A pond that has been part of Heavenly Waters Park near Bel Air for decades is being allowed to dry up, and the area it covered will revert to a more natural state under a project being undertaken by Harford County government, which owns the park.
A nesting area for migratory waterfowl and home to fish and some large snapping turtles, among other wildlife, the pond is near the county Parks and Recreation Department headquarters and the Harford County Equestrian Center off Tollgate Road and is ringed by part of the Ma & Pa Trail system, making it easily accessible to the public.
The pond has had "structural deficiencies" for several years, according to county budget documents. Simply put, it leaks, and officials in the previous county administration said four years ago that wholesale repairs would be too expensive.
Instead, the county plans to breach the pond's southern embankment, allowing the stream that feeds the pond to flow directly into a tributary of Winters Run, county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby said.
"This is the first time we've done a project like this, and we are excited about the possibilities of creating additional environmental benefits," she said.
Despite all the rain the Bel Air area experienced in June and early July, the pond's water has receded quickly since the Memorial Day weekend and most of the area it covers resembles a mud flat.
Still, there was no shortage of wildlife at the pond during a recent visit. A flock of geese gathered on the shaded hill on the east side of the pond, and ducks and a blue heron were foraging in the remaining water, which was murky and covered with algae in some spots. Dragonflies cruised near the shore and small birds flitted to and fro in the bushes along the shoreline.
A small turtle also made its way into the muddy, shallow water at the south end of the pond.
Branches were poking out of the mud where the water has retreated, though, and a few pieces of litter, such as an aluminum drink can, were covered in dried mud.
Not much water
The current state of the pond prompted a few comments from people who were jogging, walking and biking along the trail late Friday morning and wondered about the county's intentions.
"We did notice that there isn't much water left in it, and we weren't sure whether they were draining it to repair it or just trying to get rid of it," said Douglas Kooker, of Havre de Grace, who was walking along the trail with his female companion between Heavenly Waters Park and Annie's Playground, which is one-and-a-half miles to the south in Fallston.
Maya Shertzer was walking up the trail toward the south end of the pond with her husband, Gary, and their three children, plus their children's three cousins.
"It looks really low, compared to what we've seen," she said.
Shertzer said she and her family have seen more ducks and geese at the pond in the past.
Once the pond drains and the south embankment breached, the area once covered by water will function as a wetland, and Mumby noted that "the bubbling of the stream will aerate the water, keep it moving."
"We also think that there will be additional environmental benefits, because that will create some shallow-water areas that can attract wildlife, compared to the pond," she said.
A new section of trail will be built a short distance from the existing trail on the south end of the pond and will include a pedestrian bridge across the new stream channel, according to Mumby, who said the county has not pumped or otherwise tried to drain the pond to hasten its demise.
The total projected cost is $800,000, of which $300,000 was allocated for construction and design in the fiscal 2016 capital budget. The county is seeking grant money to cover that allocation, of which $160,000 will be used for design.
"It's a designation in the budget for the county to accept grant funding, and we're pursuing those grants now," Mumby said, explaining the county has already used $47,000 of its own funds for engineering, Mumby said. Construction is slated to begin in July 2017.
She said "future funds or grants would be approved as needed" for the remainder of the estimated project cost.
The county applied to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in January for a grant from the state's Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund to support the pond project and a series of other capital projects.
Funding was denied for the pond, but the state did provide money for the additional projects, a combined $368,000 for two stormwater retrofit projects in the Country Walk community off Wheel Road in the Bel Air South area, Mumby said.
Mumby said the county plans to apply for grants for the Heavenly Waters pond project from the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Trust in September.
"This has been a long-standing issue that the administration is making progress on and moving forward," she said.
Monitoring old landfill
Mumby said the pond is "ornamental" and is not needed for stormwater control and probably dates to the 1950s.
During that time, the park property was still part of the County Home, a government operated almshouse for indigent Harford residents who farmed the area.
Mumby said the pond also was used later to help the county monitor any volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, coming from the nearby capped Tollgate Landfill that was in use from 1954 to 1987.
After the landfill was capped in 1995, the county has monitored area groundwater and soils for pollutants, a process Mumby said will continue without the Heavenly Waters Park pond.
The pond had two aerators to circulate the water to inhibit algae growth and oxidize any organic chemicals that might get in the pond, Mumby said. Neither aerator has worked the past two years.
Bob Chance, a Darlington resident and longtime Harford County conservationist, as well as a former Harford County Public Schools science teacher, said he frequently used the pond for environmental education activities when he was director of the nonprofit Susquehannock Environmental Center, which was on the current site of the Parks and Recreation Wood Shop that is near the pond.
"It was one of the most convenient, accessible water impoundments in the Bel Air area," Chance said.
The environmental center, open from 1972 to 2002, was a place where people could bring their recyclables and also take part in a number of environmental and outdoor education programs.
"It's been there for many, many decades," Chance said of the pond. "I was really hopeful that it could have been maintained in an acceptable format for practicality, for keeping some of the pollutants out of Winters Run as well as a source for fishing and bird watching."
Chance did not want to question Harford County's budget priorities, but he said the stream channel project "sounds like the easy way out, and it's taking an uncommon resource from the people around Bel Air."
Mumby, however, said the stream channel is more "cost effective" than repairing the pond.
"The option that we've chosen of creating this stream channel is more cost effective, and we believe as the water flows it creates the same effect of aeration and has environmental benefits as well, because it allows for wetlands to be created for the benefit of wildlife," she said.