Beavers Love BMPs
(Big Messy Projects)

By G. C. Morrow

Wards Corner Outfall Beaver Dam

Wards Corner Outfall Beaver Dam

I decided to look at previous projects to see if I could find a pattern in their failures. It is extremely hard to conceive that these projects with their half million plus engineering budgets fail so miserably at their purpose. At first glance, it appears that the engineers are attempting to move their drainage conveyances to more accessible locations, but even the greenest of engineers should know better than to try to drain water uphill.  (G. C. Morrow, June 15, 2016)http://insidethecrater.com/714-2

Most of the environmental and pollution problems we are facing in stormwater management can be traced to very simple explanations and solutions. I warned in 2016, “South of Wards Corner, there are three outfalls much lower in elevation than the one at Wards Corner, and they are necessary to handle several hundred acres of stream flow, as well as roadside drainage.”

Beavers are drawn to the sound of water whose flow is disrupted. They have invaded the Wards Corner outfall, as well as two unmaintained neighboring outfalls.

I saw three dams at Wards Corner this week. At one place, the dam filled the outfall to the top, about 6-8 feet deep. Water was overflowing next to a 36-inch pipe and cut through the earth surrounding the pipe to create a spillway. This eroded soil is going downstream into the marsh.

Similar erosion has occurred around the 36-inch pipe at the start of the outfall off the shoulder of route 198. Old-fashioned concrete endwalls would have prevented the erosion at both locations, but today, only cosmetic plastic endwalls are used–and this project didn’t even use those.

We won’t know until the dams are cleared exactly how the beavers managed to block the flow so well. If the outfall had functioned properly, draining within 2-3 days after rainfall, there shouldn’t have been enough water to attract beavers in the first place, especially since the outfall is uphill of most of the area it’s supposed to drain.

A large number of saplings, stripped of their bark, are lined up on the banks near the dam, ready to be used to enlarge or repair it. The beavers will continue to stop the water as long as it’s moving slowly enough for them to harness it to float the saplings into place.

It appears that using rock checkdams to slow down the water flow in a rural environment is not the right answer. Putting the drainage in the right place might have been a better idea.

Makes you wonder why the state spent $1.6 million to cause perpetual flooding of downstream locations. A much smaller amount could have restored the outfall to Stutts Creek behind the high school, and cleared or even replaced the pipes in the VDOT easement along the football field. Doing that would have conveyed the water from Route 198 to the creek and not let it flood the school and park properties. Now, the county is being asked to fund half the cost of the restoration through revenue sharing or continue to suffer the damage of its property. It may be that VDOT’s failure to maintain an outfall inventory meant the designers didn’t know about the existing outfalls.

At some point, VDOT designers and engineers have to use real world considerations and get away from their laptop configurations. Overbuilding to create a new construction project, instead of developing a simpler restoration of existing structures, is not a better value-based decision in the long run, even if federal money is involved. And that era may be ending soon.

 

The following pictures are taken at the shoulder on Route 198 looking toward the area with the beaver dam showing the progressive erosion.

Wards Corner 2012

Wards Corner 2012

2013--eroded area 4-feet wide

2013–eroded area 4-feet wide

2014

2014

2015

2015

2016

2016

Excerpts and Errors from the Middle Peninsula All Hazards Mitigation Plan — Another Installment of Accuracy Not Guaranteed

                                                                  By Carol J. Bova

There are so many major and minor mistakes about Mathews County in the regional All Hazards Mitigation Plan, there’s no easy way to address them at one time. Maybe it’s time to start an ongoing catalog of them to get a head start on the 2021 Mitigation Plan. We learned with previous reports like the Regional Water Supply Plan that there’s a very slim window for public input, and once a report is written, MPPDC has no interest in changing it. Even when citizens presented information at a meeting of the MPPDC about the Roadside and Outfall Ditch Report and asked that the report not be accepted until corrected, they acknowledged the errors and accepted it anyway, saying they’d correct it afterwards. The result: MPPDC staff decided there were no errors, and the mistakes in it continue to be recycled in newer reports, like the recent Virginia Coastal Policy Center’s Ditch Maintenance Study. That one involved a $40,000 grant, examined one ditch, and came up with the wrong answers, largely due to the influence of the earlier MPPDC reports. (More on that in a future post.)

With that background in mind, let’s look at the Hazards Mitigation Plan. The Plan is 556 pages, divided into 5 parts. They are available at mppdc.org.

Mathews County is located at the eastern tip of the Middle Peninsula. The County is bordered mostly by water, with the Chesapeake Bay to the east, the Mobjack Bay to the south, the North River to the west, and the Piankatank River to the north. Except for approximately five miles that border Gloucester County, the County’s perimeter is formed by its 217 mile shoreline. (Part1, pg. 16.)

The name and location are correct, and a peninsula is largely bordered by water. A few minor details are off, like the Chesapeake Bay is to the east and south of Mathews, and the western border is the North River and Mobjack Bay. The miles of shoreline number is off by 130 miles. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science reported 347.42 miles of shoreline on page 20 of the 2008 Mathews County Shoreline Inventory. Eight years should have been long enough for the MPPDC to become aware of the fact.

Image Courtesy of FEMA Region III (red notes added)

Image Courtesy of FEMA Region III (red notes showing Mathews’ area added)

The plan’s presentation of the county’s population over the years is at odds with reality.

Mathews County’s population changed little between 1840 and 1900. The population peaked in 1910 with 8,922 residents, but gradually declined over the next five decades to a low point of 7,121 in 1960. This was in keeping with a national trend of population shifts from rural to urban areas because of the increased job opportunities in the cities. The population began to grow in the 1970’s and it took until the mid 1990’s before the population reached the peak reported in 1910.

An actual graph paints a different story. After every decline in population, there’s been an upward trend. Mathews will never be an urban area, nor would most of its residents want it to be. What’s MPPDC’s purpose in distorting the description of the population pattern?

Mathews Population from U.S. Censusu 1800-2010

MPPDC’s lapses in accuracy continue on page 75 of the All Hazards Plan under Ditch Flooding Vulnerability.

Throughout the Middle Peninsula of Virginia, the network of aging roadside ditches and outfalls, serving 670 miles of roads, creates the region’s primary stormwater conveyance system.

Arithmetic is a weak point for the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission. According to VDOT statistics, the six counties involved in this regional plan have 279 miles of primary roads and 1,358 miles of secondary roads between them. Even if I didn’t have an educated pencil, my computer says that’s 1637 miles. My Echo Alexa agrees.

Currently each locality in the region experiences inadequate drainage and as a result, roads and private properties are frequently flooded after a storm event. The lowest lying localities (ie. Mathews and Gloucester County) are more vulnerable to ditch flooding as most of their land is either at or slightly above sea level.

Mathews is part of two watersheds and seven subwatersheds all existing so rainfall not absorbed by the land can reach the rivers and Chesapeake Bay. An extensive complex of streams follows the topography which consists of gentle contours from about 3 feet in the southern salt marshes to 35 feet in the northwestern region.

“At or slightly above sea level”? No wonder MPPDC thinks a foot and a half of sea level rise will wipe out a third of Mathews.

 

Watch for the next installment of Accuracy Not Guaranteed when the error catalog of the Middle Peninsula All Hazards Mitigation Plan continues.

 

Conrad Hall’s Deed of Gift for Mathews Heritage Park

Discussions about establishing Mathews Heritage Park started back in 2010. Along the way, a lot of the declarations and restrictions in the deed of gift from Conrad Mercer Hall got overlooked in the proposed public access plan. The deed calls for the site to only be a nature park and waterfront center for education about the history and ecology of Mathews County. The plan uses one-half of a page to gloss over those points, adds organized camping to the list, and dedicates 17 pages to recreational opportunities and water access.

For anyone interested in the details, a copy of the deed, which is a public record at the Mathews County Courthouse, is attached below.

Hall Deed

Download the PDF file Hall Deed.

VDOT: Get the Water Moving for the Oysters

If the Virginia Department of Transportation won’t maintain adequate drainage from state highway roadside ditches to avoid flooding of private property and timber, maybe they’ll do it to provide adequate oxygen in Chesapeake Bay area waters for the oysters. Following up on yesterday’s post, this one provides information about a Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) study and where to find it online.

A Smithsonian Institution press release in February 2015 announced publication of an article, Landscape-Level Variation in Disease Susceptibility Related to Shallow-Water Hypoxia. The details may be more than the casual reader wants to absorb, but the bottom line is the SERC study describes how oysters in Chesapeake Bay area waters are more susceptible to disease when they are exposed to episodes of low dissolved oxygen at night. The locations studied had a depth of less than 6.5 feet and salinity levels typical of many of the shellfish waters around Mathews County.

“We usually think of shallow-water habitats as highly productive refuges from deep-water dead zones,” says Denise Breitburg, marine ecologist at SERC and lead author of the study. “But if low oxygen makes even these shallow waters inhospitable for fish and shellfish, the whole system may suffer.”

 So VDOT, if you don’t care about the impact on people, get the water moving so our oysters can remain healthy and help clean up the mess your negligence created.

 

Article Source:Landscape-Level Variation in Disease Susceptibility Related to Shallow-Water Hypoxia

Breitburg DL, Hondorp D, Audemard C, Carnegie RB, Burrell RB, et al. (2015) Landscape-Level Variation in Disease Susceptibility Related to Shallow-Water Hypoxia. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0116223. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0116223

Time to Pay Attention to Oxygen for the Bay

Blocked VDOT roadside ditch flooding adjacent land.

Blocked VDOT roadside ditch flooding adjacent land.

I wrote a report in 2012. If anyone in authority had paid attention then, we’d be seeing results now, instead of looking at more flooded ditches and damaged roads. Expect our TMDL numbers (total maximum daily load) for E. coli levels to stay the same, because the problem is not primarily land-based. It’s VDOT ditch based.

Although nothing about dissolved oxygen levels made it into the final EPA-accepted Water Quality Improvement Plan, there was a recommendation for a Ditch Task Force involving the Virginia Department of Transportation. The intent was to discuss and plan ways to improve the drainage for our state roads. Instead, we have the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission advocating the creation of a Ditching Authority to charge landowners and counties for VDOT’s failures.

MPPDC is basing its Ditching Authority concept on states and countries which drained wetlands for agricultural purposes–and must continue to drain them to continue farming. Ohio, for example, drained 7.4 million acres of wetlands, and today, 2/3s of their cropland and 500,000 homes depend on that land staying drained. They have a Ditching Authority.

Our drainage problem is rainfall from state roads cannot reach receiving bodies of water because of failed and neglected VDOT maintenance. The cause is not wetland drainage, not agricultural land drainage, not private property drainage, not sea level rise, not land elevation or land subsidence.

Read the report and see for yourself if it makes sense.

Report for Working Groups for the Shellfish TMDL Implementation Plan for the Piankatank River, Gwynns Island and Milford Haven Watersheds, August 27, 2012

submitted by Carol J. Bova

A review of the original Shellfish Sanitation Surveys and outstanding violations for the Piankatank River, Gwynns Island and Milford Haven Watersheds doesn’t document enough ongoing septic system violations to account for the continuing high levels of bacteria in the TMDL waters. From the June 30th report, only Healy Creek had one prior uncorrected septic issue. There were two kitchen deficiencies: one at Healy Creek and one at Edwards Creek.

There are no large agricultural operations, fewer farms than decades ago when the waters were not impaired, and not enough hobby livestock to account for current bacterial impairments. It’s equally unlikely that pets are the main factor, and while wildlife contributes a significant amount, it is not the sole source.

Based on scientific findings over the last six years across the United States, in Canada and in Europe, naturalized E. coli is the most likely major source of the ongoing high bacterial readings.

These studies show E. coli does not require a human or animal host to survive for extended periods in soil, sand, sediments and water. Wind and storms stir up sand and sediment and release bacteria back into the water column. Bottom feeding fish like spot and croaker can take in E. coli while feeding and become carriers. Studies in Michigan show E. coli can survive 5 months in water as long as the temperature is above 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Average water temperatures for the TMDL areas only go below that in January and February and may not go that low in some years. E. coli doesn’t only survive on its own–it can reproduce if it has adequate carbon based nutrients. The presence of muck, which is partially decomposed vegetation, provides that nutrition and shelters E. coli, because no sunlight can get through it. It takes four days of sunlight to kill E. coli.

Part of the key to eliminating E. coli in the TMDL waters is to get the water clear enough to allow sunlight to penetrate. The plan to restore oysters is intended to do that, as well as filter the water, but oysters can’t live in the muck and must be suspended above it. The headwaters and some of the small inlets of the creeks are among the worst areas, with heavy muck, little circulation and probably low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water which must be addressed before oyster placement. Submerged aqueous vegetation will also benefit from more sunlight.

The long-term goal of restoring oysters is solid, but needs to be backed up with a multi-layered approach to cleaning up the waters, with a plan tailored to the characteristics of each TMDL segment. In Queens Creek, for example, at least 3-4 feet of muck exists on the sides of the channel, possibly more in the center. If the channel could be dredged to remove most of that muck, the creek could then be treated with probiotic decomposer bacteria to help break down what remains. This would create a more favorable environment for oysters and other water animals and allow sunlight to reach deeper into the water, killing even more E. coli.

Using small aeration units attached to private docks to provide additional oxygenation has been tried in Maryland. William Wolinski of Talbot County Maryland Dept. of Public Works stated the aeration used there from May through October created ‘oxygen sanctuaries’ for fish and other creatures and allowed positive bacterial action to break down sludgy sediment. A simple unit costs about $500-$600 and covers 1/4 acre placed at a 4′ depth according to one manufacturer. Any aeration provided will improve the action of probiotic bacteria in decomposing muck sediments.

Before any direct action is taken in TMDL creek headwaters and inlets, the Virginia Department of Transportation roadside ditches and related outfall ditches leading to those waters must be cleaned, pipe blockages cleared and overgrown vegetation removed to allow clean rainwater to reach the waterways. Currently, the water in outfall ditches is deoxygenated by decaying plant matter and has little to no flow except during storm events. Major storms flush the stagnant water into areas leading to the headwaters, and the load of rotting vegetation and silt with it adds to the mucky sediment already present.

The Virginia Department of Transportation should be named a stakeholder in the TMDL Implementation Plan for low dissolved oxygen levels in water in ditches which connect to TMDL waters. Credit trading should not be an option because the actions required to improve oxygenation fall within normal roadside maintenance and budget. DCR and DEQ staff can support citizen requests for a VDOT 5-year plan for roadside and outfall ditch maintenance to provide an outlet to an adequate receiving channel and body of water as required by VDOT Drainage Manual policies. This will allow clean, oxygenated rainwater to reach TMDL waters, giving other measures a better chance of success.

MPPDC Part 1– Accuracy Not Guaranteed

Planning District Commissions are supposed “to conduct studies on issues and problems of regional significance” according to the Code of Virginia. The Code fails to mention, though, those studies should contain accurate information.

Perhaps that’s too much to expect, especially when the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission posts a disclaimer on the copyright page of the 2002 report, Water Supply Management on the Middle Peninsula that says,  “No warranty, expressed of implied, is made by the MPPDC as to the accuracy of this report or related materials. Publication and distribution of the material contained in this report does not constitute any such warranty, and the MPPDC assumes no responsibility in connection therewith.” Since this report was an “information review,” MPPDC apparently didn’t want to check the accuracy of the information, but MPPDC expects its member counties’ representatives to take care of those details on its own grant-funded reports.

The MPPDC said that same 2002 water supply document included “significantly outdated” material from a 1977 State Water Control Board report, but the statements again appeared in the 2011 regional water supply plan: “Yorktown Aquifer has low yield potential. Principal and upper artesian aquifers not suitable for potable use (high chlorides).” This was the belief prior to the 1983 discovery of the Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater, and studies since then have shown that “wedges” of ancient sea water were trapped by the impact debris as it fell back to earth and could contaminate some wells today.

The MPPDC Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy in 2013, again picked up the same 1977 information as an inset in  Figure 10, “Ground Water Zones in the Middle Peninsula,” and doesn’t list the Yorktown/Eastover Aquifer, the only major water source used in Mathews County.

Lewis Lawrence, Executive Director of the MPPDC,  replied to a request for a correction of the aquifer descriptions saying, “I encourage you to review why comprehensive economic development strategy exists and what the Economic Development Administration requires.  A comprehensive economic development strategy (CEDS) is designed to bring together the public and private sectors in the creation of an economic roadmap to diversify and strengthen regional economies….” He went on to say that it was up to the localities “to appoint representatives to make sure local and regional issues are addressed and that the quality and accuracy of the work meets expectations against the requirement of the funder.”

So if a county’s representatives don’t have or don’t communicate specific knowledge about the county’s water source, and MPPDC recycles 1977 information it described as “significantly outdated” in 2002, it absolves MPPDC from responsibility, even if the use of that information in 2013 is detrimental to the local economy by discouraging businesses who might otherwise consider locating in the county.

While the PDCs are funded in part by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and in part by the localities, and obtain grants to conduct studies and issue reports, do the counties know it’s up to their county representatives to fact check the PDC report for accuracy and to see if their reports meet the expectations of the funding agency?

Watch for an upcoming post on what happens when citizens do offer comments and corrections to MPPDC flawed reports.

Sharing What We Learned About VDOT Myths and Mathews Drainage

Since the fall of 2011, I’ve been digging into the reasons for flooded land and ditches in Mathews. G.C. Morrow taught me the basics of ditches and we formed The Ditches of Mathews County project in early 2012.  We thought identifying the causes of drainage issues and working out solutions would help VDOT. When VDOT said they needed temporary easements to address outfall maintenance, we tracked owners through tax records and internet resources. G.C. visited local folks and called some who lived in other states. All were glad to help. But apparently, VDOT had other ideas.

Two small outfalls were cleaned on 609, and the water drained a considerable area that had been flooding from road drainage for years. The third project opened the outfall between Canoe Yard Trail and 609, but in the process, the VDOT contractor blocked the outlet to a second outfall. Months passed, and after the District Administrator Quintin Elliott and Resident Engineer Sean Trapani accompanied us on a tour of problem spots, VDOT finally addressed a dead tree preventing the roadside ditch on Canoe Yard Trail from draining to the outfall. But the cleaning of 609 pipes needed to drain the roadside ditches near the tidal marshes didn’t happen. The one time we know the pipe truck arrived–it came at high tide. And never came back to do the job.

We kept working on gathering information, and the story that emerged was not a pretty one. Going through the Board of Supervisors’ meetings, month after month for thirty-odd years was a test of endurance. Transcribing key sections and sorting by topic and choosing which statements would illustrate the ongoing saga felt like an impossible task for a time. Eventually, though, the outline emerged showing how three years of VDOT/County revenue sharing projects ran on into the sixteenth year, and how those involved seemed to forget the original reason for the projects.

It’s all laid out now in Drowning a County, and everyone reading it will see what happened and when, and more importantly, what didn’t happen that should have. The pattern of County Supervisors and Administrators forgetting or overlooking details of agreements with VDOT and accepting incorrect statements without challenge cannot be allowed to repeat itself now and in future years. Drowning a County can provide the facts and the history to help our leaders and our citizens avoid being misled even once more by VDOT mythology.

 

Springing Forward

Inside the Crater went silent a year ago, but life kept on moving ahead, dragging and pushing me along too. With the time change this morning to move ahead an hour for Daylight Savings Time, I thought this would be a good time to reactivate Inside the Crater.

VDOT finished a part of the Canoe Yard Trail outfall and roadside ditch last year, so the rainfall runs crystal clear to the marsh now.

1545092_571497736259832_880957770_n

This is our one shining success story for the Ditches of Mathews County Project, even if it’s incomplete, but we’ll accept it with thanks. It proves what we’ve said all along: if the roadside and outfall ditches are cleaned, have the proper grade and the pipes are open–Mathews has no trouble draining its stormwater, even in Onemo with its low elevation.

The EPA approved our TMDL Implementation Plan to improve the water quality in the Piankatank/Milford Haven/Gwynn’s Island watershed, but the Ditch Maintenance Task Force recommendation still needs to be organized. It’s on my list, after I finish my book, Drowning a County.

Drowning a County traces the history of highway drainage in Mathews County and the institutional myths the Virginia Department of Transportation’s used to explain away their failure to maintain their systems for decades. The book debunks those myths with published mainstream scientific information, translated into normal English.

To do this, I tracked down Army Corps of Engineers hurricane surveys from the 1950’s and 60’s and a 1980 drainage study of the Garden Creek watershed. I learned a lot about Mathews County in reading through 34 years of Board of Supervisors minutes about ditches and VDOT and the revenue-sharing for ditches saga from 1993 to 2008.

Wetlands ecology wasn’t on my reading list, but turned out to be an essential element, aided by the Mathews Memorial Library’s acquisition of an excellent textbook.

GC Morrow taught me how to find overgrown outfall ditches and probe for pipes under the road that could no longer be seen and how to use topo maps to track the streams channelized as outfalls.

Blue dashed lines were drainage structures and streams in 1965–some of which are now totally obstructed. Image courtesy of USGS from Mathews topo map

Can’t count how many wonderful Mathews residents stopped to see if I needed help while photographing ditches from the roadside. And that is probably the biggest factor in why I kept going on this project: the people of Mathews. They are good people with a long history here. They’ve kept the environment in such good condition that if the ditches could drain to the appropriate creeks and rivers and carry fresh rainwater, nature could solve a lot of the E. coli problem the TMDL plan addresses.

But VDOT mythology turned highway ditches into retention ponds filled with muck and algae and stagnant water.

Algae in flooded ditch with blocked pipe

This spring, VDOT just might realize their mythology has kept the roadbeds saturated and caused more freeze damage  to the roads this winter than they ever imagined.

For me, I’ve made it through the winter and over the despair of feeling I’d taken on an impossible task. Spring is on the way, and Drowning a County is on the way to completion too.

Check out Carol’s Ditches of Mathews County columns at http://ChesapeakeStyle.com.

 

Public Meeting for Piankatank – Milford Haven TMDL Implementation Plan Feb 27, 2013, 6-8 PM

Mathews High School 9889 Buckley Hall Rd. (Route 198 near 14)

As a result of the the Clean Water Act, we have to show how we’re going to deal with the problem of waters condemned for excessive E. coli bacteria levels in a Piankatank/Milford Haven TMDL Implementation Plan. TMDL (total maximum daily load), is the maximum amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment or bacteria a waterway can handle without exceeding acceptable levels.

We are fortunate here that those before us kept the waters clean, and the only factor we need to address for 16 specific areas* in Mathews, Gloucester and Middlesex is the bacteria in the water. Currently, the recreational standards are met, but not those for shellfish.  While shellfish water standards are much stricter than recreational standards, we don’t have the regulatory option to downgrade the use of our bays, creeks or rivers. Commonwealth policy states “the existing uses shall be maintained and protected.”

The first TMDL public meeting last May in Hartfield brought up a lot of questions and concerns. There were two work group (residential and business) meetings and a steering committee meeting and many emails since then to cover each point and to challenge the numbers and statistics first presented last year. I am very pleased to say that the state agency people from DCR and DEQ took our concerns input to heart and have updated the numbers and facts based on actual counts where available, and best estimates provided by local citizens where exact numbers were impossible. They have also affirmed there is no intention to force us into any HRSD expansions.

We still need to review the Implementation Plan at this public meeting in February, but I believe we can accept and live with the plan.  Please make every effort to attend. This is something that affects all of us in one way or another. If you or a neighbor cannot attend, there is a 30-day comment period after the meeting. At that point, after any changes made as a result of the meeting or comments, the plan is ours to follow for the next 10 years.

*The areas to be covered by this IP, in addition to parts of the Piankatank River, are:
Mathews: Edward and Barn Creeks on Gwynn’s Island; Cobbs, Queen/Winder, Lanes, Stutts, Morris, Hudgins, and Billups Creeks
Gloucester: Harper, Dancing (Dancer), Ferry, French’s Creeks
Middlesex: Wilton, Healy Creeks