Ginny Barnes, who has lived in Potomac for 30 years, walked from her house on Glen Road into the nearby woods and beside a stream that makes up part of the Watts Branch watershed. Watts Branch flows from the City of Rockville, through Potomac and into the Potomac River just upstream of the WSSC Water Filtration Plant. Its watershed covers 22 square miles. Recent floodwaters have ravaged the area, leaving the waterway a “chocolate-colored, raging torrent.”
“This is the first time I’ve seen two floods in two days,” said Barnes of last month’s severe weather. She is president of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association and team leader for the Audubon Naturalist Society’s water quality monitoring program. “I’ve never seen anything like this. You wouldn’t recognize this stream a month ago.”
A healthy stream is full and narrow, with gently sloping banks and vegetation down to the edge of the water. Watts Branch, which has been polluted by excessive storm water runoff, looks very different. Its banks are too wide for the muddy waters. Vegetation and soil have been ripped away by dirty storm waters, leaving tree roots exposed and vulnerable. Scores of toppled tree trunks litter the area, many dragged downstream by rushing floods.
BARNES MAKES regular trips alongside the stream to monitor conditions for the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Stormwater Partners Coalition, which is a network of environmental and civic groups. Environmental advocates formed the coalition in November to rally for stronger pollutant discharge permit requirements for developers in the county. The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) was created by the federal Clean Water Act so that states could regulate water pollution caused by storm water runoff, which can contain dirt, garbage, oil, grease and other pollutants from hard surfaces such as roads, driveways and parking lots.
“We had a lot of unity right from the beginning,” said Diane Cameron, coordinator of the Stormwater Partners Coalition. She is an environmental engineer who serves as a representative of the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council. “People from all around the county agreed on the fact that our county needs to do more to protect the streams … beyond simple monitoring … and conventional storm water management.”
“This looks like a construction site,” said Cameron, taking in the post-flood damage at Watts Branch. “It looks like bulldozers came through.”
The Stormwater Partners Coalition monitors Montgomery County streams three to four times a year.
“Monitoring is not effective unless you do it over time,” said Barnes. “We do it more often than the county…. It shows us how the life of the stream fluctuates with conditions.”
CURRENT ENVIRONMENTAL regulations have not adequately protected Watts Branch and other county watersheds from decline. A recently released report by the coalition identified the top ten most polluted streams in Montgomery County. Watts Branch and four other Potomac area streams also made the list:
* Cabin John Creek is “impaired for bacteria, nutrients, sediment and biological quality,” and 600,000 gallons of raw sewage were leaked into it in the aftermath of the recent flooding.
* Little Falls and Minnehaha Branch is described as a “lifeless, sandy wasteland” in the section below Massachusetts Avenue. It starts in downtown Bethesda and feeds directly into the Potomac River.
* Rock Run lies just south of Cabin John Creek and north of the Potomac River, with headwaters in Potomac Village. Its biological quality is degraded, including in the area of Avenel’s golf course. Its decline began at the turn of the 20th century with placer mining for gold.
*Muddy Branch is in “sharp decline,” largely from development in the Gaithersburg area.
Earlier this year, the state of Maryland listed two-thirds of the county’s streams as too polluted to support fishing, boating or a clean source for drinking water.
A county map of stream quality conditions through 2000 reveals that the most severely polluted streams are located in highly developed areas in the lower county, including many around Potomac. Cameron said that conditions have probably worsened substantially since then because of increased development. Impervious surfaces like roofs, parking lots and even hard-packed lawn soil (which often contains chemical fertilizers) cannot absorb excess rainfall. The water, along with mud, sediment and man-made chemicals, drains into nearby streams instead.
The coalition hopes to lessen this trend in urban areas that are already highly developed through relatively simple solutions like green roofs, rain gardens and rain barrels (see box). In undeveloped areas, the coalition wants the county to enforce low-impact development guidelines.
Cameron said that setting environmental guidelines for developing untouched land allows the maximum opportunity to protect the streams.
The Coalition wants the county to enforce — not just encourage — the following set of Environmentally Sound Design requirements (ESD) for farmland and forestland that is being converted to urban land uses.
* Developers must set aside 60-65 percent of the land as green space.
* Impervious surfaces are limited to 8 percent or less of the design.
* The design must allow storm waters to flow gently off the development into nearby green space.
Low-impact models of development have been an option for years, but developers aren’t required to use them.
“The optimal time to do this kind of design is in the development process,” said Barnes. “But nobody’s going to do it if there aren’t requirements.”
Cameron said that some county officials are reticent about “going out on a limb” with more stringent NPDES permit requirements than those used in the rest of Maryland. However, the Coalition hopes Montgomery County will continue to be leaders in environmental protection and inspire nearby counties to upgrade their standards as well.
“If we can get Montgomery County to ratchet it up, we can get other counties to,” said Barnes.
“We all drink from the Potomac River in this region,” said Cameron. “How much mud and bacteria Frederick County allows its developers to put in their streams” affects everyone, she said.
Councilmember Howie Denis (R-1) said that much will depend on the new county executive who will be elected in November.
“I think storm water management may be the most immediate environmental issue in Montgomery County,” said Denis. “When [developers] take away grass plains and trees, it just adds to our storm water difficulties. We have a net loss of trees, and I think we have to do something to make sure we don’t lose any more.”
Councilmember Nancy Floreen (D-at large), along with councilmembers Denis, Michael Subin (D-at large) and Mike Knapp (D-2) sponsored a bill on Tuesday that would award tax credits to developers of “green” buildings that employ energy efficiency and environmentally sensitive materials. The bill will be voted on next session.
“I want anyone contemplating construction of a building this summer to think about building ‘green’ — for their sake and the health of the environment,” said Floreen in a press release. “Knowing this credit may be available in the fall could encourage a builder to ‘go green.’”
THE COUNTY’S WATER supply intake plant is currently located just below the point where Watts Branch runs into the Potomac River. Watts Branch has become so polluted from storm water runoff that it has cost water utility WSSC an additional $800,000 per year to treat the drinking water.
Officials want to move the intake to cleaner water in the middle of the Potomac. This would development on an island in the river. The Coalition believes the county should clean up Watts Branch instead of building on the island.
“They’d rather build on an island than improve the stream,” said Cameron. “We know how to protect the stream [from pollution]. It’s just do the regulators have the will?”
Be Stream Friendly
Guidance and materials for making your property more conducive to healthy storm water drainage is available online at Web sites like www.rainscapes.org and www.greenroofs.org. Information is also available from the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection. Call 240-777-7700 or visit the department online at www.askdep.com. If you are considering hiring a professional conservation landscaper, visit www.chesapeakelandscape.org.
* Rain barrel — A large barrel holding 50 gallons or more that can be placed under the corner of a home, business or school to collect rain water. During storms, these can collect ample water for future lawn use.
* Rain garden — A depression carved into one’s yard that helps absorb rainwater. It is layered with absorptive materials and plants that can flourish in dry or wet conditions. Roof downspouts can be directed into the rain garden.
* Rain roof — A rooftop garden that soaks up rainwater. Typically, a thick plastic sheet is placed over the roof and covered with gravel, sand and soil. Plants that flourish in dry or wet conditions, such as sedum, can thrive atop the roof. Part of Northwood High School in Silver Spring is covered with a green roof.