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The Monocacy River - Part I

Editor's Note:  The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) has issued a draft TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load), a critical declaration of the polluted state of the waterway, on the Monocacy River, with more impairment reports to come, based on sediment and nutrients - it seems a good time to write about the river in some form of its fullness, and how it reflects the community,  and our communal stewardship of the county's natural resources, in a sort of extended love letter fraught with deep concerns and simple hopes for the future of the river -

August 3, 2007

by Jack Lynch

The Monocacy River is one of the distinctive features of Frederick County, flowing south from a point just below the Mason Dixon line near the juncture with Carroll County.  It is the great life blood, built from hundreds of minor streams and creeks that bisect the farms and towns along its course down through the county, gathering its flows and influencing the broad piedmont landscape, defining the historic pattern of our relationship over time with the natural resources that sustain and restrain our interactions with the environment.

It begins with a single droplet of rain water at a ridgeline point northwest of Biglersville, Pennsylvania.  It slowly gathers with groundwater until it forms a small stream that runs down through the local apple orchards.  Already there are problems.  The water seeping through the ground has begun to pick up remnants of pesticides such as diazinon for insect control, atrazine for row crops like corn, and simizine used in the apple orchards.  It seeps into Rock Creek, one of the first tributaries of the Monocacy River.

Soon Rock Creek merges with Marsh Creek just south of Gettysburg.  Here, other problems surface, such as a proposal to build 160 new homes on well and septic systems along the stream headwaters, a setback for local source water protection efforts by the Land Conservancy of Adams County, which has been buying up conservation easements on the largely rural agricultural area. 

A second issue begins here as well, for the Gettysburg Municipal Authority draws drinking water from Marsh Creek next to the historic Sachs Covered Bridge just south of the town.  Because the stream flow is occasionally reduced beyond state flow-by requirements because of the town’s water withdrawal, the flow of Marsh Creek is sometimes augmented by water from two town wells close by the creek. 

It is a problem common with taking water from streams and rivers, and the wells are an odd solution to returning water to the creek, but environmental needs require that a certain amount of water continue flowing south in order to protect the wildlife drainage needs of the land.

A total of seven Adams County, Pa. streams contribute their headwaters to the Monocacy River:  Toms Creek, Flat Run, Marsh Creek, Middle Creek, Rock Creek piney Creek and Alloway Creek.  Seventeen Adams Co. municipalities and two Franklin Co., Pa. municipalities are part of the Monocacy watershed.  The spillover growth moving from areas like Frederick County to these areas is taxing the infrastructure, and with water in short supply, Adams County is also connecting to a pipeline from York, Pa to the Susquehanna River for additional water on its eastern side.

By the time the water has reached the Mason-Dixon line into Maryland, it has already suffered from runoff sedimentation and animal wastes from farms along the way.  Point sources such as septic systems have contributed nutrients and microbial contaminants.  Fuel storage tanks also potentially release volatile organic compounds and metals.  Accidents of fuel and chemical freight vehicles on roadways along the streams can result in spills of hazardous chemicals into streams as well.

Entering Frederick County, the river is already experiencing the variety of impacts that will continue throughout its journey of another forty miles to its mouth at the Potomac River.  The problems of the river’s water will be compounded along the way, eventually being deposited into the Potomac River and the lower Chesapeake Bay.  Part of the reality of water is that what occurs upstream, or is degraded upstream, reaches the downstream users, so every impact, whether good or bad, is passed along and multiplied in severity or improvement.

The Monocacy River has had the good fortune to benefit by keeping us somewhat removed from it’s banks, there are few public places to access it, few roads along it, and because of its propensity to engulf large floodplains, little impact from human structures that have been built along its edges since the era of the many mills that used its power to grind grain products. 

But it receives our impacts, from impervious surfaces such as pavements, and the general lack of healthy tracts of forestation throughout its drainage.  Runoff impacts the river in two major forms, water that runs off fast and dirty from developed areas, and sediments that wash slowly off farm fields.  Because of the nature of our highly erodible soils in the piedmont valleys of the Monocacy, it chokes on sediments that cover its bottom and therefore supports less bentic or biotic underwater life, a basic factor of healthy river ecosystems.

The natural history of water in Frederick County is virtually all contained within the vast watershed of the Monocacy River.  Nearly every drop of rain that falls upon the county east of the Catoctin mountain ridges finds its way down through the ubiquitous stream courses to the river, then to the Potomac, and on to the lower Chesapeake Bay.  The ground surface defined by the area over which all water droplets move to end in the Monocacy River is what defines the watershed. 

According to descriptions posted online by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB), the Monocacy River Basin has a total drainage area of approximately 970 square miles, and includes most of Frederick, about half of Carroll, and a small part of Montgomery counties in Maryland and about half of Adams and a small part of Franklin counties in Pennsylvania. The basin is bounded on the west by Catoctin and South mountains and the Potomac River on the south. The eastern boundary is in the Piedmont upland in Carroll County and the northern boundary is in the Mesozoic lowlands north of Gettysburg in Adams County.  The river runs approximately 58 statute miles, with a drainage area of about 744 square miles, or 476,200 acres, 75 percent of which is in the State of Maryland.

It is the largest Maryland tributary to the Potomac.  The river is formed by the confluence of Marsh Creek and Rock Creek, which flow out of Adams County, Pennsylvania. Maryland tributaries include Furnace Branch, Stony Creek, and Linganore Creek in Frederick County and Double Pipe Creek in Carroll County; other Pennsylvania tributaries include Toms Creek in Adams and Franklin County.

Most residents of the county, whether they live along Hunting Creek, or Israel Creek, or Big Pipe Creek, or any other named or unnamed tributary of the Monocacy, share in the benefits, and in imposing the impacts, upon the river system. 

This dependency upon the health and utility of the river defines an obligation upon residents to preserve and protect the system.  Where man has historically failed to protect the land and water, he has found himself banished and forced to move on or rely on more costly and less desirable life supports.  While the dependency has lessened in regards to drinking water supply, it is still revealed in fish and game habitat and forestation, the river’s scenic and recreational beauty.  Hopefully that will be enough to maintain the natural qualities into the future as encroaching development throughout its courses impacts the river environment.

It has been this way for over 10,000 years, when peoples first hunted the tundra fields of Frederick County for Mammoth that roamed a broad savannah grassland throughout the Frederick valleys after the vast inland sea retreated from the mountain traces and the ice age gradually crept down reshaping the land with a great crushing advance of ice and stone. 

Dulaney’s School History of Maryland, circa 1880, relates the name Monocacy as a combination of two Native American words, Maskane, meaning strong and rapid, and Okkehanne, meaning a crooked or winding stream.  It is easy to imagine the Indian natives following the course of the river and noting its many bends, while the adventuring white races who came after diverted from the native paths to cross the river at points south of Creagerstown, and east, at the mouth of Linganore Creek.

Henry Fleet, while visiting the Monocacy River valley during the 17th century, wrote, "The place is without question, the most healthful and pleasant place...And for deer, buffaloes, bears, turkey the woods do swarm with them and the soil is exceedingly fertile..." Such remarks foretold the rich cultural heritage the river has enjoyed as frontier, farmland and population center.

How we share those benefits and impacts upon these waterways has always defined our relationship to the land and to one another, and like a network of arteries and veins, the waters pulse through our community like a common bloodline.  The quest to own, use and manage the resource has often resulted in finger pointing and deflecting blame, but if the water is to be shared and preserved as a source of human and wildlife benefit, it needs to be held in stewardship and engender common efforts to protect its quality from the beginning to its end.

The Monocacy is categorized as a Maryland Wild and Scenic River, but it has one of the greatest non-point source pollution problems in the state due in large part to runoff from the 3,500 farms, livestock operations and dairies in the watershed. 

According to the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, across the Monocacy watershed, crop land soil erosion ranges from two to 35 tons per acre per year. This is in stark contrast to the T-value -- a measure of how much soil can be lost and still maintain productivity -- which is three tons per acre throughout the watershed. Better erosion control will not only help the river, but farmers, who currently lose an estimated three to seven percent in crop yield in certain areas of the watershed.

The river has supported us with fish and game, water to drink and irrigate, and generated power to mills for the grinding of wheat and corn.  Its scenic beauty has managed to remain intact for the duration of this time, and the community has fought to keep it pristine and undimmed and unchanged for subsequent generations. 

Those environmental battles have been spearheaded by a number of visionary individuals and groups, and the potential threats are still today in the minds of many of our citizens. 

Created in 1949, the Interstate Monocacy Watershed Council was the first organizational attempt to restore the river. Two years later, the Maryland State Planning Commission released a report saying that although federal and state conservation efforts were under way, projects often lacked coordination and funding.  The report recommended a dramatic increase in soil and water conservation, reforestation of large areas of the watershed, improvements in water quality, restoration of wildlife habitat, and careful development of recreational resources.  Similar proposals are echoed today.

In 1968, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Scenic and Wild River Act (SWRA) to protect Maryland's river resources through an organized program of natural resource inventories and land use planning.

After passage of the SWRA, officials identified the Monocacy River as a significant state resource and prime candidate for scenic designation. Approval came on April 30,1974 and a management plan with recommendations to conserve, preserve, and manage the Monocacy and its tributaries was put in place.

The SWRA also established the Monocacy Scenic River Local Citizens Advisory Board. Begun in 1976, the organization brings together citizens with a wide range of viewpoints on the river and its protection to assist county officials in decisions affecting its future.

The Board has not been without its controversies, farm interests and property rights advocates on the Board failed to recommend a proposed development setback along the river based on riparian slopes, soil types, forestation, and natural floodplains in 2004.  The recent Citizens Zoning Review Committee, after an eighteen month consideration of all elements of the county’s zoning ordinances, granted the river setback proposal a recommendation of approval to the Board of County Commissioners.

A newer threat to the river has been on-going development and the increases in impervious surfaces such as asphalt and cement paving.  Scientific studies demonstrate that native trout are impacted by as little as a three percent impervious surface area in a streams drainage, and even stocked trout are unable to survive once a typical twelve percent impervious surface area is reached.  Additionally, resident disposal of oil and chemicals, as well as excessive fertilizer use and winter road salting actions impact the water quality.

These minor and everyday threats to the water supply have led to the proposal for both wellhead protection measures and a Linganore watershed protection plan for Frederick County.  Linganore Creek and Lake Linganore are on the state’s impaired waters list and under an Environmental Protection Agency mandated TMDL, or Total Maximum Daily Load notice.  The water quality of the area streams is impacted by excessive nutrients, despite the largely rural agricultural area of the northern watershed.

While improvements such as boat launch ramps have been constructed, such as the access point along Monocacy Boulevard in Frederick City, when planners were asked to consider low impact design and the possibility of foregoing use of impervious surfaces, they shrugged their shoulders and pointed to proposal requests that dictated pavement of parking areas.  The managers of community planning must engage in new thinking if they are to build environmentally concerned and sensitive projects.

To be continued next Issue:  The Monocacy River - Part II - Water, Water, - further issues and ruminations -