Christmas Brings Beauty, Fright: Metal-Laden Torrent Pouring Into Sligo Creek

Orange water from a water main break upstream flows into Sligo Creek. Photo by Christopher Lancette.

[Editor’s Note: This started off as a traditional day-in-nature essay until a pollution emergency struck — a water main break that sent a torrent of chlorinated, metal-laden water rushing into Sligo Creek. We reported this to a bevy of county and state officials — rallying community support from organizations such as Friends of Sligo Creek and residents throughout the area. The break is now fixed, though questions remain about the damage done to wildlife and the watershed — and the state of our local infrastructure. This story will be updated.]

Christmas morning means only one thing for me and for my wife. Won-ok and I do not want or need commercial gifts, so we head down to Sligo Creek. It’s our tradition — opening gifts from Mother Nature instead of a store.

Leaves crunch under our boots the moment we step off the paved trail behind the Kemp Mill shopping center. This one sound alone would be a great enough gift, but it’s only the first of many sounds and sights we’re about to receive.

Sparrows hop around on the ground. A cardinal pulls up a seat on a tree branch below our eye level. It’s a big bright splash of red surrounded by dark brown. We make our way down to the creek, the sun yawning as it rises into an already deep blue sky. It’s unusually warm for Christmas — another gift.

Mallards honk excitedly as they swoop down from above, the green on the drakes’ heads and the blue speculum of their wings gleaming in the morning light. They splash down onto one of the ponds and come to a silent stop. One wedge of Canada geese soars above the tree line in a perfect V formation. Then another.

The geese have perhaps another destination in mind — the pond behind the WTOP radio tower near University Boulevard, most likely.

Won-ok fires away on the shutter of her professional camera, capturing images of all who choose to make our acquaintance. [Check out her photo album here.]

I start wandering off, pulled as always by nothing in particular that I can discern. So much beauty surrounds me that I’m in a haze, the world even at my fingertips slightly out of focus.

My eyes adjust.

I turn on my Zoom H6 Handy Recorder to capture more sounds for a bigger project in the works. I pick up the birds, more crunching leaves, and the gentle trickle of the creek as the water drops a few inches over some rocks.

I’m so intent on listening to the water that I do not see it clearly, either — but something is wrong. Why am I blinded by painful orange beams when I’m not even looking at the sun?

I snap my head as if to give myself a jolt from smelling salts.

Photo by Christopher Lancette

The world is still orange.

I shake my head again.

The water is orange. Not just the water directly in front of me, but everywhere. I look left and see both ponds filled with it. I look upstream to my right and see it flowing from as far away as I can see.

My face freezes in a moment of puzzlement. This can’t be good.

Optimistic me tells me that the bright orange glaze might just be an excessive amount of sediment brought into the creek by floodwater … except that it hasn’t rained in quite a while. Optimistic me takes enough pictures with my cell phone to report the sight later, then goes back to unwrapping more gifts from Nature.

Won-ok is deep into her photographer’s trance as she captures the mallards dipping their beaks in the water, then their whole heads and necks — waiving their butts around in the air. Some sort of screeching hawk flying all alone lands atop a tree. The rapid, guttural calls strike us as chords of distress. It’s like the hawk is in full panic mode, screaming to find companions. The cry is so painful that our hearts ache for the solitary bird.

We’re not expert enough to know if we’re interpreting the hawk correctly but make mental notes to share the sound with a birder who will know if we are.

Getting no answer, the hawk departs.

Listen to the red-shouldered hawk cry out from the treetops!

My eyes next happen upon one tiny little stump by the edge of the smaller pond, then an even smaller one behind that. I’m not sure there’s even enough wood there for it to qualify as a stump but I’m drawn to it. Never mind that I’ve seen it hundreds of times. This morning, it’s calling out to me almost as loudly as the bird that just left.

A little stump looks like Cathedral Rock in Arizona. Photo by Christopher Lancette

My boots squish deep into the mud, right beside fresh deer tracks, as I approach the stump to investigate. Its shape, despite its diminutive size, reminds me of photographs I’ve seen of rock formations in Arizona. Cathedral Rock, or maybe even The Grand Canyon.

I lay down on the ground so that I can look at it straight on — eye to stump. I love slithering, climbing and twisting my way around wonders of nature so that I can gain different perspectives on what I see. Whether it’s a drop of tree sap seemingly suspended in mid-air on the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River or this lone scrap of tree stump now before me, changing my line of sight changes my experience. I develop more profound connections with it.

It’s also a lot of fun to juxtapose the dimensions of the natural wonders in question. Make big things little and little things big.

I crawl through the mud, not minding in the least the mess I’m making of myself. I have found the majestic in the mundane: A geological formation in Arizona it is!

Listen to our conversation about finding beauty in a stump, and how we take better photos by changing our line of sight.

I stand up, grinning like a little boy delighted by the muddy spectacle I’ve made of myself.

I see that Won-ok is laying on her back in the brush, pointing her lens into the sky. I can’t wait to see what she captured. We decide to head home, but one of our belted kingfisher friends darts across the ponds. We can’t leave great company, so we hang out a while longer. The kingfisher makes three laps around the ponds without making a single dive for a snack.

Listen to the belted kingfisher chirp away as the Sligo Creek terrain makes me think about the lunar landscape.

Won-ok asked me if the kingfisher might be confused by the color of the water. That’s a great question, and the answer is probably yes. Why I didn’t think of that, I don’t know — but I digress.

A bootprint deep in the mud at Sligo Creek looks like a footprint on the moon

It makes a jaunt directly across the ponds on the fourth effort, flying maybe 15 feet above the water, but still doesn’t dive. It goes back up to a tree branch, chirps for a while, and calls it a day. [Check out my four belted kingfisher poems here.]

We do, too, but we study the orange water again as we hike out. This really can’t be good.

Deciding it’s better to be safe than sorry, I text photos to one of my friends at Friends of Sligo Creek. He tells me that this could be a pollution emergency. It’s Christmas, of course, so he’s not certain who I will be able to reach today — but he advises me to use the link on the FOSC site to submit a report to the Water WatchDogs volunteers and to call Montgomery County Park Police.

I do so.

A very nice officer with Park Police reports that it isn’t able to do anything and advises me to call Montgomery County Natural Resources, giving me the number as nothing by that name pops up right away on Google. A very nice man at Natural Resources tells me it can’t do anything and advises me to call the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE).

A very nice environmental compliance specialist at MDE advises that he can in fact help me. He tells me that calling about problems like this is the right thing to do. The specialist asks if I have photos, which of course I do. I email them to him and he responds right away. He tells me that the photos might suggest the orange water is being caused by a mix of sediment and iron that’s nitrifying and causing algae blooms. He adds that he’ll immediately open a case and pass my information over to the Western division of MDE as it’s the one that covers Montgomery County. He expects me to hear from people there as soon as possible.

Wanting to cover every possible base, I use our EyeOnSligoCreek Twitter feed to start sharing information there. I’ll hit our Facebook page, too. You never know who might be able to jump on the problem if you can reach them on a holiday. I share the information on the FOSC IO group, as well. A mass ton of local experts read those messages as they appear.

If the orange glaze is nothing to worry about, great, I’ll sleep better tonight.

Listserve reader Kathy Michels, who I also know from FOSC, reports there is a water main break on Easecrest Drive (visible from behind homes at 1701 and 1615 Ladd Street) that’s sending “a torrent of chlorinated, metal-laden water rushing directly into Sligo Creek.” She adds that the Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission (WSSC) tells her that it won’t be able to send someone out until Monday or Tuesday to solve the problem.

The is outrageous.

I’m certainly not a scientist but I’m sure I’ve learned enough along the way to know that “a torrent of chlorinated, metal-laden water” rushing into any watershed is absolutely not good.

I report her news back to MDE and sent out a flood of new Tweets tagging every public official and government agency I can think of who might be able to make a call and stop this deluge of orange water. I also race back to the retention ponds and see that the orange water has breached the ponds. It has already flowed to University Boulevard and who knows how much further. Sligo Creek runs about 8.5 miles until it reaches the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River.

Montgomery Parks, always on top of things even on Christmas, responds to our Tweets that it’s notifying its aquatic biologists and seeing what it can do.

The Washington Suburban and Sanitation Commission remains useless at the moment. I can only hope it’s going to find a crew that can repair the break.

It’s 6:15 p.m. as I’m getting ready to post this story. A hard rain suddenly begins to fall. Again, I wish I knew enough science to know if this will make the pollution emergency worse by increasing the volume of water, or if it will somehow help to at least dilute it.

The only Christmas gift I want now is for chlorinated, metal-laden orange water to stop flowing into Sligo Creek.

[Story Update, Dec. 26, 2021– Anne Vorce from the Friends of Sligo Creek Water WatchDog Program reports that WSSC is now on-site fixing the broken water main that caused the pollution spill. Her contacts at WSSC explained that it didn’t have enough crews to tackle the Sligo Creek break as it was working on another break that was causing immediate damage to a home. This raises a variety of other questions including whether WSSC is adequately prepared for these events, the overall condition of our sanitation infrastructure, past issues involving lawsuits about the same, and more. We will continue to monitor this story and report any additional developments.]

Christopher Lancette and Won-ok Kim


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