Severn report card: C-

Bright spot found in underwater grasses

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer Published 03/31/09

J. Henson — The Capital Pierre Henkart, who runs a volunteer monitoring program for the Severn Riverkeeper Program, explains why the river scored a C- in a report card issued Monday. The river has an extensive dead zone, poor water clarity and a subpar yellow perch population. Following along are U.S. Reps. Frank Kratovil, D-Stevensville, and John Sarbanes, D-Baltimore County.

There's good news and bad news on the Severn River, according to a report card on the river's health.

The river suffers from an oxygen-deprived dead zone, but it also has lush underwater grass beds. Overall, the river earned a C- on its report card, issued yesterday during a waterfront news conference in Epping Forest.

"We can do a better job," said Fred Kelly, the riverkeeper for the Severn Riverkeeper Program.

The riverkeeper staff worked with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and other experts to develop the report card, the first one for the Severn.

The report card drew on water-quality-monitoring data from volunteers, as well as yellow perch surveys conducted with the help of the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center.

This report card, like the others being issued around the Chesapeake Bay this spring, aims to boil down large amounts of data into something understandable to nonscientists.

Pierre Henkart, a medical researcher who runs the volunteer monitoring, said he sees value in the report cards. Each year he develops a more detailed report on the Severn's water quality.

"I wrote up this report with all this geeky data and I don't think anyone read it," he joked.

William Dennison, a marine science professor and vice president at the University of Maryland, said working with the individual river groups is an "exciting partnership."

The university has just one monitoring station at its disposal, and it is in the lower portion of the river, where conditions are generally good. That monitoring station doesn't pick up problems farther up the river, but Henkart's volunteers are able to track those problems through weekly monitoring.

Henkart said what's striking about the information in the report card is that there is such a swing between the positives and negatives, particularly in Round Bay, the widest part of the river.

In Round Bay, there are persistent dead zones and poor water clarity, meaning that the water is muddied. But there also are healthy grass beds.

"Round Bay is a great place where we have the good, the bad and the ugly," Henkart said.

The dead zone is problematic because it means that aquatic life largely can't survive there.

"Fish can swim away; clams, worms, amphipods - they die," Henkart said.

Dead zones are caused by too many nutrients flowing into the river. The main sources are stormwater runoff and old septic systems.

The Severn's problems are similar to those of the Chesapeake Bay as a whole, said J. Charles Fox, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new point person on bay issues. He said the report card is "sobering."

"The Severn River is the Chesapeake Bay," Fox said, noting that his family lives near the river in Epping Forest.

Dennison, of the university, said most rivers fall in one of two categories: either they are in bad shape and getting worse or they are in good shape and getting better. Unfortunately, he said, "We're in this category of bad and getting worse."

But he said it's possible to reverse course.

"I hope in future years we can talk about the Severn being on the trajectory of good getting better," he said.

The report card includes tips on how to cut down on pollution and improve the river's health, such as replacing septic systems and installing rain barrels, rain gardens and living shorelines.

See the complete report here

(Revised March 2009)