- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 6, 2006

Bob Greer, a Southern Maryland farmer whose ancestors inhabited the Blossom Point area of the tidal Potomac River for generations, stood on the rear deck of my boat and said sadly he wasn’t surprised that small and large waterways near his home and over In Virginia, are polluted.

“We keep hearing about waste treatment plants discharging untreated sewage now and then, or that overflow spills occur during heavy rains, and I’m sure that’s true,” Greer said, “but I’d also keep an eye on commercial operators who pump out septic systems all over the area. I believe that some of that stuff occasionally is being dumped into our waters.”

In the case of the Port Tobacco River and the Nanjemoy Creek, not far from the Charles County seat, La Plata, such unthinkable occurrences are possible. Out-of-the-way access to the very edges of the water is available. Who, after all, would pay attention if a pot-bellied tanker truck was parked among the trees in the middle of the night? Forget the cops; around-the clock police surveillance simply isn’t feasible.

Less than five years ago, an angler with only moderate skills could bob about on the Port Tobacco in a small boat, cast and retrieve a variety of artificial lures and hook striped bass with abandon as long as the time of day and the tides were right. The same applied to the Wicomico River, another Potomac tributary on the Charles/St. Mary’s counties line.

Today, to many people who live along the shores of the Port Tobacco, the river is more like a cesspool than a thriving, alive and healthy body of water. This very short, shallow waterway apparently contains enough pollution to worry the highly regarded Coastal Conservation Association’s Southern Maryland chapter. When members recently planned a sample netting to check for the presence of yellow perch and other fish species, they were cautioned about high bacteria counts and advised not to wade in the river without protective hip boots or chest waders.

Not long ago, Greer talked to a commercial crabber in a Port Tobacco feeder creek who found what appeared to be fecal matter in his crab pots.

The upper Wicomico River, once the crown jewel of springtime yellow perch spawning runs, now contains some tough pickerel, maybe a crappie or sunfish here and there, but this once fish-rich river no longer delivers the goods. It is polluted, which will not be greeted with joy by the boaters who currently are fishing in the waters near its junction with the Potomac as they catch summertime visitors such as croakers and spot. (If you cook the fish thoroughly, they’ll not do you any harm.)

But croakers and spot notwithstanding, the many resident rockfish that used to gather around the buoy rock piles at the mouth of the Wicomico aren’t seen as frequently as they used to be, which probably is because of a combination of commercial overfishing and none too healthy waters.

What bothers many folks in these parts is that alarm bells are not rung loud enough by city, county and state officials. Yes, there have been some warnings of high bacteria counts in past weeks and months, but if any plans are being executed to remedy the situation, they’ve eluded our eyes.

In the case of the historic Port Tobacco River, which played an important role during the founding of this country, residents are at a loss to explain why the croakers aren’t visiting like they used to. Ditto for massive numbers of white perch and blue crabs. Some perch are caught, but nothing even remotely close to the numbers of a few years ago. Then there are the bass anglers who can’t explain what happened to their quarry. What used to be a productive bass fishery in the upper river around the Port Tobacco Marina and adjacent campground now is little else but weed-filled water.

“It’s a crying shame,” said Greer, who keeps a boat in the Port Tobacco River and enjoys fishing for rockfish and perch in the nearby Potomac, although catches are increasingly elusive.

What has Greer and me shaking our heads is that a local, state or federal government can somehow come up with funds to support almost any worthwhile cause — including school lunch programs, new school buildings or road repairs — yet no burning importance is placed on the very lifeline of humanity: the water. Plenty of lip service is paid by the politicians, but very little is being done.

Like lemmings, it appears we are willing to kill ourselves. Isn’t it time to demand immediate action from elected officials? Even if dreams came true and 90-cent gasoline or $50,000 houses returned, none of it would be worth a nickel as long as our waters are decaying and dying.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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