I have not counted how many miles of streams I’ve walked along in my lifetime. It’s a fraction of the 16,000 miles of freshwater streams in Maryland and an even smaller portion of the 86,000 stream miles in Pennsylvania. Sadly, relative to my steps in buildings, parks, ball fields, neighborhoods and city streets, it’s also probably a small amount of my lifelong journey. But each step along a stream has left an outsized imprint within me.  

My travels and work have taken me along hundreds of miles of streams in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Most of that time has been spent cataloging conditions for watershed studies and identifying outfalls and pipes, areas of erosion, dams, culverts, and other features that degrade water quality and habitat. A smaller portion of my time and steps along rivers, but by far the most scenic and enjoyable, has been spent trout fishing. I have a broad scale of experiences from holding my nose to soaking in absolute serenity.     

A Beautiful River

Some of the things I’ve witnessed turned my stomach. I’ve seen toilet paper and waste flushed into a stream through a pipe as I walked upstream through the effluent. Tires, shopping carts, cars, batteries, construction debris, sports equipment, and medical waste have all made it into my notes for water quality investigations. For the prize of the most disturbing stream walk discovery, I have seen multiple corpses of cows lifelessly trapped in overhead tree branches after a devastating flood.    

The overlap of people and our suburban sensibilities with natural environments has impacts very few people see. Gullies over 50 feet deep form along roadways where stormwater is funneled through pipes and culverts from newly filled surfaces to downstream water bodies. Past attempts at flood control replaced natural channels with efficiently armored trapezoids which are now forgotten, leaving beyond streams that fight through cracks in concrete to resemble any naturally functioning habitat. Debris jams build from fallen trees and trash, impounding water until the weight and force blows it out downstream like cleaning a parking lot with a fire hose after a frat house party. 

An Eroded Outfall

Gone, in quantities near historic levels, are the beavers, mink, trout, and mayflies. There is no old growth forest in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Howard County, all the areas I’ve lived in Maryland. Upland wildlife remains, stressed and suffering from the lack of diverse food sources and clean water, confined in small, fragmented forests and back yards. Deer overgraze and eliminate any saplings or shrubs in their domain, making space for invasive species like Japanese stilt grass, wavy leaved basket grass, bamboo, Japanese barberry, kudzu, mile-a-minute, and other scourges of our wild areas

Without a mix of age classes and species within our riparian forests, the long-term sustainability of these suburban forests is in doubt. The amount of labor needed to manage these resources is expensive, time-consuming, and required in perpetuity. Each year brings a new version of the spongy moth (formerly called the gypsy moth) like the emerald ash borers and spotted lantern flies who volunteer to reduce diversity and resilience of our forests. 

One of the most dangerous threats to our forests and streams is ourselves. Lawn chemicals, road salts, microplastics, and PFAS (look that one up!) pollute our water in ways we cannot see and barely understand. Development and agriculture have inconsistent commitments to protective best management practices and regulatory agencies lack the funding and political support to punish the worst offenders or study the most effective practices. 

In the last two years, groups of pseudo eco warriors have gained traction promoting outrage against stream restoration and stormwater projects. Members of organizations such as the Sierra Club and Chesapeake Bay Foundation are enjoying newfound celebrity as ecosystem “experts”. They fine tune their sound bites and emotional pleas but forget our land use history and ignore the complicated strains on our altered riparian areas. They fail to see the extent of their hypocrisy and conclude they have all the answers without ever taking any real action or knowing the specific conditions of a degraded stream. They replace scientific studies, improvements to monitoring, and restorative actions with lawsuits, television interviews, heckling engineers at public meetings, and newspaper articles.

There is a pressing need to conserve, protect, and restore our natural resources. People who value those resources need to work together to find solutions that are equitable, effective, and sustainable. The cannibalistic nature of our political system is mimicked in the environmental movement. We continue to spend more time arguing with each other than clearly seeing the trajectory of what will be left behind because of our inaction. Gains in uplift from restoration practices are evident with improved monitoring and understanding of our watersheds, especially in the last ten years. Increased floodplain functions and innovative stormwater management strategies are reducing nutrients and sediments from being washed into the Bay. We need to move ahead and keep learning.  Time to take more stream walks and have fewer misguided news reports. 

Keep Mending…            

Restored Floodplain
Restored Floodplain Wetland

2 Replies to “Stream Walks Instead of Newspaper Articles”

  1. How powerful!
    I am saddened by what you are reporting! The average person believes in the news articles and what politicians say because they have no first hand knowledge like you stated!
    I am guilty of this myself!
    Your comments need to be passed on to those who have the authority and duty to take more relevant action!

  2. Between poor and biased media awareness, misleading politicians and political action agencies, citizens are neglecting so many nature and health concerns. The lack of term limits and financial impacts on political body systems and agencies caused by long term political rivalries are manifested by few leaders and voters with adequate awareness and foresight. I commend your blog to friends and neighbors to help awareness of these critical challenges and remind them of fully attending to their electoral and other democratic responsibilities. Thank you for your contribution!

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