Friday, October 7, 2016

Richmond's Reedy Creek Restoration Project - Mistakes Were Made

I love Richmond, Virginia.  It's less than two hours from my hometown and though I've never lived there (not for lack of effort - the job market isn't so hot, and never has been), I love the city.  I love its historic past, both beautiful and ugly, its extremely gritty recent past, and the wonderful 21st Century city that it's becoming.   But change (or even growing up) isn't always easy in Virginia.   As the saying goes - it takes 8 Virginians to change a lightbulb.  One to do it, and the other 7 to stand around and talk about how much better the old one was.

Richmond, like many cities and counties in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, finds itself  - after 400 years of unbridled development and habitat destruction - in the vice grips of federal water quality mandates.    One, the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, demands compliance by 2025.  The other, the Richmond MS4, demands compliance by 2018.    Arguably, the City of Richmond is not likely to comply with either the TMDL or the MS4, which means a costly Federal Consent Decree is likely. More on that in a bit.

First, how does a municipality "comply" with these mandates?  Largely, compliance is made through the completion of "projects" that reduce the input of key pollutants (typically nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, bacteria, and trash) into interstate (federal) waterways like the Chesapeake Bay.  "Projects" include sanitary sewer upgrades, tree plantings, stream stabilization, wetland creation, and other efforts that generally reduce sewage and stormwater from reaching large water bodies.  Each "project" is assigned a pollution reduction value (i.e. measures like rain barrels and tree plantings get a relatively low score, while sewer plant upgrades receive a high score).  

A measure of some controversy has been the relatively generous crediting of stream restoration projects that 1) stabilize eroding stream banks, 2) enhance hyporheic exchange, and 3) reconnect the stream to the floodplain on a more regular basis.    The City of Richmond has staked much of its 2018 MS4 compliance hopes on the construction of three stream restoration projects, one of which is known as the Reedy Creek Restoration Project.

Reedy Creek is a very typical fall line stream in a developed area.  It is generally highly eroded, and any historic floodplain wetlands have been drained due to stream downcutting in some areas.  In some areas, however, the stream has a relatively stable cross-section.   There are many trees present, however, many of them (like maples and poplars) are not considered to have high value for habitat or nutrient uptake.  Much of the stream valley is subject to run-outs and headcuts associated with the watershed's urban hydrographs.    In short, the system is a mess.    Here are what I believe to be indisputable facts:

1) Some sections of Reedy Creek are extremely unstable.
2)  These sections will not "heal themselves" in a human timeframe, even if all runoff was removed from the watershed (impossible). 
3) Trees will have to be removed to do the work. 
4) The planted trees will not achieve that same size for decades.
5)  Trees do, eventually, grow bigger, if they are maintained and kept free of vines.
6) The TMDL and MS4 permits are driving restoration projects. 

However, much more is *in* dispute.   The large, tree-holding area of Reedy Creek showing the most erosion happens to be City property.  If you're the City of Richmond, and you have to do these "projects" by 2018, the one way you can possibly achieve that is by using City property.   That's not in dispute, either.  There is no way between 2014 and 2018 that the City could negotiate enough private property projects to comply with the permit requirements.  However, it appears that the City didn't feel compelled to share their early plans with the community surrounding the park.  In fact, the City DPU (the MS4 permittee and the stream project sponsor) still doesn't seem ecstatic about this whole "public input" thing.  To their point, the MS4 and TMDL permits may have specified this project, and certainly did have public input periods, which I'm fairly confident this community ignored.

Enter a bunch of local do-gooders, or, at least they think they are local do-gooders, the Reedy Creek Coalition.   I chuckled at an online comment that read something like, "How come the only reference to the restoration of Reedy Creek on your website is "Stop the Stream Restoration?!" .....and it's a valid question.  The Reedy Creek Coalition isn't fond of the way this project materialized (which seems like a fair complaint) or the way that the City plans to re-align a stream on City property (which seems like less of a fair complaint).    I was excited to read one article that said that the City had not considered the validity of Reedy Creek Coalition's alternative plan for watershed restoration.  Upon hunting for that "plan," I read another article stating that it was simply a list of other City-owned properties in the watershed, that maybe could possibly sort of somehow be used for stormwater reduction.   As someone who has built 200+ ponds, wetlands, streams, rain gardens, etc., I know that a list is not a plan.  A plan is something that provides adequate information to judge cost, impact, and benefit.    After considering this for a while, I can't get over my feeling that this "plan" wasn't meant to be a real plan at all.

This begs a bigger question:  What is Reedy Creek Coalition's vision for saving Reedy Creek and restoring it back to some prior version of itself?  What calculations have been done on the alternatives they suggest? Where does their strategic plan say the highest quality projects would be - and how was that calculated?  To be fair, those same questions should be asked of the project proponents as well!  
But I haven't seen any calculations -   it certainly seems like the City wants to build this project because they have decided to build it; the Reedy Creek Coalition appears to object to the project because they have decided they don't like it.

If the Reedy Creek Coalition succeeds in killing this project, I can virtually guarantee a few outcomes:

1) In 2018, the City of Richmond will specifically blame this RCC for the City's failure to attain pollution reduction goals (and again in 2019, for the TMDL 2-year milestones).  That will become the reputation of Reedy Creek Coalition.  I cannot imagine trying to fundraise on that public reputation.  Especially when fines are levied, creating an excuse for the City to raise taxes/fees (and explicitly blame RCC).

2) Reedy Creek will not be restored, uplands or downstream, in this generation.   The state and city agencies will not allow substantial funding to flow to this watershed due to demonstrated risk of project failure.

If City DPU succeeds in installing this project, I can virtually guarantee a few outcomes:

1) Reedy Creek Coalition will publicly document every eroded pebble, every dead planted tree, every slightly misplaced boulder with exposed soil behind it.   We have a guy who does this at restoration projects in Maryland.   He is miserable; hearing him speak with the media is even more miserable.  "Look here! It's dirt! This project is a failure!" The City can look forward to that, if they continue on their present course.

2) Unless substantial stream monitoring protocols are already in place, the City will have a hard time categorizing the site as a "success," because the majority of people talking about the site will remind everyone else of the dead trees.

A Real Framework for the Restoration of Reedy Creek

What does this all mean?  Well, in the words of comedian Keegan-Michael Key, "Ya done messed up!"  The two primary parties in this dispute have a lot to lose by sticking to their guns, and they seem reticent to admit that.   Might I suggest a "both, and" approach to the restoration of Reedy Creek instead of an "either, or?"  

For instance, the parties could execute an MOU that provides:

1) RCC to hire a stream restoration engineer (at their own cost) to recommend specific tree-saving techniques to City DPU.   Perhaps 10 major recommendations, of which 5 (City's choice) *must* be accomodated.   RCC must provide these recommendations to City DPU in 90 days or less.

2)  City will place "escrow" type funding with a local conservation organization with the capacity to do actual watershed restoration activities (unfortunately, that means probably not the organization whose restoration goal is "Stop The Restoration!") for the purposes of 10 growing seasons of mechanical and/or chemical control of invasive species.

3)  City will establish an "escrow" or "tree trust" funding for 30 years that will ensure that within 30 years, forest canopy coverage is high or higher than pre-restoration.

4) RCC will desist from anecdotal stream condition descriptions, and instead hire an independent ecological consultant (at RCC's own cost) to perform a functional assessment (recommended: Harmon-Starr Functional Pyramid) on various reaches of the stream to document whether City DPU's proposed restoration method will provide meaningful "uplift" to the stream's condition (if not, consider abandoning work or reducing impact in those areas).

5)  RCC will serve as the primary partner on the restoration of the private property "concrete gully" upstream.  City DPU agrees in concept to provide speedy permit review and grant application support letters (RCC should be able to raise the (guessing) $1.5 million to accomplish the concrete channel restoration).  RCC may be able to negotiate that the City provides up to 50% matching funds for that effort, as well (or, even more importantly, $200,000 in start-up funds to begin the survey, engineering, and permit work).    Also, local partners like RCC typically have better success navigating private property concerns (and right of way costs) than City agencies.   If RCC is serious about treating the stormwater to Reedy Creek, and not simply using the "concrete gully" as a red herring to stop the project downhill, RCC will readily pursue this huge opportunity for their organization.

My overall worry is that the City of Richmond doesn't care all that much about Reedy Creek, if they never produced a set of alternative approaches and didn't conduct meaningful listening sessions for the community.   My overall worry is that Reedy Creek Coalition might not care that much either, if they have no concrete plan for advancing meaningful-scale watershed restoration work with or without the City's engineers.  

There is a huge opportunity, and huge obligation, for community and city leaders to work together in this period of generous funding for watershed restoration and simply get it done in a way that everyone will be happy to describe to their grandkids one day.   But as of last week, the two parties couldn't be much farther apart.   And if Reedy Creek continues to erode and unravel (and take out big, beautiful trees) for another 30 years, I don't think anyone will be proud to tell their grandkids about their role in that lost opportunity.   "I tried to steamroll a community, and failed!"  "Oh yeah, well I stopped the City from investing in our community - and they never came back!" 

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Perils of a "Fish Every Day" Contest

A high-end outdoor outfitter recently had a widely publicized contest: "Fly Fish 20 Days in September."  Unless you were on a fishing trip for at least 22 days, that's a challenge.   My immediate thought when I read the exciting write-ups for this contest was self-disappointment, with a giant work calendar as a thunderhead over me.    I can't fish that much right now, I thought.

I built this fish habitat, but haven't had time to fish it.
I think that means I lack dedication and/or passion. 
We're planting trees and building streams in September.  My son goes back to sports in September.  His birthday is even in September, and none of the grandparents live close, so if they do visit, I'm pretty occupied with that for several days.   My wife has lots of night meetings in September.  Anymore, September is still a summer heatwave on the Mid-Atlantic coast, and coastal waters are horribly low in oxygen, leading to lots of lethargic, dead and dying fish.   Air temperatures in the mid-90s and water in the mid-80s.  September is just bad.  And I think it's that way for a lot of people.    To restrict outdoor adventures to specifically "fly fishing" - contest or no contest -  is adding insult to injury for your average angler.  Largely, they probably ignore it, and the retailer, which could be intentional on the retailer's part.

But again, what I felt most was disappointment, and the next immediate feeling was that maybe I'm not hardcore enough for that outfitter and their goods.    The Outdoor Foundation reports that the mean number of fishing outings (including *all* types of fishing) is 17.9 times per year.   As an advocate for the sport, these are the people you want.  They buy licenses, they purchase gear, and most of them are copacetic with fishing about three times every two months.    They're good for the industry and the fishery, much like gym members who rarely go to the gym are pretty good for the gym.

Property of Fox Broadcasting Company
However, making them feel like Homer Simpsons because they can't fly fish 20 times in one month seems like a bad idea, especially for an industry and a natural resource facing certain peril in the coming generations (to say nothing of the coming months).   Imagine a reality, like right now, when all the industry and lobbyist groups are wanting us anglers to be politically motivated.  Or pick up a phone and call our representative.  Or defend the value of National Parks.   Again, that reality is right now.   A great time to alienate anglers -  I haven't heard anyone who fishes less than three times per week state anything positive about the "20 days in September" challenge.  And I do know a lot of people who fish 2-3 times per week.

"Boy, he sounds sour."  Well, I am sour.   I'm confused at why, knowing what we know about the folly of creating outdoor celebrities - and how the animal rights crowd loves to use the antics of those celebrities to try and snuff out our sport -  that we are having contests to create more fishing rock stars.   I'm confused at why at a time when we need anglers to defend conservation, defend federal lands, and defend a potentially dying industry, we are designing highly publicized contests to separate the 1% from the 99%.    Because in larger society, that certainly hasn't been noted.   Maybe I need to get a bunch of drunken worm dunkers and we'll be "Occupy the Poudre."

I'm sour because fishing does not rank in the TOP TEN "aspirational outdoor activities" of 18-24 year olds.    

Or the TOP TEN "aspirational" activities of 25-34 year olds (for 20 years, a core market for outdoor retailers).  

And it squeaks in at #8 for 35-44 year olds, previously, but no longer, a core market. 

And it's no surprise that while at least TEN other outdoor activities are 2016 growth markets, according to the Outdoor Foundation, fishing is certainly not one of them.   And fly fishing? I mean, it's about 10% of 2% or so of Americans.  "But it has grown 0.5% in the last 3 years!"  Yeah sure.  Kayak fishing has grown 17% in the last 3 years.  We're losing *total* anglers hand over fist.   Clearly, the fly fishing industry caters to a small portion of Americans.  But which Americans?

After making solid inroads into wider acceptance (broadly and socioeconomically) over the last decade, it would appear that high end fly fishing is again positioning itself as the pinnacle of the sport, the pinnacle of angler excellence, the pinnacle of dedication and passion - and you know, dedication costs big bucks.  "Fly fish 20 days in September" - because we sure are.   If you can't fly fish 20 days in September, you don't have the passion.  Bottom line.   So says our marketing team!

Perhaps, once again in 2016,  the soccer dads, football moms, inner city kids, and lonely apartment millenials aren't the sort of people that the fly fishing industry really wants.  After several years of claiming they wished for "growth of the sport" during the Great Recession, I guess they've got enough Titanium Card customers to rid themselves of that facade.   It is noted.

While I've hit personal records for both largemouth bass and chain pickerel in the last 12 months, and while I've fished in six states this year, including a four-day offshore trip in the Gulf of Mexico,  I couldn't fish 20 days in September.   Despite dedicating my life to wetland and stream restoration, I couldn't fish 20 days in September.  Clearly, I lack the passion that some guys have.  Maybe one day I'll have the kind of dedication to the resource and the sport that lets me enter a 20 Days In September contest.

Probably not.  They're looking for a different kind of people.

Moments in Outdoor Parenthood: Photos of Parents

My standard outdoors view these days -
the soles of my kid's feet. 
A lot of us know a lot of good parents.  Folks who show their kids the world, whether that is Central Park or Grand Canyon National Park.   You'll see pictures of kids fishing, climbing, shooting, catching frogs, looking through telescopes, making headdresses out of found feathers, and all of it's good stuff.   But you don't see pictures of parents doing "the stuff," which is pretty ironic because much of this outdoor culture - or at least the ethic, the part of the mountain air or the salt water that runs through our blood, so to speak -  is inherited, not learned.  Those parents used to do cool stuff.  But I think I'm typical when I say that I've hardly had a picture snapped of me hunting, fishing, surfing, or climbing since my son was born.   I'm in a support role, a coach's role now.   Sometimes I try to remember what it used to feel like to go pursue these activities unencumbered.  To kick ass.   It's hard to remember when that time was (if it ever existed, ha ha).  But sometimes life gives us amazing, wonderful, and priceless moments. 

I was climbing with my soon near the PA-MD border recently and he said, "Let's eat our lunch on that rock table up there."  I said, "Well if we can both climb it, sure."   He, of course, scampered right up there.   I handed him the gear pack (of course, I pack in all the gear and water), then my phone and camera.   I then studied the 10' tall boulder for a minute and found what I thought were some jugs and foot holds big enough for a dude like me.    What I didn't know is that my son was waiting to take a picture of me as I was finishing the climb.  

This is not only the first picture of me climbing since he was born in 2009.  This is the first picture anyone has taken of me climbing or bouldering since 1998.    What a wonderful day. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Captiva Surf Fishing Contest: Me Vs. My Six Year Old

I may not be great at catching big fish, or certainly trophy fish.  Heck, at age 42 I have only three citation fish to my name (chain pickerel, black crappie, and spotted bass).   But give me some basic tackle and a tiny bit of local knowledge (seasonal movements of fish, etc.), and I can generally "catch fish" on almost any day.  As a result, I falsely tend to think that I am pretty smart.

One day our little family rolled up to Captiva Island.  Captiva and Sanibel are significantly south of where I normally fish in Florida, and it conditions were less than ideal, so I wasn't expecting much.   After a little driving around, we managed to find some public beach parking.   As I unloaded the saltwater rods from the bed of the truck, my 6-year old son interrupted, "Dad! I wanna take my rod."  Isn't that kind of dedication great!

Until you realize that "his rod" is a 4.0' Bass Pro Crappie Maxx Jr., with the store-bought reel (ouch) still on it.    I handed him the rod, and continued to carry two rods (a clearly unnecessary 10' Tsunami and a more appropriate 7' Shimano combo), knowing, of course, that he'd be needing one of them.

I also noted that The Dude was carrying his tackle bag, which is fine except that the only lures in there are 5,713 colors of Mister Twisters, some Uncle Bucks Panfish Bugs, and some green camo Senkos he thought were "cool."  He ran ahead, because that's what he does.

When I finally caught up to him, he had sort of knotted a Beetle Spin onto his line and was picking out a 1" crappie grub (I mean, what?!) to put on it.   I tried to argue against the futility of using a Beetle Spin in the freaking Gulf of Mexico, and that argument failed on its merits.    I did convince him to use a chartreuse powerbait minnow (his favorite color is bright green, so he let that one pass), and when trying to re-do his awful knot, he hollered at me so I said, you know, whatever.  

I walked down the beach to bait my perfectly prepared line and terminal tackle, eyeing up a good sandbar offshore.   As soon as my 2 ounce slip weight hit the water, I heard screaming up the beach.  Gulf Kingfish, very close to legal size.  And admittedly, very fat and pretty tasty looking (we released it).  

The rod and reel were tossed into the sand (causing me to replace the store reel with a more sturdy Zebco 33) and by the end of the morning, I had still caught nothing.  The boy caught edible fish using a 4' crappie rod with a beetle spin tipped with half of a powerbait.  What in the world.