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Yellow Perch Are the Severn River’s Vital Sign

You can’t catch any fish if they ain’t there

Severn Riverkeeper Fred Kelly.

Being the Severn Riverkeeper is not so much a job as a roller coaster ride. Having a biologist wife, Nancy, to teach me the science and a good friend, Sarah Caldes, to do the grant writing have made it a fun ride.
    My early childhood was all about trying to catch fish in Baltimore’s Lake Roland and the Homeland Lakes and in the Severn River. When I was 10, every spring started with a trip to the Severn for the early spawning runs of its iconic fish, the yellow perch.
    As soon as I graduated from Maryland Law School, I moved to the quiet little town of Annapolis to live on the Severn and fish the early yellow perch runs. My son and I caught yellow perch every spring, as had my father and I. However, when grandson Brandon came along, the yellow perch had been wiped out by the runoff from Interstate 97 and Route 32.
    I was the first attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. While I was there, Eugene Cronin, the godfather of estuarine science, convinced me to fight the Douglas Point Nuclear Power Plant. It threatened one of the most important striped bass spawning areas in the Bay. I succeeded in stopping the power plant but left Chesapeake Bay Foundation. My reward for working there was meeting my wife.
    Next, I opened my own law practice in Annapolis. I did a lot of pro-bono environmental work as well as representing paying clients. In June of 2002, Bobby Kennedy’s crew at the Waterkeeper Alliance and the sorry state of the Severn convinced me to start the Severn Riverkeeper ­Program.
    As the Severn Riverkeeper, I treat the Severn like a legal client, providing aggressive representation. This both surprised those who continued to pollute and irritated regulators, who refused to issue permits for restoration projects.
    As a matter of fact, the permitting staff at the Environmental Protection Agency has been the biggest barrier to river restoration. Despite the innovative work of landscape architect Keith Underwood in designing the most effective systems for stream restoration, a handful of employees continued to oppose these new systems.
    The mission of the Severn Riverkeeper Program is simple: to stop all pollution in the Severn. The three major pollutants are nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment. These pollutants come primarily from septic systems and stormwater runoff.
    The flush tax has provided funding not only to upgrade the major wastewater treatment plants in Maryland but also for citizens to upgrade their septic systems. Therefore, the nitrogen load from septic systems is being dramatically reduced and will continue as long as we have the flush tax.
    Stormwater runoff is more difficult. The Anne Arundel County Department of Public Works is responsible for stopping stormwater runoff. When I first spoke to Public Works, I was told that it would take $1 billion to fix the stormwater problem.
    Thanks to the rain tax, Public Works now gets $70 million a year to stop runoff. Yet difficulty getting permits continues. Permits must come from both the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Army Corps of Engineers.
    The new head of Maryland Department of the Environment, Ben Grumbles, has accepted the new technology. Not so EPA permit reviewers who comment on Corps permits. They are wedded to the old technology. Fortunately, the Corps no longer denies permits simply because EPA opposes them. That’s a big change.
    The good news is that we have the money and the expertise to fully restore the Severn River. The bad news is that permit reviewers at EPA continue to oppose restoration projects. However, once this hurdle is overcome, the Severn River will be restored.
    I look forward to my grandchildren and future generations catching yellow perch on the Severn River because the fish are there.

Fred Kelly is the Severn Riverkeeper, with offices in Annapolis, Maryland: