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Lake Elkhorn Stream Mitigation: Environmental Restoration or Environmental Degradation?

A potential stream restoration project that could restore 33,000 linear feet of eroded stream banks flowing into Lake Elkhorn has generated controversy in our community. Hundreds of written comments have been submitted by individuals and organizations asking the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to either deny or approve a financing mechanism that would enable the project to proceed.

Proponents of the project contend that restoration of eroded stream banks is necessary to protect and sustain Columbia's beloved lakes for generations to come and that the project will reduce the substantial costs that the Columbia Association incurs for maintaining Jackson Pond and Lake Elkhorn. Opponents of the plan express concern with potential tree removal, forest clearing, and habitat loss that would be necessary to conduct the stream restoration work and question the project's impact since it would not fix the underlining environmental issue of stormwater run-off entering our waterways.

Proposed Mitigation Site: High Tor Hill to Lake Elkhorn, from project Prospectus

Background and Funding Mechanism

Stream restoration involves techniques aimed at reducing stream bank erosion, minimizing the down-cutting of stream bed, and restoring aquatic ecosystems. The Lake Elkhorn project would be conducted via the regulatory funding mechanism known as mitigation banking, established by Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Mitigation banking is a system of credits and debits developed by regulatory agencies to ensure that unavoidable destruction to wetlands and streams is compensated for by preservation, enhancement, restoration or creation of similar ecological features in nearby areas.

The Columbia Association has granted exclusive rights and an easement to Wetland Studies and Solutions, Inc., to design, construct, and operate a stream mitigation bank that would enable the restoration of 33,000 linear feet of streams on 133 acres of CA property upstream from Lake Elkhorn (primarily in Long Reach) at no cost to CA. WSSI would pay for the entirety of the project that is estimated to cost approximately $10 million and in return, WSSI would earn mitigation credits that they can then sell through a mitigation bank to a third party who is obligated to offset the unavoidable environmental damage of a project elsewhere in Maryland.

Bank Sponsor Davey Resource Group has submitted a prospectus to MDE and USACE seeking approval for the Lake Elkhorn Mitigation Bank. MDE and USACE held a virtual hearing on December 8, 2021 and accepted written public comments through February 23, 2022. These agencies are now deliberating and a decision should be forthcoming soon. It is important to note that this decision is regarding the creation of a mitigation bank only. If the mitigation bank is approved, the actual stream restoration work would still be years away and would first need to go through a design and planning phase with multiple opportunities for public feedback.

The Case For

Supporters of the project prioritize the beauty and health of Lake Elkhorn for community enjoyment for decades to come. They believe that the long-term benefits of reduced stream erosion and pollutants entering Lake Elkhorn and Jackson Pond outweigh the short-term disruptions and necessary tree removal that will accompany the project.

Columbia was developed prior to the implementation of modern stormwater mitigation requirements. As a result, stormwater runoff entering our water bodies has caused significant erosion of stream banks and has lead to excessive amounts of sediment entering Columbia's lakes and ponds. To remove this sediment and protect Columbia’s water bodies, CA must occasionally perform dredging of Lake Elkhorn, Wilde Lake, Lake Kittamaqundi and Jackson Pond to remove built-up sediment. Dredging is not cheap. It costs CA $12 million for a large-scale dredging of all 3 lakes last decade. This is money that comes directly from resident's CA assessment. Not only is dredging expensive, but the process is destructive to the lake and wildlife habitats and is not a sustainable long-term solution.

If granted, the mitigation bank would provide CA a no-cost opportunity to reconnect the stream channel to the original flood plain which will slow the flow of water, prevent excessive erosion along the stream banks, protect trees and property that could otherwise be threatened, and reduce the amount of sediment being washed into Lake Elkhorn and Jackson Pond. New plants and trees planted alongside the stream after project completion will create an improved riparian buffer to control erosion and help filter and keep stream water clean.

The Case Against

Stream Restoration requires heavy machinery to be brought into wooded areas creating a disruption to nearby homes while construction is being performed. The process of re-engineering the channels of streams necessities removing trees and clearing vegetation, disturbing native wildlife habitats. New plants and trees planted after the work is complete could take years (or decades) to grow back to their original state.

Importantly, stream restoration does not address the underlining issue of stormwater runoff entering streams. Critics of the project question whether these proposed restoration efforts will be overwhelmed since runoff from impervious surface will continue to enter Columbia's streams. Opponents believe that efforts should instead focus on controlling run-off from entering CA property in the first place (which is outside the jurisdiction of the Columbia Association). It is also unknown and difficult to predict how much sediment will actually be reduced from entering Lake Elkhorn. For these reasons, opponents believe that the environmental harm of the project exceeds its potential benefit. Furthermore, this work, by earning mitigation bank credits, enables the destruction of streams and wetlands elsewhere in Maryland.

Some opponents have suggested that if CA wants to eliminate the need to dredge Lake Elkhorn, they should remove the dam and convert the lake into wetlands, adding boardwalks to provide a recreational aspect.

Community Response

In addition to CA, the Owen Brown and Long Reach Community Associations have indicated some level of support for the project.

Local Environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club: Maryland Chapter, Patuxent Riverkeepers, and The Chesapeake Bay Foundation oppose the project and have submitted comments seeking the denial of the mitigation bank. Residents have formed the grassroots group Protect our Streams and have been actively campaigning in opposition. Most notably, all twelve Maryland Delegates and Senators from Districts 12, 13, and 21 have submitted a joint letter requesting that MDE and USACE delay, defer, or deny the mitigation bank application.

For their part, the Columbia Association's watershed experts drafted a memo with a point-by-point rebuttals of the opposition positions.

Further Resources

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