Home A Maryland river turns orange: Chesapeake Bay grasses disappear
Climate, US & World

A Maryland river turns orange: Chesapeake Bay grasses disappear

In August 2022, a plume of orange, silt-laden water covers much of Maryland’s lower Gunpowder River. Aerial photos taken in summer 2023 showed similar plumes. Photo: Gunpowder Riverkeeper

Until recently, underwater grasses grew so densely near the mouth of Maryland’s Gunpowder River that boaters say they had to skirt the sprawling vegetation to keep it from tangling their props.

“Down by Mariner Point, you would see a prairie there,” said Ralph Comegna, who lives on a canal off the river in Joppatowne. “You couldn’t even kayak through it…You would see all kind of little fish and stuff in there, moving around. It was beautiful.”

No more. The grasses, which provide critical habitat for fish and crabs, have virtually disappeared, and once-clear water is now too murky to see below the surface. After heavy rains, it turns orange, as mud pours downriver.

Submerged grasses gained ground or held steady last year almost everywhere in the Chesapeake Bay, except around the mouth of the Gunpowder River north of Baltimore. The once lush underwater meadows there shrank by 30%, leading scientists to speculate that some “localized event” caused the decline.

Residents and activists say they know what did it. For more than a year, they have been complaining about muddy runoff fouling Foster Branch, a Gunpowder tributary in Harford County. The source appears to be a large housing development under construction called Ridgely’s Reserve, where more than 100 acres were cleared of trees and all other vegetation in early 2022, exposing the soil to the elements.

Despite repeated complaints and multiple citations ordering the developer to take corrective actions, the muddy runoff has persisted. Residents and activists fault the developer, but they also blame it on lax or ineffective enforcement by both the county and state.

“It seems like every time we call, there’s an inspection, and they find the same things wrong,” said Mike Horsmon, another Joppatowne waterfront resident. “But the problem isn’t going away. We would like something more to be done. This is going on 20-some months.”

Cloudy water, dead grass

Excess sediment from muddy runoff is a major threat to the ecological health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Small particles of sand, silt and clay are washed off land by rainfall and snow melt. They cloud the water, blocking sunlight needed by submerged grasses, which then die. And as sediment settles out of the water, it can smother fish eggs and bottom-dwelling creatures. It also fills in waterways, requiring costly dredging to clear boating channels.

On a per-acre basis, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, construction sites can generate the most sediment pollution of any land use — 10 to 20 times what might wash off farmland, for instance.

The problem in Joppatowne is extreme but by no means uncommon, environmental advocates say.

“The pollution from this site is so bad you can see it from space,” said Evan Isaacson, research director for the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, a nonprofit environmental law firm. “But … these massive blowouts happen all the time across the Bay watershed. It just so happened that this one is located immediately upstream of a large underwater grass bed that Bay researchers were studying and [where] we have a very active and vocal waterkeeper on top of things there.”

Inspectors in Maryland’s largest counties and municipalities cited more than 3,400 erosion and sediment control violations in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2022, and nearly 3,200 building and grading violations, according to data reported to the Maryland Department of the Environment. Authorities temporarily shut down construction projects 649 times and levied a total of $1.8 million in penalties. They took violators to court just 43 times.

Harford cited 252 sediment and erosion control violations during that period, the fifth most among the jurisdictions. It stopped work 19 times but levied no penalties.

MDE delegates inspection and enforcement of erosion and sediment control laws to the state’s biggest counties and municipalities, including Harford. On 15 occasions in the past two years, though, an MDE inspector visited the Ridgely’s Reserve development or the adjoining construction site for its sewer line. On all but two visits, MDE’s inspector found the developer in noncompliance with state law requiring measures to prevent erosion and runoff during construction.

Silt fences, stabilized soil

Under state standards, developers are required to post fabric “silt fences” around a construction site’s perimeter and install detention ponds strategically within it to contain muddy runoff. Once a site has been cleared, a contractor also is supposed to “stabilize” the bared soil within days by covering it with straw to cushion the erosive impact of raindrops. If left bare for any length of time, a site must be seeded with grass to help hold the soil in place. Failure to do so can easily overwhelm other control measures.

While state law authorizes MDE to impose penalties of up to $100,000 for each violation — and in severe cases to take violators to court — state officials have let Harford County decide what to do about the violations at Ridgley’s Reserve.

“We have been there side by side with them to make sure that the county is following [up] and taking the enforcement actions they need to,” said Lee Currey, MDE’s water and science administration director.

Asked why problems keep happening, he said the development is a “fairly unique site with some unique challenges.” With nearly 400 single-family and town homes planned on 120 acres, It’s a large development project with a lot of ground exposed at one time, Currey said. Plus, he noted, the soil is largely clay, which is prone to wash away and cloud water whenever it rains.

MDE found issues in 2021 with Harford County’s enforcement of erosion and sediment control laws. But last year, the state reviewed the county’s performance again and noted “improved implementation of inspection and enforcement procedures.”

Five or six times in the past year, and most recently in mid-September, the county has ordered construction temporarily halted at Ridgely’s Reserve, each time for several days running, until specific violations were corrected. County officials also have twice levied $10,000 penalties this year against the developer, an unprecedented step for Harford. Half of the penalties had been paid as of mid-September.

County executive frustrated

In an interview, County Executive Bob Cassilly said he was “very disappointed” that the mud pollution has not been halted, despite repeated inspections, work stoppages and even penalties.

“It’s frustrating,” he added. “I’m not at all happy with the developer here … I suppose that maybe the amount of the fines isn’t quite enough to make people behave as you’d want them to.”

On Sept. 22, according to Cassilly’s spokesman, the county formally notified the developer that its grading permit could be suspended or revoked if issues continue.

Local and regional managers with Forestar Group Inc., a Texas-based subsidiary of homebuilder D.R. Horton, which is developing Ridgely’s Reserve, did not respond to requests for an interview or answer specific questions. Forestar spokesperson Jamie Brown instead provided a statement that the company is “working diligently” with the county and state “to promptly and effectively address any and all issues.”

Some question why MDE has not used its more substantial enforcement powers to address the repeated violations. Cassilly said he’s encouraged the state to do so. MDE’s Currey said agency officials don’t want to pile on more penalties for violations already cited by the county, but they are looking at whether other action could be taken.

“I think the ultimate responsibility falls to the state,” said Joppatowne resident Bill Temmink, who has filed multiple complaints and repeatedly confronted county and state officials over muddy runoff from the Ridgely’s Reserve site and the related sewer project. If MDE doesn’t step up, he suggested perhaps the EPA should get involved.

Gunpowder Riverkeeper Theaux LeGardeur said the state and county’s handling of the persistent runoff problems is “akin to wishing for compliance on one hand while letting a partially restored tributary of the Chesapeake Bay fill in on the other hand.” The muddy plume at times has spread from the Gunpowder in Harford south to the adjoining mouth of the Bird River in Baltimore County, he noted.

MDE enforcement scrutinized

MDE’s water pollution enforcement has been a target of scrutiny and criticism for several years now, as legislators and environmentalists faulted the agency under Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for a lack of staff, lax inspection, slow enforcement and failure to update pollution permits.

“It’s time that construction sites be treated the same as any other point source of pollution under the Clean Water Act and not some stepchild of this regulatory program,” said Isaacson of the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, “which is how it’s been treated, with dramatically fewer agency resources dedicated to writing these permits or enforcing the law.”

The legislature has pressed MDE to hire more inspectors and permit writers, and funding for new positions was included in the current budget. Currey said his branch of MDE is now “probably close to full strength,” though at least some of the new hires may still be in training.

Critics say they have yet to see results from the increased staffing. Activists also contend that the state’s erosion and sediment control standards, last updated in 2011, are outdated and fail to account for the increasing intensity of rainstorms with climate change.

What’s more, they say, MDE relaxed the limit in 2017 on how much ground on a construction site could be cleared at one time, thus heightening the likelihood that big storms will overwhelm runoff control measures.

“The fact that Maryland law sanctions this is shocking,” Isaacson said. “We are literally permitting this outcome, shielding those responsible for it from liability for the damage they cause to others’ property and to the public’s cherished waterways and natural resources.”

Dion Guthrie, the Harford County Council member representing Joppatowne, said he’s drafted legislation to reinstate the local restriction that limited clearing to 20 acres at a time, and the county executive said he supports it. In the 47 years he’s lived on the water there, Guthrie said, “I’ve never seen that water turn like that literally overnight” after the housing project broke ground.

Development near the Bay

Residents say Ridgely’s Reserve also exposes a longstanding flaw in Harford County’s land use planning. The county established a “development envelope” in the 1970s that in large part encouraged growth along U.S Route 40, which borders the Gunpowder and Bush rivers and the Bay. Subsequent plans have doubled down on that concept.

Cassilly acknowledged that focusing new construction and redevelopment on land so close to the rivers and Bay may have been misguided. But he said county leaders now are basically stuck with that growth envelope.

MDE, meanwhile, has urged the developer to treat its detention ponds with flocculants to prevent or at least reduce the amount of sediment washing off the construction site. Flocculants are chemical agents that get tiny particles in water to clump together and settle to the bottom.

The state has permitted the use of flocculants to control construction runoff since 2020, according to MDE spokesman, with 10–15 applicants seeking the agency’s approval to apply them. Though flocculants can cause fish kills if they get into streams, Apperson said MDE has established standards for their safe and effective use and is unaware of any fish kills or other resulting issues.

Residents say they’re hopeful their complaints finally seem to be getting a response, at least at the county level.

“The water here, since this development, it’s turbid all the time,” said Joppatowne resident Comegna. “Even when it doesn’t rain, the water stays more cloudy than I’ve seen in years.”

While the water may clear up, the damage to the underwater prairie downstream may be long-lasting.

Brooke Landry, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources who chairs the Chesapeake Bay Program’s submerged aquatic vegetation work group, said the aerial photos she’s seen of the mud plume flowing down the Gunpowder from its confluence with Foster Branch are likely a factor in the dieback of grasses there.

“It’ll take a long time for those grasses to grow back,” she said.

And even if the grasses do recover, they likely won’t be as robust as before.

“We have lots of studies that show more developed watersheds lead to loss of SAV,” Landry said.

On Sept. 26, Temmink filed yet another complaint with the county and MDE after seeing Foster Branch turn orange again after light to moderate rainfall over the weekend.

“As I was walking around Mariner Point Park on Sunday, a family group was coming up from one of the piers,” Temmink said in his email to officials. “The young boy, 12 or so by my estimate, asked his parents a simple question, ‘Why is the water that color?’

“I answered that it was because of a development upstream,” Temmink said. “We must do better.”

Timothy B. Wheeler is the Bay Journal’s associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or [email protected].



Have a guest column, letter to the editor, story idea or a news tip? Email editor Chris Graham at [email protected]. Subscribe to AFP podcasts on Apple PodcastsSpotifyPandora and YouTube.