Development dries up farmer's Oasis

Suburban growth in the Bowie area comes at a high price when a bid to control storm-water runoff blocks one man's stream

February 18, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

BOWIE -- Fourteen months after the stream stopped flowing through his pasture and his well dried up, farmer Joseph Mills is still watering his cattle with the help of a fire hose hooked up to a hydrant beyond his fence line.

Oasis Farms, the Mills family's patch of green on the outskirts of booming Bowie, is surrounded on three sides by a sprawling planned community of 1,800 homes, stores and offices. General Growth Properties, the developer, says on the Fairwood community's Web site that "careful attention has been paid to the ecology of the land" in preparing it for construction.

But a six-acre pond, created by the developer to prevent storm water from polluting nearby streams, has blocked and diverted the stream from which Mills' cows used to drink. The well he had as a backup water supply went dry at the same time.

"It's beautiful," Mills says of the pond, bordered by a paved pathway and newly planted trees. "But it's kind of at my expense."

Mills' predicament might be extreme, environmental advocates say, but it illustrates the harm being done to Maryland's waterways by the state's lax oversight of sprawling suburban development. Environmentalists support a bill introduced this month in Annapolis that would strengthen the state law requiring control of storm-water runoff.

"Our current practices are just not cutting-edge anymore," says Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, staff attorney for Environment Maryland. "And they're not doing enough to keep our bay and the streams healthy and the flooding under control."

The problem, according to experts, is that the current storm-water law focuses mainly on preventing flooding from developed land and gives developers too much leeway in deciding how to control runoff.

While state and local governments do encourage "low-impact development" that would minimize changes to natural drainage, it is not required. Often, building one large pond to collect runoff is the easiest, least costly method -- even if it means altering stream flow and ground water.

Storm-water runoff has impaired nearly 1,600 miles of streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, causing flooding, erosion and loss of wildlife habitat, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's bay program office. With the rapid pace of development in the region, it is the most extensive and fastest-growing source of water pollution, contends Bevan-Dangel, who called Mill's situation "a nightmare."

"There's no worse position for someone with livestock than to be without water," she said.

Government regulators, who approved the pond and once pledged to help restore Mills' water, now say either that they are still working on it or that there is nothing they can do for him.

"He'd like it back the way it was. I can't blame him," said Sandra A. Zelen, enforcement program manager in the Baltimore district office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "Just, I can't get there now."

Mills has been able to keep his cows watered courtesy of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which allowed him to tap one of its hydrants. But come April, the utility has advised him, it will start charging him for the water.

The stream that once flowed through Oasis Farms feeds into the Patuxent River, a bay tributary. Little "headwaters" streams like that form an essential part of a river system, scientists say, helping to filter out pollutants and control flooding.

Yet such streams, often too small even to warrant a name, do not receive the same legal protection as larger bodies of water under state environmental laws.

"Even a small amount of development can cause a big impact," said Sally Hoyt, a water resources engineer with the Center for Watershed Protection, a nonprofit consulting group in Ellicott City.

Mark Thompson, General Growth's vice president for land sales, says the developer did nothing wrong, pointing out that local, state and federal environmental agencies all signed off on the company's plans for collecting rainwater runoff on the 1,000-acre development site, a former turf farm.

Spokesmen for each of the agencies acknowledge they approved at least some aspect of the developer's plans for the pond, but insist that the pollution control measure should not have deprived the Mills farm of its water supply. Each spokesman suggested that a different agency was primarily responsible.

Fred Tutman of advocacy group Patuxent Riverkeeper, who has attempted to help Mills, contends that government regulators are largely to blame for allowing the diversion of water -- and for the failure to have it restored promptly.

"The developer is emboldened by the lack of regulatory diligence on this," Tutman said. "These guys are the original source of the problem," he said of the regulators. "Mr. Mills seems to have fallen through the cracks.

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