Our Bay: This Week's Take

Private property, public pain

By KURT RIEGEL, For The Capital
Published 07/18/09

If there is much we do not understand about the many processes of nature, we are certain of the following things:

Before man arrived, our forests processed rain water in perfect harmony with Chesapeake Bay watershed aquatic and terrestrial life.

The Severn River was a magnificent part of the world's most productive estuary.

Aquatic vegetation was abundant, providing food and refuge for the web of aquatic life.

Even after man's arrival, the river and bay displayed beauty, abundance, and health for several hundred years.

The automobile arrived, became everybody's "necessity," spawning roads, sprawl, deforestation and vast impervious surfaces.

Then, within a few decades, our rivers and bay collapsed ecologically.

Somehow we have to restore the ecological functions lost - a daunting task. Why does this goal so frustrate us? Why is it so hard to get political consent for steps that must be taken? Here's what I've learned from working so closely with the river and people who love it.

Before anything significant can happen, most of us must agree to limit collective behavior that damages the watershed, and pay for its repair.

Why don't we?

I think it's because only a few receive the most obvious benefits of the Severn River, while everybody contributes to its decline. Why would a citizen who doesn't see daily benefit from the river, as clearly as waterfront dwellers do, agree to pay to protect and repair its watershed?

Many people simply say "Don't tax me" and last year four out of seven Anne Arundel County Councilmen agreed with this myopic and negative view as they trashed sensible stormwater legislation.

Most assaults on our watersheds originate out of sight of the waterfront. The polluted Susquehanna River is half the freshwater flowing into the bay, but most people living in that watershed never see the bay. Similarly, most people in the Severn watershed seldom see or touch the river.

Almost the entire Severn River waterfront is privately held, its owners barricading their little pieces of waterfront paradise with fences, walls and screens to exclude everybody else.

Have the few made a mistake in hoarding the waterfront unto themselves? Even as they clutch view and use of the water, they see better than most the dirty consequences of everybody else's poor practices - mostly from stormwater generated far away.

Waterfront dwellers may see how necessary change is, but when they seek protection and repair the Anne Arundel County Council rebuffs them with, "My voters can't afford it," or "You're just a special interest," or "Let the state, or the federal government, or somebody else pay for it."

They think their constituents don't care, that there is no political will to do the right thing.

We must build that will by enlarging the constituency for watershed protection, growing numbers of people who are willing to change behavior and to pay - because they feel a closer connection to the river.

Here's what can connect people better to the water, building personal, and hence political, commitment to its protection:

Insist that government create new waterfront parks, paths and launch facilities, by buying land and rights of way.

Create more public pick-up points where boaters can rendezvous with friends who drive.

Dissolve "gated community" barriers that Balkanize entire waterfront neighborhoods against the public.

Open existing community waterfront paths to the public and create new ones

Boaters, take someone who never sees the water out into the Severn and the bay, showing their magnificence and problems.

Give kids sailing experiences as fun and rewarding as soccer.

Clutching something you love too tightly can destroy it.

Waterfront property owners stand the best chance of keeping their view and use of a healthy river by finding new ways of sharing it with a larger public - on whom its salvation ultimately depends.

Kurt Riegel recently completed a term as president of the Severn River Association and lives in Arnold. He teaches environmental compliance management at Johns Hopkins University.

(Revised April 2009)