River is slowly dying, advocacy group says, but its health can be restored

A Patuxent salvation plan

December 18, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

UPPER MARLBORO -- The bad news is that the Patuxent River is in deep trouble, struggling against a tide of pollution and sediment that has turned this once-fertile river into a mucky brown mess.

The good news: Scientists, legislators and local activists have a better understanding of what ails the river and what they can do to fix it.

The Patuxent Riverkeeper, an advocacy group, released a report yesterday outlining a dozen major problems that are causing the river to slowly die and recommending a plan of action to stem the decline.

"The Patuxent River is the largest river entirely in Maryland, and if we want to prove we can restore the bay, we have to prove we can restore the Patuxent," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the group's executive director. "Our goal is to show there is no silver bullet, that there are 100 actions that need to be taken at the state and local levels."

In many ways, the Patuxent was the river that started the 24-year-old effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. In the late 1970s, a group of county commissioners from Southern Maryland -- led by then-Calvert County Commissioner Bernie Fowler -- sued the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect the river from suburban sewage discharge.

With the help of scientists at the Chesapeake Biological Lab who risked their jobs to testify, the counties won, and the government strengthened anti-pollution requirements. Three years later, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia signed the Chesapeake Bay Agreement, a bold pledge to clean up the bay.

Wading in

Fowler became a state senator and well-known river advocate. Since 1988, he has been wading into the Patuxent once a year to see if he can see his feet, a reasonably accurate test of the water's clarity.

Fowler's tests and more scientific reports show that the Patuxent's water quality improved in the 1990s, largely because of upgrades to sewage treatment plants. But over the past decade, the river's health has been declining. This year, a report card by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science gave it a D-minus.

The "Patuxent River 20/20" report released yesterday confirms that pollution is steadily increasing while water quality is steadily declining.

The report, which Bevan-Dangel wrote with riverkeeper Fred Tutman, urges the state to enforce laws already on the books, such as the Critical Area Law, which restricts shoreline development. It calls on state and local governments to force builders to better control storm water in new developments. And it asks state and local lawmakers to prohibit septic tanks from developments of five or more homes and to require pollution-removal technology for all septic systems that are permitted.

Margaret Palmer, director of the Chesapeake Biological Lab, said the septic recommendation is especially important because scientists have been able to trace nitrogen pollution to septic systems.

"The good news is that we know how to fix this. This is not something that can't be done," said Palmer, whose lab is part of the University of Maryland center.

Those who worked at the lab a generation ago knew a river teeming with oysters, fish and sea grasses. In contrast, Palmer said she was on the river recently and saw mostly sea squirts, grape-like creatures that tolerate pollution.

Chief culprit: growth

In the Patuxent, the bulk of the problem is coming from development, scientists say. The river begins near the confluence of Howard, Montgomery and Frederick counties -- suburban areas where thousands of homes have been built over the past two decades. When it rains, those impervious surfaces carry runoff into branches and streams.

In Southern Maryland, the Patuxent is wide and deep, with sailboats in the distance and watermen still dredging for oysters. But residents can no longer look northward to cast blame for the pollution. Once rural, Southern Maryland has become one of the state's fastest-growing areas.

Mike Bilek, who manages the tributary strategies program for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the riverkeepers are playing a "good role" with their report. But he said the state alone can't be responsible.

"I don't know right off the top if we should take a harder line," Bilek said. "This is a perfect example of everybody playing the part, everybody contributing to the pollution."

Bevan-Dangel said state officials were supportive of the report's existence, but not exactly eager to implement its recommendations.

"When you start pressing them on specifics," she said, "that's when you start to get the frantic back-pedaling of scurrying feet."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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