Shoring up the Severn's future Conservation: The Severn River Association launches a series of projects designed to reclaim the waterway's eroded shoreline.

On the Bay

November 22, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

Steve Carr has been privileged to watch the Chesapeake more than most, living since birth in the big, white house on the high bluff across from the Naval Academy.

Here, near the mouth of the Severn, he's seen the river gain and the front yard lose. How much?

Between the cliff's edge and the rail fence in his front yard, "it's gone from nine lawn-mower widths to one," he says.

That would have been since his boyhood -- slow erosion by bay standards, but enough for newer homeowners along the bluff to armor their properties with rock and bulkheading that have eliminated the beaches Carr walked "like ritual" as a kid.

More ominous was the change he saw in the submerged grass beds that lined the Severn here "so thick our neighbor's dalmatian got hung up and drowned when I was 10."

That would have been around 1963, when such lush meadows carpeted perhaps three-quarters of a million acres of the bay's shallows.

Those grasses had defined the bay for a very long time, according to scientists who found the grasses' pollens throughout sediments laid down for more than a thousand years.

And then came one of the clearest signals that the Chesapeake was in decline. Billy Moulden, a friend of Carr's from Sherwood Forest a few miles upriver, recalls:

"My family moved here in 1958. When I left in 1973, you could wade all day through those grasses and net soft crabs. The diversity of fish life was amazing. When I moved back in 1988, it was gone."

Kids today need to hear the stories of estuarine paradise and the fall from grace; but ultimately, and soon, they need to experience fecund, grassy bay shores. Older generations' memories carry only so far.

So it was good to see -- on a recent river tour with Carr, Moulden and other members of the Severn River Association -- the ambition of environmental restoration projects they and the youth from local schools and communities are promoting.

You need to be creative on developed rivers like the Severn, and in rapidly growing counties like Anne Arundel, which lost several square miles of forest to housing development just between 1985 and 1990.

Moulden dips a net into cages floating off the community dock at Sherwood Forest and comes up with dozens of 3- to 5-inch rockfish, grown from hatchlings of less than an inch eight weeks ago.

It's just a part of the youth projects he's begun. The rock will be sold to finance a restocking effort for yellow perch, a "signature fish" of the Severn that is in steep decline.

Not far off the dock is an experimental oyster reef, "owned" by the boys and girls clubs of Sherwood Forest.

(The Severn River Association had to get the legislature to change Maryland law to allow minors to lease oyster bottom from the state.)

The reef, already covered with hundreds of thousands of 1-inch oysters, is part of a larger effort backed by the association, the county and the state to restore millions of oysters to filter and cleanse the river's water.

Even a "pearl" project is under way, a science experiment to see whether bay oysters can be artificially stimulated to produce pearls (they do occasionally, though not of gem quality).

Just upstream from Sherwood, the Association was able to have the concrete remains of the recently replaced bridge across the lower Severn placed as a breakwater.

Even better than expected, it is working to trap silt, where kids are planting five acres in marsh and submerged grasses.

This new habitat will, in turn, protect a unique, 22-acre freshwater pond just inside the river's shoreline from erosion that threatens to degrade it.

Moving downstream, Moulden leads the way into a ravine that drains to the Severn a polluting soup of nutrient-laden runoff from a golf course and dozens of septic systems. The latter work fine but were not designed to remove nutrients that are over-fertilizing the bay.

Using $21,000 in mitigation money paid by developers in Anne Arundel County for destroying forests, the association has pioneered a solution to one of the toughest categories of environmental problem -- retrofitting developed areas.

The association terraced the ravine into "fens," or minibogs, that slow and filter the runoff, dramatically reducing nutrients going to the river.

Planted with cranberries, sphagnum moss, Atlantic white cedar, winterberry and other species, the ravine is also becoming a nursery for restoring native plants to the area.

The tour, and the list of projects, continues -- a nursery for aquatic grasses, wetlands creation, preserving the "Green Cathedral," the last large block of forest left on the Severn that is not subdivided; suing a couple of property owners over building too close to the water.

Carr sees it as "teaching people they are going to have to adopt the area where they live if we are ever going to clean up our environment."

"Our aim is to weave a tapestry, build one project on another," he says.

One lesson learned, he says, is that government permit agencies, while they have been very helpful, are not geared to a comprehensive approach -- it took seven stops at five agencies to get the rockfish project going.

Moulden, a third-grade science teacher, says simply:

"I love this river. I grew up on it and regard it as my front yard. I don't think you have any moral authority to ask for help unless you are willing to step up yourself."

Pub Date: 11/22/96

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