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Letter: Many 'stream-restoration' projects are counterproductive

'If a regulatory program is not working as it should, Arlington County staff and citizens should raise their voices and ask for change'

To the editor: It is time to bring an end to “stream restoration” projects that do little or no restoration and disfigure our urban streams.

These large-scale engineering projects typically cut down a large number of trees, remove most of the existing flora and fauna, and leave the stream in an artificial, man-made landscape. They often take place in the last remaining natural areas in our urban/suburban landscape.

So why are these destructive projects done? There are many reasons, but they are primarily done to achieve pollution-reduction credits for the Chesapeake Bay Program.

To improve the water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, each state in the Bay watershed is required to reduce the three main Bay pollutants – nitrogen, phosphorous and suspended sediment – in phases over time. In Virgina, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) manages a regulatory program that asks jurisdictions in the state to reduce their share of pollutants. Localities like Arlington are hard-pressed to meet their pollution-reduction targets without relying on “stream restorations.”

In the past, regulatory agencies like DEQ allowed jurisdictions to estimate their pollution reductions from stream restorations using techniques that relied on the concentrations of pollutant in the soil of Pennsylvania streams. That technique produced huge pollution reductions estimates that did not accurately characterize the pollutant load from a Virginia stream. DEQ now requires a jurisdiction to take soil samples from stream banks to better estimate potential pollutant reductions.

None of these estimating techniques properly characterize whether a stream restoration project will benefit the Chesapeake Bay, however. The only way to do that is to monitor the water quality of a stream at the upstream and downstream ends of a proposed project to see if the stream is a source of Bay pollutants or the upstream watershed.

A 2021 study conducted on Taylor Run in Alexandria showed that Taylor Run was not a significant source of Bay pollution. The upstream watershed – the streets, parking lots, commercial activities, lawns, etc. – was the source of the Bay pollutants. So, a stream-restoration project on Taylor Run would have been a huge waste of taxpayer dollars and would have done little or nothing for the Bay.

With this knowledge, the Alexandria leaders canceled the project.cIf a regulatory program is not working as it should, Arlington County staff and citizens should raise their voices and ask for change. It is time to modify the current regulatory program to truly get reductions to “Save the Bay.” Those reductions will require implementing best-management practices in our upstream watersheds. It will also require the federal Environmental Protection Agency and states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to seriously get after the largest and most damaging sources of pollution in the region.

Let’s speak up. Let’s ask for a significant change to Chesapeake Bay Program and save our vanishing urban forests.

Bill Gillespie, Arlington; Russell Bailey, Alexandria; Rod Simmons, Arlington