Press Club

(Updated at 4:30 p.m.) Arlington County is moving forward with a project to restore Donaldson Run Tributary B despite some vocal public opposition.

On Tuesday, the County Board voted 4-1 to award a $1.5 million contract to restore a segment of the stream beginning at N. Upton Street and extending about 1,400 feet downstream to where it meets with Donaldson Run Tributary A in Zachary Taylor Park. Takis Karantonis cast the dissenting vote.

The vote came after a handful of locals criticized the proposed project for sacrificing trees, as well as allegedly misusing taxpayer dollars and ignoring changing scientific opinions.

With the vote, the county will use an approach similar to the one taken in 2006 to restore Donaldson Run Tributary A.

The project will address “critical infrastructure, public safety and environmental threats,” the county said. It “will stabilize the stream’s eroding banks to protect existing stream valley infrastructure, including the threatened water main and sanitary sewer, which crosses the stream and runs parallel to it.”

Staff said 83 trees will be axed as part of the project, which has been in the works since 2004.

Board Chair Matt de Ferranti told public speakers he agreed with many of their points but he is ultimately supporting what county staff recommended.

“We need to work on impervious cover and climate change but we also lost more than 20 trees since 2017 due to some of the washout that has come,” he said.

Critics weren’t convinced.

The restoration of Tributary A “failed miserably,” said Rod Simmons, who said he worked on the project and argued that it actually made flooding and runoff worse. Those recommending a different solution say theirs is cheaper, less intensive, and will save more trees.

“I am heart-sick at the devastation of the Donaldson Run ecosystem that will result from this project but I am even more distressed at the systemic discounting of the importance and integrated nature of the unique ecosystems in Arlington such as Donaldson Run,” said Mary Glass, a local resident. “For more than a decade, concerned citizens have provided valuable information on the adverse impact of this project and constructive alternatives to reach the same results…It’s a shame that despite all of this, no significant modification has occurred.”

Karantonis argued that the area needs restoration but 83 felled trees is too high a price.

“I don’t think we did everything we could to minimize impact,” he said.

But Jason Papacosma, the watershed programs manager for Arlington County, said the method suggested by the advocates is not applicable to the “very high-energy environment” of Donaldson Run.

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The Arlington County Board is slated to review a restoration project for Donaldson Run Tributary B next week.

The Board is scheduled to vote at its Tuesday meeting on whether to award a $1.5 million contract to restore a segment of the stream beginning at N. Upton Street and extending about 1,400 feet downstream to where it meets with Donaldson Run Tributary A in Zachary Taylor Park, according to a county report.

The project will address “critical infrastructure, public safety and environmental threats,” the county said. It “will stabilize the stream’s eroding banks to protect existing stream valley infrastructure, including the threatened water main and sanitary sewer, which crosses the stream and runs parallel to it.”

This restoration project has been in the works since 2004 when the Donaldson Run Civic Association designated it a priority Neighborhood Conservation project, according to a county website. The project received funding in 2007 and the county completed its plans for restoration in February 2020 after a lengthy design and public engagement process.

In the intervening years, erosion and storm damage, including the July 2019 flash flood, have gouged out the banks, uncovering a 30″ water main and sanitary sewer line, which triggered emergency repairs. The two forces have also felled about 20 trees along the tributary since 2017.

This erosion “threatens the Zachary Taylor hike-bike trail and public safety and is undermining streambank trees,” the staff report said. “Sediment eroded from the stream has accumulated downstream, compromising the integrity of a prior stream project, the Donaldson Run Tributary A project completed in 2006.”

According to the county website, the project also aims to help the reduce pollution, protect the multi-use trail and restore native vegetation to the area, described as “overrun” with invasive plants such as kudzu and English ivy.

About 83 trees will be removed during the project. In their place, 332 native trees, 180 shrubs, 200 live stakes — cuttings that will grow into trees — and more than 4,000 herbaceous plants will be planted, a county spokeswoman said.

The county says it will use a technique called “natural stream channel design” to create a new stream channel that can better manage the runoff it receives from the surrounding land.

Some critics, however, oppose the chosen restoration method as well as the resultant tree removal. The Arlington Tree Action Group said the project has not been updated to account for climate change and new sustainability goals. Over the last few years, the group has voiced its opposition to the number of trees that could be axed.

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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

Despite mounting evidence that Arlington County government’s past designs for stream “restorations” are fundamentally flawed, the County persists in moving forward with these flawed designs at Donaldson Run Tributary B (“Trib B”), Gulf Branch and elsewhere.

Background

In columns last year, I outlined concerns about the County’s stream restoration designs generally and at Donaldson Run. More recently, I highlighted the County government’s failures to prioritize mature tree preservation on County-or-APS-owned property, e.g., at Ashlawn Elementary.

In December 2019, the County took the extraordinary step of issuing a press release characterizing criticisms of its stream restoration designs as “myths.” To the contrary, these County designs continue to be flawed.

County plan for Trib B stream restoration

The County’s latest stream restoration plan for Trib B would remove 86 large mature trees and plant 332 new trees (from 1-4 inches in diameter) which would have to withstand floods and deer destruction with unlikely high survival rates.

The County asserts many mature trees will simply fall over if restoration does not occur and sediment in the water flow must be arrested to protect the Potomac and Chesapeake. However, the sediment caught in step pools and low areas to moderate this flow will also contain pollutants that will stay in the local environment.

Why the County’s Trib B plan is flawed

The persistent flaws in the County’s stream restorations include:

  • The stream bed may be physically restored, but the stream still will be ecologically damaged. “You can’t ask a stream to do everything an entire watershed should do,” said Margaret A. Palmer, a University of Maryland scientist who’s researched stream restoration ecology.
  • Damage to the stream’s watershed cannot be rectified without taking a much more environmentally pro-active approach to the impacts of climate change, development, and loss of mature trees.
  • Because the era of the “100-year” flood has been left far behind due to climate change, and rectifying the watershed will take many years, the work–and great expense–of physically restoring the stream bed may be washed away in a very short time. Therefore, the next major flood after Trib B is “restored” could ravage the stream bed, require significant rebuilding, and do so without the natural water absorption protection of the major mature trees which the County currently plans to remove.

Planting even hundreds of new trees is no subsitute for the removal of the mature ones. The relative benefits of mature trees vs. small ones are staggeringly in favor of the mature trees as regards CO2 absorption, water absorption, property value and other metrics.

Regionally, in the absence of empirical evidence on the efficacy of stream restoration projects, the issue of tree removal in pursuit of Chesapeake Bay Conservancy credits and to “remediate” stream erosion has elicited widespread recent concern.

In dense urban environments like Arlington, experts caution against the types of stream restoration techniques advocated by the County.

What can be done at Trib B

Some things can and should be done now at Trib B in view of the ravages of recent floods and the County’s lack of any meaningful maintenance of the stream. Some sewer lines may be subject to damage and should be rerouted (e.g., San Diego) or protected. Water pipes should be protected (using any of a wide variety of methods such as stacked stone walls and repairing stormwater discharge pipes) that would not require the heavy equipment the County currently proposes for the “restoration.” And, a relatively few mature trees would have their roots so exposed that they might have to be removed before they fall. CIP funds should be made available for all the above work.

Conclusion

County government is poised to repeat past mistakes by replicating them at Donaldson Run Trib B costing $1.45M for stream work alone (not infrastructure repair). Refusing to address development and land-use problems by merely adjusting stream channels to manage greater volumes of runoff won’t work against climate-change-era floods. Aggressively maintaining Trib B to handle both moderate and truly major floods, possible rerouting of water pipes out of the stream bed, and focusing greater attention on conservation of our natural resources are the keys to a cost-effective Trib B approach.

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.

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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).

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A group of local residents have launched a petition against an Arlington County plan to remove more than 80 trees at the Donaldson Run Nature Area.

The nature area, part of Donaldson Run Park at 4020 30th Street N. between Military Road and N. Upton Street, is set to have a section of its stream restored early next year.

The project on Tributary B is designed to help prevent erosion by creating a new natural stream and re-connecting it with the flood plain. Opponents said the project would remove 81 trees, endanger another 52 and remove vegetation along 1,400 feet of Donaldson Run. Work to restore the stream’s Tributary A was completed in 2006.

But a group of residents have launched an online campaign against what it described as the “rapid loss of trees on public and private lands” and urged the county to reconsider.

“The Donaldson Run Tributary B [stream] restoration project, costing taxpayers over $1 million, sacrifices broad local natural environmental benefits for a narrow distant storm water purpose,” the petition reads. “This project must be put on hold until… comprehensive technical and cost/benefit reviews can be completed that include better alternatives that use the money most effectively to meet all the community’s goals.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, the petition had received 14 signatures.

Opponents of the project will host an event on Sunday, September 10 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the nature area to hand out free saplings to “expand our urban forest.”

Photo No. 4 via petition, photo No. 5 via Google Maps.

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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

The July 8, 2019 flash flooding incident devastated Donaldson Run’s Tributary, exposing the flaws in Donaldson Run’s Tributary B restoration design. The County also is now on a path to use that same fundamentally flawed approach at Gulf Branch.

Killing a Stream to “Restore” a Stream 

So-called “stream restorations” frequently kill streams by increasing water temperature and reducing oxygen. Cutting down trees and existing vegetation and using excavators to disturb the land in or near a streambed simply compound the problem and unleash invasive plants that also negatively impact stream ecology.

Studies show that the underlying cause for urban stream syndrome — the trigger for these “restoration” projects in the first place — is the growing volume and speed of stormwater runoff that results from the proliferation of impervious surfaces:

The ultimate mechanisms by which urbanization degrades streams are manifold but can usually be attributed to a small number of landscape-scale land-use practices for which alternative management approaches are available….

Our analyses reveal urban stormwater as a new class of environmental flow problem: one that requires reduction of a large excess volume of water to maintain riverine ecological integrity

County government disregards climate science

Instead of addressing the underlying problem, Arlington continues to spend millions on outdated, cookie-cutter “restoration” plans that produce counterproductive outcomes. The Donaldson Run Tributary A project is a prime example:

[A] large number of stream restoration projects focus primarily on physical channel characteristics. We show that this is not a wise investment if ecological recovery is the goal. Managers should critically diagnose the stressors impacting an impaired stream and invest resources first in repairing those problems most likely to limit restoration.

Since 2011, scientists and others have shown that the types of “restoration” projects conducted here in Arlington and elsewhere fail to achieve basic ecological and water quality goals.

Many streams are chosen for restoration simply because they are the “low hanging fruit.” This occurs when engineers–rather than ecologists, naturalists and conservation biologists–control a project. After the damage is done, those tasked with protecting natural resources are given the impossible task of trying to restore a semblance of life, natural
functionality, and ecological balance to a seriously degraded, post-construction landscape.

Streams will try to restore themselves (for example, trees falling into the water provide resistance and can slow water down). But to truly restore a stream, you must first reduce the inputs (the volume and speed of the runoff entering the stream). Otherwise, any benefits from so-called restoration efforts will be quickly nullified, as the Baltimore Sun reported:

[S]ome scientists say controlling erosion[‘s] … benefits don’t last if nothing else is done to reduce runoff from development before it pours into the stream.

“You can’t ask a stream to do everything an entire watershed should do,” said Margaret A. Palmer, a University of Maryland scientist who’s researched restoration ecology. She’s published studies finding “no consistent evidence” that restored streams reduce nitrogen, another key pollutant fouling the bay.

And while stabilizing stream channels may reduce erosion at first, she said, the benefit is likely to decrease over time.

In addition to the ecological impacts, misguided stream “restoration” efforts can also exacerbate flash flooding. By continuing to dump greater and greater volumes of water into the stream system — a system not designed to receive all that water so rapidly — County government ensures that erosion and other problems plaguing the streambed will continue. Widening the channel will do little to alter these dynamics.

Conclusion

County government is poised to repeat past mistakes by replicating them at Donaldson Run Tributary B and at Gulf Branch. Papering over development and land-use problems by merely adjusting stream channels to manage greater volumes of runoff won’t work. Both these “restoration” projects should be halted until a revised, ecologically sound design is adopted.

County government must accept current climate science and directly address the stormwater runoff problems before attempting expensive stream restoration projects. County government must redesign these projects to fit within a sustainable environmental footprint.

Working harder to preserve Arlington’s remaining mature tree canopy, reducing the quantity of impervious/built surfaces, and focusing greater attention on conservation of our natural resources are the keys to cost-effective stormwater management.

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Officials are asking for the public’s feedback on a plan to stem the tide of erosion plaguing one local stream.

Residents can fill out an online survey to share their thoughts on the Gulf Branch Stream Restoration project this summer as the county officials work to prepare designs for protecting the waterway and the trees that call its banks home.

The stream faces problems stemming from the increasing amount water flowing down its channel due to stormwater runoff. This causes the stream to eat away at the banks, which exposes roots and pipes, and carries sediment downstream, according to Watershed Outreach Program Manager Aileen Winquist.

“Restoration projects actually are trying to create a stream channel that’s stable for the long term,” she told ARLnow yesterday (Tuesday.) “So we’re designing a new stream channel that will help the stream water dissipate energy as it flows down, so it’s not doing as much damage.”

Officials are planning to change the way the stream curves and add step-pool structures to slow the water flow. The work will be similar to measures county crews previously took to restore the Donaldson Run stream.

Winquist says reducing erosion along waterways like Donaldson or Gulf Branch is critical because when too much dirt is carved out of the banks it can cause health problems for fish and other water-based wildlife. Sediment siphoned downstream can also cloud the surface of the Chesapeake Bay, preventing sunlight from reaching the watergrasses that shelter crabs, filter water, and feed aquatic creatures.

In the case of flash floods, algae can also bloom which strips the oxygen from the water, killing aquatic life. Chemical pollution can have the same effect — as the Gulf Branch stream experienced in 2012.

Because of this, Virginia requires local jurisdictions to lower sediment pollution levels. Arlington pledged to reduce pollution levels in 2012 by 5% in 2018, and enacted programs and ordinances to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff and pollution.

Stream erosion also causes infrastructure challenges, Winquist said. Because many of the county’s older sewer lines from the 1950s rely on gravity they run under stream valleys. As a consequence, recent floods damaged pipes like the one under Lubber Run, which in turn swallowed the stream.

“When first installed, they were installed several feet down,” Winquist said. “But as as the stream erodes down over time, they become exposed.”

A pipe under Gulf Branch was encased in concrete to prevent damage from exposure — but now the concrete is crumbling.

Winquist noted that in the past, some residents have expressed concerns over trees that need to be felled as part of the process. She said the county replants at least one tree for each one cut and asserted that not performing the work would allow the erosion to continue and would be a greater threat to the local environment.

“It’s not a great condition to leave the stream in,” she said.

The county expects to hold a public meeting in the fall and will continue discussing restoration designs into the new year. Winquest said it will likely be “a couple of years” before construction starts.

Map via Google Maps

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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.

Last week, the Washington Post reported record rainfall statistics for communities all around the DC region:

“It has not been a friendly rain, either. Flash flooding continues to occur somewhere in our area with almost every passing wave.”

Damage from flooding in Arlington has been severe and widespread

Just a few examples illustrate the severity of the flooding Arlington residents have experienced from the unfriendly 2018 rain storms:

  • Donaldson Run

In the Donaldson Run area, erosion and significant losses of mature trees  due to a county remediation project have led to discussion and controversy among Donaldson Run-area residents and between those residents and county government.

This situation was profiled in a February 2018 story in the Donaldson Run Civic Association newsletter (at p. 5). Two more major flooding washouts occurred in May-June 2018.

The county government’s design of the stream restoration project remains very controversial. The county has not explained publicly how it plans to pay to remediate the effects of the 2018 Donaldson Run washouts nor all the other county-wide flooding incidents.

  • Lubber Run

As ARLnow.com reported on August 7:

“A bridge for walkers and cyclists in Lubber Run Park is now closed, at least temporarily. An alert on the county’s website says the bridge, closest to N. George Mason Drive as a trail runs over Lubber Run itself, will be closed “until further notice.'”

According to a county spokesperson, this bridge was closed because a DPR crew “was concerned with the bridge, but they aren’t bridge experts.”

Residents report what appears to be significant erosion damage to various areas of the park near the Lubber Run stream bed. Quite a few mature trees along that stream bed appear to be endangered by excessive soil loss. The foundations of trail segments and existing stream-side borders appear undermined.

The bridge closure alert remains in effect. No plans have been announced publicly to reopen the bridge or to remediate the other apparent storm damage.

  • Long Branch Creek

As an apparent result of the recent severe rainstorms, residents of Arlington’s Long Branch Creek neighborhood report recent erosion damage to areas along the Long Branch Creek stream bed between the Long Branch Nature Center and Four Mile Run.

  • Waverly Hills

In a June column, I featured two graphic videos that capture the effects of severe flooding occurring in portions of the Waverly Hills neighborhood during a May 2018 storm. Another severe storm in July 2018 caused renewed severe flooding in Waverly Hills.

Three flooding mitigation projects previously were planned for Waverly Hills but were dropped from Arlington’s Capital Improvement Plan due to lack of funds.

Conclusion

In my Waverly Hills column, I recommended that Arlington adopt a new plan similar to Westchester County’s (NY) Flooding and Land Use manual.

One commenter asked why Arlington’s 2014 Stormwater Master Plan isn’t sufficient?

Answers to that commenter’s question include:

The 2014 Plan isn’t working.

Arlington needs new approaches to development and stormwater planning that are:

The “unexpected” is now the new normal.

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