Tag Archives: DPWES

Finding Love In All The Right Places

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Worn down. Eroded. Unstable. Degraded.

And it didn’t even have a name.

Talk about feeling unloved.

But a year from now, this small stream will be stabilized. It will have the flow and look of a natural creek. It will meander, it will trickle across rocks, its banks will be secured with native plants, flowers will line those banks, and the water it sends into Accotink Creek will be cleaner.

And it now has a name. Wakefield Run.

Talk about love and appreciation for the outdoors. It’s happening because a lot of people who care got together and did something.

There’s a project under way to restore Wakefield Run, a stream that Laura Grape, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District (NVSWCD) calls, “a piece of jewelry, a gem in the Accotink Watershed.”

When the project is over, life will be a little bit better for the Fairfax County hikers, runners, bikers, birders and scouts who use the trail along the stream and for the wildlife that lives around and in it.

Wakefield Run starts west of Ossian Hall Park in Annandale and flows under the Beltway before joining Accotink Creek in Wakefield Park and sending its waters on to the Potomac River. Runoff from the 100 acres it drains has eroded the banks and damaged the stream.

When part of Wakefield Park was taken for the expansion of I-495 to make room for the Express Lanes, the Fairfax County Park Authority was given $75,000 towards site mitigation. The Park Authority approached NVSWCD with the idea of putting the funds toward the restoration of 800 feet of Wakefield Run. That kicked off a partnership that led to the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES) putting up $300,000, and Dominion Power stepped forward with another $35,000. The Fairfax County Park Foundation joined the effort and garnered more support from the I-495 Express Lanes contractor, Transurban Fluor, and the Friends of Accotink Creek arranged monitoring of the stream so everybody would know how much the project helped.

At the groundbreaking ceremony on July 24, Supervisor John Cook called the involvement of the Friends of Accotink Creek “a great example of citizen engagement,” adding, “This is how we will make environmental management, in a good way, the reality in Fairfax County.”

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Grape thanked the Park Authority for bringing the idea to NVSWCD as she explained the project to the groundbreaking ceremony audience. She said the project design will reduce the size of the stream’s outfall at I-495, and a pool will slow runoff of the drained acreage. A more natural setting will replace riprap, clean the water and reduce runoff speed. Revamping of a stream crossing used by Virginia Dominion trucks and mountain bikers will reduce the environmental impact usually caused by such crossings. Water flow will be diverted away from banks and toward the center of the stream, which Grape said is what traditionally happens in less urban waterways. Some trees have to be removed during the work, but Grape said that will allow some invasive species to be removed as well, and the area will naturally recover. A plant save has already been conducted with plans for replantings later.

Grape called the project “a tremendous example of the investment being made in the Accotink watershed by Fairfax County and by our local communities.”

DPWES Director James Patteson pointed out that partnerships and projects such as this one are part of an evolution. He said that 20 years ago his department may have just assessed the situation and built “an armor channel,” but that now the department is staffed with urban foresters and biologists who understand environmentally responsible design.

Dominion Virginia Power’s Manager of state and local affairs, Tim Sargeant, said his company was glad to be invited into the partnership. “This great partnership of public and private organizations and individuals will yield an environmental and aesthetic benefit that allows all of us to share a sense of pride and accomplishment and contribution to our communities,” he said.

Suzy Foster of the Friends of Accotink Creek said the project “will serve as a small example of a healthy and stable state that we hope to achieve for the entire Accotink watershed and Fairfax County.” Another citizens group, Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts, will have key input into the design of the stream crossing, and Earth Sangha will play a role in the native plantings.

Friends of Accotink Creek representative Suzy Foster spoke passionately about protecting the local environment.

Friends of Accotink Creek representative Suzy Foster spoke passionately about protecting the local environment.

The Park Authority Board’s Braddock District representative, Anthony Velluci, summed up the groundbreaking by noting that roads like the nearby Beltway are just as much a part of the county as the natural resources of the Wakefield Run project. “We have to realize that that’s just not going to go away,” he said. “We have to find that balance between environment and development where we do smart things and not haphazard things that we have done in the past, and I think we’re doing that.”

Author Dave Ochs is the manager of Stewardship Communications for the Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

Advancing Northern Snakeheads Thwarted at Huntley Meadows Park

Resource Manager Dave Lawlor shares the history of Northern Snakeheads in Dogue Creek and recounts a close call with this invasive fish at Huntley Meadows.

Former Huntley Meadows Park staff member Danielle McCallum holds a 17” Northern Snakehead caught while electro-fishing Dogue Creek in 2008. This was the first snakehead caught in the park.

Huntley Meadows Park, a 1,500-acre complex of freshwater marshlands located in Alexandria, Va., has long been a destination for birders, wildlife photographers, and students. No matter the season, people flock to the boardwalk trail to observe migrating birds, soaring raptors, moss-covered turtles, beavers, delicate dragonflies, and many more species in the park’s 50-acre central wetland, the largest in the region. Freshwater wetlands are considered rare habitat in the Washington, D.C. region and harbor the greatest biodiversity of any habitat type in temperate climates. However, in recent years Huntley’s central wetland has come under threat from an invasive fish species, the Northern Snakehead. If allowed to breed within the park, with their voracious appetites snakeheads have the potential to wreak havoc on the park’s large populations of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

Listed by the state Board of Game and Inland Fisheries as a predatory and undesirable exotic species, snakeheads have been slowly migrating from the Potomac River up Dogue Creek toward the central wetland since 2004. Nine snakeheads were caught in the tidal section of the creek that year, and a year later two fishermen caught more than 80 young fish only a mile and half downstream from the park. Once snakeheads were found in the non- tidal sections of Dogue Creek, park staff became very concerned and took action to try to protect the central wetland from invasion.

Northern Snakeheads have razor sharp teeth.

In 2006, the Resource Management staff at Huntley Meadows requested staff from the Watershed Planning and Assessment Branch of the Department (WP&AB) of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES) conduct an electro-fishing survey of Dogue Creek at the park’s southern tip.  Electro-fishing doesn’t kill the fish but renders them immobile for several seconds, enabling staff to net, identify, and count the fish before releasing them.  With this survey, staff attempted to determine if snakeheads had made the mile and half migration up the creek from the Route 1 overpass where 80 snakeheads had been caught the year before.  Unfortunately, one 17” snakehead was caught inside the park just as the shocking crew was finishing for the day.  Although just one fish was caught, it was evident that snakeheads had made the long upstream migration and were only about one mile below Huntley’s central wetland.

Heather Ambrose, Shannon Curtis, Eric Forbes
and Dave Lawlor shock, net, and count fish in Dogue Creek at Huntley Meadows Park in 2010. No snakeheads were found during this survey.

In 2007, staff conducted another electro-shocking survey in Dogue Creek at Wickford Park, which is about one mile upstream from where the 17” snakehead had been caught in 2006. This section of the migration would be much tougher to navigate due to shallow wetlands that periodically dry up as well as multiple beaver dams that impede migration.  Although no snakeheads were found during the survey, park staff and visitors began to see snakeheads in the central wetland in 2009 and 2010. Two of these fish were very young, indicating snakeheads were either reproducing in the park or immigrating into the wetland from Dogue Creek. 

During the spring of 2011, Huntley Meadows Park patrons and volunteers reported seeing a large snakehead in the central wetland along the boardwalk just past the loop.  Soon reports were coming in almost daily and the snakehead number doubled when two large snakeheads were seen in a ditched portion of the wetland, right on top of the water. Immediately park staff jumped into action and tried to net the fish, but these large fish were elusive.  Park staff became very concerned that the fish would breed in the wetland, potentially releasing hundreds or thousands of baby snakeheads which could take over the central wetland and wreak havoc on the wetland’s incredibly diverse aquatic populations. 

Two large snakeheads were netted in the central wetland at Huntley Meadows Park in 2011.

Shannon Curtis and Chad Grupe from the WP&AB were contacted. These folks live and breathe water quality and are sought after professionals when it comes to fish and anything that lives in Fairfax County waters. They brought their electro-fishing backpacks to the park to try to help catch the two large snakeheads before they started upsetting the wetlands sensitive ecologic balance. Within an hour they caught two large snakeheads measuring 20” and 25”. 

After another hour or two of searching no more snakeheads were located in the wetland and the search was called off.  Both of the large snakeheads were females and they were packed full of hundreds of eggs.  As required by state law, the fish were destroyed.  Staff examined the stomach contents and the large fish’s stomach contained a large goldfish (Carassius auratus) and the smaller fish’s stomach contained a smaller fish or tadpole of an undetermined species due to nearly complete digestion.  

Huntley staff continues to be diligent in the search for more snakeheads and we expect this will be a long-term battle.

Dave Lawlor, natural resource manager, Huntley Meadows Park

The severity of the Northern Snakehead problem was made clear this summer when, during a survey at Old Colchester Park and Preserve, Park Authority staff spotted this dark cloud in a tidal marsh near the Occoquan River. It was identified as a “fry ball,” or a group of 10,000-15,000 newly hatched snakeheads.