Thousands of pounds of chemicals polluting Severn River, study says

Thousands of pounds of pollutants are running into the Severn River because systems designed to stop the chemicals are poorly maintained, a privately funded study released Friday stated.

"The watershed audit is not intended to make [Anne Arundel County] look bad," said Duane Wilding, president of the Severn River Association. "It's about how we, the communities, homeowners … and private developers help them to ensure these systems are working properly."

Many drainage systems in neighborhoods and commercial areas that were developed to collect and cleanse rainwater are outdated or in disrepair, according to the Severn River Preliminary Watershed Audit, allowing into the river some of the 1.4 million pounds of pollutants annually that should be stopped by filtration systems. The large number of ineffective storm water systems — a third or more are not working, depending on the type — in the Severn watershed is a bad sign for Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay, said the report's author.

The pollution could harm aquatic life, such as fish and shellfish, according to the study.

"If what's one of the most environmentally conscious counties in the state has storm water systems that are in doubt, that doesn't bode well," said Richard Klein, who prepared the audit. Klein is founder and president of Owings Mills-based Community & Environmental Defense Service, the organization that prepared the appraisal in conjunction with the river association.

Revenue reductions in Anne Arundel, as in other county governments, have prompted service cuts in nearly all departments, Klein said, forcing a decline in the number of public employees who inspect runoff filtration systems. Fewer inspectors mean that fewer systems are put back in working order, he said.

Maryland Department of the Environment records indicate that there are about 2,000 individual drainage systems that serve around 7,000 acres of developed land in the Severn watershed, according to Klein's report.

These filtration systems are often ponds, basins and trenches that residents do not realize are designed to be more than just landscaping, Klein said.

"It's a nice, attractive area," he said, "but it also serves an important water quality purpose."

Replacing rusted pipes or clearing sediment can often return these drainage systems to full working order, he said, though no one is routinely checking these systems to make sure they are functioning properly.

In the 1990s, Anne Arundel County employed seven people to inspect pollution-catching water systems, the study said. Now there is only one person doing that job and each of the 2,000 systems is supposed to be inspected at least every three years, said Klein, calling it an "absurd burden."

Matt Diehl, a spokesman for the county's Department of Public Works, declined to comment on the allocation of funds to inspectors because budget issues should be addressed by the county executive's office, he said. A voice mail left for Dave Abrams, a spokesman for Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, was not returned Friday.

"The truth is, every county employee is dealing with furloughs right now," said Diehl, who added that financial constraints were inhibiting the restoration and retrofitting of some drainage systems. "They [repairs] are successful, but they're also expensive. Therein lies the problem."

Wilding and Klein agree that it is time for private groups, such as homeowners associations, to step in and monitor and maintain these filtration systems. Marylanders should not expect future government revenue increases, which could be years away, to be used for the reduction of pollutants leaching into waterways, Wilding said.

It is time to educate home and business owners to identify the specific type of drainage system on or near their property and the common warning signs that the runoff system isn't working correctly, he said. For instance, some drainage ponds are not working right if there is standing water while others are intended to have several feet of rainwater.

"It would take as little as an hour every two to three years to check," said Klein.

In addition to surveying the effectiveness of drainage systems, the audit examined other factors that affect the health of the Severn River, including sewage collection, forest conservation and construction site erosion.

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