- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2003

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — S. John Blumenthal says his modified pontoon boat armed with seven aerators may be able to relieve the suffocating fish and crabs in the Chesapeake Bay’s tributaries by pumping oxygen into the water.

But for more than a year, the 24-foot boat has been sitting in the corner of a parking lot in Owings Mills — a craft 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 Mr. 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.”

Mr. Blumenthal has a record of inventing useful water-based devices, including the Ice Eater, used by thousands of dock owners in winter to keep ice from forming around boats and piers.

He wants his boat tested by an independent scientist, but he says it’s hard, and expensive, to come up with a controlled experiment to prove whether the boat can help the Bay.

Scientists familiar with the Bay’s dissolved-oxygen problems say its tributaries are so large that it’s hard to believe that one boat could do much.

“It can work, but on a very small scale. Even something like the Magothy or the Severn [rivers] 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 eventually make a difference.”

Surveys have found a dead zone, devoid of oxygen, far larger than any previously recorded. Scientists say dissolved oxygen is critical for fish and crabs, 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 is to cut back on nutrient sources, primarily agriculture and wastewater treatment plants, scientists say. The water-cleaning devices that scientists have studied haven’t 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 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.”

Some scientists warn that aerators also could dislodge harmful sediment from the bottom, stirring up nutrients that have sunk, feeding the algae and lowering the oxygen again. Mr. Blumenthal says his boat has been designed to avoid that pitfall by keeping the aerators suspended in the water.

Mr. Blumenthal is hoping somebody will work with him to design a scientific test to see whether the boat 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.

Mr. Magnien says inventions such as Mr. Blumenthal’s also could 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.

Mr. Blumenthal, however, says he won’t give up contacting government officials. “We’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t try,” he says.

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