People are generally surprised to learn they shouldn’t swim in, or in some cases even touch, the waters around Annapolis for 48 hours after a storm.
That’s because the water can have unsafe levels of bacteria from human or animal waste washed off the land.
I write about this topic now for two reasons. One, data from water-quality testing the past summer starts washing up onto various websites at this time of year. Picking through that flotsam I found some disturbing information.
The Anne Arundel County Health Department posts warnings at swimming and recreation areas if bacteria levels are high. But the county doesn’t test that many areas where we enjoy the water. Last summer many of those areas had unsafe water, but no posted warnings, according to independent water-quality testing.
The second reason I write about this problem now is the state legislature is considering a bill that could help fix this problem. The legislation would require local governments to collect a stormwater utility fee dedicated to improving stormwater management.
In short, Anne Arundel County would get a boost in revenue to be used only for cleaning the water where we all swim, sail, and kayak.
Some background. When it rains, even a typical summer thunderstorm, the rainwater picks up all sorts of contaminants as it washes toward nearby creeks, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
The contaminants include pet waste, roadway contaminants, effluent from septic systems, and not infrequently overflows from sewage systems. Our drainage systems in many cases weren’t built to filter or treat runoff, just to whisk it out of neighborhoods, parking lots, etc.
The county health department warns in stark red letters on its website: After rainfall, all Anne Arundel County beaches are under a no swimming/no direct water contact advisory for 48 hours, due to predicted high bacteria levels.
The Maryland Department of Environment has a similar warning on its website.
But who reads government websites, right? When I tell people about this general warning, they are surprised—and angry. There’s reason to be concerned.
While Anne Arundel does a commendable job testing water at some 100 locations, it can’t test everywhere, or all the time.
Sally Hornor, a microbiologist at Anne Arundel Community College, has been testing water around Annapolis and throughout the county for years—independently of the county’s testing.
Often she tests at the request of local residents at sites that aren’t on the county’s list, or schedule. Her results sometimes show high readings at those places or times that the county hasn’t tested.
For instance, the Admiral Heights neighborhood near Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium has a community dock on Weems Creek off Williams Drive. I used to live on Williams Drive. I kayaked and fished in the creek. I watched residents’ dogs do belly flops off the dock.
On June 29 last summer, Sally’s team sampled water at the location and found bacteria levels eight times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is safe for swimming or contact. A typical summer storm had dropped .2 to .5 inches of rain within 18 hours before the testing.
The city also tests at Admiral Heights. In fact, it tested June 22 and July 6. It found very low levels of bacteria. But those tests weren’t after storms.
There’s many popular recreation places on the water around Annapolis where the county doesn’t test at all: Spa Creek, College Creek, and most of Back Creek. After that June rainstorm Sally’s team found bacteria levels seven times above the safe limits in Spa Creek, and nine times higher at the tip of the Eastport peninsula.
And that’s after a relatively light rain.
In August 2010, after a deluge of 3-4 inches, Sally found bacteria levels 200 times above safe limits at the Williams Drive dock in Admiral Heights.
So concerned is Sally about these findings that this coming summer she will attempt for the second year to survey residents up and down nearby creeks about human and pet illnesses possibly connected to water contaminated with bacteria from storm runoff. Click here for more information.
It seems to me the short-term solution to this problem is heightened awareness of the danger of our local waterways after storms. The long–term solution is cleaner water.
Senate Bill 614 can help.
Anne Arundel’s elected leaders have refused to collect a stormwater fee to help pay for upgrades to the county’s drainage system. The state legislation would “help us help ourselves” to do the right thing, says County Councilman Chris Trumbauer, also the West/Rhode Riverkeeper.
I’m for investing a little bit now to reap a big reward latter: peace of mind. When I dip my paddle in an Annapolis creek, I’m don’t want to welcome illness aboard.