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Restoring Herring Run starts a child at a time

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Henry M. Roberts, a resident along Baltimore's Herring Run before he went to prison for murder, writes that he'd like to know whether frogs abound in that polluted waterway.

He is trying to get a new trial, and key witnesses claimed they were frogging along the stream when they found the weapon that tied him to the crime. Roberts seriously doubts a frog has survived there for decades, and so. . . .

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L Life in and around the bay's urban tributaries can be tough.

So it is that environmental educator Claudia Donegan, leading a gaggle of fifth-graders bearing nets into Herring Run beneath the Belair Road bridge, wants to net more than fish.

She is fishing also for hope; and to instill a sense of connection and caring in Harvey Freed's Gardenville Elementary class for this stream that drains 45 square miles of Northeast Baltimore and portions of Baltimore County from Overlea to Back River in Essex.

The kids push through chest-high borders of grasses and wildflowers in the park that borders the run in this section.

"Growing, not mowing," says a sign posted by the city to explain its policy of letting parts of the stream's banks revert to nature.

This is good, saving energy and providing both wildlife habitat and a green filter for polluted runoff, says Donegan, who manages the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Streams Program.

Not so good are a couple of discarded syringes she kicks beneath bankside vegetation as she leads the kids into the water -- surprisingly clear and pleasantly cool on this sunny, late-May day.

Donegan's assistant, Ted Cahill, and several children seine a deep hole beneath the bridge, catching just one crawfish, 3 inches long -- and also a red power mower that once belonged to "Emory," from the name painted on it.

Cahill seems a little shell-shocked. He has just moved to the streams program from the Bay Foundation's education center in the lush seafood grounds of Tangier Island. Before that he worked in the Colorado Rockies.

"Kind of bleak," he agrees, after the kids sample for insect larvae that would indicate good water quality, and find mostly pollution-tolerant worms.

Donegan gathers the class around a large pipe jutting into the stream. "What have we got here?"

Several already know what many of their elders probably don't: These pipes are not sewers; rather storm drains.

They are the outlets for all that the rain washes from tens of thousands of acres of pavement, streets, alleys, parking lots and rooftops -- all the "impervious surface" that dominates Herring Run's watershed.

Experts like James Gracie, who heads the region's leading stream restoration company, will tell you that Herring Run's basic hydraulics are as crippling as anything we normally think of as "pollution."

The health of streams, he explains, lies in factors as fundamental as the physical geometry of their channels -- shaped over centuries and millenniums in tandem with the slow, gentle trickle and flow of rain from watersheds cloaked in natural vegetation.

Intense development in the last few ticks of Herring Run's evolution has generated a far different runoff scenario -- all the energy of about 30 billion gallons of rain a year, sheeting off impervious surfaces, focusing through storm drains into great, destructive pulses, cannonballing down a stream evolved for gentler ways.

It erodes the banks, whose sediment in turn smothers aquatic life; the streambed scours to bare rock; and in the dry summer, so little rain has soaked into the ground, there is almost none of what hydrologists call "base flow" to keep large sections of the stream from drying up.

Theoretically, a stream like that will ultimately restore itself to equilibrium with its altered watershed, Gracie says -- but it may take 500 years or more.

Or, you could contemplate a mammoth public works project, ripping up square miles of asphalt, building thousands of infiltration pits to retard and filter runoff -- the price tag, Gracie says, would make people sigh and walk away.

Which is why, like Donegan, you start small. She talks to the kids about how trash washes into the storm drains, clogs and pollutes the run.

Pick the stuff up, recycle, don't litter; tell your neighbors not to put their motor oil down the grates in the gutters, she says.

That afternoon, after a streamside marshmallow roast, the kids will apply this stenciling to storm-water grates along the edges of the park:

DON'T DUMP. CHESAPEAKE BAY DRAINAGE.

Meanwhile, the students have turned into joyous, instinctive fishers, some holding a seine across the stream as others beat the waters in front of it to a froth, collecting dozens of minnows for their buckets.

A chewed-off willow log indicates a beaver is living nearby. A single caddis fly larva is found clinging to the bottom of a rock in the stream. Caddis flies prefer water in at least fair condition. A large fish, a carp probably, is almost captured.

It is wrap-up time: "OK, you had fun, and you learned urban streams aren't awful, gross places you need to be afraid of," Donegan exhorts the crowd. "You found golden shiners, black-nosed dace, a mummichog -- it had to come all the way from the bay. Other groups have found eels and carp and seen a great blue heron.

"Is Herring Run a dead stream?"

"No!" the class shouts.

And before they leave, they plant a tree, a fine sycamore sapling that joins ranks of maples, ashes, oaks and other plantings from previous trips taken by other schools in the watershed.

It is only one tree, but the place is one tree better than before we came. It will check erosion, filter runoff, make shade and oxygen and house birds. What if everyone in the 60,000-plus households in the watershed planted one? Or one a year?

A sycamore planted now could live two or three centuries, and during that time Herring Run may regain a fuller membership in the bay's community of tributaries.

Just this past April, more than a thousand citizens of Baltimore city and county turned out for the first of what promises to become an annual Herring Run Festival.

Lynn Kramer, a prime organizer, says state and federal officials are looking into the prospects for restoring the historic spring herring runs that are the stream's namesake.

Kramer, like Donegan, realizes that to try and resolve the totality of Herring Run's ills in any one program would be defeating:

"You have to first build on a sense of community; on the stream linking people and neighborhoods together; also, any improvement we make in the water will help the bay," she says.

I ask Donegan: Has she seen any frogs in her extensive travels up and down the run?

"No. I can't think of a much more unlikely place to look for frogs," she says.

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