By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
The planned restoration of a stretch of Taylor Run drew widespread community concern at a virtual project update on Jan. 28, as environmentalists and residents questioned how effective and harmful the project will be.
City staff’s plan is to implement a natural channel design in a 1,900-foot section of Taylor Run from a sewer outfall near Chinquapin Recreation Center to First Baptist Church on King Street. The city’s stated goal with the project is to stabilize the degraded channel and exposed, at-risk sewer infrastructure, preserve the local ecology and improve water quality by slowing the downstream flow of phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment caused by erosion.
The presentation on Jan. 28 was the most recent of the city’s community outreach efforts for a project that has been flooded with concerns about its impact on the natural habitats near Taylor Run, including Chinquapin Park, and its effectiveness and overall scientific basis. The city’s 25-page long Q&A document for the project is a collection of more than 250 community questions and staff answers.
Residents have raised concerns, including about the city’s plan to remove about 261 trees along the channel, the destruction of local wildlife and the city’s alleged overestimation of phosphorous levels in Taylor Run’s soil.
“We’re concerned it’s going to destroy the natural beauty of Chinquapin Park for generations,” Andrew Macdonald, chair of the Environmental Council of Alexandria and former vice mayor, said. “We don’t think it will restore the stream in the way the city says it will, and it will lead to no proven benefit to the Chesapeake Bay in terms of water quality.”
Staff first identified Taylor Run as in need of restoration in 2008 during the second phase of its stream assessment program, according to Jesse Maines, stormwater division chief in the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. Over the years, stormwater that has rushed down Taylor Run in increasing quantities has degraded and eroded the streambanks, uprooting trees, which have fallen into the waterway, and depositing soil and sediment with pollutants downstream and, ultimately, in the Chesapeake Bay.
“People have been trying to say it’s this beautiful, pristine, natural flowing stream channel. It’s not. It is really a storm drainage ditch that has been incised over decades,” Bill Skrabak, deputy director of infrastructure and environmental quality, said.
Funding for the $4.5 million project has been a challenge in the past. But with a $2.25 million matching grant from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality through the state’s Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, the city has been able move forward with the project. SLAF is designed to fund water quality projects to help localities meet their mandated Chesapeake Bay water quality goals. T
he restoration project would bring the stream bed up higher using clean fill and a layer of bed material made from cobble, gravel, sand and the original stream bed’s topsoil. The intent behind the design is to bring the level of the stream bed up high enough so that there is a small “bench” where water can strategically overflow, creating a “release valve” for the water and curbing erosion on the banks of the channel, Nathan Staley, project lead for design consultant Wetland Studies and Solutions, Inc., said at the meeting on Jan. 28.
Using the natural channel design method, which involves techniques like step pools and log sills made of recycled trees, the city also aims to mitigate erosion and thus reduce pollutants in the soil from entering the downstream water flow.
The plan has raised some alarm bells in the community and the city itself. According to Rod Simmons, a natural resource manager and plant ecologist within the city’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, the project’s in-fill process would negatively impact wildlife in the stream.
“They’re going to take Taylor Run and dump tons and tons of truckloads of imported fill dirt in there, along with boulders and cut wood, pack it in there like a brick, killing everything that’s in the stream,” Simmons said. “There’s quite a lot of aquatic life in the stream.”
Residents have also expressed concern about the project’s impact on trees and the surrounding habitat, specifically a nearby wetland.
During the staff presentation, city staff clarified that although 261 trees would be removed from the immediate vicinity of the stream during construction, no bulldozers would be involved in the project and the city plans to replant 2,280 native trees and 7,200 shrubs of 30 native species.
“There’s an impression that it’s going to be a huge swath of that forest [that’s] all going to be lost. It’s really a fairly narrow corridor within the channel itself,” Skrabak said.
Simmons said he doubts whether all the replanted flora will be able to replace the rare plant species in the area that will be destroyed in the process.
“All they’re talking about is how great all the 8,000 [or] 9,000 shrubs and trees they’re going to slap in there are, but we’re not talking about all the stuff that we’re going to destroy that’s already existing that you can’t get back,” Simmons said.
The project plans have also been revised to reroute an access road that will be used by construction vehicles to further avoid a neaby wetland and a stand of mature trees, including a 44-inch red maple tree, Maines said.
Despite the city’s stated goals, local environmental activists have called into question the essential concept behind the natural channel design that is being used in the Taylor Run restoration project.
According to Simmons, stream restoration projects like this have become the de facto method of improving degraded streams nationwide. The natural channel design method is being used even in urban areas where the impacts of the design are supposedly far more destructive than restorative, Simmons said.
“Natural channel design, in particular, is extremely destructive because it really requires wide clearing of forests along the streambanks to create an artificial floodplain where one does not naturally exist,” Simmons said.
The project left some residents asking at the meeting whether the stream restoration aspect of the project will actually improve conditions in Taylor Run.
For Macdonald, the city is asking the wrong question when it comes to addressing stormwater runoff and pollutants flowing into the bay. Macdonald said the city would be better off looking upstream from Taylor Run, to major commercial developments.
“The question is not how to restore Taylor Run – it’s how to address the impact of development on Taylor Run,” Macdonald said. “They’re asking the wrong question. They’re thinking that they can do these things to address Taylor Run and the problems that are occurring far upstream.”
According to the city, little more can be done to improve water quality upstream. About one third of the developments in the upstream watershed follow the water quality standards established in 1992 by the Bay Act, Skrabak said. The rest of the developments in the area were constructed in the postWorld War II period before those standards existed.
According to Skrabak, if the funding from the Taylor Run project was diverted to add more upstream clean water best management practices, the result would be only an additional 5% to 10% of watershed coverage.
Although staff is looking into implementing more BMPs upstream, those efforts would not help stabilize the Taylor Run channel or sewer infrastructure, Skrabak said.
“It doesn’t address the degraded stream channel as it exists today,” Skrabak said. “That’s really why this has been high on our list of potential restoration projects because it is in such poor shape.”
Some environmentalists contend that the process behind the city’s environmental assessment of Taylor Run vastly overestimates the level of phosphorous in the stream’s sediment.
According to Maines, the metric the city used for its measurement of pounds of phosphorous per ton to qualify for its SLAF grant is based on guidance from the Chesapeake Bay Program’s expert panel. Based on that guidance, the city is using an assessed figure of 1.05 pounds of phosphorous per ton.
However, Simmons, whose work as an environmental research scientist and plant ecologist has spanned about 30 years, said that that figure is based on a sample taken by the expert panel in the Harrisburg area of Pennsylvania, an area in the midst of farmland with much higher phosphorous levels. The city is not required to take its own nutrient sample, according to the city’s Q&A document.
Simmons conducted his own independent sampling of the sediment in Taylor Run and had the samples tested at a lab. The levels of phosphorous Simmons found were far less than the figures used by the city to secure its grant funding.
“In Fairfax County, [the] City of Alexandria and Arlington County, all the [projects] that are currently on the planned stream projects, I’ve sampled and had them tested at an industry best lab. The average of them all is five times less phosphorous than what they’re allowed to use [for their projections],” Simmons said.
SLAF grants are typically prioritized for projects that have a $50,000 or less cost per pound for phosphorous removal. If the city’s real phosphorous levels are so low that they would bring that cost estimate above $50,000, it could call into question the veracity of the city’s grant funding, Simmons said.
Despite the results of Simmons’ study, Maines said the city is still well within its effective cost benefit analysis.
“If we had half of what we’re currently doing, based on the expert panel guidance, which is what we should be following … you would still have the cost benefit from a grant perspective and from any other comparable BMP perspective,” Maines said.
Construction on the Taylor Run stream project is set to begin in fall/winter 2021 and continue into winter 2022. Despite calls from the community, there are currently no plans to bring the project before City Council, Maines said. Council previously approved the SLAF grant application in September.
While staff is not keen to explore other alternatives at this point – a final design is set to be completed this spring – Macdonald believes council deserves a proper look at the project before it heads downstream.
“The whole thing is a complete disaster. It was set up with good intentions, these restoration projects, but they don’t function at all well in urban settings,” Macdonald said.