Dam failure drains Fairfax County lake, kills wildlife

By Derek Kravitz
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 11:38 PM

During the heavy rains that drenched the Washington region Thursday, Kingstowne Park dam in Fairfax County's Alexandria section failed. It was a quick and quiet death, but the environmental impact has been devastating: The two largest lakes are nearly empty, leaving migratory birds, turtles and fish dead or swimming fruitlessly in evaporating puddles.

Fairfax County officials had known for years that the eroding dam would eventually fail, leaving at least some of Kingstowne's five man-made lakes barren. Once used for industrial gravel-pit operations, the marshlands and swamps were created in the 1960s in a remote corner of Northern Virginia.

It had become a scenic refuge from the bevy of traffic-clogged roadways and neighboring strip malls.

For Kingstowne's residents, the lake was an attractive draw - a suburban oasis full of small minnows and bluegills and the occasional beaver and muskrat.

"For a moment, the children thought about forging the knee-deep mud to throw the fish in the various pools of water, but it seemed too late to save them," said Kyle Lampela, 48, whose house on Heatherington Place backs up to the now-empty lakes.

The Fairfax County Park Authority and the Board of Supervisors acquired the Kingstowne Lakes in 2002 from the original developer, said James W. Patteson, Fairfax's director of public works and environmental services, and planned to conserve the area through erosion control. But it was clear that without a significant cash infusion, the dam wouldn't hold forever, officials said.

"We knew this would happen. The question was when, not if. But it's definitely a mess, and what we do about it is going to be a long-term discussion," said Fairfax Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), who moved to the Kingstowne neighborhood a year and a half ago. "There's no easy fix; otherwise, we would have done something a long time ago."

McKay said the lakes, which were connected through the Dogue Creek tributary to the Potomac River, were "intertwined" with the Kingstowne neighborhood. Reaction to the dam failure was swift.

"On Friday morning, I was getting knocks on my door that the water was gone," he said.

The county had planned to do environmental impact studies on the lakes' ecosystem, and how to sustain it, at some future date. Fairfax County officials noted that the Environmental Protection Agency had a consent decree on the watershed area, meaning the site was in the process of being cleaned up following a legal dispute.

Patteson said one of the issues was an overabundance of silt in the lakes. It was unclear Tuesday how that federal agreement might be resolved.

Patteson said officials and environmental consultants are now trying to figure out what to do with the empty ponds. Possibilities include planting grass and shrubbery to spruce up the lifeless area and reduce the odor of wet and decomposing organic material for the residents of the Kingstowne Residential Owners Corp. The community, about 12 miles outside the District, is one of the region's largest subdivisions, with more than 5,300 homes.

The lakes were part of the Dogue Creek Watershed, a 20-square-mile area protected by county and federal statutes. Cost estimates to bolster the dam and build a nearby retention basin ran into the millions, according to Fairfax County planning documents.

No damage to homes or trails has been reported, Patteson said, but the environmental damage is significant. On Tuesday afternoon, dead muskrats and fish could be spotted on what was the lakes' shorelines, and the air was pungent.

"The water is gone. We now have to look at what we're going to do with the space because it's not coming back," Patteson said.

But residents want the Kingstowne Lakes restored. "We don't want to let nature take it," Lampela said.

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