Highway, development imperil Mattawoman Creek, report warns

April 07, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

A Charles County creek regarded as one of the Chesapeake Bay's best remaining fish spawning areas has been ranked among the nation's most endangered rivers because of plans for a highway and development across the creek's watershed.

Mattawoman Creek, a mostly forested Potomac River tributary that also harbors rare plants, abundant waterfowl and bald eagles, made the list published Tuesday by the environmental group American Rivers. "The river's really at a turning point," said Katherine Baer, a top official with the group, which annually puts out a list of the 10 most endangered waterways.

She said American Rivers hopes publicity about the 27-mile creek will increase pressure on the state to block a $60 million highway that Charles County wants to build through the heart of the creek's drainage area.

The county is seeking permits to destroy more than 7 acres of wetlands along the six-mile route of the proposed Cross-County Connector, which would cross the creek. County officials say the four-lane highway is needed to serve a long-designated growth area in northern Charles and to relieve dangerous traffic congestion on winding two-lane country roads.

But recent monitoring suggests that the creek already shows signs of stress from development, and activists warn that the highway will hasten its demise by opening more of its 95-square-mile watershed to homes and pavement.

"Basically this highway is just going to lead to more sprawl, traffic and dirty water," Baer said. "This is a perfect opportunity to make the right decision, to not build a road that's not needed and to protect the Mattawoman, one of the gems of the Chesapeake."

The Maryland Department of the Environment plans to decide by June 1 whether to approve permits needed by the county to build the highway, spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus said. The state delayed its decision last fall to request more information from the county.

The state is still looking for answers about how the county intends to protect particularly pristine parts of the creek and to replace wetlands that would be lost, she said.

The highway itself is seen as likely to spur development. A state environmental official wrote that construction of the connector "will certainly lead to additional impacts and further compromise the Mattawoman Watershed and its living resources."

County officials point out that northern Charles has been designated a growth area for more than a decade, and they have invested in water and sewer to serve it.

But Commissioner Gary V. Hodge also said officials are considering a proposal to reduce the size of the development district by 40 percent to 50 percent, channeling more growth to the Waldorf area.

The highway would still be needed, he said, not to ease commuting to Washington but to link the rural, poorer part of the county with jobs along U.S. 301.

"We need to have a more efficient, environmentally sensitive way of crossing the county," he said, "with a road that's deliberately engineered and designed to protect the environment."

Activists say the creek and its watershed are too valuable to take a chance.

"It's not a good place to push your growth," said Bonnie Bick, a leader of the Southern Maryland group of the Sierra Club. On a walk through woods to the creek, she pointed out spring beauties poking their tiny white flowers from the awakening soil and shadbush blooming along the shore.

It was too early to see the potato dandelion, a rare plant that looks like but is not related to the common yard weed. More abundant in the Southeast, the plant is classified as endangered in Maryland. Some were spotted on a farm in the highway's path last spring.

Bick recalled that the highway was planned decades ago in part to serve then-planned development of Chapman's Forest, a 2,000-acre tract along the Potomac. In the 1990s, she and others convinced the state to buy the land and preserve it. The highway, Bick said, needs to be re-evaluated and growth redirected to areas like Waldorf.

Fishermen canvassed along the creek on a recent weekday tended to agree.

"There's just too much development going on right now, way too much, and it's destroying recreational opportunities for people," said Everett Boston of Morningside.

He was fishing from the dock at Smallwood State Park, near where the creek joins the Potomac. Bass boats came and went regularly, as fishermen prepared for a weekend tournament.

"It's a beautiful waterway, a fabulous fishery," said Andy Andrzejewski, a fishing guide from La Plata who had just returned to shore. "You can see bass spawning ... in the grass." The creek, with its lush underwater grass beds, teems with large mouth bass.

"Mattawoman Creek is probably the best bass fishery on the entire East Coast," said Scott Sewell, conservation director for the Maryland Bass Federation.

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