What happens upstream doesn’t stay upstream, said Mike McCaffrey, assistant manager at Hidden Pond Nature Center. And this is why the Watershed Cleanup is so important, he said.
On Saturday, Oct. 15, over 50 volunteers and staff members gathered at Hidden Pond to begin an arduous morning of scooping, digging and bagging trash from the Pohick Creek. The nature center has no full-time maintenance people for its 640 acres, said McCaffrey, so volunteer help at the cleanups is crucial.
"These cleanups are almost essential to helping keep [the stream valley] up," he said. "Otherwise, I don’t know how we’d do it."
The Pohick Valley cleanup is one of several cleanups throughout Fairfax County, in an effort to help keep the Chesapeake Bay watershed in good shape.
"There are tons of reasons to get the trash out, besides the fact that it’s our trash and we should pick it up," said Casey Pattrizzi, a Hidden Pond staffer. Animals often confuse trash with food, he said, a mistake that can prove life-threatening to them.
Trash can start out anywhere, but much of it ends up in the same place: streams and rivers. Pohick Creek is part of the Pohick Creek watershed, which extends southward from the City of Fairfax to Lorton and Mason Neck. The creek flows into Pohick Bay, then the Potomac River and eventually to the Chesapeake Bay.
"We do care about what happens in people’s backyards, now more than ever," said McCaffrey. Factors such as pollution and the recent drought have contributed to poor health in the Chesapeake Bay, which is where streams such as Pohick Creek eventually flow. Although Pohick Creek does not contribute heavily to the pollution levels of the Chesapeake, he said, every little bit of cleanup helps.
Volunteer Kyle Hughes-Segroves, who has cleaned up the creek before, estimated its general cleanliness as a five on a scale of one to 10.
Fish such as green sunfish, margined madtom and darters live in the creek, said McCaffrey. These species are sensitive to the pollution levels of their environment and typically will not survive where it is too dirty. Their presence in the stream is a good sign, he said.
"For a stream that flows through the middle of a county with so many people, we're in pretty good health," said McCaffrey. A large part of the stream valley is protected as part of the Pohick Stream Valley Park, he said, which helps with cleanliness.
BUT VIGILANCE is still the key in keeping the stream valley clean. Saturday’s volunteers tackled their task with determination, filling bags with everything from soda bottles to baseballs to plastic chairs.
"I call it garbage archaeology," said Susan Susa, chairperson of the Friends of Hidden Pond (FOHP). Trash items removed from the stream in past years have ranged from the from the commonplace (Styrofoam) to the out-of-place (shopping carts) to the bizarre (a coffin lid). Plastic bottles remain one of the most common trash items found in the stream, she said.
"What we need is returnable bottles here in Virginia. The bottles [in the stream] were put out for recycle, and look where they ended up," said FOHP member Ann Johnson, referring to the policy in some states where empty cans and bottles may be exchanged for money. This policy gives incentive for people not to throw bottles away and cuts down on pollution from them, she said.
For Paul Hunter of Burke, cleanup day is not only a chance to make a difference in the watershed but also to teach his two young sons, Aidan and Adam, respect for the environment.
Although Aidan spent most of his time splashing in the creek water, he said he thought the pollution in the stream was "awful."
"They may not [clean up], but at least they see other people doing it," said Hunter. "If they see people who care, then they will care."
High school volunteer hours, as well as Girl Scout and Boy Scout projects, were another motivating factor for cleanup workers. Jake Cramer, a student at Irving Middle School, worked Saturday as part of his service hours required for school. He also wanted to help out the community and nature.
Other cleanup workers had strong ties to the area. Russ Thomason of Springfield, a member of FOHP, liked the presence of wildlife near the stream, such as owl, fox and deer.
"It’s amazing what you find in here. There’s quite a bit of trash," he said. "But as long as everyone pitches in, we can keep it clean."
"If [people] get out there and see what needs to be cleaned up, they have a better appreciation for it," said Susa.