Volunteers in the News

Severn River Association, nation's oldest water group, marks its 100th year

All-volunteer group perseveres in fight to clean up waterway

"When I say that all of these communities are our members, our strength is multiplied several times over," - Bob Whitcomb, president, Severn River Association Credit: Dave Harp

By Lara Lutz
Chesapeake Bay Journal, April 2011

The Chesapeake Bay watershed, home of the nation's largest estuary, can also lay claim to the nation's oldest river organization.

The Severn River Association of Annapolis celebrates its 100th birthday this April.

"The 100th anniversary celebration will be the culmination of my term," said association president Bob Whitcomb. "It's quite an honor."

The Severn River Association protects and restores an 81-square-mile watershed in the middle of Maryland's Western Shore. The river flows into the Bay just south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Dozens of freshwater streams feed its upper reach.

Like so many people who live along the Severn, Whitcomb was drawn to the river. He moved here for the sailing more than 30 years ago. "We bought our first boat before we bought our first TV," he said.

From the fishing pier of a waterfront park, Whitcomb gestured to the vista that has simultaneously made the Severn a state-designated scenic river and a victim of its own popularity.

To the south, the U.S. Naval Academy sprawls impressively along the shore, its iconic dome blending with the more distant spires and rooftops of historic Annapolis. The mouth of the river opens to the Bay, still blushed from sunrise as workboats and cargo ships come into view.

Minutes from the first meeting of the Severn River Association. The private organization was formed by 32 weekenders consisting almost exclusively of wealthy residents from Baltimore who wanted to have a healthy river with fish in it when they arrived. Women were not invited to participate until 1952. Credit: Maryland State Archive (reproduced with permission)

To the north, green shorelines are interspersed with dramatic cliffs and abundant peaceful coves. Pleasure boats, including a rowing team, ply the waters.

"It's still a scenic river, but it's a challenge to keep it that way," Whitcomb said. "Ecologically, it's almost dead."

The Severn's historic oyster beds have largely disappeared. Fishing for yellow perch is illegal because their numbers are so low. The middle section of the river is a dead zone during summer months, and swimmers should stay out of the river after heavy rainfall because bacteria levels are unsafe.

The Severn River Association has been an all-volunteer organization for a century. Whitcomb describes today's organization as an association of associations—structured largely around a membership of more than 60 local community associations and more than 200 individuals. They host monthly educational talks for the public and nurture projects that improve the shoreline, combat runoff and boost the oyster population.

"Fighting for clean water is a continuous struggle, with no definable finish line in sight," said association volunteer Howard Ernst. "On this river, they've been fighting longer than most."

Ernst, author of "Fight for the Bay" and "Chesapeake Bay Blues," volunteered to write and direct a documentary film called "Moving Water: One Hundred Years of Fighting for the Severn." The film will debut at the group's centennial celebration on April 29.

"The organization has redefined itself over the years and, by adapting, it survives," Ernst said.

Much has changed since the group formed on April 29, 1911, but much remains the same.

In 1911, there were a lot fewer people.

"The Severn River was mostly undeveloped," Ernst said. "There were a handful of cottages, but the resort style development of the 1920s hadn't even arrived yet. Neither had the roads or the major transportation lines."

Aside from the port city of Annapolis, the Severn River watershed was largely devoted to strawberry farms and scattered weekend retreats for Baltimore residents.

The Severn River Association was formed by 32 weekenders. It was a private organization, and women were not invited to participate until 1952.

"They were almost exclusively wealthy residents from Baltimore who wanted better ways to get here and to have a healthy river with fish in it when they arrived," Ernst said. "Their biggest threats at that time were people poaching and Eastern Shore watermen coming over and commercially harvesting their recreational stock."

Baltimore resident Pembroke Womble, who served as the group's president for decades, petitioned the authorities to stop watermen from netting yellow perch during the spawning season.

A group models the latest in life jacket fashions circa 1920. Credit: Herald Harbor Archive (reproduced with permission from Charlotte Lubbert)

Fishing and road improvements gave way to new concerns by the close of World War II. The association found itself dealing with sewage treatment issues and the rapid development of Ritchie Highway.

"Remember, that this was before Rachel Carson and before the Clean Water Act," Ernst said. "These people were actively out there championing a river and giving it their all."

"It really questions this myth that America's environmental awakening happened in the 1970s," Ernst said.

During that decade of heightened stewardship, the Severn River Association took on a modern advocacy role by creating a watchdog program to report and enforce environmental violations. They launched Operation Clearwater, a water-quality monitoring program that has since spread beyond the Severn watershed.

The association worked with state officials on a publication about Maryland's scenic rivers in the 1980s, which spurred a set of specific strategies for preserving the river. It also led to the creation of the Severn River Commission. The commission advises the Anne Arundel County Council and the Annapolis City Council on policies that protect or enhance the environmental and historic quality of the watershed.

"It was a remarkably robust organization for that period of time," Ernst said.

Education gained focus in recent years. The association offers monthly talks for the general public about the sources and solutions of water pollution.

"We emphasize that all of these issues originate in their homes and communities, and we have strategies to solve them," Whitcomb said. "We are responsible for our river."

By focusing their membership on community associations, the board can identify project opportunities and work with communities to make them happen. They also gain a stronger base for advocacy.

"When I say that all of these communities are our members, our strength is multiplied several times over," Whitcomb said.

The association promotes the upgrade of septic systems, which leak nutrients into the river. Whitcomb said the association's efforts helped to create a long list of applicants for a public assistance program to install the upgrades. Association members continue to monitor water quality and have been especially active in growing oysters to plant on a historic oyster reef. They also coordinate restoration efforts with the Severn Riverkeeper and other conservation groups.

Development continues to be a concern. According to the Severn River Commission, 33 percent of the watershed is forested. However, current zoning regulations allow for a potential build-out that could drop forest cover to just 6 percent.

Motorboats on the Severn.

The ongoing struggle can be exhausting.

Ernst interviewed past association presidents for their perspective on the river's future. "Most are not hopeful," Ernst said. "Some people with profound environmental ethics are no longer part of the group because they have burned out. To be effective, you have to fight one campaign after another, and it can take a tremendous toll on people who really care."

But finding new energy is a problem that every watershed organization must face on a regular basis, and the Severn River Association has succeeded at the task for 100 years.

"We have lots of interested people up and down the river, and we have to direct that energy," Whitcomb said. "There is a lot of strength in the young people of our communities that we haven't even seen yet."

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who lives on the South River in Mayo, MD. Send Lara an e-mail. Read more articles by this author.
















(Revised December 2010)