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Stewards of the Severn: The Severn River Association leads a restoration movement focused on community activism

Feb 18, 2016 09:58AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Lisa A. Lewis

It is often said that “it takes a village to raise a child,” but perhaps this African proverb can also be applied to restoring a river. Indeed, the Severn River Association (SRA), the oldest organization in the United States dedicated to the preservation of a river and one of the largest civic groups in Anne Arundel County, strongly embraces the concept of the entire community working together to help restore the Severn River. At the core of the SRA’s movement is the belief that there is no easy fix, and everyone must support this important cause. Even seemingly small actions can have a major impact.

Founded in April 1911, by a group of 32 residents, the SRA was originally created to protect fish and wildlife and increase public access to the river. However, the goals of the organization changed throughout the years as the Severn River and its tributaries faced serious threats, including pollution, development, erosion, and stormwater runoff. In response to these issues, the SRA encouraged citizen activism—laying a strong foundation of community-based advocacy that it continues to stress even today.

“The Severn River is suffering from ‘death by a thousand cuts,’” says Rusty Gowland, vice president of the SRA. “We need a critical mass of people to rally around and support the cause of restoring the river’s health. We need 1,000 people to do small things. Individual actions do make a difference, and there are so many sensible changes that people can make, right in their own backyard. Education goes a long way, and our strategy involves helping people understand how all of our actions have a collective impact. We know that people love the river, and we want them to become members of the SRA and join us in our campaign to help restore the Severn.”

Storm water flows along an Annapolis street. Impervious surfaces, such as streets, blacktop, etc. prevent storm water from naturally settling into the ground. Instead, the water often collects contaminants along its path into local waterways.


Addressing Critical Issues

In order to understand how making even small changes can have an impact on the health of the Severn River, it’s important to understand why the river is so unhealthy. According to the SRA, stormwater runoff is a major issue facing the Severn River. When too many nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) enter the water from the land, it causes excessive algal growth, which, in turn, causes the formation of “dead zones”—areas with low amounts of dissolved oxygen. With little or no oxygen, aquatic life can’t survive. In addition, excessive growth of algae blocks sunlight that underwater grasses need to grow. These algae blooms eventually die and sink to the bottom of the river, using up oxygen as they decompose.

In addition to stormwater runoff, the main sources of nutrients include septic systems, deforestation, especially along the river banks, and poor urban nutrient management, which results from the use of lawn fertilizers. But the good news is that everyone can play a role in reducing nutrients that enter the river. Indeed, this is one of the important messages that the SRA strives to convey in its campaign to restore the Severn, and it strongly encourages all residents to make simple changes in their backyards and communities. For example, residents can install rain barrels or rain gardens on their property, reduce their use of fertilizers, pick up after their pets, plant trees, drive less often, and reduce their use of electricity (or install solar panels).

An Algae bloom in water clouds its clarity and prevents sunlight from reaching submerged aquatic vegetation, as well as depletes oxygen levels in the water necessary to harbor life.


Watershed Stewards Academy

Although making sensible changes can definitely have a major impact on the health of the river, there are several other ways that residents can help make a difference. In fact, residents who want to become more actively involved in the movement to restore the Severn River can become Master Watershed Stewards. Watershed Stewards Academy (WSA), a nonprofit organization based at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville, offers a certification course to train residents to become leaders in their community—providing them with the skills and expertise they need to take action and make a difference. To become certified, all participants must complete intensive, hands-on training that includes the completion of a project in their community.

In order to work effectively in their communities, stewards need strong local partners. The SRA successfully fulfills this role—offering guidance and support—so stewards can network and work together. In addition, the SRA also helps establish watershed-wide priorities, helps raise funds for steward projects, and manages several grant programs for stewards.

“Most people become Master Watershed Stewards because they want to make a real difference in their communities—to make a real impact on water quality and stop wishing they could make a difference and start making things happen,” says Suzanne Kilby Etgen, executive director of Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy. “Stewards often tell us that the information, resources, and relationships they build with WSA help move their communities to action in a way that was not possible before their participation. Stewards really do make things happen, and I am continually amazed by their tireless ‘can do’ spirit. In our county,

64 percent of the land is privately owned. That area contributes 39 percent of the phosphorus and 46 percent of the nitrogen in stormwater. The Severn River will not be restored unless [we] can communicate with and lead the owners of that private property to be part of the solution.”

The Marylanders Grow Oysters program encourages waterfront property owners to grow batches of oysters in cages hanging from their piers, which, in effect, act as small scale water filtration systems.


Marylanders Grow Oysters

Another way that residents can become involved is by participating in the Marylanders Grow Oysters (MGO) program. This unique program, which is managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in conjunction with the Oyster Recovery Partnership, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and local organizations, offers waterfront property owners the opportunity to grow young oysters in cages hanging from their piers. After a year, the oysters are planted on oyster reefs in the Severn River.

Not only is the MGO program a fascinating way for residents to interact with aquatic life, but it also helps restore the health of the Severn River because planting oyster beds filters the water by removing algae and silt. The SRA is the local MGO coordinator, and its efforts enhance the river’s oyster population, which enriches the reef community and biodiversity of the river bottom. Indeed, an area that once had no oysters is now a thriving reef.

“The MGO program is rewarding because it directly connects people with oysters and their river,” says Chris Judy, MGO program manager. “It’s also hands-on, wet, muddy fun. People grow and tend their own oyster ‘pets,’ which are then released into the river. If they [previously] had little direct connection with helping the Severn, they are now growing and creating ‘live bottom,’ which enhances the river.”

“The most important accomplishment of the SRA’s MGO program has been to recruit over 500 people to become active with their river,” adds Bob Whitcomb, chair, SRA Oyster Committee, who leads the largest oyster growing program for MGO. “By regular visits to their docks to care for the oysters, they’ve become more aware of the water conditions near their home, and some have gotten involved with the SRA in other efforts to clean up our waters.”

Operation Clearwater

Obviously, to become strong activists, it’s important for residents to understand the issues facing the Severn River. The SRA emphasizes the value of education and believes that it’s important for residents to realize how the river became impaired, so they understand what steps need to be taken to restore it to health. Since water quality is such a critical issue, the SRA created a program called Operation Clearwater and has been partnering with the Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) Environmental Center for 41 years to monitor the Severn River’s water quality on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. (Communities pay a fee for the testing.) 

From late May through late August, AACC interns collect water samples at piers and beaches. The samples are filtered and incubated, and enterococci counts are calculated. (The counts are posted on the SRA’s website at Enterococci are normal inhabitants of the digestive tract of warm-blooded animals, so their presence indicates fecal contamination from birds, wildlife, pets, or humans. Since skin infections or gastrointestinal distress, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, can result from contamination of the water, enterococci counts are very important in assessing if the river is safe for swimming. The EPA establishes the limits that are followed when making recommendations to the public about the risks of bacterial infection from swimming.

“The program is important in two ways,” says Tammy Domanski, Ph.D., associate professor of biology at the AACC Environmental Center and scientific director of Operation Clearwater. “First, it provides information for communities to pass along to residents about the possible risk of infection during the months of the year when people are most likely to be spending a lot of time in the water. Our data show that when there hasn’t been significant rain, many of the beaches have very low bacterial counts. Second, the program illustrates the problems associated with stormwater runoff. There is a very clear pattern showing significantly increased enterococcal counts after rain of 0.5 inches or more. This highlights the importance of the restoration projects along our rivers and streams. If stormwater is allowed to move over permeable surfaces before entering our waterways, it will filter out fecal matter and other contaminants, and enterococci won’t make their way into the water after a storm.”

This is Domanski’s second year with the Operation Clearwater program and her first year as the director. Sally Hornor, Ph.D., retired professor of biology at the AACC Environmental Center, retired as scientific director of the program in 2015 after 27 years.

“Several communities have used our data to support their grant proposals for stormwater remediation,” says Hornor. “We have also been able to help communities lower their [enterococci] counts by discouraging waterfowl or upgrading septic systems.” 

Watershed Stewards Academy volunteers plant trees and a rain garden. Top right: a bucket of oyster spat on shells awaits planting along the Severn waterfront.


The Role of the Riverkeeper

The SRA also works with Fred Kelly, the Severn Riverkeeper, who heads the Severn Riverkeeper Program, on large infrastructure projects in the community. An environmental attorney with more than 40 years of experience, Kelly is also able to help the SRA with legal issues.

“Fred is very charismatic and has a lot of knowledge about the issues facing the Severn,” says Gowland. “As the Riverkeeper, he stays on top of the latest technology and has the knowledge to get the job done. Fred makes it fun to be part of the environmental movement for the Severn River.”

In addition, Andrew Muller, Ph.D., associate professor of oceanography at the United States Naval Academy, has been working in conjunction with volunteers from the Severn Riverkeeper Program and the SRA to monitor the health of the Severn River year round. He has been using the Severn Riverkeeper Program boats as well as the SRA and Naval Academy facilities, including boats, equipment, and his lab, to map dead zones. He will unveil the first Severn River Report Card during the SRA membership meeting, tentatively scheduled for June of this year.

Stewards of the Severn

The SRA is always excited to welcome new members from all walks of life who love the Severn River and want to make a difference. The organization offers a variety of activities, including planting and recreational trips, legislative and regulatory action, cleanup and restoration projects, and much more. There are so many ways to participate in the movement to restore the Severn River and become strong advocates. Residents who want to become involved are encouraged to attend educational forums, view “on demand” education on the SRA’s website at, and enforce and support policies that benefit the river. Indeed, every single action matters.

“Come ‘Treasure the Severn’ with us,” says Lynne Rockenbauch, president of the SRA. “Our watershed stretches from Fort Meade to Annapolis. We’d love to see more people involved, whether joining current activities or spearheading new ones, such as opening public access to the Severn Run Natural area for kayaking or birding. Please contact me at, sign up for our e-mail distribution, or contribute at Each of us can make a small difference. Together, we can make a big difference.”