By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
City Council decided to pause the controversial Taylor Run stream restoration project, as well as a similar project in Strawberry Run, during Tuesday night’s legislative meeting.
The three-hour conversation that council engaged in on Tuesday was the first time council members have had an opportunity to speak publicly about the project, in the face of months of opposition from the community and the city’s own advisory board, the Environmental Policy Commission.
While staff provided information on three planned stream restoration projects – Taylor Run, Strawberry Run and Lucky Run – the first two received the most attention during the meeting.
When the city conducted its 2008 stream assessment, it identified hundreds of local streams in need of some restoration. In the 2019 assessment, the city prioritized the streams that would undergo restoration, including Taylor Run and Strawberry Run.
According to staff, stream restoration projects are designed to address public infrastructure issues and protect and improve local waterways all while allowing the city to further achieve its state-mandated Chesapeake Bay water quality and pollution reduction mandates.
All three projects currently involve natural channel design, a method of stream restoration that aims to mimic the meanders of a stream’s earlier state. This is done using a variety of methods from step pools to log sills made from recycled trees.
The city’s plan for Taylor Run would implement a natural channel design in a 1,900-foot section of the waterway that stretches from Chinquapin Recreation Center to First Baptist Church on King Street.
The NCD-based project would bring the incised, degraded stream bed up higher using clean fill material made up of cobble, gravel, sand and the original stream bed’s topsoil. By bringing the stream bed higher so that it is closer to the level of the bank and creating a small “bench,” the project would allow for strategic overflow, curbing erosion in the channel.
The city’s chosen restoration design has raised alarm bells among a wide swath of the community. Residents concerned with the impacts of the project on the surrounding environment have united around the “Don’t bulldoze Chinquapin Park” campaign – although the city has explicitly stated no bulldozers will be used in the project. Residents have argued that the Taylor Run project will impact the surrounding environment, particularly a nearby wetland and trees in the area.
According to staff, the project would involve removing 261 trees – 61 of which are already dead.
The city also identified that while infrastructure and channel maintenance are the stated goals of the projects, a co-benefit is reducing pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorous and the overall downstream flow of sediment that carries these pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay.
Every community in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is required by the state to make these reductions by 2025. According to the staff presentation, the city is well ahead of schedule in meeting these goals. In total, the city is required to reduce nitrogen levels by 7,597 pounds per year, phosphorous by 1,005 pounds per year and sediment by 861,937 pounds per year. To date, the city has received credit for reducing nitrogen by 5,223 pounds per year, phosphorous by 717 pounds per year and sediment by 581,058.
The city has stated it is using all three projects as a means of gaining pollutant reduction credits that contribute toward the overall reduction. In order to assist with funding for all three projects, the city applied for and gained Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Stormwater Local Assistance Fund grants, based in part on pollutant calculations.
The Lucky Run, Strawberry Run and Taylor Run projects involve SLAF grants of $700,000, $800,000 and $2.25 million, respectively. Particularly in the case of Taylor Run, residents have expressed concern that the city’s calculation of pollutants in the stream is based on soil samples from Pennsylvania that vastly overestimate the levels of phosphorous – calling into question the amount of credits the city should actually receive.
The recently revised guidance from the Chesapeake Bay program’s expert panel does include local soil sampling. T&ES Director Yon Lambert said each test would cost $15,000 and take a couple of months to complete.
Matt Landes, DPI division chief in T&ES, clarified that while local soil sampling can help assess crediting for the project, it likely would not alter the design.
“Whether we proceed with the soil sampling or not will not likely change the design and the structural needs of that stream nor what is required to protect city infrastructure,” Landes said.
Members of the EPC also presented during the meeting on Tuesday, solidifying their opposition to the stream restoration projects and natural channel design.
Commissioner Christine Maietta, an environmental research scientist, expressed concerns about the projects’ impact on the local ecology.
“Far too many peer review journal publications have provided evidence that the biological properties will be quite different for years after completing the restoration,” Maietta said.
“While you may receive some benefits many, many years down the road, it will take a long time, if at all, before you return the stream back to its current environment,” EPC Chair Kathie Hoekstra said.
Hoekstra proposed a compromise that would involve canceling the Taylor Run project, pausing the Strawberry Run project for additional analysis and continuing work on Lucky Run, after the city demonstrates the project is necessary for achieving its pollution reduction mandates.
Hoekstra also emphasized the need to protect Taylor Run’s acidic wetland. Due to the community gardens that were built above one section of the channel, an entirely new biome has developed that has brought with it rare flora and fauna.
“You would be eliminating that environment by changing it, thereby eliminating those rare plants and animals,” Hoekstra said.
Although the city acknowledged the project’s water quality goals, city staff also emphasized that work needs to be done in the channel to prevent erosion and protect exposed city infrastructure.
“There are some maintenance issues that need to be addressed,” Jesse Maines, stormwater division chief in the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said. “We do have a responsibility to address these issues.”
According to Maines, an exposed sanitary sewer pipe in Taylor Run is at risk of being damaged and potentially releasing raw sewage into the stream.
“I would also challenge anyone who would say that channel is in a natural or healthy state at this point,” Landes said. “The erosion that has taken place in the incising has actually severely impacted the natural system. And so, what is proposed will restore those natural systems and create habitat.”
Some community members have proposed staff focus its efforts primarily on addressing infrastructure in Taylor Run. According to staff, such a project would still involve removing 101 trees and would cost about $500,000.
During the meeting, city staff presented four alternative options that the community proposed to supplement the pollution reduction credits gained through the stream restoration projects. Some involved building Lucky Run and planting $2 million worth of trees instead of pursuing either Taylor Run or Strawberry Run. Others involved using credits from AlexRenew and the combined sewer outfall.
T&ES Deputy Director Bill Skrabak contested that while the city would gain some credits through these alternatives, it would not gain nearly enough, and those projects would still fail to address the infrastructure issues.
“Many of the proposed alternatives about getting credits, may get [them] credits, but they don’t necessarily deal with any of the instream things,” Skrabak said.
Instead, staff proposed council take one of four paths: either proceed with the current plan; proceed with the current plan using updated crediting protocol that includes on-site soil testing; pause the projects to evaluate them further or stop the city’s use of stream restoration altogether. Staff noted that the first three options all assumed that the Lucky Run project would proceed.
In delaying Taylor Run and Strawberry Run, staff said the city could potentially lose its SLAF grants and the project cost could inflate as the streams continue to degrade. In stopping stream restoration altogether, Skrabak said the city would then need to purchase or find another source for the $2.5 million worth of credits, which could involve raising the stormwater utility fee.
Councilor Amy Jackson expressed concerns about Strawberry Run and a previous natural channel design project that had been put in place in 2010 yet failed to hold up to stormwaters and flooding.
“That design did not work in 2010, so to redo it again in 2021, 2022, 2024, that doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would you redo something even with the lessons learned?” Jackson said.
With her concerns, Jackson proposed pausing both the Taylor Run and Strawberry Run projects to give staff time to explore alternative approaches and perform additional community outreach.
Councilor John Chapman echoed Jackson’s priorities but expanded her proposal. He proposed pausing all three projects to have staff conduct outreach on alternatives; working with the EPC to formulate alternatives to natural channel design; performing additional analysis according to updated expert panel protocols and then return to council.
The Lucky Run project, which staff is currently in the process of drafting bid documents for, remained a loose hanging thread for several council members given the lack of conversation around it. Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker supported pausing Taylor and Strawberry Run while moving forward with Lucky Run to help the city meet its pollution reduction mandates.
“I think we all want to meet our mandates. Our Environmental Action Plan calls for us to meet 100% of our mandates by fiscal year 2025, and I think looking at where we are with all those requirements, without Lucky Run I don’t know where our sediment credits would really come from,” Bennett-Parker said.
Chapman acknowledged EBP’s argument and said he was open to letting Lucky Run move forward while pausing the other projects two to allow for further evaluation. However, Chapman and Mayor Justin Wilson expressed some reservations around not taking a consistent approach with all three projects.
“I do have a hard time justifying why Lucky Run is OK and Taylor Run and Strawberry Run are objectionable for ecological reasons. I have a hard time not doing sampling on Lucky Run because we don’t want to know what the answer is, and I think that’s basically what’s happening here,” Wilson said, while acknowledging the vice mayor’s argument.
“I guess my general reaction is if we’re going to follow the science, let’s follow the science. Let’s be consistent about it,” Wilson added.
Council ultimately decided to pause the Taylor Run and Strawberry Run projects to allow staff time to perform additional analysis on the streams using updating Expert Panel protocol, investigate alternatives to natural channel design with the EPC and conduct additional community outreach. Meanwhile Lucky Run will move forward, however staff will also test the soil in alignment with the updated protocol. There is no date currently set for when staff will return to council.