Ignoring the Monocacy is a crime

Kai Hagen

May 30, 2003

Two weeks ago, I proposed we change the name of Frederick County to Monocacy County, suggesting in other words that when the colonists kept the current name after the American Revolution, it was somewhat like not changing the name of Saddam Airport or Saddam City after ending Hussein's reign in Iraq.

That may sound like an extreme comparison, and I suppose it is. But the reasoning is the same. Nevertheless, given two centuries of momentum and the hassle of making the switch, I acknowledged it was a somewhat fanciful notion facing long odds.

Of course, either way, the proposed name is already familiar to all of us. We see it all over the county. We have Monocacy Elementary School, Monocacy Middle School, and more recently, the Monocacy Valley Montessori School. Many of us drive on Monocacy Blvd. There is Monocacy Village, a neighborhood and park and shopping center named after the first German settlement in the county. Americans on both sides of the Civil War died at the Monocacy National Battlefield. And there is the Monocacy Valley Church, the Monocacy Pistol Club, the Monocacy Canoe Club, the Monocacy Plowman and Fisherman Club, and a long list of groups, apartment complexes, businesses and more.

All named after the original Monocacy - the Monocacy River - which comes from a native American word, "Monnockkesey," which translates to "river with many bends."

Previously, I expressed the hope that one genuine benefit of changing the name of Frederick County to Monocacy County might be an increased awareness of its namesake, the Monocacy River, and increased efforts to protect it.

It may seem absurd to say that the Monocacy River is one of the best kept secrets in County, since the name is splashed all over, especially given the attention it received last year, when serious drought conditions made for daily reports about its flow and greatly reduced the water we could take out of it.

The Monocacy River, however, is much more than an unreliable conduit of often-muddy and too polluted drinking water. Our river is the largest Maryland tributary to the Potomac. It meanders the entire length of the county, winding through Frederick and its growing suburbs, and most of us live in its watershed. Fed by slow-flowing streams of the gently rolling piedmont and rushing, rocky trout streams in the Catoctin Mountains, it is one of the dominant natural features of our region.

Yet, most county residents know little about the Monocacy. Out of sight, out of mind is the most obvious explanation. And our lack of familiarity contributes to the lack of effective, long term measures to preserve the river and its environs. There are no roads that follow the riverbank. Most of the land along the river is privately owned. Public access to much of the river is limited to a few postage stamp parks. The City of Frederick, which has gradually come to appreciate the benefit of highlighting Carroll Creek, has largely turned its back on its stretch of the river, much of which flows behind big box stores, industrial parks and giant distribution warehouses.

For most of us, our experience of the Monocacy is limited to the quick glimpses we take over our shoulder as we speed across one of the two dozen or so bridges that span it. Even a few crossings a day as we come and go simply isn't the basis for a good relationship. All things considered, it isn't surprising decision-makers have not felt more pressure to protect the river and its corridor.

You might think getting a lot of our drinking water from it would be sufficient motivation. But it hasn't been. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Monocacy watershed has serious water quality problems, with aquatic conditions well below state water quality goals. The problem is the result of a combination of soil erosion, livestock waste, fertilizers and pesticides, failing septic systems, rapid development and more.

We can do better. We can do more to improve the quality of our drinking water. But, even if we did not take a drop from the Monocacy, there are plenty of other good reasons to do what we can to protect the "river with many bends."

Some steps in that direction have been taken over the past few decades. The Interstate Monocacy Watershed Council made the first organizational attempt to restore the river back in 1949. Two years later, the Maryland State Planning Commission released a report recommending a dramatic increase in soil and water conservation, reforestation of large areas of the watershed, improvements in water quality, restoration of wildlife habitat, and careful development of recreational resources. In 1974, the Monocacy was designated a Maryland Scenic and Wild River, along with a management plan with recommendations to conserve, preserve, and manage the Monocacy. The Monocacy Scenic River Local Citizens Advisory Board. was initiated 1976, bringing together citizens interested in all aspects of the river to assist county officials in decisions affecting its future. Some private groups have sought to purchase easements along the riverbanks. There have been and continue to be other and more recent organized efforts to protect the river.

As impressive as that sounds, the river today is highly polluted, and its green corridor largely unprotected. The good news, however, is that until recently, except in and around Frederick City, the Monocacy has avoided a lot of the development pressures that have been changing the landscape of the county. We still have the opportunity to implement affordable and effective measures to improve the water quality. We still can pursue a combination of public and private strategies to protect more of the forested hills rising from the riverbanks.

In the fifties, we were faced with a different but similar choice when some folks in congress proposed that the C&O Canal be converted into the "C&O Highway." (In spite of our habit of naming roads and neighborhoods after the natural features they replace, I don't think the proposed roadway ever got to the point of receiving an actual name.)

It was a stretch of rich wetlands and woodlands that would have become a busy highway if not for the efforts of a few people, one man in particular. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was so enamored by the beauty of the C&O Canal and the forest that sheltered it, that he dared the highway's supporters to walk its 185 miles with him. Almost forty years ago, they did just that. When they saw the natural beauty for themselves, some who proposed and supported the highway changed their minds. Few among us now would care to imagine a highway and other development, rather than the remarkable C&O Canal National Park we enjoy today.

On the theory that it is important for decision makers and the rest of us to experience natural resources we have the ability to protect, ignore or destroy, a local organization, Community Commons, recently held its 3rd Annual Monocacy River Paddle. It was a week-long river celebration, including six days of paddling from the river’s headwaters north of the Mason Dixon Line to the historic Monocacy Aqueduct, where the river flows into the Potomac.

I was fortunate to be able to join the paddle for one day each of the last two years. And the experience introduced me to a Monocacy River that would certainly surprise and delight almost anyone seeing it for the first time. I can't help but imagine what a difference it would make if more of us could see and appreciate what a rich resource we have, despite all the problems.

Frederick County is growing fast. More than 200,000 of us live here now, and it is possible, even likely, that number will reach 400,000 or half a million in the next few decades. Benign neglect will not protect the Monocacy.

Thinking about how fortunate we are that others had the foresight and made the decisions necessary to protect the C&O Canal and Maryland's share of the Potomac River, I am certain of one thing: Ten years from now, or twenty, or forty, there will never come a time when the people who live in Frederick County look back and regret having done too much to protect the Monocacy River.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at