baltimoresun.com

Arundel rivers among state's most polluted

By Rona Kobell
Sun reporter
April 4, 2008

The scenic rivers around Annapolis, where generations of Marylanders have crabbed and fished, are among the most polluted in the state, researchers said yesterday.

The second annual Chesapeake Bay Report Card gave its lowest grades to the collection of rivers that flow through Anne Arundel County - the Severn, the South, the Magothy, the Rhode and the West - as well as to Southern Maryland's Patuxent River. Researchers from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who gather data on the rivers, gave each a D-minus.

Adding to the dismal news yesterday was the annual Health and Restoration Assessment published by the Chesapeake Bay Program, a multistate government agency charged with cleaning up the bay. It found that the water in nearly 88 percent of the bay and its tributaries does not have enough oxygen in summer to sustain marine life.

"There are some positive signs, and much good work that has been done, but what our reports tell us is that the bay is degraded and in a vulnerable state," said Jeffrey Lape, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program.

On the Chesapeake Bay Report Card, the bay's overall grade improved slightly, from a D-plus in 2006 to a C-minus for 2007 - improvement attributed largely to weather. Drought last summer reduced pollution from runoff.

The only real success stories were north of Baltimore - the Bush, Gunpowder and Middle rivers each received a B, up from D-plus - and the Choptank, which was second-worst on the list in 2006 but was in the middle of the pack for 2007.

William Dennison, the university vice president who oversees the report card, said he expected the bay and the rivers to have a better year, particularly because of last summer's lack of rain. He said the bay seems to still be recovering from 2003, an unusually wet year that was made even worse by Tropical Storm Isabel.

The main causes of bay pollution have long been known - runoff from fields and paved areas, nitrogen from sewage treatment plants, and sediment from erosion. Dennison said the report's data bolster the connection between land and water, and that he hopes the research will guide local officials in land-use decisions.

"We've explicitly linked land use within the tributaries to bay health, and that links more strongly the fact that we need to resolve our problems with actions on the land," Dennison said.

As the scientists and government officials presented the dual reports at a news conference along the Severn River, Frederick L. Kelly wanted to know why they weren't providing any money to help clean it. Kelly, the riverkeeper for the Severn, said he has volunteers available to create living shorelines that would trap sediment and slow erosion but his organization can't afford the materials.

"There's just a dribble of pennies for these projects," he said, "and yet there seems to be a lot of money for studies, studies to write the obituary for the Chesapeake Bay."

Kelly, who is paid by a nonprofit riverkeepers association to monitor the health of the Severn, said he wasn't surprised that it scored so poorly. Last summer, he said, data showed that the Severn's Round Bay was a dead zone, devoid of oxygen. Recent surveys have shown that the river, once teeming with juvenile yellow perch, has almost none.

Those working to clean up the Patuxent, however, didn't expect the bad news.

"You have floored me," said longtime Patuxent activist Ralph Eshelman upon hearing the river's score. "We need to wake people up. This report tells us we're not even maintaining the status quo, that we're going in the opposite direction, and that's not acceptable."

It was Patuxent River advocates who began the Chesapeake Bay clean-up movement. Nearly 40 years ago, county commissioners in Southern Maryland decided that the Patuxent had suffered enough from pollution from the fast-growing Baltimore-Washington corridor. Led by Bernie Fowler, who would later become a state senator, the commissioners sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Maryland, contending that they were allowing far too much pollution into the bay.

The Patuxent supporters eventually won. And soon after, Fowler began his yearly tradition of wading into the river and measuring how far out he could go and still see his white sneakers, an event that has been copied by dozens of advocacy groups.

In the 1990s, the sneaker test and official monitoring showed major improvements in the Patuxent, due largely to sewage-treatment upgrades. But over the past several years, as Southern Maryland became one of the state's fastest-developing areas, the river's water quality worsened.

Leonard Zuza, who serves on the Calvert County Environmental Commission and is active with the Patuxent Riverkeeper organization, was shocked to hear that his river scored even worse than Baltimore's Patapsco. The Patapsco River ranked as the most polluted last year, but this year its score improved - to a D.

"This is appalling," Zuza said. "The Patuxent River is totally enclosed in the state of Maryland, and for it to have this high level of pollution says that the public officials and environmental groups have not done their jobs."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

(Revised April 2008)