Fairfax County is Planning to Protect its Streams

(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, April 2006)

What is a watershed? A watershed is an area of land that drains to a common lake, stream, river or bay. Each of us lives in a watershed, just as each of us lives in a neighborhood, county or zip code. Our actions affect our watershed, even if we we don't live close to a stream. What is your watershed address?

Fairfax County is made up of 30 different watersheds. Each watershed drains to the stream that gives the watershed its name: Accotink Creek, Little Hunting Creek, Pimmit Run, Cub Run, Mill Branch. The watershed names are a familiar litany to the staff of Fairfax County's Department of Public Works and Environmental Services. Together with citizens who live and work in each watershed, DPWES has embarked upon an ambitious undertaking: to develop watershed management plans covering all 30 of Fairfax County's watersheds, and turn those plans into positive action for the benefit of our local water resources.

Fairfax County's interest in watershed planning began in 2000, when the county realized it could no longer manage its water resources based on the flood-control focus handed down from the 1970s. In that year, Virginia signed the Chesapeake Bay 2000 agreement and committed to working alongside its neighboring jurisdictions to create and implement watershed management plans for at least 2/3 of the larger Chesapeake Bay watershed. In addition to flood-control, these plans are required to address protection, conservation and restoration of stream corridors and wetlands.

Although Fairfax County's 30 watersheds are as diverse as the communities that inhabit them, these local watersheds are all part of the larger drainage basin for the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.

Map of Fairfax County's 30 watersheds

Fairfax County's 30 watersheds

The Stream Quality Assessment of 2004 reported that approximately 80 percent of Fairfax County's streams are in fair to very poor condition. Stormwater management techniques employed prior to the 90s in Fairfax County did not effectively protect local water resources from habitat and water quality degradation, nor are they effectively protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

Watershed plan development in Fairfax County has been ongoing since 2002 and will continue through 2009. To date, two watershed plans have been completed. Plans for the Little Hunting Creek watershed in the southeastern portion of the county and for the Popes Head Creek watershed, a drinking water supply source for the Potomac region located in the county's southwestern sector, have already been approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Four additional plans, for the Difficult Run, Cameron Run, Cub Run/Bull Run, and five middle Potomac watersheds (Pimmit Run, Bull Neck Run, Scotts Run, Dead Run and Turkey Run) are currently being developed and will be completed by the end of year.

Initial funding for the development of the watershed plans came from money earmarked for fulfillment of Fairfax County's federal Clean Water Act pollution prevention responsibility, as well as from development fees. Starting with fiscal year 2006, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors also committed one penny for each $100 of real estate tax assessed, or the equivalent of $17.9 million in 2006 and, if re-approved, approximately $20 million in 2007, to fund watershed plan development and the implementation of recommended projects.

What is a watershed management plan?

A watershed management plan is a document that guides efforts to control pollution, manage stormwater, and protect and improve local streams. A watershed management plan is also the written expression of the collaborative agreement among government, other local stakeholders, and citizens that is developed during the planning process.

Along with government, local citizens and stakeholders are active participants in watershed planning. Prior to, during, and following the development of each Fairfax County watershed plan, public meetings are held to share information with citizens and to ask for public input and comments. Local stakeholders also work directly with the county to establish priorities for each watershed. Watershed-specific steering committees, whose members represent environmental interests, the business and development communities, civic groups, and watershed residents, as well as local government, review data about their watershed, guide the creation of the watershed plan, and review the document as it develops. Interested citizens and stakeholder groups can also participate in implementation of each watershed plan, working with the county’s public works department to carry out identified plan priorities.

Alex Echols, a resident of the Little Hunting Creek watershed and a member of its plan steering committee, provides a citizen’s view of Fairfax County watershed planning. Although the 18-month plan development process seemed “interminable” at times, Echols is pleased with the document the committee put together for its watershed. “We participated in the creation of a very good plan, with high goals.”

Foremost among those goals is reversing the negative impacts to water quality in Little Hunting Creek caused by increases in impervious surfaces, such as pavement and rooftops. Increasing paved surface area increases the volume and velocity of runoff reaching streams. The result is erosion and degradation of stream habitat. Water flowing over pavement is also more likely to carry harmful pollutants into our local streams. The Little Hunting Creek plan calls for the application of innovative stormwater management technologies to address stream degradation in the watershed. On already developed sites with large paved areas or rooftops, these technologies can be used to slow runoff and remove pollutants. Unfortunately, such solutions take time to design and install, and can be very expensive.

Overall, Echols is positive about the county's efforts so far to fulfill the objectives identified in the Little Hunting Creek watershed plan. "The county's follow-through with implementation has been limited, but is starting well," Echols contends. "What has been done is very positive; it's necessary to continue." As Fairfax County continues to move forward with implementation of the Little Hunting Creek watershed plan, as well as others, Echols would like to see the county develop a process for prioritizing post-plan projects and a formal mechanism for engaging the public in plan implementation.

Paul Shirey, the project manager for Fairfax County's watershed planning effort, emphasizes the progress that has been made in the Little Hunting Creek watershed. Since adoption of the Little Hunting Creek watershed management plan in February 2005, the county has increased the frequency of parking lot sweeping at county facilities to decrease pollutant runoff, improved the effectiveness of several stormwater management ponds, installed watershed signs, cleaned up dump sites, funded storm drain education, and undertaken the planning and design of multiple innovative stormwater management projects to reduce runoff from impervious surfaces.

Pre-project photo of the conventional stormwater pond at Essex Manor Place
The stormwater pond at Essex Manor prior to its November 2005 retrofit.
Post-project photo. The re-designed pond has been planted with 250 trees and shrubs
Volunteers planted 250 trees and shrubs in the re-designed pond to help remove pollutants and slow stormwater entering Little Hunting Creek.
Grocery carriage in a stream
A stream dump-site in Hybla Valley is one of several such sites cleaned during a county initiative.

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