A Green Community:  Why Small Streams Matter

By: John Paul Miller

John Paul Miller, Water Resources Planner

Generations of children have grown up playing in creeks located in parks and neighborhoods throughout the United States. The thrill of catching crayfish, lizards, and minnows instills an affinity for the outdoors in kids and offers an alternative to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle that is disconnected from the natural world. The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers proposed a rule under the Clean Water Act to afford basic protections to these small streams. Unfortunately, topographic maps commonly used to depict stream networks do not show most of the nation’s small streams, which hinders efforts to adequately protect them.

Searching for these small intermittent streams in the forests of Virginia requires a bit of detective work. Some signs of streams are fairly obvious, while other subtle clues require closer inspection. Large storms transform small channels into raging torrents, leaving behind a crime scene of steepened channel banks, disturbed leaf litter, and matted vegetation. Less noticeable indications include water-loving vegetation, riffles, and the presence of certain amphibians such as salamanders or tadpoles. Dense underbrush often masks the dendritic network of channels that form the headwaters for more familiar rivers such as the Shenandoah, Potomac, or Occoquan.

According to the EPA, intermittent streams compose almost 60% of all streams in the United States. Therefore, it is not surprising to learn that intermittent streams play a critical role in providing clean water to downstream communities by retaining sediment, filtering harmful pollutants, and reducing excessive nutrient loading.  The US Fish & Wildlife Service determined that if these streams were filled, it would be virtually impossible to successfully implement a nutrient reduction strategy in a watershed. Since local governments, such as Fairfax County, are already spending millions annually to help restore the Chesapeake Bay through green infrastructure projects and stream restorations; it makes eminently good sense to guard these investments by protecting intermittent headwater streams.

Intermittent streams provide vital habitat to a diverse array of aquatic organisms, including a number of rare or endangered species. Additionally, many terrestrial species rely on seasonal streams for a portion of their life cycle. At one notable intermittent stream I regularly monitor, I witnessed crayfish move rapidly upstream during the wet season as a previously dry channel began to flow regularly. Such occurrences are not uncommon.

Small streams afford a myriad of ecosystem services to communities and the natural environment. Simply put, it is not possible to have healthy lakes and rivers without protecting the two million miles of streams that feed into them. Watersheds are connected and we all live downstream.


(Copyright © 2012 Annandale Chamber of Commerce. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this article, in whole or in part, requires the written permission of the author.   Photographs & images, on this page, and on this website, are not available for use by other publications, blogs, individuals, websites, or social media sites. 


 Fairfax County Stream, VA

 Intermittent Steam

Intermittent Steams are likely to occur when weather conditions are normal, or wetter than normal, and stream is not flowing in Spring, even though you may see a large stream channel, carved by significant but intermittent water flow.—Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation



(Copyright © 2012 Annandale Chamber of Commerce. All rights reserved.  (Photographs & images, on this page, and on this website, are not available for use by other publications, blogs, individuals, websites, or social media sites.)


                                                                 Copyright 2012 Annandale Chamber of Commerce. All rights reserved.                     Privacy Policy