Cliff Fairweather wades into a small stream that feeds into Pope's Head stream and picks up a stone. He points out insects about as big as a speck of dust: caddis flies. They're a good indication that the stream is healthy.
As he follows the stream to its intersection with Pope’s Head, he points out places where erosion has carved a 3- or 4-foot-high cliff on the bank.
"You can really see the good, the bad and the ugly on Pope's Head at different places," said Fairweather, a naturalist at the Audubon Naturalist Society's Webb Sanctuary in Clifton, as he observed the rushing water below, swollen with melting snow.
Ordinarily, water seeps through the ground where it is filtered before it reaches the stream. But when water is funneled straight from paved surfaces such as roads and parking lots into streams, it picks up oil, which pollutes the water. When so much water is forced into a stream bed at high speeds, as often happens after a storm, the banks eventually crumble and erode, creating wide streams bordered by steep cliffs.
Pope's Head, which originates near Fairfax City and runs through Clifton before going into Bull Run and from there into the Occoquan River, is in pretty good shape compared with other streams in the county, even though its headwaters are in a built-up area where pollution trickles downstream, said Fairweather. "It's a stream that's certainly very restorable."
And that's exactly what the county plans to do.
THE DEPARTMENT of Public Works and Environmental Services is in the process of studying each of the county's 30 watersheds to determine how the streams have been impacted by development. For each watershed, county staffers and contractors will work with local communities to determine how to go about rehabilitating the streams. Pope’s Head is one of the first streams in what will be a six-year planning project.
"We look at establishing what the problems are in each watershed and then derive solutions through a public process," said Paul Shirey, a county engineer who is also managing the planning process for Pope’s Head.
"In older areas, you have problems with poor water quality. You also have erosion problems throughout the county, and they vary stream to stream," he said. "You have some placed where you have a 30-foot sheer cliff and somebody's house is being eroded away."
"In the past, we've done some of these fixes on a piecemeal basis," Shirey said. "The purpose is the watershed plan would give us a more comprehensive solution to solving these problems."
THE PROCESS started in 2001 with an original study that found that 70 percent of the county's streams were in relatively poor condition. Afterward, consultants walked the county's 800 miles of streams documenting the problems in greater detail. The last time similar management plans were drawn up for the county's streams was in the mid 1970s, when the county was considerably less developed.
"We've uncovered a number of dump sites that we didn't know existed, where you have a whole array of shopping carts and old carts and things," said Shirey.
To Fairweather, the county's decision to study the streams marks a "sea change" in the county.
"Eight years ago, if you told me the county would be this far on this, I never would have believed you," he said.
The citizen involvement component of the project is "critical," Fairweather said. "If people don't buy into this process, it's not going to go anywhere."
A meeting last month to inform residents about the project and to get their suggestions drew about 60 people.
Jeremy Epstein, a Fairfax resident who serves on a citizens group to inform residents about the stream's management efforts, said his neighbors have been receptive to the idea of protecting the watershed.
"It's great for individual neighbors," he said. "The downside, though, is it's not very clear to me what the county as a county is going to do with this information."
"Is the county willing to spend the money?" Epstein asked. "Does the county have money to spend on restoring stream banks?"
To Shirey, the project is a way to maintain the county's quality of life.
"It's part of good stewardship of the county," he said. "We feel we have a great opportunity to really make a difference."