This Week's Take: Action on stormwater still needed

Edgewater resident Anne Pearson is with the Alliance for Sustainable Communities.

The Capital, Published December 07, 2007

I awoke in the deep dark of early morning and couldn't sleep.

I began to think about the increase in violent infections from bacteria in the creeks and rivers that struck people enjoying an afternoon swim or casting for fish.

One man told me he was splashed while taking in his outboard motor. A minor scratch became infected, swelled like a balloon and kept him in hospital for weeks with intravenous injections of antibiotics. He decided to sell his boat if venturing in the creeks and rivers could be so hazardous.

Another, the neighbor of a friend, almost had his leg amputated because of a severe infection. I understand that a veteran sailor was ill for eight months with such an infection from water contact.

A colleague told me he'd accidentally stepped in deeper water getting off his boat and because he had a scratch, showered immediately, to no avail. Within a few hours his leg was painfully swollen and though he went immediately to the hospital, he suffered for months.

The Capital reported that a Washington resident, here to enjoy boating, actually died as a result of an infection from water contact.

One of the most dangerous bacteria is called vibrio. It can infect the bloodstream, lower blood pressure (septic shock), cause blistering skin lesions and if untreated within 24 hours it can cause death. Increasing vibrio populations are fueled by warmer waters (one cause is heated stormwater from roads, parking lots, driveways) and algae blooms on which it feeds.

'There is no such thing as healthy human life on a sick planet,' says my mentor, Thomas Berry. So, I wonder what we are doing to ourselves.

When an opponent of our effort to establish a stormwater fee — eight times less than we pay for garbage collection — says, 'You environmentalists ... !' I wonder why he fails to realize that this system of life, this complex of interactions, of critters, of wind, sun, rain, of earth and its hundreds of millions of organisms, is the support system that allows us life ... healthy or unhealthy life.

Why are those of us who defend the critical importance of all life (including our own) reviled as 'environmentalists?' Perhaps we should be called 'survivalists.'

Because what we strive for is a healthy condition for all forms of life. Healthy lives for our children. A healthy business climate, which thrives, as we do, on its relationship to the system of life. New businesses are multiplying every year to take advantage of opportunities to make chicken manure into a salable product, to compost food waste as a marketable product, to make paper from new fibers grown on farms, to capture and sell methane from landfills.

Sustainable rainforest entrepreneurs are making healthy tea, and an energy drink that is outselling coffee, to name a few. The Chinese government said last year they experienced a $64 billion economic loss in 2004 due to pollution.

At 1 a.m., as I sought sleep, my mind turned to choice memories of 40 years ago when my 10-year-old son messed about after school in a little rowboat tethered to the Market Street seawall in Annapolis. He brought home so many fat crabs on so many occasions, I wearied of picking them. He remembers that I suggested he sell his catch to neighbors! I never worried about him in those days, it was a heavenly way for a kid to grow up. Living and working in town, I walked to work at the Maryland Inn. When I walked home in a sudden downpour, I took off my shoes and paddled through deep puddles of rapid flowing rain, piped from homes onto the sidewalk and streets. The rain flowed downhill unhampered through slits in the seawall into the creek.

Some years ago, when, under the auspices of my newly established City Tree Committee, I walked the beach, where kayakers and canoeists launched their boats, to consider installation of a waterfront buffer demonstration.

I was alarmed by a sign that warned, 'DO NOT TOUCH THE WATER!' We have unconsciously contaminated the waters with runoff from cadmium, copper, zinc, lead, up to 70 potential carcinogens cars deposit on roads later to be washed into creeks and rivers by the god-given rain.

Anne Arundel County Councilman Ron Dillon recently shared a story of his family's experience boating this summer. Hoping to recapture the joy of crabbing he had known as a child, he took his young ones and his parents out to catch crabs. Not only were there no crabs to catch, but his mother, who was splashed by the water, developed an angry rash.

The experience touched him deeply. He joined Council members Josh Cohen and Jamie Benoit to sponsor a changes to a stormwater bill that would have charged a small fee ($30 year for homeowners and multiples of that amount for businesses) depending on the stormwater we shed into the creeks and rivers.

In support of their endeavor, we filled the County Council Chambers on Monday with 'an unholy alliance' of officials, experts, scientists, people who had never testified before, a scout, all the environmental organizations, businessmen, the Chamber of Commerce, home builders, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, homeowners associations, victims of vibrio, fishermen, church leaders — intelligent, well-informed, dedicated to the need to act now, 'belatedly', but NOW, to restore our creeks, rivers and the bay. An activist who watched at home said, 'It was the best evening of citizen testimony I've ever seen!'

We were all stunned by the excellence of the evening and the failure of democratic process.

Our profound thanks to ALL who filled the room to lend us their voices Monday night, and to the valiant three council members, whose tireless efforts on behalf of clean water win our undying gratitude because they represent what democracy is intended to be!

So, now I fear for the safety of my son and his son as they mess about in boats.

Can we not all come together, join forces to ensure that fishing, swimming, boating, wading, planting oysters and seagrasses is SAFE and FUN once more? CAN we not understand the risks and the actions we can each take to care for the rain, to stop emptying it like trash into our waterways? We need to capture the rain in rain gardens and rain barrels, in cisterns and living roofs, as some entrepreneurs are doing, cleaning and cooling it so it enhances the slow underground flow of water to the creeks even in times of drought. Caring for the rain, as a source of life, is a life-giving endeavor.

(Revised Dec 2007)