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Difficult Times for Our Very Own Difficult Run Watershed

By Danielle Derwin, Stormwater Planning Division

The Difficult Run watershed is the largest watershed in Fairfax County, with an area of just over 58 square miles. Featuring a diverse ecosystem, it is not only home to many species of fish and insects, but also a source of drinking water to many Fairfax County residents.

Not too long ago, the sparkling waters of Difficult Run were clean enough to swim, play and fish in, but not anymore. Population growth and the development that goes with it have increased the polluted stormwater runoff that in turn degrades streams. It’s no surprise then, that in some stretches of Fairfax County’s Difficult Run watershed, streams have very low biologic integrity, which means, plain and simple, they’re polluted and unhealthy.

"In the four years that I’ve worked at the Reston Association, I’ve noticed changes in the streams," says Diana Saccone, watershed manager for the Reston Association. "I now see deeper and wider stream channels, increased sedimentation, and a real decline in water quality in the lakes."

Today, high levels of fecal coliform from human and animal waste make all streams in Difficult Run prohibitive for recreational uses. Fecal coliform isn’t the only contaminate in the streams. Cigarette butts, soda bottles, washing machines, and car parts are just a few examples of the trash that ends up in waterways, making the streams uninhabitable for fish and insects.

Land and water are intimately connected. Whenever snow melts or it rains, the fertilizer on your yard, the oil leaking from under your car, the trash in the road, and the pet waste left in a yard will all find their way into our neighborhood streams.

In some cases, streams are eroding -- widening or deepening due to the increased volume and velocity of water created by a combination of rain or snow melt and impervious surfaces such as roads, parking lots and buildings. " Many streams today are trying to accommodate the increase of flow by downcutting into the stream bed," says Fred Rose, Stormwater Planning Division branch chief. "Very steep banks can become dangerous for people and wildlife."

Despite the environmental challenges that many streams face – flooding, stream bank erosion, polluted runoff, and litter -- Difficult Run is home to 29 different species of fish and a myriad of benthic macroinvertebrates (insects that live on the bottom of the stream). Together, residents and Fairfax County staff can work to improve the quality of streams.

Working Together to Restore Difficult Run’s Beauty and Health

Citizens are becoming increasingly involved with watershed health and related issues. Fairfax County is currently working with a group of residents who are members of a County-led steering committee to develop a watershed management plan for the Difficult Run watershed. This plan will provide a basis for evaluating problems and implementing solutions plus, it encourages long-term environmental stewardship. The steering committee is actively seeking resident input to address current needs and concerns and will host several more public meetings to solicit information.

In addition to Difficult Run, the County is also working with residents to develop management plans for all 30 of its watersheds that empty into the Potomac River or the Occoquan River and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. As part of the development of each management plan, County staff members are coordinating with local communities to identify issues and generate solutions to problems in their sub-watersheds.

What You Can Do to Help

Fairfax County residents can improve the quality of streams by using native plants to create a buffer around streams; fertilizing properly with the correct amount and only when necessary; properly disposing of pet waste; making sure that only rain goes down storm drains; and properly maintaining cars, so they don’t leak oil or other fluids.

Join one of the groups of residents (or start a group in your neighborhood) who are taking active steps toward improving the water quality of the streams through organized efforts. By volunteering a few hours for stream monitoring, stream clean-up events, or even stenciling your neighborhood storm drains, every person can make a difference to restore our streams. Learn more or get involved by visiting www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpwes/stormwater , and www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpwes/watersheds, or by calling 703-324-5500, TTY 711.

Watershed management plans are administered by the Stormwater Planning Division of the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services.

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