For two decades, scientists have been monitoring the streams that flow from Baltimore’s outer suburbs through some of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods on their way to the harbor.Chris Swan, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, looks over a vacant lot in West Baltimore that his students seeded with native wildflowers. The experiment, part of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, aims to convert abandoned sites into more attractive green spaces that can draw pollinators and also soak up more polluted runoff. (Timothy B. Wheeler)

With data painstakingly compiled from stream-sampling field trips and a network of continuously operating stream gauges, researchers involved in the Baltimore Ecosystem Study have new insights on how urban waters are polluted by sewage leaks and runoff from lawns and pavement. They’ve documented how pharmaceuticals and personal care products that wash down people’s drains are getting into the water and into insects, frogs and fish.

But they’ve also found that urban streams are surprisingly resilient — and that addressing their ills can help the long-running effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay while also improving the quality of life for city dwellers.

Now, though, the future of that research is in doubt. One of just two urban-focused long-term ecological research projects in the nation, the Baltimore Ecosystem Study faces what one of its chief scientists calls a “funding crisis.” The National Science Foundation, which has provided grants to underwrite the study since its inception, is pulling the plug on its financial support.

The science foundation notified study leaders earlier in 2018 that it had denied their request for another six-year grant, which would have provided about $1 million a year. Instead, the foundation offered the scientists a three-year grant to write up whatever results they have yet to publish, archive the data they’ve collected and decommission their field sites.

“It’s unclear why they were unhappy with us,” said Peter Groffman, a microbial ecologist at the City University of New York and one of the Baltimore study’s leaders. “The project’s been very productive. We’ve learned interesting things, so we’re a little befuddled.”

Doug Levey, an NSF program officer, said that the Baltimore ecosystem researchers “have done excellent work in the past.” But the foundation decided not to continue funding the project, he said, because of what he called “problems with the proposal” that the research team had submitted.

Levey would not elaborate on what troubled the NSF staff and said that confidentiality rules prevented him from doing so. The foundation also denied a Freedom of Information Act request to see any documents related to its decision, saying they are exempt from disclosure under federal laws.

Emma J. Rosi, the Baltimore study’s principal investigator, said foundation staff initially rejected the research team’s proposal as too complex. So, the team streamlined it, she said. An NSF advisory panel that reviewed the revised proposal found it “competitive,” meriting funding. But NSF staff rejected it again, she said, saying it was too simple.

“We believe that the BES project has been…at the cutting edge of an important area of research,” said Rosi, an aquatic ecologist at the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY.

The Baltimore study is part of a network of 28 NSF-funded research projects dedicated to measuring change over a period of years or even decades in a variety of ecosystems stretching from Alaska to Antarctica. Each study engages dozens of researchers from multiple disciplines — including
biology, hydrology and geochemistry, plus social sciences such as
economics — and even at times artists, historians and philosophers. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County serves as the institutional home for the Baltimore study, though its researchers hail from several states.

Claire Welty, director of UMBC’s Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education, checks out a water sampling station on Dead Run, a stream flowing from Baltimore’s western suburbs into the city. The Baltimore Ecosystem Study has gathered two decades’ worth of data on urban watersheds from field sampling and a network of monitoring stations like this. (Timothy B. Wheeler)The Baltimore project is one of only two long-term studies of urban ecosystems. The other looks at sprawling central Arizona around Phoenix. Both were launched by the NSF in 1997, with field work beginning in Baltimore the next year.

Because those two research projects are in urban areas, they necessarily focus on the interaction between nature and people. In Baltimore, scientists have studied soil; plants and animals on both the land and in the streams; and the quality of water and air.

Steward T. A. Pickett, a plant ecologist at the Cary Institute and founding director of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, said the NSF’s steady support has been crucial to the community outreach portion of the project as well, in its work with area schools, policy makers and community groups.

“The long-term funding — to allow the really intensive data collection at scale and time — that’s really important,” Pickett said. “But time is also important for building those connections with communities, building the trust, getting people to understand we’re all trying to serve environmental quality and quality of life.”

Their work on urban streams has shed light on the ways that development and failing infrastructure affect water quality. They found, for instance, that under “normal” weather conditions, urban and suburban watersheds retain an unexpectedly high share of the water-fouling nutrients they get from lawn fertilizer, air pollution and other sources, preventing them from washing downstream to the Bay.

“We have the longest, most comprehensive urban watershed data anywhere in the world,” Groffman said. Mining that 20-year data base, for instance, has shown how sewage leaks and overflows plaguing Baltimore’s aging wastewater system impair local streams.

The long-term monitoring of Baltimore area streams has been a help to the Bay restoration effort, said Rich Batiuk, who retired last year as associate director of science for the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay office. It furnished data that the Bay Program lacked resources to monitor, he said, and helped to upgrade and calibrate the federal-state effort’s watershed modeling.

The research has yielded other insights about urban waters. A study led by Rosi found a mix of pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs in the Gwynns Falls, a tributary of the Patapsco River that flows through the city’s western neighborhoods. While most of the drugs were at trace levels, they found amphetamine concentrations high enough to alter the base of the food web that supports fish and other aquatic creatures.

Urban streams also are very “flashy,” meaning they’re prone to surging quickly over their banks in storms because the pavement and buildings covering their watersheds keeps rainfall from soaking into the ground. Andrew Miller, a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said his research has found that the built-up Baltimore metro area has many such flood-prone streams.

“Floods that would be a 100– to 200-year flood out in a rural environment might be more like a 10– to 15-year flood around here,” Miller said.

Ellicott City, a historic mill town on the banks of the Patapsco River, has been devastated twice in two years by flash flooding from severe rainstorms. Miller said his analysis suggests there are plenty of other streams prone to flooding, and there’s been an uptick in extreme rain events, posing challenges for preventing or managing other catastrophic floods in the future.

Even though urban streams are very different from forested ones, Rosi said, the research team has found that “there’s life in them….If you can restore their physical habitat, there’s opportunity for them to come back.”

Data from the Baltimore study have documented how repairing sewage leaks and taking steps to reduce stormwater runoff do lead to better water quality, both locally and downstream. Groffman, noting that decades-long efforts to restore the Chesapeake’s water quality appear to be yielding positive results, said, “If we have turned the corner, if we’ve made improvements in the Chesapeake Bay, those improvements start here, in these small watersheds.”

The Baltimore project also has improved the understanding of land-based urban ecological changes. One study found that neighborhoods blighted with abandoned homes, for instance, are breeding hot spots for tiger mosquitoes — making low-income residents more vulnerable to insect-borne diseases.

Chris Swan, another UMBC geography and environmental systems professor, has led a study evaluating the prospects of re-establishing native meadows in vacant lots in the city, beautifying weedy blocks with flowering plants while restoring habitat for pollinators and improving stormwater retention.

Researchers have gone beyond the usual ecological research boundaries to examine the human environment. They’ve conducted public opinion surveys, for instance, and also, by analyzing historical land use and zoning records since the 1920s, found empirical evidence of racial bias in the siting of polluting industries and facilities like landfills and incinerators.

That unusual aspect of the urban ecosystem studies apparently hasn’t always sat well with some NSF staff. A couple of years ago, one retiring program officer wrote to Baltimore and Phoenix study leaders urging them to scale back their socio-ecological research, according to minutes of the research network’s executive board. Study leaders were subsequently assured that was not the view of remaining NSF managers, but it demonstrated the challenges inherent in expanding the concept of ecological research.

Whatever prompted the NSF to terminate its support for the Baltimore research project, study leaders vow to carry on, saying they’re working to replace the funding to be terminated, which represents about 20 percent of the study’s overall budget. It receives other, usually shorter term grants from the NSF and other funders.

“The Baltimore Ecosystem Study will not go away,” said Claire Welty, director of UMBC’s Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education. “We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. We’re trying to figure out where the funding is going to come from.”