Rays of sunlight filter down through a 200-foot-high canopy of tulip poplars and pines to dance across the forest floor at Rocky Gorge Reservoir. The dappled shade and serene setting draw recreational users to the watershed like deer to a salt lick.
But horseback riders there say that they can't enjoy the woods as much these days since they've been banned from the decades-old equestrian trail nearer the water.
In its place, they've been told to use an access road along the property's perimeter that they describe as "steep and rock-strewn."
The equestrian community is battling the new regulation, which was put in place May 15 by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission in an effort to reduce the amount of trail dirt and horse waste being carried into the reservoir by storm-water runoff. Horseback riders say any impact their sport has on the reservoir's health, which they also care about, is negligible at best.
The standoff appears to be in limbo while WSSC works to hire an independent consultant to suggest new recommendations, say both sides.
Just over 2,150 of Rocky Gorge's 35,000 acres of land comprise a buffer zone owned by WSSC, a 90-year-old utility charged with maintaining the 898-acre reservoir as one source of the drinking water it supplies to 1.8 million residents in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. WSSC rules also apply to Triadelphia Reservoir, a 49,500-acre watershed area.
This year has seen a turning point in WSSC's approach to carrying out their directives, with new interpretations of best practices leading to several new watershed regulations that affect all users, including boaters and fishermen.
"We know a whole lot more now about watershed management than we did 10, 15, 20 years ago," said Jerry Johnson, WSSC's CEO and general manager.
"But you don't need a study to know that we must protect the watershed," he said, explaining WSSC's rationale for the new regulations.
As resolved at a July 28 Equestrian Stakeholders meeting, WSSC is working to select an outside consultant, though a timetable for completing this process has not yet been established, Johnson said. Nor could he say when a promised follow-up meeting would be scheduled.
"This isn't a horse issue, though equestrians may be the most vocal about it," he said. "We have lots of people using our land, and they are all affected.
"It's time to put contemporary measures into practice," he said. "We don't want to be in the same position as the Chesapeake Bay — doing retroactive things. Water is more expensive to treat when it's polluted, so why get in that position?"
Seeing a trail differently
Barbara Sollner-Webb, a West Laurel resident and equestrian who uses the equestrian trails, said erosion of the trail is nearly imperceptible; and notes that motorcycle riders and bicyclists illegally ride on, and cause damage to, the trail.
"Besides, the equestrian trail runs diagonally across hills at an angle so that any amount of sediment in water runoff crosses the trail and ends up in the woods," she said.
Runoff from recent heavy rains has caused ruts to form along the one-lane, dirt access road that runs up and down hills, and those ruts channel runoff into culverts under the road that empty directly into the reservoir via streams, she noted.
"Horseback riders have to gallop to get up some of the steep hills on the access road, which only serves to increase (the potential for) erosion," she said.
Johnson described the access road as "very flat and very negotiable." He added that if necessary, horseback riders could detour around any rugged terrain.
But Sollner-Webb said she fears that erosion of the access road may ultimately force the closure of all public access and that such a step could be an intended consequence.
"WSSC has aging pipes, sewage overflows and other more-important issues to worry about," she said, frustrated with regulations she believes are based on multiple misunderstandings. "Why are they concerned with us horseback riders? We haven't gotten a logical answer to the rationale behind their decisions."
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.
"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."