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How to Protect Watersheds?

A toolbox would not be large enough to hold the eight tools for watershed protection.

The conference room where more than 170 northern Virginia residents, environmentalists and stream activists met on Saturday probably would not be either.

That's because the tools are conceptual in nature and applicable for the entire region. Northern Virginians who attended the one-day Northern Virginia Stream Confluence discussed ways to protect and restore the region's water resources and learned about these tools, including land conservation, aquatic buffers, erosion and sediment control, and storm water management. They found out how federal, state and local laws, such as the Clean Water Act and the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, help protect streams and watersheds.

"If we want to protect our watersheds, we have to recognize we have to do everything every day and at the right time," said Tom Schueler, executive director and founder of the Maryland-based Center for Watershed Protection and keynote speaker for the conference.

A watershed consists of the land mass water travels over to reach a stream, river or lake, with the water moving above ground or underground as ground water. The Chesapeake watershed covers 64,000 square miles across six states and includes the Potomac watershed, which spans 15,000 square miles.

THE MARYLAND CENTER'S watershed protection plan identifies tools to apply in a region's watersheds and in what combination. The tools roughly correspond to the stages of land development from land use planning to site design, construction and home ownership. The tools are used to reduce erosion of creek banks, toxic runoff and the covering of springs and seeps, along with other water problems.

"We need to make decisions now, or we'll gradually lose stream miles," Schueler said. "These are not subtle impacts. It's tremendous violence we do to our streams through impervious covers.

The majority of impervious covers are for automobile use, Schueler said. "It's getting cul-de-sacs so you can't land a helicopter on them," he said, adding that land conservation practices require the minimum amount of clearing and grading, encourage narrower streets and smaller parking lots, and favor neighborhoods with more green and less pavement.

"It's a different way of thinking about designing our spaces," Schueler said. "There's a link between your home and the streams you care about. We have to be a little bit more active in our watershed stewardship campaign."

SEVERAL GROUP REPRESENTATIVES explained how they have used the eight tools for watershed protection.

"If you care about something, track it. Find out and make sure it's protected. We tried to focus on things we could fix," said Katherine Mull of the Friends of Sugarland Run. Mull described how the group stopped a roadway developer in the early 1990s from carrying mud and debris into the Sugarland Run as it widened a nearby roadway. Members took pictures as construction workers worked on the project. "The earth movers got the idea people were watching," she said.

Gem Bingol of the Piedmont Environmental Council said Loudoun residents wanted the county to address unmanaged growth and elected a smart-growth Board of Supervisors in 1999 to serve from 2000 to 2003. Bingol said during its term the board revised the comprehensive plan to reduce potential development in the county and is working on revising the zoning ordinances.

"We had a pretty good plan before, [but] the zoning ordinances didn't have muscle," said Bingol, field officer.

Bingol said the county currently does not have a countywide assessment of its streams nor a watershed focus included in its land use plans. The county implemented a new stream monitoring program last year and held two soil watcher programs as ways to help the county address watershed protection.

"To affect a positive change, you have to know where you are today by monitoring to find out if your practices are effective or not," Bingol said.

THE CONFERENCE AIMED to provide an information sharing network and a forum to provide support for conservation efforts, said Stella Koch, organizer of the confluence and advocate for the Virginia Audubon Society. She said several local meetings will be held on the same subject starting this spring.

"The ultimate place to organize politically to affect streams is at the local level," Koch said. "We have all fought and sometimes lost in our efforts to protect our streams and rivers. But we also strongly believe that by working together, every stream in northern Virginia can be protected from further degradation and restored at least to some extent."

"When we start, the government and developers will start. People do move by example," said Dave Eckert, Falls Church watershed activist.

Northern Virginia representatives from Loudoun, Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties, along with Alexandria attended the conference.

The conference was sponsored by the Audubon Naturalist Society, Clean Water Action, Fairfax Trails and Streams, the Friends of the Potomac, the Friends of Sugarland Run, the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Wilderness Society.