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Silent Streams

From their plastic ice cube corrals the larvae were transferred once more into miniature plastic petri dishes or directly onto the glass slide under the microscope lens.

"Does a caddis fly mean the water's good?" Spencer called out as she looked through the scope at a tiny black squiggle.

Marx came over to have a look. "Not that kind of caddis fly," she said. Then she squinted again. "What we have here is a mayfly," she announced. The insect was duly noted on the day's count sheet. The work went on.

Four years after their first meeting, most of the monitors have a hard time remembering where they saw the recruiting notice that brought them here. Spencer thinks it was a local newsletter. Marx, an Audubon Naturalist Society bulletin. But all of them can remember precisely what impelled them to venture out to that first meeting.

Spencer, a Tennessee native who has been in Arlington for 31 years, minus stints in Peru and the Middle East during her husband's State Department career, had been a gardener and led her daughters' Camp Fire Girl groups.

"I said, Okay, in 10 years I am going to be 80. So what are these next 10 years going to be about?" The streams of Middle Tennessee had been a big part of her childhood. Back then, before the paper companies began clearcutting the local forests and overwhelming the streams with runoff from eroded hillsides, her family had spent Sundays by the water. "The water was so clear, my grandfather used to throw coins in, and we'd swim around trying to find them." As an adult stationed in the Middle East, she'd seen how frightening it could be when clean water was scarce.

"This stream has connected me to this place in a way I'd never been connected before," she said. "I'm not a committee person, but now I feel I'm really part of a community. I come here almost every day now. I've done a lot of things in my life, but this is the thing I've stuck with the longest."

Dan Radke's romance with local streams started in the early 1980s, soon after he moved to Washington from Pittsburgh after college. He and some friends rented a group house near Spout Run, and from there Radke began to explore the local network of stream valley parks. He found a job, and then acquired a puppy, Cody. She expanded his hiking range considerably. They went out for long walks twice a day, eventually hiking all of the streams, or runs, that course down to the Potomac from North Arlington's rocky palisades. (The word "run" comes from the Old English "rundle," which means a stream that runs down over a gently sloping bed lined with smooth rock, or cobbles.) Around the time he got married, Radke moved closer to Donaldson Run and began to notice the trash. It was hard to miss. Each rainstorm swept new piles of paper, plastic and other debris into the creek, where the trash snagged on branches and otherwise did not go away. He began bringing trash bags along on his hikes and filling them, but soon had too much trash to carry out by himself. He called the county, which referred him to an overworked Parks and Recreation person. "But we agreed that if I collected the trash, they would come and pick it up."

As connected to the stream as he had become, Radke couldn't help but notice the other problems -- the erosion, the toppled trees. When he first brought that to the county's attention, in the mid-1990s, the response was tepid. There was no money and no one on staff who was responsible for stream health. But in 1999, the county's environmental department hired a young environmental scientist named Jason Papacosma to assess the health of Arlington's streams. Within a few months, Radke and Papacosma had met with Cliff Fairweather, a stream specialist at the Audubon Naturalist Society, to talk about putting together Arlington's first stream-monitoring program. Fairweather had been instrumental in setting up several citizen monitoring groups in the D.C. area and in instructing group leaders, including county officials such as Aileen Winquist, an Arlington environmental planner who has gone on to manage many monitoring teams and their data. (The state Soil and Water Conservation District office in Northern Virginia and the conservation group Save Our Streams also have trained stream monitors.) Ask many stream-monitoring groups in the area about their early days, and, often as not, Fairweather's name will come up.

It is not unusual for one person to be so influential, said Maryland stream ecologist Margaret Palmer, who has examined stream restoration projects across the country.

"Sometimes it can be traced to one person who has been incredibly active," Palmer said. "Sometimes it just takes one person."

It was spring and a fine day for bug hunting. Cliff Fairweather was walking down a narrow, grassy path toward a small jewel of a stream called Margaret's Branch, just outside the town of Clifton in southwestern Fairfax County. In 15 years with the Audubon Naturalist Society, Fairweather has taught hundreds of stream monitors how to identify a healthy stream. Mild-mannered, with eyeglasses that keep sliding down his nose, he has the distracted mien of a professor of the open air, a detective appraising the earth through field glasses. Fairweather is an interpretive naturalist, which means he is a kind of translator who makes the mysteries of the natural world readily understandable to non-specialists. He refers to his insect specimens as "pickled bugs" and in the field frequently interrupts himself to point out anything interesting. "Tiger swallowtail!" he called out, pointing to a yellow flash of butterfly wings. "Ruby-crowned kinglet over there," he added a moment later, pointing to a grove of trees and mimicking the bird's call.

"There's been a kingfisher real active around here the last few days," he said, making his way toward the creek, his worn canvas hiking boots making squishing sounds in the marshy ground. "We've got some red-shouldered hawks . . . those birds you hear now are white-footed sparrows and some junkoes, I think. And the Louisiana waterthrush -- confusing name, it's actually a warbler -- has arrived from down South. They use the stream, too."

Fairweather came to his present calling after more than a decade working for a defense contractor, doing historical research on the atmospheric nuclear testing program. "Took me 15 years to find out what I wanted to do in life," he said cheerfully. But he'd always been an ardent amateur naturalist. Growing up in Alexandria in the 1960s and '70s, he'd spent hours each week down at the local stream. It was always the first place his mother sent for him when he couldn't be found.

Fairweather's classes are free and open to all comers, and Margaret's Branch is his outdoor classroom. With its banks shaded by tall tulip poplars, Margaret's Branch looks like a picture postcard mailed from the 18th century. Its streambed is no wider than two feet in most places and is cosseted by shallow banks tufted with grasses and flowering weeds. It meanders through a 20-acre nature sanctuary, a former working farm donated to the Audubon Naturalist Society, one of the oldest conservation groups in the D.C. area and the nation.

"Most people get into this without any background in ecology, and it opens up a whole new world to them," Fairweather said, setting his buckets and other teaching gear down with a clank, beside the stream. "I've seen workshops where people are getting their first exposure, and in minutes they are really hooked. A lot of it is the appeal of the stream creatures. They are beautiful. And they have some adaptations for survival that really captivate people."

He crouched over the water. The case-making caddis fly fascinates, Fairweather said, lowering his net, because it alone among all the aquatic insects uses small bits of gravel, sand, bark to build an intricate stone wall around its lower body. Under a field microscope, the wall appeared to be made of multicolored "bricks," like the form-stone facade of a Baltimore rowhouse.

In addition to becoming familiar with the basics of stream biology -- the life cycles of benthic macroinvertebrates, or stream bugs -- stream monitors also, inevitably, learn about geology, engineering, hydrology and other fields that make up the science of how streams behave.

"When you start getting a lot of storm water, and it starts cutting into the creek, the channels change to accommodate," Fairweather said. Unstable banks collapse and take shade trees with them. The stream's course widens and straightens. The water heats up. Storm surges race through, leaving behind a layer of silt that suffocates all the stream creatures that haven't been washed away.

"There are all kinds of creeks in Alexandria like that. Cabin John Creek in Maryland is becoming like that. We had to abandon one monitoring site up there because there were no bugs to see."

Even in Washington's outer suburbs, where smaller amounts of pavement might seem to leave streams less stressed, the damage by storm-water runoff is accumulating. A short walk from Margaret's Branch, the banks of Popes Head Creek show clear signs of stress, even though they are surrounded by green fields and horses cantering along a trail on the opposite bank. The problem is that the creek's headwaters, five miles north, are surrounded by suburban sprawl. The stream runs through many subdivisions before it gets to Clifton. It is 15 to 20 feet wider than it was 100 years ago, and the streambed has dropped several feet.

Scientists and watershed planners refer to the amount of paved ground in a watershed as its "impervious" rating. The skyscraper canyons of Rosslyn, for example, have an impervious rating of 60 to 70 percent, while in the rest of Arlington, an older inner suburb, it is about 40 percent. The neighborhoods immediately around Donaldson Run are about 25 percent impervious. One paved acre of land throws off 16 times more water than a one-acre meadow does.

Once the impervious rating in a watershed climbs much over 10 to 15 percent, the stream that drains it begins to wash away. When the impervious rating is 55 percent, the variety of stream creatures drops by 90 percent, and sensitive species disappear entirely.

Historically, stream health has not figured in local government decisions about development. But that is changing. This year, for example, the Potomac Watershed Roundtable, a new coalition of Northern Virginia watershed planners led by Fairfax County Supervisor Penny Gross, sent the state legislature a proposal to give local governments the power to pass tree conservation ordinances. Such ordinances would establish a link, for the first time, between the storm-water management fees paid by housing developers and the number of trees they preserve. (Incentives like that would have helped western Fairfax County's severely degraded Little Rocky Run, where citizens spent a long weekend planting 300 trees along the creek only to learn that elsewhere in their watershed, at the very same time, a developer had clearcut 10,000, an entire forest.) But the very vocal dismay and ongoing activism of the Friends of Little Rocky Run and the group's founder Ned Foster have been an important goad, local officials said, an incentive to get things right. In fact, prodded by a combination of new science, citizen awareness and federal and state clean water laws, local governments are slowly realizing that a healthy stream can be as valuable a real estate asset as good schools or adequate roads, said Diane Hoffman, head of the state's influential Soil and Water Conservation District office in Northern Virginia. Stream science is now so solid and irrefutable, and the understanding of it so widespread, that even the decades' old logjam among environmentalists, local governments and development interests is beginning to break loose.

"It's not just the Chesapeake Bay anymore," said Fairweather. "People want their local stream to be decent. That's a big shift from 10 years ago. Back then, streams were just kind of there, and there wasn't this focus on ecology. The question now is: Would you rather have a healthy stream running through the neighborhood, or a storm-water ditch that the kids can't play in and your dog gets sick if it licks it?"

"We're in the early heart-transplant era of stream restoration," said Tom Schueler of the Center for Watershed Protection. "It's still as much an art as a science. We have a lot of technology, but not all of the patients survive."

The blueprint for the Donaldson Run project was three years in the making, and its many pages unfurl to cover the table in a meeting room. Its planners have high hopes for it, but evaluating its success will be subjective because there is, as yet, no objective scientific standard by which to evaluate the effectiveness of stream restoration projects. To that end, an international team of scientists, led by the University of Maryland's Margaret Palmer and known collectively as the National River Restoration Science Synthesis Project, is working to develop just such a tool.

But there is one local stream restoration project that appears to have been a success. It is Kingstowne, named after a nearby townhouse development in the Alexandria portion of Fairfax County. There, a 1,000-foot stretch of badly damaged stream, a tributary of Dogue Creek, has been raised from the nearly dead. The project was funded by county, state and federal agencies and two citizen groups as a test case five years ago. Today, the creek's newly contoured banks sway with grasses, and minnows and water bugs dart through the sparkling water. But only half of the stream's course was reconstructed. The other half continues to deteriorate.

The price for saving a creek in this way is not cheap. Stream restoration can cost from $200 to $600 a linear foot. The cost of restoring Fairfax's badly eroded Little Hunting Creek, for example, is estimated at $35 million, and "that's not to get it back to some beautiful pristine waterway," said Fairweather. "That's just to make it reasonably healthy and clean."

Because of the cost, restoration may not be an option for many ailing streams in America, stream ecologists agree. So ecologists and watershed planners are pushing something called "low-impact design," a variety of systems to catch storm water before it gets to the corner storm drain. These systems include everything from planting "green roofs" of rain-thirsty vegetation, which captures rain-water and insulates the building below, to attaching rain barrels to downspouts and conserving water for lawn and garden use. In Fairfax County, local planners are working with state conservationists to retrofit the 55-acre former Lorton federal prison complex -- soon to be an arts center -- with the latest in storm-water containment technologies. Some are surprisingly low-tech, like simply cutting up massive parking lots into smaller islands of asphalt that allow for wedges of absorbent green space in between. All of these are improvements on the often weed-choked, now discredited "storm-water management ponds" that were installed in countless subdivisions, shopping centers and office parks during the 1970s and '80s.

In the end, however, storm-water containment systems can only do so m

require realistic planning to leave enough absorbent green space between the ever-expanding acres of pavement.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed has enough pavement to park 116 million cars. Many local streams already are severely stressed by storm-water runoff, and the watershed's human population is expected to grow by 4 million in the next 25 years. "We're improving our game all the time," Schueler said, "but we can't keep up with sprawl."

Early this month, Donaldson Run was a royal mess, as planned. The project was one-third completed. The stream was being dammed in 200-foot sections, the water in between sucked out and pumped downstream to make way for backhoe operators and bulldozer drivers, who maneuvered their equipment in surprisingly balletic pirouettes, scooping dirt from one area of the streambed and patting it into place elsewhere. Staircases of U-shaped stone waterfalls intended to slow the flow were laid at intervals into the streambed, which had been raised several feet and was now within spitting distance of the banks and surrounding flood plain.

Meanwhile, four years of negotiations among the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington Golf & Country Club about compensation for the eel kill and other damages were nearing completion. A draft of the settlement was published in the Federal Register last month and was expected to be finalized in federal court soon. In the settlement, the club agrees to pay $145,000 for damages, including "substantial mortality of fish and American eels and virtual elimination of smaller aquatic organisms immediately downstream" from the herbicide's release.

Bob Mortenson, a past president of the club, said it was a moment of chagrin for the oldest golf and country club in Virginia, one whose fairways have hosted everyone from President Woodrow Wilson to the White House surgeon of Theo-dore Roosevelt. The groundskeeper, who has since retired, "didn't sleep for weeks afterward," Mortenson said. "When you're a groundskeeper, you're responsible for growing stuff. You want to make sure it stays alive."

The Donaldson Run monitors carried out their quarterly census, as planned, last month. They set up shop well downstream of the restoration. They didn't find too much -- some aquatic worms, a caddis fly, some black flies. There was no sign of eels. They wouldn't be out in the daytime anyway. But they are never far from anyone's mind. It is hoped they will repopulate, because the upper half of the stream was untouched by Basamid spill.

Nothing out of the ordinary on the zoological front, they reported. But the stream was another matter entirely. Seeing so many of the big old trees along the stream banks gone -- about 110 have been razed -- had been a bit of a wrench. For as long as anyone could remember, a walk along Donaldson Run had been an amble in dappled shade. Now, it was a walk in the bright sunlight. And it would be that way for several years, at least, until the fastest-growing saplings, now protected by deer fence, have had a chance to grow up.

Spencer was out walking the other day up by the mouth of the pipe where the stream's main tributary emerges from the ground, not far from its natural spring. The ground was corrugated with bulldozer tire tracks, and straw had been sprinkled around to clot the mud. An orange plastic construction fence had been put up to keep the curious out of harm's way. But Spencer had let herself in a few times to have a look around. That's how she happened to see the frog. She's pretty sure it was a frog, and not a toad. It was sitting near the lip of the storm pipe, which had been plugged by a temporary rock dam and was almost dry.

"I've been walking this stream for 31 years, and I've never seen a frog. I've asked around -- nobody's ever seen a frog," Spencer said. She still sounded elated several weeks after the sighting. "This means the water is pure enough that a frog could live here."

Even though she knew she shouldn't interfere, she couldn't help herself that day. She went over to the dam and lifted one small stone, to let a trickle of water through.

"I just hope the pumps didn't suck the frog up," she said, doubtfully. Then she brightened.

"But you see, that's why this is so fine -- all of this," she said, throwing her hand, in a wave that took in the whole scene -- the debris and the dirt, the bulldozers and jagged tree stumps. "All of this will be worth it," she said. "We'll make it worth it. A real stream is a wonderful thing."

Mary Battiata is a Magazine staff writer. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


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