Shrugging off a chilly morning drizzle, hundreds of volunteers slogged yesterday along the muddy fringes of waterways in central Maryland packing trash bags with debris in the annual spring stream cleanup.
"You can give as much money to environmental groups as you want, but the way you really make a difference is to go out and get your hands dirty," Towson University sophomore Jenny Green proclaimed as she and her brother, Ryan, harvested food wrappers, bottles and other debris strewn along the steep banks of a campus ravine.
The Greens muddied more than their hands. They splashed knee-deep into the stream that runs through the Towson University campus to fish out a mail cart the size of a bathtub that had been half-buried in mud weeks or months ago.
"A stream can't clean itself of this kind of garbage," Jenny Green said. "We have to lend a hand."
Project Clean Stream unites environmental organizations, civic groups and government agencies in a grubby rite of spring at about 100 sites across the region. The project is organized by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and backed by cash from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the nonprofit organization created by the legislature to promote bay awareness.
Organizers estimated that yesterday's cleanup would yield about 60,000 pounds of trash, about the same as volunteers collected last spring.
About 65 Towson University students, professors and others cleaned Towson Run, which snakes through ravines in the heart of the 320-acre campus and serves as a sink for debris, oil and other pollutants that flush off streets and parking lots.
"It's clear from what we're picking up here that fast-food wrappers and coffee cups are just washing off these parking areas," said Martin Roberge, an assistant professor of geography who led about a dozen volunteers cleaning up an isolated wooded wetland called The Glen. "We would hope that people would learn to hold onto that coffee cup."
The Glen is Towson University's environmental jewel. The ravine seems a world away from the whirring traffic on Cross Campus Drive and York Road and features stone picnic pavilions, barbecue pits, a footbridge and an amphitheater built by the Public Works Administration in the 1930s.
But The Glen has been under siege by campus development. Its stonework and towering trees have been overshadowed by four concrete mid-rise dormitories and a five-story parking garage built at its edge along Cross Campus Drive. And true to a venerable environmentalist joke about developers commemorating what they destroy, the garage and dorms are all named for The Glen.
The ravine and the stream have survived because environmentalists rallied to protect it, said senior Melissa Singleton, a biology major. "Even though The Glen is mostly an overlooked area, students would not stand for it being bulldozed," she said.
The university and Baltimore County have taken steps in the last few years to keep Towson Run from being silted in runoff from development at the top of its steep banks, Roberge said. Storm water pouring off the parking lot that separates the dorm towers from the new five-story garage was eroding the ravine, sending waves of silt into the stream. Sediment carries chemicals and bacteria into water and smothers aquatic life by lowering levels of dissolved oxygen in streams.
In 1998, the county approved a $270,000 contract to restore Towson Run. The stream's channel in The Glen has been realigned, and rocks have been placed along its edges to trap sediment before it reaches the water.
"They put a bundle into The Glen, and it was worth it," said university public works employee Roy Hayhurst as he tossed bags of trash and buckets of recyclable items into his truck. "Unfortunately, there are still some people around here who still don't care."
There were signs of such neglect everywhere yesterday, even though volunteers scrubbed The Glen last year.
"There are lots of candy wrappers, lots of plastic drink lids, lots of bottles and hundreds of pieces of Styrofoam," said Mike Edillon, a junior environmental studies major. "This is all a result of our throwaway lifestyle. There's so much of this stuff, nobody really thinks about it anymore."