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Silent streams - poisoning by sprawl

Silent Streams

Sprawl is threatening almost every stream in the country. But a 
rising citizens movement is trying to save one of our most important 
natural resources before it's too late

By Mary Battiata
Sunday, November 27, 2005; W10

It started with Cody the weimaraner. She needed long walks, which led 
to the creek, which revealed the trash, which led to the decision to 
clean up the trash, which led to the unearthing of the shopping cart 
and the migrating lawn chairs, among many other things God never 
meant to live in a stream. And that, in a roundabout way, is how Dan 
Radke, a 42-year-old telecommunications salesman and suburban father 
of two, found himself in ankle-deep water on a Saturday morning in 
August four years ago surrounded by dead eels. He'd never seen an eel 
before. Now there were hundreds of them, inert outcroppings of 
three-foot, green-gray fish strewn in tangled piles up and down the 
banks, like mounds of melted pipe. Though they didn't know it yet, 
Radke and three neighbors had stumbled upon ground zero of what would 
become known around the neighborhood as the Golf Course Incident.

They had been deputized by Arlington County as citizen stream 
monitors just a few months earlier. They'd attended a couple of 
weekend classes to learn how to identify the tiny bugs that use the 
stream as a nursery.

"It wasn't what I expected," said Radke, who takes pains to explain 
that he is not an environmentalist. "I was a chemistry major in 
college, but I didn't know you monitored the health of a stream by 
counting bugs." That August morning four years ago, Radke and the 
others had risen early, collected buckets and nets and rubber boots 
and headed down to Donaldson Run to conduct their second bug census. 
They were feeling, if not like old hands, at least modestly confident.

They met near the stream, about a mile up from where it falls into 
the Potomac, south of Chain Bridge. They unfolded a small field table 
(a loaner from the county), a microscope (also the county's), as well 
as a small TV tray, a white plastic dishpan, some ordinary kitchen 
ice cube trays and a stack of miniature plastic petri dishes. Then 
they stepped gingerly down the three-foot bank. They figured they'd 
net more of the specimens they'd caught the first time out -- snails, 
aquatic worms, leeches and the comma-size larvae, or young, of the 
biting flies (black, deer and horse) and nonbiting flies (dragon, 
damsel, crane, caddis) that make up the lowest rung of the food chain 
for the stream's fish and birds. They were hoping to see a crayfish, 
too. The little gray crayfish are the agile acrobats of the stream -- 
frisky, large enough to see without a microscope and so hardy it's 
almost impossible to kill them, short of running them over. At the 
other end of that hardiness spectrum were the so-called sensitive 
orders -- the case-making caddis fly, for example. The presence of 
this kind of caddis fly would mean the stream's health was robust.

Instead, as the monitors stepped into the water, they saw that the 
creek was littered with dead and dying crayfish, their tiny 
exoskeletons turning from shrimp-gray to white as they stopped taking 
in oxygen. Then they saw the eels. Eels hadn't been discussed in the 
stream classes, but, as the monitors would soon learn, the shy, 
nocturnal American eel was perhaps the most exotic fish in local 
waters. Eels spend most of their long lives -- from eight to 20 years 
-- patrolling the shallow water under the lips of stream banks, 
preparing to make one spectacular swim, a journey of a thousand 
miles, all the way down to the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda. There they 
breed, and from there their tiny offspring, known as elvers, use one 
of nature's most extraordinary, if little understood, homing 
instincts to return to the streams that their mothers set out from 
months before. To get home, elvers cross great obstacles, even 
slithering across short stretches of wet earth and pavement. They are 
the only fish in local waters that climb Great Falls. Many of the 
dead eels splayed along Donaldson Run that August morning were the 
direct descendants of eels that had swum that particular stretch of 
water in George Washington's day and before.

Radke hiked upstream along the fence lines of several back yards, and 
saw that the eel kill extended for more than a block and a half.

"If you'd brought a dump truck out to pick them up, you would have 
filled it," he said later. "It was obvious that something had killed 

But what?

"There was no smell, the water was clear," Radke said. "We didn't 
know what to make of it."

Shaken, and more than a little worried about the stream water on 
their hands and gloves and sneakers, the Donaldson Run monitors 
climbed back up the bank and debated what to do. They called the 
county's environmental office but got an answering machine. Next, 
they tried the naturalist who'd trained them, a man named Cliff 
Fairweather, who told them to call the fire department. Within 
minutes, firetrucks, helicopters and hazmat vehicles from Arlington 
and Washington had converged where the creek crosses Military Road in 
Arlington and flows into National Park land. Hazmat teams followed 
the trail of dead eels up to the top of a ridgeline and the grounds 
of the Washington Golf & Country Club.

The mystery was soon solved. The country club was replacing its turf. 
To kill the old grass, and all of the weed spores in the ground, 
groundskeepers had been applying a powerful herbicide-fumigant called 
Basamid G. The instructions for using Basamid G warn that it must not 
be applied if there is forecast of heavy rain. They also recommend 
that the product be applied only in a bowl-like setting, where 
storm-water runoff is not likely.

Memories about the weather forecast for that August day in 2001 
differ. County officials recalled that afternoon storms had been 
predicted. But a club officer later described the ensuing downpour as 
a "freak thunderstorm." In any case, when the skies opened, 
contaminated rainwater washed down the hillside and into Donaldson 
Run and a neighboring creek and, from there, into the Potomac, a mile 

The fire department quickly cordoned off the stream area with yellow 
police tape, and the golf club, by all accounts, quickly acknowledged 
responsibility. Within a few days, all of the government agencies 
with jurisdiction over streams and fish kills -- from Arlington, the 
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, as well 
as Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality -- were meeting to 
investigate and to begin what would be a four-year process of 
assessing damage and considering fines. Down at the creek, meanwhile, 
the dead eels decomposed. "We sent e-mails out to the neighborhood 
association -- 'Don't let your kids and dogs play in the water. Don't 
let your dogs eat the fish,'" Radke said. "People started panicking: 
'What about the wildlife that eat it? What about the raccoons?'" But 
as Radke and the others already knew too well, Basamid G was only the 
latest in a long series of insults to Donaldson Run. It was a deadly 
and toxic shock, true, but also part of a much bigger problem with a 
much less exotic name, one that threatens every suburban and urban 
stream in the country, and one that would not be solved with yellow 
police tape.

That problem is pavement, and the way it has changed the ancient 
relationship between streams and rain. For most of human history, 
rain fell onto meadows, fields and forests, and sank slowly into the 
ground. In fact, most of the rain was intercepted by plants and tree 
leaves before it ever hit ground, and evaporated back into the air, 
eventually returning as rain again. (This is still the case in 
undeveloped areas -- a forest after heavy rainfall is a remarkably 
dry place.) The small amount of rain that did reach the ground sank 
slowly down through layers of soil and rock until it reached the 
underground water table. From there it flowed laterally and downhill, 
still underground, toward streams, where it seeped into the 
streambeds and recharged the waterways from below. During a heavy 
storm, some rainwater might flow downhill on the ground's surface, 
but that was the exception, not the rule.

Pavement has changed all that. Now, every time it rains, water that 
once would have been slowly absorbed into meadow or forest floor 
courses off roads and parking lots and roofs and into curb gutters 
and storm drains, which funnel it directly to the local creek, at a 
speed and a volume that, before development, a stream saw only during 
spectacular storms, the kind that occur once or twice a century. 
These storm-water surges, as they are called, work as giant routers, 
scouring out streambeds and banks, flushing away the dirt around the 
roots of trees along the stream banks, and washing away the small 
creatures that cling to stream rocks. Under this regular, relentless 
scouring, stream life is swept away, and the stream becomes little 
more than a biologically dead sluiceway.

Donaldson Run was well on the way to this fate long before the Golf 
Course Incident. Its banks were badly eroded, as high as 20 feet in 
places. The streambed had dropped three feet in the past 30 years, 
exposing sewer lines the county had buried decades earlier. The 
exposed sewer lines had been encased in concrete sleeves, but those 
were crumbling, too, under the relentless scouring. The roots of huge 
bank trees had been exposed, and, every month or two, a few more 
mighty oaks or poplars toppled into the water, their enormous root 
balls raised to the air like frazzled nerve endings. The center of 
the channel was choked with long sandbanks of silt and car-size dams 
of dead trees, their branches festooned with plastic bags and other 

Storm-water runoff now threatens virtually every suburban and urban 
stream in the country. Stream assessments made by county governments 
around the Beltway in the past five years have given the majority of 
local streams a grade of C-minus or less, and there have been plenty 
of F's. (Donaldson Run was given a D.) Eighty percent of the 100,000 
miles of streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are in similarly bad 
shape, according to local governments and the independent Center for 
Watershed Protection. Worldwide, streams and rivers are in worse 
shape than any other habitat, according to University of Maryland 
stream ecologist Margaret Palmer; the rate of species extinction in 
streams is five times higher than that of any other habitat and far 
exceeds that of land or ocean.

In case you are hoping that the problem is of concern only to nature 
lovers with an inexplicable fondness for miniature crustaceans, think 
again. A decade's worth of new scientific research makes it clear 
that the problem of dying streams has direct and dire implications 
for the supply of clean drinking water. Streams are now understood to 
be the vital capillaries of the freshwater system. A healthy stream 
and the land, or watershed, around it, are a natural and 
irreplaceable filter for drinking water, a giant Brita. If that 
function were to be lost, the water that courses into the Potomac 
from local streams would be far dirtier, full of all the toxins that 
wash off roadways, things like cadmium and zinc from brake linings, 
as well as lawn fertilizer and other pollutants. Getting that water 
to a drinkable standard would be far more expensive than it is now, 
and would require treating the water with many more chemicals, each 
with its own cost in money and human health. Water bills in the 
Washington area already have been increasing for years to compensate 
for this, according to research by the Center for Watershed 

There is a related danger, as well. In times of drought, streams 
deprived of the slow seep of underground water that has been absorbed 
through meadow and forest, slacken or dry up completely, no longer 
able to support the reservoir and river intakes that supply drinking 
water. Many policy experts predict that in the coming century, clean 
water will become as precious a commodity as oil is today, and that 
water wars, long a feature of the booming cities in the dry American 
Southwest, will become far more commonplace. Already, legal battles 
have begun in the Midwest, as far-flung towns with depleted water 
tables sue for the right to pump water from the Great Lakes. Without 
healthy streams to feed it, even the mighty Potomac, which supplies 
virtually all of the drinking water for the Washington area, would be 
stressed, though local water authorities have highly sophisticated 
water control systems in place to help prevent shortages of drinking 
water even during severe drought.

If the connection between streams and drinking water is direct, it is 
not particularly visible. In many suburban and city neighborhoods, 
more than half of the streams have been shunted into storm pipes and 
buried underground. Many people have no idea what stream their 
downspouts drain into, or the name of the larger stream or river to 
which their local stream flows. All of that information makes up what 
stream scientists call a "watershed address." We all have one. A 
typical Washington watershed address starts with the nearest stream, 
then a larger creek -- Donaldson Run, for example. Next is Donaldson 
Run's destination, the Potomac River. And beyond that, the 
destination for the Potomac and all Washington area streams, 
Chesapeake Bay. But the connections are not widely understood, stream 
advocates say. Most people still believe, wrongly, that litter thrown 
into the ubiquitous corner storm drain (there are 10,000 of these in 
Arlington County alone) flows to a water treatment facility, rather 
than directly into a creek somewhere downstream.

As all of this has become better understood, the nation's 
environmental and conservation groups have shifted their focus from 
the "big water" -- oceans and rivers -- that occupied them in the 
1970s and '80s, to streams. Washington area county governments also 
have begun paying closer attention, motivated by looming cleanup 
deadlines imposed by the regional Chesapeake Bay Agreements and the 
federal Clean Water Act. (The federal government has set a deadline 
of 2010 by which ailing Chesapeake Bay must be restored to a certain 
level of ecological health. If that deadline is not met, the states 
whose creeks are polluting the water will begin paying large fines.) 
Under that pressure, Arlington is just one of many counties in the 
region scrambling to take the measure of its streams -- mapping its 
watersheds, measuring water quality. In the past four years, 
Arlington and other counties have hired biologists, hydrologists and 
civil engineers to draw up watershed management plans. Even Fairfax 
County, long seen by environmental activists and some politicians as 
indifferent to environmental concerns, has changed its tune, stream 
advocates say. Fairfax's recent survey of its streams was 
unflinching, and it gave more than two-thirds of the county's streams 
a rating of fair or poor. "At [county] board meetings now, the 
question is no longer whether streams matter, but rather, what are we 
going to do about it," said Stella Koch, an official with the Audubon 
Naturalist Society and longtime stream advocate.

At the base of this pyramid of environmental activism is a steadily 
growing army of citizen volunteers. There are now more than 5,000 
watershed- and stream-protection groups around the country, most of 
which have cropped up in the past decade. Washington has more of 
these groups than any other metropolitan area. There are 130 groups 
in this region, from Rock Creek to Hagerstown. Their roots go back to 
the 1960s, when a federal government worker named Rachel Carson, who 
lived near the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River, wrote a book 
called Silent Spring that became a call to arms and a touchstone for 
the emerging environmentalist movement.

The experience of Dan Radke and others at Donaldson Run is typical of 
the way the process has worked. Radke, worried about the stream and 
tired of picking up the trash by himself, first approached the county 
in the mid-1990s about setting up a stream-monitoring program similar 
to those he'd heard were underway in Montgomery and other counties. 
Nice idea, but no money, the county said. But within a few years, the 
county changed its mind, especially when it became clear that the 
cost of such a program was minimal.

Donaldson Run is also benefiting from another development in stream 
rescue, known as stream restoration. This fall, Donaldson Run is 
being bulldozed, scraped and otherwise altered beyond recognition, as 
part of a $1.5 million redesign that will raise the streambed, 
reroute the stream channel and replant its banks with several hundred 
saplings. It is the most extensive stream restoration ever attempted 
in Arlington County, and while its impetus was to protect the 
streambed's crumbling sewer lines, its goals are more ambitious -- to 
re-create the natural stream features erased by the "fire hose" 
effect of suburban storm water. (There have been 38,000 stream 
restorations around the country in the past two decades, with 3,700 
of them in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.) "The idea that urban and 
suburban streams will ever be pristine again isn't realistic, but, 
with better management practices, we will be able to get relatively 
good water quality," said Mark Bryer, a monitor on a neighboring 
stream who, in his day job, directs Chesapeake Bay programs for the 
Nature Conservancy. "A stream like Donaldson Run can go from poor to 
fair, or fair to good."

The Donaldson Run Civic Association was sufficiently convinced that 
it allocated the entire $25,000 of its county-funded capital 
improvement money to the project. But, like surgery, the process can 
be hard to watch.

"It is a little shocking," citizen stream monitor Lucy Spencer 
admitted, standing by the upper reach of the stream's main tributary. 
Bulldozers had carved a new S-shaped course, a giant slalom, into the 
formerly straight streambed. (The sinews were designed to slow down 
storm water in the way a twisting luge run can slow down a sled.) 
About 30 large trees, most of them already severely undermined by 
erosion, had been razed. The streambed itself had been built up and 
was now three feet higher than before. New, gently sloping banks were 
still bare but had been battened down with biodegradable netting, 
through which new grasses and shrubs would eventually sprout. The 
work was only partially completed, but already the stream looked 
radically different -- sunnier, sweeter and far more accessible. The 
weedy ravine it had once resembled was a memory.

At 26 square miles, Arlington is the smallest county in America, but 
even so, even though the Donaldson Run monitors live within a few 
blocks of one another, they agree that if they hadn't decided to take 
up stream monitoring, most of them might never have met. They 
certainly wouldn't have worked alongside one another, gotten to know 
one another's foibles and talents, and most certainly wouldn't have 
done so at a weekend hour when most people are happy to have done 
nothing more strenuous than creep out of the house to collect the 
morning paper.

The group's monitoring session this July was typical. The songbirds 
were trilling, and the Asian tiger mosquitoes weren't too annoying 
yet, everyone noted with relief. The monitors had gathered early to 
beat the heat. By 10 a.m., bank stability, water temperature, 
overhead leaf cover and silt content had been measured and debated, 
and the consensus entered into the field book.

"Okay, folks," team leader Anita Marx called out, her head bent over 
the field book. "Dominant vegetation -- what have we got?"

"Well," said Helen Lane, "I see stilt grass, I see daylilies --"

"We don't need that detail," Marx said quickly. A PhD candidate in 
stream science and not a morning person, Marx was the team leader. It 
was her job to keep the group from falling into pleasant but 
distracting, rambling conversations about hummingbird sightings and 
bridge repair.

"I see weeds, like wineberry," Lucy Spencer, a sculptor and gardener, 
volunteered. She raised her head and sniffed.

"I think there's a dead animal in the woods this morning," she said 
to the group. "Can you smell it?"

Marx interrupted again. "Okay, so do we have much in the way of 
shrubs?" she said, sounding a little pained. With her short hair, 
cargo shorts, T-shirt and black rubber kayaking shoes, Marx looked at 
least a decade younger than her 49 years, but she was more 
bleary-eyed than anyone else on the team. For months she had been 
working days and staying up until 3 a.m. writing her dissertation. 
Except for when it was strictly necessary, she generally tried not to 
interact with the world until after noon. Marx had studied science in 
college and then drifted into a computer science career but came back 
to the natural world, and to graduate school, a few years ago. "I 
decided life was more interesting than computers," she said.

Marx grew up in Arlington in the 1960s and '70s, and her 
subdivision's creek, she said, "was the only interesting thing in the 
neighborhood." Her street drained into Little Pimmit Run. More than 
half of the stream had already been buried by the '70s. But the 
stretch still above ground was full of minnows and tadpoles.

"I think the world would be awfully lonely without other creatures," 
she said. "It's partly because they're mysterious. They're something 
we didn't create. Cars and computers aren't mysterious; they're 
useful, but not mysterious. But these creatures are."

And because streams' utility to us is as yet only partially 
understood, losing their inhabitants seems like a bad idea. "Life on 
Earth evolved to be interdependent, and we don't fully understand 
those relationships yet," Marx said. "We don't really know what we 
can do without. Each of the pieces has a different function -- soil 
absorbs groundwater, which people drink. Plants produce oxygen, so we 
can breathe. We eat the fish, which eat much smaller things. So you 
need the whole web. For me, being out on the creek gives a sense of 

Which is why the Golf Course Incident was so upsetting. "I mean, 
bottom line: It killed everything," she said. "We've never gotten any 
crayfish again. All we get these days are the larvae of flying 
insects, who fly in from other areas and deposit their eggs."

Once the group had gauged the state of Donaldson Run's vegetation, 
Marx dropped tiny tablets into clear vials of creek water to test 
levels of phosphate and dissolved oxygen, both markers of how much 
lawn fertilizer had washed into the stream since the previous census. 
Meanwhile, Radke crouched over the water and kneaded the undersides 
of softball-size stream cobbles to work loose some insect larvae 
(which would be returned to the stream later).

Spencer, Lane and another neighbor, Larry Finch, head of the 
neighborhood civic association, all of them in their seventies, 
lamented, not for the first time, that their knees and their eyes 
were not what they once were. "We could use some younger monitors," 
Lane observed. "Their eyes are so much keener."

But what they did have was institutional memory; the long view.

"The water's flowing fast this morning, really clean," Finch said.

"Well, we had three inches of rain this week," said Lane. "That's a 
gully washer. Turns the stream into a storm sewer. And every time we 
get a gully washer, we lose a few trees."

"We'd love to find a crayfish this morning," Spencer said wistfully.

"When we moved in, in 1966, we often would see crayfish along the 
stream," Finch said. He hasn't seen crayfish in those numbers for 

Radke's children splashed in the water downstream, near where an 
artificial reef of gray boulders had been installed three years ago 
to stem erosion. Instead, the reef, known as riprap and operating 
like a pinball flipper, simply redirected the water to the opposite 
bank, where it proceeded to gouge an even deeper divot out of the 
creek's flank.

"Ladies," Marx called out to Spencer and Lane, her head bent over the 
microscope. "Anybody got anything for me yet?" Having scraped the 
required number of samplings from under stream rocks, in stream pools 
and in the ruffled currents known as riffles -- the monitors now 
emptied the nets into a white plastic dishpan filled with two inches 
of creek water. They began poking around the pan with tweezers, 
lifting out tiny bits of leaf debris, in search of even smaller 
larvae. When they found a likely suspect, they sucked it up with an 
eyedropper and squirted it into a chamber of an empty plastic ice 
cube tray.

"See that bug?" Radke said to his daughter as they leaned over one of 
the trays. "They're swimming. Swim, swim, swim!"

From their plastic ice cube corrals the larvae were transferred once 
more into miniature plastic petri dishes or directly onto the glass 
slide under the microscope lens.

"Does a caddis fly mean the water's good?" Spencer called out as she 
looked through the scope at a tiny black squiggle.

Marx came over to have a look. "Not that kind of caddis fly," she 
said. Then she squinted again. "What we have here is a mayfly," she 
announced. The insect was duly noted on the day's count sheet. The 
work went on.

Four years after their first meeting, most of the monitors have a 
hard time remembering where they saw the recruiting notice that 
brought them here. Spencer thinks it was a local newsletter. Marx, an 
Audubon Naturalist Society bulletin. But all of them can remember 
precisely what impelled them to venture out to that first meeting.

Spencer, a Tennessee native who has been in Arlington for 31 years, 
minus stints in Peru and the Middle East during her husband's State 
Department career, had been a gardener and led her daughters' Camp 
Fire Girl groups.

"I said, Okay, in 10 years I am going to be 80. So what are these 
next 10 years going to be about?" The streams of Middle Tennessee had 
been a big part of her childhood. Back then, before the paper 
companies began clearcutting the local forests and overwhelming the 
streams with runoff from eroded hillsides, her family had spent 
Sundays by the water. "The water was so clear, my grandfather used to 
throw coins in, and we'd swim around trying to find them." As an 
adult stationed in the Middle East, she'd seen how frightening it 
could be when clean water was scarce.

"This stream has connected me to this place in a way I'd never been 
connected before," she said. "I'm not a committee person, but now I 
feel I'm really part of a community. I come here almost every day 
now. I've done a lot of things in my life, but this is the thing I've 
stuck with the longest."

Dan Radke's romance with local streams started in the early 1980s, 
soon after he moved to Washington from Pittsburgh after college. He 
and some friends rented a group house near Spout Run, and from there 
Radke began to explore the local network of stream valley parks. He 
found a job, and then acquired a puppy, Cody. She expanded his hiking 
range considerably. They went out for long walks twice a day, 
eventually hiking all of the streams, or runs, that course down to 
the Potomac from North Arlington's rocky palisades. (The word "run" 
comes from the Old English "rundle," which means a stream that runs 
down over a gently sloping bed lined with smooth rock, or cobbles.) 
Around the time he got married, Radke moved closer to Donaldson Run 
and began to notice the trash. It was hard to miss. Each rainstorm 
swept new piles of paper, plastic and other debris into the creek, 
where the trash snagged on branches and otherwise did not go away. He 
began bringing trash bags along on his hikes and filling them, but 
soon had too much trash to carry out by himself. He called the 
county, which referred him to an overworked Parks and Recreation 
person. "But we agreed that if I collected the trash, they would come 
and pick it up."

As connected to the stream as he had become, Radke couldn't help but 
notice the other problems -- the erosion, the toppled trees. When he 
first brought that to the county's attention, in the mid-1990s, the 
response was tepid. There was no money and no one on staff who was 
responsible for stream health. But in 1999, the county's 
environmental department hired a young environmental scientist named 
Jason Papacosma to assess the health of Arlington's streams. Within a 
few months, Radke and Papacosma had met with Cliff Fairweather, a 
stream specialist at the Audubon Naturalist Society, to talk about 
putting together Arlington's first stream-monitoring program. 
Fairweather had been instrumental in setting up several citizen 
monitoring groups in the D.C. area and in instructing group leaders, 
including county officials such as Aileen Winquist, an Arlington 
environmental planner who has gone on to manage many monitoring teams 
and their data. (The state Soil and Water Conservation District 
office in Northern Virginia and the conservation group Save Our 
Streams also have trained stream monitors.) Ask many 
stream-monitoring groups in the area about their early days, and, 
often as not, Fairweather's name will come up.

It is not unusual for one person to be so influential, said Maryland 
stream ecologist Margaret Palmer, who has examined stream restoration 
projects across the country.

"Sometimes it can be traced to one person who has been incredibly 
active," Palmer said. "Sometimes it just takes one person."

It was spring and a fine day for bug hunting. Cliff Fairweather was 
walking down a narrow, grassy path toward a small jewel of a stream 
called Margaret's Branch, just outside the town of Clifton in 
southwestern Fairfax County. In 15 years with the Audubon Naturalist 
Society, Fairweather has taught hundreds of stream monitors how to 
identify a healthy stream. Mild-mannered, with eyeglasses that keep 
sliding down his nose, he has the distracted mien of a professor of 
the open air, a detective appraising the earth through field glasses. 
Fairweather is an interpretive naturalist, which means he is a kind 
of translator who makes the mysteries of the natural world readily 
understandable to non-specialists. He refers to his insect specimens 
as "pickled bugs" and in the field frequently interrupts himself to 
point out anything interesting. "Tiger swallowtail!" he called out, 
pointing to a yellow flash of butterfly wings. "Ruby-crowned kinglet 
over there," he added a moment later, pointing to a grove of trees 
and mimicking the bird's call.

"There's been a kingfisher real active around here the last few 
days," he said, making his way toward the creek, his worn canvas 
hiking boots making squishing sounds in the marshy ground. "We've got 
some red-shouldered hawks . . . those birds you hear now are 
white-footed sparrows and some junkoes, I think. And the Louisiana 
waterthrush -- confusing name, it's actually a warbler -- has arrived 
from down South. They use the stream, too."

Fairweather came to his present calling after more than a decade 
working for a defense contractor, doing historical research on the 
atmospheric nuclear testing program. "Took me 15 years to find out 
what I wanted to do in life," he said cheerfully. But he'd always 
been an ardent amateur naturalist. Growing up in Alexandria in the 
1960s and '70s, he'd spent hours each week down at the local stream. 
It was always the first place his mother sent for him when he 
couldn't be found.

Fairweather's classes are free and open to all comers, and Margaret's 
Branch is his outdoor classroom. With its banks shaded by tall tulip 
poplars, Margaret's Branch looks like a picture postcard mailed from 
the 18th century. Its streambed is no wider than two feet in most 
places and is cosseted by shallow banks tufted with grasses and 
flowering weeds. It meanders through a 20-acre nature sanctuary, a 
former working farm donated to the Audubon Naturalist Society, one of 
the oldest conservation groups in the D.C. area and the nation.

"Most people get into this without any background in ecology, and it 
opens up a whole new world to them," Fairweather said, setting his 
buckets and other teaching gear down with a clank, beside the stream. 
"I've seen workshops where people are getting their first exposure, 
and in minutes they are really hooked. A lot of it is the appeal of 
the stream creatures. They are beautiful. And they have some 
adaptations for survival that really captivate people."

He crouched over the water. The case-making caddis fly fascinates, 
Fairweather said, lowering his net, because it alone among all the 
aquatic insects uses small bits of gravel, sand, bark to build an 
intricate stone wall around its lower body. Under a field microscope, 
the wall appeared to be made of multicolored "bricks," like the 
form-stone facade of a Baltimore rowhouse.

In addition to becoming familiar with the basics of stream biology -- 
the life cycles of benthic macroinvertebrates, or stream bugs -- 
stream monitors also, inevitably, learn about geology, engineering, 
hydrology and other fields that make up the science of how streams 

"When you start getting a lot of storm water, and it starts cutting 
into the creek, the channels change to accommodate," Fairweather 
said. Unstable banks collapse and take shade trees with them. The 
stream's course widens and straightens. The water heats up. Storm 
surges race through, leaving behind a layer of silt that suffocates 
all the stream creatures that haven't been washed away.

"There are all kinds of creeks in Alexandria like that. Cabin John 
Creek in Maryland is becoming like that. We had to abandon one 
monitoring site up there because there were no bugs to see."

Even in Washington's outer suburbs, where smaller amounts of pavement 
might seem to leave streams less stressed, the damage by storm-water 
runoff is accumulating. A short walk from Margaret's Branch, the 
banks of Popes Head Creek show clear signs of stress, even though 
they are surrounded by green fields and horses cantering along a 
trail on the opposite bank. The problem is that the creek's 
headwaters, five miles north, are surrounded by suburban sprawl. The 
stream runs through many subdivisions before it gets to Clifton. It 
is 15 to 20 feet wider than it was 100 years ago, and the streambed 
has dropped several feet.

Scientists and watershed planners refer to the amount of paved ground 
in a watershed as its "impervious" rating. The skyscraper canyons of 
Rosslyn, for example, have an impervious rating of 60 to 70 percent, 
while in the rest of Arlington, an older inner suburb, it is about 40 
percent. The neighborhoods immediately around Donaldson Run are about 
25 percent impervious. One paved acre of land throws off 16 times 
more water than a one-acre meadow does.

Once the impervious rating in a watershed climbs much over 10 to 15 
percent, the stream that drains it begins to wash away. When the 
impervious rating is 55 percent, the variety of stream creatures 
drops by 90 percent, and sensitive species disappear entirely.

Historically, stream health has not figured in local government 
decisions about development. But that is changing. This year, for 
example, the Potomac Watershed Roundtable, a new coalition of 
Northern Virginia watershed planners led by Fairfax County Supervisor 
Penny Gross, sent the state legislature a proposal to give local 
governments the power to pass tree conservation ordinances. Such 
ordinances would establish a link, for the first time, between the 
storm-water management fees paid by housing developers and the number 
of trees they preserve. (Incentives like that would have helped 
western Fairfax County's severely degraded Little Rocky Run, where 
citizens spent a long weekend planting 300 trees along the creek only 
to learn that elsewhere in their watershed, at the very same time, a 
developer had clearcut 10,000, an entire forest.) But the very vocal 
dismay and ongoing activism of the Friends of Little Rocky Run and 
the group's founder Ned Foster have been an important goad, local 
officials said, an incentive to get things right. In fact, prodded by 
a combination of new science, citizen awareness and federal and state 
clean water laws, local governments are slowly realizing that a 
healthy stream can be as valuable a real estate asset as good schools 
or adequate roads, said Diane Hoffman, head of the state's 
influential Soil and Water Conservation District office in Northern 
Virginia. Stream science is now so solid and irrefutable, and the 
understanding of it so widespread, that even the decades' old logjam 
among environmentalists, local governments and development interests 
is beginning to break loose.

"It's not just the Chesapeake Bay anymore," said Fairweather. "People 
want their local stream to be decent. That's a big shift from 10 
years ago. Back then, streams were just kind of there, and there 
wasn't this focus on ecology. The question now is: Would you rather 
have a healthy stream running through the neighborhood, or a 
storm-water ditch that the kids can't play in and your dog gets sick 
if it licks it?"

"We're in the early heart-transplant era of stream restoration," said 
Tom Schueler of the Center for Watershed Protection. "It's still as 
much an art as a science. We have a lot of technology, but not all of 
the patients survive."

The blueprint for the Donaldson Run project was three years in the 
making, and its many pages unfurl to cover the table in a meeting 
room. Its planners have high hopes for it, but evaluating its success 
will be subjective because there is, as yet, no objective scientific 
standard by which to evaluate the effectiveness of stream restoration 
projects. To that end, an international team of scientists, led by 
the University of Maryland's Margaret Palmer and known collectively 
as the National River Restoration Science Synthesis Project, is 
working to develop just such a tool.

But there is one local stream restoration project that appears to 
have been a success. It is Kingstowne, named after a nearby townhouse 
development in the Alexandria portion of Fairfax County. There, a 
1,000-foot stretch of badly damaged stream, a tributary of Dogue 
Creek, has been raised from the nearly dead. The project was funded 
by county, state and federal agencies and two citizen groups as a 
test case five years ago. Today, the creek's newly contoured banks 
sway with grasses, and minnows and water bugs dart through the 
sparkling water. But only half of the stream's course was 
reconstructed. The other half continues to deteriorate.

The price for saving a creek in this way is not cheap. Stream 
restoration can cost from $200 to $600 a linear foot. The cost of 
restoring Fairfax's badly eroded Little Hunting Creek, for example, 
is estimated at $35 million, and "that's not to get it back to some 
beautiful pristine waterway," said Fairweather. "That's just to make 
it reasonably healthy and clean."

Because of the cost, restoration may not be an option for many ailing 
streams in America, stream ecologists agree. So ecologists and 
watershed planners are pushing something called "low-impact design," 
a variety of systems to catch storm water before it gets to the 
corner storm drain. These systems include everything from planting 
"green roofs" of rain-thirsty vegetation, which captures rain-water 
and insulates the building below, to attaching rain barrels to 
downspouts and conserving water for lawn and garden use. In Fairfax 
County, local planners are working with state conservationists to 
retrofit the 55-acre former Lorton federal prison complex -- soon to 
be an arts center -- with the latest in storm-water containment 
technologies. Some are surprisingly low-tech, like simply cutting up 
massive parking lots into smaller islands of asphalt that allow for 
wedges of absorbent green space in between. All of these are 
improvements on the often weed-choked, now discredited "storm-water 
management ponds" that were installed in countless subdivisions, 
shopping centers and office parks during the 1970s and '80s.

In the end, however, storm-water containment systems can only do so m

require realistic planning to leave enough absorbent green space 
between the ever-expanding acres of pavement.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed has enough pavement to park 116 million 
cars. Many local streams already are severely stressed by storm-water 
runoff, and the watershed's human population is expected to grow by 4 
million in the next 25 years. "We're improving our game all the 
time," Schueler said, "but we can't keep up with sprawl."

Early this month, Donaldson Run was a royal mess, as planned. The 
project was one-third completed. The stream was being dammed in 
200-foot sections, the water in between sucked out and pumped 
downstream to make way for backhoe operators and bulldozer drivers, 
who maneuvered their equipment in surprisingly balletic pirouettes, 
scooping dirt from one area of the streambed and patting it into 
place elsewhere. Staircases of U-shaped stone waterfalls intended to 
slow the flow were laid at intervals into the streambed, which had 
been raised several feet and was now within spitting distance of the 
banks and surrounding flood plain.

Meanwhile, four years of negotiations among the National Park 
Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington Golf & 
Country Club about compensation for the eel kill and other damages 
were nearing completion. A draft of the settlement was published in 
the Federal Register last month and was expected to be finalized in 
federal court soon. In the settlement, the club agrees to pay 
$145,000 for damages, including "substantial mortality of fish and 
American eels and virtual elimination of smaller aquatic organisms 
immediately downstream" from the herbicide's release.

Bob Mortenson, a past president of the club, said it was a moment of 
chagrin for the oldest golf and country club in Virginia, one whose 
fairways have hosted everyone from President Woodrow Wilson to the 
White House surgeon of Theo-dore Roosevelt. The groundskeeper, who 
has since retired, "didn't sleep for weeks afterward," Mortenson 
said. "When you're a groundskeeper, you're responsible for growing 
stuff. You want to make sure it stays alive."

The Donaldson Run monitors carried out their quarterly census, as 
planned, last month. They set up shop well downstream of the 
restoration. They didn't find too much -- some aquatic worms, a 
caddis fly, some black flies. There was no sign of eels. They 
wouldn't be out in the daytime anyway. But they are never far from 
anyone's mind. It is hoped they will repopulate, because the upper 
half of the stream was untouched by Basamid spill.

Nothing out of the ordinary on the zoological front, they reported. 
But the stream was another matter entirely. Seeing so many of the big 
old trees along the stream banks gone -- about 110 have been razed -- 
had been a bit of a wrench. For as long as anyone could remember, a 
walk along Donaldson Run had been an amble in dappled shade. Now, it 
was a walk in the bright sunlight. And it would be that way for 
several years, at least, until the fastest-growing saplings, now 
protected by deer fence, have had a chance to grow up.

Spencer was out walking the other day up by the mouth of the pipe 
where the stream's main tributary emerges from the ground, not far 
from its natural spring. The ground was corrugated with bulldozer 
tire tracks, and straw had been sprinkled around to clot the mud. An 
orange plastic construction fence had been put up to keep the curious 
out of harm's way. But Spencer had let herself in a few times to have 
a look around. That's how she happened to see the frog. She's pretty 
sure it was a frog, and not a toad. It was sitting near the lip of 
the storm pipe, which had been plugged by a temporary rock dam and 
was almost dry.

"I've been walking this stream for 31 years, and I've never seen a 
frog. I've asked around -- nobody's ever seen a frog," Spencer said. 
She still sounded elated several weeks after the sighting. "This 
means the water is pure enough that a frog could live here."

Even though she knew she shouldn't interfere, she couldn't help 
herself that day. She went over to the dam and lifted one small 
stone, to let a trickle of water through.

"I just hope the pumps didn't suck the frog up," she said, 
doubtfully. Then she brightened.

"But you see, that's why this is so fine -- all of this," she said, 
throwing her hand, in a wave that took in the whole scene -- the 
debris and the dirt, the bulldozers and jagged tree stumps. "All of 
this will be worth it," she said. "We'll make it worth it. A real 
stream is a wonderful thing."

Mary Battiata is a Magazine staff writer. She will be fielding 
questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at
For updates and info, contact scott at planttrees dot org.