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Too Good to Lose: Mattawoman Creek
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by Bonnie Bick | 2005

Mattawoman Creek. It’s a defining feature of Charles County, delineating  part of its border with Prince George’s. It’s a Potomac River asset, and a key tributary in the Chesapeake Bay system.

A 1992 Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR)  study reported that Mattawoman Creek is the most productive spawning and nursery ground in the Chesapeake for migratory fish.  Its concentration of juvenile anadromous fish, that is, those which live in the sea, but spawn in fresh water, is more than forty times that of other estuaries that the DNR has studied. Among these, it’s the healthiest fish food web of the Chesapeake Bay. On the eastern seaboard, anadromous fish number only a small percentage of their historical levels, making the health of the Mattawoman of national concern. Charles County also looks to the Creek as one of its greatest tourist draws, especially because of the numerous bass fishing tournaments held at Smallwood State Park. These attract fishermen from all over the mid-Atlantic region.

 

Attributes

Mattawoman Creek has a fluvial length of 20 miles, with an additional 7-mile tidal length. Its mouth opens onto the tidal Potomac River, at the town of Indian Head in Charles County. Its ecological health is delicate because of imminent land-use changes that are proposed in its watershed. It is home to Maryland’s largest breeding wood duck population. The watershed is also an important black duck wintering ground and has a strong presence of nesting bald eagles. It is one of only three Maryland sites with a wild population of the beautiful and rare Native Lotus.

But the most important use of the Mattawoman is as a rare holdout among the ever-fewer spawning places for anadromous fish, as noted above. Its still largely forested watershed protects the water quality and the possibility that the spawning can continue. It is also important for sport fishing, kayaking, and canoeing.


Threats

The general problem is that public officials, and to a lesser extent the public at large, do not understand how important it is to limit the amount of Mattawoman watershed that is converted into impervious surface. The Cross County Extension, a highway that is currently planned, would result in the paving of a significant part of the Mattawoman watershed.

Politicians try to balance growth and preservation. If developers want to develop 100 percent of a watershed and natural-resource people want to cap impervious surfaces at under 10 percent, elected officials might conclude that allowing 50 percent imperviousness would be a good compromise. But the environment does not work that way. Unrealistically low standards of protection will spell doom. That is why it is urgent to define the Mattawoman issue sharply. Elected representatives must understand the significance of the choice they make. The public must also understand what is being decided. Is an environmental catastrophe for everyone a reasonable payoff for short-term economic gain for a few? Our hope and belief is that if the politicians understand what they are deciding—and understand that the public understands also and is watching—it will be much easier to do the right thing.

Charles County’s public officials declare their support for protecting Mattawoman Creek. At the same time, they push for measures that would deal the Creek severe blows. The Cross County Extension is unpopular, expensive, and sprawl-inducing, yet officials continue to support it. DNR scientists and others have warned that opening the watershed to extensive development would increase the impervious surface past the point of no return, resulting in pollution beyond the Mattawoman’s ability to support healthy, living resources.

Charles County Commissioners pride themselves on what they believe to be their strong environmental ethic. But their activism on behalf of this destructive highway would undermine their own best efforts. Key to the future of the highway proposal is approval by the Army Corps of Engineers and Maryland Department of Environment. Their permits would result in tremendous wetland loss, by both immediate and cumulative impacts.


Alternatively . . .

A reasonable alternative transportation route has been proposed. A thorough study under the National Environmental Policy Act, with scrutiny by the scientific and environmental communities, will expose the terrible consequences of allowing the currently proposed highway construction. The NEPA study will heighten awareness of the steps necessary to protect the Mattawoman on a long-term basis.

If the alternative solution is chosen, citizens can then use the positive momentum to build proactive programs to protect Mattawoman Creek into the future. The crisis brought to a head by the highway proposal can help to advance public education. With a greater public awareness of the value of the Mattawoman and what it will take to keep it healthy for the long term, a political climate can be encouraged that will make positive actions easier to bring about and harmful actions more difficult.

Those who are focused on ecological health see grave warning signs on a global level (climate change, melting to the polar ice cap) as well as regionally (sprawl development, severe oxygen depletion in parts of the Chesapeake Bay). The threat to the future of anadromous fish is another serious threat. It is also one about which we can do something.

We believe that drawing the line at the threat to the Mattawoman gives us the best shot at getting a handle on our Chesapeake Bay problems before we pass the point of no return. We must frame the issues clearly, so that decision- makers cannot look the other way and say they are protecting the creek while at the same time building destructive, sprawl-inducing highways. In too many watersheds, awareness comes too late that living resources are unable to survive the amount of impervious surfaces that decision-makers have embraced.

It is our job to make the choice clear before the impervious surfaces have gone over the limit that the watershed is able to sustain. It is our job to keep Mattawoman Creek a positive contributor to the Bay’s health. We cannot lose the Mattawoman and still claim that we are working to save the Bay. Future generations will have no trouble weighing the relative merits of the two considerations—long-term public interest vs. short-term private gain—correctly.        n

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