WSSC Trail Use Study Released

On November 19, 2012 the Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission (WSSC) released a long-anticipated report by EA Engineering, Science and Technology, who studied the effect that equestrians and other users have on the reservoirs and the lands surrounding the reservoirs.  The study was commissioned by the WSSC, at the request of horse people and legislators, after winter trail riding had been banned for ostensibly causing erosion.

Established in 1918, today WSSC is one of the largest water and wastewater utilities in the nation, with a network of nearly 5,600 miles of fresh water pipeline and more than 5,400 miles of sewer pipeline. They serve 1.8 million residents in Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties; WSSC drinking water has always met or exceeded federal standards.

The WSSC owns and maintains the pipelines, and owns and operates three reservoirs (Triadelphia, Rocky Gorge and Little Seneca) with a total holding capacity of 14 billion gallons, 2 water filtration plants, and 7 wastewater treatment plants.

The land surrounding the reservoir serves as a natural filter for the watershed, and a happy byproduct of the watershed maintenance has been its availability for recreational users, including equestrians (specifically Rocky Gorge and Triadelphia).

As reported in The Equiery in 2011, WSSC was convinced that horses were causing significant trail erosion which, when combined with manure, was affecting the water quality of the reservoir, so they relocated horses off the bridle trails and onto the firebreaks and emergency access roads, while closing the land completely to equestrians during the winter.

Upon learning of WSSC’s actions, Trail Riders of Today immediately swung into action, heavily lobbying WSSC to conduct a legitimate study before finalizing any policy, rather than relying on hearsay and amateur observations. TROT also provided testimony from the Maryland Department of the Environment, which, according to Barbara Sollner-Webb, had recognized the efforts of equestrians for diverting over 10,000 cubic yards of sediment from entering the reservoir and for providing environmental help, such as recently initiating efforts to reopen blocked culverts under WSSC’s Access Road. The trail riders were also successful in helping to secure a $30,000 grant to reroute the few inadequate trail sections.

WSSC listened, and then engaged EA Engineering, Science & Technology.

“The Report” says…horsepeople are right! 
By Barbara Sollner-Webb

According to the report released on November 19, 2012, EA Engineering determined that it’s not the horses causing the erosion. According to the report, the access roads are “the dominant source of sediments and associated run-off contaminants originating within WSSC buffer property… with extremely steep slopes with substantial gullies and washed out areas where our Study Team’s 4-wheel drive trucks could not navigate…[and is in] very poor alignment”, “straight up and down hill sides” …[with]“unmaintained sections not suitable for… horseback riding…[and] potentially dangerous for horses” (page 6-2 to 6-4).

The reports also states that the portion of the equestrian trails that they carefully assessed (those trails that we were now forbidden to use) are “well aligned with the natural topography, has gentle slopes, and was determined to be in excellent condition for use by horses…[with] little evidence of erosion [even at the] stream crossings…an excellent horseback riding trail.”

EA subsequently traversed another portion and found only a few sites of “localized erosion”, but they evidently were not aware of the portion that was dedicated by WSSC’s Richard Hocevar (for whom their building is named). The report additionally verifies equestrians’ assertions that most of the access points (which WSSC has mandated that equestrians must use to enter the trails) are unsuitable (Appendix B). Pleasingly, it recommends also allowing horseback riding on portions of the Tridelphia Access Road, which is in much better shape (page 6-4). The report also addresses trash and erosion from shore-fishing, with some suggestions directed toward other uses.

However, the report still recommends forbidding winter riding (presumably because WSSC had deemed the winter “the wettest months of the year, according to [WSSC’s] official rainfall data,” completely the converse of their actual data that were obtained though a Maryland Public Information Act Request) and suggests considering a few other draconian changes. Hopefully these will not be implemented, because the County Council’s budget legislation for WSSC states “Public access that is more restrictive than policies in effect prior to the 2011 changes should be supported by the science and industry best practices.”

Also note that contrary to a November 23, 2012 report in The Washington Post, there were no major recommendations in the EA study to moves any horse trails.

WSSC has assured the public they will get to provide more input (click here to see the thoughtful recent testimony from many caring citizens) and then will revise their public access regulations. Hopefully they will reopen the equestrian trails, permit the sections that need it to be improved (including through the above-mentioned trails grant), and encourage other ways that equestrians can aid in the stewardship of this environmental treasure.