Governor fails 3 times to protect Severn

The Capital 05/02/2009

Kurt Riegel
at Plum Creek on the Severn River

With the last change at the helm of Maryland state government came words to hearten those of us who treasure the environment of the Severn River watershed and the Chesapeake Bay.

Public pronouncements, goals, even some legislation, all set the right tone for the repair and protection we've long sought for our watershed. We wondered, "Is it finally for real this time?"

What has actually happened during the past year in the Severn River watershed? Have Maryland agencies under the direction of the governor helped in a quest to preserve, protect and restore the Severn?

The state made three notable decisions:

Sullivan Cove. Three landowners sought permits to build huge piers, more than 450 feet long, across a sensitive cove in the critical area. Opposing evidence presented by hundreds of residents, experts, civic and watershed groups had essentially no effect. Maryland Department of the Environment granted permits and construction occurred.

Fox Creek. MDE was involved in a battle over dredging from the Severn into a semi-occluded, protected tidal pond. The Board of Public Works, on which the governor himself sits, unanimously approved dredging into this sensitive creek.

Monticello II, a development crossing steep slopes, non-tidal wetlands and the regulated buffer draining into Saltworks Creek. It was permitted - road building, cutting protective trees and new impervious cover all degrading this sensitive area.

Thus does the Severn, even as it bathes luxuriantly in politicians' saccharine words and good intentions, continue its slide toward oblivion.

The governor and agencies under his control had three chances. Each time they failed, yielding to private interest and brushing aside the public's interest in the environment. The Critical Area Commission, members mostly appointed by the governor, was nearly silent and virtually useless.

I stipulate that these decisions are tough. Backlash is inevitable and the governor is clearly up to accepting it - but in a skewed way. His administration seems immune to entreaties from parties seeking to protect environmental values, and cannot find the spine to resist pushback from money, power and private interest.

Some frustrated citizens have suggested that we might as well revoke the Severn's "Scenic River" status under the law.

I'm not quite there yet. The governor can and must move to connect lofty intent with practical action. He is tardy in appointing people to his departments and commissions who are determined to apply the law to protect environmental values in the Severn River watershed.


The writer is president of the Severn River Association, severnriver.org, and lives in Arnold. He was director of Environmental Technology at the Department of the Navy, and teaches Environmental Compliance Management at Johns Hopkins University.

(Revised May2009)