By Rachel Sandler
Sandra Collins moved to Fairfax County 28 years ago to work as an environmental consultant for a firm in Maryland. She moved there in part because the area offered one thing that Collins couldn’t live without: green.
The sensory experience of natural green spaces is a necessity for Collins, especially when surrounded by sprawling development. Beyond aesthetics though, green spaces have an incredible and calming impact on the mind, Collins says. “I need access to these spaces for my own well-being.”
Among the many green spaces tucked among developed areas in Fairfax County is Accotink Creek, the first official natural space that Collins encountered when she moved to the area.
Today, the creek is in danger, from both big development projects and human-produced pollution. Collins is just one of many helping to protect it as a part of Friends of Accotink Creek, a community-based volunteer group that works to keep the area clean and safe.
The group regularly organizes stream cleanups, educational outreach and restoration projects; they also monitor the creek and stormwater facilities and report any problems to Fairfax County, says Kris Unger, primary conservator of Friends of Accotink Creek. “We’re additional eyes and ears watching out for the creek,” he says.
The group mostly depends on volunteers for cleanup projects, and sometimes even upwards of 100 volunteers participate, according to Unger. The group’s larger, more political fights are the domain of Unger, his five-member board and active volunteers like Collins.
The group’s biggest fight was in 2008 when they took on the Virginia Department of Transportation. The group documented how construction of the I-95 HOT lanes carried mud and sediment into the creek, which dirtied the waters. The result was a lawsuit filed by then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli against the construction company contracted to build the I-95 HOT lanes. The suit was settled in 2010 and resulted in increased oversight of the company and a $66,450 fine.
Now, as the Virginia Department of Transportation plans to expand I-66, Friends of Accotink Creek is ready to fight again.This time around, though, they have joined with other civil, environmental, transit and bicycle groups to form the I-66 Corridor Coalition, which seeks to relay a diverse group of concerns about the expansion project under one umbrella.
“It really comes down to power,” Unger says. “Can we bring together enough power in the form of allies and partnerships and collaboration to change the course of action or the plans?”
The creek holds incredible personal value to both Collins and Unger as individuals, but both also see the creek as being an important space for the community. “I want others to know how much this stream and its watershed can benefit them,” Collins says. “Even with all the issues that I see with the watershed, it is still such a gem that you cannot help but want to protect and restore.”