Along a 1,200-foot-long ditch just outside the road circling Marley Station mall, 600 middle school students have sown the beginnings of a natural filtering system for the dirty rainwater that flows from the parking lot into Marley Creek.
The students from Marley Middle School in Glen Burnie spent about eight hours Thursday and Friday shoring up the ditch's embankments with sand and peat moss, and planting 2,400 shrubs, trees and plants, some of which they had nurtured in their classrooms.
On Friday, a group of sixth-graders showed off their handiwork: 3-foot sweet bay magnolias on the banks and tiny tufts of blue flag iris poking out near the bottom of the ditch.
Others grumbled about adults polluting the water washing into the Chesapeake Bay. Austin Zebron, 11, said he spends time on fishing trips picking out garbage from the creek.
"Grown-ups are trashing it, while middle-schoolers are cleaning it up," Austin said.
Rain that falls on the 5 acres of concrete carries auto oil, phosphorus and other chemicals from the mall parking area across Ring Road into the Marley Creek watershed.
When the mall was built in the 1980s, the county did not require an extensive storm-water management plan. Marley Middle School teamed up with Anne Arundel County's Public Works Department and Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center to address the problem.
Underwood & Associates, a landscape architecture firm in Annapolis, helped create the design for the man-made watershed. Water will flow from the parking lot through the root systems of trees and shrubs at the top of the embankment and down dirt steps to the bottom. Piles of rocks placed at intervals will form weirs to slow the flow of water into the creek a half-mile away.
The idea behind the $300,000 project is that bacteria will form on the rocks and eat harmful bacteria in the water, said Keith Underwood, the company's owner. It will take at least five years for the plants and trees to mature enough for the system to work properly, he said.
The students planted Atlantic white cedars and pitch pine trees. Their root systems are made of carbon and graphite, which can filter heavy metals and phosphorus from water and trap them in the soil, said Stephen Barry, coordinator of outdoor education for county schools. He also runs Arlington Echo.
The cedar plantings also help reforest the county with a native species that was once overharvested for use in boats, Barry said. In the past three years, the county has planted 7,000 cedars and hopes to plan 4,000 more in the next two years, he said.
Barry worked with seven Marley teachers, who taught students about the watershed and the environment. Students grew the seedlings at the school system's Center for Applied Technology-North.
Marley Creek runs through the school's grounds, but students were not allowed to plant near the creek this year. Marley Middle moved into a new school in September, and developers have not finished landscaping, said Stephen Fletcher, a teacher who coordinated the school project.
The school hopes students will be able to maintain the watershed on school property, he said. The wetland creation will serve as a living classroom for the students, Fletcher said.
The students said they preferred to spend their time outdoors rather than in the classroom, even if they got a little dirty doing it.
Sixth-grader Emily Ormell stained her jeans when she fell into the mud. Her classmate Samantha Thon said the hours of planting did not feel like work.
"We got all down and dirty," she said. "It felt like fun."
Classmate Nathan Boles hopes to see a big difference in the area in years to come.
"Hopefully, when we come a couple of years later, we can see the flowers bloom and it will give me a big smile," he said.