Stream ‘Restoration’ of Arlington Streams a Misnomer?

Stream ‘Restoration’ of Arlington Streams a Misnomer?

Some of the 86 mature canopy trees removed from the Donaldson Run Trib B stream being hauled away.

Some of the 86 mature canopy trees removed from the Donaldson Run Trib B stream being hauled away.

Jeff Elder used to think the stream restoration along Donaldson Run’s Tributary B was a good idea. But when he saw the number of mature trees being cut down and the failed step pools in Tributary A, Arlington County’s last such effort, he began to look more carefully. He watched Dr. John Field’s video explaining why the natural channel design was “old think” and wouldn’t last: a waste of millions of taxpayer dollars. “The step pools built along Trib A have all come apart; the floodplain has gone off in other directions,” said Elder. 

Elder is a local landscaper who takes great joy in the sloping hills along Trib B. He spends hours on a volunteer basis prying non-native invasives from the hills so the native plants can prosper. “The big issue is creating big step pools,” he said. “They don’t last. And there is a safety issue with the deep pools.” 

Residents who live adjacent to the area and who will feel the impact of the stream restoration have been vocal in their opposition to it. Local activists protested the Trib B restoration and refused County access to their land to take down trees. “It was clear Arlington County wanted to go ahead with the plan, no matter what, when Greg Emmanuel, Director of Environmental Services, contacted property owners — and in one case their employer — to put pressure on them to agree to cutting through their property,” Elder noted, adding, “We pay a lot of tax dollars to live here.” 

Elder himself revoked his agreement to let the county cut down trees on his property last year. He and other activists hoped to stop the process, and if they couldn’t do that, to at least educate the County so that future projects would not use old technology. The County went ahead anyway, razing trees, bulldozing the stream bed, and completing the year-long, $1.93 million project a few months ago. 

IT’S COMPLICATED, but several themes persist through all the hyperbole: a major factor in stream restoration is improving phosphorus levels in water that reaches the Potomac. The Clean Water Act and later legislation mandates a “pollution diet” for areas draining into the Chesapeake Bay. Compliance credits are awarded for reducing phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment. Critics believe the stream restoration projects are an easy way for Arlington County to gain the compliance credits it needs to comply. In fact, they say several counties in the DMV region are implementing these stream restorations because it’s the easiest way for local governments to get their pollution reduction credits. No one has compiled a comprehensive list of all completed stream projects in upper headquarter streams in the DMV, but such a list would easily number in the hundreds of projects, all destructive of stream habitat. 

“They say it’s cost-effective per pound of pollution removed, but that’s mostly because they didn’t actually measure these pollutants but instead use assumed proxy amount reductions based on a test case located on a farmland stream in Pennsylvania,“ says Rod Simmons, a local ecologist. He continues: “The soil sampling independently done by me, who also paid for the samples to be analyzed by an industry best laboratory, along the Donaldson Run Trib B, reveals that Arlington County taxpayers have greatly overfunded the Donaldson Run project by hundreds of thousands of dollars based on the Pennsylvania (in an agricultural area) default metric of calculating phosphorus (that bears no relation to actual phosphorus levels in our non-agricultural urban region.) Although I testified a number of times in person and in writing to the Arlington County Board as to the results, they went with the stream restoration plan.” 

Takis Karantonis was the only member of the County Board who did not vote in favor of awarding the contract for the restoration. He voted "no" because he said the bid was significantly lower than the others which raised concerns in his mind and he felt more could have been done to come up with alternative approaches that could have saved more trees. 

Simmons, who has already fought natural channel design stream restorations in Alexandria, twice successfully, thinks this is “tantamount to government fiscal mismanagement … especially when the project was vigorously defended by Stormwater Management staff despite knowing the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the regulatory agency responsible for overseeing stream construction projects throughout the Commonwealth, no longer allows default calculations for phosphorus to be used in pollution reduction crediting since late 2019. Since then, Virginia requires all stream construction projects to use sediment and phosphorus calculations based on actual soil samples collected instream locally.” 

SOME EXPERTS wondered why Arlington County didn’t take actual soil samples from the banks of Donaldson Run, according to VDEQ's improved protocols, despite being provided in advance the results of professional, independent sampling showing low actual phosphorus and nitrogen levels from the saprolite soils of local stream banks. When asked about sampling local stream bank soil, Aileen Winquist, Arlington County’s Stormwater Communications Manager, said “There are standard ways to do this: we don’t have to sample. Even if we did, It’s fairly complicated. We would have to do sampling during storms.” 

“We do sample, now,” said Christin Jolicoeur, Watershed Planner, Arlington County’s Office of Sustainability & Environmental Management, and she is right. but all the local sampling took place after the Trib B restoration (and other stream projects) had already been funded and approved. 

Winquist added, “Compliance credits are not the driving force behind our project, it’s just one thing we took into account. It’s more about the infrastructure.” The infrastructure she refers to is the water mains and sewer lines. “The County’s key goal is to protect the sanitary sewer line,” said Winquist. “Stream restoration has been successful in that regard. None of us chose to put the water mains in there, but they are there, and they are at risk as the stream beds erode.” Arlington County buried its sewer and water lines under the stream beds when it underwent rapid growth mid-century, and some of them were exposed because of erosion. 

In terms of how stream projects are done, there are natural channel design advocates, like Dr. John Field, who favor less destructive methods. In his presentations to county government on the proposed restoration of Trib B, Field pointed out the county did not have a fluvial geomorphologist on their team to provide an understanding of how the stream is responding to urbanization and a study of how the stream will evolve over time. “A holistic picture is lacking in the design,” he said. “The county is taking a solution that is trying to set back the stream to conditions before the erosion, rather than working with the stream’s natural evolution.” Field’s view is that the approach the County is using is static: it will only work as long as the materials used such as the fill with cobble and even the large stones proposed are not washed away by another major storm event. The current approach will only revert again back to the conditions that exist today, Field opined. “What is needed is an approach that is dynamic and stabilizes the conditions for more than a ten-year event, particularly given the high price tag of the restoration,” he said. Field proposed using wood structures as a long-range method for stabilizing the stream banks and slowing down the force of the stream flow. 

Winquist said Field’s presentation was taken seriously and examined but the Donaldson Run project was considered too steep for his plan. “The wood-based methods presented by Fields use wood to trap sediment and gradually refill eroded stream channels, as opposed to re-shaping the channel and using stone structures to manage the stream flow. The wood based methods are better suited to low energy environments where the stream is connected to a floodplain. In higher energy, steep, urbanized watersheds like Donaldson Run, it is noted that stronger bank stabilization methods may be necessary. In addition, the wood eventually decays, so it is not useful for long term stabilization,” WInquist said.

In the discussion about using wood structures as a long-range method for stabilizing the stream banks and slowing down the force of the stream flow. Jason Papacosma, Watershed Planner, Arlington County Department of Environmental Services asked if Dr. Field knew of any projects with steep slopes like Trib B that successfully used wood. Field pointed to projects in New England that have successfully been using wood in similar topography (high energy, steep slope settings) for 30 years. He also pointed to the Army Corps of Engineers manual on wood that includes its use in stream restoration projects. 

“The sun has set on these NCD designs, Strawberry Run was done in 2011 and it’s already back to its original channel, “ said Simmons. 

FAILURE TO ADDRESS stormwater runoff remains yet another bone of contention in the stream debate. From 2007-2017, overall imperviousness in Arlington County increased significantly, with the majority of the increase (60%) coming from single family redeveloped homes, per the County’s own story map. These homes are required to install stormwater management for all new areas of impervious cover, such as permeable driveways, planter box rain gardens, or other facilities. The stormwater requirements were increased in 2021 to require detention of 3 inches of runoff from new impervious surfaces and soil restoration after construction. But in fact, impervious cement and asphalt driveways, roofs of huge homes taking up whole lots, and canopy tree removal just keep happening in Arlington. On North Utah Street, where it dead ends into the 6300 block, a family has sandbags in front of their (impervious) driveway because their basement flooded twice. “They haven’t added another sewer gutter in the road,” said the homeowner. Water cascades down the road into Donaldson Run, exceeding what the outfall pipe can handle. It is easy to see how the runoff creates erosion, the outfall infrastructure is compromised, and the priority becomes, as Winquist irrefutably notes, protecting the buried water mains. While rainfall intensity is a culprit, activists believe better efforts to rein in developers with lot coverage restrictions, and then enforcement of requirements would lessen the impact of extreme weather. 

JEFF ELDER continues to work on his free Sunday afternoons along the banks of Trib B, pulling invasive plants and keeping an eye on the new plantings. In a recent encounter, he looked up wistfully at the banks of the stream, now bare except for newly constructed step pools forming a new channel, and newly planted native plants and trees. Coir matting to keep new plants in place makes the stream bed look almost as if it has been placed like a rug over the terrain. 

“Despite my concerns, the Trib B design is better than the Trib A design, which fell apart pretty fast,” Elder said. “They’ve made some changes in the way they line the banks with boulders which should slow the erosion. But it hasn’t been tested yet, and the bottom line is that the County didn’t need to strip the whole area of trees to do what it did. 

“Right after the stream ‘project’ - I can’t call it a ‘restoration’ - all these new invasives arrived, like Japanese stilt grass. And with all the light coming through now because of the lack of tree canopy, the invasives are growing like crazy.” 

Elder is happy the county planted all the new trees, although they were nearly decimated by deer munching on the new saplings: Elder had to call on the county to protect them with wire cages. Elder was also sorry to see the “fill dirt” added to raise the stream channel. The loose, easily eroded material got washed downstream almost immediately, he noted. 

Dr. John Field has commented on this ironic twist to the use of tons of filler dirt: the soil is imported, is not typically tested for Phosphorus and Nitrogen, and potentially is sourced from sites with higher soil phosphorus than was in the stream to begin with, so while the compliance credit is in hand, the actual amount of Phosphorus — and sediment — going into the Potomac may not have been reduced at all. 

Stopping Stream Restorations in Alexandria

What stopped the Alexandria projects, finally, was statistics on stream bank testing. Science based analysis changed the way the Department of Environmental Quality does analysis. $2.5 million of Stormwater assistance funds were taken off the table when it became clear the original data was faulty. Alexandria was the only jurisdiction where people fought the restoration successfully. That said, the City of Alexandria was unhappy with the whistleblower, Rod Simmons, an Alexandria employee, whose efforts helped stop the projects. 

In the end, PEER, “Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility,” an organization which offers legal defense for whistleblowers who bring attention to projects that degrade the environment, was able to defend Simmons. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) 2022 Annual Report - see page 9 at

Now Simmons compliments the City of Alexandria, City Manager, Mayor, and City Council for pausing Alexandria's three controversial, proposed stream projects last April until adequate cost analyses, nutrient reduction benefits, and environmentally friendly alternatives could be discerned and properly considered. “Kudos to the Environmental Council of Alexandria, Alexandria Environmental Policy Commission, citizen scientists, civic associations, hundreds of Alexandria residents, and conservation organizations like the Virginia Native Plant Society Potowmack Chapter for affecting quality control on this issue,” Simmons said. “City of Alexandria Stormwater Management should also be commended for doing the right thing and ‘auditing’ their nutrient reduction metrics through further sampling. Second or third opinions are always wise practice in situations as important as these.”

Simmons opined, “Sadly, in contrast, Fairfax County and Arlington County chose not to consider the same information provided by the same specialists in the field for virtually identical streams and began forest clearing and earth moving several months ago. The Fairfax and Arlington projects are all based on false metrics and cost analyses and will not achieve anything close to the nutrient reduction benefits purported by agencies and contractors. Yet, the forest communities and streams will be forever lost.” 

More Information

For more information on the proliferation of stream restoration projects in Arlington, Alexandria, and the rest of the DMV, see: 

In Arlington, by Jeff Elder. “Stream restoration: Losing the Forest for the Pollution Credits”