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Volume 4, Number 4
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The River's Keeper

By Jack Greer

Drew Koslow standing near a stormwater pipe
A drain pool near a stormwater pipe
Drew Koslow standing near an expensive river restoration

The good, the bad, and the ugly. Riverkeeper Drew Koslow stands near a stormwater pipe responsible for blowing out tons of sediment (left, top). Two approaches to handling such sediment: an expensive creek restoration (right) and a cheaper method that Koslow calls "old school," simply emptying a pipe into a pool surrounded by rip-rap (left, bottom). Photographs by Jack Greer.

Drew Koslow shouts from the center of a deep ditch, the sides of which rise well above his head. "We call this 'Gingerville Gorge,' " he yells. The ditch was once a small streambed, but water erupting through a large culvert pipe has eroded a deep gully, with banks some 10 feet high. Where has all the dirt gone that used to be here? Into Gingerville Creek, says Koslow, and then the South River, just south of Annapolis.

Koslow is the riverkeeper for the South River, the first in its history, and one of his jobs is keeping sediment from clouding the water and killing underwater grasses. His other jobs include looking for pollution coming into the river, tracking down the culprits, and calling for enforcement of current laws and enactment of new laws where needed. In short, he's responsible for keeping watch over and speaking out for the South River.

Koslow is one of a small but growing army of riverkeepers around the country. The first riverkeepers were fishermen along the Hudson River who created an organization called the Hudson River Fisherman's Association to speak out for their endangered river back in 1966. Robert Boyle, a well-known writer with Sports Illustrated and one of the founders of the Hudson River group, discovered a legal hammer in the largely overlooked 1888 Refuse in Harbors Act. That law allowed citizen organizations to sue polluters and offered a way to clean up the river. Boyle and his fishermen friends hired lawyers, sued bad actors, and later found a new name for their organization based on the 1980 book, Death of a Riverkeeper, by famed fly fisherman Ernie Schwiebert.

A movement was born, and a new militancy entered American environmentalism. John Cronin, commercial fisherman turned activist, signed on as the first riverkeeper for the Hudson River. Then came the Waterkeeper Alliance, with riverkeepers, baykeepers, and others forming a network of environmental activists nationwide. Riverkeepers often place themselves on the frontlines of environmental protection and environmental debate. Their best-known advocate and leader (with whom Boyle split in 2000) is one of the nation's most famous sons, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

The Waterkeeper Alliance licenses the official use of names like waterkeeper, riverkeeper, and baykeeper. To launch a riverkeeper requires an organization stable enough and well-funded enough to support the effort. In Koslow's case, the organization is the South River Federation, a citizen group created in 1999. Other Bay river associations have hired riverkeepers, including the West and Rhode, the Chester, the Severn, and the Patuxent.

Riverkeepers usually come to their jobs with a background in law or science and a love for the water. Now 43, Koslow first came to the Bay as a boy, back when the bluefish were running and you could "catch 'em with a bare hook."

Though born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Northern Virginia, Koslow had uncles in Annapolis and early on developed a fondness for Bay country. He went on to study environmental science at the University of Virginia and was awarded a fellowship from the Virginia Sea Grant Program.

Koslow considered a number of career paths, working two and a half years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and then five years for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But the grassroots level "is where the action is right now," he says. Koslow helped to launch the South River Federation when he served as president from 1999 to 2002. As riverkeeper he now has an office in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's striking new "green building" on the shores of the Bay. He says that he loves the energy there.

Drew Koslow crouching neaer a restored stream

Rebuilding what we've lost, restoring a stream requires a new kind of engineering, with careful attention to soil chemistry as well as water flow. Photograph by Jack Greer.

If you can't find him in his new office, you may find him out on the river or down in a ditch like the Gingerville Gorge. Koslow travels the South River in his fiberglass skiff, Remedy, but some days he has to head upstream where his skiff can't reach. On this somber winter day, upstream means the leafless woods behind an office complex on Riva Road, in the western suburbs of Annapolis. From his vantage point in the ditch below he explains how this site was developed in the 1990s — from the looks of the huge pipe going straight into the stream, the stormwater controls seem virtually nonexistent.

"I think that in Anne Arundel County we're even worse off than normal, because of the kind of soils we have here." This area has highly erodable soils, he says, easily washed away and very difficult for stormwater managers to control.

Koslow points to models that show that as little as 10 percent impervious surface in a watershed can begin to impair a stream's biology. Those impacts show up clearly in measurements of small organisms — what he calls macroinvertebrates — and in the diversity of fish and other species.

While Maryland and Anne Arundel County have strong stormwater codes — codes that call for "mimicking" undeveloped conditions — these are not always achieved or enforced, he says.

As an example he refers to the construction of a new Safeway on Route 214, where the runoff ends up in Scotts Cove, an arm of Beards Creek. He saw a fallen silt fence there, with the creek turning chocolate brown. "That's 30-year old technology," he says of the stacks of wire and rip-rap placed at the end of a pipe to guide flow of stormwater. "Strictly old school."

Old school is how he might describe the ditch where he now stands. Like the muzzle of an artillery piece, the gaping pipe looks as if it has literally blown away tons of earth.

There are places where stormwater experts have done better.

Only ten minutes away, on the east side of Maryland Route 2, Koslow climbs down into a much healthier looking ravine. Near the community of Wilelinor, not far from the busy Annapolis Harbor Center shopping area, the county and some very creative engineers have worked together to literally reconstruct a tiny tributary. Unlike Gingerville Gorge, here there is a large pond and a newly reconfigured stream with bends and meanders. Environmental engineers made certain that the stream would meander by carving new channels and placing rocks at regular intervals to force a curve in the flow.

There's an art to reconfiguring a stream like this, Koslow says. "They had to dance machinery through a flowing creek."

Outlets along the stream allow water to seep into a restored bog. The whole design aims to slow the flow of water coming from Route 2 and the development there, and to allow sediment to settle and plants to absorb nutrients. Chest-high cedar trees line the entire quarter-mile length of this restored stream — Atlantic white cedars, according to Koslow.

School kids grew these seedlings at nearby Arlington Echo, the county's outdoor environmental education center, says Koslow. When the trees mature, the area will resemble the cedar bogs that some naturalists believe once covered parts of this coastal plain. For now the small trees are each surrounded by a round cage of wire fencing — except for one, which is little more than a splintered stump. "A lot of deer in here," Koslow says, including a large buck carrying a big rack, that he saw here one evening. "Maybe he's the one that got that tree," he says.

Reconstruction projects like these take a lot of design, a lot of work, and a lot of money. "The county [Anne Arundel] paid for everything," Koslow says.

A housing development is going in next to this creek, and Koslow makes the point that stormwater controls of all kinds are best installed at the time of construction. Otherwise, he says, "it's a missed opportunity." He has seen a lot of missed opportunities.

Koslow points to projects in other parts of the country, including one in the Seattle area called SEA Streets. That project found that aesthetically pleasing stormwater controls — areas with highly adaptive flood-tolerant plants — not only perform an environmental function but also look decorative and, according to one study, actually added to property values.

"Added to property values," Koslow repeats. "That's something every politician will understand."

Koslow admits that there is a long way to go. "The Bay is dying a death by a thousand cuts," he says. He still can't understand how some projects can get permits, when the Clean Water Act prohibits adding pollutants to waterways already listed as impaired. "We need a commitment from government and from citizens," he says.

Not everyone understands this riverkeeper it seems. Koslow has had to take some tough stands, and people have gotten angry — whether lawyers representing developers or private citizens caught breaking an environmental law. "Some people have a personal vendetta against me," he says. At the same time, he refuses to go easy on those who don't obey the rules. Budget cuts and reduced staff at state agencies have unintentionally eased the burden on the development community, he says.

"That's what I like about being the riverkeeper," he says, "keeping them accountable."

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