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Up the Creek, There's Progress


Croom. -- We are up the creek. It's a small creek, called Mattaponi, a tributary of a not-so-small river, the Patuxent. It begins as a narrow stream in a hardwood swamp near Route 301 and widens slightly as it reaches the tidal freshwater marshes through which it winds on its way to the river.

This is Prince George's County, Maryland's biggest. About three-quarters of a million people live here on the eastern fringes of Washington, but although we're within about 25 miles of the White House at this moment we see none of them in the marsh on Mattaponi Creek. There's plenty of other life this morning, though.

We see herons, ospreys, a beaver's lodge, a mature bald eagle. A pass with a net brings up bull minnows, silversides and little white perch from the creek. Behind the lily pads and the blue flowers of the pickerelweed, wild rice waves gracefully in the warm summer breeze. At the moment, however, thanks perhaps to the breeze, there are no mosquitoes.

I am spending the day as a volunteer captain, running a small boat for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on some of the many miles of waterways in this congested part of Maryland. My boat is part of a flotilla of six assembled by the foundation to give a group of Federal Highway Administration employees a new perspective on the relationship between the corridors served by major roadways and the waters into which they drain.

At the heart of this exercise lie complex practical questions for engineers and ecologists alike. Must we choose between roads and rivers, or can intense human development be made compatible with clean waterways and the countless natural systems that depend on them?

And if so, how do we balance the benefits of such compatibility with the costs?

It's all part of an environmental training course for the FHA people, most of whom have come from other parts of the country to attend. It seems to be educational as well as enjoyable for most of them, and it certainly is for me.

Almost 30 years ago, when I was a newspaper reporter assigned to Prince George's County, the place appeared at once fascinating and hopeless. Politicians and speculators -- and highway engineers too -- had trashed its landscapes. Its Potomac shoreline was fouled by Washington. And when I used to drive over the Patuxent on the Route 4 bridge near Upper Marlboro, I assumed that the river below was polluted too, probably beyond hope of recovery.

But today, thanks especially to major -- and breathtakingly expensive -- advances in sewage treatment at Washington's Blue Plains plant, the Potomac is a healthy river, nationally celebrated for the quality of its fishing. The Patuxent too has improved, but because it's so much smaller and its upper reaches have been so heavily developed, it has farther to go.

"There's a saying that if it even looks like rain, the Patuxent will get muddy," says Richie Gaines, a professional bass-fishing guide who is running one of the boats today.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates that at times of low flow, as much as 90 percent of the water in the upper Patuxent has been through a sewage-treatment plant. Obviously, that means that life in and along the river can flourish only if the sewage plants do their job.

Currently they get a good grade from those who know the river the best. Richie Gaines has high praise for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission's Western Branch plant on the Patuxent, and says fishing near the plant tends to be very good.

After a morning on the Patuxent, we load the boats on trailers and the FHA people onto a bus, then drive 35 miles to Mattowoman Creek, a tributary of the Potomac in Charles County, about 17 miles downstream from Washington. It's a shallow, pretty creek, much wider than Mattaponi, and without as much development in the watershed.

But that's about to change. Charles County has designated the Mattowoman Creek watershed as a major growth area. There is as yet no plan for protecting water quality in the tidal portion of the creek. Silt and sewage could do a lot of damage here.

We run the little boats as far upstream as we can, then drift into the shade of the overhanging trees. The cast net in a hole nearby brings up another wide variety of little fish. It is very quiet, but far away a siren sounds. The FHA people in my boat stare down into the water, lost in thought.

It's nice to have the sense that in some small ways, things are better than they were. That's encouraging. I hope we can still see progress in another 30 years, when we're up the creek.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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