RiverFest Celebrates St. Mary's River

Photo: The County Times.
Photo: The County Times.

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (Sept. 26, 2019)—The St. Mary's River is smaller than either the Patuxent River to the east or the Potomac River to the west but, for the Mother County of Maryland, it's perhaps the most important of the three, according to the chief advocacy group for the county's eponymous body of water.

"I think they should care about all rivers," said Bob Lewis, executive director of the St. Mary's River Watershed Association (SMRWA) of county residents.

"But the St. Mary's River is our home, it's our river." Aside from bearing the county's name, given to it back in the 17th century as the fourth oldest English colony to be established in America, the river is entirely contained within the county and is one of its key economic and recreational assets.

Ever since SMRWA was founded in 2005 it has held a RiverFest in Historic St. Mary's City to celebrate and bring attention to the county's own waterway; this weekend the city will host the 14th RiverFest, rain or shine.

The event has gone largely unchanged since its inception with tables and displays offering activities from petting tanks for children to learn about the animal life that the river supports to workshops about how residents can help maintain the health of the river by conserving water, reducing waste flowing into the watershed and even how to tong for oysters.

They even offer advice on how to wash boats. The entire historic city will be open for free to all visitors Sept. 28 for RiverFest, said SMRWA President Joe Anderson.

Restoring the native oyster population in the St. Mary's River, and thus improving its health, is one of the key missions SMRWA has undertaken for the past several years as a non-profit organization.

Perhaps their most successful project has been the installation of an artificial stone reef just off the shore in the river at St. Mary's College or Maryland that seeks to replicate in similar form the old natural oyster reefs that once pervaded the entire Chesapeake Bay.

The oyster reefs were so large that they often broke the surface of the water and were deemed navigational hazards; they were picked clean for their oyster meat to help feed soldiers and civilians alike during the Civil War and fuel the expansion into the West.

The oyster reefs were also dynamited and their shells used for building roads to facilitate the expansion into the country's interior in the mid-19th century. The deconstruction of the reefs helped contribute to the decrease in oyster populations until present day when scientists estimate that harvests are less than one-tenth of one percent of historic hauls.

But the man-made reef, set on just five acres of river bottom, has helped to rapidly restore that small portion of the river's health, Lewis said.

The work began in 2013 with the support of groups like the Leonardtown Rotary Club joining in to help raise funding.

"It's an extremely rewarding project," Lewis said. "With our reef project, just in four to five years we've seen significant change.

"Before the project there was rarely a crab or a fish there."

By reintroducing the oysters into the small portion of riverbed, Lewis said aquatic life has returned, even surpassing the millions of oyster spat SMRWA has placed there.

"The natural [oyster] recruitment is outpacing us," Lewis said. "In some places were seeing 400 oysters per square meter.

"The average is 100 to 150 oysters per square meter." Lewis said since the inception of the project the watershed association has engaged at least 1,000 volunteers to help.

"This year we've engaged at least 500 people," Lewis said.

Costs for restoring oyster habitat are high, Lewis said, since prices for oyster shell have sky-rocketed in recent years.

"We used to be able to by a bushel of oyster shell for about $1.50 cents delivered," Lewis said. "Now its $8 to $9 a bushel."

The oyster harvesting status of the St. Mary's River is controversial as it is host to an oyster sanctuary, which restricts it from any harvesting by either recreational or commercial fishers.

SMRWA has been a strong advocate for closing off a portion of the river to oyster harvesting, while watermen have opposed such actions, claiming some of the best natural production takes place at the site of the sanctuary.

Anderson said 15 percent of the St. Mary's River is held in sanctuary, with the rest being opening to public oyster harvesting.

The overall health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed has improved over the last several years but remains far from good; by comparison Lewis described the condition of the St. Mary's River as fair.

The St. Mary's River is one of five throughout Maryland the state government as committed to restoring, Lewis said, and the county's river is one of the more resilient ones when it comes to providing a strong oyster harvest.

Also, the heavy rains which contributed to a large dead zone in the bay of little to no oxygen for wildlife, did not seem to affect the St. Mary's River, Lewis said.

"There's clear water and SAV [submerged aquatic vegetation] everywhere," Lewis said. "But it could be so much better."

RiverFest's mission is to encourage residents to do what they can to make the St. Mary's River a better place.

"It's a big quality of life issue," Anderson said. "It all ends up in the bay sooner or later.

"The [St. Mary's River] watershed is a big place; it takes up 20 percent of the county."

The local watershed also runs through the middle of the county's Lexington Park Development District, which has the greatest concentration of residents and commercial activity.

This also makes the watershed more vulnerable to pollution, Anderson said.

"It's to get people involved," said Lewis of the RiverFest 2019's mission. "We wanted to do something to help make the river their responsibility, so that likeminded people can come together… and learn new things.

"The more we can personalize the river, the more engaged they become."

For more local stories from the County Times newspapers, visit countytimes.somd.com or find a copy on local news stands.

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