This story was corrected at 1:20 p.m. June 26. An explanation follows.
Boaters, fishermen and birdwatchers have joined horseback riders in urging the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission not to shut them out of rowing or using the trails around T. Howard Duckett and Triadelphia reservoirs.
At public hearings in Laurel and Mount Airy last week, dozens of the more than 130 people who attended urged the WSSC not to close the waters or land around it that the utility owns and manages.
At the time last year that WSSC moved to restrict reservoir access, General Manager Jerry N. Johnson said the utility’s first priority was to protect drinking water. Phosphorus, which can come from fertilizer, animal wastes, treated sewage sludge and detergents, has impaired both reservoirs, and sediment has impaired the Triadelphia, WSSC spokesman Jim Neustadt said.
“We don’t think that our use of the reservoirs has an adverse impact,” canoeist Barbara Miller told an audience of more than 40 at the June 19 Mount Airy meeting, about a study undertaken to recommend how to manage the reservoirs, which provide drinking water for one-third of the WSSC’s 1.8 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and surrounding land.
Miller and others urged water and sewer utility officials, and the consultants conducting the study, to put the recreational impact in perspective and consider the effect of increased development in the Patuxent River watershed, including the loss of tree cover, buffers and increased stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces.
John Love, a rower, said the utility should regulate activities “according to their contribution to the problem.”
The WSSC poorly handled its decision last year to cut back the horseback riding season, and the boating season also was reduced as a result, he said.
Riders, upset that they were banned from designated horse trails that they had long used around the Duckett Reservoir, gathered hundreds of signatures petitioning the water and sewer utility to let them return to the trails instead of poorly maintained, eroded vehicle access roads where they were rerouted.
Compounding the riders’ anger was the fact that they had been sold permits for the season without being told that it would be cut short.
The shorter watershed access season and other restrictions remain.
“If you’d asked me a year ago would I do a petition, I’d have said ‘no,’ [but] somebody had to do something,” said Robert Gunderman, a boater and fisherman who still is gathering signatures on a petition he started in August urging the utility to keep the reservoirs open so that his family and others can continue to enjoy boating and fishing.
Gunderman, other boaters and horseback riders said they care about the water and the environment and are willing to serve as “eyes and ears” to help protect the watershed and water quality of the reservoirs.
“Work together with us, your greatest supporters, who are environmentalists,” Jane von Maltzahn, a member of Chesapeake Paddlers told WSSC officials.
“I think it is good for the watershed to have stewards such as are here tonight,” said Melissa Daston, president of the West Laurel Civic Association at the Mount Airy hearing.
Daston said the restrictions imposed last year have cut business by about 35 percent at four boarding stables that touted trail access.
If surrounding properties no longer have access to the reservoir area, the value of the properties will drop, Daston said.
Maria Schwartz complained about difficulty in getting access to documents, which came with a $400 bill for photocopying, that she hoped could help in understanding the reasons for the WSSC’s decision to move the trails and cut the season.
That, Schwartz said, “has led me to believe that the WSSC does not want educated stakeholders and wants to keep us in the dark.”
“I share the really serious reservations and skepticism about the WSSC’s rationale for restricting access,” Prince George’s County Councilwoman Mary Lehman (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel said Thursday.
Lehman said the utility “got it backwards” by first cutting access, then saying, “We’ll get back to you with the science.”
WSSC’s Neustadt said, “There is no preconceived notion or plan to close the watershed and reservoirs for recreational use.”
The study, being prepared by EA Engineering Science and Technology of Sparks, Md., and due Oct. 31, will be scientifically sound, he said, responding to some speakers who challenged its methodology and design.
The WSSC has not said when it would release the study’s findings and, but Lehman said she will make the findings public as soon as the County Council gets a briefing.
The original story incorrectly stated that Maria Schwartz is owner of Greystone Farm.