Watching the water and what's in it Piney Run offers a new career SOUTHEAST -- Sykesville * Eldersburg * Gamber


Macrophytes. Typha latifola. Herbaceous. Turbidity.

Big words, certain to produce sweaty palms for those who remember grappling with the finer points of biology and botany in school.

Taylorsville resident Ellsworth Acker isn't one for sweaty palms. He throws back his head, chuckles and gives a visitor a kindly refresher course that is not the least bit patronizing.

"Macrophytes are large aquatic plants and Typha latifola is nothing more than cattails," he says. "Herbaceous plants have soft, green stems, while turbidity refers to the cloudiness of water."

4 Better pay close attention, there may be a quiz.

Why would a man -- who has three academic degrees, who spent 28 years as a research chemist at W.R. Grace & Co. specializing in silica research and product development, who DTC finally retired from the National Pharmaceutical Co. and moved to Taylorsville in 1986 from Baltimore -- still be interested in working when most retirees are taking bus trips to Atlantic City or hanging out in malls or senior centers?

This sprightly 73-year-old has decided to spend his retirement years as a monitor of the Piney Run Reservoir, using his scientific background to collect valuable data to help the county maintain this vital water source.

"He is absolutely invaluable, and he has saved the county untold sums in lake and water monitoring," said Bob King Jr., a water resource specialist with the Carroll County Bureau of Water Resource Management.

"He also has written a manual on chemical testing procedures, which incorporates the methodology required for observing our water resources in a manner that ensures it will be done the same way in the future."

Mr. King refers to Mr. Acker as a limnologist.

A what?

"Limnology is the study," he explained, "of the characteristics of surface water and lakes."


Growing up a half-century ago in the Hamilton area of Baltimore, which in the late 1920s and early 1930s was still semirural, had a profound influence on Mr. Acker.

"It was Herring Run," he fondly remembers. "We used to fish and, believe it or not, swim there until it got messed up."

There Mr. Acker became interested in plants, fish, water and wildlife.

"When I was a student at Hamilton Junior High," he recalled, "I was very interested in science and built crystal sets, a telephone and model airplanes. However, my dad, who was a lithographer, pushed me toward studying chemistry and science."

He is 1938 graduate of City College and earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland in 1942 in general physical sciences.

Further education was interrupted by World War II. He joined the Navy and served in the Mariana Islands as an engineering officer aboard a landing ship. He later was captain of No. 371, another landing vessel whose portrait he painted and proudly displays on the wall of his book-jammed study.

In 1947, he returned to Baltimore and joined the Davison Chemical Co. in Curtis Bay, where he began his career in silica research and its application to industry. He enrolled in night school at the Johns Hopkins University and earned a degree in chemistry in 1951.

He retired in 1974 and went back to school at Essex Community College. Eventually, he transferred to Towson State, where he received a bachelor's degree in biology in 1977.

"The reason I didn't go for a Ph.D. is that the older you get and the longer you're out of school the tougher it is to pass those tests," he says.

After moving to Carroll County in 1986, he decided one day to go to Piney Run Nature Center and Park to volunteer and see "what I could do," he said.

He went to work on a fishing guide to the park and became an active contributor to Piney Whispers, the center's newsletter, writing on such diverse subjects as moss, fish, algae and why leaves change color. He combined his scientific knowledge with an informative yet breezy writing style.

In 1989 his career as a park volunteer took a turn when the Carroll County Bureau of Water Resource Management asked him to compile and maintain data on Piney Run Reservoir.

"My job is to observe the living cycle of the reservoir," he said. "I collect water-quality data from the same locations in the reservoir and measure the temperature of the water, the dissolved oxygen content, pH factor and whether the water is too acidic or alkaline, and also check the levels of nitrates and phosphates."

The reservoir is home to largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappies, bluegills and catfish. It is stocked with rainbow trout and has many aquatic plants and various types of algae.

Deer, ducks, geese, turtles and frogs are just some of the other forms of wildlife to be found around the reservoir.

Piney Run was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1974 for use as a water supply and for recreational purposes. It encompasses 300 acres and has a depth of 50 feet. With a capacity of 3 billion gallons, it can supply 3 million gallons of water per day to the Freedom Water District. According to Mr. King, the reservoir will probably be tapped as a drinking water source in 1994.

It is this responsibility that keeps Mr. Acker busy from April through October coursing back and forth in an electric-powered boat, collecting water samples.

He takes them home to his basement laboratory, where he analyzes them and records the data in a journal. This information is placed in a data base maintained by the county.

His report card on the reservoir is encouraging.

"We're in an acceptable range with nitrates, and the fish life is good. The levels of zooplankton and insect larvae, which is part of the food chain for the fish, is also good," he said.

"Development pressure always puts a strain on water resources," he said. "But the county has made sure that there is good buffer land around the reservoir."

He is joined in this work by other volunteers who help him keep tabs on feeder streams and Gillis Falls. He has trained them in his methods to help maintain consistency in recorded data.

Was he worried that the 8 1/4 inches of precipitation the area experienced in March might affect the reservoir?

"All that happens after a big rain or storms is that the silt moves from one place to another," he said.

Another part of his job is checking algae levels.

"Fish life, aquatic insect larvae, algae, chemical analysis and plant life gives us an insight into the life and health of the reservoir," he said.

"We possess the ability to destroy or restore water sources," he said in a warning tone. "We're not losing the battle with the Chesapeake Bay, and we're doing pretty good with the rivers.

"The big thing is that we're making progress with people who have become a lot more conscious about streams and waterways and conservation."

His latest project, begun last autumn, is a survey of the macrophytes surrounding the reservoir.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad