Unhealthy Waters

The following first appeared in the Capital Gazette.

Photo by Krista Schlyer/iLCP

Thankfully, The Capital reported sewer spills in Cox Creek and Furnace Creek after last week's deluge. That coverage allowed swimmers and boaters to avoid the water.

But many other county creeks and rivers were fouled last week by something equally unpleasant as sewage: polluted runoff from the storm. The danger to human health in those waters was serious just as it was in Cox and Furnace Creeks. Unfortunately, many bathers had no idea.

It did not help that Anne Arundel County Health Department chose not to test waters at many public swimming areas after the storm. That could have helped spur newspaper coverage, and thus alert bathers and others.
But we know bacteria levels at many private swimming areas were alarmingly high after the storm. Volunteers with Operation Clearwater conducted their customary weekly water monitoring at those private recreation areas. Tests done on those samples at the laboratory of the Biology Department of Anne Arundel County Community College showed bacteria levels as much as 95 times government safety levels. At those levels, a swimmer might just as well have been wading into sewage.

Here's a partial list of private swimming and recreation areas in the Severn, Magothy, South, and Rhode/West rivers that had unhealthy bacteria levels after the storm. Any reading above 104 is unhealthy. Carrollton Manor-Sunset Beach (17,420); Hendler Road (8,060); Cockey Creek (14,400), Forked Creek (13,250); Dividing Creek (10,944) Mill Creek (9,360); Beards Creek (41,472); South River Park (9,504); Edgewater Community Beach (5,472); Holly Hills (12,442); Cadle Creek Community Dock (12,384) Whitemarsh Community Dock and Beach (9,101); Parrish Creek (4,896); Riverclub Community Dock and Beach (5.990).

Again, the reason for the unhealthy water in these areas was not broken sewage lines or pumps as in Cox and Furnace Creeks. It was the runoff from our local streets, lawns, and other areas that carries with it pet waste, septic leakage, and other pollution. Animal and human waste carry bacteria that, at high levels, can cause stomach ailments or more serious health problems.

The county health department did issue on its website a general advisory to avoid contact with water for 48 hours after the storm--and after any significant storm--because of anticipated health risks from runoff.

It is important for the public to know the harm caused by polluted runoff, not only so they can avoid recreating in unhealthy waters, but so they know the reason they are paying the so-called "rain tax." It is precisely the problem of polluted runoff the fee is intended to address. The funds are being used to upgrade the long-neglected drainage systems throughout our communities, and to clean up local water. Knowing the source of the problem, residents also will be more motivated to pick up pet waste and address other causes close to home.

Long-term, the solution to dirty water is simple: reduce pollution. The path to that success is laid out in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. That's the regional plan now in place to implement all clean-up strategies by 2025 to make our water safe enough for swimming and fishing. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has called on all local governments to provide transparent means for residents to track progress toward this cleaner water.

In the meantime, let's at least make sure the public knows the extent of the problem, and how to avoid risks to its health. There's no sense pretending that after a storm our own creeks don't stink.

--Alison Prost, CBF's Maryland Executive Director

Alison Prost

Issues in this Post

Polluted Runoff   Sewage & Septic Systems   Maryland Office, Annapolis  



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