Author's Note: This story speaks of the effects of polluted runoff to the Severn River above Annapolis, one of the short tidal rivers that drain the largely and fast-developing suburban land along Anne Arundel County's Bayshore. But the problems described herein--and their effects--apply to MANY other areas around the Chesapeake, from Harford and Baltimore Counties in the north to Williamsburg and Hampton Roads in the south and even Eastern Shore communities like Easton on the Tred Avon River, Salisbury on the Wicomico, and Princess Anne on the Manokin. Runoff is the only category of Chesapeake pollution that is still increasing, and we are only just now beginning to address it with the vigor that it requires. If we want healthy streams, creeks, rivers, and Bay, we must find ways to deal with polluted runoff NOW.
When I was in elementary school in Richmond's West End, my friends and I played every day in a small stream just off the campus that we named the Tiber River (we were studying Rome in History class). My mother warned me, though, that the Tiber's water was "dirty" and asked me to stay out of it. And then it disappeared. Some workmen from the city dug a trench, put in a pipe to carry the water, covered the pipe with dirt, and planted grass. Years later, I found out that the Tiber, still flowing through its pipe, is a tributary of Upham Brook, which flows into the Chickahominy River, one of my favorite Chesapeake waterways
That narrative has been repeated tens of thousands of times in the Bay's watershed over the past century, and one lesson stands out: As a society, our approach throughout that century has been to put polluted runoff into pipes and send that dirty water into the Chesapeake's streams, creeks, and rivers. In other words, we have spent billions of dollars to put that pollution Out of Sight, Out of Mind, when we could have directed those public dollars to cleaning it up at its sources. For way too many years, we didn't think that polluted water mattered to the Bay ecosystem.
Today, we know better, but a suburban river like the Severn around Annapolis has several hundred Tiber River-like tributaries encased in pipes that send everything that falls onto their paved headwaters straight to sea level and tidal waters. In the two pie charts below, consider how much of the nitrogen and sediment that flow into the Severn in a year comes from polluted runoff, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program's Bay Model.
Now consider these results:
- A warm-weather oxygen-depleted dead zone that removes viable habitat for fish and blue crabs from all waters deeper than 15-18'. [See fishfinder image below.]
- Algae blooms on and off from March through November that cloud the water, hampering growth of the river's underwater grasses, allowing warm-weather brown algae blooms to leave ugly "bathtub rings" on boats' waterlines, and prompting public health advisories against people swimming in the water within 48 hours after a rain storm. [See algal bloom image below.]
- Wild, lethal five-day swings in dissolved oxygen as the algae bloom dies (these swings are especially damaging to the river's headwaters, wiping out virtually all of the juvenile yellow perch spawned there each spring and making its otherwise rich salt ponds uninhabitable for crabs and white perch for much of each summer). [See NOAA's Annapolis Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy graph below.]
The improvements of the past 20 years clearly show that the Severn—and other Anne Arundel rivers—WILL respond to programs that reduce pollution.
But this river could be so much richer—and more valuable to Anne Arundel County residents who crab, fish, paddle, sail, cruise, and live along it—if we as citizens support our county's government in putting the Watershed Protection and Restoration Fund to work.
—John Page Williams, CBF's Senior Naturalist