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What's Up Magazine

One-on-One with Maryland Riverkeepers

Jul 16, 2015 09:00AM ● By Lisa Lewis

West and Rhode Riverkeeper, Jeff Holland.

By Lisa A. Lewis

Although it’s important to understand the Waterkeeper movement and the role that Maryland Riverkeepers play in restoring the rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, that is only part of the story. So What’s Up? decided to go behind the scenes and ask the Riverkeepers about their work, and more importantly, how much progress is being made in their quest to restore the rivers.

What is the most serious issue currently facing your river?

Fred Kelly: Stormwater runoff and old septic systems.

Diana Muller: Uncontrolled polluted runoff that happens after every rainstorm.

Jeff Holland: Stormwater runoff. Rain falls on our highways, streets, parking lots, driveways, and roofs, and when we don’t slow it down, cool it off, and let it soak into the ground, it fouls our rivers and creeks with sediment, bacteria, and pollution. 

Paul Spadaro (responding as president of MRA): Land development. Our rivers have too much silt due to runoff, and there is more and more impervious surface, allowing more toxins to run into the river.

Isabel Junkin Hardesty: Pollution from row crop agricultural practices contributes the most nutrient and sediment pollution to the Chester River, simply because row crops take up 65 percent of the land in our watershed.

Jeff Horstman: Agricultural pollution. The educated consensus is that a majority of the water pollution on the Eastern Shore comes from polluted runoff from farms.
South Riverkeeper Diana Muller (right). Photo by Tony Lewis, Jr.

How have the river’s ecology and health changed since your Riverkeeper program was implemented?

Kelly: Stormwater and septic system pollution has been reduced, giving marine life a chance to make a comeback and swimming safer in the Severn.

Muller: The South River’s ecology and health have been slowly and consistently improving over time. I have seen consistent improvements in water clarity, submerged aquatic vegetation (underwater grasses), and species of animals, such as river otters.

Horstman: All of our rivers have sections closed to shell fishing, and most are listed on the EPA’s 303(d) list, which lists rivers that are known to be impaired. Over the last five years, the headwaters of our rivers have become even more polluted, mostly from phosphorus runoff from the application of chicken litter as fertilizer.

What measures are vital in your ongoing mission to restore the Chesapeake Bay watershed?

Spadaro: Critical area laws. The enforcement of laws between state and county agencies has been ineffective due to inconsistency. We don’t need new laws, just better enforcement.

Hardesty: Action from everyday, local citizens is the only way we’re going to achieve healthy rivers and a clean Bay. Of course, we also need strong regulations, enlightened elected officials, and dedicated funding, but these only exist when everyday, local citizens take action. This is what the Waterkeeper program was built upon: the idea that by taking action, local citizens can make a difference in the health of their waterways.

Can you describe a recent project that had a successful impact on the health of the river?

Photo courtesy of 
Midshore Riverkeeper

 Kelly: Our Cabin Branch Stream Restoration Project stopped the toxic runoff from the Annapolis Mall that had been killing marine life and making swimming unsafe in the Severn for decades. It won the award for the best urban stream restoration project in the entire 64,000 square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed and established Anne Arundel County as a leader in Bay restoration.

Holland: We just won the Melanie Teems Award from the Chesapeake Bay Trust for a project we completed in partnership with YMCA Camp Letts. The horses in the camp’s equestrian program had turned their pasture into a muddy quagmire. The mud and horse effluent washed down the bare hillside into Sellman Creek. Using grants from the Trust and the county Soil Conservation District, we created new wetlands along the shoreline to catch and filter the runoff and a new paddock to accommodate the horses. We also worked with the county’s Arlington Echo Outdoor Education program to help 600 sixth graders from Southern Middle School plant 700 native trees to reforest the muddy hillside. This project will solve the largest sediment pollution problem in the Rhode River.

Hardesty: We recently completed the first year of a three-year project working with local farmers to test technology on tractors that more efficiently applies fertilizer to crops. With the technology, farmers are able to apply nitrogen only where crops need it. This means that more of the fertilizer applied will be taken up by the plants, and less will be left in the soil to eventually make its way into the river.

What steps can homeowners take to improve the health of the river?

Holland: Use less fertilizer. Clean up after your dog. There’s a free “app” called “Water Reporter.” With this tool, you can take a photo of a problem, and your local Riverkeeper can follow up on it. But what will make the biggest difference: Send a message to your legislators, and tell them you support the stormwater fee. [Editor’s Note: See page 181-183 for a list of Maryland Politicians]

Horstman: Plant native species, harvest rainwater, and create rain gardens. Being politically engaged is important. And, of course, volunteering or supporting a local watershed organization is always welcome.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a Riverkeeper? Most rewarding?

Kelly: Convincing folks that we can restore the Severn if they’re willing to help. Most rewarding? Working with folks to build restoration projects and seeing these projects stop the rainwater from polluting the river. The annual Party Cruise to celebrate our successes is also a blast. [This year’s Party Cruise is August 20.]

Muller: Communicating to “non-believers” that the South River and Bay are really sick, and they can be fixed. I have spoken with many people who feel that the South River and Bay cannot be rehabilitated, so they have a “give up” attitude. I don’t believe in giving up! Most rewarding? Every day is rewarding! I get to wake up to a career I love, and best of all, I am outside on our beautiful South River!

Holland: Reaching out to all the homeowners’ associations, civic clubs, and other organizations to build partnerships. Most rewarding? Working with kids planting trees. Their energy is inspiring.

Spadaro: Keeping all the traditional MRA programs “moving forward” while adding new programs. Finding time to meet with county organizations and officials to identify where the system is failing. Most rewarding? Being out on the river and watching people enjoying the Magothy. 

Hardesty: Convincing people that our actions do make a difference and that we should continue to invest time and money into working for clean water. Most rewarding? Being a Riverkeeper is a lifestyle choice, not simply a “9-5.” I’m a Riverkeeper at 10 a.m. in the office writing a grant. I’m a Riverkeeper at 5 p.m. in the grocery store chatting with a donor, and I’m a Riverkeeper on a Saturday family canoe trip.

Horstman: Obtaining funding is a constant challenge, but being a Riverkeeper is fantastic. We’re very grateful for our members, donors, and organizations that support our work.

As the Riverkeepers can attest, some progress is being made in the restoration of the rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. However, it’s going to take time; there is no quick fix. But thanks to the leadership and dedication of the Riverkeepers—and countless volunteers—Maryland’s rivers are in good hands.