Wednesday, October 31, 2007

# 64 Sugar Hollow on Halloween

November 1, 2007

The newspaper reports that we are not, by a long shot, out of the woods with respect to water supplies, in spite of the four inches of rain we got last week. And we are not alone. At Chesapeake Climate Action Network conference held at Clark Hall last weekend, it was reported that 100 water systems in North Carolina and Tennessee have less than 100 days of water available for their customers. More alarming is that the Naval Postgraduate School, which has been studying the rate of loss of sea ice at the North Pole for many decades, is predicting that by 2013, there will be no summer sea ice at all. And, that as the polar ice shrinks, the jet stream and the moisture it holds are pulled north, which is exactly what we’ve seen this summer and fall.

So on this crisp, bright Halloween Day, I drive up to the Sugar Hollow Reservoir to see for myself. Noontime, weekday, it is quiet up as I pull into the parking area at the top of the dam. The water mirrors the soft changing colors of the turning trees in the headwaters above. The reservoir itself is with rimmed with dry, hard clay and rock. According to the Water & Sewer Authority’s online record, it is down 12.2 feet. Below the dam, a stout hose is spewing a wash of water into the shallow pool below, a small concession to the Moormans River and the ecology of downstream needs.

I walk down through a grove of pines and hickory, the hardened brown leaves tapping out a rhythm on the bark as they wave in the slight breeze. Past the trees, I sit down in the sloping intertidal zone, between the line of “lots of water” and “not enough.” The reservoir is at 86% capacity, but the view from here does not look so encouraging.

Others have been here before me. A large rounded boulder protruding from the slope next to me has a flattened top and must have been a tempting target, for it is strewn with broken glass from shattered beer bottles. Gold metal tabs from bait cans glint in the high midday sun. I feel like I am witness to the barrens that will be left behind when drought forces masses of us to live in other places or, possibly, to live in other ways. At the water’s edge, stubs of tree trunks emerge from the water, testament to the staying power of the anaerobic environment, preserved as they have been since 1947 when the dam was built and the reservoir filled the valley.

The longer view is more reassuring. Across the reservoir, the soft tree line slopes towards the mountains, along the course of the South Fork of the Moormans River. The wind’s fetch over the reservoir makes it look like the water is flowing back upriver. A lone bird sits on the elbow of a tree limb bent up and out of the water. As it turns its head, I see a patch of light gray that reminds me of cormorant, but it’s too far to see. High in the noontime sky, the waning moon sits above the Blue Ridge. A raven calls from a ridge beyond.

I have been struggling to find my own core of optimism since attending this weekend’s conference. All the feedback loops -- atmospheric, hydrologic, ecological – forces that help maintain life in a delicate but dynamic equilibrium on this planet -- are now presenting themselves in ways that have been mostly underestimated with consequences that are unavoidably stark. Even a modest sea level rise will inundate 3000 miles of shoreline in the Chesapeake Bay region, impacting all the major cities along the fall the line and hundreds of thousands of people.

Across the reservoir, I see the former high water line, incised into the bank and scribed across a large boulder with a dark line of weeds that divides the upper and lower halves as though a mirror reflection. Like the glass half empty, it reminds me of the dry times ahead. But maybe the other half is what I cannot see, but can feel as sure as I am this human body warmed by the sun and touched by the light breeze. This half is the hope, vision, resolve, and commitment that we are all being called to bring forth and contribute. May this reservoir always be sufficiently full.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

#63 Hiking Smith Roach Gap: Who Owns This Land?

October 18, 2007

It is a golden warm October day – one in which I would be inclined to take to the river, but cannot due to water levels that are impossibly low. So instead, I head out with my husband for a high point in the watershed as if, perhaps, to get closer to the clouds that hold the moisture hostage high above us.

We drive up to Greene County and follow Route 33 – the Spotswood Highway – west following the crest of the divide between the Rapidan and the Rivanna. From Ruckersville towards the mountains, the ridge defines the head of the watersheds of Welsh Run, Deep Run, Blue Run, and then Long Run. At Lydia where Route 634 ends in the highway, we meet Swift Run which tracks right along Route 33 as it tumbles from its headwaters at Swift Run Gap, elevation almost 2400 feet. We trace the curves in the mountain on a route that has changed little since it was traveled by Governor Alexander Spotswood and his famous Knights of the Golden Horseshoe, the 1716 exploratory party that crossed into the Shenandoah Valley through the pass here. Where we can see it, Swift Run itself is dry, its bones exposed between scant flow and small, still pools of wet.

Once on Skyline Drive, we head south a few miles to the parking lot at Smith Roach Gap – at 2600 feet, it’s the next crossing over the mountains. Named for an early settler , last name Roach, first name Smith, it marks the headwaters of the Roach River which falls from the mountains eastward into Bacon Hollow, Deep Hollow, and Waterfall Hollow.

We hike north in quiet on the trail towards the summit of Hightop Mountain, the leaves so dry they barely rustle. Everything is yellow and brown, like a summer in California, where water goes underground only to emerge in the rivers again during the rains of winter. Here, too, it feels like the water is absent, but in a season of record high temperatures and record low rainfall, I feel unsure of its return. Fall wildflowers are in show: purple and white asters, yellow goldenrod and milkweed pods in various stages of undress. Grass beds along the path glisten in the afternoon sun.

I am calmed by this walk in the woods, but I also know that this part of the piedmont is known for its rough and tumble ways. Though it’s been 80 years since landowners were evicted from the Blue Ridge to establish Shenandoah National Park, the memory is still nursed – and I am aware that this is a country where I need to cultivate understanding. Tucked into these hills are homesteads, orchards, and graveyards: grown over, reclaimed by the succession of cedar given way now to hickory and oak. We see little of this on our walk, but when the trail opens into flat stretches between granite outcrops and ferns, it is not hard to imagine pasture, croplands, and the hardscrabble life of the mountains.

In my own life, I have felt the loss of landscapes special to me -- places that have been paved, graded, or filled and planted with houses, shopping centers, roads and marinas. Though truly incomprehensible, this helps me feel compassion for the Monacans and other Native Americans displaced from the land during the so-called era of contact. And centuries later, in these hills, it is a similar displacement, but the opposite has happened – where the dead are buried, the cemetery markers are overgrown with honeysuckle; where the barns and houses once stood, the foundations are crumbling under lichen and wind. And the springs nursed forth from the folds of the hills are secrets only the locals know.

As we walk, two ravens traverse the ridge overhead, announcing in throaty caws to the valley below our presence in the woods. We come to a scattering of gauzy down feathers – roughed grouse perhaps – left in the trail by an unknown predator. Later, we come across a bold dark mound of bear scat, so full of berries it looks ready to sprout. In the cycle of change, today we’ve been left these clues about who is at home in this high corner of the watershed during this moment in time.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

#62 The Rivanna TMDL is Underway

The Rivanna at Darden Towe Park in another season and another year
Credit: Stowe Keller

October 11, 2007

The autumn sunlight warms the group gathered around the table. The air is collegial and cooperative: the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s TMDL Coordinator has come with three consultants from the Lois Berger Group, specialists in the process. They’ve set up a poster presentation on an easel to one side that summarizes the Rivanna TMDL meeting in March with colorful charts and lists.

This is the first time I’ve been able to participate since the meetings commenced in November last year. I’ve got a ways to go to catch up with the water professionals who help make up the Steering Committee, folks from non-profits and local agencies and government who provide the knowledge of our watershed that is essential for development of a TMDL.

This acronym stands for Total Daily Maximum Load – and simply put, refers to the total amount – or load – of a given pollutant that a water body can receive in a day and still meet water quality standards. If you hear that a stream or river has a TMDL, it means that it has degraded to the point that it no longer meets state standards and has been placed on the impaired waters list.

Making this list is a dubious distinction. The good news is that once a river stretch has been listed as impaired, it becomes eligible for funding that will study the problem, determine the sources of the pollutant, and help identify solutions.

Fifteen stream and river segments in the Rivanna watershed are listed as ‘impaired” because they do not adequately support the biological organisms that reflect a healthy stream or are excessively contaminated with bacteria that is unhealthy for humans. Sixty-two miles in Albemarle County alone are impaired for these bacteria that make swimming, canoeing and simply wading in the river with your kids a cause for extra caution and some disinfectant.

And where are these streams? For bacterial impairment we’re talking about the headwaters of Beaver Creek above the reservoir; the entire length of Meadow Creek; almost 26 miles of Preddy Creek and its tributaries; 10 and half miles of the Mechums River from Lickinghole Creek to its confluence with the Moormans; the North Fork from Camelot to the main stem and continuing down to Moores Creek.

The TMDL process starts with identifying the likely sources, such as failing septic systems, straight pipes, and wastes from pets, livestock, and manure spreading operations. Information is fed into a computational model along with climate, stream flow, and geographic data specific to our watershed. At the end of this year, DEQ will define what the total amount of bacterial pollutant these stream segments can absorb and still maintain adequate water quality for safe recreation.

The target number and sources are open for public comment, then approved by the state and EPA, and will be used to inform and plan clean-up efforts during the next phase called implementation planning. Activities to eliminate the sources are prioritized – in this case, things like eliminating failing septic tanks, initiating pet waste education campaigns, or ensuring adequate stream buffers on all the streams in the watershed. The TMDL process can take years and is highly dependent on state funding to complete. And finally we come to the bad news: all the while, unless the community takes corrective measures voluntarily, the pollution from these sources may continue.

So while the consultants are crunching the numbers, our local water quality experts will continue the real work of trying to influence patterns of land use and encourage living habits that we can adopt now. The TMDL process comes up with a number and a plan – but there’s every reason we should take it upon ourselves to clean up after our pets, keep our cattle out of the streams, and limit the amount of soil that turns our river the color of Virginia clay.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

#61 This Land is My Land

South Fork Rivanna Reservoir
Credit: Hank Helman

October 4, 2007

Last night, after the last credits rolled on Ken Burns’ documentary,” The War,” the screen was filled with a series of film clips, along with the words, “this is yours.” It started with views of mountains, then the north rim of the Grand Canyon, then watersheds, then farm fields, and was spliced together with others showing people living, laughing, learning, playing … the background music was soothing and welcome after the raw footage and compelling stories of war. This end note, which was really an advertisement for PBS, was an invitation to think of what America or the United States really means to each of us … and what are we are willing to do protect that which we hold dear.

With these thoughts still fresh in my mind, I tried to put myself in the shoes of those in Albemarle County whose “property rights,” some feel, are being assailed by the latest round of amendments being proposed to the zoning, subdivision, and water protection ordinances of the County code. Each of the proposed amendments restricts in some way the right of a landowner to build; to subdivide; to disturb the land, remove trees, or gain access to those portions of his or her property that have slopes greater than 25%.

These hot-button items are going before the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, in a public hearing being held on Wednesday evening October 10. The amendments that are up for comment are described at the County’s Community Development web-site and are called critical slopes, safe and convenient public access, family subdivisions. Also, changes to the water protection ordinance will minimizing any land disturbing activities within 100 feet of streams in the County’s designated rural areas as well as the already protected watersheds that feed our drinking water supplies.

Feelings are running high about these restrictions –on either side you might sit on. The County, charged with protecting our natural resources, has proposed these amendments in order to limit the amount of sediment and pollution that enters our waterways and to preserve the vegetated buffers on our streams. The ecological benefits that result from keeping intact these riparian zones are well documented – cooler water, better habitat in and near the stream, better absorption of stormwater and runoff and the nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment they carry. The need to do so in the Rivanna watershed has never been greater with some 15 stream segments of the Rivanna now listed as impaired by Virginia DEQ.

Some landowners, especially those whose wealth is tied to the land, whether by inheritance or by speculation or investment, predictably do not welcome these restrictions. Others, driven by a sense of responsibility to protect the integrity of landscapes, while they may recognize an individual’s property rights, even their own, they are more accepting of the restrictions – even welcoming of them because they will slow the pace of development and help ensure some measure of protection for our waterways and land.

Like most zoning ordinances, these proposals are subject to exception either through grandfathered rights or by appealing – but they are an example of the County’s attempt to keep pace with other cities and counties in the Commonwealth that have upgraded their standards in accordance with the 2003 amendments to Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act. The Act outlines how property owners in the tidewater regions of Virginia are restricted for the common good of protecting and restoring water quality in the Bay. In 1991, Albemarle became the first non-Tidewater county to voluntarily adopt this guidance. Our existing restrictions protect over 1000 stream miles and 25,000 acres of land in the County. The proposed restrictions will increase protections by over a third again. This latest amendment is simply an update.

But it is not simple. Even a cursory review of the ordinance itself reveals the complexities of attempting to be fair, to reduce the impact on landowners while affording the strongest measure of protection of the streams in question and thus our collective water supply, our rural areas, our landscapes. While our population continues to grow, our human needs for space and for wild places and for unobstructed views remain … and these are our collective needs that transcend boundaries, just as much as an aquatic system needs a minimum of protection to survive, let alone thrive.

So the caption repeated on the television screen bears thinking about. This is ours. Would that we could find a way to help everyone who owns lands with the incentives, the tools, and the inspiration to treat that land for the collective good.