Severn River facing problems

Experts: State of waterway consistently bad

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
Published October 22, 2008

Like the Chesapeake Bay as a whole, the Severn River suffers from dirty runoff from paved surfaces, a loss of beneficial trees and a suffocating lack of oxygen in the water.

That was the conclusion of several experts who delivered the "State of the Severn River" to more than 60 advocates gathered in Annapolis last night for a meeting of the Severn River Association.

"The state of the Severn River is similar to the states of the other rivers … It's in dismal shape," said Gerald Winegrad, a University of Maryland professor and former state senator.

RIVER AT A GLANCE

Watershed:
The area draining into the river is 81 square miles. About 85 percent of the watershed is land and 15 percent is water, including streams, creeks and the river itself. About 110,000 people live in the watershed.

Challenges:
Loss of trees, increase of paved 'impervious' surfaces, declining water quality, degraded shoreline, wave action from heavy boat traffic and not much public access to the river.

What the river needs:
Retrofit areas that lack adequate ways for stormwater to soak into the ground; decrease of pollution by individual residents; not allow loss of forests or increase in pollution from new developments; better enforcement of existing pollution and zoning laws; replace failing septic systems with nitrogen-reducing systems; and more awareness of issues by residents and elected officials.

Source: Severn River Association

Earlier this year, a University of Maryland report card gave Anne Arundel's rivers, including the Severn, a grade of "D-".

Monitoring by volunteers and staffers of the Severn Riverkeeper Program has documented a persistent summertime "dead zone" in the deeper waters of the Round Bay section of the river. In that area, oxygen levels in the water are so low that fish, crabs and other animals can't live there.

"There's a fairly consistent picture," said Dr. Pierre Henkart, a volunteer who has led the monitoring for the past three summers.

Dead zones are caused when too many nutrients flow into the river, spurring the growth of algae blooms that ultimately suck life-sustaining oxygen from the water. Underwater grasses also suffer when algae blocks sunlight and when they are smothered by sediment and dirt that runs into the river during rainstorms.

If there's good news, it's that bacteria problems that endanger swimmers have lessened somewhat, reported Dr. Sally Hornor of Anne Arundel Community College, who runs the Operation Clearwater testing program.

Part of that is due to homeowners doing a better job picking up pet waste and not feeding geese and ducks, who leave waste on beaches.

But part of that also is due to a lack of rain, so less waste and bacteria is washing into the water.

And Dr. Kurt Riegel of Arnold, president of the river association, said there seems to be increasing interest in helping the river, though people may not know what to do or have a deep commitment.

"Public awareness due to groups like this and people like you is increasing," he said.

The advocates weren't deterred by the challenges, however. After the presentations were over, they peppered the speakers with questions about how they can make a difference.

Mr. Winegrad said it's up to those who already care about the river to get others engaged. And more people need to lobby elected officials to pass tougher pollution laws and better enforce the ones already on the books, he said.

"The answer lies right within all the folks here," he said.

He pointed out that efforts to toughen Critical Area laws, which restrict shoreline construction, and to levy a tax to pay for stormwater fixes faced stiff opposition from some businesses owners and residents concerned about property rights.

"There's not enough pressure, there's not enough support, there's not enough movement by citizens themselves," Mr. Winegrad said.

Al Johnston, a dedicated civic activist from Severna Park who keeps a close eye on the County Council, encouraged others to join him in his efforts. He said the county's new growth and zoning plan will be issued in December, and that's an opportunity to make sure new development doesn't overwhelm the environment.

"I would like to be more than a committee of one fighting for what we're talking about tonight," he said.

The Severn River Association plans to post several slideshows from the State of the Severn River presenters at severnriver.org this week.

(Revised October 2008)