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Historic Ellicott City Channel Maintenance

posted Oct 13, 2017, 7:14 AM by Howard Ecoworks   [ updated Oct 16, 2017, 5:58 AM ]

Brandt Dirmeyer, Watershed Action Team-member, 6 Oct 2017

From Monday, October 2nd to Thursday, October 5th, the Watershed Action Team, a new program of Howard Ecoworks funded and supported by Howard County Government, worked within the Tiber Hudson subwatershed to remove debris and potential blockage issues from the streams. The WAT team is a collection of five individuals that will spend a 10-month term studying, assessing, conducting community outreach and implementing projects in Tiber Hudson subwatershed of the Patapsco River. The program is similar to Howard County’s Cleanscapes program and is in accordance with the Patapsco Valley Heritage Area (PVHA) Management Plan. Although I had been working within the watershed this past year as a Chesapeake Bay Trust Conservation Corpsmember with Patapsco Heritage Greenway, my WAT colleagues -- with the exception of Maria Clark -- are relatively unfamiliar with the tributaries and branches that course around and through Ellicott City’s historic district. This past week was our immersive lesson on the stormwater and infrastructure issues that this unique watershed faces.

Since its founding, Ellicott City has had to deal with its share of floods. As a mill town built upon four tributaries winding through a valley of shallow bedrock, Ellicott City was designed to economically thrive upon the steady-moving water of the Tiber Hudson subwatershed. Unfortunately for our modern society, the water that helped to develop Ellicott City into a booming granite community is now the town’s most pertinent safety issue. Most all of the town was developed before stormwater standards were mandatory, and many buildings along Main St are sited directly atop stream channels. With an increase in impermeable surfaces upstream and within the floodplain that houses the historic district, stormwater is an issue that needs to be better understood so that the Ellicott City community can be better prepared for any future high-intensity storms.

Stormwater accumulates during rain events due to the prevalence of impermeable surfaces. As the water accumulates on the surface, it follows the path of least resistance. Generally, this means that the water runs into nearby streams, carrying with it whatever debris it can, including trash, metal objects, fallen tree limbs, plastic outdoor furniture, and other items easily swept away. As humans have developed upon forested land, clearing trees for roofed buildings, asphalt roads, and concrete sidewalks, we’ve reduced the capacity for the land to absorb and percolate rain through the soil and rock into the water table. The roots of trees and plants also absorb water for their own use. As we have reduced the capacity for nature’s infrastructure to assist with the dissipation of rainwater, we must develop our infrastructure to accommodate for the increased severity of flooding.

Although there are projects currently in the design and development phases to reduce the impact of stormwater within the watershed, if another severe storm were to hit tomorrow, the town would still be ill-equipped to deal with the excess surface water. In order to mitigate as much near-future damage as possible, the WAT team spent four days surveying the Tiber Hudson stream channels under the leadership of Lori Lilly, the Executive Director of Howard EcoWorks, to assess and reduce potential hazards that could cause blockages. From sawing and axing fallen trees to removing rusted metal pipes long-since functional, the team worked tirelessly within the tributaries.

As time progressed, I became suspicious that Lori wanted us to do this work not only because it needed to be done to reduce damage risk to the town, but also to give us an immersive, multifaceted lesson on hydrology & sustainable infrastructure. As we passed underneath recently-flooded buildings and around channel walls built at right angles, all along the way spending so much energy to remove hazardous debris (~2.5 tons of wood waste, plastics, and scrap metal), I can safely say for the entire WAT team that we now know the benefits of proper infrastructure development, as well as the intense power of water. As the WAT team spends this upcoming year canvassing the watershed and working with homeowners in Ellicott City to develop, design, and install best management practices (BMPs) such as stormwater gardens, conservation landscapes, tree plantings, and stream buffers, we will have the experience of this past week in the back of our minds, inspiring us to do our best work in implementing BMPs to reduce flood risks within the Tiber Hudson subwatershed.

For further reading about our channel maintenance of Ellicott City, see the report pdf below. (Note: there are pictures in the pdf!)
Howard Ecoworks,
Oct 13, 2017, 7:14 AM