Reedy Creek: Revealing the DEQ’s Absurdity

Bill Shanabruch’s concern was palpable as he waded deeper and deeper into Reedy Creek.  The water furiously rushed over his waders while he explained the intricate relationship between the locals, politicians and environment.  His knowledge of the controversial topic was evident and his pure passion for the stream was truly inspiring.  But with Reedy Creek’s health in jeopardy, he seemed a little anxious.

Looking upstream from lower end of proposed Reedy Creek project area.

Looking upstream from the lower end of the proposed Reedy Creek project area.

After spending all morning with Bill, I was frustrated with the city of Richmond and could not understand why political officials would push for a project that has received so much backlash from such a large number of citizens.  At first, the real issue seemed to be in convincing city officials that their restoration plan could seriously impair the environment.  But, according to the city, their project will do just the opposite.  Now the main issue seemed to morph into explaining why other restoration plans could contribute to Reedy Creek’s health in a more logical manner.  Best management practices within the watershed could solve the issue of stormwater runoff before it even becomes a problem downstream.  This point, too, was rejected by the city; however, it finally coaxed out the real problem behind the Reedy Creek debate.

The city is only trying to fulfill requirements set forth by the Department of Environmental Quality.  While it is important for Richmond to satisfy its duties to the DEQ, it is far more important for the DEQ to enforce methodical, conscious and cognizant environmental standards.  One look at the “Stormwater Local Assistance Fund Program Guidelines” shows the absurdity of the DEQ’s point system that enforces a blanket of rigid requirements upon all participants.

An excerpt of the SLAF Guidelines shows how projects receive rigid scores based on a rubric which leaves little flexibility to accommodate for particular cases.

An excerpt of the SLAF Guidelines shows how projects receive rigid scores based on a rubric which leaves little flexibility to accommodate for particular cases.

To begin with, pollution reduction, the most heavily weighted category of the rubric, is based on phosphorous levels alone.  Yes, this nutrient is an indicator of stormwater runoff pollution, but so is turbidity, nitrogen content, fecal bacteria and countless other factors.  The rubric’s second most weighted category is cost effectiveness.  Of course reality forces this boundary upon all restoration projects; however, should it be more seriously considered than relation to impaired water bodies and MS4 requirements?  Finally, and most importantly, the scoring system incentivizes waterbody management over watershed restoration projects.  Because of this, Richmond chose Reedy Creek’s riverbed as the focal point of their plan, but this is only a quick fix for a much larger issue.  Instead of attempting to reduce the movement of eroded sediments and nutrients by altering a downstream section of the creek, the restoration project should attack the problem at its source and focus on best management practices within the watershed.  This way, the storm water runoff is stopped before it even reaches the Creek.

At first glance, Reedy Creek’s controversial debate may seem to be functioning at a local scale, involving citizens and city officials; however, after deeper contemplation, one may more accurately note that the real issue lies with the DEQ’s absurd standards that incentivize poor practices.  On one level, the Department could be lauded for strictly enforcing policies that often protect and restore the environment, but, on another level, its broad model cannot always be implemented in every case throughout the state.  Perhaps a more flexible system that accommodates for the specifics of individual cases could allow cities to develop restoration plans that are designed to actually restore the environmental, not simply check a list of bureaucratic boxes.  Like Bill, I am concerned about the outcome of the Reedy Creek debate; however, I am even more concerned about the DEQ’s contrived requirements that will continue to negatively affect environmental restoration projects in the future.

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