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A century of protecting the Severn River

Group celebrates anniversary

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital, Published 04/24/11

This historic photo from the Sherwood Forest community shows people enjoying the Severn River in the first half of the 20th century. The Severn River Association, believed to be the oldest river protection group in the nation, celebrates its 100th anniversary Friday.

From limiting commercial fishing to blocking developments to rebuilding the oyster population, members of the Severn River Association have been advocating for their river for a long time - a very long time.

The association will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding this week.

"We're the oldest environmental organization in the country working continuously on behalf of a river," said Bob Whitcomb, the association's outgoing president.

The association is hosting a sold-out dinner Friday in Annapolis that will feature the screening of a documentary film and comments from six past association presidents. The group also will elect new officers.

The Severn River Association wasn't always the environmental advocacy group it is today.

"I'm not going to claim to be environmentalists for 100 years," Whitcomb said.

In fact, the group appears to have been founded by Baltimoreans with weekend and summer homes on the river. One of the first issues they tackled in 1911 was road maintenance.

"It was basically a bunch of wealthy gentlemen - all gentlemen - from Baltimore that owned property on the Severn River, mostly weekend homes. They wanted to make sure they had a nice place to come to when they had time off," said Howard Ernst, a board member who wrote and directed the 31-minute film that will be shown at the anniversary dinner.

But early on, SRA members also expressed concern for the natural resources and wanted to make sure they could enjoy the river's beaches, eat the river's fish and hunt in the surrounding woods.

Another early issue was keeping net fishermen out of the river.

The Severn River Association later fought the Naval Academy's plans for expansion, and got the waterway designated as a "wild and scenic" river.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the SRA became "a really feisty environmental group," said Ernst, who teaches political science at the Naval Academy and has authored two books on the Chesapeake Bay.

They had scores of committees keeping an eye on government agencies and new developments. "It was really hard-nosed activism at that time," he said.

By the 1980s, SRA opened up to the public and began to take its current role as a place to exchange information about what's going on with the river and the bay.

"Today the group is more Rotary Club than revolutionary," Ernst said. "It's not as feisty as it once was, but it still serves a vital function."

These days, the association hosts monthly meetings with expert speakers on environmental topics.

Among the activities are two big hands-on efforts: Project Clean Stream, a massive springtime cleanup, and Marylanders Grow Oysters, an oyster-raising program.

The group's evolution mirrors that of the broader environmentalism movement, Ernst said.

He uses the acronym CPR: conservation, preservation, restoration.

During conservation years, they aimed to carefully enjoy the abundance of natural resources. The preservation years focused on preventing a decline and damage to the river. And restoration - the current stage - involves undoing the environmental damage.

SRA members also work with two other Severn groups - the Severn Riverkeeper Program and the Severn River Commission.

The riverkeeper program has a strong focus on monitoring water quality, as well as advocating for the river.

The Severn River Commission was created specifically to advise the government on Severn-related issues.

While it can be confusing to some, Whitcomb said having three organizations is good for the river. "Overall, we're stronger for it," he said.

Moving forward, Severn River Association members plan to continue their education and advocacy efforts.

The stream cleanups and oyster program are gaining popularity. Rezoning in the county will present challenges.

And the Severn and the Chesapeake Bay as a whole continue to suffer from pollution from sewage plants, septic systems, farms and stormwater runoff.

Whitcomb hopes the association continues fighting for the river and teaching people how to help the river.

Finding ways to curb stormwater pollution and septic pollution will be the biggest challenges.

"We are the polluters and we have to find ways to fix it," he said.


The Severn River Association meets on the third Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville. For information, visit


(Revised December 2010)