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Fighting For the Falls: Look But Don't Touch the Jones Falls

Credit John Lee
Barbara Johnson, a water quality scientist with Blue Water Baltimore, logs her findings after testing the water in Dipping Pond Run, a tributary of the Jones Falls.

Once a month, Barbara Johnson makes her way to the banks of the Jones Falls.


Johnson, a water quality scientist with Blue Water Baltimore, tests the water at more than a dozen sites along the falls and its tributaries, from Stevenson Village near its headwaters in rural Baltimore County, to just where the falls goes into underground tunnels near the Howard Street Bridge in the city.




Johnson puts a gauge in the water that measures pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature and conductivity _ that’s the electrical current in the water.


Johnson said, “The way we’re using it is to measure all of the different stuff in the water that probably comes from runoff.”


She also collects water samples. She submerges containers into the water, then puts them on ice to take to the lab to be checked for nutrients and bacteria. The results are posted on Blue Water Baltimore’s website.


One place Johnson checks is Meadowood Regional Park across from Greenspring Station. And on this day, she ran into Cheryl Reicher, who lives in Owings Mills and said she comes to the park a couple of times a month.


“How is the health of the stream?” Reicher asked.


“It depends on what’s going on,” Johnson responded. “If there’s a lot of rain, I would be less likely to touch it, the water, just because there are different pollutants and toxins that can get in with storm water runoff.”


And that’s what makes cleaning up the Jones Falls complicated. Anything storm water runoff picks up in the watershed, stretching from Owings Mills to Towson and through the city, winds up in the falls. From the fertilizer you put on your yard, to the suds you use to wash your car, to the chemicals used to clear roads after snow storms. Kevin Brittingham, a watershed monitoring supervisor for Baltimore County, said it elevates nitrogen, phosphorous and bacteria.


“So, it makes our job pretty busy,” Brittingham said.


And then there are the people and businesses that are dumping polluted water illegally. Brittingham and his team look for suspicious pipes along the stream banks, then trace them to where they start. They discovered one business that was using water to cool down machinery, then sending the heated-up water down the drain, and directly into a trout stream.


“Which needs cold water, not warm water,” Brittingham said. “So, the trout stream was being warmed by 20, 30 degrees.”


Not a good situation for the trout.


And then there is the decrepit, century-old city sewage system. At times, after heavy rains, the city has to dump sewage into the Jones Falls through two overflows. Kimberly Grove, chief of the city public works department’s office of compliance, said they can’t shut off those overflows yet.


“If you block those, the water is going to want to go someplace else, and that could impact several hundred homeowners with basement backups,” Grove said.


On this front, there is some good news. The city is in the midst of a major sewage system upgrade called the Headworks Project. Powerful pumps will clear backed-up sewage from the system, and send it to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant. In a couple of years, the city should be able to shut off those two overflows into the Jones Falls. It’s estimated that will get rid of about 80 percent of the sewage that ends up there. 


Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher said they also are replacing and relining hundreds of miles of sewer lines to cut down on sewage leaks.


“Everything isn’t going to be 100 percent tight because you have household connections,” Kocher said. “We’re working with homeowners on all of these issues, as well. So, there are still going to be leaks into the stream.”


The city is required to upgrade its sewage treatment system under a consent decree entered into with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2002 and modified last year to extend its deadline. Much of the cleanup of the Jones Falls is tied to federal and state requirements and is one piece in the ecological puzzle of restoring the Chesapeake Bay. 


But the Jones Falls was a disaster area long before those requirements were in place. Major industry set up along the falls in the 19th century and used its water for power and for a dumping ground. 


“You had tanneries,” said Stan Kemp, director of the University of Baltimore’s environmental sustainability program. “You had oyster packing houses and fruit packing houses and everything _ it was all going into the Jones Falls. And not to mention in the pre-sewage days, it was like, anything goes.”


In 1926, the Jones Falls caught fire _ perhaps when a spark of some sort ignited petroleum fumes in the falls’ underground tunnels. The Baltimore Sun reported there was a series of explosions that shattered windows. Manhole covers were blown into the air.


Here lies the hope: the falls is much cleaner now than it was even 30 years ago. 


While there is no doubt pollution has taken its toll on the wildlife around the falls, those who spend time there can tell you about the creatures that still make the Jones Falls their home. 


Johnson listed off heron, egrets and mallards.


At one point during her monthly water quality check, Johnson puts on waders and makes her way across the Jones Falls to one of its tributaries, Dipping Pond Run. It’s hidden in woods near the intersection of Greenspring Avenue and Hillside Road in Baltimore County.


“You can see something was eating over here,” Johnson said. “It looks like a raccoon. There are usually a lot of frogs in this area.”


Brittingham said, “I’ve seen mink running around the stream in Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls and you’re like, ‘What’s a mink doing here?’”


Kemp said they’ve found about a dozen species of fish in the Jones Falls.


Including migratory fish, which should stun people,” Kemp said.


And there hangs the tale of silver eels. Kemp said they’re born in waters off Bermuda, and as larvae and young eels make their way via currents to the Jones Falls. 


“But the thing that fascinates me the most about that is, they’re actually swimming up the Jones Falls tunnels,” Kemp said. “How do they know it’s ever going to end? It must be pitch black you know?”


After spending 10 years or more in the falls, they head back to Bermuda to breed.


Wednesday, in part 3 of “Fighting for the Falls,” what you can do to help with the flooding and pollution, and the social media sensation that is the last line of defense against trash in the Jones Falls winding up in the inner harbor.


John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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