Saving our Severn: Public good, private interest


The ecological health of our Severn River and its larger watershed weighs heavily on our minds these days.

This magnificent river and its tributaries are the reason many of us came here, and stay — and we’re worried. The Severn River is doing badly now and is getting worse — and the health of the Chesapeake Bay depends on every river that feeds it.

Kurt Riegel & Thistle Cone

The river itself suffers many direct assaults. Development and mowed lawns now go down to river’s edge, native vegetation has been displaced by exotic species and large and frequent waves from boat wakes disrupt shoreline habitat essential to the cycle of aquatic life. Most natural shoreline has been developed and shut off from both public view and public use.

Even more injuries accumulate from a thousand dispersed and indirect insults to its befouled tributaries.

Parking lots, roads, rooftops and driveways disrupt the natural hydrologic cycle by intercepting rainwater and disgorging huge volumes promptly into streams. Petroleum, salt, fecal and chemical pollutants wash from those surfaces into streams, as do lawn, garden and agricultural fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

About 60 billion gallons of rainwater fall annually onto the Severn watershed’s 81 square miles.

Prior to the present era of intensive development, that water was processed naturally by forests. Trees and shrubs broke the fall of rain on its way to the ground, grew roots to hold the soil tenaciously against erosion, and provided leaves to transpire much of the water back into the atmosphere. Excess rainwater mostly filtered through absorbing soil to become groundwater that was conducted cleanly and gently to the Severn River and the Chesapeake Bay. Only a very small fraction of the watershed’s rainwater input flowed promptly to the river and its surface tributaries.

That’s all changed.

Inexorably, poor public and private management practices are destroying critical forest and natural shoreline habitat. Physical disruption and chemical pollution combine to kill submerged aquatic vegetation and tear apart the web of life so essential to the living qualities of the river and bay.

Having lost the protective vegetation that once interposed itself between the sky and surface streams, gushing stormwater now tears soil and pollution from the land, rips submerged vegetation from its roots, smothers aquatic life with silt, and dumps pollutants into the aquatic environment.

Some of us are trying to do something about it. One project used available public grant funds to replace invasive, non-native vegetation with native plants along a segment of a public right of way — the popular Baltimore and Annapolis Trail, a railbed transformed into a wonderful bicycle and walking trail from Glen Burnie to Annapolis.

When we can, we seek public good that is also in private interest, sometimes finding projects that combine public and private resources in ways that give win-win benefits to all. In this small case, a portion of trail along a public right-of-way was restored to a natural and ecologically healthy state, as a private citizen stepped up to the ongoing need for its protection and maintenance.

Other projects include community cleanup projects like that for the Jabez Branch, and we’re running a public speakers series as a forum for builders, bankers, developers, civic organizations, even a few politicians, who are involved in protecting and restoring the Severn River watershed. From time to time, we join with community organizations to address specific problems threatening their portion of our watershed.

We hope to amplify these efforts a thousand fold throughout the Severn River watershed. Citizens can do a wonderful public service, even as they derive the private benefit that comes from living in a nicer neighborhood, by volunteering to work with groups seeking to improve environmental quality in the Severn watershed.

Worthwhile as these projects are, they are small even added all together, amounting more to band-aids against pain rather than to victory over disease.

Real solutions are likely to come only from fundamental changes that are as tough to swallow in the short term, as they are fully justified for the long term. Even if we could complete all needed restoration projects, many would quickly be undone, unless we assert control over stormwater runoff generated by parking lots, roofs and streets.

Rainwater needs again to permeate the ground, to be released only slowly into streams as clean water.

Public and private financial disincentives against covering the ground, coupled with financial incentives for retrofitting sound stormwater management solutions to existing surfaces, are badly needed.

When individuals and organizations have the right mixture of carrot-and-stick signals, together with practical technical solutions, they will make wondrous reforms and repairs.

The legislature considered a few such proposals in its last session, enacted nothing, and so needs to revisit old proposals and consider bold new ones.

For example, a portion of the real property tax that we all pay could be made proportional to area covered with impermeable surface, with a rebate against that tax according to what corrective actions (rain barrels, rain gardens, porous pavement, bioretention ponds, etc.) the property owner installs.

If we continue with worthwhile environmental projects, and if we implement effective financial incentives and disincentives, we can restore the Severn River watershed to the healthy natural treasure that tried to slip away from us.


Kurt Riegel is president-nominee and Thistle Cone is president of the Severn River Association, a nonprofit federation of individuals, groups and 60 community associations concerned about the river and its watershed. For information, visit

Published in The Capital, April 28, 2007

(Revised April 2007)