It's for folks like Janet and Pete Terry that I thought CBF should start a water-monitoring program. They need information like the guys at the Alamo needed ammunition.
Our water testing project this summer also was for government leaders who need to better understand how polluted runoff is hurting people.
Pete and Janet are retired school teachers. Their lives now should be sweet and easy. They have a beautiful home on the Bird River in Baltimore County. They entertain family and friends on a terraced front deck with umbrella-shaded tables and a mini-bar. Grandchildren play in the river while grown-ups sip iced tea on shore.
But since they retired a year and a half ago the couple has been in a constant battle to save the Bird River and the life they planned there. You see, the Terrys and their neighbors are typical victims of upstream pollution.
After rainstorms, the Bird River turns reddish brown with mud. The dirt comes from upstream. It washes off construction sites, pours out of poorly maintained polluted runoff ponds built years ago at housing and commercial developments, and from eroded feeder streams. When Janet grew up on the river her father used to take the kids everywhere in his boat. Now, the river is so silted up, the Terrys can only launch for a few hours during high tide and only head downstream.
The remaining fish and other aquatic life in the river do much the same thing�search for deep water areas where they can survive the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from upstream that causes oxygen levels to drop.
A few years ago, the Terrys organized homeowners around the river. They call themselves the Bird River Restoration Campaign. They speak up at county council and other meetings, hoping their combined voices can limit at least some of the development that has paved over the upstream areas of the river.
They have achieved some remarkable success. For instance, in 2014, about 60 residents voluntarily patrolled construction sites after storms, and pressured the county to improve its own site compliance rates from 5 percent to 44 percent.
Still, Pete, Janet, and many of the residents feel they are David battling Goliath.
So I met with them over pizza. I asked if they would be willing to collect water samples this summer after rainstorms. CBF would pay for the samples to be tested for bacteria levels at a commercial laboratory in Dundalk. They wholeheartedly agreed.
Bacteria tests assess the amount of fecal material in the water. They can help alert people to leaking sewer or septic systems, or large amounts of pet waste, or in rural areas livestock manure getting into streams. The federal and state government set limits for how much bacteria can be in areas where people recreate, because fecal material can cause illness when ingested.
The Bird River bacteria results weren't good. Bacteria levels on the Bird and its tributaries spiked after average storms, according to the CBF tests. For instance, after dry weather readings in White Marsh Run near the Dugout Restaurant on Bird River Grove Road were only slightly above government safety levels for human recreation. Yet after a summer rain storm of less than an inch, readings at the site spiked to at least 400 times safety standards. Similar high readings the same day were found at other upstream sites. Clearly, poop was getting into the Bird upstream, and in unhealthy amounts during rainstorms.
More bad news for the downstream families: Now, in addition to losing their boating and fishing opportunities, the homeowners on the tidal portion of the Bird River worried their kids and grandkids weren't safe when they swam, kayaked and in other ways recreated on the water.
"It's getting to the point where we are so very concerned when we have company or when we have children in the water. Now we are hesitant to allow them to go in," Janet said.
But CBF hopes the bacteria testing this summer will help drive home the seriousness of the problem of polluted runoff�not just to leaders in Baltimore County, but elsewhere. CBF organized volunteers to test in Frederick, Howard, Carroll, Baltimore, and Harford Counties, as well as Baltimore City. We made the results in all areas available to the public.
It's perhaps easy as an elected official to overlook dirty streams when you also are responsible for a host of other government services: education, police, roads, and more. But when you realize that dirty water can harm children, you might invest more energy and funds in clean water.
To date, several counties in our test area�Frederick, Carroll, Harford, and Baltimore�have opted not to collect a Polluted Runoff (or Stormwater) Fee to better fund projects to reduce polluted runoff. We hope that when folks like Janet and Pete Terry raise their voices, the cold calculations of government budgeting might include the value of the health of grandchildren who swim in the Bird River, and other streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay.
CBF's Assistant Director of Media Relations