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Cleaning Up Saucy Branch

Protecting McLean High School Park, an undercurrent of watershed clean-up efforts.

Torrential downpours could only postpone the efforts of more than a dozen people who took time this weekend to clean up McLean High School Park as part of the Potomac Watershed Cleanup at various creeks and rivers throughout Fairfax County.

They met Sunday afternoon at McLean High School, bundled up with hats, gloves and knee-high rubber boots, ready to pick up as much trash as possible along Saucy Branch, a small tributary of the Potomac River that feeds into Pimmit Run.

“The more effort we put into keeping the watershed clean, the better off we’ll all be,” said Bob Grose, a member of the West Lewinsville Heights Homeowner’s Association, participating in his first cleanup outing.

He said he planned to spend the afternoon “grabbing all the debris people toss along the road” that often makes its way into local waterways. “The flooding from all the rain this week has probably carried all sorts of stuff along the way. I don’t suspect we’ll find any tires or abandoned stoves, but you never know,” he said with a laugh.

“This is an important thing to do,” he said, because keeping the local rivers and creeks clear helps to keep the Chesapeake Bay clean and healthy for people to enjoy.

Another group working with the West Lewinsville Heights group was the McLean High School Environmental Club, founded last year in part by sophomore Kristen Atwood.

“We actually have more people signed up today than if we’d had this yesterday,” she said. “We did a stream cleanup on our own last year, but this year Fairfax Trails and Streams contacted us to help them out.”

A lifelong resident near McLean High School Park, Atwood said it was important to participate in the clean-up because “this is our environment, this is our neighborhood. Some of the trash we clean up is probably put there by some students at McLean,” she said.

With the heavy rain last week, she was expecting to find a lot of debris in the creek, especially in some of the shallower parts where water slows down.

“I don’t know the area we’ll be cleaning all that well, so I’m not sure how much trash we’ll find,” she said, trash bags in hand, ready to get to work with three of her classmates.

Ed Shahin has been an advocate for preserving parks in McLean for many years, and despite wishing for better weather, he spent his Sunday cleaning up the park.

“We care about McLean High School Park. That’s why we’re here,” he said. “The park is important because it’s a little treasure, both to the Lewinsville Community and to the high school.”

He said his two sons both attended McLean and were taken to the park as part of their biology classes in high school. “We need to keep this park alive and protect it as long as we can,” he said.

PART OF THE goal of cleaning and maintaining the park is preserving it as a passive recreational area, said Jack Hannon, president of the West Lewinsville Heights Association and one of the more outspoken advocates for parks like McLean High School and Lewinsville Parks in McLean.

“We strongly believe there is a need for passive recreational parks to counteract the active recreational parks in McLean,” Hannon said. “We don’t think of this park as excess, as Mr. [Kevin] Fay has referred to it.” Kevin Fay is the Dranesville District appointee to the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Taking care of the park is something West Lewinsville residents have done for many years, through organized cleanup efforts and on their own, Hannon said. “The Stoneleigh [Homeowners] Association mows the land between their property and the park and has for years,” he said. “There’s been good stewardship toward this park, it’s been well taken care of, which is better for the townhouse community as well.”

As a child, Jennifer Zimmerman played in Saucy Branch and in the park from the age of 5.

“I’m concerned about the wildlife near the park,” she said. “I’m not sure where they’re going to go if this park isn’t here anymore.”

The animals, including deer, opossum, squirrels and what she described as huge raccoons, travel along the water because “it’s one of the only places they can track across in this area.”

Cleaning up the park in the early spring is ideal because the overgrowth isn’t too thick yet, she said. “Plus, it’s near the end of the school year and there won’t be too much more trash down there.”

Her husband Adam Broadfoot came along to help clean up the park. “I went to school here and would walk through the park after school sometimes,” he said. “Our property borders the park along the road. It’s important to have that environment. Pretty soon there won’t be any parks left, so it’s important to preserve the ones we have.”

“That green area over there used to be a trash dump. People would just come by and leave their trash,” said Stoneleigh resident Jessie Thorpe. “We’ve gradually reconstituted it, the [Homeowners] Association has taken care of that part of the park for at least 25 years now,” she said.

“As volunteers who love this space, we’ve tried to take care of it. The neighbors have not been indifferent to this piece of property,” she said.

Thorpe said she’s done several cleanups at this park over the years and knows that looks can be deceiving.

“There’s been times when you’re walking along and thinking it doesn’t look so bad, and you still end up with bags and bags of trash,” she said. “I don’t think the community realizes the treasures we have in our backyards until they’re gone.”

The bad weather, overcast skies and chilly, strong winds may have kept a lot of people home who would otherwise have helped out, she said.

“If Jack asks for volunteers, we should all be out here,” said Lewinsville resident Barbara Bodson, wearing a bright yellow “Question the Park Authority” T-shirt.

“I live two streets down from here and I’m afraid this park won’t be around much longer if there’s not enough outcry from our community to save it,” she said.

There has been talk in recent months about selling McLean High School Park, which is facing an uncertain future.

“This whole neighborhood has come together over this park, and it would be a sad thing to lose it,” she said. “We’re afraid that by the time anyone hears about it, it might be too late to stop it and save our park.”

After the event, Hannon said the group retrieved between 15 and 18 bags of trash and some larger items, including a child’s bicycle, metal tire rim and a large realtor’s sign, including metal base.