Maryland seeking to improve public access to waterways
By By Jonathan Munshaw and The Baltimore Sun
Aug 09, 2014 | 2:06 PM
Liz Sweeney of Timonium used to race her kayak while she lived in New York City.
At the time, Sweeney would practice in the Hudson River, though public access to waterways was hard to find.
Now, she is able to get up early and take her kayak to Loch Raven Fishing Center in Baltimore County, as she did on a recent day. Although she no longer races, she still uses her kayak for exercise.
Elsewhere at the fishing center that day, minutes after Sweeney got out of the water, Rick Warner of Carney came in on his boat after a morning excursion.
Warner uses the water for bass fishing — a purpose very different from Sweeney's — but both are pleased with the level of public water access in Maryland. Warner said it was "extremely easy" for him and his fishing friends to find places to get out on the water.
In the United States, however, it can be tough for boaters to find acceptable water access for watercraft such as kayaks and motorboats. A boating survey released by a national public opinion firm this year found that 43 percent of boaters say public boating ramps are too crowded, and 30 percent say there's not enough boating access areas in their state.
Sweeney and Warner are just two of many boaters in Maryland — there were 185,626 registered boats in the state in 2012 — who need to find regular public water access.
Warner classifies Loch Raven Fishing Center as his “home base” but uses the interactive map on Maryland's Department of Natural Resources website to find other boating ramps in the state, including at Rocky Ridge and Prettyboy Reservoir.
Mark O'Malley, boating director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said Maryland has an advantage when it comes to boating access because of the number of waterways available to the public, especially the Chesapeake Bay.
“We try to market Maryland in its uniqueness because you can fish or you can join a community to boat,” he said.
"There's something for everybody, whether you have a sailboat or a paddleboard."
During the recession, O'Malley said, many people sold their boats because they couldn't afford to maintain them or to buy a slip at a marina. Instead, people — especially the younger working class — are purchasing personal watercraft.
Personal watercraft are easier to get onto the water and don't require a whole slip at a marina.
“It's a lot easier to buy [personal watercraft]; there's more shops popping up,” Sweeney said. “I see them on top of people's cars and I see people on here on the water increasing, and the number of kayaks being stored” at the fishing center, which allows patrons to boat on the Loch Raven Reservoir.
The survey also showed that 41 percent of boaters use a boat mainly to fish. To accommodate those with fishing boats, the state has been trying to keep up existing public ramps rather than put in new ones.
In 2013, the Maryland Senate passed a bill that established a task force to study and improve boating in the state, and the House passed a bill that requires the Department of Transportation, when constructing or improving a waterway crossing, to review how that crossing could be improved for water access.
The task force looks at the existing ramps and makes recommendations for how they might be improved or repaired.
In the study, the main problems boaters had with public access ramps included inadequate space, insufficient parking near the ramps and too-shallow water.
Michael Belitzky, the manager of government relations for the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, said the Senate bill was a big step for Maryland in providing the best boating access.
“The creation of this task force demonstrates Maryland's commitment to boating, and how to develop best practices to not only promote recreational boating, but also to consider incentives for boaters to register in the state and use marinas and boatyards for recreation, repair and outfitting,” Belitzky said in an email.
O'Malley and his department eventually determine which local jurisdiction to send money to for water access improvement.
“We look at when the last time that county received money [was]; if one county got money eight or nine years ago, we'd tend to go with the county who hadn't gotten it in eight or nine years. We also go out and do site visits to see the shape [a ramp is] in,” O'Malley said.
"Another thing is how much it serves. There's not one specific criteria; there's a number of them, and we score them out and we come up with a total score and try to make it as equitable as possible so one county or spot isn't favored over the other."
Besides the recreational aspect, O'Malley said water access in the state is also tied to the economy. According to O'Malley, recreational boating in Maryland represents $2 billion in economic impact and is responsible for 32,000 jobs.
But for Sweeney, water access is all about getting more people on the water.