Chesapeake Outdoors

Dishonor for Chesapeake Country

by C.D. Dollar

It wasn't an honor for Chesapeake Country, American Rivers' designation of three watershed rivers - the Pocomoke, the Potomac and the Mattaponi - among the nation's 20 most endangered rivers.

On April 6, as American Rivers issued their 13th annual report on America's Most Endangered Rivers, Vice President for Conservation Doug Siglin came to City Dock in Annapolis to explain why the three Bay's rivers are in trouble. With him were Gov. Parris Glendening, Congressman Wayne Gilchrest (R-1st), state Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery Co.), Chesapeake Bay Foundation president William C. Baker and Joy Oakes, regional director for the Sierra Club. Their presence spoke volumes as to the seriousness of the situation.

The Pocomoke River was named the third most endangered river, due mostly to nutrient problems associated with chicken manure and last year's outbreak of Pfiesteria that killed tens of thousands of fish and sickened watermen and boaters.

Despite its current and perhaps seasonal problems, the Pocomoke is a gorgeous river whose meandering banks flow 49 miles across the southern end of Maryland's Eastern Shore, past one of the last major stands of cypress trees in our area, before reaching Virginia's Pocomoke Sound. I'd swim and fish and boat there - provided Pfiesteria was dormant.

Maryland designated the Pocomoke River a State Scenic River in 1971, and the Maryland Natural Heritage Program considers more than 2,000 acres of land along the Pocomoke of exceptional ecological importance.

The basin is one of the best bird environments on the Atlantic coast, and there thousands of anglers pursue white and yellow perch, largemouth bass and black crappie. The river is also a popular spot for hunting, canoeing, swimming and water-skiing.

For generations, watermen communities have harvested the river's rich bounty of fish and shellfish, sustaining an integral part of Bay heritage. Family farms also border the Pocomoke, growing soy beans, corn and wheat. And of course, chickens are raised here. Lots of them.

The Potomac, making the list for the second straight year, ranked 12th. Its threats are expanding poultry farms and cattle and hog feedlots at the Potomac's headwaters in West Virginia. In addition, large-scale development projects like Chapman's Landing pose "imminent danger to the Potomac's unique natural and historic resources," according to American Rivers.

The threat to the Potomac's world-class largemouth bass fishery has sportsmen, conservationists, and government and tourism officials siding up against the proposed Chapman's Landing development. A $25 million offer to save the property was drowned out by the bulldozer sound of development, which to many, including Gov. Glendening, "doesn't make sense." [Editor's note: see this week's editorial.]

Bass fishing on the Potomac is a $25-million-a-year business, and the river generously gives countless hours of enjoyable recreation for other boaters, a cost which may be harder to quantify.

The Mattaponi checked in at 17, little credit to the King William Reservoir project proposed by the Newport News Waterworks. The project would drain, fill, excavate or flood more than 437 acres of sensitive wetlands and destroy nearly 1,400 acres of upland habitat.

The Nature Conservancy has described the Mattaponi River - which flows into the York River in Virginia - as "the heart of the most pristine freshwater complex on the Atlantic Coast." Bald eagles, osprey, herons, geese, ducks and other birds make the Mattaponi one of the richest avian waterways in Virginia. Striped bass, shad, blueback herring and shellfish support healthy sport, commercial and subsistence fisheries.

The Mattaponi Tribe regards the river as the lifeblood of its nation, and today, Mattaponi fishers ply the river with drift nets and operate a shad hatchery to restore shad populations. Massive water withdrawal could drive up salinity levels in the Mattaponi, raise water temperatures and lower oxygen levels in the summer.

What should our response be to these dubious distinctions? Do we dismiss American Rivers' list as environmental rhetoric? Is it unfair to ask that developers slow down their exploitation of natural resources? Should farmers take the brunt of criticism about nutrient run-off? What about regular citizens, like you and me?

Hard questions deserve thoughtful and decisive action, and now is the time. The reality is that we must all do our part to get our rivers off such an infamous list.

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VolumeVI Number 14
April 9-15, 1998
New Bay Times