Swimming against tide of neglect

Pollution: A four-mile swim and a `wade-in' draw attention to the fragile condition of the Patapsco River watershed.

May 24, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore man swam four miles across the brackish mouth of the Patapsco River yesterday to raise money and help environmentalists and two congressmen call attention to the cause of cleaning up the watershed.

To the nearly 50 people who had gathered on the community beach at Anne Arundel County's Venice on the Bay, Joe Stewart's swim against the current symbolized what they were up against: a daunting effort to counteract the effects of a century and a half of industrial and urban growth.

From the early mills of Ellicott City to the roughhewn contours of the Sparrows Point factory jutting out from the Baltimore waterfront, the Patapsco River has taken in vast quantities of urban grime, sewage spills and farm runoff, leaving it in fragile condition, environmentalists said yesterday.

The goal is to get "the rivers cleaned up so that the bay is healthy," said Fran Flanigan, head of the Patapsco Back River Tributary Team, one of the dozens who came to cheer on Stewart and conduct a small water inspection by getting their feet wet.

It was the first official environmental "wade-in" at Venice on the Bay - inspired by the tradition begun in the Patuxent River in the 1980s by former state Sen. Bernie Fowler of Calvert County, walking in to measure how long it took before one lost sight of one's feet.

Yesterday's average clarity index was 22 inches - "Not horrible, but not good," Flanigan said. Sixty inches would be an ideal measure of water clarity, some said.

Stewart, a 57-year-old Waverly resident and state employee, set off from North Point State Park in Baltimore County shortly before 10 a.m., clad in a reddish-orange bathing suit and bright orange swim cap and accompanied by three kayakers, a Coast Guard boat and a Baltimore County police boat.

He walked ashore at Venice on the Bay about 12:15 p.m., having raised about $4,000 to benefit five urban watershed groups in the area that monitor the health of local streams and tributaries of the Patapsco.

Appearing more exhilarated than exhausted, Stewart said, "The water seemed clear and clean. I'm encouraged."

At 72 degrees, the water was a lot warmer than the 57-degree water Stewart endured when he made the swim a year ago.

Along with swimming, Stewart, an amateur photographer, takes pictures of scenes urban and desolate along the 62-mile Patapsco.

Maryland Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat, and Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican, were on hand to offer bipartisan applause at yesterday's volunteer event, which they described as important to their own actions on behalf of the bay and its waterways.

"There's no way the federal government could do this alone," Cardin said, standing on the sand. "This helps develop support for the larger program, the Chesapeake Bay program. These things don't just happen without community activism, more and more people with investments in the river and bay.

"To raise the bar for the tributaries, it takes a lot of little parts to make it happen," Cardin added.

The larger program Cardin referred to is Chesapeake 2000, the bay cleanup agreement between Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Chesapeake Bay Commission that is intended to protect bay habitats and water quality.

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