Baltimore County says creeks need dredging

Marinas and restaurants on Middle River are at stake, officials insist

September 01, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Saying the future of maritime businesses and recreational boating is at stake, Baltimore County will press ahead with its request to dredge four Middle River waterways, even though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is likely to deny the request.

County officials are concerned that vessels -- particularly sailboats -- can't make it into the channels and are seeking permits to dredge Greyhound Cove, Chestnut Cove, Frog Mortar Creek and Galloway Creek. More than 300 homes and 20 marinas, restaurants and other water-dependent businesses are on those waterways.

The Corps has told the county that dredging would threaten aquatic grasses and has urged the county to drop its requests. But Candace Szabad, supervisor of field operations for the county's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management, said the county will not.

"This is a recreational dredging project. It is also an economic development project for the welfare of the marinas and restaurants," she said.

Already, local marinas say their business has been hurt by the condition of the creeks.

"It's pretty serious," said Milton Rehbein, owner of Galloway Creek Marina. "We're probably off 20 percent because the boats can't get in."

Bob Palmer, owner of Tradewinds Marina, says the aquatic grasses the Corps wants to protect probably will survive, but the marinas might not.

He has watched the number of sailboats in his marina drop from 78 to five in the past 15 years because the water depth has shrunk from 6 feet to 5 1/2 feet. While motorboats can still make the trip, the long keels of sailboats drag in the mud.

"Sailboats cannot any longer count on coming into the marina," said Palmer, who is convinced that dredging's disturbance to the aquatic grasses would be temporary.

Szabad said the county knew the four dredging requests would be controversial. "We tried everything to reduce the impact," she said.

The county has offered to replant grasses and study the long-term effects of dredging on submerged vegetation if the Corps approves the permits, she said. "The county's position is dredging can be beneficial," she said.

Currently, boats passing through the shallow water stir up sediment with their propellers, creating a murky environment that starves plants of sunlight. With dredging, she said, "you basically create a roadway network for the boats to use the channels."

The county believes the grasses that would be disturbed by the dredging would soon grow back. "It's a one-time deal," Szabad said, noting that at a public hearing on the matter, no one spoke against the dredging.

The county started dredging waterways in 1988 to maintain channels for boaters, she said. In 1997, the county requested permission to dredge nine Middle River waterways; five of those were approved, and work has started.

But in a letter last month, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Col. Bruce E. Berwick said most of the other four dredging requests probably would be denied because of the aquatic grasses that grow in those waterways.

"The protection and increased development of Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) is a critical key to the recovery of the Chesapeake Bay fisheries resources," he wrote.

He urged the county to withdraw its applications for those channels that were likely to be denied.

Szabad said that even if that happens, the county would continue to monitor the creeks and hope that the buildup of sediment stops or at least slows.

In the meantime, the county will join in a study of dredging's impact on submerged vegetation.

Palmer, however, holds out little hope the study will help. "I'll be dead by the time they get a study done," he said.

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