Repairing Waterways One Subdivision at a Time

Driving live stakes into the eroding bank of Westham Creek.

Virginia’s suburbs are hard on water quality and wildlife habitat. You can do something about it. Create a neighborhood preserve and get to work!

by James A. Bacon

If everyone swept their front stoop, the old saying goes, the whole world would be clean. With that philosophy in mind, two or three dozen volunteers with the Countryside Homeowners Association mobilized Saturday to clean up the creek running through their neighborhood. In a morning’s work, they collected several bags of trash, planted roughly 500 dogwood and willow stakes along the eroded stream bed, and built “rabbitats” to make homes for small woodland creatures.

Countryside homeowners had long ignored the stretch of Westham Creek running through the neighborhood. Once in a while, someone would call the public works department when culverts got clogged and the creek backed up, and occasionally kids would play in the woods, but that was about the extent of it. Over the 11 years I’ve lived in the subdivision, I paid little heed to the creek, which does not touch my property. But my environmental consciousness is more expansive these days than in years past, and my thoughts have turned increasingly to the forlorn and neglected strip of woods running through my neighborhood.

Indeed, you could say that I have become a zealot on the subject. I heartily urge other Virginia homeowners to undertake the clean-up of the creeks and streams in their own back yards, and I offer this article as a modest example of what citizens can accomplish on their own. There is no need to wait for the James River Association or the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to come organize you. In the immortal words of the Nike commercials, just do it!

My enthusiasm was kindled a few months ago when Barbara Brown, president of our homeowners association, shared a consultant’s report that she had commissioned at her own expense regarding the potential for creating a neighborhood wildlife sanctuary. The report concluded that the Westham Creek floodplain was of sufficient size and quality to serve as a viable conservation area, providing “green space for residents to enjoy, quality wildlife habitat, water quality protection benefits and … an educational starting point for many community activities.” The potential existed, the consultant said, to create a communal asset that would “interest prospective home buyer as properties changed hands over the years.” In other words turning the floodplain into a neighborhood asset could increase property values.

Legal title to the land in the flood plain had been held by the Countryside Corporation, which had developed the subdivision. Taking ownership itself, the homeowners association created a conservation area that benefited everyone and made it easier to get the neighborhood excited about its upkeep and maintenance.

Around the time that I became aware of Barbara’s initiative, I had been writing about stream and creek restoration efforts in the James River watershed as part of a wider effort to clean the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Much of the Bay pollution comes from everyday activities of suburbanites like my neighbors and me. We fertilize our lawns with little thought to the nitrogen and phosphates that wash into our creeks, flow downstream and ultimately create algae blooms and dead zones in the Bay. We neglect the neighborhood creek, only dimly aware that erosion washes tons of sediment into the river, clouding the water, blocking sunlight and killing underwater grasses so vital to Bay and riverine ecosystems. We are a part of the problem. But with a little effort we can be part of the solution.

Barbara was organizing the neighborhood’s first spring clean-up event, so I volunteered to see what could be done to fix our stream. I took John Newton, Henrico County’s stream-reclamation engineer, on a tour of Westham Creek, showing him where the stream had cut stream banks as high as six feet and had washed away the soil from under towering trees, leaving tangles of exposed roots. Newton said the erosion was pretty bad but had not reached a level where it justified county intervention. He recommended that we stabilize the creek banks by planting live stakes every few inches, three rows high, in a diamond-shaped pattern. Within a couple of years, the stakes would grow into dense foliage with thick mat of roots that should hold the soil into place.

The next step was figuring out where to find the live stakes. The stakes are a specialty product, cut in uniform lengths of about two feet, stripped clean and chopped diagonally at one end for easier insertion into the sand and clay. The James River Association put us in touch with Ernst Conservation Seeds, of Meadville, Pa., which specializes in bioengineering and wetlands materials. For about $500, which the homeowners association paid for, Ernst shipped us roughly 500 stakes of Red Osier Dogwood and Black Willow.

Now, I know next to nothing about planting live stakes. But I had read a couple of pamphlets and talked to a couple of experts when writing my articles. And in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. So, while Barbara supervised the trash clean-up and rabitat construction, I organized the stake-driving team.

It was a nippy March morning. A dozen men and a couple of teenage boys spent a couple of hours splashing through the (mostly) shallow creek and pounding stakes into the riverbank. We had enough material to stabilize about 40 to 50 linear yards. The key was to drive in the stakes at a such an angle and depth for their roots to tap the water. Having absolutely no idea of what we were doing, we will have to wait and see how many live and how many die. Hopefully, we will learn enough from our floundering exertions that we can repeat the process more successfully next year on another stretch of creek bank. The creek has enough erosion to give us spring projects for years to come. Read More.

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8 responses to “Repairing Waterways One Subdivision at a Time”

  1. As part of some of its rezoning applications, CityLine Partners, a developer in Tysons, has made two stream restoration proposals. Not only will they help on the storm water runoff problem (in large part by slowing the flow), but also create some park and open space upon which some of its future residential buildings will face. CapOne also proposed to help restore the same stream earlier.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    I am interested in your characterization of bamboo as invasive. Much of the bamboo species growing in Virginia probably is invasive. However, there is native bamboo in the United States – arundinaria. If you ‘boo is arundinaria it might not be invasive. ‘Boo certainly sucks up more than its share of water – so, it might be worth keeping.

  3. We were told that the bamboo was invasive, but maybe our authority didn’t know about native bambo. (I sure didn’t). I’ll have to find out more.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      There are many strains of bamboo in Virginia that are invasive. Whoever told you the bamboo was invasive may well have been right.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    You rock, bacon

  5. Hydrilla is invasive also as is quite a few other wetland/riverine vegetative plants these days but if they improve the water quality (like Hydrilla) does or slow down the runoff (like bamboo) will then we have to ask ourselves just what we are willing to do (and not do) to bring these suburban and urban streams back.

    the big dual threat is runoff volume – and the things that are in the runoff which nowdays in urban/suburban areas can be pretty bad. This stuff lies on the land until a pretty good storm comes through and then it gets flushed into these streams and the damage is dual – higher runoff than the stream pad has grown to accommodate, which then suffers damage to the green “infrastructure” and then the water quality of the runoff also.

    50 yards is commendable on one hand but 50 yard also shows you the real magnitude of the problem if you are looking at a stream that is 1, 2, 3, 5 miles long.

    winter/spring is the time to do it. Summer is a poison ivy and snake world and to be perfectly honest … sometimes the water itself is not safe to come in contact with – it all depends what is being washed from it’s watershed.

    you can, by the way, find out the critter health of the stream by doing a “benthic survey” that will tell you what critters still survive and how robust they are.

    I have found the whole experience to be a downer… because usually unless there is a heroic effort by many people – it don’t get much better and often just slowly gets worse and more land is developed.

    it’s a frustration to me because each one of these streams tells the tale of what is happening to the Bay and more and more the tale is about storm water and less and less about sewage runoff.

    and storm water is our Achilles heel because it seems not such a threat to many people … and hard to convince them that it is…

    one of the awful things you will see as a paddler of the rivers is what happens to the side streams when it rains… the river itself starts off clear but soon the side streams are “bleeding” and then the whole river is…

    Most of us take these things for granted as we drive our cars over bridges over the streams and rivers.

    don’t mistake the fact that serious rainstorms can also muddy rivers in wilderness areas but it takes heck of a rain and it clears up almost immediately … whereas in developed areas – the bleeding starts almost immediately and goes on for days and days… and this mud and it’s toxic components is what goes downstream to the Bay and then settles on the bottom smothering any/all life that cannot move and even if it can move, it’s food supply is destroyed.

    It’s a wonder to me that the Bay is hanging on like it is but as folks know when I write about it – I do not think we are doing near enough and we are not serious about what we are doing – witness the Accotink Creek issue where it was calculated (in effect) that the stream was causing 300 million dollars worth of damage to the Chesapeake Bay and the “heros” of the right where those that won a court case saying they did not have to clean the creek up.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      The oyster reefs are the key.

      I really wonder about the decision not to introduce the Asian oysters.

  6. The Asians would likely wipe out the Bay Oyster… though…. and my understanding is that the Asian oysters are inferior to the Bay oyster as sea food.

    but this sort of points out how the Bay has changed – so much that it’s natural order of vegetation and critters are having trouble surviving.

    which is a downer to me.

    I do not believe that the Bay should be pristine or even near pristine – and the price we will pay to just accept a reasonably clean Bay may well be to accept the demise of many of it’s native denizens….

    ” John Smith, on a voyage up the Chesapeake, stated oysters “lay as thick as stones.”

    the absolute biggest threat to the Bay, bar none, is “Smart Growth” because of it’s very high percent of impervious surfaces and very skinny storm water facilities in general. It’s ironic to me that Smart Growth is billed as “green” when it’s so NOT if you look at the whole picture.

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