Fishing Creek is not a very original name.
There are creeks named “Fishing” across Maryland. You can find them in Chesapeake Beach, Cambridge and Frederick.
My neighbor fishes almost daily in our creek near Annapolis. The other night, I saw his brightly glowing stern light rising up our darkened street into his yard as he parked his boat trailer after another fall day of fishing.
Scores of homes line Fishing Creek. My house just isn’t one of them. I live a block back from the shoreline. It’s close enough to see the sunlight sparkle on the water, hear reveille from the nearby Coast Guard station and breathe in breezes scented by the miles-wide Chesapeake Bay.
I don’t pay for flood insurance or dock upkeep or worry about the next king tide washing over my driveway.
Living close is good enough for me.
This is where Maryland’s newest efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay are starting. Not in my creek, necessarily, but the roughly 100,000 creeks and rivers like it along the bay.
On Thursday, the Democratic governor reiterated the shift after being named president of the Chesapeake Executive Council, which helps guide policy for the multistate bay cleanup program.
“The great thing is, we’re already seeing it [a shift to creeks and rivers],” Moore said. ”These are groups that have had long-standing concerns but I think they’ve already started to see with this administration that it’s not just a welcoming partner but an eager partner.”
What the state will find on these waterways are grassroots groups already doing the work of restoration. Sometimes they’ve had success and sometimes setbacks. But they understand what the state will face.
“Who ever thought an army of paid professionals would clean up the bay using government grants and corporate guilt money?” said Fred Tutman, the Patuxent riverkeeper. “What was their first clue that the bay is no more than a catch basin for all those other rivers that aren’t getting much better either?”
With four major waterways, Anne Arundel County is a good place to ask about this shift from the people already working on it. They see the challenges ahead: Land-use decisions that eat up habitat or set back restoration, lax enforcement of laws aimed at preventing sediment from smothering life, nitrogen and phosphorous from failing septic tanks or suburban lawns in the form of fertilizer.
“We’ve adversely impacted the Chesapeake Bay by a death of 1,000 cuts and the solution is going to be lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of Band-Aids in all different kinds of places and, again, sort of re-focus the conversation a little bit,” said Pam Mason, a scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Wednesday during a research consortium seminar on the shift.
Maryland already has put billions of dollars into big things, such as upgrading sewage treatment plants that historically were a major source of pollution. Individual counties have poured millions into stream restoration over the past decade, repairing damage done by uncontrolled or poorly planned growth.
Today, there’s a lot of focus on poultry farms, probably the biggest source of nitrogen pollution on the Eastern Shore.
That was the easy part.
“If the state is serious, and we’re all encouraged, if the state is serious about focusing on creeks, and the habitat in the near shore, they have to be serious about land use,” said Matt Johnston, executive director of the Arundel Rivers Federation.
If the state is going to address creeks and rivers, it will have to scale problems created by places such as Mount Misery.
It’s an old hilltop fortification in Severna Park built to guard the approach to Annapolis during the Civil War. Nothing happened there of note, which some historians have suggested led to the nickname — a reminder of the boredom.
Well, nothing happened until a developer bought it and asked for approval to build two houses atop the narrow ridgeline. They needed variances from regulations on building close to the water on steep slopes — created to stem stormwater runoff pollution.
Anne Arundel County eventually granted them, even though the application underestimated the depth of the slope.
It’s an example of how the rules exist, but local governments provide a workaround in the name of private property rights. The rules are designed to prevent more sprawl, but leak.
“If you’re on the Titanic and the captain gives you a shot glass and tells you to start bailing, unless you slow the leak down it’s never going to work,” said Paul Spadaro, president of the Magothy River Association.
Stopping the leaks will take more money, but also some backbone.
“In suburban counties like ours, septic systems and lawn fertilizer are now the two leading contributors of nitrogen pollution in our rivers,” Johnston said. “We need to take a serious look at our policies on septic systems and lawn fertilizer.”
It can cost a homeowner almost $70,000 to change from a septic tank up to a wastewater treatment system, and that makes convincing all homeowners in a community difficult. The state already provides some assistance to cover the costs, but not enough to make much of a dent in the state’s 420,000 underground sewage tanks.
“There is a need for more funding, but I really can’t pass the opportunity to point out there is a need for better enforcement of existing laws,” said Jesse Iliff, executive director of the Severn River Association. “That has been one of the real sticking points of the entire bay restoration movement.”
Fixing problems can take decades. Anne Arundel County recently announced that its resilience authority, created to deal with climate change, would invest $8 million in Jabez Branch, a small tributary of the Severn River destroyed by the construction of Interstate 97 in the late 1980s.
Water quality has started to improve on some waterways. After about 60 restoration projects on the South River, free-floating spat — baby oysters looking for a new home — has been spotted near the new Glebe Bay oyster reef.
What good is spending millions of dollars to repair habitat when careless work or bad planning can undo it all and governments fail to issue citations and fines?
“It just takes a couple of weeks of county and state inspectors working with companies to get them to voluntarily do things to destroy it all,” Iliff said.
Finally, there is a need for better monitoring of progress. Maryland has water quality monitoring sites on local rivers, but just one for each.
The Severn River Association has a robust volunteer monitoring program, but Iliff has questioned whether testing at 50 sites every summer is the most effective use of the nonprofit’s resources.
And local governments are often stranded on shore.
“The county, which loves to get in people’s faces concerning what you can do in the critical area, does not even have a boat to measure failure or success,” Spadaro said.
After Moore left the executive council meeting at the National Arboretum, state Natural Resources Secretary Josh Kurtz said progress so far for his agency has focused on sharing science, best practices and making funding easier for river conservation groups like those in Anne Arundel.
“The next piece of that really is shifting our resources, shifting some of our approaches, and sharing some of that knowledge with our local government partners — nonprofit partners like the riverkeepers,” he said.
The partners, however, have long been waiting.
“The big lesson from our work and on the Patuxent generally is that the grassroots are what keeps the professionals honest, as they try to balance the dictates of keeping their jobs and professional standing while fighting an intractable system that hasn’t ever cleaned up any rivers in the past — ever,” Tutman said. “Shocking that this truth is only now dawning on the ‘professionals.’”