Once it was the British, now trash is enemy at Bread & Cheese Creek
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John Long moves with steady ease through the waters of Bread and Cheese Creek. Each sloshing step is a testimony to optimism.
His rubber-soled waders pass an endless trail of cast-offs. Christmas lights. Vodka bottles. A skateboard. Plastic flowers. A circuit board. Rusted metal. A bra. Fast food wrappers and soda bottles. Shoes. A wheelbarrow. A swimming pool ladder. A wheelchair, a bike, a stroller and a ridiculous number of shopping carts.
Yet Long sees a creek that's on the mend.
"There's less trash all the time," he said with a smile.
Long leads a new volunteer group called Clean Bread and Cheese Creek, which has rallied more than 450 volunteers to strip the creek of such eyesores and direct attention to its needs. Six cleanups since 2008 have produced more than 44 tons of trash, including 138 shopping carts and 15 tons of metal.
"I want that creek to be as beautiful as it was when I was a child," Long said. "It used to have all these minnows, and I'd catch them for bait and then go fishing with my grandfather. I'd make little sail boats and race them down the creek. Now there's all this broken glass and shopping carts. It shouldn't be like that."
Bread and Cheese Creek is a partially buried and neglected stream with headwaters that were rerouted beneath the city of Baltimore long ago. The creek emerges as a chromium-laden trickle from a large pipe in Oak Lawn Cemetery, right at the Baltimore County line.
For nearly five miles, the creek drifts toward the tidal portion of Back River, which merges with the Chesapeake Bay. It passes through Dundalk, a highly urbanized area with some low-income neighborhoods. The town boasts a spirited and sometimes gritty reputation.
"Is Dundalk an unlikely place for a stream cleanup? People who don't live here would say that," Long said.
But cleanups regularly draw more than 100 people at a time, who arrive with a can-do attitude. The September cleanup included 152 volunteers with additional support from the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability, Baltimore Community Foundation, the Ocean Conservancy, Constellation Energy and a number of schools and local businesses.
Bread and Cheese Creek also travels the North Point peninsula, where Americans successfully fought off a British attack during the War of 1812. The creek played a feature role in the historic event.
Local lore says the name "Bread and Cheese" came from the soldiers' streamside camps, but Long found the stream name used in colonial records 75 years earlier. Its origin is unknown.
Despite its tiny route, the creek bears an enormous burden. Large volumes of trash and polluted stormwater runoff join the creek as it flows past major roadways, strip malls and houses. New layers of sediment coat the bottom each time rain erodes the banks and flooded roadways wash dirt into the stream.
Concealed by a thin corridor of green, below the sight-line of drivers on Merritt Boulevard, most people don't know the stream exists.
"A lot of people don't realize this is a living stream," Long said. "They think it's just a stormwater culvert. And many people are still under the impression that stormwater goes through a treatment plant, so they just toss their trash right into it."
Local residents who seek a slice of nature must deal with the result. Amber Nail lives in a neighborhood next to Bread and Cheese Creek and visits regularly with her two young children, nieces and nephews.
"I homeschool my kids, plus we have my nieces and nephews here all day and it can get pretty crazy," Nail said. "It's nice to have a place like that to de-stress. It's a place where my kids love to be."
Nail said her son Jeremy, 8, loves to climb trees. Kennedy, 4, takes her doll and has tea parties along the water. But trash is a constant presence.
"The kids get really mad about it," Nail said. "Jeremy will say, 'I can't believe somebody threw that in here, don't they know we play here?'"
Nail and her children have become regulars at creek cleanup events. She was thrilled with the results along her own section of the creek and happy to meet others who care about the creek, too.
"I haven't met a lot of people who actually care about anything related to the environment. That's why I was really excited to learn about these cleanups," Nail said. "City streams need more attention."
The Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability ranks Bread and Cheese Creek among its top three priorities for restoring the larger Back River watershed. The county's action plan, finalized in 2010, targets Bread and Cheese Creek for stream restoration projects and stormwater controls.
Natural resource specialist Nancy Pentz said Bread and Cheese Creek was targeted in part because of its strong community support.
"An outcome of the watershed action plan is that it qualifies us for EPA funding and we now have an extensive project for Bread and Cheese Creek on the books," Pentz said. "We'll be doing extensive stream restoration and retrofits, which are in the scoping and engineering phase already."
The county is considering restoration sites at schools, parking lots and the cemetery where the creek emerges.
Pentz said stormwater retrofits on private property will be limited, because much of the area was developed before modern stormwater regulations existed. Older developed properties are "grandfathered" from the rules, so countless pipes and concrete channels continue to sweep stormwater and trash directly into the stream.
Long knows that maintenance for trash will always be an issue for Bread and Cheese Creek. But he is encouraged that progress will soon allow the watershed group to also address shoreline erosion problems and stormwater management.
The effort on Bread and Cheese Creek is just a small fraction of the regional cleanup under way for the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. It's also one of many streams demanding attention at the local level. Competing for funds and attention in such a setting will never be easy, and often requires a community champion motivated by memories of the past or a vision for the future.
Long, it seems, has both.
"My grandfather, he taught me to do everything," Long said. "Most of all, he taught me never to depend on someone else to do what you know is right."
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