Our View: Listen to the scientists

Our View: Listen to the scientists
The walking path through Chinquapin Park. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

While in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” a clue to the antagonist’s identity was to “follow the spiders,” generally following the flow of money is a more productive approach.

Thus, it is worth looking at the financial aspects of the city’s proposed Taylor Run stream “restoration” project. We put quotation marks around the word restoration because we are dubious of plans that include destroying something in the name of saving it.

Several letter writers in the Times editorial pages have recently stated that cities and states should beware of the multi-billion-dollar stream restoration industry as they contemplate restoration projects.

These writers have said a one-size-fits-all approach is being pushed by these companies. At heart, their complaint is that groupthink is causing “natural channel design” to be advocated by bureaucrats who are administrators, not scientists, and by companies that stand to earn large profits.

These letter writers are correct about the money involved.

Environmental restoration is a $25 billion industry that generates more direct jobs than steel production in the United States, according to ecosystemmarketplace.com.

The company that produced the Phase III Stream Restoration Study last year for the City of Alexandria is Wood Environment and Infrastructure Solutions, Inc. The John Wood Group PLC, the parent company of Wood Environment, is a publicly traded British company with a market capitalization of 1.51 billion pounds, which is just a shade under $2 billion.

The company hired as the consultant on the Taylor Run restoration project is Wetland Studies and Solutions, Inc. which is owned by the Davey Tree Expert Company. According to Wikipedia, Davey Tree is the largest residential tree company in the country. The privately owned company had revenues in 2018 of just over $1 billion.

The second financial aspect of the Taylor Run project involves its estimated $4.5 million price tag, and the $2,255,000 grant Alexandria has received from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality from its Stormwater Local Assistance Fund for this project.

The state set up this fund to help “municipalities implementing projects to reduce stormwater pollution as the new Chesapeake Bay TMDL requirements were being passed down,” according to the city’s website.

City staff have touted this grant and the restoration plan’s nearness to implemtation as reasons that alternatives to the city’s preferred natural channel design shouldn’t be considered. It’s not clear, though, why this money could not be applied to alternative approaches, so long as the design achieves the desired pollution mitigation.

Scientists who have written to the Times have denounced the proposed plan for Taylor Run, saying what’s on the table will not achieve the desired results, and is actually “a mismanagement of public funds by inappropriately targeting sediment-control projects in places with low levels of the very nutrients for which funding is based …”

This letter, “Wrong approach for stream restoration” in the Sept. 24 Times, was signed by 10 scientists and environmental experts, including a hydrogeologist, environmental scientist, fluvial geomorphologist, biologist, geologist and climate change scientist.

Finally, the elephant in the room, with this issue and most of the problems Alexandria is currently encountering with flooding, traffic and parking, stems from the city’s overdevelopment and the loss of pervious surfaces, also known as green space. This issue was addressed by geologist and former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald in the Oct. 15 Times:

“… the plan does not address stormwater runoff, which is the primary reason that Taylor Run is eroding its banks and deepening its channel. Most of the Taylor Run watershed or sewer-shed has been paved over. So, when it rains in the part of the watershed that lies above T.C. Williams, most of the water flows into culverts that lead to Chinquapin Park.”

Alexandria’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services is run by Yon Lambert, who has a master’s degree in public administration. His deputy in charge of stormwater management, Jesse Maines, also has an MPA. While clearly intelligent and capable, neither are scientists.

All year long, regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been told to listen to experts and follow the science. Why would the same approach not apply to an important debate about a local environmental treasure?

Let’s pause this project and let our remarkable cadre of scientists help develop a plan that reduces pollution without destroying our forest.