Ruling on dredging permits sought

Landowners ask to deepen creeks, but grasses are obstacle

January 20, 2001|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Gordon and Rita Snyder remember swimming and crabbing in pristine Anne Arundel County waters, but the aquatic playground of their youth is nowhere to be found in Gray's Creek, where the Snyders have a waterfront home.

Over the years, the once-sandy bottom of the Pasadena waterway off the Magothy River has been covered by at least a foot of silt, making it difficult for the Snyders and their neighbors to navigate boats, take a swim or dig their toes in the sludge-covered sand.

They're among 28 property owners on Gray's Creek seeking dredging permits from the Army Corps of Engineers to clear and deepen the channel. With 500 miles of shoreline, Anne Arundel County received most of the 140 permits issued in Maryland by the corps last year.

But last month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency weighed in against the project - and 14 similar requests in Baltimore County - because of concerns about disturbing underwater grasses in the creeks.

The EPA's intervention has pushed the corps to take a closer look at the proposed projects and has frustrated property and business owners who support the dredging for recreational and commercial purposes. The assistant secretary of the Army for civil works is expected to issue a decision on the permits by Monday.

"We want to reclaim the river from this muck," said Gordon Snyder, 60, who's lived on Gray's Creek for 10 years in a neighborhood of modest homes.

"It's awful; I can't even describe it, it's like black Jell-O," Snyder said. "If you try to wade into the water, you sink up to your knees."

The EPA says underwater grasses - known as submerged aquatic vegetation, or SAV - are critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay, and only recently have they begun to recover after decades of decline. In a Dec. 5 letter to the corps outlining its position, the agency stated that the dredging proposals to improve water access for a small number of recreational boaters "represent unwarranted environmental harm."

Bob Palmer does not see it that way.

The owner of Tradewinds Marina on Frog Mortar Creek in Bowleys Quarters applied for a dredging permit for Frog Mortar Creek three years ago. He said he has watched most of his sailboat business dry up in the past decade as the creek has lost a foot of depth. Sailboats require about 6 feet of water to get in and out of the channel, he said.

His 78-slip marina has a vacancy rate of about 40 percent, with only 5 sailboats docked there. Powerboats occupy 41 slips.

"All we're asking for is to dredge 1 foot deeper, which would take us back to the [6-foot] depth we had 20 years ago," said Palmer, 65, a retired aerospace engineer who bought the marina in 1983.

Lost business cost him $36,000 last year, and he said he expects to take the same hit this year.

"It's not just the businesses crying," Palmer said. "People who have waterfront access don't really have the access they're paying for."

Robert G. Calvert, who's lived on Gray's Creek for 42 years and owns a powerboat, said dredging the waterway is "essential."

"I can understand environmental concerns, but property owners have a right to have it dredged," said Calvert, 63.

The corps' Baltimore district was set to issue permits to dredge parts of Frog Mortar Creek, Chestnut Cove and Greyhound Cove in Baltimore County and Gray's Creek in Anne Arundel County. The projects would have destroyed 2.9 acres of SAV, corps officials said.

The agency has historically rejected dredging in areas with SAV, but supported the projects with certain conditions - the counties would be required to monitor the effects of dredging on SAV for three years to help develop a consistent policy for the Bay.

But the EPA said the proposed study was not scientifically sound and would put SAV recovery at risk, and it moved to block the permits.

"To say that it's not worth doing the study is what gives me heartburn," said Palmer, who doubts the issue will be resolved before the dredging season ends next month.

"I have a full appreciation of what the issues are" Palmer said. "I just don't know why this thing has gotten put on the back burner like it has."

According to EPA, underwater grasses provide food for waterfowl, and shelter for fish and crabs. They also absorb nutrients and help keep down erosion. State and federal officials are a little more than halfway to a goal of restoring 114,000 acres of SAV by 2005.

EPA's opposition to the dredging projects came as a surprise to Baltimore and Anne Arundel county officials who served on a task force last year with representatives of public environmental agencies, including EPA, to develop the projects as SAV study sites.

"We need to learn more about this issue, and the task force determined that no study has looked at the impact of dredging on SAV," said Candace Szabad, supervisor for field operations with the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management.

"Can you have an improvement on the grasses?" after dredging, she asked.

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