Sunday, March 27, 2022

First Do No Harm- Land Use Change in the Rural Crescent

The Rural Crescent started with different intentions; but today the Rural Crescent is about water, groundwater and watershed preservation. The Rural Crescent encompassing a significant portion of the Occoquan Watershed protects the drinking water supply of the Occoquan Reservoir and the ecology of the region. I support redevelopment of areas with preexisting infrastructure which would allow Prince William County to improve storm water management in the existing developed areas and reduce nutrient contamination under the EPA mandated pollution diet (also known as the Chesapeake Bay TMDL) as well as revitalize older areas of the county and preserve the undeveloped areas in general support of sustainable future for Prince William County.  

The streams, rivers and groundwater in the Occoquan Watershed in Prince William County are at risk of degradation from non-point source pollution.  As demand for local lands and resources increases and landowners seek to maximize the sale value of their land developers look to create massive industrial development in the Rural Crescent where there is inadequate road systems, no stormwater infrastructure, no public water supply, no available source for cooling water supply, no sewage, etc.  Large parts of the Occoquan Watershed are currently fairly heathy after decades of investment and effort to improve and protect the Occoquan Reservoir water quality. However, the health of the watershed and the very sustainability and affordability of the drinking water supply for Northern Virginia will be damaged with the continued expansion of data centers and the proposed massive changes in land use designations in the Rural Crescent and throughout the county.

Fairfax Water has taken the unusual step of reminding the County of their responsibilities and recommending that: “Prince William County request that the Occoquan Basin Policy Board convene and oversee a Comprehensive Study of the proposed Planning initiatives – the Comprehensive Plan Update, Digital Gateway Corridor, and the Data Center Opportunity Overlay District- to evaluate their impact on the water quality in the Occoquan Reservoir.” This is also required as part of the Comprehensive Plan Update under Code of Virginia § 15.2-2223 and § 15.2-2224.  This has not been done.

Promoting the long-term conservation and protection of healthy watersheds is critical to maintaining the health of the larger ecosystem; as well as maintaining a sustainable and affordable drinking water supply. Conserving natural resources is a far more cost-effective strategy to achieve Chesapeake Bay water quality goals and drinking water availability, quality and sustainability. In addition, maintaining healthy local watersheds is more meaningful to communities since most people are more concerned about the health of their local streams and the cost of their drinking water than the Chesapeake Bay overall health.

Nonetheless, promoting the long-term conservation of healthy watersheds is critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Healthy watersheds store carbon, provide wildlife with clean water and habitat, and are more resilient to the effects of invasive species and climate change. Healthy watersheds also generate ecosystem services and social and economic benefits that are difficult and very expensive to replicate when restoring impaired watersheds. The maintenance of healthy watersheds is important for the ecosystems and communities that rely on them.

When an undeveloped or generally open rural area is developed, pollution, erosion and other urban challenges begin to affect the health of our rivers and streams. Stormwater runoff increases in quantity and velocity. High volumes of stormwater can wash away stream banks, cut down hillsides and damage roads and buildings. Eroded soil washes into streams and rivers, damaging water quality and habitat as well as reducing the capacity of the reservoir as sediment fills the bottom.

Fertilizers, chemicals, and road salt we use on landscape and to promote winter driving safety and salt concentrations in blowdown water from cooling towers for data centers can pollute rivers and streams and are toxic to fish and wildlife. Culverts built when roads are paved and expanded in some cases block fish access to habitat in other cases culverts are too small for water to flow naturally, causing water to back up. Streams and rivers flood regularly. Floodwaters replenished the land and soaked into the ground. Developing the area will disconnect our streams and rivers from their natural floodplains, which leaves water no place to go during high flows and increases storm related flooding.

Before we do irreversible harm to the ecology and our regional drinking water supply, we need to look at what the impacts of planned changes will be. The Occoquan Watershed Model was developed over decades to evaluate the impact of land use decisions and compare potential land use scenarios and their impact on the Occoquan Reservoir water quality. Prince William County helped pay for the creation of that model. Prince William County did not even consider the impact of the proposed changes to the quality, availability and sustainability of the water supply. They need to follow the recommendations of Fairfax water and do that before any of these plans and zoning changes are approved. 

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