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Take Me to the River

Waterway Access Bill would get Charlie Stek — and you — safely to the water

Bridge-side access can be as simple as this pull-off on MD 355 for the Monocacy River water trail in Western Maryland.

Charlie Stek wanted his son to experience nature, fishing and paddling rivers. With Maryland’s 10,000 miles of rivers and streams — crossed by 5,176 bridges — that ought to be easy.
    Yet there was no safe way to get to the water.
    To fish the Patuxent, Stek and his son Alex had to park on blind curves, jump guardrails and scamper down banks.
    “We had this incredible asset right down the road that kids, families and people in the neighborhood didn’t have safe access to,” Stek says.
    In later years, Stek paddled across the state on rivers. Paddling “opened my eyes to a world I didn’t know was out there,” he says.
    Now he’s working to help Marylanders get to the water.
    Chairman of the Chesapeake Conservancy and a former top aide to retired Sen. Paul Sarbanes, Stek has been an advocate for public access throughout his career. He developed or pushed efforts including the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail to better connect citizens to our waters and lands.
    Bridges, he found through his work, are the easiest way down to the water, but few have safe places to park — not even a shoulder.
    There ought to be a law, he decided, to make bridges safe, easy stops for kayakers, canoeists and anglers on their way to the waters flowing by.
    With better planning, simple low-cost measures, such as creating safe shoulder pull-offs and breaks in guardrails, can be built in to improve safety and access at bridges, Stek says.
    Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee, took up the cause. This year, she introduced a bill to make bridge crossings safe water access sites. Future bridge construction and reconstruction projects would integrate water access into their plans “where reasonable and feasible.”
    “The heart of Maryland — its industry, its agriculture, its history —and the heart of so much of the legislation that passes through this Committee is the Chesapeake Bay and the waterways of our State,” said McIntosh. “It is time to also ensure that the citizens of Maryland enjoy these magnificent resources.”
    The Waterway Access Bill has lots of support: conservationists, paddlers, anglers, citizens, recreation and heritage tourism groups and local governments.
    As it should.
    “Improved access for canoeing, kayaking and fishing will contribute to the quality of life of all Marylanders,” McIntosh says, “and encourage them to participate actively in the protection and conservation of the Chesapeake.
    “Additionally, improving access to the Bay will make the areas around Maryland’s many waterways even more attractive to visitors.”
    Not everybody agrees. Calvert Del. Anthony O’Donnell, also a member of Environmental Matters, complained at a recent hearing that scarce highway dollars shouldn’t be spent on recreation.
    The other side of the scarce-dollar argument is that money spent on recreation brings in new money. Outdoor recreation in Maryland generates $9.5 billion in consumer spending, 85,000 jobs and $686 million in state and local tax revenue.
    The number of paddlers across the country grows by over a million people each year.
    “This bill can help Maryland meet that increasing demand,” says Wade Blackwood, executive director of the American Canoe Association. “Maryland has the opportunity to become a national leader by setting an example of the connection between access points and drivers for the economy.”
    Nearby communities also benefit as recreational opportunities make them desirable places to live.
    Accommodations like this make sense in the bigger picture of making highways work for people as well as cars. Pedestrians got sidewalks; bicyclists got lanes; anglers and paddlers get access. It’s part of America’s march of history.
    Charlie Stek’s son can already get to the river. At St. Mary’s College, where he’s a senior, the land slopes right to the water. The rest of us will have to wait on the Waterway Access Bill.
    “Many years ago, a little old lady named Judy Johnson taught me an important lesson,” Stek says. “She founded the Committee to Preserve Assateague Island and worked tirelessly to ensure that her son and future generations could experience Assateague as she had,” Charlie Stek says.
    “I want my son, and present and future generations, to have access to our waterways because I know that it is transformative. It builds a lifetime of memories and stewardship. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun.”
    The bill is working its way through the Maryland General Assembly. If you love your rivers, ask your delegates and senators to support HB 797.