Once you find it, the Willett Branch Stream looks more like an industrial storm drain.

The stream runs in a concrete channel through the Westbard section of Bethesda, winding behind and under many of the area’s parking lots, landscaping yards and car repair garages. “The Willett Branch starts in downtown Bethesda. About 70 percent of it is channelized in concrete or encased in underground storm drains — a pre-1970s planning method meant to manage flooding that has since been found to increase runoff downstream. There’s virtually no aquatic life.

In some spots, the water is less than a foot deep and the concrete basin plunges as much as 15 feet below road level. Getting a glimpse of it can mean gingerly walking down steep hills and searching through bundles of invasive vines. Those obstacles haven’t prevented graffiti artists.

Much of the stream’s concrete banks are painted over. There are dozens of small holes built into the concrete that feed stormwater runoff directly into the stream, and other pipes that have been placed on the stream’s edge apparently without authorization.

While planners say enticing redevelopment of the properties around the stream would be the surest way to restore the Willett Branch to its natural state, most residents seem opposed to the density proposed so far for River Road and Westbard Avenue. Morse was one of many who spoke out last Tuesday night against the additional density in the planners’ Concept Framework Plan.


Credit: Aaron Kraut

On Saturday she said there were still too few park spaces proposed in the plan. The Little Falls Watershed Alliance would also like to see the steps for providing more green buffering spelled out in the plan. “They have this great idea that as the properties are redeveloped, the owners are required to move their parking lots farther away from the creek. What we see a lot is owners are given waivers,” Morse said. “We’d really like to see it more developed, more spelled out in the plan.”

County planners — and eventually the Planning Board and County Council — could face a trade-off when it comes to remaking the Willett Branch. County planner Paul Mortenson has pointed out that the 75-foot heights proposed along River Road may not be enough to entice auto repair shops and landscaping companies to sell off their land for mixed-use development. In some cases, the 75-foot heights may not bring much more density than what’s already allowed. The tour group walked from Westwood Center II, past where the stream goes under the American Plant center and to the back of the Westwood Towers Apartments on Westbard Avenue.


The stream reappears there. A stormwater drain made of asphalt slides down a hill toward the stream. Years of stormwater runoff have helped to cumble the edges of the parking lot and even push concrete parking blocks into the stream bed.

Members of the Alliance said it’s not uncommon to see frothy white water coming out of one of the large underground stream pipes. Across a small bridge, landscapers have dumped excess leaves and dirt at the edge of another parking lot. Long cattail grass is growing up through some of the asphalt, about 20 yards from the Willett Branch.

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