By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
The controversial Taylor Run stream restoration project is, for the moment, not part of the city’s pollution reduction plans, according to a presentation made by city staff during Monday’s Environmental Policy Commission meeting.
At the meeting, Jesse Maines, stormwater division chief for the city, presented a breakdown of the city’s strategy for meeting its mandated pollutant reduction goals by 2028. Alexandria, like jurisdictions throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, are required by the Environmental Protection Agency to hit specific pollution reduction goals when it comes to how much phosphorus and nitrogen flows into the bay every year – and receive “credits” for doing so.
The Taylor Run and Strawberry Run stream restorations were notably absent from the city’s calculations. Instead, the breakdown of the city’s credit sources presented to the EPC included current reductions in addition to upcoming major developments like Landmark Mall, city rights of way retrofits and significant reductions from AlexRenew, the city’s combined sewer overflow project.
“As we’ve laid it out, we think we’ve got a pretty good path to 2028 with the strategies that we have here,” Maines said.
The city is required to reduce nitrogen by 7,597 pounds per year and phosphorus by 1,004 pounds per year. As of June 30, 2021, the city has reached about 70% of its nitrogen reduction goal and about 74% of its phosphorus reduction goal, putting it ahead of its phase two mandated goal of achieving 35% of total reductions by 2023.
Stream restoration is one method the city has used to achieve pollutant reduction credits, although these projects have proven controversial not only in Alexandria but in Arlington and Fairfax County.
Specifically, Taylor Run and the proposed implementation of a natural channel design along a 1,900-foot section of the waterway has been at the center of the debate in the city. The project was announced in January 2020 with the stated purpose of both reducing the amount of pollutants flowing into the bay and repairing degraded city infrastructure. To fund the $4.5 million project, the city received a $2.25 million matching grant from the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund.
Almost immediately, residents started to raise alarm bells. Some expressed concern about how the project would impact the surrounding environment, including the removal of 261 trees in the area – 61 of which are already dead. Others argued natural channel design, a stream restoration method that attempts to recreate the original conditions of a waterway, and the necessary in-fill of the method would completely eliminate wildlife in Taylor Run’s streambed.
“They’re really destructive [projects] and they basically replace an entire stream valley with something different that’s totally artificial and actually doesn’t work,” Rod Simmons, a natural resource manager and ecologist who works for the city, said, speaking as a private citizen. “Apart from all that, you’ve just lost all the native biodiversity. You can’t ever get that back again.”
Community members, including Simmons, argued that the levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in all three streambeds were overestimated. They claimed that given these projects have limited pollution reduction benefits in local streams, the city should explore alternative, less damaging methods of reaching its pollution reduction goals.
The crux of the issue comes down to the method of how localities have evaluated pollutant levels and determined the viability of stream restoration projects. For years, instead of being based on local samples of pollutant levels, the determination was based on the Chesapeake Bay Program expert panel’s default metrics, which are drawn from samples taken in nutrient-rich farmland in rural Pennsylvania.
The streams in question in Alexandria are small headwater streams. These waterways are generally less nutrient rich than legacy sediments in rural areas, which soak up nitrogen and phosphorus since they are surrounded by farm soils and animal waste. According to Simmons, comparing a soil sample in Alexandria and one in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is like comparing apples to oranges.
“It’s a bias toward a soil sample that’s going to give you much higher levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the streambank soil sample,” Simmons said.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality recently recognized this and disallowed the use of the default metric and now requires localities to take in-stream soil sampling.
Simmons ended up collecting his own local, in-stream soil that showed phosphorus and nitrogen levels were far lower than the city’s default metric-based estimates. Given the information from Simmons’ tests and other environmental concerns, on March 10, 2021, the EPC sent a letter to the city requesting that staff propose alternatives to stream restoration that would allow the city to achieve its pollution reduction obligations. With concern flooding in from the community, on April 27, 2021, council paused the projects on Taylor Run and Strawberry Run while allowing Lucky Run to move forward. As part of its instructions to city staff, council instructed them to take local samples and then launch a mediation process that would facilitate discussion between staff, the EPC and community about alternatives.
In a Dec. 28, 2021 memo, now retired City Manager Mark Jinks released the results of the city’s own sampling, which revealed significantly lower pollutant levels and, as a result, much higher price tags for the projects. Based on the default expert panel metric, the city had estimated the Taylor Run project would reduce phosphorus by 291.2 pounds per year and nitrogen by 623.3 pounds per year. Instead, based on local samples, the project would only reduce total phosphorus by 89.9 pounds per year and nitrogen by 126.4 pounds per year. According to the city, the cost of the project would increase more than threefold from $15,000 per pound of pollutants to $50,000 per pound.
The other two streams have similarly low pollutant levels and price increases. The Strawberry Run project would increase from $5,000 per pound of pollutant removed to $20,000 per pound, while Lucky Run would result in the greatest cost increase, jumping from $7,000 per pound to $72,000 per pound.
Independent of Simmons and the city, a group of North Ridge Citizens Association members also performed its own testing effort between March and November 2021. The North Ridge Project aimed to measure pollutant levels in the water of Taylor Run, not the soil. Members of the project, who brought professional experience in water monitoring, water quality and various scientific fields, underwent training and became state-certified to collect samples. They also received a VDEQ grant to test for pollutant levels.
“What it turned out was that the phosphorus levels at the top [of Taylor Run] were higher than down below,” Russell Bailey, a member of the NRCA team that conducted the testing, said. “Phosphorus wasn’t being generated by the stream; it seemed to be reduced along the length of the stream.”
As part of the mediation process that council requested, Maines said city staff will work with the EPC and community to find consensus on alternatives to addressing the needs of each streambed. However, he emphasized that even given the increased per pound pollutant cost, stream restoration has more cost benefits worth considering.
“It’s actually still more cost beneficial than the retrofits on city property or the retrofits in the right of way or some of those other strategies,” Maines said in an interview. “Strictly from a cost per pound of pollutant, I do understand that using those numbers you get less, but … the stabilization of the stream and the stabilization of the infrastructure is not really quantified in those numbers.”
Maines did not specify how much the infrastructure projects would cost independent of stream restoration work and maintained that regardless of what approach the city takes with Taylor Run and Strawberry Run, there is infrastructure work that needs to be done.
“The discussion about Strawberry and Taylor Run is beyond credits,” Maines said during the meeting on Monday. “We know we have some critical infrastructure. We know that that’s there, and if we don’t do something that’s a little better than the temporary fix, we could have some raw sewage in Taylor Run.”
What that work will look like will be determined during the mediation process, which will bring together the city, EPC and community to discuss alternatives to stream and infrastructure stabilization, the best way to meet the city’s pollution reduction goals and how to achieve those in a cost-effective way.
“Can we come to a consensus on alternative methods to stabilize the stream banks and critical sewer infrastructure on those projects?” Maines said. “We do believe something needs to be done. What’s the best way to do that? Working with them, we hope to come to a consensus on what that looks like.”
To varying degrees, the city is already exploring some of these alternatives, including tree plantings, redevelopment projects and a nutrient trading marketplace. The latter allows localities to spend local money on improvements made in other parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed in exchange for nutrient reduction credits.
It has been far from a straight path to this point, but for the first time in a long time, residents and activists are hopeful about the future of Taylor Run and other local waterways. Simmons said that the debate over these projects in Alexandria could set a precedent in the region.
“In the whole Chesapeake Bay program network, we’re the only jurisdiction that’s got this debate going on and it’s actually helped steer policy at a really major level, all the way through [V] DEQ and back up through the program,” Simmons said. “… We’ve got a lot of positives here, and we have a chance to get it right. That’s probably the rarest thing that might be the case. That’s a special place to find oneself in and to have a chance to get this right and do some good.”