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Fairfax County moves to create smaller version of imperiled Lake Accotink

Canada geese walk near sediment and other pollution flowing into Lake Accotink in February 2023.

Posted on January 24, 2024

Fairfax County supervisors moved Tuesday toward preserving a smaller version of Lake Accotink, a compromise over the cherished recreational outlet whose existence has been in jeopardy because of sediment entering from surrounding roadways and streams.

In a unanimous vote, the supervisors directed the county to conduct a feasibility study into allowing the 55-acre lake to become one that is 20 to 40 acres after an initial dredge that would be followed up by maintenance dredges in subsequent years.

The idea — which would include wetlands or grasslands surrounding the lake — came in response to community backlash over a county public works department recommendation last year that Lake Accotink be allowed to be swallowed up because dredging the sediment would cost nearly $400 million over 20 years.

Dredging a smaller version of the lake so that it is between four and eight feet deep could initially cost as much as $34 million, with extra expenses incurred during maintenance dredges required to keep it intact, according to a report conducted by a community task force convened after the county recommendation.

The board has already approved a $60.5 million financing plan for dredging Lake Accotink that would heavily rely on a Virginia Department of Environmental Quality revolving loan fund for clean water initiatives.

“Unless the feasibility study identifies unforeseen hurdles, I think, as a board, we should commit to pursuing that path,” Supervisor James R. Walkinshaw (D-Braddock), who introduced the motion and represents a large portion of Lake Accotink, said before the vote.

Knowing how large Lake Accotink should be, how often maintenance dredges should occur and how to handle the sediment that’s taken out depends on knowing how much of that pollution is flowing in, according to the report from the community task force, which was led by former county board chair Sharon Bulova (D).

The task force questioned the county public works department’s assessment of that inflow, noting that varying studies had different amounts, depending on the methodology used to estimate the inflow.

In its motion, the county board also called for a sedimentation rate study that would involve setting up gauges at various points in the lake to measure the inflow over a three-year period.

“There is a range that’s out there, but we need to fine-tune that number,” Chairman Jeffrey C. McKay (D-At Large), who co-sponsored the motion, told his colleagues.

The overall plan for Lake Accotink would be to preserve the body of water, which was developed by the federal government in 1918, and its surrounding park as a recreational outlet for thousands of area residents.

One idea proposed by the task force is to use some of the sediment dredged from the lake to create a managed wetlands area that would feature walkways, water trails for kayaks, and viewing platforms to take in the plant and animal life that already exists there.

The group’s report included testimonials by county residents about the lake’s value as a recreational outlet in a portion of Northern Virginia where development and traffic have steadily eaten away the natural landscape.

Between the county’s repeated efforts to save the lake over the decades as sediment from that development continued to flow in, the park has been a popular spot for picnicking, hiking and, during warm weather, outdoor concerts.

One resident recounted to the task force the simple pleasure of taking in the lake over lunch with her mother, who used a wheelchair.

“We would sit and watch the waterfowl, jumping fish, paddle boats and kayaks while we ate,” the woman wrote to the group. “Since my mother’s passing in 2021, I have developed mobility issues of my own, and my sister and I continue those visits to the Lake.”

On Tuesday, the board took steps to ensure that Lake Accotink would continue to be a recreational draw. The motion called for a study into any maintenance required on Lake Accotink Dam to keep it in compliance with state codes and directed the county to work with the Fairfax County Park Authority on a revised master plan for the park.

It also ordered that a community engagement plan be developed around next steps, with a March 31 deadline set for the county to inform the board how long the various actions will take to complete.

After the vote, Walkinshaw cautioned that there are still several unknown factors that could change the feasibility of keeping the lake intact. Among them is the permitting process for dredging and storing the sediment, which would require state and federal approvals that may drive up costs, he said.

“I’m going to be very cautious about predicting the cost until we complete the study and the analysis,” Walkinshaw said.

But given the dire scenario previously laid out for the lake’s future, he said, “we are just in a much better place than we were last year.”


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