Saturday, July 2, 2022

What happened to Gordon Creek? Homeowner says development is muddying waters

Tom Hitchens says the creek behind his house on Thompson Lane has never been as muddy as it is now, following heavy rains in July 2018. (WYDaily/Courtesy Tom Hitchens)
Tom Hitchens says the creek behind his house on Thompson Lane has never been as muddy as it is now, following heavy rains in July. (WYDaily/Courtesy Tom Hitchens)

There’s no doubt about it: July was a rainy month.

So rainy, James City County resident Tom Hitchens watched the water in the creek behind his house on Thompson Lane steadily rise as storms continued to soak the Virginia Peninsula.

But, besides the high water, Hitchens noticed another byproduct of the July downpours: unusually muddy creek water.

Hitchens believes the mud is coming from nearby developments, but James City County officials say a nearby worksite is in compliance with county and state regulations.

“This is a Chesapeake Bay Act issue,” Hitchens said. “It’s aggravating to me as much as I’ve taken care of this creek as long as I’ve been here.”

A large increase in rainfall this July, coupled with several “high-intensity” storms, caused additional sediment to flow into Gordon Creek, said Fran Geissler, James City County’s stormwater and resource protection director.

James City County stormwater staff have confirmed the source of the sediment is Westport, a subdivision off Centerville Road upstream from Hitchens’ house.

“We believe that the sites are in full compliance, but we are continuing to inspect these regularly to ensure compliance,” Geissler said.

James City County received between 8 and 12 inches of rain in some areas this July, according to National Weather Service data. Over that period of time and into August, Hitchens monitored the amount of mud in the creek and took photographs to document the changes.

Geissler said the area typically only gets 3 to 4 inches of rain each July — a stark contrast to this year’s rainfall.

Hitchens has previously protested certain developments in James City County in favor of keeping land rural. The most-recent includes he Oakland Pointe Apartments, a proposed affordable housing complex.

Tom Hitchens stands on his back lawn in March 2018, overlooking a creek that runs behind his home. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)
Tom Hitchens stands on his back lawn in March 2018, overlooking a creek that runs behind his home. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

In compliance

Geissler said James City County staff have visited Gordon Creek during their normal inspection procedures for developments under construction, which happen at least every other week, or more often.

In response to complaints of mud in the creek, staff made additional inspection trips on July 12, July 17, July 30, Aug. 7 and Aug. 13,  which is the time frame when Hitchens called with concerns, said James City County Inspections Supervisor Joe Buchite.

Staff found through their inspections that the single-family homes being built upstream from the creek had erosion and sediment controls in place. Some had recently had sod installed.

The runoff from July’s heavy rains “overwhelmed” the erosion controls, such as the sod, that were in place, causing the water to become murky.

“Land that has been cleared of trees and vegetation is more vulnerable to erosion,” Geissler said. “Under the best conditions … erosion measures are only 50 percent effective. You’re really fighting an uphill battle.”

Under James City County rules, developers are required to plan adequate erosion controls before starting construction and get the plan approved by the developer.

The county sets out regulations under chapters of the James City County Code of Ordinances covering erosion and sediment control, stormwater management and the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act.

Geissler added that certain contaminants can be expected with the runoff, including nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, although she expects Gordon Creek will be able to handle the discharge without long-term impacts.

“Gordon Creek is a reasonably healthy stream and healthy streams are better able to withstand occasional problems,” Geissler said.

Tom Hitchens says the creek behind his house on Thompson Lane has never been as muddy as it is now, following heavy rains in July 2018. (WYDaily/Courtesy Tom Hitchens)
Tom Hitchens says the creek behind his house on Thompson Lane has never been as muddy as it is now, following heavy rains in July 2018. (WYDaily/Courtesy Tom Hitchens)

Stormwater: when does it become a problem?

Hitchens said Monday the mud in Gordon Creek has taken a long time to settle and is still easily visible when the tide goes out. He believes dredging the creek may be the only way to get rid of the sediment.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has not received any complaints relating to Westport, spokeswoman Ann Regn said.

Regn said erosion can become a “regulatory issue” when the sediment-filled water overwhelms or bypasses erosion controls. The impacts can range from minimal to extreme.

After a rain, generally muddy water is an aesthetic problem, but we keep an eye out for evidence of impacts — how much sediment is deposited, not just muddy water,” Regn said.

Regn added that there are other signs of severe impacts to the health of a creek, including dead fish, accumulation of soil, development of gullies and the sediment or mud leaving the stream and being deposited on the banks of the creek.

Regn said the primary authority for inspecting and managing the Westport development is James City County.

Moving forward: how to ensure development stays in compliance

Geissler stressed that Westport is in full compliance with county regulations, but she said there is a process in place if a developer does not follow the rules.

A developer can be issued a “notice to comply” if they are found in violation of county regulations, she said. At that point, the county will conduct a site inspection and designate a due date to get into compliance.

If the developer continues to not comply, the county will eventually issue a stop-work order, which is the last resort.

A stop-work order is “rare,” Geissler said.

If erosion and sediment controls are overwhelmed by bad weather, for example, the developer is expected to rectify the situation by repairing, replacing or cleaning out the controls.

To combat future runoff issues, Geissler said the builders at the home lots upstream have increased the number of sediment-control features they have in place.The ultimate goal remains to keep James City County’s waterways clean.

“We are a community that welcomes tourists,” Geissler said. “We have a lot of access to waterways and we want to keep it that way, and keep them healthy.”

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

Related Articles

MORE FROM AUTHOR