When Jim Wilson retired from the federal government four years ago, he and his wife moved to Kent Island, where they initially enjoyed watching ospreys fishing in Northwest Creek from their waterfront home.
But now, Wilson and most others living around the creek stay out of the murky water, which has turned yellow-green the past two summers. Even the ospreys steer clear of it, he said.
Fish kills and stubborn "blooms" of blue-green algae, which at times form a floating scum, plague Northwest Creek. Authorities have posted signs along the shore warning people not to go in the water when it looks odd and to keep children and pets away. The algae can emit a toxin capable of poisoning animals and people if they ingest enough of it.
"This is by far the worst it's been," said Hamilton Walker, who has lived here since 2000 and no longer lets his grandchildren swim in the creek.
Waterfront property owners have struggled for several years to get help from the state in restoring the creek, essentially a 100-acre lake, as its narrow, meandering outlet to the Chesapeake Bay is essentially blocked by a buildup of sand.
How that happened, what should be done about it and by whom have been matters of dispute, which until recently seemed to have no solution.
Residents say the lake was once a tidal tributary that teemed with geese and ducks, fish and muskrats. They said it became cut off after the farms that once surrounded it began to be replaced by homes in the 1960s, and they suggested that a builder might have hastened the process by filling in the creek's mouth.
State officials say the filling in was more likely a natural phenomenon, driven by tides and currents.
"All these inlets want to close up, everything from the Ocean City inlet to these very small ones," said Kevin Smith, chief of riparian and wetland restoration for the Department of Natural Resources.
The creek does get periodic storm-driven influxes of water from the bay, but it has become shallower over time, with fish kills occurring when summer heat and algae deplete the water of oxygen. There have been 18 fish kills in Northwest Creek since 1986, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. Nearly all stemmed from a lack of oxygen, and investigators noted algae blooms in most instances.
The lake dried up completely during an especially dry summer in 2007, residents say, and things have gotten worse. Last year, while investigating fish kills, state officials detected potentially unsafe levels of blue-green algae and warned residents to stay out of the water. There was another large fish kill this summer of about 400 carp, and the algae returned, prompting renewed warnings.
The algae is Microcystis, an ancient form of bacteria that uses sunlight to process its food, as plants do. It feeds on nutrients in the water and can draw more nutrients from bottom sediments by consuming oxygen in the water at night and carbon dioxide in daytime.
"This is the most primitive organism we know of," said Kevin Sellner, executive director of the Chesapeake Research Consortium, who along with other scientists has been studying Microcystis blooms that periodically crop up around the state. "And yet it can perpetuate itself day and night. I'd like to be so primitive."
Microcystis releases toxins, and if enough are ingested they can damage the liver and nervous systems of animals, including humans. Though there have been no documented cases of Marylanders being poisoned lately, a Girl Scout camp in Caroline County couldn't use its lake for three years because of blooms, and a pair of dogs died several years ago after swimming in an algae-infested Dorchester County lake.
The levels measured this summer in Northwest Creek weren't as high as what killed the dogs, but they prompted warnings because they were above the safety threshold set by the World Health Organization, said Matthew Rowe, deputy science services director for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The warnings — and the worry — have kept residents off the water.
"We do have a paddleboat," said Wilson, "but we really haven't used it."
Residents want the creek dredged and reopened to the bay, arguing that the tides would flush away its water-quality woes. But that could cost more than $1 million, by some estimates, and residents say that until this year, they've been told it is up to them to figure out how to restore Northwest Creek, never mind how to pay for it.
State officials have told residents, who formed a nonprofit, Alliance to Restore Northwest Creek, that environmental permits likely will be issued once the group fleshes out plans for dredging and opening the creek.
But drawing up a plan costs money the group doesn't have, said Wilson, the alliance's chairman, and residents can't get anyone to give them a planning grant until they get the permits.
"It's one of these 'Catch-22' scenarios," he said.
The state's attitude changed this year, residents say, after they enlisted the help of their state senator, E.J. Pipkin, a Republican who recently resigned his seat to move to Texas. After last summer's water scare, he pressed state officials to take a more active role in trying to fix the creek, writing a series of letters and holding a meeting in May.
"The waters of Northwest Creek are owned by the State, and the State should have the primary role in the creek's maintenance," he wrote the state environmental secretary in February.
Since then, the state has allocated $40,000 to draw up a plan for restoring the creek and awarded the contract recently to a Cambridge firm.
Smith acknowledged the former legislator's advocacy, but said officials were moved by the circumstances, not political pressure.
"When you have habitat and human health issues come into play, that changes the whole tenor of the thing and cranks it up a couple notches," Smith said. "We all recognize there's an issue out there [and] we need to address it. ... It's not going to go away."
The plan should clarify options for restoring the creek and clear the way for regulators to issue permits, but that still leaves the question of who will pay for the remedies.
"That is a bridge we haven't gotten to yet," Smith said. "We're talking about a project that's going to be pricey, and it's not determined where are those funds and who's going to pay for it."
Part of the algae problem might be self-inflicted, the DNR official said. Scientists studying the creek measured high ammonia levels there at one point, indicative of a glut of nitrogen. All the homes are on septic systems, and nitrogen from them might be seeping into the water. Some farmland still drains into the creek, raising the possibility that fertilizer might be running off, Smith added.
Wilson said residents know they must share in the effort to return the creek to vitality.
"There's snapping turtles and a few snakes in there," he said, "but really nothing else at this point. It really is a shame."
Meanwhile, scientists with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science have been testing remedies for knocking out the bloom.
Just off Walker's dock, they have experimented with a treatment that includes spraying the water with a compound made from ground-up crab shells. The acidified solution gets the algae to clump, and after a layer of fine sediment is sprayed on the surface, everything sinks to the bottom, leaving the water clearer.
"We're trying to do this with the cheapest method possible," said Allen Place, a professor at UM's Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore.
Place and colleagues rid the Girl Scout lake of its problem, but only after draining it — something that would be costly and complicated for Northwest Creek, given its size and proximity to the bay.
Walker welcomed the scientists' efforts but said residents believe dredging offers the best option.
"That's an interesting solution, but it's not a long-term solution," he said. "What we want to do is a forever solution."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun