- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Just to the east of the West End Manor Civic Association building in Henrico County, two shallow streams converge in a rocky meadow and proceed in a broad U-shaped floodplain as Hungary Creek. It meanders through pools and riffles before disappearing into a wooded area.

Six months ago, that landscape wasn’t there.

Stormwater plans from as far back as the 1940s and runoff from newer construction turned the babbling brook into muddy torrent during heavy rains.

Hungary Creek carved a 6- to 8-foot gully through seven forested properties. It sent vegetation, debris and an estimated 100 tons of silt a year rapidly downstream and into a reservoir known as Hoehns Lake.

“The stream was way too deep,” said John Newton, capital projects manager for the county’s Department of Public Works. “There was just too much volume, too much velocity in this channel.”

Hungary Creek was among 200 miles of streams in the county that officials have assessed over the years in hopes of undoing practices of the past and reducing the level of sediment and nutrients that eventually flow into the Chesapeake Bay.

Water from Hungary Creek eventually enters Upham Brook and the Chickahominy River before it reaches the James River. The Chickahominy serves as the primary source of drinking water for the Peninsula.

“We came out here and identified how much of this stream was in really bad shape,” Newton said.

The $800,000 project took about six months to complete and wrapped up just before the rains that made May the wettest in the region’s recorded history, Newton said.

Funding was allocated from the county’s watershed management program and a supplemental state grant.

The restoration covered 1,800 feet of the creek, a large tributary and several smaller streams that feed into it. It is the fourth project the county has done, and two more are planned, at Belmont Golf Course and Duncroft Park.

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At Hungary Creek, a shallow streambed between 1 and 2 feet deep was constructed to gently cascade over rocky terrain and slow down at pools in the curves. Large, buried wood or stone structures were designed to encourage the creek to overflow into the floodplain instead of eroding down again, Newton said.

“We’re trying to re-create a system where the critters can live again,” he said. Previously, “all it would do is flush when it rained.”

About a month after substantial completion, wildlife has begun to return to Hungary Creek. The water was filled with minnows, tadpoles and adult bullfrogs. “This is similar to what nature wants to happen,” Newton said.

To create the new system, the floodplain was created out of a large swath of land while the creek still flowed.

“Stream restoration is kinda like open-heart surgery,” Newton said.

Currently, the site is largely denuded of trees, but new shrubs and trees will be planted in the fall. The creek flows near the edges of properties that homeowners rarely used, which was helpful in getting them to agree to the work.

“A lot of people aren’t going to give me 20, 30 feet of their backyards” to create a floodplain, Newton said. “I need 50 to 80 feet to do a restoration. I can’t just put rip rap on their banks.”

The amount of silt in the creek, which was equivalent of about 10 dump-truck loads, has been reduced by at least 90 percent due to the revamped waterway, he said.

“When we get that summer thunderstorm, the stream will fill up, it can spread out and slowly go through that corridor instead of going through that eroded channel like a fire hose with all its energy,” he said.

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Sylvia Hoehns Wright, who owns Hoehns Lake, is all too familiar with the effects of the eroded channel.

From a bridge over Hungary Creek that leads to her home, it is easy to see piles of sediment forming islets in the flat, narrow streambed. Downstream, it’s also easy to see the original shoreline above the creek’s deposits.

A triangular island recently formed in the lake and has been growing steadily, she said. Overall, the originally 8-acre lake is down to about 7 acres, Wright said.

“The soil that was (upstream) is now down here,” she said. “I’ve been paralyzed for 10 years with what’s coming in.”

Cleanup of debris has become a periodic activity for the family, which has lived on the property since 1838. Wright said the aftermath of heavy rainstorms often led to so much refuse, they have been asked if they were running a commercial garbage company.

“Every time (someone) leaves something outside … anything that is not within their own enclosed fence gets picked up in a storm,” she said.

As recently as the 1980s, large swaths of land between Springfield and Hungary Spring roads and Hungary Road and West Broad Street belonged to Wright and other descendants of Dietrich Bolton and Herman and Louisa Bolton Hoehns.

The 500- to 600-acre natural watershed of Hungary Creek expanded as additional stormwater pipes joined older ones that led to the waterway. As construction continued, Wright said, conditions at Hoehns Lake seemed stable until recent years. Photographs from her property show a flooded, muddy Hungary Creek heading to the lake and runoff from a construction site breaching soil fencing.

“That site has always been notorious for poor drainage,” Wright said of the site of the Islamic Center of Richmond, which is adjacent to the road leading to her family’s property.

Wright said she is satisfied with the work the county has done to address the upper reaches of Hungary Creek but hopes it eventually goes a step further.

The restoration project stops about 900 feet short of the head of the lake. She said she wants to begin restoration work on Hoehns Lake but feels hamstrung as long as excess sediment remains in that 900-foot stretch.

The work she would like to have performed includes a deep area where Hungary Creek enters the lake to catch sediment. She also said she has a vision of restoration work then continuing along the portion of Hungary Creek that goes through what was Laurel Lake, which was drained in November 2013 after disagreements over repairs to the dam that created it.

“This is just phase one,” Wright said.

But the additional work wouldn’t be worth it if “(floodwaters are) going to come down and hit the remainder of that sand and push it on downstream” and repeatedly do so in the upstream stretch that has not been restored, she said.

“I have zero control over what comes into this lake,” Wright said. “Anytime anybody, whether it’s a business or an individual residence, does not actually dispose or keep things properly on their property, it becomes part of the wetlands.”

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Newton said the project ended where it did because the remainder was not as eroded and seemed stable.

“This is where science told us to stop,” he said. “We would make more of a mess going that way than we would solve.”

As Wright - who has a book and website on her environmental advocacy - continues her quest to be a good steward of her property, she said it can be overwhelming to find resources, especially when dealing with problems that begin upstream.

Previously, she said, a now-retired deputy county manager helped guide her through the process.

“It’s not realistic to think that individual property owners or homeowner associations can feasibly take care of something like this,” Wright said. “There’s not any real central functionality there to help you as a landowner identify and solicit what you need.”

Newton’s office hopes to put a dent in that.

Property owners and neighbors who agree on having the county assess stream concerns can contact him, Newton said. The county needs access to at least 600 to 800 continuous feet of the waterway for a project to be considered, but he said he’s willing to talk to individual property owners about things they can do.

As for the leftover sediment in Hungary Creek, Newton said it would head into Hoehns Lake eventually, because moving some silt is a natural stream function.

“It is the unhealthy amount, the 100 tons, that is not good moving through the system,” he said.

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com

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