Volume 13, Issue 22 ~ June 2 - 8, 2005

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Where We Live
by Steve Carr

Wading In to the Mess We’ve Made
Beneath the fun and games there is an underlying truth: Every year, it gets harder and harder to see our toes

On the first Saturday morning in June, people wade in to Annapolis’ four large creeks that flow into the Severn River: Weems, College, Spa and Back creeks. Environmental activists, parents, kids, dogs and rubber duckies: Everyone joins hands and slowly walks out from the shore until we can no longer see our feet.

We try to maintain some uniformity by wading in at the same spots each year: at the Tucker Street boat launch, Calvary Methodist Church, the Truxtun Park boat ramp and the Eastport Maritime Museum. Back Creek draws the biggest crowd. There you’ll find Mayor Ellen Moyer and other honchos, squealing like little kids as they wade.

The first Wade-In party was cooked up by former waterman and state senator Bernie Fowler on the Patuxent River more than a decade ago. Following in Fowler’s footsteps, some folks wear white sneakers that will stand out more clearly, while others go with the bare feet approach. There are few rules. That’s one reason wade-ins are so easily and often replicated. Just get a bunch of friends together and walk out into the water until everyone agrees they can’t see their toes anymore. Then someone puts a measuring stick on the bottom and you get to see how deep it is where you are standing

The general idea is that the deeper you can see, the clearer the water, and the clearer the water, the healthier the Bay. It ain’t rocket science. But like the Farmer’s Almanac and old wives’ tales, there’s a lesson to be learned here.

A good wade-in has several goals. First and foremost is to have fun.

The second is to get people more in touch with their surroundings, thinking about water quality and the health of Chesapeake Bay.

Of course conditions change each year. Sometimes it’s nice, and sometimes it’s rainy. The tides are different each time. How can you draw any meaningful conclusions from something with so many variables?

You can’t. Last year it was raining to beat the band, so there was lots of sediment in the creeks. As you might expect, last year’s numbers were the worst on record.

The Murky Picture
I keep track of the numbers for the city each year, and I am starting to think the numbers do in fact paint a pretty true picture of what’s happening to the Bay. Beneath the surface of the fun and games there is an underlying truth: Every year, it gets harder and harder to see our toes.

When we first started doing this around Annapolis, we could see down a little over three feet in College Creek. Last year it was nine inches. In Spa Creek, we have gone from two feet to a foot. And on Back Creek, visibility has been reduced from nearly four feet to 17 inches.

The only creek to show any improvement is Weems Creek, where state, county and city governments have collectively invested several million dollars worth of environmental restoration projects over the last few years. The rain gardens, forest buffers, conservation easements, stormwater retrofits, oyster plantings and living shorelines seem to have made a difference in water clarity. Slowly but surely, the creek is coming back. Even on a rainy day when every creek in Annapolis looked like mud soup, Weems was still pretty clear.

But Are We Trying?
The downward spiral in water quality around Annapolis is, of course, mirrored Baywide. Not only is water clarity in the tank, but so is nearly everything else. I don’t want to bum you out, folks, but we are running out of time here.

Studies of the Bay’s major commercial and indicator species shows that only three out of 22 are holding their own. Even the eel population is down. When I was growing up along the Severn, eels were everywhere. Now they are virtually non-existent in much of the Bay.

Rockfish become infected with a killer disease called myobacteriosis, which is also known as fish-handlers disease, because it can be spread to humans through open sores and cuts. Menhaden numbers are plummeting; oysters are dying from infectious diseases; crab harvests keep dropping.

Even more troubling is the floating dead zone that takes over huge swaths of the Bay each summer. The United Nations — that’s right, the U.N. — warned in a recent report that this is fast becoming one of the biggest environmental threats on the planet.

It’s getting closer, too. Beaches closed by local health departments. Cancer rates through the roof.

As I stood in the cloudy waters of Back Creek, my arms around my friends, mugging once again for the cameras, suddenly I could hear Bob Dylan singing about a hard rain that was going to fall. What exactly is it that we all keep smiling about?

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