'Icebergs' of debris menace waterfronts Threat to bay: Winter flooding washed a mountain of debris into the Chesapeake Bay, causing damage to shorelines. The problem could become worse.

March 17, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

It's lurking in the water.

A record amount of debris roughly 10 times the normal volume for this time of year is floating in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries after this winter's snowstorms and floods. The refuse, already wreaking havoc in many waterfront communities, threatens to do serious damage as spring arrives.

"It's waiting out there like icebergs," said Robert A. Ellsworth, a Department of Natural Resources administrator who is handling the debris cleanup. "I've never seen it like this."

Mr. Ellsworth worries that this Friday, when the first spring high tide occurs, debris temporarily beached on the shores will hit piers, docks and boats as it is flushed free. And he warns that as the refuse starts to slide just below the surface, it could bend propellers, smash hulls and tip the vessels of spring boaters.

Several Maryland counties already have drained the state's $146,100 cleanup fund, leaving nothing for a handful of waterfront municipalities still seeking state money. Now, Mr. Ellsworth is on a desperate search for $100,000 in government emergency grants, and counties are hiring private contractors for a cleanup job that could cost up to $5,000 a day.

Much of the problem stems from the severe flooding Jan. 20, when a meltdown of the snowfalls the previous week quickly overwhelmed the dam system on the Susquehanna River and unleashed a flotilla of debris including 100-year-old trees, five-story-tall timbers, gnarled tree trunks, viscous masses of sticks and awkward clumps of roots.

Filtering failed

The Conowingo Dam, which is supposed to filter debris from the river before it empties into the Chesapeake Bay, instead trapped close to none of it. The result: a parade of junk down the river.

In Rock Hall, a resident reported seeing a dock sail by with boat and barbecue still attached. Dam officials said an entire summer cottage lifted off the banks of the Susquehanna and splintered its way toward the bay. Even a bowling ball floated downstream, bobbing atop the water on a pile of sticks.

The cleanup won't be easy. Though most of the debris could be burned, it's tough to collect as shifting winds and changing tides send it ping-ponging across the bay.

Tired of waiting for the logs to float ashore, some people are actually going fishing for them. About eight Baltimore County workers dubbing themselves the "River Crew" recently began snagging logs with pitchforks and hauling them to shore on rickity county-owned boats. In the past couple of weeks, they have collected enough debris to fill more than a dozen dump trucks.

But even these log-dragging professionals might be stumped by John Moses' problem.

When the debris first started gliding down the Chesapeake, Mr. Moses thought it looked majestic. But a couple of weeks ago a 35-foot-tall tree smashed into his pier near Annapolis, taking out several pilings and causing at least $4,000 in damage. The scene quickly lost its charm.

"It came floating down the Bay like a monster," said Mr. Moses, 56, whose pier is partially crumpled outside his home at Arundel on the Bay. "Once you saw it moving in, there was nothing you could do to stop it."

To make matters worse, the tree probably isn't even from Maryland. Like more than 90 percent of the debris, this one probably comes from Pennsylvania or New York, where floods on the Susquehanna dislodged refuse that had been trapped for more than a decade.

For now, the offending arbor is lashed to the shore with several feet of rope and an anchor in the kudzu. Mr. Moses is praying it doesn't break free but if it does, he hopes the wind is blowing in someone else's direction.

Some residents worry they'll never be debris-free. Indeed, refuse is still resurfacing from the last big flood in 1972, when Hurricane Agnes hit the East Coast.

Appeal for federal aid

Art Willis, who owns the Sailing Emporium in Rock Hall, spent an entire day on the phone last week urging county commissioners and his U.S. congressman to declare Kent County a disaster area. He thinks the region needs extra federal dollars to handle the volume of logs that is virtually damming up some inlets and jetties.

Even if the county gets help, Mr. Willis is wary.

"It's going to be a very, very treacherous time for a while," said Mr. Willis, 46, who can't remember a time when there was more refuse in the bay.

To protect himself on Dancing Angel, his 41-foot sailboat, he has ruled out night cruises and plans to station a look-out on the bow. And he's not planning to go sailing anytime soon.

After a long winter, however, others are racing toward the water.

Leading the pack is Debra Wagner, who spent the last several months lifting weights so that she could compete in water skiing competitions this summer. Although she will survey the South River before she makes practice jumps off a floating ramp, she isn't afraid to ski in her first trial run today.

Undeterred

"It won't stop me," said Ms. Wagner, 38, who can do one-handed tricks while whipping through the water. "If I didn't go out, I don't know what I'd do with myself."

Others won't let anxieties about floating junk ruin their spring. Bill Grape, who has clocked 74 mph on his personal watercraft, predicts most of the refuse will wash out to sea in the coming weeks.

"I don't think the debris thing's a big deal, honestly," said Mr. Grape, a Baltimore County paramedic. "I wouldn't go slow just because you fear there's something floating in the water."

Opinions may differ, but there is one place where everyone agrees soggy dreck is a good thing.

At Miller's Island Propeller in Baltimore, where a new blade can cost anywhere from $45 and $1,500, a chance meeting between a hull and a log means money.

Owner Jack Wheeler is looking forward to a good year. "We're going to keep our fingers crossed," he said, "and hope everybody hits something in the bay."

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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