Sligo Creek: Restoring the Chesapeake Bay eight miles at a time

Friends of Sligo Creek chose to celebrate Earth Day, April 18, with it’s semi annual “Sweep the Creek.” Volunteers are given plastic bags and gloves and turned loose to collect trash. Every year more people turn out, and become astounded by the piles of trash. But that wasn’t the case in the year 2000.
That spring, Sally Gagne, who on the edge of Sligo Creek Park in North Sligo Hills, noted with alarm the increasing invasion of exotic plants into Sligo Creek. Looking for someone to listen, she found a sympathetic ear in John Galli, then chief engineer for the Council of Governments (a collective of all the municipal bodies).
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He encouraged her to contact other concerned activists, and she reluctantly agreed, uncertain how many were out there. Gradually the small cadre expanded and by 2002, they had enough members to form a 5011(c)(3) they called Friends of Sligo Creek.
The structure was simple. They divided Sligo Creek into smaller sections, marked by where roads crossed the creek. “We discovered that people would volunteer if they didn’t have to travel far, even a mile.” recalls Gigne. Each section was appointed a steward.
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Some of the primary movers and shakers in FOSC: (back row, from left: President Bruce Sidwell, Clair Garman, Sally Gagne, Kathy Michels, Ed Murtagh; front row, from left: Ann Hoffnar and Marty Ittner. 

Although “Sweep the Creek” was the most visible activity, they began stormwater efforts, removing invasive plants (RIP), and monitoring water quality, all the while earning enough clout to be listened to by the government officials who could actually do something.
Sligo Creek had the good fortune decades ago when a group of powerful folks thought ahead and created Sligo Creek Parkway in 1935 to bar development long before developers were clamoring to move forward.
Although the creek is only 8.5 miles long from its headwaters at Wheaton Regional Park to the point in Prince George’s county where it joins the Anacostia River, it is a mass of overlapping jurisdictions – the city of Takoma Park, National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and the Council of Governments, not to mention a welter of federal agencies. Someone had to be on watch at the local level. That turned out to be FOSC.
If it is only eight miles, why does it matter what happens anyway?  Where does the water go? Sligo Creek is a tributary of the Anacostia River, which dumps into the Potomac, which finally reaches the Chesapeake Bay.
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Marty Ittner received a grant from Historic Foundation to silkscreen an image of the carefree days of Sligo Creek to hang in the community center.  Taken from a glass negative in the History Takoma archives, the official unveiling will be at the Azalea Awards on Saturday, April 25.  

Covering 64,000 square miles, the Bay watershed is the largest estuary in the U.S.  and home to 16 million people. “Estuary” is a fancy word for any place where fresh water mixes with salt water. The Bay is approximately half and half. It covers five states (New York, Pennsylvania, Deleware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virgina) plus the District of Columbia — talk about overlapping jurisdictions.
In the deep geological past, it was part of the Susquehanna River, which has submerged over time. Scientists think they have a partial explanation: a meteorite collided with the Earth 35 million years ago in the Delmarva region and set up the underlying structure that presaged the Bay. It wasn’t of the magnitude of the meteorite that hit the Yucatan and wiped out the dinosaurs, but it was pretty big. Sea drilling in 1983 confirmed what had been only a theory.
No one was around 35 million years ago to record what happened. But the 1600s brought an astute observer to the New World, whose records are the basis for most of our modern-day understanding. — John Smith of Pocahontas fame. Between 1608 and 1609 he explored every inch of the Bay – that’s 11,684 miles of coastline (more than the entire West Coast), drawing precise maps that remained valid for centuries and compiling detailed journal entries of what he saw, much like Lewis & Clark two centuries later. Ironically, he was free to embark on this exploration because he had been ousted from Jamestown.
His detailed maps remained the standard for centuries (the Pilgrims the first of many groups to use them). But they sparked the curiosity of settlers and helped set in motion the dynamic that threatens the Bay today. Modern scientists use Smith’s details to set the baseline for future cleanup.
Groups with the longest seniority see themselves as “big picture” folks: The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, for instance, was founded 40 years ago to improve water quality by reducing pollution. It pushed to add the Bay to the endangered list, but despite decades of effort, it is still not on the list. Agreements have been negotiated and goals have been set — repeatedly — but they are never met.
But even with the massive grassroots effort, it takes a group like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to sue the EPA for not enforcing their own rules. And, not surprising in this new political age, Chuck Fox, the the EPA czar in charge of overseeing the Bay, applauded the move. This seachange in attitude might offer the first real hope for progress.
Meanwhile back in Takoma Park, FOSC and their fellow weed warriors as some call themselves, provide the local eyes-on monitoring so crucial to making progress. In the end, it will take everyone’s involvement to make it work.
Ed Murtagh, who heads the Stormwater committee, notes that there are 20,000 homeowners in the Sligo Creek watershed and scientists say it will take the involvement of 10,000 of them to make a difference.
“There’s been a huge shift in awareness,” he continues, “but more people need to understand that cloudy creek water is not natural.” One solution is rain gardens – a way to retain stormwater and give it time to soak in. Toward that end, FOSC recently received two grants to build a network of rain gardens – $1500 from the City of Takoma Park and $8000 from the xx for its organizing efforts.
Regarding new development, FOSC helped push a stricter stormwater permitting bill through the Montgomery county council which is intended to be a model for other states.
And the outreach never stops. “People need to take pride in our parks and streams,” Murtagh stressed. Volunteer for this year’s “Sweep the Creek” and you will be able to take pride in your own efforts to clean up Sligo Creek.
Diana Kohn is Education Chair at Historic Takoma, Inc. Previous columns can be found online at www.takoma.com. For those interested in Silver Spring history, check out Jerry McCoy’s monthly columns in the Silver Spring Voice or at www.silverspringvoice.com

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About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.