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The “Other Connector”—Taking Aim at the Heart of Mattawoman Creek
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2007

Preservation of Mattawoman Creek, the most productivet tributary in the Bay watershed, remains our best option for protecting this valuable resource

New highways unleash a flood of new urbanization, with discouraging results for the health of the Chesapeake Bay. At a time when Bay restoration remains illusive, forces are working to piecemeal the construction of the Maryland leg of an outer beltway, which would bury huge tracts of forested watershed with the impervious surface of roofs, roads, and parking lots associated with degraded aquatic resources. The proposed InterCounty Connector  between Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, the Waldorf Bypass proposed for Prince George’s and Charles Counties, and Charles County’s own desire to extend a Cross County Connector across the Mattawoman Creek watershed all point to providing the pavement or enabling the growth to promote a new Potomac crossing at Chicamuxen, a dream of outer beltway builders incorporated in plans since the early 90’s.

Against the backdrop of these highway proposals, it is now official that Bay restoration efforts are unable to cope with the flood of urbanization.  A 2006 report released this past spring by the Chesapeake Bay Program finds “pollution increases associated with land development (e.g., converting farms and forests to urban/suburban developments) have surpassed the gains achieved from improved landscape design and stormwater management practices. The rapid rate of population growth and related residential and commercial development has made this pollution sector the only one in the Bay watershed to still be growing, and thus ‘progress’ is negative.” (See http://www.chesapeakebay.net/assess/2006_restoration.htm.)

Significant impairment (a)

Severe impacts (b)

Nonfunctioning (a)

As the costs of Chesapeake clean-up efforts demonstrate, an ounce of preservation is worth a pound of restoration. Because of the present high value of Mattawoman Creek, it serves as a poster child of what is at stake if preservation is neglected. State studies document Mattawoman as a key to the Potomac River’s largemouth bass fishery and Maryland’s most productive nursery for migratory fish, to such a degree that fisheries biologists have advised Charles County government that  it is “the best, most productive tributary to the Bay.” This gem is in jeopardy, however, because its watershed is nearing the tipping point of 10% impervious cover, widely acknowledged as a threshold not to be crossed if significant degradation is to be avoided (see Fig. 1).

 

Fig. 1 Projection of the fraction of the Mattawoman watershed covered with impervious surface for various management scenarios. Graph is copied from Charles County’s Mattawoman Watershed Management Plan authored by the Army Corps of Engineers. The characterizations in red have been added based on: (a) Center for Watershed Protection; (b) the Watershed Management Plan itself.

 

 

Yet county officials are clamoring for permits to build a new four-lane highway, the Cross County Connector extension, which if built would slice through Mattawoman’s watershed, pumping Bryans Road into a growth center like Waldorf and smothering a large swath of watershed with sprawl development. The proximity of the highway to areas presently zoned rural conservation (deferred) would tempt upzoning and accelerate the loss of even more forest, the best land use for aquatic quality. The area that would be impacted drains into Mattawoman reaches used by spawning River Herring, a migratory ocean species that is severely depleted along the Atlantic seaboard, but which concentrates in Mattawoman and is an important reason the Creek is considered so valuable.

County officials acknowledge the high value of the Creek but, when confronted with threats posed by the highway, hold up as a shield technology like stormwater management and best management practices.  But as the Chesapeake Bay Program report cited above makes clear, such measures are no magic potion: urbanization is overtaking our efforts to protect aquatic resources. Furthermore, the County’s own Watershed Management Plan finds that such measures, while necessary, fail to adequately protect the resource (see Fig. 1).

Preservation remains our best means for protecting valuable resources. This could be accomplished by outright land preservation, proper administration of smart growth concepts like concentrating development in present growth centers (growing up) and servicing these areas with public transportation including light rail, and imposing caps on impervious surface area.

It appears that the county would rather not know the impacts of the highway. Hoping to replace knowledge with politics, Charles County officials have asked Senator Cardin for aid in obtaining permits before review of cumulative and indirect impacts. In fact, the county denies any growth- inducing effects of its highway proposal. According to the Maryland Independent, this is causing problems for the Army Corps of Engineers.  The Corps, along with the Maryland Department of Environment, must make wetland-permitting decisions for the highway using a process that meets the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

John Griffin, Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, augments the battle cry of Smart Growth with the admonition to “grow wiser.”  It would be smarter if all parties recognized the wisdom of full study of this new Charles County highway proposal through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). If properly scoped, an EIS would inform on many fronts, including indirect and cumulative impacts and climate change issues, that should be of keen interest to true stewards of our environment and quality of life. In addition, alternatives could be examined in detail, such as the obvious one making use of recently constructed Route 228 and widened Middletown Road. Remarkably, neither permitting agencies nor the county have taken steps to require an EIS for a new, dualized four lane highway aimed at the heart of Mattawoman. Instead, they appear ready to rush the process. In response, the Sierra Club, Maryland Bass Federation Nation, and Mattawoman Watershed Society have formally requested an EIS.

If the Bay is to be restored, we cannot afford to lose what remains viable. For Mattawoman Creek, the impacts of new highways in its watershed, such as the Cross County Connector extension and the western Waldorf Bypass, would tip the balance toward irreversible and severe degradation. We would have replaced a preservation opportunity with a restoration project. Additional stepping stones and false motivation would have been placed by the development industry for an outer beltway, which would inflict far flung and deep environmental damage on the region. A first step to avoiding this scenario is fully informed decision making, which an EIS is supposed to support.

 

What you can do:

Get informed: check out www.mattawomanwatershed.org

Get involved: ask to be included on the mailing list using the form at the above website.

Attend an upcoming but yet unannounced wetland hearing: there will be a wetland hearing on the Cross County Connector extension at some time in the near future.  When the date of the hearing is known, it will be announced on the website and emailed to those on the mailing list. The hearing will be held in the evening, probably near Waldorf or La Plata.  A large turnout will be invaluable in convincing the Army Corps and Maryland Dept. of Environment that the public cares about water quality and the Bay, and convincing them to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. In addition, controversy can serve as an argument for triggering an EIS.   

This article was provided by the Mattawoman Watershed  Society, http://www.mattawomanwatershed.org/.

Significant impairment (a)

Severe impacts (b)

Nonfunctioning (a)

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