The period for comments on Charles County's proposed Cross County Connector closed yesterday. Thank you to all our members and friends who sent letters urging the wetland permit be denied. For those unfamiliar with the proposed highway project, Charles County would like to build a $60 million roadway connecting the malls in Waldorf with thousands of new houses planned in the Bryans Road area. The problem? The project would destroy dozens of acres of forests and wetlands in the Mattawoman Creek watershed.
Mattawoman Creek wanders for 20 miles through the forests and wetlands of Southern Maryland, from Prince George’s County across Charles County to the Potomac River.
In the springtime, the stream’s shady bends glimmer with golden strands of yellow perch eggs. Fishermen crowd the banks. Bass tournaments draw sportsmen from across the country every year to Sweden Point Marina in Smallwood State Park on the lower Mattawoman.
More than 50 species of fish breed in the creek, including rockfish, catfish, bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish. The creek’s wooded valley also boasts the richest variety of amphibians and reptiles in the state, including marbled salamanders and southern leopard frogs, according to a report by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Because of its role as an important breeding ground for fish, the Mattawoman Creek has been recognized as “the best, most productive tributary” in the Chesapeake Bay by the state natural resources agency.
But now all of this life – and the sports fishing culture of the whole region – is threatened by the proposed four-lane highway.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, along with a number of local and statewide organizations, opposes the highway, called the Cross County Connector, because it is the opposite of “Smart Growth.” The road would spur low-density development, roughly one house per acre, in a largely forested area, away from established cities and towns. All the construction would create runoff pollution that will imperil an important watershed with exceptional biodiversity and biological productivity.
Kim Coble, Maryland Executive Director of the foundation, wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Maryland Department of the Environment in September 2008 asking them to deny permits to allow Charles County to destroy more than seven acres of wetlands to build the road.
“The loss of these natural filters through construction of the road and subsequent development spawned by construction of the road will result in additional loads of nutrients and sediments into Mattawoman Creek,” Coble wrote. “Thus, the proposed permit will significantly degrade water quality in violation of the Clean Water Act.”
CBF believes that if the state and federal agencies are to consider granting the permits, the Corps must require a thorough study – called an Environmental Impact Statement – to be conducted. The study should examine how the runoff from the road and housing construction would affect water quality, natural resources and fish in the creek.
So far, Charles County has underestimated how much development – and therefore, how much pollution – would come from the Cross County Connector.
But even the county’s own documents report that the road will “facilitate” the construction of 1,113 residential units at a density of about one unit per acre and add other developments that are “dependent” on building the road. The actual number of new housing units in the area may be much higher, reflecting the southward march of sprawl from suburban Washington.
The Bay Foundation is not the first organization to come to the conclusion that the county’s development plans in the area around the Cross County Connector would pollute the Mattawoman Creek.
The Corps, in a August 2003 report, said that runoff pollution into the stream would rise by 50 percent by the year 2020 because of all the development planned in the northern section of the county. That would have a “severe” impact on the creek because of all the additional impervious surfaces like blacktop or roofs, according to the Army Corps report.
Experts at the Center for Watershed Protection have demonstrated that covering more than 10 percent of a stream’s watershed with blacktop and other impervious surfaces causes environmental degradation. The 2003 Army Corps report projects impervious surface percentages in the Mattawoman watershed to rise to substantially more than 10 percent.
Charles County, one of the fastest growing jurisdictions in Maryland, has a population of 145,000 and county officials predict that the number will grow by nearly 50 percent by the year 2030. Since the 1990’s, county officials have been trying to direct 75 percent of this growth into a development district that takes up most of the northern section of the county around Mattawoman Creek.
The problem is, the county’s designated growth area is larger than Washington DC in a largely forested area – and it threatens one of the most biologically productive areas in the Bay watershed. This sensitive area should not be exploited for growth.
The state and county governments have been working in opposite directions around the Mattawoman Creek. Recognizing the stream’s value as a breeding ground for fish and a filter for pollutants that would otherwise run into the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland has purchased or protected about 5,900 acres of land around the creek or in the stream’s watershed in Charles County. The protected lands include the Mattawoman Natural Environment Area, immediately south of the proposed location where the Cross County Connector would be built across Mattawoman Creek.
In 1998, the state, under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, spent $25 million to buy and preserve 2,225 acres of forested land threatened by a project called Chapman’s Landing near the western end of the proposed Cross County Connector.
Now environmental gains like this – protecting lands that serve as a natural filter for pollutants and habitat for wildlife – are at risk of being overwhelmed by the proposed highway and associated development.
That’s why CBF has asked the state and federal agencies to deny the permits necessary to build the four-lane highway that would severely damage one of Maryland’s natural treasures – the Mattawoman Creek.
“CBF believes this wetland permit should be denied,” Coble wrote to the government agencies. “We are not confident that the impacts to the natural resources that will be affected by the current proposal have been adequately quantified, nor avoided or minimized.”
By Tom Pelton, Senior Writer, CBF
Photos courtesy Mattawoman Watershed Society