Some Sewage Runs Through It: The Gwynns Falls Trail is dedicated, but parts of the Gwynns Falls are just plain dead

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 5, 2002

“That’s raw sewage right there,” says Rob Johnson, a city sewer supervisor, as he points at the gray, turbid water running through a fetid Southwest Baltimore stream. It’s around 8 a.m. on May 29, and Johnson’s back at the same spot he’s been most every morning for well over a month – at a Yale Heights manhole next to an unnamed tributary of Maiden Choice Run, monitoring a periodic sewer leak until the city can diagnose and fix the problem.

The polluted stream winds through piles of trash and debris and mounds of slime-coated rocks and sediment, fouling the air around homes in Yale Heights and Irvington. Maiden Choice runs clear until it’s joined by this tributary. Downstream, as it tumbles across a historic stone dam in Loudon Park Cemetery – where neighbors say children swim and play in the water – Maiden Choice runs gray and smelly toward the Gwynns Falls and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.

Later that day, the second of three segments of the Gwynns Falls Trail is dedicated in a ceremony filled with optimistic speeches and calls for volunteerism. The bike trail, a decade in the making and four miles long so far, eventually will grow to 14 miles, linking Leakin Park with the Inner Harbor and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

“We’ve got the basis to make something really great here,” an earnest Mayor Martin O’Malley proclaims from the podium. “The health of our parks is a really good indicator of the health of the city.” He goes on to acknowledge that the Gwynns Falls still needs some help: “We need to fix it up, make it more accessible, make it cleaner.”

As the crowd of trail enthusiasts and environmentalists mills about, some talk about how the quality of the Gwynns Falls’ water is tied in with the success of the trail.

“Having a greenway and an ugly stream running through it is not a good idea,” says Ellen Smith, trail coordinator for the nonprofit Parks and People Foundation. “Water quality and trail quality are intertwined.” Opening the trail gets people near the water, she says, creating a greater awareness of the Gwynns Falls’ problems and, hopefully, generating the political will to take measures to solve them.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also planning to help out. In March , the Corps announced a proposal to conduct numerous sewer-rehabilitation projects in the Maiden Choice Run and Dead Run areas of the Gwynns Falls. The idea has yet to get approval from Army Corps brass, much less any funding, says Chris Spaur, a Corps ecologist. But the plans are ambitious.

For now, the will to improve the Gwynns Falls’ water quality is coming from the federal and state government – in a big way. On April 26, the city, after years of noncompliance with the federal Clean Water Act, agreed to start a massive overhaul of its sewer system. Systemwide, the upgrade will cost about $940 million over 14 years. For the Gwynns Falls watershed this year, the city has allocated nearly $15 million for projects to improve stream quality, including sewer repairs, a debris collector, a storm-water containment pond, and a flood dike.

“The way it is now,” says Spaur of the sewers in the area, “there are little leaks all over the place. The pipes are made of vitrified clay with joints every several feet. Most of them were laid in the 1920s and 1930s, in and around streambeds. After all these years, the joints are leaky and there are lots of cracks.” If realized, the work as currently planned would involve fixing nine miles of sewer pipe and nearly 300 manholes, plus wetland restoration and streambed stabilization.

While these big public-works projects get underway, the Gwynns Falls is under a microscope – literally. Scientists from a variety of disciplines have been concentrating their research on the Gwynns Falls as part of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a National Science Foundation investigation into how natural and human-made elements of the urban environment interact. As research continues, available information on the health – or ill health – of the Gwynns Falls will continue to grow.

Rob Johnson, the sewer supervisor, knows firsthand one of the Gwynns Falls’ major problems: chronically leaky sewers. This morning, standing near the Yale Heights manhole as he has for weeks, he can’t do anything but watch as raw sewage trickles into the stream. Someday soon, once he gets his electronic diagnostic device back from La Plata–where he says it’s on loan to help sort out sewer damage from the recent tornado–he’s going to locate this leak.

“And then,” he says confidently, “we’ll come in and fix the whole thing.”

Meanwhile, as work on Phase II of the Gwynns Falls Trail progresses, the city is returning to the already opened first portion of the trail – completed in 1999 – to conduct $150,000 in repairs.

“There’s been some erosion on the trail,” explains Gennady Schwartz, the city Department of Recreation and Parks’ capital-projects chief, “so we need to redo some of the work.”

Trail maintenance – like beach replenishment in Ocean City – is going to be an ongoing cost for the city. “That’s the price to pay, but I think we’re willing to do that,” Schwartz says. An attractive trail that is well-used, he says, “will bring people’s attention to the problems in the watershed.”

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