Our Bay: This Week's Take: Is the scenic Severn River meaningless?

For The Capital Published 04/11/09

In 1971, the Maryland General Assembly designated the Severn River as one of nine scenic rivers in Maryland.

The Maryland Scenic and Wild Rivers Act declares the intent of the state is to preserve and protect the natural values of the selected rivers and to enhance their water quality.

Furthermore, it specifies that before "plans for use and development of water and related land resources are approved, full consideration and evaluation of the river as a scenic resource shall be given."

Webster's Dictionary defines scenic as "of or pertaining to natural scenery; picturesque." It is true that natural coves, creeks and inlets found in the Severn River do create an image of picturesque, natural scenery, but is there a need for a Scenic Rivers Act to point out the value of such obvious natural features?

The fact is that the act goes beyond just recognizing the natural features that make the river special. It also directs to PROTECT and ENHANCE those features including water quality of the river and to "fulfill vital conservation purposes by wise use of the resources."

Two recent decisions impacting the Severn River seem to contradict what the intent of the Scenic Rivers Act set out to do.

In the first, the Board of Public Works decided to permit channel dredging into Fox Creek, a semi-occluded, protected tidal pond. The second decision by the Maryland Department of the Environment permits construction of several piers of an established marsh and state-designated Sullivan Cove Critical Area.

Both cases beg the question: How was the Scenic Rivers Act applied? Will the decisions result in enhanced water quality and not change the character or destroy the scenic value of the river?

It is obvious that the state government has abandoned the special designation of the Severn River as a scenic river and in turn is treating it no differently from other rivers.

Unfortunately, as a result we now know that since the Scenic Rivers Act was written, the conditions in the Severn River have not improved.

It seems obvious no serious commitment is being made to implement the intent of the Scenic Rivers Act as the recent Fox Creek and Sullivan Cove decisions have shown. Why then have a Scenic Rivers Act? At this stage it appears it is nothing more than words on paper.

In light of the recent decisions, and to eliminate further debate, the state government should either clarify that it intends to recognize the Scenic Rivers Act as an instrument for further enhancement of water quality and natural resources of the Severn River or be up front and admit that the Maryland Scenic and Wild Rivers Act of 1971 is meaningless.

Lina Vlavianos is a member of the Severn River Commission and lives in Millersville.

(Revised April 2009)