Debby Poole, owner of Belle Cote Farm, in Burtonsville, agreed that eliminating equestrian riding altogether may be a future WSSC goal.

"We don't want to endanger ourselves or our animals, so nobody's going to keep riding (the access road) — we just can't," she said. "This could be the first stage of their preparations to move us out of the watershed."

Concerning the issue of horse manure contaminating the water supply, Sollner-Webb and Poole both said the impact of deer feces has got to be a bigger concern than horse waste.

But Johnson said some area horse facilities have dumped truckloads of manure at the edge of WSSC land, and it's been washing down during rainstorms.

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"These are some of the practices that can't continue," he said.

Johnson also said there are equestrian trails marked in orange, blue and black that have been established over time, adding, "The map shows one thing, but (seeing) the actual watershed is an entirely different story."

"Nonriders mark and use trails for different events," Poole said. "Hence, these trails, once marked and opened up, understandably and unknowingly get used."

Despite that, she said, "I still have not seen any real evidence that the horse trails are detrimental to the environment and water quality to the extent that they need to be closed."

'Stop pointing fingers'

On top of shifting the equestrian trail, the commission has also decided to close the park to horseback riders from Nov. 15 to April 1 since they are the wettest months of the year, according to official rainfall data collected at the WSSC water-treatment plant at Sweitzer Lane and Route 198, Johnson said. Riding during these months, when vegetation also dies back, increases the potential for erosion and runoff, he noted.

Poole presented a petition with 500 signatures from residents and business owners protesting the new regulations and the notification procedure, and said she's concerned with the viability of local horse farms and stables due to the closing of the equestrian trail.

"But I really want to emphasize that we must move forward and stop pointing fingers," she said. "I hope and trust WSSC is being honest when they say they'll be meeting with us and hopefully work out a way for us to safely — for water quality andhorses — use the trail."

Despite the ongoing disagreement, equestrians say they are natural stewards of the land and still want to volunteer their services as environmental watchdogs.

"We'd like to continue to be the ears and eyes of the WSSC," Sollner-Webb said.

Reporting problems and illegal acts is something Johnson said WSSC appreciates.

"This is not an 'us-versus-them' situation," he said. "Balance is in everyone's interest and will take a whole community effort."