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At about 7 a.m. Saturday, the Allen family made its way along the shore where the Patuxent River meets the Chesapeake Bay. Wielding an orange shovel, which looked more like a spatula, and a grabber for reaching things scattered across the sand, they filled plastic bags with debris.

The four of them were part of Maryland’s only official Clean the Bay event, held at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, according to Tanner Council, Hampton Roads grassroots coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The foundation is headquartered in Annapolis.

Saturday’s 26th annual Clean the Bay Day took place at 250 locations. All but the one at Pax River were held throughout Virginia. About 6,000 volunteers picked up plastic bottles, cigarette butts, automobile parts and home appliances washed or left ashore in 20 state parks in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and west from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Virginia Beach on the Atlantic Coast, then across the Chesapeake to the commonwealth’s Eastern Shore. Together, Council said, they collected about 110,000 pounds of trash from 460 miles of shoreline.

“I wanted to find something to do as a family,” said Melissa Allen at Pax River, taking a break from bending and standing, grabbing and examining tiny pieces of plastic that she ultimately tossed in a garbage bag. Her husband, Cliff, and sons Grant and Lance got up earlier than usual to make their way to Cedar Point Beach and get to work. “It made us feel good this morning,” Melissa Allen said. “It was a good way to get the day going, and do something good for someone — for everyone.”

“This is our only planet,” Grant Allen, 12, said. “If we don’t have this, where else do we go?”

“For the first time, we are seeing some modest improvements in Chesapeake Bay water quality,” Council said. Underwater grasses are growing more and water is clearer. “But it’s still a system that’s dangerously out of balance.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also is working on reducing sediment buildup and less obvious pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which feed unnatural algae blooms that rob the water of oxygen as they decay.

“The bay is a national treasure,” Council said. The watershed covers about 64,000 square miles, and extends from Cooperstown, N.Y., to Virginia Beach. “It is the largest land-to-water ratio watershed of any estuary in the world,” he said. “There’s a lot of land that drains into a relatively small amount of water. That’s also a part of what makes it so susceptible to pollution.”

Its average depth is about 20 feet, Council said. “It is a massive economic engine. Even in its degraded state, it has a huge economic impact on the bay states. And without it, or with an unhealthy bay, we’re talking about a weakened economy, a loss of standard of living, loss of wildlife, loss of fisheries.”

For Cmdr. Molly Boron, who organized the Pax River cleanup, the morning was about small things like improving the view for people who visit the beach to eat lunch, exercise or fish. But, it was also a time to teach children about pollution and encourage others to think about what they leave behind on the shore.

About 40 volunteers — sailors, government workers, and other families — helped with the Pax River cleanup. “I’m very appreciative of that,” said Boron, a program lead at the Naval Air System Command and a pilot who has flown P-3 Orion and P-8 Poseidon intelligence and surveillance aircraft.

“It was a nice day,” Lance Allen, 10, said. “It makes the beach look nicer. I want to do my part to make the community better.”

nclark@somdnews.com