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Bridging Troubled Waters

City and citizens debate the merits of restoring Accotink Creek.

On a brisk Saturday afternoon, a group of hardy city residents and staff walked along a snow-dusted path that follows along Accotink Creek.

Some members of the group stopped. Through the bare branches of bushes and trees, they thought they saw evidence that a beaver had stopped by the creek. Some small trees looked like they were about to fall over, but otherwise the beaver wasn't in sight.

The wildlife living along the creek has become a concern for several residents recently, as the city is preparing to restore the portion of the Accotink Creek that runs from Lee Highway to Pickett Road. While the city said that restoring the creek will sustain wildlife, aquatic life and plant life long-term, some residents say that the techniques to restore the creek may do more harm than good.

"Our view is that while there is certainly erosion occurring ... there's a lot of valuable ... streamside trees and other habitat that will be removed for the project," said Chris Jones, who attended Saturday's city-sponsored walk along Accotink Creek. Jones is an environmental science and policy professor and George Mason University.

Although the city may still continue with the stream restoration later in the year, it will take the comments put forth by residents into account.

RESTORING THE URBAN STREAMS has become an important goal for the city because streams such as Accotink Creek continue to erode. The erosion comes from run-off water from the city's developed areas. As the city has less open area to absorb rainfall, the water goes to the city's storm drains, which eventually flow into the stream.

However, the increased amount of water rushing through the stream can erode its banks. As a result, properties bordering a stream can face stream flooding or the undermining of sewer pipes.

"It was bothersome to have that mucky and muddy," said John Yeo, whose property borders the portion of Accotink Creek that the city restored last spring.

The city started its stream-restoration program in 1994, in response to concerns from its residents regarding the streams. With initial funding coming from a 1994 bond referendum to support storm-water improvements, the city has restored four miles of stream channel, according to the city's Web site.

With the portion of Accotink Creek that runs from Lee Highway to Pickett Road, the city is working with a consultant to restore the stream through bioengineering. Bioengineering, according to the city's Web site, is the application and use of natural structures such as tree roots and rocks to "help repair, restore or stabilize habitats."

"What we do is try to realign and grade the channel banks," which will help establish native and plant material, said city engineer Adrian Fremont.

But to use these restoration techniques, the city may have to cut down some trees along the stream, which is a cause for concern by some residents.

"At this point, I'm a little uncertain," said Starr Belsky, who lives near a stream running through Providence Park and who worked in storm-water management in Maryland for several years. Belsky said she's unsure of the plan that the consultant presented to the group on Saturday. "I'm not comfortable with the idea of clearing one or both banks ... to straighten up the channel."

The reasoning behind modifying the stream path along certain portions was a concern for others like Belsky. According to these citizens, straightening the bends only makes the water go faster.

"It's a major realignment of the upper area of the stream," said Carolyn Williams, who's lived in the city since 1952.

Jones agreed. "You're basically increasing the potential erosion downstream," he said.

Another concern is the project will disrupt wildlife. Belsky and Williams insist that a habitat is established along the stream's banks, but Fremont said that the condition of the stream isn't able to support much wildlife.

"While I think they have some interesting points, there's not a lot of life in them right now," Fremont said of life along the stream.

INSTEAD of the consultant's proposal, Jones and others like him suggested that the city revise the plan by using spot treatments for troublesome areas or doing nothing.

Jones, who is also president of the Friends of Daniels Run, said that the city tried to restore the stream along Daniels Run 1 1/2 years ago. But after more than 100 people showed up at a meeting against the restoration, the City Council voted to reject the project.

But doing nothing isn't a solution either, Fremont said.

"It is an option. If you leave it, erosion will continue ... . If you continue to do [nothing], you will lose trees, you will lose land," Fremont said.

Besides letting nature run its course, the concerned citizens suggested spot treatments for areas where erosion has taken its toll. Yet they also think that the city should take more steps toward storm-water management. Belsky suggested that the solution lies with retrofitting businesses and homes for storm-water management, which means to go back to a piece of property and set up a retention trench or pond. Doing so would slow down the water that would eventually reach the creek.

"The real problem is not so much stream, [but] the run-off" coming from parking lots and residential properties, Belsky said.

The city had started the stream restoration of Accotink Creek north of Lee Highway last spring. Yeo's property runs up against the creek, near Ranger Road Park. When the city said it was planning to restore the creek, Yeo was skeptical. He talked to the engineer of the project and walked with city manager Bob Sisson up and down the creek banks to show him the creek's trouble spots. His problem was that whenever the summer thunderstorms would pass through, the creek would flood. He was also concerned about the neighborhood children who played in the creek. It wasn't easy to tell where the creek was shallow or deep.

YEO RECALLED the crews that came in, with their heavy equipment, to round the bogs and widen the stream. The crews also took away some trees that were unhealthy or were dead wood, Yeo said.

After the project was finished seven weeks later, and a summer thunderstorm roared through, Yeo and his neighbors were surprised to see that the banks didn't overflow.

"I was very surprised ... that the stream stayed within the stream bed," Yeo said. "When it was done, it was virtually unanimous among the 100-plus homeowners that the stream improved."

Yeo, who went on Saturday's walk, hoped that the city will restore the southern portion of the creek, too.

"It's just a morass. I thought how nice it's going to be when they get rid of all those jungle vines," Yeo said.

His attitude is what city staff like Fremont hope to hear more of. For them, disrupting the stream now will reap benefits later.

"I would say, based on the studies I've seen on stream restoration ... the short-term impact is outweighed by the long-term," Fremont said.

However, until the city can absolutely prove that restoring Accotink Creek will benefit the animal and plant life dependent on the stream, some residents will remain skeptical.

"It's a Catch-22," said Belsky, who wished to see the long-term results of the project. But "you can't see the results if you don't do the project."