County to fix Crownsville chasm, bog

By E.B. FURGURSON III, Staff Writer
Published November 05, 2007

Capital file photo. Former county environmental engineer Merril Plait stands near the bottom of the gouge below a failed storm drain in Arden.

After years of meeting and planning the restoration of a Crownsville creek, county officials are set to get the ball rolling with the help of federal, state and private funds. Back in 1977 Allan Kreider called county officials about problems with the stormwater pipe in his back yard that was dumping runoff from his Crownsville neighborhood into Cypress Branch.

"They came out and propped it up with a two-by-four support," he said.

Years later, when that pipe collapsed, he called the county to put large stones in the bottom of the ravine. Storm runoff had begun to carve the ravine out of the hill that led to the creek behind his house.

Now the county is set to begin repairing the 40-foot chasm gouged out by runoff from that failed stormwater system. The county will also restore the Atlantic White Cedar bog decimated to near extinction by years of silt and pollution washing into Cypress Branch, which empties into the Severn River.

The $1.8 million project would fix only one of the 350 subwatersheds in the county that need similar work after years of development.

Finding a way to pay for the roughly $1.3 billion backlog of stormwater repairs has been a hot topic before the County Council. County Executive John R. Leopold introduced a bill to set up a fund to address the issue, but some other councilmen have proposed changes to that bill to create a heftier and broader-based fund.

Only two residents came to last Tuesday's meeting that was called by county officials to explain the project. But they listened intently as county officials and others explained how the project will repair a 40-foot chasm that has been washed from a hillside off Severnview Drive, lined with modest homes.

At the same time, the once-thriving cedar bog in the creek valley will function again. The creek valley was once full of plants that depended on one another to function while absorbing whatever rainfall would come washing through the area. Now the cedars are all but gone and the valley is choked in silt a few feet deep.

Initially the county wanted to repair stormwater damage from the drain pipe in back of Mr. Krieder's house. But others involved in stormwater restoration projects, including the Severn River Association and others, recognized the opportunity to help fix an entire subwatershed that includes part of the Severn Run Natural Environment Area and the Crownsville Veteran's Cemetery. Most of Cypress Branch runs between the two.

The county was set on doing its original plan, but indicated that if funding could be found for the expanded restoration they would not object.

The Maryland State Highway Administration granted some $1.1 million to restore the streambed and re-create a bog that acts like kidneys in the body to filter pollutants from storm runoff before it gets to rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

The County Council passed an administrative bill this month to change the project's funding and scope to reflect that change.

The funding also includes $250,000 raised by the Severn River Association from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Chesapeake Bay Trust. The county is kicking in $524,000.

But the county also needs to line up about 30 neighboring homeowners, many whose property plunges down the slope to the creek bottom. Most of the work will be done on private property.

"We need to add you homeowners to the partnership that is making this possible," the county's project manager Jean Kapusnik said..

She explained the county must secure rights of way to do the mile-long project. The county will soon begin meeting with property owners individually, she said.

The project will use techniques perfected by landscape designer and biologist Keith Underwood. His design creates a series of step pools beginning at the top of the creek, gradually descending some 43 feet over a mile-long stretch down to the Severn River. The system slows down the damaging flush of stormwater, rendering it cool and pristine by the time it hits the river. Fish, flora and fauna should thrive as well.

Though plans are not complete, the main entry points for the work will be through Mr. Kreider's yard and, tentatively the state-owned Severn Run area.

A selling point for the techniques used is the heavy bed of sand, built along the creek out to the Severn River, which will become an integral part of the flourishing landscape when the project's plants bloom.

"You will never know we were there," Mr. Underwood said.

If all goes well, what residents end up with may look like nearby Howard's Branch, two miles down river from Arden on the Severn.

About seven years ago Mr. Underwood used the same technique there that is proposed for Cypress Creek.

It restored a stream valley washed out by a failed reservoir dam. The branch's valley was covered by invasive species and silt, now it is a thriving bog, with seven species of fish.

Atlantic Cedar and other native plants flourish. Many were started and nurtured by county schoolchildren at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center. Some of those cedars that were 3 feet tall when planted in 2001, now top 25 feet.

Howard's Branch was so successful, it is held up as the model for bog restoration. Researchers from around the country and the world have visited the site.

Another meeting, for residents of adjoining properties, is slated for tomorrow, beginning at 7 p.m. at Arlington Echo.

(Revised Nov 2007)