Patuxent River owes its very life to good science -- and to scientists who care


July 04, 1992|By TOM HORTON

Fifteen years later, Donald Heinle still remembers the morning the state of Maryland called to tell him how much his efforts to save the Patuxent River were appreciated.

It was 3 a.m. "What on earth have you done?" asked his boss, Peter Wagner, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies. Mr. Wagner had just disengaged from a blistering 2 a.m. call from a high state official.

Couldn't Wagner control Heinle? the official wanted to know. Better yet, could he fire him?

Mr. Wagner, now provost of the State University of New York at Binghamton, says he can't recall the specific incident -- "probably because there were so many like it. I don't for a minute doubt Don's recollection. Those were very controversial times."

Out of the controversy came an unprecedented agreement to restore the troubled Patuxent, which in turn became a template for the subsequent effort to save the Chesapeake Bay.

Next year, in marking the 20th anniversary of its environmental center, the University of Maryland will tout the many scientific contributions of the center's three laboratories. But the university also should remember how people like Don Heinle risked their careers for the bay.

In the late 1970s, the Patuxent, a major bay tributary and the longest river (110 miles) wholly within the state, faced a crisis. Maryland and federal officials had approved a 20-year water quality plan allowing vast expansion of sewage discharge to the river from growth upstream in Howard, Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Better sewage treatment would allow the state to have its cake and eat it too, the plan claimed, permitting new development while actually improving environmental conditions in the Patuxent.

Downstream in Southern Maryland, people were skeptical, to put it mildly. They had watched the Patuxent's rich seafood harvests -- and the ways of life attached to the river -- deteriorate for a decade or more.

Neither the state nor the Environmental Protection Agency would acknowledge at the time that the lower river was in decline. They said the only evidence was anecdotal -- memories of the good old days; not enough data on earlier water conditions existed to draw scientific comparisons with modern times.

Bernie Fowler, who grew up on Broomes Island, a watermen's community in the lower Patuxent, was a Calvert County commissioner in those days, and a living, breathing anecdote of times past. Whenever he spoke about the decline of the river, he would mention his most vivid memory of the 1940s when he was a young man: wading out, chest or shoulder deep, to dip soft crabs in the luxuriant grass beds that covered the river bottom.

Often the water was so clear that he could look down and see his toes, more than 5 feet deep. By the 1970s, many days he couldn't see anything more than a foot or two below the surface. There was too much algae and sediment, caused by development, sewage and farm fertilizers from upstream. The grasses, their light cut off, had died.

After one such talk, Bernie met and befriended Don Heinle, one of the new generation of Ph.D. ecologists then going to work at the UM laboratories at Solomons on the Patuxent and at Horn Point on the Choptank (a third lab in Frostburg studies the upland environment).

Research by Mr. Heinle and others at the Solomons lab was confirming what Bernie intuitively felt: The state and federal plan would kill the Patuxent, because the plan did not acknowledge any need to remove a critical pollutant, nitrogen, from sewage discharges.

Moreover, Mr. Heinle had made a stunning discovery while scavenging for antique glassware in the old attic of the Solomons laboratory (founded in 1925, long before the modern university center was established). In some boxes, he found a forgotten set of water quality figures from the 1930s.

According to the data, the watermen were right; the river had beenSee healthier then.

State and federal bureaucrats, under terrific pressure to accommodate the development boom upstream, continued to stonewall. They did not want to think about the huge added cost of nitrogen removal.

The downstream counties decided to sue to overturn the plan they felt would finish their river. David Fleischaker, their lawyer, said they would need affidavits, signed by Mr. Heinle and other scientists, that in effect told the state to take a leap with all its plans for the Patuxent.

It would have been easy enough for the scientists to waffle, to play for time -- and for research money. The evidence on nitrogen's impact on the river was cutting-edge stuff. The scientists could have hinted to the state that a big grant to study the situation would buy some acquiescence.

On the other hand, as Mr. Heinle told Bernie Fowler, it would be dismaying for the Solomons lab, after half a century located at the Patuxent's mouth, to leave a legacy of a dead river.

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