Corps OKs dredging channels

Baltimore, Arundel counties to study effects on grass beds

Concern about precedent

January 23, 2001|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Army officials approved yesterday the dredging of four waterways in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties over the objections of the Environmental Protection Agency, which opposed the projects because of concerns about disturbing valuable Chesapeake Bay grasses.

While agreeing that the vegetation is critical to the health of the bay, the Army's assistant secretary for civil works, Joseph W. Westphal, said the dredging projects might promote growth of the grasses and provide useful information about the effects of dredging on the grass beds.

The decision authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers' Baltimore District to issue permits to Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties to dredge the four channels. It also allows private and commercial waterfront property owners -- 28 in Anne Arundel and 14 in Baltimore County -- to dredge navigation channels to improve access. The dredging is necessary, permit applicants say, to clear and deepen the waterways, where at least a foot of silt has built up in past decades.

"We see this as a first step for seeing an improvement in these creeks," said Candace Szabad, supervisor for field operations with the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management.

"It means we have the opportunity to learn more, to study, to understand what's happening there," said Szabad, who worked with the corps to design the dredging projects as study sites.

EPA officials said yesterday that they were disappointed with Westphal's decision and are worried that it sets a precedent for dredging the grasses, known as submerged aquatic vegetation.

"If another applicant comes in the future and makes a similar request, it would be difficult for the corps to say no, inasmuch as they've granted these four," said Tom Slenkamp, deputy director of the Office of Environmental Programs, the EPA regional office that includes the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also criticized the dredging permits.

"It's really contrary to the commitment that Maryland has made in restoring the grasses and recognizing the important role they play in the restoration of aquatic habitats," said Theresa Pierno, the foundation's executive director in Maryland.

The corps was set to issue permits to dredge parts of Frog Mortar Creek, Chestnut Cove and Greyhound Cove in Baltimore County and Grays Creek in Anne Arundel until last month, when the EPA asked the Army's assistant secretary for civil works to review the projects.

The agency intervened because it said the proposals would destroy 2.4 acres of vegetation in bay tributaries for a relatively small number of recreational and commercial users.

The underwater grasses, which have recently begun to recover after decades of decline, provide food for waterfowl and shelter for fish and crabs. State and federal offi- cials are a little more than halfway to a goal of restoring 114,000 acres by 2005.

In his decision, Westphal wrote that dredging will reduce "prop-dredging," or watercraft cutting through the submerged aquatic vegetation. The disturbance destroys the grasses and creates turbidity.

Westphal also noted that the permits require pre- and post-dredging monitoring and that Baltimore County plans to retrofit storm drains in the watersheds of the proposed dredge areas to reduce nutrient and sediment runoff.

But Pierno said the monitoring "has really very little value."

"What we really need to do is address the problems causing sedimentation, storm-water runoff and nutrient runoff," she said.

Bob Palmer, owner of Tradewinds Marina on Frog Mortar Creek in Bowleys Quarters, hopes the dredging will bring back some of the business he's lost because of difficulty navigating the creek.

"Once the channel is dredged back to a 6-feet depth, then we should be able to attract more boats," he said.

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