Spill a set­back for bay health, but hope is not lost

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

In June, as he does ev­ery year, for­mer state sen­a­tor and Calvert County com­mis­sioner Bernie Fowler Sr. waded into the Patux­ent River and mea­sured the water’s clar­ity by record­ing the depth at the point when he can no longer see his sneak­ers. Although this year’s mark was down from last year’s, Fowler pri­mar­ily at­trib­uted it to weather con­di­tions and he and his many fol­low­ers cel­e­brated the over­all progress their restoration ef­forts have made over the past four decades, ex­press­ing hope for the river’s fu­ture.

Last week, Fowler as­sumed a much more somber tone, af­ter an es­ti­mated 1.5 mil­lion to 2 mil­lion gal­lons of sewage over­flowed into the Patux­ent on July 29. The source was a Howard County waste­water treat­ment plant pipe that had been blocked with grease of­fi­cials at­trib­uted to im­proper garbage dis­posal and sink use. Crews placed warn­ing signs down­stream and the Wash­ing­ton Subur­ban San­i­tary Com­mis­sion in­creased dis­charge from the T. Howard Duck­ett Dam to help flush out the river. WSSC said the spill did not af­fect cus­tomers’ drink­ing water. How­ever, an emer­gency clos­ing was is­sued for part of the river near the spill.

A spokesper­son for the Mary­land De­part­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment said Howard County could face penal­ties for the sewage over­flow, but the in­ci­dent re­mains under in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Fowler al­ready pre­dicts any penalty the north­ern Mary­land county in­curs won’t be se­vere enough to ef­fect real change.

“They usu­ally get a little slap on their wrist un­til the next time. Noth­ing up­sets me more than to get an­other call that we have a spill in the Patux­ent River,” Fowler told South­ern Mary­land News­pa­pers. “I was hop­ing I’d get a glimpse of a cleaner river be­fore I left this earth. I don’t think I am go­ing to see that now.”

Those are grave words for the river’s 92-year-old cham­pion, who has spent a life­time ad­vo­cat­ing for cleanup ef­forts to help save the Patux­ent wa­ter­shed. In fact, it was 1960s sewage spills that first prompted Fowler to take ac­tion. In 1978, Fowler led the three South­ern Mary­land coun­ties in a law­suit against the state and En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency to re­store the Patux­ent; the case prompted the start of a state en­deavor to set nu­tri­ent re­duc­tion goals for the river.

To­day, the Chesapeake Bay wa­ter­shed states must ad­here to EPA reg­u­la­tions for nu­tri­ent loads, and for the most part, that man­date seems to be work­ing. The most re­cent bay report card up­graded the Chesapeake’s health sta­tus and in­di­cated harm­ful nu­tri­ent loads are down while aquatic grasses are up — that is, al­most ev­ery­where ex­cept in the Patux­ent re­gion, which earned the low­est score for un­der­wa­ter grass habi­tats, some­thing sci­en­tists at­trib­uted to the river’s cloudi­ness. Sadly, the Patux­ent re­ceived a sta­tus of “poor” ecosys­tem health, de­spite re­cent up­grades to sewage treat­ment fa­cil­i­ties and the in­creased push to in­stall ni­tro­gen-re­mov­ing sep­tic sys­tems.

This should serve as a clear in­di­ca­tion there is still much work to be done up and down the state to keep the mo­men­tum to clean the river high. Last week, Del. Mark Fisher (R-Calvert) sug­gested that gov­ern­ments be held to stricter stan­dards re­gard­ing the waste­water treat­ment plants they op­er­ate, call­ing such plants the “big­gest sin­gle pol­luters of the Chesapeake Bay and the Patux­ent River,” and even go­ing so far as to sug­gest pri­vate com­pa­nies run the plants in­stead.

Maybe Fisher has a point. Maybe the an­swer to the Patux­ent prob­lem lies with our leg­is­la­tors en­act­ing re­vised reg­u­la­tions with harsher penal­ties for sewage treat­ment plant op­er­a­tors. Maybe it’s time a new, pas­sion­ate and en­vi­ron­men­tally con­cerned gen­er­a­tion of ad­vo­cates fol­lowed in the foot­steps of Fowler’s muddy sneak­ers and stepped up to fight for the Patux­ent.

The July 29 sewage spill was a set­back, no doubt. But let’s use it as a re­minder to never be­come com­pla­cent when it comes to pro­tect­ing the health of our lo­cal wa­ter­ways. Let’s not give up on Fowler’s charge to re­store this pre­cious re­source that laps at our county’s en­tire western shore. In Fowler’s own words, ut­tered with en­thu­si­asm just two short months ago, “We can never lose our faith; we can never lose our hope.”

And so, to­day we charge you: Do not give up on Fowler’s mes­sage, or on our river. If there are any among you who would rise to the chal­lenge of aid­ing on­go­ing restoration ef­forts, it is never too late to act.

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