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Fresh Water, Foul Sewage

Environmentby Peder Schaefer9:10 amDec 23, 20230

Restoration of Baltimore’s Stony Run is failing again, residents and scientists say

After millions of dollars spent on re-channeling the stream to slow runoff, critics say a new approach is needed

Above: James Wolf, president of Friends of Stony Run, surveys the creek in Wyman Park with his young son. (Peder Schaefer)

On a recent chilly morning in North Baltimore, James Wolf clambered along the banks of Stony Run, pointing to what he and other stream watchers say has gone wrong:

Where a stand of trees once towered, an open field overgrown with invasive species.

Beside a man-made retention pond, a muddy sinkhole.

Boulders trucked in to make a series of pools, pushed into jumbled piles.

That’s the current state of many parts of the stream, including in the Wyman Park Dell close to where Wolf, president of Friends of Stony Run, lives with his family.

After years of “stream restoration” projects conceived with great fanfare, the creek has become ground zero for the debate over reconstructing streams with rocks and new plantings to slow their flow and to filter out sediment and nutrients prior to emptying into the Chesapeake Bay.

“These restorations are disturbing natural areas” without having measurable success preventing pollution-laden water from gushing downstream, said Wolf.

Similar projects are being used by Baltimore and other jurisdictions to comply with state stormwater runoff regulations, but some environmental advocates are questioning their effectiveness and decrying their destruction of stream-side forests.

Walking the stream, he pointed out the eroded banks, fallen boulders and other concerns to The Brew.

He said the presence of the Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus directly next to the park, is likely leading to increased runoff during bad storms, which he worries could worsen from planned Hopkins expansion in the area.

“There are ways to interrupt stormwater before it inundates streams,” Wolf said, referring to efforts such as reducing the amount of impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots and rooftops.

Making that same argument, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in October protested another restoration project – a $5.5 million plan to shore up Herring Run’s Western Branch in northeast Baltimore.

Scientists with the group said re-engineering the waterway would have questionable value at the cost of as many as 700 mature trees.

Map of Stony Run running through Roland Park from Northern Parkway to Wyman Park at University Parkway. (

From Northern Parkway to University Parkway, Stony Run passes through Roland Park, Wyndhurst, Keswick and Tuscany Canterbury. Not shown: the lower portion that continues through Remington to Jones Falls. BELOW: The creek’s eroded banks are noticeable near JHU’s Homewood Campus bordering Wyman Park Dell. (Mahan Rykiel, Peder Schaefer)

Costly Do-Overs

The Baltimore Department of Public Works has defended its stream restoration work, saying it meets state agencies’ requirements and says similar stream projects are in the planning stage.

Is Stony Run destined again to be among them? How much has been spent so far on restoration projects on the three-mile-long waterway?

DPW did not respond to multiple requests for comment on these and other questions.

But publicly available documents indicate that millions of dollars have been expended for work that’s failed time and again.

In 2006, the city launched a Stony Run erosion control project using $10 million in city, state and federal funds. Residents complained as some 150 trees were cut down, bulldozers cleared land and rock walls were built in an effort to slow the water’s flow.

A few years later, powerful rain storms overwhelmed the system and crews had to return and put the streamside boulders back in place. A few years after that, another set of rainstorms bashed the boulders out of line, this time costing $500,000 to repair.

Some local residents, such as Sandy Sparks, say the big washouts are precisely the reason why she supports storm restoration projects.

“They are more needed than ever because of the impacts of these catastrophic rainfalls,” said Sparks, a founder of Friends of Stony Run.

Stony Run overwhelmed its banks recently during one such storm.

The pounding rains on September 12 flooded basements, ruined cars and damaged a dry cleaner and other businesses in the Wyndhurst neighborhood.

“These are 100-year floods, and we’ve had three of them in the last three years,” said Odette Ramos, the area’s City Council representative, pointing to the effects of climate change on storm intensity.

In the aftermath of the flooding, water streams out of the door of Majestic Cleaners off Wyndhurst Avenue. (Kee Kim)

Dirty water pours out of the Majestic Cleaners, off Wyndhurst Avenue, in the aftermath of Stony Run flooding in September. (Kee Kim)

Low-Hanging Fruit

City officials and the developers of stream restoration projects say the approach is the most cost-effective and straightforward way to mitigate the stormwater runoff and pollution that harms the Bay.

Chris Streb is an environmental engineer with Biohabitats, a local environmental firm that was a consultant on Stony Run stream restoration between 2008 and 2018.

Streb said he agrees that “a holistic perspective” on managing stormwater is ideal.

But he argued that the upstream approaches espoused by critics – removing impervious surfaces such as parking lots or planting vegetation and placing stormwater retention ponds on private property – are impractical.

“Stream restoration is definitely the lowest-hanging fruit in urban environments,” Streb said.

“The practical reality is that it’s hard to get the treatment up there. Stream restoration is just the most cost-effective way to abate the nutrient and sediment load.”

To go under Wyndhurst Avenue in north Baltimore, Stony Run passes through this pipe, which was overwhelmed during the heavy 8/12/23 storm. Floodwater surged over the culvert's concrete walls. (Fern Shen)

Retaining wall and tunnel at Wyndhurst Avenue that repeatedly floods during periods of heavy rainfall. BELOW: Boulders, some sunken, others pushed together, from a prior Stony Run restoration. (Fern Shen)

Stony Run boulders placed there

Overwhelmed by Volume

Environmental advocates like Alice Volpitta, of Blue Water Baltimore, say that the over-reliance on stream restoration projects stems from the way the Maryland Department of Environment structures municipal storm sewer system permits or MS4’s.

“One reason we and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are appealing the MS4 permits is because the systems they put in seem to be overwhelmed by the volumes of water coming down,” said Volpitta, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.

“We are not totally anti-stream restoration, but there still remains to be seen some better understanding of them, of what works and what doesn’t,” Volpitta said.

Low-income city residents disproportionately impacted by weak stormwater permit, environmentalists say (9/14/22)

Tired of stormwater lapping at their front door, Baltimore residents join an environmental lawsuit (10/23/23)

Solange Filoso, an associate research professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, agrees.

“The system is promoting the rush to stream restoration,” she said, noting that the spending for such projects has increased dramatically in recent years. “People go where the money is.”

“The system is promoting the rush to stream restoration. People go where the money is”  – Solange Filoso at UMD’s Center for Environmental Science.

By one recent estimate, the number of Maryland stream restorations seeking state approval grew 50% over four years and the average project size has more than tripled.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s senior scientist, Doug Meyer, says Stony Run is a case study of the limits of restoration.

“They do in-stream work, but they really don’t address the effects of impervious surfaces on that stream. More specifically, they do not address the volume of water.”

Meyers disputes the assertion that stream restoration is the most cost-effective way of coping with increasing amounts of stormwater runoff.

“What they aren’t taking into account is all the extra projects the city has to pay for to fix all of the fixes.”

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