Where Does Your Water Come From? An Educational Forum

WAter Forum Panel


By Sylvia Tognetti and Zack Gerdes


On 12/3/17, ~100 Marylanders gathered for a panel discussion about the impacts of development and stormwater runoff on the public water supply, the implications this has for future water rates, and how we can make growth smart enough to protect our water supply. The event was hosted by the Maryland Sierra Club and Montgomery County Group in partnership with Montgomery Countryside Alliance, Friends of Ten Mile Creek and the Little Seneca Reservoir, Seneca Creek Watershed Partners, Muddy Branch Alliance, Watts Branch Watershed Alliance, Potomac Conservancy, Conservation Montgomery, and Audubon Naturalist Society. The event was also supported by the Montgomery County Green Democrats and Indivisible Montgomery. If you missed it, check out our livestream and photo album on Facebook!


Maryland Sierra Club Water Committee Chair and President of Friends of Ten Mile Creek, Sylvia Tognetti welcomed attendees, acknowledged the important work of partner organizations, then introduced keynote speaker, Scott Fosler, who spoke about Assuring Safe and Affordable Water for the Washington Region. Scott is president of the, Audubon Naturalist Society Board; a member of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance and Friends of Ten Mile Creek Boards; and council member and former mayor of the Town of Chevy Chase. During his past service as a  member and president of the Montgomery County Council, and as past president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Scott was instrumental in creating a two-reservoir drought backup for our regional water supply, as an alternative to a US Army Corps of Engineers proposal that would have led to the development of 16 dams and reservoirs. He was also instrumental in negotiating the cooperative water supply agreement among area utilities and local governments that was necessary for this two-reservoir approach to work. Scott’s informative account of the evolution of our water supply system broadened our understanding of our water priorities and the challenges we will face in attaining them:

  • Adequate water quantity in the context of population growth and climate change;

  • The critical quality of our regional water supply in the context of increased costs associated with development impacts, and also the potential for contamination incidents;

  • Effective planning for the next 50 years to avoid expensive end-of-pipe treatment costs and provide multiple benefits;

  • Effective and responsible political leadership across different levels of government, recognizing that today’s decisions will affect our water quality for years to come; and

  • An informed and active citizenry, which can make the difference in these decisions.


Next, Caroline Taylor of Montgomery Countryside Alliance introduced and moderated our guest panel. The panelists were:

  • Gary Gumm, WSSC Chief Engineer

  • Andrew Frank, Montgomery County Parks, Supervisor, Environmental Engineering Section, &

  • Carlton Haywood, Executive Director, Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin


[Dave Lake, Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, had been scheduled to attend but had to cancel for personal reasons. ]


Caroline kicked off the discussion with a question to all of the panelists about key challenges and trends. Gary Gumm brought attention to aging infrastructure that is sized for existing demand rather than anticipated increases in density, and land use and re-development patterns which increase the potential for stormwater runoff, which can lead to increased erosion and sedimentation and carry other pollutants. He also noted that future droughts could be more problematic, that building additional reservoirs to mitigate this situation takes time, and would have to start now.


Andrew Frank noted the shift in stormwater management paradigms and that much of the challenge associated with development is related to “curb and gutter” stormwater management practices that were designed to move stormwater away from residential neighborhoods as quickly as possible and became a standard practice.There is now more concern about impacts this has on our streams and people are asking why we can’t have both. The reason we are even able to consider doing things in a better way is because somebody, somewhere, decided that our stream valley parks were worth hanging on to.


According to Carlton Haywood, the most pressing challenge is the extent to which we rely on the Potomac River, and the future reliability of the water supply system in the context of a growing population, the potential impacts of climate change which could worsen future droughts, and contamination events that could happen at any time. The contamination event in Charleston West Virginia in 2014 was a wakeup call. Although there is some uncertainty as to whether climate change would lead to wetter or drier conditions, in the water business, we need to plan for the worst. The most recent ICPRB demand and supply study, conducted in 2015, concluded that the system will be stressed by 2040. None of the panelists were aware of any discussion of developing another water plan for the next 50 years, to replace the previous one that went through 2010, and that, as also discussed by Scott, was done with federal involvement. As moderator, Caroline Taylor’s response reflected the collective concern: “Uh-Oh”.


All of these challenges ultimately affect the costs of delivering water services and much of the ensuing discussion focused on the merits and costs of building “gray” vs. “green” infrastructure. For example, the estimated cost of the “gray” mid-river submerged channel intake  increased from  $25 million to over $83 million, and does not provide the multiple benefits of green infrastructure which includes practices such as restoring stream channels and wetlands in stream valley parks, and various forms of bioretention projects that reduce runoff from residential neighborhoods and streets. Carlton Haywood also mentioned the potential for changes in operational approaches as a way to improve efficiencies. For example, they are looking to engage the rapidly growing Loudoun County in the cooperative water supply arrangement.


Both WSSC and Montgomery Parks have to deal with the water quality they get, which is degraded by runoff from highways and residential neighborhoods which are outside of their jurisdiction. This water flows through stream valley parks and streams en route to the water treatment facility. To avoid problems with water treatment that are associated with stormwater runoff from the Watts Branch watershed, which enters the Potomac just 1800 feet upstream from the water intake, the mid-river submerged channel intake was proposed . Although WSSC is open to working with stormwater authorities on watershed remediation in Watts Branch, as chief engineer for WSSC, Gary Gumm was more confident in the long-term reliability of the proposed new intake because WSSC would have control over it, and expects that any project he builds will work for the next 50 years. They cannot control what happens in the watershed, or will happen even 20 years from now.


Montgomery Parks does have ownership of the stream valley parks, but does not have adequate funding for remediation projects. Some of the work they have been able to do was made possible because of a Consent Decree that requires WSSC to repair leaking sewers. In Watts Branch, during an emergency sewer repair, Parks was able to restore a few hundred feet of stream vallely. However, while there in the stream with equipment and road access, they could have restored 1000 feet by working together and sharing costs with WSSC. Andrew Frank also pointed out that restored wetlands in the stream valley park can also function as a distributed storage system - a function we would simply be replacing by building additional reservoirs. In other words, the stream valley parks are an important part of the puzzle. And as the home of the father of geomorphology, Luna Leopold, Watts Branch is also a well-studied watershed.


Frank also talked about his work 12 years ago on a WSSC stream restoration project in the Muddy Branch watershed, where there were exposed sewers. He proposed a natural channel design, at half the cost of the alternative, that would both protect the asset and stabilize the stream. That cost was split between Parks and WSSC. As of a month ago when he last visited the project, it was still working as intended.


Parks also just completed a project in Cabin John where, after repairing a water main break, workers found an improperly abandoned 8-inch sewer line that was draining into the system and were able to close it up because they were on site with the needed equipment. This fix further reduced costs since stormwater that enters into leaking sewer pipes is needlessly sent to the Blue Plains waste water treatment plant. Additional improvements can be realized by ‘right sizing’ big equipment, which disturbs streams and parks, and by building wetlands on their way out. As Frank put it:, “if we are going to break some eggs, let’s make the best omelet we can.”


Gary Gumm noted that the timetable mandated in the Consent Decree does not give WSSC the luxury or the flexibility for extra remediation, but once the required work is completed, they would like to do things in a smarter way. It would be ideal if the responsible agencies could line up their budgets so that funds from each of them could be leveraged to do this. Although it was not clear to Frank that any of this work would have been done in the absence of the Consent Decree, this experience points to a way forward, which could significantly reduce costs that we all pay, through both water rates and the “Water Quality Protection Charge”, used for stormwater management, that are included in property tax bills.


Asked about trends in the quality of water at the treatment facility, Gumm noted that it is difficult to determine whether things are getting better or worse because of the relationship to weather events. However, flashy storm events continue to present challenges at the water filtration plant. Carlton Haywood spoke about a forthcoming study by ICPRB which suggests that loss of forest cover is related to the costs of water treatment. The caveats are that these increased costs of water treatment are exceeded by the costs of forestry best management practices when looking at the entire 11,000 square mile river basin upstream from the metropolitan area, and the study only focused on a narrow set of water quality parameters and treatment processes. ICPRB would like to do a second study on a smaller and more highly impacted watershed such as Watts Branch, and in so doing, consider additional factors, to see whether these relationships between forest cover and water treatment costs can be more clearly demonstrated and quantified.


Following the discussion and Q&A with our panelists, Dave Sears, Chair of the Montgomery County Sierra Club Group highlighted the connection between fighting climate change, smart growth, and protection of water quality. Dave then introduced the candidates for Montgomery County Executive (who have filed with the State Board of Elections) who joined us to respond to the issues raised by the panel and attendees.


Council Member George Leventhal recalled things done well and not so well, giving credit to those who, decades ago, had the foresight to protect our stream valley parks and the Ag Reserve, pointing out that over half the County will never be intensely developed. It is up to the current Council, he said, to protect that legacy. Inappropriate uses are continually proposed and there is competition for land, which God isn’t making any more of. You don’t have to travel far to see things not done so well -in Prince George’s County Sligo Creek is encased in a concrete culvert until it meets the Northwest Branch. He conceded that expectations for Clarksburg as a corridor city that would be a residential area for people working in Germantown did not materialize. He was involved in a major reevaluation of how much development is appropriate for Clarksburg and gave credit to Diane Cameron for focusing the Council’s attention on Ten Mile Creek, which led to a scaling back of development in the Clarksburg Master Plan. The County was the first to adopt the Water Quality Protection Charge that finances compliance with MS4/stormwater discharge permit requirements and has stood firm in the face of litigation and objections to it. Lastly, he confirmed his opposition to building another bridge over the Potomac and the proposed mid-county/M83 highway which would foster a greater sense that Clarksburg should be developed. He also expressed support for dedicated mass transit Rights-of-Way, higher density at transit hubs, tall buildings in Bethesda, affordable housing and housing of all kinds in transit areas, green roofs and rain gardens. With respect to the debate about the merits of sewers vs septics, his position was less clear - limitations on sewers have been used to limit rooftops but he thinks that septic systems are failing, that we have not found a reasonable way to address that, and said we need a “thoughtful approach.” Other things that need to be considered - mentioned in his remaining minute: climate change, drought, resilience and terrorism. We will need to work with the federal government to protect our water supply and be smart about the future.


Robin Ficker, provided some numbers to make the case that he can be the next County Executive and, as a resident of the Ag Reserve since 1994, talked about the changes he has seen up-county, where Barnesville road gets washed out by flooding, and there is now a two-mile backup on 121 to Clopper Road in the morning. He has been engaged in clean water for a long time - he has a degree in engineering and took hydrology courses. He also mentioned walking with Supreme Court Justice Douglas and his wife Cathy Douglas on the C&O canal to preserve the park and clean water, taking part in a march of 3000 people to prevent a freeway through Sligo Creek park into Wheaton Regional Park, and collecting signatures for a ballot initiative to prevent trenching of WSSC sewage sludge in residential areas in Germantown. The initiative got 85% of the vote and kids and dogs no longer come home with black stuff on their feet.  He lives half a mile from Seneca Lake, has kayaked every inch of it, and biked up and down West Baltimore Road through Ten Mile Creek and up Barnesville Road. The Council has allowed overdevelopment in that watershed - he took particular issue with the mall and 500 houses. He had pictures to illustrate increases in runoff that have led to road closures. He promised that, if he becomes the next County Executive, developers will see a scarecrow and an iron curtain by Little Seneca Lake.


Council Member Marc Elrich has led three fights regarding Ten Mile Creek, and not just in 2014. He also pushed back on opening the sewer envelope in response to a study and recommendations from Mike Knapp, and is the only candidate in the room who opposed the ICC, which he worked against for a long time. His key concern when he was elected was having adequate road capacity for projected development and he worked with Parks and Planning to get the BRT into the Master Plan, to provide an alternative way for people to get from home to work as well as reduce CO2 emissions. He opposed the incinerator before it was built, and testified before the state against both the incinerator and the coal fired power plant. He opposes the practice of granting waivers from stormwater requirements, particularly for buffer areas. He worked with Parks and Planning on a stronger tree protection law but hasn’t been able to get it out of committee. His take away from the panel discussion was that it is not that we can’t do certain things, but that we have to get out of our own way and figure out how the agencies can work together. We have to look at what problem we are trying to solve and the role each agency should play in solving it. Speaking about the $83 million mid-river submerged intake and the >$100 million that will be required to rebuild or radically restructure the filtration plant to deal with sediment coming into it, he would like to know if the need for these can ba obviated, and what almost one quarter of a billion would buy in terms of stream restoration. If all it did were to either meet the lawsuit requirements, or get the County credit for its MS4 permit requirements, that would be good, but it would be even better if we could do both. If you build a new intake and rebuild the facility, there would still be a need to dump the sediment that is causing the problem in the first place. What he heard was that WSSC would be open to looking at solutions that deal with underlying environmental issues. There are possibilities here. We have the brain power and the will power. It is for government to figure out how to do things better. How do we rise to the occasion, get out of our silos, and look to solutions we have been too quick to dismiss? This is the kind of leadership he can provide.


Council Member Roger Berliner gave credit to Scott Fosler for enlightening him in the Ten Mile Creek decision. As an avid fly fisherman, it was personal to him because if there is sediment or any kinds of disruption in a stream, trout aren’t there. The question that should be asked, is “what does it take for a trout to live there” - the goal should be to make sure water is just that clean. It the key ingredient of making progress in this set of issues is political leadership, and if he is privileged to serve as the next County Executive, he pledged that our County and our waters will be in safe hands. He fought hard to protect Ten Mile Creek, led the effort against the 2nd crossing of the Potomac, and, with help from Leventhal and Elrich, led the Council on every of several major initiatives, including that the County is now carbon neutral. The County takes the threat of climate change seriously - on the upcoming Tuesday the Council was scheduled to vote on a resolution that declared climate change to be an emergency. We need to understand that it is no longer aggressive enough to reduce emissions 80% by 2050 - we need to revisit everything we are doing and make sure that Montgomery County is and remains the most sustainable county in America. With respect to stormwater and green infrastructure projects, he emphasized that, if we want these kinds of projects, we need to be in the neighborhoods with the County to build public support for them. There has been pushback on bioswales and rain gardens (designed to infiltrate stormwater runoff from streets in “green street” projects) because of fear that mosquitos will breed in them (which does not happen if they function properly) and because, although they are built in public right-of ways, people have maintained these as part of their yards and tend to view these as part of their property. He also mentioned the change in the WSSC rate design - how we pay for water matters. We have a tiered approach in which the more you use, the more you pay. This is important for conservation but it is the only system in the country that requires you to pay for all of the volume used based on the rate for the full volume. This has led to pushback. If we want water quality, it will also be important to create incentives for doing the right things, such as creating forest buffer. As County Executive, he would to make sure that the WSSC Commissioners understand the issues and challenges we face in this realm. We also need to make sure the Dickerson plant does not discharge toxics to our water - this is not OK. He would honor our master plans. Lastly, recognizing the importance of participation, he would like to see watershed advisory councils, watershed by watershed, where we work in partnership with the County to ensure the County is on top of the challenges. As in the fight for Ten Mile Creek, it is our participation that will make a difference.



To wrap things up, Diane Cameron, Board Member, Conservation Montgomery and Friends of Ten Mile Creek and the Little Seneca Reservoir thanked everyone for attending and summarized the discussion points. Her single core take-home message was that drinking water protection is part of land protection and these are both inherent in smart growth. This event served to remind everyone of that part of the smart growth equation. In other words, we need a broader view of smart growth that includes watershed protection. Some of what we heard at the event: WSSC recognizes the importance of watershed protection but does not control what happens in the watershed. Carlton Haywood discussed the importance of forest cover and said ICPRB would like to next look at a smaller watershed, such as Watts Branch. The conversation we are now having is the result of watershed leaders working in collaboration with government and demonstrates the importance of cooperation. In the keynote, Scott illustrated the role of intergovernmental cooperation in the water supply agreement. In the panel discussion, Andy Frank showed how interagency cooperation can be more cost effective, but that, in the absence of adequate financial resources, Parks has had to be opportunistic. Lastly, although we have come a long way as a result of citizen leadership, cooperation between citizens and government will enable further progress in Montgomery County. We have heard that government agencies are starting to get out of their silos - as citizens, we need to help them do that. The discussion continued over refreshments.