Trying to breathe life into the bay


S. John Blumenthal might be a savior for suffocating fish in the small creeks of the Chesapeake Bay. Or he might be the Don Quixote of dissolved oxygen.

Eager to relieve the stressed-out fish and crabs in the bay's tributaries, he has souped up a pontoon boat with a generator and seven aerators that can pump oxygen into the water.

But for more than a year, the strange, 24-foot craft has been sitting in the corner of a parking lot in Owings Mills. It's ready to hit the water at a moment's notice, but remains a boat without a clearly defined mission.

"I'm not claiming that it's a magic bullet, because I know the Chesapeake Bay is a big place," says Blumenthal, 56. "But for my children and my grandchildren, it would be nice to think that I could play a part in helping to clean up and restore even just one tributary to the bay. It would be a nice legacy."

The problem, he says, is getting someone to take his invention seriously. He wants it tested by an independent, neutral scientist, but he concedes that it's hard - and expensive - to come up with a controlled experiment to prove whether the boat can help the bay.

Although scientists familiar with the bay's dissolved oxygen problems are skeptical, none dismiss him as a crackpot.

That's because Blumenthal and his companies - Blumenthal-Kahn Electric Limited Partnership and The Power House Inc. - have a record of inventing useful water-based devices. Their best-known patented product is the Ice Eater, deployed by thousands of dock owners each winter to keep ice from forming around boats and piers.

The problem, scientists say, is that the bay's tributaries are so large that it's hard to believe one boat could have much impact - even one with seven large aerators.

"It can work, but on a very small scale. Even something like the Magothy or the Severn would probably be too big, perhaps a small stream or creek off of one of them," says Rich Batiuk, associate director of science for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program. "But I'd never want to get in the way of people saying: 'We've got a problem. How can we solve it?' Those are the people who produce ideas that can make eventually make a difference."

The bay program and other recent surveys have found a dead zone - devoid of oxygen - far larger than any previously recorded. Dissolved oxygen is critical for fish and crabs, scientists say, and low levels can kill them or drive them away. Researchers blame low levels primarily on nutrient runoff, which causes algae blooms that deplete the water's oxygen supply.

The most comprehensive solution, scientists say, is to cut back on nutrient sources, primarily agriculture and wastewater treatment plants. They've studied water-cleaning devices from time to time, but none has held out broad promise.

"These are probably technologies that may have some limited application in selected areas of the bay, but they are not likely to be useful in solving the overall problem," says Carlton H. Hershner Jr., director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "When you're talking about deep water, stirring that up is not an insignificant undertaking. The volumes of water that would need to be stirred are immense, and the energy demands to do that are huge."

Although he is reviewing a windmill-based proposal to aerate the bay, he is not optimistic. "Basically, we've got to stop the flow of nutrients that has created the problem in the first place," he says.

Some scientists warn that potential solutions may create problems. For example, aerators could dislodge harmful sediment from the bottom, and nutrients that have sunk down could be stirred up - feeding the algae and lowering the oxygen again. Blumenthal says his boat was designed to avoid that pitfall by keeping the aerators suspended in the water.

Blumenthal says he has been concerned about oxygen starvation since 1986, when he saw news reports of smelly water and fish kills in a creek near his boyhood home in northern Anne Arundel County. When he stuck one of his Ice Eater aerators in the water there, he says, the smell - and dying fish - went away.

From there, Blumenthal started tinkering with aerators on fish farms, persuading an Auburn University professor to study whether they could help raise bigger fish more quickly. As his gadgets caught on, some west Alabama farmers eventually gave Blumenthal the nickname "Bubba Catfish."

Blumenthal - who serves on the governor's Aquaculture Advisory Committee - even started his own Eastern Shore striped bass farm. But he gave up after several years, he says, when new state environmental rules ate up the profits.

Last summer, his interest was renewed when he saw stories about the oxygen problem on the same creek he had visited in 1986. "I saw that we needed to try something," Blumenthal says.

His original sketches for the boat - scrawled on stationary from a Ritz Carlton Hotel - evolved into a detailed design that has been submitted for a patent.

The green-carpeted craft, now in the parking lot of Blumenthal's electrical contracting business, has an 18-horsepower gasoline generator to power the aerators, mounted in tandem on 8-foot booms that swing out from the sides and bow. The seventh aerator can be dropped into the water between the pontoons.

"This thing is designed to pump a lot of oxygen into the water, and it does," says Charlie Gamber, a long-time employee who helped put the boat together.

The craft got a couple of practice runs on the water last summer, which Blumenthal videotaped. Now he is hoping somebody will work with him to design a more scientific test, to see whether it can make a lasting difference on an oxygen-starved tributary.

Robert Magnien, director of the tidewater ecosystems division of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says that would be expensive and complicated.

"It's much more costly to test something like this in the field, where things are uncontrolled in terms of weather and tides and algae blooms," Magnien says. "With an algae bloom, conditions can change very quickly. If you go in there with some type of device and inject oxygen in, it would be almost impossible to determine what the device was doing vs. what nature was doing."

Like some other scientists, Magnien worries that inventions like Blumenthal's will divert attention from the bay's bigger problems. "We've got to attack it at the source, rather than put a Band-Aid on it," he says.

But Blumenthal says he won't give up contacting government officials until he persuades someone to sign on and help him. "We're not going to get anywhere if we don't try," he says.

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