Recreational use of WSSC's Rocky Gorge prompts lively discussion

A little over a year after a Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission regulation banned horseback riders from an equestrian trail at the Rocky Gorge Reservoir, stakeholders were able to voice their questions and concerns at an input session held at the Laurel Boys and Girls Club Monday night, June 18.

The session, originally scheduled to be held at the Laurel Library, had to be moved to the larger venue, which held more than 86 attendees.

The meeting was conducted by EA Engineering, Science, and Technology, a Maryland-based company that was contracted by WSSC to conduct an independent watershed protection study and provide recommendations to the utility about policies on the WSSC-owned lands. They plan to evaluate the potential for erosion, the current conditions and signs of the impact those policies are having on water quality.

Several EA representatives were on hand to lead the discussion and answer questions. They said they wanted to leave with an understanding of community interests gained through an evaluation of the activities stakeholders are engaged in within the watershed and how those activities can potentially impact the reservoir's water quality and storage capacity.

Company officials maintained their report would present findings rather than make specific and targeted recommendations. They clarified that the study will not be focused solely on equestrian efforts and will not include specific recommendations about the designated use of the trails.

The company will deliver a draft report of its finding by the end of October.

Close to 30 stakeholders were scheduled to speak at the meeting, and several other attendees requested to speak on the spot. Many made comments for their neighbors and friends who were unable to attend.

The air was rife with emotion as recreational users spoke of their attachment to and love of the reservoir.

"Living in the congested DC metro area is stressful," said David Armstrong, who spoke at the meeting. "As an avid canoeist, I am able to seek out a measure of solitude by being out of doors on the waters, and enjoying the peace and quiet that comes from being in a natural environment. … Recreational users of the gorge likely are more aware of where our drinking water comes from, more aware of threats to the integrity to the watershed and are just as concerned about water quality as the WSSC."

Several other speakers echoed Armstrong's sentiment.

"We need to keep these natural places available so our future generations can have hands-on experience with our natural world," said Clara Gouin, a parks planner with the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks. "Prohibiting use of the recreational purposes would break faith with the groups that have been so instrumental in preserving the watershed."

Other attendees pitched ideas for safe recreational activities. Donald Chamberlin, who spoke on behalf of the Patuxent Watershed Protective Association, said he believes several activities can be reasonably allowed with minimal impact, including boating, fishing, picnicking and horseback riding.

Many stakeholders felt the details of the issue had not been clearly communicated to them.

"Any evidence of an issue that WSSC is concerned with should have been presented prior to and along with the notice to alter (or) discontinue use of horse trails on WSSC's property," said Fran Koch, an equestrian who uses the reservoir trails.

WSSC spokesman I.J. Hudson said June 19 that WSSC was "pleased" with the turnout at the meeting.

"We were there to listen," Hudson said. "We hope the study will show us better ways to protect the watershed while working with all stakeholders, but the quality of the water must always come first. We think most of the people speaking last night understand that, but they also want a balance of recreational uses of the watershed."

A second hearing was scheduled for June 19 at the Izaak Walton League Wildlife Achievement Chapter in Mount Airey.

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