks. The bottom is gravelly and mostly free of silt. And the fast-flowing water is nearly gin-clear once again.

Best of all, Mr. Gracie, an environmental consultant and avid fisherman from Catonsville, said that this year he found 11 young brook trout just downstream, where two years ago there were none. The native fish, prized by anglers, require nearly pristine conditions to spawn and survive.

"There's plenty of streams around to fix," Mr. Gracie said. "What people don't realize is how easy it is."

Not everyone agrees that it is easy, of course. But the techniques used to repair Quail Creek's badly eroding banks, techniques originally pioneered out West, have so impressed state and local officials that they are being tried on other ailing Maryland streams.

The State Highway Administration is paying Mr. Gracie's firm $80,000 to restore a lifeless stretch of Goodwin Run, another Baltimore County trout stream. A tributary of Beaverdam Run, Goodwin must run a gantlet of new homes, a stone quarry and highway construction near Timonium. The project is partly to make up for building a new road across the run.

State highway officials also plan to spend $180,000 on an effort to revive another trout stream damaged by road work, Jabez Branch in Anne Arundel County. Jabez was the last known trout stream in the state's coastal plain, but its fish dwindled four years ago when the water turned toxic with acidic, solar-heated runoff from Interstate 97 being built nearby.

That problem has been fixed, but the trout disappeared completely two years ago and have not returned. Mr. Gracie contends that erosion is at least partly to blame.

Most people think water pollution is caused by sewage or toxic chemicals, but mud and silt from erosion can do just as much damage.


Fine sediment can clog the spaces between the gravel in a stream bed, smothering the mayflies, stone flies and other aquatic insects on which fish feed. Silt also suffocates trout eggs, which are laid in gravel.

Uncontrolled runoff of muddy water from construction sites can dump tons of silt into a stream in a single rainstorm. Worse, sediment that forms sand bars in a stream bed forces water against the banks, triggering a vicious cycle of erosion. The banks are undercut by the stream and crumble, dumping more silt in the water and leading to even more bank erosion.

"Most of the streams we've lost in my lifetime are from sediment and erosion," said Mr. Gracie, a former national president of Trout Unlimited, a fishing group.

Eastern brook trout lived in nearly all of the 17,000 miles of streams in Maryland before European settlers arrived. But 300 years of logging and farming -- and lately, development -- have stripped away forests, causing erosion and raising water temperatures above levels that trout can tolerate. Today, the state has been left with only about 450 miles of streams and rivers with naturally reproducing trout populations, Mr. Gracie said.

Indeed, 90 percent of Maryland's rivers and streams are seriously stressed, and 2,500 miles of them are virtually lifeless, according to Barbara Taylor, executive director of Save Our Streams. Her group, based in Glen Burnie, works with government, citizens and business to protect and restore streams.

The methods used to repair Quail Creek "give us options we've not really had to restore life," she said.


Quail Creek was repaired two years ago by David Rosgen, a cowboy hydrologist from Colorado who developed a new method for reviving ailing streams while working for the U.S. Forest Service.

Mr. Rosgen tries to revive streams by restoring their natural meander. Many degraded streams have had their channels straightened, widened and even concreted so they can handle torrents of rainfall running off land stripped of trees.

"Basically it's just mimicking Mother Nature," Mr. Rosgen explained in a telephone interview from his horse ranch in Pagosa Springs, Colo.

A natural stream's sinuous bends slow the flow of the water and soften its power to erode, he said. To shore up already eroded banks, he uses native materials such as rocks, logs and tree roots, rather than the concrete walls and steel-wired rock gabions that are the traditional remedy for erosion.

Hardwood trees are toppled near the stream. The huge root balls, dirt still clinging, are used to anchor the banks. Then logs cut from the felled trees are stacked on top and angled downstream, forming a wall to absorb the force of the water's flow.

At other places, boulders are placed in the stream to divert the flow from the banks.


Native trees such as willows and dogwoods are planted along the shore. In time, their spreading roots will hold the banks after the log walls have rotted away. The branches of the trees also help fish by shading the stream. Native brook trout can tolerate water temperatures only up to 72 degrees, a level quickly exceeded when the hot summer sun hits shallow creeks.

Mr. Rosgen's erosion controls look more natural than do concrete and steel, and they are cheaper, proponents say. Putting the meanders back in Goodwin Run costs less than half what the state originally planned to spend installing gabions.

For all its apparent benefits, the Rosgen method has only recently caught on in the East, a fact he blames on tradition-bound engineers and community pressure to control damaging floods. Mr. Gracie, a Rosgen disciple, brought the Coloradan to Maryland to demonstrate his techniques on Quail Creek.

State fisheries officials say Mr. Rosgen's methods help, but they cannot solve all of a stream's problems. "Using natural materials . . . makes it look natural, and it does improve habitat for fish," said Robert Bachman, director of fish, heritage and wildlife for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But he added that "there is only a limited amount you can do to mitigate the impacts of development."

Some are even more skeptical.

"I haven't yet seen . . . one case of a stream that's been badly abused where it's jumped back to its previous condition," said Charles Gougeon, a DNR biologist. "Once you screw it up, it stays screwed up."


Quail Creek's trout were fading even before the stream was buried in mud and, despite the restoration work, they have not rebounded to where they were a decade ago, Mr. Gougeon said. The problem was, and remains, sun-warmed water flowing into the stream from a pond built to collect storm water running off the nearby housing development, Loveton Farms.

Warm water, rather than erosion, also may be mostly to blame for keeping trout from returning to Jabez Branch, said Kenneth Yetman, a DNR biologist.

Although relatively little of Jabez's drainage area is developed, what there is is concentrated around the sensitive headwaters of the stream's left fork.

Some biologists also fear developers will try to use "restoration" projects as trade-offs for relaxing stream-protection regulations.

"It's no panacea, but I think it is the best hope for not writing off a lot of streams we've been writing off," said Ms. Taylor of Save Our Streams.