By Kassidy McDonald │ email@example.com
The controversial proposed Natural Channel Design stream restoration project at Taylor Run was paused by City Council in April of 2021, after local scientists and environmentalists discovered negligible amounts of phosphorus at the site, but the fate of this forested wetlands remains uncertain.
Environmentalists, major city players and residents mostly agree that something needs to be done to address spots of erosion and exposed sewer pipes along the stream at Taylor Run along the walking path in Chinquapin Park.
But how this can be achieved has been the root of debate for quite some time.
As of the Times’ publication deadline, there has been no final decision yet to move forward with any type of stream restoration project. This includes the controversial 1,900 linear foot NCD stream restoration project that the city had previously approved before the pause.
This type of restoration has not only proved to be controversial in Alexandria, but in Arlington and Fairfax counties as well.
Controversy behind Alexandria’s project stems from a Stormwater Local Assistance Fund grant that was awarded to the city by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The basis of testing for this grant was recently updated, and the premise upon which Alexandria received its grant – presumed high levels of phosphorus at the site – has been discredited, both as a model and at Taylor Run itself.
The city was awarded a $2.25 million SLAF grant for partial funding of the Taylor Run Stream Restoration Project in 2020.
The grant program was initiated by the Commonwealth of Virginia to provide financial support to municipalities implementing projects to reduce stormwater pollution as the new Environmental Protection Agency Chesapeake Bay water quality requirements were being passed down through the stormwater permits, according to the city’s website.
Multiple parties performed independent tests in Taylor Run to see if there were harmful levels of phosphorous and other nutrients. It was concluded that the levels were low and even decreased farther down the stream, meaning that the stream may be reducing phosphorus levels naturally.
The prior way of calculating phosphorus levels in the streams was flawed due to the usage of a model based on rural farmland in Pennsylvania, and the science around stream restoration projects has changed drastically within the last eight years.
The soil samples that were collected by independent scientists and other parties showed there were extremely low levels of nutrients in Taylor Run on which the funding of the SLAF grant is based.
“Phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment are the three basic components that are tested for the health of a stream. So, if it has too much of any of those, and that all ends up in the Chesapeake Bay, the theory goes that it needs to be controlled from its source,” Jeremy Flachs, a lawyer and opponent of NCD in Taylor Run, said.
Despite knowledge of the updated stream-health data from the new testing model, VDEQ has not yet rescinded the previously awarded $2.25 million SLAF grant, meaning that the NCD project for which it was given may still be on the table.
“The DEQ insists they have to live by outdated science and force the city to use the money to correct the problem that doesn’t exist,” Flachs said about VDEQ not rescinding the grant despite now knowing that the old testing model was flawed.
VDEQ did not respond to requests for comment.
In an email reply sent to Rod Simmons, an environmentalist speaking as a private citizen, VDEQ stated their reasoning for not rescinding the grant money. Simmons had previously sent an email to VDEQ to request that they withdraw the SLAF funding.
“Starting with the next SLAF grant solicitation all stream restoration project applications will be required to include site specific soils nutrient concentrations and bulk density, as well as the BANCS Method assessment of bank erosion. However, we do not intend to rescind the funding for previously approved projects that did not meet these new requirements at the time of their application and authorization. To do so would subject all previously approved projects to an ever-changing regulatory environment that would stifle local government efforts to address water quality issues,” Karen Doran, the Clean Water Financing and Assistance Program Manager for VDEQ wrote in the email.
Local environmentalists pushed back against the VDEQ’s response.
“The ironic thing about the grant money is it’s tied to nutrient reduction, and it is pretty clearly shown that they’re not going to get the nutrient reduction they’re claiming,” environmentalist Bill Gillespie said.
This conversation about stream restoration projects at three locations – Taylor Run, Lucky Run and Strawberry Run – has been on many environmentalist and community members’ radars since there was a failed NCD project at Strawberry Run in 2010.
The Strawberry Run NCD was done before the city had a stormwater management division, Simmons said. It was done to reconnect the stream with the floodplain and attempt to maintain the sinuosity to create a variety of habitats in the stream, according to the Alexandria City website.
“What they [the city] wants us to believe is they will do it better this time. But there’s no reason to do it [NCD], because neither Strawberry Run nor Taylor Run are the source of significant pollutants harming the Chesapeake Bay,” Flachs said.
Simmons said that an NCD project would completely rebuild Taylor Run, which is similar to what happened at Strawberry Run.
“Those projects basically remove all the natural features in a stream, including the stream itself. And what’s immediately adjacent to the stream like wetlands, trees, vegetation and animals, everything is gone,” Simmons said. “And the reason is because the stream is completely rebuilt. Natural Channel Design, by definition, is adding many, many tons of fillers into the stream, which they pack into the stream to raise the banks.”
Engagement and negotiation period
The conversation around what projects need to be done and how to go about doing them is still in the public engagement stage.
Jesse Maines, stormwater division chief in Alexandria’s Department of Transportation & Environmental Services, said that the city is working through an important first phase of engagement right now.
“We have met on site with people, small groups we have met virtually. And we’ve shared a lot of information and got a lot of feedback. And we shared all that with council. And they said, ‘Okay, we’re hearing a lot from residents as well. So, we’re directing you all to pause on these projects. Pause what you’re doing right now, and work through the Environmental Policy Commission, or EPC, and work with them to talk about alternative approaches or alternative designs.’ So that’s where we’re at right now, the first phase of engagement through EPC,” Maines said.
In 2008, the city had conducted stream assessments to determine which local streams needed to be worked on. In 2019, the city then assessed streams again and prioritized ones that would need the most restoration, which included Strawberry Run and Taylor Run.
The controversy started in 2020, when the city announced the NCD project to reduce pollutants and help the stream by raising the stream beds. This approach instantly received vociferous criticism from environmentalists because of concern about NCD’s track record in similar streams, the nearby wetlands and wildlife in Taylor Run and the failure of the prior project at Strawberry Run.
The next phase, which is set to commence in mid to late summer, is to hold a number of stakeholder meetings to talk about alternative designs.
This may include deciding to protect and stabilize current infrastructure, or building new designs. The amount of labor these different projects would require also will be discussed at these meetings.
Once this brainstorming and discussion process is over and community opinions are heard, it will be time to go back to council and report the findings in the late fall and winter, Maines said.
“The plans need to be feasible, affordable and meet the obligations. That’s the balance,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “Everyone acknowledges that it is controversial. There is no unanimity of agreement on the strategy yet.”
The main infrastructure problems that can be seen from the trail at Taylor Run seem to be the exposed sewer pipes containing the sanitary line and the erosion that is occurring at the stream from flood water, especially the erosion that is near King Street.
These issues will be discussed in the public engagement phase.
Gillespie and Russell Bailey are two of the group of volunteer environmentalists who donated their time to gather scientific data to better understand conditions in Taylor Run. They said that whatever projects are done to Taylor Run to help the stream function need to be done holistically and have long-term effects, rather than serve as a temporary fix.
According to Maines, the discussion of what projects to do is at a comparison period now, and NCD is being compared to other types of designs.
“I think we want to compare because some of the top things are the trees, the loss of trees and that overall impact. What we need to compare apples to apples is the kind of original design if you will, which changed a little bit to miss some trees, but that design that the city put forth [the NCD design] and compare the tree impacts to other alternative types of design so that people can make better informed decisions,” Maines said.
The wetlands near the stream could be threatened by an NCD restoration, as well as other potential approaches.
“We were first concerned about these wetlands and some trees because the stream bed was going to be raised to such an extent that during high water events, the wetland would be able to flood. Now the important thing is … what’s called a non-alluvial wetland which means it’s not created by the stream; it’s created by a spring and is groundwater fed. And if this was overflowed during stream events, at least according to the city’s naturalist, he says that would be very harmful to the wetlands,” Bailey said.
“That would create a whole different environment than what it is used to,” Gillespie said.
Simmons also said that NCD projects completely alter the type of stream from what existed prior to the intervention.
“You’re left with a shallow rocky stream like one would find in the West,” Simmons said. “That’s where Natural Channel Design originated from. And it is not applicable or appropriate for these small upper headwater streams of the D.C. or Mid-Atlantic region; it’s just completely the opposite of what you want to see done there.”
Taylor Run and Lucky Run also have large sanitary sewer pipes that run through the area.
Wilson said these pipes are threatened right now, and could result in the release of raw sewage into the natural waterways.
“We have real work to do to get those places in a better spot,” Wilson said.
Simmons and Flachs both said that the sewer pipes are an infrastructure issue, but that they do not relate to or fall under NCD stream restoration projects at all.
“If you test and discover that modeling does not apply, which is exactly what happened … what would be the purpose other than just spending grant money because it was thrown to you and maybe as a side benefit you get to use some of it to fix your own problem with a sewer, which has nothing to do with stream restoration,” Flachs said.
Bailey and Gillespie agreed that the sewer pipes could possibly pose a major problem if the stream flooded enough and a rock or boulder were pulled downstream; it could hit the sewer pipes hard, and sewage could enter and contaminate the stream.
“Now, nobody wants the sewer pipe to burst open in Taylor Run. But I don’t believe that any engineer has warned the city that that’s going to happen. But I certainly concede that the city, on its own, should fix its sewer pipe. But the issue involving Taylor Run is separate,” Flachs said. “The city should not hide behind grant money that isn’t even designed to move a sewer pipe and get its sanitary problem solved.”
Another facet of the proposed NCD project that has received backlash is the fate of trees and wildlife within Taylor Run. For instance, the city’s old-age champion maple tree, one of the largest trees in the city, is located along the stream at Taylor Run.
Additionally, deer, foxes, chipmunks and aquatic life like fish, mayflies, craneflies, lunged snails and salamanders all make up the wildlife at Taylor Run and rely on the stream to survive, according to a report prepared for VDEQ on water quality monitoring. The Virginia Native Plant Society contended in a letter to the city that there is also a possibility of spreading non-native invasive species when conducting projects like NCD.
Gillespie and Bailey both said that there are multiple ways that excess water can be controlled above ground so that less work will have to be done to the actual stream to control erosion. They and other community members intend to express this viewpoint during the continued period of engagement and negotiation with the city.
The report created by Bailey, Gillespie and Chuck Kent – which was prepared for VDEQ on the water quality monitoring project that a group of Alexandria residents undertook last year and funded in part by a grant – lists possible alternative approaches that could be implemented to improve water quality in Taylor Run.
“[We recommend] installing stormwater Best Management Practices (BMPs) in the watershed upstream of Taylor Run. There is physical space for BMPs like bioretention ponds, bioswales, rain gardens, and other features in Chinquapin Park and at other locations upstream of Taylor Run. Good urban nutrient management practices upstream could also reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution downstream,” the report states.
Ideas from the report also include the installation of riprap to protect stream banks from erosion, trail improvements in Chinquapin Park that prevent soil and sediment runoff and the installation of pervious surfaces on park roads and the installation of road gutters that transport stormwater runoff to bioretention ponds.
“You know people aren’t saying do nothing; they’re saying do something that is environmentally correct,” Gillespie said.