Chesapeake Conservancy applauds waterway access legislation

The Maryland General Assembly today passed a bill, which if signed by Governor Martin O’Malley, will create many new opportunities for public access to Maryland’s waterways by using existing rights of way at bridge crossings.

Charlie Stek, Chairman of the Board of the Chesapeake Conservancy, who organized support for the bill, said, “I know from first-hand experience and from the stories of citizens and organizations throughout this region that there is a great need and demand for improved recreational access to our State’s waterways.  This legislation is a smart, systematic and reasonable way to help meet that demand, and we commend the legislature for passing it.  

The bill, House Bill 797, contains two simple provisions.

First, it requires the Maryland Department of Transportation and local governments to consider any “reasonable and appropriate measures” to provide or improve water access for fishing, canoeing and kayaking when developing a bridge or road construction or improvement project that is adjacent to or crosses a waterway. 

Second, it requires MDOT and local governments to establish standards and guidelines, in consultation with Maryland DNR and interested stakeholders, for identifying appropriate transportation facilities for water access as well as best practices and cost effective strategies to accommodate that access.

Joel Dunn, Executive Director of the Chesapeake Conservancy, noted that access to the waters of the bay and its rivers remains very limited while participation in fishing, canoeing, kayaking and other recreational activities continues to grow.

The Chesapeake Conservancy, a non-profit organization, has a mission to strengthen the connection between people and the watershed through improved public recreational access, land conservation, education and heritage tourism, and Dunn noted that this legislation will help achieve that end.

Stek commended Delegates Maggie McIntosh, chair of the Environmental Matters committee, Barbara Frush, and Shane Robinson for introducing the bill and leading efforts to win approval. He also commended Senator Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and the members of the committee for swiftly approving it.

Nearly all the bridges in Maryland that cross waterways lack pull-off areas and parking and often have high guardrails that make getting to the water difficult. Yet recreational access at bridges can be created relatively quickly, at little cost and would provide substantial benefits to the economy, roadway and waterway safety, and public health.

Bridge construction requires staging areas and parking spots next to the construction. These facilities are often removed once the bridge is built, but could inexpensively be planned for and included as permanent amenities in project design and construction and left to provide public access to the water.

The Chesapeake Conservancy has led a coalition of groups supporting access at bridges and roadways adjacent to waterways that includes the Maryland Recreation and Parks Association, American Sportfishing Association, American Canoe Association, American Whitewater, Mid-Atlantic Center National Wildlife Federation, Anacostia Watershed Society, Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway, Sultana Projects, Inc., Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, Patuxent River Keeper, Baltimore National Heritage Area, National Parks Conservation Association, Maryland Bass Federation, Maryland Legislative Sportsmen’s Foundation, Mid-Atlantic Council of Trout Unlimited, Community Commons, Dorchester County Tourism, Chester River Association, the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.