If there was a place in the Chesapeake watershed where people might have learned to grow greenly, it was Southern Maryland's Mattawoman Creek, a lesson in sustainability long begging to be learned.

Forty years ago, the 19-mile-long tributary of the Potomac, 25 miles downstream and a world away from Washington, DC, was known to state and federal natural resources departments and national environmental groups as a special place.

It remains such, but now, with the lesson still unlearned, is less so, and is far more threatened than it was on a day in 1976, when proof of its special status was easy to come by.

Then, on an idyllic canoe trip down the creek with the late Jimmy Hancock, who grew up roaming its marshes, woods and sequestered coves during the middle decades of the 20th century, wood ducks, warblers, beaver and largemouth bass abounded amid stands of wild rice, dazzling golden wildflowers and the rare, giant American lotus. Shad, herring and yellow perch thronged the creek's channels to spawn each spring.

Hancock, a cobbler who also made orthopedic appliances, constructed tales of a mythical kingdom of the creek's denizens to entertain his children. He recalled submerging himself in the clear waters on the clean gravel bottom and breathing through the hollow stalks of the lotus. He apologized for forgetting the proper name of the plant, found in only three locations in Maryland: "We didn't used to need to know such stuff…we just enjoyed it."

In the 1970s, Hancock, who was in his 50s, was fighting a gravel mining proposal and a waterfront apartment development. A larger threat, many felt, was a big sewage treatment plant under construction in the creek's floodplain. It would accommodate the surging growth that was beginning to shake rural Charles County from its centuries-long torpor.

The population in Charles, which encompasses the bulk of the Mattawoman's watershed, was 20,000 in the U.S. Census of 1790, and about the same well into the 1950s. Then it rocketed sixfold, passing the 150,000 mark in 2012, with another 75,000 projected by 2040. More than a quarter of the population, 40,000 people, leave the county daily, driving to jobs in the DC metro area.

Such a level of development, despite better environmental protections every decade, inevitably would take its toll on the creek.

In the early 1970s, the National Wildlife Federation and the U.S. Department of the Interior expressed concern and opposition to the sewage treatment plant. Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, worried about more gravel dredging and mining, had already begun acquiring a protective natural buffer around the creek that ultimately would total almost 5,000 acres.

Here come the humans, there go the fish

But Hancock, in what now seems prophetic, worried that what would do in the creek eventually was no single big insult, but the proverbial death by a thousand cuts, the sheer increase in people and all they do, an equation today's environmental laws still struggle to solve.

His concerns have been much on Maryland Department of Natural Resources fisheries expert Jim Uphoff's mind in the 21st century. Uphoff has come to believe that the key to retaining many of the Bay's fish populations lies more with managing growth and development than with cranking down on what watermen and sportsmen can harvest. "Basically, fishermen are subsidizing development," he says.

Uphoff talks about the complex—almost mysterious—intersections of more humans arriving and fish fading away as he drags a fine mesh net behind his skiff on the Mattawoman in early April. Wearing magnifying glasses, he's looking for the larvae that will indicate successful spawning of the creek's noted yellow perch.

The Mattawoman's still way more pretty than developed, at least along its immediate shorelines. "Uglytown," as one scientist calls the booming, six-lane U.S. 301 corridor of Charles county, is only minutes away and crosses the Mattawoman's upper reaches in Waldorf. But here, ospreys just back from Central America are nest-building and swooping on fish, and the swamp maples blush red as bass fishermen cast into their reflections. Even though it has been cool and it's probably a little early, Uphoff is seeing evidence of another year of reproduction of yellow perch, small jewels of Chesapeake rivers, exquisitely colored and exceptionally toothsome, a high-value seafood.

Uphoff and his colleagues at DNR in 1992 declared the Mattawoman "as near to ideal conditions as can be found in the northern Chesapeake Bay, (a state) perhaps unattainable in other systems, that should be protected." The creek remains one of the Bay's special places, he said as he came up with a net full of nutritious zooplankton, prime fuel for the development of larval fish. It ranks extremely high in its diversity of fish, plants and wildlife, and is the heart of the larger Potomac's $25 million bass fishing industry, featuring more than 100 sportsmen's' tournaments annually.

But along with numerous streams and rivers Baywide, the quality of the Mattawoman's waters is deteriorating as its watershed absorbs ever more growth. Using property tax records, Uphoff can begin to put the impacts of growth on the Mattawoman in concrete terms — literally — as he calculates how much the watershed has been "hardened" with roads, sidewalks, parking lots and the roofs of homes and commercial buildings.

In 2010, there was an average of .88 structures for every hectare (about 2.4 acres) of the creek's 61,000 acre watershed. That translates into a watershed that is slightly more than 10 percent "impervious," or hardened. To the untrained eye, that might still look fairly bucolic.

Based on numerous studies around the Chesapeake and nationwide, scientists can predict the future of aquatic systems like Mattawoman Creek. At 5 percent or less impervious, which was the case during the paddle with Jimmy Hancock in 1976, waterways generally retain their full health and functions.

Native brook trout streams are an exception. They can begin to show impacts after development reaches half a percent—equal to a two-lane road passing through a square mile of forest. "Brookies" have vanished from many Bay region streams.

Around 10 percent impervious, which the Mattawoman recently passed, seems to be a universal tipping point, where the aquatic system starts unraveling. Past 15 percent there are major declines, and by 20 percent impervious, most waterways are in serious trouble. A city like Baltimore would represent about 40 percent impervious.

Even worse, reversing such degradation appears difficult to impossible. A recent study of urban streams by DNR expert Scott Stranko and University of Maryland scientist Margaret Palmer found that while restored streams looked better, they showed no improvement in the diversity of aquatic life.

Degradation known as 'urban syndrome'

Precisely why a stream's health is so irrevocably bound to the development of its watershed still eludes scientists. "I wish I knew," Stranko said. Culprits range from additional septic tanks to sediment from construction to chemicals in polluted air that find their way to water; even road salt applied heavily during winter snows to keep traffic moving can harm a stream.

Uphoff says that the hardening of a watershed's natural forests, fallow fields and even its plowed farmland seems to short-circuit the natural paths that rain follows. Water that used to soak in and filter slowly through the soils, seeping cleanly into waterways in dry weather, now rushes off hardened surfaces all at once. The sheer hydraulic force of stormwater, focused by curbs and gutters and storm drains, can ruin smaller waterways. A hardened watershed, Uphoff suspects, may also transport less nutritious organic matter to a creek, diminishing food webs that support larval fish.

Some scientists have simply called what happens "urban syndrome," meaning, from Greek, "a concurrence of many things." "It certainly makes the case for the 'ounce of prevention' and for protecting the special areas we still have," Stranko said.

Indeed, becoming more proactive with places like the Mattawoman, which are at their tipping point, and alerting local officials to the perils of more development before it is too late had occurred to Uphoff and his DNR colleagues. They had spent so long working to restore the Severn River's once-famous yellow perch, to no avail. On that Bay tributary, bordering Annapolis and its suburbs, "urbanization (20 percent impervious) had taken over," Uphoff said.

The Mattawoman could be a prime test case for finally getting ahead of the growth curve. It remained "the best, most productive water we've got;" but is sure to become 20 percent or more impervious under Charles county's official comprehensive plan for guiding future growth, Uphoff said.

The DNR had been talking up the problems created by impervious surfaces with local river and stream groups in the region since 2005. As recently as 2011, Charles county officials seemed interested in the idea.

And a well-organized and savvy environmental coalition had lobbied for smarter growth and fought successfully against extending a new highway through the creek's watershed.

By March 2012, the DNR, with input from a host of federal and state environmental agencies, had put together its prototype plan: The Case For Protection of Watershed Resources of Mattawoman Creek. It urged Charles County to zone remaining rural lands in the Mattawoman region for dramatically less development, and to shrink the overall size of a sprawling, future development district it had designated around the creek years before.

Another suggestions was to protect farmers' and other rural landholders' equity and buy their development rights, then transfer these development rights into future growth more densely located in a smaller area around already urban Waldorf. Adjoining Calvert County had successfully used this technique, called Transferrable Development Rights. More density in Waldorf fit the county's longstanding intention of building mass transit from there to DC's Metro, 18 miles away.

The Balanced Growth Initiative

What happened next "hit us like a meteor…we never saw it coming," Uphoff said. Even as the plan to limit growth's damage to the Mattawoman received a respectful, if noncommittal 20-minute hearing from Charles County Commissioners, local developers, real estate agents and land speculators were organizing a counterattack.

It took the form of a document known as the Balanced Growth Initiative, a proposal that went far beyond Mattawoman Creek, a dramatic rewrite of Charles' whole Comprehensive Plan, which guides land use throughout the county. That plan, last updated in 2006, was due for review, and would have been the vehicle for better protecting the Mattawoman.

Instead, the Balanced Growth coalition, which convinced many farmers that their property values were threatened, swung a slender majority of Charles County's Planning Commission—and likely a majority of the county commissioners — behind a new draft comprehensive plan. It is one "essentially written by and for developers," according to Anthony Redman, a land-planning expert and principal author of the DNR's Mattawoman protective plan.

On its website, the Balanced Growth Initiative makes it clear that the movement is about protecting private property rights and values, including the prevention of too much growth in areas like Waldorf.

Comments on the Balanced Growth Initiative from state agencies charged with reviewing it, environmental groups and the Chesapeake Bay Program's fisheries experts have been scathing.

It promotes sprawl and "would be the most drastic policy reversal in a comprehensive plan that this agency has ever seen," said the Maryland Department of Planning in a letter to the county.

It would add hundreds of thousands of pounds of nitrogen, the Bay's biggest pollutant, from septic tanks and risk more development on 88,000 acres of ecologically valuable lands, "the best of the best," the state agency said.

It explained that Charles County is unique in Maryland, with a metropolitan location, yet third in high-value natural lands and waters, behind only rural Garrett and Dorchester.

The roads required to serve sprawl development under the Balanced Growth Initiative would cost taxpayers an extra $2 billion, state planners said.

The Maryland Department of Environment noted that the "balanced" proposal "does not address water quality at all," despite a state requirement to do so.

'Not even a pretense of caring'

The Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team of the Chesapeake Bay Program, made up of the top fisheries experts from Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Maryland's DNR, the District of Columbia, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office, sent a highly critical letter, a perhaps unprecedented step for the group. Among several criticisms, the letter said: "Beyond the local loss of rural lands and valuable resources, we believe the Draft Comprehensive Plan may have broader regional implications for the Chesapeake Bay and potentially the Atlantic Coast on the quality and sustainability of species like striped bass and shad."

Nitrogen and phosphorus loads to Mattawoman Creek under the proposal would be more than double what new federal regulations will require for water quality there, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation wrote.

"There is not even a pretense of caring" (in the Balanced Growth Imitative), said a county planning commission member who opposed the changes and who asked not to be identified.

With more public hearings scheduled, and no deadline for a final comprehensive plan adoption by Charles County's commissioners, the DNR's Redman says it does not look good for the Mattawoman, "though I don't think this is over yet."

Redman said that in Kent County, some of the strictest anti-development zoning in Maryland has not depressed the price farmers get when they sell development rights to the state. He also questioned whether Charles County can legally allow more polluting septic tanks throughout its predominantly agricultural and forest lands.

Gary Hodge, a former Charles County commissioner with a long career of land use planning in Southern Maryland, said, "I still think, maybe after a hiatus to let this all settle down…we can engage everyone here in a favorable outcome." He said that one of the planning commission members who supports the developers' initiative will be leaving office soon.

Hodge's passion has been to extend mass transit from Waldorf to the DC Metro system; a move that he said finally has buy-in from state transportation officials as well as Charles County. That transportation link could keep future growth focused, rather than sprawling countywide.

But keeping Mattawoman Creek around 10 percent impervious, he conceded, "that's a lot to do." Indeed, DNR's Redman said his agency thought the best it could ever do was protect several of the creek's subwatersheds that are largely rural, "because Waldorf is in the watershed and it's the place we're trying to put all the growth.

"The dilemma is that the county has so much other ecologically valuable land—Zekiah Swamp, Nanjemoy, the Wicomico River…you can't throw those under the bus to keep the growth away from the Mattawoman," he said.

The issue is far broader than Charles County or the Mattawoman. Recent research by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center has shown that tidal waters and Bay shoreline also show environmental impacts at surprisingly low levels of development around the waterfront. These include elevated PCBs in white perch to the loss of marsh birds and declining fish and blue crab populations.

As Maryland's population has grown by a third in recent decades, the land developed to accommodate these new people has doubled. Without smarter growth, more rivers and streams will go belly-up; and even with smart growth, there will be hard decisions about where to put all of the people.

Almost alone in the Chesapeake's six-state watershed, Calvert County, near to Charles, has taken strong measures to limit and even decrease how many people live there. (This will be the subject of an upcoming"Growing Concern.")

Hodge said that he is personally "pro growth…I think the dynamics are different here and in Calvert, though my hat's off to them." But he did recommend a few years ago when he was a commissioner that county planners "bring down people from Baltimore County, which has downzoned a lot of land successfully. I wish they had done it before the wheels came off down here."