The Patuxent River’s 115-mile length makes it the largest and longest river entirely within the state of Maryland, passing through a whopping eight counties. That’s why it has a state commission dedicated to its protection.
It also has a robust riverkeeper organization, whose mission is to “conserve, protect and replenish Maryland’s longest and deepest intrastate waterway.” So it was a surprise to many when the Patuxent Riverkeeper, along with other watershed advocates, were cut out of the Patuxent River Commission (PRC) created to “serve as a steward” for the river and protect its interests.
Fred Tutman, who founded Patuxent Riverkeeper in 2004, was informed in November he was not being re-appointed to the commission. He served on it for the last 23 years. Tutman grew up living and working along the river, his family farm on Queen Anne Road just walking distance from the water. He is the Bay’s longest-running riverkeeper and one of the nation’s only Black riverkeepers.
Other members who were dismissed include Barbara Sollner-Webb, Al Tucker, an Anne Arundel County resident and president of Friends of Jug Bay; Andrew Der, and John McCoy, the watershed manager for the Columbia Association. The 34 members of the PRC are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
In response to the dismissals, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, a coalition of 17 Waterkeeper programs within the Chesapeake and coastal bays, sent a letter to State Planning Secretary Robert McCord last month, signed by 53 organizations expressing their “profound concern.”
The riverkeeper should remain a voice for the river at the state level, they say, and suggest that his dismissal is a sign the Hogan administration is on the side of developers rather than river advocates.
“Secretary of Planning Robert McCord dismissed Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman and others from the Patuxent River Commission, which was outside of his jurisdiction to do. The justification that Fred Tutman in particular was not reappointed out of a desire to “have new perspectives added to the commission”—seems short-sighted at best, if not outright disingenuous. The Commission’s enabling legislation clearly states that new “citizen” appointees must be ratified by the Maryland Senate and appointed by Governor Hogan. By removing the commission’s most outspoken advocates for the environment, the administration is making it very clear that its priorities are with developers and not protecting communities and the environment.”
Maryland Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-22) and Del. Mary Lehman (D-21) have crafted legislation to reinstate environmental and community advocates to the PRC, with bills SB367 and HB716. The bills would make the Riverkeeper a permanent member of the PRC.
Waterkeepers Chesapeake Executive Director Betsy Nicholas joined Tutman and Sollner-Webb at a hearing last week before the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee. The Secretary of Planning was not present at the hearing and did not respond to requests for comment from CBM.
“He (Tutman) is a tireless spokesperson for what is right, what is good for the river,” Nicholas said. “But this isn’t really about Fred. It’s about silencing the voices from the community and those who know the river.”
Pinsky testified before the committee that the important thing to consider was that the PRC is an advisory board, incapable of passing laws. “The idea behind the commission was to have people who are familiar with the Patuxent and living on and working near the Patuxent who have expertise in, and care for and engage with the river.”
Sollner-Webb, a professor emerita at Johns Hopkins, stated that she believes they were dismissed from the board because of their vocal opposition to development projects along the river and its tributaries. “Two decades as an active member of the PRC until I was removed, along with the most vocal in speaking up for the river. For many years, PRC was impressively effective in helping preserve and enhance the Patuxent River.”
“I was the longest serving member of that commission, for 23 years, up until November,” testified Tutman. “I think the only person who served longer was the late Sen. Bernie Fowler, who served like 30 years. Bernie used to say to us ‘how are you going to clean up the Chesapeake Bay if you can’t figure out how to clean up the Patuxent River’ so here we are. How do we clean up the river if we can’t talk about land use, the inputs that actually affect the water quality? Talking about these things is about the only thing we can do. If you make good questions about bad development, that attracts the attention of the investors and I believe that’s the nexus of why we were tossed off this commission.”
Tutman called for structural changes to how the commissioners are chosen and what they can or cannot comment on. “Citizen themselves tend to be the most independent voices (on the commission), the rest is made up of state and county bureaucrats who, although they mean well, often cannot vote on an issue without checking with their employers or following the party line. We’ve been moved, as the Riverkeeper, away from the discussion table and into the audience.”