The One Stream at a Time Tour

by Terry Reardon

Last Sunday (3/25), the Prince William Conservation Alliance’s first session of the Stream Stewards program kicked off with an eye-opening tour of two badly damaged streams, one in Hylbrook Park and the other half a mile away off Route 1 (view photos here). Both streams are high priority restoration candidates that illustrate the opportunities and challenges for Prince William County to protect local water quality and help save the Chesapeake Bay.

After remarks by County Supervisor Mike May about the challenges the county faces in restoring already damaged water resources and working to prevent future damage, County Environmental Engineer Clay Morris began by pointing out the Hylbrook Park stream’s precarious location in a heavily developed section of Woodbridge.

Morris pointed out several factors that would hinder the restoration of the stream that may not be immediately obvious to the lay conservationist. For example, there is only a narrow strip of ground on either side of the stream in which to work, leaving no space for the necessary easements, or an area for staging the restoration work. Most importantly, there is no room for the engineering of the stream bed to allow it to properly channel the large volume of water that rushes between its banks during a storm.

Morris concluded that about the only thing that can be done with this stream is to riprap the bed and banks to prevent further erosion.

As we walked the banks of the stream, Morris explained the process of restoration, from planning and design, to the necessity of gaining landowners’ agreement, to the actual construction phase. The entire process usually takes several years.

In answer to a question by PWCA member Jeff Irwin, Morris pointed out that restoration doesn’t necessarily improve water quality for the animals living in and around the streams that his department, the Watershed Management Branch, repairs. The restoration doesn’t address what comes into the stream – nitrates, pollutants, particulates, etc. – only water flow and erosion control.

Although the little stream was a sad sight, there were tadpoles in the water and a phoebe was heard singing its song in the nearby treetops.

Our group of almost 20 participants moved across Route 1 to the second stream, which was in even worse condition. What had once been a small narrow stream about 2-3 feet in depth has been enlarged by high velocity stormwater runoff to as much as 20 feet wide and 15 feet deep in some spots.  And all this damage was done in only 30 or 40 years. The rapid and ugly expansion of this small stream puts the relationship between the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River in sharper perspective. 

This stream backs to a residential area on the east side and at one spot along the stream, an open, unguarded I-beam, supporting a public sewer pipe, lay across the chasm creating a tempting stage for neighborhood children to confront their mortality.

Always the optimists, however, our group noted spring ephemerals, violets and May apple, lining the banks of the stream, and Morris had some good news about the restoration of this stream. Since there was more space for easements, construction, and the restoration design, this stream will be able to be restored to health (though not in the exact fashion that Mother Nature intended).

Morris also mentioned two recent restoration success stories in the county, one at Cow Branch and the other at Andrew Leitch Park.

It was a gray and overcast day, but the rain held off for our informative One Stream at a Time tour. We learned a lot about environmental priorities in Prince William County, had a good hike in the outdoors and are ready for the next program on Thursday, April 4 at 7:30 pm at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Manassas.

A complete schedule can be found at or by calling 703-499-4954. All programs are free.


1 comment so far

  1. judygva on

    Terry, Great article, and I’m sorry I missed this.

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