Streaming towards change

Streaming towards change
The first Consensus Building Group Meeting was held on Sept. 10 to discuss possibilities for Taylor and Strawberry Run. (Photo/Amanda Dolasinski)

By Kassidy McDonald

On Saturday, the city held the first Consensus Building Group meeting to discuss possible future design plans and outcomes for Taylor Run and Strawberry Run.

The meeting, held at the Alexandria Renew Education Center, was led by the Institute for Engagement and Negotiation at the University of Virginia, and co-hosted by the City of Alexandria’s Transportation and Environmental Services, Stormwater Management Division and the Department of Project Implementation.

The workshop was the latest chapter in a three-year debate between the city and local environmentalists about the best way to restore city streams, with local environmental groups pushing back against the proposed use of Natural Channel Design, a method that would result in the loss of more than 100 mature trees at Taylor Run alone.

In April 2021, City Council instructed staff to pause moving forward with Natural Channel Design and to engage with the community on a path forward. These workshops, which will continue through October, are the next stage of that interaction. A final report, created by IEN that encompasses all of the discussions and ideas from the workshops, will be presented to City Council around December, according to the city’s website.

The two most contentious aspects of this discussion to date have centered on a grant Alexandria received from the Virginia state government and credits for pollution reduction in the Chesapeake Bay.

The issue dates back to 2020, when the city was awarded a $2.25 million Stormwater Local Assistance Fund grant for partial funding of the Taylor Run Stream Restoration Project.

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.

Since the grant was awarded, the formula used to calculate the credits has been revised, as it was based on flawed methodology that made assumptions on phosphorus levels based on those found in Pennsylvania streams that had experienced fertilizer runoff from nearby farms. On-site testing at Alexandria’s stream beds subsequently revealed much lower phosphorus levels than the assumptions attached to credits.

The methodology surrounding the awarding of credits has subsequently been changed, but the 2020 grant was not rescinded, even though it was based on the former formula.

Kathie Hoekstra, chair of the environmental policy commission and a stakeholder advisory group member, said the credits are no longer a factor in the city’s decision.

“We have already accumulated or will accumulate enough credits by fiscal year 2028. As [City Manager] Jim [Parajon] said, that’s no longer a worry …”

Parajon also stated emphatically that the potential state grant will not be the overriding factor in the city’s decision on restoring Taylor Run and Strawberry Run.

He told the public that this effort is not driven by a grant or a funding source, and that the effort will be driven by whether there is a problem and how to solve it, by the best science and the ideas that come out of this group of people at these meetings.

Parajon also spoke about the looming timeline and said that staff “would like to move expeditiously but there’s not a clock on this.”

“That’s just a quick summary. So not driven by the grant, timing is flexible, no preconceived design that is done that we’re going to push today… This is all about what is the issue that needs to be solved, if there is one, how would we do that, and how much time does the community need to continue to digest it and absorb and discuss the pros and cons of it, and then how to do it properly,” Parajon said.

The SLAF grant will expire at the end of December unless City Council approves a plan that falls within the parameters of the original grant.

Meeting discussion

Michael Foreman, a special projects manager for IEN, emphasized the need for “community based path forward” for both potential projects.

“This city has acknowledged that past efforts have not yielded a positive result. So we’re here to, as we’ve tried to name it through the last many months, a reset on how the community can engage and offer input to these stream improvement projects,” Foreman said.

Former Congressman Joe Sestak, an Alexandria resident, presented on Strawberry Run while environmentalists Bill Gillespie and Russ Bailey presented on Taylor Run.

Sestak said that nothing should be done to Strawberry Run. He pointed out that the eroded banks are a positive sign and that even in pristine rivers 50% of banks are eroded. Sestak said the city’s real intent was to protect other infrastructure in the stream and not the stream itself. He also alluded to a previous Natural Channel Design restoration project that was performed at Strawberry Run in 2010 that caused extensive damage to the stream.

“Every one of the city’s approaches uses rip-rap stabilization,” Sestak said. “… Humans shouldn’t try to tell a stream what’s best for it a third time.”

Bailey and Gillespie then presented on Taylor Run, in which they explained there needs to be the least impact possible to the remarkable environment.

“Whatever is done to Taylor Run should not be guided by the pursuit of Chesapeake Bay Pollution Reduction Credits,” Bailey said.

Both Bailey and Gillespie said they would like the projects to look at stormwater Best Management Practices in order to prevent large inflows of water before it gets to urban streams like Taylor Run.

“The problem is not in the stream – the problem is in the [upstream residential/urban] watershed,” Gillespie said.

Camille Liebnitzky, a city project engineer, gave a presentation about specific areas of concern in Taylor Run. She said that COVID-19 had put a damper on the community outreach and engagement efforts, so it was important to create these workshops now to create a community-based consensus.

Liebnitzky said the main areas of focus are public safety, protecting infrastructure, protecting natural resources and improving biodiversity in habitats. Each meeting attendee was given a handout that detailed specific conditions in Taylor Run.

Liebnitzky emphasized the exposed sanitary sewer line and the manhole in the middle of the stream in her presentation.

“Having all the eroded trees … during high velocity storms, big volume storms, you’re going to see all of that wood push up against the pipe. That could lead to a pipe failure and sewer actually in our streams,” Liebnitzky said. “That would definitely be a massive issue that we would want to cover.”

The manhole was another concern brought up by Liebnitzky. Moving it back further into the bank to stabilize it would ensure there would be no complications.

“We prefer to not have manholes in water areas because there could be leaks, there could be unknowns. … We would prefer this to be further back in the bank for future resiliency of the infrastructure,” Liebnitzky said.

Stream restoration alternatives

Goals and alternatives for the streams were discussed by John Field, Brandon Alderman and David Hirschman. There were six stream restoration alternatives presented in total: no action/do nothing, large wood, bioengineering, hard armor, minimal intervention and upland stormwater BMPs.

The no action/do nothing approach was presented first by Field.

“[The approach] may not be feasible for the entire length of the streams, but is applicable where no infrastructure or private property is threatened and would allow the natural self-stabilization process to continue,” Field said.

Field said it’s important to note that streams are always adjusting toward a stable condition, but the no action approach may not be feasible for the entirety of the stream in Taylor Run due to infrastructure like the exposed sanitary sewer line and manhole.

As for Strawberry Run, Field said there were only minor spot fixes needed, so the doing nothing approach could be an option in his opinion.

“Doing nothing strikes me as a particularly viable alternative now that we understand that the stream is working to stabilize itself,” Field said.

Field then discussed the large wood alternative. This approach adds wood and speeds up the self-stabilization process that the stream is naturally trying to achieve.

According to the presentation handout from Field, “log jams across the channel could reduce erosive forces/stream energy and store sediment rather than transport downstream to Chesapeake Bay [so should be eligible for credits].”

These large wood alternatives like log jams can then be combined with bioengineering and hard armor techniques to protect important infrastructure. Adding large wood also naturally enhances the aquatic habitats in the streams.

Alderman then spoke about bioengineering, hard armor and minimal intervention approaches.

“Although these alternatives are presented as bioengineering, hard armor and minimal intervention, there’s characteristics of each one that can be mixed and matched. You can do bioengineering in one [place], and hard armor on another … although that does kind of prolong the engineering design phase and the implementation … and it may affect the cost a little bit, but they can be mixed and matched, and it’s not an all or nothing kind of approach” Alderman said.

Alderman described bioengineering as a technique that combines hard armor and vegetation to stabilize banks. Hard armor is a technique where banks are stabilized with non-erodible materials like rock or concrete. Lastly, minimal intervention is described as standard municipality utility repair that focuses on stabilizing infrastructure in place. Alderman explained all of these techniques are options for future design plans and gave some estimated costs associated with each.

Hirschman then spoke about upland stormwater BMPs. He explained how there were many types of BMPs used as voluntary retrofits or also could be required as part of new development or redevelopment. These are largely put in place to meet Chesapeake Bay TMDL pollutant load reductions, which the city is already planning to reach by 2028. BMPs can include anything from bioretention, tree planting, conservation landscaping, rainwater harvesting and retrofits of stormwater ponds and basins, according to Hirschman.

Hirschman also said the most important part of implementing these BMPs is being able to maintain them so they can continue their functionality overtime.

“If we want to make good on our investment [implementing BMPs], local programs, state programs and private BMP owners have to be able to make the commitment,” he said.

Next steps

Andrew Macdonald, the Environmental Council of Alexandria chair, participated on Zoom during the meeting and shared his thoughts with the CBG.

“We need to stop treating these streams as BMPs to reduce stormwater pollution. The problem is upstream development – a lot of which is old and not treated by modern BMPs,” Macdonald said.“I find it appalling that the city insists still on restoring Lucky Run using the same techniques that so clearly will harm Taylor and Strawberry. Lucky Run harbors lots of biodiversity that we need to preserve and protect as well.”

Jesse Maines, chief of the Stormwater Management Division, said staff will continue to strive for a consensus solution that includes the community’s input for these streams.

“The next steps in the consensus building will be to hold additional individual workshops with the Taylor Run workgroup and the Strawberry Run workgroup, each workgroup being a subset of the larger Consensus Building Group. There will be one or two CBG meetings as well,” Maines said in a statement. “Members of the public may attend any of these meetings. Resident questions will be considered and addressed by the CBG during this process. Also, staff will post a portal for submitting resident questions on the consensus-building phase website for the CBG to consider.”