Lure of Wye River creates problem Influx of people called possible reason for higher bacteria levels

September 22, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

WYE LANDING -- Charles "Chuck" Schnaitman isn't surprised that state health officials couldn't pinpoint the source of unacceptable bacteria levels that caused them to call a halt last week to shellfish harvesting on much of the Wye River.

Schnaitman has a theory, based on a lifetime working the water and helping run the dockside boat rental, bait shop, snack bar and crab wholesaling business his family has owned for more than 50 years: It might be the natural splendor of the river itself that's the problem.

"Who knows what the cause is, it could be a lot of things, but the river draws people," Schnaitman said.

Meandering narrow strips of the East Wye River and Wye Narrows form a pristine crook around the 2,800-acre Wye Island Natural Resource Management Area, a sanctuary that includes 30 miles of shoreline.

Just north of the narrows is the Aspen Institute Wye River Conference Center, where Middle East negotiators met in pastoral privacy three years ago to hammer out a peace agreement.

The University of Maryland's Wye Research Education Center manages a prized herd of Wye Angus cattle on part of the institute's 1,100-acre parcel.

Nearby are the historic plantation homes of some of Maryland's first leaders. Along the Wye River's serpentine path lie the stately waterfront homes and weekend estates of the wealthy.

"You've got new subdivisions near the headwaters, you've still got a lot of farmland. In the summer, you'll see 150 boat trailers parked here at the landing, and it's not unusual to see that many big yachts moored in Shaw Bay at the mouth of the river. It all has an impact," Schnaitman said.

State health officials agree that there could be a variety of causes for the shellfish harvesting ban that begins Sept. 28. The PTC Maryland Department of the Environment ordered the closure Sept. 14 after tests revealed unacceptable levels of fecal coliform.

The level of bacteria found in the river is not in itself harmful to people, according to department spokesman Quentin Banks. But these levels of bacteria can be an indicator that more harmful pathogens might be thriving.

"This was not an emergency situation," Banks said. "This is a routine part of our monitoring program that includes literally hundreds of sites around the state to test water and shellfish."

State officials say high levels of fecal coliform could be caused by manure spread on farms, failing septic systems, municipal wastewater treatment plants or even by waste produced by large numbers of waterfowl.

Local environmentalists say they are dismayed at continued development, particularly subdivisions near the headwaters of the Wye in rapidly growing Queen Anne's County. Ellie Altman, a member of the Queen Anne's Conservation Association, notes the 60-home Wye Knot Farm under construction near Queenstown

"The river may look beautiful, but we are concerned," Altman said. "It still is a very prestigious address, but many people feel it has already gone too far."

State officials say that portions of the river are closed for three days whenever the area receives more than an inch of rain in a 24-hour period, a move designed to protect against contaminants in runoff in the river.

The current ban on shellfish will not have much effect on watermen working the upper portion of the river, except a handful of dredge boat operators who dig razor clams for bait. Oyster bars at the mouth of the Wye have become productive in recent years, but that portion of the river remains open, and oyster season does not begin until later this fall.

The harvesting ban does not apply to crabs, and the river, which has a reputation for producing the largest crabs anywhere in the Chesapeake region, will continue to draw recreational crabbers as long as the weather stays warm, said Schnaitman.

"This is not that big a deal, except in the public's perception," he said. "We are getting calls from people every day, recreational crabbers who hear about the ban and think it could affect them. But maybe in the long run, it will be one more question in the consumers' minds."

Pub Date: 9/22/98

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