St. Mary’s River Watershed Dying, Says Army Corp. of Engr. - Southern Maryland Headline News

St. Mary’s River Watershed Dying, Says Army Corp. of Engr.

By Adam Ross, County Times

LEONARDTOWN, Md. (June 7, 2007) - The St. Mary’s Watershed River Watershed is continually deteriorating and severely threatened from future land growth, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Following results from the ongoing St. Mary’s River Watershed Restoration Feasibility Study, the watershed is said to be dying from stream degradation, marginal water quality and loss of underwater vegetation.

As the study moves forward, its biggest hurdle might not be how to restore the health of the watershed and its major tributaries, but rather how long it could take Congress to pass and authorize a $43 million broad based 25 year plan.

“I haven’t seen any of the review processes take less than two years,” said Steven A. Kopecky, a project manager and geographer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the St. Mary’s Board of County Commissioners Tuesday. “Long term commitments are expensive… It’s always a tough sell.”

The plan takes careful consideration of the unpredictable nature of weather patterns, and future shifts in water quality, calling for “real time monitoring” of 3,000 acres that will according to Kopecky be “programmatic and ongoing.”

Once the funding is set in place and the problems are nailed down, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has proposed less focus towards stream restoration, but rather restoring old storm water facilities, and plant and oyster supplies.

Specifically, Kopecky recommends restoring 462 acres of oysters, 1380 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation habitat and 28 hydrology improvements.

However due to diseases filtrating down, Commissioner Lawrence Jarboe cautioned the program’s leaders to look at pollution and water quality upstream before restoring oyster stocks.

“We did analysis with the College of Southern Maryland on a oyster restoration plan and found that the water quality was there, but we don’t have the oysters,” said Kopecky. “We’re not sure how long it would take to take x amount of oysters to filter x amount of water.”

Further, because the best way to learn from nature is to adapt to it, according to Kopecky, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning a dedicated program to each estuary, including Breton Bay, St. Clement’s Bay, Wicomico River and St. Mary’s River.

“Water is always uncertain,” added Kopecky. “We want to react to that in a programmatic reaction, so, 10 years per estuary with the majority of the work going into the St. Mary’s [River Watershed].”

In its current configuration, the plan does little to address shoreline erosion; an issue Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. says is a salient obstacle in restoring health to the watershed.

“That shoreline is going somewhere in the estuary,” said Mattingly. “That has an affect on oysters and fish more than storm water runoff occurring from farm land and other places around the watershed.”

Kopecky did not necessarily concur with Mattingly’s conclusion, but said that a separate ongoing study of 7,000 miles of eroded shoreline is happening right now in Maryland, independently of the watershed restoration feasibility study.

Mattingly also was hesitant to support a program when according to him polluters up and down the river and Chesapeake Bay’s shorelines were not being tamed.

“Until the federal and state levels go after these polluters, the little things we do aren’t going to change much,” said Mattingly.

The $43 million program would be funded in part by St. Mary’s County. The program calls for a 65 to 35 percent federal to non-federal funding ratio, however several entities would share in the cost of the non-federal portion.

In addition, the St. Mary’s Board of County Commissions would have to dedicate Sue Veith, a county environmental planner with the department of land use and growth management, to oversee and assist in the program’s long-term success.

Commissioner Daniel H. Raley was unsupportive of taking Veith’s services away from the county’s citizens who struggle with their own land use issues, and the time it can take to approve critical area projects.

Raley opposed the motion.

“How I vote on this will be perceived as I don’t care about water quality,” said Raley. “That’s not the case.”

Raley was also disgruntled about $100,000 cash the county handed to the program in 2000.

“Now it’s 2007 and we’re talking at least two more years,” Raley said.

Amy M. Guise, chief of the civil project development branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers based in Baltimore District said moving a bill through Congress for a similar program would typically take 18 months.

Guise oversees all of the congressionally directed, non-military projects that go through Congress.

“This is my interest in being here and making sure this project stays on the right path,” said Guise. “We want to see the recommendations come to fruition.”

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