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The Monocacy River - Part II
October 24, 2007
by Jack Lynch
Today’s most visible and immediate threat to the future of the Monocacy River and its water quality and public presence is the planning for growth around the City of Frederick.
As the City follows its Comprehensive Plan and contemplated annexation of approximately 1,200 acres North of the existing city limits, allowing thousands of new homes and millions of square feet of office, retail and industrial uses – its sensitivity to environmental features is little progressed beyond what it considered viable twenty years ago.
It is as if the water crisis of 2002 and again right now have had little effect – the City requires that I conserve and save water, while it projects all this new growth.
For as the City switches from a Monocacy dependent water resource to a Potomac dependent resource, it neglects the river’s other, truer environmental values. Take a look along Gas House Pike, or the Mill island section of Worman’s Mill development, where buildings proximity to the river marks a sense that the river is an afterthought, a mere flow of inconvenience, rather than a source of beauty and recreation and a treasured supply of life and wildlife sustenance.
While it has been suggested that the new pipeline to the Potomac allows for a secondary water pipeline along its easement, doubt as to the potential for additional Potomac allocations is prevalent among utility managers. It is more likely that the larger regional competition for shared water will require the long term investment in additional supply augmentations rather than another simple allocation.
Frederick County is a minor player in the region’s water withdrawal planning, even though it is a good steward of water use by returning nearly 90% of its water supply useage back as river outfall rather than losing it in what water planners call consumptive use.
While the Monocacy’s flows are reduced enough already to keep it from being a viable long term water source for continuing growth, the county’s long term planning for additional water beyond the Potomac River pipeline raises the concern that another attempt to dam the Monocacy, as the Army Corps of Engineers hoped to do in the nineteen eighties.
Planning by the Army Corps of Engineers during the 1960’s for Washington region water supply identifed a series of dams and resevoirs that could be built to hold water capacity for release during drought conditions to supply drinking water. One of these dam projects was proposed for the Monocacy River at Sixes Bridge Road until a grassroots advocacy to ‘Save the Monocacy’ brought public outcry and those plans to a standstill. Local leaders of the dam opposition such as Bill Fisher are still remembered fondly by landowners and environmental advocates.
A grassroots effort by citizens arose to challenge that proposed dam, the Sixes Bridge project, and from it grew the modern initiatives to maintain the river’s qualities as a free flowing and environmentally protected resource. However, many of those advocates for the river are dying off, and the new residents of the county filling our new homes have not absorbed the natural wonder for the river they grew up within, or applied their inherently improved knowledge of water quality issues to their new home environment.
From its beginnings in Adams County, PA to its mouth on the Potomac at the dividing line to Virginia, the river winds nearly unimpeded today, with its riparian buffers mostly undisturbed. At its sources begins the battles to preserve the natural water quality and keep growth at bay from the shores of the streams.
Richard Schmoyer, Director of the Adams County Office of Planning and Development, cites the pressure of growth from Frederick and the tendency to limit that growth here as one of the sources of his local woes. Schmoyer is an advocate of sustainable development based on natural resource protection and communities built as villages independent in many ways from the automobile.
At an annual meeting of the Source Water Protection Partnership of the Interstate Commission of the Potomac River Basin, Schmoyer spoke alongside a historic covered bridge across Marsh Creek, a primary Monocacy river feeder stream, about the challenges of their source water protection plans and land conservation. Just upstream from where we stood, a builder hoped to place over 160 new homes alongside the source waterway on private well and septic systems. A local land trust planned to purchase the length of land along Marsh Creek for preservation.
While similar soil conservation and nutrient management efforts are also prevalent in Frederick and Carroll counties, and cover crop and no till planting methods as well; in Carroll County, farmland preservation efforts are directed towards the lands closest to the waterways, in an organized effort, so that a secondary benefit to water quality is achieved. And further subdivisions along the river require protective buffer easements.
Frederick County has not been as proactive or directed in this regards. Looking at the land preservation maps of both counties, one quickly sees the broad vision in Carroll, and the shotgun approach in Frederick County. Much of Carroll County’s success in this regards has been the concerted efforts of a former farmer, who has been the county land preservation planner for over twenty odd years.
On contiguous properties, conservation easements were either purchased from or donated by local farmers. County efforts included building Best Management Practices (BMP’s) on those local dairy farms. Barnyards were fenced and manure runoffs contained for nutrient management, stream crossings were physically enhanced to reduce erosion and damage from animal crossings, and riparian buffers augmented with tree plantings.
As part of the Chesapeake Bay agreements, phosphorous and nitrogen discharges are set to be cut by 40% and 20% respectively, by 2010, otherwise the Federal government is intended to step in and mandate a series of steps to reach the required standards for the Bay. Part of Maryland’s leadership in these efforts has been the Ehrlich administration’s so called ‘flush tax’ which provides funding to improve wastewater treatment systems with upgrades and capacity improvements to reduce nutrient discharges to local waterways.
A landmark effort, it has been criticized for including private septic system fees and for allowing development increases because of increased sewage capacity infrastructure in some areas of the state. Politically, while it was opposed by some of his conservative base, it was one of the highlights of Ehrlich’s leadership to more liberal environmental advocates.
Governor Ehrlich likewise came to champion the protection of the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge against controversial plans by local government to develop a large contiguous parcel of farmland with hundreds of homes and a golf course. But that took a lawsuit by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a negative recommendation of the project from the state’s Critical Areas Commission.
The debated annexation area was actually not directly connected to the town limits of Cambridge, raising issues of authority and oversight that are under consideration throughout the state.
In Garrett County alongside Deep Creek Lake, and in Allegany County, a development proposed for an area contiguous to the Green Forest State park, have sought the use of water resources from the adjacent parkland to meet their needs.
Locally, recent attempts in 2006 to pass a well head protection ordinance for Frederick County met with stiff public opposition because it included a development moratorium in the designated areas. Similar legislation in Carroll County, where the public water supply is much more dependent upon well water systems, has been less controversial.
The town of Westminster, like some others in Frederick and Carroll counties, has currently been placed under a building moratorium by the Maryland Department of the Environment until it provides additional water supply resources.
Towns along the geologic areas defined by an arc from Taneytown to Mt. Airy are under water restraints due to limited resources, as are Middletown and Myersville. Attempts to drill new municipal wells in Taneytown have reduced or dried up other local private owner wells.
Other proposals include tapping into local quarries for water resources, but those options mean a treatment regime for suspended particulate matter, which depends upon impoundments, time, and sometimes using chemical means to precipitate the solids before releasing water to supply human needs.
Public disagreements over water supply efforts and growth have led to local election outcomes, particularly in the recent Mt. Airy proposals. Public recognition of the impacts of local decision making on water availability and the quality of life have increased and will define municipal life for decades to come in the two counties.
While politicians are quick to deny thoughts of in-stream dam proposals in the future for the Monocacy, studies of the projected resource needs include statements sought by development interests and public officials that all options should be on the table. Environmental advocates perk up their ears to such provisions and remember the past’s water struggles.
Of a dozen key river protection initiatives outlined for the river board some thirty years ago, such as a development setback, many remain outstanding and much of the success in protections for water quality and ancillary resources have been the good fortune of having limited access to the river and protective landowners contiguous to the river.