WSSC's new usage regulations remain 'problematic' for some trail riders

With the release of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission's new watershed usage regulations Tuesday, area equestrians who trail ride along Rocky Gorge Reservoir achieved some victories stemming from their opposition to rules set in 2011. However, according to Laurel equestrian advocate Barbara Sollner-Webb, the WSSC's new regulations remain "problematic" for the horseback-riding community.

WSSC's regulation changes in 2011 banned equestrians from using a trail close to the water due to fears of erosion and horse waste runoff; instead they were told to use an access road described by some riders as "steep and rock-strewn."

The new regulations, which follow findings from a yearlong study by EA Engineering, Science and Technology, now allow horseback riding on "designated trails," but Sollner-Webb said the WSSC's map of such trails at Rocky Gorge is not yet finalized.

"They drove trucks out there to try and map every place where they think the trail might have erosion or be too close to the water," she said. "For all we know they're only going to open up a mile or two of trail."

WSSC's budget legislation says public access "that is more restrictive than policies in effect prior to the 2011 changes should be supported by the science and industry best practices."

But Sollner-Webb said WSSC is effectively ignoring EA's "good and honest" suggestion that the trail is "excellent," with "little or no evidence of erosion."

She said that equestrian advocates were also successful in getting two rules found in a January draft of the regulations altered in the final version.

Riders were going to have to remove their horses' manure from trails, but, Sollner-Webb said, following "strong and logical objections," the rule was changed so they will only have to remove it from parking lots.

Additionally, the draft eliminated free public access for seniors, but this was reinstated in the final regulations.

Other changes highlighted by WSSC include opening the watershed 30 minutes before sunrise each day, and adding hiking and bird watching as permitted activities.

Lingering contention

Although the new regulations removed some of WSSC's most contentious horseback trail policies, several "egregious rules" remain, Sollner-Webb said.

A new rule prohibits unauthorized cutting, trimming and clearing of trees and branches, which she said seems to "forbid almost any trail maintenance" and could prove to be hazardous for riders.

I.J. Hudson, public affairs coordinator for WSSC, said the rule is intended to "keep people from carving out new, unauthorized trails." Riders can exercise "common sense" if they encounter obstructions, he said.

"If you want to make some changes, contact us and it'll probably be okay," Hudson said.

Horseback riding was permitted year-round before the 2011 changes, which restricted riders during the winter, Sollner-Webb said. While the new regulations expand the watershed season by 30 days, she feels WSSC officials are unfounded in their claim that there is less foliage and ground cover to reduce erosion and runoff during the winter months.

Hudson, however, cited EA's suggestion to continue restricting winter horseback riding. According to the study, the diurnal freeze-thaw cycle "increases the trails' vulnerability to damage and erosion."

Seasonal permit costs were raised from $60 to $70, which is "more expensive than any trail riding community in the state," Sollner-Webb said. The increase is "completely unfair," she said, since WSSC "spends nothing on equestrian use."

"The rates are pretty high," said Ron MacNab, a board member of Trail Riders of Today, or TROT, who has been with the organization for more than 20 years. "I think that's going to discourage a lot of people from going." 

Hudson acknowledged that there has been "consternation over the fees," but he said the math adds up when considering equestrians who ride twice or more each month.

"The watershed is private land. It's not a park," Hudson said.

WSSC, established in 1918, supplies 1.8 million residents of Prince George's and Montgomery counties with drinking water. It is responsible for maintaining the Rocky Gorge Reservoir, as well as the Triadelphia Reservoir near Brookeville.

"The primary purpose is to protect the source water in the reservoir," Hudson said. "We're trying to strike a balance between that number one concern and recreational activities in the watershed."

Moving forward

Hudson said that the new horseback riding regulations came after "eight months of extended outreach to TROT and other riders," and that there was "a lot of give and take."

"We can't look back at how things were a couple of years ago. We need to move forward," he said. "In the past we haven't done as good of a job working to protect the watershed, and we recognize that."

Hudson said WSSC plans to work with community members and legislators to create a long-term watershed protection program that will combat erosion, sediment buildup and other problems.

"There doesn't have to be tension," he said.

Sollner-Webb said the equestrian community has made efforts to maintain the reservoir by reporting issues, and she wishes WSSC would acknowledge their involvement and work to collaborate with them.

"They should encourage this sort of caring and observation," she said.

MacNab had similar thoughts.

"They will have meetings and listen to us, but there's no discussion about what we can do," he said. "I in no way want to demonize the WSSC, I just would like to have more of a conversation."

The new regulations will go into effect on March 15, when the watershed season begins.

"We have done a lot of listening with a variety of stakeholder groups, and while not everyone is happy, we did make compromises, and we look forward to working with all stakeholders as we move forward." Hudson said.

Dan Singer is a journalism student at the University of Maryland.

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