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As recently as 2005, Maryland fisheries biologists declared Mattawoman to be “the best, most productive tributary to the [Chesapeake] Bay.” [3]  But by 2010, these scientists discovered that the fish community in the estuary were seriously declining. They concluded that “Planned levels of development in Mattawoman Creek’s watershed…should be reconsidered in light of the extent of declines detected in the fish community.” [4] 

In 2012, a major Task Force of federal, state, and academic experts concluded that:

“The future of the Mattawoman Watershed is at a turning point. As presently planned, the Development District will irreversibly alter the ability of Charles County citizens and tourists to have access to clean water, high quality fisheries, and a great outdoor experience, unless specific steps are taken to bring regulation and land-use policies in line with the stated county vision of protecting the Mattawoman.”[5]

Because Mattawoman’s outstanding values are faltering as its forests fall to sprawl development, it epitomizes the issues that connect land use to water quality.  You could say that charismatic Mattawoman Creek is the poster child for the fastest growing pollution sector in the Chesapeake Bay, namely stormwater runoff from an increasingly urbanized landscape. [6]

Land-use controls whether our streams run clean or dirty. Some of the reasons are illustrated by the contrast between Figures 1 and 2.  Figure 1 shows why forest is the best land use for protecting water quality. As we like to say, “fish love forests.”  Figure 2 shows why urbanization is the worst land-use for healthy waters because it disrupts the beneficial functions of forest. 

Fig. 1 (click image for larger view)

A forest meters, cools, filters, and purifies stormwater, making it the best land use for protecting water quality.  Forests also purify the air, reduce local temperatures, sequester carbon dioxide (a global warming gas), and provide habitat for plants and animals.

Forests are also scenic, and provide habitat for wildlife and recreational opportunities for people.

Fig. 2 (click image for larger view)

Urbanization disrupts many forest functions.  In particular, surfaces impervious to rainwater like roofs, roads, and parking lots increase the overall volume of stormwater running into streams. What’s more, impervious surface heats the stormwater, adds pollutants, and channels the stormwater in erosive flows into streams. Erosion creates sediment suffocating to living resources.  Because rainwater isn’t sponged into the soil, the water table diminishes, and streams tend to dry up between storms.