Silent streams - poisoning by sprawl
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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