UB students and faculty study and clean up the Jones Falls

Volpitta, Harris and Bellmyer head out to collect sewage samples at the first outfall of the morning.
Volpitta, Harris and Bellmyer head out to collect sewage samples at the first outfall of the morning.

Enthusiastic UB students and faculty are making progress studying pollution on the Jones Falls, right around the corner from campus.

The year-long project is funded by a $60,000 grant received from the EPA last summer. UB faculty and students are sampling and testing sewage levels which are high due to leaky Baltimore city pipes, a hundred years old.

Concerned no one would show at a meeting planned to gain community support last October, Dr Wolf T. Pecher, principle investigator for the project, was surprised to see seventeen people present.

“It was the night of a very important Orioles game,” said Pecher, who is also Assistant Professor in UB’s Division of Science, Information Arts and Technologies. “That’s how I knew they were really interested.”

There were a mix of opinions about the Jones Falls at the meeting, said Dr. Stanley J. Kemp, who is in charge of the educational component of the program. At the meeting, Kemp heard some people say “I think we need to bury the Jones Falls.”

But the Jones Falls has a lot of potential, said Kemp, who is also Assistant Professor in UB’s Division of Science, Information Arts and Technologies. There’s been an upward trend that’s been going on for years.

Kemp and Lisa DeGuire, Education and Outreach Coordinator at Blue Water Baltimore, led eight enthusiastic students from the Academy of Career and College Exploration (ACCE) to the Jones Falls, on an electrofishing trip, April 1, where they found several healthy native species of fish. “It is interesting to think that even with all of the changes that have occurred in the Jones Falls, these fish are, for the most part, probably the descendants of fish that lived here thousands of years ago,” said Kemp, in his new Jones Falls – Mill Corridor blog.  “Electrofishing,” he continued, “uses an electrical current which momentarily stuns the fish, which can then be scooped up and put in the bucket. Captured fish typically recover in a matter of minutes and can be returned to the stream unharmed.” Kemp and his students also saw the Northern Hog Sucker, which is usually one of the first fish to disappear when there is pollution. Northern hogsuckers are one of several species that are the most sensitive to pollution, said Kemp, yet there they were in the Jones Falls.

The Jones Falls is home to more than just fish. Yellow-crested Night Herons make their homes in trees around the Jones Falls, as well.

Even humans make their homes around the Jones Falls.

An apartment complex, called Mill No. 1, sits on the banks of the stream. Originally built in the 1800s, the buildings have been repurposed for modern housing. An image of a heron appears on the buildings’ sign.

“I’ve got to contact these people,” said Kemp, when he first saw the sign.

The sign was telling.

“We want environmental research going on around here,” said the owner of the building, David Tafuro. Now Kemp runs his educational stream-walk out of one of the buildings in the complex.

More electro-fishing trips were planned for May, although an Earth Day expedition on April 22 was cancelled, due to sewage levels that were even higher than usual.

On April 21, I met two UB students and Alice Volpitta, Water Quality Manager with Blue Water Baltimore, at the Jones Falls. They were taking water samples. Every other Tuesday, Chris Bellmyer and Stehle Harris wade in the Jones Falls wearing protective gear, led by Volpitta. Normally they are accompanied by Barbara Johnson, another UB student, who did not attend this particular trip. The students take samples from three particular locations each expedition.

Back at UB, Pecher extracts the DNA from samples and tests for the presence of sewage.

Harris takes water samples at the Jones Falls.
Harris takes water samples at the Jones Falls.

Two of the three outfalls are predominately from leaks, said Pecher, but one seems to be mainly from dogs.

“Dog fecal matter matters,” said Pecher, urging people to clean up after their dogs.

A campaign is planned to educate people about the importance of managing pet waste.

Additionally, the data from samples will be presented to Baltimore City which may assist the city in prioritizing repairs.

“To actually see the sewage that comes out of these outfalls – it leaves you a little stunned,” said Bellmyer, who is in UB’s Environmental Sustainability and Human Ecology (ESHE) program.

Sewage levels were unusually high on April 21. The water was particularly murky, said Volpitta. And we found grease balls, larger than our fists, lying on the ground, near manholes that covered “sanitary” storm sewers.

“How could sewage that large come out of those little holes?” I asked Volpitta, noting that the holes in the manhole covers were about the size of a quarter.

Pressure from sewage backups can be strong enough to push manhole covers off, said Volpitta.

Despite the sewage, certain parts of the Jones Falls are beautiful.

Donning waders for the first time ever, I followed Volpitta, Bellmyer and Harris into the Jones Falls.

This is just like wading at the beach, I thought, with water lapping around my ankles – no problem.

I had a little change of heart when the water reached my thighs.

Suddenly my legs felt almost weightless and the waders billowed around them. I kept my eyes glued right in front of me, peering hard at the cold, opaque water where I waded under the shadow of a bridge, hoping to see a glimpse of my feet treading carefully across slick rocks underfoot. The group was barreling ahead of me as I tentatively put one foot in front of the other. Suddenly there was intense pressure on my legs – the opposite of the almost-weightlessness I’d felt seconds before. I slipped, but caught myself before I fell. It occurred to me I could end up completely under water, covered in sewage. I might even get a concussion and drown. I panicked.

“I have to stop!” I yelled across the water to my comrades. “I can’t make it!”

“Don’t go anywhere!” Bellmyer yelled back. “Just stay there.”

Slowly I looked up and beheld a breathtaking expanse of dark rippling water, ending in several feet of beautiful sunlit brilliance as the water came out from under the bridge and reached for the shore, each tiny crest of water edged with diamond stars of sunlight. A wall of rock climbed around the stream in varying shades of grey, containing us – the stream and me – in a kind of picture-postcard, cool shadowy and sunlit outdoor womb.

It was at that moment, out of an entire trip – an entire day, thigh deep in cold water and sewage, standing on slippery rocks, with the current pushing against my legs, that I suddenly felt most grounded.

Beyond the watery brilliance my Comrades in Waders appeared ankle deep in the sunlight by the shore.

“Oh, it gets shallow again,” I thought to myself. “I’ve just got to get there.”

Slowly and carefully, I took one slow step at time and eventually caught up with everyone.

Surprisingly, I was able to keep pace with them on the way back.

Bellmyer has had similar experiences during his work in the Jones Falls. “There are parts of the Jones Falls that are beautiful and picturesque and that’s what motivates me to do this work,” he said, “because I don’t see why the rest of the Jones Falls can’t look like that.”

“It’s a lot of work,” he said, “but it’s a lot of really cool rewarding work.”

Harris seems to find the work rewarding, as well. Originally an accounting major, she was having trouble getting out of bed in the morning. “I wasn’t going to class,” she said. She looked around her and saw accounting majors who were really happy. “That wasn’t me”, Harris said. She knew she didn’t belong there, doing that. Now, like Bellmyer, she is majoring in Environmental Sustainability and Human Ecology and finds the work much more satisfying.

On April 24, several other UB students got to experience the gratification of making a difference at the Jones Falls. Kemp led a trash cleanup on the banks of the stream, which I joined, as part of UB’s Community Service day. Additionally, UB’s Sustainability Planner, Jeff La Noue showed how to hack away at invasive English Ivy, which was stealing nutrients from trees around the Jones Falls. Although the process was tough at times, with some of the English Ivy as thick as trees themselves, we were able to get quite a bit removed and potentially save a number of trees.

The Jones Falls is incredibly salvageable, said Kemp.

“We’re making progress, one cleanup at a time,” said Bellmyer.

By the end of May or the beginning of June, we should have a pretty good understanding of the research, said Pecher.

Perhaps then, there will be even more progress in cleaning up the Jones Falls, what Kemp calls UB’s home water and after a couple of cleanups, one wading experience and many bike rides next to, I’m getting pretty attached to, myself.


All photos taken by Laura Melamed.