By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009
Cars and pickups make their way over Ten Mile Creek's clear waters to cross one of Montgomery County's few remaining fords, a peaceful oasis only a mile or so from the roar of Interstate 270.
County officials knew more than 14 years ago the creek was a special place. They vowed to protect its fragile ecosystem even as they allowed major development, including a new jail and dense housing, in nearby rural Clarksburg. But now they face a daunting challenge.
County scientists, in a detailed report that crunches thousands of bits of data about sediment and runoff, microscopic organisms, water speed and unhealthy chemicals, suggest that the creek could be damaged substantially if more development is allowed.
Tomorrow, the County Council's environmental committee is scheduled to begin reviewing the report. The panel added the issue to its agenda after an article last week in The Washington Post outlined its findings and said officials had delayed publishing the report while they sought ways to better control sediment and runoff from construction in the hopes of allowing new development. County officials have since posted the report, and recommendations for better managing development, on the county's Web site.
In its many findings, the report says it is too soon to know whether damaged streams can recover and aquatic life can be restored, although the report's authors say they believe it is possible.
That uncertainty poses a challenge for county officials.
More than a decade ago, the county agreed to assess the health of waterways before allowing final development near Clarksburg, the last large undeveloped tract in the county. The council promised to revisit plans if the damage appeared too great.
Now, confronted with gloomy data that they can trace to years of construction in the area, officials must decide whether to build a county bus depot and allow more residential development near Ten Mile Creek. The creek is upstream from the region's drinking-water supply in the Potomac River, so its health is important to those who live beyond Montgomery's borders.
"The fragility of the Ten Mile Creek . . . was undeniable," the report says, noting some decline in the creek's health from nearby development and runoff from the jail.
Some County Council members are troubled by the report's findings and complained last week that they had been kept in the dark.
"This might affect our decision-making," said council President Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville). "I am concerned that we did not have timely access to this information." County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said through a spokesman last week that it had been a mistake to hold back the report.
Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) asked Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), the environmental committee's chairman, to include a discussion of the findings tomorrow. "This belatedly released water-quality report underscores the relationship of development to the degradation of our streams," he said.
And member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), who represents Clarksburg, said he was concerned that the council has been assured for years by county officials that the proposed bus depot was not at risk, but now it could be.
Although the county is required by law to annually issue its report on conditions in its four designated "special protection areas," officials fell behind schedule a few years ago during the administration of County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). The report issued this week had been promised by the Leggett administration by last April.
Bob Hoyt, the county's director of environmental protection, who took the reins of the department in late 2007, is expected to discuss the report's findings, as well as the delay in publishing them, at tomorrow's council session.
In an interview, he said that he had been concerned that the data documenting water-quality decline in northern Montgomery had been noted in previous reports but received scant attention.
"What took longer than I had hoped is that we want to be more protective and make sure we accurately describe what we are seeing and what we can do," he said. "It just took longer; things take longer than I ever anticipated or hoped."
The report offered several suggestions that Hoyt said would allow development to continue and improve efforts to protect waterways. They include installing storm-water management systems during construction, rather than waiting for construction to be completed; having county officials, rather than representatives of developers, monitor water quality; and finding ways to limit the amount of exposed soil during construction as a way of minimizing runoff.
"We have looked at best practices from all over the country," Hoyt said. "We haven't left any stone unturned."
One practice the report does not highlight is to cap the amount of land that can be paved over. At the same time, the report documents extensively the damage that too much "impervious surface" can cause.
In each of the county's four protection areas -- Clarksburg, Upper Paint Branch, Piney Branch and Upper Rock Creek -- the standards for development differ. But all include some caps on paved land as a means of protecting water quality. More pavement decreases the amount of ground and forest available to soak up and cleanse rainwater and other runoff before it flows into streams.
In the Paint Branch and Upper Rock Creek protection areas, the cap is 8 percent of new development. In Clarksburg, there is no cap in most sections, and the amount of impervious surface is as high as 25 percent, a point at which streams can be expected to suffer substantial damage that is difficult to repair, the report says.
Hoyt said that a cap was one of several possibilities available to the council but that it hadn't gained much support in the past. The report offers no recommendation on whether to impose caps. Caps are likely to be politically volatile because they are the most direct limits on development the council could impose.
Council members, guided by a road map in the 1994 Clarksburg Master Plan, could respond to the environmental department's report's findings in several ways. They could rezone undeveloped areas to put new limits on development; they could delay development until there is more information on damaged waterways' ability to recover; they could require additional water-quality protections from builders; or they could move ahead with current development plans.
Late last week, leaders of the Clarksburg Civic Association asked the county Planning Board to delay a water-quality plan for a segment of Clarksburg Village, a development under construction not far from Ten Mile Creek.
The report, the group said in a letter, "indicates that approving any further plans in Clarksburg would be reckless in the extreme until the full magnitude of the damage to our present water quality and streams is known and until the ineffectiveness of environmental controls as currently designed and implemented is remedied."
To read the report, go to http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov, and click on "Special Protection Area Program Annual Report 2007."