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Citizens Befriend Accotink Watershed

Friends of Accotink founded to help protect watershed.

Miles upstream from Lake Accotink, water scours the streambeds and flows into Accotink Creek. It deposits the silt that, starting in March, will be pumped out of the lake at 4,000 gallons per minute and disposed of at a site 3 miles away. Although the dredging of Lake Accotink is underway, the vital signs of its larger watershed do not look so good.

"Most of the watersheds in the county are in bad shape, and Accotink is among the worst," said Chet McClaren, who represents the Braddock District on the Fairfax County Environmental Quality Advisory Council (EQAC).

The Accotink watershed, which includes Lake Accotink and Accotink Creek and drains eventually into the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, is one of the largest of Fairfax County's 30 watersheds. A broad ribbon of land, its 51 square miles stretch from the Town of Vienna to the north to Fort Belvoir in the south, hitting the Fairfax, Burke, and Springfield areas in between.

According to a report published by the Stormwater Planning Division of the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services., the Accotink watershed is marked by heavy development. Over 50 percent of the watershed's land uses are either commercial or residential. Thirty-seven percent of the area is forested, said the report.

The Accotink watershed's streams are "substantially degraded," said the report, which rated the watershed's streams by habitat condition, biotic integrity, number of fish species and amount of impervious surfaces in the area. On a list of 12 creek sites in the watershed, the report rates six as "poor" and six as "very poor."

According to the report, a 4.5 mile piece of Accotink Creek was placed on the Total Maximum Daily Load priority list for fecal coliform bacteria impairment in 1998. EQAC has been studying the source of this pollution in the Accotink watershed, said EQAC member Frank Crandall.

"Generally speaking, Accotink and Occoquan play a role in providing drinking water, so we're very interested in keeping down pollution," said Crandall.

THE MAIN PROBLEM with the watershed, however, is the amount of development and impervious surface in the area, Crandall said. The greater the number of roofs and paved surfaces, the harder it is for storm water to soak into the ground, and the amount of runoff increases. According to the Stormwater Planning Division report, most of Accotink Creek and its tributaries flow through areas with over 25 percent imperviousness.

"The increasing amounts of storm water dumped into the streams has caused massive erosion in some of them," Crandall said. "It causes what is inelegantly referred to as 'blowing out your streams.'"

Randy Bartlett, director of the Stormwater Planning Division, said that development of the area has progressed far more rapidly than the awareness of environmental health.

"We need to manage both the quantity of the water and the speed of the water as it leaves the watershed, as well as the quality of that water," said Bartlett.

CONCERN FOR the health of the Accotink watershed led Deborah Reyher to found Friends of Lake Accotink, a citizen's group to monitor the watershed and health of Accotink Creek and its surrounding tributaries.

"We don’t have to sit back as voters and taxpayers and hope that the government will get to it eventually, because they have a lot of other things to deal with," said Reyher.

Friends of Accotink began in protest of a reclassification of a stream on the Wedderburn property in Vienna, said Reyher. The reclassification from a perennial to intermittent stream removed some of the protection the stream receives under a Chesapeake Bay preservation ordinance. Reyher and others extended their efforts to protect the whole system of streams connected to the one on the Wedderburn property.

"It's not just little streams in Fairfax County that are affected by development, it’s the entire watershed," she said.

One of the first steps Friends of Accotink is taking, said Reyher, is to put together a list of contacts so that citizens can become informed about and involved in watershed protection. These contacts include state agencies, other citizen groups, and private organizations.

"A lot of people don't understand how they can get involved, how they can help," she said.

Reyher is also trying to incorporate Friends of Accotink as a 501(c) nonprofit organization. "Accotink is one of the largest watersheds in Northern Virginia," said Reyher. "It involves a lot of research in terms of setting up a communications network."

The next step would be to apply for a small grant from the Environmental Protection Agency for operating expenses, and then to start planning stream cleanups. According to Reyher, Friends of Accotink is planning a stream cleanup with the Alice Ferguson Foundation for sometime in early April.

Citizen groups like Friends of Accotink are necessary to the county's work on watersheds, said McClaren.

"There are pressures on [storm water planning] funding and a lack of resources to do a lot of things," said McClaren. "So it takes an activist group like this to get stuff done."

According to Bartlett, the county is currently conducting a series of comprehensive studies of all its watersheds.

"The idea is to pull together all the studies that have previously been done and the information we get from citizens and get together a master plan, or inventory of projects, needs, and ideas to help each watershed," said Bartlett. These projects might include low-impact development techniques and stream restoration projects, he said. The Accotink watershed study is scheduled to start later this spring.

"This is a very exciting time for storm water management because everybody is starting to realize the need to do this and the impacts on the [Chesapeake] Bay," Bartlett said.

It will be an exciting time for Friends of Accotink, too, said Reyher, when the county begins working on the watershed.

"When the county is ready to start watershed planning, we'll be there with our hands up, ready to help," she said.