The scrape of shovels and a foul odor filled the air Monday at City Dock in Annapolis, where a crew from the Harbormaster’s Office spent the day removing truckloads of logs, trash and other debris that had floated into Ego Alley after the recent deluge of rain.
Downtown Annapolis got a close-up view of what boaters had been seeing in the Chesapeake Bay all weekend: murky water, awash with flotsam and jetsam from the Susquehanna and Patapsco rivers and other bay tributaries.
“I’ve never seen a debris field like this,” said Deputy Harbormaster Tyler Northfield. “It’s pretty nasty.”
The rain that pounded much of the Northeast last week washed car tires, telephone poles, full trees and all manner of other junk into the bay, prompting Natural Resources Police to ask people to stay off the water for part of the weekend out of caution.
“It’s the stuff that punches a hole in the hull of your boat,” said Candy Thomson, Natural Resources Police spokeswoman. “And if you hit it hard enough, someone could be ejected from your boat.”
Even more insidious is the sediment itself. The Susquehanna, the source of half of the fresh water in the Chesapeake, carries pollution and farm runoff from Pennsylvania and part of upstate New York.
The river crested at nearly 400,000 cubic feet of water per second at its peak at the Conowingo Dam on Thursday, according to Exelon, which operates the dam.
The company raised 20 of the dam’s crest gates to keep the rainwater from overwhelming it — which also released detritus from the river’s 27,500-square-mile watershed.
“It is physically impossible to control or remove all of the debris and trash coming down the river, especially during high-flow events,” Exelon spokeswoman Deena O’Brien said in a statement.
Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles acknowledged that planning for the type of downpours the region has experienced in recent months is difficult. But more frequent dredging of the reservoir would help, he said.
“By removing the sediment behind the dam, there would be more freeboard behind the dam and less risk of pollution,” Grumbles said.
Exelon has removed more than 600 tons of debris from behind the dam this year, O’Brien said.
“We understand and share the concerns of the public and our key stakeholders regarding the debris flowing downriver and its potential impact on property, safety and the health of the river and the Chesapeake Bay,” O’Brien said.
All beaches in Anne Arundel County undergo a 48-hour no-swimming advisory after any rainfall of a half-inch or more, “due to predicted elevated bacteria levels from rainwater runoff and increased health risks,” according to the health department.
Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the volume of storm water running into the bay last week drew comparisons to Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.
He noticed seagrass and water celery amid the debris in the muddy water near the Bay Foundation’s headquarters, an indication that the runoff may have damaged the Susquehanna’s seagrass beds.
“We won’t know until the water clears,” he said.
Given all the recent rain, the beautiful weather this weekend drew many people out despite the hazardous conditions, said Thomson, the Natural Resources Police spokeswoman.
James Hiser was one of them. The 59-year-old Annapolis man took his boat out from Chesapeake Harbour Saturday and headed to Kent Narrows for lunch at the Crab Deck.
Of those out on the water, nobody was moving very quickly, Hiser said. All eyes were trained on the surface for trees, tires, plastic and other boat-perilous pollution.
“On Saturday morning there was a bunch of big, huge trees north of the Bay Bridge,” Hiser said. “By Saturday afternoon it had moved down and was in the entrance of the Severn River.
“Every five or 10 minutes, another boater would see another tree.”
Shoveling the mess from the Annapolis water Monday wasn’t a glamorous task. But it was better than shoveling snow, Assistant Harbormaster Ted Bruce said.
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“I’m not cold,” he said.