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Restoring Streams Expensive, Unending

Eighty percent of Fairfax County's streams are in 'unacceptable' condition.

On Dec. 5, the Fairfax County Wetlands Board met for updates on three violations of county wetlands codes. All three occurred at residences near the mouth of Little Hunting Creek, a watershed in the Mount Vernon District that drains into the Potomac River. All three cases involved the destruction of wetlands and all three are likely to cost tens of thousands dollars to repair.

The cost of these repairs, which one landowner estimated at $25,000, may seem incommensurate with the amount of land involved, in that case, a wooden bulkhead 45 feet long. But if efforts to protect Little Hunting Creek are occurring piecemeal, that is also how it is being destroyed. Eleven square miles of land drain rainwater into the creek. Eighty-two percent of this land has been developed and 25 percent of it (1,762 acres) is now covered by impermeable surfaces, mainly roads and the roofs of homes. “We live in a very densely populated area where the stormwater controls are quite weak,” said Glenda Booth, the chairman of the Wetlands Board. “Individual habits and behavior can have a big impact on the natural resources.”

Booth sat on the committee that created 2004’s “Little Hunting Creek Watershed Plan,” from which the figures above were taken. Little Hunting Creek was the first stream to undergo extensive study under a county initiative to create a sustainable management plan for each of its watersheds. This was a dubious honor.

“Little Hunting Creek is one of the first because it was one of the worst,” explained Paul Siegel, the chairman of Friends of Little Hunting Creek.

“What’s called a creek around here is a historic name attached to something that in the ’50s the county decided was a stormdrain.”

THE 1,424 ACRES of Huntley Meadows Park were purchased by the county in 1975 to protect wetlands near the source of several watersheds, including Little Hunting Creek. The park is “a rich natural island in the suburban sea of northern Virginia,” according to one of its brochures. But a rising tide of new construction in the past two decades has called into question whether this park can remain a world apart.

The rain that falls on Deer Run Crossing, Groveton Gardens, Hayfield, Huntley Estates, Huntley Meadows, Hybla Valley, Kingsbrooke, Kingstowne, Lake Devereaux, Pinewood Lake, Stoneybrooke, Tartan Village, Vantage, Wickford and Woodstone all flows into the park, according to its literature. The water carries motor oil, fertilizer, laundry detergent, beer cans, soda bottles, Styrofoam, rubber balls and the seeds of foreign plant species, according to park manager Gary Roisum. Most destructive is the flow of the water itself. Instead of being absorbed and filtered by trees and earth, then slowly making its way into wetlands and eventually stream channels, rainwater now sluices off roofs and collects in roads and parking lots where it drains into pipes that propel it into the streambeds at speeds and volumes that tear the earth from beneath the roots that anchor it. “Basically Huntley Meadows Park is like a soup bowl in south-east Fairfax County,” Roisum said.

“It used to be there was an origin of Little Hunting Creek up there which was so iffy, if the wind was blowing the water ended up in another creek,” Siegel said. “It was gentle and it was mitigated. There were woods and there were trees. It was slow. So you didn’t get this big surge.” Now, according to Roisum, the park has had to build a long overflow ditch to Little Hunting Creek from the wetlands normally drained by Dogue Creek alone. The raging stormwater has become too much for one watershed to handle.

Roisum has managed the park since it was incorporated 29 years ago. He recalled when the Woodstone development was built in the mid-1980s. Roads, lawns and roofs replaced what had been “spongy” forested land that absorbed and filtered pollutants before draining rainwater into Barnyard Run. In keeping with the standard practice, Woodstone’s planners “very neatly captured and funneled [rainwater] into storm drains, and the drains released it into the park,” Roisum said.

Last spring, the county spent $150,000 in bond money to restore the upper reaches of Barnyard Run from erosion, Roisum said. He added that the county has already given him $400,000 more to restore Dogue Creek. He hasn’t used it because it’s not enough. The park also has $700,000 to restore the central wetlands, which Roisum said have been smothered by hundreds of tons of silt from the Woodstone construction.

“If we had better land use planning from the start, we wouldn’t have to use copious amounts of money now to repair the damage,” Roisum said. Later, walking along the eroded banks of Little Hunting Creek near its headwaters, an area that is now occupied by Lafayette Village on Lockheed Boulevard, Roisum said, “Sometimes adequate protection is provided and sometimes it’s not. All you have to do is look at the streams of Fairfax County and you realize land use planning efforts are not always in the interest of environmental protection.”

RANDY BARTLETT, Fairfax County’s Director of Stormwater Management, acknowledged that the county’s attitude towards its watersheds has evolved. In the 1940s and ’50s, planners focused on “big pipes” that moved water as quickly as possible out of developed land and into naturally flowing streams. “Water was kind of the evil. Get the drainage away from here. We don’t want a flood.” Raw sewage used to go directly into the streams. In the 1960s and ’70s, Bartlett said, planners recognized the destructive power of the vast quantities of fast-moving water that flashed through streams whenever it rained. They began building retention ponds that allowed water to drain into the streams more slowly. But the same volume of water was still flowing through, a problem identified in the 1980s. In the 1990s, best management practices for water quality and quantity began to be put in place. Planners called for catchments that allowed water to filter slowly into the ground before ever reaching the stream. More trees were planted to help absorb water and hold soil in place. Now, builders must have a silt retention plan in place before beginning construction.

But is it too late? According to Fairfax County’s Stream Quality Assessment Program, studies from 2004 show that 80 percent of the streams in the county are in “unacceptable” condition. One survey of 30 randomly selected streams showed 63 percent as being in “poor” or “very poor” condition. A 2002 stream survey listed Little Hunting Creek’s condition as “poor,” according to the management plan, which also reported that the watershed contains high levels of fecal coliform bacteria from sewage. A monitor at Paul Spring Branch, which flows into the creek, found that 95 percent of all life in the water was composed of species that could tolerate pollution.

When asked whether healthy watersheds are even a possibility in Fairfax County, Bartlett replied, “We think yes.” He cited Kingstowne and Huntley Meadows as successes in the county’s effort to restore eroded streams, and Pope’s Head Creek and the Occoquan River as the county’s healthiest watersheds. Paul Shirey, the stormwater project manager for Little Hunting Creek and Pope’s Head Creek, said the county rezoned much of the land around the Occoquan watershed in the 1980s to protect this important source of drinking water from pollution. The watershed now has less impervious surface area and more trees. The health of the river reflects this. But Bartlett acknowledged that the damage to the county’s watersheds will never be fully restored. “It is not possible to get them back into pristine condition.”

BOOTH, SIEGEL, ROISUM AND BARTLETT agreed that people must understand that what they do in their yards affects what happens to their streams. Jim Davis, the chairman of the of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizen’s Association’s Environment and Recreation Committee, said he has altered his property to trap water by digging a basin at the bottom of his yard to catch the first inch or so of rain and attaching pipes to his house’s downspouts to run water into a flower garden. “Everybody’s got to share the burden here,” Davis said. “You aren’t going to save it all alone.”

Hoping to encourage people to build rain gardens in their yards, the county is creating several demonstration rain gardens, including one at the Mount Vernon RECenter on Belle View Boulevard. The projects are simple and cheap, requiring little more than a hole with gravel at the bottom and soil and plants on top. By running drains into them and building them in places where water collects, homeowners can release rainwater into the surrounding earth or, if necessary, much more slowly into a storm sewer. Other options for water retention can be as simple as planting more trees, or creating a gentle swale at the bottom of a sloping yard.

“It’s a great opportunity for community participation, because you can do your part with not a lot of effort,” said Paul Siegel.

Bartlett said people should be aware that anything they put on the ground will likely be swept into a storm drain that feeds into a stream that may flow through a park and certainly flows into the Potomac River and then the Chesapeake Bay. Each time someone washes her car in a driveway or spreads too many bags of fertilizer on his lawn, chemicals are released that will eventually flow into county streams. “What people do in one place has significant impacts on other places,” he said. “If you drip oil in your driveway, where does it go? It goes into your watershed and ends up in the streams.”