To save the bay, 'aerate the bay'

Device being tested to add oxygen to water

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
Published August 19, 2007

Donna L. Cole - For The Capital Seven ice-eaters are attached to an old pontoon boat in Asquith Creek on the Severn River. The Severn Riverkeeper Program is investigating whether such an aeration device will boost oxygen levels in the water.

Every summer without fail oxygen disappears from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay in massive dead zones. The Severn River is no exception, and this year, volunteers are trying to do something about it. Their solution comes in the form of an old pontoon boat with seven "ice eaters" attached.

The concept is simple: The ice eaters - which are designed to keep ice from forming around piers in the winter - churn up the water, mixing oxygen-rich surface water with oxygen-deprived deeper water.

Each ice eater moves 1,000 gallons of water per minute.

"It's not rocket science, but it seems to be working," said John Blumenthal, a Pasadena native and Owings Mills resident who devised the contraption.

Mr. Blumenthal connected with the Severn Riverkeeper Program at an environmental meeting.

The riverkeeper staff agreed to keep an eye on the device and check the oxygen levels nearby throughout the summer.

Riverkeeper Fred Kelly found a home for the aerator device on Asquith Creek, which is troubled by low oxygen levels in the water.

A homeowner agreed to have the pontoon parked next to the property for the course of the summer. Signs on the device say "Aerate the bay" and advertise the manufacturer of the ice eaters.

A lack of dissolved oxygen in the water is a problem in the bay and its rivers because fish, crabs, oysters and other marine life can't live without oxygen.

When excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus flow into the water, they drive the growth of algae blooms. When the algae die, they suck oxygen from the water and create hypoxic conditions, better known as the "dead zone."

This isn't the first time that the idea has been broached of mixing up the water as a solution to dead zones.

A few years ago, Adam Hewison of Discovery Village in Shady Side installed a windmill along the shoreline to achieve a similar result.

The Chesapeake Bay Program, the federal-state partnership that oversees bay cleanup, studied the windmill idea.

In a nine-page report, a bay program committee concluded that the concept may help some in small creeks, but it wouldn't work bay-wide.

"The proposal to aerate the bay with windmills addresses a symptom, not the cause of the bay's problem," the report states. "Reducing nutrient inputs is the only long-term solution to extensive hypoxia in the deep waters of the Chesapeake Bay."

Mr. Blumenthal said he thinks his aerator device could make a difference in small creeks.

He's working on making it more easily moveable. He envisions moving one into place when algae grows and oxygen drops, in hopes of averting a fish kill or crab jubilee.

Ideally, he said, "we can get enough oxygen into the water in a hurry to save those fish."

Mr. Blumenthal wouldn't say how much money this endeavor is costing him.

"It's not an inexpensive proposition, but if it works, it's worth doing it," he said.

Dr. Pierre Henkart, a volunteer who runs the riverkeeper water-monitoring program, said he wants to see a full summer's worth of data before giving the thumbs up or thumbs down to the aerator idea.

"You can make a case that we're doing better than last year, but I'm not ready to make a conclusion yet," he said, referring to the test site.

Dr. Henkart and Mr. Kelly took County Councilman Josh Cohen on the river Tuesday to see the oxygen problem and the aerator device.

Mr. Cohen was intrigued by the idea, but said the ultimate solution is to reduce pollution, much of which flows into the rivers and bay in storm water.

Mr. Cohen, D-Annapolis, said he supports a new fee or tax on impervious surfaces such as driveways and rooftops to pay for better storm water controls, an idea that has not gained traction among the County Council.

"When we're dealing with rivers that are mostly developed already, such as the Severn River, we need to find a way to fix the storm water problems in existing communities," he said.

(Revised August 2007)