When Robert Christopher moved to a waterfront home on the Back River Neck Peninsula 30 years ago, he thought he had found his own slice of heaven.
These days, he's not so sure.
In the 1970s, Mr. Christopher could take his boat out into Sue Creek and catch pike, bass, yellow perch and white perch. His two children often spent afternoons swimming in the creek, and on summer nights the only sounds they heard were the chirping of crickets and the occasional drone of a boat engine.
But Mr. Christopher sold the boat about 10 years ago. He and his neighbors say more and more boaters are clogging the waterways with their boats and the narrow roads with their parked cars. The proliferation of boats also has meant more noise and has helped to silt up Sue Creek, a waterway so polluted that most neighbors have stopped letting their children swim in it.
"What's happened here is an absolute disgrace," Mr. Christopher said. "This creek has degenerated and it's continuing to degenerate so quickly that if nothing's done pretty soon it's going to be completely dead."
Mr. Christopher is not the only concerned resident, nor is Sue Creek the county's only polluted waterway. Dozens of similar complaints are filed each summer by people who live along the county's 175 miles of jagged coastline.
"Just about everywhere you find water, you'll find problems associated with the water," said Milton Durham, president of the Wilson Point Civic Improvement Association.
But residents say that after years of complaints, their calls for help may be getting some attention. Just last week:
* County Councilman Vincent Gardina, D-5th, sponsored a resolution last Monday asking the planning board to consider restricting the number of boats on residential piers. A recommendation is due early next year.
* Zoning Commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt held a zoning hearing Wednesday on a request from the operator of a 33-slip marina, built on Sue Creek at least 30 years ago without proper zoning approval, to permit him to continue operating. A decision on John Bahel's request is due in 30 days, and residents hope the issue will focus attention on the need for increased regulation of marinas and boaters.
* A community group released a consultant's report Wednesday that it commissioned because of its concern about pollution in the Middle River and the effect of increasing numbers of boats on its tributaries.
"Boat discharges can potentially endanger public health and add to the nutrient-enriched and low oxygen conditions, particularly in congested harbors," says the Back River Neck Community Association's report by Richard D. Klein, an environmental consultant.
Residents say the clogged waterways also have meant problems similar to those experienced near crowded housing developments -- traffic, litter and noise. But they say the problems are magnified because they occur on the water and surrounding land.
"Believe me, on a sunny Sunday afternoon it can look like Interstate 95 or Eastern Boulevard out there, the water's so full of boats," said Mr. Durham, whose community lies on the Middle River.
Too many boats?
The number of boats registered to Baltimore County residents ++ has more than doubled in the past 10 years, jumping from 12,681 in 1980 to 27,097 on Dec. 31, 1990, according to the state Department of Natural Resources Boating Administration.
Critics of the boating industry say that has meant more pollution, because more boaters using the waterways mean more chances some will dump litter and waste from on-board toilets.
"Every weekend, you'll see boats down here from Philadelphia and from New York. If they weren't here maybe the waters would still be clean enough to swim in," Mr. Christopher said.
But boaters, marina operators and some environmental officials say that just isn't so.
David Flowers, coordinator of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area program for Baltimore County's Department of Environment and Resource Management, said boaters may contribute some pollution to waterways, but it's negligible compared to pollution caused by failing septic tanks, residential development and industrial discharge.
"By pointing a finger at any one source, you're not going to solve the problem," he said. "You have to look at the whole drainage area and see what's flowing into the water from all of the sources."
Boaters and marina operators say they are helping to clean up waterways.
Robert Palmer, president of the Marine Trade Association of Baltimore County, said the association is encouraging marinas to install pump-out facilities that enable boaters to flush out the human waste stored in holding tanks on larger boats, rather than dumping it at sea.
Besides, he added, roughly 60 percent of the boats registered in Maryland have no toilet facilities -- so most boaters don't dump human waste at sea.
The boating industry represents a $50 million-a-year business in Baltimore County and contributes far more in ringing cash registers and payrolls than it dumps in pollution, he said.