In 1791, a small island on Aquia Creek in Stafford County, Virginia, began sending its warm-colored sandstone downstream to the Potomac River, where schooners and sloops would haul it upstream to Washington, D.C. The stone, well-suited for intricate carving, was destined to be part of the White House, the Capitol Building and many other landmarks of our nation’s capital. Unused since the 1800s, Public Quarry at Government Island is now a historic nature preserve on the National Registry of Historic Places.
The 1.5-mile trail to Government Island follows Austin Run, a stream that flows into Aquia Creek. On a December weekend, visitors walked the trail through woods and wetlands of 17-acre Government Island Park before taking a looping path around the island. A well-dressed family with a photographer in tow and a couple of teenage girls stopped periodically to take portraits against the natural scenery.
Nearby, a group of trained citizen scientists from a community service organization called Green Aquia conducted their monthly water quality monitoring effort at six points along Aquia Creek and Austin Run. The volunteers are residents of Aquia Harbour, a private community of almost 7,000 people that straddles the creek.
“We have a group of probably six to eight people who are very consistent with helping monitor these locations,” said Andrea Black, who is vice president of Green Aquia and in charge of their water quality monitoring program.
The water quality data is sent to the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay as part of its RiverTrends program. The Alliance provides training to monitoring volunteers and submits the data to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), for use in reports to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Through its monitoring, Green Aquia identified high levels of E. coli in Austin Run four years ago, and took action to stop the bacteria at its presumed source—horse manure from stables nearby. The group petitioned Aquia Harbour’s board of directors to assess the situation. Aquia Harbour switched their manure storage from an open pit to a covered structure, paid for by funds raised through a recycling program Green Aquia established.
Black said that Austin Run now yields lower E. coli numbers.
“We noticed a dramatic change in the quality of the water that was coming from the checkpoint that’s behind [the stables],” Black said. “The water is better.”
At the same time that increased access to Government Island has allowed Green Aquia to pay more attention to the park’s issues, the additional foot traffic has been a challenge in and of itself.
“The park itself is becoming more popular, so you have more people walking the trails,” said Mary Haq, another member of Green Aquia. “And they don’t always stay on the trails.”
Maria Cannata, a Master Naturalist and member of Green Aquia, said the amount of storms and debris snagging on a new bridge have increased erosion.
“Dead trees will come down and they’ll block the pilings here, and create a logjam and then collect more debris. So it reroutes the water,” Cannata said.
Near the park tables where the volunteers finished some of their water tests, thick stumps riddled with insect galleries are the remains of large ash trees killed by the larvae of the emerald ash borer, an invasive species.
“In that grove there you can see a lot of dead ash trees,” Cannata said. “They get very brittle when they’re dead and they snap.”
Cannata remembers a phenomenal rise in woodpecker activity due to the ash borer when it swept through two years ago.
“Woodpeckers, all in this park, just getting fat and happy ripping the bark off to get the insects out.” Cannata said. “You’d walk through the park and the bark would be flying on you and it would be all over the walkway.”
Walking into Government Island Park after finishing most of the water monitoring, Black, Haq and Cannata passed underneath power lines and recounted another victory for the park and for Austin Run.
After noticing a crew spraying pesticides along the utility right-of-way, Green Aquia worked out an agreement with Dominion Virginia Power. Now, once a year, volunteers maintain trees below a specified height, so that the utility can reduce their use of pesticides at the park. The same day as the December monitoring effort, Green Aquia had several volunteers spending a few hours cutting saplings.
Continuing deeper into the park, the three volunteers lamented a decline in wildflowers in the woods along Austin Run in recent years, and a troubling shift from a plant called spatterdock, which needs deeper water, to wild rice in the wetlands in front of Government Island.
But on Government Island itself, some things have changed more slowly. The monolithic slabs of sandstone still show the marks of cutting tools made in the mid-1800s. Nearby, an original boundary marker, complete with the carved initials of the owner, marks what had been a one-acre property purchased in 1786.
Fighting off the late fall chill, Black, Cannata and Haq started heading back to their vehicles, taking turns riffing on the unsightliness of pet waste left in bags along the trail—and sometimes thrown into trees.
But their focus quickly changed to the sight of a hairy woodpecker flitting from one bare trunk to another, lingering long enough for the group to stop and admire.
After a moment, a father and son who had been following the same boardwalk caught up to the group. The father crouched to toddler level, whispering to his son, and the family stopped to watch the bird too.
Video, photos and text by Will Parson
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