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Taking the Mud out of Muddy Creek

Rivers and creeks need floodplains to absorb and trap runoff

Julianne Rolf stands in the restored Muddy Creek.

If you’ve ever biked or driven down Muddy Creek Road in Edgewater, you may have caught a glimpse of its namesake: a small stream called Muddy Creek, roughly half a mile south of Mill Swamp Road.
    Six months ago, Muddy Creek was a wreck. Its steep banks dropped 10 feet to the streambed below, the result of decades of erosion. This spelled trouble whenever storms broke, sending water rushing through the channel in a raging torrent of sediment and pollution headed straight for the Bay. A shallower, healthier stream would flood over its banks, letting water soak into the adjacent floodplain.
    “That’s why they call them floodplains,” explained Tom Jordan, nutrient ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, through whose back woods Muddy Creek flows.
    That coincidence of geography gave Muddy Creek a shot at redemption. With scientists so close at hand, it became the target of a major stream restoration. Now, scientists are tracking the stream to see how well the restoration is working. Muddy Creek’s recovery may offer answers for other ailing streams.

A groundwater sample is taken from PVC pipes installed along Muddy Creek’s banks.

Rivers Need Floodplains
    Floodplains not only prevent erosion like Muddy Creek’s. They can also trap sediments and the phosphorus often flowing along. Without a floodplain, water tears through a stream during storms, carrying nutrients, sediments and other pollutants.
    The source of Muddy Creek’s problem was most likely a drainage tunnel beneath the nearby road, which narrowed and accelerated the flow.
    “It’s kind of like when you put your finger over a hose and the water comes out quicker,” said Joshua Thompson, a post-doc studying the stream.
    To give Muddy Creek a facelift, scientists turned to a new kind of restoration, which raised the streambed, restored its floodplain and — the scientists hope — will slow it down.
    It’s called “regenerative stormwater conveyance.” The construction phase, now complete, involved filling a 1,350-foot stream branch with sand and wood chips to raise the water level. Boulders created miniature dams to slow the water and provide stability. The stream itself ran underground during the construction, inside a small pipe. Once the sand and wood chips were set, workers removed the pipe, and water bubbled up over the top.
    “It’s pretty spectacular,” said Jordan. “First, there’s just dirt and then, boom, there’s a stream.”