Column: Are We Abandoning Watts Branch?

Column: Are We Abandoning Watts Branch?



Potomac Village - Brightview Senior Living, LLC and its parent company The Shelter Group have approached the owner of two properties on Falls Road, (10006 and 10008) near the River Road intersection and a parking lot now leased to the Post Office, with a proposal to construct a three-story assisted living facility containing a minimum of 91 units. An adjacent lot on Falls Road is being considered for inclusion in the development as well. WMCCA will be following the progress of the proposal, but has initial concerns about the size of this institutional facility, parking, traffic impacts on an already heavily congested intersection, and current and future uses for the site.

I've lived in a log cabin overlooking Watts Branch for more than three decades and watching it decline has been heartbreaking.


The WMCCA Nominating Committee consists of George Barnes, Barbara Hoover, Barbara Brown, Shawn Justement, and Susanne Lee.

Next Meeting

The public is invited to the West Montgomery County Citizens Association General Meeting on Wednesday, April 9, at 7:15 p.m. at the Potomac Community Center. If schools are closed because of inclement weather, the meeting will be cancelled.

Speakers will be representatives of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission who will give a presentation on the proposed Potomac mid-river submerged channel intake.

The WSSC is completing an alternatives study for an offshore submerged channel intake in the Potomac River. The intent is to improve the drinking water supply and reliability. The project would be located at the WSSC Water Treatment Facility near the intersection of Potomac Lake Drive and River Road — 71.5 acres for the total facility in the RE-2 Zone.

On March 13, the WSSC discussed the proposed alternatives in a Mandatory Referral hearing at the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The project is located on both WSSC and National Parkland along the C&O Canal National Historic Park. The current intake structure is along the Potomac River shoreline and just downstream of where the Watts Branch stream enters the river. During storms, sediment and debris, particularly from Watts Branch, cause drastic changes in water quality that affect plant operations. Fluctuations have increased as the water quality in Watts Branch has declined over the last 15 years. The project is intended to partially bypass these impacts by installing a submerged mid-river intake structure. The proposal involves large limits of disturbance to the National Historic Park, blasting of the river bed, impacts to plants and wildlife and recreational users, an access road to the canal towpath for maintaining the new intake, and a parking lot and boat launch. The public is encouraged to attend this presentation.

As I write this, the Watts Branch is running bank full and chocolate brown as it swirls by on its way to the Potomac River. The largest stream watershed in the Potomac Subregion, it covers over 10,000 acres. Nearly all the headwaters begin in Rockville. It includes 680 acres of parkland, most of which is forested. MNCPPC initially purchased the unbuildable floodplains and steep slopes of many county streams to protect water quality and create buffers from adjacent development. Watts Branch has been intensely developed over a long period and the use of stormwater controls is recent. The result is that Watts Branch is what is known as a "flashy " stream. In severe rain storms, it rises rapidly, filling and overflowing the stream channel. It subsides just as quickly after rain events. But uncontrolled run-off containing sediment and chemicals scours the banks, deepens the stream channel, and dumps a muddy plume into the Potomac River. It is this plume the WSSC wants to avoid with the proposed mid-river intake.

Proposed alternatives involve massive engineering efforts like 96" intake conduits, tunneling or trenching in the riverbed, cofferdams, temporary access across, and dewatering of the C&O Canal. There are four alternatives, one of which is a "no action alternative." The other three are variations on a theme of tunneling out to the middle of the river to draw water where it is cleaner and less likely to foul operations at the filtration plant. There is no alternative that considers decreasing sediment loads to the Watts Branch. Why not? For 20 years the county has conducted stream monitoring and we know that if our streams pollute the rivers, they also eventually pollute the Chesapeake Bay. Are we going to abandon Watts Branch altogether without even one alternative that looks at improving it? How long can we expect to have the cleaner, clearer water further into the river if we do not address the sources of pollution coming into rivers from our streams? Watts Branch, like all our county streams, deserves better. And if we really want to maintain a healthy water supply for the future, there is a limit to how far out we can put that straw. In 20 more years, where will we go for clean drinking water?