Training the next generation to care for the Chesapeake Bay

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.

Carr, a native of Lancaster, Pa., wasn't concerned about whether her salary matched her expensive education at Pennsylvania State University, where she graduated in 2007 with a degree in geography and natural science.

Her future, she said, is bright. She married her college sweetheart about a year ago, and just returned from a three-month stay in the Balkans. Environmentalists are needed worldwide, she said, which is an opportunity to travel.

A paying internship in Maryland was a lucky find for a recent college graduate in a recession, she said. Besides, she said on the bobbing boat, "You have to do what you love and what makes you happy."

Muller cut the engine in shallow waters about a mile from the U.S. Route 50 bridge, an area she calls cancer alley. It was time for Carr to learn how to test the water quality. Carr watched as Muller lowered a Secchi disk to the bottom. Darkness shrouded the flat disk in seconds, a sign that water clarity was awful.

The sun couldn't pierce the murkiness in just three feet of water, meaning that plants couldn't grow. "They're a nursery for the crabs, juvenile fish, sea horses and baby rockfish," Muller said. Without the nursery, they're basically a free lunch for bigger fish.

"This is the seventh year in a row that we haven't had submerged aquatic vegetation," Muller said.

Muller gingerly picked up a $14,000 Hydrolab DS5 that measures water quality and temperature, attached it to a Panasonic Toughbook, and lowered it. Carr took over, lowering the device and recording the data it sent back.

"That's pretty cool," Carr said.

The air was cold. Carr's teeth chattered as it penetrated her windbreaker and layers of clothing. Muller, seated next to her in a red turtleneck sweater, was unfazed.

"I started doing this stuff when I was younger than her," said Muller, 43. "I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau," she said of the celebrity ocean explorer. She grew up on the Puget Sound in Washington.

Muller is a hard-core environmentalist. She has a tattoo of the endangered short-nose sturgeon on her ankle. Her workmates dubbed her the watermelon warrior after Maryland State Sen. Richard F. Colburn (R-Dorchester) said environmentalists were like melons, green for the environment on the outside and red like socialists on the inside. She despised the description - "it's so unfair" - but accepted the moniker to spite Colburn.

As she talked, data flowed from the river to the computer. The chlorophyll was high, 25 micrograms compared with the EPA's recommendation of seven. The translation: There's too much algae. Too much nitrogen. Too much phosphorous. "Algae loves that stuff," Muller said. "I've seen it as high as 250 micrograms in summer. I wouldn't allow my kids to swim here."

When it was time to move to the next stop in the 66 square miles of territory she covers, Muller pulled up the anchor. The river bottom's inky goo reached toward the surface like a living blob. Carr made a face and backed away.

Two hours had passed, and it was time for Carr's final lesson on her first day: driving the boat, something she hadn't done since she had steered her father's boat at age 12.

Carr drove slowly, about six miles per hour. "Head toward the starboard," Muller said.

The sky grew as dark as the sickly river. Carr focused on the distance ahead, moving against the current, and perhaps the odds of success.

"It's too early to tell where I'll be in 20 years," she said. "But if I stay in Maryland, there's nothing more important than the health of the Chesapeake."

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