Eels in the Jones Falls

EEl in the Jones Falls BWB

Photo: American Eel in the shallows of the Jones Falls, near North Avenue (credit: Alice Volpita and Chris Bellmyer, Blue Water Baltimore)


Eels in the Jones Falls

The picture above taken by Blue Water Baltimore staff Alice Volpita and Chris Bellmyer provided the perfect opportunity to do a blog post about American Eels in the Jones Falls, which I have been threatening to do for a while. They took this picture of an American eel in the shallows of the Jones Falls right near North Avenue in the heart of downtown Baltimore, apparently just relaxing there. I’m no expert on eel behavior so I am not sure what it was doing there. We might speculate it was going after the smaller fish in the shallows as prey items, or enjoying the slightly warmer temperatures there, or for some other reason altogether. Anyway, it is really great to see this interesting animal still using the Jones Falls.

People are fascinated by eels for a lot of reasons. While they kind of look like snakes, they are a kind of fish that has very small scales, an elongate body and fins, and a snake like head. They really are slimy and can’t be held if you are not wearing gloves. It’s like trying to hold a wet icecube that moves. If you place them in a bucket they will crawl out and will proceed to slither like a snake back to the creek where you captured it. Also they get big. The largest fish in the Jones Falls I have yet seen have been eels, which can get to 3- 4’ long routinely with an amazing maximum of 5’ long. They eat just about anything but are primarily predators, and are caught by fishermen commonly. While not really sought after by recreational anglers, other countries have a big taste for eels. They are shipped off by the million as baby eels to Asia where they are raised to adulthood an eaten there. Why don’t they just breed the eels, you may ask. Well, no one has ever seen an American Eel actually breed, ever. They have caught really tiny eels out in the Sargasso Sea out near Bermuda so they know it must happen out there somewhere, but Eel spawning remains one of the greatest mysteries of fish biology, kind of like a holy grail for fish biologists.

The thing that amazes me the most about the eels in the Jones Falls is that they are there at all. They are migratory fish which live most of their lives in freshwater streams but return to the sea near Bermuda to spawn. When they get big enough, they undergo a change in shape and color, transforming from ‘yellow’ eels to ‘silver’ eels. Their eyes get bigger and they develop a pointy snout as silver eels. They then migrate downstream out of their resident streams, into rivers and estuaries, bays, and finally out to the open ocean where they make for the beautiful blue waters around Bermuda. They then apparently die because they don’t come back as far as we know. Extremely small translucent eels called leptocephali are swept by currents towards the coasts, where they enter estuaries and bays as tiny seethrough ‘glass eels’, and eventually ascend into freshwater streams where they live for years, until they are ready to go back to the sea. It takes males a lot less time than females to complete their part of the life cycle in the stream, about 2 years while taking females 5- 7 years. Females are the bigger of the two sexes when they change into silver eels and go to breed. Fish that complete this sort of life history cycle are called catadromous fishes, and they are the only fish in North America which does this.

Back to the Jones Falls, the fact that we still have migratory fish present there is amazing. Not only is the watershed very urbanized and altered, but the lower close to 2 miles is underground and buried, flowing through the massive Jones Falls conduit which extends from Penn Station all the way down to the aquarium. I find the fact that the eels will swim all the way up through this conduit incredible. I mean, it’s a long dark tube made of bricks and stone, for close to two miles. And they have already navigated through the Inner Harbor at that point! At one time there were probably other migratory species in the Jones Falls such as herring and shad, but these are long gone, being very sensitive to the modifications that have happened in the Jones Falls. The American Eel is an adaptable survivor, and once it gets up into the stream it seems to like the giant stone walls that border the stream, presumably using the big stones for shelter. The conduit does take its toll on the eel populations in the Jones Falls, and there are roughly one tenth the number of eels in the lower Jones Falls as compared to the Gwynns Falls, which has no conduit. In our surveys at Mill Number One this spring we did not find any eels to be present. Between where this picture was taken and Mill Number One is the lovely ‘Round Falls’ or ‘Horseshoe Falls’. This probably also reduces the amount of eels making it further upstream, although eels are experts at getting around barricades that would stop other fish cold. In fact eels across the country have suffered from dam construction and the closing off of habitat.

In general, eel populations have been in decline and the specific cause is not known. Excessive harvest may be one reason why this is so but there are many other possibilities. Eels have finally caught the attention of researchers and authors of popular science alike, and this can only bode well for the health of this long neglected species. Let’s hope that the eel population in the Jones Falls continues to thrive, and that individuals raised in the very heart of Baltimore continue to make their amazing transoceanic voyages.

Below: Yours truly with a sizeable American Eel captured in the Jones Falls, right across the street from the Ma and Pa freight station (photo credit: Danielle Preidt)

Jones Falls with eel

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Independence Local stream studies: a wealth of information

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Students from Independence Local looking for invertebrates in the Jones Falls (5-22-15)

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Toadpoles! Actually the tadpole larval stages of toads in the fringes of the Jones Falls (photo – Chris Bellmeyer)

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Looking down from the bridge at a fish nest constructed of light colored pebbles, possibly that of the cutlips minnow (photo- Chris Bellmeyer)

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Electrofishing team from Independence Local, 5-15-15

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Identifying macros – 5-22-15

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The hellgrammite larva, found in the Jones Falls – note the size!

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part of the electrofishing haul from Jones Falls 5-22-15


The stream study team returned to Mill Number One againon May 15th and May 22nd to conduct further investigations into the health of the lower Jones Falls. On both days we had the help of teacher Gwen Mullens’ environmental science classes from Independence School Local, located just up the road in Hampden. Together with the information from the April 1st stream study with students from ACCE, these give us a nice snapshot of the condition of the Jones Falls at this location. The overall conclusion is that, while the Jones Falls is contaminated to be sure, it’s not preventing a large number of things from living in it, and thus represents a vibrant slice of wildlife in this deeply urban location.

For starters, we had just great weather on both of the stream study days – sunny with a nice cool breeze. Water conditions were also ideal, with the stream being relatively clear and low in flow. To do electrofishing studies the water needs to be in this condition, or you can’t wade safely and see the fish that you need to scoop up.
In terms of fish collected we added a few more species to our list. The added species in addition to the April 1st collection included satinfin shiner, yellow bullhead (a type of catfish), fathead minnow, and spotfin shiner. With the exception of satinfin shiner, none of these species are particularly sensitive to pollution. However, the more species that we have in the stream, the better off the ecosystem. The greater the number of species, the higher the biodiversity, and the more moving parts the ecosystem has.
On May 15th we were able to observe some nesting behavior from the bridge across the stream where the class ate lunch. Small nests built out of pebbles were visible on the stream bottom, and fish could be seen defending the nest aggressively (pictured above). While we could not get a positive ID on the fish using the nests, one primary candidate for the species building these nests is the cutlips minnow. We found a good number of cutlips minnows in our samples and this is a species which indeed constructs nests up to 18 inches across, about the size of the ones that we saw. The kinds of species that construct nests out of gravel and sand are called lithophilic spawners (lithophilic means ‘rock loving’). This category of fish has long been known to be susceptible to urbanization of watersheds, and in Baltimore the fish species which have been most impacted (extirpated or reduced) apparently fall into this category. One of the biggest problems in urban watersheds is brief, high intensity flow following rainfall which disrupts nests of these kinds of species, even under pristine conditions. In urbanized watersheds like the Jones Falls the flows are higher and more frequent, and that makes it a lot tougher for these species to reproduce successfully. That’s the reason it’s a good sign to see a species like the cutlips minnow hanging on in the Jones Falls. Some species, like the river chub which builds huge pebble mound nests, are apparently absent from urbanized streams like the Jones Falls, possibly for this reason. The restoration activities that Blue Water Baltimore does, such as tree planting, rain barrel installation, and removing impervious surfaces, are baby steps in the right direction for getting these flows under control. And if enough baby steps are taken, who knows what this habitat will be suitable for?
One of the most important aspects of the stream study was our look at benthic macroinvertebrates, or macros for short. These are the invertebrates that live on and under the rocks and in the substrate of the stream. These are particularly important to look at when assessing the health of a stream because there are so many species, many of which have a particular range of tolerance to pollution and disturbance. There are species which are extremely sensitive to pollution, those with a great deal of tolerance, and those which fall somewhere in between. Since they live in the stream all of the time, what you find in a stream reflects conditions of that stream over the whole life of the invertebrate, not only the day you were there. Finding a sensitive species of invertebrate in a stream is therefore a really good sign that the stream is not such a bad place to live. The stream studies did find pollution tolerant species, like Oligochaetes (segmented worms), red chironomids (midge larvae), Isopods, and Physid and Ancylid snails. However, we also found a good deal of species with only moderate sensitivity to pollution. One of the most impressive of these was the very-cool-named Hellgrammite, pictured above. They are part of a small order of insects known by the equally impressive name Megaloptera. It has always struck me that these would make great names for heavy metal bands, and there’s probably a really good logo somewhere in there as well. These are absolutely huge invertebrate larvae which can grow up to 8 inches long in some species! They have impressive looking mouthpart pincers, though I have never really been bitten by these things. They apparently use them to good effect as they are definitely predators. Anything like that that isn’t a predator would truly be a surprise. When they metamorph they change into a giant flying insect with very long clear wings (4 inch wingspan is not out of the question) and a hellgrammite head, called a dobsonfly. I’ve seen the adults pop up unexpectedly at shopping centers and homes that are close to water. I wouldn’t be surprised if a good number of Hampden residents have been amazed by the adults flying or landing around lights at night. The real good news is that these are not species which are tolerant to pollution, they require a decent amount of environmental quality to survive. The specifics of this relationship, like many other cases, remain unknown; these could include high flows, dissolved oxygen levels, or chloride sensitivity (from road salt). It’s more important to find the sensitive species than find tolerant species in assessing the streams, as just because conditions are good, it doesn’t mean you will not find the tolerant species. One other pleasant surprise from the stream studies was finding several different types of mayfly I have not hitherto seen in the lower Jones Falls. Mayfly nymphs are the wingless, aquatic juvenile stages of the mayfly adults, which have famously truncated lifespans. They spend far much more time as aquatic invertebrates than the graceful, ephemeral adults they become. In fact, many of the invertebrates collected during these studies are the juveniles of species which do not have aquatic life stages. The class found, much to my surprise, flat headed mayflies, which are rather sensitive to pollution. These have a flattened profile and crawl around on rocks scraping algae and collecting material for food. Their big weakness is that if they become dislodged they are lousy swimmers, and wiggle ineffectively until they find some solid ground. You can bet that after one of the monster floods that occurs in the Jones Falls they should get swept all the way out to the harbor, where they definitely would not survive. For this reason they are physically very vulnerable to high flows, and therefore urbanization. This mayfly is sometimes known as the ‘body builder’ mayfly, because of the way it resembles a flexing weightlifter. Besides this type of mayfly there were a number of other new ones I had not seen in the Jones Falls. While we did not find any really sensitive invertebrates (e.g. stoneflies), it was good to see a nice selection of those with moderate tolerance, which probably indicates the general livability of this part of the Jones Falls for benthic invertebrates.
Overall, when the classes looked at the results of the stream studies conducted at the Jones Falls at Mill number one, ratings come up in the fair to good range. Is there room for improvement? Yes- I know what streams in really good shape look like. If you are wondering what such a stream looks like, take a trip out to Gunpowder State Park at Jerusalem Mills, where I am conducting studies of fish species which have been eliminated from the Jones Falls (e.g. river chub). Streams like this are magnificent examples of relatively intact ecosystems and they need our protection. One thing the class did not monitor for was bacteria levels, and these remain extremely problematic in the lower Jones Falls because of sewage and runoff contamination. That’s the reason we go into the stream ‘armored from head to toe’ in chest waders and shoulder length gloves. The other part of this study conducted by my colleagues focuses on tracking the source of this particular problem. However, even though we have a long and difficult road to full recovery for urban streams like the Jones Falls we have to realize several important things. First is that yes we are getting somewhere, even in long neglected streams like the Jones Falls. Our studies show that there are plenty of things living in the Jones Falls, and not only those which would represent a degraded ecosystem. In the environmental protection/ conservation/ restoration business, you really have to give yourself a pat on the back sometimes or it gets too negative and depressing. Also, the Jones Falls and Inner Harbor represent an immensely valuable resource for people and wildlife alike. If we want these resources to be at their full potential then we have to invest in cleaning them up, simple as that. For streams and watersheds like the Jones Falls, this means baby steps in the right direction towards a goal.
Anyway, I need to conclude this rather lengthy blog post by giving thanks to all our partners for these stream studies. This includes students from ACCE and Independence Local and their great teachers, Mill Number One for being great hosts and donating space for us to run our studies, Blue Water Baltimore (especially stream team members Lisa DeGuire and Chris Bellmeyer), and last but by no means least the Environmental Protection Agency Urban Waters Program. Thanks to everyone for making these studies a great success!

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Eating lunch on the bridge over the falls

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The Jones Falls really does produce some interesting debris! Classic and very old combination safe recovered by students on 5-22-15 (Sorry folks, completely empty! )


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6th annual Jones Falls Cleanup at UB Community Service Day: Trash-o-Rama

2015 Trash cleanup crew (2)

Part of the 2015 Jones Falls cleanup crew, with some of the large bags of garbage collected

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One of our small piles of trash, along with a discarded dorm refrigerator

On Friday April 24th, UB held its annual community service day. Each year, the University sends out teams of students and group leaders out with matching (free!) t- shirts to various sites that require volunteer support and elbow grease. I’ve been happy to lead great teams of UB students, staff and faculty (like the ones pictured above) down to the Jones Falls around the Streetcar Museum for the last six years, and we’ve pulled more garbage out of the Jones Falls and its surroundings than you can shake a stick at. Our facilities people come and take the garbage away in trucks, but have no fear, the trash has a way of replenishing itself!

This year our team cleaned up from the Howard Street bridge on up to the Ma and Pa freight station, picking up 18 industrial size garbage bags, plywood debris, a small refrigerator, paint buckets and a usable watering can . This year we were registered with Project Clean Stream , administered by Blue Water Baltimore. This project organizes and funds cleanups around the region and keeps track of the material removed – we estimated about 700 pounds of garbage from our clean up. UB sustainability coordinator Jeff LaNoue led a splinter group that liberated hundreds of trees from the clutches of invasive and nonnative English Ivy. For me, the most mind-blowing thing we found was an (unfortunately) dead river otter, apparently killed on Falls Rd. But that’s another story. I’m going to talk about trash and plenty of it, brother!

On this particular day, we found more than our fair share of everyday trash. At the end of the day, we had a discussion about the commonalities to be found among the items we picked up. Major offenders were plastic grocery bags, Styrofoam cups and take-out boxes, glass and plastic bottles, Mylar wrappers (potato chips, granola bars, etc.), aluminum cans, disposable lighters, and fast food packaging. The vast majority of these items are related to food, which provides an interesting insight. Had these items been packaged in more biodegradable material like paper we wouldn’t see as much of a problem. Moreover, if there were more places to dispose of these items properly, less trash would wind up in the stream. If there were a deposit for people to collect by turning bottles there would be less of that mess. My point is, this is a problem which can be addressed productively from a variety of angles. We have to develop the political will to insist on sustainable alternatives for packaging food, and to override special interests which dominate the current discourse.

So exactly how big of a problem is this trash, you may ask. Remember that the Jones Falls is the major tributary to the Inner Harbor, one of Baltimore’s main economic hubs. The massive amounts of trash from the Jones Falls and its watershed get washed down into the Inner Harbor via the stormwater system. The magnitude of the problem was visible on April 19th, after the first substantial rainstorm, when Mr. Trash Wheel in the Inner Harbor collected 19 tons of trash in one day or six tractor trailer loads of trash! The trash must have been building up in the streets and storm drains because this rain brought it out in droves. Putting this massive amount of waste outside the normal channels of waste collection places a huge additional burden on the city’s resources. So we can all thank Mr. Trash Wheel, but it would be much better if this trash was disposed of properly.

Since a lot of this trash is plastic or Styrofoam, it’s worth discussing some of the hazards associated with this form of waste. I and the other volunteers pulled many plastic bags off of trees, which would shatter into numerous brittle shards of plastic as we removed them. And rare was the whole Styrofoam cup, as these were often buoyant fragments and pieces that needed to be removed individually. You might think that these are degrading, and you would be correct. But just because they are falling apart doesn’t mean they leave the ecosystem entirely. In fact, evidence is piling up that the bays and oceans are filling up with tiny pieces of degraded plastic, which often resemble food items. These are readily consumed by organisms. Even though these fragments are small, they remain just as indigestible as ever and possibly even more toxic. Research is just coming in regarding the danger of these fragmentary plastics on the ecosystem, and also the pervasive nature of their distribution. And finally, many floating plastics find their way to the great garbage patches found in the oceans, where they float until they degrade into ever smaller fragments. So you can see that this regional or local issue of trash really does contribute to much bigger disturbances in the environment on the global scale. On that note I’ll end this post – too much trash talk already!

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A sure sign of spring at the Jones Falls- nodding star of Bethlehem (an introduced/ invasive species but still looks nice anyway!)

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Stream Walk #1 at Mill #1 with students from ACCE

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Electrofishing with ACCE students at Mill #1

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A northern hogsucker fish collected at Mill #1

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A rusty crayfish from Mill #1 – note the Asiatic clam clamped onto its walking leg!

On Wednesday, April 1st at the Mill #1 complex on Falls Rd., we had the first of several stream studies with area high schools. We plan to hold four such events on the Jones Falls as part of our EPA grant. And boy did we luck out with the weather. Thank goodness Mother Nature did not decide to play an April fool’s joke on us, as it was 50-60 degrees F and sunny out the entire day. We (Lisa DeGuire from Blue Water Baltimore and I) had eight enthusiastic students from Mr. Moeller’s Environmental Issues class from ACCE to help out, and by the end of the day we knew quite a bit about this stretch of the stream that we did not know before.

Mill #1 is one of the repurposed mill complexes in the Jones Falls Mill corridor. It is located right at the last bend of Falls Road as you come south out of Hampden and descend into the Jones Falls valley itself. The building itself is really remarkable and has been converted into residences and office space in what is really a unique place in Baltimore, as you are literally right on top of a beautiful stretch of the Jones Falls. The facility is managed by Jennifer Nolley, who graciously agreed to allow us to use the building as a base for the stream study. I had never samples this particular interesting stretch of the Jones Falls, so I was just as excited as the students to see what kinds of things we could find. Our stream walk programs involve investigations into the fish, invertebrates and water quality of an area with the idea of assessing the stream health. Fish and invertebrates are tallied and recorded and noted as being generally identified as pollution tolerant, pollution intolerant, or having moderate levels of pollution tolerance. From these general traits we can get an idea of how the stream is doing. Looking at thes organisms is one of the best ways for us to get an idea of this, as they have to live there all year round. If you only come a couple of days a year and take water quality samples, you might miss measuring the important variable or just not be there on the right (wrong?) day. For that reason, looking at the things living in the stream gives us a much clearer picture of how things are going.

In order to sample fish we used electrofishing (pictured above) and we set minnow traps. Electrofishing 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. The minnow traps we used are barrel shaped wire cages in which bait can be placed. As with a crab pot, fish can find their way in but can’t find their way back out. Using these two methods produced a nice list of species : Redbreast sunfish, northern hogsucker, satinfin shiner, tessellated darter, cutlips minnow, green sunfish, longnose dace. All of these species are what you would expect to find in streams with clear water, moderate gradient, and rocky bottoms in Maryland. One other interesting point is that all of the fish we looked at were native species, except one (the lone green sunfish we found). 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. Another surprise was the number of northern hogsuckers collected in the sample. Research by myself and others has shown that when watersheds get urbanized like the Jones Falls, this is one of the first species to either disappear or get severely reduced in number. They are a species that require clean gravel and sand to build their nests, and this habitat tends to get negatively affected by the frequent and extreme high flows in urban streams. In streams that are less urbanized they are a familiar sight in the clear and shallow riffle areas, identifiable by the dark, tiger- like stripes on their backs. I had actually seen them before further downstream, but in small numbers. To find an apparently healthy population in the Jones Falls is a good sign indeed. It won’t be long until this species begins spawning as the water warms up, and this might be a good area to observe this behavior.

Another fun fish to talk about with the students was the cutlips minnow, which also makes the list for species that are sensitive to urbanization in this area. This species gets its name from a prong on its lower lip which it uses like a tool to get food items off of rocks and such. I haven’t seen it myself but I have read that it can use this same process to pop the eyeballs out of other fish it is put in aquariums with, called ‘eye-picking’ behavior! One final note is that out of all of these fish, really it is only the green sunfish which is noted to have a high tolerance to pollution. How does this fact couple with the fact that the Jones Falls has an extremely urbanized watershed? I can speculate that there may be a certain resilience that is present in streams like the Jones Falls, which are rocky, have always experienced high flows, and can flush themselves out naturally. Research has shown that some ecosystems appear to be more resilient than others to the effects of urbanization. Also, even as there are still serious issues with urban watersheds like the Jones Falls (bacteria, trash, high flows), we can recognize that our efforts to clean up the environment have not been in vain. Not by a longshot actually! It’s hard for us to perceive the improvement in water quality when it has taken place over decades, not years. The class at the end of the day came to a similar conclusion, in that there are things that are positive and those that are of concern about the state of the Jones Falls. While we also examined invertebrates and water quality, I will explain more about those in my next post about our stream studies!

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Road salt and the Jones Falls

DPW salt pile

The salt depot in an old roundhouse, just north of the Streetcar Museum off of Falls Road and across the street from the Jones Falls(Eric Schott)


Very large piles of salt as seen off of I- 895 (Eric Schott)

In my last blog post, I said that all of the ice and snow would be gone by now from the Jones Falls, and of course I was falling victim to wishful thinking! After a week of winter weather in March that can only be described as brutal, I thought, “What better topic to discuss in my blog other than road salt?” The lower Jones Falls has its own salt depot, shown in a photo above taken by fellow researcher Eric Schott (IMET/ UMCES). Also above is what some call “the salt range” or “the mother of all salt piles” off of I-895, also taken by Eric Schott. According to Wolf Pecher, much of this salt has been off- loaded from ships coming from South America (Chile and Brazil are the area’s biggest producers). There are mines for road salt located in upstate New York, but apparently much of the salt actually used in Maryland comes from 1000’s of miles away.

The salt depot shown above is located just to the east of Falls Road, just north of the Streetcar Museum and right across the street from the Jones Falls. If you visit the Streetcar Museum and go for a trolley ride (highly recommended!), your knowledgeable guide will tell you all you want to know about the building used for the salt depot. It turns out that this building was a roundhouse for the adjacent railroad line (Maryland and Pennsylvania). There would have been a turntable attached to the tracks in front of the building, which you would rotate to send the engines and cars into each one of the stalls that you see here. The B&O Railroad Museum downtown actually has one of these in good shape. Sadly, this historic building is in not so good shape, and part of the roof has begun to collapse. Word has it that they are moving the primary salt storage area to an area across the stream near the MTA building. I’m not sure what will become of the old roundhouse, but it would be a shame if it had to be demolished.

So the old saying goes, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. And so it is with road salt. There are obvious pros and cons to the use of this product on the roads. On the pro side, in a big way, is the fact that it can turn what would otherwise be a sheet of ice, impossible to drive on, to a wet road. Salt mixed with the precipitation creates a briny solution that has a much lower freezing point than regular water. If the temperature is between 25 and 32 F, you then get your wet road rather than icy skating rink. At temperatures lower than 25 F, the salt becomes less and less effective. In Maryland, using salt is quite useful as most of the snow we get is at the temperature between 25 and 32 F. Salt is a tremendous benefit to winter driving safety. I will admit that last Tuesday salt was the only thing that allowed me and my students to get home after class at 8 pm. Hence, it is unlikely that we will stop using road salt anytime soon.

I think a more relevant question at the moment is, “how much should be applied?” There are lots of reasons to limit road salt use to “just what we need”. Road salt eventually gets washed off of roads into storm drains, waterways, soil, lawns, ponds, gardens, etc. There are strong negative effects of this briny substance if it builds up over time. Plants are sensitive to salt, and in fact, the buildup of salt and other materials found in groundwater is one of the dangers of irrigating land in arid locations. Plants need special adaptations to live in salty water or soil. Most plants that we see away from the Bay just don’t have these adaptations. Salty water can seep into the groundwater and contaminate drinking water supplies (e.g. well water). And then there are the effects of salt on the rest of the ecosystem. Following rainstorms that wash away winter salt, relatively high levels of salt can easily be measured in streams receiving runoff. Because of saline runoff seeping into shallow groundwater, the actual peak in water salinity sometimes occurs as late as early summer. For fish, invertebrates, and algae that live in freshwater, the results can be devastating if the salt levels are too high. Organisms that are sensitive are probably long gone, and others have populations that have been reduced or under threat. This impact extends even to the microscopic world. Microbial communities can be changed in areas receiving road salt to halophilic, or ‘salt loving’ types of microbes such as Archaea or archaebacteria. This group of microbes often has adaptations for survival of extreme environments, such as heat, noxious chemicals, or in this case very high salt levels. The impact on microbial communities is just beginning to be understood, and is an active area of research. Wolf Pecher (UB) and Eric Schott (IMET- UMCES), PI and Co- PI on the EPA grant, are studying this issue in conjunction with Shiladitya DasSarma (IMET/ UMB). Changes at the most basic levels of the food web, such as bacteria, algae, and other microbes, signal a profound shift in ecosystem function which we do not yet understand. Currently, the state of Maryland is actively studying the question of how much salt should be applied to Maryland roads. Developing a standard would help prevent its overuse, and that would be a welcome development indeed.




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The Jones Falls in the dead of winter

Jones Falls Icy

After several weeks of weather that begs the question, “Is there any air left in the Arctic?”, I decided to head down to the Falls this morning and see how the Jones Falls was faring. Sure enough, the Jones Falls had layer of ice encroaching from the banks and a thin, clear layer everywhere else. Not that I get down to the Jones Falls all that often in the dead of winter, but this is by far the most ice I haves seen so far on the stream. This image is from the area right across Falls Road from the old abandoned Ma and Pa freight station, and the Light Rail tracks are right on the top of the old retaining wall.

The lower Jones Falls doesn’t freeze that much anymore for a number of reasons. One reason is that many of the former tributary streams to the lower Jones Falls have been buried and turned into miles and miles of underground storm drains. This moderates the temperature in the winter so that it’s not as cold as a stream that is on the surface. You could also add in any relatively warm effluent that finds its way to the Falls as a factor. Fish and invertebrates go dormant this time of year, with the fish seeking the deeper pools for refuge. Usually things will begin stirring in March and April in this part of the world. It was nice seeing the Jones Falls in the snow, definitely a silver lining to this miserably cold weather we have been having.

Come this Sunday we are supposed to get rain and warm temperatures, and most, if not all of this winter scene will be gone. Along with all of that rain will also come a pulse of melted road salt, through the storm drains,  the Jones Falls and into the Inner Harbor. This may be a game changer with regards to winter driving safety but has negative impacts on organisms living in what would otherwise be fresh water, like the Jones Falls. The trash in the trees will remain there until someone pulls it from the tree, however!

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Welcome to the Jones Falls Mill Corridor Blog!

First off, I’d like to thank you for stopping in! As this is my first post to this new blog I feel I should explain a bit about its purpose and what will be explored in future posts. The Jones Falls is a centrally important waterway in Baltimore, and yet it is true that many in the city are unaware of many aspects of the falls, or even realize that it exists. The city grew up along the Jones Falls, and while the waterway has lost its prominence as a provider of power for industrial mills it remains a unique resource in the city. Fortunately, many of these historically significant mills still exist and have been renovated and repurposed as residences and businesses. The lower Jones Falls in the city of Baltimore has been a transportation corridor for centuries and continues as such to this day. The green swath through the city made by the Jones Falls valley is one of only a few such areas in this region, and affords much in the way of recreation and aesthetic potential. The ecosystem is on the rebound after what can only be termed a period of utter devastation, and it serves as a habitat ‘island’ for a surprisingly diverse array of life. As an ecologist I am continually surprised by what organisms are calling this river home. And finally, the Jones Falls is the principal tributary to one of the main centerpieces of the local economy, the Inner Harbor.
The purpose of this blog is to help familiarize readers with the lowermost above ground reaches of the Jones Falls (called the Mill Corridor) and its ecosystem, to educate about the issues the Jones Falls faces, and to help people develop an appreciation for the potential that this waterway has. I will be providing information on the history, flora and fauna, general landscape and landmarks, and specific issues of this region of the Jones Falls. In future blog posts I will elaborate on these features of the watershed and provide updates on events and conditions in the Jones Falls.
My colleagues, students, and I at University of Baltimore have been conducting various investigations on the Jones Falls since 2009, studying the environmental issues in the Jones Falls and its ecosystem. We intend for this research to aid in bringing back the Jones Falls corridor to its full potential as an urban stream and greenway. Future posts will also detail our work that has been funded through the EPA’s Urban Water Program, which focuses on pollution reduction and infrastructure issues in the lower Jones Falls, and also to provide educational outreach (This blog was made possible through this grant from the EPA- thanks!). In conjunction with our partners on this grant, the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET) and Baltimore’s premiere watershed organization Blue Water Baltimore (BWB), we hope to raise awareness about the Jones Falls and its issues, and to collect information that will help to restore water quality in the Jones Falls. This won’t be easy, as we have picked all of the ‘low hanging fruit’ of water quality improvement a long time ago. Positive steps in the right direction as difficult as they may be are the way forward in improving these situations. It is my hope that this blog provides a way for people to become familiar with what has been called Baltimore’s forgotten River, and I look forward to contributing to this effort. If you have any questions please feel free to drop me a line at
Thanks again,
Stanley Kemp

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