Turning a big ship around takes time, a lot of time.
Right after World War II, many people living along the waters of the Chesapeake Bay began building bulkheads to prevent their shorelines from washing away. The state even encouraged this by offering homeowners free loans to harden their shorelines. A smiling fellow named Leonard Casanova showed up on our doorstep one summer day way back in the early 70s and announced that he was from the Department of Natural Resources and the state wanted to give my mom and dad a twenty-five year interest free loan just to build a bulkhead along our eroding shoreline. We thanked him and sent him on his merry way.
By the early 80s, the state began to realize that creosote bulkheads did a jim-dandy job of corralling loose land, but they also created a wide range of environmental problems, including the release of toxic chemicals and habitat destruction.
Bulkheads eventually begat stone revetments. It took years for the government regulators to turn the bulkhead ship around and encourage the more environmentally-friendly stone walls, but by the late 80s, revetments were the standard. And true to form, the state sent Mr. Casanova back out, offering those generous interest free loans to any property owner willing to build a rock revetment. Once again, my father politely declined the offer. We liked our beach.
In the winter of 1990, I began volunteering with the Severn River Association, the nation’s oldest river protection organization, and I teamed up with Billy Moulden, the President of the group, to try and turn the Revetment Ship around.
The SRA had been negotiating with the owners of Swan Point, one of the last, big stretches of beach on the Severn, trying to get them to construct what is called a “segmented breakwater” and tidal marsh, rather than an 800-foot stone revetment.
As the point man for the SRA, I was contacted by a friendly reporter who was covering the controversy for the local paper, asking me, “Why should anyone care about this last remaining big stretch of beach?”
I answered his pointed question with one of my own. “Well, the Department of Natural Resources and Bay wildlife scientists are constantly preaching the gospel that these shorelines are of great importance because of their value as habitat. They tell us these beaches are where the mother horseshoe crab has come for millennia to lay her eggs on the full moon in May. And where the mother terrapin, the state’s trusty mascot, comes to lay her eggs in summer. But when there’s a rock wall along the shoreline, where can these animals go to have their babies? Horseshoe crabs and terrapins used to be abundant on the Severn, they are now almost extinct. That’s why we are so interested in saving this last big stretch of beach on the Severn River.”
After years of site visits, meetings with the regulators, and angry stories in the local papers, the owner finally agreed to go along with the segmented breakwater idea we were pushing. He had watched as large chestnut oaks toppled from his cliff into the Severn and he figured it was time to cut his losses.
After another year of wrangling, the owner decided that he would never succeed in navigating the troubled waters between the environmentalists, his hostile neighbors, and the government, so he sold his property to some Internet Barons from California.
The new owners of the Swan Point Property, immediately changed course, asked their marine engineers to go back to the drawing board and design a rock revetment that would pass muster with the regulators, and with a new plan in hand they applied for a tidal wetlands permit from the state.
The Board of Public Works is set up sort of like the Court of Louis the XIV. As soon as you enter the ornate meeting room on the second floor in the State House, all lined with gilt and life-sized paintings of dead white leaders from Maryland’s glorious past, you figure that sooner or later you will have to bow down and kiss somebody’s ring in order to get anything done.
And so, on a rainy Spring day, Billy and I had the great pleasure of representing the SRA before the Board of Public Works. The new owners remained in California, but sent their lawyer and engineers to toot the riparian rights horn and plead for an end to the bureaucratic stonewalling.
Their attorney, the top land use lawyer in town, concluded his presentation with a very compelling argument. “My clients have waited over three years to fix their cliff and shoreline from falling into the Severn River. They are willing and able to do anything this Board requires of them in order to get a permit and start work.”
After three years of costly debate, I think any of us would have felt the same way.
But the issue really wasn’t the three years of waiting for permit approval. That’s another issue and another story. No. The issue was whether there was a reasonable alternative that would allow the property owner some shoreline relief, but in a way that would not harm the environment.
And there was. The segmented breakwater and marsh.
To make our case we came armed with school children and turtles.
Suffice it to say, no one — especially a politician — could say no to kids and turtles.
State Comptroller Schaefer, the former Mayor of Baltimore, two-term Governor of Maryland, and all around character, impatiently asked the Tidal Wetlands Administrator, “Will this segmented breakwater thing really work?”
The wetlands man said it would. “In fact, it has been done successfully at a spot right across the river from the Swan Point Property.”
Governor Schaefer then waved his hand in the air like a magic wand and said, “Well now, if we can build this segmented breakwater to protect the shoreline from washing away, and still let the turtles and crabs get to the beach, why wouldn’t we do that?”
I closed the show with an appeal that brought down the house and happily won the day.
“In conclusion, we are asking for your help today, on behalf of all the Bay’s helpless critters that need to, in the words of our illustrious Comptroller and former Governor, Mr. William Donald Schaefer, “reach the beach.”
“Reach the beach” had become Willy Don Schaefer’s most famous refrain when it came to the endless struggle of trying to get people back and forth to Ocean City without backups at the Bay Bridge, and the former Governor beamed like a child when he heard it used in defense of the little turtles.
On that spring day, the MS Revetment started her slow turn toward segmented breakwaters and living shorelines.
But the riparian rights law really hit home a few years later when my two adjoining neighbors decided to build a big stone revetment and new piers along their shoreline.
On a hot summer night, I snuck my first kiss from a neighborhood girl on the beach below our cliff as the moon was just coming up over Greenbury Point.
Under the overgrown cliff where the Childs family lived, we built a really cool clubhouse made out of driftwood and debris that had washed up on the beach. We spent hours huddled inside our ramshackle pirate fort and dreamed about what we were going to be when we grew up. One summer, a friend of mine accidentally burned our clubhouse down while sneaking a cigarette. In addition to our fort, the blaze also ignited all of the vegetation growing along the Lazenby’s cliff. The fire engines came and quickly put out the fire, but Fort Severn would never be rebuilt.
I found my first arrowhead while looking through the sand in front of the Orth’s house. It was made from local tan quartz and was almost as long as my index finger. It was perfectly preserved, like it’s carver had accidently dropped it in that spot the day before. I’d venture to guess that my future career in archaeology with the Forest Service at Grand Canyon was probably born that day.
I learned about tides by clearing away the debris from the tiny stream that trickled out of Woolchurch Cove. As we removed the wood and garbage so the stream could run cleanly, we developed a keen understanding of the subtle engineering principles at work with dams and free-flowing water. We would spend hours with long sticks, moving the flotsam out of the way, and then stand back triumphantly as we watched the little ribbon of clear water rushing bravely into the muddy Severn that swallowed it like a tasty appetizer.
The shoreline where I grew up was a window into the natural world. And as I think back on it today, I am amazed by how much my life was shaped by exploring the beach in front of my neighborhood. If I had been raised in some other place, I would undoubtedly have turned out quite different.
But you see, here’s the thing: If I was growing up in the same neighborhood today, I would also turn out to be a much different person. And the reason for that is because the beach of my childhood is all gone. Not a trace of it is left.
And when we couldn’t get down to the river, we built giant siege engine-looking contraptions that fit up against the steep slopes and gave us a convenient stairway to the water. We all wanted our piece of the Severn and riparian rights paved the way.
So, the principle at work along every tributary of the Chesapeake Bay was really quite simple, albeit insidious. “The guy next door built a bulkhead, so we have to build a bulkhead in order to save our property from eroding away.”
“The marine contractor will be down there already, doing your neighbors’ job. We’ll do an in-house permit and he can just continue right on down the beach.”
I don’t want to sound too condemning here. There are no good guys and bad guys in this story. But I ask you all to look at what we have done to the river. I mean, if you follow this logic — or insanity — to its unnatural conclusion, you end up with a river that is entirely rocked in, with no beaches or undeveloped shoreline, other than community swimming beaches.
Riparian rights have worked quite well for the individual, but the river has been dying in the process.
It seemed like a small price to pay.
Not even the Maryland Diamondback Terrapin, our state mascot and the symbol of the University of Maryland fighting terrapins, had any water rights.
The statue of mighty Testudo adorns the College Park campus and students rub his bronze shell for good luck before big games, tests, dates and who knows what else.
I wish I could say that I noticed this myself, but I didn’t until my friend Margie Whilden, the Turtle Lady, who follows these things a lot more closely than I do, pointed out that Testudo is all wrong. “He looks more like a box turtle,” said Margie. “You’d think that our state college would know better than to call themselves the Terrapins and then put a box turtle on their logo.”
What I find most perplexing about the Diamondback Terrapin is the fact that I have never actually seen one in the wild. Growing up along the Severn, you’d figure that I would have stumbled on to at least one of the little buggers in my lifetime, but I can’t ever recall a close encounter of any kind. I saw tons of box turtles, and Woolchurch Cove was virtually teeming with snappers and painted turtles. But Diamondbacks were a no show. And with the distinctive, brightly-colored, diamond-shaped design adorning their shell, it’s not likely you’d confuse them with anything else.
And yet most Marylanders will go their entire lives without ever actually seeing an undomesticated Diamondback.
So, what happened to all the Terrapin?
We really don’t know because there is no hard data. Back in late 90s, volunteers from all around the state – mostly school kids – were enlisted by the state Department of Natural Resources to study the Diamondback. The Governor had given his stamp of approval for a wide range of state initiatives designed to put the Terrapin back on our radar screens, including designating May 13th as Terrapin Day.
The “Turtle Tots Head-Starting” program got lots of nice press.
In addition to these feel-good programs, the state budgeted real money — not nearly enough, of course — to begin some targeted scientific studies about the Terrapin, trying to get a handle on their breeding populations, estimate their numbers in certain areas, monitor their habits, identify threats, and recommend management measures. It was a good first step. Up until then, the only people who had even the slightest idea of what was happening with the Diamondback were our local watermen.
No one wanted to admit it, but it was safe to say that we humans had a hand in this bay-wide die-off.
There were many obvious culprits, starting with all the sediment, sewerage, and pollutants we were dumping into the Bay every day. Then there was the increased boat traffic. Propellers were grinding up untold numbers of turtles each boating season. Terrapins were still being taken illegally for their tasty meat. And crowning this lethal mix was the inexorable loss of shoreline.
Now, if you were a Diamondback Terrapin, how would you ever find a place to lay your eggs along the Severn?
So, riparian rights wasn’t working out too well for the Diamondback Terrapin. And we could study turtles until the cows came home, but as long as the state continued to allow homeowners to eliminate the last remaining Bay beaches with reckless abandon, rather than require them to try a softer approach that enhanced marsh creation, we could pretty much resign ourselves to the sad fact that the Diamondback was a goner.
By now the truth should be clear. They stand upon US!
When I was a boy growing up along the shores of the Severn River, my friends and I used to have a daily ritual. Every afternoon after school, we would walk along the beach in front of Ferry Farms and see what the tide had delivered. I can remember quite vividly that the one find that seemed almost magical was the shell of a dead horseshoe crab. We had no idea what to make of this beast. Where did it come from? None of us had ever actually seen a live horseshoe crab. Heck, it didn’t even look like a crab.
How can you tell a boy from a girl?
What are all those goofy legs for?
Can it sting you with that tail?
Where is its mouth?
What does it eat?
Does it walk or does it swim?
How does it see where it’s going?
Why does it need such a big shell?
What eats horseshoe crabs?
What do you think killed this one?
First off, the horseshoe crab isn’t really a crab. It’s related to spiders and scorpions. They do, however, molt like a blue crab about once a year, until they reach sexual maturity when they are three or four years old. From then on they wear the same shell.
The horseshoe crab has been found in the fossil record going back hundreds of millions of years, making them one of the oldest marine animals on earth.
One way to tell the males from the females is their size. The girls are much bigger than the boys.
They like to eat marine worms, razor clams, and soft-shelled clams which they dig out of the mud.
Horseshoe crabs can swim or crawl along and they travel great distances during their lives that span about 12 years. They call the ocean home, but they come into the Delaware and Chesapeake bays to spawn each year between early April and late June.
As with so many species in the Bay, those annual surveys also began to show a dramatic decline in the numbers of horseshoe crabs.
Some folks wondered aloud why should we care about something so ugly and worthless? What good are horseshoe crabs? “You can’t eat ‘em, so who cares whether there are fewer of them to go around?”
The answer to that question is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the horseshoe crab.
The loss of horseshoe crabs corresponds directly to over-harvesting.
Who eats horseshoe crabs, you might ask? If you’ve ever looked under the shell of a horseshoe crab you couldn’t help but notice that there isn’t much that looks edible. It’s all spindly legs and very little meat. So why would there suddenly be a market for horseshoe crabs?
The other thing driving the demand for horseshoe crabs was the medical industry. The blood of the horseshoe crab is like no other blood on earth. The blood has certain rare qualities that make it a favorite for eye research, as a clotting agent in surgical dressings, and in detecting infectious bacteria. Medical labs from Virginia to Massachusetts process 200,000 crabs a year, killing ten percent in the process.
The final factor in the horseshoe crab’s dramatic decline has been the steady loss of habitat. Horseshoe crabs have come to the Severn to spawn since long before the time of dinosaurs. But they need a sandy beach to do their thing. As we continued to bulkhead and rip-rap the entire length of the river, we were making it impossible for any living creature to leave the sea, and dooming this remarkable underwater spider known as the horseshoe crab.