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Could a Remarkable Creek Be a Compass to Saving the Bay?
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2009

The Algonquin Indians termed it “where one goes pleasantly.” Paddlers and anglers, otters, egrets, and eagles prize it. State fisheries biologists regard it “the best of the best.” Local government considers it a sewer district. Mattawoman Creek epitomizes what ails the Chesapeake Bay in the face of sprawling urbanization: nearly all land-use decisions are handled by local governments, which, too often, have strong ties to the development industry.

The Algonquin Indians termed it “where one goes pleasantly.”

Paddlers and anglers, otters, egrets, and eagles prize it.

State fisheries biologists regard it “the best of the best.”

Local government considers it a sewer district. 

Mattawoman Creek epitomizes what ails the Chesapeake Bay in the face of sprawling urbanization: nearly all land-use decisions are handled by local governments, which, too often, have strong ties to the development industry. Because a water body is rooted to the land by the capillaries of its small tributaries, its health depends directly on land use within its watershed. Local officials thus have the greatest say in determining water quality, but the least interest in the bigger picture. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency finds urbanization to be the only “pollution sector” still growing in the Chesapeake Bay, despite improvements in treating stormwater runoff.

Mattawoman Creek serves as a poster child for the issues of urban pollution. It is a twenty-mile river flowing along the border between Prince Georges and Charles Counties; it opens, twenty miles downstream of Washington, D.C., into the Potomac River’s last tidal freshwater estuary to have escaped serious degradation from urbanization. The type of urbanization threatening Mattawoman, and much of the Bay, is sprawl development. In many areas, this replaces forest, the best land use for protecting aquatic living resources, with roofs, roads and parking lots, the least protective land use. Compared to forest, these hard surfaces can double the stormwater load to streams as they funnel an erosive rush of pollutant-laden and overheated runoff after rains. Being impervious to rainwater infiltration, these surfaces also leave little to be sponged and released to streams between storms. Over-fertilized lawns also proliferate, sloughing excess fertilizer into streams.  The ensuing algal growth clouds water, depletes oxygen upon decay, and can bloom into health-threatening clouds.

 

The Scale of Sprawl

To appreciate the scale of sprawl, note that the Bay watershed is losing forest at a staggering 100 acres per day. Or consider that the area of turf-grass now exceeds that of crops. Or that, while population in the watershed grew by 8% in the 1990s, the impervious cover of roofs, roads, and parking lots grew over 40%, five times faster.

Development proponents noisily assert that state and federal authorities would never permit harm to occur from local land-use decisions. However, as Howard Ernst emphasized in his 2003 book, Chesapeake Bay Blues, the Bay is being killed less by pollution than by politics. Or, more precisely, by a lack of political will to exercise the permitting authority to curtail harmful local land-use decisions.

The Mattawoman is a case in point. It is a Chesapeake gem (see sidebar), supported by a mostly forested watershed, but is threatened by a county “development district” 30% larger than Washington D.C.  Consequently, it is teetering on the brink of serious degradation because its watershed is covered by nearly 10% impervious surface, a widely acknowledged point of no return, beyond which living resources rapidly decline. In addition, if business continues as usual, the Army Corps of Engineers projects development will consume 10,000 acres of forest by about 2020.  As is stated in the Mattawoman Creek Watershed Management Plan, this “will represent a dramatic change in the landscape and function of the watershed.”

Despite such strong words, local officials persist in allowing business as usual. Charles County owns the records as the worst in the state for forest lost per dwelling unit, for forest replanting, for sprawl development patterns, and for children housed in trailers.

> 2009 Table of Contents

   
   

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