Jabez restoration enters last phase

Joshua Stewart - The Capital

Area's only brook trout habitat wraps up decade-long project

The Capital, December 26, 2007

A restoration project on the troubled Jabez Branch is near completion after more than a decade of work. Volunteers and state employees planted 270 shrubs along the stream's banks in Millersville last week. It was the last phase of an effort to restore the branch, the only home to brook trout in the state's coastal plain.

The work took place on a part of the branch called the "left fork," a section of the stream near where routes 3, 32 and Interstate 97 meet that eventually flows into the Severn River. The restoration project is designed to undo the damage the roads did to the stream.

The stream bed, dry from a lack of heavy rains recently, was speckled with deer and opossum tracks as the 16-member crew worked in the chilly weather Thursday afternoon. In one direction, a dense forest of white oaks and sycamore trees are all that can be seen growing out of a series of rolling hills. But some of the county's busiest roads are just a few hundred yards away in the other direction, enveloping the area with the rumbling of tractor trailers and other traffic.

When I-97 was built in the '80s, construction turned up soil that contained high amounts of sulfur. It also created what is jokingly called "Lake Median," a retention pond between the north and southbound lanes at the highway's southernmost point.

"That was a very big problem," said Lina Vlavianos, chairman of the county's Severn River Commission.

This new pond sent water and sulfur into the Jabez, causing erosion and sediment, decimating the local trout population in the process, she said.

Water levels used to be about 6 feet deep, but erosion has widened the stream and turned up sediment in the process. Water now usually only flows through it after a rainstorm.

"For trout, sediment is a real killer," said Ken Yetman, a fish biologist for the Department of Natural Resources.

Female trout lay their eggs in tiny holes they dig into the edge of a stream. After the eggs are fertilized, they must be secure, but still have water flowing around them. Sediment is a problem because it covers the egg clutches, essentially isolating them from the flowing water and killing them before they hatch, Mr. Yetman said.

To remedy the problem, water flowing from Lake Median was stopped, an environmental restoration program was created and the stream was restocked with trout. The fish started reproducing in the stream in the mid-1990s but they don't have as strong a foothold as biologists and activists would like. In the spring, biologists tried to count juvenile brook trout in the stream but didn't find any. However, the biologists think they went to the Jabez at the wrong time and may have missed the fish.

The project, which is partially funded by Anne Arundel County, has included work from the Maryland Park Service's Maryland Conservation Corps, the DNR and Brightwater Inc., an environmental consulting firm.

About 11 years ago, Brightwater, which was hired by the county, began repairing the stream. The company first installed "step pools" - a criss-cross pattern of large rocks in the branch - near Charles Hall Road. These pools stabilize the stream, helping it keep its shape and elevation.

About five years ago, Brightwater, with the help of the Conservation Corps Volunteers, installed 30 rock and log veins a few hundred yards downstream from the step pools. Rock and log veins are essentially barriers in the stream that also help the Jabez keep its shape.

In July, Brightwater returned with volunteers to put the finishing touches on the rock and log structures. This process included moving 1,000-pound boulders by hand - crews didn't want to harm existing vegetation by using heavy machinery. A primitive system of pulleys, pry bars and pieces of lumber were all that the crew used.

"We could probably learn something from our ancestors," said Shannon Lucas, an environmental engineer with Brightwater.

But planting 270 silky dogwood shrubs is the last stage of the process. The plants will eventually take root in their new home anchoring soil in place, Mr. Yetman said.

Most of the grunt work was done by the Maryland Conservation Corps, a part of AmeriCorps, a nationwide volunteer program.

"We couldn't hire people to come out here and do this work," Mr. Yetman said.

The restoration process can be gruelling. Moving boulders with simple tools takes ingenuity, patience and brute force. Many laborers refuse to do it, he said.

The shrubs are in a dormant phase through the winter and should start helping the stream after the growing season. After that, crews will return to see if any more need to be planted, Ms. Lucas said.

(Revised Dec 2007)