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Shedding Light on Arlington’s Murky Waters

by Margaret Doyle August 6, 2012 at 11:35 am 4,708 47 Comments

August brings the eleventh anniversary of the most notorious stream pollution incident in Arlington County history. In the years since golf course runoff poisoned the Donaldson Run and Gulf Branch streams, residents and county officials alike have stepped up their protection of our region’s waterways.

In August 2001, an herbicide applied to 12 fairways at the Washington Golf and Country Club washed into Donaldson Run and Gulf Branch after a storm. Eight thousand pounds of this herbicide, Basamid G, had been applied to kill all plant and animal life in the top two inches of the fairways’ soil. However, it did a whole lot more than its intention. The runoff killed an estimated 1,000 American eels. No living organisms were found in the streams following the storm.

Jen McDonnell, a Stormwater Outreach Specialist at Arlington’s Office of Sustainability and Environmental Management, said the incident “brought attention to the impacts that runoff can have on our streams.”

After this event, golf course officials agreed to halt the treatment of the remaining six fairways, which would drain into Gulf Branch. In 2005, facing civil charges, the golf course agreed to a consent decree in which it paid $145,000 to reimburse the costs incurred by the federal government — specifically, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — in responding to the incident.

Arlington County code makes it unlawful for “any person to discharge directly or indirectly into the storm sewer system or state waters, any substance likely, in the opinion of the County Manager, to have an adverse effect.”

McDonnell said that she is “not aware of any other penalty fines which have been paid for stream pollution.” However, she does know that polluters oftentimes have to pay for cleanup activities following a spill.

Despite the threat of financial consequences, pollution still continues, often unknowingly, from residents applying pesticides and fertilizers onto their lawn. The county and some environmental groups have been trying to counter the contamination with various stream-friendly projects.

In 2005, the Arlington County Board approved a contract to begin restoration of more than a half mile section of the Donaldson Run Stream in Zachary Taylor Park. This $1.5 million project was initiated by the Donaldson Run Civic Association (DRCA). The DRCA received a $75,000 grant from Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation for the project, so the group did not have to foot the entire bill.

Anne Wilson, President of the Donaldson Run Civic Association, said that the project was a “great success” and “improved the long term health of the stream and the waters it flows into.”

In 2008, the County Board approved a sanitary district tax to fund improvements in the stormwater system. Stormwater picks up many pesticides, fertilizers, and soaps from car washes as it makes its way to storm drains and thus infects our streams. The average Arlington homeowner pays about $75 for this tax per year.

There have been numerous other programs and projects funded by the county in an effort to reduce stream pollution. Arlington has completed two Green Street projects, and there are several more in design. Green Streets use a vegetated landscape to capture storm water runoff and breakdown pollutants before they can enter a stream.

The Stormwater Wise Landscapes Program is a pilot program offered in partnership with the Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment. It not only guides, but funds Arlington residents to implement run-off reducing practices in their own yard.

Arlington’s Office of Sustainability and Environmental Management coordinates a volunteer stream monitoring program. The volunteers meet monthly to collect water samples and monitor the variety of macro-invertebrates in our streams to determine if the water is impaired. The data is then given to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Arlington also recently hired a professional team to also monitor the streams.

“Their data reinforced what our citizen monitoring data had indicated, that Arlington’s streams are severely stressed due to non-point source pollution,” McDonnell said.

These projects are essential not only to stream health, but to Arlington residents’ health as well.

“Many of Arlington’s residents come into contact with Arlington’s streams through recreational activities… we want to keep bacteria and nutrient levels within a range that does not pose a health risk to residents or their pets,” McDonnell said.

Arlington residents hoping to do their part to protect our steams can take several simple steps at home, including:

  • Washing cars with biodegradable soap
  • Picking up after pets (e-coli from pet fecal matter can easily wash into streams)
  •  Not putting fats, oil, or grease down the sink as it can cause a sewage backup
  • Learning how to install a rain barrel — which helps to prevent moderate stream erosion — at one of the many rain barrel workshops offered in Arlington County

  • Four Mile Run

    I think the County should station someone at the various intersections of Four Mile Run and major roads in Arlington for the early Saturday and Sunday morning cleaning of home construction tools by a segment of our diverse population in the waterway…

    • charles

      Anybody who voted for someone who promises “smaller government” and less regulations should be forced in public to drink a glass of golf course runoff.

      • drax

        Where’s Kev? He’s probably thirsty.

    • Greg

      What’s this about?

  • Donaldson Run, #Yawn too easy

  • drax

    Nice story, Margaret.

  • Tom Lang

    Could the county care to comment on the restricting the flow of acid runoff from the mulch stockpile at the headwaters of Donaldson Run?

    • Josh S

      Interesting scoop you’ve got there. Have you shared your measurements with anyone else in the scientific community?

  • Dude Where’s My Car

    1st graf, “….residentss and county officials alike….” We assumes Gollum wrotes this article, Preciousss? He has tricksy spellingses, he doess….

    Give us our eels raw and wriggling!

    “hey let’s dump 4 tons of a toxin that kills ALL PLANT AND ANIMAL LIFE on this ground! what could go wrong?”

    Basamid G hydrolyzes into methyl isocyanate, which is what killed and maimed a few hundred thousand people in Bhopal.

    • Duder3

      F—ing golfers. Just one more reason I hate them. Bunch of smug, fat t–rds who like to pretend they’re doing something outdoorsy and athletic, when golf is neither. And they wreck the environment to do it. Ban golf now.

      • drax

        Without golf, there would have been no “Caddyshack” though.

        • nom de guerre

          This is a hybrid. This is a cross, ah, of Bluegrass, Kentucky Bluegrass, Featherbed Bent, and Northern California Sensemilia.

          • drax

            The amazing stuff about this is, that you can play 36 holes on it in the afternoon, take it home and just get stoned to the bejeezus-belt that night on this stuff.

          • OldYeller

            Well, a pool and a pond. The pond would be good for you.

      • CrystalMikey

        Just don’t ban putt putt

        • bred

          Put-Put is now forbidden at the corner of North Randolph and Glebe Road.

      • Fore

        Mind if I play through?

      • Richard Cranium

        So – you can’t break 100 either, eh?

      • Greg

        I’d like to see you walk 18 holes with a bag of golf clubs on your back (5+ miles) and still drive the ball straight 300 yards on the 18th hole. Anyone

        • drax

          Not many golfers walk with their bags.

          Not many hit 300 yards straight either.

        • Lee-n-Glebe

          Especially on that course. They don’t call that area “Country Club Hills” because it’s flat!

        • Duder3

          Yeah–maybe they did that in Scotland 100 years ago, but nowadays they all ride their little clown carts. Golf is about as much a sport as playing video games and about as outdoorsy as lawn-mowing. It’s an excuse for paunchy, unathletic males to be around other guys like them, so they can all make each other feel special and privileged.

          • Kyle

            I bet your GF would rather be with Tiger though.

          • Duder3

            Leave my grandfather out of this.

          • Hank

            Complaining about people who play golf is even less athletic.

          • that’s what she said


          • -2

          • Hank

            Whoa… whoa. That’s way too much math, Captain.

          • drax
          • 1 under.

        • Glebe Roader

          Golf = not a real sport.

          • UptonHiller

            Nobody said it was. A bunch of malcontents on here created an argument out of whole cloth.

          • nom de guerre

            How about engaging in a competitive eating contest while playing poker?

          • OldYeller

            What about playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2012 while driving in a NASCAR race?

          • C Spackler

            I have a theory: Any sport where you can actively drink a beer while performing said sport is not a sport at all.

            (Golf; Bowling; Poker,…)

            if it was a real sport you’d be throwing up said beer.

      • Dude Where’s My Car

        You probably don’t want to go see the movie “You’ve Been Trumped”


        as it is about how Donald Trump destroys a pristine chunk of the Scottish environment to put in a golf course. It might make you want to hit someone with a 9 iron 😉

        I had no idea that golf courses used something so massively toxic as Basamid G. It would probably be better for the environment if they just detonated a neutron bomb over a golf course if they really need to kill chinch bugs that badly.

  • YTK

    Shed some light on Arlington’s filthy air too.

  • drax

    This poisoned water spawned the hairless Coyote-Chupacabra Monster of Arlington.

    • YTK

      No, I think that CCMoA is too smart to drink that filth.

  • JnA

    At its last meeting the Fairfax County Board of Supervisers entered into an agreement with the U.S. Geiological Survey to monitor stream quality in Fairfax County.

  • Concerned

    I am glad the county government tried to do something prospective by passing a law, but I doubt it would be enforceable because it is vague. How would a person know what substance they could or couldn’t use ahead of time- “in the opinion of the county manager.” Also, since there are federal regulations governing the use of herbicides and other poisons, the law would probably be preempted anyway. Another example of the country board playing to the public without doing anything useful- kind of like the tree ordinance. When you hear the title, you think “great, it protects the tree canopy.” But it only does so on private property if the owner decides to designate her own tree as protected. Same on public land- only trees specifically designated by the county as specimen, historic, etc. are protected. So, anyone building a new house is free to cut down all trees on their property- even a beautiful, healthy, mature oak,

    • Elmer

      Agreed. Plus,something else to consider: other jurisdictions are proactive in spraying to prevent spead of west nile virus and other insectborne, particularly by mosquitoes, illnesses. But in Arlington? Not only never heard of such a thing, we wouldn’t even dare think about spraying.

      • DivineMsK

        Wrong. The County has sprayed in previous years, it’s just that they don’t spray toxic chemicals all over the place willy-nilly without a compelling reason to do so.

        From the County website:
        “Mosquito adulticides are applied as a last resort when public health officials believe the potential health risks from West Nile virus or other mosquito-borne illness outweigh the potential risk from exposure to the insecticide. Factors that influence the decision to spray include: degree of threat to humans, infection rates in mosquitoes, species of mosquito and mosquito habitat. The public is notified when this decision is made.”

  • John

    I’m pretty sure no one has any idea how many pool chemicals are dumped into our creeks and streams everyday. Backwashing filters, lowering pool level for winter, springtime drain and cleans, daily maintainenace all go unregulated. Chlorine. Algacide. Baquacil. Hydrochloric acid. Diatiomatcius earth. Everyday. Thousands of pools. Add it up and you would be amazed. Step up Arlington and FFX County’s.

  • Marita O’Rourke

    Excellant article-very informative-

  • ArlDon

    Pool water is discharged to the sanitary sewer, not storm sewer…at least it is SUPPOSED to be. I know most counties have programs/staff that focus on pool discharges…via inspections and permits, making sure they are plumbed correctly.


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