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Taking Action at Cattail Creek: A community effort to restore a stream

Berrywood residents and project staff left to right: Bob Lennox, Bob Royer, Andrea Germain, Jon Hartley,Suzanne Etgen, Molly LaChapelle, Marion Clement

Berrywood residents and project staff left to right: Bob Lennox, Bob Royer, Andrea Germain, Jon Hartley,Suzanne Etgen, Molly LaChapelle, Marion Clement

The Magothy River has long been cherished by the communities in its watershed: Arnold, Broadneck, Pasadena and Severna Park. While the commitment to local stewardship continues to grow, one community is making waves to improve its stream.

The stream is Cattail Creek and the community is Berrywood of Severna Park.

Sediment in the creek; by Marion Clement

Sediment in the creek; by Marion Clement

Despite centuries of altering the landscape for different uses, a few places remain that retain the natural beauty and form. The Cattail Creek Natural Area, just west of Ritchie Highway, is one such place. It is an example of an important ecological landmark in a highly urbanized area.

This green oasis got Kevin Smith, who leads aquatic restoration projects with the Department of Natural Resources Chesapeake and Coastal Service, thinking. “Can we replicate this kind of habitat elsewhere in the watershed?” he asks. “With the engagement of the Berrywood community—willing to put in the time, energy and hard work to make it happen—I believe we can.”


A community’s voice

It all started about a year ago at Spring Into Action, the Anne Arundel County Watershed Stewards Academy’s annual conference. Department staff listened as Molly LaChapelle spun a compelling story.

A Minnesota native, LaChapelle moved to Maryland in 1971 for graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University. Berrywood became her home.

As both a school teacher and administrator, she spent 35 years challenging her students to appreciate and learn from the environment, capping her career by earning St. John the Evangelist School the esteemed Green School title from the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education.

“Cattail Creek,” she told the staff, “is part of the fabric of our entire neighborhood.”

She recalled her sons fishing the creek for soft crabs and exploring the banks for frogs, and then watched in dismay as trees were cleared to make room for growth. Results were predictable. Runoff deteriorated the watershed. “The water used to be clear in the winter as soft bottom sediment would drop out,” she noted. “That no longer occurs.”

Cattail Creek 24 hours after a storm; staff photo

Cattail Creek 24 hours after a storm; staff photo

Such changes motivated her to join the Berrywood civic and watershed committees. LaChapelle testified in Annapolis to protect the area and worked with the State Highway Administration to replace failing culverts.

The day the work began, the community was pounded by the rainstorm of a lifetime. “Cattail Creek was totally exposed,” she said. “The rushing water looked more like the Colorado River than our little creek.”

LaChapelle’s story took a positive turn as she told the staff about the Berrywood Homeowner Association and its determination to help Cattail Creek by improving habitat for aquatic wildlife and recreational access for the neighborhood’s residents.

“I now have grandchildren in Berrywood,” she said. “I just want to take back the creek my sons enjoyed.”

Since LaChapelle shared her story, the community has transformed its ideas into an ambitious restoration project.


Engaged Partners

Citizens and government forged a partnership to enhance the creek following several association meetings and site visits by natural resource and county restoration experts.

This spring, the community received a $2,500 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust to eliminate invasive plants along the streamside forest area. Volunteers removed nearly 5,000 feet of English ivy, multiflora rose and other aggressive growths along the bank. Furthermore, the community has put together a long-term vegetation management plan to protect the riparian buffer from additional invasives.

The Magothy River Association pitched in as well, providing expertise and recruiting community college students participating in a program called Operation Clearwater to measure nutrient reduction downstream.

Kevin Smith and Marion Clement at fish passage structure; staff photo

Kevin Smith and Marion Clement at fish passage structure; staff photo

Led by Paul Spadaro, the association created community oyster nurseries, floating gardens and a program to monitor bay grasses. “I’m hopeful our efforts will improve fish passage and expand fish-spawning habitat deep in the wetlands,” he said with enthusiasm.


A masterful steward

What makes this continuing effort special is not only Berrywood’s relationship with its stream, but also its connection to the Watershed Stewards Academy. To better serve as the catalyst of the Cattail Creek project, LaChapelle became a Master Watershed Steward by completing more than 600 hours of field and classroom training. This certification, paid for by members of her community, has provided the skills and resources to propel restoration.

The academy has rallied communities from Brooklyn Park to Herring Bay by preparing more than 160 certified stewards to lead their own communities to action for cleaner water.

“It’s exciting,” LaChapelle said. “We are working together to make sure we have a healthy creek for fish and wildlife, a healthy contributor to the Magothy River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.”

Watershed Stewards Academy

Through a partnership with the University of Maryland SeaGrant Extension and with support from the Department of Natural Resources, the academy has served as a model for the development of several successful programs in other areas, including Cecil and Howard counties, the National Capital Region (Montgomery, Prince George’s counties and Washington D.C.) and most recently, St. Mary’s County. Each program adheres to a specific structure and follows a core curriculum while adding topics to meet specific regional needs.

In 2015, Stewards lead their communities to…

  • plant 2,700 native trees and plants;
  • install 130 rain barrels and cisterns;
  • complete 350 projects covering an area the size of 3.5 football fields; and
  • remove 350,500 square feet of invasive plants.

Happening now

Success for a project like this can be measured in a number of ways. Smith explains, “Our basic goal is to improve ecological function. Are the storm flows being dampened and spread out over a larger floodplain area? Are the wetlands and waterfront areas vegetated with the appropriate native plants? Are fish and aquatic insects utilizing the stream?”

Together, the Berrywood Homeowner Association, the Watershed Stewards Academy and the Department of Natural Resources are working to restore the stream to meet the needs of the community and improve aquatic habitat. The Chesapeake and Coastal Service Community Restoration Program is providing technical assistance to help guide the stream repairs, as well as funding strategies and outreach.

LaChapelle discussing the project with Etgen and Hartley; staff photo

LaChapelle discussing the project with Etgen and Hartley; staff photo

The Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund Natural Filters program is funding the project design, and Berrywood is in discussion with the Anne Arundel County Watershed Protection and Restoration Program about handling the construction phase.

But the work won’t stop there. To create a truly ecologically sustainable Cattail Creek, these and similar practices need to be established upstream and throughout the watershed. Smith envisions, “a beautiful stream, slowly winding its way through the woodlands and wetlands, gently moving into the tidal areas.”

The right training, the right methods and the right people are out there to fix this stream, and the residents of Berrywood—led by LaChapelle—stand committed to lead the way in putting it all together.


Article by Claudia Donegan—Chesapeake and Coastal Service habitat and community restoration project leader.
Appears in Vol. 19, No. 3 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, summer 2016.