Little Hunting Creek Watershed Forum

(Contributed by Charlotte Seid, high school intern, to Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District)

“Fairfax County is ahead of everyone else…we care…we are doing something about our streams.” With these words of encouragement and optimism, Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry W. Hyland welcomed almost 100 concerned citizens to Fairfax County’s first community watershed forum, held on July 19, 2003 at Carl Sandburg Middle School.

Little Hunting Creek, bordering the Potomac River at the southeastern end of the County, is the first of 30 watersheds to hold a public forum in which citizen input will help develop a watershed plan.

The Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES) cites five compelling reasons to create watershed plans:

  1. Watershed management plans are instrumental in preserving and restoring county streams. According to the 2001 Stream Protection Strategy Baseline Study, 70% of streams were rated fair, poor, or very poor.
  2. Fairfax County must meet water quality standards set by state law and the Federal Clean Water Act.
  3. Clean watersheds in Fairfax County contribute to a healthier Chesapeake Bay. As part of the restoration agreement, Chesapeake 2000, two-thirds of the Bay’s watersheds must have management plans by 2010.
  4. A new plan, using the latest technology to solve current problems, will replace the outmoded ones of the 1970’s.
  5. A comprehensive watershed plan, integrated with management strategies such as planning and zoning, will address a variety of related environmental goals.

The issues of highest priority for Little Hunting Creek include sedimentation, riparian buffer loss, paved land cover, wetland loss, and polluted runoff. Sedimentation degrades the habitat of fish and macroinvertebrates, reduces stream navigability, and creates hazardous flood conditions. Riparian buffer loss magnifies the effects of polluted runoff, for when vegetation is removed, a stream loses its habitat, shade, and natural filtration.

Paved land cover further increases runoff and threatens aquatic life. The Little Hunting Creek watershed currently stands at 22% impervious surfaces and is expected to rise to 47%. Imperviousness of 10% or less is considered acceptable to maintain a healthy watershed. Wetlands, accounting for 168 acres (2% of the watershed), slow and filter stormwater but are threatened by urban development.

The forum opened with a Watershed Academy of six presentations, each explaining a different aspect of Virginia’s streams. Karen Firehock, of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation, said the watershed plan will not be simply “decide, announce, and defend.” The citizens who know where the problems are will be a part of the planning and implementation processes.

Firehock said the first draft of the Little Hunting Creek watershed plan was released in October 2003 and a second draft in the spring of 2004. To find updated information about the Little Hunting Creek watershed plan, see the Fairfax County Watersheds page.

Laura Grape, a biologist on the county’s stream protection strategy team, explained stream function, form, and evolution from the headwaters to the sea. Ephemeral and intermittent streams, considered “first order,” carry runoff at the headwaters. When two first order streams converge, they form a more stable second order stream. Aquatic life follows a similar continuum; leaves and organic matter in first order streams are food for downstream macroinvertebrates, which are preyed upon by fish in deeper waters.

Humans, too, are connected to the streams that provide recreation, navigational corridors, and—perhaps most importantly drinking water from the Potomac River and Occoquan Reservoir. Conversely, humans affect aquatic life through land use activities. Land development, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, and improper waste disposal harm the streams and the life they support.

Shelly Frie, Project Manager for Woolpert LLP, discussed stormwater management. She emphasized how management techniques control the volume and peak rate of runoff, thus preventing damage to property and aquatic resources. She described the advantages and drawbacks of a variety of best management practices, including wet and dry ponds, bioretention basins, vegetated filter strips, and porous pavement.

Frie also discussed better site design, which protects sensitive streams, reduces maintenance and cost, and balances the environment with urban growth. In contrast to past approaches that aimed to transport stormwater offsite as quickly as possible to streams, practices such as Low Impact Development (LID) manage runoff at its source using small-scale controls. Specific techniques range from parking lot bioretention islands and reduced street width to green roofs.

Cliff Fairweather, Water Quality Program Coordinator for the Audubon Naturalist Society, explained how poor watershed management affects aquatic organisms. Benthic macroinvertebrates, which feed on plant matter and sustain many predators, are a critical link in a stream’s food chain. Fairweather remarked, “Macros do the trick of turning dead leaves into kingfishers.”

Unfortunately, when rainwater flows over man-made paved surfaces, the temperature of the runoff rises, decreasing a stream’s dissolved oxygen and lowering species diversity. This runoff also carries pollutants ranging from pesticides to motor oil. Erosion from streams and construction sites causes an influx of sediment, which accumulates downstream and buries macroinvertebrate habitat. The depletion of these insects can have international consequences, since they make up an important part of the diet of some migratory bird species.

Asad Rouhi, Urban Conservation Engineer for the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, compared stream restoration and stabilization. Restoration of a stream requires seeking multiple permits, removing trees from the banks, and creating a new cross section, pattern (meander), and slope for the stream.

Stabilization works within the existing channel, stabilizing locations where stream bed and bank erosion is an issue. This simpler process allows volunteers to assist. Stabilization projects may require permits, depending on the location. Rouhi recounted the success of a stabilization project on Wolftrap Run at Cinnamon Creek, where significant erosion had threatened trees and a trail and had caused excessive sedimentation. The project effectively and economically used rock structures, vegetation, and biodegradable logs to stabilize a newly graded stream bank and divert the stream flow away from the stress points on the bank.

Lastly, Katherine Mull, Northern Virginia Regional Commission’s Senior Environmental Planner, discussed comprehensive planning and zoning for stream protection. Comprehensive planning directs land use, which in turn affects water quality. According to Mull, incentives are needed to encourage environmentally friendly development as well as public acceptance and understanding by decision-makers. “Stream protection is based on science, but not every policy-maker is a scientist,” said Mull. “Policy-makers must understand the implications of their decisions. Every decision is important in setting a precedent for the future.”

The forum was successful in educating the public, generating support for the watershed, and setting a standard for subsequent meetings in the County’s other 29 watersheds. Informative and organized, the presenters provided valuable background information, while discussion groups allowed the community to contribute ideas, opinions, and concerns—for it is the community who is responsible for Little Hunting Creek’s future.

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