Stewards of the stream

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories examining the Upham Brook Watershed, and citizen, governmental, and organizational efforts to protect it.
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Beneath an ugly cloverleaf on West Broad Street, mere yards from the relentless hum of tires and throb of idling engines, it’s possible – as of a few months ago – to glimpse a rare and valuable jewel.

The jewel is in plain sight from an overlooking guard rail near Glenside Drive, yet thousands of motorists zip through the intersection each day, seemingly unaware of the oasis below.

The deer meandering along the sandy banks are aware, as are the butterflies and birds flitting among the bushes. The scene of serenity and calm, however, belies the urgency of the struggle taking place between the banks of historic Upham Brook: a struggle for the stream’s survival.

Not long ago, Henrico resident Timothy Thompson found the site engulfed in a tangle of trash. Just across Glenside from that spot, along another portion of Upham Brook, he discovered what he calls a “massive trash lagoon.”

“I identified a storm drain basin,” says Thompson, “that had been polluting Upham for years. Henrico [County] said it was the worst drainage basin and the worst mosquito breeding spot they had ever seen.”

Working with county officials, Thompson – who goes by the self-designated title of the Upham Brook Watershed Streamkeeper or “The Trash Fox” – helped initiate a letter to property owners ordering them to clean up the lagoon and fix the drainage problem. Meanwhile, after locating two holes in the surrounding fence that allowed trash
to pass into a culvert and the brook, Thompson stuffed an old Christmas tree into one and built a screen out of crossed sticks to block the other.

He also tackled the trash clog at the nearby West Broad underpass and hauled off bags of trash that had been burying the scenic sandy spot enjoyed by the wildlife.

“They use this brook as a corridor,” he says, pointing out the deer
tracks in the sand leading under West Broad.

But there’s only so much one citizen can do, says Thompson – even when that citizen has enlisted the help of Henrico County and the Virginia Department of Transportation.

“They’re all understaffed and under-budgeted,” he says of the county, VDOT, and the non-profits he has contacted, including the James River Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “And there’s a pecking order. The Chickahominy [River] is considered the priority.”

Upham Brook, however, is the main tributary of the Chickahominy, or the “Chick,” as it is called. Together with Jordan’s Branch, Horsepen Creek and North Run, the stream forms what is known as the Upham Brook Watershed (UBW), which drains primarily from west to east into the Chickahominy and then the James River.

“They’re all under siege,” Thompson says of the streams, which he says get more trash-clogged with each passing year. “I’ve just particularly fallen in love with Upham Brook.”

While he admits that there are pollution issues more serious than trash, Thompson contents that trash is the first thing that must be addressed to reverse the streams’ decline.

“I see trash in streams as the canary in the coal mine,” he says.

“Upham Brook is the most important natural resource in Henrico County, and it’s taking it on the chin.”

‘Streamkeeper Emeritus’
Fortunately, Thompson is not the only citizen who cares about the fate of Upham Brook.

Bill and Kathy Talley, who have lived adjacent to the stream for 45 years, have observed over the years as possums, raccoons, mallards, snapping turtles and families of red foxes have turned up in their yard.

“Every year, we name the ducks,” says Bill Talley, who notes that his wife, Kathy, is on a Les Miserables kick lately. “So this year we named the ducks Fontine and Jean Valjean.”

Talley is quick to confirm Thompson’s assertion that the trash flow has only increased in recent years, despite the constant removal of bags full of trash from the stream. He points to his dog, Carter, who lies with a large ball within paws’ reach.

“Carter’s gotten a soccer ball and that basketball,” he says. “They just floated downstream.”

Other changes the Talleys have observed in recent years are the heavy build-up of silt – perhaps originating from construction at Reynolds Crossing – and the disappearance of the snapping turtles that used to come up in the yard to lay their eggs. The silt, Talley and Thompson believe, could be limiting the turtles’ ability to navigate the stream.

Kathy Talley says one of the things she likes best about the stream is its history; she imagines men on horseback stopping by the stream in colonial times or during the Civil War, giving their horses a drink and enjoying some respite. So she is grateful for Thompson’s help in cleaning the stream, especially as she and her husband find it harder to keep up personally with the onslaught of trash. “He’s been like an angel coming in for Billy,” she says of Thompson.

“Bill was doing what I’m doing long before I was doing it,” Thompson says. “He’s been an inspiration to me.

“I call him the Upham Brook Streamkeeper Emeritus. I think the world of him.”

‘My private little stream’
Thompson says he first came to appreciate streams as a child growing up in the Farmington area of western Henrico, playing along Quioccasin Creek. But it was during his late mother’s decade-long decline in a nursing home that he renewed his appreciation for nature as healer, and for the restorative power of streams.

After visiting his mother, he would often sit by the ponds in nearby Bryan Park or explore streams to relax and clear his mind. One day, observing a red tail hawk, he was led to one of the trash clogs along Upham Brook, and began to envision the possibilities for a park.

For the next six weeks, he devoted every spare moment to “periodic, often grueling clean-ups,” as he wrote in his blog. By the end of the six weeks, he wrote, he had “fallen in love with my private little stream.”

Since then, Thompson has gotten to know officials with VDOT and Henrico County, and served for a time as a “River Rat” with the non-profit James River Association before striking out on projects of his own. He has discussed planned Earth Day clean-ups of the rail yard with officials at CSX, which adjoins the stream. He is working to enlist homeowners’ groups and community associations to adopt portions of the stream. On occasion, he challenges curious groups of children playing by the streams to help him fill his bag with trash.

Unfortunately, Upham – winding as it does through heavily-trafficked commercial and industrial zones and inaccessible areas inside fences and around overpasses and off-ramps – remains one of the most stressed streams in Henrico County. Gentle though the stream may appear, it is actually the hardest-working stream in the county, handling immense amounts of water even during light rains.

“Upham Brook,” says Thompson, “is a massively valuable public resource that doesn’t get support – and is really getting beat up. Upham should serve as a snapshot for how we have mistreated our urban natural areas and waterways.”

Among the large items of trash Thompson has found and catalogued are tires, water heaters, furniture, tarps, shopping carts, strollers and televisions.

On the other hand, he has also discovered such unexpected treasures as a hibiscus flower blooming in the wild, and a yellow swallowtail, the state butterfly, fluttering in a bush. Indicating a recently cleaned area along a babbling section of brook, he says, “Areas like this are priceless. You sit here five minutes, and your troubles melt away.

“This is what makes [all the work] worthwhile.”

But five minutes is more than Thompson has to spare as he heads for the next stop on his trash-scouting expedition. Already, he notes, too many areas of the UBW are becoming “dead zones” where bacteria in the stream has killed off most of the microscopic growth.

“It’s my fear we might wake up one day and these wild areas won’t be able to be revived,” says Thompson, surveying the section of brook with a critical yet compassionate eye.

“If we cannot protect the precious environment in our own backyards, what does that say about us?”

Want to learn more about the neighborhood streams that feed into the Chickahominy, and about volunteer opportunities for stewardship of the tributaries? The Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District, with funding from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, will hold a workshop April 30 from 6-8 p.m. at the Mechanicsville Branch Library, 7461 Sherwood Crossing Place (behind Mexico Restaurant). The workshop, “Chickahominy Fever,” will include information about the history, health, and latest plans concerning the river and tributaries, as well as volunteer projects. For details, contact the Chickahominy Swamp Rats at 433-8900 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address); or visit http://www.facebook.com/ChickahominySwampRats.
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The Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond will present banjoist Noam Pikelny at 7:30 p.m. in Camp Concert Hall, Booker Hall of Music. Pikelny is a founding member of Punch Brothers, a string ensemble. In September of 2010, he was awarded the first annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. Pikelny is a three-time Grammy Award Nominee. His next album, the purely solo endeavor “Universal Favorite” is released this month. Tickets are $32. For details, call 289-8980 or visit http://www.modlin.richmond.edu. Full text

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