[WORD - ILLEGIBLE] Richardson and his fellow Eastern Shore farmers were incredulous. They were [WORD - ILLEGIBLES] the $2 million Dividing Creck drainage ditch, a project they had sought for decades to relieve their water-ogged fields, and here was this white-haired little old woman suggesting, in cultured, citified tones, that they were destroying the enviroment.
"It was all I could do to hold my temper," said Richardson, 43, whose family has farmed the land along Dividing Creck for four generations, whose great-grandfather is buried to IIia Fchrer of the Worcestor Enviromental Trust argue that farmland that flooded annually because of poor natural drainage should be preserved as flood plain.
Norman J. Wilson, the elected chairman of the Dividing Creek Public Drainage Association, was 9 years old when his father and their neighbors in Worcestor. Wicomico and Somerset counties gathered in the general store at nearby St. Luke's in 1939 and first talked about the need to widen and deepen Dividing Creek.
It took 38 years to organize the landowners, persuade the federal government to put up 75 per cent of the funds and combat the complains of enviromentalists, before the project was dedicated Friday. In those intervening years, the problem had worsened until 70 per cent of the area's cropland suffered from poor drainage of flooding.
Now, for the first time in years, farmers such as Ota Stevenson, Darmond Nuse and others would be able to get full production on all of their land. The Eastern Shore of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware is ideal for farming, but because the land is so flat and the water table so high, without artificial drainage ditches, even a moderate rain can inundate a field, drowning spring and crops and making fall harvests difficult or impossible.
Members of the Dividing Creek drainage association were so proud of their newly completed project that they invited interested persons to take a bus tour of the area Friday, and among these invited was Mrs. Fehrer.
She was polite, of course, but she was not silent. Would the wider, deeper creek open up previously impassable land, she asked, threatening the pristine areas where snakes spawn? Aren't modern farmers contributing to the energy crisis by using gas-fired heaters to dry their corn? Will the nitrogen and phosporous and other chemicals and fertilizers be washed into streams because of the better drainage?
The farmers were polite too, but it was easy to see Fehrer and a few other conservationists were trying their patience and manners.
"If we didn't do something, lady, the entire Eastern Shore would be a flood plain someday," snapped one farmer, tugging at his International Harvester cab.
Fehrer, whose husband was responsible for the purchase of much of the acreage for the Association Island National Seashore before the retirement from the U.S. Department of Interior, said however, "I hate to see this."
The Dividing Creek construction is "just the kind of watershed project President Carter is troubled about," said Fehrer, who blamed Rep. Robert E. Bauman, the Eastern Shore's conservative Republican congressman, for supporting "this typical pork-barrel project."
She also represents the Eastern Shore Alliance of the Sierra Club, and said privately that she believes that "some smaller farmers were intimidated" into supporting the project from which "a few big farmers will benefit tremendously."
Wilson, the man given most of the credit by association members for pushing the project, stands to benefit little personally. Although he owns 40 acres along the ditch. Wilson, 47, has given up weekends, nights and vacations since the association was formed in 1975, to meet with congressmen and other officials.
Until the drainage ditch was built, Wilson said, "there had been na basic public improvement except black-topped roads since I was born. Never been a school built and never a federal project - just some ditching. The tax payers here have been overlooked.
Wilson, who works full-time as an employee of the state highway department, just finished six months working at the new Francis Scott Kev Bridge over the Baltimore barbor. Like the other farmers, he found some irony in the fact that some of the most outspoken opponents of the rural drainage problem "live in Baltimore and Montgomery County, where you can see what they've done to their own land."
Paul Sigrist, district conservationist for the federal Soil Conservation Service, said "drainage does not destroy all the environment, but it does destroy some things. But you can't have your cake and eat it too. You've gotta give a little bit. What we're saying is it does not do the damage that most of the enviromentalists thought it would."
Completion of the project, Wilson told his fellow landowners Friday, "does not release us from the responsibility of maintenance" of the widened, deepened creek.
To finance their $500,000 share of construction cost, association members will pay $35.65 per acre of cropland and $8.91 per acre of woodland, for five years. After that they'll pay an annual tax of 80 cents for each acre of cropland and 20 cents for wooded acres, to maintain the ditch.
More than 80 per cent of the 41,900 acres included in the watershed is loblolly pine, a long-needle tree whose soft wood is used for piling and bulkheads tthrougout the water-oriented Eastern Shore.
Nearly all of the watershed's 7.169 acres of cropland is planted in corn or soyabeans, which produce feed for the area's bustling poultry industry.
Until ditching project was completed, much of the forest land was too wet to replant, so the project not only will make it possible to increase the corn and soyabean production, but will bring more wood anto the market, according to Wilson.
Another effect of the project is that the lowered water table will permit some residential lots to pass percolation tests, clearing the way for construction on them. Again, whether that result is beneficial is debatable.
Fehrer wondered "if you will be able to stop the building of another Columbia" if developers decide the area is ripe for a new town.
Wilson thought they would, but said he was more concerned about "what will happen when that first oil well comes in offshore. One man predicted that a million people will come here," an invasion that obviously couldn't be blamed on the farmers' new drainage ditch.