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Environmentby Fern Shen8:08 amJun 7, 20240

Critics call one Baltimore stream restoration project “a debacle” as DPW pushes ahead with another

With crews starting to cut trees along the Western Branch of Herring Run, community members ask for data to prove the $5.5 million job is worth it, while the Forestry Board chairman says such projects are outdated and should be halted

Above: Community members view the site where a Baltimore Department of Public Works contractor has cleared land to begin a stream restoration project on the Western Branch of Herring Run. (Fern Shen)

Environmental groups and community members sounded the alarm last October when they heard about a stream restoration project that was going to send heavy construction equipment into a patch of urban forest, ripping out mature trees and costing taxpayers $5.5 million.

Questioning the effectiveness of such projects generally, the critics managed to get this one – the Western Branch of Herring Run in northeast Baltimore – paused.

But the panic resurfaced recently when residents noticed crews back in the woods, removing trees and creating a gravel road down to the waterway.

They discovered that the Department of Public Works had gone ahead with the project without alerting various stakeholder groups.

“You were moving pretty quickly, so I really appreciate you slowing things down,” Fourth District Councilman Mark Conway told DPW staffers, engineers and a member of the mayor’s office who had hastily assembled at the site on Tuesday.

More blunt were the comments from other participants, including Misty Fae, executive director of the Friends of Herring Run Parks.

“How is this going to be any different from what happened at Stony Run? Because that is a mess back there!” Fae exclaimed. “It’s a debacle!”

She was raising the example of a multi-million-dollar stream restoration in North Baltimore that has been Exhibit A for local critics of these projects for years.

“All those gigantic rocks were brought in to move the stream in some direction. And then all the gigantic rocks fell over and fell in and the bank of the stream is back to erosion again,” she pointed out.

Restoration of Baltimore’s Stony Run is failing again, residents and scientists say (12/23/23)

Raising the same point, Alice Volpitta, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper with Blue Water Baltimore, said the intense rainstorms taking place as a result of climate change are overpowering the work done to shore up urban streams.

“There’s a lot of academic literature out now that proves that stream restoration projects on paper do not perform in Baltimore city the way that they quote-unquote should,” Volpitta said.

“What is the actual monitoring that Baltimore city is doing pre and post-implementation to prove to the public that these tax dollars were well spent?” she continued. “That’s the ultimate question.”

Blue Water Baltimore's Alice Volpitta and Barbara Johnson look over the site of a DPW's stream restoration project on the Western Branch of Herring Run. (Fern Shen)

ABOVE: Blue Water Baltimore’s Alice Volpitta and Barbara Johnson look over the site of the stream restoration project underway on the Western Branch of Herring Run. BELOW Cherod Hicks, Jalil Abdul, Timothy Wolfe and Prakash Mistry of DPW answer questions about the project. (Fern Shen)

DPW's Cherod Hicks, Jalil Abdul, Timothy Wolfe and Prakash Mistry answer questions about the Western Branch project. (Fern Shen)

Stopping Erosion and Pollution?

Despite such fundamental concerns, it was made clear that the Western Branch work would resume.

One of several local waterways slated for restoration, ER 4054, as it’s known internally, should be completed by December 2025, according to DPW officials, including Deputy Director Richard Luna.

Civil Construction LLC is the contractor.

“What’s that?” one visitor asked, pointing to a heap of tree trunks and broken branches near the stream bank.

He was told these were not cut down for the project but had accumulated  in the stream bed, washed down when the flow was heavy and subsequently cleared out by DPW crews.

“Can you walk us through what is about to take place here?” asked Alec J. Wheaden, president of the Loch Raven Improvement Association, who came with several community members.

“We try to bring the fluid into the center of the stream channel,” explained Jalil Abdul, from the office of engineering construction.

Rocks will be used to direct the stream to its “natural middle, creating habitats in the stream that have a minimum of six to eight inches of flow,” Abdul said, going on to explain the technique at length.

The goal, he continued, “is improving water quality, preventing the stream bank erosion that is occurring due to the degradation of the drainage that has been caused by the high-velocity stormwater runoff, and protecting our existing infrastructures – the stormwater utility, the sanitary sewer.”

Volpitta asked if there is data to show that such projects actually achieve their goal of improving water quality by reducing the sediment, nutrients and other pollutants that degraded streams generate. (Western Run is a tributary of Herring Run which flows ultimately into the Chesapeake Bay.)

“How is that data taken into consideration with potential tree loss and other impacts?” she asked. “How do you calculate the ultimate benefit of a stream project like this?”

She was told DPW would direct her to the data and that it is publicly available.

South of Wyndhurst Avenue, boulders that once reinforced the stream bank now now been washed down into the Stony Run waterway. (Fern Shen)

South of Wyndhurst Avenue in North Baltimore, boulders that once reinforced the stream bank have been washed down into the Stony Run waterway. (Fern Shen)

Confronted about Stony Run

What about the real-world example of Stony Run in North Baltimore, which Fae described as a complete failure?

Appearing to be unaware of the problems she was talking about, Timothy Wolfe, chief of DPW’s engineering construction, asked what part of Stony Run she meant and suggested a future walk-through, while project engineer Cherod Hicks vigorously defended DPW’s Stony Run work.

“People expect these projects to be 100% perfect. What we’re proposing is not going to be perfect, but it’s going to be a lot better,” he said. “Was Stony Run 100% percent? No!”

“What we’re proposing is not going to be perfect”  – DPW project engineer Cherod Hicks.

The city’s permit, he said, requires it to “maintain the stream to the perimeter standards for at least five years and, beyond that, bring in the on-call contractor.”

“What we’re seeing now with global warming is micro-bursts, especially in Baltimore where we have such large intense storms in such a short period of time compared to what we used to have in that area,” Hicks continued. “That’s very difficult to design for.”

Speaking later with The Brew, Volpitta said the solution is not to re-engineer rivers, but to reduce the volume of water draining into them from suburban and urban development and impervious surfaces.

“Doesn’t that tell you that green stormwater infrastructure is where the bang for your buck is?”

Making the same argument, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Environmental Integrity Project sued the Maryland Department of the Environment in 2021, saying MDE acted inappropriately when it issued stormwater permits to Baltimore city and county.

They said the state did not place enough requirements on the jurisdictions to reduce the runoff, which pollutes Chesapeake Bay and disproportionately impacts the city’s Black and low-income neighborhoods.

In February, the Appellate Court of Maryland sided with MDE.

Severe flooding in 2018 at 35th Street and Hillen Road in northeast Baltimore. (Pamela Luallen-Williams)

Severe flooding at 35th Street and Hillen Road in northeast Baltimore in 2018. (Pamela Luallen-Williams)

“Bad science”

Fae came away from the stream-side meeting saying community members had made some gains, including a reduction in the size of heavy equipment staging areas.

“And they committed to showing us how we can get data,” she said. “Also, the Mayor’s office committed to creating a work group to look at what is effective on these kinds of projects. It was a good first step.”

Another participant in the stream visit was Amanda Cunningham, treasurer of the Friends of Herring Run Parks, who agreed that talk of a mayoral work group was a hopeful sign.

“We’ve been asking for a moratorium on stream restoration projects,” she said, speaking in her capacity as a member of the city Forestry Board.

“I wish I could have been more effective in stopping them”  – Forestry Board Chairman Erik M. Dihle.

Last November, she said, the Forestry Board sent an email to Mayor Brandon Scott and Chief Administrative Officer Faith Leach asking that the use of Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permits be “taken off the table.”

The Western Branch and other proposed projects “are bad science at best, and hurtful to Baltimore’s citizens at worst,” wrote Forestry Board Chairman Erik M. Dihle, the retired Baltimore City Arborist.

“They should never have moved forward in the approval process as designed, and I wish I could have been more effective in stopping them,” Dihle stated.

Email from Baltimore City Forestry Board chair Erik Deal (11/2/23) calling on the Scott administration to halt stream restoration projects pending further study.

Email from Baltimore City Forestry Board chair Erik Dihle (11/2/23) calling on the Scott administration to impose a moratorium on stream restoration projects.

“Destruction of an entire area”

Cunningham was critical of DPW’s response so far to community concerns and requests for information.

Residents asked for, but never received, water quality data that Volpitta also sought, and no work plan for the project has been disclosed.

“How can you measure how this will improve water quality if there’s no baseline numbers for things like sediment load?” Cunningham asked.

“There’s no data. This is not scientific.”

Officials on Tuesday said the construction staging area would be protected with 12 inches of wood chips and by pieces of plywood.

western branch herring run amanda cunningham and tracy smith jr friends of stony run

Forestry Board member Amanda Cunningham and Friends of Herring Run Parks board member Tracy Smith Jr. Cunningham’s hand rests on a young American Hornbeam too small to count toward replacement credits when cut for the stream restoration project. (Fern Shen)

The exact number of trees that would be cut down, however, remains unclear.

DPW initially told the community that 241 trees were to be removed. They subsequently reduced the number to 88.

On Tuesday, they suggested that there might be less than 88 removals, but said they wouldn’t know for sure until the work began.

They promised 2,000 replacement seedlings planted upon completion of the project – information that did not impress Cunningham.

“Those trees cannot replace the quality of the stock that is being taken out,” she said. “This is really about the destruction of an entire area for a project that may ultimately have no value.”

The formula for replacement only includes trees over eight inches in diameter, she noted during the Tuesday walk-through, as she patted the silver-gray trunk of a young American Hornbeam too small to count toward replacement credits.

One of the other community members that day asked the DPW team about the pile of logs they had fished out of the stream bed: “You’re not worried about it washing back down into the stream?”

“So far,” he was told, “the water has not been rising up to that level.”

Log pile at the site of a part of DPW's stream restoration project on the Western Branch of Herring Run. (Fern Shen)

Log pile at the site of a part of DPW’s stream restoration project on the Western Branch of Herring Run. (Fern Shen)

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