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Heavy equipment is used to rebuild a badly eroding stretch of White Marsh Run in Baltimore County.
Heavy equipment is used to rebuild a badly eroding stretch of White Marsh Run in Baltimore County. (Cassidy Johnson)

Researchers are suiting up to wade into a roiling debate over the effectiveness of costly stream restoration projects in restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

The Chesapeake Bay Trust, a state-funded nonprofit organization, has awarded four grants totaling $825,000 to take a closer look at the impacts of re-engineering stream channels on water quality and wildlife habitat.

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The studies, commissioned at the behest of state and federal environmental agencies, come as some scientists continue to question the value of such projects at reducing the nutrient and sediment pollution fouling the bay and local waters. Nearly 3,700 miles of streams across Maryland are targeted for restoration work by 2025, at a cost to local and state governments of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Critics contend stream restoration doesn't always work and often doesn't last, especially if it's not matched by comparable efforts to curb polluted storm-water runoff. Officials, as well as private environmental consultants, say techniques for reshaping water ways have improved over the years and do demonstrably revive degraded streams. But even restoration advocates acknowledge that not enough has been done to document the benefits.

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"At the Chesapeake Bay Trust, we want to invest our resources in watershed restoration projects that are going to have the most impact and best results in terms of improving water quality and habitat," said Jana Davis, the trust's executive director. She said the grants are intended to "answer important questions focused on the effectiveness of different stream restoration approaches and reduce costs."

Grant recipients include the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Straughan Environmental Inc., one of the firms engaged in stream restoration work.

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