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(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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In the midst of Arlington’s efforts to protect local streams, the county last week released an extensive guide debunking what it says are common stream restoration “myths,” touching on everything from ecology to rain gardens.

The following six “myths” were challenged by the county:

  • #1: If Arlington County did proper maintenance on the streams, we wouldn’t need to do stream restoration.
  •  #2: If Arlington County regulated infill development more, the streams wouldn’t be in such bad shape.
  • #3: More rain gardens and trees in the watershed could restore the streams without having to reconstruct the stream channel.
  • #4: Stream restoration makes stream habitat and stream ecology worse.
  • #5: Streams should never overtop their banks. After stream restoration, stream flow should be significantly less.
  • #6: The July 8, 2019 storm showed that stream restoration projects cannot handle intense storms or climate change.

When storms occur and water builds in steams, the resulting erosion can cause health issues for water-based wildlife and create infrastructure challenges. In order to prevent erosion, restoration alters the stream’s direction and adds step-pool structures to slow water flow, the county said.

County officials argue that restored stream sections of Donaldson Run, Windy Run, and Four Mile Run kept the channels from eroding during the summer storm. On the other hand, “unrestored sections of Donaldson Run did not fare well during the July 8 storm, with new erosion undermining the fence and trail.”

Arlington’s stream restoration projects aren’t without its critics, especially when it comes to the touchy subject of tree removal in Myth #3.

In an email sent to ARLnow, Suzanne Sundburg, a local environmental activist and member of the Arlington Tree Action Group, argues the opposite — “planting trees… ABSOLUTELY DOES reduce the stormwater runoff,” she wrote.

“These stream restoration projects, as implemented in Arlington County, use heavy equipment that involves significant tree loss in the very riparian areas that are supposed to be protected from tree loss and development,” said Sundburg.

Sundburg argued that development has damaged local streams.

“Maintenance of our streams and their banks isn’t the issue and thus stream ‘restoration’ is not the solution,” she wrote. “The underlying cause of urban stream syndrome is the increasing volume and speed of runoff coming from the watershed. Unless and until the county begins to correct and reverse the increase in impervious surfaces — now covering 45% of the county’s land surface — stream restoration is impossible.”

Local advocacy groups have previously sounded off against tree removal, namely in 2017 when local residents launched a petition against the removal of 70 trees in Donaldson Run.

Currently, the county is in the design phase of its Gulf Branch Stream Restoration project, which is intended to protect the waterway and the trees along its banks.

A Gulf Branch-specific “Myths and Misconceptions” was presented during a November 6 community meeting on the project. In the presentation, officials addressed the effects of the July 8 storm on the stream, noting the “unrestored stream segmented eroded tons of sediment, degrading and stressing habitat downstream.”

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