Groups urge Choptank cleanup

Lawmakers asked to halt paving, oystering

January 23, 2008|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun Reporter

Environmentalists are urging the state to act quickly to clean up Maryland's Choptank River, which has become more polluted due to farm runoff and development as well as a major drop in the oyster population.

At a hearing on the state's rivers yesterday in Annapolis, several Choptank advocates asked legislators to consider new solutions to help the river. Among them: an effort to determine how much water quality damage is caused by each new development; a tax-incentive program to encourage homeowners not to pave along the shoreline; and a moratorium on oyster harvesting in the river. Oysters help to clean waterways by filtering out pollution.

The Sun reported last month that the Choptank is in worse shape than it was nearly 25 years ago, when the state began measuring the river's pollution levels. A report by the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science concluded the river is the second-most-polluted in the state, behind only the Patapsco, which flows through Baltimore.

The Choptank's watershed on the Eastern Shore is home to many farms, and most of the river's pollution has been blamed on excess nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer.

But while the state has been taking some steps to address farm pollution, it has not begun to seriously confront the consequences of development, said Ken Staver, a scientist from the University of Maryland's Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology who serves on the Choptank Tributary Team.

"We sort of see ourselves as part of the medical team, and the river and the bay, that's the patient," Staver told members of the House Environmental Matters Committee yesterday. "Except we go into the patient's room, and on the clipboard the page on development is blank."

Staver said that local governments need to know how much damage to water quality comes from each new house or subdivision so they can better plan.

Robert Wieland, a resident of Trappe who heads a team advising the state on how to clean up the river, called for a moratorium on oystering in the river. He noted that watermen reported a harvest of more than 300,000 bushels of oysters from the Choptank in 1983; 20 years later, Wieland said, it was only 595 bushels.

"The Choptank Tributary Strategies Team is alarmed by this," Wieland said of the numbers, "and we're kind of surprised that everyone else is not."

Wieland has been trying since 2005 to close the river to oystering, but he said state officials have put him off, saying that they are waiting for the results of a study on a possible state moratorium before making any decisions.

Gene Slear, another Choptank team member, asked the committee to consider dedicating part of the state's new $50 million Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund to providing tax credits or other incentives for waterfront homeowners to keep their shorelines natural.

Natural shorelines trap sediment and pollution in grasses and wetlands and protect habitat. Many homeowners, however, prefer to build rocky "rip-rap" barriers that prevent erosion.

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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