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Warm Weather, Clean Streams

Local groups encourage a healthy watershed.

As people in the area surrounding Accotink Creek begin to take advantage of the weather by washing cars and grooming lawns, local protection groups urge them to keep the watershed's health in mind.

"The best way to get trash out of the stream is to educate people," said Duane Murphy of Friends of Accotink Creek, a Burke-based citizen's group protecting the health of the creek and its surrounding tributaries. The vision of the group, formed last December, is to restore the creek to a "more pristine state," he said.

What many people do not realize, said Murphy, is that storm drains in the street flow directly into creeks themselves. There is no filter between the street and stream, so whatever goes into the drains goes into the streams. According to Diana Handy, water quality compliance specialist to the City of Alexandria and member of the Environmental Quality Advisory Council (EQAC), this can include anything from yard clippings to oil to paint, even dog waste.

Picking up after pets is especially important in the area surrounding Accotink Creek, which according to a report published by the Stormwater Planning Division of the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services has problems with fecal coliform bacteria levels. The report examined the health of the Accotink watershed, looking at things like habitat condition and number of fish species in the streams. In 1998, stated the report, a 4.5-mile stretch of Accotink Creek was placed on the Total Maximum Daily Load priority list for fecal coliform bacteria. Much of this bacteria can be traced back to animal waste from pets as well as waterfowl, said Stella Koch of the Audobon Society, who also serves on EQAC.

"The single largest problem in Fairfax streams is fecal coliform bacteria," she said.

ACCORDING TO KOCH, this area is seeing the driest March on record. Dry weather affects the base flow, or the water streams receive from the groundwater. Streams also receive water from rainfall, and so a springtime without showers can be damaging to water levels and creek ecosystems, said Koch.

"That's not a good thing," she said.

This year, people should take particular care of how they dispose of trash, said Handy, since the next significant rainfall will likely wash any pollution buildup into the streams.

It is possible to wash cars and be environmentally friendly, said Murphy, who saw suds in a local creek on the last warm day. The key is using either plain biodegradable soap or a low-sudsing, low-phosphate cleaner on their cars instead of detergent.

"Yeah, it costs a few pennies more, but boy, the environmental effects are significant," he said.

Phosphates are generally a good thing, said Koch, but too-high levels cause an excess of algae, which blocks out light from the plants on the stream bottom. When the algae dies and gets decomposed by bacteria, she said, it robs the water of oxygen.

"It's really a question of good housekeeping," said Koch. "You wouldn't run around the house dropping stuff left and right. You should treat your yard the same way."

Homeowners should also keep track of how they fertilize their lawns, said Murphy. Chemical fertilizers flow into streams when it rains, he said, causing problems for the stream habitat. The best time to fertilize is in the fall, when there are fewer fish and insects to worry about endangering.

Springtime also brings a number of stream-cleaning activities, said Murphy. Friends of Accotink Creek will take part in the Potomac Watershed Cleanup, as well as other activities such as a bluebell restoration project. Anyone interested in organizing or taking park in periodic stream cleanups can also contact Friends of Accotink Creek by e-mailing coordinator@accotink.org.

"The best way to protect the streams is to get involved and know what's going on," said Handy.