Wanted: More Chesapeake Bay access

With plan identifying many new spots for water recreation, groups seek "Freedom to Float"

  • Author, teacher and former Baltimore Sun writer Tom Horton drags a kayak through shallow water near Smith Island. "Freedom to Float" campaign seeks more sites for boating, fishing, swimming.
Author, teacher and former Baltimore Sun writer Tom Horton… (Kim Hairston, 2005 )
January 31, 2013|Tim Wheeler

You're never far from water in Maryland, with the Chesapeake Bay nearly bisecting the state. Yet for all that, there's a surprising shortage of places where people can launch a boat, cast a fishing line or wade in.

A coalition of recreational enthusiasts, small businesses, local governments and civic and nonprofit groups hopes to change that.  They've launched a "Freedom to Float" campaign, seeking to capitalize on the release this week of a National Park Service plan identifying hundreds of potential new sites for getting to the bay and its tributaries.

“The Chesapeake watershed is home to iconic historical and natural treasures, but long stretches of the thousands of miles of shoreline are inaccessible,” Ed Stierli, spokesman for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement announcing the push. “Connecting communities with nature and expanding access will help protect our lands and waters for healthy outdoor recreation including boating, fishing, hiking, camping, and birding.”

According to the plan, there are 1,150 "documented" sites now throughout the six-state Chesapeake watershed where people can launch a boat or kayak, fish, swim or simply look out on the bay or its tributaries. But there are long stretches of shoreline, particularly on nearby rivers such as the Susquehanna, Potomac and Nanticoke, where there is no ready access to the water.

Various studies and plans have documented that people want more chances to get to the bay and its rivers and streams, especially close to the region's urban areas.

The plan tallies up 320 potential access sites - nearly a third of them in Maryland. More than half the sites are already publicly owned, but relatively few are "shovel-ready," so they'll require some significant work and investments of money to open up.

Spots most often identified by citizens where they see opportunities for more water access include the Dundalk-Edgemere area of Baltimore County, Annapolis, and the Sassafras River and the upper Chesapeake Bay. 

One of the region's most degraded water ways, the Anacostia River, which flows from the Washington suburbs through the District of Columbia into the Potomac, got a lot of suggestions for shoreline access. By comparison, Baltimore's harbor and the streams that feed into it didn't make the most-wanted list for more chances to get on or near the water. 

Perhaps that merely reflects the public's sense that Charm City's trash-strewn, sewage-fouled waters aren't fit for human contact. That's something the local "Healthy Harbor" campaign hopes to remedy, though it'll take time and a lot of work on the part of everyone in the city and surrounding suburbs.  Given all the other issues confronting local governments, businesses and citizens in the area, that campaign could use all the help it can get.

It may seem counterintuitive, but perhaps expanding public access to Baltimore's troubled waters would give the effort a shot in the arm.  If more people could get close enough to see the problems - and the promise - inherent in the water near them, they might be motivated to get involved personally, and to demand more concerted action from their government. That just might improve the odds that the campaign will reach its goal - of having a harbor safe for swimming and fishing by decade's end.

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