Saving Montgomery County’s Last, Best Creek

Posted by on Mar 22, 2014 in Green Voices | 4 Comments

Across the globe on World Water Day, Your Green Voice salutes activists who care about clean water and all the health, economic, and community benefits it provides. In Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, Diane Cameron of the Audubon Naturalist Society has launched a campaign to protect Ten Mile Creek, our county’s “last, best creek” from three massive proposed development projects that threaten its watershed.

LtoR: Josh Taylor, Alesya Sarakhman, Allie Taylor, Brianna Roche.

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Diane Cameron is the director of conservation for the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where she works with her colleagues to protect the health of watersheds in Maryland, northern Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy Diane Cameron.

 

When Diane Cameron was a 17-year-old high school student in Carmel, Indiana, she had an experience that transformed her young life—and, as it turned out, informed her life’s work. “I had a very influential biology teacher, Mrs. Joyce Landis. Mrs. Landis took me under her wing and encouraged me to do a senior research project sampling and analyzing the water from nearby Cool Creek, just downstream of our town’s sewage treatment plant,” Cameron relates.

“I used the microscopes in Mrs. Landis’ science lab to study the water samples I took. Mostly what I found living in the creek’s water were protozoans and paramecia. Mrs. Landis drove me to the Butler University Library to learn more about them.  What I was able to find out was that all the protozoa I was finding in Cool Creek were very tolerant of pollution and able to live in waters with very low oxygen. Basically, Cool Creek was a very sick creek.”

Learning that Cool Creek’s pollution was the result of the treatment plant discharging raw sewage because it was “operating way over capacity” sowed the seeds of activism in the young scientist.  “Carmel was a very wealthy town and it was a political eye-opener to me that such a well-to-do town could have this kind of problem,” she says.

Her scientific curiosity spurred by Mrs. Landis, Cameron went on to study science in college, earning a B.A. in geology from Indiana University and a Masters degree in environmental engineering with a focus on water and wastewater treatment and toxic pollutants at the University of Maryland.

Ten Mile Creek teems with aquatic life--and activists in the Save Ten Mile Creek Coalition are working to keep it that way. Photo: Montgomery Countryside Alliance.

Ten Mile Creek teems with aquatic life–and activists in the Save Ten Mile Creek Coalition are working to keep it that way. Photo: Montgomery Countryside Alliance.

Fast forward to 2014, and Diane Cameron can once again be found at work on the banks of a small stream. This time she’s fighting to save Ten Mile Creek in Montgomery County, Maryland, a stream Cameron describes as her county’s “last, best creek.”  Unlike the polluted stream of her high school research project, Ten Mile Creek’s cold, clear waters teem with trout and other fish, and support a rich diversity of frogs, turtles, salamanders, and other aquatic life.

As the director of conservation for the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS), the Washington, D.C., area’s oldest regional conservation group,  Cameron uses her scientific training to fight three massive  proposed development projects that threaten the Ten Mile Creek watershed. It’s a watershed that more than three million Washington-area residents depend on as part of the Little Seneca Reservoir emergency drinking water supply.

Against daunting odds, Diane Cameron and the ANS-led coalition she helped create to protect Ten Mile Creek’s waters are winning a battle no one thought they could win against the deep-pocketed proponents of suburban sprawl.

“It’s been a long-haul effort involving hundreds of people who are running this marathon with me,” says Cameron. “It’s the commitment of all these people that gets me out of bed in the morning, comforts me at night, and keeps me going through the long days.”

A year ago, she says, “this campaign hadn’t even started, and saving Ten Mile Creek seemed like such a long-shot goal. But ultimately we were able to organize and bring forth the voices of thousands of people who wrote to the County Executive and members of the County Council to say ‘I drink water, and I vote, and I want you to make sure that this creek is protected.’”

Clean Water Action, one of the more than 30 organizations that joined ANS in the Save Ten Mile Creek Coalition, mobilized dozens of volunteer canvassers, who knocked on thousands of doors and gathered more than 1,000 handwritten letters from county residents asking members of the County Council to protect the creek.

The letters, the phone calls and the rallies “became an overwhelming imperative that the elected officials could not ignore and could not deny,” Cameron says. “They felt like they had to yield to public demand.”  Today, Cameron and her coalition partners are close to achieving “very, very restrictive development” in the Ten Mile Creek watershed.

A straw vote by the Montgomery County Council on March 4 gave unanimous approval to a plan to severely restrict development around Ten Mile Creek, a testament to the efforts of Council members Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich, Hans Riemer and Phil Andrews and their staffs, who worked hard to bring in scientific testimony on stream protection and urbanization in the numerous work sessions that preceded the vote. A final Council vote on April 1 will make the restrictions official. Cameron and the coalition plan to work until the final vote to ensure that the Council includes “strict, enforceable science-based protections for sensitive areas” in its final plan.

With victory in sight on Ten Mile Creek, what’s next for Cameron? Predictably, she won’t stray far from the water. “I’m redoubling my work to restore the Anacostia River,” she says. “It’s a very big stream with a lot of problems compared to Ten Mile Creek. The challenge will be to reach out to homeowners and business owners and work with them to install as many rain gardens and plant as many trees as possible on their suburban and urban land.”

Cameron sees this local work in the context of a very big dream. “I hope that in my lifetime I will be part of a nationwide effort to redefine what makes a beautiful, functioning yard. Today, the ‘ideal’ American yard is a swath of turf grass. I’m hoping to be part of a cultural shift to where people come to view our yards as ecological hearths that connect us to our neighbors, produce some of the food we eat, and bring us closer to nature by providing habitat and water for wildlife,” she says.

“In my Maryland neighborhood, we have a small strip of woods that connects all the yards.  Hawks and barred owls are able to make a living from this little strip of woods, and it’s an incredible gift to live with these beautiful birds as our neighbors. My dream is that in the future, everyone—not just members of groups like ANS or the Sierra Club—can live a life connected with nature. That connection is what will encourage people to plant trees and gardens. It won’t be about protecting clean water and biological diversity. It will be because I want my child to grow up hearing a barred owl and eating fresh tomatoes they have grown in their own yard.”

Mrs. Landis would be proud.

4 Comments

  1. Rick Abend
    March 25, 2014

    Kudos to Diane Cameron. She should check out Maryland DNR’s new Lawn to Woodland program. We need less fertilized turf and more trees to clean up and protect our waterways!

    Reply
    • Kathy Westra
      March 25, 2014

      Sounds like a good program, Rick! Thanks for the heads-up that it’s out there.

      Reply
  2. Lee Babcock
    March 26, 2014

    Kathy, thanks for highlighting all of Diane’s great work. And congratulations on your new website!

    Reply
  3. Kathy Westra
    April 1, 2014

    All of the hard work by Diane, her colleagues, and the members of the Save Ten Mile Creek Coalition has paid off in a unanimous vote today by the Montgomery County Council to protect the Ten Mile Creek watershed. The plan adopted by the Council today places strict limits on development; limits the amount of impervious surfaces allowed in new developments within the watershed; requires 200 foot buffers for wetlands, streams and groundwater springs; and spurs reforestation with a goal of 65% forest cover for the entire watershed.

    Reply

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