On a beautiful fall day, Rob Schnabel walks through a light-dappled forest in northeast Baltimore, showing reporters which trees are doomed thanks to an upcoming stream restoration project.
“Those two oaks – oh, yeah, they’re going,” Schnabel said, pointing to a pair of large, 60-year-old specimens near Northern Parkway before leading the group deeper into the woods just west of the Hillen Road.
“This tulip poplar is coming down – I guess the big X on it is kind of a clue,” quipped Schnabel, Maryland restoration scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF).
He painted a bleak picture of what the area will look like if the proposed stream restoration of the Western Branch of Herring Run goes forward.
Neon-pink ribbons showed where bulldozers are slated soon to clear the land – 3.8 acres, or the size of three football fields – for an access road and staging area for construction equipment.
Bid documents by the Department of Public Works (DPW) show the stream channel will be moved, boulder and wood stabilization structures placed in the waterway and concrete slope protections constructed.
Without the tree cover, Schnabel said, the stream’s temperature would rise, causing severe stress for the tiny fish that could be seen darting in the water and for other aquatic life. Invasive plants, he predicted, would begin to proliferate.
Roughly 700 trees would be cut down, according to the estimate of another expert on hand yesterday, Erik M. Dihle, Baltimore City arborist from 2012 to 2022.
“Shame on Baltimore City if we proceed on a number of these projects where we do more harm than good,” said Dihle, currently chairman of the Baltimore Board of Forestry.
Dihle said that during his years working for the city he waged an internal battle against such work.
Recalling a DPW request that he “just sign off” on a letter outlining “11 projects just like this,” he had replied, “I’m not going to.”
Ever since then, he said, the Forestry Department has been warning Recreation and Parks as well as the mayor’s office against using the “low-hanging fruit” approach to restoring urban streams that leaves ecosystems torn up, creating fragmentation of forests and not doing much good.
“We really hope the city will reconsider,” said Schnabel, whose organization has written a letter to DPW’s Acting Director Richard Luna calling for a halt to the project.
Costly and Counterproductive
DPW has not yet responded to questions sent by The Brew last week about why it is undertaking the $5.5 million project.
A page on their website describes the general goals for such work as upgrading the stormwater conveyance system, controlling flooding, improving water quality and enhancing wildlife habitat.
But critics of the Western Branch stream work – and earlier overhauls engineered on Stony Run and Chinquapin Run – say the projects have been costly failures, ravaging streams, having to be re-done every few years and making no documented improvements in water quality.
There is only one purpose the projects dependably serve, said Amanda Cunningham, treasurer of the Friends of Herring Run Parks.
“We all know this is about MS4 credits for the city,” she told The Brew.
Jurisdictions in Maryland have legal requirements to undertake stormwater mitigation measures under their Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permits.
In 2021, however, CBF and Blue Water Baltimore sued the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) over the MS4 permits it issued for Baltimore city and county. (Lawyers for the group are arguing their case on appeal in Annapolis today.)
The lawsuit says the city’s permits are overly reliant on “shortsighted, ineffective solutions like street-sweeping” and costly, counterproductive stream restorations.
Meanwhile, the permits give the jurisdictions a pass on measures that could address the root cause of the problem – increased water volume thanks to climate change and development that’s been steadily gobbling up tree cover and green land.
“They just want credit for things they’re doing already, instead of doing the things that are harder that would make a long-term difference,” said Doug Myers, CBF senior scientist.
“So much more water”
Under the permits, jurisdictions have a requirement to restore a certain amount of impervious surface area, but can meet their obligation through credits granted by “best management practices” including street sweeping and stream projects.
For the Western Branch project, Schnabel said, the city would receive 90 acres of “impervious surface credits,” equivalent to 75 football fields worth of parking lots.
“It makes absolutely no sense for stream restoration to get a stormwater credit,” he asserted, when the real cause of swollen urban streams is “the parking lots, the surface water – those big impervious surfaces that, during rain events, provide so much more water quantity and velocity.”
“Spending $5 million here on this project really isn’t going to solve anything, but will have the impact of taking out the forest – a sponge, in effect, which is part of the solution,” he continued.
The group says the money would be better spent increasing the region’s green footprint with more tree cover, reducing the amount of impermeable surfaces and mitigating them with measures like bioswales and rain gardens.
“Big impervious surfaces that, during rain events, provide so much more water quantity and velocity” are the core problem, says Rob Schnabel of Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Current trends are headed in the wrong direction, CBF says.
Thanks mostly to suburban development, tree cover is disappearing across the Chesapeake Bay watershed and pavement is spreading, data recently released by the Chesapeake Bay Program show.
Pointing southeast toward the city-run Mount Pleasant Golf Course, Schnabel said improving stormwater management practices there would be a much better way to earn “impervious acre credits.”
“Golf courses are really known for generating huge amounts of runoff.”
Sinkholes and Submerged Cars
The protest against the Western Branch project comes amid a struggle to force MDE to tighten up and enforce stormwater rules that environmentalists say are badly out of date, given the more intense and frequent rain events brought on by climate change.
Neighborhoods across the city have suffered.
Last month, pounding rain caused a Stony Run back-up that destroyed a North Baltimore dry cleaner and nail salon, severely damaged other businesses, flooded basements, totaled cars, ripped up asphalt and created sinkholes.
Residents at 35th Street and Hillen experienced the same severe flooding, as have southwest Baltimore residents along Frederick Avenue.
Cunningham said Friends of Herring Run Parks has watched what powerful storms have done to Chinquapin Run, a $30 million sewer and stream restoration project designed by DPW to slow water flow and mitigate flooding.
“Water’s going to do what water’s going to do,” she said, calling Chinquapin Run “a poster child” for misguided projects that gives her group little confidence in DPW’s Western Branch plan.
Misty Fae, executive director of the Friends group, pointed out that many of the immediate neighbors of the proposed construction site are apartment dwellers who could be too busy to get involved in the issue but who will be directly hurt by the loss of green space.
“This is a health benefit for our kids,” Fae said. “Even if I never step foot in this park, I am breathing air that is made clean by the trees that have been here. We need to speak out for all city residents.”