Sentry for Maryland waters

Patrol: Environmental groups hire full-time sentinels to watch over threatened rivers, bays.

October 28, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN - Eileen McLellan is about to spend her days in a no-nonsense, 20-foot runabout scrutinizing the impaired Chester River.

The dead zones where underwater grasses have all but disappeared. The farmland erosion and runoff from every back yard, parking lot and paved road that pours in from a 390-square-mile watershed each time it rains. Its narrow headwaters in southern Delaware, and its wide mouth where watermen catch crabs and oysters off Kent Island.

McLellan, a Yale and Cambridge trained geologist, former College Park professor and environmental lobbyist, has been hired as the first "riverkeeper" to patrol Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake Bay. She is the second riverkeeper in the state and one of nearly 100 around the world.

The British-born McLellan, 44, says her job description is about as broad as her background. The work will include everything from environmental testing to alerting regulators about shoreline development violations to testifying at land-use hearings to old-fashioned public relations and education.

"What I need to do is to get out on the river and make a connection with it as a living thing, take quality samples and document the health of the river, creek by creek," she says. "I'm not going to be the police on the river, but I am going to be its eyes and ears."

Chester River Association, the 16-year-old advocacy group that raised $300,000 to hire McLellan and run the program for two years, said McLellan will provide the kind of monitoring that even efficient volunteer outfits can't muster.

Like an increasing number of grass-roots environmental groups, the 400-member Chester River organization and the Assateague Coastal Trust have hired full-time sentinels to watch over threatened waters.

In the past month, groups on the Severn, the South and Patapsco rivers and on Virginia's Eastern Shore have been accepted by the Waterkeeper Alliance. The New York-based organization, headed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late senator and attorney general, began nearly 20 years ago on the Hudson River and has grown to include chapters throughout the United States, Canada, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

"This is a niche that is just being filled in the Chesapeake Bay region, where you already have a mix of federal, state and local agencies," says Jeffrey Odefey, a staff attorney for the alliance.

"We started with seven waterkeeper programs, primarily in the New York area. Recently, we've been adding about four programs a month," he said. "The whole idea is that they're all local groups who are networked with us."

Near Ocean City, five coastal bays that stretch from the Delaware line to Chincoteague, Va., are under close scrutiny from newly hired "coastwatcher" Jay Charland, 37, a civil engineer who has worked in marine resource management since his college days in Oregon.

Hired as the Assateague trust's first full-timer in late July, Charland has busied himself aiding a half-dozen resort civic associations fight a marina and pier proposed by a condominium developer.

Charland is working to preserve nearly 230 acres of undeveloped marsh between the Route 90 bridge and the Delaware line - the last remaining in the resort.

"Most of us have felt for a long time that we weren't doing a good job with advocacy for the coastal bays. We need a person out there all the time, keeping an eye on what's happening," said Phyllis Koenings, the trust's executive director.

Near Annapolis, volunteers in the South River Federation worked for months preparing a 13-page proposal that won admission to the Waterkeeper Alliance. Now members are raising money to hire waterborne sentry.

"We don't see it as overkill, not when on our river alone we've found blatant violations of the state's critical-areas law, trees just mowed down," says Drew Koslow, a biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and a founding member of the South River group.

Short-staffed state regulatory agencies see the riverkeeper programs as a complement to bay monitoring efforts and a boost for an informal network of watermen, boaters and property owners who provide an early warning system on environmental problems for state officials.

Natural resources scientists recently launched Eyes on the Bay, a system that includes 10 electronic monitoring sites around the Chesapeake Bay and two sites along the coastal bays. The system posts data on salinity, dissolved oxygen and key measurements on its Web site twice a day.

"The technology allows us to place these meters at key points, sort of automated sentinels," says Rob Magnien, director of DNR's Tidewater Assessment program. "The problem for us is that the bay is so vast. The [riverkeeper] program adds a dimension we don't have. It's a trained set of eyes."

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