Silent Streams

By Mary Battiata
Sunday, November 27, 2005

It started with Cody the weimaraner. She needed long walks, which led to the creek, which revealed the trash, which led to the decision to clean up the trash, which led to the unearthing of the shopping cart and the migrating lawn chairs, among many other things God never meant to live in a stream. And that, in a roundabout way, is how Dan Radke, a 42-year-old telecommunications salesman and suburban father of two, found himself in ankle-deep water on a Saturday morning in August four years ago surrounded by dead eels. He'd never seen an eel before. Now there were hundreds of them, inert outcroppings of three-foot, green-gray fish strewn in tangled piles up and down the banks, like mounds of melted pipe. Though they didn't know it yet, Radke and three neighbors had stumbled upon ground zero of what would become known around the neighborhood as the Golf Course Incident.

They had been deputized by Arlington County as citizen stream monitors just a few months earlier. They'd attended a couple of weekend classes to learn how to identify the tiny bugs that use the stream as a nursery.

"It wasn't what I expected," said Radke, who takes pains to explain that he is not an environmentalist. "I was a chemistry major in college, but I didn't know you monitored the health of a stream by counting bugs." That August morning four years ago, Radke and the others had risen early, collected buckets and nets and rubber boots and headed down to Donaldson Run to conduct their second bug census. They were feeling, if not like old hands, at least modestly confident.

They met near the stream, about a mile up from where it falls into the Potomac, south of Chain Bridge. They unfolded a small field table (a loaner from the county), a microscope (also the county's), as well as a small TV tray, a white plastic dishpan, some ordinary kitchen ice cube trays and a stack of miniature plastic petri dishes. Then they stepped gingerly down the three-foot bank. They figured they'd net more of the specimens they'd caught the first time out -- snails, aquatic worms, leeches and the comma-size larvae, or young, of the biting flies (black, deer and horse) and nonbiting flies (dragon, damsel, crane, caddis) that make up the lowest rung of the food chain for the stream's fish and birds. They were hoping to see a crayfish, too. The little gray crayfish are the agile acrobats of the stream -- frisky, large enough to see without a microscope and so hardy it's almost impossible to kill them, short of running them over. At the other end of that hardiness spectrum were the so-called sensitive orders -- the case-making caddis fly, for example. The presence of this kind of caddis fly would mean the stream's health was robust.

Instead, as the monitors stepped into the water, they saw that the creek was littered with dead and dying crayfish, their tiny exoskeletons turning from shrimp-gray to white as they stopped taking in oxygen. Then they saw the eels. Eels hadn't been discussed in the stream classes, but, as the monitors would soon learn, the shy, nocturnal American eel was perhaps the most exotic fish in local waters. Eels spend most of their long lives -- from eight to 20 years -- patrolling the shallow water under the lips of stream banks, preparing to make one spectacular swim, a journey of a thousand miles, all the way down to the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda. There they breed, and from there their tiny offspring, known as elvers, use one of nature's most extraordinary, if little understood, homing instincts to return to the streams that their mothers set out from months before. To get home, elvers cross great obstacles, even slithering across short stretches of wet earth and pavement. They are the only fish in local waters that climb Great Falls. Many of the dead eels splayed along Donaldson Run that August morning were the direct descendants of eels that had swum that particular stretch of water in George Washington's day and before.

Radke hiked upstream along the fence lines of several back yards, and saw that the eel kill extended for more than a block and a half.

"If you'd brought a dump truck out to pick them up, you would have filled it," he said later. "It was obvious that something had killed everything."

But what?

"There was no smell, the water was clear," Radke said. "We didn't know what to make of it."

Shaken, and more than a little worried about the stream water on their hands and gloves and sneakers, the Donaldson Run monitors climbed back up the bank and debated what to do. They called the county's environmental office but got an answering machine. Next, they tried the naturalist who'd trained them, a man named Cliff Fairweather, who told them to call the fire department. Within minutes, firetrucks, helicopters and hazmat vehicles from Arlington and Washington had converged where the creek crosses Military Road in Arlington and flows into National Park land. Hazmat teams followed the trail of dead eels up to the top of a ridgeline and the grounds of the Washington Golf & Country Club.

The mystery was soon solved. The country club was replacing its turf. To kill the old grass, and all of the weed spores in the ground, groundskeepers had been applying a powerful herbicide-fumigant called Basamid G. The instructions for using Basamid G warn that it must not be applied if there is forecast of heavy rain. They also recommend that the product be applied only in a bowl-like setting, where storm-water runoff is not likely.

Memories about the weather forecast for that August day in 2001 differ. County officials recalled that afternoon storms had been predicted. But a club officer later described the ensuing downpour as a "freak thunderstorm." In any case, when the skies opened, contaminated rainwater washed down the hillside and into Donaldson Run and a neighboring creek and, from there, into the Potomac, a mile downstream.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company