INDIAN HEAD -- Every spring, ribbons of yellow perch eggs flutter in Mattawoman Creek like golden silk stockings. Each comprises thousands of eggs, glassy orbs holding tiny embryos.
The Southern Maryland stream is one of the most fertile fish breeding grounds in the Chesapeake Bay region. But state and federal officials warn that it could be destroyed if Charles County carries out its plan to build a four-lane highway across the creek to help serve at least 8,000 new homes planned in the area.
"There would be dire consequences on the quality of life in the stream," said Paul Wettlaufer, a manager with the Baltimore branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The $60 million road project and the houses are likely to increase runoff pollution in the creek by 50 percent, killing fish in an important Potomac River tributary, according to state and federal officials.
But the county's commissioners are determined to proceed. They say the east-west connector has been planned for more than a decade and would help prevent traffic congestion as exurbia inevitably marches south from Washington.
"We can't stop growth, but we can guide growth," said Charles County Commissioner Gary V. Hodge. "And this is where we want the development focused."
To some current and former state officials, the case highlights weaknesses in state laws designed to control suburban sprawl and protect the Chesapeake Bay. During the past 30 years, the state has bought more than 4,700 acres around Mattawoman Creek in an effort to stop development, protect water quality and shelter wildlife.
But some areas that the state has recommended for protection are being targeted by Charles County for future development. When the growth goals of local governments clash with state conservation efforts, the system is designed to give more power to the local governments.
One of the rare opportunities for state and federal oversight will be tested in coming weeks when the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Army Corps of Engineers decide whether to grant a permit allowing Charles County to destroy seven acres of wetlands around the creek to build a key six-mile section of the Cross County Connector. The four-lane, limited access road would replace 74 acres of forest with a strip of blacktop as it links proposed subdivisions to the malls in Waldorf.
Environmentalists are urging the state and federal governments to deny the permit and save the wetlands. They say the county should first study the impact on fish and that it should consider widening a road to the north instead of building a new highway. But Charles County officials say the request for more study is really an attempt to stop growth, which they want in this northern section of the county, nearest Washington.
Charles County's population of 145,000 is expected to grow by nearly 50 percent by 2030, one of the fastest rates in the state. Melvin "Chuck" Beall Jr., the local director of planning, said the commissioners since 1990 have been trying to direct 75 percent of this growth into a development district in the northern county so that the southern part can be kept rural.
"If this road is not built, other roads would be built to accommodate the circulation of the citizens. And multiple roads would have more of an environmental impact than one road with a higher capacity," Beall said.
Eleven subdivisions with 2,513 homes are proposed or under construction with the assumption they could connect to the new road. Another 27 subdivisions with 2,971 units are planned or built nearby. Further, about 2,400 homes are expected at the western end of the connector in the community in Bryans Road. The county says thousands more are likely to be built nearby.
This part of the county is vital for economic growth, local officials say. It's just north of the area's biggest employer, the U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Center, where 4,000 people work, many making missile fuel and explosives. To help create more defense-related jobs, the county wants to build a 250-acre high-tech business park between the Navy base and the proposed highway.
Gary Setzer, administrator of wetlands programs at the Maryland Department of the Environment, said before the new road can be built, his agency must certify that runoff pollution will not violate water quality standards in Mattawoman Creek.
Since the 1970s, the state has been trying to protect large chunks of northern Charles County. The Mattawoman Creek watershed is about 70 percent forested, which helps to protect the stream from runoff pollution. From 1975 to 1997, the state purchased 2,509 acres lining the stream to prevent development and protect wildlife.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has called Mattawoman Creek "the best, most productive tributary in the bay." More than 50 species of fish breed in the stream's 20 miles of shady wanderings, including yellow perch and largemouth bass. The bass are so numerous they draw scores of fishermen to national fishing tournaments every year along the creek.
"Mattawoman Creek is so important for us, especially in protecting the largemouth bass population," said Mary Groves, a biologist at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "You can't afford to have any great impact there from development and runoff."
The stream valley also boasts the richest variety of reptiles of any place surveyed in the state, with 18 species, including marbled salamanders and southern leopard frogs, according to a department report.
In 1998, the state under Gov. Parris N. Glendening spent $25 million to buy another 2,225 acres of forested land in the middle of the county's growth district and stop a 4,600-home subdivision called Chapman's Landing. County officials opposed the preservation of this land, which is north of Mattawoman Creek.
Glendening says continued development in the area is an example of a weakness in his 1997 "Smart Growth" law, as well other state efforts to control sprawl.
"The danger is we're going to lose these areas for all future generations," Glendening said. "The state is buying up land to preserve it, but it doesn't work unless the local government enters into the same philosophy."
On a sunny, crisp morning recently, a dozen fishermen gathered along the muddy banks of the creek a few miles downstream from the proposed highway crossing. The stream was brimming with perch eggs.
Ken Hastings, a coordinator with the Coastal Conservation Association, reached into the water, scooped up one of the glistening ribbons and examined the fish embryos through a magnifying glass. He said he worries that oil, gas, dirt, fertilizer and hot water gushing off the highway and new subdivisions will transform this river of life into a sterile ditch.
"The fish will just disappear," he said.