Peter’s Take: Country Club & County Errors Compound Damage to Donaldson Run

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

As Arlington residents try to cope with the increasing frequency and severity of flooding, as outlined in last week’s column, a combination of code violations by Washington Golf & Country Club (WGCC), together with County errors and budget shortfalls, has polluted Donaldson Run and wreaked havoc on Zachary Taylor Park.

A WGCC course-redesign project has caused repeated, serious flows of mud and chemicals into Donaldson Run.

For months, mud and project-related chemicals from a WGCC course redesign project have run into Tributary A downstream of the bridge and into Donaldson Run. This Run flows under Military Road and becomes the stream flowing through the Potomac Overlook Regional Park (POP). (See December videos of Tributary C effluent from WGCC here and here and photo of mud ingress to clean Tributary A here.) POP is a 66-acre natural park with a Nature Center, streams and pathways for walking and hiking. Contamination of the streams poses a health risk to people and pets crossing the stream.

First observed by residents in June 2018, the matter was investigated by the VA Department of Environmental Quality (VADEQ) and deemed worthy of further oversight and penalties under Virginia law.

VADEQ then turned the matter over to Arlington County. According to sources at the Donaldson Run Civic Association, as of mid-July 2019, the County has identified six or seven serious violations, with fines against WGCC totaling somewhere between $11,000 and $15,000.

To its credit, the County has ordered that any golf course work related to renovating the course for purposes of play be suspended until the water flow in Tributary C has been stabilized. This is a consequential demand given the importance of the golf course to members.

On the other hand, the total financial penalties imposed as of this date are a pittance and are based on a staff interpretation of County codes limiting a fine for any “event” to $2,500. By contrast, if a private civil suit were to be initiated, the Virginia state code under which VADEQ operates states (at p.5) that “ultimately, civil charges and civil penalties cannot exceed the statutory maximum, usually $32,500 per day for each violation.”

To provide a real deterrent to future malfeasance, County code penalties for these kinds of environmental infractions should be increased substantially and scaled with inflation. Those revised, much higher penalties, also should be applied to destruction of important trees, currently limited to $2,500 per tree (County Code §67-8).

County funds are inadequate to maintain the major tributary in Zachary Taylor Park

Donaldson Run Tributary A runs the length of the park and meets up with Tributary C which carries runoff from WGCC. For many years, the impacts of stormwater flows and development resulted in severely eroding stream banks, exposed infrastructure, and tree loss within the stream valley. Therefore, a restoration of Tributary A was undertaken and completed in 2006, utilizing natural channel design principles.

Over the last 13 years, experience has exposed several flaws both in the Tributary A restoration design and in County funding to maintain the streambed. Zero County dollars have been set aside specifically to remediate the effects of disasters such as the July 8 flash flooding incident — either to parks or more generally. [Pictures of 2019 flood damage to the bridge over Tributary A here; upstream damage here.]

Although all the effects of the July 8 flash flood could not have been avoided by improved maintenance, had the Tributary A restoration been continuously updated and maintained over the last 13 years through combined County CIP and maintenance funding, much of the July 8 damage, and other damage over the preceding years, could have been moderated.


Sustaining County parks and green cover under current climate conditions will be a challenge.

However, these three steps should be taken:

  1. increase County budget for parks maintenance,
  2. establish a new, dedicated County fund for flood emergencies, including all infrastructure as well as parks,
  3. increase substantially the fines that the County can levy for damage to parks and trees by private parties.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.