Our Monocacy River, winding nearly sixty miles from north to south and bisecting the length of Frederick County, faces many challenges, including an excesses of sediments, phosphorous runoff and bacteria. To help monitor, understand and address those and other issues, the Monocacy Scenic River Citizens Advisory Board was established in 1978. The board is comprised of ten members, five appointed by the Carroll County Commissioners and five appointed by the Frederick County Council.
One of the best improvements to reduce the many pollutants that run off the land and harm the river is to increase the planted tree buffers along the main stem of the river. A forest buffer absorbs a lot of the sediments and nutrients that flow off fields and pavements. There is no one source or cause of the problems, and many factors contribute to a range of negative impacts, but research has made it very clear that natural buffers of forest and other vegetation makes a real difference, whether the buffer is between the river and urban development or farm fields.
Many streams throughout the Monocacy River watershed already have serious erosion problems. If you see a natural or properly-restored stream, you’ll find the water almost level with the banks. When heavy rains and flooding occurs, the water spreads out into the broader, vegetated floodplain. The flow is slowed, some is absorbed, and damaging flooding elsewhere is reduced or prevented. On the other hand, without natural buffers and floodplains, a larger and faster and more destructive torrent further erodes streams and rivers and increases damaging flooding, while also washing more soil and contaminants into the system.
Almost fifty years ago, in 1968, the State of Maryland created the Scenic and Wild Rivers System. More than forty years ago, the Monocacy River was added to that system, and designated an official scenic river by the state of Maryland.
Twenty-six years ago, the Monocacy Scenic River Citizens Advisory Board recognized the need to improve buffers in the management plan adopted by Frederick and Carroll counties, and the state. At that time, with far less science and buffer studies available, it was proposed that the buffer be 500 feet from the river everywhere.
It was a reasonable approach for its time. But today, after a lengthy process, and with a great deal more information about what threatens rivers and what we can do to protect them, the Monocacy Scenic River Citizens Advisory Board has drafted a major update of the Monocacy River Management Plan.
Rather than propose a uniform river setback of 500 feet everywhere, there were places where that made good rational policy and others where the slope and environmental factors called for different buffer widths in the river corridor.
Utilizing GIS mapping and existing information on natural resource features, and state identified features such as wetlands and important rare habitats, a river resource protection line was proposed along the entire length of the river, including a Federal floodplain that averaged between 100 to 700 feet, and set a 300 feet minimum and a 500 feet maximum protection area from the river. This is a much more progressive and a smaller overall river corridor buffer than the initial recommendation twenty-six years ago.
If, in the long term, the setback were primarily in resource conservation and forest, pollutants and sediments in the river would be further reduced, and water quality improved. Establishing forests in the buffer would be fully voluntary on private lands, but could be encouraged by payments to landowners for forest buffer creation. Lands in agricultural use could remain in those uses in accordance with current regulations and best practices, which also include the use of buffers to protect waterways.
A sufficient vegetated area adjacent to any waterway can capture as much as eighty percent of runoff pollutants, including, especially for the Monocacy River, phosphorous, which is carried by sediment runoff and of particular concentration from farmlands. The vegetated buffer slows down runoff and allows more of it to settle into the ground, where it is naturally filtered. And, as noted above, this slowing process also reduces storm water flooding and damages during flooding events. Thus private landowners along the river also benefit from the effect of good buffers.
Studies of the Monocacy River watershed by Frederick County and the Maryland Department of the Environment, conducted in part by walking the land, have shown that more than two hundred and fifty miles of tributary streams are inadequately buffered by forestation.
Severe erosion areas are common, each of which contribute to the sediment and phosphorous overloads in the water.
Much of Frederick County has highly erodible soils and many slopes are over a ten percent grade, further supporting the recommendation that some forested buffers should reach as far as 500 feet from the river.
Today in Frederick County, only about a third of the river watershed has forested buffers. But often, even that is of insufficient width to provide adequate protection.
Stream-Link is a local non-profit organization that works to reforest land along tributaries and the river, planting roughly seven acres per year. But building reliable forest buffers requires more than just planting trees.
“Maintenance is key. We take it seriously and maintain each site for three years. Our efforts results in at least an 85% survival rate and on many sites, a 100% survival rate,” said Lisa Baird, Program Director for Stream-Link Education. “Stream buffers are an effective, inexpensive way to reach the restoration goals of the Monocacy River as well as involve the community in protecting their local natural resources.”
Also important, the buffer areas also provide vital habitat for native wildlife and birds. In addition, a river buffer protects the scenic landscape of the Monocacy, which is enjoyed by many paddlers and fishermen, something that will be a lasting legacy for generations to come in Frederick County. As with any asset, the Scenic Monocacy River – a defining element in Frederick – needs sound management, wise stewardship, and our protection.
The recommendations of the Monocacy Scenic River Citizens Advisory Board do not portend any further public access to private lands for trails or paths, but further development of public access sites where possible is supported. Currently a new large site along the river between Emmitsburg and Taneytown has been preserved by Frederick and Carroll counties jointly with state highways to develop a new access point for small watercraft and fishermen.
Forest buffers along the Monocacy River are the lowest cost and most effective natural approach to improving our water quality.
Learn more about the proposed update to the Monocacy River Management Plan on the county website!
Although the buffer is a plan recommendation, it will not be in effect until and unless the Frederick and Carroll County governments take the recommendation into consideration, adopt the plan, and pass legislation establishing the buffer and its regulations.
It is worth noting that, of the recommended setback approximately 70% is already designated as Federal floodplain and highly regulated.
The Monocacy Scenic River Board and county staff labored for two years on the update to the old plan. It has heard public comments at three public hearings along with numerous emails and letters.
Unfortunately, some who came to offer comments had not even read the plan and its recommendations, and did not realize that the plan recommended no impacts on farming using best practices, which usually include buffers.
If the basis for concern is the fear of the loss of land value, for many reasons relating to zoning and density and potential development rights, that’s not generally an actual threat. And it is also possible, even likely, that a standard exception process could also be established for those landowners that don’t have other suitable building locations.
Many feel that it would be appropriate to establish a system that compensates landowners for the buffer, but current funding to conserve farmland, through a variety of state and county programs, is limited, and every year many who apply are rejected. Perhaps one way to increase conservation funding for such purposes would be an addition to the real estate transfer tax, that could be dedicated for land and natural resource preservation. This would place some of the cost burden on our increasing county population and balance the benefits of maintaining the natural qualities that draw many here.
Finally, the updated plan does not recommend any public access or trails across private lands along the river. Fears of this have been expressed by some landowners — that it was a scheme underlying the river buffer. Such a proposal was defeated decades ago, before the original management plan. And it is still a “third rail” of river property politics.
Jack Lynch writes for Land and Cultural Preservation Fund Ink’s Stream Link Education, an organization that plants trees along streams to improve river water quality and public drinking water.