Monday, March 18, 2019

Upper Occoquan River Cleanup

Spring is here and it’s time for the annual river clean ups. On Saturday, April 20, 2019 from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. (rain date April 27, 2019), is the 10th annual clean-up of the upper Occoquan River, from nine different sites along 25+ miles of the Occoquan River. The clean-up ranges from Cedar Run/Broad Run, through Lake Jackson, and from the base of Lake Jackson Dam to Hooes Run (south of Lake Ridge Marina). This cleanup is part of the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s ( Potomac River Watershed Cleanup.

This massive collection of trash from the Occoquan River happens every year and on the river is the combined effort of the Prince William Trails and Streams Coalition, Trash Free Potomac Watershed, Penguin Paddling, Prince William County Parks and Recreation Department and the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District (where I volunteer as a director.) Come on out and help our community. Trash bags, gloves, water and refreshments will be provided to all participants. This is a true on the river cleanup and is done primarily by boat – volunteers with canoes, kayaks or jon boats are needed. The signup has all the launch and take-out locations.

Experienced kayakers, canoeists, jon boaters, and pontoon boaters are needed. To sign up for this major on-the-water conservation effort. Some kayaks and canoes will be available for loan provided by Penguin Paddling (at Hooes Run) and the Prince William County Parks and Recreation Department (at Lake Ridge Marina). As in previous years, the cleanup will be staged from multiple sites along the river, from the canoe/kayak launch area below Lake Jackson dam, down to Lake Ridge / Hooes Run. If you are not a boater, you might want to join another of the cleanups that are happening practically every spring weekend.

Please visit for more information and to register for this event or contact Bill McCarty at or Veronica Tangiri at (571-379-7514)

These cleanups and is part of the 30th Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup coordinated by the Alice Ferguson Foundation working with the region’s soil and water conservation districts, community groups, employers, and schools happens this time of year throughout the region. The Potomac River Watershed Cleanup is the largest regional event of its kind so that you or your group can still participate this year. It is a great single day volunteer opportunity.

Unfortunately, it is necessary to hold these river cleanups annually. Year after year volunteers clean our roadways, streams, rivers, and streambeds of trash that started as litter and carried along by stormwater and wind into our waterways and parks. We also remove items that were illegally dumped in the woods or carried by off by storms. This year there is more trash than usual. The rain that soaked the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed during the past year, flushed huge volumes of debris off the landscape. Almost 6 times the normal amount of trash and debris was collected at the Conowingo dam, ranging from beverage containers to floating docks.

On March 2nd over 140 volunteers collected 5,100 lbs of trash including 22 tires during the Neabsco Eagles Park cleanup. All this trash was stopped from entering the Potomac River thanks to the over 140 volunteers that included Troop 138 and 501, Pack 1556 and 1515, Hylton High School students, and Sev1Tech volunteers.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Back to a D+

from CBF

In January the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) released their bi-annual State of the Bay health index score. The health of the Bay has decreased by one percent bringing us to D+ from the C- the Bay received in 2016. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the drop was largely due to increased runoff associated with the record breaking regional rainfall that carried nutrients and soil into the rivers despite the work that has been done to prevent that.

The 2018 State of the Bay Report scores the health of the bay at 33 out of 100, a D+ according to their scoring system which measures the current state of the Bay against the unspoiled Bay ecosystem described by Captain John Smith in the 1600s, with extensive forests and wetlands, clear water, abundant fish and oysters, and lush growths of submerged vegetation would rate a 100 on their scale. That was a time when this region was 95% old growth forests and sparsely populated.

The current goals of all the Environmental Protection Agency mandated “Clean Water Blueprint” is a grade of 40, by 2025. The Clean Water Plan is a euphemism for the enforceable pollution limits for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay (the Bay TMDL) mandated by the EPA to the six Bay states and the District of Columbia. Each of the jurisdictions created a plan (approved by the EPA) called Watershed Implementation Plans or WIPs, to meet those limits by 2025. The states agreed to have the 60% of the needed programs and practices in place by 2017, and to complete the job by 2025.
only part of the report card from CFB

Of the primary Bay states, Virginia and Maryland were close to meeting the 2017 goals but need to accelerate pollution reduction from agriculture and urban/suburban runoff. Washington DC and West Virginia had met their goals. During the last legislative session the Virginia legislature approved a bi-annual budget that contained funding for implementation of pollution reduction practices for agriculture land and limited funds for urban/suburban runoff reduction. The budget:
  • Maintains current levels of operational funding for the 47 Soil and Water Conservation Districts at $7,291,091 each year.
  • The mandatory deposit to the Water Quality Improvement Fund (WQIF) of the FY19 year-end surplus of $72,800,000.
Unfortunately, this is $35,031,151 less than originally proposed by the governor. That money was intended to finish the remaining SL-6 (stream exclusion fencing) backlog, jump start Watershed Implementation Plan III (WIP3) to achieve the 2025 pollution reduction goals for the Chesapeake Bay ahead of schedule. There is always more money wanted than is available.

The Bay’s health will always be influenced by weather. Unfortunately, most climate change models suggest the region will experience more frequent and severe storms in the future which will increase the challenges of meeting the mandated Bay TMDL. The EPA tells us that fully implementing the state-specific, WIPs (pollution-reduction plans) will still reduce nutrient and sediment runoff and reduce the flooding during storm events by the planted buffers that are part of all the plans. Below you can see the overall trend over the past few decades. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Rural Crescent an Urban Growth Boundary

Last Thursday the Prince William Conservation Alliance and its cooperating partners, the Coalition to Protect Prince William, and the County Civic Associations (Mid-County, Nokesville, Lake Ridge Occoquan Coles and Woodbridge Potomac Communities) had a public meeting to talk about smart growth and the Rural Crescent in Prince William County.

The Rural Crescent was created in 1998 and originally intended as an urban growth boundary for the county designed to preserve the agricultural heritage and force redevelopment along the Route 1 corridor rather than development in the remaining rural areas. This was to be accomplished by limiting development to one home per 10 acres with no access to public sewers. The Rural Crescent has been chipped away at for years, but still contains around 80,000-acres; however, active farming in Prince William continues to decrease.

Within the Rural Crescent development density is limited to one house per 10 acres. In addition, there is a limit on sewer extensions and public water creating one of the most protective zonings areas in Virginia. Creating the Rural Crescent slowed the loss of rural land in Prince William County, but did not stop it as rural land was cut up into 10 acre parcels. In addition, farming itself has been changing and the smaller farms in Prince William County cannot compete against giant industrial farms using the old models of farming. Small scale agriculture, community supported agriculture, agri-businesses (breweries, wineries, farm-to-table stores and restaurants, etc.), and agri-tourism appear to be the only feasible future for agriculture in Prince William County. These businesses also have the advantage of engaging with the community and adding to the local quality of life.

However, according to the consultants hired by the county and based on the experience of the past 21 years, unless the zoning is very protective (one home per 30 to 50 acres, zoning alone will not preserve agriculture in the county and we are doomed to see the Rural Crescent cut up into 10 acre lots for large and expensive rural homes. There has been continual pressure on the Office of Planning, the Planning Commission and the County Board of Supervisors by developers and landowners interested in maximizing the value of property to amend the zoning to increase development density for parcels in the Rural Crescent.

The Prince William County Rural Preservation Study completed several years ago found a broad support among stakeholders (community groups and residents) that it is important to maintain a Rural Area within the County. Increased density development in the Rural Crescent is inconsistent with the social objectives of maintaining a wildlife habitat, preservation of farmland, preservation of groundwater and surface water supplies and the Occoquan Reservoir, protection of historically significant areas and scenic views within the County. Another point of general consensus was that current preservation policies (primarily 10-acre zoning) is a one-size fits all approach that was not working very well across the large Rural Crescent area, which varies greatly in character and geology from one end to the other.

There has been continual pressure on the Office of Planning, the Planning Commission and the County Board of Supervisors by developers and landowners interested in maximizing the value of property to amend the zoning to increase development density for parcels in the Rural Crescent. Notice in the last version of the revised Rural Crescent the transition area of higher density is carved out of the existing Rural Crescent that is currently zoned A1. Though much more money could be made by the landowners (of those parcels) and developers by building at an increased density, more dense suburban developments would not improve the quality of life of county residents, and would damage the ecology or the region and quality of life of all county residents.

It is often believed that when you own land you can do what you want with the land, but that is not true. Zoning and other restrictions may hinder the ways in which land can be used or developed. We have zoning and the county has a comprehensive plan to guide land use and development decisions that are made by the Planning Commission and the Board of County Supervisors. As a matter of fact, Virginia law requires every governing body to adopt a comprehensive plan for the development of the lands within its jurisdiction to make sure that a county is developed in a way to ensure the community’s best interests. Within the framework of the comprehensive plan, land ownership is a series of rights and the ability to use those rights.

The Prince William Conservation Alliance believes that Prince William County is presently at a cross roads. The County has been upgrading the infrastructure of the Route 1 corridor which was initially developed more than fifty years ago. Route 1 was widened, powerlines were moved underground and other infrastructure has been upgraded. That area in eastern Prince William County is now primed for redevelopment. Redevelopment of these areas, called by the industry Brownfield redevelopment, is more challenging than developing on farmland and open areas. In addition, there are no incentives to take on the challenge of a Brownfield in Prince William County.

Though I found the discussion and comments from the audience members to be very enlightening; many people are angry for different reasons. No one seemed to have a fully developed vision for a sustainable and mixed use county with affordable, walkable, neighborhoods within the urban areas. In the past 21 years Prince William has grown even more residential- we are approaching 90% residential and 10% commercial, but being a bedroom community to Washington DC is not sustainable. We lack a vision and plan for the future of Prince William County, not just the Rural Crescent. The speakers were: Melinda Masters a community activist, Tom Eitler, Senior Vice President for the Urban Land Institute and former PWC Chief of Long-range Planning; and Mike May, who was a member of the PW Board of Zoning Appeals, and Occoquan District on the Board of Supervisors from 2007 to 2016.

Tom showed how the real opportunity for the county was to encourage and incentivize redevelopment and infill projects. This would require commitment from the County elected officials. His points included that the 450,000 residents of Prince William County who do not own large parcels of land in the Rural Crescent should not have their taxes increased to build the infrastructure in the Rural Crescent and subsidize the value of the rural land. Instead we should be building high density mixed use urban communities within the “development area” of the county. This is a conversation about the future of Prince William County. We need to all participate and shape the future of our community.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Some Money for Alexandria Sewer Project in State Budgetfrom Alex

Tucked into the budget that just passed the Virginia General Assembly was $25 million of state funding requested by Alexandria to help pay for adding storage into the combined sewer system of Old Town. A 2018 law passed by Virginia General Assembly mandated remediation of the existing combined sewer outfalls by July 1, 2025. This is a tight timeline, but Alexandria and AlexRenew are confident they can meet this goal.

The area of Alexandria around Old Town has a Combined Sewer System which is a piped sewer system where there is one pipe that carries both sanitary sewage and stormwater to the local wastewater treatment plant, AlexRene. This was how sewer systems were often built in the days when sanitation was simply moving sewage out of the city to the rivers and streams. Back then one piping system was cheaper and adequate for the job. Today when sewage is treated by waste water treatment plants that is no longer adequate.

When it rains, water that falls in the streets, enters the storm water drains and is combined with the sanitary waste water entering the sewers from homes and businesses. The combined flow of the sewage and rain can overwhelm the waste water treatment plant. So, to protect the sewage system as a whole, the combined sewage and rainfall is released into the local creeks from one of the “Combined Sewer Overflows” which are release locations permitted and monitored by the regulators. Though it’s monitored it increases nutrient and bacterial contamination to the streams and rivers.

The 2017 mandate from the state legislature was to eliminate these overflows by 2025, creating a challenge for the city, but partially based on the experience of Washington DC in addressing their combined sewer problem, AlexRenew was confident that they could meet this challenge. Alexandria and AlexRenew submitted a long term control plan to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) that was approved on  July 1, 2018. In order to accomplish the plan, Alexandria transferred ownership of the outfalls and the interceptor lines (the sewer mains transporting to the raw sewage to the treatment plant) to AlexRenew. The approved plan, called RiverRenew, includes building a tunnel system with:
  • Storage tunnels 
  • Conveyance tunnels 
  • Diversion facilities (diversion chambers and drop shafts) 
  • Dewatering pumping stations 
    From Alex Renew

and upgrading the AlexRenew waste water treatment plant by:
  • Adding a wet weather pumping station and
  • Increase treatment peak capacity for the waste water treatment plant from 108 to 116 million gallons a day 

RiverRenew  when completed will prevent millions of gallons of sewage mixed with rainwater from contaminating the Alexandria rivers and streams. This will limit the amount of bacteria, trash, and other pollutants flowing into Hooffs Run, Hunting Creek, and the Potomac River  and achieve cleaner, healthier waterways for Alexandria.

Currently, and throughout the spring, RiverRenew will continue to work through the Environmental Assessment process with the regulators and conduct field investigations to inform the tunnel system design. The Environmental Assessment document analyzes the potential impacts on the community and environment to ensure that natural resources, cultural resources, and community impacts are considered when locating proposed alternatives for the tunnel system.Alexandria residents will pay for most of the project costs which are estimated to cost between $370 and $555 million. So far $30 million has been spent by Alexandria, and the state has now chipped in $25 million. The costs to the AlexRenew customers could be between $22-$40 per sewer connection per month to finance the remainder of the project, but will benefit not only the City of Alexandria, but the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Neabsco Creek Dredging Complete

Last spring the U.S. Coast Guard declared Neabsco Creek too shallow to safely navigate by motorized watercraft and closed the channel. During their 2018 survey the Coast Guard found that Neabsco Creek depth was less than five feet deep, the authorized depth. Neabsco Creek has three privately-owned marinas with about 1,000 recreational boats as well as a water-rescue boat belonging to a Prince William County volunteer fire department. The marinas also house a boat lift, used by larger vessels from across the region, and the only marine gas station in the region open 365 days a year.

The Coast Guard’s warning signs reading “Danger Shoal” threatened the continued use of Neabsco Creek for boating. The only way to restore the waterway was to dredge. It was estimated that it would cost $750,000 to $1,000,000 to dredge out what had been the navigable portion of Neabsco Creek. A coalition of marina owners and recreational boaters turned to Prince William County for help. Recreational boating is important to Prince William County not only for its economic contribution, but also for the quality of life.

The Board of County Supervisors allocated up to $750,000 grant funding to dredge the creek, and the county also obtained a grant from the Virginia Port Authority for up to $250,000. The extra funds went towards the dredging of the channel, and allowed the County to dredge the creek to six feet and a 50-foot-wide channel for boaters to come in and out of the marinas. In addition to the dredging funded by the county, local marina owners got together, formed a partnership and contributed approximately $150,000 to dredge their marinas at the same time the channel was being dredged.

The bottom of creeks routinely fill with sand and silt, gradually filling in the channel until it is no long safe to navigate. This is called sedimentation and is a natural process, but it can be exacerbated by poor storm water management practices and impervious ground cover which increases the volume and velocity of runoff.

Sediment can come from soil erosion or from the decomposition of plants and animals. Wind, water and ice help carry these particles to rivers, lakes and stream. According to the EPA natural erosion produces 30% of the sediment in our streams and lakes, erosion from human use of land accounts for the remaining 70% - one of the most significant sediment releases come from construction activities, including relatively minor home-building projects such as landscape projects room additions and swimming pools.

For longer term solutions and to reduce the need for dredging in the future, the sources of sediment need to be reduced. The Watershed Management Branch of the County’s Public Works Department, engaged a watershed study in the five northernmost sub-sheds of the Neabsco Creek watershed. The purpose of the study was to assess the condition of existing stormwater management facilities and streams. In addition to identifying existing problems, they also identified opportunities to reduce sediment flow in the future through reforestation and land conversion projects. By restoring natural functions to land that has been affected by development, the County can improve local waterways and reduce sediment flow in the future. Now that Neabsco Creek has been dredged we need to implement practices to prevent sedimentation in the future.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

2019 Legislative Session Results for Soil and Water

Last Saturday the General Assembly closed its 2019 session. HB 2786 (Ingram), SB 1355 and Coal combustion residuals ponds; closure passed. These are identical bills to clean up the state’s legacy coal ash within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The new law would require Dominion to excavate the ponds and recycle at least a quarter (6.8 million cubic yards) of the 27 million cubic yards of existing coal ash at Bremo Power Station, Chesapeake Energy Center, Chesterfield Power Station, and Possum Point Power Station. The remainder would be deposited in a permitted and lined landfills that meets current federal standards. The closure project shall be completed within 15 years of its initiation and shall be accompanied by an offer by the owner or operator to provide connection to a municipal water supply for every residence within one-half mile if feasible, otherwise Dominion will provide water testing. The costs will be recovered in a rate adjustment which is why Dominion agreed to the deal.

Other legislation impacting water was the passing of SB 1414 Potomac Aquifer recharge monitoring; advisory board; laboratory established; SWIFT Project. Creates an advisory board and a laboratory to monitor the effects of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure for Tomorrow (SWIFT) Project being undertaken by the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) to artificially recharge the Potomac Aquifer.

The bill establishes a 10-member advisory board called the Potomac Aquifer Recharge Oversight Committee (the Committee), directing it to ensure that the SWIFT Project is monitored independently. The bill also creates the Potomac Aquifer Recharge Monitoring Laboratory, placing it under the co-direction of one Old Dominion University faculty member and one Virginia Tech faculty member. The bill provides that the Laboratory shall monitor the impact of the SWIFT Project on the Potomac Aquifer, manage testing data, and conduct water sampling and analysis to ensure proper protection of this valuable water resource.

Finally, the Budget passed included money for Natural Resources than in the Governor’s proposed budget with the following impacts for soil and water conservation districts:

  • Maintains current levels of essential operational funding for the 47 Soil and Water Conservation Districts at $7,291,091 each year. 
  • The Governor’s budget includes the mandatory deposit to the Water Quality Improvement Fund (WQIF) of the FY19 year-end surplus of $72,800,000. 
  • Unfortunately, but not surprisingly other funding for the Soil and Water Conservation District programs in the original budget were reduced by $35,031,151 that was intended to finish the remaining SL-6 (stream exclusion fencing) backlog, jump start Watershed Implementation Plane III (WIP3) to achieve the 2025 pollution reduction goals for the Chesapeake Bay, for CREP, and for  Ag BMPs and other non-point source projects and technical assistance. 

There were a few additions to the budget:
  • Remote Monitoring of District Flood Control Dams. $400,000 was appropriated to the Soil and Water Conservation District Dam Maintenance, Repair and Rehabilitation Fund to install remote monitoring equipment for District-owned high and significant hazard dams. Recent flooding have highlighted the need for remote monitoring of District-owned dams typically in remote locations during storms.
  • Engineering Study of Pittsylvania Dams. $100,000 was appropriated for an engineering study of these dams.
  • The Virginia Conservation Assistance Program (VCAP). $1,000,000was appropriated for VCAP, an urban cost-share program that provides financial incentives and technical assistance to private property used for residential, commercial, or recreational purposes installing eligible Best Management Practices (BMP’s) in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed to solve problems like erosion and poor drainage.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Potomac Basin- Is the Water Adequate?

The Potomac River is 383-miles long and contains 14,670 square miles that makes up the Potomac Basin. The largest portion of the Potomac basin is in Virginia -5,723 square miles; while Maryland contains 3,818 square miles, West Virginia-3,490 miles, Pennsylvania -1,570 square miles, and 69 square miles that constitute the District of Columbia. The Potomac basin is made up of wetlands, streams, rivers, reservoirs, lakes, and the Potomac estuary.
The entire Potomac Basin from the ICPRB. The orange dot is my house. 
The Potomac River, its tributaries, and the associated groundwater resources are vital to the region, it is the source of drinking water for the over 6,000,000 people in the Washington Metropolitan area. The Potomac River is the main supply of water for WSSC and the Washington Aqueduct and the major source of water for Loudoun Water and Fairfax Water. The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) manages the allocation of the Potomac River waters in time of drought or low flow, but also conducts studies on pollution, emerging contaminants and other water problems; from water supply adequacy, population growth patterns, to climate change impact on drought frequency and water supply.

Every five years the ICPRB working with the stakeholders (regulators, local and state governments, businesses, farmers and citizens) creates the Potomac Basin Comprehensive Water Resources Plan (Water Plan) that is an serves as an important portion of planning for the future of the Washington Metropolitan area region. As part of the Water Plan, the ICPRB seeks to identify surface water and groundwater resource issues of interstate or basin-wide significance. The Water Plan is the sole regional tool that attempts to ensure sustainable and reliable drinking water supplies for the entire region while protecting and improving water quality and managing land use for sustainable water and ecological health.

Water comes into the Potomac basin from rainfall (and melting snow). In the Potomac basin rainfall averages approximately 42 inches per year, but precipitation varies from year to year and across the basin (it tends to rain more in the eastern portion of the basin). Water management in the Potomac basins requires preparation for summers and autumns when river flow is typically low and water demand is highest. Balanced, well-functioning ecosystems not impacted by man are able to handle fluctuations in streamflow and groundwater availability. Mankind’s impacts to natural hydrologic variability often has negative impacts most commonly the increase in impervious cover from development results in higher flood stages from increased storm runoff and excessive surface water withdrawal which both reduce groundwater recharge.

The groundwater resources above and below the Fall Line differ. In the Coastal Plain Province, groundwater is contained in a confined aquifer system. Recharge of these aquifers primarily occurs by infiltration from overlying aquifers and through outcroppings near the Fall Line. Above the Fall Line, in the Piedmont Province, groundwater aquifers consist of fractured rock. Fractured bedrock aquifers consist of a thin layer of unconsolidated soil and weathered rock overlying the bedrock. These unconsolidated contain the largest volume of groundwater in the fractured rock aquifer. The vastly different physical properties of the groundwater systems above and below the Fall Line result in unique characteristics like recharge rates and water storage. The fractured rock system has limited ability to store water and can easily become overdrawn in a drought. The confined aquifer system of the Coastal Plain has for decades been over drawn and it’s level in falling.

Water use data for the Potomac basin has been compiled by the ICPRB. Water uses above the Fall Line are typically from surface water sources given the relatively small amount of storage available in the groundwater systems. Conversely, the water uses below the Fall Line are typically from groundwater. However, the water use data used is based on analyzing readily available data sets. This means that the regions water use is estimated by the data reported by large water users (>10,000 gallons per day) and public drinking water supplies.

The data from the water utilities and large users is regulated and reported, but knowing how much water is being used by smaller users like private household wells and small agricultural operations needs to be accounted for when assessing the basin’s water supply. These small users are a significant portion of the population even in the densely populated Washington Metropolitan region ICPRB is trying to estimate the unreported volumes from the small users using data sets such as population statistics, land use/ land cover data, and well locations that have to be compiled on a local basis. However, while they are trying to fully estimate the total regional water demand, they are not making any attempt to estimate the groundwater resources its adequacy and sustainability. The changing land use is impacting the regional hydrology and groundwater recharge so the quantity of available groundwater may even be decreasing.

In order to secure a sustainable water future for the Potomac basin we need better data. We have a relatively small amount of regional water storage for surface water and very limited alternate water sources. Historical events have demonstrated the vulnerability of current water supplies to drought and other types of disruptions –like chemical spills in the Potomac. A water supply alternatives study was conducted in 2017 by the ICPRB to evaluate options for dealing with potential future shortages due to severe drought, but it still did not address groundwater impact and availability. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) Redundancy Study in 2016 looked at impacts to the region from a chemical spill in the Potomac upstream of the intakes for Loudoun Water, Fairfax Water, WSSC and the Aqueduct, but there has been no systematic, comprehensive evaluation of the vulnerabilities of the basin water supply as a whole and planning for the future demand and supply of water. We need to do better.
The water storage in the public water supply system.