Near the end of a nearly eight-hour meeting, the City Council opted last night to send aspects of the city’s controversial stream restoration projects back to the drawing board in light of widespread public criticism.
Stream restoration became something of a surprise Seminary Road-like issue last year. Many recurring public complaints — namely over a lack of communication from staff and concerns regarding city studies — resurfaced during the Taylor Run and Strawberry Run stream restoration debates.
But in other ways, the coalition uniting against the city’s plans for Taylor Run and Strawberry Run looked different from the Seminary Road debate. While the same elements that composed to Seminary Road diet opposition were present in the stream restoration debates — local civic associations and the Bring Integrity Back to Alexandria! group — they were joined by more unexpected sources of dissent, like Audubon Society of Northern Virginia and the Alexandria Environmental Policy Commission (EPC).
“This has evolved into a political issue, but I’m here to voice my opinion on the science,” said EPC member Marta Schantz. “We’re concerned that many questions about current approach and good faith exploration of alternatives remains unanswered.”
It’s a muddy, tangled issue with branching concerns over the efficiency of natural channel design, the impact on wildlife in the area and the impacts of erosion — but one of the fundamental issues considered by City Council at the meeting was whether or not the stream is as polluted as the city’s modeling indicates.
Critics of the project, including the city’s Natural Resource Manager Rod Simmons, say the city is calculating pollution levels in the stream not based on first hand evidence gathering, but rather on state-approved models based on studies done in Pennsylvania. A study by Simmons found significantly lower levels of phosphates in Taylor Run, though Simmons’ study was criticized by the city as not providing a complete view of total phosphate levels in the water.
Complicating matters is the city’s plans to have the stream restoration work count towards the city’s required pollution reduction credits. Staff reiterated that alternatives to stream restoration could be more expensive, less beneficial to the city — like paying credits for an equivalent amount of pollution reduction — and result in fees passed on to tax payers.
Even then, staff said the city will likely eventually need to take some form of action to prevent homes new Strawberry Run and Taylor Run from being threatened by erosion.
“If we take approach that we don’t need to do anything, we risk losing grants, we pay for credits, and we’ll eventually need to do something to protect neighboring homes from erosion,” said Matt Landes, project director for the Department of Project Implementation.
City staff said there’s a looming deadline to meet pollution reduction guidelines laid out by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Staff said that to meet a June 2022 deadline, the stream restoration projects need to move into final design in the May/June timeframe and the project needs to move into procurement by December this year.
Testing Taylor Run’s water for phosphates, staff said, could take two-to-three months to get reliable results. But the city council — led by urging from members Amy Jackson and John Chapman — agreed to take that time to do the studies and get a better picture of the pollutant levels in Taylor Run and Strawberry Run.
“It’s disconcerting to a lot of community members tonight,” said Jackson. “We usually don’t have public comment except for public hearings. They’ve been here pretty much every time signing in to discuss what they think is important… to be continually, what I feel: shoved aside.”
The Environmental Council of Alexandria, which is led by former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald, has been the city’s main opponent to the project.
“Staff reports and responses from City staff indicate that they want to proceed with this destructive and ineffective project despite all the scientific evidence against doing so,” ECA wrote on Facebook on April 23. “This may be our last chance to stop this environmentally unsound project.”
Chapman said the city should also take those months to get a better look at alternatives to current stream restoration plans.
“We need to take a good look at alternatives,” Chapman said, “and not just the ones presented here.”
While Strawberry Run and Taylor Run took the lion’s share of the conversation, Mayor Justin Wilson said it would be willful ignorance on the city’s part to go forward with testing those without getting a more accurate idea about pollutant levels in Lucky Run, also slated for restoration work.
“I have a hard time justifying how Lucky Run is okay but Taylor Run and Strawberry Run aren’t,” Wilson said. “[We’re] not sampling Lucky Run… because we don’t want to know what the answer is.”
In response, the Council agreed to also loop Lucky Run in with planned testing of the other stream sites. The City Council directed staff to come back at a later date to lay out more community engagement and a timeline for further study of the streams.
Photo via City of Alexandria
The move is a decisive blow against the project, which city staff defend as the most cost effective alternative to keep up with its Chesapeake Bay Watershed credit requirements. Last month, Chapman and Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker requested a legislative meeting to discuss the Taylor Run and Strawberry Run stream restoration projects, which critics say disrupt natural habitats.
“I look forward to asking questions of staff tonight, but I intend to ask my colleagues to support stopping this (Taylor Run) project, and in turn, directing both staff and our Environmental Policy Commission to work together to bring back to council an update on the capture of environmental credits, with potential credits that we can receive and updated cost estimates and a strategy on future capture of credits,” Chapman said.
Staff plans to clear the Taylor Run waterway near T.C. Williams High School and Chinquapin Park will result in the removal of 269 trees, of which they say 22% are dead.
Mayor Justin Wilson said he’s happy to consider alternative approaches to meeting the city’s clean water obligations and addressing the environmental damage and future risk to Taylor Run.
“Ultimately, whatever we decide must be based in the science, in compliance with the law and affordable,” Wilson said.
Opposition has been led by the Environmental Council of Alexandria, which also says that the city’s soil tests at Taylor Run are not accurate. City Councilwoman Amy Jackson has also moved against the Taylor Run project after the EPC advised Council to step back.
Chapman will also ask Council to support an annual report from the Environmental Policy Commission and staff on the city’s environmental credit progress. He said that such an update would allow for the city to find additional projects.
“(I)t will give the community and City Council a firm understanding of our current status, real opportunities, and the cost, without the stream restoration projects that our advisory policy commission and our community are against,” Chapman said.
Photo via City of Alexandria
Today is Earth Day, and for the second year in a row Alexandria is celebrating virtually.
The theme of the 51st annual celebration is “Restore Our Earth,” and residents are encouraged to participate with projects on the city website, including restoration efforts around water, land, air quality and climate.
Today, the City and AlexRenew celebrate Earth Day with a special collection of resources, including actions for a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Details: https://t.co/fmgHDXoPRZ.
— AlexandriaVAGov (@AlexandriaVAGov) April 22, 2021
The City and AlexRenew also partnered with Alexandria City Public Schools to showcase 140 Earth Day-related student artwork submissions from Matthew Maury Elementary School, Mount Vernon Community School, Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy, Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 IB School, Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, and George Washington Middle School.
Their art projects are featured on a video below.
As part of the budget query process, Vice-Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker asked staff to look into other options as alternatives to the project. Despite reluctance towards the Taylor Run restoration project starting to take hold in the City Council, staff said in a response to Bennett-Parker they believe the current course to be the most effective one.
“If an alternative is pursued, then the 10-Year Plan would need to be revised based on the funding impact of these alternatives, each of which come with very different levels of risk and costs,” staff said. “Additionally, none of the alternatives would stabilize the sanitary sewer infrastructure which will need to be undertaken regardless.”
The Taylor Run Stream Restoration Project is expected to cost $4.5 million, half of which is paid for by the state-level Stormwater Local Assistance Fund.
Local activists have said the city’s project overestimates the levels of pollution in the stream by relying on projections rather than tests of the water and the removal of foliage from the stream — many of them mature trees — though the city has said it will replant new ones.
The first alternative analyzed is implementing smaller scale green infrastructure projects, like bioretention facilities and underground filtering. But staff said these projects could cost up to $66 million, which would come entirely from city coffers and ultimately from homeowners in Alexandria.
Staff compared smaller scale BMPs that include green infrastructure (urban bioretention, bioswales, etc.) and underground BMPs (filtering devices) as alternatives as retrofits in the right-of-way and on public property. Cost-benefit estimates for these alternatives range from $88,000 to $225,000 per pound of phosphorous reduced, respectively. (Note these estimates do not include currently uncertain costs that may arise during the planning, scoping, design or implementation phases, or future maintenance and operation costs.) Using those per pound cost ranges, capital costs are estimated between $26 million and $66 million to implement between 300 and 400 new BMPs to achieve an equivalent amount of pollution credits. This would add (refer to footnote) between $41 and $89 to the annual stormwater fee for the majority of homeowners in the City. It is also important to note that due to the high cost per pound of phosphorous removal none of these BMPs would meet the eligibility requirements (of $50,000/lb. or less) to be considered for a VDEQ Stormwater Local Assistance Program grant. Therefore, the City would need to fully fund these smaller BMPs using local funds.
Another option suggested by many opponents of the Taylor Run Stream Restoration project is additional tree planting, an option suggested in contrast to some of the tree clearing that would take place as part of the project. Staff noted in their analysis of the option that, like additional green infrastructure projects, the solution could be more expensive than the current project.
Staff compared tree planting per DEQ and EPA’s Recommendations of the Expert Panel to Define BMP Effectiveness for Urban Tree Canopy approach to generate pollution reduction credits. To achieve an equivalent pollution reduction, the City would need to plant between 421,000 and 686,000 trees at a low-end estimated cost of $84 million to $137 million and a high-end estimated capital cost of $126 million to $206 million. This would add (refer to footnote) between $113 and $287 per year to they stormwater utility fee for the majority of homeowners in the City. Like Alternative Scenario 1 these costs do not include currently uncertain costs that may arise during the planning, scoping, design or implementation phases, or future maintenance and operation costs. The issue of where to plant this volume of trees also would need to be addressed.
The last option, and possibly the alternative scenario most suggested by opponents of the Taylor Run project, is to do nothing: leave the stream alone. City staff reviewed the no-build option but said that cancelling the project without pursuing any of the other alternatives it could put its state stormwater permits (MS4) at risk.
If the City chooses to defer or cancel the Taylor Run Stream Restoration project, it brings into question the use of stream restorations as a key strategy in the City’s toolkit to meet its Bay mandates. The City’s three, currently approved stream restoration projects will cost the City approximately $3.7 million, with another $3.7 million coming in VDEQ grants. In contrast, the total cost of a “BMPs alone” strategy to reduce an equivalent amount of phosphorous for the City would be between $79 million and $201 million, which is currently not programmed in the Ten-Year Stormwater Capital Plan. This would add between $106 and $274 per year to the stormwater utility fee for a majority of homeowners. It would require the installation of over 900 total green infrastructure and underground BMPs in rights-of-way and on public property. If Council chooses one of the above scenarios for Taylor Run, or removes stream restoration from the City’s toolkit, staff would need to provide additional refined projections on the fiscal impacts and risk, and revise the City’s Stormwater Utility 10-Year Plan.
Staff said the city is currently ahead of schedule on its Chesapeake Bay Cleanup mandates, but if the city fell behind from cancelling this project, it could be subject to fines and other punitive measures.
“These would likely include prescriptive actions and schedules of interim milestones to demonstrate positive trajectory to meet the requirements, including the identification of adequate funding and scheduling to implement alternative BMPs to achieve milestones,” staff said. “These punitive measures would likely be administered through aggressive oversight by VDEQ.”
The kicker, staff said, is that separate sanitary sewer stabilization would still require impacting Taylor Run.
“The sanitary sewer runs parallel to the trail and within the southern stream bank for most of the way until it crosses to the northern side of the stream near the acidic seepage wetland, where the sheet pile for the manhole is located,” staff said. “Separately stabilizing the sanitary infrastructure in lieu of incorporating this work into a more holistic stream restoration would require tree removal for access — presumably the pedestrian trail as well as down to the stream to access the sanitary sewer crossings exposed in the stream bed — to allow heavy equipment access to stabilize the sanitary crossings by encasing the pipe in concrete.”
Mayor Justin Wilson said in an email that on Monday, April 12, from 5-7 p.m. staff and the design consultant will host a walkthrough of the project, giving community members a chance to tour the site.
“Project staff will be present and available to answer questions and discuss restoration goals and efforts in specific areas of interest,” Wilson said. “The onsite walkthrough will begin at the entrance of the Chinquapin Park trailhead located at 3120 King Street.”
An update on the project and others included in the city’s Chesapeake Bay Pollution reduction goals is also scheduled to be presented to the City Council on Tuesday, April 27, at 7 p.m.
Image via City of Alexandria
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City Council condemns Asian hate — “The resolution highlights the significant contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to Alexandria’s cultural, educational and economic fabric. It condemns the acts of violence and harassment that have increased since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, including efforts to scapegoat people of Asian descent for the virus.” [Zebra]
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Waterfront art exhibit ‘Groundswell’ on display — “The installation features a ground mural depicting the floor of the Potomac River and more than 100 wood pilings throughout the site. They will range in heights from 12 to 42 inches, in accordance with the river floor topography or bathymetry. Each 14-inch-diameter piling is topped with a cobalt blue mirrored surface etched with growth rings that suggest the passing of time.” [Alexandria Living]
Nominations deadline March 25 for environmental award — “There’s still time to nominate a local environmental hero for the Ellen Pickering Environmental Excellence Award! Nominations are due this Thursday, March 25, and you can find the nomination form here.” [Twitter]
Today’s weather — “Partly cloudy skies during the morning hours will become overcast in the afternoon. High 63F. Winds ENE at 5 to 10 mph… Cloudy skies early with showers later at night. Low around 50F. Winds ENE at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 60%.” [Weather.com]
New job: Bartender and server — “We are a waterfront restaurant and event venue in North Old Town Alexandria seeking qualified servers/bartenders to join our professional family. You must be experienced, personable, and have a passion for hospitality!” [Indeed]
A recent City Council memo is asking staff to schedule a legislative meeting — preferably in April — for an update on the projects, which a growing chorus say disrupt natural habitats. The issue would be raised during the oral reports portion of the Council meeting.
Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker and Councilman John Taylor Chapman drafted the memo, which was sent to the city manager’s office on March 10.
“Over the past several months, city council has received public comment, emails and other communication regarding the city’s stream restoration projects at Strawberry Run and Taylor Run,” the memo states. “We are also hopeful, that given resident concerns, staff would be able to discuss the challenges and opportunities posed by alternatives that resident groups that come forward with, as well as any fiscal impact.”
There are two upcoming legislative meetings in April — on Tuesday, April 6, and on Tuesday, April 27.
Opposition has been led by the Environmental Council of Alexandria, which also says that the city’s soil tests at Taylor Run are not accurate. City Councilwoman Amy Jackson also recently went against the Taylor Run project after the Environmental Policy Commission (EPC) advised Council to step back. Staff’s plan to clear the waterway near T.C. Williams High School and Chinquapin Park will result in the removal of 269 trees, of which they say 22% are dead.
“The proposed restoration method will degrade — not improve — the physical, chemical and biological features of the stream and the adjacent natural resources,” wrote EPC chair Kathie Hoekstra. “We believe the City needs to step back and address unanswered questions before proceeding with a project that would irreversibly impact Chinquapin Park for several decades at least.”
Photo via City of Alexandria
Critics of the city’s plans to restore Taylor Run secured a new voice — City Councilwoman Amy Jackson — to their side when the Environmental Policy Commission (EPC) of Alexandria recently announced its opposition to the current project.
The EPC is an independent body established by the city in 1970 and reviews issues like water quality and environmental conservation.
In a letter to the City Council, Kathie Hoekstra, Chair of the EPC, shared some of the group’s doubts and concerns about the project.
“We believe the City needs to step back and address unanswered questions before proceeding with a project that would irreversibly impact Chinquapin Park for several decades at least,” Hoekstra said. “The City should demonstrate a good faith effort to explore all possible alternatives with better long lasting results with the EPC and the community before the City selects a contrator and moves forward with its plan.”
Hoekstra acknowledged it could result in the city foregoing the current grant funding unless that is applied to alternative projects.
The EPC’s letter is part of a coalition of dissent that includes some member of city leadership, like Rod Simmons, the city’s natural resource manager, and City Councilwoman Amy Jackson.
“I shouldn’t say I was dancing in the streets when I saw that,” Jackson said of the letter in a discussion with the West End Business Association earlier today. “There are a few awesome environmental specialists who don’t work for the facility who have done their due diligence in bringing that report up.”
Jackson said she and others are working on bringing the issue back to City Council for discussion. Currently the issue isn’t docketed for City Council review, having been earlier approved as part of a grant application, which has opened up new concerns about transparency for Jackson.
“Grants are on our consent docket [and we] move them right along,” Jackson said. “I want this changed and was communicating with the Mayor about this yesterday: our grants need to be pulled from the consent calendar and we need to be discussing those grants before they come to our docket, because that grant money we’re approving — that project may never come back to us. In the meantime, unbeknownst to me at the time, I’m approving a project that will never come before me again.”
Mayor Justin Wilson noted earlier that the Taylor Run project could come back to the city, but only as part of the current budget discussions.
The city stated that the project will reduce erosion at the site and improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed by reducing the level of phosphates.
The city fired back at the ongoing criticisms with a recent letter dismissing the phosphorous tests done by Simmons — though Simmons stands by those tests and say they more accurately reflect the levels of phosphorous than city projections.
Jackson said she has concerns that the project would not substantially benefit the stream, pointing to earlier work at Fort Williams Park where she said the park looks today very close to how it did before the restoration. The EPC is worried the project could actively hinder the health of the stream.
“The proposed restoration method will degrade — not improve — the physical, chemical and biological features of the stream and the adjacent natural resources,” Hoekstra wrote.
Photo via City of Alexandria
(Updated 3/9/21) Under growing pressure from local environmental activists like the Environmental Council of Alexandria to halt the planned Taylor Run Stream Restoration, city staff have fired back with a 10-page response to criticisms of the project.
Opponents say the city is overstating the level of pollution in the creek and the proposed overhaul of the stream bed would damage the health of the watershed by removing foliage, though the city says many of the trees being removed are dead and that more will be replanted.
“The Taylor Run Stream Restoration project will restore the stream corridor, protect an exposed sanitary sewer pipe from damage, enhance local water quality and the stream’s riparian buffer, and address state and federal Chesapeake Bay TMDL (total nitrogen and total phosphorus) cleanup mandates,” staff wrote. “The project helps clean up the Chesapeake Bay as required in the City’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) Permit special conditions to address the Chesapeake Bay TMDL for nutrients and sediment (total suspended solids).”
Opponents also launched an email-campaign today to contact members of the City Council and the Department of Environmental Quality. One of their proposed alternatives is an expansion of the city’s tree planting program, but city staff suggested it would be far too costly.
“To achieve an equivalent pollution reduction, the City would need to plant between 421,000 and 686,000 trees at a low-end estimated cost of $84 million to $137 million,” the city said. “The Taylor Run Stream Restoration project is estimated to cost $4.5 million, including a $2.25 million grant from the state. While the City strongly supports expansion of its tree canopy, tree planting through the recently approved Urban Tree Canopy Expansion BMP is not a viable substitute for this project.”
But the opposition also says the soil is not as rife with pollutants as the city makes it out to be.
Samples collected by the city’s Natural Resources Manager Rod Simmons, in a study ultimately published in T.C. Williams student news organization Theogony, led to a claim that phosphorous levels were substantially lower than the city claimed in its models. Read More
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City Environmental Award Nominations Open — “Know someone who is committed to protecting the environment and sustaining Alexandria’s natural resources? Nominate them for the Ellen Pickering Environmental Excellence Award by March 25.” [Twitter]
George Washington Reenactor Conducting Community Conversations — “Join George Washington every Friday in February as he discusses his life during various periods of his life and engages the audience. The first week will be about his youth, the second week will delve into the American War for Independence, the third week will cover his post-war retirement at Mount Vernon and his time presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and the last installment will cover his Presidency and final retirement years.” [Visit Alexandria]
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