Environmentalists question Taylor Run stream restoration plans

Environmentalists question Taylor Run stream restoration plans
The Taylor Run stream that runs through Chinquapin Park. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Is reducing pollution in the Chesapeake Bay worth cutting down 269 trees in Alexandria? This is the question at the heart of the city’s Taylor Run stream restoration project.

The city intends to restructure 1,900 linear feet of the Taylor Run stream in Alexandria to slow the downstream flow of phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment caused by erosion. Since the project would allegedly reduce the amount of pollution traveling from Taylor Run into the Potomac River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, it would help the city meet its Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction requirements.

The walking path through Chinquapin Park, which runs adjacent to the Taylor Run stream. A lot of the vegetation and trees to the left of the trail would be impacted by the stream restoration. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

However, local environmentalists, civic associations and residents are questioning the means by which the project will achieve its pollution reduction goals, since it involves disturbing one of the city’s few forested areas.

“It’s the closest thing we have to a forest in Alexandria,” Russell Bailey, a resident and environmental advocate, said. “When all is said and done, realistically, about this project, whatever reduction there is of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, is going to be a fleabite in comparison to the potential damage to the Alexandria natural environment.”

The city held the first public community meeting detailing specifics of the project in January 2020 and another on Sept. 29. Because of the pandemic, there were no public meetings in the spring or summer. Construction is anticipated to begin in mid to late 2021, according to the project’s page on the city website.

The portion of Taylor Run stream to be restructured begins at the Chinquapin Park trailhead, near the Chinquapin Park Recreation Center and Aquatics Facility on King Street and ends behind the First Baptist Church property.

Erosion along the stream banks. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

Over the years, the stream has been downcutting – a geological process by which the stream channel deepens – as a result of high volumes of water. The stream is largely underground before it opens through a culvert into Chinquapin Park. There are also several storm drain outfalls that discharge into the stream.

“In a highly urbanized area with a high amount of impervious area, like any other urban area, that in and of itself puts stress on the system,” Bill Skrabak, city deputy director of infrastructure and environmental quality, said.

The restoration project will involve raising the stream bed and engineering in-stream structures that would slow and control the flow of the stream. But in order to perform the restoration, the city will need to cut down 269 trees, clear out natural vegetation and bring in heavy equipment that could harm the root systems of trees along the construction path.

Of the trees slated for elimination, six are larger than 30 inches in diameter, about 54 are between 18 and 30 inches in diameter and about 207 are 6 to 17 inches in diameter.

The city plans to replant about 2,280 trees and 7,200 shrubs at the project’s conclusion. However, the project’s critics argue the replanted trees will not make up for the trees lost.

A large maple that is at risk of being cut down as part of the Taylor Run stream restoration. After receiving feedback from the community, city staff say they are adjusting plans to protect the tree. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

“They’re planting way too many trees, way too small,” Bailey said. “It’s going to be survival of the fittest. Most of those trees will die. They’re so small that if you get any big rain event, they’ll wash out. It’s not a replanting project that’s designed for success.”

In addition, there is an acidic seepage swamp – a globally rare wetland and the only of its kind in the city – near the project’s boundaries. In his review of the project, Rod Simmons, a natural resource manager and plant ecologist with the city Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, identified 24 plant species within the seepage swamp that are highly rare in the City of Alexandria.

While early plans had the construction path of the project cutting into the wetland, Skrabak said the project will no longer impact it.

“There’s been a lot of talk about the acidic wetland that’s adjacent to the work, and so I think there’s a little bit of misinformation that somehow that’s going to be destroyed as part of this project,” Skrabak said. “We’re doing everything we can do to avoid impacts to that. There’s some misinformation there that our project goes right through it, and that’s not the case.”

Simmons also identified 13 plants that are highly rare in the city that fall directly in the footprint of the proposed stream restoration.

When asked about protecting the rare plants, Jesse Maines, stormwater management division chief, said the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services has been working with RPCA.

“We have been working with Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities and the Natural Resources Division, so they’ve been a project team partner throughout to where we are to point, and they’ll continue to be,” Maines said. “They’re providing that kind of review for us because they have the ecologists and plant biologists and folks.”

However, a June 22, 2020 email exchange between Simmons and Natural Resources Division Chief Bob Williams refutes this assertion. The emails were provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that was shared with the Times.

Fallen trees in the Taylor Run stream. According to the city, erosion along the banks of the streams, which results in trees falling, is one reason for the stream restoration. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

Simmons wrote to Williams: “I also have great concern that Jesse Maines (and perhaps others) is using Natural Resources Division – but specifically you and I – as a sort of greenwashing for Stormwater Management’s stream construction projects by saying numerous times at public meetings and in written communications that he is working closely with Rod Simmons and Bob Williams on these projects – even to the extent of implying that we have given the projects our blessing. I, for one, have not worked with Jesse on anything for well over a year – haven’t even spoken to him. Such statements are dishonest, misleading, and self-serving.”

Beyond opposing the tree loss, the project’s critics have questioned the effectiveness of the project and the success rate of stream restorations in general.

“They have to meet these reduction obligations, and they’re looking for ways to do it, and the way that it’s being done very commonly around the Chesapeake Bay area is with these stream reconstruction projects,” Bailey said. “It’s a very clear way to get credit. … It’s an easy way to do it.”

Skrabak acknowledged that the stream restoration was, at least in part, motivated by the pollution reduction obligations, as well as a state grant that will provide half of the project’s funding. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has awarded the city a $2,255,000 grant to put toward the $4.5 million project.

“On the spectrum of cost effectiveness, stream restoration is a more cost-effective solution than some other strategies,” Skrabak said. “[Taylor Run] was identified way back when we did our initial stream assessments. This was a corridor that clearly needed help, and now we’re getting the grant.”

Bailey, along with former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald, who is board chair of the Environmental Council of Alexandria, said a different solution would make more sense for Taylor Run than a stream restoration.

A sign at the entrance to Chinquapin Park advocates for protecting the forest. (Photo/Environmental Council of Alexandria)

“The problem is not the pollution that’s being generated from the park and the stream,” Bailey said. “There’s very, very little of that. It’s coming off the streets, it’s coming off the parking lots, it’s coming from up in the watershed, which is now all underground. The question is, can you put bio swales up there, can you put underground holding tanks for the water and let the water out gradually?”

Now in the midst of the community engagement phase of the project, Bailey and Macdonald said they hope to continue having discussions about their project concerns with the city.

“The ideal outcome is that [the] city engages with us … and that we look at the problem and we come up with the best solution, the one that protects the bay and protects the existing park and its resources,” Macdonald said. “The problems that we’re seeing now, such as they are, are a result of all this water running off all the streets above T.C. Williams. You can’t solve it simply by doing something in the park itself.”

Bailey and Macdonald have also organized tours of the project area to educate the community. Last weekend, all eight 10-person tours offered were fully booked.

Maines said T&ES is currently determining how to best engage with the concerned residents and will likely have another public hearing in the fall.

The city is collecting feedback and questions in a 21-day comment period that closes on Oct. 23. Once staff has reviewed the comments, they plan to post answers to the questions raised on the city website, Maines said.

The project is not required to go to the Planning Commission or City Council for approval, Maines said. Council was already involved in the project through the grant application and Chesapeake Bay action plan.

For more information, go to https://bit.ly/3jhwAKv. To submit feedback before the public comment period closes on Oct. 23, go to www.research.net/r/AlexandriaVA-TaylorRunStream.