New Life for Broken Streams

John Newton, Henrico environmental engineer, at the reclaimed Rocky Branch creek.

Rather than make developers install stormwater-control projects of marginal value, Henrico County pools resources to fund high-impact stream reclamations.

by James A. Bacon

Near the Henrico County government training center, a five-foot pipe spills water into Rocky Branch, a forlorn and forgotten urban creek. When it rains, water from more than 80 acres of roofs and parking lots along Broad Street rushes through the culvert and shoots into the stream at high velocity. Over the years water had scoured the stream bank, creating a gully that cut as deep as 10 feet. Stormwater washed tons of sediment every year into the James River watershed, carrying phosphorous, nitrogen and other pollutants with it.

Rocky Branch storm pipe

Thanks to a $600,000 stream restoration project, the ugly little gully has been stabilized. It hasn’t regained a pristine state of nature — some of its banks are hardened with large stones, logs and skeins of artificially implanted tree roots — but it isn’t eroding anymore. Thick with indigenous grass, shrubs and saplings, the banks are returning to woodland. Within a few years, the hand of man will be nearly invisible to passersby on the jogging trail just a few yards away.

Chalk up one small victory in the arduous campaign to clean up the James River and the Chesapeake Bay.

Rocky Branch is one of 48 stream segments that Henrico County identified more than 10 years ago as severely degraded and in need of restoration. To date, the county has repaired two others, one running through the Jamestown Townhouses apartment complex and the other behind Skipwith Elementary School.

Rocky Branch before restoration

None of the severely eroded creek beds would have been patched at all had Henrico County not adopted an innovative approach to storm water management. With the imposition of clean-water regulations under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, Henrico required commercial and residential real estate developers to adopt Best Management Practices (BMPs) for controlling storm water run-off. What county officials found, however, was that some BMPs were cost-effective while others were not, explains Jeff W. Perry, engineering & environmental services division manager.

While two-thirds of the BMP projects were effective, removing 85% of the pollutant load, one third, usually associated with smaller subdivisions, accomplished little, eliminating only 11%. Developers would spend $30,000 to $40,000 for a project that might remove a half pound of phosphorous a year yet  the water would run into a severely eroded creek or stream where literally tons of sediment, along with phosphorous and other regulated nutrients, washed into the watershed. Says Perry of the mis-allocation of resources: “It’s a real head scratcher.”

Rocky Branch after restoration

The county’s policy innovation was to take the money that developers would have spent on marginally useful BMPs and put it into a special environmental fund. That fund then would pay for the clean-up of streams like Rocky Branch where the environmental benefit would far outweigh that of neighborhood BMPs. “You’ve got X amount of resources,” Perry says. “Why not get the biggest bang for the buck?”

Joe Lerch, director of environmental quality for the Virginia Municipal League, embraces Perry’s logic. By combining the contributions of multiple developers, he says, the county can accomplish far more than individual property owners could on their own. The program has won national recognition. Here in Virginia, Fairfax County has put a similar system into place.

In 1999-2000, Henrico County had hired consultants to walk some 200 miles of creeks and streams across the 234-square mile locality. They documented stream conditions and identified segments that called for restoration. County officials then prioritized those stream segments for remediation, taking into account accessibility, elevation, the number of property owners whose cooperation was necessary and the number of gas and water lines that intersected the stream. Read more.

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5 responses to “New Life for Broken Streams

  1. This is a great program.

    Just as Doctors cost us billions by doing surgeries that could be rendered unnecessary by solutions like physical therapy for far less cost and risk, so our Engineering & Construction Complex working on State and Fed. level have developed by habit, self interest, or lack of imagination, solutions that over engineer and overbuild aspects of infrastructure, costing billions.

    Thus they waste money and create unintended consequences by ‘solving’ what could be resolved by more creative means, ranging from better design and material choice to better use of topography and other natural solutions.

    This broken stream program should be pushed hard. And ways should be found to expand its scope and reach beyond streams and storm water.

    Obviously, too, as article mentions, a first step is to clear away the mindless regulatory thickets that stunt creative solutions and sky rocket cost.

  2. Excellent article. Not sure how they remove nitrogen/phosphorous though.

    the basic problem with storm runoff is impervious surfaces that runoff much faster than forest, even pasture.

    The only way to really slow it down is to sequester it with a artificial pond or build a constructed wetland or similar but unless the wetland has the right kind of vegetation that specially “feeds” on nutrients.. other alternatives are actually treating the water – very expensive

    ,But the other irony, paradox is that the denser the development pattern, the more impervious surfaces there are and the more problems with runoff.

    I predict that storm water runoff will overtake Ag land on nutrient runoff. Another source of nutrients little recognized by many is power plant effluent .

    I also did not catch if they are actually testing for concentrations of nutrients and that’s how they know that some techniques are effective or not

    but good program and good article about it.


  3. the twain have met.

  4. Yes reed, they have indeed.
    excellent…everything 🙂

  5. Description of stream degradation applies statewide in urban settings. The Route 1 corridor in the Mount Vernon District of Fairfax County has the worst streams in all of Fairfax County. Developers get a free pass on any infrastructure improvements by sticking to “by right” development. As long as they keep to the existing footprint of a development and do not apply for a rezoning or special exception, they can redevelop a site without having to do any upgrades to mitigate the storm water run off from acres of pavement and impermeable surfaces on their site. A stream in my community has 20 foot gullies as a consequence of massive storm water flows. Fairfax County has a stream restoration strategy that has identified needed fixes but has rank ordered the projects putting the easiest and least expensive ahead of the most expensive and challenging projects. As is most often the case in Fairfax County, all of the stream protection and restoration efforts are focused on the western area of the county which has the least impact from storm water since most of that area was developed and redeveloped after more stringent storm water guidelines were written into the Public Facilities Manual. Older, more urbanized areas of Fairfax like the Route 1 corridor in the Mount Vernon District continue to get neglected with no change in sight. Too add salt to the existing wounds, The Fairfax Board of Supervisors joined Ken Cuccinelli in filing a lawsuit against the EPA saying the EPA can’t regulate storm water as a pollutant. A federal Judge in Alexandria ruled yesterday that the US EPA has exceeded its authority in this case. Congratulations to Sharon Bulova, Chairman of the Fairfax BOS and other board members for guaranteeing that environmental injustice remains in those Fairfax communities that are the most polluted in the County.

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