The Snakeden Branch winds its way through Reston, a series of streams and tributaries, before finding its way into Lake Audubon and eventually the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. But like many similar watersheds in the area, this one is sick, officials say. Now a team of local, county and state representatives, have partnered to reverse the problems, much of which has been brought on by increased development.
The Snakeden Branch, whose headwaters are located between heavily traveled Reston Parkway and Colts Neck Road near the Reston Community Center, is the latest stream to benefit from a restoration plan designed and implemented by the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District (NVSWCD) and the Virginia Department of Forestry.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Friday morning. Actual work on the project began on Aug. 12 after a nearly three month-long series of delays caused by this past spring's unusually heavy rainfall.
“Snakeden Branch is the most degraded stream in Reston,” said Diana Saccone, Reston Association’s (RA) watershed manager. “This project marks the start of the implementation phase of our new watershed management plan.”
RA presented its watershed plan back on April 25, 2002. With a formal master plan on the books, RA was able to go to agencies like the conservation district with a detailed summary of the situation.
“We couldn’t have done it without Fairfax County,” said Susan Jones, the RA president. “Obviously, we are all very excited about the partnership and I just think it is excellent that we are finally moving ahead with this very important project.”
LOCATED IN A DENSELY developed and increasingly urbanized area, the Snakeden Branch is a victim of its surroundings, officials say. Channel erosion and exposed roots are evident up and down the watershed and, according to the RA watershed plan, the channel's banks, in some areas, are between three and four feet high, and nearly vertical after having much, and in some cases all, of its vegetation stripped from their roots. Like many similar watersheds, the Snakeden is surrounded by asphalt and impervious surfaces, such as roofs, roads and parking lots. As a result, rainwater flows directly into the stream, rather than slowly seeping into the ground.
Increased water flowing into the stream leads to erosion of the material from the bottom and sides of the stream beds.
“I was surprised to learn that almost 28 percent of the runoff comes from impervious surfaces,” said Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who helped broker the partnership between the county and RA.
Hudgins praised RA’s foresight on the matter of watershed management. “I am quite pleased that RA really stepped up to the plate on this,” the Hunter Mill supervisor said. “They were really aggressive in fighting for this issue.”
Under the terms of the partnership, RA is responsible for the all of the funding and the county will help shepherd it through the administrative hurdles associated with projects like these. “We are trying to make it as painless as possible,” Hudgins said, of the “innovative” partnership. “It’s mundane hard work and a dirty job to restore the watershed, but it needs to be done.”
RA was equally quick to praise the county's efforts in restoring local watersheds.
Jones said RA approached the county about helping out with the restoration project. Cost and logistical concerns make it necessary for the project to be done in phases or sections, but Jones says it is important to get started as soon as possible. “We’ve not done anything like this anywhere else in Reston,” Jones said. “It just shows that Reston is really at the forefront of this movement. In the end, we will really have some state-of-the-art retrofitting.”
TO REDUCE THE AMOUNT of water flowing into the streams, the project partners are constructing water management systems that will decrease water flow, returning runoff to more normal levels.
Without action, the long-term diagnosis for streams like the Snakeden is bleak, environmentalists say. An engineer for the Conservation District, Asad Rouhi, helps promote bioengineering, habitat protection and low impact development for the agency based in Fairfax. “Intense development in this watershed over the last 10 to 15 years has increased impervious surface, yielding more storm water runoff,” said Rouhi. “To make room for the increased volume of runoff, the stream cuts into the bed and banks causing serious erosion. Now the stream is acting as a polluter, carrying excess sediment downstream, eventually to the Chesapeake Bay.”
The current project covers a 200-foot stretch of Snakeden Branch. The first step was to re-grade the banks giving them a gentler slope. Then the restoration team began the labor-intensive job of installing plants, biodegradable logs and mats to protect the banks. Essentially, the team of environmentalists are constructing a mini-dam to help with the runoff. “The roots of shrubs and trees hold the soil in place and filter pollutants. Vegetation provides wildlife habitat and shades the stream for aquatic life. Also, the leaves intercept the rain, slowing its path to the stream,” said Dr. Judy Okay, a riparian specialist with the Virginia Department of Forestry.
This is not the first such product for Rouhi and Okay. The two stream specialists have teamed up on several stream restoration projects in Fairfax County. Often the projects are part of workshops that teach stream classification and bioengineering techniques to planners, engineers, foresters and interested citizen groups. A private contractor will restore the lower section of the stream starting in October.
Hudgins pointed to a project in another part of the county as an example of what to expect at Snakeden. Like the Snakeden Branch, Kingstowne, a stream that runs through the Alexandria portion of the county and feeds directly into the Potomac River, had suffered from significant upstream development. In 1998, the NVSWCD partnered with Fairfax County, state and federal agencies and two citizens groups, in what has become, officials say, a model project in solving erosion projects with a more environmentally-friendly approach. According to the NVSWCD's Web site, the partners "restored gentle meanders to the stream and raised the level of the channel to reach the flood plain." Today, officials say, the flood plain is doing better than ever.