Scientist tests Severn, protects Magothy


County scientist Sally Horner has her hands full of two rivers this year.

Ms. Horner, who coordinates water quality testing of the Severn River each summer, is making plans to begin a second such program, Operation Clearwater II, approved by the Severn River Association March 16.

At the same time, she has been named the executive coordinator of the Magothy River Land Trust, which hopes to protect land along the river from development.

In her new job with the land trust, Ms. Horner looks for property owners interested in entering into a legally binding agreement, called a conservation easement, prohibiting development on the land.

The Magothy trust, organized two years ago, is making significant progress with its first such easement, said Ms. Horner, a researcher with the Anne Arundel Community College's Environmental Center.

The easement involves a two acre wooded parcel in Shore Acres with a view of the Magothy River. "We have another property actually on the water that may come through, and a number of other possibilities we're working on," said the 43-year-old microbiologist.

The trust's job is to check on the property occasionally to make sure it is being protected from development, Ms. Horner said. Her task is to explain to property owners what land trusts are all about, including the substantial tax breaks that owners can receive. No money is exchanged between the trust and the owner, although owners must pay the county to have the land appraised and surveyed.

The trust's first easement hasn't cost the owner anything, however, because of the skills donated by various professionals.

The Magothy group, the sixth trust to incorporate in Anne Arundel County in the last three years, received its official tax-exempt status in January. The Maryland Environmental Trust gave the group a small grant to fund Ms. Horner's work, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust donated funds for advertising brochures.

In addition to her work along the Magothy, Ms. Horner is beginning her fourth year with Operation Clearwater, the Severn River Association's 19-year-old swim-water testing program.

Last year, she monitored 26 beaches and marinas along the Severn for bacteria called fecal coliforms. The bacteria itself is not dangerous, but may indicate the presence of human waste, hazardous because it can transmit diseases such as hepatitis.

This summer, Ms. Horner is hoping to carry out additional research with Operation Clearwater II.

The study would be carried out at the same time as the original Operation Clearwater, with sampling at the same sites. But Ms. Horner will analyze the samples for both fecal coliform and for a second group of bacteria, called enterococcus.

Fecal coliform has been found in nature even when there has not been recent fecal contamination. The enterococcus is a clearer sign of human waste because the bacteria apparently cannot survive or reproduce in nature; they must come directly from human waste.

The coliform contamination could come from septic tanks seeping, from sewer pipes or drain-fields or from someone dumping waste into the water. Or, said Ms. Horner, it could come from geese and ducks. Or it could be from some unknown source. The enterococcus "may be a better indicator of water quality," Ms. Horner said.

Whatever the source of contamination, less of it was found last summer, said Ms. Horner. She found the cleanest water in the four years she's been testing.

All over the area, people who analyze water quality noticed improvement in 1992, said Ms. Horner. "No one has been really able to pinpoint the cause. My feeling is that for the rivers, there has been less construction in 1992 than in previous years. Construction is always a problem because there's a lot of runoff."

In addition to clearer water, more aquatic plants appeared along the shore line and fewer algae blooms, she said.

"It's great, but I wish we knew why," said Ms. Horner. "Maybe it's a combination of all the efforts that have been made. Some people have suggested that because of the recession, we had fewer boaters, but I don't know if that's true."

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