Before Spring Bank was inhabited, the features that distinguished it from the forest that surrounded it were the springs that gurgled up from the ground. These springs are the headwaters of a stream that no longer flows uninterrupted past gnarled roots and mossy stones. As development has overtaken the region, the stream has been submerged, piped and channeled beneath parking lots and roads. But, whether above or below-ground, it still flows – past the fire station on Beddoo Street, behind West Potomac High School, beneath Quander Road and past the Ford dealership and the motels on Route 1, finally emptying into Hunting Creek west of Belle Haven Country Club.
Martin Tillett said that when he moved into the area in 1981, the stream was already “in a degraded condition.” As far as he knows, no one had ever tried to clean the section of stream behind Chuck E. Cheese, where it still flows through a forest of tall trees; unless you count the homeless people who had set up an encampment on a path near the stream and scavenged what they could from the detritus that was washed by storm water or tossed in by local citizens who viewed the stream as an unofficial dump.
Until two years ago, the stream was nameless. This changed when community members who cared about the brook started a resolution that worked its way from the Spring Bank Community Association up to the Board of Supervisors. It was decided the stream should be named for the Quanders, one of the first families in the area. But according to Tillett, who is a co-chair of the Friends of Quander Brook, the Quanders were hesitant about accepting the honor. “People in the community will still say it’s a sewer,” said Tillett. “As long as you think of it that way, that’s what it will be.”
SOME COMMUNITY members have decided to change that perception. On a sunny Saturday morning, about two-dozen volunteers, approximately half of whom were from JPI Developers, were strung along the streambed beneath a glowing green canopy of spring leaves. They clambered over log-couch-recliner-jams, used pick-axes to pry loose shopping carts embedded in the sand, gingerly picked up broken bottles, and patiently untangled plastic line from tree-roots exposed by urban storm runoff that has transformed some of the stream’s banks into sheer, 20-foot cliffs. “You always start at the headwaters,” Tillett said, explaining why they had chosen this section of stream to begin their effort.
“Our emphasis is on showing initiative from the community and the developer to clean this up,” said Tillett. He added that the county needs to play a role in the rehabilitation of the stream. “There are dozens of streams in the district like this,” he said. The statistics back him up. 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.
Tillett trained to be a volunteer biological monitor through the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District so that he could begin monitoring Quander Brook. The results were disappointing. “Essentially the stream shows up as being biologically dead,” he said. The tests measure the density and variety of certain organisms that are considered indicators of stream health, such as macroinvertebrates, crayfish, and insect larvae. He detected only fresh water annelids and fly larvae, organisms that can tolerate low levels of oxygen and polluted water. “The number of organisms we found, and the variety … were statistically insignificant,” said Tillett. He added that after subsequent tests all produced the same result, he stopped monitoring the stream. “There’s nothing there. What’s the point?”
THE INITIAL development of the Quander Brook watershed in the 1950’s and 1960’s nearly killed the stream. But new plans for the area may save it. “Essentially what we need is a retrofit,” said Tillett, “as we do the revitalization, that just makes sense.”
In order to meet zoning requirements to redevelop the land that now houses Chuck E. Cheese and National Wholesale Liquidators, JPI has agreed to buy the land behind the lot, which includes much of Quander Brook. It plans to preserve this land as a natural area. Tillett said he appreciated the work of the JPI employees who volunteered at the stream clean-up. “They’re trying to win over the community and I’m impressed with what they’ve done,” he said.
John Begert, a development manager with JPI, was at work in the creek. He said the volunteers had found “a little bit of everything, a lot of bags, and cans, and beer bottles, and glass, refrigerators, chairs…” He added that if it successful in its bid to redevelop the site, JPI “would undertake a little more extensive clean-up of this area.” He said the JPI volunteers wanted to demonstrate “what we can do in a few hours on a Saturday morning and indicate to the community what we can do if they give us a little more time.”
But Paul Phelps, who was also at work in the streambed, cautioned that saving the stream would require more than an effort by the owners of the land. He and several other volunteers were scrambling around a mound of debris that included numerous dead trees as well as over-stuffed sofas, lounge chairs, mattresses, box-springs, carpets, and smaller items. The refuse acts as a dam, forcing the water drained from roads and parking lots to eat into the earth and severely erode the soil. Phelps said much of this debris had been dumped by people in the neighborhood that bordered the stream. From the top of the bank, the stream is thirty feet below, and nearly invisible. “The problem is the people who live next to the stream don’t have a sense of ownership. They think of this as a dumping site,” said Phelps.
PHELPS EXPLAINED that in order to clean-up the stream, problem sites like this would have to be identified, and solutions found. But even identifying every individual problem on this stretch of water will not save the stream. “The problem is not just in one place or another place on the watershed. It’s the whole watershed,” said Phelps, who lives in Hollin Hills, and is on the Little Hunting Creek Watershed Committee.
Nancy Dale, co-chair of the Friends of Quander Brook, put the day’s stream-cleaning effort into perspective. “[The stream is] really, really in poor shape biologically and ecologically … the clean-up is great … but you might say it’s cosmetic.”
Tillett said that cooperation from Lee District would be needed to save the stream. Oil-slicked water from parking lots and storm drains in Lee and Mount Vernon Districts flows into the creek, and no strictly local effort can prevent this. “The volume of water itself is the most destructive force,” Tillett explained. “It’s time for Dana Kauffman and [Lee] District to coordinate on this site. It just doesn’t make sense to do a half-a--ed job.”
But Tillett was optimistic that the work begun that day would not end in half-measures. “Maybe one day we’ll get the stream back again to where there’s fish, crayfish, frogs, amphibians, things that should be in the stream.”