outfall Toledo and Adelphi edit Edit
A view of the outfall into Wells Run near the intersection of Toledo and Adelphi roads
Photo credit: Paul Ruffins

 On Jan. 29, David Brosch was shivering as he stood on the roof of the parking deck at 3325 Toledo Road, just west of the Hyattsville Branch Library. Brosch, an environmentalist and University Park Sustainability Committee member, was braving the cold because the deck affords a great view of the Nine Pond project. This 3-acre, 30-foot deep holding pond is being dug into a 17.3-acre horseshoe-shaped piece of land formed by Adelphi, Toledo and Belcrest roads and is expected to hold millions of gallons of stormwater. Brosch compared the project to a doctor who is strangling the patient they were supposed to save. “The sediment in the runoff water from Nine Pond has been choking Wells Run for two years, and we can’t get the authorities to take it seriously,” he said.

What’s Wells Run?

Wells Run is a small tributary of the Anacostia River that starts underground in Hyattsville near Northwestern High School, close to the Mall at Prince George’s, the Hyattsville Crossing Metro station and several large development projects. The stream runs roughly parallel to the west side of Adelphi Road, passes Nine Pond, then crosses east in a culvert that emerges in University Park at the intersection of Adelphi and Toledo roads. At this point, Wells Run is forested on both sides by a green park with a walking path that stretches all the way to Route 1. The stream flows east through Riverdale in a culvert and discharges into the Northeast Branch, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

Like many urban streams, Wells Run is threatened by the increased volume and speed of stormwater runoff created when trees and green spaces are replaced by impermeable surfaces like roofs and parking lots. “The developers around Nine Pond created the worst possible situation for runoff,” said Kris Moss, a longtime University Park resident. “To save money, they clear-cut acres of urban forest on a slope all at once, for buildings they will develop over several years.”

Some background

The Mall at Prince George’s, which opened as Prince George’s Plaza in 1958, was built long before the Clean Water Act of 1972 and its many amendments, so many of the mall’s storm drains flow directly into Wells Run. More recent legislation, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, does not allow new developments to discharge runoff into existing storm drains. Instead, developers, including the county, are required to limit runoff during construction using silt fencing and other techniques. After a project’s completion, stormwater must be managed on-site until it can percolate into the ground or be released slowly after the sediment settles.

One solution is huge underground water vaults like the one Prince George’s County is building under a playing field in Calvert Park. Another is artificial lagoons. The Gateway West townhouse project — located just north of Nine Pond — uses a large one of these.

The planning of the Nine Pond project began around 2010. Under the county’s policy of encouraging transit-oriented development, large commercial projects were going up in Hyattsville near the Hyattsville Crossing Metro station. However, the increased runoff from these projects was causing the most damage to Wells Run in University Park and Riverdale. Protests from these towns delayed building permits. In a 2012 compromise, the Dewey LLC holding company, which owned the 17.3-acre parcel, agreed to donate the land for Nine Pond, and the county agreed to handle the costs of building and maintaining a lagoon big enough to handle Dewey’s runoff and store neighborhood stormwater.  

Jacob Hunting 2
Planning for the Nine Pond project, near the Hyattsville Crossing Metro station, began around 2010.
Photo Credit: Jacob Hunting


The biggest threat to Wells Run is turbidity — an increased amount of suspended solids, particles and silt in the water, which also leads to faster erosion of the stream’s banks and flooding downstream. Excavating Nine Pond exposes the topsoil and underlying clay, and water from the deep lagoon must be constantly pumped into giant mesh bags that are supposed to filter out the silt before it drains directly into Wells Run, which activists charge was much clearer before the project began and got much worse in August and September 2023. 

Steve Hurtt, another member of the sustainability committee, lives about a block from where the stream crosses Baltimore Avenue. “I’ve walked the path along Wells Run almost every day for 30 years,” he said. “It used to be completely clear, except after a very heavy rain. Now, it’s the color of coffee and cream almost every day. The sediment is more than just an aesthetic issue. It’s disrupted the whole ecosystem. We used to have a lot of ducks and a few beavers, which you almost never see anymore.”

Turbidity is measured in nephelometric turbidity units, or NTUs. A glass of clear, clean drinking water should have less than 1 NTU. 

The Enivironmental Protection Agency’s standards for construction projects vary depending on the waterway, but generally suggest that a waterway should not be degraded. If it was swimmable or fishable before the runoff entered it, it should be swimmable or fishable afterward. Since 2022, in areas where the EPA issues stormwater discharge permits, the agency has required turbidity to remain below a maximum average of 50 NTUs a week.

In Maryland, the state issues stormwater runoff permits. The Maryland Department of the Environment says in an FAQ updated in August 2023 that pumping has to stop or slow down if there are “discharges with 150 NTUs or more at any given time or a weekly average more than 50 NTUs.” 

However, county officials point to the state permitting requirement, which went into effect last year and adopted only the more lenient 150 NTUs daily standard. At the time the state rule was adopted, a reason given for not adopting the 50 NTUs standard was a concern that it would cause contractors to use more chemical additives to decrease turbidity.

The conflict over Wells Run centers around who is polluting the water, what standard should be applied to trigger corrective action, who the appropriate inspectors are, and whether they are doing their jobs. 

John Tabori was mayor of University Park from 2006 to 2014. He believes that when completed, the Nine Pond project will likely help control the volume of stormwater coming into Wells Run and eroding its banks, but feels the recent construction runoff has been devastating. “Over the past few years, the silt build-up has been killing Wells Run,” he said. “It lowers the levels of light and reduces the plant life, which produces oxygen and provides shelter and food for wildlife.”

Water from the Nine Pond project must be constantly pumped into giant mesh bags that are supposed to filter out the silt before it drains directly into Wells Run.
Photo Credit: Paul Ruffins

Recent complaints

University Park City Councilmember Ralph Dubayah, who holds a doctorate in geographical sciences, measured turbidity in Wells Run near the intersection of Toledo and Adelphi roads several times during mid- to late-September 2023 and recorded consistently high readings between 30 and 50 NTUs. On Sept. 23, 2023, Dubayah recorded the turbidity further east in Wells Run, at the 48th Street bridge, at 800 NTUs.

On Oct. 5, 2023, University Park Mayor Joel Biermann sent County Councilmember Eric Olson (District 3), whose district includes University Park, a letter decrying Nine Pond’s impact on Wells Run. Olson forwarded the letter to Jeffrey DeHan, associate director of the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment (DOE) Stormwater Management Division.

On Oct. 16, 2023, DeHan sent Olson a detailed response to Biermann’s complaint. He wrote that the project, which started construction in 2022, has always been in compliance with its state permit, stating among other things, “This permit did not require any turbidity monitoring.” DeHan added that a new permit that went into effect on Sept. 30, 2023, does provide for turbidity monitoring, and caps discharge at 150 NTUs. DeHan noted that during an unusually hard rain on Sept. 23, Nine Pond did have a discharge that measured 56.2 NTUs. He added, “The high turbidity recorded by Professor Dubayah during rain events on September 23rd (800 NTUs) is likely an indication of an alternate source of turbidity other than the Nine Pond site.”

In a recent interview, University Park’s attorney, Suellen Ferguson, explained that Wells Run receives trash and debris, but not sediment, as part of the stormwater runoff from the Prince George’s Mall. “My understanding is that the county now agrees the current turbidity is due to their project, but you would have to ask Mr. DeHan to confirm,” Ferguson said. 

As of press time, DeHan has not responded to Streetcar Suburbs News’ request for comment, sent Feb. 7.

On Dec. 4, 2023, Olson held a community meeting in Riverdale Park to discuss Wells Run and invited the DOE and other government agencies. Activists argued that the runoff should be limited to the 50 NTUs required to protect the waterway. DeHan maintained that Nine Pond was meeting the 150 NTUs standard. In a subsequent email to Olson on Jan. 7, DeHan also explained that under the permit language, a discharge higher than 150 NTUs did not automatically constitute an actual violation but simply required that site managers take corrective action. It would only be a violation if they didn’t act after being warned. He also said, “Our contractors, inspectors and construction managers are at the site daily. Our team will continue to be diligent and to comply.” He then added, “It may also be helpful to include other contributing active projects in the area with these evaluations.” 

This seems to repeat the earlier assertion in his Oct. 16, 2023, letter that the source of high turbidity might be another active project. In response, Brosch said, “That’s highly unlikely. But even if it is coming from another site, why isn’t that being investigated and solved?” 

Since the meeting, the DOE provided Olson, in email, several measurements ranging from 98 to 143 NTUs. Once, on Dec. 19, 2023, the turbidity reached 163 NTU. The contractor was instructed to clean the sediment tank and replace the filter bag, which brought the next reading below 150.

“I find it completely unacceptable that we have a legal standard that is allowing Wells Run to be destroyed,” Olson said. 

What could be done?

Tabori believes the long-term salvation of streams like Wells Run depends on the Maryland legislature or the federal government. “We’ve got to have stricter regulations before and after construction that keep turbidity below 50 at all times because the cumulative effects are terrible,” Tabori said. “The developers and site engineers all know that the technology exists to meet this standard. In some places, it will raise the price of construction, but it will reduce the cost of remediation someplace else.” 

Brosch supports a lower limit but says that any standard is only as good as the way it’s measured and enforced. “The inspectors who are supposed to be testing and monitoring [high turbidity] aren’t catching it or reporting it. Maybe there are too few of them, or they don’t have the training, or they just don’t care.”