Ounce of protection is worth a gallon of cure for rivers
Advocates want more emphasis placed on protecting streams while they're still healthy
On a sunny day in early spring, Leslie Middleton stood along Doyles River. The gurgling water that flowed past her had wandered through a mix of woods and pastures and a sprinkling of new development. Some had originated in near-pristine streams that rise from mountain springs along the nearby slopes of the Blue Ridge in Shenandoah National Park
Eventually, though, the river's water would reach Charlottesville, VA, where the clear water that had been home to brook trout would merge with silty runoff from parking lots that would cloud the water and taint it with oil from crankcases, pesticides from lawns and other residues of daily life.
Not only would brook trout not survive in this urban soup, but neither would many of the stoneflies, caddisflies and other creatures that signaled the high quality of the river's headwaters.
Still, a new study shows that those species have a more healthy habitat in the Rivanna watershed, one of the largest tributaries of the James River, than almost any other watershed in Virginia.
"The really good news is that we have a lot to protect here, relative to other parts of the commonwealth, and a lot to be thankful for," said Middleton, executive director of the Rivanna River Basin Commission.
Biologists, who waded in randomly selected stream sites in the basin, found that 36 percent were considered either "healthy" - like Doyles River - or "exceptional," like one of the Doyles' headwater streams.
That's considerably better than, say, the Shenandoah basin on the other side of the mountains where only 7 percent of the streams, when examined with similar techniques, were deemed healthy. Throughout Virginia's portion of the Bay watershed, fewer than one in five streams are considered healthy when viewed from the perspective of the bugs, clams and fish that live in them.
The challenge for the Rivanna watershed is finding ways to keep good rivers from going bad. "We don't want assets to turn into problems," Middleton said.
That's an approach which represents, almost literally, a watershed change in the way water quality is managed.
The goal of the federal Clean Water Act is "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters." But the vast majority of effort since its passage in 1972 has focused on cleaning up polluted waterways rather than maintaining healthy streams.
State and federal water programs have emphasized reducing pollution and looking for impaired waters - such as the Chesapeake Bay - which are then placed on the EPA's so-called "dirty waters" list. Cleanup plans, known as Total Maximum Daily Loads, are written for those waterways with the goal of eventually restoring their health and removing them from the dirty waters list.
Since the act was passed at a time when rivers were so polluted they caught on fire and an entire Great Lake was pronounced "dead," that focus might be understandable.
But many stream advocates say that the time has come to place more emphasis on Clean Water Act language to "maintain" the nation's waters. Instead of focusing on cleaning up degraded waterways, they want more emphasis on identifying streams that are in good shape and then protecting their wetlands, buffers and natural flood plains - the natural infrastructure of an intact watershed that will keep streams healthy.
"Restoration is essential, but so is protection," said Mark Bryer, The Nature Conservancy's Chesapeake Bay director. "We want to get as many waters as we can on a 'healthy waters' list."
Because state water assessment programs have primarily focused on identifying streams that need restoration, people - and agencies - often have no idea where good streams are located.
The result, said Rick Hill, healthy waters program manager with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, is an "insidious decline" both in the number of good streams, and in the ecological health of those that remain. "It's sad, and it's not on people's radar."
But that is starting to change. In recent years, with support from the DCR and the EPA, biologists from Virginia Commonwealth University have waded through sections of more than 2,000 creeks and streams in Virginia, electroshocking the water to count fish, flipping rocks to find hidden amphibians, and counting and identifying a host of other species, from bugs to mussels.
They also examined the condition of stream habitat - the size of rocks, number of fallen trees, condition of the banks and streamside vegetation - and kept a wary eye out for the presence, and abundance, of nonnative species.
Putting that information together, they developed the Interactive Stream Assessment Resource, or INSTAR. It's an online tool that allows people across the state to use a common technique to assess local waterways.
The Rivanna project was the first to adapt that methodology to a single watershed and use it to characterize the health of its streams.
Other states are beginning to pilot their own programs. Such efforts are encouraged by a 2010 EPA strategy document, "Coming Together for Clean Water," which acknowledged that the agency had historically focused on fixing impaired waters, but said "the need to protect and maintain healthy water bodies is becoming more critical."
The agency has launched its own Healthy Watershed Initiative, which this spring produced a draft report to help others develop programs to identify and protect healthy streams. It noted that high-quality waters protect drinking water sources and provide recreational opportunities, habitat for wildlife and environmental services such as flood control. And, protecting streams is cheaper than fixing them. "Without protecting this ecological support system, we will not only fail in our efforts to restore impaired waters, but will also waste limited financial resources in the process," the draft report said.
The failure to protect streams has been costly to aquatic life. As a group, stream dwellers are the most imperiled creatures on the continent. Two thirds of freshwater mussel species in North America are threatened or endangered, and 7 percent have gone extinct. Almost half of the crayfish in North American streams are threatened, endangered or in need of protection. Many amphibians and fish that rely on freshwater streams aren't much better off.
The need to protect diverse stream communities attracted The Nature Conservancy to the Rivanna watershed more than a decade ago. At the time, the Conservancy was engaged in an effort to identify high-priority areas within different eco-regions where it would target conservation efforts. "The Rivanna ranked very high as one of the best remaining examples of a Piedmont River," said Bill Kittrell, of the conservancy's Virginia office.
The Rivanna is home to 56 species of fish. The iconic brook trout, which is often identified with high-quality streams, is among them, but the river is also a haven for several species endemic to the upper James, including the longfin darter. It is also home to 11 mussel species, including the federally endangered James spinymussel and the rare Atlantic pigtoe and green floater.
The conservancy helped create the Rivanna River Basin Commission, which brings together representatives from major jurisdictions in the watershed to coordinate efforts on river-related issues. Ultimately, whether streams stay healthy depends in large part on local land use decisions.
Studies show that sensitive species begin disappearing with low levels of development within a watershed. Maryland's nationally recognized stream survey program has shown that brook trout begin disappearing from streams when there's just 2 percent impervious cover in its watershed. Other species are even more sensitive.
"Without protecting the entire landscape within a watershed, it is really hard to protect the highest quality streams," said Scott Stranko, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "A lot of people don't realize just how sensitive these areas are."
States can protect high-quality streams - if they know where they are - but that protection is typically limited to activities that require state permits.
In Pennsylvania, for instance, the state Fish and Boat Commission, alarmed at the potential threat that natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale could pose to trout streams, ramped up efforts to evaluate the health of previously unassessed streams. Last year, those surveys turned up 66 streams with wild trout, and biologists have found another 99 this year, and surveys are continuing. The commission anticipates that discoveries of high-quality waters will bring added regulatory protection during the permit review process.
Nonetheless, much of the responsibility for keeping healthy streams healthy falls on the local governments that make land use decisions.
The Rivanna River Basin Commission hopes to use information from its healthy waters survey to develop a comprehensive watershed plan that local planners could adopt. The results of the study will be presented to local governments, planners and others. Outreach efforts will be made to citizens to raise awareness of the importance of protecting healthy waters.
"We have to address this from the ground up," Middleton said. "It is not just about educating our elected officials. It is about educating our populace, from school kids on up."
One tool she would like to use is the new Bay cleanup plan. The Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, finalized by the EPA at the end of December, established the maximum amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that can enter the Bay and still allow it to meet water quality goals.
This year, states - in cooperation with local governments - have to develop watershed implementation plans showing the actions they will take to achieve those goals at a county or small watershed scale. Clean stream advocates would like to see those plans used to protect healthy waterways. But, they acknowledge, it's not clear whether developing those plans will help or hurt their cause.
That's because the plans require local governments to identify actions they will take to help meet Bay nutrient and sediment reduction goals, such as planting streamside forest buffers, upgrading stormwater controls or fencing cows out of streams. All of those actions reduce pollution and "count" toward meeting the Bay goal. But protecting a stream that is already healthy does not reduce pollution in the Bay Program's accounting, so it doesn't count toward meeting the goal.
The Bay Program's Maintain Healthy Watersheds Goal Implementation Team is planning a series of meetings to gather ideas about how to incentivize protecting streams, perhaps through programs where landowners might get credits for carbon reductions or other ecosystem services by not developing land and protecting streams. High-quality areas that are under threat for development could be targeted for protection through easement programs.
Better science might help make the case. Some studies suggest that the biological activity in healthy streams may remove more nitrogen than it does in more degraded waterways. If that proves to be true, it would mean that healthy streams should be credited with more nutrient removal than is currently the case in TMDL calculations. "If we can connect the dots between nutrient reduction goals, and the number of miles of high-function streams that a locality has, all of a sudden we have created the incentive," said Greg Garman, director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for Environmental Studies, which developed the INSTAR steam classification system.
Bay restoration and local stream protection have to go hand-in-hand, advocates for protection say. "If we focus on restoration in one watershed, we don't want the activities that might have occurred there to suddenly be shifted to the next watershed that is still relatively healthy," Kittrell said.
Still, meeting Chesapeake nutrient and sediment goals is widely expected to require local governments to impose new taxes and fees, potentially coupled with additional regulations. After meeting Bay obligations, many local officials are likely to be loathe to take further actions, even if it provides long-term benefits.
"There is an inherent nature, especially at a time of tough budget problems, of dealing with a problem rather than dealing with preventing a problem," said David Brown, chair of the Rivanna River Basin Commission and a City Councilor from Charlottesville.
And for local officials, there can also be peril in taking preemptive action to protect streams if it's perceived as restricting how people use their land. Recent efforts to bolster stream protections in Loudoun County, just an hour's drive from the Rivanna watershed, ran into a buzz saw of opposition, leaving the issue unresolved.
On the flip side, Brown doesn't have to look beyond the Charlottesville City limits where he works to find that prevention is a much cheaper option. The city is spending nearly $4 million to restore 9,000 feet of Meadow Creek, a Rivanna tributary where gushing stormwater runoff has eroded the stream so badly that in places its banks stand 10 feet above the creek.
"That in itself really points out how hard it is to fix a stream once it's impaired," Brown said. "It is so much less costly to maintain the health of our existing streams."
In fact, restoring streams - especially highly degraded urban waterways - is difficult. While stream flow can be improved and streamside vegetation planted, biologists say it is difficult to bring back the array of aquatic creatures that once inhabited those waterways.
"We can renovate streams, we can rehab stream, but we don't restore them," Garman said.
"If there is one take-home message from the work in the Rivanna, it is that it has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to high-function streams," he added. "It could be the poster child for trying to focus at least as much on protection of what we already have as we do on restoration. There are other parts of Virginia where it is probably too late. But in the Rivanna, it is not too late."
The report, "Rivanna Health Waters Pilot Project," is available at www.rivannariverbasin.org/dcr-healthy-waters.php.
What makes a healthy stream?
The Interactive Stream Assessment Resource (INSTAR) is an online interactive database developed by Virginia Commonwealth University for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. It evaluates the ecological integrity of a stream based on information collected and quantified during stream surveys.
Among the factors biologists look for in assessing healthy streams:
- A high number of native species and a broad diversity of species.
- Few or no nonnative species, or at least a low abundance of those that have been introduced.
- The occurrence of endemic species that are found only in a particular region or watershed and are specialized for local conditions.
- Few generalist species that are tolerant of degraded water.
- A high number of native predators, including both fish and bugs that indicate a complex and stable food chain.
- Migratory species whose presence indicates that river or stream systems are not blocked by dams or other impediments. (This applies only to river basins that drain into the ocean.)
- Low incidence of disease or parasites among individual organisms.
- Intact buffers (or vegetation in the riparian zone between the land and water) that filter runoff and provide protection against pollution and siltation.
Streams that score 70 percent or more compared with reference conditions are considered to be "healthy" while streams that score 80 percent or more are considered to be "exceptional."
For information, visit www.dcr.virginia.gov/healthywaters or http://instar.vcu.edu.
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