ANNAPOLIS – William Green, 75, enjoys walking his dog “Chance” along the stream behind his house in Baltimore.
The frisky Shetland tugs at his leash seeking treasures buried under nearby rocks and bushes, but Green pauses to observe the color of the water, seeking signs of sewer overflows, and sniffs the air around him for the telltale odor of contamination.
Green is among hundreds of Marylanders who volunteer in stream monitoring programs run by some county governments, watershed associations and school groups to rescue polluted streams more quickly and cost-effectively.
Volunteers are taught to collect water and aquatic insect samples; take pictures; check for storm water erosion, pool formations and sediment accumulation between rocks; and calculate water volume to evaluate stream health. They also learn more immediate indicators: Mayflies and stoneflies represent a healthy stream, while fly larvae indicate an unhealthy one.
“If our goal is to restore our streams and watersheds, the government can only do so much,” said William Stack, water quality management programs chief for the Baltimore City Department of Public Works. “A good part of the burden has to fall on citizens.”
Most Marylanders live within a half-mile of a stream, said Ronald Klauda, director of the Department of Natural Resources’ Monitoring and Non-Tidal Assessment Division. Streams are important resources providing beauty, drinking water, recreational opportunities and fish and wildlife habitat.
Certainly Herring Run stream was important to Green, who recalls walking there with his father and seeing hosts of fish, tadpoles, peepers and crayfish. He also remembers his devastation when increasing construction marred the landscape.
“I go into despair at times at seeing what the condition of the world is,” he said. That’s prompted his 30 years of environmental activism.
A 1995-to-1997 survey of fish and invertebrates in about 14,000 miles of state streams showed half were in poor to very poor condition and about 20 percent were in good condition, Klauda said. A 2000-to-2004 survey showed similar results.
“There are really no streams in Maryland that are totally pristine,” he said.
“It’s a slow process of streams being degraded and it’s a slow process to bring it back up again.”
Most people do not connect polluted streams to an unhealthy Chesapeake Bay, the focus of much of the region’s cleanup efforts.
“If you’re trying to clean the Chesapeake Bay and you’re not doing anything to fix the water upstream, you’re not going to make any real progress,” Klauda said.
Baltimore City government, one of a few jurisdictions managing sampling programs, spends about $22,000 per year for the Jones Falls Watershed Association and Herring Run Watershed Association, of which Green is a member, to assess the two watersheds.
That cost is minimal compared to the cost of hiring additional staff, Stack said.
Besides saving money, volunteers increase information-gathering efficiency, said DNR of its Maryland Stream Waders program, launched in February 2000 to aid local governments in their stream restoration projects.
Volunteers supplement the work of DNR staff, allowing the department to obtain information on a “finer, higher-density scale,” Klauda said.
Staff would take five years to sample the state’s 134 watersheds, estimated at 75-square-miles each, Klauda said. But volunteers sample about 25 watersheds annually, enabling the department to make greater inroads in its assessments.
“For what it costs us to train these citizens, we got a lot back in return,” Klauda said.
The program has blossomed, training about 200 volunteers annually, 10 percent of whom are repeaters, said Klauda.
But DNR and county governments are not the only beneficiaries.
Seniors, a significant demographic of volunteers, are challenged physically and mentally, said Tom Benjamin, president of Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement, which connects seniors with environmental volunteer opportunities. They are also empowered by their contributions to the community.
“They really want to make sure they leave the legacy of a clean healthy environment to their grandchildren,” Benjamin said.
“Hands-on” stewardship also increases the feeling of involvement and purpose, said Andrew Fellows, Chesapeake Program director of Clean Water Action.
“It’s a great feeling of community when you get people working together and you visibly see the effects,” he said. “Writing letters (to officials) is important but you don’t necessarily see the results.”
But the programs’ educational value is key, said Darin Crew, program manager of the Herring Run association.
“A lot of this is just about getting to know your stream,” he said. “Until you know it, you won’t love it and if you love it, you’ll want to change it.”
Green said he is encouraged by the dedication of the younger volunteers and feels more positive about the environmental health of Maryland’s streams.
“At my age I’m concerned about how we’re going to leave this Earth (but) I think we’ll eventually get on top of it.”