Huge project aims to reduce runoff to Sassafras
— Deep in the woods behind the U.S. Route 301 weigh station, a group of dedicated environmentalists have been working to save the Sassafras River.
That may seem strange — as the Sassafras as many likely know it be-
tween Georgetown and Fredericktown is several miles away — but the waterway begins in places like this. Two unnamed streams, fed by runoff from highways and farm fields, and a stormwater management pond next to the weigh station, snake their way downstream until they feed into the mouth of the Sassafras River.
For the Sassafras River
Association, a nonprofit water quality advocacy organization that works to monitor and improve the Sassafras River, the U.S. 301 streams were ground zero for improvements.
“This was the No. 1 project in our Watershed Action Plan,” said Josh Thompson, nutrient management consultant and Sassafras River Association restoration project manager. “This is the project we’ve been working toward for more than five or six years.”
The $880,000 two-phase project aims to capture and reduce runoff from U.S. 301 while also reconfiguring the path of the stream in order to reduce the drastic erosion occurring there. The Sassafras River Association had to put in years of research to design the solution to the waterway’s problems, even measuring velocity and output during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Albert McCullough, project designer and principal ecological engineer from Sustainable Science LLC, explained that the Sassafras River Association first conducted an assessment of the angles and trajectories of the natural stream. What officials found was that hairpin turns were resulting in drastic erosion, especially during storm events, and by reorienting the water they could relax the damage.
“We essentially did some chiropractic work on those areas of the stream,” he said. “We also put in some stone veins and stone cross veins in order to kind of train the water to stay in the channel rather than hitting the bank.”
The original construction of a rock bed beyond the outflow of the weigh station’s stormwater pipe lacked the tiered system that slows and cleans the water, officials explained The result was dramatic erosion of the surrounding earthen stream channel walls, in some places as high as 8 feet. The drop from the highway to the Van Funk, Cecil County Public Works Sediment & Stormwater Branch program manager, looks down Monday at the rock bed built to restore a stream near the U.S. Route 301 weigh station that feeds into the Sassafras River.
stream is now as high as 30 feet in some places.
“We’ve installed some best practices to capture, store and infiltrate the water,” Thompson said. “Further downstream, we’re trying to rehabilitate the stream and restore the habitat.”
After completing the work on the southern stream this week, crews will begin the less intensive work on the northern stream, which is largely fed by farm runoff rather than the highway.
In total, about 1,600 feet of stream, which handles drainage from about 454 acres, will be rehabilitated and restored. The project is estimated to annually prevent 100 tons of sediment, 35 pounds of nitrogen and 465 pounds of phosphorus from entering the Sassafras River.
“As the dirt is scoured away from the stream banks, it’s carried down stream and deposited in the river itself, which chokes out submerged aquatic vegetation and reduces macro-invertebrate habitat,” Thompson explained. “The further we get down toward the river, these vertical cliffs subside and you get a broader floodplain, which helps to naturally cleanse the water and add nutrients.”
Into the future, the Sassa-
fras River Association will be monitoring the nutrient levels in the streams to ensure that their solutions are working.
Perhaps most important is that the entire project funded through grants from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund and the Maryland State Highway Administration’s Transportation Enhancement Fund. Cecil County Department of Public Works aided in securing the grant funding for the Sassafras River Association and is monitoring the project’s progress and construction.
Van Funk, Cecil County Department of Public Works Sediment and
Stormwater Branch program manager, noted that this project, which will help the county work toward its Watershed Implementation Plan to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, fixes an identified issue.
“This is solving a problem for our local watershed, so it’s good for our local environment and waterways,” he added.
The U.S. 301 project isn’t the Sassafras River Association’s only project in the county, however, as it is aiding the upstart nonprofit Friends of the Bohemia in a project that will look to rehabilitate a large farm pond near the Bohemia River.
“We’re partnering with the Friends of the Bohemia to kind of get their feet wet and get them in the door with the trust fund so them can get some projects in the ground,” Thompson said.
As the most established water quality advocacy group nearby, Sassafras River Association Executive Director Kim Righi said they welcome working with new groups like the Friends of the Bohemia and Elk & North East Rivers Watershed Association.
Albert McCullough, project designer, right, discusses how the stream restoration project has slowed and aimed the trajectory of the water’s movement behind the U.S. Route 301 weigh station in Warwick.
Albert McCullough, project designer, left, and Josh Thompson, project manager, examine one of the newly constructed turns in the stream restoration project.
Runoff from U.S. Route 301 runs down this bank into the stream that feeds into the Sassafras River.