For this Swim Guide Spotlight, we reached out to Annie Richards the Chester Riverkeeper from ShoreRivers to learn about what they view as their river’s natural resources and how to put them into good use.
Where: Maryland, USA
Number of regions: 5
Number of sites: 49
Sampling season: Memorial Day through Labor Day
Sampling frequency: Weekly
Swim Guide Affiliate since: 2014
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Annie: My name is Annie Richards I am the Chester Riverkeeper with ShoreRivers. We are a river protection and advocacy group that covers four major watersheds on the eastern shore of Maryland. The Sassafras, the Chester, the Miles and Wye and the Choptank rivers, as well as the bayside creek systems and eastern bay.
I came to this job a little over a year ago. Before this, I spent about a decade working in outdoor education and sail training. I spent the bulk of my career in the Chesapeake area specifically on the Chester river. I am also from Chester town and grew up on the river. It makes it easy for me to advocate for the Chester River. It’s a place I have known my whole life.
Annie: Absolutely, these waterways are a backbone of the community’s traditions. The river is a defining feature in the landscape, and there was historically a big fishing industry on the river. We use the term watermen rather than fisherman because depending on the time of year, people would not only try to catch fish but also oysters or hunt waterfowl. The culture of being a waterman or waterwomen was a very dominant way of life on our river. We also have a huge amount of agricultural land in this region that surrounds our waterways. Making a living off of the land and its resources is a big part of the historical context in my watershed. These industries, and many other types of land uses, have contributed to the impairment in water quality that ShoreRivers is working to reverse today.
Luckily, nowadays, people are more aware of their impact on the water. Small historic towns were designed to dispose of their waste and stormwater by funneling it directly into the river. This was just how colonial towns were built back then. Now, we have to make difficult and expensive decisions on how to retrofit more beneficial systems, and work with residents, business owners, farmers, and politicians to restore the Chester to the best of our ability so that everyone can enjoy them.
Annie: If you are lucky enough to have a small boat or you know someone who has a boat, you can get on the water like that. Once you’re out there it’s all about exploring. You might see a creek or a marsh you can get into and follow where the water comes from. Canoeing, tubing, kayaking, and water skiing are also popular. I see so many families out on their motorboat fishing for perch or catfish.
I was really lucky to grow up with all of that. But we recognize that if you are not fortunate enough to have a personal boat and a car, these spaces, and the river itself are inaccessible. There are not enough beaches and waterfront parks with connectivity to local communities. This is something that Shorerivers advocate for. We want to have our water more accessible for a larger portion of our community. I believe that people who have this connection with our rivers will also care about the bacterial results when they come up, and how they can become involved in a positive solution.
Annie: Sure, a no-discharge zone is a specific designation given to a body of water by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. ShoreRivers worked with the state to classify the Chester as a no-discharge zone. We are proud that after many years of working on this, we were able to achieve this goal. This means that no vessel can discharge any kind of waste overboard in the Chester River. This is a very rare designation, it does not matter if the waste is treated or not, it can only be disposed of in a marina.
Or: So the entire river has that designation. That sounds fantastic!
Annie: Yeah, that was a big win for us! This was the hard work of Tim Trumbower who was the previous Riverkeeper before me.
Annie: Our water is incredibly rich with life, but this abundance of life is threatened and is declining because of our land usage. A good example of this is silt deposits. Silt is one of teh Chester Rivers largest challenges and it prohibits oysters from growing in abundance. Silt that settles on top of oyster bars means that baby oysters, called spat, have a much harder time attaching to the surface of the shells and rocks on the bar. Oysters help keep the water clean, so we view them as a natural resource for keeping good water quality, and we want to see their populations increase across all Chesapeake waterways
Another natural resource that can help improve water quality is submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). These bay grasses grow along the shorelines and provide oxygen and habitat for many types of fish and animals. They also trap silt and sediment and help keep the banks resilient to prevent further land erosion.
We have different programs that utilize these resources. People can participate by growing and caring for oysters (Marylanders Grow Oysters) which, once matured, will be deposited along the river to help maintain water quality. https://oysterrecovery.org/marylanders-grow-oysters/
For SAV’s, we have a goal of 185 thousand acres across the Chesapeake Bay. Our volunteers go up and down the river monitoring these SAV beds and once they identify and document an SAV bed, we can report it and it becomes a protected site for five years. We also try to plant new beds everywhere we can.
There are also examples of natural resources that we identify in our River-Friendly Yards Program. This program educates and encourages residents to plant native species in their yards to improve the quality of runoff their yard contributes to the watershed.
Annie: The biggest thing an individual can do for their waterway is to think about what they have planted in their yard or around their building. Making a conscious choice to move toward native species, pollinator meadows and larger tree canopies, instead of swaths of turf lawns really makes a difference.
Turf lawn doesn’t hold the water in place or to direct the water down to the water table. Water just flows over these sheets of impervious surface. On top of that, they require additional fertilizer and chemicals to keep them looking picture perfect. All those nutrients and chemicals wash into our waterways.
Instead of all that negative impact, you can rethink what a beautiful yard looks like. You can use your space to cultivate pollinator meadows or native shrubs and short trees. These plants have evolved in this environment and can strengthen your riverbank and direct water down.
We say “Slow it, sink it, spread it.” We don’t want runoff water shooting directly into the waterways. Every single yard is connected to our waterways and you have control over that. That is a powerful thing.
One of the barriers that some people face with taking this action is homeowners associations. Sometimes a subdivision will have a homeowners association that manages their landscaping and have some aesthetic regulations in place. Last winter, I supplied testimony to a bill that ended up passing which specifically prevents homeowners associations from requiring these practices. So now, in Maryland, anyone has the ability to grow a River Friendly Yard!
Annie: I don’t know if I want to share my river’s secret (laughs).
Or: That is a great answer!
Annie: I have worked and sailed on many bodies of water in many places around the world, and the thing that brings me back to the Chester is the dedication and love that the community has for this river and the way of life it provides. I am sure other Riverkeepers say that, but I think it is the most true on the Chester.
One of my best-kept recreational secrets is that our river has incredible tidal ponds and marshes. If you go into these marshes at high tide with a tube or a life jacket, you can ride the current out of these marshes back into the river and have endless fun. There is so much life to be seen in these ponds and you can only see them if you slow down and explore each one.
Or: That sounds absolutely incredible! That would be so much fun. Thank you so much for your time.
Visit the ShoreRivers website to learn more about their work with Oysters gardening, Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV), Tribulation, and water-minded agricultural practices.
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