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The Severn River Association’s First Century

It takes many years to save a river

It seems odd, but the Severn River Association is the oldest group in the United States dedicated to the preservation of a river. You’d figure that honor would fall to some group affiliated with John Muir.
    On April 29, 1911, 32 wealthy white men from Baltimore who owned summer homes along the Severn River got together and started the Severn River Association. Their primary mission was to stock the river with fish, prevent watermen from poaching and upgrade Ritchie Highway so they could get to their getaway cottages a bit more easily. The first president of the group was the colorfully named P.M. Womble, who ran the show for 20 years.
    I succeeded Womble as president many years later, from 1995 to1997, a hectic time when growth and development started to change the face of the Severn. I have many fond memories of battles lost and won during those days. It has been years since I got together with those old friends. When current president Bob Whitcomb asked me to attend the 100th anniversary gala at the Calvert House, I was a little surprised because I hadn’t thought about the Association for many years.
    I am glad that I went.
    The highlight of the party was the film Moving Water: 100 Years of Fighting for the Severn. For the fascinating documentary chronicling the Association’s history, Naval Academy professor and Chesapeake Bay Blues author Howard Ernst teamed up with longtime Herald Harbor resident Charlotte Lubbert.
    Next, six past presidents spoke for a few minutes about what each had tried to do and how they thought the river was faring today.
    I spouted some gibberish about how everyone needs to work together if we are ever going to save the Severn. All the presidents agreed that the Severn was in pretty bad shape and relentlessly under siege. By the time the last speaker got up, I was feeling a bit blue.
    Cliff Andrew, president from 1984-1989, changed the tune:
    “As I began preparation of my remarks for this evening’s Centennial Celebration, I mentioned to a friend that the Severn River Association was marking its 100th Anniversary this month.
    “He commented, Oh, that’s great; just look at the river; what have they accomplished in 100 years?
    “I replied, ‘Well, a lot!’
    “Tonight I have time to identify only a few of those accomplishments; and I want to pay tribute to a dozen individuals — many of whom are no longer with us — who in the process of fighting for this river in the mid 1980s I met and came to know and love: people like Bill Barry, Marshall Dowling, Jan Hollmann, Colby Rucker, Lina Vlavianos, John Kabler, Robin Ireland, Stu Morris, Marion Warren, Charles Iliff, John Sherwood and Ned Hall, as well as the six gentlemen with me on this podium tonight.
    “If not for these men and women,” he went on …

    The Severn would not be a state-designated Scenic River.
    There would be no 1,300-acre Severn Run Natural Area.
    There would now be a Marriott Hotel on College Creek.
    There would have been no Operation Clear Run or Clearwater.
    There would be no strict, county-enforced sediment control.
    There would not be a Severn River Commission.
    There would be no Severn River Land Trust permanently protecting over 1,000 acres by conservation easement in the Severn River watershed.
    The Critical Areas law would not exist.
    There would be no 9,000-acre Patuxent Wildlife Refuge.
    And there would be no Scenic Rivers Land Trust with another 1,000-plus acres of land permanently protected through private conservation easement in the South, West, Rhode, Herring Bay and Patuxent rivers watersheds.”

    I had convinced myself for the last decade that my time with the Severn River Association, while not wasted, was of dubious value. I was wrong. Fighting for a river is a noble cause. But it is often difficult to see the tangible results when surrounded by so much doom and gloom.
    I think it’s like planting a tree. There is instant gratification when you first get your hands dirty. But then you forget about the tree until you happen to stumble upon it one day, and it’s all grown and climbing gracefully into the sky. I realize now that it takes many years to grow a stately tree … and to save a river.