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With unhealthy stream pollution, Jones Falls targeted for restoration and maintenance projects

Tom Starrs grew up in Baltimore County, but even into his early 20s, he routinely passed Jones Falls without knowing it was there.

Orioles and Colts games had been staples of Starrs' youth, as were stops at the old Windy Valley General Store in Lutherville. All three trips would take him and his family down the Route 83 corridor that winds through Green Spring Valley. But it wasn't until 1984 that he first heard about the nearby stream that gave the Jones Falls Expressway its name.

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"It's literally minutes from a million people, an urban population," Starrs said. "So I went down there with a fishing rod, and my first time fishing, I caught this 15-inch wild brown trout. …

"I took it home and showed it to my buddies, and they couldn't believe it when I told them where I'd caught it."

Starrs, now 52 and president of Maryland Trout Unlimited, has caught one there every year since. And Baltimore County officials are working to ensure he'll be able to for years to come.

Jones Falls, whose watershed is home to about 200,000 people and spans some 40 square miles from Garrison to the Inner Harbor, is set to begin a series of restoration and maintenance projects to improve recreational conditions and overall stream health. Thanks to a $200,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, Small Watershed Action Plans already have been approved for the northeast and lower parts of the Falls.

A third and final project, targeting another part of the upper Falls, is also in the works.

"We are taking the things that they want to see happen in the watershed and also applying some of the requirements that we have here in the county — the water-quality requirements — and combining it into this giant plan," said Amelia Atkins, natural resource specialist for the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability.

As of Dec. 31, EPS natural resource manager Steven Stewart said, "10 or 11" planning documents across Maryland were approved according to EPA criteria. Five of them came from Baltimore County.

In mid-October, the EPS and local watershed association Blue Water Baltimore will hold their first of two community meetings to open up discussion about the rehabilitation of the upper part of Jones Falls. Atkins, who is responsible for overseeing Baltimore County's work in the area, called the steering committee for the project "really enthusiastic."

The effects might not be felt for another five to 10 years, according to Stewart, but central to all three Jones Falls plans are reductions in sediment and bacteria through education and work with the residents and institutions that inhabit the watershed. In performing frequent on-site examinations of Baltimore County water sources, Atkins found that Jones Falls grades above its total maximum daily load — or, as she puts it, the stream's "pollution diet."

With decreases in pollution will come cleaner (and therefore less expensive) drinking water for Baltimore County's residents. But recreation should feel the effects as well.

Starrs, like many in the area, typically throws back his catches, fishing solely for sport. But county officials are hoping the option of fishing for food will become more viable.

"You [will be able to] catch the fish and not worry about the number of meals you eat, because the levels of mercury are low," Stewart said.

Those upstream changes should pay dividends downstream, too. Because of the warm water that comes down from Lake Roland, many consider the temperature of lower Jones Falls to be a lost cause as far as trout fishing is concerned. Unlike in the northern stretches above the lake, the southern part of the stream regularly is stocked with hatchery trout in the spring, unable to sustain its own wild population.

But Baltimore County is hoping to add trees along the stream to help stabilize the banks, fight bacteria, and provide added canopy and oxygen to the water. The goal, the lower Jones Falls SWAP states, is "to achieve standards of swimmable, fishable, and water contact recreation" by 2022.

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Maryland Trout Unlimited, meanwhile, is looking to improve the already sound fishing conditions in the north. With a $400,000 grant of its own, the fishing-conservation nonprofit is planning to restore 500 feet of natural channel above Lake Roland, where concrete blocks fishermen from using the stream.

"The upper Jones Falls is absolutely good water quality, good habitat," former MDTU president Jim Gracie said. "It's one of the most densely populated trout streams in the state of Maryland, if not the most. The issue for us is that there's not much public access, so there's not a lot of places where the public can go and fish there."

That hasn't stopped Starrs, though. One recent Sunday, the Westminster resident returned from a fishing trip out West and returned to Jones Falls.

With a nice haul in May, he already had extended his streak of consecutive years having caught a trout in Jones Falls to 30. This time, though, despite trying three different spots around Green Spring Valley, he didn't catch anything. ("The water's pretty warm," he explained.)

Still, while Starrs has grown up quite a bit since the first time he fished the stream, he hasn't outgrown the stream's novelty: Now working in medical sales, he said his fishing ventures in Jones Falls provide an "escape."

He'll be back next year for No. 31.

"It's literally minutes from a million people, an urban population, but it still has wild brown trout. And you get back there, and there's little strips of woods and everything. You see deer. You can hear the trucks and cars go by on the Beltway, but in that little greenway, you're like a hundred miles away," Starrs said.

"It's my hope that kids decades from now will still be able to go down there."

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