January 18, 2019

SlackWater: The Fight to Clean Up a River

SlackWater on Patuxent River

The SlackWater Center at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a consortium of students, faculty, and community members documenting and interpreting the region’s changing landscapes. Oral histories are at the core of the center, which encourages students to explore the region through historical documents, images, literature, and scientific and environmental evidence. Some of this work has been published in the print journal SlackWater, some of which is online and some published here. The work below, “Below the Surface,” was first published in SlackWater Volume VI The Instant City in spring 2009.slackwater logo

By Beth Macinko

Even as a stranger new to Maryland, I immediately recognized the water’s significance to the state. The sky opened up on either side of me at the peak of the Governor Thomas Johnson Bridge as I entered St. Mary’s County, and all I could see below me was the river reflecting the rays of the bright sun in a million directions. The Patuxent River runs deep and wide for 110 miles through seven Maryland counties. Its once rich aquatic life sustained subsistence and commercial fisheries for centuries.

What began as a simple community effort to protect the Patuxent River evolved into an epic, unprecedented five-year battle to force both the Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Maryland to recognize and remedy the problems of the river.

Throughout the 1960s, local watermen and recreational river users alike noticed that the increasing cloudiness of the Patuxent River was coupled with the decrease in crabs, oysters and fish. Scientists looking at years of data saw a startling trend: increasing turbidity, declining levels of sea grass, decreasing dissolved oxygen counts, and rising nutrient concentrations in the river. All of these problems were almost certainly caused by incompletely treated wastewater discharged from the rapidly growing upriver counties along the Patuxent.

Government officials at the state level, however, refused to acknowledge the problems of the Patuxent River. To those who did not spend their lives on the Patuxent, the river appeared the same way it always had. The solution – updating sewage treatment plants – would be costly, and the evidence for the harmful effects of nutrients was not yet definitive.

Rather than address the problem of water quality, officials questioned the legitimacy of rural Southern Maryland voices. The state implied that those trying to help the river were backwards farmers who did not know what they were talking about, and the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources declared the health of the river just fine. One official statement went so far as to say the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay was actually improving. Those who spoke out about the decline of the river were accused of being anti-Maryland, and questioning the health of the river was deemed “irresponsible.”

Southern Marylanders, however, were not about to watch the Patuxent River decline without a fight. In 1977, in an unprecedented and potentially risky move, Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s counties banded together, hired an environmental attorney, and then filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency to force the State of Maryland to take action.

Going into the case, there was no guarantee of success. Three of the least developed counties in Maryland were appealing to state and federal institutions for action. St. Mary’s County Commissioner Ford Dean astutely predicted that “the historical facts indicate that persistence will be needed to solve the plight of the Patuxent.” The three counties approved an expenditure for $155,000 for the services of their attorney. Although a substantial sum, the money was seen as a worthwhile investment to protect the future of the Patuxent. Meanwhile, for the next two years, the state continued to deny the problem.

As the case moved through the court system, an important turning point was reached in December 1979. Governor Harry Hughes came to Southern Maryland to examine the issue firsthand. As Hughes stood on the deck of a boat from the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, he saw the lack of aquatic life in material dredged from the river’s bottom. At that moment, Hughes realized the state could no longer ignore the problem.

In October 1980, the court ruled in favor of the three counties. Finding that the state’s Water Quality Plan was deficient, the court directed the state to form a new plan. Many Southern Marylanders were shocked by their victory. After all, they had taken on some powerful opponents. “After years of wrangling with the state and upstream counties over the causes of the declining water quality in the river,” The Enterprise declared in an editorial, “the acceptance of the Southern Maryland arguments last week is stunning.”

The victory was not limited to the communities of Southern Maryland. As Gary Hodge, former executive director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, recalled in 2007, it was part of a “golden age of environmental advocacy.” The suit not only heightened awareness of the environment, it showed the power of citizens to effect state and national policy changes. In 2008, Delegate Bernie Fowler said he felt this victory served as a model that fueled larger efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, as well as waterways throughout the country and even the world.

Although the lawsuit was a success on paper and in principle, and the reforms that followed it reduced point source pollution levels, it still has not resulted in restoration of the Patuxent River to full health. Today, Fowler views the current situation as unacceptable. “[The river is] in much worse shape than it was in 1970 … They’re staying the course and maybe stopping it from dying to a certain extent, but I don’t see the progress they’ve made as sufficient enough to regain the clarity, transparency and health that we once knew on the Patuxent River.”

The Patuxent River watershed population continues to grow. Hodge explained, “… there are no permanent victories. You win a holding action in the ”80s on the Patuxent River, but as more people move to Maryland, the gains you made in cleaning up these treatment plants and reducing pollution into the river get eroded away by new growth … You can’t rest on your laurels after you achieve certain gains in reducing pollution … because tomorrow the problem gets bigger.”

Most Marylanders don’t remember the Patuxent in its prime. Bernie Fowler worries:

The fear I have is this … I remember my daddy and my brother catching as many as 30 bushels of oysters in a day. Our family one day caught as many as 25 dozen soft-shell crabs … Those that follow me don’t have anything; they don’t have a recall, because, obviously they weren’t here when those things were prevalent … there’s nothing in the computer that’s going to tell them about that. They’ll look at the river and say, ‘Man, that’s a beautiful river, and I can still run my jet skis and I can still water ski … and my kids can still wade out in the river.’ I’m afraid they’ll start accepting it for what it is. I don’t think there will be this burning desire to set the bar high enough. That would be a monumental mistake.

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