Eyes of Paint Branch

Conservation, Education, and Action for the Paint Branch and Its Watershed

Call to Action

How you can help protect the Paint Branch

Comprehensive Protection

A History of the Watershed
Protection Efforts to Date

The Paint Branch watershed is home to a unique ecological system with a rich, naturally occurring biological diversity, including a number of rare and threatened species. Paint Branch is perhaps best known as the home of the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area's last remaining long-term self-sustaining brown trout population. The Paint Branch wild trout serve as an indicator species, like a canary in a coal mine, telling us that conditions in this watershed remain good for humans.

Efforts to preserve, protect, and restore the Paint Branch watershed date back more than three decades, and total an investment of nearly $30 million from federal, state, and local governments. Significant protective measures were implemented in response to strong public concerns. Despite these efforts, the long-term viability of the Paint Branch is at risk, and further efforts are needed now to ensure that these resources will remain for generations to come. See the Call to Action for information on how you can help.

Background on the Comprehensive Protection Plan

In response to concerns about declining conditions in the mid-1990s, the Montgomery County Council and Planning Board implemented a program to provide comprehensive protection for the Paint Branch watershed. A seven-agency Upper Paint Branch Technical Work Group representing local, state, and regional government evaluated conditions and provided specific recommendations. This protective program is based on four major parts: (1) designation of the headwaters as a Special Protection Area, (2) the use of parkland to protect critical parcels of land, (3) the creation of an Environmental Overlay Zone to preclude potentially damaging activities, and (4) a comprehensive restoration and storm water retrofit program.

A key element of long-term protection for the upper Paint Branch is the area covered by impervious surfaces, such as roads, parking lots, rooftops, driveways, and sidewalks. Research shows a direct relation between the percentage of impervious surfaces in a watershed and the severity of environmental impacts on sensitive ecological systems. While conditions vary greatly, degradation becomes significant as the area covered by impervious surfaces increases above 10 percent. High levels of imperviousness inevitably result in the breakdown of ecological systems and the loss of biological diversity.

The plan to provide comprehensive protection for the Paint Branch focuses on the most sensitive and most important parts of the watershed, the headwaters area. The Paint Branch headwaters are roughly defined by Fairland Road on the south, New Hampshire Avenue on the west, Spencerville road on the north, and Old Columbia Pike on the east. The streams in the headwaters area provide the spawning and nursery areas for the entire trout fishery, which extends below the Capital Beltway. The sub-watersheds in the headwaters include the Good Hope, Gum Springs, Left Fork, Right Fork, and Main Stem, as shown in the figure above, along with their respective tributaries. These streams form an interdependent system of tributaries, each of which contributes complementary characteristics that are needed for this ecological system to remain viable and healthy. For example, the Right Fork has the highest water quality and flow, which are needed for habitat downstream.

Additional objectives of this program include providing a mechanism to make the special character of this area readily apparent, and providing a blanket of protection for the entire area against environmental damage.

Call to Action

While parts of the upper Paint Branch are in better condition as a result of these protective measures, much remains to be done. Recent data from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission predicts significant increases in impervious surface area in the Right Fork, Left Fork, and Main Stem sub-watersheds when all of the projects that have already been approved are built. The current imperviousness of the Columbia tributary in the Right Fork is estimated to be about 18 percent, and the stream is showing signs of degradation.

This drastic rise in imperviousness since 1995 is attributable to several factors. First, the imposition of a 10 percent impervious limit beginning in 1997 has not been effective (or sufficient) in limiting the cumulative impervious cover at the sub-watershed level. Second, Council chose not to include acquisition of land in the Right Fork and Left Fork sub-watersheds as part of the Limited Master Plan Amendment. Third, although private development has been held to a 10 percent imperviousness cap, the Planning Board has not held to the strict 10 percent impervious limit for projects that have significant community benefits; this has occurred notably with the sidewalks along Old Columbia Pike, Cloverly Safeway, and the Good Hope Church.

Several proposed road projects also threaten these resources. The expansion of the Briggs Chaney Road - Old Columbia Pike intersection presents an important compliance issue. The proposed widening of Route 198 to 4 lanes would add roughly 17 acres of new impervious surface to the SPA, and require a pervious reserve, such as the Peach Orchard-Allnut property already owned by the State but reserved for transportation use, for compliance. The ill-conceived Inter-County Connector would cut through the heart of the spawning and nursery area and result in irreparable damage according to federal agencies.

It is imperative that the Special Protection Area and Environmental Overlay Zone laws and regulations be consistently and uniformly enforced for all activities and development in the watershed, including government projects. Additional parkland is needed to protect critical areas, particularly in the Right and Left Fork sub-watersheds. Concerned individuals need to impress upon their elected and appointed officials the importance of protecting this unique and highly valued resource.

For more specific information on what you can do to help, contact Robert Ferraro at 301-890-1998 or ptbrnchbob@eopb.org, or David Dunmire at 301-576-2363 or ddunmire@eopb.org. Also see the Action Alert section of our Web site for the latest information.