Horseback riders say they are pleased with a consultant’s report that says less runoff is generated by horse trails surrounding the area’s Patuxent River reservoirs than by access roads onto which riders were rerouted by the bicounty water and sewer utility.
Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission officials angered horseback riders in the spring of 2011 when they banned them from trails near the T. Howard Duckett Reservoir in the river watershed, citing concerns about erosion that had allowed sediment and animal waste to wash into the water.
The riders, who had used and cared for the trails for decades, were redirected to less-appealing police and fire access roads.
But in a report presented to WSSC commissioners Monday, consultant EA Engineering, Science, and Technology stated that the access roads at Duckett Reservoir — also known as Rocky Gorge — were “significantly eroded” and were the “dominant source” of sediment and runoff contaminants from WSSC property.
In many places, the access roads were not safe for horses or fire and police vehicles, according to the report by the Hunt Valley, Md.-based engineering firm.
Pollutant loads from smaller trails, such as those long used by horseback riders and fishermen, were “substantially smaller,” the report found, adding that the horse trails were better aligned with land contours than were the access roads, which have steep grades that increase runoff.
Members of Trail Riders of Today, a horseback riders group with hundreds of members across Maryland and the region, had contended that the access roads posed a bigger safety and runoff problem than the horse trails they no longer are allowed to use, and they welcomed the consulting firm’s confirmation.
“I felt like they really listened to us,” said Debby Poole, whose family had long ridden the trails, as have boarders at her Belle Cote Farm.
The report also said that WSSC, which serves 1.8 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, should consider more restrictions and higher permit fees on its property surrounding the reservoirs.
The recommendation to raise the price of permits — required for horseback riding, fishing and boating around or on the reservoirs — was meant to have users of trails, parking lots and boat ramps pay for those amenities and their upkeep rather than ratepayers.
The Patuxent and Potomac rivers are sources of drinking water for WSSC customers.
TROT member Barbara Sollner-Webb expressed concern about a suggestion in the report that the utility consider limiting the number of permits granted each year for horseback riders.
But she said she was “thrilled” to hear the report recommended opening to horses some old trails at the Triadelphia Reservoir near Brighton that were resistant to erosion.
Areas around the Duckett Reservoir near Laurel and Triadelphia need more policing, more fencing, better signs to restrict access and activities and a detailed fire-protection plan for the WSSC-owned woodlands around them, the report recommended.
Also, several measures called for in a 2007 forest conservation plan have not been implemented and the plan should be re-examined, the report said.
Field observations made for the study found evidence of makeshift trails and unauthorized use of trails by horseback riders, shoreline anglers, bikers and others.
More policing and clearer signs and postings could help stop such unauthorized use as well as the traversing of the trails when they are muddy, which is prohibited.
The utility also needs to resolve questions about whether some trail access from private properties, granted by a former WSSC employee, is warranted and whether it needs to be regulated or curtailed, the report said.
The utility is planning a second study to look at the impact on the watershed from neighboring land outside WSSC control, chief engineer Gary Gumm said.
Large animal manure piles near WSSC’s property line add to pollution around the reservoirs, the consultants said, and the utility should work with those landowners to improve their manure management and perhaps consider buying more conservation easements or more land in the watershed when available.
The consultants also said the utility should continue, and even increase, its managed deer hunts and removal of invasive species to protect the watershed.
And the WSSC might consider requiring those who boat on WSSC reservoirs not to use their vessels on other waterways, as Baltimore city requires of boaters on its reservoirs, to avoid introducing invasive species, the report said.
The utility also angered boaters and anglers last year when it cut by two months the season when permit bearers could use the Triadelphia and Duckett reservoirs and the 6,000 wooded acres that surround them.
The utility is planning to meet with stakeholder groups, including recreational users, with the goal of publishing a draft of new regulations in January for public comment.
WSSC officials want new regulations approved in time to take effect when the watershed reopens for use in the spring.
Jay Price, WSSC’s water production chief, said the utility’s staff members see a “great deal of work ahead” and will need to prioritize and budget for it.
Commissioner Antonio L. Jones of Prince George’s said he wants to make sure the commission does not focus on providing amenities to a small group at the expense of ratepayers who depend on it for clean, affordable water.
“If the WSSC spends money, which we apparently will have to do, it’s not just for the folks who are riding or fishing or boating,” Jones said.
Less than 1 percent of the WSSC’s customers buy the $60 recreational use permits, WSSC spokesman Jim Neustadt said.