Perspective Helps When Considering a River's Health - Southern Maryland Headline News

Perspective Helps When Considering a River's Health


Environmental Commentary by Tim Rowland

The late Butch Ward was angling poetry in motion, and the Potomac was his parchment. His casts were like shots from a .22, peppering the water with a curious array of lures that made sense to Butch and the bass, if not to anyone else. One cast, two, and if he hadn’t landed a smallmouth by then he’d whip his boat toward another hole.

Fat fish seemingly flew into his boat—and back out. He was every bit as much a conservationist as he was a champion bass fisherman. And Butch would preach to the people he guided on the river the value of catch-and-release fishing and the fruits of conserving their environment.

Butch Ward died 13 years ago, a friend of the Potomac who knew that in the not-so-distant past, the trophy smallmouth that made him famous had ceased to exist. He understood how far the Potomac River had come since the ’60s, when President Johnson had labeled our National River a “national disgrace.”

True, the Potomac still rates a grade of D from the Potomac Conservancy. Invasive species are a constant threat, development compounds stormwater runoff issues, and male bass have been discovered carrying eggs. That can’t be good.

Keeping these issues before the public is critical from an educational standpoint. River watchers who fear the river will begin to give up recent gains are correct—this is not the time to pat everyone on the back for a job well done and go home.

But perspective is also helpful. If all we hear about the river is doom and gloom, we risk convincing a segment of the public that restoration is hopeless. As Bart Simpson would say, “Got it: Can’t win, don’t try.” Further, a look back at what the river has become is good proof that, yes, government intervention has worked.

Polluters like to change the conversation to what some see as overzealous regulation like protecting spotted owls or drainage ditches categorized as wetlands to cloud the debate. But it’s important to remember—especially in this (sometimes deservedly) anti-regulatory atmosphere— that in the main, the benefits of environmental rules have produced incalculable rewards and economic benefits.

Fifty years before Ward’s death, seven lanky young men loaded up three canoes and cast off into the North Branch of the Potomac, 225 miles upstream from tidal Washington. One of them, Ralph Gray, wrote about the trip in a 1948 piece for National Geographic.

The difference between then and now is both astounding and worth celebrating. On the upper Potomac, the lack of life stunned Gray and his companions.. Not just fish and game were absent, but people, too, had disappeared because of “pollution, industrial and sanitary. Acid coal mine runoff, blending with the outflow from the Luke, Maryland, paper mill 12 miles above our starting place, combined to kill nearly all life in the water.”

It is only natural to lament lost jobs, even the hardscrabble work of coal mines and paper mills. But 65 years of perspective tells us this: When dirty jobs disappear, clean jobs have a way of taking their place. Today, Gray’s entourage would likely encounter a slew of anglers, bicyclists, hunters and campers spreading a broad net of dollars across the region. It’s not as visible as a sprawling mill, but the economic impact is every bit as real.

In 1948, “Spume flecked the river, Gray wrote. “Our paddles stirred up black sediment with every stroke. Where the water was three or four feet deep a kind of subterranean fermentation sent bubbles popping to the surface.” Above Cumberland, a chemical plant poured “soapy looking foam” into the river. Below the Queen City, they saw a gaping pipe “from which gushed a great volume of black liquid. This was Cumberland’s trunk sewer, dumping its raw contents into the river.”

People are naturally drawn toward water, but the Potomac had become so sickening that it drove people away.

Cumberland, Gray wrote “now turns its back on the river to which it owes its origin.” Today that’s changed. Cumberland embraces its river and its history and has rebuilt its downtown around the water.

Fifty years before Gray’s expedition, President Grover Cleveland was pulling smallmouth bass out of the nation’s river below Harpers Ferry. Fifty years after, Butch Ward was doing the same thing.

The century in between and years since haven’t been easy. But they show that environmental calamities can be reversed, and that if we keep our eyes on the prize we can win. Whether at work on a river, a bay or a planet, the healing powers of nature are remarkable. The lesson of Gray, Ward and a host of people who have rediscovered the nation’s river, is that we just need to give it a chance.

Tim Rowland is a newspaper columnist and author of “Maryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering.” Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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