Northern Virginia Stream Bank Restoration Projects Do More Harm Than Good

Comments at Arlington County Board Meeting, May 16, 2020

A letter to the editor in this week’s Mount Vernon Gazette entitled “Wrong Approach for Stream Restoration” (pp. 6-7), deplores misguided stream “restoration” projects in our region.  

According to author Rod Simmons, a Fairfax County environmental consultant, the LTE, “identically applies to . . . the currently planned upper Donaldson Run and Gulf Branch projects in Arlington County, as well as virtually all other upper headwater stream projects in our region.”

He says: “The biggest problem with the so-called natural channel design approach to stream “restoration” for us in the greater Washington, D.C. region is that it is planned and implemented in completely the wrong places: small order, interior forested, upper headwater streams and wetlands. Natural channel design (i.e. the Rosgen method) is mainly applicable to large order streams and rivers, especially the kind one finds in the American west. Applying it to small order, upper headwater stream channels of the deeply dissected Fall Zone of our area is a misuse of the methodology, a misunderstanding of eastern Fall Zone hydrology and stream geomorphology, a sure recipe for failure, a mismanagement of public funds by inappropriately targeting sediment-control projects in places with low levels of the very nutrients for which funding is based, and an unacceptable loss of irreplaceable native forest, wildlife, and landscape memory.

“The controversial Hollin Hills stream construction projects in the Little Hunting Creek watershed of Fairfax County, Virginia embody the worst elements of these misguided land use projects at virtually every level, from land giveaway to project planning to backing by elected officials.”

According to Suzanne Sundburg, “the science is clear. Privatizing stream ‘restoration’ has perverted its original intent. No matter how well intentioned, the process — as currently practiced in Arlington and elsewhere — it is incredibly destructive to holistic stream and riparian ecology.

“Corrective measures made solely to the receiving streambed will never correct the root cause: steadily increasing inputs of runoff volume and speed, fueled by increasing impervious surfaces and the loss of mature tree canopy throughout the watershed.”