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Stream repairs designed to offset ICC's environmental damage

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 9:50 PM

About 500 feet from the enormous construction site for the 18.8-mile Intercounty Connector, a giant excavator rumbled about one recent afternoon, clawing at the banks of the Northwest Branch in northern Silver Spring. A powerful pump sucked out the water and funneled it downstream through large rubber hoses. Workers in hard hats toiled in the mud.

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Maryland highway officials call it the environmentally friendly side of a highway project that was mired in debate for 50 years largely because it was considered too harmful to Montgomery County's streams, wetlands and forest. Environmental groups say it's impossible to reverse the widespread damage caused by the ICC's construction.

The badly eroded banks of the Northwest Branch are being rebuilt and fortified. Workers are using tree stumps and logs to slow down the water, limit erosion and reduce the sediment and pollutants carried into the Anacostia River and, eventually, the Chesapeake Bay. When the project is finished, highway officials say, the Northwest Branch and waters downstream will be cleaner than before the ICC construction started three years ago.

The 3.5-mile stream restoration project in central Montgomery is the largest ever done in the state, said Rob Shreeve, the Maryland State Highway Administration's environmental manager on the ICC.

"We're putting features in place to help the stream fix itself," Shreeve said.

The state promised $105 million in environmental projects to help the toll highway win political support and federal approval. The restoration of the Northwest Branch - which cost $5 million - is the most expensive and is included in the highway's $2.56 billion budget. The ICC is designed to speed east-west travel between Maryland's Interstate 95 and Interstate 270 corridors.

But Shreeve said the Northwest Branch's problems stem from development that has occurred in central and northern Montgomery during the past 50 years, long before the ICC's construction began.

The construction of thousands of homes, strip malls and shopping centers has caused rainwater that once seeped into forests to rush off new parking lots and rooftops and into the Northwest Branch and other streams. The gushing water has cut into banks and ripped up the floor where fish and insects live while also carrying trash, animal waste and other pollutants, Shreeve said.

Only fish considered tolerant of polluted water, such as the tiny black-nosed dace, live in the tributary.

"We're not trying to restore the stream to what it was when the Colonists arrived here from England," Shreeve said. "We're trying to get the stream to an equilibrium so it remains stable."

A changed landscape

Environmental groups that fought the six-lane highway's construction say the stream work, although welcome, will do little to blunt the ICC's damage to the Northwest Branch and other streams, as well as 27 acres of wetlands and 700 acres of forest that have been destroyed in its path.

"One of the few things the Anacostia had going for it was its forested headwaters, and the ICC is going straight through it," said Brent Bolin, director of advocacy for the Anacostia Watershed Society. "Making something 'less bad' is only so helpful."

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