A watershed in decline
Citizens concerned about health of Upham Brook
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles about Henrico streams.
Despite the slow recovery and lingering effects of the recession, Henrico County continues to prosper and attract a growing population of “come-heres” with its enviable quality of life.
But there are disturbing signs of decline in a segment of the “been-here” population that is not growing and thriving – and more than one observer is deeply worried about it.
Bill and Kathy Talley, who have lived along a stretch of Upham Brook for more than 40 years, have noticed a distinct lack of turtles and frogs in the stream behind their house. “In the past, they used to be very plentiful,” laments Bill Talley.
Tim Thompson, a citizen who bears the unofficial title of Upham Brook Watershed (UBW) Streamkeeper, confirms that wildlife is not faring as well as it once did along the waterways he monitors.
“The snapping turtles have vanished from western Upham Brook,” Thompson says, “and the salamanders are vanishing, too.”
Turtles, frogs, and salamanders? Come on – why should we care?
We should care, explains Thompson, because the health of these species and others is a reflection of stream health and watershed health – and the portions of watershed he monitors are clearly in decline.
“Upham was declared impaired by the EPA ten years ago,” says Thompson, who as the self-appointed “Trash Fox” has been waging war on trash and pollution along Upham Brook for years. “Most of the major streams in northern Henrico -- Upham, Jordan’s Branch, North Run and Horsepen Creek – are badly trashed, stressed and suffer from bacteria which has killed off most microscopic growth.
“Upham is the main tributary to the [Chickahominy], which is also basically dead zone from its headwaters to Mechanicsville. [They’re] all in eco-intensive care.”
Albert Spells, a project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, shares Thompson’s concern for the wildlife. Salamanders in particular are considered the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine,” Spells explains. Frogs, turtles and other species that fail to proliferate as in the past, he says, are “screaming that something is wrong.”
‘Primordial urban soup’
In his blog, Thompson has documented dozens of efforts to clean the streams of “trash bombs,” as he calls the piles of litter that accumulate along Upham Brook.
In the Jordan’s Branch tributary, which originates in a series of underground culverts near Willow Lawn, he has found soda cans from as far back as the 1970s – in addition to such “frightening” debris as medical devices, appliances, tires, wire cable, mattresses, dumpsters, aerosol cans, gas cans, oil filters and “endless plastic and styrofoam – not to mention lawn and residential use chemicals, street-level pollutants and human and pet waste.”
The debris clogs build up over time, he says, with help from careless citizens and developers and irresponsible property owners, and are often aggravated by BMPs, which Thompson calls “litter-filled holding ponds that harbor trash from storm drains and relay it through culverts into waterways,” too often resulting in a “primordial, urban soup” of trash and scum.
The Talleys have also observed massive amounts of litter clogging the stream near their house, and Bill notes that plastic bottles, cans, and Styrofoam cups flowing down the Branch have dramatically increased in the recent years.
But another concern is the silt and sediment that continues to fill the stream bed, which Talley attributes primarily to commercial development upstream. Both the litter and the sediment have left Jordan’s Branch in “deplorable” condition, he says; and if trash and sediment are not addressed upstream, they flow on to foul the waters of Staples Mill Pond, the Bryan Park lakes, and beyond.
James Beckley, who volunteers with a group called the Chickahominy Swamp Rats, emphasizes that excessive storm water runoff is a primary culprit in the area’s water quality issues. Too many roads and parking lots have eliminated the ability of the soil to absorb rainfall, and so the runoff carries nutrients, bacteria, oil, and other pollutants into streams and lakes. What’s more, he says, “the increased flow from storm drains results in increased erosion, with many storm drains acting as a fire hose blasting away the sides of a stream.”
But hasn’t Henrico County, like so many other localities, been busily upgrading its storm systems, conducting stream assessments, restoring streams and moving toward more sustainable practices? Aren’t the county and VDOT getting ready to implement new EPA-mandated storm water programs in 2013 and 2014?
And aren’t there dozens of other groups – from government agencies to non-profit groups such as the James River Association (JRA) and Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) – working to raise awareness and implement change?
Beckley concedes that both Henrico County and City of Richmond are taking a more proactive stance to minimize storm water volume. Ann Jurczyk, a spokesperson for CBF, also observes that more localities are using innovative stormwater approaches, and that the commonwealth is beginning to assist local governments with direct stormwater management funding; the 2013 General Assembly recently appropriated $35 million for that very purpose, in fact.
JRA sponsors the River Rat program and water quality monitoring programs, while CBF is helping to install floating islands and native plantings, among other programs to improve stream health.
But while entities such as VDOT, EPA, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Henrico and surrounding counties, non-profits, local environmentally-friendly companies and neighborhood and advocacy groups are all involved in stream-enhancing activities, Thompson contends that there is “zero cross-collaboration and communication” between them. As one example, he cites the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, which has an Adopt-A-Stream program.
“But so does JRA and their River Rat program,” Thompson says. “[Yet] there is no coordination between the two.”
As for tackling the bigger issues, such as storm pollution and trash, Thompson complains that neither the EPA, counties, VDOT, property owners nor non-profits want to take responsibility. Not only do numerous organizations and government agencies have overlapping missions and mandates, but they also deal with overlapping jurisdictions. The result? No one takes ownership.
According to Thompson, one glaring example of this inertia is the “trash monster” clogging drainage culverts deep in Bryan Park. Volunteers from Friends of Bryan Park and other groups have picked up the trash for years, but Thompson says acres and acres of the park remain “a disaster area.”
After a visit with VDOT, Thompson determined that the trash was coming from I-64 storm drains that had not been regularly cleared. “But it was not VDOT’s responsibility now,” Thompson says, “because the trash is on city park property.”
Unable to make headway with city officials, Thompson did some map research that revealed the trash was technically in Henrico County. His luck was no better, however, with Henrico officials, who told him that the county does not have the manpower to pick up the trash.
“The pace of action and change is achingly slow,” Thompson says. “There is no urgency because of the lack of funds. Frankly, the problem has been studied to death, and money has been thrown at the problem, but then everyone sits on their hands and whines about lack of funding.”
Lack of funding and manpower are also cited as the root of a related problem: lack of state and federal enforcement of protective regulations. Thompson notes that he recently contacted officials at Sears corporate headquarters in hopes of getting the company to clean up part of its property off Westwood Avenue – property that Thompson says contains a heavily trashed section of Lost Creek. All he got in response, he says, was “a cold, corporate blow-off.”
“I cannot make them [clean it up], short of begging the EPA to take a look,” Thompson reports. “And as long as [they believe] human health is not in danger, the mindset is ‘let it ride.’”
‘Tinkering around the edges’
Jurczyk agrees that funding issues are a primary source of the inertia, which is aggravated by the tendency of local governments to focus on short-term costs of restoring local stream quality, rather than long-term benefits of investing in local green infrastructure.
Certainly, Jurczyk says, it’s appropriate for elected officials and taxpayers to care about balanced budgets. “And no one argues that fixing stormwater problems is free,” she says. “But there are definitely less expensive, more cost-effective ways of managing stormwater and restoring urban streams.
“And the benefits – clean water, quality of life, our children, and healthy lifestyles – far outweigh the investments.”
In addition to quality-of-life benefits, Jurczyk says, localities investing in stream and stormwater restoration projects can achieve long-term budget reductions, such as lower costs from reduced flooding, reduced erosion, reduced water treatment, cooler urban temperatures, cleaner local streams, more wildlife, increased recreational opportunities, and the attraction of more new businesses.
Lynn Wilson, who serves on the board of the Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District, adds that another element lacking in local government policy is the recruitment and involvement of residents in tackling challenges presented by aging stormwater and sewer systems.
“Other major localities,” she says, citing Chesterfield and James City counties as examples, “actively recruit and train citizens to monitor water quality, and involve residents as partners in their efforts.”
Wilson has lived near the middle Chickahominy for more than 30 years – but despite all the protective requirements of the Chesapeake Bay Act, she has only seen the water clarity diminish during that time.
“We still have wonderful suburban streams in Henrico, but they are in trouble,” she says, noting that the headwaters of the Chickahominy are virtually a dead zone for certain macroinvertebrates, and that E. coli contamination is a recurring issue.
“What we have been doing is just not enough,” Wilson says. “I fear we may be mostly tinkering around the edges of a massive and urgent problem.”
Thompson seconds Wilson’s assessment that more interest and involvement from citizens is needed.
“The public is unaware and unconcerned,” Thompson says. “No one knows the streams are in their backyard, that polluted storm water goes directly to streams, that the streams are dying or that Virginia had the second worst water pollution in the U.S. in 2012.”
Meanwhile, he says, state and county budget cutbacks have crippled the commonwealth’s ability to protect the environment at a time when it is in crisis.
“Polluted waterways are like the crazy aunt that has been in the basement for over a decade,” Thompson declares. “But now she is fouling the water and ripping at tree roots.”
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