“This is Reedy Creek,” Bill Shanabruch said, idling his stick shift on a bridge that overlooks a 50-foot-wide concrete channel covering the path where a stream once bent. At its center, lush grasses and cattails were springing from the sediment that had collected since the city of Richmond last dredged the channel a few years ago.
This approach to “get water off developed land as quickly as possible” was once the go-to option for cities dealing with flooded roads, homes and businesses. Now, it’s better known that paving creek beds exacerbates stream bank erosion and flooding elsewhere. It also channels pollutants to the nearest river as efficiently as it does the runoff.
Shanabruch, who co-founded the Reedy Creek Coalition, isn’t asking the city to remove the concrete channels that make up nearly one-third of this 3.5-mile waterway — a costly feat he knows isn’t feasible in the watershed’s current state. But he is concerned that the city’s planned $1.27 million project — which will rebuild a tree-shrouded stretch of the stream in his backyard — could similarly do more harm than good. And that’s putting his opposition mildly.
“This stream restoration and a lot of them, I would argue, are treating the symptoms rather than the root causes,” Shanabruch said during a tour of the creek that ended at the city’s project site. “The reason the banks are eroded is because of the stormwater volume.”
Shanabruch and others who oppose the stream restoration would like to see the city of Richmond focus instead on reducing that volume by replacing driveways with permeable pavers or schoolyards with rain gardens. These so-called “green infrastructure” measures could slow, absorb and reduce the amount of water that gushes off buildings and pavement during heavy rains, wreaking havoc on some areas of the stream.
City officials said they want to encourage residents and businesses to put in green infrastructure. But they say they’re under the gun to meet their legal obligations to reduce the amount of pollution each stream is contributing to the James River and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay. They don’t have the luxury of time, they say, or the ability to require property owners to install such practices.
“We have to do both. We can’t not comply with the TMDL,” said Grace LeRose, who is in charge of making sure the city does its share to comply with the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, better known by its acronym, TMDL. It sets limits that states and cities have to meet on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that can wash or be discharged into the estuary.
“Over time, we’re going to put in more and more green infrastructure,” said Patrick Bradley, the city’s water quality manager. “But it’s going to take a number of years given how built-out the area is. We cannot go and take out Midlothian Turnpike and all the streets and the houses, so we have to re-engineer the stream a bit to handle the extra flow.”
The Reedy Creek project entails digging 2,700 feet of new stream channel next to the existing one, extending into a portion of a tributary called Crooked Branch to avoid crews working in a flowing creek. The new stream bed will replace some steep, scoured banks with gradual slopes that allow the creek to swell into a broader floodplain during heavy rain.
Reconstructing the stream will involve removing 420 trees from what the coalition calls “the best riparian area in the watershed,” which has drawn opposition from more residents than the city expected. Richmond officials’ response to their concerns has been that those trees will be replaced with 670 new trees and that doing nothing risks more trees falling from the eroded banks into the stream.
Other stream restoration projects have run into opposition from residents who don’t like to see trees removed in the name of improving the environment. A $10 million project on Baltimore’s Stony Run required bulldozing a wooded park and 150 trees to rebuild the stream, much to the chagrin of local environmentalists.
The same was true of a recent restoration project in Fairfax County, VA.
“Most of the people in Reston who opposed the initial work because of tree loss…are now happy with the stream restoration,” wrote Stella Koch, a resident of Reston who supported the project, in an email to Richmond officials. “Restorations are like facelifts. (They’re) not pretty in the short term.”
But Shanabruch’s objection goes beyond the visual disruption to a critique of the government programs that are promoting a growing number of stream restoration projects across the Bay watershed. The city of Richmond plans to make the bulk of its runoff reductions with five stream restoration projects, including the one at Reedy Creek, which Bay programs and grants have encouraged as a cost-effective solution to reduce sediment from urban streams.
Shanabruch is not alone in questioning the merits and longevity of such stream restoration projects, even as they continue to be funded en masse. Nearly 3,700 miles of streams across Maryland are targeted for restoration work by 2025, at a cost to local and state governments of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Some environmental scientists who’ve examined restoration projects completed to date contend that while they might control erosion initially, the benefits don’t last if nothing else is done to reduce the high volumes of runoff flowing into the stream.
One University of Maryland researcher cited “no consistent evidence” that restored streams reduce nitrogen, a priority pollutant that fouls the Bay. Other scientists have questioned whether restoration projects by themselves can revive the ecological functions of streams, as the term “restore” might imply, or whether they represent the next iteration of an engineered watershed.
In an attempt to resolve the controversy, Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Trust last year handed out $825,000 in grants to study the issues. In the meantime, a flurry of projects is being funded as states and localities work toward their pollution reduction commitments.
A common solution
Across the James River from Richmond’s urban core, the area surrounding Reedy Creek is comparatively suburban, with tree-lined neighborhoods that have been there for decades and a forested park near the stream’s confluence with the river. But the creek’s drainage area also includes its share of apartment complexes and a sprawling industrial corridor along Midlothian Turnpike, which was recently expanded to six lanes.
For decades, the spreading impervious patchwork of development has been driving more water into the creek than it can handle, scouring vegetation from its banks in places and flooding some roads that cross it. While the city can spot-treat those problems by rebuilding culverts or scraping sediment from concrete channels, it still has to find a way to reduce the amount of sediment that reaches the James to meet its Bay restoration obligations.
Urban stream restorations have become a popular solution. Virginia’s legislature established the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund in 2013 to help reduce urban runoff to the state’s rivers. Of the 17 projects funded in fiscal 2015, 11 were urban stream makeovers.
“It’s a way to target water quality improvement in areas that need some attention,” said Bill Hayden, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which administers the matching grant to help municipalities fund the projects.
Richmond, like many large cities in the state, has a stormwater utility fee that helps fund such projects.
Shanabruch said that the state grants — and the broader Bay TMDL — have caused cities to focus too heavily on stream restorations at the expense of more holistic, watershedwide plans. He was a regional biologist at the DEQ in Richmond when he first expressed concerns about the stormwater grant program. He gradually became more outspoken of the program, and particularly of the Reedy Creek project, until he decided in January to leave his job of 15 years.
“I would have liked to work three more years before retiring,” said Shanabruch, 62, who has become a volunteer spokesman for the coalition, “Ultimately, we think the Reedy Creek project is part of a systemic problem with projects focused on meeting the Bay TMDL.”
Catherine Harold, who lives just outside the Reedy Creek watershed in Richmond and worked at the DEQ for 30 years, also has taken issue with the city’s approach after reading about it in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She’d prefer to see more projects retain sediment in the upper portions of Reedy Creek’s watershed, rather than trying to catch pollution with a localized stream restoration farther downstream.
She doesn’t even want to call it a stream “restoration.”
“It’s really a channelization,” she said of the city’s plans to re-engineer the stream. “I just think it has all the potential for failure without even addressing the real issue, which should be dealing with stormwater farther up in the watershed.”
Bob Burnley, who served as the DEQ’s director from 2002 to 2006, put his concerns about the Reedy Creek project more mildly.
“There are, in my humble opinion, some other methods to meet those TMDL requirements that would have worked much better but been a little harder,” he said, citing grassy lawns at a handful of public schools in the watershed that could be turned into rain gardens and bioretention ponds. City officials, he said, “didn’t look at anything to reduce the volume of stormwater, and I think that’s a mistake. And they didn’t listen to the people.”
Shanabruch reached out to the Russ Baxter, Virginia’s deputy secretary of natural resources, who joined him for a short tour in May of the proposed project site.
Baxter said afterward that his office doesn’t plan to get involved, but will trust the local agencies to require what’s necessary of the project to ensure it’s effective.
“We have a lot to do on the urban landscape and not a lot of money yet to do it with,” Baxter said. “The way the (Chesapeake) Bay Program ranks stream restoration, it can be very cost-effective and tends to rank higher” than green infrastructure projects.
The city owns the land at the project site, and officials said that’s a key reason it was chosen over others. But the site is just downstream of one of the concrete channels that serves as a stormwater sluiceway, which is why opponents question the location.
Project manager Todd Hopkins said engineers have designed the new stream so it can handle those heavier flows, by dissipating them over a broader floodplain. The reconstructed portion of the creek also will begin with a deeper pool, he explained, which can slow the water and allow sediment to drop to the bottom.
Part of a plan
One of Shanabruch’s biggest critiques of the project is that it doesn’t take into account the city’s own plan for how it could improve both Reedy Creek and its watershed. Richmond produced a 2012 Stormwater Master Plan that lays out several potential projects to reduce stormwater in each of the city’s streams, including measures like retrofitting street side ditches with bioswales to filter water.
Instead of building a new stretch of stream, the city could have considered maintaining some of its existing infrastructure. Just downstream of the project site in the city-owned Forest Hill Park is a deeper portion of the stream where the city created a “forebay,” or basin to catch sediment. But it has not been dredged regularly, which is needed to help it function as intended.
Instead of carrying out that 2012 plan, Richmond has opted for a handful of stream restorations, which officials say will yield the greatest nutrient reductions for the money spent. LeRose said that plan was completed before the city received its TMDL requirements in 2014.
“Our five (stream restoration) projects together, once completed, will get us a 5 percent reduction and halfway to our 2025 goals,” LeRose said. “That’s the benefit.”
The city also applied for grant funding for two bioretention ponds as well as the stream restorations, but those projects were not funded because they had lower removal rates.
Joseph Wood, Virginia staff scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said it’s fair that the state program is weighing stream restoration projects more heavily than others, because it was set up to fund the most cost-effective measures.
“I think that’s a good thing for taxpayer dollars to fund those projects.”
He said it’s also important that these projects be maintained over time, so that the heavy flows still coming off of urban watersheds don’t return the stream to its former, incised self.
Along those lines, Shanabruch said he’s concerned that the city won’t be required to maintain the trees it’s going to plant to keep them from being overwhelmed and killed by invasive plants. The project is waiting to receive its final permit approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will determine any maintenance requirements.
Shanabruch had asked the Corps to make an exception to its usual protocol for this type of permit and to add a comment period for the project because it has generated so much public interest. But Silvia Gazzera, an environmental scientist with the Corps’ Richmond office said the project meets all of the requirements of the relevant permit and a public comment period would not be granted.
Assuming it gets the permit soon, the city plans to begin the project this summer.