Zekiah Easement To Improve Watershed

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 24, 2007

Charles County won a significant land conservation easement near the Zekiah Swamp last week after the Maryland Board of Public Works approved funding for a 19-acre Rural Legacy program acquisition designed to improve water quality in the Zekiah watershed.

The property, which the government acquired for $258,786, is a key part of the Zekiah Watershed Rural Legacy Area, which includes about 2,000 protected acres. Local officials hailed the latest conservation easement as an environmental coup for the region.

"The particular property is made up of both agricultural land and woodland, so it will help provide a wooded buffer to the water resources there and protect the critical habitat that is down there for a lot of different species," said Charles Rice, the county's agricultural program administrator.

The Zekiah, in eastern Charles, runs from near Poplar Hill Road east of Waldorf south to the Wicomico River, which flows into the Potomac River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. The watershed is home to many farms, forests, wetlands and mineral deposits, as well as historical and archeological sites.

It's the largest natural hardwood swamp in Maryland and is considered by the Smithsonian Institution to be one of the most important ecological areas on the East Coast, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Preserving buffer land near the swamp will help limit water pollution, said Shaun Fenlon, an assistant state attorney general who works with the Rural Legacy program.

"The idea is, by having forested or vegetated buffers, that prevents the runoff sediment and also prevents things like extra nutrients from getting into the bay," Fenlon said.

The Zekiah acquisition was part of more than $8 million in Program Open Space and Rural Legacy funding approved by the Maryland Board of Public Works last week. The board's three members are Gov. Martin O'Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, all Democrats.

"I am proud that we are making good on our promise to use Open Space dollars to protect Maryland's Open Space," O'Malley said in a statement. "Working with the treasurer, comptroller and General Assembly, we will continue to preserve Maryland's environment for our children."

The state has approved more than $92 million this fiscal year for 231 local projects that preserve 1,446 acres. In his budget for fiscal 2008, O'Malley allocated $289 million in land preservation programs and $138 million to improve local water systems to help clean the Chesapeake Bay.

Such land conservation easements help protect the environment by preventing development, Fenlon said.

"We're just trying to maintain resource-based uses as opposed to sprawl development," Fenlon said, citing farming as an example.

The Zekiah watershed recently was designated as the most bio-diverse watershed in Maryland, based on the large number of species living there, many of which are rare and threatened, Rice said.

Charles County Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret) called the land conservation easement approved last week significant.

"Clearly, they understand and appreciate the Zekiah Swamp and how important it is not only to Charles County, but to our nation and the whole ecological system," Patterson said. "That has not always been the case, but certainly the relationships that we've built in the past and hopefully future relationships will mirror other ways we can preserve our environment and, more importantly, our waterways."

Rice said there are about 500 acres under contract for preservation near the Zekiah, in addition to the approximately 2,000 acres preserved there.

"We're continuing to preserve properties within our Rural Legacy area," Rice said. "There's still a lot of landowner interest, and we're chugging along and obtaining easements from the state."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company