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Silent Streams

The fire department quickly cordoned off the stream area with yellow police tape, and the golf club, by all accounts, quickly acknowledged responsibility. Within a few days, all of the government agencies with jurisdiction over streams and fish kills -- from Arlington, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, as well as Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality -- were meeting to investigate and to begin what would be a four-year process of assessing damage and considering fines. Down at the creek, meanwhile, the dead eels decomposed. "We sent e-mails out to the neighborhood association -- 'Don't let your kids and dogs play in the water. Don't let your dogs eat the fish,'" Radke said. "People started panicking: 'What about the wildlife that eat it? What about the raccoons?'" But as Radke and the others already knew too well, Basamid G was only the latest in a long series of insults to Donaldson Run. It was a deadly and toxic shock, true, but also part of a much bigger problem with a much less exotic name, one that threatens every suburban and urban stream in the country, and one that would not be solved with yellow police tape.

That problem is pavement, and the way it has changed the ancient relationship between streams and rain. For most of human history, rain fell onto meadows, fields and forests, and sank slowly into the ground. In fact, most of the rain was intercepted by plants and tree leaves before it ever hit ground, and evaporated back into the air, eventually returning as rain again. (This is still the case in undeveloped areas -- a forest after heavy rainfall is a remarkably dry place.) The small amount of rain that did reach the ground sank slowly down through layers of soil and rock until it reached the underground water table. From there it flowed laterally and downhill, still underground, toward streams, where it seeped into the streambeds and recharged the waterways from below. During a heavy storm, some rainwater might flow downhill on the ground's surface, but that was the exception, not the rule.

Pavement has changed all that. Now, every time it rains, water that once would have been slowly absorbed into meadow or forest floor courses off roads and parking lots and roofs and into curb gutters and storm drains, which funnel it directly to the local creek, at a speed and a volume that, before development, a stream saw only during spectacular storms, the kind that occur once or twice a century. These storm-water surges, as they are called, work as giant routers, scouring out streambeds and banks, flushing away the dirt around the roots of trees along the stream banks, and washing away the small creatures that cling to stream rocks. Under this regular, relentless scouring, stream life is swept away, and the stream becomes little more than a biologically dead sluiceway.

Donaldson Run was well on the way to this fate long before the Golf Course Incident. Its banks were badly eroded, as high as 20 feet in places. The streambed had dropped three feet in the past 30 years, exposing sewer lines the county had buried decades earlier. The exposed sewer lines had been encased in concrete sleeves, but those were crumbling, too, under the relentless scouring. The roots of huge bank trees had been exposed, and, every month or two, a few more mighty oaks or poplars toppled into the water, their enormous root balls raised to the air like frazzled nerve endings. The center of the channel was choked with long sandbanks of silt and car-size dams of dead trees, their branches festooned with plastic bags and other litter.

Storm-water runoff now threatens virtually every suburban and urban stream in the country. Stream assessments made by county governments around the Beltway in the past five years have given the majority of local streams a grade of C-minus or less, and there have been plenty of F's. (Donaldson Run was given a D.) Eighty percent of the 100,000 miles of streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are in similarly bad shape, according to local governments and the independent Center for Watershed Protection. Worldwide, streams and rivers are in worse shape than any other habitat, according to University of Maryland stream ecologist Margaret Palmer; the rate of species extinction in streams is five times higher than that of any other habitat and far exceeds that of land or ocean.

In case you are hoping that the problem is of concern only to nature lovers with an inexplicable fondness for miniature crustaceans, think again. A decade's worth of new scientific research makes it clear that the problem of dying streams has direct and dire implications for the supply of clean drinking water. Streams are now understood to be the vital capillaries of the freshwater system. A healthy stream and the land, or watershed, around it, are a natural and irreplaceable filter for drinking water, a giant Brita. If that function were to be lost, the water that courses into the Potomac from local streams would be far dirtier, full of all the toxins that wash off roadways, things like cadmium and zinc from brake linings, as well as lawn fertilizer and other pollutants. Getting that water to a drinkable standard would be far more expensive than it is now, and would require treating the water with many more chemicals, each with its own cost in money and human health. Water bills in the Washington area already have been increasing for years to compensate for this, according to research by the Center for Watershed Protection.

There is a related danger, as well. In times of drought, streams deprived of the slow seep of underground water that has been absorbed through meadow and forest, slacken or dry up completely, no longer able to support the reservoir and river intakes that supply drinking water. Many policy experts predict that in the coming century, clean water will become as precious a commodity as oil is today, and that water wars, long a feature of the booming cities in the dry American Southwest, will become far more commonplace. Already, legal battles have begun in the Midwest, as far-flung towns with depleted water tables sue for the right to pump water from the Great Lakes. Without healthy streams to feed it, even the mighty Potomac, which supplies virtually all of the drinking water for the Washington area, would be stressed, though local water authorities have highly sophisticated water control systems in place to help prevent shortages of drinking water even during severe drought.

If the connection between streams and drinking water is direct, it is not particularly visible. In many suburban and city neighborhoods, more than half of the streams have been shunted into storm pipes and buried underground. Many people have no idea what stream their downspouts drain into, or the name of the larger stream or river to which their local stream flows. All of that information makes up what stream scientists call a "watershed address." We all have one. A typical Washington watershed address starts with the nearest stream, then a larger creek -- Donaldson Run, for example. Next is Donaldson Run's destination, the Potomac River. And beyond that, the destination for the Potomac and all Washington area streams, Chesapeake Bay. But the connections are not widely understood, stream advocates say. Most people still believe, wrongly, that litter thrown into the ubiquitous corner storm drain (there are 10,000 of these in Arlington County alone) flows to a water treatment facility, rather than directly into a creek somewhere downstream.

As all of this has become better understood, the nation's environmental and conservation groups have shifted their focus from the "big water" -- oceans and rivers -- that occupied them in the 1970s and '80s, to streams. Washington area county governments also have begun paying closer attention, motivated by looming cleanup deadlines imposed by the regional Chesapeake Bay Agreements and the federal Clean Water Act. (The federal government has set a deadline of 2010 by which ailing Chesapeake Bay must be restored to a certain level of ecological health. If that deadline is not met, the states whose creeks are polluting the water will begin paying large fines.) Under that pressure, Arlington is just one of many counties in the region scrambling to take the measure of its streams -- mapping its watersheds, measuring water quality. In the past four years, Arlington and other counties have hired biologists, hydrologists and civil engineers to draw up watershed management plans. Even Fairfax County, long seen by environmental activists and some politicians as indifferent to environmental concerns, has changed its tune, stream advocates say. Fairfax's recent survey of its streams was unflinching, and it gave more than two-thirds of the county's streams a rating of fair or poor. "At [county] board meetings now, the question is no longer whether streams matter, but rather, what are we going to do about it," said Stella Koch, an official with the Audubon Naturalist Society and longtime stream advocate.

At the base of this pyramid of environmental activism is a steadily growing army of citizen volunteers. There are now more than 5,000 watershed- and stream-protection groups around the country, most of which have cropped up in the past decade. Washington has more of these groups than any other metropolitan area. There are 130 groups in this region, from Rock Creek to Hagerstown. Their roots go back to the 1960s, when a federal government worker named Rachel Carson, who lived near the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River, wrote a book called Silent Spring that became a call to arms and a touchstone for the emerging environmentalist movement.

The experience of Dan Radke and others at Donaldson Run is typical of the way the process has worked. Radke, worried about the stream and tired of picking up the trash by himself, first approached the county in the mid-1990s about setting up a stream-monitoring program similar to those he'd heard were underway in Montgomery and other counties. Nice idea, but no money, the county said. But within a few years, the county changed its mind, especially when it became clear that the cost of such a program was minimal.

Donaldson Run is also benefiting from another development in stream rescue, known as stream restoration. This fall, Donaldson Run is being bulldozed, scraped and otherwise altered beyond recognition, as part of a $1.5 million redesign that will raise the streambed, reroute the stream channel and replant its banks with several hundred saplings. It is the most extensive stream restoration ever attempted in Arlington County, and while its impetus was to protect the streambed's crumbling sewer lines, its goals are more ambitious -- to re-create the natural stream features erased by the "fire hose" effect of suburban storm water. (There have been 38,000 stream restorations around the country in the past two decades, with 3,700 of them in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.) "The idea that urban and suburban streams will ever be pristine again isn't realistic, but, with better management practices, we will be able to get relatively good water quality," said Mark Bryer, a monitor on a neighboring stream who, in his day job, directs Chesapeake Bay programs for the Nature Conservancy. "A stream like Donaldson Run can go from poor to fair, or fair to good."

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