Training the next generation to care for the Chesapeake Bay

The new Chesapeake Conservation Corps is a sort of Peace Corps for the bay -- Maryland's attempt to seed the next generation of conservationists for its troubled waters.
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010; 8:43 PM

The boat engine roared, the bow lifted, and Jennifer Carr was launched up the South River as an icy wind pulled at her scarf and whipped her pigtails.

It was Carr's first ride as an intern for the South River Federation in Edgewater, and she was about to get a glimpse of her chosen future as a Chesapeake Bay environmentalist. On this polluted river, a tributary to the polluted bay, the lesson last week was grim.

Diana Muller, the South Riverkeeper, drove the 23-foot Carolina Skiff and will serve as Carr's tutor for a year. She explained how each rain runoff is like a flushing toilet that sends chemicals and animal waste from farms into the water. As a result, the river bottom was covered with a black goo of nitrogen and phosphorus. Bottom-feeding catfish swam beneath the boat with cancerous tumors the size of gumballs, Muller said.

"It's sickening," she said.

Carr, 24, is one of 16 interns who joined the Chesapeake Conservation Corps last week, dedicated to cleaning the river. The newly created group is a sort of peace corps for the bay - Maryland's attempt to seed the next generation of conservationists for its troubled waters.

The Chesapeake Bay, the nation's largest estuary, is so big it can be seen from space. It has been described as the state's heart and soul. If that poetic description is true, then Maryland has heart disease.

In the coming weeks, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is expected to recommend a prescription to the District, Virginia, Maryland and other states that border the bay: a severe pollution diet. But some state officials and farmers who have seen the recommendation say the diet is too strict, and that they won't follow it.

Carr and the other corps members will have to deal with both a messy river and messy environmental politics.

Carr approached her role with youthful optimism. The water quality data Muller taught Carr to collect could be presented to concerned donors, including foundations that help bankroll some of the 16 state and private nonprofit environmental agencies that were paired with the conservation corps interns.

As the boat sped past upscale riverside homes that are beyond a riverkeeper's salary, she said she was determined to protect the environment.

"When there's such a need like this, it has to be addressed, whether or not there's money involved," Carr said. And there's little money indeed. The yearly stipend for each corps member is $16,000, including travel and health-care costs. The state budgeted only $250,000 for the venture, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust matched it.

Muller, 43, said the prospect of the corps and having her own intern is exciting. Interns are rare because "environmental advocacy isn't something you want to do if you want to make money," Muller said. "I'd be eating macaroni and cheese all the time," she said, if she didn't have her husband, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

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