Crushed Styrofoam cups, discarded food wrappers and empty plastic soda bottles, whose labels have been faded by weeks in the sun, dot the rocky hillside.
Wind-tossed plastic grocery bags and faded clothes – shredded by their long journey downstream – hang in the branches of the trees that line this small, fetid stretch of the Gwynns Falls, which rolls along virtually unnoticed under Interstate 95 in Southwest Baltimore City. Its destination? The Patapsco River. Then the Chesapeake Bay.
Drowned out by the roar of trucks passing overhead, the water moves over rocks coated with a thick layer of algae, hinting at nitrogen and phosphorus that can choke the life out of a river. Who knows what lies beneath? Discarded diapers? Bags of pet waste? Rusted shopping carts?
Much of the garbage has traveled a long way, originating high in the streams and rivers that wind deep into Baltimore’s suburbs.
“This looks bad here, but it comes from miles away,” said Sujay Kaushal, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Solomons. “You’re looking at a cumulative problem.”
In an effort to clean up the Bay, officials, scientists and activists have turned to the oft-overlooked small tributaries in an effort to trace the source of pollution that leads to the Bay’s ongoing degradation.
“People have been talking about the Bay for 30 years, [but] it just doesn’t resonate,” said Bill Dennison, a professor and researcher at the Center for Environmental Science, referring to the pollution in its tributaries. “It’s just so distant and abstract.”
Scientists at the center are now studying 15 distinct areas of the Bay and have begun detailed reviews of these areas, starting this year with the Chester and Patuxent rivers.
“That’s where the problem solving is going to begin,” Dennison said.
BAY BARELY PASSING
The Bay’s health has posted dismal grades for nearly 20 years, earning the estuary poor scores on countless report cards and assessments.
In the Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) second annual Chesapeake Bay Report Card released this month, the Bay scored a C-minus, only a slight improvement over the previous year.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also releases an annual report card, the most recent report giving the Bay a D, citing increased pollution, worsening water quality and a depressed crab population.
The UMCES’ report, the most recent Bay assessment, also compared the conditions of 15 regions of the Bay, where scores ranged from B to D-minus.
About 150 rivers and streams flow into the Bay, but two major rivers in the Baltimore region stand out as examples of the conditions and challenges in the watershed: the Patapsco and the Patuxent.
“The health of the Bay is a sum of its contributions,” said Jeff Lape, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership between governments and advocates.
“The root causes of the problems of the Bay are the same as the root problems in the streams and rivers.”
The Patapsco River, which runs from Carroll County through Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Howard County and Anne Arundel County, is often crowned the most polluted river but recently has shown minor improvements in the levels of dissolved oxygen, which support supports bottom-dwelling animals.
But the river still suffers from new development in Baltimore and Howard counties, where roads replace trees and Dumpsters overflow next to streams, said Betsy McMillion, who works part time coordinating the stream cleanups for the Friends of the Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway.
McMillion and her cleanup teams spend many Saturday mornings picking up plastic bags, food wrappers and beer cans from stream banks mainly in Baltimore County.
In 30 cleanups along 10 waterways of the Patapsco in 2007, McMillion’s groups collected 71,272 pounds of trash, filling 1,721 bags, she said.
“It’s an ongoing issue,” McMillion said, standing on the riverbanks between historic Ellicott City in Howard and the Oella district in Baltimore County where she was conducting a cleanup on a recent afternoon with a group of fourth-graders from Resurrection-St. Paul School in Ellicott City.
“You’ll find bottles on the side of the road, and they end up here in the rivers and streams.”
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