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Cleaning up the St. Mary’s River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, has been the focus of the St. Mary’s River Watershed Association for the past 12 years.

To helpThe St. Mary’s River Watershed Association is growing three-dimensional oyster reefs with the help of volunteers. To learn how to get involved in this effort or other projects sponsored by the association or to make a donation, visit www.smrwa.org.

And this waterway, which is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as an impaired river, could use improvement.

“The river is essentially polluted, let’s not whitewash it,” said Bob Lewis, executive director of the St. Mary’s River Watershed Association.

Joe Anderson, president of the association, said the pollution is “primarily from the problems with sedimentation. A lot of that sedimentation comes from development and runoff from the Lexington Park development district.”

While Anderson cites the importance of building in the development district rather than having it sprawl throughout rural areas of St. Mary’s, he also says it’s important to continue developing in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the river.

“The technologies that we have and the legislation we have, in my opinion, isn’t enough to protect the resource,” Anderson said.

And the degradation of the river and surrounding waters in St. Mary’s County affects all residents, Lewis said, not just those who use the river most frequently, such as watermen and fishermen.

“Our research shows that if you live near a waterway that is degraded and polluted, there is a 22 percent reduction in your land value,” Lewis said, adding, “If our property value is not worth as much as it should be then there’s not as much taxes going into the system, so our tax base is hurting.”

Pollution in the St. Mary’s River Watershed comes from nonpoint sources, meaning that where the pollution comes from cannot be pinpointed to a specific place. This type of pollution usually comes from stormwater runoff from lawns, parking lots and farmlands.

Residents of the area may be inclined to think that small things on their property like extra fertilizer won’t make a large impact, but as the association points out, it all adds up.

According to Lewis, 98.5 percent of people in St. Mary’s County live within 2,000 feet of a stream. The runoff from yards has a strong potential to flow into nearby streams and rivers, which all eventually ends up in the bay.

People who live in the St. Mary’s River watershed can do a couple of things — pick up their pet waste and combine vehicle trips — to reduce pollution and improve water quality, Lewis said.

The average number of vehicle trips in a day in St. Mary’s County is nine, Lewis says. A lot of people run out and run back home multiple times throughout the day.

“I mean where do you want to live? In a place where people pick up after their pets and take care of the environment around them? Or do you want to live someplace else?” Lewis asked.

Bernie Fowler, former state senator, who was born and raised on Broome’s Island, has been working to improve water quality in the Patuxent River for decades.

“One thing that is grossly overlooked is tributaries,” Fowler said.

The St. Mary’s River and the Patuxent River are tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, meaning that their waters eventually flow into the bay.

Fowler, who emphasizes the importance of bringing the community together to promote awareness about water quality, has been holding a “wade-in” in the Patuxent River since 1988.

During the wade-in Fowler wears a pair of white sneakers and walks with other participants into the river until he can no longer see his feet.

He also held a wade-in in the St. Mary’s River during the eighth annual River Fest, held Oct. 13 at Historic St. Mary’s City.

“What this county has done is a model for the state,” Fowler said of St. Mary’s.

Lewis noted that at Fowler’s Oct. 13 wade-in, participants walked out in the St. Mary’s River to a depth of 2 feet and then went no farther because they had children participating and the river was cold. However, Lewis went out the day before the wade-in and took a water clarity measurement test that showed the water was clear up to 87 inches deep. So, if Fowlers’ group had kept walking out into the water, they could have continued until the water was over their heads.

Over the past decade, the water quality in the river has been declining, Lewis said. However, in the past year or so, he said he has seen notable improvement.

“We may have hit a turning point,” Lewis said. “This year, it’s been healthier. There’s better fishing. Oysters are coming back strong.”