Joe Scrivener's boat rumbled into the dock at Ridge, leaving a brown sludge swirling through the blue water behind it.
"You can see how bad he's silting up," said John Guy, another charter boat captain, looking at the mud stirred up by the boat.
St. Jerome Creek has become more and more difficult to navigate as silt has piled up -- the water is as shallow as three feet in some spots. On this creek in southern St. Mary's County, watermen time their passage with the tides, marinas don't get many boaters from other areas anymore, and emergency boats have trouble getting in and out of the bay quickly, locals said Tuesday afternoon.
"We need dredging pretty badly," said Ruth Drury at Drury's Marina.
Congressmen have been working to secure the money for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clear the federal channel from the Chesapeake Bay to the middle of the harbor. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) pushed for $85,000 to pay for a feasibility study in a House spending bill headed to the Senate.
On Tuesday, St. Mary's County commissioners decided to speed things along: They voted to take up to $100,000 from a reserve fund to pay for that study, hoping that the county would be reimbursed later.
"I think we need to move forward with this," said County Administrator George Forrest.
The vote was unanimous, although Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown) expressed some reservations. "I certainly understand the need for this to get done," he said, "but I'm concerned about the precedent."
Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R-Golden Beach) said: "We approved the Bushwood wharf [project] the same way: forward-funded. We took a leap of faith with the state."
Corps officials had been talking with county staff members about the project since 2000, said engineer Scott Alexander. St. Mary's staff members have searched for sites where the sand dredged from the creek could be dumped -- first trying to get volunteers, then asking the state for money to buy a 13- to 20-acre site, finally getting approval to lease a site, and then finding places without environmental restrictions. "We went back to the board, said 'We're ready to rock, let's do it,' and that's when they said they didn't have the money," Alexander said.
The Corps of Engineers projects are prioritized, and St. Jerome Creek was not at the top of the list for funding this year.
"Priority is based on what people put back in the community as an economic thing," Drury said that afternoon at the marina. "That makes sense, I guess."
"Doesn't help us out, though," Guy said.
He and other charter-boat captains said they've had to turn would-be fishing charters away because they could not take the boat out; other times they had to arrange rides for customers back to their cars when they were forced to use another harbor.
About 40 watermen, two marinas and businesses that ship seafood in and out of the county rely on the creek, said John Groeger of the St. Mary's County Department of Public Works and Transportation. "This channel is vitally important to the county."
It's a matter of safety, too, said Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills). "As we all know, storms come up really quick on that bay. This is a place where boaters can go in for safe harbor."
By approving county funding for the engineering and design part of the project, Commissioner Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) said he hoped to speed up the whole process, perhaps even complete the dredging next winter.
Alexander said he hoped the county could piggyback on the Army Corps of Engineers work that will be done in the federal channel to clear water by the Southern Prong, with a state grant.
The creek has always been shallow, but it hasn't been dredged since 1991, so the silt has been building up for more than a decade.
"My husband used to say the water in the St. Jerome Creek is pretty good -- it's just spread too thin," Drury said.