Heron's view of ditching


Watershed: In an aerial tour of Delmarva, natural, winding stream channels were hard to find.

April 09, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

TO GIVE READERS THE most thorough comprehension of the Chesapeake Bay, I practice the Great Blue Heron method of reporting.

That means progging and prying, as the bird does, into every cranny of the shoreline, alert to every minnow, unblinking eyes never far from water and muck.

But it also means sometimes soaring so high that the intricate schemes of land and water coalesce into something whole and connected -- a watershed.

The latter had me up recently in a small plane, flying the upper reaches of Eastern Shore rivers in Maryland and Delaware with biologist Nick Carter.

We were looking at a feature in the landscape so humble and ubiquitous that ground travelers on Delmarva seldom notice it, though it defines the peninsula as profoundly as mountains characterize Colorado.

We were looking at agricultural drainage ditches (for yesterday's front-page story in The Sun on how these waterways affect the bay).

Without a "heron's eye" view, one can't comprehend how much the natural drainage systems of Shore rivers, from the Chester south to the Pocomoke, have been straightened, widened and extended for farm drainage.

We were aloft for two hours, covering hundreds of square miles, but natural, meandering stream channels were hard to find.

From farm drainage-ways small enough to straddle, to big collector ditches, a few large enough to float a cabin cruiser, Delmarva is riven with thousands of miles of ditches.

These enable a bounteous agriculture across much of the low-lying peninsula's original wetlands. Increasingly, rural roads and housing sprawling out into the countryside also depend on the artificial draining of the landscape to avoid flooding.

Increasingly we are having to recognize the resulting problems, as farm soils and the ground water beneath them have become saturated with poultry manure and other fertilizers, creating a pollutant-laden runoff to the bay.

By dramatically altering the natural hydrology, speeding the flow of water off the land, bypassing or eliminating the natural filtration of swamps and forests, the drainage network has created a rapid delivery system to the bay for whatever we apply to the lands of its watershed.

Carter, an Eastern Shore resident and veteran of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, was a voice in the wilderness as he tried to call attention to ditching's downside a quarter-century ago.

I remember his testimony at hearings on drainage projects, as he presented a list of measures, such as retaining forested buffers along banks, that could lessen environmental impacts. Agricultural officials would listen, then ask Carter's superiors at DNR, "This is all advisory, right?"

Pretty much everything with agriculture and environment was advisory. The DNR honchos would nod, and the ag guys would nod, and it would be bombs away.

The 1960s through the 1980s were a ditch-fest on Delmarva, with federal and state money available to subsidize it and machines that could dig deeper and wider than ever before.

Nowadays, ditching has slowed dramatically in Maryland and is reduced significantly in Delaware.

Our neighbor has at least as much enthusiasm for drainage as Maryland, and maybe twice the miles of ditches (an estimated 3,000 miles draining to the Chesapeake). Delaware also has about as much poultry manure, but fewer rules controlling runoff.

State and federal drainage agencies should never have been allowed to ditch so unhindered.

It's hard to blame farmers, who were encouraged by law and subsidy to ditch. They were also encouraged by a culture of drainage that remains strong.

In the Pocomoke, a heavily ditched watershed where toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks might have been triggered by nutrient runoff, Maryland authorized a lottery as early as 1840 to raise $30,000 to clear the river channel for drainage. In 1884, the legislature passed a law directed to "the expediency and utility of draining the marshy districts of Maryland."

Between the late 1930s and 1947, with the old Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration government programs, drainage on the peninsula got going in a comprehensive way.

In Maryland, the Pocomoke was straightened and shortened from 17 to 14 miles. Delaware made another 25 miles of the upper river into a large ditch.

Altogether, it was the largest such farm drainage project east of the Mississippi. "Finally," a brochure extolled, "the sluggish old Pocomoke is ready to do its duty" -- as a drainage pipe.

Agriculture laws in Maryland and Delaware continue to promote farm drainage, as newer laws champion retaining wetlands. Agriculture is draining more selectively to avoid wetlands, leaving natural buffers along some drainage-ways and using gates to hold water in ditches, mimicking natural purification.

Carter and other experts say the ability of the huge drainage network to emulate natural systems is limited.

With the watersheds irrevocably hot-wired to the water, we've got to do everything possible to prevent polluted runoff in the first place. We also can avoid compounding our mistakes, as farmland in parts of Delmarva rapidly turns into housing developments.

Governments must take a hard look at policies that allow ditching under relatively lax rules for farms, where the eventual effect might be to usher in development in flood-prone areas.

Unless these policies are revised, we will end up with a nightmare -- thousands of residents with ruined basements and failing septic tanks demanding expensive remedies.

Pub Date: 4/09/99

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