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Stream Restoration in Alexandria Attracts a Deluge of Controversy

A project meant to restore Taylor Run, a stream near T.C. Williams High School, has attracted considerable controversy as local environmental activists say the city’s plans will provide minimal benefit and could end up harming the local forest.

The city’s plan is to replace the existing stream with a “natural channel design” that would make it shallower and step-pools and log riffles would be designed to curb erosion. The city’s stated goals are to stabilize the stream corridor and natural environment against erosion, and protect public infrastructure while meeting Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals.

The stream restoration project is nearing the end of the public engagement phase and construction proposed to begin in late winter 2021. Additionally, a Q&A document put out by the city is 25 pages long and features 254 comments and responses.

But the project has attracted concerns from a diverse range of local groups, from the Bring Integrity Back to Alexandria activist group to the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia. Criticisms range from planned removal of plant life along Taylor Run — despite promises that the vegetation will be replaced — to specific arguments that the city could be dramatically overestimating the level of harmful pollutants currently in the stream.

Jesse Mains, stormwater division chief, said in a public meeting last week on the project that he was in an Uber headed home on New Year’s Eve when he got talking to the local driver about events around the city. The driver asked Mains if he’d heard that the city was going to “bulldoze Taylor Run and build townhomes?”

Mains used the story as an example of misinformation about the project. There will be heavy machinery, he said, but not bulldozers and there are no plans to build townhomes there.

But Andrew Macdonald, former Vice Mayor and chair of the Environmental Council of Alexandria, says scientific inconsistencies in the city’s planning can’t be washed away.

“People recognize that this may do some real harm to places they really want us to preserve for the future,” Macdonald said.

Mayor Justin Wilson said there are no plans to bring actions on the item back to the City Council, but discussion of whether to fund the project could come up during the budget process.

“The Council voted back in 2018 to apply for the grant for this project and initiate the effort,” said Wilson. “Since that time, Council has approved the annual Capital Improvement Program containing funding for this project on a few occasions. Council could certainly choose to remove the funding for this project when we go through our budget process this spring (we would need to identify an alternate project to achieve similar water quality requirements), but that would be the venue for that conversation.”

Macdonald said the problems at Taylor Run start further upstream with runoff from developments in the heart of Alexandria.

“The main reason Taylor Run is having problems is the stormwater running off the shopping centers,” Macdonald said. “The city says we can’t do anything more upstream, but I would argue you have to do more upstream… It entails spending a good deal of money reducing the pollutants going in [to the stream] but also the volume of water coming in from old housing developments and everything that produces this extra stormwater. They’ll say they can’t do that, but what they’re doing will not solve the problem at all.”

The city said in its presentations that one-third of developments in the watershed already follow recommended stormwater guidelines. The rest are older developments, like neighborhoods, that were build before new standards were put into place.

“Approximately 300 acres drains to this segment of Taylor Run, with over 1/3 of that watershed already containing stormwater management structural best management practices (BMPs) required by the City after 1992 with implementation of the Bay Act,” the city said. “Adding more BMPs upstream will not halt and reverse the continued degradation of the Taylor Run stream channel and corridor.”

Lacking the ability to tackle the issues upstream, Macdonald said the city is tacking the stream restoration as a stormwater management project, but Macdonald argues the one-size-fits-all type of creek restoration doesn’t work with the facts on the ground.

One of the stated objectives of curtailing erosion at the site is preventing the release of phosphorous from the ground into the street as stormwaters eat away at the banks.

“This effort will help to prevent pollution (sediment and phosphorous) associated with that erosion from being delivered downstream,” the city said on the project site.

But the city also acknowledge in the Q&A document that no erosion measurements have been taken at Taylor Run.

No direct erosion measurements have been undertaken at Taylor Run. Direct monitoring is challenging and expensive and requires a long-time scale to provide statically significant data (e.g. annual weather can factor heavily in erosion rates on short-time scales, without accurately representing the longer term trends). Therefore, industry practice and the established regulatory framework in Virginia rely on a large (and evolving) data set to base restoration outcomes on best available science.

“Most of these projects are based on models that say ‘there’s so much erosion which releases so many pounds of phosphorous,'” Macdonald said. “But we’ve looked at the phosphorous levels and found out there is 75% less, at least, than the model.”

In the meeting last week Nathan Staley, project lead with Wetland Studies and Solutions, Inc., said that the project would still fall within the acceptable margins for the amount of phosphorous removed from the water.

“The cost-per-pound is somewhere in the order of $16,000 per pound,” said Staley. “They’re keyed in on $50,000 per pound or less. That’s an efficient project in terms of the use of funds to achieve water quality goals and see pollutant removal… Let’s say they were one-half to one-third the default value allowable for use in this projects, that still puts this project in the $50,000 range. It would not rank as favorably against other projects, but it would still… be identified as an efficient project.”

Another public point of contention is the removal of foliage, some dead but most still living, from the area near the stream. Staff repeatedly stated that the concern is continued erosion could take a toll on the local foliage if left unchecked.

“About 60 [trees] along the stream are already dead and others are in jeopardy of falling since bank erosion will accelerate without our help,” the city said. “We will replant 2,280 trees and 7,200 shrubs (using over 30 native species) to replace these and another 209 trees that will be removed.”

The Taylor Run Stream Restoration has resulted in some conflict within the city as well. Rod Simmons, the city’s natural resource manager, said in emails that neither he nor others in the Natural Resources Division were contacted regarding the project despite staff claims to the contrary, which he said was part of an effort to “greenwash” the project, according to reporting from the Alexandria Times.

Macdonald also suggested that stream restoration projects, both in Alexandria and other jurisdictions, don’t receive proper review after implementation to see determine whether the environmental aims were met.

“They will say the impacts are small and they will replant everything, we simply think that’s completely false,” Macdonald said, “These things begin with good intentions but I don’t think they’re working.”

Macdonald said the Environmental Council of Alexandria is at work on its own report that will be released soon. The group has also raised $9,366 in a GoFundMe campaign to commission an independent study and create yard signs.

Macdonald acknowledged that the question of alternatives to the stream restoration is a thorny one, given that much of the stormwater causing the problem comes from private residential and commercial developments.

“To the alternatives question: it’s not up to us,” said Macdonald. “The city has the resources and the money. The City Council needs to get back involved with this. They improved a grant last Sept. 20, which is not the project that is being put on the table now. They need to get back in and open up a public hearing. It’s not accomplishing the goals from the staff memo to Council laying out what the Council will do. Council approved something without really knowing what they were approving.”

Image via City of Alexandria

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